25 April 2012
But I thoroughly enjoyed I, Iago. The idea behind this story is to retell Othello from Iago's perspective. In some cases, the idea of re-framing a story from the villain's point of view doesn't quite work. In this case, it works beautifully. Part of the book's success is due to author Nicole Galland's skill as a writer. She presents a carefully developed story that manages to make Iago a somewhat sympathetic villain. There's no avoiding his mistakes and the sins that he commits, but there's also a measure of appreciation for what makes him who he is. It's easy to forget that the character is still human and has motivations that might very well stem from something other than pure evil. At the same time, the errors are not necessarily justified; they're just explained. The reader can appreciate how the horrific inevitable came to be within the story. And this is difficult to do. There's always the potential for contrivance within the plot, for moments when the author is trying too hard to shape the storyline that will follow. But Galland does a great job of planting the seeds of destruction from the beginning. The character's personality and defining traits are there from the first moments of the story. They're also presented in such a way that each moment counts, but not so obviously that the reader sees the wizard behind the curtain. In other words, this is good storytelling.
The only possible downside to reading a book like this is that if you're familiar with the play -- and I suspect that Galland is writing more to readers who are -- you already know the ending before you open to page one. Then again, I, Iago is more about the journey than the destination. (And, yes, I'm aware of how completely trite that sentence is. Alas, it's also true.) The purpose of this story is not to surprise the reader with the ending but rather to show the reader how a familiar ending can be achieved in an unfamiliar way. I had a poetry teacher in college say that the purpose of poetry is to "make the familiar strange." That seems like a fair description for I, Iago as well, in that Galland wants to take the reader back to the beginning and retell the story in a way that the reader doesn't fully recognize. This is the how and why of Othello. And it's not really about Othello at all.
I found myself liking Iago and understanding him a little better. Sure, he irritated me at times, and it was easy enough to point out his flaws. The story is told in first person, so this is the perfect opportunity to play with the idea of the unreliable narrator. Readers can see moments when Iago needs a healthy intervention that simply doesn't occur. Readers can also see the train wreck before it happens, while still understanding what caused it. Again, there's a well-crafted approach to the sympathetic villain in this book.
As for the other characters in the story, the most recognizable ones from the play are fairly well fleshed out. Emilia was particularly delightful. Had her ending not been so complete, I would have liked to read a book about her. Othello was also well drawn, particularly in view of his place in Venetian society. And Venice herself is a character in the story, and quite a fascinating one. Venice, in some ways, is the story, because what occurs in I, Iago, as well as Othello, results much from the rules that govern this imperious city. In all honesty, Desdemona was a little flat, but then again she always has been. The archetypal "beautiful and perfect" woman is never all that interesting, and there might not be much of a point in trying to make her so.
Highly recommended, particularly for those who know the play. If it's new to you, the book is certainly still readable and accessible; it just won't have that extra context that knowledge of the play offers. (And despite my opening paragraph, I'd have to recommend dipping into Shakespeare first, if for no other reason than establishing the context that Shakespeare brings to readers of literature and particularly literature inspired by Shakespeare. Considering that the author is the co-founder of a project known as Shakespeare for the Masses, I suspect she wouldn't object to this.)
Year of publication: 2012
Number of pages: 370
14 April 2012
I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Creator of
heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of
God, begotten of the Father before all ages;
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten,
not created, of one essence with the Father
through Whom all things were made.
Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven and was incarnate
of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered and was buried;
And He rose on the third day,
according to the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
And He will come again with glory to judge the living
and dead. His kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of life,
Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the
Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, Who
spoke through the prophets.
In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the age to come.
13 April 2012
When I first read Barchester Towers a while back, I did so without realizing that it was the second book in the series (if series this can be called) and that the characters should already have been familiar to readers. I guess that says how well the book functions as a free-standing read, because I read it as such without really missing a beat.
But when I reviewed Barchester Towers, I received several comments from readers who pointed out that there was, in fact, an earlier book. Why I didn't get to it before now could simply fall under the over-arching description of my itinerant life. Having purchased a Kindle some time back, I began scrolling through the list of free books on Amazon. There's something to be said for these older books that are categorized as "classics": you can get the electronic version for free. And you receive in return such a great wealth in terms of story, something that so few current novels can provide. In any event, all the Barchester novels were available for a free download, so I jumped at the chance to read the rest. (I have Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage on my reading list next. I understand that there are two after that, but they'll have to wait for now, since I only realized that little detail after I'd made my Spring Reading List.)
Reading The Warden reminded me, in case I'd forgotten, what I loved about Barchester Towers, Barchester in general, and the wit of Trollope's writing. He manages to say so much in a fairly dry, droll way. The characters are cleverly drawn, and there's always a little more to people than the immediate stereotype would indicate. (I should also mention that in The Warden Trollope directly parodies the works of Dickens, and while I've come to terms with some things Dickens wrote I still find other elements about his writing to be distasteful. Trollope recognizes and points these out quite well.) But in spite of the humor, there's also a sweetness. Trollope really isn't out to "get" anyone, so to speak. He has no antagonists that are entirely evil, nor are the protagonists without decided faults. Part of this might be due to the subject matter: after all, Trollope's main topic seems to be the Church of England, and whatever faults may lie without that institution most of its members have good intentions at least. So Trollope touches on the errors with a careful hand, quick to point out that errors might be made without malice intended and that a little generosity is needed in dealing with the foibles and follies of humanity.
The story of The Warden centers around the kind Septimus Harding who has for over ten years been the warden of Barchester Hospital. The hospital was left to the church in the will of one John Hiram many years before. Hiram's goal was to provide means for twelve older working men who would have no other means at their disposal once age caught up with them and they could no longer work to provide for themselves. Hiram specified that the men were to receive a certain amount and were to be under the care of a warden appointed by the church. Additionally, Hiram left land to the care of the church. Over the years, this land which was once intended for sheep grazing (to raise sheep for wool) was converted into tenant land, and the church found itself with a decent investment property on its hands. The twelve older men continued to receive their expected income, but the position of the warden grew to be a fairly comfortable role. As the novel opens, the position is currently held by someone that no one can fault for his gentleness, good nature, and exceptional treatment of the twelve men under his care. But many are growing to question whether or not he deserves eight hundred points a year, when the men he cares for continued to receive a rather small amount.
While this might sound unacceptable, it's important to consider that the church didn't set out to rip off a group of working men in their twilight years. The land just grew in value over the years, but the terms of the will that left it to the church didn't provide the church with a clear path to pass out a great deal of money to the men. Do they increase the men's allotment, based entirely on the value of the land? Do they use the money to bring more men into the hospital? The will didn't provide for any of that, and exceeding its boundaries might also have made it null; so the church continued to follow it, as much as possible, to the letter. Following it to the letter just meant that the excess proceeds from the land made the warden's life more pleasant. (In all fairness, Mr Harding does make the decision to give to the men, out of this income, an increase for them to spend. At least he recognizes that he personally has the option of improving things for them. What's more, it should be noted that giving these men more money might have done little more than ensure that they remain permanently intoxicated. And that in itself might have been an even worse decision on the part of the church.)
As the story opens, this particular arrangement has become questionable to some and detestable to others. In particular, Dr John Bold, a local surgeon who is also very close to Mr Harding's younger daughter Eleanor, is the type to look for wrongs he can right. (You know, there's always someone like this in a community.) Dr Bold, as fond as he is of Mr Harding, begins to think that there is some great injustice here, and he sets out to see if he can fix it. What he ultimately does is create one enormous mess, for himself, for Mr Harding, and for the twelve elderly men who were -- albeit in an arguably limited way -- benefiting from the largess of Hiram's will. Attorneys get involved; newspapers get involved; and by the time everyone wants to make the issue go away quietly there is far too much publicity about it. Of all people, this hurts Mr Harding the most, not that that will be terribly surprising. What hurts him, however, is not the criticism but the possibility that the criticism might be just. He never had any doubts about the position, and he had taken it with the full belief that it was appropriate. He begins to think, however, that he is in the wrong and that he is, however unintentionally, taking more money than is his due. Mr Harding's struggle with his conscience reflects the greater struggle between Dr Bold and the church (in the form of the impressive Archdeacon Grantly, the son of Barchester's bishop and also the husband of Mr Harding's elder daughter Susan). Mr Harding's conscience, though, is probably the only real winner in this battle, and his ultimate decision about his position as warden is one that surprises everyone on both sides.
There's something about the events in Barchester that feels a little picayune, but Trollope manages to make the reader care. He's a master of miniatures, so that the reader appreciates the complexity of each character and understands that there is, really, an important story here to tell. I'm looking forward to more of Barchester in the novels that follow.
Year of publication: 1855
06 April 2012
Of course, she was right. Because she knows me well enough to know what is, and isn't, my kind of book. I'll admit to being initially worried that The Enchanted April would have far too close a resemblance to a Disney film, but as it turns out Elizabeth von Arnim knows where to insert a note of irony to keep things amusing, not to mention realistic. I managed to read about 75% of this book in airports because I couldn't put it down. And I should point out that I'm not much of an airport reader and usually do more magazine reading than anything else.
So much about this story surprised me. It starts out on a rainy day in England when two women read the same advertisement in the newspaper. The advertisement offers a "medieval castle" in Italy, and both women are immediately fascinated. One woman, Mrs Wilkins, realizes that she knows the other woman, Mrs Arbuthnot, and when she sees that Mrs Arbuthnot is equally intrigued by the advertisement she approaches her. It starts out more as an idea, or just an inkling of an idea. But within minutes the usually shy and awkward Mrs Wilkins is caught up in the idea and trying to persuade Mrs Arbuthnot to join her. So the inkling grows into something more, and before either realizes what's happening they've both agreed to find out more about the medieval castle and to see if it's even an option for them.
It's hard to blame the two women for being so keen, since their lives are hardly wonderful at the moment. Mr Wilkins is a rather self-absorbed solicitor who basically keeps his wife around because it "looks good." Mr Arbuthnot, much to his wife's horror, writes stories about the mistresses of kings. (Mrs Arbuthnot is a rather religious woman.) Both couples have more or less drifted apart, and it won't come as much of a surprise that neither woman plans to take her husband. They do advertise for two other female companions and find the perfect one, in the forms of the elderly Mrs Fisher and the very (very, very, very) beautiful Lady Caroline Dester.
So off they all go, to San Salvatore in Italy. From the moment that they arrive, Mrs Wilkins is convinced the place has something magical about it, and it turns out she's right. But unlike other "happy-feely, lovey-dovey" stories, The Enchanted April keeps things a little dry and smooths out the cotton candy with a prickly glove. I suspect the writer had quite a good time writing the book. That being said, there's a fairly happy ending here, but it happens in a way that kept me from delivering a massive eyeroll. It was fun, clever, and overall just one hugely enjoyable read.
There's still plenty of time in April -- so give this one a chance if you can squeeze it in :)
Year of publication: 1921
Number of pages: 247