February Reviews

I fell a little behind in reviewing books. It seems like January and February are always the busiest months at my school. I finished three books in February and early March, some of which I counted for reading challenges.

February ReviewsCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House ISBN: 0593230256
on August 4, 2020
Pages: 496
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

While Wilkerson’s analogy between caste and race has been criticized, I found this book very interesting and illuminating. I agree with some of Charisse Burden-Stelly’s arguments in the article I linked. I don’t know enough to argue either for or against thinking of the U.S. as a race-based caste system, but it was interesting to see the ways in which the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime, and America’s racism were similar in construction. I will also add that it’s important to be cautious about comparing any system to Nazi Germany. The Nazis killed 11 million people. I would never argue that American racism or India’s caste system haven’t been deadly. Of course they have. As Sunil Khilnani argues in an article for The New Yorker, “Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not. In the book’s comparison of the Third Reich to India and America, for example, a rather jarring distinction is set aside: the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.” In spite of these valid critiques, I found the book interesting, and I recommend it to people who want to understand racism.

February ReviewsJohn Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
Published by Yale University Press ISBN: 0300124651
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Pages: 446
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats's entire life, from his early years at Keats's Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats's poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest.

Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats's childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats's father, his mother's too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats's doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.

I checked this book out of my local library, and as I was writing this post, I discovered I must have purchased it about nine years ago. At any rate, Amazon says I did. I have no memory of buying it, and I could not tell you where it might be. However, I’m glad to learn that I have a copy of this book somewhere because I really enjoyed it. Nicholas Roe is extremely thorough. I have to admit I was really waiting to get to the part when Keats met Fanny Brawne. I have a girl crush on Fanny Brawne. However, I enjoyed meeting the Keats who emerges from the pages of Roe’s biography. The biggest scandal stirred up by this particular book was Roe’s speculation that Keats was an opium addict, or at least that he dosed himself with laudanum. I didn’t find that particularly shocking. If it’s true, Keats joined a great number of other people living in his era (and for that matter, our own, as we’re in the midst of an opioid epidemic). One aspect of Keats’s story that really struck me was that he knew immediately that he was dying when he contracted tuberculosis because of his medical training. He identified the blood sputum as “arterial blood.” How horrible it must have been to be a young man, just discovering his genius as a writer, only to understand he would not live. No wonder he wrote this remarkable poem:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I’d love to read more literary biographies like this one. My one quibble with the book is that it had two image collections, including pictures of many people and places important to Keats, but no pictures of Keats. I mentioned this complaint on Twitter, and a writer acquaintance of mine said it might be true that Roe couldn’t afford pictures of Keats. When I asked if his press couldn’t have helped with that, she said maybe not. I find that to be puzzling, if true, especially as Roe describes some of the more famous images of Keats. I would think he’d want to have copies of those images, at least, in the book.

February ReviewsIreland by Frank Delaney
Narrator: Frank Delaney
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0060838833
on February 1, 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 19 hours and 29 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Goodreads
five-stars

From a land famous for storytelling comes an epic novel of Ireland that captures the intimate, passionate texture of the Irish spirit.

One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and their neighbors to join him by the wintry fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. Ronan, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery, long unspoken family secrets, and an immersion into the sometimes conflicting histories of his native land. A sweeping novel of huge ambition, Ireland is the beautifully told story of a remarkable nation. It rings with the truth of a writer passionate about his country and in full command of his craft.

This book was utterly charming! I put out a call on Twitter for books set in Ireland, and everyone was recommending Tana French. I am not opposed to mystery or thrillers. I read them sometimes. But I was looking for this book, which no one was recommending—I found it on my own. I wanted to read something that captured the place and its people. Delaney was a fantastic narrator, and the book was shot through with humor. When I initially saw how long the audiobook was, I was nervous about finishing it before it was due to the library. I was only able to borrow it for 14 days, and it’s over 19 hours long! But I needn’t have worried. I was looking for excuses to listen to it. Part travelogue, part history, part myth, and all story, Ireland is highly recommended for anyone who wants to travel to Ireland through a book. It’s one of the most delightful books I have read in a long time. I won’t give away the ending, but I appreciated the direction Delaney took it.

I’m going to make an effort to finish writing reviews a bit more quickly, but we’re all caught up for now.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Authors I’d DIE to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday

“Dying” is a little extreme, but there are a lot of of writers I would love to meet.

  1. William Shakespeare: I have so many questions. First, I want to know what he thinks of the literary reputation he has. I would also love to put paid to all those anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories once and for all (and no, don’t bother commenting on this post if you are one—I cannot be convinced). I would also like to know why he went to London and became an actor. I have a million questions!
  2. Jane Austen: I would love to have tea with her. I am really curious what she would make of her current literary status. I think she would be completely baffled—I actually had a lot of fun imagining just such a scenario. I would just love to sit and talk with her.
  3. J. K. Rowling: Her superstar status makes me more likely to meet Shakespeare in this lifetime. Well, at at any rate, her books are some of my favorites, and I would love to talk with her about the characters and find out all kinds of secrets of the HP World that never made their way into the books. I hope Pottermore will have a lot of that.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: I want to ask him about his writing process. I have heard he was a dogged reviser. I know he helped Hemingway make [amazon_link id=”1907590250″ target=”_blank” ]The Sun Also Rises[/amazon_link] better through some astute editing. I would also like to ask him about all those folks in Paris and what it was like to write in Hollywood. I have so many questions about Gatsby, too.
  5. Oscar Wilde: I mean, he’s bound to be entertaining and hilarious, right? I would love to just chat with him. Though I liked his writing (what I’ve read, that is), I’m more interested in Wilde as a personality.
  6. Mark Twain: Ditto for Wilde, except I truly do love [amazon_link id=”B003VYBQPK” target=”_blank” ]Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[/amazon_link]. I would love to discuss what he thinks of the controversy surrounding that novel. I want to hear him go off on the new bowdlerized edition.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien: I have a million questions about Middle Earth. I would love to hear all about how he constructed such a well-developed fantasy world. It seems like such a huge undertaking.
  8. The Brontë sisters: Yes, it’s cheating to combine them, but to be fair, I would probably have to meet all of them if I were to go visit Haworth, right? I’d love to chat with them about their writing, how they help each other and work together, and just their family story.
  9. Byron, Shelley, and Keats: I already met them for tea in a dream, so again, even though it’s cheating to include all three of them, I’d like to see if they’re at all like they were in my dream.
  10. Joseph Campbell: He has such an understanding of why we tell stories, and I would love to just listen to him talk about them. I especially want to pick his brain about Harry Potter. I have often said to students in my Hero with a Thousand Faces classes that it’s a pity Campbell died before those books were published because he would have loved them.

Weird Dreams

I had the weirdest dream last night. I was the winner of some kind of luncheon or tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Bom dia! photo credit: Cláudia*~Assad

There was also another guy at the table, who happened to be a dwarf, and he was a writer, but I didn’t know who he was, and I was too embarrassed about not knowing who he was to ask him who he was. All these dream interpretation websites, which I take absolute stock in, seem to indicate the dwarf represents some underdeveloped or unexpressed part of myself.

Keats reached over and squeezed my hand when I sat down. Be still my heart!

He was very quiet, but friendly. Actually, I don’t remember he said a word, but he did smile.

Byron, on the other hand, was clearly put out about having to eat with a contest winner. Could be also that watching women eat grossed him out. He was wearing this outfit, I swear:

Shelley, on the other hand, was really flirtatious, but in that way you know is totally insincere. And every time he said something, I kept thinking of Mary Shelley. He kept apologizing for Byron’s behavior and chastising him for not being friendly. Then Byron would snap pissily (if that’s not a word, it should be) back at him.

Keats was quiet, Byron was sullen, and Shelley was gregarious. It was really weird.

Of course, I’m preparing to teach the works of these three gents in coming weeks, and my students are currently reading Frankenstein. I also received this lovely book in the mail…

…signed by the authors, courtesy the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Receiving mail from the Bodleian was really cool. I am going to save the envelope.

The envelope also contained a pretty picture postcard of the Bodleian’s doors:

photo credit: Kaihsu

Note: This image is not the postcard image, which is probably copyrighted, but it depicts the same doors from a different angle.

I really wish that weird tea party had been real. Can you imagine?

Fanny Brawne

Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

As I wrap up reading Jude Morgan’s Passion (I have about 100 pages to go), I think I’ve developed a girl-crush on Fanny Brawne. Fanny Brawne was John Keats’s fiancée and muse for some of his poetry. While perhaps not classically beautiful, she had something of wit and charm about her that reminds me of a Jane Austen heroine. While I understand Morgan’s book is fiction, his novel is not the only such fictional account to portray her this way: the Jane Campion film Bright Star , starring Abbie Cornish as Fanny and Ben Whishaw as Keats, also characterizes Fanny as a sparkling wit and a gifted fashion designer.

Ever since I picked up Morgan’s novel (and, I admit, since I saw Bright Star last month), I have been learning all I can about the late Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I took a course in college in Late Romantic Literature, and as I learn and I read, I can’t help but wonder what my professor for that course must think of Passion and Bright Star.

 

 

Bright Star

Bright Star

One of the things I’ve learned is that Fanny’s reputation in the nineteenth century was much maligned by both Keats’s friends and literary scholars who seemed to feel Fanny undeserving of Keats’s devotion. Keats’s friend Charles Brown seemed to feel Fanny was a capricious flirt who toyed with Keats’s affections. In any case, many of Keats’s friends felt Fanny was bad for Keats. On the other hand, he was at his most prolific while in love with Fanny, and many critics believe some of his famous works, such as the sonnet “Bright Star,” were written about Fanny:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Bright Star

Fanny Brawne was largely unknown to Keats scholarship until the publication of Keats’s letters to her in 1878. R. H. Stoddard criticized their publication:

Miss Fanny Brawne made John Keats ridiculous in the eyes of his friends in his lifetime, and now she (through her representatives) makes him ridiculous in the eyes of the world.  She (and they) have had fifty-seven years in which to think about it; she forty-four years as maid and wife; they thirteen years as her children.  Why did she keep his letters all those years?  What could she keep them for but to minister to her vanity, and to remind her that once upon a time a crazy young English poet was desperately in love with her, was her captive and her slave?  What else could she keep them for?  She revered the memory of Keats, did she?  This is how she revered it…. I have two more questions to ask: What motive actuated the descendants of Fanny Brawne in allowing the publication of this objectionable book?  Could there be any motive other than that of lucre?

Fanny saved Keats’s letters and left them to her children after she died in 1865. If John Keats meant nothing to her, why did she wear mourning for six years after his death? Why save these letters? Stoddard would argue that she hoped they’d be valuable, but she cannot have known that as it took some time after Keats’s death for his work to be appreciated. Later on, she must have thought they might be valuable or she would not have entrusted them to her children. It is known she had to sell a miniature of Keats that she had kept for years after his death. Stoddard criticizes Fanny for not burning the letters, but these letters are widely considered to be among the most romantic letters ever written. Why would any woman burn them?

Bright Star

It would seem that after Fanny’s letters to Keats’s sister Fanny Keats were published in 1937 by the Oxford University Press, the tide turned for Fanny, who was revealed to have truly loved Keats: “If I am to lose him I lose everything,” she declared in one letter written as Keats’s death neared.

Keats addressed Fanny in his letters as “My dearest girl,” and it is clear he was devastated not to be able to marry her. Fanny’s mother would not approve the marriage until Keats proved able to support Fanny, but that success came too late as Keats developed the consumption that had also taken his brother, Tom. Keats, a surgeon, recognized the signs of consumption only too well when he first began displaying symptoms.

Bright Star

The love story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats is one of the great love stories of literary history. It’s a shame that we do not have Fanny’s letters to Keats, which were destroyed by Keats’s request after his death, for we truly only have part of their story. In March 1820, Keats wrote to Fanny:

My dearest Fanny, I slept well last night and am no worse this morning for it. Day by day if I am not deceived I get a more unrestrain’d use of my Chest. The nearer a racer gets to the Goal the more his anxiety becomes so I lingering upon the borders of health feel my impatience increase. Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms—the difference is amazing Love—Death must come at last; Man must die, as Shallow says; but before that is my fate I feign [sic] would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give. Let me have another op[p]ortunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in the Summer. I do not at all fatigue myself with writing, having merely to put a line or two here and there, a Task which would worry a stout state of the body and mind, but which just suits me as I can do no more.

Bright Star

One of my favorite dialogues between Keats and Fanny in Passion:

“Will you oblige me by leaning a little closer, Mr Keats? I wish to make Mr Swain jealous.”

Keats, emerging from his shade of watchful quietness, frowns. “I see no Mr Swain.”

“That’s because you don’t have my eyes. Everyone for me has two names, Mr Keats. The real one and the appropriate one. The real one is arbitrary and nonsensical. Would you say that I am characterized by brawn?”

“I might if you vexed me enough.”

“That is not gallant, and you know what I mean. Now when you assign a title to a poem, you don’t choose any old arbitrary words, do you? You choose a title that suits. So I call that gentleman with the thin legs and weak hair Mr Swain, because he is so exactly like a swain, or how I have always fancied a swain in poetry. Or, rather, not fancied it.”

“A sad fate for a fine old word. You would rather have a lover than a swain, then?”

“Mr Keats!”

“I speak of words. With words. If I lean towards you, Miss Brawne, I shall do it because I want to, not to save you from Mr Swain.”

“That would be an unpardonable liberty, and I only allow the pardonable ones. Besides, Mr Masterful has gone in to cards, and if I do any leaning in, I want him to see it and be jealous.”

He sits back, studying her. Those wide cheekbones: she has an acute image of a sculptor lightly pressing both thumbs into damp clay, creating him: stepping back from the beautiful intensity.

“My name for you,” he declares, “shall be Minx.”

“Why, I ought to be insulted.”

“You ought to be, indeed, on a daily basis: it might do you good.”

Images from Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Perf. Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw. Pathé Renn, 2009. Film.

For more information, see The Life and Work of John Keats.