Posts Tagged ‘English Literature’

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

April 11, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeThere’s a growing trend for the estates of famous deceased authors to commission new “continuation” titles based on the settings and characters the authors created, sort of like officially sanctioned fan fiction.  One good example is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a new Sherlock Holmes novel approved by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. Agatha Christie’s estate has also recently authorized more Hercule Poirot mysteries.  Publisher HarperCollins is going one step further with its Austen Project, asking some of today’s best-selling British authors to re-imagine Jane Austen’s works with close retellings of her books set in the current time period.  The first of these out of the gate is Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility.

Trollope’s book, like the classic, focuses on the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and their mother.  Mr. Dashwood expires before the book even begins, but from a modern ailment – severe asthma – not from a hunting accident. His estate passes to his son from his first marriage, not due to entailment laws, but because he never actually legally married the girls’ mother, a modern twist. Left homeless, they snap up the offer of a cottage in the countryside free of rent from a wealthy cousin, John Middleton.  The story proceeds with the same characters and plot points as the original, but with modern “sensibilities.”

Much of the charm of Austen’s books lies in the customs and manners of the time period when they are set and her own unique style in making fun of them and her character’s many foibles.  Trollope’s book is also witty and satirical in its own way.  It’s interesting to see how much of the humor and how many of the romantic predicaments are timeless and translate well to today.

The Austen Project has scheduled all of Jane Austen’s books for this treatment.  Next up is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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Macbeth by William Shakespeare

February 11, 2014

In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the drama is presented with stark economy. The intensity of the play – the turmoil, the treachery, the succession battles, and the general blood bath – embraces the audience like a feverish nightmare that is nearly impossible to wake up from. And when it is all over the play lingers – as it has done, no doubt, since its first performance in 1606.

Shakespeare’s tale was inspired by a regicide and other events in 11th-century Scotland. What actually took place and what is legend is difficult to know for certain;  at least in detail. However, the general tendencies of the era are less vague. Emerging ideas of national unity and kingship were competing with civil disorder caused by battles for power among local warlords, and struggles over succession often resulted in ruthless wars.

In the play, Macbeth is initially a loyal general to king Duncan. But after being flattered by three witches and their auguring, and his own wife, Macbeth becomes convinced that murdering the king and taking over the throne is the right thing to do. Blinded by ambition and narcissism, Macbeth gets involved in one murderous act after another, seemingly unable to put a stop to the slayings, and the paranoia and suspicions of political power take over life in the court. It becomes clear that there is only one way out for Macbeth, and that way can be found at the end of a sword.

Typically for Shakespeare (and his time), the audience is offered a reassuring conclusion in which a just political authority triumphs. The kings who attended the world premiere, King James I of England and King Christian of Denmark, would have been well pleased with the finale. But the play does ask some unnerving questions about the price of power, and they remain valid to this day.

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Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt

August 21, 2013

The great Jorge Luis Borges once said, “Magnification to the point of nothingness comes about or tends to come about in all cults.” And he goes on to say, “We see it, unequivocally, in the case of Shakespeare.”

Ben Jonson said that he loved William Shakespeare “on this side of Idolatry,” and over time the reverence for the man took on God-like proportions. Victor Hugo compared him to the ocean, the seedbed of all possible forms (!) and some have pointed out that Shakespeare uses more unique words than the King James Version of The Bible. Conclusion: Shakespeare has a better vocabulary than God does.

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, famous for being one of the founders of the literary theory known as New Historicism, has spent a great deal of his life studying the Bard, and Will in the World is his ambitious and well researched love letter to Shakespeare. This passionate book is a wild mix of creative non-fiction, essay, literary criticism, and literary theory. And upon finishing the story, the reader has learned a great deal about both William Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt, for ultimately the professor is the Gatekeeper of this book. The professor says, “[To] understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into art, it is important to use our own imagination,” and what matters, Greenblatt claims, is “not the degree of evidence but rather the imaginative life that [an] incident has.”

What matters is not the true story, but a good story.

This approach understandably made many academics go berserk (figuratively speaking!), but the book was at least partly exceptionally well received amongst critics and readers (and it became an instant best seller). Will in the World is a story about William Shakespeare and the world he lived in, and the Shakespeare that emerges is not unlike the Shakespeare that appears in one of Jorge Luis Borges’ texts: a man who was many and no one.

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Greatest Hits: Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

January 2, 2013

Join us the next five days and kick off the new year with the The Book-A-Day Blog’s most popular posts of 2012!

 

BeowulfAbout halfway through the first millennium C.E., the Geats were conquered by the Swedes, and to this day, their old land is part of Sweden. According to tradition (in this case part legend, part history), the last or next to last king of the Geats was Beowulf, a warrior who (probably) had a Geat mother, whilst his father (possibly) was Swedish.

 

The epic of Beowulf takes place in Scandinavia. The language of the story (West Saxon and Anglian dialects) has as much in common with the contemporary Scandinavian languages as with present-day English. Despite these facts, Beowulf is considered to be a part of the vast body of work known as English literature, and the story of Beowulf is perhaps the most beautiful and surely the most famous of all surviving Old English texts.

 

The narrative consists of two main parts. The first relates Beowulf’s travels to the land of the Danes where he fights the man-eating monster Grendel and his lake-dwelling mother. It is a bloody affair. Beowulf follows the tracks of blood that Grendel’s mother leaves behind; he then dives to the bottom of the lake, kills the mother, and keeps Grendel’s head as a trophy. After these epic encounters, he returns to his own land where he eventually becomes king and rules wisely.

 

The second part of the story narrates the hero’s battle against a third foe – a fire-spewing dragon. Beyond this, the hero’s death awaits, and then – well known to the scribes of Beowulf – the invading Swedes and the end of Geatic independence. It is easy, then, to view Beowulf as a glorious memory of distant times, but the tale has much more to offer.

 

Beowulf is steeped in Norse myths, legends, and sagas (that is, historic accounts), and it provides a vivid picture of the life and value system of the Germanic tribes of the north. At the same time, the epic manages to blend all this with newly arrived Biblical elements (thus Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain), and consequently Beowulf is a mix of the pagan past and the new Semitic times.

 

For a long, long time, Beowulf was considered inaccessible to the English-speaking world, as no decent, contemporary English version of the tale existed. Then (after spending decades with the poem) Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney decided to translate the text. His version is deeply influenced by the directness of the narrative (which strongly resembles the wonderful Icelandic sagas), and, as Heaney puts it, there is “an undiluted quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility [with] the cadence and force of earned wisdom.”

 

Beowulf has been praised as a forerunner to J.R.R. Tolkien and the whole fantasy genre, but its value can first and foremost be found in the text itself – not as an inspiration for later story tellers, but as a classic and commanding tale that transcends time.

 

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney

July 26, 2012

About halfway through the first millennium C.E., the Geats were conquered by the Swedes, and to this day, their old land is part of Sweden. According to tradition (in this case part legend, part history), the last or next to last king of the Geats was Beowulf, a warrior who (probably) had a Geat mother, whilst his father (possibly) was Swedish.

The epic of Beowulf takes place in Scandinavia. The language of the story (West Saxon and Anglian dialects) has as much in common with the contemporary Scandinavian languages as with present-day English. Despite these facts, Beowulf is considered to be a part of the vast body of work known as English literature, and the story of Beowulf is perhaps the most beautiful and surely the most famous of all surviving Old English texts.

The narrative consists of two main parts. The first relates Beowulf’s travels to the land of the Danes where he fights the man-eating monster Grendel and his lake-dwelling mother. It is a bloody affair. Beowulf follows the tracks of blood that Grendel’s mother leaves behind; he then dives to the bottom of the lake, kills the mother, and keeps Grendel’s head as a trophy. After these epic encounters, he returns to his own land where he eventually becomes king and rules wisely.

The second part of the story narrates the hero’s battle against a third foe – a fire-spewing dragon. Beyond this, the hero’s death awaits, and then – well known to the scribes of Beowulf – the invading Swedes and the end of Geatic independence. It is easy, then, to view Beowulf as a glorious memory of distant times, but the tale has much more to offer.

Beowulf is steeped in Norse myths, legends, and sagas (that is, historic accounts), and it provides a vivid picture of the life and value system of the Germanic tribes of the north. At the same time, the epic manages to blend all this with newly arrived Biblical elements (thus Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain), and consequently Beowulf is a mix of the pagan past and the new Semitic times.

For a long, long time, Beowulf was considered inaccessible to the English-speaking world, as no decent, contemporary English version of the tale existed. Then (after spending decades with the poem) Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney decided to translate the text. His version is deeply influenced by the directness of the narrative (which strongly resembles the wonderful Icelandic sagas), and, as Heaney puts it, there is “an undiluted quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility [with] the cadence and force of earned wisdom.”

Beowulf has been praised as a forerunner to J.R.R. Tolkien and the whole fantasy genre, but its value can first and foremost be found in the text itself – not as an inspiration for later story tellers, but as a classic and commanding tale that transcends time.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.


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