February has ended up being a very busy month for me for various reasons. Despite this, I have managed to cram in some reading, but it has seemed like a struggle at times to find time for reading and an even bigger struggle to find time for blogging and reviewing. I always feel like such a slow reader, and an even slower blogger, that sometimes I find it frustrating taking so long to read a few books whilst my TBR list just keeps growing and growing. Oh well, at least I’ll never run out of books to read.
Anyway, down to business; the first book is Shakespeare for Grown-ups by E. Foley & B. Coates which was one of those books that I just happened to see in the library and allowed it to leap-frog over the other books on my TBR list and into first position. Now, I shall say this very quietly, for fear of upsetting people and for fear of incurring the wrath of any militant Shakespearean groups that might exist but ‘I don’t actually like Shakespeare’s Work’ – there, I’ve said it. I will readily agree that the main reason is that I never really understand what’s going on in his plays; the language is the main barrier, but having so much of his work forced upon me at school has made me permanently resistant to his poems and plays. But that can’t be the whole reason as every few years I have a little ‘go’ at reading something either by him or about him but I never really get enthused by Shakespeare; it always ends up feeling like a bit of a chore. So, given all my reluctance to Shakespeare’s work, what about this book? Well, I have to say that it’s really quite good. It’s written in a really easygoing style, it starts off with some biographical and historical information, then a little bit about the language and literary style of Shakespeare and his contemporaries but the bulk of the book consists of summaries and short discussions of his plays. These are covered in three chapters: The Comedies, The Histories and The Tragedies. The authors make it all very accessible and they try to break it up a bit by adding other material that is admittedly not always relevant to that chapter’s topic but is of interest nonetheless. There’s a small section on Shakespeare’s poetry but it’s fair to say that the book concentrates mainly on the plays. This book is ideal for anyone who knows little about Shakespeare and who want to get to grips with the bard and it would be a good book for interested teenagers as well and not just for ‘grown-ups’.
A large part of February was taken up reading Laurence Sterne‘s classic book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I read this along with the brilliantly named GoodReads group called Brain Pain, a group that concentrates on ‘difficult’ books. Now, I had abandoned this book years ago and I must admit I very nearly gave up again this time. It’s such a wildly inventive book, there are missing chapters, black pages to signify the death of Parson Yorick, graphs displaying the narrative flow of previous chapters and digressions galore. In fact, there are so many digressions that it’s not until the third volume that Tristram describes his birth; he’s not so much an unreliable narrator as a rambling narrator, he can’t tell a story without getting sidetracked – this is of course what makes the book fun. Sterne pokes fun at himself about this and states:
Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;
But it is a difficult read for the modern reader, not because of all the tricks and techniques as I think the modern reader will be able to cope with this, but there are so many references which the average reader will not understand immediately that you’ll be thankful for any help you can get. I read the OUP version which had sixty pages of very useful notes and I also referred to the SparkNotes as well. If you’ve never read ‘Tristram Shandy’ before then I urge you to give it a go; you will be amazed and most probably a little confused but take it slowly and read a volume with notes and all the typographical techniques and I think you’ll like it. I can’t help but think that if I’d been around at the time it was originally published (1760-7) it would have been my favourite book.
I also read the Penguin collection of stories by Elizabeth Gaskell titled Gothic Tales. It consists of nine stories which were originally published between 1851 and 1861. They’re not particularly ‘gothic’, in fact, I’d probably only consider two, maybe three of them gothic, but they’re all at least creepy stories or ghost stories. The best stories of the collection are also the longest and they’re the ones where Gaskell concentrates on a realistic, rather than a supernatural, topic. I don’t think she’s very good at writing supernatural fiction, at least not on the evidence presented here. For me, the best story is Lois the Witch which is quite a straightforward account of Lois Barclay, a girl recently orphaned, who travels to Salem, Massachusetts to live with her uncle and his family. This is, of course, just before the mass hysteria of the witch trials in 1692. It’s a powerful story, told from the viewpoint of an outsider and could easily have been expanded to a novel by Gaskell – and should have been. The Grey Woman is a great story as well – it starts with a framing story and then we get the story of Anna’s marriage to the mysterious M. de la Tourelle. He keeps her almost as a prisoner in his chateau in Vosges and it seems as if the story is going to trudge on at the same rate, but it suddenly changes one night when Anna is trying to find a letter from her father that her husband has hidden from her. Whilst trying to find the letter, her husband, together with some other men, come in through the window and she discovers that he is the leader of a gang of thieves and murderers who are taking advantage of the chaos in the early revolutionary period. She manages to remain hidden from them and then to flee with her maid. The rest of the story concerns her flight and her attempts at evading her husband. The Poor Clare and The Doom of the Griffiths are pretty good as well and are the most gothic of the stories included.