Thursday, 16 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews episode 1

Hi all

Sorry for the delay, was otherwise preoccupied by the birth of my son, Thomas. Named for doubting Thomas, the first recorded empiricist, who had to touch to believe.

So, here's the first batch of classic book reviews. Merry Yuletide, all hail Odin!

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A cute story, probably the inspiration for Jurassic Park. A little bit better suited for young teenagers to read than adults, but nicely-written. My only criticisms are: the story line is a bit linear, the romance at the beginning of the novel is almost irrelevant - but I don't want to spoil the story. It also goes on a bit about the initial traipsing through the jungle thing. Obviously, like all old novels, there are some racist parts. Lastly, some factual details are wrong, in particular, the description of the iguanadon. But that's because Doyle was using the best information available to him at the time, and that information, even in the scientific circles, was wrong.
Recommendation: Read it. It's cute. But I am biased. Anything with dinosaurs is good. A bit like anything with Nazis. So obviously, the best story ever would involve dinosaurs AND Nazis. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Land that Time Forgot, attempts something of the sort. See below.

The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
A bit boring. The first large portion of the book consists of him berating himself and having misadventures in random places over a period of years. When he eventually gets stranded on the island, it takes a few hundred pages before anything interesting happens; most of it is documentation on how he recreates the artefacts of western civilisation. Plus there are lots of innaccuracies about the native flora and fauna of the Caribbean. Then, once he finally leaves the island, there's a peculiar section, also quite extensive, of various adventures around Europe. Quite aimless, and not at all necessary for the story. It struck me as if the author had a bunch of ideas of what would count as good adventure material, and decided to cram it all into one book even if the stories had nothing to do with each other. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages. Apparently this is the first true novel written in English, so we have to forgive him.
Recommendation: See if you can find a movie version of it, or a condensed version. It's rather tedious going, though the part when the "savages" arrive is quite well-written and creates some suspense. Consider reading it.

The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.
Boring. The first half consists of him going back to his island, which had been populated by mutineers etc., to see how it was prospering. The second half consists of him travelling around Asia and being mistaken for a pirate. The whole book could have been condensed to perhaps 100 pages.
Recommendation: Don't bother reading it.

A Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.
Frightfully pretensious and Victorian, with a very linear storyline. I didn't see the point of any of the characters in the story over and above the artist Basil, Gray, Lord Wotton (Gray's corruptor), and Gray's first love. Especially the various aristocratic ladies. They played no role at all, apart from generating pretensious Victorian banter for Wotton to contradict. Also, Gray's descent into debauchery is depicted as a love for finery; tapestries, jewelry, etc etc. Nothing remotely close to what we'd think of as debauched. In that way, the novel was disappointing. No gratuitous orgies, nothing. Most of the story consists of nothing happening. The key events are glossed over or reported after the fact, and not gone into in any detail. The most detail consists of the boring Victorian exchanges between various ladies and the protagonists. The only vaguely interesting thing about the story is that the protagonist, Gray, is an antihero. I liked Wotton better. Gray is very dull and neurotic. The much-vaunted gay allusions didn't appear except right in the beginning of the novel, and they're all very coy. The best part about it is that it is written almost poetically; the use of English is sublime. I also quite enjoyed Wotton's philosophical hedonism.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's short enough, if you want to bother, but I'd say the 2010 movie is vastly, vastly superior.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Cute. Worth reading. The action is almost continuous, there's very little unnecessary preamble and postamble, justice is served, there's a clear protagonist and antagonist, there's suspense and intrigue, the story is told from different people's points of view and thus is not entirely linear, as most old novels are. The only complaints I have is that I don't think pine trees are native to the Caribbean, and I really don't see the point to Ben Gunn; he could have been removed from the story altogether with no effect on the storyline at all.
Recommendation: Read it.

The Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann Wyss.
Disappointing and long-winded. The first two-thirds of the book are awfully boring. They consist of: The family is shipwrecked. They pray. They take lots of useful stuff from the ship, thereby saving them the hassle that Robinson Crusoe had of having to re-make it all by hand. They pray. They kill lots of animals, often for no reason at all. They pray. They discuss the scientific interest of various animals and plants that they'd killed and eaten, and how to use trigonometry to make a tree house, etc. They pray. They plant seeds and saplings from the ship. They pray. They make five or so different houses. They pray. They mooch around the island and find lots of animals that simply do not exist on South Sea islands. There are no Jackals, buffalo, bears, buck, onagers, etc., on South Sea islands. In fact, the only animal they may have got right was a crab. They shoot all of them anyway. They pray. They make references to Robinson Crusoe (yes, the title resemblance is not a coincidence), and to Captain Cook. Finally, at about 2/3 through, something happens, not much, but at least it's something. I guess this is the point at which Wyss's son took over the writing because his father had bored himself to death. (It was partly written by Wyss, and partly by his son).
Recommendation: Don't bother.

War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells.
If you've seen the 1950s movie, or Spielberg's remake, you'll be pleased to read this, because it's very similar to the movie interpretations. Except it's set in Victorian England, which makes it quite a bit more interesting. I think that considering how little people knew of other planets, space alien possibilities, etc., at the time, this is a pretty impressive piece of work. The storyline is not entirely linear, either; it's told from two different peoples' points of view. My criticisms are: the aliens are a little bit less plausible than say, Spielberg's interpretation, and the technology of the Martians does sound slightly like Victorian technology; one can see the extent and limitations of the imagination of the author - e.g. that the space ships are cylinders with screw-off tops, like a metal spaghetti jar. Then, although Wells does tell part of the story from the point of view of the protagonist's brother, he never meets his brother to talk to him. But all the other details, like the mad guy in the house, the red plants, the baskets carrying humans, etc., are there. Spielberg's version is actually closer to the original than the 1950s version.
Recommendation: Read it. It's passably modern, apart from a few language oddities.

The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells.
A bit odd. If you imagine Planet of the Apes combined with some weird kind of Smurfland, that will give you an idea. He goes forward into time, and the rest of the story is his narration of what he saw in the future. His peculiar view of a possible future is rather disappointingly uninteresting; just odd and substantially shorter than War of the Worlds. It seems to me as if this novel is merely an excuse to complain about Britain's class system; he envisages it as resulting in future speciation of the classes.
Recommendation: Don't bother. It's just odd. Rather go watch Planet of the Apes (the new one). It's more compelling, but otherwise pretty much the same story.

The Island of Dr Moreau, by H. G. Wells.
Pretty good - better than I expected. It's basically about an island inhabited by a mad scientist who tries to create humans with animal traits, (or vice versa). It actually borders on a horror story. If you like animals, you'll probably find it IS a horror story. At any rate, it seems as if it is partly a commentary on the inherent animal nature of man, and funnily enough, it compares a priest's sermon to the inane babbling of an ape. I think it would probably make quite a good movie.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate animal cruelty. If you're very worried, let it be known that justice is served.

20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne.
A submarine adventure with a little dig at the British Empire, written, of course, by a Frenchman. My criticisms: obviously, the Antarctic hadn't been explored at this time, so his description, whilst plausible at the time, is wrong on a number of counts, particularly that there's ocean near the pole. He also misclassifies seals as cetacea. He also goes into long lists of fish that they catch, etc., etc., which gets a bit dull. Other than that, an entertaining read. Verne could have trimmed a few of the random travels around the ocean, and I found the ending a bit baffling - why Aronnax's companions didn't tell him how they survived. But one of the best "classic" novels I've read so far.
Recommendation: Read it.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne.
A subterranean adventure in which the explorers try to get to the centre of the earth, on the belief that it is not unbearably hot there. My criticisms: Well, it's false. We know now that the centre is unbearably hot, and that the habitable part of the underground realm does not extend far below the surface of the earth. But the novel has some good parts and some suspense, with very little repetition or boring lists of types of rock, which I was expecting. The chief criticism is that it features a giant humanoid, which we have no evidence for, and some indications that fossilisation of ancient forms had not taken place, because they had survived. If you've seen the recent Brendan Fraser movie of the same title, it's very very similar to that, but obviously a bit slower, and the characters are all adult men. The movie is obviously a bit sillier though (with blue birds and so on).
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker.
Excellent. A bit long, and true to all the novels prior to the 20th century that I've read thus far, everything is told from the first-person perspective using the device of peoples' diary entries. Renfield is particularly disgusting; I giggled several times because of his antics. If you've seen the movie with Winona Ryder, it's pretty close to that; the main difference is there's nothing romantic about Stoker's Dracula; he is just a monster. There's a slight reference to a past love early on, but no dramatic retelling of a lost love. Another of the main differences is that there are multiple lairs and multiple crates of earth, and they're destroyed with a holy wafer only, not burning. Apart from that, the movie version is very close to the book version. So far, this is the best pre-20th-century novel I've read.
Recommendation: Read it. If you're too lazy, watch the movie, it's close enough and faster-paced.

The Land that Time Forgot, by E. R. Burroughs.
I saw a movie version of the first one-third of this series of stories in the 1970s, and remembered fondly the scene of a submarine surfacing in a primeval river, to encounter dinosaurs. So when I started reading this and saw where it was going, I was pleased to read on, hoping that my memory would be jogged into a glorious recollection of a great adventure. However, though it started out very good, it gradually became sillier and sillier. The things I didn't like about it are its bizarre model of the theory of evolution, and all the various primitive tribes of men, of which the Wieroo were the daftest. If he'd stuck to the basic elements and not gone on an acid trip with a science textbook, it would have been better. The book I read is divided into three parts, each actually being a separate book in itself, each following the adventures of a different protagonist in the same land, and ultimately, all three protagonists coming together in the last book. There are some racist parts, so be warned.
Recommendation: Consider reading it. It gets daffier as it goes along but it's overall more good than bad. Above, regarding Conan Doyle's Lost World, I said that the best story would be one with dinosaurs and Nazis. Burroughs tried to do something like this, but messed it up with funny tribes and silly creatures. So as to not spoil it, I'll not say more.

The Lair of the White Worm, by Bram Stoker.
This is the most modern of the classic novels that I have thus far read. It is told in the third person, rather than in the traditional first-person diary-entry form. It is also told from the perspective of many different people. The pace is quite good and the story quite creepy. The horror only comes towards the end, however; for the most part, the events are just bizarre. It was written in the very early part of the 20th century - 1912 if I recall correctly - so it's still very Victorian in its attitudes. The most unpleasant aspect of it is that it is very racist; there's a black character who is constantly described and addressed in offensive terms. Nevertheless, it is a good story. My criticisms of it from a factual point of view: not many. Obviously, it has a mythical creature in it, but apart from that, the factual data is pretty correct. As for the literary style and the book structure, I found it hurried in odd parts that need not have been hurried, e.g. the wedding, which was covered in about a paragraph. There were many loose ends, however. For example, no explanation was offered for the flocks of birds, and their relevance to the snakes. Mesmer's chest seemed irrelevant, though large portions of the book were devoted to its mysteries. The heir to the castle estate is described in very evil terms, and engages in weird hypnosis battles with commoners, for no apparent reason. The two sisters that he victimises seem to have magic powers, but Stoker never explains this or why there are these ancillary hypnosis battles. He seems to be a red herring of a character; almost as if Stoker is trying to make us suspicious of him. There are other loose ends, but I'll leave it at that.
Recommendation: Read. It is very good, apart from the racism.

Nineteen Eighty Four, by George Orwell.
Horrific. The picture it paints of a socialist/fascist future is so unbelievably grey and bleak. I think what is so appalling about it is not the torture scenes, but the complete hopelessness that pervades it. I think we're accustomed to stories in which good triumphs over evil. Orwell does not give us even a hope of this. My feeling after reading it was an increased and utter loathing for governments.
Recommendation: Read it. But only if you can tolerate torture scenes.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving.
Disappointing. He wastes pages upon pages describing various dishes at the dinner table and the fancies of the protagonist, and then the story abruptly ends with the protagonist running away in terror. Nothing really happens. No deaths or anything. Yawn.
Recommendation: Don't bother. Tim Burton's 1999 movie is way better.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.
Targeted at a 12-year-old audience, it's not a bad story, if a bit childish. I was surprised that it was as short as it was. My only complaint, and no doubt the typical one, is that it's a thinly-disguised masquerade of the Jesus story intended to make the latter seem heroic, getting sacrificed for the sins of man, etc., and rising from the dead.
Recommendation: If you've seen the recent movie, the book's basically identical, so don't bother, but if you've not seen the movie, read the book.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Caroll.
Urgh, a waste of time. I had to force myself to finish these two books, even more than I had to force myself to finish Swiss Family Robinson. And that's not because they're particularly long. Both books are a series of dream events/scenes with bizarre characters - mostly animals - who say nonsense things or get into quibbles with Alice over nonsense phrases and arguments, e.g. equivocation around the meaning of "fast" as "tight" and "rapid", etc. There are some vaguely cute references to formal logic as well. From a logician's or linguist's point of view, prior to formal studies of logic or linguistics, Caroll's work might be interesting as a showpiece of English weirdness, but apart from that it is unbearably dull. It goes on and on and on from one weird scene to the next, with very little to connect them and almost no storyline whatsoever; there is no antagonist, and no climax scene, and no denouement, etc. The resemblance of the recent Tim Burton movie to the "novel" (if you dare call it that), is passing at best. And the movie is vastly more interesting, even though it isn't full of pseudo-academic puns or points of oddity.
Recommendation: Go watch the movie and never read the book, it will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you're a very dull person who also enjoys bland wordplay, go read the book and NEVER watch the movie, because they're only passingly related and you'll be disappointed. E.g. in the book she's seven, whereas in the movie she's about to be married.

The Call of Cthulhu, by H. P. Lovecraft.
Cool, creepy. Told in the pre- or Victorian diary style, however. The gist of the story is an investigation into a cult. I won't spoil it by saying more.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a movie.

Frankenstein, by Mary W. Shelley.
The usual diary or letter form of the 1800s and prior. This story didn't really capture my imagination until near the end when the monster goes on his revenge spree. I found it a bit tough going, partly because a lot of ancillary stories are narrated by the actors to each other, and they go on and on a bit. The part that bugged me the most: not only does it not explicitly say that he is animated by lightning, but the monster talks very eloquently - in French, in fact. Then there are the tremendous scientific problems with taking months to reanimate dead body parts to assemble the monster: Frankenstein - the scientist - didn't have a fridge, so it's just not plausible. I think I prefer the image of the green-skinned guy with the bolt through his neck who just moans and groans and lumbers along slowly, although Shelley's original interpretation of the monster is more horrifying. I say this because I feel more pity for a lumbering mute than a superhuman who just happens to be very ugly.
Recommendation: Worth reading, if a little tedious. Pity there's not a modern movie version of it.

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, by R. L. Stevenson.
Quite well-written, it starts from the modern 3rd-person style, and only reverts to the old style of first-person letters at the end when the causes of the behaviour of Mr Hyde are explained. Quite a short story, reasonably well-paced. It could have been fleshed out a little more, with more suspense.
Recommendation: Short enough to read quickly. I'd like to see it done as a period-piece movie - i.e., I do not mean that dreadful version from a few years back which was set in modern USA. I mean the real thing set in the Victorian era. That's where it belongs. That's part of what makes the story creepy, is the gloomy London streets.

I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov.
A series of narratives in the form of a reporter interviewing one of the chief scientists at the robotics factory. The narratives are only vaguely connected, so there's no overall storyline. There are also some anachronisms and wrong guesses, like everyone having a flying car in 1998. A bit tedious, with some good parts. Nothing at all like the recent movie, however, except for the scene where the robot hides amongst a crowd of robots. I kept wondering if I had perhaps obtained the wrong book, and that someone, as a joke, had changed the cover. No antagonist, barely a storyline, completely linear, with the chapters almost unrelated to each other. It seems as if Asimov was writing purely to speculate on how he thought the future would be, rather than trying to write a story.
Recommendation: Don't bother. No matter how lousy the recent movie was in the eyes of the purists, at least it had a plot, a storyline, suspense, and a point.

All content © J M Ostrowick, 2010

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