Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Review of House of Mirth

“Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose”

Truth be told, this wasn’t a “random” pick like the majority of my books recently have been. I decided to be a bit keen and get cracking on some early reading for the modules I’m doing in my third (and final, eeek) year at uni. However, for a book that I kind of had to read, I did really enjoy it. Plus, it made me feel as though I’ve learnt something about my own life. Personally, if a book changes my opinions about things or makes me see things in a different light, then it’s a success in my eyes.
Edith Wharton, the author of this insightful novel, wrote it in the style deemed American naturalism. This bildungsroman follows the downwards spiral of Lily Bart’s character from a much-sought after woman to, well, you’ll see if you read the book. Lily Bart is the orphaned niece of rich former socialite Mrs Peniston. Her inestimable beauty allows her to weave her way into the hearts of many of the right people, but sadly also the wrong. On the face of it, this is a book about how tough it is for a girl to remain unmarried in high society for too long, but it appealed to me more as a tragic love story.
Don’t get me wrong, I struggled with the book at times. But that was purely because Lily Bart wasn’t exactly the most likeable character (to put it nicely). That’s kind of the point though isn’t it? She was realistic. Deep down we’re all far from perfect and make some irreconcilable mistakes in our lives. This is what Lily Bart did. She was the victim of circumstance and her upbringing, which drove her to act in the way she did.
I did however find the book a little out of place. Usually twentieth century American novels are distinctive in their content and style in order to define themselves as being not English. House of Mirth however felt to me as though it could have hopped off of the shelves of any English bookstore in the twentieth century.
Overall though, it was an invaluable read.
What did you think?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Review of The Boxer, Reinhard Kleist

Theodor Adorno once said that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. By this, he implied that the horrors that occurred in this death camp, amongst others, could not and should not be talked about. The Holocaust is a topic which is almost taboo in literature, which makes it incredibly hard for authors to find a successful way to write about it. This makes graphic novels an appealing literary platform as they offer artists the chance to express their impression of the effects of the Holocaust without limiting them quite as much.
The Boxer follows the biographically accurate story of Hertzko Haft (later Harry Haft). Hertzko was a Jew who had the unfortunate destiny to live in Belchatow, Poland during World War Two. As the war developed Hertsko tragically took his brother’s place in a ghetto registration which took him to a concentration camp. The book outlines his struggles in the camp. One of the best aspects of this graphic novel, in my opinion, is the way in which the prisoners are drawn. Kleist sketches these figures in a way in which reminds me of the idea that these men and women were “the living dead”. He presents them as skeletal figures: they are consigned to the world of the dead, but ought to be alive. This is an innovative way to explain the horrific starvation method of torture employed by the camp’s guards. I feel as though it went some way to express these inhumane living conditions.
The novel then moves on to follow Hertzko’s struggle with his own morality. He is forced to commit some atrocious acts in order to survive his ordeal at the death camps. This raises the question as to whether the holocaust made monsters out of both its perpetrators and victims. This question becomes most potent when (not really a spoiler – it is in the title!) Hertzko is forced to box other dying prisoners to entertain the guards: if he doesn’t kill them, the guards will kill him. Thus, Hertkzo “Harry” Haft’s boxing career is born. The rest of the book narrates his journey to America where he once again enters the ring and finds out that the post-war world of boxing is not all it’s cracked up to be …
I have to say, I was slightly disappointed by this graphic novel. Perhaps my expectations were too coloured by the fact that I recently read Spiegelman’s Maus. This novel also follows the true story of a man who struggled through World War II as a Jew living in Nazi-occupied territory. However, I feel as though Spiegelman made better use of the medium of a graphic novel, employing clever symbolism and ideas throughout.

Still, if you want to read an inspiring true story about how one man made his way through the death camps of World War II to freedom, then have a look at The Boxer. It’s a quick, easy read and has some incredibly poignant and thought-provoking images in it. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Crime and Bleak House

Charles Dickens' fictional novel Bleak House was originally published in serials. It explores both social and legal crimes, appearing to set them up in conflict with one another. This allows him to pose the question to the reader: which type of crime is worse? Do we see (spoilers, but it was written quite a while ago) Esther's bastardization as a result of Lady Dedlock's youthful sexual liberty as something inherently more immoral than Mr Tulkinghorn's murder? My answer is no. Dickens is known for his exposés of the physically and metaphorically filthy state of London in the nineteenth century. This novel appears to occupy a similar strand of argument, which means that it examines the implication of social crimes upon legal ones. Thus, Lady Dedlock's sexual activity cannot be viewed in a light which puts all other plot strands to darkness: all other crimes are in some way involved with it, to the extent that Mr Tulkinghorn's murder could even be said to be caused by it. 
Lady Dedlock's sexual crime, by which she decides to engage in premarital sexual intercourse with Captain Hawdon, is also a domestic crime. This crime is inextricably linked to the haughty mask of secrecy which controls Lady Dedlock's domestic life. Although at first it appears that her aristocratic snobbery allows her to occupy this position of aloofness, it is eventually revealed that it is crippling shame which induces this facade. She maintains this cool exterior by flitting from place to place, refusing to fully engage herself in her life. Lady Dedlock continues to live in this manner for a number of years until Mr Tulkinghorn invades her domestic sphere with a vicious sting of truth: her past. Tulkinghorn's revelation to Lady Dedlock of his knowledge of her youthful sexual affair is central to the criminal strand of the novel's plot. Once this invasion has occurred, the social order which the reader experiences at the beginning of the novel can never be restored. Thus, this indicates that the theme of this Victorian fictionalisation of crime is the secrecy of the home's problematical relationship with the public sphere. Indeed, Lady Dedlock is not initially aware of the long-lasting consequences of her affair: Esther, her daughter, is alive! Once this is revealed, her life becomes fraught with tension. Lady Dedlock is no longer able to feel "at home" in her stately mansion because her sexual "crime" has made her unworthy of such a high social position. 
Furthermore, questions surrounding Mr Tulkinghorn's murder are at first seemingly unanswerable because of the number of enemies he has made by collecting peoples' domestic secrets. Indeed, his own secrecy is involved in the seemingly impossible nature of the inquest as nobody knows to whom he was attending on the evening of his murder. Mr Tulkinghorn's death, in parallel to his life, is shrouded in mystery. His death, and life for that matter, is, moreover, at the heart of all of the criminal strands of the complicated plot of Bleak House. He represented the watchful eyes of the public social sphere upon Lady Dedlock's life. His invasion of the secrecy of her home led to his murder. In addition, the death brings a number of minor criminal figures out from the shadows of crime-ridden London. Mr Smallweed, Hortense and Mr George are all characters with questionable moral qualms, and all have committed some crime, whether it be legal or moral, in the novel. In this way, Mr Tulkinghorn's murder ironically results in the invasion of the secrecy of his home by representatives of the public sphere.
Moreover, there is an interesting link between women and crime in the text as it is Hortense and Lady Dedlock who arguably commit the greatest crimes. In Victorian culture, women were expected to occupy the domestic sphere: this provides another (albeit tenuous) link between domestic life and the fictionalisation of crime. Hortense is a maid, which means that her role in society is to invade the secrecy of the home. She occupies a peripheral position in the house as she is both integral to its pragmatical functioning and unnecessary to the family emotionally. Hortense's lack of understanding of the position which she occupies is revealed in her childish indignance at losing her place as Lady Dedlock's favoured female companion. Hortense's vengeful plan which she enacts as a result of this is incredibly detailed and cunning. This shows that if the secrets of the house are revealed to the public sphere, serious crimes can abound in Victorian London. Moreover, Horetense's plot to frame Lady Dedlock would have been successful had she not been residing with Mrs Bucket - the detective's wife - at that period of time. A crime can therefore only be successful is it remains hidden from other members of a household. 
Furthermore, Mrs Pardiggle's unmannerly invasion of the brickmakers' homes reveals the presence of domestic abuse to both the naive wards of Jarndyce and the reader. The black eye which Liz sports and her husband's drunk, aggressive behaviour are designed to imply that he beats her. Had Mrs Pardiggle not have entered the house, this awareness would not have been made public in the novel. Indeed, Liz and her friend Jenny, a fellow brickmaker's wife, suffer from a great deal of physical and emotional abuse from their husbands to the extent that they are made penniless, voiceless and powerless to do anything about it. 
What are your thoughts about crime in Bleak House?

Thursday, 17 July 2014

A Review of Lady Chatterley's Lover*

D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover is not only an important book in terms of its literary merit, but also its socio-historic impact upon England's publishing world. Although the novel was written in the 1920s, an uncensored version was not published here until 1960. Even then it caused a great deal of scandal: Penguin, the publishing house for the text, was forced to undergo an obscenity trial due to the explicit erotic language and themes the book contained. they fought for the literary merit of the book and the case was concluded with the verdict "not guilty". This makes Lady Chatterley's Lover a key implement in British authors' attempts to discuss erotic concepts in modern texts. 
The story commences with the tale of a sexually licentious girl who marries Sir Clifford briefly before World War I. He returns from the war paralyzed from the waist down. This allows Lawrence to broach the the uncomfortable and forbidden question at the back of everyone's minds: "does it work?". Unfortunately for Sir Clifford, the answer is no. 
Connie, or Lady Chatterley, becomes depressed as a result of their sexless, joyless marriage and begins to seek a lover to satisfy her maternal cravings for a child. This plot is ensconced in a Hardy-esque condemnation of the industrialization of England, as well as a self-conscious examination of class differences.
Despite hearing mixed reviews for the book, I don't regret picking it up (or rather downloading it to my kindle) at all. The book is a pastiche of genres, which I believe is a reason why it doesn't sit well with many readers. It has a great focus on man's connection with nature, which is emblematic of Romantic writing, whilst displaying the futility of human life, terse vocabulary, and lack of sentimentality of modern writing. 
The first portion of the novel seems rather dry and hard to digest. Yet, this appears to merely be a stylistic mirroring of Connie's sexually barren state: once she secures a lover the writing becomes more poetic and much more enjoyable. Though Connie is hardly a likeable figure, doesn't modern fiction often strive to teach us that people cannot be labelled as being good or bad, but rather are more complicated?
So if you want an easy to read, yet important piece of fiction to add to your "To Read" list this summer, pick up Lady Chatterley's Lover​ and give it a shot!
Love, Stephanie 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Review of Grimm's Fairy Stories

I decided to pursue Jacob Grimm's "Fairy Stories" because, again, having finished my second year of studying English Lit at uni I really wanted something fun and simple to read. In the end, if offered me a chance to relive my Disney-crammed childhood.
Published in Germany in 1812, these fairy stories aren't exactly as gentle as, for example, my generation's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle). With Cinderella's sisters mutilating their feet in order to fit the glass slipper, these tales have evidently been toned down in the media for modern audiences.
Though there are a multitude of stories collected in the book, they all largely traverse through one of a limited number of themes. There are ones pertaining to a young beautiful and diligent girl being abused by her mother or (more commonly) a step-mother and siblings. Eventually they are swept off their feet by a handsome and rich Prince, much to the chagrin of their abusers. This raises a lot of questions about gender stereotypes, but is symptomatic of its time. A modern author would (largely) be far more inclined to show the complexity of female characters, rather than having "good" beautiful girls who are often rescued because of this and their ability to cook and clean sufficiently. To contrast this, there is another type of woman in these stories who is categorised as being "bad". She is ugly, lazy, and often jealous of the beauty of and attention that the female protagonist recieves. Interestingly, this figure is always the corrupting force in the tales. This indicates that, although men can be grumpy and stubborn (like Rumpelstiltskin or the seven dwarfs), they are effectively harmless in comparison to the wiley vindictiveness inherent to some women.
Personally, I enjoyed reading the original stories for the films and tales that influenced my childhood. Why do you think these stories have been censored in modern times?
Any comments always welcome.
Stephanie :)