Talking Classics…

The Classics Club Meme – May 2018

The Classics Club has reintroduced its monthly meme feature, and the question for this month is:

What is your favourite classic book? Why?

In truth, I’ve answered this question so often in various tags and memes, I can’t think of much new to say about my favourite book, which is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. So here’s a link to my previous post explaining why I love it.

Instead, I thought I’d adapt the question to looking at which of the books that I’ve read from my Classics Club list is my favourite so far. There are plenty of contenders even though I’m not a third of the way through yet. My list is split into five sections:

The American Section is not going well in truth, with some seriously disappointing reads so far. However, I enjoyed my re-read of To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’m giving the prize for this section to:

Passing by Nella Larsen, a book that is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. It tells the story of two women who meet up by accident after many years apart, and renew their childhood friendship. But their lives are wildly different now and soon each becomes a danger to the other’s security. It takes place in Harlem in the 1920s, and is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time.

The English Section is faring much better, with several five star reads so far. That’s partly because this section is packed with lots of re-reads so I knew in advance I already loved them. The prize goes to:

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. No introduction needed for this one, but I had forgotten just how good it is and how much it had to say about so many concerns of its time. Also, Derek Jacobi’s narration is wonderful – the power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points.

The Scottish Section has been a delight for me. I’m always ashamed at my lack of knowledge of the classics of my own country, so have been thrilled to enjoy nearly every one I’ve read so far. But the prize must go to:

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison. This is fundamentally a book about young women seeking the men they will eventually marry but it’s also much more than that. It portrays the society of a particular place at a moment in time and does so brilliantly, showing the subtle social stratifications that limit the lives and suitable marriage prospects of these moderately privileged girls still further. Wonderfully written, with some beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Scottish Highlands.

The Crime Section has been great fun to date, with some hugely enjoyable reads and re-reads. I deliberately went for lighter choices on the whole, to provide some relief from the heavier books in the fiction sections. The prize goes to:

Cop Hater by Ed McBain – a re-read from long, long ago, this is the first book in the long-running 87th Precinct series. Set in the 1950s in a fictionalised New York, it’s part hardboiled, part modern police procedural with a touch of noir thrown in for good measure. Writing, setting, atmosphere and characterisation are all superb and, while some of the attitudes are obviously a bit dated, the storytelling isn’t at all.

The Science Fiction Section has been a mixed bag, with a couple of great ones and a couple that feel too dated now. It has set me off reading all of HG Wells sci-fi classics though, so for that reason the winner has to be:

The Island of Dr. Moreau by HG Wells – by far the grimmest of Wells’ classics, this has some horrific imagery and some scenes of real animal cruelty. But through the story he tells, Wells looks at some of the important themes of his time: the dangers of science without ethical controls, social structures and the new political theories, evolution past and future. Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

* * * * *

So those are the top contenders for favourite from my Classics Club list and, gosh, I’m finding it hard to pick just one to be the overall winner. But it must be done.

The winner is…

THE GOWK STORM

And I’m going to keep going on about it till everyone reads it, so you might as well just give in and get it over with… 😉

So… what do you think of my choices?

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

In his youthful hubris, science student Victor Frankenstein decides to create a living being from stolen organic material, part human, part animal. When he succeeds, he is horrified at the hideousness of the creature he has brought into the world, and flees, leaving his monstrous creation to fend for himself. Hiding himself away, the monster learns by observation what it is to be human, to talk, to laugh, to love – and he wants these things for himself. But humans cannot accept someone so hideously different, so he is spurned and reviled everywhere he goes until eventually, in his bitterness and sorrow, his thoughts turn to revenge against the man who so cruelly created and then abandoned him…

Frankenstein’s monster has become such a standard part of our culture, both as a scary stalwart of the horror movie and as a warning reference against mad science, that it’s easy to forget just how powerful and moving the original is. Published when Shelley was only twenty, it’s remarkably mature in its themes, even if the writing occasionally shows her youthfulness in a kind of teenage hyperbole, especially when the subjects of romance or grief are approached.

It is, of course, the ultimate warning against science for science’s sake, untempered by ethical or safety considerations, and that theme seems to become ever more relevant with each passing year. In a world where designer babies are becoming the norm, with scientists gaily manipulating genes confident in their own power to control nature; where others talk blithely of geo-engineering as if they couldn’t accidentally destroy the world in their attempts to save it; where yet others are searching for new weapons, presumably on the grounds that nukes aren’t destructive enough, I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.

Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1994

But there’s also the human theme of perception and rejection of difference – the inability of man to look past the outer crust and recognise the similarities of the soul beneath. Shelley’s monster is ultimately the most human character in the book, and in the book we can recognise this in a way we can’t in the movies – because although we are told of the monster’s hideousness, we can’t see it with our eyes. So when he tells Frankenstein the story of how cruelly and vilely he has been treated by humanity, we feel utter sympathy for his plight, though surely we must wonder in our secret hearts if we would be able to listen so patiently and empathetically if face to face with this grotesque mockery of the human form. And Shelley tests us – this monster doesn’t remain good: the years of rejection and loneliness distort his soul until it is as deformed and hideous as his body. Can we still sympathise then?

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

Shelley doesn’t labour the theme of man usurping God’s role as creator, though it’s there. At the time of writing, when Christianity would have been universal amongst her readership, there would have been no need – the idea of man aspiring to these heights would have been recognised as blasphemous without it having to be spelled out. But Frankenstein’s punishment is harsh indeed – how different the book would have been had the monster decided to seek a direct revenge against his creator. Instead, Frankenstein is to be slowly tortured by seeing those he loves perish horribly, one by one. In the end, creator and creation are each responsible for the pain and suffering of the other, each knowing with a growing certainty that their fates are inextricably linked.

“Hateful day when I received life!” I exclaimed in agony. “Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.”

The story is told by three narrators – Robert Walton, who meets Frankenstein towards the end of his journey, in the form of letters to his sister; Frankenstein himself, as he relates his tale to Walton; and the monster’s own story, as told by him to Frankenstein. The three voices are very different, and for me the most powerful part of the book by miles is the monster’s story. Walton never comes to life for me, but it doesn’t matter since he’s little more than a story-telling device. Frankenstein’s portion can become repetitive, especially when he eternally laments his woes (however justified his lamentations may be), but it is filled also with some wonderful descriptions of the natural world as he travels far and wide across Europe and then into the Arctic in his attempts first to flee his creation and then later to track him down. It’s in Frankenstein’s story (and Walton’s, to some degree) that the “romantic” writing most comes through – the monster’s story and other parts of Frankenstein’s give the book its Gothic elements. There are weaknesses – an unevenness in the quality of the writing at points, a tendency towards repetition, a bit too much wailing and gnashing of teeth – but this is balanced by the power and emotion of other parts of the story. The monster’s ability to master language and writing so thoroughly defies strict credulity, but works within the context of the fable nature of the tale, and undoubtedly allows him to tell his experiences with moving eloquence and great insight.

Mary Shelley

This is another of those classics which I had forgotten just how good it is. The writing may be patchy in parts but overall it’s wonderful, and the themes are timeless and beautifully presented. I listened to it this time round, with Derek Jacobi narrating. His performance is fantastic – I’ve always loved his acting, but actually I think he narrates even better than he acts. The power of his delivery of the monster’s story in particular moved me to tears and anger, and even literally raised the hairs on the back of my neck at points. And he got me through Frankenstein’s sometimes overblown self-pity more easily than I think reading it would have done. A marvellous performance of one of the most influential books ever written – really, what could be better than that?

Book 15 of 90

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

TBR Thursday 135…

Episode 135…

My TBR has dropped massively this week – down 2 to 212! I’ll be back under that 200 mark before you know it! Unless I acquire any of the zillions of books on my wishlist(s), of course. And we all know about my willpower issues…

Still, could be worse!

So, while I contemplate the great tragedy that I will never know the joy of chewing my own ear (hmm… unless I cut it off first, of course… hmm…), here are a few that should reach the top of the heap soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Princeton University Press. I have this theory that Princeton have a spreadsheet entitled ‘Reviewers who Can’t Resist all the Weird Books Nobody Ever Requests for Review’ and that the single entry on it reads ‘FictionFan’. Why else would they keep offering me books like this?

The Blurb says: In 1953, a man was found dead from cyanide poisoning near the Philadelphia airport with a picture of a Nazi aircraft in his wallet. Taped to his abdomen was an enciphered message. In 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of an illuminated cipher manuscript once belonging to Emperor Rudolf II, who was obsessed with alchemy and the occult. Wartime codebreakers tried–and failed–to unlock the book’s secrets, and it remains an enigma to this day. In this lively and entertaining book, Craig Bauer examines these and other vexing ciphers yet to be cracked. Some may reveal the identity of a spy or serial killer, provide the location of buried treasure, or expose a secret society–while others may be elaborate hoaxes.

Unsolved! begins by explaining the basics of cryptology, and then explores the history behind an array of unsolved ciphers. It looks at ancient ciphers, ciphers created by artists and composers, ciphers left by killers and victims, Cold War ciphers, and many others. Some are infamous, like the ciphers in the Zodiac letters, while others were created purely as intellectual challenges by figures such as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman. Bauer lays out the evidence surrounding each cipher, describes the efforts of geniuses and eccentrics–in some cases both–to decipher it, and invites readers to try their hand at puzzles that have stymied so many others.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I have loved Jane Robins’ true crime books (here and here), so am hugely excited to read her first venture into fiction…

The Blurb says: Felix and Tilda seem like the perfect couple: young and in love, a financier and a beautiful up-and-coming starlet. But behind their flawless facade, not everything is as it seems.

Callie, Tilda’s unassuming twin, has watched her sister visibly shrink under Felix’s domineering love. She has looked on silently as Tilda stopped working, nearly stopped eating, and turned into a neat freak, with mugs wrapped in Saran Wrap and suspicious syringes hidden in the bathroom trash. She knows about Felix’s uncontrollable rages, and has seen the bruises on the white skin of her sister’s arms.

Worried about the psychological hold that Felix seems to have over Tilda, Callie joins an Internet support group for victims of abuse and their friends. However, things spiral out of control and she starts to doubt her own judgment when one of her new acquaintances is killed by an abusive man. And then suddenly Felix dies–or was he murdered?

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’m possibly even more hugely excited about this one! The second novel from Jane Harper following her brilliant debut, The Dry. Will it be the tricky second novel? Or will I have to start doing meditation classes to get my excitement under control?

The Blurb says: Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side.

The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with.

Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

* * * * *

Horror/sci-fi/fiction on audio

A re-read for my Classics Club challenge. I decided to go with the audio version because it’s the wonderful Derek Jacobi doing the reading, possibly my favourite narrator of all time! I think his voice will suit this story perfectly…

The Blurb says: Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature’s hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation, genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *