Tag Archives: OWC-project

101 and Counting..

I have passed the 100 books mark in the combined 1001 Books Your Must Read Before You Die List. There are times when I do not care about the list at all, there are others where I find it quite a nice challenge to read something that is on there.. Very often I find myself discussing with the list: Why is this book on there and not this one? Why so little fantasy? Why still an overrepresentation of “white men”? Etc.

Nevertheless, here are some brief thoughts on the three books I recently read that were on the list.

Diary of a Nobody - George and Weedon GrossmithThe Diary of a Nobody – George and Weedon Grossmith*
Penguin Books, 2003 (first published: 1892)

Basically, this quote sums it all up:

“I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.”

Diary of a Nobody is the (fictional) diary of average middle class(?) Mr Pooter. We follow his everyday adventures and observations, as he renovates parts of his house, some of his friends come to visit, and his son starts living at home again after losing his job. It is a humorous book that at once proves that the life of an ordinary person can make for worthwhile reading, while simultaneously poking fun at the habits of people like Mr Pooter and the idea that their lives might be interesting at all.

While Diary of a Nobody is a fast and perfectly entertaining read, I wasn’t as enraptured by it as I expected from some of the reactions that I have seen on the internet. I mostly blame me though. I tend to find humour a little tiring after a while, and I might have liked this better had I not read it in one sitting, but in several.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan DoyleThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle*
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 (first published 1892)

Many years ago [I cannot believe it was back in 2010!] I won a complete set of Sherlock Holmes books through a twitter competition held by Oxford World’s Classics. Being me, I continuously planned to start reading them and yet never did. I finally picked up one of the books last week.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of 12 stories about Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, many of these are considered widely known, but uneducated Iris did not know any of them. I cannot say that these mysteries had me riveted and on the edge of my seat, but I do not think that is what these stories are supposed to do. Instead, they are very entertaining stories, and that is exactly what I was: entertained  much more so than I expected to be. Perhaps it is time to read one of the novels next?

The White Tiger - Aravind AdigaThe White Tiger – Aravind Adiga*
Atlantic Books, 2008

The White Tiger is the story of “entrepreneur” Balram and how he came to be succesful. He writes the story of his success to the Chinese minister who is supposed to visit India to learn about entrepreneurship. Balram, who has adopted the nickname White Tiger because it indicates a very rare species, is not a very reliable narrator, nor is the reader ever sure if we should be on his side. Pretty early on in th story (the last sentence of the first chapter), we find out that Balram’s vision of entrepreneurship entails something that very few of us would capture under that heading. He then continues to explain why he did what he did. Meanwhile, he portrays the stark divides between the rich and poor in India, and the manner in which corruption works to keep this divide in tact.

Again, The White Tiger is a very readable book. I read this in one sitting (which seems to be my reading mode lately). I had expected this one to be difficult, both in style and theme, but really it is not. The theme is heavy but is wrapped in a deceptively lighthearted style. And somehow this works? Even though I would never have expected it, and it still bewilders me a little after finishing the book. I wish I could offer you a more in-depth opinion than this one, but honestly? bewildered seems to be a key word in how I feel about this book. It was entertaining, and cruel, and a little horrid at times. The narrator is fascinating but occasionally entirely unsympathetic. I feel as if I could never say I loved this book, yet it is hard to pinpoint why except that its topic is.. well.. difficult? And I did think it a good book? Perhaps a little bleak… But then again, that hardly seems a reason to detract from the quality of the novel.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone - Wilkie CollinsThe Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
Oxford World’s Classics, 1999

Originally published in 1868
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *
or, download for free from Project Gutenberg

On her eighteenth birthday Rachel Verinder receives a diamond, known as the moonstone, from her uncle Herncastle, who left it to her in his will. There is reason to suspect the motives of Herncastle, as there is a legend that anyone who steals the moonstone from its shrine in India will be cursed with the moon god’s revenge. That fear seems immediately realised when three Indian men appear at Rachel’s birthday party who show a keen interest in the stone. When Rachel wakes up the next morning, the moonstone is missing. Which brings us to the beginning of the mystery at the heart of The Moonstone.

I received a copy of The Moonstone from Alex last year when I visited London and we did a small book swap with other bloggers. I was excited because I knew this meant an impetus to finally read one of Wilkie Collins’ books, of which I had heard so much. Plus, it is an Oxford World’s Classics copy to boot!

What I particularly loved about The Moonstone was that it is at times more character study than mystery. The story is told from alternating perspectives by characters who are all acquainted and involved in the mystery somehow. As the stories are told in somewhat chronological order, with the presence of an editor playing in the background, there are occasions when you are shown the narrators struggling with what they knew at the period of time they’re describing and what they know now (Miss Clack). Moreover, the narrators all position themselves differently in regards to the mystery and each other, so you will often find them commenting on each other. And these comments need not be nice!

This subtle, or not so subtle, criticism of the other narrators had me sniggering from time to time. Really, I hadn’t expected it, but The Moonstone is a very funny story. I don’t think I often find myself laughing about a story so much. This is not only because of the comments the narrator make about each other, but also for the characters themselves. I especially found Gabriel Betteredge wildly entertaining. His insistence on using Robinson Crusoe as his “bible” to turn to for advice (there was a moment in the book where I felt that Collins might have been criticising anyone who takes written text as the ultimate truth), and his always finding something suitable in the book for his situation – loved it.

There are of course things to be said about the Victorian portrayal of women and Indians. I don’t want to delve too deep into that because my mind is currently very much a blank as I have been staring at an article and participating in a master class all day. Nevertheless, there are some small remarks I would like to make. For one, while some of the women are irrational, portrayed as easily run away with feeling, there are moments in which the book can be quite refreshing in suddenly casting a woman in an independent, rational, and even heroic role.

The same could be said about the portrayal of Indians. True, they are the mysterious strangers that are immediately made out to be suspicious. But there are also moments when these stereotypes are turned around and contrasted positively with British identity [which, I realise, might still be considered “othering”]. Moreover, there is the recurring question of who Collins feels the moonstone truly belongs to. There are hints throughout the novel that the three Indians looking for the stone may actually be right in their pursuing it, since it was taken from their country. At the same time, the Indians are not innocent, and portrayed as willing to kill if need be. And what to make of one character who is possibly half-Indian but [spoiler: has a heroic role in the discovery of the question of who took the stone and why]. In the words of John Sutherland, who wrote the introduction to my edition, ‘Collins is adept at raising subversive thoughts in the reader only to leave them ambiguously hanging.’ Which is exactly one of the reasons why this book is such an interesting read.

After reading The Moonstone I am definitely on the lookout for more Wilkie Collins. Any suggestions which book I should read next?

RIP VII button 2I read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for R.I.P. VII as hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Click over to the RIP Review Site for more reads with a autumnal feel.

Other Opinions: Things Mean a Lot, BooksPlease, Novel Insights, Entomology of a Bookworm, Amused, Bemused and Confused, Jules’ Book Reviews, S. Krishna’s Books, Ela’s Book Blog, Farm Lane Books, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Let’s Eat Grandpa, Book Clutter, Leeswammes, Savidge Reads, A Library is the Hospital of the Mind, Wordsmithonia, A Striped Armchair.
Did I miss your post on this book? Let me know and I will add it to the list.

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

Three Oxford World’s Classics That Deserve Many More Words

Sometimes, books deserve a proper post. A long one, analysing every detail and reaction. But writing such posts is often complicated. And at times, this leads to procrastination and then some more. And so, these books have waited for such a post for a long long time, so long that I now remember little of what I was going to say.

Daniel Deronda - George EliotDaniel Deronda – George Eliot
Oxford World’s Classics, 2009 (originally published 1876)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Daniel Deronda is George Eliot’s final novel. Like so many of her others, it is a long one. And it deals with several themes, most importantly the coming of age of a spoiled girl Gwendolyn, who begins to consider Daniel Deronda as her mentor. Daniel Deronda, in his turn, slowly uncovers his parental background and adopts a favourable position towards the Jews, a group of people often looked down on in Europe, or even discriminated.

There was much I loved about Daniel Deronda: its slow development of the relationships between the characters, its in-depth view of life at the time, and especially its portrayal of Judaism at the time. There is a certain push-and-pull going on in the novel: between commonly accepted stereotypes that make you wonder what exactly Eliot meant by having characters state them so matter-of-fact and Daniel’s growing sympathy for the plight of Judaism in Europe. There were many questions raised, and things I wanted to discuss, but sadly, this is all I remember now. I hope to return to this one day, and engage with it as I had planned to do.

Little Women - Louisa May AlcottLittle Women – Louisa May Alcott
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 (originally published 1868)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

I reread this classic tale of the March family just before the beginning of 2011. Winter is really the perfect time to read it. I had never read the complete novel, since before I only owned an edition that printed just the first part of the novel (I am still frustrated about that). Sacrilege, I know, but I first fell in love with the story through the nineties movie version. So when I returned to it last winter, I was sure I was going to love this. But I was left frustrated about one of its general themes: the passivity of these girls! I know, they helped their mother by taking up jobs. And I know that a passive submissive girl was the standard at the time, that the portrayal of Jo in particular must have been very forward. But the general narrative seemed to still represent submissiveness as an ideal. And despite knowing about its historical context, it was the educational tone of this that left the strongest impression while reading it this time around.

Belinda - Maria EdgeworthBelinda – Maria Edgeworth
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 (originally published in 1801)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda is considered one of the novels that has influenced Jane Austen. If that wasn’t enough to convince me to pick this up, then the cover might have enticed me anyway. Isn’t it beautiful?

Belinda is in some ways very similar to end-of-the-eighteenth-beginning-of-the-nineteenth-century-novels, but then there is a twist that makes this much more rewarding than Evelina, for example. Yes, Belinda is sent to Lady Delacour by her aunt in the hope she will marry well. But, unlike so many female heroines of her time, Belinda isn’t constantly described as silly. Instead, the people surrounding her have faults, and Belinda is portrayed as finding her own way since she slowly starts thinking for herself.

There is much to be said about the themes in Belinda, especially concerning Edgeworth’s portrayal of women as creatures that could be rational (perhaps rather like Mary Wollstonecraft?) and her portrayal of race. The first two versions of Belinda include Creole and African characters that are allowed to be married to other characters (in later editions these characters disappeared, commonly accepted to have been edited out by Edgeworth’s father). While reading, I was a little puzzled how I should feel about Edgeworth’s description of these characters, which seemed to include common stereotypes but also a form of respect. The introduction of Kathryn Kirkpatrick proved helpful:

What Edgeworth does in marrying the African Juba to the English farm-girl is to make overt social connections where economic ones already existed. Her novel thus makes an African “visible” by assigning him a class in the existing social hierarchy and then integrating him into English society through marriage.  By advocating marriage with men other than white English patriarchs, Edgeworth can be read not only as issuing a challenge to the endogamy which falsely represented the actual colonial ties producing English wealth, but also as giving that challenge its source in women’s control of their bodies and destinies through the marriage choice. Indeed, rational love as Edgeworth presents it in Belinda is a process by which a young woman makes her own choice of a husband, a choice informed but not controlled by those whose advice she respects. Relying on time and familiarity for affection, a heroine might use her own judgement to choose to marry anyone, including the Creole Mr Vincent or the African Juba.

One day, I promised myself, I want to reread this and analyse it more thoroughly on grounds of gender and ethnicity. Anyone with me?

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Observations on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus - Mary Wollstonecraft ShelleyFrankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – Mary Shelley
Oxford University Press, 2009 (originally published 1818)

I bet you are all familiar with the plot of Frankenstein: Victor Frankenstein is passionate about science and believes he has found the way to bring live to lifeless matter. He creates what he later denotes as a monster. Horrified by the looks of his creation, he falls ill and tries to forget about the existence of ‘the monster’. But soon, he realises that the monster won’t be so easily forgot, as it sets out to avenge his creator for leaving him all alone in the world.

When I set out to participate in The Classics Circuit on Classic Gothic Literature, I knew I had set myself a challenge. I avoid “scary” books as a rule. However, I soon found out that Frankenstein is not so much scary as it is atmospheric. Shelley sets a tone and mood in it that makes you think and feel uncomfortable more than it makes you jump out of your chair. This may be why I enjoyed reading it so much.

I am afraid my thoughts on this book are little coherent, which is why the title of this post says “observations”.

  • Frankenstein is told through three narrators. The first is a man who is on an expedition by boat through the arctic? sea, where they come across Frankenstein chasing his monster. The narrator takes Frankenstein in to nurse him back to health and this is where his part as narrator starts. In the middle of Frankenstein’s story as told by himself, Frankenstein is approached by the monster who then continues to tell his side of the story. I thought this was an interesting way to build the narrative, it is rather like a Matryoshka doll; as a reader you travel from an outsider perspective to an insider perspective (first Frankenstein and then the monster) before you return to Frankenstein and later on the outsider perspective again. I wonder why Shelley chose to write Frankenstein like this? What exactly is the point of the first narrator? Is he supposed to make us feel more friendly towards Frankenstein? Or is it meant to give the story a more realistic feel? It still puzzles me, more so because you never really find out much about this first narrator, he seems more like a tool of storytelling than a person with his own story worth telling.
  • The three narrators also give this book the feel that I associate with Wuthering Heights: Who of the narrators is telling the truth and with whom are we supposed to sympathise? Particularly the dynamic between Frankenstein and his monster raises these question. While reading I often found myself annoyed with Frankenstein, couldn’t he stop pitying himself for a moment, act up, take his responsibility? And then the monster told his story and I almost pitied him, his side tugs at heartstrings that Frankenstein’s story never does. But why? Both are caught up in their own “misfortunes”, both bewail them. One, the monster, acts upon them in rage and jealousy, the other passively tries to ignore the consequences. Thus, both are not creatures we would identify as ‘good’ or ‘humane’, yet both deserve out pity in some ways. I am sure Mary Shelley meant the reader to go from Frankenstein’s repulsion towards understanding the monster’s side of the story, but then she makes you question it again, when she has Frankenstein say that the monster is manipulative and knows exactly how to influence humans. So was I taken in by the monster? I don’t know.
  • It was interesting to read Frankenstein in the context of the Romantic movement. Now, I know only what I was taught in introductory history courses, but it was easy to identify some key ideas of the time. First, there is the atmospheric and yes, what I can only call romantic, description of landscapes in Germany and Switzerland. As soon as they move through the Netherlands and into the UK, there is a lament about this ‘lost world’ of truly beautiful nature. On his travels through the UK (I do not remember exactly which places he visited) he remarks that the scenery is nice, but that it needs the mountains and other scenery of his own home land.
    On a side note: the story portrays Ireland as a rogue country where people know little kindness? Am I supposed to just accept that or can I take a few words to say that this seems a rather biased portrayal, very fitting to the times in a way?
  • Romanticism also when you read the book as a critique of a belief in an all-encompassing power of science. Clearly, in some ways, Frankenstein’s monster became a monster because Frankenstein made the power of creation human, but was not ready to face the responsibilities this brought with it.
  • There’s also a possible reading of a nature-versus-nurture debate, though I think these are not exactly the correct words to use. Was the monster ‘doomed’ to be evil from the outset, since he was created by another (flawed) human? Or is it Frankenstein’s lack of empathy for his ‘monster’? Does the monster become a ‘monster’ because he was denoted as such by Frankenstein? Thus, is there something like inherent evil, complete and blind evil, or is it a part of everyone and was it the lack of companionship that made the monster so? Reading the story I think Mary Shelley tried to show us the latter.
  • All of this leading to the question, of course, who the real monster is in this story. Is it ‘the monster’, who is ugly on the outside but according to his own story tried to find companionship and only later turned against humans (but nevertheless consciously did so), or is it Frankenstein who in his arrogance and pride thought he could show up all scientists and then shunned his responsibilities. I cannot decide. It is easy to say ‘the monster!’, it is easy to say ‘no, really, it is Frankenstein!’ But I wonder if it isn’t rather that both are monsters to a certain extent, because in many ways, both shirk their responsibility towards other living creatures and both fail to balance their emotions and agency with responsibility. Or at least, I think this may be what Mary Shelley was trying to say in part.

–  –  –

This post is one of many stops for the Gothic Literature Classics Tour of the Classics Circuit. Check out the other stops through the link.

The Body-Snatchers / Markheim / Ollala by Robert Louis Stevenson

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories - Robert Louis StevensonIn: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Stories – Robert Louis Stevenson
Oxford University Press, 2008

So. the short stories in this collection? They didn’t do much for me. Or at least, I found two out of three strangely disappointing. Perhaps it is me, really. I am sure I did not understand what I was meant to gather from these stories. Perhaps it is that these were short stories, a genre I do not always like as I should.

Olalla was the only story I enjoyed reading and that I can see myself coming back to someday. The story is about a soldier who is sent to a house in Spain to recover from his injuries. Here, he meets three strange inhabitants: the mother, the brother and the sister, the latter of whom is called Olalla. The soldier finds himself strangely attracted to Olalla, and rather likes the mother and brother, even if they seem strange – somehow. The story leans on many aspects that I relate to gothic stories: a strange house, the long-death, the threatening aspects of beauty, vampirism. The built up of the story worked for me and I started to feel something for what was happening here.

The same cannot be said exactly for The Body-Snatchers or Markheim. Both stories are less mysteries perhaps and feature more to-the-point brutality. Body-Snatchers is about a man whose job it is to buy bodies for medical research. There is the atmosphere of something respectable (ie. medical studies) that hides something dark: most of the bodies are people who have been murdered in order to be delivered to the dissection rooms.

Markheim is about a person who enters an antique shop and murders the shop owner in order to steal from him. The rest of the story, I think, portrays the thief’s struggle between repulsion and acceptance of the crime.

If I had to sum up my reaction to Markheim and The Body-Snatchers in a diagram, it would look something like this (except that in reality, my appreciation never reached such heights):

The thing is, these stories were alright in build-up. And towards the middle of them I felt I was almost able to grab onto something of the atmosphere and spookiness that I was supposed to feel. But then, the ending. In Body-Snatchers my reaction was: “Huh? What?!” I just didn’t get it. Perhaps it was supposed to make me feel uncomfortable, but all I could think was: this is too illogical. You see, if you want to make me feel spooked, I’d like it to be in a way that is logical somehow. Of course, the mysterious often defies logic, but that does not mean it cannot be portrayed in a manner that makes it seem somewhat real. Here, any conception of what was happening was missing, which made it seem strange rather than mysterious? As for Markheim, the ending was a simple disappointment of “oh, alright” *shrug* “let’s move on to the next story”.

This is not how I am supposed to feel about these stories. Me, who is scared by movies that are meant to be funny, not scary, should not be able to end up thinking “um, ooo-kay”, I should be slightly mystified, a little thrilled, a little – I don’t know.

You see, this has me wondering if I missed some crucial steps in these stories, something that might explain to me what happened. Or is it that Stevenson meant for me to be left with only questions? I like books that make you think, but this one provides no context per se, nothing that makes me able to ponder what I do not “get”. Oh, I understand the idea of two-sidedness of human nature, of society even, portrayed in these stories, but the endings seem to point towards something more (at least I hope they do, or they’d be rather pointless) – Something I’m not able to grasp because there is no context here that enables me to grasp it.

I won’t give up on Stevenson. I’m sure one day I may be persuaded to read Treasure Island. But these stories? I don’t think I can be bothered to pick them up again.