BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield

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BOOK REVIEW: The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine MansfieldTitle: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield
Published by Penguin, Penguin Classics
Published: 1922
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 159
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Innovative, startlingly perceptive and aglow with colour, these fifteen stories were written towards the end of Katherine Mansfield's tragically short life. Many are set in the author's native New Zealand, others in England and the French Riviera. All are revelations of the unspoken, half-understood emotions that make up everyday experience - from the blackly comic 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel', and the short, sharp sketch 'Miss Brill', in which a lonely woman's precarious sense of self is brutally destroyed, to the vivid impressionistic evocation of family life in 'At the Bay'. 'All that I write,' Mansfield said, 'all that I am - is on the borders of the sea. It is a kind of playing.'

I am trying to be better at reading short stories, and I saw a blurb about Katherine Mansfield’s short stories on Alice’s blog, so I checked it out and thought I’d be interested too! I enjoyed all of the stories. Some stories fell flat for me, but I thought this was a very well-rounded collection. My favorites were “The Garden Party,” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” and “The Singing Lesson.”

Mansfield’s short stories read like impressionist paintings. I think they need to be looked at, examined, and mulled over for a bit before the meaning settles in. I finished the book about a couple weeks ago, and I’m still thinking about the stories.

In “The Garden Party,” the Sheridan family is in the midst of preparing for the titular garden party. During the set up of the party, the family finds out that their working class neighbor, Mr. Scott, has died. Laura, the daughter in charge of setting up the party, wonders if the party should be canceled out of respect for the death of their neighbor, but none of her family agrees and the party goes on. The story explores the differences between class and the awareness of class differences, the illusion created by the upper class to avoid dealing with certain realities, and the roles of life and death in day-to-day activities.

In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” two sisters are figuring out what to do with their lives after their father’s death. He was their only real relation as their mother died many years ago, and he was possibly one of the only stable men in their lives. The sisters have very little grasp on reality and how to exist in day-to-day life. This is shown through their inability to tell the cook how they want their fish cooked because they’re so used to decisions being made for them and their lives dictated by others. They are both so far removed from reality that when they try to think about what to do with their future, they forget what they are even speaking about in the middle of the conversation. It’s a terrible, haunting look at what happens when women aren’t allowed any agency over their own lives.

“The Singing Lesson” is about a teacher, Miss Meadows, who is engaged to a man five years younger than her. Basil, her fiancé, has written to her before the story begins calling off their engagement, and Miss Meadows enters the school that morning incredibly upset. Basil writes that their “marriage would be a mistake” and that he “love[s] her as much as it is possible for [him] to love any woman” because he is “not a marrying man.” The language in this convinces me that Basil is homosexual or confused about his sexuality and that he is doubting his convictions because he later sends Miss Meadows a telegram saying to disregard his letter and that he has “bought [a] hatstand,” again using language that symbolizes phallic imagery. It’s clear that Miss Meadows is unaware of her future husband’s sexuality, and her mood changes significantly when she receives that telegram because her future is secure again. The title itself evokes the symbolism of a bird in a cage, that women are pretty things to be caged and possessed, and that men ultimately control a woman’s fate and can change their minds at will with no repercussions to themselves. Both Basil and Miss Meadows are trapped by society’s expectations and both are forced to “sing out” what they’ve been taught.

I really enjoyed this collection, and I’m looking forward to reading more by her and by Modernist writers. If you enjoy Modernist and feminist writings, I think you’ll enjoy her work!

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory Maguire

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BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory MaguireTitle: After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Published by William Morrow
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss, Library
Goodreads

From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis's Carroll's beloved classic. When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice's disappearance?

In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll's enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice's mentioned briefly in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself. Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.

Our private lives are like a colony of worlds expanding, contracting, breathing universal air into separate knowledges. Or like several packs of cards shuffled together by an expert anonymous hand, and dealt out in a random, amused or even hostile way.

In his previous retellings of famous fairy tales and stories, Gregory Maguire has a tell-tale style that draws you in, hooks you, and doesn’t let you go until he’s finished telling his story. I found After Alice to be lacking this particularly in Ada’s story. I think had it been more focused on Lydia’s becoming the woman of the house and the struggles she finds with that at the tender age of fifteen, or of Siam’s story as a former slave from Georgia, or of Darwin’s particular visit to the house that day I would have liked it more, but Ada’s part of the story (which should have been the most interesting) fell flat. I did particularly like Maguire’s take on the Jabberwocky, the bits and people about Oxford that were to come (which bordered on metafiction), and there were some lines that resonated with me. Otherwise, I felt that this was a draft of some kind with no real cohesion.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

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BOOK REVIEW: Moth and Spark by Anne LeonardTitle: Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard
Published by Penguin
Published: December 30th 2014
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A prince with a quest, a beautiful commoner with mysterious powers, and dragons who demand to be freed—at any cost. Filled with the potent mix of the supernatural and romance that made A Discovery of Witches a runaway success, Moth and Spark introduces readers to a vibrant world—and a love story they won’t soon forget.

Prince Corin has been chosen to free the dragons from their bondage to the power Mycenean Empire, but dragons aren’t big on directions. They have given him some of their power, but none of their knowledge. No one, not the dragons nor their riders, is even sure what keeps the dragons in the Empire’s control. Tam, sensible daughter of a well-respected doctor, had no idea before she arrived in Caithenor that she is a Seer, gifted with visions. When the two run into each other (quite literally) in the library, sparks fly and Corin impulsively asks Tam to dinner. But it’s not all happily ever after. Never mind that the prince isn’t allowed to marry a commoner: war is coming. Torn between his quest to free the dragons and his duty to his country, Tam and Corin must both figure out how to master their powers in order to save Caithen. With a little help from a village of secret wizards and rogue dragonrider, they just might pull it off.

He burned for her, and she for him, and it was as unstoppable as rain in spring.

I expected more dragons. There weren’t enough dragons. As described in the back cover summary, Prince Corin is summoned and entrusted to free the dragons from a powerful neighboring country. He meets a young woman, Tam, who discovers her ability to see beyond while staying with the court at the royal castle. Ok, that seems perfectly fantasy enough. Some snippets from reviews in the first few pages also name the styles of Jane Austen’s novels and William Golding’s The Princess Bride. Awesome, right? Because I do enjoy those.

Ehhh. I wish this novel had some more advertising about the romance. It’s definitely a fantasy romance. It’s got fantastical elements in it, but it’s mostly about the instant romance between Corin and Tam. I don’t find instant romances in books all that believable, and I find it difficult to believe those romances will last longer than the span of time in whatever book in which it happens. With the references to dragons and politics, I was hoping for more of that. Not so dramatic as A Song of Ice and Fire, but something with a little more heft at least. Moth and Spark reads like endless court gossip.

However, once I realized I was in for a romance, it ended up being a pretty decent standalone novel. It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s an escape from everything else, which is what some novels are excellent for. I think I liked it more for it being a standalone because I don’t think I’d read the rest in the series just because it isn’t something I expected. Anne Leonard’s a solid writer, and she can capture dialogue and romance well without it being too cheesy (although I will admit there are several moments of cheese that I rolled my eyes at). I just wanted more dragons, because I thought her dragon construction was incredibly interesting!

BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard JacobsonTitle: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #2
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”

A daughter doesn’t have to have an education to be taught how to hate her father. She can learn rebellion through an open window. It’s in the nature of a daughter.

Shylock Is My Name is Howard Jacobson’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I felt it to be such a let down after reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. I read Jacobson’s J last year and was disappointed in it in similar ways as I am disappointed in this one. While he can write, Jacobson is very disjointed in his writing, as if he is showing off to us plebs how smart, how intelligent, how verbose, how white, how upper class, and (in this case) how Jewish he is and therefore how much better he is than the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that are written for men, about men, and by men that us helpless females are too different fundamentally to understand what it’s all about.

In this case, this is Jacobson’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I have vague recollections of reading this play and finding Shylock interesting, but this novel didn’t seem to capture the Shakespeare “essence” as I felt Winterson’s retelling did.

What I disliked about this novel is the consistent and sexually charged current of a father obsessed with what enters his daughter’s vagina. Yes. Literally. I don’t recall that interpretation made of Shakespeare’s play, so it caught me off guard.

In chapter eight, Strulovitch comments on his daughter, Beatrice:

It had been going on a long time. She was thirteen when it started. Thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious. A Levantine princess. A pomegranate. She was luscious to herself, too. He had caught her looking at her reflection in the mirror once, pouting her lips and laughing at her own fullness, smoothing her thighs, pushing out her breasts, amused by the too-muchness but overwhelmed by it at the same time. As though it imposed a responsibility on her. Was this really her? Was this really hers to do with as she chose? […] Of course she had to deploy herself. Of course she had to feel her beauty had a purpose beyond her own gaze and, yes – because she knew he tailed her, knew he followed her into her own bedroom even – beyond his.

It continues throughout the novel with Strulovitch thinking about whether or not he should find his daughter attractive. He also, through the entire length of the novel, considers the utmost importance of his existence was to make sure that the penis that enters her vagina is circumcised and importantly Jewish so that Beatrice is not banished from her family. Strulovitch is incredibly abusive in all ways to his young daughter in the way that many fanatic religious believers are. As her father, he believes he controls her entirely, from her day-to-day life to her private, sexual life. When she doesn’t listen to him, he goes off and throws a tantrum, demanding that pivotal pound of flesh.

In all, I think because I am not both “male” and Jewish, I miss the point of this self-reflexive novel. It brings to the forefront questions of Jewish morality in the modern age and whether or not the honest Jew should bend to the modern ways or be rigid as tradition dictates. And where The Merchant of Venice is argue as anti-semitic, I wonder if Jacobson’s novel is meant to be a mirror to it of sorts as it is constantly questioning the role of Jewishness in society where Merchant did not.

And where the play is unsympathetic toward Jewish people, this novel is unsympathetic toward women. It’s incredibly misogynistic in a way that’s uncomfortable and anger-inducing. Men do not own women and should absolutely never control the expression of a woman’s sexuality, no matter what age or relation. But alas. I don’t think Jacobson works for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything of his in the future.

This book was provided to me for my honest review by Blogging for Books.

The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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The Delicate Art of No; Pride and Prejudice by Jane AustenTitle: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin, Penguin Drop Caps
Published: December 12th 2012
Genres: Fiction, Classics
Pages: 416
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

A is for Austen. Few have failed to be charmed by the witty and independent spirit of Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s beloved classic Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s early determination to dislike Mr. Darcy is a prejudice only matched by the folly of his arrogant pride. Their first impressions give way to true feelings in a comedy profoundly concerned with happiness and how it might be achieved.

You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say.

As a forewarning, this review of Pride and Prejudice will be entirely personal in nature, meaning I’ll be referencing the book’s plot and its parallels to something that recently happened to me.

This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I tend to reread it once every year or so because reading it makes me happy. This year, I read it right in the midst of all of the Valentine’s Day marketing and goopy, lovey stuff. I don’t particularly read much in the “romance” genre, and Jane Austen is about as traditionally romance-y as I get. Every time I’ve reread Pride and Prejudice, it resonates so much more with me because Austen can paint with such skill these true-to-life renditions in her cast of characters, and because two hundred years later, people like Jane Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr. Collins still exist.

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