LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo | Review

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope—an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. {Goodreads}

Until a few months ago, all I knew about Les Misérables was that it was a huge book, a long movie/musical, and involved someone going to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Suffice it to say that this lack of information has been remedied. After watching the 2012 film adaptation and repeatedly listening to the soundtrack for weeks on end, I finally decided to go the extra mile and read the 1463-page Victor Hugo novel on which the musical is based.

When I told my friends that I was reading this book they looked at me as though I had suddenly sprouted glittery fairy wings out of my shoulder blades. What on earth was I thinking? Why would I dedicate so much time to reading a novel when I already knew the basic plot from the musical? But that was precisely the point: surely the musical couldn’t be exactly like the novel itself. Curious to see the differences between these works, I plugged in my headphones and plunged into the audiobook.

This brings me to my next point: I would highly recommend listening to the audiobook version of Les Mis if the idea of flipping through over a thousand pages of text makes you want to run and hide. Not only are there some great vocal performers reading the novel, but it also allows you to still read while doing other things (laundry, cooking, walking, etc.). What at first seems like a formidable tome that will never be finished suddenly becomes much more manageable as a 10+ hour audiobook.

The novel itself is brilliant. It possesses all of the qualities I love in literature: beautiful writing that makes you relish every word, characters that seem like people you’ve known for years, action that makes you want to keep reading even when you know you should’ve gone to sleep a long time ago, and perspectives on life that you had never fully considered before. This novel surprised me in countless ways, from its unexpected poignancy and wit to way it focused much more on the story of Jean Valjean than did the film or musical. We weren’t introduced to a wider cast of characters until about halfway through the novel, which I actually preferred. Rather than rush through the back story of arguably the most important character in the story, Hugo properly develops Valjean’s personality and past before building upon it in the rest of the novel as other characters come into play.

Is this book over-the-top at times? Yes. Is it sometimes cheesy, cliché, and unrealistic? Yes again. However, Hugo also makes important points about poverty, growing up, justice, truth, and rebellion. This novel may be set centuries in the past, but it nevertheless remains relevant in our society today.

Overall, I am so glad I decided to take the leap and read this massive novel. I highly recommend this to anyone who is a fan of the musical or simply interested in literature from the nineteenth century. Besides, what better way is there to fuel your love for the musical than by reading the novel on which it is based?

What are your thoughts on this novel or musical? Which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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13 Reasons to Read A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket

Since today is Friday the 13th, I’d thought I would interrupt our usual Feminist Fridays feature to talk about something a little more…. unlucky. Over the past few months I’ve been reading (via audio book) the entirety of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket for the very first time. When a friend learned that for some reason I never read this series when I was a kid, she immediately told me that I must read it ASAP. Fortunately, there’s nothing unfortunate about this series! In case you’re turned off by the rather strange title, here are 13 reasons why you should read A Series of Unfortunate Events: 

1. The writing is witty, clever, and funny. I’m a sucker for puns and cleverness in general, so Lemony Snicket’s hilarious yet smart writing style immediately made me adore this series.

2. There are SO MANY BOOKS. There’s nothing better than being captivated by a series that seems to go on forever. With thirteen books, it’s easy to feel as though this series will never end, yet it’s so fast-paced that it never felt like the plot was dragging or carrying on too long.

3. Each book is pretty short. I think the fact that each book is fairly short (usually between four to six hours of audio book, or 200-300 pages) helps keep the series from feeling slow, allowing it to be so long overall. You always feel like you’re making fast progress as you read, which is always a good feeling.

4. You never know what will happen next. The plots of these books are wild. Even when you think you’ve figured out how each book will end, Lemony Snicket throws a wrench in all of your carefully crafted predictions.

5. The audio books are fantastic. I’ve listened to every single one of these books on audio book and I loved every single second of it. Not only is the narrator (Tim Curry) incredible, but the extra sounds and music also make it feel as though you are right there alongside the Baudelaire children, desperately trying to outrun Count Olaf. This was the perfect way for me to read this series while abroad because I could listen while walking around Oxford to college and lecture, cooking, doing laundry, cleaning, etc. I would highly, highly recommend the audio books if you’re looking to read (or reread) this series!

6. It’s as entertaining for adults as for children. Lemony Snicket has managed to write a series that is aptly suited for both kids and adults without it feeling too simple or too mature for any age. While he does clearly state “messages” or “lessons” that he wishes children to take away, he does so in a way that is clever and also a great reminder for adults (sometimes adults need the reminder more than kids!).

7. So many funny repeated phrases. Quite a few phrases and ideas are repeated time and time again throughout this series, simultaneously forming a common thread between the books and creating what feel like little inside jokes between the reader and writer. I couldn’t help but smile to myself when any of these phrases reappeared.

8. Very, very bookish. Lemony Snicket clearly knows his intended audience (bookworms) well because there are so many aspects of this series that appeal to bibliophiles: Klaus’ love of reading, constant references to literature like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” countless trips to libraries… the list goes on and on!

9. Each book is unique. Sometimes books in series tend to blur together because they seem so similar. Luckily, that’s not the case here! Each book is very distinct from the others thanks to creative plots, unusual settings, and a constant flood of new characters.

10. Character development. As engrossing as the plot of this series is, I think the star of the show is really the remarkable character development that occurs as the Violet, Klaus, and Sunny make their way through obstacle after obstacle.

11. Count Olaf. That’s right: I’m actually listing a villain here. I think Count Olaf is one of the most hilarious, creative, clever, sinister villains I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He’s definitely a bad guy that you can’t help but love to hate!

12. Nostalgia. If you read this series as a kid, then you get the added benefit of lovely nostalgia. Nevertheless, I still loved the way this series reminded me of how I used to get lost in endless series of books as a kid, wandering the aisles of spacious libraries just like Violent, Klaus, and Sunny. Get ready for a (rather odd) trip down memory lane!

13. It gives you an binge-watch the fantastic Netflix series. I can’t recommend this Netflix series enough! The acting is incredible, the music is excellent, and the dreary world of the Baudelaire children is captured perfectly. Definitely check it out!

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to read this series if you haven’t already! Happy Friday the 13th!

What are your thoughts on A Series of Unfortunate Events? Do you have a specific favorite book out of the entire series? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

WHY READ MOBY-DICK? by Nathaniel Philbrick | Review

One of the greatest American novels finds its perfect contemporary champion in Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick’s enlightening and entertaining tour through Melville’s classic. As he did in his National Book Award–winning bestseller In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick brings a sailor’s eye and an adventurer’s passion to unfolding the story behind an epic American journey. He skillfully navigates Melville’s world and illuminates the book’s humor and unforgettable characters—finding the thread that binds Ishmael and Ahab to our own time and, indeed, to all times. An ideal match between author and subject, Why Read Moby-Dick? will start conversations, inspire arguments, and make a powerful case that this classic tale waits to be discovered anew. {Goodreads}

After reading Herman Melville’s classic novel Herman Melville several years ago, I asked often asked myself the very same question that Nathaniel Philbrick poses in the title of his book, Why Read Moby-Dick?As you can clearly tell from my disappointed review way back in 2014, I was not at all impressed with what I had been told was a must-read classic novel. I as excited to read it after having read the young adult novel Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard, which references this whale tale a great deal. I couldn’t get past how incredibly dull Moby Dick seemed, which surprised me because I’m usually the kind of person who loves classics that people often think are boring. With that being said, I was ready to let Nathanial Philbrick convince me otherwise not that several years had passed since my initial encounter with Ishmael.

Of course, now I must answer the glaring question that awaits us: Has this book convinced me to read Moby Dick again? Perhaps. Whether or not I decide to read it again at some point in the not-so-near future, I will say that Philbrick has given me a much greater appreciation for this classic novel. Philbrick has a knack for uncovering meaning behind scenes, quotations, and even characters that I would otherwise have simply glossed over as rather insignificant. It’s also inspiring and motivating to see someone so enthusiastic about a work of literature, particularly one considered to be a renowned classic. As someone who generally adores reading and discussing classics, it’s refreshing to read something by someone who feels the same way. Philbrick dissects the novel in a manner that makes it so much more interesting than actually reading the book itself:

“To be in the presence of a great leader is to know a blighted soul who has managed to make the darkness work for him. Ishmael says it best: “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but a disease.” In chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck,” Melville show us how susceptible we ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great and demented man.”

However, I will say that I’m not sure how enjoyable Why Read Moby-Dick? would actually be if someone hadn’t read Moby Dick before. I think you have to be at least a little interested in the classic to begin with if you’re going to enjoy Nathaniel Philbrick’s book. What you see is what you get: there’s no getting around the fact that it’s literally a book about a book about whaling, so there shouldn’t be many surprises there.

Overall, I really enjoyed listening to the audio book of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in Herman Melville’s classic novel.

What are your thoughts on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book or Moby Dick in general? Would you ever read this rather polarizing classic? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Love But Have Never Reread

Happy Tuesday!! Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is supposed to be books I’ve loved but will never reread, but I’ve decided to scratch that and add a bit of a twist to it. Because I ADORE rereading books, there’s a likelihood that I’ll reread almost any book that I love. Instead, today I’ll be sharing ten books I love but for some reason have never gotten around to rereading. Fingers crossed that I’ll find time to reread them soon!

What favorite books have you never reread? Do you like rereading books in general? What are your thoughts on the books that I’ve mentioned? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes | Review

Published in 1936 despite numerous rejections from editors and critics alike, Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood is a sprawling narrative of love, lust, and loss. Set against the bustling backdrop of several iconic cities (Paris, Berlin, Vienna, etc.), the story follows a tangled web of characters all struggling to fully express their identities in a society within rigid expectations of who they should be and how they should behave. In his written introduction to the novel, T.S. Eliot describes Nightwood as possessing “the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” I can’t think of a better way to articulate the experience of reading such a bizarre, haunting, beautiful, decidedly modernist novel.

Although I love reading modernist literature, particularly that written by American writers, I had never heard of Djuna Barnes or her work prior to being asked to read Nightwood for one of my tutorials. Now that I’ve read some of Barnes’s work I can’t help but feel as though it is a great shame that she is not featured in more reading lists or is not more widely read in general. While the novel’s reliance on experimental narrative structure and a modernist style may initially seem intimidating to some readers, it can actually feel freeing to read such a rambling story. (In fact, some literary critics in the past have claimed that Nightwood should not even be considered an actual novel in form.) You never know where the narrative will turn next– a new character? a new city? a leap in time? In this way, Nightwood is incredibly engaging, engrossing, and captivating.

If you’re like me and adore stories that are motivated by characters rather than plot, then you’ve come to the right place. There is little to no discernible plot in this novel; rather, the text is primarily character-driven with dialogue that almost feels as though the characters are talking at one another rather than conversing with each other. Nearly all characters in this novel struggle with some form of their identity that is not accepted by traditional mainstream culture. Notably, this novel is incredibly important in studies of lesbian literature as well as fiction that challenges the traditional male/female binary in general. Although Judith Butler coined the term “gender performativity” in 1990 in her book Gender Trouble, Barnes had already been discussing the concept of performing gender decades earlier in Nightwood. From masculine Robin in a relationship with Nora and Jenny to Matthew, a man who pretends to be a doctor and cross-dresses in his bedroom, numerous figures in this novel challenge the rigid stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that have permeated society for centuries.

Overall, Barnes’s Nightwood is a strange but remarkably valuable novel that more people should be encouraged to read. In the male-dominated realm of early twentieth century English modernism, Djuna Barnes’s voice is a welcome change.

What are your thoughts on Nightwood? Have you ever read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

HAPPILY by Chauncey Rogers | Review

* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Laure is a teenage street urchin just trying to get away. Where the rest of the world sees an enchanting love story, Laure sees royal incompetence and an opportunity to exploit it. She’ll have wealth and a way out of a life she detests, if she can only manage to pay off a would-be cloth merchant, outrun the angry bandits, hoodwink the royal family, and survive to tell the tale. {Goodreads}

Recently I was asked to read and review Happily by Chauncey Rogers, and I immediately accepted after learning that it was a retelling of the classic Cinderella story. While this fairy tale has certainly been retold many, many times before, I was intrigued to see how Rogers would make his version unique and captivating. Fortunately, I was not disappointed! Without further ado, here are five reasons to read Happily: 

+ It’s a creative retelling. Nothing about this novel feels stale, overdone, or unoriginal. Rogers has managed to take an old story and breathe new life into it through creating a new fictional world, characters you can’t help but root for, and a plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It can be difficult to find retellings like this that feel refreshing and new, so I always appreciate it when I come across one!

+ Laure is fabulous. Laure, the protagonist, is such a strong, independent, witty, and captivating narrator. She is flawed and often makes mistakes, but that only makes her even more easy to relate to as she struggles to make her way forward. I also really liked how her friendship with Luc happens gradually and naturally, unlike in many fairy tales.

+ The writing style. Rogers’ writing style is witty, entertaining, and engrossing. I quickly became invested in the story early on in the novel and my interest didn’t waver until I finished the very last page.

+ You won’t be able to put it down. There are so many twists and turns in this novel! Just when you think the climax has arrived and everything has been resolved, the plot takes another unexpected twist.

+ The ending makes everything worth it. I love how the classic Cinderella story appears at the end, although inverted. I won’t say more because I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that you won’t be disappointed.

Thanks again to the author for an E-ARC! I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairytale retellings, adventure stories, and witty humor.

Do you like fairytale retellings? Do you have a favorite one? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

LIT UP by David Denby | Review

As I scrolled through the audio books available for me to download on Overdrive before my long flight to England, one title (and subtitle) caught my attention: Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives. by David Denby. How could I resist? David Denby, an American journalist and film critic for The New Yorker magazine, spent an entire academic year observing tenth grade students in an English class of a New York public school. What began as a group of students who hadn’t picked up a book for fun since they were much younger gradually transformed into a bunch of insightful, passionate, enthusiastic readers all before Denby’s own eyes.

Before beginning this book, I thought it would systematically go through each of the twenty-four books mentioned in the subtitle and explain the hows and whys of what it was a great pick. While Denby does structure this account in terms of the books themselves, the discussion is actually much more classroom-driven. Rather than merely focus on the plot and content of Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut or The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Denby explains how the novels were taught in the classroom and the methods used to help these teenagers connect with texts written decades and decades before they were even born. Over the course of the book the reader gets to know the students as well as the teachers Denby introduces us to, just as he himself did throughout the study. This more personal touch was a pleasant surprise and reminded me of the many anthropology ethnographers I read for a course a few years ago.

So, how did these teachers make unwilling, uninterested teenagers enthusiastic and even passionate about reading? For me, this was actually the most fascinating part of the book rather than the books themselves. When asked why they didn’t read, many of the teens explained that they would rather watch TV, play video games, use their laptops, or listen to music instead of picking up a book. Once it became clear that they were wholly distracted by technology, one of the teachers imposed a ban on technology for varying lengths of time. To be honest, I was skeptical that this would be effective– after all, what teenager (or anyone, really) today would be willing to give up their phone or computer for a mere school assignment? However, I was surprised that this technological detox actually made many students realize just how much they needlessly rely on screens in their every day lives. Some noticed that they were more apt to read or spend time with family and friends without their phone buzzing at all hours of the day.

Other teachers used methods such as making time for small group discussions in class, encouraging independent reading both inside and outside the classroom, and assigning projects for which the students had to read books that they chose based on their own interests. Yet the most effective strategy seemed to be appealing to themes that deeply affected teenagers: independence, loss, love, fear, doubt, a sense of justice, right and wrong, etc. These universal themes can apply to people’s lives in myriad ways, meaning that it’s quite likely that at least some of the students would connect with the novels each time. Reading this book brought me back to some of the English literature classes I’ve experienced over the years– the good, the bad, and the hilarious. I definitely think that more teachers would greatly benefit from reading Denby’s insightful and astute observations.

Overall, Lit Up surprised me with its thought-provoking discussions on what it’s like to be a teenager, how to spark a love of reading in uninterested students, and why studying literature in our modern society remains an incredibly important endeavor. I would highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!

What are your thoughts on Lit Up? What kinds of books do you think we should be teaching high school students nowadays? What’s the best way to spark a love of reading in teenagers who haven’t picked up a book for fun since they were younger? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr | Review

Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning graduate teaching prizes for her highly selective seminar at Syracuse, where she mentored such future hit authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas. In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre. {Gooodreads}

To be honest, I had no idea who Mary Karr was when I decided to read The Art of Memoir on a whim. I didn’t know that she had written several well-known memoirs prior to this book nor that she had taught the likes of popular memoirists like Cheryl Strayed, etc. I had just finished reading a few memoirs at the time (Hilary Clinton’s What Happened being one of them) and was interested in learning how memoirists crafted such captivating stories of their lives. When I realized who Mary Karr was– and actual writer of memoirs?! An actual professor of memoir writing?!– I became even more eager to read this book. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

I listened to the audio book version of The Art of Memoir while on my flight from Boston back to Oxford for the beginning of Hilary Term. The fact that I was able to sit through an entire audio book basically in one sitting is a testament in itself that this book is interesting, engrossing, and good enough to compete with my love of listening to the same song over and over and over again on long flights. Karr narrates the audio book herself, and if you’ve followed my blog for a while then you probably know that I absolutely adore when writers narrate their own books. Her voice is engaging and strangely soothing and her tone is like a cross between chatting with a longtime friend and discussing writing with a close professor or colleague. While I usually prefer the paper versions of book, I must admit that The Art of Memoir translates excellently into audio book form! 

A major strength of this book is that it successfully juggles the needs and desires of numerous audiences. Karr often acknowledges that some parts of the book are geared more towards people interested in writing memoirs of their own, while other sections will likely be more interesting to people who have actually read her memoirs. This balance of catering to both writers and non writers can be tricky, but Karr handles it quite deftly. The Art of Memoir contains a varied mix of writing advice, explorations and analysis of famous memoirs, personal anecdotes and life experiences, snippets from her own memoirs, etc. Rather than come across as a jumbled mess, Karr’s masterful writing ability ties these disparate parts together seamlessly. And did I mention that her writing is incredibly witty, clever, and beautiful? Because it is.

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.”

My only qualm with this book is minor but still worth mentioning: as someone who has not read Karr’s actual memoirs, I found some parts to be a bit confusing. It seemed as though she assumed that the majority of readers likely would have already read her memoirs, meaning that she offered very little explanation when referencing them. However, this did not detract from my overall enjoyment of reading the book and has even made me more eager to read her memoirs in the near future.

Overall, The Art of Memoir is an enjoyable read no matter if you’re interested in writing your own memoir or are simply interested in learning more about Mary Karr, her life, and how she approaches the memoir writing process. If you’re ever on a plane and need something to listen to for five hours, I would highly recommend this book!

What are your thoughts on The Art of Memoir? Would you recommend any of Mary Karr’s actual memoirs? Do you have a favorite memoir in general? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

FREDERICK DOUGLASS by William S. McFeely

I’ve been fascinated by the life and writing of Frederick Douglass ever since reading his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) in my Introduction to Literature class during my very first semester of college. Born into slavery, Douglass eventually escaped to the North, became a free man, and rose to be a prolific orator and writer in the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century. Like countless people throughout history, I am captivated by how eloquently and effectively Douglass was able to portray himself through language. I’ve written more essays about him than any other subject so far in college, all from different perspectives and angles. After writing a research paper about the critical reception of his biographies in a literary theory class, I decided it was time for me to finally read a full biography about this extraordinary figure. One day while browsing the shelves of a local independent bookshop I saw William S. McFeely’s biography Frederick Douglass and decided to give it a try.

Perhaps I should have expected reading a biography about someone who wrote several autobiographies to feel a bit strange, but the feeling didn’t really hit me until about fifty pages in. The story of Douglass’ experiences as a young slave and eventual success at running away sounded extremely familiar because it was– Douglass himself had written about it in all three of his autobiographies: A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). At this point I started to ask myself what the point of reading or writing a biography of someone who had written their autobiography was in the first place, but the answer was soon obvious: context. Anyone can write an autobiography any way they want, but the way they portray their own life can vary greatly depending on the context they choose to incorporate. For instance, Douglass left out nearly everything about his personal relationships from his autobiographies, only briefly mentioning that he married a woman named Anna at one point. Readers were left wondering what his life was like behind closed doors, which is information we now know thanks to research done for biographies such as this one.

Speaking of Douglass’ wife, reading about the many women in Douglass’ life was one of the most interesting aspects of this biography. Douglass might have been famously admired both in the North of the United States and abroad in the United Kingdom, but it sounds like Anna was not a huge fan. In reality, it seems like Douglass was a pretty mediocre husband at best. Not only did he leave Anna for extended periods of time while orating and traveling abroad, but he often brought back other women– usually white intellectual women he met in his travels– to live in their home. This latter action caused incessant rumors to spread wherever he was living at the time about Douglass’ potential affairs. It didn’t help matters that Anna, having once been a slave as well, was illiterate and therefore could not help Douglass with his writing career as could some of the other women he met and became close to later in life. Throughout this biography I couldn’t help but feel like poor Anna was dealt the short straw of the bunch, yet few people have recognized the struggle she must have endured sitting in the background of her husband’s life.

Overall, I really enjoyed this biography of Frederick Douglass and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about his life, abolitionism, or even woman’s rights during the Civil War and Reconstruction in the United States.

What are your thoughts on this biography of Frederick Douglass? Do you have a favorite biography in general? Any you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald | Review

In this daring new work, the poet Alice Oswald strips away the narrative of the Iliad—the anger of Achilles, the story of Helen—in favor of attending to its atmospheres: the extended similes that bring so much of the natural order into the poem and the corresponding litany of the war-dead, most of whom are little more than names but each of whom lives and dies unforgettably and unforgotten in the copious retrospect of Homer’s glance. The resulting poem is a war memorial and a profoundly responsive work that gives new voice to Homer’s level-voiced version of the world. Through a mix of narrative and musical repetition, the sequence becomes a meditation on the loss of human life. {Goodreads}

As an English major who is regrettably not very familiar with Homer’s epics, I was a little worried when I saw that Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad was listed as assigned reading for my Writing Feminisms tutorial this term. Would I be able to wade through sea of references I didn’t understand and still take away something meaningful from this poem? Should I read The Iliad first? Would my fuzzy memory of reading it during my sophomore year of high school suffice?

Answers: Yes, maybe, and yes again.

The true correct answer to the first question is yes, having a thorough understanding of Homer’s epic would probably deepen one’s reading experience with Oswald’s Memorial. However, rereading The Iliad was not in my future considering I was also assigned nine other books to read during my five-week winter break. So I did what any other college student would do when strapped for time: I googled a summary of The Iliad, skimmed it, and then proceeded onward with my assigned reading. For someone who is only studying this book for a brief week during the actual term and does not even need to write an essay on it, I would hazard a guess that this vague understanding is sufficient to at least take away something meaningful from reading Memorial. 

With that being said, Memorial is a fascinating, touching, thought-provoking, beautifully written poem whether or not you are familiar with the original text it’s based on. I really appreciate the experimental and creative nature of this text, from the list of hundreds of names of those who died in the beginning of the poem as well as the constant repetition of whole stanzas throughout. Oswald presents a different side of warfare that is deeply personal and intimate, humanizing those who died in the brief stories of their last moments alive. In the introduction to the poem, Oswald writes that “this is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story” and I know no better way to describe Memorial.

Overall, there are countless topics I could discuss in relation to this poem– its treatment of women, its relation with how we view those who died in 9/11, its relation to the original Homeric text, etc.— but for now I think I’ll leave it here and simply say: READ MEMORIAL. Whether or not poetry is usually your go-to genre, I believe that there is a little something for all readers in this brilliant text.

{If you’re interested in reading more about Memorial, check out these well written reviews in The Guardian and The New York Times}

What are your thoughts on Memorial? What other poetry would you recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY