Book review entries

July 22, 2007


Not rated

Published in 1853, Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel deals with issues of identity, religion, and with the dilemmas that surrounded unmarried mothers. After being seduced by the wealthy albeit cowardly Bellingham as a naive sixteen year old, a future of adversary and trial is decided for Ruth. As an orphan working as a badly treated dressmaker’s assistant, Ruth is shown to have no power in her relationship with Bellingham nor any choice over her subsequent pregnancy. Nevertheless, typically, it is her who is classified as the ‘impudent and hardened’ (p 89) party capable of trapping an innocent male in her clever artifices. After being heartlessly abandoned by Bellingham, Ruth’s despair reaches its peak. Subsequently, rescuing her from suicide, Mr Benson, a dissenting minister takes her back to live in his house which he shares with his sister. The decision to disguise Ruth as a widow to prevent any outbreaks of scandal establishes her as a pure and inoffensive member of the community. With her change of circumstances and her change of name, Ruth is able to bring up her son Leonard and work as governess in relative security despite the demons of her past. It is only when her true identity is discovered that her troubles are escalated and the full force of what it meant to exist as an unmarried mother in Victorian Britain is made explicit. Redemption does eventually come at a cost. Ruth’s place in the heart of the community is secured by her willingness to put others first as she nurses the victims of the typhus fever that was sweeping the country. A twist of fate sees her giving up her life to nurse Mr Bellingham back to health. Although the novel becomes increasingly sentimental at this point, it is nonetheless poignant. Biblical themes and motifs abound and the plight of the unmarried mother is considered in a sympathetic light.

June 18, 2007

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Not rated

We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent feature, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents. (134)

Like O’Farrell’s previous novels, After You’d Gone, My Lover’s Lover, and The Distance between us, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is gripping and full of emotional and psychological twists. As the fragility of various relationships is untangled and interrogated and various time periods are seamlessly woven together, the drama of the narrative becomes increasingly compelling and, at times, disturbing. Placed in a psychiatric hospital as a rebellious teenager and confined there for the next sixty years, Esme invariably lives through memories of her childhood- one that was shared with her sister Kitty who now suffers from dementia. When the hospital is due for closure, Iris, her only living relative, previously unaware of Esme’s existence, is summoned to help. The relationship between these two women serves as the central focus for the novel right up to the powerful cliff-hanger of the conclusion. This novel is worth reading, however, not just for the high drama of the narrative but also to learn about the horrifying treatment and diagnosis of real or imagined mental disorders that many suffered under in mental asylums in the early twentieth century.

May 28, 2007

The Victorian House

3 out of 5 stars

‘It is the Englishman who wishes to be by himself in his staircase as in his room, who could not endure the promiscuous existence of our huge Parisian cages, and who, even in London, plans his house as a small castle, independent and enclosed…he is exacting in the matter of condition and comfort, and separates his life from that of his inferiors.’ (The French philosopher Hippolyte Taine writing of his time in England, p.xxxvii).

This is the most compelling examination of life in a Victorian household that I’ve read. Throughout, Flanders offers interesting insights into the daily grind of a typical middle-class family and their servants. Especially in her chapters on ‘The Nursery’ and ‘The Kitchen,’ she brings many of the roots of our post-modern conceptions to light. For instance, in her examination of child-care she highlights the beginning of the shift from a parent-centred universe to our own child centred one (33) and in her discussion of cultural spaces she traces the growth of suburbia.

August 23, 2006

The Victorians and the Visual Imagination

4 out of 5 stars

1. The visible and the unseen; 2. 'The mote within the eye'; 3. Blindness and insight; 4. Lifting the veil; 5. Under the ice; 6. The buried city; 7. The role of the art critic; 8. Criticism, language and narrative; 9. Surface and depth; 10. Hallucination and vision; Conclusion: the Victorian horizon.

‘The slipperiness of the borderline between the visible and the invisible, and the questions which it throws up about subjectivity, perception and point of view, lie at the heart of this study.’ (p 2)

In Kate Flint’s own words, this book ‘is about eyes, and about sight.’ It is especially helpful in highlighting the distinction between our post–modern habits of visual interpretation and the Victorian act of gazing. The Victorians were fascinated with the act of seeing, with the problems associated with the reliability of human eyes, and with the problems of interpreting the visual. Throughout her study, Flint examines the ramifications of these problems for Victorian culture and discusses the extent to which they affected various aspects of life. She concentrates especially on the discussion of the visual in literature and repeatedly returns to the work of George Eliot, Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett–Browning, and John Ruskin to illustrate her discussions.
She also draws particular attention to the Pre– Raphaelites and their contemporaries.

In considering the various lenses through which art, people, and the environment were viewed by the Victorians, Flint does not shy away from grappling with some very mystifying but yet pertinent issues. For instance, she devotes an entire chapter to understanding the subtle differences between hallucinations and visions and explaining, in depth, how these differences have shifted over time.

My attention, however, was particularly drawn to chapter 9, which is entitled ‘Surface and Depth.’ In this chapter, Flint focuses primarily on Edward Burne–Jones’ 1877 painting, The Mirror of Venus, and encourages us to see its relation to a developing matrix of ideas about the connections between art and science. In it, a group of women gaze at the reflections of themselves in a stream. Among other things, Flint considers: the purpose of the standing woman, the significance of the forget–me–nots, the idea that the surface of the mirror (or in this case, the stream) serves as a barrier between a woman’s image and her interiority, the depiction of selfhood (when a woman looks in a mirror does she see an isolate selfhood or merely one member of a larger social category– ‘women’?), and the relevance of the post– Lacanian concept of the mirror as a metaphor for the act of self–fashioning.


July 10, 2006

An Artist of the Floating World

2 out of 5 stars

Last week I finished reading Ishiguro’s novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Set in Japan in the late 1940’s, it is ostensibly about the rebuilding of a shattered city and the shift in the sensibilities of its main characters. However, what makes it powerful and emotionally affecting is the emphasis it places on the development of an individual through time and the astute meditations it offers on the political importance of art.

The story is narrated by retired artist, Masuji Ono. Once a successful and affluent painter in a prosperous city, he struggles to come to terms with the political implications of his artistic project. His tensions are heightened as he enters into marriage negotiations for his youngest daughter and attempts to offer answers about his past that satisfy his inquisitive grandson.

The complications implicit in offering a straightford narrative of a past life is acknowledged towards the start of the novel when, after recounting a conversation he’d had, Ono claims:

These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated telling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own. But even if I did not express myself to the Tortoise quite so succinctly that day, I think it can be assumed these words I have just attributed to myself do represent accurately enough my attitude and resolve at that point in my life.

The idea that ‘with repeated telling’ events or conversations once experienced ‘take on a life of their own’ is a fascinating one and one Ono often comes back to as he reflects back over a life packed full of various experiences. His emphasis on the importance of his emotions at certain points in his artistic career is also something that he repeats and uses as a foundation on which to build various narratives.

As I stated earlier, many attitudes to the significance of art and artists are revealed throughout the novel. I’ve listed a few below:

'I…was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end. Brave young men died for stupid reasons, but the real culprits are still with us. Artists are the only ones who care now, not army officers, politicians or businessman.' (Ono)

'Artists are on the whole an astonishingly decadent crowd often with no more than a child's knowledge of the affairs of this world.' (Ono)

‘And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to encourage you all to do, it’s been to rise above the sway of things. To rise above the undesirable and decadent influences that have swamped us and have done so much to weaken the fibre of out nation.’ (Ono to his art students)

'Artists live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak–willed and depraved.' (Ono’s Father)

‘It is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter.’ (Setsuko)

July 03, 2006

Fashioning the Frame

4 out of 5 stars

Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect the self and the ‘Other.’

Warwick and Cavallaro begin by asking whether dress should be regarded as a part of the body, or merely as an extension of, or supplement to it. Derrida’s analysis of the logic of the supplementary suggests that the supplement operates as an optional appendix and as a necessary element. The authors’ arguments are based upon this idea as well as upon the concept that the body is both a boundary and not a boundary; its ambiguity producing a complex relationship between self and non–self. More is written about the concept of a ‘boundary.’ Interestingly, the authors challenge the conventional notion that a boundary is a border demarcating a strict division and propose the idea that boundaries can be fluid and diverse. In their introductory essay, they conclude that boundaries may indicate ‘points where something could begin.’

In their Preface, the authors consider Tono Stanto’s photograph, Sense (1992)Sense as illustrative of Barthes’ idea that the body can be represented as a gap produced through the frame of clothing. They argue that, in the photograph, ‘the body is portrayed as a fluid boundary glimmering between two edges of apparent nothingness. Yet it is that nothingness that defines it: the body is an optical effect accomplished by clothing.’ They move onto speak of the relation between body and dress as an interplay between presence and absence and remind us that, in the face of a clothed body, we respond to a presence based on absence. They also suggest that, both the body and dress are symbolic and linguistic structures inconceivable outside the domain of representation.

The unfixable character of dress as both a personal and a communal phenomenon is largely due to its ability to quiz conventional understandings of the relationship between surface and depth. The conventional reading of dress as a superficial form to be penetrated in order to gain access to a deep content, obviously based on the primary notions of depth and content over those of surface and form, is radically challenged by a reading whereby the superficial forms of people and objects are seen to possess their own kind of depth. (xxii)

Considered in a Lacanian framework whereby the depth of a thing can be manifested on the surface by a system of signs, dress can be seen as an example of the unconscious at work. Like a symbolic language, the authors claim that clothing can speak volumes about submerged dimensions of experience. As such, they regard it as a deep surface, a facet of existence which cannot be regulated to the psyche’s innermost hidden depths but which actually expresses itself through apparently superficial activities.

After considering clothing as the incarnation of the Kristevan ‘abject’ and as an example of Lacan’s concept of the ‘rim’ (serving as the interface between the inside and the outside of the physical body), the author’s deal with the idea of ‘shielding and sprawling garments.’ They consider clothing as a shield or a surface and consequently look at the problematic ideas of corporeality. Their ideas of mask wearing are particularly interesting and worth reading.

In Chapter 5, ‘Clothes in Art– Painting In and Out of the Frame’, I was especially interested in the author’s interpretation of Waterhouse’s painting ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912).Waterhouse The painting represents weaving as an ambiguous activity in that whilst women are traditionally associated with sewing and weaving as a domestic activity, they are also associated with the activity in the symbolic sense whereby weaving is connected to deceitful plotting. Warwick and Cavallaro claim that the in Waterhouse’s work, ‘the making of materials is a metaphorical equivalent for the making of the self.’ Indeed, the legend of Penelope emphasises the idea that the act of undoing is also vital to the making of the self. Looking at the painting and considering their arguments, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s intriguing re–telling of the legend in ‘The Penelopied’ (2005).

To conclude, a central emphasis of the book is on the making and the unmaking of the self through fabric and fashion. However, as I have already discussed, the underlying theme is that of the exteriority of clothing existing as a ‘deep surface.’ The author’s have certainly made me think more about the relationship between surface and depth and have also challenged me to re–consider my pre–conceived notions about clothing or masks being devices of concealment more than aspects through which the self is revealed.

June 12, 2006

Art Objects

4 out of 5 stars

Over the weekend I read Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson and found it so dense with ideas I thought I’d share a few.

The first section of the book offers a living, dynamic, two–way approach to the arts and to artists. Winterson shares with us her love for new art and discuses the fluidity of the exchange of emotion between artist, painting, and owner (herself). Her discussion made me think of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours which charts a moment in the life of an author (Virginia Woolf), reader (Laura Brown), and character (Mrs Dalloway). The triangles of exchange in both cases facilitate a deep exploration of the process of becoming and highlight the importance of the arts in the creation and re–definition of a selfhood. Strong texts, Winterson claims, ‘work along the borders of our minds and alter what already exists.’
It is their prerogative to enter into other realities that enables them to have such a transformative impact on us. Winterson repeatedly reminds us not to fall into the trap of recognising no reality but our own. The fact that people often misquote their favourite texts, she writes, comes from their own desire to find the reality of themselves reflected rather than allow themselves to become lost in the total alien world of the book.

It seems to have been the Victorian ‘realists’ who introduced this criterion of truth to life into their study of the arts and denied art as art. Winterson speaks of the ‘revolution in taste’ and the reaction against Romanticism in the mid to late nineteenth century. She claimed that whilst the male poet suddenly found himself at odds with the poetic tradition he inherited, the Victorian women poets benefited from the collapse of the ‘unmasculine’ Romantic sensibility.

The women poet, unlike the majority of the women novelists, accepted her mantle of Otherness gracefully. She would lead the mind to higher things. She would direct mental energies towards emotional and spiritual contemplation. LEL, Felicia Hemans, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, each accepted the distinction of the poet as poet. The particular struggle of Tennyson, how to be sensitive in an age that disliked sensitivity in men, was clearly not a problem for a woman. (p.30)

Winterson suggests the freedom the Victorian women found which enabled her to work her own form within the authority of tradition, cleared the ground for the contribution of women to Modernism. The primary focus ‘Art Objects’ is on the Modernists and their approach to depicting the reality of life in their own terms. Modernism, she argues, was an attempt to return to an idea of art as a conscious place, ‘a place outside of both rhetoric and cliché.’ Winterson clearly admires the poets who write a ‘living language’ in a pitch beyond everyday speech. Hence, her appreciation of TS Eliot becomes only too apparent.

Moving on, Winterson discusses the Autobiography of Alice B, published by Gertrude Stein in 1934. Since attending the post–graduate seminar session on ‘Life Writing’ I’ve been thinking about the complexities inherent in the construction of any piece of autobiographical writing. I was therefore interested to read about the criticisms directed at Stein following the publication of her so called ‘memoirs.’ Instead of re–making biography into fiction as Woolf had done in Orlando (1925), Stein, Winterson claims, ‘re–defined autobiography as the ultimate Trojan horse.’

We are supposed to know where we are with biography and autobiography, they are the literary equivalents of the portrait and self–portrait. One is the representation of someone else’s life, and the other is the representation of your own. We shouldn’t have to worry about form and experiment, and we can rest assured that the writer (or the painter) is sticking to the facts. We can feel safe with facts.
Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions yet they fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’
bq. Bring on the Trojan horse. In the belly of the biography stash the Word. The Word that is both form and substance. The moving word uncaught. Woolf smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband; lesbianism, cross–dressing, female power. More than that, she smuggled her language alive past the checkpoints of propriety. (49–50)

The most uncanny aspect in Stein’s work seems to be the fact that she herself became the fiction and allowed a ‘plasticity’ to self that was threatening and emotive. Are real people fictions? Winterson asks in response to Stein. Well, we understand ourselves through stories but often apply a strict self–censorship that refuses to allow us to enter the imaginative space where we can appreciate art for the Other that it is. Once we understand ourselves as fictions, Winterson suggests, we are freed into a new kind of imagination and are able to understand ourselves as fully as we can. In a chapter based on Woolf’s Orlando, Winterson claims that art enlarges and enables us to see ourselves through metaphor. Metaphor is transformation. It is she writes, ‘the burning bush that both shelters and makes visible our profounder longings.’ (66)

Along with the metaphor of the burning bush, I was struck by Winterson’s insistent use of Biblical imagery in order to discuss art in a variety of ways:
•‘Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield.’ (p. 20)
•‘Art is excess. The fiery furnace, the freezing lake.’ (p. 94)
•‘Like Adam we name our beasts.’ (p. 113)
•‘Against this golden calf in the wilderness where all come to buy and sell, the honest currency of art offers quite a different rate of exchange.’ (p. 139)
In my thesis, I consider the appropriation of Biblical imagery by the Victorians. Interestingly, Winterson’s appropriation could be seen to highlight the central argument of her book. She speaks of the need for a new, living language that is rooted in the past. Like Christina Rossetti, by using the Biblical images and instances in a new way (albeit a very different way!) she achieves what she claims all good art should contain– a fresh approach to reality and tradition. For Winterson, art is the Word. It heals, transforms, links the past to the present and the future and creates a new space in which to exist and escape from the ‘problems of gravity’.

To conclude, Art Objects reveals an exciting realm where the triangle of communication between artist, product and viewer can be transformative if only we allow it to.

December 06, 2005

A Short History of Myth

4 out of 5 stars

I thought that this short book was great. It is really informative and written in a style that is easy to read and become engrossed in.
It heralds a new major series. Entitled ‘The Myths’, it will consist, by 2038, of one hundred imaginative retellings of international myths. The aim of such a series is, in Armstrong’s view, to enable humans to look beyond their own egotistic self interests. She claims that without any narratives of myth, we live in a world akin to Eliot’s Wasteland, no longer able to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative. Hence, ‘A Short History of Myth’ ends by indicating the desperate need that we, in the post-modern demythologised world, have for some kind of spiritual revolution. Armstrong debunks the fallacies that we have inherited from our nineteenth-century ancestors which purport that mythology is a purposeless and irrelevant inferior way of thinking, and emphasises the fact that mythology serves to enable us to live more intently within the natural world and with our fellow humans. She envisages the crucial role of writers in the much awaited spiritual revolution, claiming that ‘If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight into our lost and damaged world.’ Along with this vision her claim that a powerful novel is transformative, and becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, frames the new series of retellings in such a way that it is difficult not to be excited by it.

The idea of condensing, in such a short volume, the history of mythology from 20000BCE to 2000CE may seem absurd especially considering the numerous volumes of work which can be counted as essential to such an investigation. However, Armstrong, having proved her capability to deal succinctly with a massive enterprise in ‘A History of God’ in 1993, successfully manages to fulfil the premise of her title in a scholarly manner albeit incredibly concisely. Throughout, she surveys the intellectual, spiritual, and social revolutions that have inspired humans to create and revise mythologies. Each page, dense with fascinating insights, is presented in a simple and accessible manner.
The book begins with a consideration of the Palaeolithic period and an investigation of Neanderthal graves. As well as highlighting the fact that myth is nearly always rooted in death and the fear of extinction, the foetal position of the corpses in the graves indicates that one function of early mythology was to prepare humans for the next world. The roots behind the universal idea of a lost paradise and the idea of mythic archetypal hero are both traced back to the Palaeolithic era. Following the Palaeolithic era, Armstrong moves on to write of the fundamental importance of the agrarian Neolithic revolution (8000–4000BCE) to the development of the human race. She traces the organic steps in which myth emerged in the form of gods and goddesses who were seen to interact in the daily lives of their human counterparts. Following the agricultural reform, she claims that the years 4000–800BCE saw a spiritual vacuum. With the building of cities and the development of civilisations, urban men and women became disillusioned with the mythology of their ancestors.
Armstrong moves onto claim that the end of this vacuum and the ‘beginning of religion as we know it’ is marked by the Axial Age (c.800–200BCE). During this pivotal time, new religious and philosophical systems emerged to replace the old. A quick survey is made of: Confucianism and Taoism in China, Buddhism and Hinduism in India, monotheism in the Middle East and Greek rationalism in Europe. Armstrong demonstrates how these beliefs were interactive and intertextual in that they used elements of one another as well as aspects of previous mythologies. For instance, in the book of Exodus, she indicates that the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is described as a myth. As well as presenting Judaism as a specifically historical phenomenon, Armstrong’s stance on Christianity is contentious. She claims that it is a myth inspired by Judaism. Avoiding potential criticism by claiming that she does not intend to be pejorative, she moves onto claim that in order to become inspirational, a myth needs to be liberated from the confines of history. She attributes the transformation of Jesus into a mythic hero to the writings of Paul and leaves the reader free to draw his or her own conclusions. Never didactic, this book seems to be asking questions and probing for answers along with the reader.

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