Birthday Book Haul 2

This year, my birthday was a departure from the norm in that all the books I received were either poetry collections or plays. This is partly because some of them are on my reading list for university but partly also because I want to broaden my reading horizons, as I tend to lean towards novels at the expense of other areas of literature.

A View from the Bridge

I have never read anything by Arthur Miller before and this seems like a good place to begin!

Again, I have never read anything by Samuel Beckett so I am hoping these two volumes will prove a good introduction. An added bonus is their extremely digestible length!

Emily Bronte Poetry

I enjoyed Wuthering Heightsand the excellent TV drama ‘To Walk Invisible’ made me curious to read the rest of Emily Brontë’s work. The cover art on this edition is very pretty, if slightly mysterious.

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Top 7: Christina Rossetti Poems

I have just finished reading a selection of Christina Rossetti’s poems and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them. They were reasonably simple to read and understand, Rossetti’s use of rhyme often giving them a sing-song quality. Yet despite their apparent simplicity, almost all of the poems were deep, moving and powerful. Reading them felt like getting to know the poet herself, as most of her work returned to the same themes: Rossetti’s relationship with God and the pain she suffered in love. Here are some of my personal favourites:

1. Goblin Market – probably Rossetti’s most famous work, this is a must-read. It tells the story of a girl who is led astray by goblins selling their dangerous wares, but is ultimately redeemed by the love of her sister. The irregular rhyme scheme masterfully reflects the calls of market sellers.

2. Monna Innominata – this ‘sonnet of sonnets’ is comprised of fourteen sonnets tracing the course of a relationship, each of which is a beautiful poem in its own right.

3. ‘No, Thank You, John’ – this charming poem is the author’s polite but definite rejection of a potential lover.

4. In An Artist’s Studio – a poignant sonnet describing one man’s immortalisation of his lover in art.

5. The Hour and the Ghost – I liked the clever, chilling ending of this poem, which is narrated from the perspectives of three different people (‘Bride’, ‘Bridegroom’ and ‘Ghost’).

6. Maude Clare – this poem, which is comprised mainly of conversation, is sassy and surprising to the very last line.

7. Winter: My Secret – a playful poem using the motif of seasons to represent the narrator’s willingness to open up to her lover.

BR: ‘In The Woods’ by Tana French

This novel is narrated from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad haunted by memories of his two best friends, who vanished the summer he was twelve. He is sucked back into the case when a girl’s body is found near the sight of their disappearance, but the further he goes in investigating the crime, the closer he comes to tipping over the edge. The story is complicated by his intense relationship with his fellow detective Cassie Maddox, which becomes increasingly fraught as the past catches up with him.

The central mystery was unpredictable and I read it in a greedy, gulping couple of days. I cared deeply about the characters; Rob’s destruction of his career, his sanity, and ultimately his relationship with Cassie, absolutely broke my heart. The depiction of Rob’s carefree, innocent childhood and the contrast with the dark, uncertain present made this all the more moving. The novel mixed believable colloquial chatter with beautiful, literary prose; I particularly liked the way Rob’s memories returned to him in random fragments, written in uncertain stream-of-consciousness italics throughout the text.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I do have a few issues with it. Rob’s childhood mystery was never solved, and while a double solution might be less realistic, I feel as if a crime writer does have a duty to provide the reader with answers, particularly after tantalising them with clues and hints as French did. Moreover, the ending was just so tragic; it seemed downright unkind of French to leave Rob without one scrap of redemption.

With this sense of unfinished business – as well as the novel’s compelling, immersive charm – it is no wonder that readers are crying out for a sequel.

Poem: That Time of the Month

It’s that time of the month again.
A headache rattles my skull
I’m tired, irritable, prone to mood swings
I think of the inevitable blood
And dread what’s to come
Always painful, always messy;
I always end up hurting somebody
And howling in frustration
Because no man understands
Quite how hard it is
To have body hair that just
Won’t stop growing
Like a forest in the full moon
An insatiable appetite
And the constant urge to wail.

As a werewolf there’s just one upside:
When my friends have periods
I can sympathise.

BR: ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens

‘Great Expectations’ begins irresistibly with the narrator, the orphan Pip, encountering a mysterious convict on the Kent marshes. This terrifying experience is contrasted later with his more insidiously haunting visits to Miss Havisham, for whom time stopped on the day she was jilted. Both of these characters have a great influence on Pip as he is raised to ‘great expectations’, learning to be ashamed of his family and pining after the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella. An air of Gothic mystery pervades the novel but there is also action, humour, and witty social commentary.

This is one of the most engaging Victorian novels I have ever read. The dramatic tension rarely flagged and even the more minor characters were memorable and moving: take, for example, Mr Jaggers with his brutal manner and scented hands, or Wemmick with his ‘post-office‘ mouth (indeed, the diversions to Wemmick’s ‘Castle’ – a little cottage with a drawbridge and cannon – created some welcome humour in an occasionally dark narrative). Pip made a good hero; he was flawed but essentially good at heart, and Dickens did a wonderful job in making him gradually more complex and tormented as he grew older, perfectly capturing the difficult transition from boy to man.

In this sense, ‘Great Expectations’ is a tale that will never age. Some of Dickens’ social satire is just as relevant today as it was in the Victorian era: Pip’s admission that ‘there was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did’ reminds me of the social media generation and our artificial presentation of a perfect life. Similarly Pip’s advocacy of greater openness – ‘Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of the earth, overlying our hard hearts’ – is surprisingly progressive, and reminiscent of the recent #TimeToTalk campaign.

Overall, I can certainly recommend ‘Great Expectations’ – it is funny, exciting, accessible, and populated with a vibrant cast of characters. Moreover, as a relatively short and action-packed book, it is a perfect starting-point for anyone thinking of dipping into Dickens’ work for the first time.

Poem: The Last Unicorn

I am real; just reclusive.
I prefer to stay away from
Humans – it doesn’t do wonders
For your self esteem when
They keep confusing you with
Rhinos. Do I really look that fat
From behind? And when they
Started denying my existence
I just lost it –
And went to live in the forest.
Can you blame me? I have no
Regrets; I enjoy my solitary
Lifestyle; sparkling, rendering
Poisoned water potable
And whatnot. But sometimes
Even I must admit I get sick
Of being a symbol of chastity so
If you happen to know
Any good-looking male unicorns
(Or horses – I’m not fussy)
My number is 77123.
Do I seem forward? Sorry –
It’s just that sometimes
I get a little bit
Horny.

BR: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James

‘The Turn of the Screw’ is a classic ghost story, set in an English country house, in which a young, naive governess is alarmed by the appearance of malign spirits who attempt to possess her young charges. As the novella progresses, she becomes increasingly unhinged as she tries to save the children from their fate.

It sounds great in theory, but I was disappointed. Reviews I read labelled it as ‘chilling’, so much so that it terrified even the author, but I didn’t find it mildly frightening. It could be argued that 21st-century readers have more exposure to the grisly than the Victorians did, but in this sense I am practically Victorian anyway: I have only ever watched one horror film in my life and I don’t like going down the bottom of my garden in the dark.

The novella simply lacked atmosphere – little time was devoted to building up the creepiness of the setting, which in my opinion is a vital aspect of any horror story. None of the characters rang true for me; the author explained how wonderful the children were at least a thousand times but never really showed why this was the case. The descriptions of the governess’ emotions were rambling and over-complicated, the dialogue oblique and unrealistic; I found myself skimming over the paragraphs, waiting for something truly haunting to happen, but then I turned the last page and that was the end of it. I think James’ intricate, psychologically observant style of writing is much better suited to realistic stories such as ‘Washington Square’, in which the characters’ actions are believable and he is able to showcase his wit, something that was lacking in this book.

Not only was the story disappointing in itself, but the author displayed blatant sexism, not least in the phrase, ‘What surpassed everything was that here was a little boy who could have for the inferior age, sex and intelligence so fine a consideration.’  I suppose this statement is hardly surprising coming from a male Victorian novelist, but on top of everything else it tipped me over the edge. I will not be recommending this one to a friend.