Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Happy Birthday Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling!

Today, July 31st, is J.K. Rowling's birthday and that too of her beloved character, Harry Potter.  So I think it fitting that we raise our (figurative) glasses to the pair who have done so much to introduce the power and magic of reading to a whole generation of young people and adults too.  I recently consulted a group of some 60 young teenagers, most of whom, to my amazement, had not yet read the Harry Potter books, but had, they were keen to tell me, seen all the films.

It is shocking to think that there are Harry Potter fans in the world who have not experienced the trails and tribulations of the boy who lived first hand and then I am reminded of what life was like before Harry Potter, when reading was not seen as a worthy alternative to Playstations or Nintendo in the eyes of most young people.  Of course, now the internet is also in the mix and I wonder if the time has come to re-visit the Potter books and celebrate them once more for their imaginative setting, original characters and heart-stopping plot lines; to buy them for our friends and urge all and sundry to give them a try.

So take a little time today and pull out your favourite Harry Potter book, dip into it and re-live some of the all-time best moments in Children's literature.  It will be a few moments of your day well-spent.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Books for pre-teens by Iris

A Guest Blog:

Here are some books and series I have read that I would recommend to other pre-teens

Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  This series improves the readers knowledge of Greek mythology in a modern way. Brill!                ;

Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage.   This series is a good for kids who love fiction and adventure. Great read.                      

Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.  I'm sure you have heard of it.  I'm a massive fan! Harry Potter ROCKS!!!         

Under The Hawthorn Tree, Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home by Marita Conlon -McKeana                      
A beautiful, heart-warming series. Please read!!
The Hobbit by J.R Tolkien. Very imaginative.Totally fantastic!                                        No comments:

The Problem with Shakespeare - Revisiting 'Othello'

What is Shakespeare's problem with women? In 'Romeo and Juliet', we watched Juliet thrust a dagger into her heart and die a needless death.  Then in 'Hamlet', the sweet Ophelia was driven into madness and drowned in the muddy depths, her garments, heavy with their drink.  In 'King Lear', faithful Cordelia was repaid for her filial affection by being hanged by the neck until dead.  There is so much pain and suffering heaped on the female lead in the Bard's great plays, that to play the heroine in a Shakespearean tragedy is a dangerous act indeed.

However, on re-reading 'Othello', for the first time in many years, it strikes me that poor Desdemona has the most violent, horrendous death of all.
Her husband is played on like a pipe and Iago whispers poison into the ear of his superior officer, Othello, telling him that his new bride is a harlot and has been to bed many times with their hitherto friend, Cassio.  So what does Othello do?  Does he approach his wife and accuse her openly?  For the sake of high drama, he does not.  Instead, his passion grows and he suffocates her in a fit of passion, not once, but twice!
A servant calls to him during the murderous act, perhaps distracting him, so she is not quite dead and speaks.  The horror is unbearable.  Othello, deciding to put her out of her misery, for he would not leave a dying animal in such pain, kills her again.  Yet, somehow, his powerful hands rebel against this unnatural act and Desdemona again speaks.  Once more she seems to survive the murder.
And what does she utter with her dying breath?  She says that her husband was not to blame for her murder, that it was her fault.  This, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of this very disturbing murder scene.  The idea that blame falls on the victim of the crime does not sit well with a modern audience.  At least  in 'Hamlet' Ophelia gets to vent her anger at her mistreatment by her beloved.  She runs mad and chides all men for their unruly ways.  Here Desdemona never gets that opportunity and when she does, she turns her eyes inward and chides herself for loving so a man that her father warned her against. Is this then the meaning of the play?  Is Shakespeare warning young women to listen to their fathers' bidding when it comes to marriage, or he is advising them not to marry into different cultures?  If this is so, then we can add xenophobia and misogyny both to Shakespeare's crimes.  
Indeed, the playwright deals with a similar theme in 'The Tempest', when Prospero tries to shield his daughter Miranda from falling in love, wishing instead to keep her protected and all to himself.  But such desires and unions are as natural as day turning into night and Shakespeare must have known the futility of such notions.
And so I wonder if the great poet and playwright was using the plays to live out some of his darkest wishes?  The virginal heroines, such as Juliet, Ophelia and Cordelia are blessed with quick, almost beautiful ends, but it is the lusty, 'spoilt' Desdemona who receives the most horrible of slow deaths, having the breath wrung out of her twice.  It is as if Shakespeare is punishing her doubly for her gender and sexual knowledge.  Indeed, in the play, Othello is punishing her for just that, for 'knowing' an other man, Cassio, when she should be his sole conquest.

In a world of sexual liberation such as ours, it is difficult to stomach such brutal repression.  If Desdemona had done all that Iago accused her of, should she have deserved to die?  Othello seems to think so, admitting openly that he killed her because she was a foul strumpet.  He is comfortable with his actions and believes that others will sanction them when they hear of her crimes.  Little does he think of his own guilt until it is too late.  The great irony, however, is that Othello tries to explain away his behaviour by pointing to a flaw in his character saying,

'Speak of me as I am...
Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;'

 Here Othello concedes that it was his great passion for Desdemona that caused his violent outburst, yet he fails to realise that it was for this very trait that he executed his wife.  It seems allowable that he be passionate beyond reason, but that his wife be passionate too - that he cannot allow.

It is clear that we should not confuse Shakespeare's characters with the author himself, yet it is curious to note the recurrent themes and events, such as the murder of innocent women, which haunt his plays. While one cannot help but be awed by the author's vast body of work and the incredible levels of meaning and symbolism in his language, the maltreatment of his leading ladies clearly can be viewed as misogynistic.  Of course women in Elizabethan England and beyond were not given equal rights and freedoms, although Queen Elizabeth I governed her dominions with an authority stronger than many of her male descendants.  For women in Shakespearian England, burning at the stake was still common practice, as was branding.  Indeed, Elizabeth's own father showed a scant regard for the lives of his six wives, with beheading being the preferred method of ending unwanted marital ties.
So, perhaps Shakespeare cannot be wholly blamed that his works are marinated in the ideals and beliefs of the times in which he lived.  Still, it is a hard pill to swallow when so many fine female characters come to such violent ends.  I suppose it is that we are so enamoured with the genius of Shakespeare that to find fault with his plays is an anomaly and so maybe we can forgive him his own tragic flaw: the idealisation of women to the point that he must make saints and martyrs of them all.  Perhaps the reality of death by old age and all the decrepitude that that entails is too good for the likes of the fair Juliet, Ophelia and Desdemona?
Let us just ponder then the idea that for all the brutal putting-out of sweet female lives, Shakespeare has managed to highlight the horrendous crimes of mankind which sink no lower than the destruction of innocence and beauty, as demonstrated in the particularly brutal murder of the faithful, angelic, Desdemona.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Aran Islands ~ John Millington Synge

In 1898 John Millington Synge made the first of numerous trips to the Aran Islands in an attempt to record and archive the stories, poems and songs of the three western islands off the Galway coast.  The memoir he kept of this time makes up this 226 page book, replete with stories of the wonderful characters he met along the way and all their stories.
He captures a way of life that is long gone now and it is lucky for us that he took the time to make the often perilous journey to the islands because we now have this wonderful archive of material for posterity.   

What is most impressive is the love he clearly feels for the islanders, especially those on Inismeain.  He is in no way condescending or judgemental about their way of life which must have been so alien to him.  In fact, he longs to be part of the community and returns again and again to visit them.  By the end of the book, he is treated as almost family, having his own room ready for him on arrival and even entertaining the locals with his fiddle playing.  At last, he had a practical use on the island; to provide music and entertainment when musicians were scare.

The most poignant moment of all for me was when Synge recounted a story of a young man who had returned to the island from America, dressed in a fine suit of clothes.  His mother ran around the island telling everyone joyously that her son was home, until she learned the truth, that he was ill and had come home to die.  This story has extra meaning for us today, as we know that within a decade Synge too would be dead, at just 37 years old, having been diagnossed with cancer the year before his first trip to the island.  So maybe Synge was trying to find some answers about life and death on the islands, or perhaps he sought inspiration living with those who had so little in comparison to himself.

There is poetry in Synge's language, making this book a joy to read, yet he also views the island and its people with the eye of an artist.  Indeed, while Jack B. Yeats may have added some of his illustrations to accompany this book, they were copied from original photographs taken by Synge.  One of my favourite descriptons is when he describes the young women washing in the sea:
'round the edges of the sea, I often come on a girl with her petticoats ticked up round her, standing in a pool left by the tide and washing... their red bodices and white tapering legs make them as beautiful as tropical sea-birds...'

 I imagine he is thinking of flamingoes but the romatic imagery is somewhat spoilt when we learn of the many cases of rhuematism on the island caused by sea salt remaining on washed clothes, which kept them continually moist.   So this is much more than a travel book as it is sometimes described, written as it is by one of Ireland's foremost playwrights.  There is no denying that life on the Aran Islands was horrendously tough, for both men and women, but Synge writes no sob story here.  Instead, he focuses on the unique charm and vitality of the islanders and details their way of life as true, essential and in many ways superior to life on the Irish mainland.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

I Capture The Castle ~ by Dodie Smith

'I Capture The Castle', by Dodie Smith, is a wonderful book narrated by a seventeen year old girl living in an old, ruined castle, called Godsend, with her beautiful sister, younger brother, glamorous step-mother, author father and love-sick admirer.
It is set in rural England, in the county of Suffolk, in the mid-1930s, before war destroyed everything for a second time.  But the England described in this book seems more like that of an ealier time, owing to the elegant poverty the family find themselves in, the Midsummer rituals and the glorious castle moat!

Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator, begins the story sitting on the edge of a draining board, with her feet in the sink.  From the first instant we simply adore her.  She has her dog's blanket and a tea-cosy beneath her for comfort, delighting in the warm glow from the kitchen range.   This story is her journal, written in three different notebooks, each one more expensive than the rest, the first one being the cheap six penny copybook, and each increase corresponding to a rise in the family's good fortunes.  Indeed, the family's poverty is shocking, with basics like jam and eggs being celebrated as delicacies.  These young women are in dire straits and will do next to anything to better their circumstances, with Rose, the eldest sister, warning the others that she plans to walk the streets for money, although, Cassandra reminds her, there probably wouldn't be much business in that line in rural Suffolk!

And the whole idea of marrying for money becomes a central theme of the novel when, just like in Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', two young gentlemen of means arrive in the neighbourhood.  Just before this happens, Cassandra actually says how she would love to live in a Jane Austen novel, but then declares that she would rather live in a Bronte one.  Which novel is preferable, an Austen one with a touch of Bronte, or a Bronte one with a touch of Austen, Cassandra wonders?  She finally decides that a mixture of both would be the ideal and this is exactly what we are given in this novel.

On the one hand we are presented with the Jane-Bingley, Elizabeth-Darcy conundrum, while at the same time, living in the castle is a young man who has been brought up almost as a family member, but who is actually like a servant to the family, being the orphaned son of the old house-keeper.  He loves Cassandra deeply, although she sees him too much like a brother to allow any physical intimacy - well at first anyway.  Doesn't this storyline sound familiar?  Yes, it mirrors that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'.  How delightful to have both of my favourite plots co-existing in the same text.  For this alone Smith's novel is worth reading.  And she carries it off beautifully.  It is the atmosphere of young, frantic, love, that links these two novels and that she captures so perfectly here.  

The whole novel is dripping in the newness of first love at seventeen; the dizzy heights of it, the utter anguish and the crushing conviction that life will never be the same again - good or bad - because of love.  If you have forgotten how being in love at seventeen feels, then Dodie Smith's book will provide welcome reminder.

Of course the name of our heroine is also a nod to Austen, Cassandra being the name of Jane's only sister and confidante.  That being so, then perhaps her sister represents the typical English beauty - the English Rose, who so enchants the young Americans.  Maybe then, the family surname, Mortmain, relates to the ruineous situation that the family find themselves in, mort being latin for dead. Or perhaps it refers to how paralysed their father is, suffering from chronic writer's block, the artist in him being dead to the world which forces his daughters to sell everything they own to survive.

 Perhaps it was with a smile that Smith named her American millionare family 'Cotton', which suggests comfort and freshness, while at the same time hinting at new money, perhaps gained from industry and American enterprise.  In this way, the British way of life is pitted against the American, like so many previous novels, such as 'The Shuttle', by Francis Hodgeson Burnett or 'Portait of a Lady' by Henry James.  It is interesting to note that Smith wrote the novel while she was homesick for England and living in California, which very much explains the romantic depiction of Suffolk and the celebration of modernity of America, with its new gadgets, its energy and vitality.  It is interesting to consider how the co-dependency of these neighbours would be mirrored in a few years time when Britain would rely on the United States for these very same attributes, in the Second World War.  So on one level, I think Smith is considering how these two great nations, although being very different and independent, each need and rely on the other, culturally, economically and even politically.

Dodie Smith's style of writing is enchantingly funny and very observant.  She captures funny moments that we can all relate to, much like a comedian can.  For example, she says of her sister's old dressing gown; 'She has been wearing it so long, I don't think she sees it anymore...if she were to put it away for a month and then look at it she would get a shock.' How true that is!  Being a first person narrative, the novel is full of such honest witty observations.  Funny situations too litter this book, like when Cassandra bathes in the bath tub recently used for dying clothes and ends up with green arms ; or when Rose is mistaken for a bear when she wears her great grandmothers old furs out in public and is chased by half the village.  In this way, the book reminds me of the Nancy Mitford novels, 'Love in a Cold Climate' and 'In The Pursuit of Love', having the same blend of elegant-poverty, high-romance, and light humour, and embarrassingly eccentric families.

One original thing that I found when reading this book is the insight I gained into the whole idea of marrying for money.  The girls are so desperate, they are without clothes, food and the barest of essentials, that they make the sensible decision to use whatever means possible to pull themselves out of poverty.  It seems very improbable, but by the time the Cotton boys come along, we too are egging the girls on and are happy for Rose to sacrifice herself to either of the men, even when one looks like the devil with his little goatie.  I think this novel is more Jane Austen that Jane Austen novel!  Indeed, in 'Pride and Prejudice,' only a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, marries for money. Neither Lizzy nor Jane suffer that fate, although Elizabeth suffers a near miss with Mr Collins.

In this book, Dodie Smith goes so far as to demonstrate the awful poverty that untrained, women of a certain class experienced because they are not fit for employment, only for matrimony, and as such they were in some ways worse off than women in the lower classes, as they could not even earn a living.  This is the serious theme of the novel, but one that, luckily, works itself out in the end.

I cannot finish without mentioning the many animals that appear in the book.  Heloise is Cassandra's beloved white pitbull terrier, who follows and protects her wherever she goes.  Smith's love of animals is evident from how she depicts them as almost human in their expressions and behaviour.  It is easy to imagine how she went on to write the hugely successful children's story, '101 Dalmatians', later so famously animated by Disney, for which she is most widely remembered today.  However, there is much more to Dodie Smith than that, so do yourself a favour and read this delightfully, funny book, and wallow in every page, sitting on the edge of a draining board, feet soaking in the sink or not!