Posts Tagged With: classics

Trilogy: His Dark Materials

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)

His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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I was pulled into this from the first paragraph, and found myself with so many questions about the world and the characters. I was delighted when the series wound up, and my various questions had been satisfactorily resolved. The writing style, plot pace, and characterizations were excellent — my biggest complaint is the ending. It’s entirely logical and internally consistent with the world and character Pullman created, and it was also really depressing to me. I was kind of blindsided by the ending because I’m not used to the sort of ambiguous/ realistic endings in YA, and certainly not in fantasy YA. I wanted a happy ever after — but at the same time, it was really well written, and it made sense, and the characters are of the sort that you know they’ll move on and be fine. Furthermore, I’m actually generally uncomfortable with happy-ever-after endings when the protagonists were paired off at an emotionally immature age, which makes my internal conflict at the resolution all the more confusing to me.

It’s kind of impossible to read these without being aware they’re a religious analogy — they’re most famously posited as Pullman’s “answer” to the Chronicles of Narnia. I enjoyed both series equally, to be honest. I read Narnia as a child and His Dark Materials as an adult. These days, when I read Narnia, it’s impossible not to pick up on the religious allegory and social commentary. When I was a kid, I thought of it as a really kick-ass fantasy series, and I just didn’t see any religious allegory at all. Not even the oh-so-obvious Christ motif. I can’t say what I would or would not have picked up on with His Dark Materials as a kid, but I rather suspect I would have been equally naive. As a fore-warned adult, I still didn’t pick up on certain themes — for instance, I wasn’t prepared for the whole Adam & Eve allegory, so I didn’t anticipate it until I was reading the final scene and it hit me like a ton of bricks between the eyes. I felt like an idiot for missing all those hints, and I don’t think I would have picked up on any religious themes if I hadn’t been primed to think of the series as an allegorical response to Narnia. I liked them, and I thought they were fun. The alleged religious debate is more like an interesting side-note in culture of the series than a real factor in the actual reading of it.

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The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of TimeThe Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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Apparently Josephine Tey normally wrote mysteries. Not a big mystery fan, myself — especially if there are multiple murders involved — but Tey’s writing is intriguing and compelling enough that I may make an exception for her.

This mystery is more of a historical puzzle, which is why I picked it up. I love those questions historical figures have left in the cloth of our reality, and I enjoy the quest to solve them. This particular mystery has to do with the Princes in the Towers, who were murdered around the beginning of the Tudor reign in Europe. Apparently it’s commonly accepted that Richard III, last of the Plantagenet dynasty, killed them.

Using the device of an injured policeman bored with his hospital stay, Tey examines the evidence for and against Richard III murdering his nephews and looks at other possible murderers.

It’s a great book, and does what I think all great books examining history should do — makes the reader want to know more. I’ve been researching the Plantagenet’s and early Tudors since I read this book.

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Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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I read this when I was a teenager, and it’s one of those books that has always stuck with me. The vivid imagery of a society so addicted to surface pleasure and immediate gratification that they had willingly surrendered the ability to read or even own books . . . it was such a terrifying idea that I couldn’t help but be fascinated by it; the same way you might be fascinated yet repelled by a massive wolf spider that has made it’s way into your bathroom.

Bradbury’s writing is straightforward yet poetic, and I prefer this book over other futuristic dystopian fiction of the same time period because it ends on a hopeful note. I remember that when I finished the book, I felt eager and invigorated, ready to act and change the world for the better. In contrast, when I finished 1984 and Brave New World, I felt drained, exhausted, and hopeless, like it wasn’t even worth trying to prevent the posited futures because we could only fail.

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Calico Captive

Calico CaptiveCalico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare

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This is one of those books (like Johnny Tremain) that I read as a kid and loved. I never did own a copy, but I checked it out from the library so often it was at my house more often than at the library.

It follows the story of Miriam, a young English colonial, who is captured by Indians during the French and Indian war. She’s sold as a slave to some French Quebecoise, where she begins to make a name for herself as a seamstress.

However, Miriam was not the only one captured — her sister, nieces and nephew were also captured and enslaved. Miriam and her sister are faced with many hard choices as they try to pay their slave debts (if I recall, it’s been a while since I read it) in Quebec, bring their family back together and eventually make their way home.

As Miriam’s seamstress business becomes more successful, she’s courted by a handsome French soldier — a moral dilemma, as he’s allied with the same Indians who attacked her colony, and he fights and kills the British colonials she loves. At the same time, he helps her track down her scattered nieces and nephew, and assists Miriam in widening her clientele base.

I’ve always loved this book, though I have to admit I rooted for the French solider. I always wanted Miriam to marry him and leave her stodgy English roots. Apparently the book is based on the diary of a real-life Miriam who actually experienced these events (I guess they left out all the rape-iness), so extra points for bringing history alive.

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Johnny Tremain

Johnny TremainJohnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

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I haven’t read this in ages and ages, but I’ve been telling so many people about it lately that I figured I should just go ahead and put up a review.

Johnny Tremain is, quite simply, among my absolute favorite books. It’s one of the beautiful childhood literary experiences that introduced me to my enduring love of historical fiction — and not incidentally, to my love of history. Because of Johnny Tremain,  the events of the Revolutionary War became real to me on a personal level. This is the book that first breathed life into history for me, and made it something real and amazing that was pertinent to my daily world. This is the book which first helped me realize that while actual time travel isn’t possible, I can still witness and experience history through the pages of a book.

Johnny Tremain also introduced me to concepts and language that were new and strange to a 10 year old girl in 1990, such as “apprenticeship” and “sweetmeats.” As a child being raised in a strictly religious household that eschewed cursing, I was also inspired and intrigued by Johnny’s colorful solution to his own household’s ban on swearing.

I read it so often as a kid that my copy of it — which was the edition pictured above, a paperback version with an actual paper-style cover — fell apart due to the frequent readings. I taped it together, but by the time I was 17, all the tape in the world couldn’t save it’s life. I did buy a new copy, which I read often enough even as an adult that the spine was starting to show abuse and the pages were worn soft by the time my dog chewed it up.

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Lolita

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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I always feel bad when I review a classic with a “meh” attitude, like I’m that idiot kid in class who just doesn’t “get it”; the one who’s always missing the bigger picture to focus on stupid, unnecessary incidentals.

See, this is a gorgeous book as far as the writing goes. It’s incredible, vivid and lyrical. He writes the scenes the way memories feel, not the way reality is. They’re dreamy and off-center, leaving you with a funny taste in your mouth and a slightly upset stomach. But it’s brilliantly done, and beautiful in the way that an oil spill shimmers in a rain puddle. It’s just so wrong, but written so right.

The plot itself, the whole warped pedophiliac relationship — well it’s odd, and when you think you’ve got a grasp on things, you haven’t. It’s weird and disturbing and it definitely causes a reaction. The writing is so well done that there are moments where even though Humbert is entirely pathetic and unlikeable, you almost feel like he’s this sorry little scrap of a man who was taken advantage of by Lolita’s manipulative cunning . . . and then you’re like, wait. This is a prepubescent girl and a grown man here. I understand why this book is such a cultural phenomenon, and why it has sparked so many discussions on every level of discourse — I’m just not sure if this is in any way a good thing, culturally speaking. His writing is gorgeous and layered . . . but his approach to the plot is so completely repellent and disturbing that I don’t particularly want to read anything he’s written ever again.

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1984

19841984 by George Orwell

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I’ve heard a lot about 1984 and Brave New World (by Aldous Huxley), and decided to read them.

1984 was well-written. The plot, the characterizations, everything was well-constructed. In fact, it was so well constructed and written that it’s final achievement, a pervading hopelessness and a sort of apathy-induced terror linger long after the final page is finished. It is, without a doubt, one of the most depressing books I have ever read.

I gave it 4 stars because it is well-written and beautifully executed. I would give it 5 stars, if it weren’t for the fact that it is such a depressing piece of literature, leaving one with a sort of desperate futility toward the outcome of power, politics, and the possible future imagined therein.

If you enjoy social commentary in your fiction and relish books that predict chilling futures while featuring unnerving parallels to reality as we know it, then this is the book for you. If, however, you prefer your fiction to be an escape and a pleasure, not a moral or political lesson, then avoid this book at all costs.

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Trilogy: The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, #3)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

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I’m a big fantasy fan, and you have to give Tolkien props for practically creating the genre. In all honesty, though, I’ve always found the Lord of the Rings Trilogy to be a bit slow. While I enjoy poetic imagery and can understand the desire to wax lyrical, sometimes I get a little irritated at the sheer wordiness of this series. Every time I revisit these books, I remember why I prefer authors like Neil Gaiman or R.R. Martin for my fantasy fix. The Fellowship of the Rings is well-written and enjoyable, especially in the last few chapters, when the action really picks up. But be warned — you have to slog through quite a bit of speech-making, pointless discussion, and long descriptions of travel to get to that point.

Even so, this is a classic of the genre, and should be read and experienced by any fantasy lover at least once. A point to keep in mind is that The Lord of the Rings was published at the tail end of an era in which books had been the predominant form of entertainment for centuries. In 1954, television was not yet common in every home, and while films were available, they were a theater-only treat. In a sense, Tolkien is one of the last authors to write in the same literary style as Dickens, Twain, Austen, and the Bronte sisters (though obviously in a different genre).

Authors today — even authors of epic fantasy — write differently. They know they have to compete with the internet, television, movies on demand, and mobile devices. Plots come at a faster pace these days, and the action and reaction occurs in swift succession. There is no time or desire for writers who begin their books with long, meandering paragraphs and tend towards tangential writing. In order to be a success, the book must immediately grab and hold the attention, and keep it throughout. I’m not saying any of this is bad — I’m just pointing out that Tolkien was writing for a much different audience. Reading his books requires cultivating a different frame of mind.

That challenge is largely ameliorated by the second book, though — The Two Towers and Return of the King chronicle the bulk of the action, so pacing picks up quite a bit. Long story short: The entire series is a bastion of the fantasy genre, and a must-read for any fantasy fan. Luckily, by the end of the first book, the pace starts picking up. By the second book, it’s whipping right along, and the third book is also a great read.

As a side note, I have recently learned that the estate of Tolkien is apparently displeased with Peter Jackson’s film rendition of his work. That makes me feel a little odd in my high recommendation of the films, since Tolkein’s descendants apparently feel they’re not at all representative of his work. Still, I really do feel like the films do a good job of representing the tone and feel of these books, and I generally do not like films based on books I’ve read. I believe the total of films based on books I’ve read that I actually like is somewhere at 5 (if you count each LoTR installment separately) — the other two are Stardust and The Princess Bride. 

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Brave New World

Brave New World Revisited Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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This is apparently one of the classics of modern literature, and came very highly recommended.

My personal reaction to it was that the premise was interesting, but the characterization left something to be desired. It isn’t until about the third or fourth chapter that the character most identifiable is introduced, and even then, he’s not concentrated on until much later in the book. The second chapter introduces the other character who’s somewhat fleshed out, but I found him lacking in interest and somewhat repulsive in character.

While the basic plot was intriguing and, considering the time it was written, a fascinating view of the future — the book was a bit of a slog due to the fact that Huxley didn’t write characters I could care about on a personal level. It was a very draining and demoralizing read overall, and I kind of felt like they were so utterly unlikeable that they almost deserved their situation, and then I felt embarrassed and petty for wishing that level of misfortune on someone for being  unlikeable.

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