classic

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

9781509827886journey to the centre of the earth_2_jpg_247_400A few days ago, I came across the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions of various classics. I think I’ll try to get all my future classics in this edition. They are small and portable, a pleasure to hold, have gilded edges, and are accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations. It was upon this occasion that I returned to this sci-fi classic (as I did not yet have it in my personal collection). I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) a really long time ago, and I think I was much too young to appreciate it. This time, I was able to compare it to contemporary science fiction and tease out its ‘Vernian’ elements.

The illustrations in this edition are those completed by Édouard Riou, who worked with Jules Verne on six of his novels and created illustrations for all of them. His illustrations were then engraved by Pannemaker, Gauchard, Maurand (1867).

Simplified Plot: Axel (the narrator) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating  how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.

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Runic Cryptogram

The reason I’m writing on classics here, is not really for “a review” as they obviously do not need one, but I would like to use this platform to keep track of things I found interesting.

On Women

While the main three characters on an adventure are men, Verne wrote the character of Gräuben in a very interesting way. Gräuben and Axel have been dating for a while because she immediately assumes he came to visit her again. Even though she cares deeply for him, and wants to marry him, Gräuben doesn’t oppose him going on such a journey, which at this point no one really thinks of as dangerous, rather, they look at it as a potentially foolish undertaking. She doesn’t seem controlling, but she still cares deeply. I also like that in the 1800s, Verne portrays a young relationship as a mutual courship, rather than an obligation. We get right away that Otto Lidenbrock is the ‘old guy who is kind of a misogynist and doesn’t understand women,’ but we also see the narrator and/or Axel does not really stand for that. Lidenbrock says:

“Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions.”

To which Axel narrates:

“I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.”

Verne uses Gräuben as a plot device often encountered in adventure stories: the “I’ll wait for you” girl. The way Rosie Cotton is “the girl back home” for Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and Penelope for Odysseus, Verne gives Axel a reason, and yearning to return to Hamburg. I think this device is really useful because it doesn’t allow the protagonists to give up hope if things get really bad, or to get too comfortable if the new place is too exciting that they might want to stay there forever.

The Vernian Element

Something that stood out to me reading this sci-fi classic, particularly after diving into many contemporary sci-fi works this year, was how much Verne wanted for everything to make sense, and for it to be believable. Verne didn’t drop you in a random world and hope you pick up clues as you go along, he explained everything with the utmost details in such a way that a skeptic would have scientific and/or academic proof that what he is narrating might actually be true. Then I remembered what Peter S. Beagle mentioned in his introduction to New Voices in Fantasy. He wrote:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

Having seen the action-packed adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I forgot how calm and academic Verne’s prose is. It made me feel safe, and  I actually understood what was happening (which was comforting). The first few chapters are full of details on the manuscript and runes. He makes sense of the way Otto and Axel decipher the code. Then, once they embark on this journey everything is planned out realistically. I even looked up how long it takes to get to Iceland from Copenhagen by boat, and it was exactly as long as Verne said it was. The man did his research properly. Once they descend below the Volcano, Verne uses many details from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology Vol 1. and 2, (which heavily inspired Charles Darwin as he himself read volume one on his Beagle Voyage). There are passages upon passages describing the sediments, the rocks, the way they look, feel, or smell. He takes you on a sensory journey along with the three protagonists.

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Illustration by Riou

There were also reminders throughout of the kinds of walkers and adventurers from back in the day, when walking miles daily was no big deal. I have to go out of my way to get at least 7,000 steps on my Fitbit every day. The things they do, and the distances they go by on horse, where Hans chooses to walk–and the character of Hans the guide altogether, was absolutely fascinating. He’s kind of a Thoreauvian or Native figure who knows the land and could walk forever. He is connected to all the elements in ways Otto and Axel are not. He can pick up signals from the land, and signs from the sky, wind, animals. I think this time around, Hans’s character was by far my favorite. I also could appreciate a lot of the references. For instance, upon their descend there are references to Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on in high school.

I really enjoyed this work, if you haven’t read it, by all means give it a go! I must admit that my favourite Verne remains 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I still have to read a lot of his other works.

 

 

Rendezvous with Rama | Review

774928I set myself up for a project (which has no time limit on it so it could take a while) where I try to read all of the winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. More on that project: HERE. I realized going through the list that I haven’t read anything by Arthur C. Clarke himself so I decided to read Rendezvous with Rama–winner of the Hugo and Nebula Award.

By the year 2130 humans have already been travelling in space to various planets, and after a disastrous event of asteroids hitting the Earth they created many protocols and safety systems to prevent future celestial objects from hitting our planet. When a large celestial object is “at the gates” Commander Norton and a committee of space military advisers go explore this celestial object which is spherical in shape. We are told:

 

“by our standards, Rama is enormous–yet it is still a very tiny planet…its ecology could survive for only about a thousand year.”

They try to map it by giving several points names of cities on Earth, and the ‘asteroid’ is given the name of Hindu God Rama because:

“long ago, the astronomers had exhausted Green and Roman mythology; now they were working through the Hindu pantheon.”

The greatest chunk of this book involves the various encounters with Rama and its cylindrical sea. The silence, the darkness, and the attempts to understand it. We see most things through the eyes of Commander Norton. Some of the writing is actually quite funny. For instance, Norton thinks:

“when Rama shot through some other star system, it might have visitors again. He would like to give them a good impression of Earth.”

or

“you know Jerry Kirchoff, my exec, who’s got such a library of real books that he can’t afford to emigrate from Earth? Well, Jerry…” (:D)

I loved this work so much. I was trying to analyse what sets it apart from less heavy sci-fi and I think what made this book wholesome for me were the many historical references and deep roots. It rounded the characters and gave the story line a sturdy foundation. For instance, when the Commander is hypothesizing what Rama could be he considers that he has once heard of the excavation of a tomb from an Egyptian pharaoh, King Tut and how Rama too, could be a tomb. He contemplates the possibility of that by discussing King Tut for a little while. Moments like these made Rama real for me as a reader. Another time, we find that Norton is a big fan of Captain James Cook who had sailed the world between 1768 and 1771. He read all the Journals and knew everything about him:

“it still seemed incredible that one man could have done so much with such primitive equipment…it was Norton’s private dream, which he knew he would never achieve, to retrace at least one of Cook’s voyages around the world.”

Norton became so interesting to me the moment he had a dream and was a well-read person with historical heroes. The historical details sprinkled in this futuristic novel make it dynamic, and it works.

There were some things that upset me in the projected future. I decided to let it slide because it’s a great book and it was written in the early ’70s. The main one is that Norton, like other people who are making all these important space decisions and meetings, has two wives and two separate families. One is on Mars, one on Earth (they travel fast). The way women are discussed ever so briefly are like these interchangeable things who have enough on their hands because Norton or whichever man impregnated them. There is one team leader doctor/biologist Surgeon-Commander Laura Ernst and she has some influence, and I think it was here where I kind of let the whole “2-wives” thing slide and trying to keep 1970s as a context.

There are several interviews conducted by Strange Horizons on impressions of Rendezvous with Rama, looking back on it, and Karen Burnham says:

“So wow, this was really refreshing! A mixed-gender, mixed-race, comfortable-with-polygamy team and society with some solid world building involving asteroid threats. I liked it much more than I thought I would.”

I gathered from this comment that this was as “mixed-gender” as sci-fi got at the time.

Full Strange Horizons interview: CLICK HERE.

All in all, this is a great book, great science fiction classic, and I strongly recommend it. I especially recommend it to those interested in science fiction and fantasy and want to read the foundational texts or “classics” in the genre. Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert, and Asimov are the four main pillars.

 

June Wrap-Up

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In June I haven’t read as MANY books as before mainly because I am participating in a read-along of Infinite Jest with Ennet House (a reading group from Vancouver). More details can be found HERE. I did get a chance to read some other things too as the month progressed.

Books I Read For Early Review

Attributed the the Harrow Painter — Poetry collection. This book is scheduled for publication in November from University of Iowa Press.

Gork, the Teenage Dragon — children’s fantasy book. This book is scheduled for publication on July 11, from Knopf Publishing Group.

Plank’s Law – young adult book. The book will be published in September by Orca Book Publishers.

Pillow Thoughts & The Road Between – two poetry collections by Australian Poetess Courtney Peppernell. Both works will be released on August 29 by Andrew McMeel.

Glances of Life by J.B. Anderson – poetry collection by Detroit poet. Collection was already published on May 30 by Dog Ear Publishing.

Books I Read for Myself 

Short Stories

“When She is Old and I am Famous” by Julie Orringer from her larger collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater. I will be finishing this collection in July, but I read this particular short story in June and it’s wonderful. It’s about a young woman name Mira who is not very good looking or in shape and lives in the shadow of her Model-like, gorgeous cousin Aida.

26 monkeys, also the abyss” by Kij Johnson from her larger Sci-fi/Fantasy short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees.

I will be working my way through the two collections above for the summer.

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

28389305A few weeks ago I started watching National Geographic’s biopic of Einstein which is one season long called “Genius.” The show is based on the biography written by Walter Isaacson Einstein: His Life and Universe. For the first time I was introduced to Mileva Maric who was Einstein’s first wife and quite possibly one of my favourite historical women. She was brilliant, one of the first women at the physics academy in Zurich, and just an overall fierce feminist symbol. I fell in love with Mileva and I wanted to know more. I then discovered Marie Benedict’s book The Other Einstein. Because I have seen the show first, this book read like the first five episodes only from Mileva’s perspective. I went on Goodreads to see what other people thought of this book that came out in October of 2016. Every low rating seemed to be regarding Mileva’s preoccupation with her leg deformity and limp, with the fact that Einstein called her “dollie,” and that it was somehow women’s attempt to shame a brilliant man by making this unknown woman play a larger role than she did. Having been introduced to National Geographic and Walter Isaacson’s biography first, all these things were not shocking, nor a surprise, and certainly not Benedict’s invention with a feminist brush. All those things seem to have been true and Benedict did her research. I loved Mileva, and I love this book because it’s really good, and well-researched. It’s also heavily based on a true story, and it has pulled from the margins a woman that wasn’t that well known. So if you read this, keep in mind that the things that irk you, frustrate you, and annoy you about society in that time, about the academy, the gossip, or Einstein himself, was actually very close to reality and the “novelization” part comes simply from the invention and addition of dialogue.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovich

9476292Nina Sankovich’s sister Anne-Marie dies at the age of 45. The author deals with her sister’s death by throwing herself into a reading project: read one book per day for a year. I found that the author focused more on her life, her struggle, her personal biography and the relationships in her life more than on the books. I think some of the books she read deserved a little more reflection and thought than she accorded. It felt like she was sprinting through this reading list and didn’t even discuss or acknowledge half the books she read. After the conclusion we finally get a full list of all the books (and short stories) she read that year. I wanted to hear more about the books. I appreciated her personal heartfelt attachment and the way she tied in the novels to her life, but I think it would have worked better if that was an “introduction” or “chapter one” and then the rest of the book focused on her reading process, the thoughts she had on each book objectively and subjectively, a little context for the books, quotations she enjoyed. I wanted it to be more about the books is what I’m trying to say. Some reviewers on Goodreads called this “the memoir no one asked for” and while that is a bit harsh—as a reader I’m open to hearing everyone’s story—I think this promised to be a reading journal/experience rather than a ‘coping with grief’ kind of book and so it did become in the end the memoir no one asked for. I encountered a similar problem earlier in the year reading Spinster which instead of talking about spinsterhood ended up as a personal life story/memoir. Maybe we’re more interested in the memoirs and biographies of people we consider “important.” I did appreciate that she read diversely.

Our Numbered Days by Neil Hilborn

24471629This collection plays with the idea of “numbered days” in more ways than one. It explores the theme of death in the form of thinking about death, considering suicide, and manic-depressive illness episodes where this can happen. It also looks at relationships in one’s life whether in love, parents, or friends and how those days are in a way limited or numbered. From time to time Minnesota and snow will make an appearance. The content of this collection is very well put together. There are various kinds of relationships, followed by kinds of mental illnesses, and concluding with a literal death of a grandmother. Every few poems one will begin with several quotations from other poets and well-known figures on each respective topic (time, death, heaven, hope). The poetry is very accessible and it tells things rather than alluding to them through clever use of language. In that respect I wanted more from this collection. However, the things it does tell are pretty memorable and some sentences strike deep. Also, I read this out loud and I found that in the way things were written (sentence-structure-wise) I was almost shouting. It comes across as a forceful rant or complaint bulldozing and demanding to be heard.

Hilborn explores the ways OCD affects romantic relationships, how depression ruins your days, how suicidal thoughts can be preventable by people in a position of privilege. In his poem “Joey” the poet compares himself to a friends who was going through something similar but who could not afford therapy:

“I can pinpoint the session / that brought me back to the world. That session cost seventy-five dollars. / Seventy-five dollars is two weeks of groceries…I wonder how many kids / like Joey wanted to die and were unlucky enough to actually pull it off.”

Here are some lines I enjoyed:

“Depression wasn’t an endless grey sky. It was no sky at all.”

“To Break Something but Being Too Weak; /The Sadness that Comes from Always knowing / exactly where you are.”

“I will lie here forever and sing to you all the things / I stopped myself from saying when we were alive.”

“Though he couldn’t name it, her favorite / color is Bakelite seafoam green”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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Walden is one of my favourite classics and it’s one I return to often. I re-read it this month as my monthly classic mostly because it’s summer and nice out, but also because I haven’t been reading as much this month as the one before and with full enjoyment so I picked it up to get me out of the little slump. I also wanted to brush up on it so I could write an entry on why Walden is my “comfort classic.” Click HERE to read it.

 

 

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides 

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This book came up in conversation when I was discussing my read-along project of Infinite Jest. My friend said that one of the characters in the Marriage Plot was based on David Foster Wallace and it’s a “campus book,” so I had to read it. I love campus books as much as island books. The story follows a female protagonist who is an English major and has just graduated from University. I have only read about 50 pages of this book and all I’ve read about was graduation day, parents coming to visit, and some boy dilemmas. I am intrigued by this book and it’s reading quite smoothly but I will do a proper wrap-up at the end of July after I finish all of it.

Book I hated and could not finish

9086994I have never been this frustrated with an author as I am with Paulo Coelho. This is the most selfish book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s selfish in so many ways. First the plot: Coelho, bored with his life, is taking on an adventure with his publicist and decides to go on a train trip across Russia and be all mystical and spiritual. That’s it. Why is it selfish? First he is preying on his readers and taking advantage of them. He knows he did well with The Alchemist, he knows people look to him for advice the way they do to a life coach so he uses this “oriental mysticism” to absorb the reader and try to convince us that he is in fact enlightened. The first 10 pages were actually kind of amazing. It was like candy.

“I began my apprenticeship in magic…grownups have no time to dream…what am I doing here…there exists a parallel universe that impinges on the world in which we live”

and in conversation with his guru or spiritual guide who tells him

“you feel that nothing you have learned has put down roots, that while you’re capable of entering the magical universe, you cannot remain submerged in it”

How lovely right? The first ten pages made me want to highlight and take notes. But nothing he says is original, or interesting. It’s basic self-help book rewording. He uses this as an excuse to go “conquer his kingdom” because he’s special and needs travelling and experience. He then spews lines like “travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” Come on! Then he waves good bye to his wife in Brazil who is understanding about this whole thing for some reason, and lo’ and behold on his train trip he meets a 21 year old (did I mention he is 59) and he basically sleeps with her….but it’s okay apparently because he met her in a previous life. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “I don’t know how Coelho’s wife in Brazil can accept her womanizing husband and letting the whole world know about it.”  I found this book to be selfish in that it’s a personal journal and he does things that are not so admirable but he paints them in a light of him being so enlightened for doing these things….and he keeps dropping every five lines how well his books are doing. It’s selfish to his readers because they buy his books and admire “his” ideas. It’s selfish to his wife. I would say it’s even selfish to the people he dragged along on this trip, and to that poor 21 year old. I also found that it painted people who are genuinely spiritual in a bad light. I pictured monks face-palming. It’s very self-absorbed… I wish he titled it “a journal entry from my trip and midlife crisis.” This is hardly a novel. I don’t generally review negatively because I research my books before reading them but this book really upset me because I expected something better.

 

Of Men and Women | Book Review

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Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was a bestselling author of fiction and nonfiction, celebrated particularly for the ground-breaking depictions of rural life in China. He best work The Good Earth which is a trilogy, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and in 1938 she received the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work, making her the first American woman to do so. She spent most of her life in China (Zhenjiang) because her parents were Presbyterian missionaries. She was educated in the U.S. at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, then returned to China, married John Lossing Buck and moved to Nanking.

Her novels dealt with the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the changes in the East post-WWII, and rural China. In 1934 Buck left China to be near her daughter who was mentally ill and hospitalized in New Jersey. In her later years Buck started engaging in philanthropic projects. Because there were practices rendering mixed-raced children unadoptable—in particular, orphans from the war—she founded Welcome House in 1949, the first international, interracial adoption agency in the United States. She died in 1973 from lung cancer in Vermont. The Chinese government objected to Buck’s portrayal of the country’s rural poverty, and in 1972, banned Buck from returning to China.

front cover buckOf Men and Women is a series of essays that Pearl S. Buck wrote and published in 1941 where she examined the differences in relationships between men and women in China versus the United States. She writes:

“Very early, therefore, I perceived that women together led a life of their own”

“In China the home was not what it is in our country, a thing apart from men’s lives except when they return to it for food and sleep. The real life of the nation went on in the home.”

She explores the set-up of the Chinese household that would often include “three-four generations under connecting roofs” versus the American lifestyle where only the nuclear family would be found living under the same roof. Children would then grow up not knowing just one household leader/alpha, but have a multi-generational experience.

She then turns her attention to the different ways women were educated in the East versus the West. In China “women handed down to women a vast lore of history, custom, ritual, and practical knowledge which educated them and made them a part of the great national whole.”

Buck asks in this series of essays one essential question:

“Why do so many American women seem not happy in being women when they have the freedom to make what they will of themselves? And why do women and men not enjoy each other more in my country?”

Although Buck emphasises that despite everything she prefers the American way over any other, and thinks the progress done in the West is one to strive for, she noted that American women, while educated, free, and supported, were still viewed as a separate entity from men, and there was still a miscommunication between the two. Buck examines how relationships between men and women are different in every country, and it’s that difference that makes it a nation of its own. She writes that a traveler should examine how in every country men and women feel towards each other or “the reality of that country has escaped him.”

“For no human being was created to be solitary, and when it is cut off by doubt and distrust and lack of understanding from the other to whom instinctively it turns, whom nature has created for it, then strange stops and blocks and ills are inescapable.”

In the epilogue Buck writes that it has been thirty years since she wrote this book (in preparation for a newer edition back in 1971). She writes that the China she spoke of “is no more…how changed! Communism rules, and Communism has totally altered the relationship between Chinese men and women.”

Thus, I would urge the reader to remember, when reading this collection, that these essays were written in 1941, reprinted with an added epilogue in 1971, and then reprinted now in 2017 for this brand new edition. In the interim, China, and America have changed drastically.

The collection includes a brief biographical note and several images taken from Pearl S. Buck’s archive.

Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for sending me this work for review. This electronic edition will be published on June 27, and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. Open Road Integrated Media focuses on publishing ebook editions of older works of literature and nonfiction.

*The biographical note at the top is a paraphrasing of the biographical note in the text.