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1. Heart-stopped: Fiction and the rewards of discomfort

Recently I was talking to a younger colleague, a recent PhD, about what we and our peers read for pleasure. He noted that the only fiction that most of his friends read is young adult fiction: The Hunger Games, Twilight, that kind of thing. Although the subject matter of these series is often dark, the appeal, hypothesized my colleague, lies elsewhere: in the reassuringly formulaic and predictable narrative arc of the plots. If his friends have a taste for something genuinely edgy, he went on, then they’ll read non-fiction instead.

When did we develop this idea that fiction, to be enjoyable, must be comforting nursery food? I’d argue that it’s not only in our recreational reading but also, increasingly, in the classroom, that we shun what seems too chewy or bitter, or, rather; we tolerate bitterness only if it comes in a familiar form, like an over-cooked Brussels sprout. And yet, in protecting ourselves from anticipated frictions and discomforts, we also deprive ourselves of one of fiction’s richest rewards.

One of the ideas my research explores is the belief, in the eighteenth-century, that fiction commands attention by soliciting wonder. Wonder might sound like a nice, calm, placid emotion, but that was not how eighteenth-century century thinkers conceived it. In an essay published in 1795 but probably written in the 1750s, Adam Smith describes wonder as a sentiment induced by a novel object, a sentiment that may be recognized by the wonderstruck subject’s “staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’). And that was just the beginning. As Smith describes:

“when the object is unexpected; the passion is then poured in all at once upon the heart which is thrown, if it is a strong passion, into the most violent and convulsive emotions, such as sometimes cause immediate death; sometimes, by the suddenness of the extacy, so entirely disjoint the whole frame of the imagination, that it never after returns to its former tone and composure, but falls either into a frenzy or habitual lunacy.” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’)

It doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it? Eighteenth-century novels risked provoking such extreme reactions in their tales of people in extremis; cast out; marooned; kidnapped. Such tales were not gory, necessarily, in the manner of The Hunger Games, and the response they invited was not necessarily horror or terror. More radically, in shape and form as well as content, eighteenth-century writers related stories that were strange, unpredictable, unsettling, and, as such, productive of wonder. Why risk discomforting your reader so profoundly? Because, Henry Home, Lord Kames argued in his Elements of Criticism (1762), wonder also fixes the attention: in convulsing the reader, you also impress a representation deeply upon her mind.

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Spooky Moon by Ray Bodden. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

One of the works I find particularly interesting to think about in relation to this idea of wonder is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a deeply pleasurable book to read, but I wouldn’t describe it as comfortable. Perhaps I felt this more acutely than some when I first read it, as a first year undergraduate. The year before I had witnessed my father experience a fatal heart attack. Ever since then, any description or representation that evoked the body’s motion in defibrillation would viscerally call up the memory of that night. One description that falls under that heading is the climactic moment in Shelley’s novel in which Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” If the unexpected, in Smith’s account, triggers convulsive motions, then it seems fitting that a newly created being’s experience of its own first breath would indeed be felt as a moment of wonder.

When I was a nineteen year-old reading Frankenstein, there was no discussion about the desirability of providing “trigger warnings” when teaching particular texts; and even if there had been, it seems unlikely that this particular text would have been flagged as potentially traumatic (a fact that speaks to the inherent difficulty of labeling certain texts as more likely to serve as triggers than others, given the variety of people’s experience). I found reading Shelley’s novel to be a deeply, uncomfortably, wonder-provoking experience, in Smith’s terms, but it did not, clearly, result in my “immediate death.” What it did produce, rather, was a deep and lasting impression. Indeed, perhaps that is why, more than twenty years later, I felt compelled to revisit this novel in my research, and why I found myself taking seriously Percy Shelley’s characterization of the experience of reading Frankenstein as one in which we feel our “heart suspend its pulsations with wonder” at its content, even as we “debate with ourselves in wonder,” as to how the work was produced. High affect can be all consuming, but we may also revisit and observe, in more serene moments, the workings of the mechanisms which wring such high affect from us.

In Minneapolis for a conference a few weeks ago, I mentioned to my panel’s chair that I had run around Lake Calhoun. He asked if I had stopped at the Bakken Museum (I had not), which is on the lake’s west shore. He proceeded to explain that it was a museum about Earl Bakken, developer of the pacemaker, whose invention was supposedly inspired by seeing the Boris Karloff 1931 film of Frankenstein, and in particular the scene in which the creature is brought to life with the convulsive electric charge.

As Bakken’s experience suggests, the images that disturb us can also inspire us. Mary Shelley affirms as much in her Introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, which suggests that the novel had its source in a nightmarish reverie. Shelley assumes that Frankenstein’s power depends upon the reproducible nature of her affect: “What terrified me will terrify others,” she predicts. Haunting images, whether conjured by fantasies, novels, or films, can be generative, although certainly not always in such direct and instrumental ways. Most of us won’t develop a life-saving piece of technology, like Earl Bakken (my father, in fact, had a pacemaker, and, although it didn’t save his life, it did prolong it) or write an iconic novel, like Mary Shelley. But that is not to say that the impressions that fiction can etch into our minds are not generative. If comfort has its place and its pleasures, so too does discomfort: experiencing “bad feelings” enables us to notice, in our re-tracings of them, the unexpected connections that emerge between profoundly different experiences—death; life; reading—all of them heart-stopping in their own ways.

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2. The Best Fiction of 2014

Few topics are more contentious at Powell's than agreeing on the "best" works of fiction. Our tastes run the gamut from experimental tragicomedies to multi-generational sagas to offbeat coming-of-age tales to surreal character studies... and so on. As such, rather than present selections from one perspective, we thought it wise to get a more representative [...]

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3. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and the country house

A ‘slobbering valentine to a member of the upper classes’, ‘an orgy of snobbery’, and ‘the apotheosis of brown-nosing’: Angela Carter’s excoriating dismissal of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), delivered in Tom Paulin’s notorious televisual polemic, J’accuse Virginia Woolf (1991), serves as a reminder that this work has as much potential as any of her novels to provoke heated disagreements. That it should be so might seem surprising, as it is one of the most easy-going of her novels, one in which she consciously simplified her prose style in the interests of drawing in the reader effortlessly; it is also the most comic of her novels, mocking the conventions of history and biography. That Carter in particular should be so violently opposed to the novel is particularly surprising, as its willingness to rewrite conventional fictional forms anticipates her novels, and its employment of fantastic elements anticipates the ‘magic realist’ mode that she was to employ. Like Orlando, Carter’s own The Passion of New Eve (1977) also centres on a change of sex, albeit more violently wrought. Mostly intriguingly of all, in 1979 Glyndebourne Opera House commissioned Carter to write a libretto for an opera, never completed, of Woolf’s novel. Carter’s dismissal of Woolf might appear to stem from unease about working in her shadow.

To leave it there would neglect the prominence of social class in Carter’s opinion. Though the fragments of her libretto were published under the title Orlando: or, The Enigma of the Sexes, another working title was Orlando: An English Country House Opera; the country house and the aristocracy are significant factors in Orlando. Woolf’s novel was inspired by her passionate relationship with Vita Sackville-West in 1925 and 1926. Vita had been brought up at Knole in Kent, her family’s ancestral seat since the early seventeenth century; she loved the house and its history, but as a woman, she did not stand to inherit it. Vita’s family history made a strong impression on Woolf: ‘All these ancestors & centuries, & silver & gold, have bred a perfect body’, she wrote in 1924, with a hint of critical awareness of Vita’s privilege; in the same diary entry she noted how Knole could house all the poor of Judd Street, then one of the slum areas of Bloomsbury. In 1927 she was more overawed, more deeply in love, and less critical: walking round Knole with Vita, ‘All the centuries seemed lit up, the past expressive, articulate; not dumb & forgotten; but a crowd of people stood behind, not dead at all; not remarkable; fair faced, long limbed; affable; & so we reach the days of Elizabeth quite easily.’ Politically Woolf was liberal, progressive, and above all anti-authoritarian; by the 1930s she was actively involved in her local Labour Party. Visiting Knole in 1927, however, she seems to have been enchanted by a conservative ideology in which the country house serves as symbol of continuity between generations, of the centrality of monarchy to the British constitution, and of a benign relation between the aristocracy and the people. It is ‘ideological’ in the sense of masking and normalizing exploitative economic relations.

From left to right: Harold Nickolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor, Lionel Sackville-West (1913)
From left to right: Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor, Lionel Sackville-West (1913). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The strength of Carter’s hostility in 1991 may well have something to do with the revival of the country house ideology in British mass culture in the 1980s. ITV’s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, in the depths of the economic recession of the early 1980s, was a particularly pointed example. Critical works such as Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country (1985) and Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry (1987) highlighted the ways in which ‘heritage’ serves political ends. However, Carter’s remarks don’t tell the whole truth, no matter how much they resonated in their moment. Important though the country house is to Orlando, it is less important than poetry and the hero/heroine’s dogged pursuit of the muse, and poetry in turn is less important than the question of personal identity. House-building and poetry-writing stand in direct contrast to each other. In Chapter II, it is the scorn of the poet Nick Greene that makes Orlando turn to the refurbishment of his house; though when the work is complete he holds banquets there, when the banquets are at their height he retreats to his private room to enjoy the pleasures of poetry. When Orlando travels to Turkey, his/her English values are put into perspective. To the Turkish gipsies, a family lineage four or five hundred years is of negligible duration, and the desire to own a house with hundreds of bedrooms is vulgar. Viewed from a certain angle, the established aristocrat becomes a vulgar upstart. Although the house still matters to Orlando when she returns to it triumphantly in the final chapter, and although the house still holds vivid memories of the people she has known, the cause of the triumph is the recognition of Orlando’s writing; and she recalls the sceptical perspective of the gipsies.

Focusing on the relationship between Vita and Virginia, Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson described Orlando as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’, a phrase that was Carter’s starting point. If Carter’s estimate is distorted by the demands of her time, Nicolson’s isn’t quite right either: Orlando is more than a purely personal document. It raises questions about personal identity and national identity, about history and its transmission, and about the value of writing, and it does so in a way that persistently mocks established values.

Headline image: Knole House, owned by the National Trust (2009). In the early 17th century the Sackville family re-modelled the old archbishops’ palace into a stately home. Photo by John Wilder. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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4. How Is Fantasy Different from Fairy Tale?

Fairy tale is a country of the mind where there are many inhabitants stretching back into deep time, and we're like people before Babel, we speak a common tongue: fairy tales exist in a symbolic Esperanto, with familiar motifs and images and characters and plots taking on new shapes and colors and sounds. One of [...]

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5. Touchy-feely politics

In April 2009, Barack and Michelle Obama met Queen Elizabeth I during their first state visit to England. At one point during their encounter, Michelle Obama put her arm around the Queen’s lower back and rubbed her shoulder, and the Queen reciprocated. It was the kind of gesture that might seem quite unremarkable when exchanged by friends, or even casual acquaintances: but, given the participants on this particular occasion, it unsurprisingly attracted a great deal more attention. The British tabloid press responded with all the measured calm for which it is so famous. The Daily Mail called their interaction “utterly astonishing,” and saw it as evidence of a “new touchy feely protocol.”

Responding to this scenario with faux amazement of this sort, however, wrongly suggests that the rules against touching a monarch differ fundamentally from those that govern the non-royal lives that the rest of us live. Rather than brewing a storm in a royal teacup in this way, we can instead use this moment to reflect upon the role that quieter, implicit, unspoken codes and rituals continue to play in our everyday interactions. The fact that the Queen cannot typically be touched doesn’t make her unlike the rest of us: it just means that the rules are clearer and less ambiguous in her case, and so too are the moments in which they are contravened.

Nowhere is the presence of such tacit codes clearer, perhaps, than in moments of greeting and parting, those ritualised exchanges that book-end so many of our daily interactions. Even something as routine as a handshake has a deeper symbolism buried within it – it is likely that the gesture first came to prominence among Quakers in the seventeenth century, as a deliberately egalitarian alternative to the doffing of hats, so it carries a political message of equality in addition to its social utility. The precise way in which a handshake is carried out – its degree of limpness or firmness, say – can tacitly set the tone for the conversation that follows.

Then there are the more intimate alternatives to the handshake – an embrace, or a peck on the cheek. It’s only at such a moment that both I, and the person with whom I am speaking, have to specify and give expression to our understanding of our relationship, and its level of intimacy. It’s a potentially fraught moment. What if I reach my hand out to be shaken at the precise moment that my interlocutor leans in for a hug? What if we exchange kisses on one cheek, but I swoop in for a kiss on the other side while the other person has already withdrawn his or her face, leaving me awkwardly to pucker up at thin air? It’s hard to say whether it is more embarrassing to be the one who has expected a greater degree of intimacy and been denied it, or the one who issues an accidental rebuff. A stiff moment of silence typically follows.

Described in this way, the most routine moments, which usually pass without incident, start to sound like a potential minefield of awkwardness and humiliation. We might hope to avoid experiencing such emotions ourselves, but the very fact that they are possible confirms just how important are these quiet, everyday exchanges. The more overt rituals that still structure touch-feely politics at the highest level are simply a magnification of the role that these rituals play in our everyday lives.

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Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. Public Domain via Flickr.

Once restrictions on touching the monarch have officially been formulated, it increases the political significance that casual acts of touch can assume. While restrictions of this sort have existed in many different cultures and eras, the point at which they were codified in English history can be pinpointed quite precisely. This occurred during the reign of Henry VIII, in the form of the Eltham Ordinances of 1526, orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. These regulations stressed that only Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber could dress the King, but insisted “that none of the said Grooms or Ushers do approach or presume…to lay hands upon his royal person.” The fact that Henry’s body couldn’t routinely be handled enabled him to invest those moments in which he did deign to touch his subjects all the more significant.

The implications of this situation were sharply recognised by Thomas More, as reported in the posthumous biography by his son-in-law, William Roper. Roper recalled the King walking with More in his garden after dinner one day, and “holding his arm about his neck.” Roper recognised this as a great sign of favour, and congratulated More, who wryly replied that “I believe he doth as singly favour me as any subject within this realm. Howbeit, son Roper, I may tell thee I have no cause to be proud thereof, for if my head could win him a castle in France … it should not fail to go.” More’s bleakly prophetic words recognised both the importance of these moments of unobtrusive intimacy, and their tendency to pale in comparison with the brutalities of realpolitik.

This moment suggests that the “new touchy-feely protocol” between the Queen and Michelle Obama was not in fact new, but continued a long-standing tendency for rulers to allow their bodies to be accessed in casual ways at carefully chosen moments. Barack Obama has shown himself to be no less aware of the symbolic force of striking moments of gentle contact, as with the 2012 photo, shown around the world, of the President allowing a five-year-old to feel his hair and confirm that it felt like the boy’s own. The real interest in such moments, however, lies less in what they tell us about the behaviour of rulers, than in the opportunity that they provide for reflection on the significance of such moments, so often fleeting and barely registered, in our own lives. The rituals that govern everyday conduct are less explicit than the Eltham Ordinances, but it is their unspoken nature that grants them both their quiet importance, and their perennial capacity for embarrassment.

Header image credit: ‘No Touching’ by Scott Akerman. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

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6. William Gibson: What I’m Giving

At Powell's, we feel the holidays are the perfect time to share our love of books with those close to us. For this special blog series, we reached out to authors featured in our Holiday Gift Guide to learn about their own experiences with book giving during this bountiful time of year. Today's featured giver [...]

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7. Shakespeare folio number 233

News that a previously unknown copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays has been discovered in a French library has been excitedly picked up by the worldwide press. But apart from the treasure-hunt appeal of this story, does it really matter that instead of the 232 copies of this book listed by Eric Rasmussen and Anthony West in their The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), there are now, apparently, 233? A book that was never particularly rare is now just a little bit less rare. Whoop dee doo. It’s not quite the discovery of – say – a new copy of the first edition of Venus and Adonis or Hamlet, each of which exists in only a single complete copy, still less the discovery of the lost ‘Cardenio’ or ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’: plays attributed to Shakespeare in the early modern period that have not survived. So (how) does it matter?

An easy answer is that every copy of an early modern book is unique. Around 500 press variants in copies of the First Folio have been identified, attesting to processes of proof-reading and stop-press correction in the printing shop of William and Isaac Jaggard at the Barbican where the book was produced. The St Omer copy may well have a different arrangement of corrected and uncorrected sheets than any other extant Folio. Some copies even include proof-sheets marked up with corrections: this one might provide another example. A full bibliographic description of the new find might also add to our understanding of, for example, the late inclusion of Troilus and Cressida in the First Folio, apparently because of problems about securing the rights to publish it. A couple of extant copies show the difficulties in placing this belated play, with cancelled sheets showing how the order of the plays had to be rethought: a new copy might shine new light on this bibliographic puzzle.

folio 233
Image: Digital facsimile of the Bodleian First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Arch. G c.7: CC-BY-3.0 via The Bodleian Library.

Perhaps more immediately arresting about the new copy, though, is how it might develop our understanding of how the travels of the First Folio established and extended Shakespeare’s reputation and reach. Most copies of the First Folio show signs of use: the book that libraries now treat almost as a religious relic was once part of the everyday mess and activity of the household: a book for use rather than ornament. Seeing how this copy can testify to those forms of early use will add to the knowledge of how Shakespeare was consumed in the first century of the book’s life, before cheaper, more convenient reprints of the plays, beginning with Nicholas Rowe in 1709, replaced it as a standard reading edition.

The specific provenance of this new copy is tantalizing. Few details have emerged, but they immediately set off some very suggestive lines of inquiry. The St Omer librarians indicate that Henry IV is marked with some kind of early performance notes. If this is true, then it is a rare – although not unique – example of a copy that can be related to early theatrical performance in some way.

They also suggest it has the name ‘Nevill’ written in it, and speculate that this person may have been one of the students at the Jesuit college in St Omer which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was an important training institution for English Catholics. In fact it might be possible to push a bit further with this identification: members of the prominent Jesuit family the Scarisbricks, from Ormskirk in Lancashire, took the name Neville. Edward Scarisbrick, born in 1639, was educated and later stationed at Saint-Omer. Perhaps he, or another member of his family, made his mark in their copy of Shakespeare. On his return to England at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he also wrote his name in another copy of the First Folio now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Other Jesuit associations can also be traced. There’s a First Folio in Stonyhurst College – the English descendant of St Omer’s college. The English college at Valladolid had a copy of the 1632 edition of Shakespeare, heavily censored. The seedy nuns-and-friar comedy Measure for Measure was obviously beyond redemption, and has been torn in its entirety from the volume (that book is now also at the Folger). We don’t yet know if there is any censorship evident in the Saint Omer text.

So Folio 233 potentially has lots to tell us about the spread of Shakespeare in the seventeenth century, about his early readers and about the intellectual and religious contexts and predispositions they brought to their reading. The book itself may not be rare, but its specific journey since its publication – still to be explored – is what makes it unique.

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8. Eleanor Catton: What I’m Giving

At Powell's, we feel the holidays are the perfect time to share our love of books with those close to us. For this special blog series, we reached out to authors featured in our Holiday Gift Guide to learn about their own experiences with book giving during this bountiful time of year. Today's featured giver [...]

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9. Mixtape and Mashup — A Brief Guide to Books Born from Other Works of Art

Fade in on the Mission Dolores, the fictional gravesite of Carlotta Valdes in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. One block away, two writers with their first jobs teaching creative writing (okay, it was us!) decide to collaborate on a book of short stories that respond to classic and cult movies. We try — and fail — to [...]

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10. Who is your favourite fairy-tale character?

From wicked step-mothers to fairy god-mothers, from stock phrases such as “once upon a time” to “happily ever after”, fairy-tales permeate our culture. Disney blockbusters have recently added another chapter to the history of the fairy-tale, sitting alongside the 19th century, saccharine tales published by the Brothers Grimm and the 17th century stories written by Charles Perrault. Inspired by Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time, we asked OUP staff members to channel their inner witches, trolls, and princesses, and reveal who their favourite fairy-tale character is and why. Do you agree with the choices below? Who would you choose?

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“The outlook is not promising for my favourite fairy-tale character, Kai, towards the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. With splinters from the troll’s mirror in his eye and his heart (that have turned him evil), Kai is a prisoner of the Snow Queen being forced to spell out the word ‘eternity’ using pieces of ice, in the manner of a Chinese puzzle. And he does it all for the childish promise of a pair of skates. Knowing the author’s penchant for unhappy, complicated endings, I was greatly relieved when the story ends with Kai’s childhood love Gerda coming to the rescue!”

Taylor Coe, Marketing Coordinator

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“Though I have many favorite characters, the one that has been consistent throughout my life is Ariel/The Little Mermaid. I have always been fascinated by the ocean so her story stood out amongst the other fairy-tales when I was growing up. I admire her ability to recognize what she wants, and her courage to change her circumstances, no matter the consequences. She is curious and always seeks out new experiences, which I relate to. Ariel’s story reminds us to question our surroundings and create adventurous lives.”

Molly Hansen, Marketing Associate

Le petit chaperon rouge, by Gustav
Le petit chaperon rouge, by Gustave Doré. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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“Baba Yaga. She has long been my favorite mainly because of the sound, rhythm, and cadence with which my mother (who first told me the story from a children’s book of fairy-tales) said ‘Baba Yaga, the boney-legged’. All sorts of possibilities lay within those five words. (I later learned my mother was mispronouncing ‘Baba Yaga’.) I think what her story distinct is that Baga Yaga was an individual. Normally fairy-tale characters, especially villains, are nameless : a witch, a wicked stepmother, etc. (this was before I learned it simply means ‘old woman’). Baba Yaga had a home (with chicken legs!); she didn’t live in some random cottage that inept children could find. Baga Yaga belonged in the (fairy tale) universe just as much as the heroes. (I have no idea what the hero’s name was supposed to be.)”

Alice Northover, Social Media Marketing Manager

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“Mine is La belle au bois dormant – or Sleeping Beauty. Just the thought of sleeping in peace for 100 years sounds like heaven to me. I’m not so fussed about being awoken by a kiss from a prince – I’d rather he came with a large cup of tea!”

Andrea Keegan, Senior Commissioning Editor

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“My favourite fairy-tale character is one I can’t actually pronounce: Snegurochka. For those who don’t speak Russian – and I modestly include myself among that number – Snegurochka (or Snegurka) is known in English as The Snow Maiden. It’s about a girl made of snow, by a poor, childless couple, who unexpectedly comes to life. Most versions of the story end relatively tragically, but I love the mixture of fantasy and real life. It’s very poignant, and lends itself to many different retellings.”

Simon Thomas, Marketing Executive

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“I have always been a fan of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale Snow White and Rose Red. Since one sister shares a name with the other fairy tale princess, I think these young ladies often are overlooked. I love that they are brave enough to be generous and kind even to those who are different or intimidating. And someone who is ungrateful for their help gets eaten by a bear—a good lesson for us all.”

Patricia Hudson, Associate Director of Institutional Marketing

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421px-Hansel-and-gretel-rackham
Hansel and Gretel, by Arthur Rackham. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“My favourite fairy-tale character is Puss in Boots because he is such a cunning feline. Ever the loyal cat, he uses his tricks and deceptions to aid his master in pursuit of love and fortune. He is part of a long tradition of the ingenious sidekick, whose skills far outweigh those of their counterpart – in this case his master – who inevitably reap the benefits of the sidekick’s wily ways. It’s got everything really: brains, adventure, romance… and rather adorably, a cat who thinks he’s people.”

Jennifer Rogers, Team Leader (GAB Operations)

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“Peter Pan because he is selfish and charming, earthly and ethereal, vulnerable and bold; he boasts “Oh, the cleverness of me!” and also fearlessly announces “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. He inhabits a dream-world and delights in enticing us to join him; to leave off adulthood and rekindle our childhood spirit & imagination.”

Suzie Eves, Marketing Assistant

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“I’ve always loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Irish warrior. He’s a shape-shifter in mythology; sometimes a man, sometimes a descendant of magic people, sometimes a giant. As a giant, he built the Giant’s Causeway to give him a stepping stone to Scotland. During a feud with a Scottish giant he dug out a clump of earth to throw at his rival; the hole where the earth had been became Lough Neagh, the earth (which fell short of Scotland) became the Isle of Man. It is said that he never died, but lies asleep underground, and will wake to protect Ireland and the Irish people when they need him most. I love these tales, as they speak to me of the places of my childhood, and when I visit the Giant’s Causeway, I almost feel like I could round a corner to find Fionn stepping in his giant boots across the Irish Sea.”

Cathryn Steele, Assistant Commissioning Editor

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character is the old shoemaker, who worked very hard and was very honest, but who couldn’t earn enough to feed his family. He unknowingly receives the help of the nocturnal elves, who themselves have nothing, not even clothes on their backs, but who work all night to turn leather into beautifully crafted shoes. The eventually success of the old shoemaker did not change him and he repaid the elves kindness with Christmas presents of fancy shirts, bright pantaloons, and teeny tiny clogs, and the elves went away happy and dancing. A lovely lesson not to forget those who helped us get where we are. It also reminds me of what parents say when they’ve performed a thankless task, “the elves must have done it!”. Perhaps it’s really a hint that they deserve a nice present at Christmas!”

Alison Jones, Managing Editor (Open Access)

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character is the horse Dapplegrim. I always loved how he was the brains and also the brawn in his fairy tale, and how the story was really about him, instead of about the prince and the princess who usually feature so centrally in fairy-tales. With his help his master was able to complete the tasks he was set and marry the princess, but Dapplegrim never asked for his own reward. His story had everything – magic, shape-shifting, seemingly-impossible tasks, a beautiful princess/sorceress to win, and a battle. Dapplegrim always came out on top.”

Jenny Nugee, Administative Assistant

*   *   *   *   *

“As a child I remember being horrified and fascinated by the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The more horrible the story, the more I loved it. Yet, it was not until I was a full-grown adult that I discovered my favorite book of fairy-tales. It was in the mid-90s when I was in my late 20s, living in Hoboken, NJ. My bedroom window looked out the back onto the backroom of a local pub, The Shannon Lounge. It was in the backroom of the Shannon Lounge that I witnessed a strange puppet show inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter. Here are wondrous tales of kids catching fire for playing with matches, and tall lanky men snipping off the thumbs of thumb sucking minors, or what would happen if you tipped in your chair at the dinner table, and many other cautionary tales for obstreperous brats that paid little heed to the wisdom of their parents and elders.”

Christian Purdy, Publicity Director, GAB Marketing

fairy-tale illustration, by Margaret Tarrant. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.
Fairy-tale illustration, by Margaret Tarrant. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr.

*   *   *   *   *

“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the lesser-known but very sweet Brave Little Tailor. He becomes king because of a series of calculated heroic actions, including clever wordplay (he kills “seven at one stroke,” he claims, referring not to men but to the seven flies he killed at breakfast) and defeating giants without even touching them (he turns them on each other, instead). He moves up the social ladder and marries the princess all due to his wit and cleverness—and maybe some white lies here and there…”

Georgia Brodsky, Marketing Coordinator

*   *   *   *   *

“The best characters are almost always the evil ones! I love the Queen in Snow White, particularly in the Brothers Grimm telling of the story. Her impressively creative attempts to kill Snow White are fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that I can relate to her demise: dancing in red-hot shoes until she drops dead.”

Caroline James, Editor

*   *   *   *   *

“I’ve always had a soft spot for the Ugly Duckling. As a very sensitive kid, I agonized with the baby bird at every step of his journey and was elated when he found his true family. Then, as a typically insecure teenager, I dreamed of having a transfiguration of my own. Now, as I tell the story to my daughter, it reminds me how important it is to treat even the scruffiest of ducklings more like potential swans.”

Beth Craggs, Communications Executive

*   *   *   *   *

“One of my favourite fairy-tale characters is the dog with the eyes as big as saucers in The Tinderbox. I like him because even though the treasure he guarded was the least valuable, he is no less intimidating as a character. As a child I wished I had a dog, so the idea of having three big dogs you could summon at any time also had great appeal!”

Iona Argyle, Programme Administrator

*   *   *   *   *

“My favourite fairy-tale character has to be Roald Dahl’s feisty Little Red Riding Hood. Dahl’s ability to challenge traditional roles and inject any story with a wicked spark of fun made his books a mainstay of my childhood. As a feminist, and someone who has watched the obsession with ‘perfect princesses’ with increasing dismay, the killer lines in this poem feel like a perfect antidote:”

‘The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead’

Emma Duke, Group Communications Manager

*   *   *   *   *

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11. The literature and history of Chaucer

To read Chaucer today is, in some measure, to read him historically. For instance, when the poet tells us in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales that the Knight’s crusading experiences include service with the Teutonic Order in ‘Lettow’ (i.e. Lithuania), comprehension of the literal sense or denotation of the text requires some knowledge of fourteenth-century institutions, ideas and events. More generally, discussions of whether the Knight’s crusading activities are being held up for approval or disapproval in the ‘General Prologue’ (i.e., of the text’s connotations), are likely to cite the various, and sometimes conflicting, ways in which the morality of crusading, and in particular of campaigns mounted by the Teutonic Order against the Lithuanians, were regarded in Chaucer’s own day.

Certainly modern literary critics, influenced by Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism and cultural materialism, have adopted historical and sociological approaches to literary works from the past and have insisted on the need to read medieval literature in its historical context. Whereas the works of canonical authors such as Chaucer were once admired because they were seen to speak to ‘us’ across the centuries about some timeless ‘human condition’, their works are now likely to be seen as interventions in the social, political and ideological conflicts of their day. Medieval literary texts have thus come to be understood as instances of, in Helen Barr’s words, ‘social language practice’, being to some extent determined by contemporary social structures, institutions, conventions and behaviour but also, in turn, participating in them and even influencing them.

This historical approach to literature has been particularly evident in the field of Chaucer studies. As a result of the influence of scholars such as David Aers, Stephen Knight, Paul Strohm, Lee Patterson, Peggy Knapp, and David Wallace, Chaucer’s work has come to be read ‘socio-historically’, as an engagement with the social and political problems and ideological conflicts of the late fourteenth century. For those who proceed in this way, the context needed for understanding the Canterbury Tales is not only other literary texts of this period, such as Langland’s Piers Plowman or Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but also documentary sources of the day, such as Richard II’s 1387 proclamation against slander or the 1382 letters in which aldermen of the city of London were accused of treason at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Portrait_of_Chaucer_-_Portrait_and_Life_of_Chaucer_(16th_C),_f.1_-_BL_Add_MS_5141
Image credit: Portrait of Chaucer, 16th century by the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, the popularity of historicist approaches to Chaucer’s work has by no means led to agreement about the poet’s social or moral outlook. On the contrary, as Helen Cooper said, there is ‘probably less of a critical consensus’ about Chaucer’s meaning and purpose ‘than for any other English writer’. Three main approaches to Chaucer’s social meaning can be identified, even though any one of them may be adopted by scholars writing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and deploying many different critical vocabularies. Firstly, are those critics who regard Chaucer’s views as being essentially in accord with conventional medieval defences of social inequality. Here Chaucer’s crusading Knight would be seen as an ideal representative of the estate of ‘those who fight’ and, along with the Parson and Ploughman, as providing a yardstick by which to measure the other pilgrims and the extent to which they perform their proper social functions, put the common good before their own immediate pleasure or profit, and live in harmony with their fellows. Secondly, there are those who adopt the opposite view, discerning a more radical Chaucer, one who highlights the inadequacies of traditional social morality and who offers a challenge to ‘official’ conceptions of the prevailing order. Here Chaucer’s description of the Knight would be seen as challenging traditional chivalric ideals or as questioning the validity of the crusades. Thirdly, there are those who consider Chaucer’s work to be in some way open-ended and so as allowing the members of its audience to make up their own minds about the moral questions – for instance, about the Knight’s willingness to kill in the name of religion – which it raises.

Yet, despite this well-established ‘historical turn’ in literary studies, medieval historians have generally been loath to turn their hands to interpretation of works of imaginative literature from the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is now time for historians to respond to the interdisciplinary approaches which literary critics have pioneered? If we need an historical approach to make sense of Chaucer’s meaning, perhaps historians themselves have something to contribute to the debates about the social meaning of the Canterbury Tales which have so engaged literary critics? In the past, medieval historians have often taken a rather naive approach to works of imaginative literature, asking to what extent Chaucer’s pilgrims constitute accurate ‘reflections’ of the social reality of the time or seeking ‘real-life models’ for the pilgrims amongst the people with whom Chaucer was (or may have been) acquainted. If they are to contribute anything of value to current debates about Chaucer’s social meaning, they will need a need a sensitivity to the specifically literary nature of his texts, including his medieval conceptions of satire and irony and the ways in which his work adapted traditional literary stereotypes and generic conventions. Literary critics have offered us the possibility of a dialogue between the disciplines; it is now up to historians to respond to this invitation, to familiarise themselves with the scholarship in the field and to offer their own assessment of Chaucer’s engagement with the ideology of his time.

Headline image credit: The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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12. Powell’s Q&A: Ron Rash

Describe your latest book/project/work. Something Rich and Strange is a collection of selected stories, including three stories previously unpublished in book form. Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start. Donald Harington is as underrated as any America writer I know of, and I'd suggest [...]

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13. Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Bae’ sonnets

In continuation of our Word of the Year celebrations and the selection of bae for Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year shortlist, I’m presenting my annual butchering of Shakespeare (previous victims include MacBeth and Hamlet). Of the many terms of endearment the Bard used — from lambkin to mouse — babe was not among them. In the 16th century, babe (which Shakespeare used a great deal) referred to a baby rather than a loved one. So instead, let us see how Shakespeare would address his mistress if he courted her like Pharrell Williams.

Sonnet 130

My bae’s eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My bae when she walks treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

Sonnet 138

When my bae swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue.
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
    Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
    And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Sonnet 154

The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs, that vowed chaste life to keep,
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire,
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed,
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my bae’s thrall,
    Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
    Love’s fire heats water; water cools not love.

For the original sonnets, plus expert commentary and notes, visit Oxford Scholarly Editions Online: Sonnet 130, Sonnet 138, and Sonnet 154.

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14. Anthony Trollope on literary criticism

Anthony Trollope’s autobiography is a classic study of the working life of one of English literature’s best-known writers. His strong opinions on working practices, contracts, deadlines, and earnings have divided opinion ever since. Below is an extract from Trollope’s An Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Nicholas Shrimpton, in which he shares his views on literary criticism and the critics themselves.

Literary criticism in the present day has become a profession,—but it has ceased to be an art. Its object is no longer that of proving that certain literary work is good and other literary work is bad, in accordance with rules which the critic is able to define. English criticism at present rarely even pretends to go so far as this. It attempts, in the first place, to tell the public whether a book be or be not worth public attention; and, in the second place, so to describe the purport of the work as to enable those who have not time or inclination for reading it to feel that by a short cut they can become acquainted with its contents. Both these objects, if fairly well carried out, are salutary. Though the critic may not be a profound judge himself; though not unfrequently he be a young man making his first literary attempts, with tastes and judgment still unfixed, yet he probably has a conscience in the matter, and would not have been selected for that work had he not shown some aptitude for it. Though he may be not the best possible guide to the undiscerning, he will be better than no guide at all. Real substantial criticism must, from its nature, be costly, and that which the public wants should at any rate be cheap. Advice is given to many thousands, which, though it may not be the best advice possible, is better than no advice at all. Then that description of the work criticised, that compressing of the much into very little,—which is the work of many modern critics or reviewers,—does enable many to know something of what is being said, who without it would know nothing.

I do not think it is incumbent on me at present to name periodicals in which this work is well done, and to make complaints of others by which it is scamped. I should give offence, and might probably be unjust. But I think I may certainly say that as some of these periodicals are certainly entitled to great praise for the manner in which the work is done generally, so are others open to very severe censure,—and that the praise and that the censure are chiefly due on behalf of one virtue and its opposite vice. It is not critical ability that we have a right to demand, or its absence that we are bound to deplore. Critical ability for the price we pay is not attainable. It is a faculty not peculiar to Englishmen, and when displayed is very frequently not appreciated. But that critics should be honest we have a right to demand, and critical dishonesty we are bound to expose. If the writer will tell us what he thinks, though his thoughts be absolutely vague and useless, we can forgive him; but when he tells us what he does not think, actuated either by friendship or by animosity, then there should be no pardon for him. This is the sin in modern English criticism of which there is most reason to complain.

Cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Cartoon portrait of Anthony Trollope by Frederick Waddy. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It is a lamentable fact that men and women lend themselves to this practice who are neither vindictive nor ordinarily dishonest. It has become ‘the custom of the trade,’ under the veil of which excuse so many tradesmen justify their malpractices! When a struggling author learns that so much has been done for A by the Barsetshire Gazette, so much for B by the Dillsborough Herald, and, again, so much for C by that powerful metropolitan organ the Evening Pulpit, and is told also that A and B and C have been favoured through personal interest, he also goes to work among the editors, or the editors’ wives,—or perhaps, if he cannot reach their wives, with their wives’ first or second cousins. When once the feeling has come upon an editor or a critic that he may allow himself to be influenced by other considerations than the duty he owes to the public, all sense of critical or of editorial honesty falls from him at once. Facilis descensus Averni.  In a very short time that editorial honesty becomes ridiculous to himself. It is for other purpose that he wields the power; and when he is told what is his duty, and what should be his conduct, the preacher of such doctrine seems to him to be quixotic. ‘Where have you lived, my friend, for the last twenty years,’ he says in spirit, if not in word, ‘that you come out now with such stuff as old-fashioned as this?’ And thus dishonesty begets dishonesty, till dishonesty seems to be beautiful. How nice to be good-natured! How glorious to assist struggling young authors, especially if the young author be also a pretty woman! How gracious to oblige a friend! Then the motive, though still pleasing, departs further from the border of what is good. In what way can the critic better repay the hospitality of his wealthy literary friend than by good-natured criticism,—or more certainly ensure for himself a continuation of hospitable favours?

Some years since a critic of the day, a gentleman well known then in literary circles, showed me the manuscript of a book recently published,— the work of a popular author. It was handsomely bound, and was a valuable and desirable possession. It had just been given to him by the author as an acknowledgment for a laudatory review in one of the leading journals of the day. As I was expressly asked whether I did not regard such a token as a sign of grace both in the giver and in the receiver, I said that I thought it should neither have been given nor have been taken. My theory was repudiated with scorn, and I was told that I was strait-laced, visionary, and impracticable! In all that the damage did not lie in the fact of that one present, but in the feeling on the part of the critic that his office was not debased by the acceptance of presents from those whom he criticised. This man was a professional critic, bound by his contract with certain employers to review such books as were sent to him. How could he, when he had received a valuable present for praising one book, censure another by the same author?

While I write this I well know that what I say, if it be ever noticed at all, will be taken as a straining at gnats, as a pretence of honesty, or at any rate as an exaggeration of scruples. I have said the same thing before, and have been ridiculed for saying it. But none the less am I sure that English literature generally is suffering much under this evil. All those who are struggling for success have forced upon them the idea that their strongest efforts should be made in touting for praise. Those who are not familiar with the lives of authors will hardly believe how low will be the forms which their struggles will take:—how little presents will be sent to men who write little articles; how much flattery may be expended even on the keeper of a circulating library; with what profuse and distant genuflexions approaches are made to the outside railing of the temple which contains within it the great thunderer of some metropolitan periodical publication! The evil here is not only that done to the public when interested counsel is given to them, but extends to the debasement of those who have at any rate considered themselves fit to provide literature for the public.

Headline image: Classical writing © Creativeye99, via iStock

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15. A reading list of Roman classics

Roman literature often derived from Greek sources, but took Greek models and made them its own. It includes some of the best known classical authors such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as a Roman emperor who found time to write down his philosophical reflections.

Saint Augustine’s Confessions by Saint Augustine

Augustine was a gifted teacher who abandoned his secular career and eventually became bishop of Hippo. His Confessions are a remarkable record of his wrestlings to accept his faith, his struggles to overcome sexual desire and renounce marriage and ambition. His final moment of conversion in a Milan garden is deeply moving.

On Obligations by Cicero

The great Roman statesman Cicero lived at the center of power. He was an advocate and orator as well as philosopher, who met his death bravely at the hands of Mark Antony’s executioners. On Obligations was written after the assassination of Julius Caesar to provide principles of behavior for aspiring politicians. Exploring as it does the tensions between honorable conduct and expediency in public life, it should be recommended reading for all public servants.

The Rise of Rome by Livy

The Roman historian Livy wrote a massive history of Rome in 142 books, of which only 35 survive in their entirety. In the first five books, translated here, he covers the period from Rome’s beginnings to her first major defeat, by the Gauls, in 390 BC. Among the many stories he includes are Romulus and Remus, the rape of Lucretia, Horatius at the bridge, and Cincinnatus called from his farm to save the state.

On the Nature of the Universe by Lucretius

Lucretius lived during the collapse of the Roman republic, and his poem De rerum natura sets out to relieve men of a fear of death. He argues that the world and everything in it are governed by the laws of nature, not by the gods, and the soul cannot be punished after death because it is mortal, and dies with the body. The book is an astonishing mix of scientific treatise, moral tract, and wonderful poetry.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius9780199573202_450

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably on military campaign in Germany when he wrote his philosophical reflections in a private notebook. Drawing on Stoic teachings, particularly those of Epictetus, Marcus tried to summarize the principles by which he led his life, to help to make sense of death and to look for moral significance in the natural world. Intimate writings, they bring us close to the personality of the emperor, who is often disillusioned with his own status, and with human life in general.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Metamorphoses is a wonderful collection of legendary stories and myth, often involving transformation, beginning with the transformation of Chaos into an ordered universe. In witty and elegant verse Ovid narrates the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Perseus and Andromeda, the rape of Proserpine, Orpheus and Eurydice, and many more.

Agricola and Germany by Tacitus9780199539260_450

Tacitus is perhaps best known for the Histories and the Annals, an account of life under emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. The shorter Agricola and Germany consist of a life of his father-in-law, who completed the conquest of Britain, and an account of Rome’s most dangerous enemies, the Germans. They are fascinating accounts of the two countries and their people, the northern ‘barbarians’. Later, German nationalists attempted to appropriate Germania in support of National Socialist racial ideas.

Georgics by Virgil

The Georgics is a poem of celebration for the land and the farmer’s life. Virgil doesn’t romanticize, rather he describes the setbacks as well as the rewards of working the land, and provides memorable descriptions of vine and olive cultivation, raising crops, and bee-keeping. It is both a practical agricultural manual and allegory, and brings the ancient rural world vividly to life.

Aeneid by Virgil

The story of Aeneas’ seven-year journey from the ruins of Troy to Italy, where he becomes the founding ancestor of Rome, is a narrative on an epic scale. Not only do Aeneas and his companions have to contend with the natural elements, they are at the whim of the gods and goddesses who hamper and assist them. It tells of Aeneas’ love affair with Dido of Carthage and of Aeneas’ encounters with the Harpies and the Cumaean Sibyl, and his adventures in the Underworld.

Heading image: Roman Virgil Folio. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. A reading list of Ancient Greek classics

This selection of ancient Greek literature includes philosophy, poetry, drama, and history. It introduces some of the great classical thinkers, whose ideas have had a profound influence on Western civilization.

Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius of Rhodes

Apollonius’ Argonautica is the dramatic story of Jason’s voyage in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, and how he wins the aid of the Colchian princess and sorceress Medea, as well as her love. Written in the third century BC, it was influential on the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid, as well as on Virgil’s Aeneid.

Poetics by Aristotle

This short treatise has been described as the most influential book on poetry ever written. It is a very readable consideration of why art matters which also contains practical advice for poets and playwrights that is still followed today.

The Trojan Women and Other Plays by Euripides

One of the greatest Greek tragedians, Euripides wrote at least eighty plays, of which seventeen survive complete. The universality of his themes means that his plays continue to be performed and adapted all over the world. In this volume three great war plays, The Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache, explore suffering and the endurance of the female spirit in the aftermath of bloody conflict.

The Histories by Herodotus

Herodotus was called “the father of history” by Cicero because the scale on which he wrote had never been attempted before. His history of the Persian Wars is an astonishing achievement, and is not only a fascinating history of events but is full of digression and entertaining anecdote. It also provokes very interesting questions about historiography.

The Iliad by Homer9780199645213_450

Homer’s two great epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, have created stories that have enthralled readers for thousands of year. The Iliad describes a tragic episode during the siege of Troy, sparked by a quarrel between the leader of the Greek army and its mightiest warrior, Achilles; Achilles’ anger and the death of the Trojan hero Hector play out beneath the watchful gaze of the gods.

Republic by Plato

Plato’s dialogue presents Socrates and other philosophers discussing what makes the ideal community. It is essentially an enquiry into morality, and why justice and goodness are fundamental. Harmonious human beings are as necessary as a harmonious society, and Plato has profound things to say about many aspects of life. The dialogue contains the famous myth of the cave, in which only knowledge and wisdom will liberate man from regarding shadows as reality.

Greek Lives by Plutarch9780199540051

Plutarch wrote forty-six biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans in a series of paired, or parallel, Lives. This selection of nine Greek lives includes Alexander the Great, Pericles, and Lycurgus, and the Lives are notable for their insights into personalities, as well as for what they reveal about such things as the Spartan regime and social system.

Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra by Sophocles

In these three masterpieces Sophocles established the foundation of Western drama. His three central characters are faced with tests of their will and character, and their refusal to compromise their principles has terrible results. Antigone and Electra are bywords for female resolve, while Oedipus’ discovery that he has committed both incest and patricide has inspired much psychological analysis, and given his name to Freud’s famous complex.

Heading image: Porch of Maidens by Thermos. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. Ancient voices for today [infographic]

The ancient writers of Greece and Rome are familiar to many, but what do their voices really tell us about who they were and what they believed? In Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome, Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke provide a vibrant and distinctive introduction to twelve of the greatest authors from ancient Greece and Rome, writers whose voices still resonate across the centuries. Below is an infographic that shows how each of the great classical authors would describe their voice today, if they could.

CF_12voicesIG_100314_final

Download the infographic in pdf or jpeg.

Featured image credit: “Exterior of the Colosseum” by Diana Ringo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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18. A Halloween horror story: What was it? Part 5

Every Friday this October we’ve unveiled a part of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Today we’re wrapping up the story with the final installment. Last we left off the narrator, Harry, and his friend, Hammond, tied up an invisible entity, shocking the boarders of the haunted home where they had been staying. Will they learn more about the mysterious creature?

We watched together, smoking many pipes, all night long, by the bedside of the unearthly being that tossed and panted until it was apparently wearied out. Then we learned by the low, regular breathing that it slept.

The next morning the house was all astir. The boarders congregated on the landing outside my room, and Hammond and myself were lions. We had to answer a thousand questions as to the state of our extraordinary prisoner, for as yet not one person in the house except ourselves could be induced to set foot in the apartment.

The creature was awake. This was evidenced by the convulsive manner in which the bed-clothes were moved in its efforts to escape. There was something truly terrible in beholding, as it were, those second-hand indications of the terrible writhings and agonized struggles for liberty which themselves were invisible.

Hammond and myself had racked our brains during the long night to discover some means by which we might realize the shape and general appearance of the Enigma. As well as we could make out by passing our hands over the creature’s form, its outlines and lineaments were human. There was a mouth; a round, smooth head without hair; a nose, which, however, was little elevated above the cheeks; and its hands and feet felt like those of a boy. At first we thought of placing the being on a smooth surface and tracing its outline with chalk, as shoemakers trace the outline of the foot. This plan was given up as being of no value. Such an outline would give not the slightest idea of its conformation.

A happy thought struck me. We would take a cast of it in plaster of Paris. This would give us the solid figure, and satisfy all our wishes. But how to do it? The movements of the creature would disturb the setting of the plastic covering, and distort the mould. Another thought. Why not give it chloroform? It had respiratory organs,—that was evident by its breathing. Once reduced to a state of insensibility, we could do with it what we would. Doctor X—— was sent for; and after the worthy physician had recovered from the first shock of amazement, he proceeded to administer the chloroform. In three minutes afterward we were enabled to remove the fetters from the creature’s body, and a modeller was busily engaged in covering the invisible form with the moist clay. In five minutes more we had a mould, and before evening a rough fac-simile of the Mystery. It was shaped like a man,—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man. It was small, not over four feet and some inches in height, and its limbs revealed a muscular development that was unparalleled. Its face surpassed in hideousness anything I had ever seen. Gustave Doré, or Callot, or Tony Johannot, never conceived anything so horrible. There is a face in one of the latter’s illustrations to Un Voyage où il vous plaira, which somewhat approaches the countenance of this creature, but does not equal it. It was the physiognomy of what I should fancy a ghoul might be. It looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.

Having satisfied our curiosity, and bound every one in the house to secrecy, it became a question what was to be done with our Enigma? It was impossible that we should keep such a horror in our house; it was equally impossible that such an awful being should be let loose upon the world. I confess that I would have gladly voted for the creature’s destruction. But who would shoulder the responsibility? Who would undertake the execution of this horrible semblance of a human being? Day after day this question was deliberated gravely. The boarders all left the house. Mrs Moffat was in despair, and threatened Hammond and myself with all sorts of legal penalties if we did not remove the Horror. Our answer was, ‘We will go if you like, but we decline taking this creature with us. Remove it yourself if you please. It appeared in your house. On you the responsibility rests.’ To this there was, of course, no answer. Mrs Moffat could not obtain for love or money a person who would even approach the Mystery.

The most singular part of the affair was that we were entirely ignorant of what the creature habitually fed on. Everything in the way of nutriment that we could think of was placed before it, but was never touched. It was awful to stand by, day after day, and see the clothes toss, and hear the hard breathing, and know that it was starving.

Ten, twelve days, a fortnight passed, and it still lived. The pulsations of the heart, however, were daily growing fainter, and had now nearly ceased. It was evident that the creature was dying for want of sustenance. While this terrible life-struggle was going on, I felt miserable. I could not sleep. Horrible as the creature was, it was pitiful to think of the pangs it was suffering.

At last it died. Hammond and I found it cold and stiff one morning in the bed. The heart had ceased to beat, the lungs to inspire. We hastened to bury it in the garden. It was a strange funeral, the dropping of that viewless corpse into the damp hole. The cast of its form I gave to Doctor X——, who keeps it in his museum in Tenth Street.

As I am on the eve of a long journey from which I may not return, I have drawn up this narrative of an event the most singular that has ever come to my knowledge.

Missed a part of the story? Catch up with part 1, 2, 3, and 4 for a frightening Halloween read.

Featured image credit: What happened by Thomas Mues. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

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19. A Halloween horror story : What was it? Part 4

We’re getting ready for Halloween this month by reading the classic horror stories that set the stage for the creepy movies and books we love today. Every Friday this October we’ve unveiled a part of Fitz-James O’Brien’s tale of an unusual entity in What Was It?, a story from the spine-tingling collection of works in Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson, edited by Darryl Jones. Last we left off the narrator, Harry, tried to fight off a mysterious creature fighting him in his bed. His friend Hammond had just come to his rescue.

Hammond stood holding the ends of the cord that bound the Invisible, twisted round his hand, while before him, self-supporting as it were, he beheld a rope laced and interlaced, and stretching tightly around a vacant space. I never saw a man look so thoroughly stricken with awe. Nevertheless his face expressed all the courage and determination which I knew him to possess. His lips, although white, were set firmly, and one could perceive at a glance that, although stricken with fear, he was not daunted.

The confusion that ensued among the guests of the house who were witnesses of this extraordinary scene between Hammond and myself, — who beheld the pantomime of binding this struggling Something, — who beheld me almost sinking from physical exhaustion when my task of jailer was over, — the confusion and terror that took possession of the bystanders, when they saw all this, was beyond description. The weaker ones fled from the apartment. The few who remained clustered near the door and could not be induced to approach Hammond and his Charge. Still incredulity broke out through their terror. They had not the courage to satisfy themselves, and yet they doubted. It was in vain that I begged of some of the men to come near and convince themselves by touch of the existence in that room of a living being which was invisible. They were incredulous, but did not dare to undeceive themselves. How could a solid, living, breathing body be invisible, they asked. My reply was this. I gave a sign to Hammond, and both of us — conquering our fearful repugnance to touch the invisible creature — lifted it from the ground, manacled as it was, and took it to my bed. Its weight was about that of a boy of fourteen.

‘Now, my friends,’ I said, as Hammond and myself held the creature suspended over the bed, ‘I can give you self-evident proof that here is a solid, ponderable body, which, nevertheless, you cannot see. Be good enough to watch the surface of the bed attentively.’

I was astonished at my own courage in treating this strange event so calmly; but I had recovered from my first terror, and felt a sort of scientific pride in the affair, which dominated every other feeling.

The eyes of the bystanders were immediately fixed on my bed. At a given signal Hammond and I let the creature fall. There was the dull sound of a heavy body alighting on a soft mass. The timbers of the bed creaked. A deep impression marked itself distinctly on the pillow, and on the bed itself. The crowd who witnessed this gave a low cry, and rushed from the room. Hammond and I were left alone with our Mystery.

We remained silent for some time, listening to the low, irregular breathing of the creature on the bed, and watching the rustle of the bed-clothes as it impotently struggled to free itself from confinement. Then Hammond spoke.

‘Harry, this is awful.’

‘Ay, awful.’

‘But not unaccountable.’

‘Not unaccountable! What do you mean? Such a thing has never occurred since the birth of the world. I know not what to think, Hammond. God grant that I am not mad, and that this is not an insane fantasy!’

‘Let us reason a little, Harry. Here is a solid body which we touch, but which we cannot see. The fact is so unusual that it strikes us with terror. Is there no parallel, though, for such a phenomenon? Take a piece of pure glass. It is tangible and transparent. A certain chemical coarseness is all that prevents its being so entirely transparent as to be totally invisible. It is not theoretically impossible, mind you, to make a glass which shall not reflect a single ray of light, — a glass so pure and homogeneous in its atoms that the rays from the sun will pass through it as they do through the air, refracted but not reflected. We do not see the air, and yet we feel it.’

‘That’s all very well, Hammond, but these are inanimate substances. Glass does not breathe, air does not breathe. This thing has a heart that palpitates, — a will that moves it, — lungs that play, and inspire and respire.’

‘You forget the phenomena of which we have so often heard of late,’ answered the Doctor, gravely. ‘At the meetings called “spirit circles,” invisible hands have been thrust into the hands of those persons round the table, — warm, fleshly hands that seemed to pulsate with mortal life.’

‘What? Do you think, then, that this thing is — ’

‘I don’t know what it is,’ was the solemn reply; ‘but please the gods I will, with your assistance, thoroughly investigate it.’

Check back next Friday, 31st of October for the final installment. Missed a part of the story? Catch up with part 1, 2, and 3.

Featured image credit: Haunted Hotel Room by Manuel Millway. CC 2.0 via Flickr.

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20. Short stories from the Danish capital

From the narrow twisting streets of the old town centre to the shady docklands, Copenhagen Tales captures the essence of Copenhagen and its many faces. Through seventeen tales by some of the very best of Denmark’s writers past and present, we travel the length and breadth of the Danish capital examining famous sights from unique perspectives. A guide book usefully informs a new visitor to Copenhagen but these stories allow the reader to experience the city and its history from the inside. Translator Lotte Shankland is a Copenhagener by birth who has lived many years in England. In the videos below she discusses the collection, decribing the richness of Danish literature, as well as the Scandinavian noir genre.

Lotte Shankland on the greater significance of short stories within Denmark:

Lotte Shankland discusses her favourite short story, ‘Nightingale’, by Meir Goldschmidt:

From Hans Christian Andersen to Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark has been home to some of the finest writers in Europe. In the National Museum in Copenhagen you will find stories from as early as 1500 BC, covering myth and magic. A walk through the city will most likely involve an encounter with the emblematic statue of the Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale. The Danes continue to tell great stories, as evidenced by the hugely popular Danish TV series The Killing and the Sweedish co-production The Bridge. Copenhagen Tales offers a way to understand the heart and soul of this diverse city, through the literature and art it has generated.

Featured image credit: Copenhagen, Denmark. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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21. Once upon a time, part 2

There is a quarrel inside me about fairies, and the form of literature their presence helps to define. I have never tried to see a fairy, or at least not since I was five years old. The interest of Casimiro Piccolo reveals how attitudes to folklore belong to their time: he was affected by the scientific inquiry into the paranormal which flourished – in highly intellectual circles – from the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. But he also presents a test case, I feel, for the questions that hang around fairies and fairy tales in the twenty-first century. What is the point of them? What are the uses of such enchantments today? The absurdity of this form of magical belief (religious miracles are felt to be different, and not only by believers) creates a quarrel inside me, about the worth of this form of literature and entertainment I enjoy so much. In what way am I ‘away with the fairies’, too?

Butterfly fairy
This watercolor is part of the collection owned by the Family Piccolo of Calanovella Foundation, created by Baron Casimiro Piccolo of Calanovell, www.fondazionepiccolo.it. All rights reserved. Used with their permission.

Suspicion now hangs around fairy tales because the kind of supernatural creatures and events they include belong to a belief system nobody subscribes to anymore. Even children, unless very small, are in on the secret that fairyland is a fantasy. In the past, however, allusions to fairies could be dangerous not because belief in them was scorned, but because they were feared: Kirk collected the beliefs of his flock in order to defend them against charges of heterodoxy or witchcraft, and, the same time as Kirk’s ethnographical activities, Charles Perrault published his crucially influential collection (l697), in which he pokes fun, with suave courtly wit, at the dangerousness of witches and witchcraft, ogres and talking animals. Perrault is slippery and ambiguous. His Cinderella is a tale of marvellously efficacious magic, but he ends with a moral: recommending his readers to find themselves well-placed godmothers. Not long before he was writing his fairy tales, France and other places in Europe had seen many people condemned to death on suspicion of using magic. The fairy tale emerges as entertainment in a proto-enlightenment move to show that there is nothing to fear.

The current state of fairy tale – whether metastasized in huge blockbuster films or refreshed and re-invigorated in the fiction of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Margaret Atwood or, most recently, Helen Oyeyemi (Mr Fox, and, this year, Boy Snow Bird) does not invite, let alone compel, belief in its magic elements as from an audience of adepts or faithful. Contemporary readers and audiences, including children over the age of 6, are too savvy about special effects and plot lines and the science/magic overlap to accept supernatural causes behind Angelina Jolie’s soaring in Maleficent or the transmogrifications of the characters. Nor do they, nor do we need to suspend disbelief in the willed way Coleridge described.

Rather the ways of approaching the old material – Blue Beard, The Robber Bridegroom, Hansel & Gretel, Snow White and so on – opens up the stories to new meanings. The familiar narrative becomes the arena for raising questions; the story’s well known features provide a common language for thinking about families and love, childhood and marriage. Fairies and their realm allow thought experiments about alternative arrangements in this world. We are no longer looking for fairies at the bottom of the garden, but seeing through them to glimpse other things. As the little girl realises in The Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox, her grandmother through her stories ‘saw what others couldn’t see, that for her the meaning of one thing could also be the meaning of a greater thing.’ In the past, these other, greater things were most often promises – escape, revenge, recognition, glory – but the trend of fairy tales is turning darker, and many retellings no longer hold out such bright eyed hope.

Featured image credit: Sleeping Beauty, by Viktor M. Vasnetsov. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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22. Celebrating Dylan Thomas’s centenary

Today, 27 October sees the centenary of the birth of the poet, Dylan Marlais Thomas. Born on Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, and brought up in the genteel district of Uplands, Thomas’s childhood was suburban and orthodox — his father an aspirational but disappointed English teacher at the local grammar school.

Swansea would remain a place for home comforts. But from the mid-1930s, Thomas began a wandering life that took in London’s Fitzrovia — and in particular its pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern and the Wheatsheaf — and then (as a dysfunctionally married man) the New Forest, squalid rooms in wartime London, New Quay on Cardigan Bay, Italy, Laugharne in Carmarthenshire, and from 1950 the United States where he gained a popular student following and where he died in Manhattan, aged thirty-nine.

For all his wanderings, few of Thomas’s poems were written outside Wales. Indeed, half of the published poems for which he is known were written, in some form, while he was living at home in Swansea between 1930 and 1934. As Paul Ferris, his Oxford DNB biographer writes, “commonplace scenes and characters from childhood recur in his writing: the park that adjoins Cwmdonkin Drive; the bay and sands that were visible from the windows; a maternal aunt he visited” — the latter giving rise to one of Thomas’s best-known poems, “Fern Hill.” In literary London, and in numerous bar rooms thereafter, Thomas’s “drinking and clowning were indispensable to him, but they were only half the story; ‘I am as domestic as a slipper’ he once observed, with some truth.”

Dylan_Thomas_-_Was_there_a_time
Dylan Thomas, “Was there a time” by Biccie. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to its life of Dylan Thomas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography includes entries on his wife Caitlin Thomas (1903-1994) and David Archer (1907-1971), the London publisher who brought out Thomas’s first collection Eighteen Poems — as well as a guide to Thomas’s fellow bohemians who haunted the saloons, cafes, and bookshops of inter-war Fitzrovia.

The Oxford DNB’s life of Dylan Thomas is also available as an episode in the ODNB’s biography podcast.

 

Or download the podcast directly.

Headline image credit: Swansea Panorama by Sloman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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23. The 100th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s birth

On 27th October 1914 Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, South Wales. He is widely regarded as one the most significant Welsh writers of the 20th century.Thomas’s popular reputation has continued to grow after his death on 9th November, 1953, despite some critics describing his work as too ‘florid‘. He wrote prolifically throughout his lifetime but is arguably best known for his poetry. His poem The hand that signed the paper is taken from Jon Stallworthy’s edited collection The Oxford Book of War Poetry, and can be found below:

DYLAN THOMAS

1914–1953

The hand that signed the paper

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;

Dylan_Swansea
Statue of Dylan Thomas, Maritime Quarter, Swansea, by Tony in Devon. CC-BY-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,

Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;

These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,

The finger joints are cramped with chalk;

A goose’s quill has put an end to murder

That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,

And famine grew, and locusts came;

Great is the hand that holds dominion over

Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften

The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;

A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;

Hands have no tears to flow.

                                                                                            1936

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24. Six classic tales of horror for Halloween

People have enjoyed the horror genre for centuries, reveling in the spooky, toe-curling, hair-raising feelings this genre elicits — perfect for Halloween. Whether you’re trick-or-treating, attending a costume party, or staying home, we’ve put together a list of Oxford World’s Classics that will put you in the mood for this eerie night.

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre by John Polidori

“The Vampyre”, a gothic horror that’s sure to push you to the edge of your seat, is considered the first to incorporate a vampire into fiction. And that’s just one of the many squeamish stories in store; from a bloodthirsty vampire to obsessive revenge, let the ghastly atmosphere overwhelm you with this collection of stories.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Follow the terrifying story of a young man whose descent into madness leads into a life as a serial murderer. In the second half of the novel, the murderer tells his side of the story, revealing his true madness. This psychologically unnerving novel will probably leave you sleepless. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

Perhaps a story about an arranged marriage wouldn’t garner the usual horror fan’s interest. But after nearly (and unknowingly) being stabbed by her jealous stepmother, the protagonist escapes from the arrange marriage into the labyrinth of the passages underneath Sicilian castles. With Ann Radcliffe’s weaving of psychological terror in a gothic setting, this is a perfect book to lose yourself in while (perhaps accidentally) ignoring the trick-or-treaters at your door.

Heart of Darkness and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

In a story highlighting the horrors that humans can wreak upon one another, Marlow (the narrator in the story) tells of his experience in Africa and of his witnessing Kurtz’s descent into power hunger and madness. The dark themes present throughout Heart of Darkness will sit at the forefront of your mind, an ever-present reminder that humans can be just as frightful as any monster.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster by Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales by Robert Louis Stevenson

The first story in this four-piece collection is the horrifying story that tells of a doctor conducting experiments that cause him to transform into a violent, murderous man. Is Hyde really a separate “being”? Or is he simply Jekyll unleashed from the confines of moral society…? This classic story is bound to find its way on the list, and with a number of other chilling short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson in this book, you can’t lose.

In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

You’ll claw your way out of being buried alive in The Room in the Dragon Volant. Or you’ll go mad as a demon haunts you with the intent of destroying you psychologically in Green Tea. With supernatural creatures and nightmarish circumstances, this collection of five short stories will highlight any horror lover’s Halloween.

Headline image: Caw! Caw! Photo by Wayne Wilkinson. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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25. Miriam Toews: The Powells.com Interview

Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her [...]

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