Category Archives: Classics

The Velveteen Rabbit

It’s no secret how I feel about rabbits, so I thought I’d do a special little review for Easter and review one of my favourite childhood books.

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“The Veleveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson is a children’s chapter book about a toy rabbit who longs to be real. His friend, the Skin Horse, explains nursery magic to him and how a toy comes to be real through the love of a child. After a perfect summer as the Boy’s favourite, the Boy falls ill and the Velveteen Rabbit’s future is no longer certain.

I had this story on audiobook as a child, and reading this brought me straight back to being snuggled up in bed with my own menagerie of toys listening to a voice explaining to me how it was they became real. I was in tears almost the entire way through reading this book. If I have children, I will definitely read them this book if I can get through it without becoming choked up with emotion. It really is an absolute classic story, as relevant now as it was then. In fact, it is incredible that a story published 96 years ago now doesn’t have anything in it that would be considered inappropriate today. Williams has such a wonderful style of writing that manages to convey so much yet remain in childlike simplicity.

The copy I have, which is styled as ‘The Original Edition’, is interspersed with striking images in red, yellow and baby blue. These lithographs aren’t in a colour scheme I would ordinarily associate with children’s books, but they actually work really well. They give a warm vibrancy to the story and Nicholson captures the messiness of life and love as a child’s beloved soft toy.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for an Easter story, or a story for any occasion for a child, you cannot go wrong with this one.

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Orlando

For those of you who listen to my book podcast Lost the Plot, you may be aware that I have a Patreon page where listeners can sign up for different reward tiers to help keep Lost the Plot on air. There are lots of different awards, and quite frequent giveaways. However, the top tier reward is The Bookworm where you, the listener, get the singular ability to choose a book for me to review. I currently have one patron on The Bookworm tier, her name is Kendall, and she nominated this book for me.

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“Orlando” by Virgina Woolf, is a book that really cannot be boxed neatly into a genre. Part love letter, part historical fiction, part magic realism, part gender exposé – none of these categories on their own quite do the novel justice. The story is about a young man called Orlando who grows up in a wealthy family in Elizabethan England. Both energetic and whimsical, Orlando has a number of love affairs and secretly longs to be a poet. However, after his heart is broken by a Russian princess, and a number of other social setbacks, Orlando flees England to work as Ambassador to Turkey. However, once there, Orlando undergoes a mysterious change and his – or her – life is never the same.

My first thought upon reading this book was how intricate and complex it is. This book is steeped with so much meaning, that it has pages upon pages of footnotes at the back to explain the personal significance of each of Woolf’s references. I’m not sure if it’s a testimony to the kinds of books I’ve been reading recently or a symptom of modern writing, but it has been a long time since I have read a book that felt like every single word was a deliberate choice. The writing really is spectacular and if you’re looking for inspiration for beautiful writing, you really can look no further than Woolf.

My second thought is that this is a deeply intimate book. There’s something almost voyeuristic about reading this book, because it makes the reader examine in minute detail the character of Orlando, who is modelled on Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West. This makes it, thematically, a fascinating story about sexuality and gender. The introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert sheds further light on this by explaining that distinctions between being a lesbian and being transgender in the 1920s were much blurrier than they are today.

However, although it is an intricate and compelling book, it is not a perfect book and there were a few things that grated on me. First of all, you can tell it nearly 100 years old because the opening sentences include flippantly racist violence. Woolf describes a decapitated ‘Moor‘ and uses far, far worse terms at certain points throughout the novel and it was a pretty appalling way to start a book.

Another issue for me was less about inappropriate content and more about plot and pace. I think perhaps because this book is so closely modeled on the life and family history of Woolf’s lover, there was some sacrificing when it came to the book’s plot. The story meanders through the ages, more a comment on the societies of Vita’s various ancestors than a cohesive story. In fact, because there were so many footnotes in my edition explaining each reference to something in Woolf’s or Vita’s life, it took me quite a while to get through this book because I kept flipping back to read each note.

Ultimately though, this is a beautifully-written, intimate and insightful novel that says a lot about society then and now. What it lacks in story arc, it makes up for with language.

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Of Mice and Men

After finding out that despite being dead for nearly 50 years that this author’s books are still in copyright (something I talk about on my latest podcast episode), I had decided not to buy any of his books for my five weeks of American literature. However, while visiting friends in California, they actually had a copy of this book on their shelf. When I saw how short it was, I thought I’d better give this classic a go and I managed to read it in an afternoon.

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck is a novella set in California during the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. The story follows two men, George and Lennie, who are travelling workers trying to save money to buy their own piece of land one day. Lennie is incredibly big and strong, however has an intellectual disability that means he struggles considerably. George serves as his somewhat reluctant guardian who has managed to line up a new job for them both after things went badly at the last one. To keep Lennie focused, George tells and retells him about the house they will own together one day and the animals they will keep. However, when they arrive at the new farm they are faced with lots of new men and the Boss’ aggressive son Curly. With all the new distractions, George struggles to keep Lennie in check.

This isn’t going to be a long review because while this wasn’t a long book, it was an excellent book. Steinbeck has crafted the perfect novella. He lays the foundation to create a story at once unforeseeable and inevitable. He touches on lots of themes in a very short time including friendship, disability and poverty. Even though we are only with the characters for a very short time, I was left with a real sense of wanting to know much more about them.

A real highlight during my five weeks of American literature and a book I’m extremely glad I got the opportunity to read this classic.

 

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

I have had a copy sitting on my shelf for goodness knows how long, but I’ve always been a bit reluctant to tackle it. After finishing my previous book during my five weeks of American literature that tackled race issues from a modern perspective, I felt like now was the time to balance it out with this classic. This book, for better or worse, has definitely become a fixture in American racial discourse. This review feels even more timely since seeing the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” last night and seeing key players in the civil rights movement criticise one another through the lens of archetypes created by this book. Coincidentally, I ended up reading this book while staying in a tent cabin on the Idaho/Wyoming border.

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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a novel set in Kentucky, USA in the mid-1800s – a time when slavery was still legal. Arthur and Emily Shelby are slaveholders who, due to Mr Shelby’s financial mismanagement, are forced to sell two of their slaves. Arthur chooses faithful and responsible slave Tom and Harry, the five year old son of beautiful biracial Eliza, to the horror of his wife and son George. The story follows Tom down the Mississippi River to his new homes and explores the attitudes of the various white people who own him. Risking everything, Eliza runs away with her son Harry, hoping to meet his father (her husband) free in Canada.

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There’s no other way about it. This book was an absolute slog. Beecher Stowe has this maddening, self-righteous tone that is exacerbated by the most omniscient of narrators. For some reason, she felt the need to announce at the end of each chapter that we were leaving particular characters to go see how the others were getting along as though she had made all these little dioramas and is taking us on a tour of them. Thematically, this book hasn’t aged well at all. Beecher Stowe interjects her correct interpretation that slavery is wrong with commentary on “the negro” and the kinds of emotional and intellectual characteristics to be expected from that ethnic group.

There is a lot of apologism for a number of the “kind” slaveholders, despite the fact that it was their own ineptitude, thoughtlessness and indifference that led to many of the predicaments in this book. Young George Shelby is touted as a hero, despite the fact that his family were slaveholders and the many benefits he received as a result. This book was surprisingly religious, and I found it interesting that Beecher Stowe relied heavily on Christianity as an argument in favour of abolition. A lot of her conclusions were ultimately pretty suspect, including the conclusion that the best solution for everyone would be if African Americans simply went back to Africa and be done with it.

This book can also claim responsibility for a lot of stereotypes that emerged after its publication for African American characters. There is the Uncle Tom: naive, loyal, virtuous and forgiving – never lifting a hand to defend himself. The Mammy:  overweight, nurturing, defers to white people but sassy to her underlings. The Tragic Mulatto. The list goes on and on.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was so controversial at its time of publication that it has been credited with starting the American Civil War. How unpalatable it is now to the modern reader is a real testimony to just how horrific things were during slavery. I don’t think anyone could criticise this book for being inaccurate either with respect to details or attitudes of the time. I think that this book, while not excellently written or by any means socially flawless, is today a keen reminder of how far American has come and how far it has to go.

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Five go on a Strategy Away Day

I got this little book as a Christmas present this year, and I chuckled to myself at the title. Clearly a spoof on Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five” series, it was a tip of the hat to the fact that since I started my grown up job, I now get to go along to corporate training sessions.

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“Five go on a Strategy Away Day” by Bruno Vincent is one of the new “Enid Blyton for Grownups” satire series that rewrites “The Famous Five” books with the characters now adults dealing with modern issues. George, Dick, Anne, Julian and Timmy the dog have been summoned by the multinational corporation they work for to attend a day of team-building activities to a hotel in the countryside. There their team is put to the test while they compete with other teams, including a particular team made up of seven, to win a prestigious award. However things don’t go as planned, and there seems to be something sinister going on.

This book looks a lot like the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series that came out a while ago, so I was expecting it to be more of a book full of classic style illustrations with hilarious captions. Instead, it actually was just like an Enid Blyton book. I think there is a lot of nostalgia value to this book, and I think that anyone who works in any kind of big organisation can probably relate to the kind of team dynamics that are explored in this book. Vincent captures the tone and spirit of Blyton’s stories, with a twist of modern sophistication. However, although it’s quite clever, it didn’t quite elicit from me the scandalised giggles that the “Ladybird Books for Grownups” series did.

This would make a good office waiting room coffee table book or a fun Kris Kringle present for a colleague.

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Frankenstein

Every year I make an effort to dedicate some of my reading to classics. Last year I managed to read three: “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”. One of the great things about classic books is that because their copyright has usually long since expired, publishers are always competing with each other and coming up with gorgeous, eye-catching editions and sets. I came across this super cool edition of “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley at Harry Hartog’s, and it’s so kitsch and ridiculous with its bright blue page edges and the Monster in a leather jacket on the front, I had to have it.

Mary Shelley is often considered to be the mother of science fiction. First published in 1818, “Frankenstein” is an account of a fervent young scientist of the same name who discovers the secret to creating life. Using the macabre technique of digging up bodies from a graveyard, Frankenstein builds an enormous man from the parts and brings him to life. Showing exactly the lack of foresight, responsibility and common sense that becomes characteristic of Frankenstein throughout the book, he is struck with horror at his actions and abandons his new creation. The Monster is left to fend for himself, and without guidance or love, the results are catastrophic – especially for Frankenstein.

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This book is really two stories: the story of Frankenstein, and the story of the Monster. Frankenstein as a character is completely insufferable. When he’s not energetically digging up corpses, he’s extremely fragile and histrionic, and spends a great deal of the book in an absolutely pathetic state be it fainting, spasming or gnashing his teeth. Frankenstein has no character development whatsoever, and even when he’s given an opportunity to make amends, he just reverts back to his own hysterical self and once again completely fails to clean up his own mess. Every time I read the parts of the book from Frankenstein’s point of view, I found myself groaning and rolling my eyes.

The Monster, however, is extremely interesting. Shelley does a fantastic job of getting the reader to sympathise with the brutal yet sensitive Monster. The Monster undergoes an extreme amount of character development, and the chapters from his point of view are both compelling and touching.

I found “Frankenstein” to be a slow read, over all. It’s interesting, and certainly was groundbreaking in terms of exploring life, nature v nurture and identity, but it drags on. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll need to read it again.

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

When I saw this book in one of Canberra’s local bookstores, I knew I had to have it. With a flamboyant purple cover, vibrant yellow pages and new illustrations by Sophia Martinek, I leaped at the opportunity to read a classic collection I’ve never read before: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle.

This book is the quintissential crime novel. Narrated by his faithful sidekick Dr Watson, we follow the duo as they are faced with and solve the unlikeliest of mysteries. There is no question that Doyle was extremely knowledgeable during his time and his stories showcase his understanding of people, society and the observable world. I very much appreciate his belief that behind every single mystery there is a rational (if often wildly unusual) explanation.

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Holmes demonstrates his own favourite kind of inductive reasoning again and again throughout each of these twelve short stories. Drawing on his extremely thorough mental database of the most banal forms of information (e.g. soil composition in various areas around London), Holmes uses his keen sense of observation to match what he sees with what he knows. Although somewhat formulaic, the stories are very novel and very quick. While perhaps not particularly creative when it comes to character development or overarching plot, Doyle was extremely creative when it came to mysterious and often action-packed plots. Little wonder that Sherlock Holmes stories have been retold again and again, they’re a great romp and if you love crime, you’ll love these.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the illustrations in this edition. Martinek has a curious style that certainly captures the both the era of the stories as well as the ambiance. However, her naive art disregard for proportion and perspective coupled with her rather two dimensional characters fall a little flat for a series of stories that concern themselves so on accuracy and detail. I also found it a bit distracting when the illustrations didn’t match the text (e.g. the colour of a snake in one of the stories).

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book. I think however I probably would have been satisfied with four rather than twelve stories. While I am still undecided about the illustrations there is no question that this is a beautiful edition and it looks gorgeous on my bookshelf.

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