On pushing North and South up to first place

I apologise for my absence recently on here but I have been away from my laptop and more detrimentally, without any means of the nets so I haven’t been able to publish my reviews. However because I have been sunning on the beaches for the last couple of weeks I really managed to crack down on my reading list, which means – hooray! Review material galore!!!

One of the books was Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and this was part of my second year reading list, rather unheard of before I bought it. But I can honestly say that I think I have potentially found a front runner for top prize. This was fantastic. If you were born in the wrong century like I was, then I really believe you will enjoy this. It possessed everything that my love Pride and Prejudice didn’t – I know I am slighting Austen and by effect Mr Darcy himself by saying this, but North and South seemed to be completely soaked in British history that it seemed far more believable.

Mr Thornton or Mr Darcy?

Mr Thornton or Mr Darcy?

To summarise as briefly as I possibly can (which I have to admit, is a challenge within itself!) the novel follows the life of Margaret and her family as they relocate to the manufacturing town of Milton in the North, and it deals with the prejudices of their lives. Now what Gaskell provided for me that I found lacking in Austen was substance, I mean that in the broadest sense, but the industrial revolution is at the very crux of this novel: the changing economies, people, families, neighbourhoods; everything is new and different.

Yes I am a lover of history and in particular all things British, but these are not the only strong points. The characters themselves are remarkable, they adapt to the incidents that befall them, sometimes tragic ones, but they grow and change. The greatest stories are the ones that you already know the ending too and so they don’t have to keep you guessing, and to an extent this novel is the same. The conclusion is a given from at least a third of the way through, and sometimes I did find it entirely frustrating that I almost threw the book to the floor out of the sheer amount of pride Margaret had. But I loved it nonetheless. The story drew me in, kept me there, not guessing, but waiting and biding my time until Gaskell graced us with the information and knowledge that we had wanted from the very beginning – in fact she even made us wait till the last page!

For those of you that are remotely interested in the classics, or love stories or historical novels or anything Victorian I have found your new baby. This is it.

 

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On fame and pseudonyms and the influence they provide

I am sure you have heard by now that J. K. Rowling successfully published another novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I think that is amazing. I really do. Publishing a book because you want people who it attracts from the reviews and the blurb to read, not because it has been written by one of the most influential authors of the last decade.

Before Rowling was acknowledged as the author it had reached 1500 sales and since the knowledge was revealed yesterday she has already sold over 5000 copies and hit the top of the amazon best selling charts. One editor has admitted to turning Rowling down stating that it “was perfectly decent, but quiet”.

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No hint of Hogwarts

What really gets me is Rowling herself wanted to keep it a secret. She wanted the pseudonym to remain in tact for longer than it did. She is not trying to sell more books just off the back of the image she has created for herself through the world of Harry and Hogwarts. This is a woman who is so passionate about writing that she would rather publish a book in secret than through her fame and influence.

It is interesting to think that if we go back 200 years to when female authors like Jane Austen and a bit later the Bronte sisters were trying to publish their works they had no choice but to publish under a pseudonym. Curer Bell was an easy enough way to get your work out to the public without any of the stigma attached to being an author making its way back into your public life. How times have changed!

I am sure that the influential authors using pseudonyms to hide their gender would approve of Rowling’s use of Robert Galbraith in order to make her work available to those who would chose it.

Birdsong – an epic?

I apologise for my lack of posts recently, but I was working at the Wimbledon Championships which was an amazing experience, especially with Murray winning! I feel unbelievably proud to have been part of such an historic event and so I hope you can forgive me for not keeping up to date with my blog. The good news is however that I was able to do a large amount of reading across the fortnight – there was rather a lot of travel involved as well as waiting around in queues for various things.

I managed to tackle a rather voluminous work: Birdsong. This is one of those everyone-must-read-before-they-die books or everyone-must-read-in-order-to-know-our-past-better books. Truly amazing. The first world war is often a very difficult subject to talk about, with the vast amount of lives lost, and the destruction it caused not to just to humanity but to the countries involved, the world economy and international relations. Sebastian Faulks has very cleverly built up characters that we not only sympathise with and back to survive through the war, but we are also able to see them change.

The non-linear narrative enables Faulks to jump around with the plot, revealing sections about Wraysford’s life before the war, then during, then skipping ahead to his granddaughter’s path of historical discovery – which moments before we had been living through his eyes. This style effectively reveals subtle layers of the characters’ personalities and histories without being blunt and direct. It gives depth. They become real characters, with lineages with future possibilities. It also allows the reader to subconsciously compare the decisions of Isabelle and Elizabeth, who live extremely different lifestyles, France 1910 and then England 1978 both find themselves unmarried and pregnant.

Men at war.

Men at war.

This really is not just a love story. It is an epic love story. It is in itself and epic. The novel covers such a vast period of time and lives and people that it isn’t really a novel. It has the important historical element to it too, the war is the crux of the plot, it holds the story all together. The opening in 1910 is foreshadowed by the readers knowledge that the war will follow four years later and then all the characters are directly affected by it. As I have said it is an epic, but sometimes it does go on and drag a little. The descriptions of the war scenes and the life of the men in the trenches is often times repetitive and full of similarities – but I guess trench life was mundane and repetitive.

I cannot recommend this more highly, for those who dislike historical fiction, this is also a romance and for those of you who don’t like romance, there is so much death, destruction and loss that it counterbalances any love affairs early on. And for those of you who like the sound of it but don’t like the length, I really recommend the BBC adaptation that came out last year with Eddie Redmayne. Amazing.

Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I read this novella a few years ago now, but for some unidentifiable reason I keep recollecting it. Especially recently. It was read for examination purposes and so perhaps the brightly coloured-coded pages throughout the text are still imprinted on my brain, and being around other people doing exams has brought it back. Perhaps it is because I have been watching French dramas on TV and I have made links to the Creole society. Either way, it is on my mind.

The story follows the awakening of Edna Pontellier who realises that she is able to be independent and does not have to live the rest of her life in the traditional and restrictive Victorian society. During this transformation Edna has both a sexual and emotional change, she begins to love another man, leaves her husband and her children and moves into her own cottage where she can paint, draw and swim at her own leisure. Swimming presents itself throughout the novel, and at some of the most crucial moments; Edna is swimming when she first realises that she has the power and strength necessary to create a happy life for herself. Women were to raise children, look after their husband and perform all kinds of domestic duties; which often left little time or ability for the mother and wife (she was labelled as both those terms, not an independent woman, but as either a possession of the man or of the children) to care for her own well-being.

What I found most interesting in this book, was the ending. So I apologise for those of you who haven’t read it, but then why are you reading a review of it if you haven’t read it!? SPOILER ALERT. The book ends with Edna swimming out to sea as far as she can, but the text ends before we learn if she dies or not. She is forever swimming. Her suicide attempt reveals more about the Creole society the text is set in than the rest of the book.

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, all you've got to do is swim, swim, swim.

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, all you’ve got to do is swim, swim, swim.

Edna has been driven to this. She was oppressed, she was liberated and then she did not belong. The people she loved and had valued were no longer able to communicate with her, they do not grow and develop at the same rate that she does/ or alternatively Edna does not allow them to do so. Her awakening is a rebirth, she is reborn as a new and enlightened person. In a childlike state Edna is able to view society differently and both realises that she has found a better position for herself but that society is unwilling to get there yet.

Often seen as an early feminist novel The Awakening exposes the oppressive Victorian society and also blames it for the death of Edna. Edna as a woman discovers a better life, a more equal life but is unable to make other people see her opinion. Her swim out to sea happens because it is the only way Edna can conclude her awakening, but also save her family. She has become a different person, one that society is not ready to accept and so she does not belong anywhere. Her husband and children still have a place in Creole New Orleans and so by leaving them she also saves them from the knowledge that she has learnt. Although her potential suicide can be seen as undermining to the feminist cause, there were limited other possibilities on Edna’s horizon.

Review: Animal Farm: Politics and Fantasy

Now that I am finished reading for exams it is quite nice to read for fun again. The pressure is off, there are little to no time constraints, I can just sit back, relax and enjoy turning the pages as slowly as I like. However if I a to finish Ulysses and then Anna Karenina any time soon I should probably get a move on.

Not like Animal Farm, I whizzed through that little novella like a boy racer down the motorway (not the M25 of course, nobody really whizzes down there…). Aside from the political aspect of the text which I will come to later, George Orwell has written a relatable story that can easily be transferred and understood by various audiences. Both adults and children can appreciate the songs, poems and the slogans that are used to create the revolution, regardless of the propaganda agenda they possess. But the story is simply about animals that decide to run their own farm. To a child that can be nothing but comical. How can a pig that likes to roll around in mud and walk on four legs possibly run a farm that would normally require a farmer and the rest of the family to do it well? To me, I can’t help but see Napoleon and Snowball as the character from one of my favourite childhood books The Pig in the Pond. Yes they are malicious and easily corruptable and seem to represent everything that is bad and tragic about the human condition, but at the bottom of it, they are pigs.

How Napoleon should be through our eyes, regardless of the transcendental nature of politics.

How Napoleon should be through our eyes, regardless of the transcendental nature of politics.

What I remember liking most about this book was Boxer. Boxer is the loveable character that tries to be his best, he is the ultimate hero and has the characteristics many people would like to possess. He is dedicated and loyal, perhaps to the point of his own detriment and ultimately his hard work goes unappreciated. But like most things in life, this remains pessimistically universal. He is the figure that holds the farm together, although nothing more than the epitome of the working class exploited labourer he is crucial to its’ success and development. While Boxer is present to work on the farm, rebuild the windmill and plough the field when the other animals are just too tired, Animal Farm effectively experiences the roaring 20’s.

Why I think this novella is most successful is because it transmits its’ message through animals. The story of the Russian Revolution  is not a nice one, in fact most of it is pretty grim. Trotsky threatening men to sign up to the Red Army whilst he has their wives and children under threat, not an easy thing to narrate. Telling a story through images or animals somehow lightens the load, dulls down the harsh quality of it. Art Spiegleman’s Maus is a graphic novel that tells the story of a family who survive the Holocaust and does so by depicting the Nazi’s as cats and the Jews as mice. Some may consider this derogatory, or demeaning but I disagree. By representing troubling but important issues through animals it takes away the direct human quality and makes them relatable. They are less likely to be judges; but as with the case of cat and mouse, animal instincts are implied intuitively.

Rows and rows of mice from Maus.

Rows and rows of mice from Maus.

Although the novel resembles the Russian Revolution and the changes that were implemented under Stalin and Trotsky’s rule of terror, the main characters can be seen as general symbols for authorial figures. Napoleon could represent his namesake, a political tyrant who at first used his power for the good of the public but then once he had declared himself Emperor and had supreme power, those ideals altered somewhat. Mao, Tito and Stalin are just a few more examples of despots who can be represented through Napoleon the pig. At the heart of Animal Farm is a socialist agenda, the novel critiques the corruption of the Soviet State and the impact that it had on the people. Similarly the novel contains a striking class division between the animals in power and those that work. The intellectuals and the physical labourers; which is a symbolic reflection of the Bourgeois/Proletariat relationship. The working class are naive and believe the animals in charge, with Boxer being a tragic example. The novel is a literary example of Marx and the Russian Revolution in action.

Unless you were aware of the history of Russia, then this becomes apparent. It is more than possible to read the novella without having any knowledge on that part, and it is more than possible to enjoy it as such. I read the text a few years ago before I had studied Russia in depth and loved it just for the characters that are lovable and the hope that they represent despite the gloomy circumstances. Plus the story is only 100 pages long and so can be read over a couple of lunch hours. Easy peasy.

Feminism and The Yellow Wallpaper

Women. Females. Men. Males. What really is the difference between them. Gender and sex, another two words that seem to be pretty interchangeable in our society, and yet they both mean completely different things. But that one word, that word that has so much negativity attached to it, needs to be corrected.

Feminism.

A status was posted onto facebook about Angelina Jolie’s recent operation: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Brad Pitt today after the news about Angelina Jolie”. I like to hope that this was just an inconsiderate and poorly worded post and that the painfully obvious sexist undertone was a mistake. Sadly, I doubt it. The double mastectomy was to decrease her risk in getting breast cancer. If anyone was able to prevent a potentially painful, horrific, upsetting and stressful event, they would. This post also follows on from the lecture by Jackson Katz I wrote a couple of weeks ago. What is the problem is that sexism is embedded so deeply within our society, due to years of patriarchy that it almost acts incognito. Often going unrecognised and with an invisibility cloak.

Feminism is not bad. It is not a movement of bra-burning, hairy misandristic’s who would do anything to see men pay for what they have made women suffer over the years. No. Simply no. Ok, that is a fairly exaggerated statement, and I am sure that most men understand that feminists just want equality. But what also seems apparent is that there are a lot of women who are unaware of what feminists want. That is the problem. A woman who is not a feminist is like saying they are happy to be second best. When in fact there is no best, because there is no competition. Or at least there should not be.

In Charlotte Gilman Perkins’ short story The Yellow Wallpaper the protagonist, narrator (possibly called Jane, although it is not explicitly stated, so for all intents and purposes she is not given a name), is locked in the attic of her house as a treatment for her hysteria, which turns out to be nothing more than post-natal depression. She is prevented from writing because it tires her out too much, and so her only pleasure is taken away in order to help her recover. Her husband John is also her physician. He has prevented her from using her imagination as he fears that it will only cause her condition to deteriorate, but it does so because she is not allowed to use it, and so does it in secrecy. The story is written in the form of her diary entries and so skips around a bit, is rushed in places when she can hear her husband approaching.

To the kitchen.

To the kitchen.

To me, this novella is a criticism of the patriarchal society and the way it is organised. Jane, or the narrator, or just another Victorian woman notices a woman trapped in the yellow wallpaper that covers her room. It isn’t until she makes the connection between herself and the wallpaper woman that she realises that all women are trapped within their marriages and the societal conventions. That women have to creep around, avoid breaking the social rules, lurk in the corner. In order for the narrator to realise this, she has sadly lost herself. She no longer is just imagining these dark things, but is actually experiencing them, in some form of breakdown. She cannot return to the life she had before with her husband, she has noticed the cracks, the invisibility cloak has been removed.

Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a utopian feminist. Writing over 100 years ago she had her sights set high for the work that women could achieve. Granted there have been many improvements in most cultures around the world. But in no society has sexism been abolished, nowhere has sexual equality. Cultures have adapted to the reforms that feminists have pursued and forced into the public eye, but they are still very much controlled by men, for men.

Like the narrator in the novel, she was blind to the truth and then once it was discovered it completely altered the way she saw life. This is what we need. We all need the cloak to be revealed for us. Men and women together. Then we can deal with the changes together.

 

The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald’s novel and Luhrmann’s film

Seeing as the film is set to come out in cinema’s tomorrow, and I am in love with the soundtrack, it only seemed appropriate that Gatsby should feature on my blog. It even features on the about me section, so it definitely deserves to be here. In fact I love it that much that I refuse to listen to the criticism that the academics have written about it, the words that I need to know for my exam in a couple of weeks. I know that studying a text can ruin its beauty, simplicity, take away certain qualities that make it perfect for the reader; but it also allows you to understand it at a deeper level. Different elements come to life that may not have at first been apparent from your own independent reading. So I guess I will just have to grin and bare it…

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

The first time that I read Gatsby was for my IB English exam so I have been unable to read it from a purely pleasurable reason. The second time was for the exam coming up so I am still struggling along. Other people who haven’t had the pressure of exams have told me that they found the story to be less exciting and almost bland in comparison to the praise it has received. They agree that it is beautifully written and Fitzgerald creates a perfect and yet simultaneously a distorted version of a perfect life throughout the pages.

The Great Gatsby in my opinion is fantastic. It has elements of good and bad, on the surface it presents a romanticized view on life, and it isn’t until you scrape away at the perfectly constructed language that the realities of that lifestyle present themselves. Daisy is nothing more than a rich woman who enjoys being at the centre of everybody’s attention, in love with money and the life that it buys. “Her voice was full of money” summarises it pretty nicely I think. Tom is nothing more than a bored rich American, who enjoys to dip into the women that the proletariat has to offer, because Daisy is nothing more than a trophy wife. She is not a working woman who aspires to be a woman of leisure. Nick, a biased author is probably the reason for the romantic construction of 1922 New York. He is unable to see the political and sexual agenda’s that are prevalent throughout the story. He doesn’t question where Gatsby’s fortune comes from – he is completely oblivious of any wrong doing.

I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

Although set in 1922, which was an important era for modernism, Fitzgerald wrote it 3 years later in 1925. Ezra Pound a contemporary  poet and critic even argued that 1922 marked the beginning of a new modern era. The invention of the car, end of the war, economic boom and rise of America, development of cinema and television and thus the creation of the BBC, publication of Ulysses and The Waste Land all had a huge impact on the direction that culture chose. It could have merged, or stayed separate, or ultimately and what was most likely to happen, there would be a collision. An inevitable explosion of opinion and division.

Gatsby, although written over 90 years ago is an extremely modern novel still. The creation of money. Inherited or stolen or made honestly. The need for one to fit in, into social circles that are higher than your status, that inherent desire to succeed and improve. They are all very human qualities and I think this is one of the main reasons why the novel is considered one of the all-time best pieces of literature to come from America.

I could go on forever, in fact upon looking over what I have mentioned I have barely touched the surface of how passionately I love this novel. In fact, I didn’t even realise I loved it this much until I wrote this post. For those of you who haven’t read the book and are planning to see the film, I cannot recommend it more than I hope this post has done. It will be completely different from the film, because no Baz Luhrmann film is ever similar to anything else except other films he has directed. Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge both completely different in tone, musicality, pace, culture and yet they have been united by the modern music. They have been brought forward into the present, and in some ways, that is exactly what Fitzgerald and other modernists were trying to achieve. Unite the past and present, whilst refining and progressing down the literary canon.

And to end, of course there has to be a link to the soundtrack. I love all of the songs so much that I am just linking the entire thing. Click here to listen!