Category Archives: Classics

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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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Graphic Novels, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Everyone has heard of Oscar Wilde, however I had never actually read any of his works. My brother recommended “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and when I came across this beautiful edition, one of the Penguin Clothbound Classics, I could hardly say no.

Originally published in 1890 as a serial, today’s text represents Wilde’s revised version republished as a novel in 1891. Despite extensive revisions, the novel was nonetheless subject to an enormous amount of controversy and outrage. This edition is peppered with annotations by Peter Ackroyd who both explains themes and cultural aspects of the time as well as demonstrates how significantly the element of same-sex romance has been downplayed, muted and even removed in comparison to the original publication as a serial.

Within the very first pages of this novel two things become swiftly apparent:

1. Oscar Wilde was a literary genius who took great joy in the beauty of the written word; and

2. Oscar Wilde was very romantically interested in men.

The story follows Dorian Gray, a young man of extraordinary beauty whose likeness is captured by his friend in a portrait. After a number of discussions with another friend Harry about the advantages to living a hedonistic lifestyle. Amid Harry’s jokes that Dorian would be better off to stay young and attractive forever, Dorian makes a wish that he could do exactly that and that his portrait age instead of him. Sure enough, his portrait begins to bear the scars of his increasingly selfish, immoral and excessive ways. What follows is the very Victorian depiction of the scoundrel spiraling towards his inevitable sticky end.

Inspired by this book to visit the National Portrait Gallery, I was disappointed to find out that I had just missed the "In the Flesh" sculpture exhibition. However, I did find this fascinating self-portrait of an Australian jackaroo-turned-artist who reminded me a lot of the narcissistic Dorian Gray.

Inspired by this book to visit the National Portrait Gallery, I was disappointed to find out that I had just missed the “In the Flesh” sculpture exhibition. However, I did find this fascinating self-portrait of an Australian jackaroo-turned-artist who reminded me a lot of the narcissistic dandy Dorian Gray.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a fascinating novel that is exquisitely written. It was a complete juxtaposition to my last reviewed book “A Fortunate Life”, even though both books are initially set only 10 years apart. Wilde is an incredible wordsmith and is a source many witty insights into life and art. Thematically, as I said, this book is very Victorian and is on par with Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot in its depiction of the breakdown of the classes, the emerging role of entrepreneurs and the industrial revolution.

The novel is peppered with literary allusions, and Wilde himself was clearly very passionate about aesthetics and discusses at length the ornamental value of particular objets d’art and Japonsime, various fashion styles and features of gardens. The first topic is something I learned quite a bit about reading the absolutely captivating non-fiction/family autobiography “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal. I know I’m not reviewing that book right now, but if you are interested in reading more about the Aesthetic Movement, it is an ideal place to start.

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I did, however, feel as though the book began to lose traction halfway through. Wilde seemed more interested in bringing to life his many thoughts and ideas, and incorporating the many things he had learned from his extensive reading, than furthering along the plot and so some events, particularly towards the end, seem a little startling and disconnected. The books at times reads almost more like an essay on the relationship between morality and aestheticism than a novel, but is nevertheless very interesting for it. I definitely felt as though I got a lot more out of it than I would have otherwise had I not read quite a bit of classic British literature, had a rudimentary understanding of the Aesthetic Movement and the assistance of Peter Ackroyd’s extremely detailed notes. Nevertheless, a wonderful edition of a brilliant classic, and definitely a book I am glad to have finally read.

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20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

This is a book that, although being very familiar with images such as Captain Nemo and the Nautilis, I had never actually read before now. After coming across two of Jules Verne’s novels in Canty’s Bookshop earlier this year, “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” in special Vintage Classics editions, well, how could I say no?

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Part of a set of 5, the Vintage Sci-Fi Classics come with wild 3D covers and include your very own retro pair of 3D glasses. A little disappointingly, the 3D art isn’t quite as eye-catching as one would hope, but they still make for pretty books. Plus the glasses are rad.

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“20 Thousands Leagues Under the Sea”, originally published in French in 1870, is the quintessential sci-fi novel. When rumours of a monster sea-creature begin to abound, naturalist Professor Aronnax is delighted to find that not only is the supposed sea-creature a state-of-the-art submarine called The Nautilis that has just sunk the ship he was on, but he has been kidnapped and doomed to spend the rest of his life aboard it with his manservant Counsel, Ned Land the cranky Canadian and the mysterious Captain Nemo. What follows is essentially an underwater tour of the world culminating in discovering exactly what it is that propels Captain Nemo on such an endeavour.

This book is at heart a celebration of the exploration and technological achievements of the Western world. Verne revels in his own imagination, and the message that anything that can be done on land so can be done underwater. It reminds me quite a lot of Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, published nearly 150 years earlier. The novel abandons a typical story arc and instead is presented in a diary entry format more along the lines of where-we-went-and-what-we-did-there. The advantage that Verne had over Swift, however, was that his book actually contains a lot of scientific merit.

Verne constantly refers to the ingenuity of Captain Nemo and his submarine, and the learned and enthusiastic Professor Aronnax is the perfect conduit through which to appreciate the captain’s cleverness. The book does have quite a self-congratulatory tone to it because, of course, all of the enigmatic Captain Nemo’s ideas are in fact Verne’s. They are good ideas however, and Verne demonstrates an attitude towards racial and political equality that was quite before his time.

This is a quick, clever little novel that is fascinating in its treatment of science and global themes given it is over 140 years old. It is hard not to get caught up in the sheer enthusiasm of the book, and some of the scenes, such as when Nemo and Aronnax are wandering through the underwater kelp fields, are very immersive. An easy read, though (understandably) a little smug.

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