2021: Exam Year, Reading Year

Hello, friends!

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging a bit about my PhD exams reading. As you know if you’ve followed me at all, I’m not great at sticking to a schedule, but I think that writing about the books I’m reading for my exams would be a helpful way to study, and doing it blog-style could be fun! If you’d like a ~weekly glance into my exams prep and reading, would you drop me a comment and say so? Knowing that even a few people are interested would help my motivation greatly!

What even are PhD exams? Well, they vary between subject and field, but basically this is when you do all the reading that makes you an Expert™ in your field. My field is 18th century British and American literature, so this year I’ll be reading all the major canonical works by British and American writers from roughly 1700-1830 (with a few outside exceptions at either end). I thought blogging about this would be particularly interesting as 18th century literature is under-read compared to the Victorians.

I haven’t yet officially begun my reading, as the first draft of my list is currently under review by the chair of my exam committee,* so for now I’m tackling Tom Jones and will continue to contemplate what this series might look like. I’m imagining a combination of book reviews, close looks at particular literary trends, discussions of the process, etc.

(And maybe in the mix I’ll finally finish those back-reviews I promised last summer).

Review: Wide Sargasso Sea

Second in my short “catch-up” reviews. I finished Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, 31 Aug, 2019.

This short novel is a companion piece to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, following the childhood and early adulthood of the woman who is known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. (There are some slight spoilers for Jane Eyre below; I’ve tried to keep them small and to a minimum, but reader beware) According to Rhys, her real name is Antoinette Cosway, and she is the creole daughter of an European family who has fallen into poverty after the elimination of slavery in Jamaica. Her mother remarries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette is educated at a convent, and then married to “him” (Mr. Rochester is never named), a relationship that is fractious and full of conflict and even hatred from the beginning.

I was intrigued by Wide Sargasso Sea both because I love retellings and re-imaginings and books related to other books, and because I liked the idea of giving Bertha a well-rounded storyline and the chance to be redeemed a bit. And the novel certainly does attempt that, presenting Antoinette as a complex character living in a complex time, and dealing with postcolonial and patriarchal themes. But ultimately, I just didn’t like it much. As it’s been a year, I’m afraid I cannot remember why in any great detail, but I found Antoinette unsympathetic, and the portrayal of the black Jamaican people rather cringe. Antoinette might have been dealt a bad hand, but she didn’t help matters, either. Indeed, she often does the one thing that would make whatever situation she’s in worse. Her final actions of the novel don’t feel poignant or triumphant, but petty.

Reading Jane Eyre through the lens of today does make Bertha seem maligned, but Rhys’s novel ultimately doesn’t do the rehabilitative work it purports to do. (Imho).

Have you read this? What did you think?

Review: The Mill on the Floss

This is the first in a series of catch-up posts, as I review the classics I’ve read in the last year and not discussed yet (i.e. all of them). These will be shorter and less in-depth than usual, both so that I can get through my backlog quickly and because it’s been a while since I’ve read these books!

The Mill on the Floss was my fourth George Eliot novel, and my least favorite so far. According to Goodreads, I finished it 31 August 2019. I gave it three stars.

Mill follows siblings Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the children of a small-town mill owner. There are several time jumps, so in all we cover about ten years of their young lives, as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. When they are adolescents, their father loses the mill and they teeter on the edge of poverty. Tom and Maggie both do their parts to keep the family afloat, relying on their mother’s several sisters and their more prosperous husbands for help. The Goodreads review, with its talk of “Maggie being torn between three men” makes it sound rather dramatic and even melodramatic, but the focus is actually on Tom and Maggie’s relationship, and on the community in which they live (although there are some dramatic moments towards the end, but spoilers). As with all Eliot novels, the plot is quiet and slow-paced (not a bad thing!), and the focus is on the character and thoughts of each person. Maggie and Tom are both incredibly vivid, as are their parents and aunts and uncles. This was Eliot’s second book, and you can see her improvement in developing incredibly life-like characters and group dynamics.

While I consider Mill to be an objectively masterful work, I didn’t love it. My biggest problem was Tom, and his relationship with Maggie. Tom is one of those people who can only see the world in black and white, and I find that kind of rigidity generally drives me crazy. And, of course, as it was so well portrayed, it bothered me even more. I spent a lot of the book wanting to slap Tom a couple of times and give him a talking-to. Maggie is a precious darling, who is much more creative and flexible in her thinking, but this leads her and Tom to be rather constantly in conflict. Poor Maggie just wants someone to love her, but Tom makes his love always conditional on her behavior, which doesn’t often meet his exacting standards. Like I said, this dynamic is SO well done, and Eliot certainly doesn’t condone Tom’s behavior, but it just happens to be one that I dislike reading, so that diminished the enjoyment for me.

That said, I have friends who LOVE Mill, so I would encourage you to give it a try, at least. And I’m eager to pick up the next Eliot novel (Romola!).

CC Spin #24…the winner is…

Number 18! My decision to double up on a couple of books I really wanted to get to soon paid off, and I’ll be reading Romola, by George Eliot! I’ve been wanting to get to this book for literally a year, and I’m so excited that I have this push to get on with it already—just as soon as I finish Ivanhoe. Looks like classic historical fiction is this months reading theme.

Classics Club Spin #24

Hey guys! I hope you all are doing well. The last six months have been insane (as they have been for you, I’m sure), but I’m slowly coming back to some of the things that have fallen by the wayside, like this blog. I’m hoping to do a number of reviews soon, as I have a pretty long backlog. But to get started, I’m excited to participate in the Classics Club Spin #24! Find out all about it here: https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/2020/08/01/cc-spin-24/

I totally wanted to participate in Spin #23, but I didn’t see the announcement until after the number had been picked, so I did my own little spin in May by asking my boyfriend to pick a number for me instead. I ended up reading A Tale of Two Cities and really loved it! Review coming eventually.

Phew! Will I ever not be long-winded in my intros? (no, sorry)

My spin list this time has some books I’m hoping to read soon, and some others that strike me as interesting. I’ve put my three highest-interest books in there twice.

  1. Histories by Heroditus
  2. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  3. Confessions St. Augustine
  4. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  5. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  6. The Worm Orobouros by Eddison
  7. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  8. Evelina by Frances Burney
  9. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  10. Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
  11. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  12. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  15.  Romola by George Eliot
  16. Weiland by Charles Brockden Brown
  17. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  18. Romola by George Eliot
  19. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  20. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.

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Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: https://youtu.be/JnClOiiIM7Y

 

 

An Odd Reading Tip

Currently, I am reading five books, including three that count as classics. Throughout the day I will read ten pages of one, a chapter of another, and so on. As long as I can remember, I usually have at least two books going at the same time, even if one is for

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Sometimes that grad program felt like 100 years of solitude. 

school and the other for fun. But in grad school, when I was reading four novels a week for my various classes, I stumbled on a handy reading method that helps me with books that I find more challenging. Although I first began doing it conciously to help me plow through those thousands of pages of reading in grad school, I’ve begun to adapt it for my own reading. it has helped me finish books that I like, but might otherwise have put down for various reasons.

The tip:

If you find yourself getting bored with a book, try reading two or more at the same time.

It’s that simple!

The key to making this successful is to vary the time period, difficulty level, and “flavor” of the books.

Copperfield_cover_serial.jpgTime period: Right now I’m reading a book written in the mid-1850s, one from the early 1900s, and one from the late 1900s. This helps because the style is usually different, helping you with the next two items to vary

Difficulty level: Usually older books take more concentration; this can lead to reading fatigue. In order to avoid this, you can read a little of the harder book, then switch to the easier one to rest your eyes and your brain.

“Flavor”: by flavor I mean difference in tone, or genre (or both). To explain by example, 7597._UY200_.jpgone of the classics I am reading is David Copperfield. Like a lot of Dickens books, if I read too much at one time it can feel like a heavy dose of sentimentality. At the same time, I am reading Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence. This Modernist book features spare prose and is rather bleak, so by itself it might get too depressing. But the two balance out each other. The third classic is 100 Years of Solitude. Marquez’s book is magical realism. When I get overwhelmed by the number of Aurelianos and strange events I can go back to one of the more realistic works and take a break.
By rotating through these very different works, I avoid that all-too-common problem, that of overloading on one tone or genre, putting the book down, and not wanting to take it back up again.

It can also help you through those “dry spells” that crop up in novels (I’m looking at you, Dickens, with your five pages of description). If you’re bored, just read something else for a day or two; however, you do have to employ some self-discipline and pick that second (or third or fourth) book back up!

39d2f832be2027356c8aeb62f760924f.jpgOne common comment I hear people make is that they could never read multiple books at the same time, as they get them mixed up. To that I ask, can you keep the plot lines and characters of multiple TV shows straight? Sometimes the difficulty arises from a lack of attention. Another benefit of this reading method: reading significantly different works also makes it easier to keep the characters and plots straight.

And finally, like so many things to do with reading old books, the more you do it, the easier it gets!

 

 

How to Read Old Books

While I, and many others, agree that reading the classics is a valuable and maybe necessary activity for learned people to engage in, I’ll also be the first to admit that it can be a challenging activity, too.

This is especially true if you are someone who didn’t grow up reading the classics; maybe you enjoy reading but have just decided to venture into older books. Or maybe you have tried to read classics before and just couldn’t “get” them.

If you do find them challenging, never fear! Since language changes over time, any older works are going to look different. Our way of using words and even of writing sentences has changed and also – sadly – dramatically simplified. This makes reading works older than roughly 100 years have a little bit of a learning curve. The good news is the more you do it, the easier it gets!

As a high school English teacher, I spend a lot of time explaining how to approach a classic work, and thought I’d share some pro tips here. Although my students don’t always take me up on my advice, I can say that a lot of what follows is personal experience, and really does work:

  • Start Small  Tackling Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Dickens’s Bleak House is probably not the best place to start. While great reads, these door-stoppers just take a while to read, and the sprawling narrative and numerous characters can be hard to keep track of if you’re just entering the classical lit realm. Instead, pick something slim(mer) at first. That way, you can build confidence and dip your toe in the water.
    • Recommendation: Elizabeth Gaskell Cranford
  • Start Late  If you haven’t read a lot of classics, Shakespeare might not be the place to begin! Start with a writer from the 1800s or early 1900s. His or her writing will be closer to our contemporary language, and therefore easier to read.
    • Recommendation: F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
  • Pick Something Interesting (Unless you’re in a class and don’t have a choice). This tip may sound obvious, but so many of us still labor under the idea that there are books you “must” read. Not true! For instance, I’m just not a fan of Wuthering Heights, so although I have read it for classes, I don’t foresee picking it back up. If you like romance, read something by Jane Austen; if you like social drama read Dickens; if you like fantasy try George MacDonald or the Brothers Grimm or H.G. Wells.
  • Read a Summary/Watch the Movie I know, I know, it feels like cheating. Let me free you: it’s only cheating if that’s all you do, and then pretend that you’ve read the book. Sometimes it can be helpful to see the film version first, or read a summary if there isn’t a film adaptation, to figure out who all the characters are and what’s happening. I did this with a lot of Jane Austen’s novels when I was a teen and it helped tremendously. Obviously, if you’re one of those people who just will not read the book once you’ve figured out what happened, this might not help you.
  • Remember it Will Take Longer I sometimes get frustrated that I can’t finish that Dickens novel I’m reading as quickly as an equal-length YA novel. The truth is that classic works just take longer to read; those more complex language patterns mean you have to slow down. Savor it!
  •  Edition Matters When you start out, I’d recommend springing for one of the slightly more expensive editions that has good notes (like Oxford or Penguin classics editions) and use them! If you haven’t read a lot of classic literature, there are often cultural references that are important but just go over our heads; the notes explain these. Sometimes they’ll also explain what the author means when he or she says something unclear. This is SUPER helpful. Eventually you’ll learn the seventy nine different words for carriage and that muslin is an inexpensive lightweight kind of cotton and need the notes less, but it’s helpful at the beginning.
  • Try Audio or E-Books Hearing those complex language patterns is easier than reading them, and it will also help you read them more easily (crazy, right?). Also, listening totally counts! A lot of times classic works are available as audio downloads for free or just a few dollars. I like doing Amazon’s Whispersync with my classics, and switching between listening in the car and reading on my phone or Kindle.
  • If You Don’t Like it, Stop  Did I just tell you to quit reading a book? Yes. This is important, and there is a caveat – maybe I’ll make it another point:
  • Know When to Stop For instance, I’ve found that it takes about 200 pages (or 1/4 the novel) of a long Dickens novel for me to get hooked on the story. Now, if I had quit reading before I reached that point, I would have missed out on a couple of my favorite books. So give yourself about 1/4 of the book and then, if you’re just not into it, try a different book (this is also key. Don’t just write off all classic literature because you found Tom Sawyer annoying!)
  • Find People to Read With Most older literature was written with the understanding that people would read aloud together and talk about it later; it’s meant to be a communal experience. There are so many layers to a good classic novel, and it can make your reading that much more fun if you can unpack those layers with a friend or two.
  • Practice Makes Perfect The more classic books you read, the easier it will get to read them. The older works, like Shakespeare, will become more accessible. The newer works, like Dickens, will seem downright easy. The key is to keep reading until you get to that point.
  • Have fun! Classic literature has lasted for a reason; these books present vibrant, lively stories and people that will make your life richer. Too often we make reading classics into a chore or an elitist thing, despite the fact that may of these books were just as popular and populist in their time as Game of Thrones is today!

 

Book Review: Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

41pCxPlS0DL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgUnless you count Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (which I do, mostly), this was the first classic I read this year. The first pre-20th century classic.

A subset of my goal to read more classic fiction this year is a goal to revisit some books I read when I was younger, mostly in middle and high school, and disliked. After a good experience revisiting Huckleberry Finn last year I wanted to see if some of the other “ugh” books gained that categorization because I was too young to understand them.

I think I began with Hardy to get him over with. Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the only book I was assigned in high school that I never finished. I just couldn’t. I loathed it. And even now, I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again, and gave myself permission to just try Hardy, any Hardy, instead. I had wanted to pick up either Jude the Obscure or Far from the Madding Crowd but the used bookstore didn’t have those. It mostly had Tess, and this.

I’ll begin by admitting I didn’t hate the book, which I had feared I would. I didn’t love it, I don’t feel like gushing, but I enjoyed it and am not sorry I read it.

Two on a Tower is a shortish novel concerning two people: Lady Viviette Constantine, and Swithin St. Cleeve. Viviette is a 28 year old woman trapped in a marriage to an absent husband who was probably emotionally abusive when he was present. Because of a self-inflicted vow, Viviette has had no company or friends or anything for the last five years of her husband’s absence.

Swithin is a young man of 21 who is the son of the late village vicar and a farmer’s daughter. He is also an astronomer. Viviette discovers him working one evening when out of desperate boredom she goes to explore a memorial tower on her property and discovers Swithin had adopted it as an observatory.

At first, Viviette sees herself as a patroness, investing in the younger man’s future, buying him some expensive equipment and fitting out the tower to be a more proper observatory. Then, of course, they fall in love. Much is made in the 7 or 8 year disparity in their ages (which Hardy in a later edition increased to 10), which I found a little overdone.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that many of his plot twists just feel contrived. People show up from years abroad at inconvenient times. Characters are dead (or not dead) with annoying convenience (or inconvenience), and the missed communications make the Romeo and Juliet missive gone awry feel like a 100% legitimate plot device.  And they lead to an ending which doesn’t feel right or tragic or happy, or anything at all. My reaction was along the lines of I figured it would end up like this.

If anything, this book is a great illustration of the validity of much of Aristotle’s advice on tragedy in the Poetics. He says that a good tragedy (and this book is supposed to be tragic – my edition uses the term “star-crossed-lovers” I think seriously) must be driven by the character’s actions, that the flaws in the characters must become deadly. Here, the characters do have flaws, and they do make choices that have repercussions, but much of the conflict is forced upon them from outside, based on circumstances in which they have no control, or even knowledge of when they make decisions. I feel less sorry for them as a result, and more annoyed with Hardy.

I would be interested to see if the flaws with this book are a result of Hardy’s fatalistic worldview, or because he just doesn’t do such a good job with this book. I will likely pick up one of his better known books eventually, but I also suspect he will not be making my shortlist of authors I really like.

Also, I have retreated to Dickens. I think that says something.