Top Ten Things Books Have Made Me Want To Do or Learn

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Just one of the reasons reading is so awesome: you get to live in the shoes of characters who are usually infinitely more talented than you are. This is why The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt is, this week, another great one. Today they’re asking what books have made you want to learn or do after reading them.

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Austen in Edinburgh: A Lecture at the NLS

Emma FlyerI don’t normally write about lectures and seminars that I go to, but I recently had the opportunity to attend a rather interesting lecture at the National Library of Scotland that I thought I’d share with you all. The lecture has some fun bookish connections: organised by the Edinburgh-based author Alexander McCall Smith, the Isabel Dalhousie lecture is dedicated to one of Smith’s beloved characters, Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and amateur sleuth, and (naturally) lover of Edinburgh and Scottish culture. This year’s lecture just happened to be on a topic I’m particularly interested in. Juliette Wells, an American scholar, gave a talk on the first American edition of Jane Austen’s Emma and its significance for Austen scholarship and the study of Austen’s reception in America. I read Wells’ book, Everybody’s Jane, for Austen in August last year (I was also supposed to re-read Emma itself for that particular event, but as I mentioned in my review of the novel, that turned out to be a massive bust…) so I was curious to hear her talk. Continue reading

Some Things I Thought About Emma (1815) by Jane Austen

Austen EmmaI am thoroughly ashamed of myself. Emma was supposed to be one of my Austen in August reads last year, given that it was published at the end of 1815. Sadly, thanks to university deadlines and the tiny inconvenience of moving halfway across the world, I wasn’t able to complete it. But after more time than I’m prepared to admit, I finally come to you with my thoughts on my re-read of Emma. If it seems incomplete, ill-informed, or just plain wrong, I’m going to go ahead and blame that on the fact that it took me about six months to finish. If I hadn’t caught the flu a few weeks ago – Austen being one of my go-to illness cures – I might still be ‘reading’ this book (by which I mean it would have been sitting by my bedside silently judging me, as only the best books can). I hope you find it interesting. I hope you don’t come away from this silently thinking I really should give up studying literature. I know I found myself wondering.

Some Things I Thought About Emma

All of Austen’s novels are about possession and belonging. It’s hardly surprising, considering the kind of world she was born into – a world where one’s worth was most often determined by how much one was worth. Continue reading

‘Owning’ the Past: Possession (1990), by A. S. Byatt

Possession ByattIf you wish to trace, dear reader,
The history recounted in prose,
By esteemed A. S. Byatt
From the start to the close,
Heed my warnings, which here I give:
Beware of SPOILERS, beware of those
That would seek to ruin a book
To lessen their own woes.

Beware of – currents – swirling swift –
And postmodernist – angst – that creates a rift
Beware of – bees – that sting –
But most of all, beware of bad poetry, of which I write far too much.

Having spent the better half of the last six years in and around universities, I can tell you that they are fascinating, absorbing places, filled with wild ideas and interesting people. But this doesn’t mean that the lives of literary scholars make for a good novel. I’ve spent a great deal of time in literature departments, libraries, and archives, but even I wouldn’t want to read a five-hundred-page novel about them. But then came A. S. Byatt’s Possession, bringing with it a great deal of acclaim and the promise of a really juicy (fake) literary mystery.

Hold on to your hats, people, because somehow the stakes in this novel seem incredibly high, despite the fact that they revolve around the lives of two fake Victorian poets. Continue reading

Top Ten Reasons I Love Being a Lit Major

Studying can be hard. There’s no denying that. Studying at university can be even harder. But even though I’m currently buried so deep under accumulated unread books relating to my dissertation that I’m in real danger of being declared a fire hazard to the rest of my building, I still love being a student. And in particular, I love being a student of literature. So this week’s Top Ten Tuesday prompt from The Broke and the Bookish seemed like the perfect opportunity to remind myself just why I decided I wanted to spend the next four years of my life developing a deep and meaningful relationship with university librarians, and love-hate relationships with long-dead literary theorists.
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Knaves and Fools: The Revenger’s Tragedy, by – Thomas Middleton? Or Cyril Tourneur? – (1607)

Four Revenge TragediesWarning: murder, mayhem, and spoilers ahead!

A man walks onstage holding a skull. He starts to speak.

No, you’re not watching Hamlet – though there’s little doubt that it is a cheeky reference to one of the most recognisable scenes in English dramatic history.

The play is The Revenger’s Tragedy, written either by Cyril Tourneur or crowd favourite Thomas Middleton, depending on which scholar you believe. It is a confusing, bloody, and at times hilarious look at the revenge tragedy genre and, like all good revenge tragedies, there are gory deaths aplenty.

The story’s protagonist is Vindice, the aforementioned skull-handler. The skull belongs to his love, Gloriana, who was murdered by an unscrupulous Duke some nine years ago. As you can probably guess (based on the weird and obsessive hoarding of his beloved’s bones) Vindice has had a little bit of trouble getting over it. So he devises a scheme to avenge Gloriana by disguising himself as a servant and insinuating himself with the Duke’s son, Lussurioso. The usual murder, mayhem, and sexual escapades ensue. Continue reading

Death By Cauldron: Plus, Fifty Other Ways To Die in Elizabethan England: The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), by Christopher Marlowe

Jew of MaltaWarning! Dangerous spoilers ahead!

Renaissance drama certainly packs a punch. And Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is no exception. If you’re ready for scheming, thieving, poisoning, blackmail, more poisoning, and Death By Cauldron, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. It’s hardly surprising that this play was so popular with the Elizabethans – and it’s amazing that Marlowe managed to stuff so much murder and mayhem into just one play.

The Jew of Malta, unsurprisingly, is set on the tiny Mediterranean island, which is being besieged by Turkish troops. The slippery governor of the island decides that in order to pay a tribute demanded by the Turks, he will take the money of Malta’s wealthiest citizen, a Jewish merchant called Barabas. As you can probably imagine, Barabas doesn’t take too kindly to being robbed blind, and sets out to take his revenge on the unscrupulous Christians. With the help of a Turkish slave called Ithamore, Barabas does any number of nasty things, including poisoning an entire nunnery (including his own daughter, Abigail), and tricking his daughter’s suitors into killing one another. As might be expected, the whole situation quickly deteriorates, and double-crossings and murders ensue by the bucketload. Continue reading

Top Ten Books I Feel Differently About As Time Passes

Pride and Prejudice ReadingWith hundreds of new titles published every week, re-reading books may seem like a bit of a foolish endeavour these days. But re-reading books – ones you loved, hated, or were simply puzzled by – can be an excellent exercise, one that helps you to better understand a text. Or, sometimes, even better understand yourself, as I’m afraid the following list may very well reveal. The Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday theme this week is ‘Books I Feel Differently About Now That Time Has Passed’, and I’ve come up with a list of books that I have re-read either once or many times, with different emotions every time. Continue reading

Revenge Overload: The Spanish Tragedy (1592), by Thomas Kyd

Spanish TragedyPlease note: there are spoilers ahead. Mostly of the who-kills-whom variety. If you’re a fan of mystery, I’d recommend you get comfy with a copy of Kyd before you read on with my review.

BALTHAZAR
Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.

HIERONIMO
A comedy?
Fie, comedies are fit for common wits:
But to present a kingly troupe withal,
Give me a stately-written tragedy,
Tragedia cothurnata, fitting kings,
Containing matter, and not common things.

(IV:i, ll. 155-161)

The Spanish Tragedy is one of those plays that shows up very frequently on college courses and Shakespeare-related reading lists. Yet despite its popularity with Theatre Studies professors the world over, it’s very rarely the first thing to pop into someone’s head when they think of Elizabethan theatre. Or the second thing, for that matter.

I have to admit, this puzzles me a little. After all, The Spanish Tragedy pretty much does exactly what it says on the can: it’s set in Spain; it’s about revenge; and there’s enough tragedy to make even Romeo and Juliet take a break from their incessant adolescent whining to sit up and take notes. Continue reading

So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse?: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor FaustusThis book is #41 on my Classics Club list.

Shakespeare’s identity is so contested in some circles that scanning a list of possible alternative ‘real Shakespeares’ these days can feel a little like watching audition videos for Big Brother (or just about any reality TV show screened after 8pm). There’s so many wacky and even worrying choices that you begin to wonder if you’ll ever reach the end of them. Christopher Marlowe is somewhat of a crowd favourite on both So You Think You Can Write Blank Verse? and Who Wants to be Shakespeare?*. His is a tale of trial over adversity, mostly because he died in 1593, about twenty years before Shakespeare’s last known play was performed.

Other than this slight mortuary hiccup, however, the Marlowe-as-Shakespeare story is attractive to many because it would be a fantastic tale if it were true. Continue reading