I have been reading a lot of books lately that fall into the "not contemporary literary fiction" category: a graphic novel, two plays, and two books written before 1900. I am not sure that I can write full reviews of any of these things, so have decided that I will be writing a bunch of mini-reviews and compiling all of them in one post. Sorry if that's cheating.
Hark! A Vagrant
Hark! A Vagrant is a humor/historical graphic novel written by Kate Beaton, based on her webcomic series of the same title. The book was almost always consistently hilarious, trotting out tons of historical figures recognizable and not-so-familiar (I consistently struggled to understand with the comics about Canadian famous people, but I think this is part of the joke--there's one comic about how there aren't really any notable figures from Canada), and I put most of the comics I didn't find so funny down to my own ignorance of history. Beaton is a very intelligent woman and it shines through in her comics.
My rating: 5/5
The Glass Menagerie
My first-ever Tennessee Williams play. I wasn't sure what to expect; I hear a lot of really good things about the playwright, so I was excited. This one was about the Wingfield family: Amanda, the traditionalist, Southern belle mother; Laura, the shy "cripple" with an obsession for glass figurines of animals (the titular glass menagerie); the narrator, Tom, who wants to be a poet and see the world; and the father of the family, who left to explore the world years ago and never returned. The play culminates in a dinner date with a suitor intended for Laura, and it is ultimately a very heartbreaking text (in the best way, of course). My only problem with the text is how thickly laid-on the pretension--I know that this is an early work of Williams', but come on. The concept of the play is that it is recalled from Tom's memory, and so there are some interesting ideas scattered through the text--having light focus on characters not so important in the scene, for example, or thick curtains to mask characters in the way that memory becomes foggy. But there are also some bad ideas, like having slides projected on the stage to "illuminate" the scene, or the several monologues about the nature of memory. Overall, I was impressed by the powerful sadness that Williams manages to convey, so I'd recommend it.
My rating: 4/5
Kate Chopin's The Awakening is a pre-feminism text about Edna Pontellier, a woman who feels trapped by society into the role of a wife. Chopin is a beautiful writer and this novella is gorgeous. Sometimes, it veers into the philosophical, something of which I am not a fan. Edna is a frustrating character, but a fascinating experiment in likability and empathy for the reader--can you sympathize with a woman who's doing something you don't approve of?
My rating: 4.5/5
The Turn of the Screw
This Henry James novella is so good. A governess moves into a country estate to take care of two children when she starts seeing the ghosts of their old caretakers. She suspects that the ghosts are plotting against her and maybe molested the children before they died. This one is a fascinating work of psychological fiction with a satisfyingly ambiguous ending. Cannot recommend it enough (but you have to be a patient reader because Henry James is a little dense and his sentences run a bit long, which is my only complaint).
My rating: 5/5
A Streetcar Named Desire
My second Tennessee Williams play was A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois moves in with her sister, Stella, and Stella's tough-guy husband, Stanley Kowalski. What ensues is a battle between the sexes and socioeconomic classes, as Blanche tries to convince Stella that her abusive husband is bad for her while simultaneously attempting to find a husband. This is such a complex work, with characters that we hate and love all at once (further complicated by Marlon Brando in the film version, who makes Stanley far more likable than he ought to be); it manages to question our own morals and handles difficult issues like physical abuse, mental instability, hypocrisy and rape in a beautiful and heartbreaking manner. I was also reminded a bit of Sunset Boulevard, so that's (always) a plus.
My rating: 4.5/5