Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Classics Club’

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Is it wrong of me to have chosen The Pearl by John Steinbeck for my list of fifty books to read for The Classics Club because it is short?

In my defence, having struggled through The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden when I was far too young to appreciate either, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to such a long story by this author again.

The Pearl is the story of what happens to a poor young Mexican couple, Kino and Juana, after their baby is stung by a scorpion. They rushed the baby off to a doctor, who refused to see them because all Kino could offer in payment for his services were a handful of oddly-shaped, and nearly worthless seed pearls.

On returning home, Kino, a fisherman, went diving for oysters in the hope of finding a pearl of sufficient value to pay the doctor for the baby’s treatment. He found a pearl so big and beautiful that by the time news of the find reached the doctor, it had become known as ‘The Pearl of the World.’

Perhaps not surprisingly, Kino’s find brought out the very worst of human nature. Initially Kino dreamed of sending his child to school and marrying Juana with the money from the pearl’s sale, but it didn’t take long for his dreams to expand significantly. Worse, the actions caused by other people’s greed for the pearl changed Kino and his family’s lives forever.

I found The Pearl to be a sad story, but well told. While it is a very short story, the length is also exactly right, as any more would have been padding and any less would have meant that important components of the story weren’t told. I’m fairly sure I’ll read more of Steinbeck’s short stories in future and who knows? I might even work my way up to re-reading his larger novels eventually.

The Pearl was book eleven in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2013.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

birdsong.png

I might have to read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks again, because a week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about the story. The writing is beautiful and the story made me feel too emotional at times to continue reading.

I added Birdsong to my list for the Classics Club after reading several other books by this author (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, A Week in December and A Possible Life), all of which I enjoyed.

Birdsong begins with Stephen Wraysford as a young Englishman who travels to Amiens in France in 1910 for business reasons. During this time, he and the wife of the man who he is supposed to be learning the business from fall in love and run away together. When Isabelle becomes pregnant, she becomes afraid their relationship will fail and she disappears, leaving Stephen bereft.

The story then jumps ahead in time to World War One, where Stephen is now an English officer fighting in France. This is the spot when the story started to become meaningful to me. I had enjoyed the evolution of Stephen and Isabelle’s romance and was disappointed when she got the jitters and left him, but that all seemed like fluff once I became entrenched in Stephen’s war.

The physical descriptions of being in the trenches, in the dirt and mud, surrounded by smells left me feeling awful, but they were nothing to the emotions the characters experienced as they waited to leave the trenches to fight, or to be killed in the attempt to take enemy ground. At times I was shivering with fear. I felt an adrenaline rush when the soldiers did and I felt relief when they were injured or went on leave. The letters the soldiers wrote to their loved ones before battle had me in tears. Realising alongside a group of soldiers marching to the frontlines that the massive hole being dug will be many of their grave site gave me a physical shock.

Stephen, who believed he would never again experience the closeness he had with Isabelle, was a cold and distant officer whose men did not love or respect him. He resisted taking leave and had just a single friend, Michael, a Captain in the army. As an orphan, Stephen received no letters or communications with anyone outside of the war until he met Isabelle’s sister Jeanne by chance when he was sent on leave to a town near the battlefield.

Stephen’s story during the war is interwoven with that of Jack Firebrace, a miner employed by the British Army to build tunnels. Jack’s story of working in the tunnels was equally as intriguing as Stephen’s story and I believe he could easily have become the main character in this story.

The other timeline in Birdsong was that of Stephen’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, who during the 1970s became interested in and so investigated what Stephen had done in the war. Elizabeth tracked down several soldiers who had known Stephen. One of these men had been in a mental asylum since the war.

Certain sections of the story are so beautifully written and filled with meaning that I re-read them several times. Others made me snort, or sniff. The following made me laugh in a macabre way:

An officer was reflecting on the danger from snipers caused by sandbags at the top of the trench parapets being disturbed by soldiers sliding back to safety. “The unexpected bullet through the head provided a quiet, relatively clean death, but it was demoralizing to the nerves of the others.”

The lesson in Birdsong seemed to me to be that there is no end to what a person can be driven to do. In this instance, the war was the excuse for the extreme behaviour of the masses. Time and again Stephen questioned how far men could be driven to kill before they stopped and said they would not continue in their madness, but this point was never reached. Instead, countless lives were lost or destroyed as the horror of the war continued.

Birdsong was book five for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Watership Down by Richard Adams

 

watership.png

I’ve been resisting reading Watership Down by Richard Adams for nearly forty years, telling myself that I don’t like books about animals despite blubbering through Black Beauty as a child, remembering what I learned my whole life after studying Animal Farm in school, and more recently, having discovered the delights of The Wind in the Willows.

When I joined The Classics Club, I needed to create a list of fifty books and in a ‘Why not?” attitude, included Watership Down on the list, then borrowed the book from the library before I could change my mind.

It turns out that I do like stories about animals. At least, I felt anxious and concerned about the welfare of Hazel, Fiver and their daring band of rabbits as they lived their lives, felt relieved for them when their adventures turned out well, and cried over them at the end of the story. Hmm.

The story was written for children but it isn’t a childish read. The rabbits have their own language, morals, proverbs and myths. The story is an adventure story and the rabbits are the heroes.

Watership Down begins with a rabbit called Fiver warning his brother Hazel about an imminent danger to their warren. Fiver doesn’t know what the danger is but Hazel heeds Fiver’s warning as previously, Fiver has inexplicably known when something bad was about to happen. Hazel and Fiver attempted to warn their Chief Rabbit, but when he didn’t listen they escaped the warren themselves along with a handful of other rabbits including Bigwig, a physically and mentally strong rabbit with soldier-like characteristics and experiences, Dandelion, who is a story-teller, little Pipkin, Speedwell, Buckthorn, brainy Blackberry, Holly and Silver, each of whom have their own distinguishing characteristics.

Fiver has a vision of where they should go, but Hazel is their leader, although he is not the biggest or the cleverest amongst them. Along their journey they run into rabbits from another warren who invite them to join their warren. This turned out to be a mistake, and a lesson to readers as well, in a ‘not to settle for the devil that you know’ type of way.

They eventually made their way to Watership Down, a safe, grassy area on top of a hill where they are relatively safe from predators and they build a warren of their own there. For a while they are safe and happy, but soon they realise their days are numbered as they have no does, and so no continuity for their warren.

The group devise a plan to bring does back to their warren, but put themselves into enormous danger in doing so. I was delighted to read that the rabbits weren’t romantic, but saw their need to repopulate as a practical necessity. The does felt exactly the same way about romance and repopulating.

In between the main story, Dandelion tells the other rabbits myths about Frith who made the world and their Prince Rabbit, the daring and tricky El-ahrairah, whose ways they try to emulate as they find their way in the world, and the Black Rabbit.

There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be.

Threats to Hazel, Fiver and their group included foxes, stoat, birds and other wild animals, but also humans, dogs, cats and farm animals. Other threats to the rabbits survival were also indirectly caused by humans.

In Australia, rabbits are a pest and are cursed and eradicated accordingly, but Watership Down has changed my thinking. I expect it will be some time before I see a wild rabbit without thinking of Hazel’s courage, Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s foreknowledge, Blackberry’s brains, Dandelion’s stories and the others in their group as a generous and happy little community.

Watership Down was book four for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

rebecca

The Classics Club dared members to get their Goth on during October, to read a book from our list which we had classified as a thriller, mystery, or goth. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was my choice.

It has been a very long time since I first read Rebecca and I know now that I didn’t appreciate it then as I should have. I expect I was too young for the book back then, much like the book’s heroine. In some ways, Rebecca is a coming of age story, just as much as it is a gothic romance, or a mystery.

How young and inexperienced I must have seemed, and how I felt it, too.

The story is narrated by a nameless heroine who is a young and socially inexperienced orphan, shy, awkward and put-upon by her employer, Mrs Van Hopper, a loud, brash American for whom she works as a companion.

While in Monte Carlo, Mrs Van Hopper forces an acquaintance with a fellow guest, Max de Winter, whose name she knows from the newspapers as being the wealthy owner of Manderley, a mansion in Cornwall, and whose glamourous wife died recently in a tragic accident. When Mrs Van Hopper becomes ill, Maxim and the young woman escape her company, driving all over Monte Carlo and the surrounding area for a couple of weeks. When Mrs Van Hopper recovers she decides suddenly to return to the United States, and the 42-year old Maxim asks the young woman to marry him.

After their marriage and a brief honeymoon they return to Manderley where the young woman almost immediately begins comparing herself with her predecessor, the beautiful, capable and popular first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, particularly resents the young woman for intruding on the memory of Rebecca, whom she adored. Even the dog was Rebecca’s first.

At Manderley Maxim becomes less available and amusing and the young woman begins to obsess over what she perceives as her own shortcomings, in her distinctively tentative, anxious voice. She believes Maxim regrets their marriage and doubts that their marriage will ever be a success, particularly after his anger when she unknowingly wore a replica of a costume to Manderley’s annual costume ball that Rebecca previously wore.

Rebecca reminded me a little of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in that both heroines were involved with much older men and had the ghost of a former wife to deal with. Both also had to deal with being socially inferior, and less experienced and important than the men of their choice, although the narrator of Rebecca seemed to me to be overly self-obsessed, always worrying about what other people might be thinking or saying about her. In all fairness, this trait is typical of a girl or woman of her age, but at times I wanted to tell her that other people spend far less time thinking about her than she thinks they do.

I also snickered when Maxim asked the heroine when he asked her to marry him, “Does forty-two seem very old to you?” I wanted to tell him yes, Maxim, you idiot, of course you’re too old and experienced for the young and timorous heroine. And don’t go thinking I’m being a dog in the manger about you, because you’re actually a bit too young for me…

Part of the charm of the story is the heroine being un-named. Wondering what on earth her “beautiful and unusual” name could possibly be set the tone of the story for me. Everything was a mystery. Everything represents something else. The showy red rhododendrons are Rebecca, the aroma of azaleas are Rebecca, even Manderley itself is a secretive, mysterious character.

Daphne du Maurier’s evocative descriptions of Manderley’s house and gardens and the beaches leave me wanting to visit Cornwall more than ever. One day…

I loved Rebecca and am intending a re-read soon.

Well, it is over now, finished and done with. I (read) no more tormented and both of us are free. *

Rebecca was book three for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

Apologies to Daphne du Maurier, whose actual quote is as follows:

*Well, it is over now, finished and done with. I ride no more tormented and both of us are free.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

great.jpg

I had assumed I would suffer through Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations but instead, I loved this story. I was particularly dreading was the time this book would take to read, because Dickens can’t be read quickly, but on that score at least, I was right. I’m a fairly fast reader, but I seemed to be reading this story for weeks.

I read this on the train to and from work, at home in between doing housework, while I was cooking (Pear Jam included) and the last thing at night; at times I felt as if I would never finish the book. In an ideal world Great Expectations would be read aloud, but when I checked audible I found that the length of the version with Michael Page narrating goes for 18 and a half hours! Sadly I just don’t have that much time available. One day…

Great Expectations is a story told in three volumes. Volume One starts with Pip, the narrator, living in a small English village with his angry, abusive sister and her kind, generous husband Joe. Joe is a blacksmith and is, I meantersay, my favourite character in the whole book – more about him later. Pip is an orphan so Mrs Joe is credited with “bringing him up by hand,” which seems to be more of an euphemism for her belting Pip regularly. Pip is expected to become apprenticed to Joe in due course, and Joe often refers to the great larks they will have together then, presumably while out of Mrs Joe’s long reach.

The first big event of the story has Pip coming across an escaped convict hiding in the village churchyard. He frightens Pip into supplying him with food and drink, plus a metal file of Joe’s so he can escape his manacles. Soon after, though, the convict is recaptured and returned to the nearby prison ships.

Next, Pip is engaged to visit and amuse a local recluse, Miss Havisham, who was left many years ago at the altar by her bridegroom. Since then, Miss Havisham has worn her wedding dress while she sits in the room where her wedding feast was to be held surrounded by mouldy food, cobwebs and mice. There Pip meets and falls in love with Miss Havisham’s ward Estella, who Miss Havisham encourages to make Pip fall in love with her and so break his heart.

Volume One ends with a London lawyer, Mr Jaggers, visiting Pip to tell him he has the opportunity to go to London to become a gentleman, at the bequest of a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous. Pip is keen to do so because he believes that Estella will never want him as he is, a humble blacksmith’s apprentice.

Volume Two follows Pip, who is now an impressionable young man on his way to becoming a gentleman in London. Pip makes a true friend of Herbert Pocket, a delightful young man with no expectations of his own, and of Mr Wemmick, Mr Jagger’s henchman. Mr Wemmick looks like a post box and lives by the motto that ‘work is work and home is home,’ but Pip gets to know the ‘at home’ man and finds him to be as kind and generous as Joe, particularly to his elderly, deaf father, the ‘Aged P.’

While Pip is living in London, Mrs Joe dies following a mysterious accident which damaged her brain. Pip attends her funeral but by this time, he has become embarrassed by Joe’s simple manners and no longer appreciates his many qualities.

Pip continues to slink down to the village to visit Miss Havisham in the hope of seeing Estella, who still treats him indifferently, all the while avoiding Joe. Pip believes his expectations are from Miss Havisham and that eventually, marriage to Estella will form part of his bequest. By the end of Volume Two though, Pip learns who his mysterious benefactor is and has to adjust his thinking.

Volume Three weaves and winds, eventually tidying up all of the mysterious and questions raised in the first two volumes. During this part of the story Pip has to make difficult decisions, and learns some hard lessons about loyalty and character.

The characters and their names are delightfully descriptive. Mr Pumblechook is bossy and self-important, while Mr Wopsle is a church clerk who wants to be an actor. Dolge Orlick is a bully who argues constantly with Mrs Joe, while Flopson is a children’s nurse, falls over her mistress constantly. Estella is obviously a stunning young woman, and Miss Skiffins with her variety of coloured gloves, is Mr Wemmick’s ‘lady-friend.’ Drummle is a brutish young man who Pip meets in London and Abel Magwitch is the convict with a generous heart.

One of my favourite scenes in this story was Mr Wemmick’s wedding to Miss Skiffins. Mr Wemmick, who treats the whole event as a series of happy coincidences, engineers Pip’s attendance in the most delightful way imaginable. Out walking, “Halloa! Here’s a church!” and so on, until, “Halloa!” said Wemmick. “Here’s Miss Skiffins! Let’s have a wedding.” I nearly cried with joy while reading about this wedding myself.

I have to confess, I’m a little in love with the character of Joe, who reminds me enormously of my very own He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers. Both are good and kind, loyal and honourable and put up with a lot, although I like to think I’m in no way near as bad-tempered as Mrs Joe.

Sadly, Estella marries the brutish Drummle to avoid letting her heart to thaw towards Pip. I know she wanted to love Pip, but Miss Haversham trained her too well. I’m happy to say that Miss Haversham eventually saw the error of her ways.

I’m planning to watch a film version of Great Expectations sometime soon, then will wait a while before reading my next Charles Dickens’ story.

Great Expectations was book two for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Collector by John Fowles

collector

The Collector by John Fowles is creepy, compelling and convincing. I could scarcely put it down.

The story is set in the early 1960’s and the narrator is a socially awkward young English man who is fascinated by a young woman he occasionally sees around his neighbourhood. The young man daydreams about the life he thinks they could have if they were a couple; him looking after his butterfly collection while she admires and respects him. Having her would also enhance his status amongst his fellow butterfly collectors because they would envy him.

When the young man won a large amount of money in the Pools, he quit his job as a clerk and gave the aunt who brought him up enough money to take an extended trip to Australia. Then, he bought himself an isolated cottage with a crypt underneath the house and in what seemed to him to be normal behaviour, the young man, Frederick, turned the crypt into a hidden, locked room.

Frederick then kidnapped the young woman.

Frederick treated Miranda, his captive, as if she were a living butterfly in his collection. He struggled to know or understand her, but he bought her anything she wanted, happy that she was now his. Frederick was hopeful that in time Miranda would come to love him.

I don’t know what this says about me, but during this first part of the story I also wanted Miranda to accept that she was Frederick’s prisoner and stop trying to escape. I wanted her to fall in love with Frederick, and somehow transform him into the person he wanted to be.

About half way through the story, the point of view changes to Miranda, as told to her diary. Miranda is a completely different person to whom Frederick believes her to be. She is only 20 and is a self-obsessed art student who is in turn obsessed with an older and successful artist, GP. Miranda’s diary tell of her attempts to live up to GP’s values and ideals, which to me seemed selfish and pretentious but appeal to the more naïve Miranda. She is almost in love with GP, but is physically unattracted to him and struggles with his history of having been married several times and having had other lovers. Miranda seemed to me to be very much a young woman of her time.

Miranda rarely refers to Frederick in her diary, but when she does, she clearly despises him for his middle-lower class correctness and lack of imagination. As time passes she begins to pity Frederick, who she calls ‘Caliban’.

Of course, after reading Miranda’s version of events, I swapped over to her side and wanted her to be freed from Frederick’s prison to become the person she wanted to be.

The ending of the story didn’t surprise me, but The Collector has left me keen to read more of John Fowles’ work.

The Collector was book one for me in the Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.

https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

 

.

 

Tag Cloud