The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

“Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;….”

Twenty-nine pilgrims and the narrator meet in Southwark, in Harry Bailey’s Tabard Inn, before setting off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, where they will behold Thomas Becket’s shrine.  On the journey each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back.  A free dinner will be awarded to the one with the best story.  And so begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem, a medley of lively stories that gives the reader a captivating window into 14th century England.

Gateway at Canterbury
The Gateway at Canterbury (1889)
Childe Hassam
source Wikiart

 

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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

While Northanger Abbey was the first novel written by Jane Austen and sold to a publisher by her brother, Henry, in fact it was repurchased by the author and not published until six months after her death in December 1817.  Austen’s parody of 17th century Gothic novels is told with a good-natured humour, but a valuable lesson lies beneath the surface of its narrative.

Catherine Morland, the daughter of a vicar, is given the chance to travel to Bath with a respectable family called the Thorpes.  Isabella Thorpe is her particular friend and the two absorb the delights of the town with an eager anticipation.  Yet Catherine’s sheltered upbringing has perhaps made her more artless than your average girl of her age, and her innocent and credulous nature allows for a manipulation of her desires by those with more experience in the arts of enterprise and self-interest.  Her steady diet of Gothic novels, combined with her somewhat protected existence, contribute to her highly erroneous perceptions of the motivations and behaviour of others.  When an answer does not immediately present itself, she speeds off in wild internal ramblings of imagination, that rarely represent reality.  Likewise, when she is faced with obvious circumstances, she fails to perceive them.  Her lack of discernment with regard to John Thorpe’s infatuation of her remains puzzling until her understanding is brought into context.  What experience does this young sheltered girl have to bring her presence of mind and an ability to discern attitudes outside of her usual element of a protected existence and romantic Gothic narratives?  With her uncritical naiveté and wild flights of fancy, initially one wonders if Catherine will be able to navigate through the pitfalls of her own mistaken perceptions to arrive at an outcome that will benefit her innocent, and yet misguided, nature.

source

In many ways, Northanger Abbey is a comedy, as Austen treats her character with a gentle type of humour. Catherine, while having admirable qualities, is living a delusion, cultivated by her reading material, yet her mistakes are of innocent intent due to ignorance rather than willful human folly. Her awakening, while somewhat arduous, is brief, and she soon demonstrates her innate ability to put into action the values instilled by her family and, with the guidance of the young gentleman clergyman, Henry Tilney, both her instincts and maturity grow, while her wildly unrestrained imagination is harnessed, and diminished into a sensible and mature culmination of happiness and contentment.  

While this book doesn’t necessarily showcase Austen’s usual brilliance, it is solidly developed and an engaging story until the last chapter. Then the book falls all to pieces. Somehow Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s sister, makes a brilliant match with a character, “a man of fortune,” who has never been mentioned by anyone, including the bride herself, until four paragraphs from the end of the novel; the General (Henry’s father), who has been somewhat gruff and stringent, yet ofttimes displaying a pleasant character, turns into a mercenary, blustering, (and may I add, foolish) tyrant; and Catherine and Henry’s success in love looks in jeopardy.  Yet all is tied up in a sentence or two, and the reader is left feeling like they just hit a brick wall.  It’s not Austen at her finest, yet the book is a charming experiment and an example of Austen at the origin of her art.

Ruin of Kenilworth Castle – a gothic-type building
source Wikipedia

Northanger Abbey has the unique distinction for being known as the novel that alludes to a number of Gothic suspense novels.  If you are a Gothic connoisseur, here is the list for your enjoyment:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
  • Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
  • Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Mysterious Warnings by Eliza Parsons
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest by Ludwig Flammenberg
  • Midnight Bell by Francis Latham
  • Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
  • Horrid Mysteries by Carl Gross (translated by Peter Will)
  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

“The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.”

I read this book for the Classics Club Spin #11.  Was it my spin book?  No, it was Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses, and Prejudices spin book but I decided to read along with her.  Why?  Well, her book was much shorter than my Spin book, and I couldn’t imagine getting through God in the Dock in the allotted time frame.  Yes, I’m breaking the rules, but it’s on my Classics Club list, AND at least I read something!

The unidentified Time Traveller has built a machine that he believes will transport him through time.  After he explains to his dinner guests the concept of his invention, he puts it into practice, returning the next week to regal them with the fantastic details of his adventure.

Having sent himself to 802,701 A.D., he encounters a race called the Eloi, a diminutive race that behaves in the manner of small, wide-eyed children, even though they are of adult growth.  They live an uncomplicated life of leisure, simply eating and resting, and having no initiative or curiosity to speak of. Expecting some sort of greatly evolved being living in the future, the Time Traveller experiences disappointment and puzzlement at their almost backward evolution, wondering how their lackadaisical way of life is supported. But the Traveller’s perplexity turns to dread as his machine mysteriously disappears.  Pursing the theft using reason and action, he eventually discovers another race, living in the depths of the earth; the Morlocks, hideous, pale, savage, troglodyte-like creatures who are in possession of his time machine. Unlike the Eloi land dwellers, these cavernous people exhibit an industry and an ability to reason, but in a primitive way that is only based on their survival. The Traveller discovers that they are providing the means for the Eloi’s rather vacuous paradisical existence using underground tools and machinery, yet they are also the predators of their parasitical neighbours, catching them for food during the night.  Eventually, he concocts a plan to retrieve his machine, his only link with human society, his only means of returning to a civilized world.

Source Wikipedia

Trained as a biologist, Wells developed an interest in Darwinism, and the significance of evolution is apparent in this work.  The Eloi and the Morlocks, descendents of the human race, are presented as two species that have evolved on completely different tracks, separated by social oppression and elitism.  The Traveller observes:

“Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people —- due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor —- is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land ……..  And this same widening gulf — which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich —- will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along line of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour ….”

The Traveller had expected unprecedented progress, but instead found a degeneration on each side, of intelligence, empathy, mercy, discipline, respect, etc., in fact most qualities which make us human.

Wells, a commited socialist, was extrapolating some of the problems faced in his own time, such as the widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and hatred or disdain along the same class lines.  But instead of the poor simply being oppressed by the rich, Wells takes it a step further; the rich, in their mindless indulgence, become the prey.  Wells intended to communicate not only these innate problems in society but the lack of success of the solutions that communism and utopian socialism offered for the betterment of society. It’s a very bleak picture of the future.

C.S. Lewis loved Wells’ fiction as a boy, but as he matured and his tastes became more discerning, he began to see cracks in their veneer.  While he praised Wells for his original thought, and his desire to tackle the bigger questions, he found the works “thin” and “lacking the roughness and density of life.”  I’m by no means a Wells expert, but so far I’d agree with that assessment.  The book’s plot is entertaining but rather simple, lacking any subtleties or true character development.  His characters often work on an elementary level, to illustrate the questions, but without being imbued with a life of their own.  The questions themselves, while compelling, are treated quite swiftly, with the narrator often chronicling the issues instead of the reader becoming intimate with the characters and absorbing dilemma through their actions.  While the pace might be useful for a movie, it doesn’t really give the reader time to process, so the ideas thump around in our heads a little but there is no true contemplating of them that leads to a greater understanding, or development that leads to possible solutions.

Ruth from A Great Book Study was also reading The Time Machine at the same time as Cirtnecce and I, so I’m including both of their insightful reviews below.

Further Reading:

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

“I was born in San Francisco, California.”

Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer who lived in France for over 40 years, becoming an intrinsic part of the Parisian art world in the early 1900s. Part of an avant garde artistic movement that thumbed its nose at past artistic structure, she was intimate with artists, both painters and writers, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, George Braque, Guillaume Appolonaire, Henri Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Mildred Aldrich  and many others, who were frequent visitors to her 27 rue de Fleurus location.  She attempted her own literary movement, writing many works that were deemed “incomprehensible”, but received a small following.  Her autobiography is perhaps a more gentle exposure to her “art”.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

Although Stein presents this biography as being about her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, in fact it is Stein, speaking with the voice of Toklas about her own life and experiences.  She briefly chronicles her early life, then moves directly to France, going into great detail about her life there, yet revealing little about herself.  Her style is mostly observation and there is little depth to her words.  It is a matter of, “this happened, and that happened, and this happened,” without there being much of an internal interaction with occurrences, or an outward reaction to them.  The book was all about Stein, but on the other hand it wasn’t, and I never felt that I came to know much about the woman at all.  Of course, I now know about all the important people she knew and all about her writings, but it’s more like skating on top of a lake instead of diving right into it; you see a reflection that has echoes of reality, but somehow reality itself escapes you.

Nevertheless the book had some interesting information on the artists living in Paris during Stein’s residence there:

“The Matisses had had a hard time.  Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy.  His people were small grain merchants in the north of France.  He had become interested in painting, had begun copying the Poussins at the Louvre and become a painter fairly without the consent of his people who however continued to allow him the very small monthly sum he had had as a student …..”

And interesting things to say about different nationalities:

Americans and Spaniards

“Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like spaniards, they are abstract and cruel.  They are not brutal, they are cruel.  They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have.  Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish …..”

Germans

“Gertrude Stein used to get furious when the english all talked about german organization.  She used to insist that the germans had no organisation, they had method but no organisation.  Don’t you understand the difference, she used to say angrily, any two americans, any twenty americans, any millions of americans can organise themselves to do something but germans cannot organise themselves to do anything, they can formulate a method and this method can be put upon them but that isn’t organisation.  The germans, she used to insist, are not modern, they are a backward people who have had a method of what we conceive as organisation, can’t you see.  They cannot therefore possibly win this war because they are not modern.”

French

“The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution.  Indeed Gertrude Stein once said rather impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seem to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves.  They looked very sheepish and said, bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure you’re right….”

There is always an underlying humour touched with a seriousness in her narrative; although life is somber business, one must not take it too seriously.

Stein with Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack (1924)
source Wikipedia

Stein definitely has both fans and critics.  One enthusiast, Mabel Dodge, an American art patron, wrote, “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives, apart from concept, it is so rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.”

However, Stein’s brother, who apparently had the eye of an art connoisseur and amassed an impressive collection of paintings, called the biography “a farrago of lies,” Hemingway declared it, “a damned pitiful book,” and critic F.W. Dupree denounced “Steinese” as being “gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated …… a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.”  

Perhaps the truth lies in the battlefield between the two factions, and American writer Sherwood Anderson, found the median between the two, saying, “As for Stein, I do not think her too important.  I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words for his material.”

Stein’s signature

The Brubury Tales by Frank Mundo

“When in April, and it hasn’t yet rained,
And the drought of March has again sustained
Another year of our eternal spring;
Then old Santa Ana begins to sing
That fiery yet most familiar tune
How Los Angeles always feels like June ….”

No, The Brubury Tales are not my usual classics bent, but since it is based on a classic, The Canterbury Tales, I decided to make them, not only a pairing, but a 2015 challenge.

In this poem, we are not confronted with pilgrims, but seven security guards who work at the Holiday Inn in L.A.  Six men and one woman make up their team, as they perform their duties during the unsettled times of the Los Angeles race riots.  The prologue introduces each of them:  Leo Kapitanski, Alex Loma, John Shamburger, Joseph Dator, J.T. (the narrator), Rolla Amin, and Darrin Arita or “The Feet”.

As Christmas is approaching, each guard is lobbying for vacation time during the holidays, but Leo Kapitanski, their security chief, comes up with a unique idea. Each one of the guards must tell a tale, and the guard who crafts the best tale, will be awarded with the time off.

Leo is the first to tell his tale and exhibits some fine alliterative verse, reminiscent of the style of the Pearl poet (Sir Gawain & the Green Knight):

“Those were tumultuous times in Olde Yellowfield:
When widespread war had wracked the west;
As Pestilence and plague plundered through the east;
And silky southern skies, soot-saddened into shade
As burnt and billowing breaths of northern brush
Did daily darken the heavens in dismal doom!
And for years was Olde Yellowfield yanked to black
By those soot-stacks that steadily stole the sun.
Olde Yellowfield was new Blackfield, banned from light …”

The Brubury Tales illustration
by Keith Draws
source

Yet not everyone appreciates such poetical talents, and The Feet protests over this “literary crap”.  So Leo agrees to tell another tale full of vice, since no one can appreciate a story well-told, because:

“‘In today’s world where television rules,
Personally, I blame the public schools.’
But Leo disagreed a little bit,
‘Takes a village to raise an idiot.'”

Leo’s tale weeps full of sorrow and distress, ringing with shades of lost chances and bitter regret, as a man tries to navigate the paths of life and love and fails miserably, a red stain left on his attempt, an unendurable burden on his heart.

There are seven tales in all, in a variety of settings and time periods, covering a number of different issues with respect to love, marriage, betrayal, regret, and death, yet hope resonates in these explorations of life’s struggles and victories.  Humour is also woven into the fabric of the narrative, delivered with an adeptness that gives a sublime harmonization with the other serious themes. Though each tale has a modern twist, they bear resemblance to stories of Dostoyevsky, Boccaccio, Saki, Poe, O’Henry, Dickens, Twain, the Bible, Dante, Gilman, Crane, Anderson and Bierce, and it’s a veritable treasure hunt, to sift through the narrative to see if one can spot these recognizable classics.  There even is a remake of Omar Kayyam’s The Rubaiyat, which is very cleverly done.  In another twist to the story, the author himself makes an appearance as the supervisor.  There is an abundance of literary wealth within this book, and one can imagine the work as a tapestry; each thread you pull leads to a new idea, or allusion, or theme, working singly and yet together to form a unique and complex whole.

With regard to the poetic structure, it’s mostly comprised of couplets in iambic pentameter, echoing very much of Chaucer’s style and tone.  Yet there are variations in poetic style at certain points during the tales which helps to give a different flavour to the stories.  The author is also is very adept at changing the voice of the characters, each one sounding like an individual and making it very easy for the reader to step into their world.

This read completes my The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project for 2015, and I think I can say that it was my favourite project of the year.  Not only was I pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment that I received from Chaucer’s merry and sometimes, raunchy tale, I was blown away by The Brubury Tales and the talent and aptitude of its author.  A great project, all around!

 

 

 

The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The Gandhis belong to the Bania caste and seem to have been originally grocers.”

Encouraged by friends and colleagues to share the history of his movement, Gandhi began his autobiography as weekly installments which were published in his journal, Navjivan, and also, Young India.  Writing in jail, Gandhi wanted to communicate spiritual and moral truth that he has discovered through personal experiments and he shares the impetus for his search:

“But one thing took deep root in me — the conviction that morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality.  Truth became my sole objective.  It began to grow in magnitude every day, and my definition of it also has been ever widening.”

As many other biographers have done, Gandhi begins his narrative with his childhood, sharing his many childish misdemeanors such as smoking, drinking, stealing, etc.  Married at the age of thirteen, Gandhi condemns this practice, characterizing his desire for his wife as lust, feeling in bondage to his passions, which he laters frees himself from:

” …… (I) realized that the wife is not the husband’s bondslave, but his companion and helpmate, and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows —- as free as the husband to choose her own path ….”

Gandhi in South Africa
source Wikipedia

As a young man, Gandhi travelled to England to study to become a lawyer.  Upon returning to India, and being bored with his opportunities, he accepted the position of legal advisor on a large law suit in South Africa. With regard to his vocation, Gandhi had sharp insights, and with a moral bent, turned a perhaps mistrusted profession into a respected appointment:

“I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder.  The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.  I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.”

“The symbol of a Court of justice is a pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman.  Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth.”

In spite of being an unimposing figure, Gandhi’s greatness came not only from his desire for unity among people and serving the poor, but also his unique ability to see situations from a different perspective.  What the world would see as a weakness, Gandhi often saw as a strength:

“I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact, I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage.  My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure.  Its greatest truth has been that it has taught me the economy of words.  I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts ……. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth ……..  My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler.  It has allowed me to grow.  It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”


With his Christian and Muslim friends, he noted the differences, but instead of attempting to erase those differences, he chose to celebrate them, focusing on the positive aspects that those differences brought to light:

“Yet even differences prove helpful, where there is tolerance, charity and truth.”

His work in South Africa spanned decades, as he fought for the rights of the Indians there, after encountering race prejudice himself.  Many of his political views became entrenched with his South African experiences, and his religious views grew as well.  He became known for the employment of satyagraha, or non-violent protest and elucidates how it played out in his life.  The reader follows Gandhi through the Boer War and into World War I and his return to life in India.  He began to see the detriment of British colonial rule and worked hard to make his country ready for the independence that he foresaw.

His humility and his concern for his fellow-man resonate from the pages, his wisdom bringing unique insight.

“Man and his deed are two distinct things.  Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked always deserves respect or pity as the case may be.  ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practised, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world …………. It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself.  For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite.  To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.”

His desire for truth through the restoration of broken relationships and systems resonated throughout his work and his life.

What really spoke to me in this biography is that Gandhi, in spite of claiming a natural affinity with all races, also worked hard to develop traits within himself that would foster unity, empathy, patience and love towards others.  While it was a conviction within himself to cultivate positive behaviour, it was done with great effort and sometimes at a cost.  It is a tragic irony that Gandhi’s life came to and end with an act of violence, but perhaps the man himself would turn that perception on its head and simply say that it was further evidence of our need of the very thing which, at times, seems out of reach.  Yet as long as we are striving for peace, it is perhaps the striving that truly matters.

“I have found by experience that man makes his plans to be often upset by God, but, at the same time where the ultimate goal is the search of truth, no matter how a man’s plans are frustrated, the issue is never injurious and often better than anticipated.”

2015 In Review

2015 Reading Stats:

Number Of Books You Read: 50


Number of Re-Reads: 


Genre You Read The Most From: Classics


Best in Books


Best book you read in 2015: The Canterbury Tales.

Book you were excited about & thought you were going to love more but didn’tOn The Road by Jack Kerouac.  I had read his The Dharma Bums and just loved it, but On The Road simply didn’t have the charm of the former.  It was a chronicle of a bunch of irresponsible young men getting drunk and stoned across America.  Just not for me.

Most surprising (in a good or bad way) book you read in 2015: In a good way, Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington.  I was a little fatigued with the slave narratives, but Washington, without anger or bitterness, presented such a balanced view of the issues, and a way for the people coming out of slavery to really move forward and feel like they were building useful lives for themselves.  He definitely goes on my hero list. 

Book you “pushed” the most people to read (and they did) in 2015:   Well, I’ll say Beowulf because I hosted a read-along of it.  I had a great time; I hope everyone else did too!

Best series you started in 2015? Best Sequel? Best Series Ender:  I read through Jane Austen’s novels and was so pleased to revisit old favourites and finally read the two that I had never read before (Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion).  Pride and Prejudice remains one of my all-time favourites.  I also developed a new appreciation for both Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

Favorite new author you discovered in 2015:  Michel de Montaigne.  He is such a unique thinker and his writings are so personal that after you read a few of his essays, you feel like you’re talking with an old friend (although one you conversely often argee and disagree with).  He’s fabulous!

Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/ out of your comfort zone:  Montaigne’s Selected Essays.  I don’t usually read essays, even though I want to read them.  Montaigne was a blast!  I can’t wait to read more of him.

Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year: Dracula.  We seek him here, we seek him there, we very-credulous-and-always-one-step-behind men seek him everywhere.  Is he in heaven or is he in hell?  That damn’d elusive Count Dracula!

Book you read in 2015 that you are most likley to reread next year: I will definitely read The Canterbury Tales again, but not next year.  

Favorite cover of a book you read in 2015: Probably this Ignatius Press edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.




Most memorable characters of 2015:  Michel de Montaigne (Selected Essays)Hamlet (Hamlet), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Confessions – the mould was broken when God made him), Beowulf (Beowulf) Basil Grant (The Club of Queer Trades), Gandhi (The Story of My Experiment With Truth)

Most beautifully written book read in 2015: The Forgotten Daughter.  I was truly blown away by Snedeker’s writing.  Not only does she create a believable and vibrant setting, she brings to life the characters within it.  The true degradation and loss of liberty under slavery resonates in this book, yet without becoming maudlin.  An excellent read.

Most-thought provoking/ life-changing book of 2015: The Story of My Experiments With Truth by Mohandas Gandhi

Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2015 to finally read: The Canterbury Tales


Favorite passage/quote from a book you read in 2015: There were so many and this is perhaps not the favourite but it’s a valuable one that springs quickly to mind: “…… Nature has given it (life) into our hands, trimmed with so many and such happy surrounding, that we have only ourselves to blame if we feel it a burden, and if we waste it unprofitably ……  And yet I am resigned to lose it without regret; but as a thing that is by its nature losable, not as if it were a troublesome burden …… Not to hate the idea of death is properly becoming only in those who enjoy life …. I enjoy it doubly as much as others, for the measure of enjoyment depends upon the more or less attention we give to it …..  The shorter my possession of life, the fuller and deeper must I live it …… Rather should we study, relish and ruminate it, in order to give adequate thanks to him who bestows it upon us.”  ~~ Michel de Montaigne

Shortest/longest book you read in 2015: Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlinson and The Christmas Child by Hesba Stretten (both 52 pgs.) & Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (676 pgs.) (although the longest would have been  Mein Kampf [710 pgs.] if I’d read the part about the National Socialist Movement)

Book that shocked you the most: Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.  It is astounding and more than a little unsettling that he grew to rule a nation. His delusional hatred of Jews and non-Arians was not cloaked at all.  It made me realize that if it could happen once, it could happened again.

OTP of the year: Every year I have to look up what OTP means.  Sigh!   😉  Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice!

Favorite non-romantic relationship: Pinocchio and Geppetto – very much a Prodigal Son story.  Otherwise the Little Women family.

Favorite book you read in 2015 from an author you’ve read previously: Price and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Notes From the Underground by Dostoyevsky

Best book you read in 2015 that you read based solely on a recommendation from someone else: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.

Best world-building/most vivid setting you read this year: Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  I read it twice this year thanks to Hamlette’s read-along!

Book that put a smile on your face/was the most fun to read: The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton.  I just realized that I didn’t read many fun books in 2015.  I’ll have to rectify that next year!

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2015: The Forgotten Daughter by Caroline Dale Snedecker.  Again it communicated the hopelessness of slavery while giving hope in another way.  Just excellent.

Hidden gem of the year:  The Brubury Tales by Frank Mundo.  I’m not a fan of modern fiction and I’d expected these tales to be definitely weaker versions of The Canterbury Tales, but I was absolutely blown away.  His poetic skill resonated throughout the stories and his insight into human nature was exemplary.  I will read this one again, for sure. 

Most unique book you read in 2015: The Journal of William T. Sturgis.  It was refreshing to see a man who acted with honesty and integrity towards the native people, yet also held them accountable to basic human behaviour.  Quite a man.

Book that made you the most mad: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.  I wanted to smack most of the characters.  

Your Blogging/Bookish Life


New favorite book blog you discovered in 2015:  We Went Outside and Saw The Stars (Keely reads the type of books I absolutely love and compiles thoughtful and insightful reviews) and Gently Mad  (Sharon reads a very eclectic panorama of books and her reviews are always thought-provoking)  I know that I’ve forgotten somebody …..

Favorite review that you wrote in 2015: Wow, this is tough.  I’m going to choose my Montaigne essay posts, of which there are three, plus an introduction.  These reviews took up an inordinate amount of time, but I’m glad that I have little snapshots of all the essays I read.

Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog: Ooo, I don’t know.  Perhaps my  Join the Beowulf Read-Along post where we had some discussion of translation and other fun Beowulf-related things. I didn’t do many other survey-type posts this year. 

Best event that you participated in: The Hamlet Read-Along at The Edge of the Precipice.  I also enjoyed my Beowulf Read-Along, and my read with O of The Canterbury Tales was a blast.  It was so helpful to read her excellent posts as we read along.

Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2015:  Meeting new bloggers and responding to comments on my blog. 

Most popular post this year on your blog: My The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project post with 371 views.  After that my Ecco Homo review at 311 views.  Honourable mentions go to Sonnet XXIX by Garcilaso de la Vega and Christianity and the Survival of Creation by Wendell Berry.  I was amazed at the top winners this year.  

Post you wished got a little more love:  This year I can’t answer this question.  A number of posts that I was certain wouldn’t be popular received tons of views, and my others had a good number of views as well, so I’m happy. 🙂  

Best bookish discovery:  I was excited to purchase C.S. Lewis’ English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, one of the Oxford History of English Literature volumes.  I also scored The Riverside Chaucer in a beautiful hardcover edition, but after I’d finished reading The Canterbury Tales.

Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year: I completed Back to the Classics Challenge, Reading England Challenge, Jane Austen Project, The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project and the Books in Translation Challenge.  I failed at The Pre-Printing Press Challenge, 52 Books in 52 Weeks (reached 50 books), my TBR Pile Challenge, reading only 9 of the 12 books I should have, and the Deal-Me-In Challenge.  I also hardly read any C.S. Lewis for that project, read only a couple of Shakespeare for my Shakespeare project and did not read any Trollope from my Barsetshire read.  Woe is me!

Looking Ahead

One book you didn’t get to in 2015 but will be your number 1 priority in 2016: The History of Napoleon Buonaparte by John G. Lockhart.  Good grief, this is ridiculous!  I’m fascinated by Napoleon and I absolutely love this book, but I’ve been working on it for a couple of years and something else always takes my attention away from it.  I simply MUST finish it this year.

Book you are most anticipating for 2016 (non-debut): Metamorphoses by Ovid, and The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

Series ending/a sequel you are most anticipating in 2016: The Last Chronicles of Barset by Anthony Trollope.  No, you’re not seeing double from last year.  I’m leaving it here because I can’t think of another book and I hope to get to Trollope in 2016, but knowing me and what I have planned, I can’t see getting to the end of the series.  I also would like to read The Lord of the Rings, but I’m hesitant to make a commitment, as I have so many other books that I’m planning to read.

One thing you hope to accomplish or do in your reading/blogging life in 2016: Keep up with my books!  Keep up with my posts!  It’s my perpetual resolution and hope.

Wishing everyone happy reading days and lots of them in 2016!!


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

“To be or not to be, that is the question …….”

First publish around 1602 (although a working copy is thought to have been in use in 1601), Hamlet has come down to us in two forms. Issued in 1603, a corrupt or crude and probably pirated copy called the “First Quarto” (Q1) was produced, then in 1604 a more complete and artistically styled “Second Quarto” (Q2) followed.  It is supposed that the errors in Q1, complete with pretentious and often meaningless rhetoric, spurred Shakespeare and his company to press for a more complete and credible version.  Surprisingly, Hamlet was never performed or printed in its entirety during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the copies we read today are a compilation of Q2 and the 1623 Folio edition.  In spite of the errors and incompleteness of the play, there is little doubt that it is Shakespeare’s as it was performed by his own acting company. The evidence of the dating of the play is quite fascinating, as it not only uses clues from registries, but clues imbedded within the play to events that happened in 1601 and 1600. Shakespeare actuates very detailed detective work.

Portrait of Hamlet (c.1864)
William Morris Hunt
source Wikimedia Commons

The legend of Hamlet goes back centuries, dating to around the Scandinavian sagas.  It was familiar to the people of Iceland in the 10th century, although Shakespeare possibly drew from Histories Tragiques (1559-70) by Francis de Belleforest, relating tragic stories of great kings and queens whose lives had been ravaged by love or ambition.  A second hypothesis is that Shakespeare revived an extant version of a play by Thomas Kyd, revising this earlier piece to become the Second Quarto (Q2), and then afterward rewriting the complete acting text and play, which then became the basis for the Folio of 1623.  With regard to the first hypothesis, the similarity of the stories are too apparent to be coincidental, but there are differences in names and some differences in narrative that indicate Shakespeare was intent on making the play his own.

Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice hosted a Hamlet Read-Along beginning in October and set a very leisurely pace, which was wonderful as it allowed me to dig very deeply into the play.  My scene-by-scene postings were as follows:

Act I :   Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV,  Scene V
Act II:   Scene I,  Scene II
Act III:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IV
Act IV:  Scene I,  Scene II,  Scene III,  Scene IVScene V,  Scene VI,  Scene VII
Act V:   Scene I,  Scene II

 

The Young Lord Hamlet (1867)
Philip Hermogenes Calderon
source Wikimedia Commons

The play itself begins in Denmark at Elsinore castle where two soldiers see a ghost on the ramparts.  It is the ghost of the newly dead King Hamlet and immediately they inform his son, Hamlet, of the apparition.  Horatio, his friend, keeps watch with him the following night, whereupon the ghost claims to his son that he has been murdered by his own brother, the new king, Claudius.  To add insult to injury, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, an outrage that can hardly be borne by Hamlet.  Yet questions pile upon Hamlet, enough to smother.  Was the ghost truly there, and if so, was it really his father?  Revenge was called for but how could the deed be done, and was he justified in taking a life?  His father’s life was cut short “in the blossoms of his sin”, but if he dispatched Claudius in his guilty state, would not their deaths become parallel?

Hamlet encountering the Ghost (1768-69)
Benjamin Wilson
source Wikimedia Commons

The contrary questions paralyze Hamlet into a mire of inaction.  He then works out a contrary persona, playing at an odd type of insanity, yet often dispensing insightful, sharp and clear rhetoric to torment Claudius into confusion.  Is Hamlet as dangerous as Claudius believes or is he merely an innocent victim of the circumstances, grief-stricken over the death of his father?  After Hamlet unwittingly commits the murder of Polonius, the advisor of Claudius, he forces the hand of the new king who sends him to England, with the intent of extinguishing any threat to his kingdom.  Yet Hamlet has also injured the mind of one once dearest to him, Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, and her decent into madness colours the kingdom with further calamity. Upon Hamlet’s return, the culmination of this revenge tragedy is set into motion. Will Claudius’ plotting bring him success?  Can Laertes avenge his father, Polonius’, murder, and will Hamlet’s revenge bring him the peace he seems to seek?

You can see throughout the play the emphasis on action vs. inaction, words vs. action, thoughts vs. action, etc.  While Hamlet bemoans his inability to act to avenge his father’s death, on the surface seeming cowardly and ineffective, the actuality is quite the opposite.  All throughout the play, Hamlet uses thoughts and words to manipulate his enemy.  His thoughts, though he bemoans them, actually have more of an effect than he imagines, controlling certain small acts in a very effective manner.  His act of insanity twists Claudius into a Gordian knot of uncertainty, his letters announcing his return to Denmark pushing Claudius to drastic action. Thoughts and words appear to be more important and certainly more effective than action, torturing his enemy to the very limits of his endurance.  While it’s demonstrated in the play that revenge only brings suffering, is there a underlying theme that words can be more effective than action?

Ophelia (1863)
Arthur Hughes
source Wikiart

While the cultural precepts of the Danish society in Hamlet seem to support the desire for revenge, Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have viewed the thirst for vengeance as primitive, and perhaps rather shocking. There is evidence throughout the play that revenge brings only suffering and death to those involved.  Fortinbras, the heir of the Danish kingdom at the end of the play, calls for all the noblemen to hear the story of Hamlet:

”                                    Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience ……”

He wants the nobles of the kingdom to attend to this tragedy and learn from it. Horatio responds:

“But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance
On plots and errors happen.”

Hamlet does get a hero’s remembrance, but the deaths, suffering and pain caused by his vengeful actions, and those of others, are strongly emphasized.

There is a question throughout the play of Hamlet’s sanity.  Is he truly mad, or is it simply an act produced to set a trap for the murderer of his father?  I tend to think the latter, but Shakespeare appears to quite closely link insanity with revenge, perhaps alluding to the fact that vengeance has a detrimental effect on our minds, distorting perceptions to bring about a type of madness.  Hamlet is playing at being mad, but madness also plays with him, his malevolent sentiments poisoning his very psyche, and modifying his entire moral perspective.  The whole character of Hamlet is played out in the agonizing conflict within his mind.  Mad he is, and mad he is not, perhaps making him at once to be and not to be.

 

 

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Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I am a sick man …….. I am an angry man.”

Notes from The Underground is the third book in my unannounced and (spur of the moment) Turgenev/ Chernyshevsky/ Dostoyevsky challenge.  After reading Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote in response to it, his then politically persuasive novel, What Is To Be Done? , and in response to Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky wrote his powerful Notes from the Underground.  I assumed that it would be an interesting literary, political and philosophical conversation.

Dostoyevsky begins this book with a monologue from a retired 40-year-old civil servant, living in St. Petersburg.  He is our man from the Underground.  His ramblings appear to be disjointed, sometimes silly and then, disturbingly insightful.  But in this novel, is anything as it really appears?

” ….. doesn’t there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or — not to violate logic — some best good …. which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — in short against all those fine and advantageous things — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else? ….. to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally.”

 

The Soul of the Underground (1959)
Jean Dubuffet
source Wikiart

The Underground Man argues that perhaps science is not the highest good. The behaviour of man under the laws of nature and of reason does not confirm them; man has a perplexing innate inclination to destroy his own happiness and well-being.  One may argue that man needs to be brought into order, to conform to demands that will improve his life.   But what if man does not want that, and further, what makes one think that this is even good for man?

“Even if we assume it as a rule of logic, it may not be a law for all mankind at all …… And why are you so firmly and triumphantly certain that only what is normal and positive —- in short, only well-being —- is good?  After all, perhaps prosperity isn’t the only thing that pleases mankind, perhaps he is just as attracted to suffering.  Perhaps suffering is just as good for him as prosperity.”

Using historical examples, the Underground Man strengthens his argument. Man is beyond nature, and beyond reality; he is infinitely more complex than science, and therefore beyond the ability of science to completely understand him.

With his Underground Man, Dostoyevsky is attempting to shatter the philosophy seen in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s, What is To Be Done?, a novel that promoted a type of monistic materialism brought about through a rational egoism: if only one used reason to discern the higher purpose of man, working through enlightened self-interest the perfect society would be created. Chernyshevsky’s dogmatic ideology excluded the possibility of “free will”, labelling it as a mistaken perception of what was simply a causal process. However Dostoyevsky, from his years in a prison camp, had continually witnessed the innate human desire to express individual free will, often to the person’s own detriment, and with his Underground Man, he strove to prove the ridiculousness of Chernyshevsky’s philosophy:

“all the beautiful systems, these theories of explaining his best interests to man ……. are nothing but sophistry.  Isn’t there something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, some best good which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared, if necessary, to go against all the laws — that is against reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else?”

 

“One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness — that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the commission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil.  Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable?  What a man meeds is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

 

Underground Chud (1928)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

The second part of the novel, entitled “Falling Sleet”, tells of the experiences of the Undergound Man.  First, he is disrespected by an officer on the street who will not give way to him and the Underground Man plots a revenge of deliberately bumping into him.  The narrative then moves to the Underground Man’s presence at a party for old school mates and his contentious behaviour towards them, as he feels the strength his inadequacies in their presence. Finally, he falls into a type of relationship with a sympathetic prostitute named Liza.  In the Underground Man’s interactions with the outside world, the reader sees a man struggling to use his faculties to assimilate himself into the situations around him, and failing in his attempts. Dostoyevsky created a character who believed in Chernyshevsky’s ideals, but demonstrated through his actions, his inability to live up to them.

And so finishes my “trilogy” of conversation between these three authors.  I have been educated not only historically, but politically and philosophically, and encourage anyone who wants to read any of these books, to read the three in sequence.  With Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky particularly, you can sense the antagonism within their writing, yet their passion for their ideologies are very effective and make for enlightening reading.

Trilogy:

 

 

Further Reading:
Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by Joseph Frank

 

Emma by Jane Austen

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings in existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Young Emma Woodhouse of Hartfield has been the pet of her father and governess, and perhaps indulged by both to a faulty degree.  However, her character is one of kindness and charity, but enhanced with a healthy interest in the business of others, especially if it includes the subject of marriage.  Mr. Knightley, a close family friend and owner of Donwell Abbey, attempts to correct Emma and steer her on a more prudent path, but Emma’s high spirits require the correction of life experience. As she stumbles through her attempts at matchmaking based on her faulty reasoning, we see Emma grow from a willful, impressionable, decisive girl into a more careful, thoughtful, and empathetic woman.

From the first sentence we can see that this is a type of coming-of-age novel. The struggles and challenges of life are what develop strength of character. Because Emma has lived a relatively trouble-free and pampered life, we initially see in her character a willful blindness which often only serves to punctuate the errors in her thinking and of her actions.  The tension in the story is the uncertainty of Emma’s transformation.  We know that she is able to learn, but with her stubborn nature, will that be possible?  Her personal tenacity does not allow for an instant conversion, and instead we see small steps of correction in Emma’s character, even while she gets into more scrapes and misunderstandings.  Yet Emma realizes, or is forced to realize, the value of the advice of those closest to her, admitting her faults and seeking to amend them.

Hartfield
(Squerryes Court)

As I contemplated this read, I felt that it was not simply Emma who was often mistaken. Not only is Emma completely blind, but all the other characters exhibit their own sort of blindness to varying degrees.  Not only does no one know their neighbour or accurately guess their motivations, often people don’t even know themselves.  Each person is often attempting to hide their observations, either out of personal gain or out of societal politeness, but in each case, these decisions are shown to be unwise. Does this tell us that by understanding our fellow human beings that we will gain a deeper knowledge of ourselves?  However, perhaps Mr. Knightley had a more accurate indication of the issue, when he stated, “Mystery; Finesse —- how they pervert the understanding!  My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”  We need to be truthfully transparent with one another, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable, to truly cultivate relationships with minimum complication.

By the end of the novel, Emma is a much wiser woman.  Are all of her faults erased?  Not at all, but many of those faults are what make part of her character so delightful.  It is the opening of her mind, the willingness to admit her wrongs and the receptiveness to bettering herself, that makes her a truly likeable heroine.