Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy (Leather-bound Classics)Classic Tales of Science Fiction & Fantasy by Jules Verne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This huge book is a hodgepodge of some well-known sci-fi and fantasy tales, with some lesser known ones. The editors arranged them in order of publication, which also makes this book an interesting glimpse into the progression of fantasy/sci-fi through the mid-nineteeth to early twentieth century. With all the racist and sexist attitudes from those times, unfortunately. Thankfully some are better than others.
The Diamond Lens by Fitz James O’Brian (1858): The opening story shows us a young man obsessed with microscopy who stumbles across the secret to create the world’s most powerful lens, which leads to an unexpected discovery. Really reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, right up until the ending when I think the author looked at his watch and realized he was late for something important? Content warnings for murder.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864): The classic sci-fi tale of the professor and his nephew who decipher a text from a mysterious Iceland/ic explorer and embark on a trek to the planet’s core is one of my favourites.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888): Less a story and more a “Communism: You Should Try It!” instructional pamphlet. If pamphlets were 150 pages long. I struggled to get through this one, but it was interesting to read a story about one author’s vision of the world over 100 years in the future, which is set 17 years in our past. The things Bellamy assumed would change (which mainly didn’t), and the things he assumed would stay the same (which mainly haven’t), and the changes he didn’t predict made for a unique take. Not quite enough to make up for the dullness of the plot, but I gave him extra points for effort. Even if it wasn’t his doing.
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897): Another fantastic sci-fi classic. Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion – and its unexpected resolution – is something everyone should read.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912): Opening the “John Carter of Mars” series by the author of Tarzan is this action-filled novel where the main character discovers a mysterious cave which transports him instantaneously to an inhabited Mars. Fortunately it has a breathable atmosphere or this would have been a very short series.
The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912): The original Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs and egos larger than life.
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London (1915): Did not live up to the high hopes I had for it, after having read White Fang and The Call of the Wild. A multi-generational band of apocalypse survivors roaming the States listens to its oldest member reminiscing about the disease that nearly ended the world.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915): Tied with Looking Backward for worst title, but a far better plot. Wealthy, mismatched college students chasing a rumoured all-women society bite off more than they can chew when they find that society and think they can just waltz in and be the cock of the rock. Content warnings for sexual assault.
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan (1928): In this extravagently racist tale, Nowlan imagines the second World War will be everyone ganging up on America…because industry? Who knows, because now China rules everything and only a few stalwart forest bands stand between us and total moral degredation in a society where ease and luxury abound (and that’s bad). Super duper racist, but not as sexist as you would think for 1928. Overall an interesting story, despite the somewhat unbelievable premise.
The Dunwich Horror by HP Lovecraft (1928): Classic Lovecraftian fantasy has this small town attacked by an interdimensional monstrosity whose origins may be alarmingly local. A great story for when you feel like something creepy. Content warnings for animal mutilation.

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The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a book for the faint of heart. Narrator Nick Carraway – long-time friend of wealthy socialite Daisy Buchanan, though not an admirer of her husband Tom – performs a favour for new friend Jay Gatsby and re-introduces him to Daisy, kicking off a sequence of only partly predictable events and rushing the novel to its grisly conclusion. Occasional violence and bloodshed mingles with beautiful descriptive passages on the landscapes and Gatsby’s lavish parties. It’s a novel about believing you are almost close enough to touch your dream, only to realize too late that it passed you by long ago. Quotable and re-readable, The Great Gatsby well deserves its place in the canon of English literature.

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The Waste Land and Other Poems by T S Eliot

The Waste Land and Other PoemsThe Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Are you good at interpreting poems? At diving into the mysterious language and metaphors and resurfacing after minutes or hours or days, breathless but exultant with your hard-won treasure of meaning? I’m not. I’ve read enough about these poems to know that there is scads of depth to them, that every word and line break is resplendent with meaning. But they all went over my head. I can’t tell you, for example, why, in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the women “…come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo.” (9) Are they at an art gallery? I suspect not. This edition has the odd line in German, preambles in Latin and Italian and (maybe?) Greek, but to be honest even when I went and translated them the poems they were part of didn’t become measurably clearer. In spite of all this, I still kind of enjoyed reading Eliot’s work. His sentences tended to linger in my head, cropping up at random times during the day and giving me something else to think about. And there’s something to be said for writing that you have to work for. Eliot’s poems are that. Keep it in mind; it’s a really skinny book so you can finish it in a day and check it off your to-read list. Or just read the same poem ten times over until you actually understand it. In which case you may be somewhat longer.

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Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will say one thing about this book; there aren’t many authors who would combine a philosophical treatise on the soul of man and the nature of depression with a rave, then plunge it all into a drug-addled murder. (Spoiler alert. Sorry about that.) Steppenwolf was decades ahead of its time. Published in the 1920’s, it reads like something more suited to the 60’s or 70’s. That impressed me. Hesse delves deeply into the make up of a human soul, the needs that drive us; the urge to live lives bigger than ourselves, battle against impossible odds and either surge to glorious triumphs or be crushed beneath a merciless foe. Unfortunately all that gets really boring after the first couple chapters of it. And because Harry Haller’s life is devoid of the challenges he longs for, he struggles with depression and suicide throughout the text. At least, until he meets a beautiful young woman. Honestly, if Hesse hadn’t drilled into the narrative that Harry had been suffering from these feelings for the entirety of his adulthood, I would have dismissed this as a mid-life crisis, resolving when Harry finally starts making new friends and has a relationship with a woman the age his daughter would be, if he had had any children. Harry spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. A lot. Then he kills someone. But it’s not a big deal! It was just a misunderstanding. His newfound friends forgive him. Honestly, unless you’re really in the mood to read pages of someone dancing around the edges of self-annihilation, coupled with pages on the multiplicity of souls inhabiting a person, and then cap it all off with a grim drug-induced psychotic break and a murder, I’d skip this one. Maybe see if there are Cliff’s notes? I bet Wikipedia has a great article that will tell you all about what Hesse was trying to say without you having to read him saying it.

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The Aeneid by Virgil

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…

Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs DallowayMrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One hundred seventy two pages of deceptively complex sentences are what make up this delightful snapshot into the lives of Clarissa Dalloway and her friends, as she prepares to throw a dinner party for the upper class of London. Such simple premise belies the thought and effort Woolf put in to writing this and which you, the reader, will have to put in to reading it. Paragraphs that start with one person’s perspective can suddenly switch to another’s. Pronouns point wildly every which way like some sort of befuddled compass needle. Very “James Joyce”, but with well-off characters and no onomatpaeic sound words. Which may or may not be a perk, depending on how much you enjoy puzzling through unintelligible consonant strings. Mrs. Dalloway stood up well to a second reading and I suspect it will enjoy a place of respect in the literature canon for decades hence. Woolf’s ground-breaking writing style and interesting female characters merit a read from any dedicated literary buff.

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Medea by Euripides

MedeaMedea by Euripides
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.

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Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

Oedipus at ColonusOedipus at Colonus by Sophocles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Commit to Antigone. That’s what you will need to do if you read Oedipus at Colonus. It’s a cliffhanger. It’s also not as good as Oedipus Rex; I see even in ancient Greece sequels failed to live up to their precursors. OaC is longer than OR, but less violent. Sophocles has developed Oedipus’ character in the twenty year gap between the setting of the first play and the setting of the second play. He and his daughter Antigone have wandered and begged across Greece, arriving eventually at Athens, hoping Theseus will give them shelter. Meanwhile we discover Thebes is beset with governmental discord; Oedipus’ sons are battling for the throne and his brother-in-law intends to forcefully return him home. But Oedipus has been doing some thinking. His realizations about the nature of sin are comforting to read. Watching him stand up for himself was cathartic, after the craptacular hand he was dealt in OR. He’s still a proud and willful character, but he’s stopped self-flagellating. He really needs some advice on supporting the bereaved. Take this gem, spoken graveside to his heartbroken children immediately before his death: “You shall never have more [love]/From any man than you have had from me./ And now you must spend the rest of life without me.” If your goal was to completely crush someone’s heart right before dying, you could hardly have hoped to do better. Oh Oedipus. You tried. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find the cliff’s notes for Antigone and end this cycle.

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Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Oedipus The King: Oedipus RexOedipus The King: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know the story. The famous king who *spoiler alert* unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. There are no surprises in this play. Except for the writing. Sophocles (and our hard-working translator) are amazing. The entire work is dialogue and choruses, but the writing is so evocative I was completely swept away. Such a gem! In a tragic, bloody setting, but still. There’s suicide on top of the murder and incest, and self-harm, too. Oedipus Rex is most definitely not in the ranks of feel-good literature. But it’s really short. You could whip through it in an afternoon, and have the rest of the day to think about it. Or read the rest of the trilogy; Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone continue the story of Oedipus and his children after he is exiled from Thebes. You can have a little more Oedipus to round out your day. It may help you appreciate the good things in your own life.

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