Recent Reads: Shakespeare, Vintage Horror, and Modernism

This past long weekend, having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I settled down in my big blue chair for a mini readathon. I’m dreadfully behind on the 100-book Goodreads goal, so my nefarious scheme is to read a bunch of short works to try to catch up.

The Wife (Kristin Lavransdatter #2) by Sigrid Undset

Now, this is one I actually finished a couple weeks ago, but I owe y’all an update. Without going into spoilers, I did like The Wife a great deal better than The Wreath (book 1). We get the whole fallout of Kristin’s “happily ever after” which, as it turns out, is happily ever disaster. (Ok, it’s not all bad, but it almost is.) I appreciated the realism. I didn’t love the sensationalism, which seems to be a trademark of the book (think the TV series Poldark or Downton Abbey). It’s a decent middle book, and I’m still curious how the trilogy ends, though not champing at the bit to read the last book yet.

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

This is a novel, a Kafka precursor, I wanted very much to love but honestly didn’t. I’ll fully admit I wasn’t in the happiest frame of mind while reading it, so there maybe some personal bias seeping in. But I found Jakob to be a deeply unsettling, sinister story, much more than Kafka even. The writing is more accessible; there were some beautiful passages, too, even some that moved me to tears—I will probably do a follow-up post of favorite quotes. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it personally, but it’s worth a try (your mileage may vary). I would probably still read more by Walser since I like this kind of writing for itself.

Sonnets by Shakespeare

I have a poor track record with Will… I’ve only read a handful of his plays and the only one I enjoyed was Hamlet. I actually bought this book mainly out of politeness (I hate going into a small bookshop and not buying anything to support the place). All that aside—I really got into the sonnets! Of course, we all know the very famous ones like “Love is not love” and “Shall I compare thee,” but I found some I’d never heard before that touched me deeply. There were two on time I liked very much and some on love and loss that were quite powerful. I think my favorite is 87.

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. ELIOT

I read this on good ol’ Wikisource. I’m glad I haven’t bought any Eliot yet because I was underwhelmed by this collection and even “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” failed to amaze. I enjoy his style and he has some good rhymes and imagery. I just found these poems to be rather forgettable, if I’m being honest. “Portrait of a Lady” was probably the best.

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Wikisource again. I specifically marked this one as “list for 2021,” so read it, I did. It was a bit overwrought in parts, but I found it sufficiently creepy, when read at night. I enjoyed the premise—two guys canoeing down the Danube, the “sensible” one and the “imaginative” one. Pretty soon they start seeing some weird stuff. It reminded me a lot of Malicroix by Henri Bosco (another review I failed to give you, I’m sorry). But like Malicroix, it tried to be a bit more than it could live up to. Still a fun read, though.

“The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft

Wikisource again (again)! Amazingly, this was my first time reading Lovecraft. It won’t be my last, but I’ve been extremely spoiled by the horror stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. By comparison, “Cthulhu” seemed to be too much tell and not enough show. I liked that it was a compilation of notes of other people, but somehow Lovecraft’s version of this isn’t as interesting as Doyle’s or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He told me many times how Cosmic, Cyclopean, and Bad things were, but I wasn’t feeling it, even at the end. Still, I do love old sci-fi/horror, so I will read more of his stories to get my fix.

In fact—if you have any sci-fi/horror to recommend from this general time period (late Victorian to 1920s), do let me know!

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Hamlet Revisited

Over time, I have come to love a lot of things I used to dislike strongly – opera, Debussy, Moby-Dick, and poetry.  Perhaps Shakespeare will grow on me, too – perhaps.

The plot starts out with some exposition explaining that the king of Denmark has recently died and his brother Claudius is serving the office in his stead.  Part of this “office,” according to Claudius, is marrying his brother’s wife, Queen Gertrude.  (Wiki would have you think this is a Levirate marriage; however, since Hamlet is the son of Gertrude and the late king, this does not appear to qualify as such, by Old Testament standards.)  Hamlet is grief-stricken and angry at his mother for what he sees as her betrayal.  This is only worsened by a seeming visit from the ghost of his father, who says his death was no accident and urges him to take vengeance on Claudius, “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life.”

File-Hamlet, Prince of Demark Act I Scene IV

One of my biggest questions is whether the Ghost is real.  I have yet to read what others think about that, but it seems possible that Claudius’s guilt could have been found out by Hamlet’s intuition, much like how some detectives would extract a confession.  I also went back and re-read o’s post on Ophelia, which reconfirms my feeling that more could have been said about her plotline.  Even Horatio is given little description of his own, while there is everything to indicate he is Hamlet’s only friend and very emotionally attached.  Finally, I wonder which side of Hamlet is realer – his former, confident, lovestruck youthfulness, or his bitter, misogynistic, self-destructive “madness.”  I will probably spend some time reading this Wiki article

It’s a dark story, but well worth it if you want to read a giant of English literature and culture.  I recommend reading it all the way through before you think of giving up on Shakespeare.   4 out of 5 stars.