Thursday, 23 June 2016

Book #31

The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Andersen

Though criticised for their anarchic immorality when first published, Hans Christian Andersen's tales made him an international star, taken to the hearts of children and adults for their beauty, sorrow and strangeness. Included here are 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' and 'Big Klaus and Little Klaus'.

This could quite possibly be my favourite of the Little Black Classics range so far. As a sucker for fairy tales, it was enthralling to read some of Han Christian Andersen's lesser-known originals, and witness both the beauty and the macabre he weaves into each of these.

As is usually the way with collections of stories, I found some of these far more delightful than others. Opening with The Tinder Box, I felt I wasn't going to enjoy the collection, as this segment bordered upon sheer nonsense, and I didn't feel much whilst reading it. Moving on to masterpieces such as The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Nightingale made the entire offering so much more worthwhile to me.

Tin Soldier didn't strike me immediately as one I knew, but as I read more of it, beautiful images started to swim into my mind. I soon realised this story had been part of a fairy tale anthology I'd owned as a child, which had the most intricate and gorgeous illustrations. The book will be long gone from my possession, but the memories this story has invoked are completely priceless.

Hans Christian Andersen is the master of fairy tales, and this small collection is a wonderful one to delve into. His tales here are entertaining, bleak, amusing, unfathomable, and for me, unexpectedly nostalgic.

Thank you, Penguin.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Book #30

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

The true story of an individual's struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.

I found this very difficult to read, for many reasons. To think that a woman could be sold and used as property is utterly unfathomable to me, least of all that it could happen in a time not so deep in the past. That the author of this incredibly story had to go to the lengths she did just to have command of her own life, and the lives of her children, is chillingly breathtaking. That she was hunted, abused, and lived in fear daily, is something that will stay with me for a very long time.

Harriet's memoirs paint the scene of slavery as only it truly could have been: bleak, hopeless, and entirely inhuman. She writes with impressive control, and the emotions of one who has numbed herself to the past. We are attracted to her immediately, and follow her perils with concern. This allowed the events to strike me even more harrowingly than could be expected; her composure and her large heart made the crimes against her all the more disgusting.

Although I'd urge you to do so, there's no real need to read these recountings to understand Harriet. Her true and honourable character can be defined by the fact this book was written in order to highlight the sufferings and complexities many other women in her situation were still experiencing. She has painfully experienced her turmoils all over again with her only motive being to invoke action from abolitionists.

An entirely dignified account, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gives us a real picture of slavery, and particularly how this impacted women. She breaks from her bonds, but leaves us with the picture of those who weren't able to achieve this, or who, indeed, were still struggling at the time of writing.

This is such an important document to help us understand the brutality of our ancestors, and the struggles they forced upon their fellow people. Although slavery has been abolished, there are thousands of teachings to be gained from this short narrative. Harriet Jacobs is inspiring, and I hope she can somehow see the impact her memoirs have had, and will have.

There is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Book #29

Sita's Story by Helen Moir and Ron Halliday

Sita’s Story is a supernatural period adventure fiction tale about a Scottish urban myth from Lanarkshire in Scotland . Written by Helen Moir and Ron Halliday over twenty five years ago and now being unearthed for the first time.

Growing up in Larkhall, dangerously close to the ruins of Broomhill house, I often had my adventures curtailed with warnings that The Black Lady would get me. Having her existence drummed into me at such a young age sparked a terror and curiosity that is still to leave me twenty years later. Her story is infamous in our town, so I picked this novel up with both delight and trepidation.

I quickly came to realise that the names and the places didn't correspond with what I was used to, and that this was a work of pure fiction. Disappointed, but undeterred, I was glad I ploughed on, as I noticed whispers of the place I grew up, and realised I would eventually meet Moir and Halliday's Black Lady.

Moir and Halliday have given us a scandalous and emotive period fiction, encapsulating everything between love, family drama, fights over titles, untimely deaths, and even a mysterious paranormal overlord. I'm a huge fan of stories detailing this era, and I enjoyed the social commentary, the expectations of the nobility, and the gorgeous contrasting descriptions of Avonbrae and India. The novel has a hint of the Gothic surrounding it, but reads mainly as a period text.

The characters were incredibly well developed, and I found myself falling in love with them more and more. Their actions, whether deserving of vilification or not, could be understood clearly by the deep rooted histories Moir and Halliday weaved around them. The Scott-Galloways were noble, yet entirely dysfunctional, making it such a joy to follow their sorry tales.

Although hoping for more of a supernatural element to the story, I felt there was just enough queer and questionable things going on to get me through. I expected the phantom to be present from the beginning, killing villagers with her frozen stare and the like. What I was given instead was something far more subtle, yet a thousand times more chill-inducing than the tales of the Lady I've heard only a thousand times before.

This was an excellent adventure to take with the Scott-Galloways, and picturing Larkhall as I read was a new and wonderful experience. I'll be making sure I soon pick up Helen's most recent book, The Black Lady of Broomhill, as old obsessions can take some time to disappear.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Book #28

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The story's heroine is Catherine Morland, an innocent seventeen-year-old woman from a country parsonage. While spending a few weeks in Bath with a family friend, Catherine meets and falls in love with Henry Tilney, who invites her to visit his family estate, Northanger Abbey. Once there, Catherine, a great reader of Gothic thrillers, lets the shadowy atmosphere of the old mansion fill her mind with terrible suspicions. What is the mystery surrounding the death of Henry's mother? Is the family concealing a terrible secret within the elegant rooms of the Abbey? Can she trust Henry, or is he part of an evil conspiracy? Catherine finds dreadful portents in the most prosaic events, until Henry persuades her to see the peril in confusing life with art. 

In Northanger Abbey, Austen writes a parody of 18th century Gothic novels. Our protagonist, Catherine, is a huge lover of these types of stories, and they, alongside her naivety and lack of life experience in general, have an influence on the way she makes judgement on others, and on situations.

The book is one of two halves. In the first, we're treated to Catherine's social experiences in Bath: making friends, attending balls and plays, falling in love, and learning of societal custom in all of these affairs. We're shown materialism, selfishness, and utter greed from her associates, but Catherine doesn't partake in any of these flaws, nor does she quite understand the motives driving them. The second half takes us to Northanger Abbey, a more lonesome rural setting, where Catherine's misguided judgements of others come to a head, and the realisation of her foolishness hits her like a horse and four.

Austen's subtle allusions to Gothic novels are hilarious, particularly in her use of free indirect discourse when describing Catherine's thoughts about the abbey. Her brain flies into a frenzy before she arrives at Northanger, imagining crumbling walls, candles which snuff themselves out unexpectedly, cabinets which hold old letters inscribed with scandals, and even, just maybe, a woman locked away against her will. Each imaginative fancy reveals itself to have a perfectly rational explanation, and all quickly move Catherine into maturity.

This is Austen's first work, and although it holds many of her well-known ornaments (including naive women and social commentary), there's a difference in that the pages aren't peppered with the obsession of finding a man to marry. Instead, Austen shows us a naive creature, and allows us to follow her maturation and discoveries. Catherine emerging from her chrysalis, and realising that life just isn't like a Gothic novel at all, is gorgeous, relatable, and something to treasure.

The story, the characters, and the situations are all entirely timeless. We all know a John Thorpe. We all know a Mrs Allen. The social expectations and customs are different, and interesting to read, but when stripped down, they are still very much apparent 200 years later. Isabella Thorpe was a particular favourite of mine, with her rampant flirtations, flighty desires, and entirely sarcastic comments. She was a perfect antagonist, and one who very well could, and no doubt has, appeared in my life so long after the novel was written.

I'm a huge Austen fan, and loved this one just as much as the more-recent of Austen's works. There was far less romance involved here than usual, which I loved, and I particularly enjoyed seeing young Austen's pure attitude and opinion shine through her words. I think we could have been great friends, Jane and I.