Category: Book Review

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Stylized portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh.

Low to the Ground: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

It’s not often that one encounters a novel constructed in verse. Of course, there have been many written over centuries, but they have also been labeled epic. They are often long, arduous and the protagonist undergoes numerous adventures, fights, defeats, and battles. Homer comes to mind. Virgil. The Epic of Gilgamesh. These verses are important works written by men. So, who is this Elizabeth Barrett Browning to attempt her own version of it? Are there any battles in Aurora Leigh? Not unless one considers her battle of self. Any great adventures? Not unless one thinks this when to traveling to London, Paris, or Florence. Any lands get overtaken? No. Are there any serfs in need of social justice at least? Alas, no. (Tolstoy is crying behind his ivory tower.) So, what is this novel in verse about exactly? Well, a young woman in search of finding her creative talent, a young woman feeling out of place, a passionate, emotional individual in search of someone to love. What is more important—to create or to love? Is there a place that occupies both? This is Aurora Leigh.

Already one can see how her novel/poem (I will from here on out refer to Aurora Leigh as a poem) was not taken seriously. Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases, but women don’t have the intellect or creativity to reach the highs men can. So, this is just a nice little poem she wrote as a distraction whilst cooking for Bobby and in no way does she rank alongside her more respected husband. Should you choose to quote me reader, I ask that you do not take what I just wrote out of context. Women have much to fight against. It’s not easy to feel second rate, or to not be taken seriously simply because of one’s gender. Partially the bias is due to her choice of subject matter (easily labeled ‘women’s topics’ in its time) but let’s be honest—had she written an epic in the more classic sense, that is, more in line with Homer, she would have been ridiculed. […]

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A stylized set of portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh

This Verse In Fire Forever: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Coming only a year after Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, it might be tempting to think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s over 10,000-lines-long novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh (1856) as a dated artifact at its very incipience. Yes, it is true that Whitman’s book (published in many different versions, one could argue that the work is one long text, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems) broke open the way for poetic modernity at its fullest and was utterly unlike anything else of its time. Browning’s poem-novel appears archaic, by comparison; almost a product of the preceding century. The same goes, somewhat, for its concerns: considered by many to be a foundational feminist text, and chock-full of progressive ideas (some of which are counter-balanced or ridiculed, to be sure) about womanhood and society-at-large, they seem positively timid beside Whitman’s radical and bawdy openness. Eros, logos, and pathos merged in one barbaric yawp, drowning out the almost courtly deliberations in Aurora Leigh. And forget Whitman: in many scholarly circles, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has yet to escape her husband’s shadow, in terms of literary achievement.

So, where, exactly, should Aurora Leigh reside in the vaunted Western Canon? After all, the late Harold Bloom hyperventilates over Robert Browning’s merely solid “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” but barely deigns to touch the work of his equally celebrated wife. But is this really the proper way to go about critical analysis? Sure, the temptation to knock Mrs. Browning down a few pegs for even daring to challenge her male “betters” persists – but is this temptation even worthy of serious consideration? […]

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Wallace Stegner sitting for an interview

When Everything Was Cresting: On Wallace Stegner’s “Recapitulation”

Who are the people populating our pasts? Are our parents still our parents? What of the lovers we might have shared days of passion with? Old friendships? What is the self, recalled? It is tempting to think of these as fact, carryovers from a spent reality, and this is how most people probably think – it would be, more or less, the truth, in any case. Outside of psychosis, memories are anchored to lived experience; it is only time and bodies that inflict change upon whatever remains. But time nibbles away at the peripheries, always, and bodies are as unreliable as the emotions they produce. Even if memories are proof of life, they are not immutable. We constantly edit, revise, ink out, and suppress memories in order to protect ourselves from their contents. This is either conscious behavior or, at times, some shadowy rearguard action of the subconscious. Trauma is downplayed and/or blotted out, faces meld with other faces, and we enliven certain events with happiness that may or may not have been actual, or make grimmer what may have been, in reality, neutral. Looking back, we find ourselves witness to a parade of things invented, distorted and colored; any future-aimed act of imagination anchored to what’s come before.

Somewhat grim proceedings, to be sure. However, it fits, since much of Wallace Stegner’s 1979 novel Recapitulation has a dark tenor to its pages, as the past and present merge and contradict in its protagonist’s mind. The book follows an elderly Bruce Mason, an ex-US Ambassador who returns to Salt Lake City to oversee the burial of his aunt, whom he barely knows. Regardless, she is attached (however weakly) to his former life in the city where he spent the better portion of his young adulthood, and so he carries out the obligation. The novel follows his brief stay in the city and contains a rather threadbare plot: he spends a few days attending to the aunt’s funeral arrangements and wandering the city, visiting old haunts. Nothing all that momentous happens…that is, if “momentous” means car chases, shootouts, and other high-octane dramatics. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens” on the outside, and is instead driven by character – specifically, by the emotions and reminisces of Mason as he attempts to reconcile who he was as a boy/young man with who he became.

Throughout his visit, Mason is pelted by memories of an old self, old relations, as well as the old Salt Lake City, which he attempts to resurrect in his mind’s eye many times, only for the present to assert itself and reduce his former stomping grounds to sheer memory. Wallace Stegner sets the book in the 1970s while Mason’s memories are set in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Much has happened in the interim, and Mason is caught in a state of – well, it would be mourning, if it weren’t for his conflicted feelings on the past. One gets the sense that even as he yearns for the city of his youth, there’s too much trauma attached to it that he can’t fully endorse its accompanying nostalgia, as Wallace Stegner implies. […]

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Ursula K. Le Guin portrait alongside his book, The Compass Rose

Cardinal Directions: Contemporary Fantasy vs. Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Compass Rose”

Fantasy is an easy genre to write in, but a tricky one to get right.

I’d wager that most children first catch the bug of obsessive reading with a book that can, however loosely, be shelved under “Fantasy”. After all, it’s perfectly primed for such budding minds: vast, imaginary landscapes, wacky characters with wacky names, surreal events, sweeping adventures, and so on. For a reader like myself, whose love for literature first developed out of a need for whimsical escapism, it’s difficult to shake the genre’s influence on the mind even when one’s taste diversifies outside of the market, and especially when one gets to writing books instead of just reading them. Its allure is undeniable: the author is not straightjacketed by realism, nor is she indebted to any kind of historical accuracy – why, when she can create her reality’s rules, and its past, ex nihilo? This is writing, when in its infancy, borrowed mostly from myths and legends, where fantastical thinking was required to describe and explain away strange phenomena, or to simply make shit up, sans the sort of demarcations our contemporary understanding of literature requires writers to adhere to.

Of course, the moment when one starts waxing poetic about fantasy, cliches start snapping shut around one’s feet. Before I feel the urge to pinpoint what, exactly, “Fantasy” is, or to differentiate its sub-genres and practitioners, I’ll do my best to keep any talk of the genre strictly in terms of craft and leave the rest to scholars. Suffice it to say that writing fantasy is no more or less imaginative than science fiction, horror, mystery, crime, thrillers, and “literary fiction” (a rather bland label for books we’re expected to take seriously, as distinct from the previously mentioned categories), the only real differences being that of flavor, style, and aesthetics – imagining oneself into 19th century Indonesia, or writing about blue-collar workers in Alberta, or writing a free-verse sonnet from the perspective of a government bureaucrat are about as extraordinary a set of acts as creating a dragon, in my view. To write anything in a fictional mode is to fantasize, to morph the world into one’s desired image, and even the most outlandish tales require some mooring to reality. Isn’t anything set in Narnia or Prydain or Discworld or the caverns of Mars essentially set on the most familiar ground of all: the human mind? Even if the characters portrayed resemble none of the organic life on Earth? […]

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An illustration of dogs fighting from Jack London's "Call of the Wild"

Jack London’s “The Call Of The Wild”: The Power Of Things As They Are

Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild refuses to anthropomorphize its main character, a powerful St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix named Buck. It has more in common with Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar than it does with something like Bambi. Chronicling the experience of this animal in an unadorned manner, it is partly why the novel has aged so well.

In many instances, Jack London writes how Buck “did not think these things, he merely did them.” In so doing, he highlights how much the creature relies on instinct as opposed to intellect. There are no phony attempts to turn the animals he portrays into cartoons. When considering this, the reader is awed by how interesting and engaging the story still manages to be. If one manages to make a book about a dog this moving, one should be considered, at least, an excellent writer.

That is not to say The Call Of The Wild lacks humanity. Instead, it shows the reader how many things we consider human go far beyond our species. The reader follows Buck as he undergoes his character arc, changing between owners, some good, some bad, adapting to each circumstance until he answers the titular call of the wild. There is pride, jealousness, and love in the members of this cast of dogs, just as there would be in a more civilized cast of characters. Because of this, the narrative serves as a mirror to impulses humans find in themselves. […]