My first experience with H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was not the Victorian novel itself but the Jeff Wayne concept album, which my parents have on vinyl, and must have had on tape as well because I have a distinct and deeply-lodged memory of listening to it on a long car trip and lying in bed that night gripped by the terror that tentacley aliens were going to ooze through the ceiling vent and eat me. It was… with some trepidation and assurances to my eight-year-old self that it couldn’t be that bad, we’ve moved past this by now, come on, that I picked up the original book to read for a class on genre fiction.
I was wrong. To both the credit of Wells’ story and my eight-year-old self, this crap is terrifying.
The War of the Worlds is the grandfather of the modern alien invasion story as we know it today, or at least, carries all the hallmarks that the alien invasion story as we know it today loves. Being more familiar with the Men From Mars!! plotline as it appears in (parodies of) pulp 50s and 60s sci-fi and its later, grittier incarnations like Independence Day, it was a little odd to see it transplanted so naturally into 19th century England. There are still horses and carts trundling around, steam power is in its heyday, and the lush, quaint landscape of a country town and its quiet heath forms the stage for the beginning of a terrifying alien conquest that will make mankind question everything it knows about itself. Continue reading
Honestly, you know you’ve made it big when The Muppets adapt your work. Though whether people knowing the notes of your novel due to overexposure to cartoons and parodies rather than actually having read it could be counted as success, could be up for debate. In any case, upon realising that I knew basically the entire story without any lick of its original context, I picked up Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the next leg of my foray into classics.
If I’m being honest, I was originally going to review Great Expectations, but—while being full of colourful characters and clever social commentary—it left me in such a weary state I decided to try out something with more bounce. A Christmas Carol is a standout work of Dickens’, different to his usual style and one could argue less ‘mature’, but never let it be said it’s not literature because it’s full of melodrama and ghosts and barely-veiled-to-the-point-of-being-preachy morals about humanitarianism.
A Christmas Carol (as I’m sure you all know, whether from Mickey Mouse or Muppets or anywhere in between—if my Google image search serves to inform, there’s even a Sonic the Hedgehog version) is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a… well, a quintessential scrooge (funny that) who hoards money and loves no one, and scoffs in the face of the jolly nature of Christmas. We first meet him when he’s huddled over in his office, begrudgingly giving his assistant one day off with pay, saying “bah! Humbug!” to festivities, and commenting that we ought to start burning orphans for fuel so The Poor contribute something to society. Well, not quite, but damn near close enough. Basically, he’s a privileged, entitled old white man turned up to eleven on the ‘people you wouldn’t want as your neighbour’ scale. If he was alive today, he’d probably write to his local newspaper complaining about immigrants and Millennials. Continue reading
[TW: discussion of depression and suicide ahead]
Do you ever read a book that just feels important, even if you don’t quite realise why at the time?
Obviously The Bell Jar is regarded by many as a hugely important book, whether for its value as a historical record detailing the state of things in the 1950s or as a profound look inside its author Sylvia Plath’s head, or because of its golden place as a quintessential piece of feminist literature. Or just because of personal relevance, as it is to people I know who have read it. I suppose it’s just the kind of book that affects you, and whatever form that takes varies from reader to reader.
Firstly, it’s fairly easy to see why it’s almost the go-to feminist novel of the 20th century: The Bell Jar is basically an elegant list of all the things that can go wrong in a woman’s life, because of or exacerbated by the prejudices in modern society. The fact that a lot of it is still relevant and recognisable now, some 53 years after it was published (and roughly 63 after it was set, as it’s written looking back on the 1950s), rather explains why it’s stood the test of time, as well as being a little frightening. Continue reading
Give me your answer do
I’ve become a symbol of foolish decadence and corruption of the American Dream
All for the love of you…
After the crushing disappointment that was The Sun Also Rises (sorry, Hemingway fans) I had to cleanse myself in the florid, engaging jazzy bath that is the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My bias may seem petty as The Great Gatsby is also a Great American Novel hailed in all directions as a piece of century-defining literary might, and is also about people partying and having affairs as narrated by a blank slate observer, but at least ol’ Fitz describes stuff. Continue reading
There are possibly no two “classic” novels more different than Jane Eyre and The Sun Also Rises, and reading them one after the other gave me what I can only describe as literary whiplash. One is a Romantic, emotional and wordy “history of a woman’s heart” with good spiritual Victorian values, the other is a modernist, minimalist, hyper-masculine grit-fest about how everyone’s constantly drunk and sleeping with each other in a godless world.
Hailed by some as the greatest novel of the 20th century (whether or not I feel like it deserves that metaphysical medal, we shall get to in a moment), Ernest Hemingway’s first book drops the reader with no hand-holding, help or description beyond utter scene-setting basics in 1920s Paris. Our narrator is Jake Barnes, a World War One veteran who suffered an injury in combat that (though again, never actually described) seems to have damaged his genitalia. In the midst of a new, modern culture where everyone’s throwing off the values of the past generation and having affairs in all directions, it’s just one of the reasons he feels a little disillusioned and fed up with the state of things. Continue reading
In light of my recent ponderings about the great hubbub that is “classic literature”, I’ve decided to breathe life back into my withering reading tag and review some classic novels—what makes them “classics”? What made them stand the test of time and garner such acclaim? Are they deserving of it? What can they teach us about the past era they were written in? Can they be enjoyed as books or do they have to be academically dissected for all their merits to come to the surface? Will I ever truly get over my desire to punch their romantic heroes in the face?
Jane Eyre the person is, like Jane Eyre the book, wonderful, powerful and miserable. She begins as a bullied, neglected orphan in the care—to use the word loosely—of her relatives, Wicked Stepmother archetype and all. Her aunt would have turned baby Jane out on the doorstep, but her husband, damn him, used his dying breath to make her promise she’d take care of his niece.
Jane knows, with a ten-year-old’s wisdom and an impeccably strong sense of self-awareness that continues through the whole book, that she’s better than these people, who torment her and unfairly punish her. So, first chance she gets, she suggests going away to school. Her aunt, keen to be shot of her, thinks it’s a great idea, and so our little heroine goes off into the world. To deal with frostbite, famine, typhus and educational brutality.
Having fun yet? Continue reading
Before recently, I had never read any Jane Austen—you could even say, and be totally truthful about the business, that I had been deliberately avoiding her work. And it occurred to me that the reason I had been doing this was out of, ironically enough, pride (to think I should be seen with such a book in my hands! Oh, the potential embarrassment!) and prejudice (Austen’s books are all just florid frilly stories about snobs in crinolines and cravats dancing around each other trying to get married, right?). To my enormous surprise, I finished Pride and Prejudice and bloody loved it. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this good? Well, the short answer is they did, but the culture surrounding classic literature—on both sides—is such that I wanted to avoid the conversation altogether.
Austen and her ilk (romances and heroine-driven novels from the 19th century, let’s say) are often a love-or-hate-it affair. People are reluctant to pick up classics, perhaps because they’re considered passé or dull compared to modern fiction, perhaps because the language is different and difficult to get your head around sometimes and the writing style and story structure is no longer in vogue or what our 21st century brains and hearts are used to processing. This is fair enough. It is not, however, a worthy reason for classic literature being snubbed entirely because it’s classic. Old things can be good things, and our 21st century brains and hearts should get a taste of the words of the past now and then to broaden our horizons.
That being said, classics should also not be put upon pedestals just because they’re classics. Yes, we know that they are considered ‘classic’ because they shine with a certain light and did something revolutionary or important in their day that contributed to the way literature has evolved. However, to continue to evolve we also need to embrace new writing and not cling to things written 200 years ago as a model of perfection that no heathen work of modern fiction can possibly live up to. It’s this attitude that makes so many people have the opinion in the previous paragraph, mostly, unfortunately, bred by the books being shoved at them in high school with demand for appreciation. The only thing that kills the love of a book faster than analysing it to death is being expected, by some bizarre pretence that someone else decided, to enjoy it, simply because it is old. Half the time, I’d be tempted to go out of my way to not enjoy it, simply out of spite. Continue reading