Showing posts from January, 2017

No Name by Wilkie Collins.

No Name is a novel by Wilkie Collins, his fifth novel I believe, which was first published in 1862, two years after The Woman in White. Collins is of course a sensational novelist who peaked with The Woman in White and The Moonstone (1868); his novels are thrilling, shocking, and full of suspense and drama. No Name is no different.
The title No Name refers to the legal state of two sisters, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone. They live with their mother and father and their governess Miss Garth in Combe-Raven (Somerset). Their life is calm, peaceful, and pleasant, and it would appear that Magdalen will marry Frank Clare, the son of their neighbour and close friend of their father. However, shortly into the novel, Mr. Vanstone is killed in a train crash. Though I knew he was going to die (simply by the description on the back), remarkably Collins talent still makes it a shock. A stranger appears at the door, and: “I am sent here on a very serious errand.”
“Serious to me?”
“Serious to all in t…

Old Maids and Bachelors by Oliver Goldsmith.

Old Maids and Bachelors is a very short essay / letter by Oliver Goldsmith. It was first published in The Public Ledger in 1760, the year the magazine was founded (it still runs today, making it the world's oldest magazine). The essays Goldsmith wrote for The Public Ledger were under the title The Citizen of the World in which Goldsmith purported to be a Chinese visitor to London, recording his observations as though he were impartial (not unlike Persian Letters byCharles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, 1721). Old Maids and Bachelors was the 27th essay of the series.
It begins, Lately in company with my friend in black, whose conversation is now both my amusement and instruction, I could not avoid observing the great numbers of old bachelors and maiden ladies with which this city seems to be over-run. "Sure marriage," said I, "is not sufficiently encouraged, or we should never behold such crowds of battered beaux and decayed coquettes still attempting to drive a t…

Big Garden Birdwatch.

This weekend is the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch: the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has invited people to participate by signing up and then, for an hour, counting the birds in their garden and sending the results in. Here's the video by the RSPB:

This is the first time I've participated in the Big Garden Bird Watch and I thought I'd share my results!

Before I start, two things: firstly, all these photos are poor quality: I was hiding away in the utility room taking these pictures, so it's all through glass that is rather dirty after all the January rain! Secondly, my mother and I tried doing this yesterday but the freezing cold, rain, residual snow, and very heavy mist kept the birds away. In fact, pretty much all we saw was a lonely little chaffinch:

Happily, today was a few degrees warmer and the mist had lifted! Here are my results - 13 species!

I didn't take many pictures, mainly because any movement sends them all flying off, and also of cou…

The Histories by Herodotus.

Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) is an Ancient Greek writer and he is regarded by some as the Father of History. His Histories (Ἱστορίαι), written around 440 B.C. is his only known surviving work, and in it he explores the history of Greece, Western Asia (or Eurasia), and Northern Africa. Herodotus is also known as the Father of Lies, with many critics pointing to apparent bias. Whatever the case, The Histories is one of the earliest examples of a history book we have.
It begins, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, his researches are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.It's divided into nine books (the division was by Alexandrian scholars), and each book is named after one of the Nine Muses.
Book I: Clio (Muse of History)Book II: Euterpe (Muse of Music, Song, and Lyrical Poetry)Book III: Thalia (Muse of Comedy)Book IV: Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy)

Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.

I've been meaning to read Effi Briest for such a long time I actually can't believe I've finally read it. I found it a few years ago now in Barter Books and it was the comparison with Madame Bovary on that back cover that first attracted me. It was written by the German author Theodor Fontane and first published in 1896, and it is based (and this is not meant to be unkind) on a tried-and-tested model: an unsuitable marriage that results in adultery and ends in tragedy, like Madame Bovary, and also Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1878) or George Sand's Indiana (1832) to name a few.
'Tried-and-tested' the model may be, but I'd say Fontane really makes this his own. He tells the story of Effi Briest, a young woman (aged seventeen) marries a man over twenty years her senior - Baron Geert von Innstetten, a marriage which will greatly improve her social status. Like Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, and Indiana Delmare before her, it is a doomed marriage: she has great e…

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov.

Ivanov: A Drama in Four Acts (Иванов: драма в четырёх действиях) is a play by Anton Chekhov, first performed in 19th November 1887. It's been a while since I read Chekhov: the last play I read was Three Sisters (1901) back in 2015, and since then I've been meaning to read the other plays of Chekhov I own: Ivanov, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and Uncle Vania. So, consider this a happy return!
Ivanov refers to the main character of the play, Nikolai Ivanov, an upper class government official whose life seems almost to be ebbing away from him. He has recently (within the last few years) married a Jewish woman who converted to Russian Orthodox, Anna Petrovna, who suffers from Tuberculosis. Her conversion made her an outcast, and Ivanov is in considerable debt, which means that he is no longer the shining star of his circle. To help his wife recover he is advised to take her to Crimea (on the northern coast of the Black Sea; their home is in a province of Central Russia) by Doct…

Chapters XXX - XXXII of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

The winter of 1836-7 continued with snow, gales, and frost, and despite that avalanche in December 1836 the weather still had not reached peak. The readers of Pickwick Papers were of course blissfully unaware of this, and the fact that their king, William IV, would die in just five months. For now as they began what is now the second volume of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club William IV still reigned and William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne continued to be Prime Minister, and would until his resignation in 1841.
Chapter XXX How the Pickwickians Made qnd Cultivated the Acquaintance of a Couple of Nice Young Men Belonging to one of the Liberal Professions; How they Disported Themselves on the Ice; and How Their Visit Came to Conclusion
We left the Pickwickians in December at Mr. Wardle's home of Dingley Dell and there we find them now. A month has passed since Christmas Eve for us, but for them it is now Christmas Day. Chapter XXX opens with Mr. Pickwick and Sam getting ready…

Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool by George Orwell.

In 1909, a year before his death, Leo Tolstoy's Shakespeare and the Drama was published. It was a response to another article, Shakespeare's Attitude Toward the Working Classes by Ernest Crosby (1903), and Tolstoy in his article proved, to put it mildly, he was no fan of our William Shakespeare. In one of the first paragraphs he wrote, I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful aesthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: "King Lear," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My cons…

Ichneutai and Other Fragments of Sophocles.

I have so much affection for Sophocles and I remember not so long ago finishing his surviving works and being disappointed it was all over, so you can imagine my excitement when I found Ichneutai and some other fragments (I read them in Three Dramas of Old Age published by Everyman, 2000)!
I'll begin with Ichneutai (Ἰχνευταί), which is also known as Searchers, Trackers, or Tracking Satyrs. These fragments were discovered in Egypt in 1912. It's a satyr play: the only complete satyr play to have survived is Euripides' Cyclops (408 B.C.); Ichneutai is the second best preserved ancient satyr play. It would appear that it is based on one of the poems in the Homeric Hymns, a poem to Hermes (Hymn IV) in which the author (these poems, from the 7th and 6th Century B.C. were wrongly attributed to Homer) describes how Hermes stole Apollo's cattle. Sophocles' play begins (with six lines missing), To all the gods and all mankind I, Loxias,
proclaim that I will give a fine rewa…

The Pillars of Society by Henrik Ibsen.

The Pillars of Society (Samfundets støtter; also known as The Pillars of the Community) is a play by Henrik Ibsen and was written in 1877. It's a play in four acts and it tells the story of the hypocrisies of those who are highly respected and appear to be upstanding members of the community but are in fact anything but.

The pillar of society is Karsten Bernick, essentially a big fish in a little pond: a wealthy business man and owner of a shipyard. He is revered by his fellow townsmen (this play is based in a small town on the Norwegian coast), and he has plans to sink his money into a railway building scheme that will link his town to the main line. We learn, however, that his marriage to Betty (they have a son together: Olaf) nearly didn't take place: he was in fact to marry Lona Hessel, Betty's elder half-sister, however he jilted her in favour of Betty's more generous inheritance. Furthermore, during his engagement to Betty he had a mistress and was even caught in…

Claude's Confession by Émile Zola.

Claude's Confession (La Confession de Claude) is Émile Zola's first novel, first published in 1865 (Zola's first published work was Contes à Ninon, a short story collection published in 1864), six years before The Fortune of the Rougons (1871), his first Rougon Macquart novel. The novel is semi-autobiographical as it describes his relationship with Berthe (her surname is unknown), his first love with whom he lived in the winter of 1860-61 on the Rue Soufflot before he met and married Alexandrine (the date of their marriage is uncertain, but it would seem they were certainly living together in 1865).
The first thing that struck me when reading Claude's Confession is that it's written in the first person. So far, out of the 37 or so works by Zola I've read, the only other story of Zola's to be written in the first person (that I've come across) is Big Michu (1870). The novel begins, Winter is here: the air in the morning becomes fresher, and Paris puts on …

The Brontës by Juliet Barker.

The Brontës is my first great (perfect, even) read of 2017. It's a biography by Juliet Barker, first published in 1994 then revised and updated in 2010 (which is the edition I read). It's magnificent, and I do think it's the best biography I've ever read. As the title suggests Barker writes on the lives of the Brontës, but it begins not with the birth of Charlotte, arguably the most famous sister, but with the twenty-five year old Patrick Brontë entering St. John's College, Cambridge, and it ends with his death in 1861. 
This biography is on my Classics Club list, but it was the recent BBC drama To Walk Invisible(Sally Wainwright, 2016) that gave me the push (that today happens to be Anne Brontë's birthday is actually a coincidence). I expected, before even picking it up, there might be the temptation when I began it to not so much skim the early part, but to have to put some effort to 'get through it' before what I thought was the most interesting bit …