A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book in high school and one iconic scene has always stuck in my head: Frankenstein’s monster is wandering in the forest and comes across a little girl throwing flowers in a pond and watching them float around. He joins her and the two of them have a lovely time floating daisies until, sadly, the flowers are all gone. The monster is saddened that there are no more pretty things to float on the water until it occurs to him to throw the pretty little girl in the pond. Unfortunately, because she is not a flower she does not float. I looked forward to resituating this scene in the context of the novel when I finally re-read it. It’s not in there. I have no idea where I read it, but the scene I just related does not appear in Shelley’s Frankenstein.
What does happen in Frankenstein takes place on a ship captained by one Robert Walton, in search of fame and glory at the North pole. The ship has become mired in ice and is waiting for a break up when they are passed by a giant figure of a man ensconced in a sledge and being towed by a dog team; a mere half day later they meet another man and dog team in pursuit of the traveller they saw before, but trapped on an ice floe and on the brink of destruction. This man, it is revealed to Captain Walton, is Victor Frankenstein and here in this barren seascape he is pursuing his monster. Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, who shares it with his sister via letters, through which we are introduced to it. It is a tale of tragedy and vengeance, of murdered children and wrongful accusations. It’s also a brilliant expose of the hypocrisy of humanity. Victor and the monster are the same, but one of them is accepted and welcomed in society and the other is shunned. Frankenstein is as fascinating now as it was when it was published.

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The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The ProphetThe Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sermon on the mount if Jesus took subject requests. Almustafa has spent twelve years in the city of Orphalese before a ship arrives to bring him home to his people. In that time he has grown into a wise and beloved prophet. On his last day among the Orphalesians, with the ship waiting for him in the harbour, he gives a speech to the citizens on the nature of love, friendship, pain, work, death, all the things you can imagine people asking their departing spiritual adviser for advice on one last time. It’s very poetic, mystical, and short. If you love to meditate on the nature of life and ruminate deeply on metaphysical subjects, this book could be an excellent base for your meditations. If you are a black and white, no-nonsense kind of person this book could annoy the snot out of you. Or maybe expand your horizons, you never know. But even if you don’t like it, at least it’s short.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn BirdsThe Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took three hundred pages before I started to enjoy this book, but I wound up being glad I persevered. The Thorn Birds follows the wool-farming Cleary family as they emigrate from beautiful, lush New Zealand to the dry, harsh climate of New South Wales when patriarch Paddy Cleary, his wife Fiona, and their six children – eight after twin boys are added – are invited by Paddy’s wealthy sister Mary Carson to live and work as head stockman on her massive sheep ranch, Drogheda. While their monetary woes mostly end with the steady paychecks from Mary and the stability of a well-planned, well-run ranch, their lives, especially the lives of Meggie and her mother Fiona, are filled with the endless private griefs and innumerable hardships of ranching life in the early 1900’s. The Thorn Birds also follows the life of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Gillanbone district Catholic priest. From the moment they meet, Ralph and Meggie are bound to one another. But Ralph’s heart and ambition are sworn to the Church and to his God, and they allow no competition. The battles of pride, love, land, and faith are beautifully described in this powerful, sometimes crushing story that spans half a century and still resonates today.

However, it wasn’t perfect. Readers should be aware that this book has the racism and racial epithets and the sexism of its setting. While leaving out the sexism inherent in the structure of the society at the time the book is set would have been a mistake, I think the racism and especially the slurs could have been left out entirely. And should have. There are a few death scenes. Written from the point of view of the dying, they can be graphic and distressing, as can the very realistically portrayed grief of the survivors. There was also a chapter where I was concerned this was going to turn into an Australian Lolita. Fortunately, that does not happen, but readers sensitive to that may struggle with the undertones in the beginning of the book. This is why it took 300 pages before I started to enjoy it. McCullough seems to sexualize Meggie in her attempt to convey the power of Meggie’s unusual looks and while Ralph and Meggie’s relationship is meant to transcend the normal barriers of age and time, there are points where his adoration of a child, no matter how deep the dialogue between their souls, barely misses creepy and definitely isn’t helped by the revelation of decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church. I would like to reiterate that nothing inappropriate happens and as Meggie enters adulthood that unease vanishes, but I felt it was worth mentioning. Last but not least, because the sexism of the time so heavily influenced sexual relationships there are some interactions which are clearly assault. They are varying shades of horrifying and cavalier and the difference is obviously down to what was considered assault in the 1970s. Our changing sexual mores put a different spin on them. As they do for any sex scene first conceived over forty years ago. I think The Thorn Birds continues to hold up well despite these issues. If you want to tackle an epic, it’s worth a look.

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A Year of Themed Reviews – March: Women’s History: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver (The Giver, #1)The Giver by Lois Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exciting isn’t quite the right word to describe this book, but it was certainly difficult to put down. It starts with Jonas, just days before his idyllic community will hold the yearly December Ceremony marking all of the children turning a year older; this year Jonas will be partaking in the Ceremony of Twelve and receiving his Assignment. He will be informed of the career that has been selected for him and embark upon a regime of training. Jonas is different. He is chosen as his community’s new Receiver, a mysterious position few know anything about. When he begins his training with The Giver, he soon begins to see his community in a new light. To see the things it is lacking. And while his work with The Giver and his Assignment introduce him to capabilities he never suspected, when the unexpected happens and he has to try to save someone he loves, will he be strong enough?

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The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, & Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. Edited by Andrew Wright

The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger AbbeyThe Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey by Horace Walpole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Combining powerhouses of Gothic literature Radcliffe and Walpole with the insightful parody of the Gothic tale that is Austen’s Northanger Abbey, this helpful text could stand proudly alongside any English Literature coursebook, while being dramatically more engaging. I had been wanting to read each of these books for quite some time; seeing the three of them in one volume at the library seduced me to depart from my themed reviews and I am delighted to have seized the opportunity. Here’s a brief overview of the separate novels:
Only the linear nature of time prevents The Castle of Otranto being the bizarre lovechild of Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors and every haunted castle story every written. This weirdly comic tale of an ambitious family whose oversized birds finally come home to roost can’t quite decide if it wants readers to laugh or cry, so it mooshes together mistaken identities with murders and aims to achieve both at once. I’m hoping Walpole was inventing the Gothic genre when he wrote this.
My one disappointment in this collection relates to The Mysteries of Udolpho: space constraints necessitated the version included here be abridged quite heavily. The full story runs 300 000 words over four volumes; about half the length of War and Peace or Atlas Shrugged, roughly as long as Middlemarch, and about six times the length of Fahrenheit 451. Pruning was justified, but disconcerting. If you pay attention to the tiny printing on the cover and the specific chapters that make up each individual volume, you will notice when something has been omitted. If, like me, you are bellyflopping into the body of the text, you are presented with a choppy, confusing story that changes countries and secondary characters in the time it took you to flip a page. We meet the St. Aubert family in their bucolic cabin in the French countryside, and saunter along with Monsieur St. Aubert and daughter Emily as the duo travel to the seaside in the hopes of restoring St. Aubert senior’s flagging health. The wheel of fortune turns and Emily is deposited unceremoniously with the unscrupulous, mendacious Montoni family deep in the Apennines, in the secluded, crumbling Udolpho castle, where who knows what creeping horrors await her? Certainly not us, that part got edited out. The editors smoosh on an ending of sorts, but if you’ve never read The Mysteries of Udolpho before, this chopped up offering may leave you unsatisfied.
Northanger Abbey is a delight. Our staunchly average heroine, Catherine Morland, adores Gothic novels (she’s reading The Mysteries of Udolpho) and hopes with all her heart to have a Gothic adventure of her own one day. When she joins her friends Eleanor and Henry Tilney at their home, her determination to see an eerie portent in every cabinet and a mystery down every well-lit hallway brings her sharply up against good sense and rationality as Austen subverts the genre. It’s an excellent conclusion to this collection of Gothic works, and yet another example of Austen’s genius.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – February: Black History: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angelou’s famous autobiography reveals a childhood that is at once both classic and heart-crushing. She and her brother Bailey are sent to live with their paternal grandmother for large parts of their youths and spend their days playing outside in the Depression era south, when they aren’t helping at the family store or faithfully pursuing their studies or attending the local church. At one point the inseparable duo are sent to live with their mother and father in St. Louis and it is there that Maya is attacked. While justice for her attacker is reasonably swift, some of the circumstances surrounding it only exacerbate the confusion and conflict her young mind is swamped by; the damage and mental trauma she endures linger on long after the physical wounds have healed. Despite this and other jaw-dropping incidents, Angelou grows into a warm-hearted, courageous woman. Her ability to see into the deep motivations of not just the people around her but her own heart makes this book an enduring classic and a movie-clear portrait of life as a black child in the pre-World War II era southern states.

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The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two women are missing. Private eye Philip Marlowe is hired by the wealthy husband of the one, Derace Kingsley, to track her down after he goes a whole month without hearing from her. The other, Muriel Chess, falls into Marlowe’s lap, so to speak, when her husband chances across her body in the lake of the remote mountain village where they live. Muriel Chess and Crystal Kingsley were both last seen in the same place and on the same day, but beyond that and their passing acquaintance with each other there is nothing tying these two women together. Chandler’s stripped down writing and simple sentences drag Marlowe through the morass he’s landed in and by the end of the story there are crooked cops, a crooked doctor, and a truly hideous scarf of green kidneys on an egg-yolk yellow background. It’s classic noir fiction, and Chandler doesn’t disappoint.

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A Year of Themed Book Reviews – January: Personal Growth: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

SiddhartaSiddharta by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Siddhartha tells of the journey of one Siddhartha, a young man from the high Brahman caste who leaves his home and joins an ascetic sect (somewhat akin to followers of John the Baptist, or the Stoics) in a search for enlightenment. He is convinced there is one piece of knowledge that, once he finds it, will ease the feeling that there is something more his heart still wants. Hesse has carefully crafted each placid, melodiously repetitive sentence to lull you into a meditative calm while reading Siddhartha’s story. The revelations Siddhartha discovers throughout the book are a unique way of looking at the world, and this is an excellent story to start off a new year with.

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I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, RobotI, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Isaac Asimov imagines the Earth of 2057 has just over 3 billion people on it. Is divided into four Regions: Eastern, European, Tropic, and Northern; each of these is run by a Regional Coordinator and all of them together are run by the World Coordinator. Humanity mines not just asteroids but other planets. We have colonized other star systems. In all of these endeavours we are aided by robots. In this collection of short stories which bears no relation whatsoever to the movie of the same name starring Will Smith, Asimov takes us on a retrospective of the growth of the robot industry through the eyes of one of its giants, robot psychologist Dr Susan Calvin. Her memories of the first robot nanny, to robots managing other robots, to robots shepherding whole industries, carry us along through the decades in the future while robots become an integral part of our society. This work of speculative fiction is mostly set far enough in the future that, even sixty years from the publication date, we can still speculate along with it. As of January 2018, Mercury remains unmined.

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With all the beauty of a raging ocean, Memoirs of a Geisha will fill you with delight and sadness. A fictional account of a young girl whose familial misfortunes result in her being sold as a maid to an okiya, a geisha house; if she seems suitable to the women who run the okiya they will take her on and train her as a geisha. Her life is filled with beauty and heart-break. She lives through the Great Depression and Second World War, along with her own numerous private griefs inflicted by chance and deliberately, as the principle geisha in the okiya is a viciously cruel person, fond of using her power to hurt all around her, frequently for no reason at all. On top of that the culture at the time sets up these young girls as objects of desire, pursued by wealthy middle-aged men in bidding wars and interactions that will make your skin crawl. If this young girl from a poor fishing village can somehow survive the hardships and cruelties of geisha training and the loss of her family, will it be possible for her to find happiness and security in adulthood? Or will her enemies get the best of her?

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