Book reviews – A230 Reading and Studying Literature

As my regular readers already know, my blog can be about literally anything! Whatever is going on in my mind on any given day tends to get voiced out on here in the best way I know how.

I start back and uni in a couple of weeks (studying BA English Literature at Open University) and I realised that as I’m literally so busy with studying two modules this year that I wouldn’t be finding as much time as usual to write my blog. So I’ve decided to try to combine the two where possible and do some blog posts about my uni course as well. I’m also hoping this might help other students on the course as well as prospective students feeling nervous about starting an OU course.

So the modules I’m studying this year are the A230 reading and studying literature and A215 creative writing. This blog post is about the A230 module and is basically an in-depth review of the literature I’ve had to read for the course.

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

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This is a fairly short novel about a West Indian gentleman who has immigrated to London in the 1950s. It is told from the point of view of the main character Moses who tells stories of the different West Indian men (and some families) who arrive in London thinking the ‘streets of London being paved with gold’. It is an interesting novel not only because of the way it is written in the ‘Idiom’ of the West Indian people but also because of the shifting perspectives between the opinions of Moses (a veteran of London living) and the newcomers. For Moses London has become tiresome. Far from being the place of dreams and riches he finds it hard to save any money, lives in a room in a house which is shared with many other people and spends his time either working long nights, chasing women or spending time with other West Indians. Almost disguised as a comedy the story is very funny in places particularly because of the narrative style. The story does have a serious note however as it gives the perspective of the native Londoners and particularly the press who treat the West Indians with disdain and accuse them of stealing their jobs of which parallels can certainly be drawn with the press’ treatment of immigrants in present day. Many of the characters are highly interesting, the ones in particular who I found interesting were ‘Cap’ who lives somewhere on a promise of rent for weeks until he is thrown out and moved along and the stereotypical ‘Tanty’ who bosses everyone around and embarrasses her family and friends by being as loud as possible. A particular favourite scene for me was the one in which Tanty convinced the local grocer to give credit when he had always refused before.

Moses himself however seems to watch everything with a sort of sadness because of his deep down regret at immigrating to London. He hates the cold, damp weather and wants to be back in Trinidad enjoying the sunshine. I found the reactions of the different native Londoners the ‘boys’ came across very interesting as well. A little girl expressing ‘look at that black man’ and the women who went home and slept with men purely because they were black, a greengrocer who saw an opportunity in the quantity of West Indian emigrants and began to stock native foods such as black-eyed peas.

Overall I found this book profoundly interesting and powerful. It played on my emotions and allowed me to see things from a different perspective than the one I usually get to see.

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel

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I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy this. There was for me just something I couldn’t take to. There seemed to be no point to the storyline that I could get to grips with. Maybe it is better seen on the stage (as it is a play). I am not however a philistine and I recognise the themes within the tale. Jealousy, betrayal, poverty, lies, religion and politics were all features of the play yet for me it was just really strange to read.

A family of 5 sisters of varying ages living together in a fictional Irish town, one of the sisters has learning difficulties and the brother who is a priest has possibly gone mad or else converted to a tribal sort of religion. The story flipped between the narrative of the boy who was now a man in the present to the story of the past and I found that could often become confusing especially when read with the stage directions. All of the sisters seemed to have a weird agenda with some being more adult and domineering and others being silly and childlike. I felt that it tells you in the beginning pretty much what was going to happen at the end and that the points put across such as the theme of religion were clear but could have been made stronger. I found the play in general to have been very weak both in terms of foundation and plot development. A lot of points (I felt) were alluded to but never fully developed or said openly which I felt that particularly in a stage performance could be easily missed. There was a lot left unexplained towards the end as well such as why two of the sisters really left. Maybe that was the whole point but I stand by my decision that this was exceptionally weak and difficult to read because of that.

Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn

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I found Oroonoko to be a fairly easy read in terms of language, which surprised me as it was written so long ago and often older books can be a struggle to read. I found the storyline in this novel very interesting in terms of learning a little bit about different cultures and also the perspective of slavery from both slave and slaver. I felt that although the novel was fairly short at only 77 pages it was very engaging and felt longer; due to the long descriptive passages and language. I wouldn’t say it was the best book I have ever read being more educationally interesting that a book I would read for pleasure and naturally I don’t have much time for books written hundreds of years ago (some literature student eh!).

Culturally this book was interesting in terms of learning about some of the Royal family in Surinam and their customs. There were several racist references particularly when referring to the appearance of any of the African characters but for a book written in the 17th century when people were mostly ignorant of racism references like that are unfortunately par for the course. Themes again of jealousy and betrayal ran through the novel, making me begin to think they might be a staple theme for the up coming course.

Othello by William Shakespeare

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This is the second occasion I have read Othello having produced a coursework piece on Iago’s character at A level. I felt fairly confident therefore in confronting the play again despite my (and I’m sure I’m not alone in this) struggles to the point of dislike for Shakespeare plays.

Othello is a tragedy set in Venice and then Cyprus. It differs from many plays of the time by having a hero who is black as a central character. Not only a black man but one who is married to a white woman (scandalous eh?!). Once again themes of jealousy and betrayal run through the novel with the central ‘malcontent’ Iago creating havoc with his meddling and manipulation. As it was it turned out that I was not remotely prepared for this play despite my earlier visit at A level. It was equally difficult to read as it was the first time but with the help of spark notes and my uni text-book I battled through and enjoyed the storyline in the end and the evaluating part of it was even quite fun with more than a few ‘penny dropping moments’ along the way!

Candide or Optimism by Voltaire

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Candide was a refreshing book. An extraordinarily easy read and very amusing. This was one of the books I enjoyed the most due to its light-hearted approach or optimism… Candide starts off in a great position living in a large home with rich people but when he falls in love with the Baron’s daughter he is thrown out into the world he hardly knows and left to fend for himself. Then everything starts going wrong, from accidentally joining a campaign, nearly being killed on several occasions, being robbed, being penniless, being reunited with his tutor only for him to be murdered, reunited with his love only for her to be stolen again, finding riches only to have them stolen and lost and a bit of trickery and manipulation along the way. But the main theme throughout is definitely Candide’s optimistic approach to life, he really, genuinely believes that everything will go right in the end even when it doesn’t. I found the ending pretty hilarious and maintain that this will be an enjoyable book to write about if it comes up in the assignments or exam. It’s also worth noting that there are several fairly decent supporting characters throughout as well who are enjoyable to read about.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

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This was a difficult book. Even more difficult that Othello in some ways as I guess I’d conditioned myself slightly to Shakespeare over the years and Webster was something new. I found the language difficult to say the least not to mention the fact I hate reading plays as it is. However once more I was rescued by the notes included in this edition and the information in the text-book which helped me to understand it a little better.

The Duchess does have a great storyline once it is understood properly. It was unusual in the time of it being written to have a woman as the central heroine and instead of choosing race as the central reason for people disapproving of the marriage, class is used instead. There are several interesting characters throughout the novel from Bosola the ‘malcontent’ to Antonio the steward who marries the Duchess in secret, not to mention the brothers Ferdinand and The Cardinal who are corrupt and not far off being a little bit crazy. The play touches on hate, revenge, women’s rights, class boundaries, corruption, politics and even lycanthropy!

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

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I love Sherlock Holmes but I haven’t read any of them for a very long time. It was pleasant to get back into one of them and after this course is over I think I’ll go back and read them all again! The Sign of Four was a nice little mystery wrapped up in a nice little parcel and tied with the excellent banter shared between Holmes and Watson and the wonderful character of Holmes himself who is as always highly entertaining with his powers of deduction, detective skills, drug taking and of course violin playing. The mystery involves a young woman heir to riches she never knew about. Her father was murdered and years later she begins receiving pearls followed by a cryptic note inviting her to a meeting to which she enlists the help of Holmes and Watson to accompany her. What follows is a string of events involving treasure, betrayal (again!), love and a chase across London by boat in the middle of the night.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

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This is about the 5th or 6th time I’ve read this book. I feel exceptionally lucky that it’s one of the set books for this year as it’s one of my all time favourites! Wuthering Heights is a love story like no other; it is poisonous, venomous, soul-destroying, crucifying love. It is a clear demonstration of what happens when a bright future is before you and then everything that can go wrong does and how that then shapes you as a person.

Heathcliffe was rescued from what we presume was a life of poverty (his history remains a mystery throughout the novel). He is given everything he could possibly want, he retained his humility, was a good son to Earnshaw, didn’t retaliate to being bullied by Hindley and was a wonderful friend and companion to Cathy. His prospects seemed that they would more than likely end with him marrying Cathy and living happily ever after. But of course that was not to be. Instead of a romantic love story it becomes a romantic tragedy.

Earnshaw’s death and Hindley’s return are just the beginning of the events that lead to Heathcliffe becoming the detestable man he is in the second half of the novel. Wuthering Heights has a weird way of convincing you to sympathise with every character while hating them equally as much. Heathcliffe becomes a ‘devil’ but you can sort of understand why he becomes like that because he was treated so badly and why wouldn’t he want to enact revenge on the people who have hurt and betrayed him?

Cathy is a spoilt little b*tch as is her daughter (Cathy the second) yet you feel sympathy for them both when the first goes mad and the second is forced to lose everything and become destitute. Nelly is both the voice of reason but equally an annoyin busybody of a character. All the other characters such as Edgar, Isabella, Hindley and young Linton are all equally detestable and yet pitiable at times. There is no real happy ending to the story either. That one charitable act of old Earnshaw seems inevitably to end up leaving the whole area changed and destitute.

Wuthering Heights is a novel which leaves you with something to think about and debate with yourself about. It is a truly fantastic piece of literature which has and will continue to be appreciated throughout time.

The Emigrants by W.G Sebald

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This was a hard book to read. I can see why some other people enjoyed it or rated it higher due to the writing quality etc but for me I always think about books mostly in terms of whether or not they are enjoyable to read. Even some serious books (Othello, The Duchess of Malfi) can be enjoyable once you understand them but this was hard going throughout and not just a lack of understanding. The Emigrants was a book I could just not engage with. I couldn’t understand whether it was fiction or non-fiction or a bit of both. I found the pictures in this version of the book to be highly distracting and the storytelling extremely confusing in parts. I took dreams for reality in places and reality for dreams as they moved between the two without any clear breaks. Also the narration was confusing when a minor character told a story in first person it became confusing as the narrator spoke in first person as well which made it unclear who was speaking and telling the story at any given time and I got lost. Although many have said it was right of the author to steer clear of directly mentioning the holocaust I think the lack of mentioning it left some confusion as to the reasons behind the many of the characters depression and the circumstances behind why they ended the way they did. Frankly it lost me from beginning to end and I have no idea how I’m going to write an assignment for uni about a book I found neither enjoyment nor understanding in.

Dubliners by James Joyce

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I quite enjoyed this collection of short stories. I’d heard bad reviews from people so was pleasantly surprised. A lot is admittedly left to the imagination in each story but each one gave the opportunity to wonder and speculate for yourself and I think for a book to study for an English Literature degree this is an excellent type of novel(s). The stories range from poverty to upper class and the different perspectives given by each. From the lonely man jealous of his wife’s dead sweetheart to the boys who skip school for the day and encounter a man who is more than a little eccentric and strange. The stories aren’t packed with action but they have a lot to tell as long as you know where to look.

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