The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

turn-of-the-screwInformation

Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1898

Summary

A young governess accepts a new position on a grand but isolated estate that comes with but one condition: she is never to contact the guardian of her charges about any circumstances that may arise while they are under her care.  All goes well until the governess believes she is seeing the ghosts of two former employees and that it is up to her to save the children from their malicious intents.

Review

For many, The Turn of the Screw is a captivating, heart-pounding Gothic mystery that keeps readers glued to the pages.  For me, the story was a total bore.  Often I feel I can see something worthwhile and interesting in classics, even if I personally don’t love them., but Henry James is really making me struggle to do so here.

The story revolves around some mysterious figures that a new governess believes she sees hanging around her new charges on an isolated estate.  Who are they?  What do they want?  Are they really there?  If something sinister is happening, what exactly is it?  But as fascinating as these questions sound in theory, I thought James dragged them out, and the final payoff was hardly worth the trouble.

Add to this the fact that James has an extremely convoluted prose style, and it just makes every point even harder to get to in the narrative.  Now, I read a lot of old literature: Milton, Shakespeare, texts in Middle English.  All these texts are frequently labelled as having complicated prose, but James can give them a run for their money.  His issue is not that he has an unusual word order (older texts aren’t always straightforward with the subject-verb-object arrangement in sentences).  Rather, the problem is that he tends to start a sentence, stick a couple clauses with fairly extraneous information in the middle of the sentence, and then finally get to the actual main point of the sentence several lines’ worth of writing later.  It makes it hard to even find the main point of the sentence at times.

There’s probably something in here for people who like mysterious and Gothic literature, but I’ve read better Gothic literature.  This one is pretty much a pass from me.  It’s fairly short, but feels enormously long.

2 stars Briana

The Promise by Chaim Potok

the-promiseINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Promise
Series: The Chosen #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1969

SUMMARY

Reuven Malter’s world is changing.  The neighborhood is filled with men and women who escaped from the concentration camps.  His best friend Danny Saunders has chosen not to become a rabbi like his father but to pursue a career as a psychologist.  And Reuven is struggling in school to gain recognition for his abilities.  Then his life becomes entwined with that of Michael, a teenage boy trapped by his own fear and rage.  Can Reuven and Danny help Michael escape?

Review

Chaim Potok always writes a memorable story.  Perhaps it is no surprise then that he manages to follow The Chosen with a book just as sensitive and raw.  Now that Reuven and Danny have grown, they are following their own paths.  The way is still difficult, however, and the past can never truly be forgotten.  As Danny struggles to save Michael, a teenage boy who suffers from a secret inner rage, he and Reuven may discover that they are not so very different from this boy.

Told through Reuven’s eyes, The Promise unfolds the story of Reuven’s neighborhood as it fills with men and women who escaped from the concentration camps.  Their experiences have removed them from him and their concerns and fears to him seem sometimes overbearing.  His new teacher, in particular, sees only one right one for a person to be a faithful Jew and a scholar of the Torah.  And Reuven who wishes to use a different methodology is faced with the choice of remaining true to himself and losing all the fruits of his hard work, or lying to graduate.

Danny meanwhile lives the tiring life of a grad student as he trains to become a psychologist.  The others secretly whisper he is a genius, but Danny fears to fail since he walked away from his old life to pursue this career.  If he cannot save Michael with his unorthodox treatment, it will mean that everything he did was in vain.

Their stories gracefully intertwine with that of Michael, the son of a scholar who hates all the academics who attack his father.  He is troubled and violent, but refuses to speak.  Danny knows what it is to live in silence.  Reuven knows what it is to wonder if you can hate your own father.  Together, the three of them must find a way out.

The Promise is a subtle book.  Its story is quiet and its narrator reserved.  But it is a work that will haunt you.

5 starsKrysta 64

If You Like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Then Read…

If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.

If You Like the Scarlet Pimpernel Then Read

Rook by Sharon Cameron

Sophia Bellamy lives in a world without technology where the Sunken City once was called Paris and the Commonwealth was England.  But even though technology is outlawed to prevent the devastation it once caused long ago, history repeats itself.  The people of the Sunken City die each day by the Blade–unless they are fortunate enough to be rescued by the Red Rook, a mysterious savior who empties the prisons and leaves only a red-tipped feather behind.

Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund

In a post-apocalyptic world, revolution has broken out on the island of Galatea.  The revolutionaries, once captured, seek escape through the plots of the mysterious Wild Poppy–in reality, Persis Blake, a high society girl from Albion.  But then Persis falls in love and her entire world may be in danger.

The Laughing Cavalier by Baroness Orczy

Diogenes, a soldier of fortune and a mercenary, finds himself in the Netherlands in need of money.  He therefore accepts the job of kidnapping a woman who accidentally overheard plans to assassinate the ruler.  Unfortunately, even the best of plans can go awry when one’s heart becomes entangled.  A story of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s ancestor.

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

On the eve of the coronation of Rudolf of Ruritania, he is drugged and imprisoned by his brother Michael, who wishes to seize the throne.  Fortunately, his distant English cousin Rudolf looks strikingly similar, allowing Rudolf to impersonate the king and attempt to restore him to his throne.  But things get complicated when Rudolf fall in love with the king’s betrothed.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

When his friend is killed by an aristocrat, an unknown lawyer leaves his life behind to join a band of travelling actors and seek revenge.  Set during the French Revolution.

If You Like This Classic, Try This Middle Grade

classic-and-middle-grade-book-match-up-1

If You Like A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Try Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by  Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in ThunderstormsWilhelmina Silver loves living on a farm in Zimbabwe. But then she receives the news that little girls must not grow up half-wild, but instead go to boarding school in London.  The girls in London do not understand Will, however, and they do not like what they do not understand.  Alone and tormented, Will must learn how to turn the bravery that allows her to face down wild animals into the kind of bravery that can overcome spiteful classmates.

If You Like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Try The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Scandalous SisterhoodWhen the headmistress of St. Ethedreda’s School for Girls and her younger brother are poisoned at Sunday dinner, the seven boarders know just what to do.  Hide the bodies; convince the town that Headmistress Plackett is alive and well; and continue to live at the school as independent women.  But can the girls identify the murderer before he or she attempts to strike a second time?

If You Like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Try Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor the OverlanderGregor’s father disappeared years ago and thus has to spend the summer caring for his baby sister Boots.  The two find adventure, however, when they fall through a grate in the laundry room into the Underland, where humans live uneasily alongside giant roaches, rats, bats, and spiders.  The humans believe Gregor to be the warrior named in an ancient prophecy, but Gregor wants nothing more than to return his sister safely home.

If You Like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Try The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

Girl Who Circumvented FairylandOne day the Green Wind catches up September and takes her to Fairyland—but all is not how it should be.  Fairies are scarce, winged beasts are forbidden to fly, and the Marquess has stolen the spoon the witches use to see the future.  September agrees to travel to the capital and retrieve the spoon, but somewhere along the way she realizes that her quest has grown bigger than she anticipated.

If You Like The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Try 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

100 CupboardsWhen Henry moves to live with his aunt and uncle in Kansas, he doesn’t expect to do much exciting besides perhaps learn to play baseball.  But then he sees a short man in the house, who disappears into a room that has been locked for years.  Can it be that the cupboards in the attic really lead to different worlds and that his grandfather knew the secret?

If You Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Try Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

Leepike RidgeEleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

If You Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Try Floors by Patrick Carman

Leo Fillmore lives in the greatest place on earth—the Whippet Hotel, consisting of nine (known) floors each full of rooms that boggle the imagination.  The Cake Room.  The Pinball Room.  The Flying Farm Room.  As the son of the maintenance man, Leo knows these rooms better than most, but even he is unprepared for the day the owner goes missing and the hotel starts to fall apart.  With a mysterious box to guide him and a duck at his side, Leo sets forth to save the hotel before there’s nothing left at all.

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa

DanteINFORMATION

Goodreads: Purgatorio
Series: Divine Comedy #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1985

SUMMARY

Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory.  There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.

Review

I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along.  Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell.  Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God.  It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.

Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven.  The difference?  These souls repented before they died.  The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care.  They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny.  The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.

Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power.  Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven.  But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.

This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive.  Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith.  He’s grappling with the same problems readers are.  If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell?  If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy?  How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ?  Is any of this fair?  I don’t understand.  It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it.  And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.

So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote.  The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.

5 starsKrysta 64

Along the Shore by L. M. Montgomery

along-the-shoreINFORMATION

Goodreads: Along the Shore
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1989

SUMMARY

This volume presents sixteen previously unknown short stories written by L. M. Montgomery, best-known for Anne of Green Gables, and collected by Rea Wilmshurst.  Though each one is centered around the sea, they span in content from romance to humor to tragedy.

Review

Though I appreciate Wilmshurt’s work in collecting previously unknown work, I admit that I find her editorial choices a little strange.  She presents various collections of Montgomery’s work by gathering tales with similar themes– the sea, the supernatural, orphans, correspondence–and publishing them all together in the same volume.  (Along the Shore, of course, is all about the sea.)  The sixteen short stories in Along the Shore are already a little repetitive because they contain characters, events, and entire chunks of narration and dialogue that can also be found in books such as Emily of New Moon, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of Ingleside.   But because they are all centered around the same oceanic theme, they also repeat themselves within the same volume.  Tales of characters about to be caught by the tide or saved by dogs occur  more than once within the collection making it seem, if not predictable (Montgomery’s work is already arguably predictable and does the stories no harm), at least a little tiresome. One wishes for variety.

If one overlooks Wilmshurst’s editorial choices and considers only the short stories, it is clear that Montgomery brings to them the same wit and sensitivity that have endeared her to readers of her novels.  They vary from tragic romances to happy romances, tales of brave children to tales of brave dogs.  Notable among them are the courtship of a woman and a man who can never meet face-to-face, thanks to the woman’s man-hating aunt;  a minster’s love for a woman who has never been to church; and the inadvertent betrayal of two friends who fall in love with each other’s beaux.  Even when the stories are tragic, they often contain a hint of the humorous or at least of the ironic.

Any L. M. Montgomery fan will surely love this collection, but it also has appeal for those who simply enjoy a good short story.  These are the kinds of short stories that wrap up right, giving one a sense of closure, even if the ending is sad.  No nebulous, modern endings that simply off the tale and call it “mysterious” here.  Every tale feels like a precious gem, carefully wrapped up and gifted to the reader.  Montgomery wants her readers to enjoy these tales, to be moved by them, to live them.  She doesn’t do you the discourtesy of ending a good tale that has only just begun.

*Content Note: The final story contains an offensive use of the n-word.

4 starsKrysta 64

Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!


Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Canterbury Tales

Anyone who has ever taught a class about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will know that students love the Wife of Bath, and the number one thing they love about her is how feminist she seems.  She speaks her mind! She’s been married multiple times! She shows her husbands she has a say in the relationship, too! And her tale is about punishing a knight who raped a maiden!  However, all the essays in the world encounter a major problem: Can you call someone feminist who existed before feminism was even a concept?

It’s a tough question, one which people sometimes try to skirt by calling the Wife of Bath “proto-feminist” and moving on.  I think it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post I’ll say that the Wife of Bath (particularly her Tale) does seem interested in increased equality between men and women, though she doesn’t have a 100% percent modern view of what that looks like and seems primarily interested in women being able to gain power in their marriages (basically the only place women had any power or social standing in the Middle Ages).  That is to say, the Wife of Bath doesn’t seem particularly interested in single women being respected or women being able to support themselves or anything like that.  Those would have been incredibly foreign ideas in medieval England, so much so that they simply don’t  occur to her–or really anyone.

However, yes, the Wife of Bath wants women to have sovereignty within their marriages, which is  the entire theme of her tale.  The story opens with a knight raping a maiden, and everyone is outraged and demands King Arthur dispense justice (already pro-woman).  Normally, “justice” is death, but Queen Guinevere proposes an alternative: If the knight can come back to court in a year and a day and tell her what women most desire, his life will be spared.  This is a very tidy plot, with related crime and punishment. The knight harmed a woman, and now he must learn to understand women to atone for his crime.  (Again, pretty pro-woman.)

The real puzzle comes at the end of the tale, however. If you’re reading this post, you probably know the plot of the tale: the knight finds a woman who gives him an answer to the riddle (Women most desire sovereignty) in exchange for his agreeing to marry her. He agrees because he wants to live, but the problem is that she’s an ugly old hag, and he’s not really into that. But, plot twist: On the night of the wedding, the hag (his wife) offers the knight another deal.   He can choose for her to be ugly and faithful to him or for her to be beautiful and potentially unfaithful.  The knight really wants her to not be ugly, but he also doesn’t want her sleeping with other men, so this is a dilemma. Unsure what to pick, he tells her to choose what she wants.  (He gives her sovereignty.)  Giving her sovereignty is the correct answer, so his wife tells him he can have everything, that she will be both beautiful and faithful:

‘Kiss me, and we won’t quarrel any more,
For I’ll be both to you, upon my honour!
That’s to say, beautiful as well as good.
May death and madness be my lot,’ she said,
‘If I am not a wife as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new,
And if I’m not as pretty as a queen,
As ay empress that was ever seen
From east to west, before tomorrow’s dawn,
Then you can deal just as you like with me.
And now, lift up the curtain and see.’ (250)

Is this feminist? I’d say yes, since the wife seems to be making the decision to be both beautiful and faithful of her own free will.  A couple lines later, the narrator notes that “she obeyed him in all things,” but that also seems to be her decision.  There’s no implication that the knight is forcing her to do anything.  Everything–from getting married in the first place, to offering him the decision of how she will look and act, to choosing to obey him always–appears to have been her idea.  It sounds limiting from a modern perspective, yet she appears happy, and I suppose that’s what feminism aims for.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath has her own commentary on the story she just told:

And may Christ send up husbands who
Are meek and young, and spirited in bed;
And send us grace to outlive those we wed;
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And as for all old and ill-tempered skinflints,
May heaven rain upon them pestilence! (250)

These final lines actually seem contradictory to her tale in some ways.  Is the knight really meek?  Or governed by his wife? We may not have enough details about their married life to know definitively.  We do know that the Wife of Bath wants women to have power in the marriages, but “sovereignty” doesn’t always have to be flashy or forceful.  The Wife might boss her own husband[s] around, but if the lady in her story finds happiness in doing what most pleases her husband, that seems fine too.

*Translation by David Wright (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press)

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!

Briana