Category Archives: Classics
Goodreads: The Last of the Mohicans
Series: The Leatherstocking Tales #2
Although this is technically the second in a series, it can be read as a standalone.
Summary: The young British officer Duncan Heyward is charged with escorting the daughters of his superior officer through the American wilderness in the midst of the French and Indian War. When they are abducted by a Huron, he must rely upon the help of the scout Natty Bumppo and his Mohican friends to rescue them.
Review: The Last of the Mohicans can be a little slow, one of those books I only finished reading as quickly as I did because I was required to do so. Cooper enjoys descriptions, particularly of the American landscape, and his detours can interrupt the pacing. During class discussion, it was observed that Natty Bumppo (Hawkeye) often makes his most meditative speeches right in the middle of action. There may be a fierce battle going on to defend his life, but Hawkeye always has time for reflecting and expounding.
The characters, though to some extent types, are all interesting and generally likeable. The one exception is Alice, who as the exemplary white female spends most of her time fainting, cowering, or crying—assuming she is present at all. Her sister Cora, however, is wonderfully spirited and brings a lot of fight and heart to the novel. Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, and occasionally Heyward conspicuously display masculinity in scenes that make one want to celebrate the American hero, while Magua is a wonderfully complex villain. As some critics have observed, Cooper’s Native American villains are often similar to his heroes; they are good or bad based on whether they are for or against Hawkeye. This makes judging Magua’s actions complicated.
The major theme of the novel is the creation of the American identity, and Cooper explores this in many ways—through race, gender, language, war, etc. His exploration can become complicated, and often contradictory, leaving the reader with a lot to pull apart in what may be a vain attempt to extract the ultimate meaning or conclusion on the matter. Should the Europeans and Native Americans intermarry? Do they share an afterlife? Is one language or culture better than another? The answers to these questions and others appear to be variously yes and no. Perhaps Cooper himself was conflicted and had no resolution. It does, however, provide the reader with a lot of material to ponder.
Overall, this is a fascinating novel that gives a close look into the struggle of forming an American identity in the country’s earliest days. Recommended for those who enjoy adventure stories, history, or nature writing.
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Summary: The young knight of Ivanhoe, disinherited by his father, must prove his worth in order to win the hand of the lovely Saxon princess Rowena. Their lives intersect with a wide cast of characters, including some villainous Normans, a Jew and his beautiful daughter Rebecca, a passionate Knight Templar, King Richard, and the outlaw Locksley.
Review: Even for fans of historical fiction and particularly the Middle Ages, the pacing of Ivanhoe can be a little rough. Scott delights in building atmosphere and showing off his history trivia, so although the book opens with the promise of a tournament, things do not really get exciting until nearly 150 pages in. The pacing continues at this odd pace throughout the novel, though to a smaller degree, as Scott spends more chapters building up to a climatic event than at the event itself.
There are wonderfully exciting scenes in the novel, which is to be expected from a book which has been variously adapted into children’s versions, comic books, and movies. Yet, arguably, excitement is not Scott’s primary concern. Indeed, there is not too much about the plot that is very surprising (beyond an absolutely insane scene near the end, which is hilarious, if not good writing—a note in the Signet edition says to blame the publisher for this).
The focus then, must be on the myriad themes of the novel, including an intense interest in national identity, nation building, cultural identity, the place of the Jew and “others” in English society, chivalry, and women. All these themes are treated seriously and complexly and will provide a lot of material for a thoughtful reader to ponder. Scott seems ahead of his time in promoting ideas of tolerance and modernity, and using a medieval setting to do so!
Ivanhoe will be a slow read for those reading it for fun instead of class, but it should ultimately be a worthwhile one, being both entertaining and profound.
Summary: Victor Frankenstein has devoted his life to the study of science and the mystery of animating matter. When he achieves his goal, however, he finds himself living a nightmare instead of his dream. His creation looks horrifying, a monster, and, perceiving himself to be a social outcast, is determined to enact his revenge on the world and the man who created him by destroying everything Frankensten holds dear.
Review: Frankenstein is one of those classics that I find presents readers with some interesting themes to consider, but which is not necessarily a “good read.” The story opens slowly. Shelley employs letters and a narrative frame in order to introduce Frankenstein’s story of his creation. Because the frame is not particularly entertaining in itself and only emphasizes some of the themes raised in Frankenstein’s narrative instead of introducing its own themes, it seems to be mostly Shelley’s clumsy way of getting Frankenstein into a position where he can tell his story and where it will be recorded.
If this is her intention, the transition from the frame to Frankenstein’s tale is still awkward. Frankenstein’s story is in chapters, which are all presumably in a very long letter that someone else is writing. The jump from recognizable letters into narrative and back into letters is disconcerting, drawing readers out of Frankenstein’s story. I am, in general, not a fan of narrative frames, but this is one of the most attention-grabbing frames I have encountered.
Frankenstein’s story, once one can get into it, is intriguing, but certainly not the horror-filled version that has been put onto screen. Here, the monster is somewhat civilized, just looking for love. The scary part is not that the monster is going to come for you, the reader, or destroy the world at large. Indeed, only Frankenstein himself has much to fear, as the monster is primarily bent on destroying his life. What is scary for Shelley, then, is not violence or even the “unknown;” it is having to watch terrible things happen, being unable to prevent them, and even being in some way responsible for them. It is being in the shoes of Frankenstein himself, and not just an observer, that is horrifying.
So, in short, this is not a scary reading experience. Nor is it a particularly realistic one. Even ignoring the part where Frankenstein manages to create life, too much of the story is implausible and contrived. Everyone just happens to be in the right spot at the right moment for important plot issues to develop. For example, the monster learns to read by looking through a crack in a wall, where a family just happens to have taken in a foreigner who needs to learn to read. Really? Kudos to Shelley for realizing she ought to offer an explanation for things like this, such as how the monster learns (instead of creating him with the intelligence of a wise middle-aged man from the start), but I personally find too much of her explanations ridiculous.
The interest, then, for me, must be theme-wise because not much of it comes from the plot. Shelly essentially suggests that knowledge can be dangerous. How much knowledge, and what type of knowledge is open for interpretation, but I personally see the story as a warning about going “too far,” rather than one criticizing all searches for knowledge. Shelley did, after all, come from an intellectual family and was clearly interested in science and literature herself. The story also suggests that, as a balance to knowledge, one should build strong bonds with family and community in order to stay grounded and connected to things (people) that are truly important.
The book is worth reading for its exploration of what constitutes “science gone wrong” and how personally responsible each of us might be for that, as well as for its influence on later horror stories and science fiction. It is unlikely to do much for readers looking to be personally terrified or to experience a wild and surprising plot.
Summary: Aubrey is excited to begin his Grand Tour with the mysterious and charming Lord Ruthven, until he learns his travelling companion is responsible for the seduction and ruin of several respectable young women. He parts company with him in disgust, but soon discovers the situation is worse than he thought; Lord Ruthven matches perfectly the Greek folkloric descriptions of a vampire.
Written as part of the ghost-story contest during which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein.
Review: Although technically a horror story, John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” does not frighten readers with sudden plot twists or unexpected revelations. Instead, readers experience dread by watching a series of terrible events unfold that they already know must happen but which they can do nothing to stop. This experience mirrors that of the young protagonist Aubrey, who suffers watching as a vampire destroys those he holds dear, thereby allowing a certain degree of sympathy for Aubrey.
Polidori’s version of the vampire—a man who is simultaneously charming yet irrevocably outcast from society, who can calmly calculate and execute cruelties in order to further his self-interests—is in fact a terrible creature. Polidori’s presentation within “The Vampyre” will not raise fear; his story does not sound “real” enough to give any readers nightmares, even in spite of attempts to put them partially in Aubrey’s place. Yet Polidori’s ideas are horrifying and worth some consideration. One might conclude, for instance, that monstrosity is not something that comes with one’s nature, but is instead the choices one makes in reaction to one’s nature. There is certainly no indication within the story that the vampire must seduce and execute young women, only that he must do so if he would like to continue his abnormally long life.
“The Vampyre,” then, is not particularly good entertainment, not if one is in search of a deliciously creepy tale. It is, however, interesting in its portrayal of vampires, both within the work itself and because the story exercised a significant influence over later depictions of vampires. Best read by those looking to learn more about the Gothic genre or the origins of vampires, and not by those seeking thrills.
Goodreads: The Great Divorce
Summary: Finding himself in a grey town full of quarrelsome characters, one man boards a bus and embarks on a journey to heaven. The country there seems to him pleasant and desirable, but the pride and self-love of his fellow passengers prevent many of them from choosing to continue on.
Review: In The Great Divorce, Lewis envisions a heaven and a hell that, while not meant to be taken as literal representations of what might occur after death, explain some very thorny and some very nuanced theological questions. From the types of choices that can keep a man or a woman from entering heaven to the reason why a loving God could permit hell in the first place, Lewis posits answers in the form of an allegory that seems startlingly new even as it draws inspiration from a long tradition of Christian writers.
Although The Great Divorce may lack some of the subtlety found in the allegory of his more popular Narnia books, the ideas raised in it prove interesting enough to keep readers engaged even without a plot. Intriguing descriptions of a heaven where the grass is hard enough to injure and the leaves too heavy to lift mix are interlaced with the reactions of souls encountering heaven and the reality of their lives for the first time. The combination beautifully illustrates Lewis’s theme that heaven is real, earth the “Shadowlands”; heaven will give this life meaning and make even pain and suffering significant.
Lewis thus holds out to readers the promise of everlasting joy, if only they choose God. However, the obvious question raised is: what does choosing God mean? If readers hoped that no outright violations of the Ten Commandments would constitute a good life, Lewis quickly begs to differ. Through various characters, he illustrates a host of sins that may prove obstacles to getting to know God—not “big” sins like robbing a bank but the “smaller” ones so much more familiar to us all. Many of take the form of selfishness or pride: controlling someone’s life because one needs to feel needed, exaggerating the pain or suffering one has experienced so as to seem special, refusing to forgive someone who has done wrong. Reading The Great Divorce, readers may feel uncomfortably reminded of themselves.
To say that Lewis was pointing fingers or saw the world and its people in a negative light would, however, be a mistake. Lewis clearly counted himself among the sinners: his reflections on the nature of intellectual pride and the proper purpose of art suggests problems with which he himself would have struggled. But he does not leave humankind without hope. In a beautiful passage in which a soul dies to his sin, Lewis shows the sin transformed—the lust that controlled the man during his lifetime proves a small, sad thing compared to the virile thing that emerges when the desire is oriented properly. Lewis’s book is an opportunity for readers to examine their lives and redirect them.
Although Lewis clearly wrote The Great Divorce for a Christian audience, the ideas underlying it reach across religions, exploring timeless topics such as the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the definition of morality. It furthermore provides an illumination look at the philosophy that drives his perhaps more popular Narnia books. Christians, philosophers, fans of Lewis–The Great Divorce appeals to a broader audience than it might at first appear.
Summary: Thoreau’s reflections on life and the natural world, after living for two years in a cabin he built himself on the shores of Walden Pond.
Review: Walden is a thoroughly digressive work. Thoreau intended readers to take what they would from the book, perhaps rereading parts, skipping others, and not even going in order. For although the book does progress in the order of the seasons, there is no particular plot or logic that gives structure to it. This makes reviewing the book uniquely difficult. Thoreau’s tendency to contradict himself, and often not come to any clear conclusion, also presents challenges.
Yet a few things are obvious, the foremost being Thoreau’s love of nature. Although there may be some justification in criticizing Thoreau for not “really” living in nature (He was about two miles out of town and apparently visited every two or three days for the latest news, regardless of whatever statements he makes about not needing other people and their gossip), his detailed descriptions of the beauty around him, in day and night and in every season, demonstrates that he paid far more attention and reverence to natural beauty than most people ever do. His writing about the sounds of pine needles falling or the texture of ice on the pond can be truly inspiring.
Counterintuitively, Thoreau does not always come across as a pleasant person. One might expect that contemplating nature and coming to some sort of spiritual understanding of the world would make person friendlier. Instead, Thoreau dedicates at least a chapter to outlining the types of people he does not like and why. He explains why he does not believe in philanthropy. He refuses to buy chairs for more than two guests and certainly never feeds visitors. He rants about how uneducated everyone is and how they read the all the wrong books, and of course never understand the classics if they do pick them up. Basically, Thoreau has moments of sounding completely conceited.
Still, one can also see in him, not just misanthropic tendencies, but simply introverted ones. He does not like to be surrounded by large amounts of people for large amounts of time. Fair enough. Fellow introverts can sympathize with how such occasions might make Thoreau tired or grumpy. And there are people he likes—railroad workers, surprisingly, being high on the list. Does Thoreau comment on how the train is a hissing, steaming monster that cannot be prevented from rolling through the countryside? Yes. But he admires the courage of the railroad employees and understands how it can be important—sometimes—to connect people and products. His ability to see both sides of every issue is a prominent characteristic of much of his writing.
Walden is a unique reading experience, perhaps not suited for those with little patience, particularly for contradictions. Yet this is fine. Thoreau admits that his style of living might not be right for everyone—he decides it is not even right for himself as a permanent arrangement. His time at Walden was enlightening for two years, but he had other things to try and experience in life. So if a reader is willing to look for gems, little bits of wisdom floating about, they are certainly there for taking. In fact, one of my favorite quotes is from this book:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Goodreads: Bridge to Terabithia
Summary: Jesse Aarons, a dreamy boy who loves to draw, has never quite fit in at school, where prestige is gained through manlier pastimes. When he enters fifth grade, he hopes to change all that by proving himself the fastest runner in his year. The first day, however, new girl Leslie Burke outruns all the boys and Jesse finds himself ignored once more. Despite Jesse’s disappointment, Leslie’s infectious joy for life and boundless imagination draw him in. The two build for themselves a secret world named Terabithia where they rule as king and queen—but then a terrible tragedy threatens to destroy everything they have made. Winner of the 1978 Newbery Medal.
Review: Paterson’s story of growing up feels as relevant as if she had it written today rather than over thirty years ago. The clothes the characters wear and some of the phrases they use may serve to date the book, but ultimately readers can enter seamlessly into the story because the characters themselves seem like people they must have met in life. Their struggles, heartaches, and moments of joy speak directly to the reader and make the story come alive.
Jesse’s voice draws readers in from the beginning. Anyone who has ever felt misunderstood or ignored will relate to him and cheer him on as he seeks for the recognition he hopes will bring him happiness. This close identification makes his relationship with Leslie and its transformative nature all the more powerful. Readers, like Jesse, probably thought that the solution to his inability to fit in at school was to impress all the children with the criteria they had created. Leslie, however, shows Jesse that he does not have to sacrifice his sense of self to fit in; that he can live outside the box and; most importantly, that following one’s own path makes a person attractive, not weird.
Readers grow along with Jesse and feel the magic of Terabithia just as he does. The tragedy, when it strikes, is thus visceral. However, what they have learned gives them the strength to move on. The raw sorrow of the catastrophe meets the healing power of story and gives readers the catharsis they need.
Bridge to Terabithia, though marketed as a children’s book, speaks across the ages to all ages. Its power and beauty still have the ability to move audiences and to make them think about the big questions: what happiness is, what sorrow is, what humanity is. Paterson fits a lot into fewer than 200 pages.
Road to Avonlea is a television series produced by Sullivan Films that ran from 1990-1996. It ran for seven seasons and is adapted from L. M. Montgomery’s books Anne of Green Gables, The Story Girl, The Golden Road, Chronicles of Avonlea, and Further Chronicles of Avonlea.
This review is based on the first three episodes of Season 1: “The Journey Begins,” “The Story Girl Earns Her Name,” and “The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham’s.”
Review: As a disclaimer, I love Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows will always have a spot in my heart as Anne Shirley, and the interpretation of Avonlea was perfect. Unfortunately, Road to Avonlea does not live up to its standards.
In the first place, I must admit I am somewhat discomfited by the thought of combining so many of Montgomery’s books into a single storyline. I can be somewhat of a purist, particularly when it comes to authors I love, and sticking Anne of Green Gables into The Story Girl makes me want to start screaming about sacrilege. (And it makes even less sense to me when I consider that Sullivan had, in fact, already done Anne.) Mixing in Chronicles of Avonlea is lesser crime, since the book is really composed of short stories that I suppose could, in fact, have happened somewhere around Sara Stanley, and I am not really as invested in those characters as I am in Anne.
The main problem, however, is that Road to Avonlea does not calm many of my fears. If the series were absolutely beautiful, I might be first in line to extol a show that managed to give life to some short stories that might not otherwise have had the chance. But I don’t find it beautiful—at least not these first three episodes. In fact, I found myself watching in a sort of fascinated horror at the poor acting, stuck somewhere between laughing and wanting to cry. This is not what I want to feel when watching Montgomery’s tales.
The essence of the show is still endearing (It would be extremely difficult to deprive Montgomery’s work of all its heart.) “The Story Girl Earns Her Name” gives forth a particularly warm and fuzzy feeling as viewers watch Sara draw the awkwardly shy Jaspar Dale out of his shell and into the Avonlea community. Here, Sara truly displays her magic.
It is also a pleasant surprise to see Colleen Dewhurst reprise her role as Marillia Cuthbert. Even if I find her grumpiness a bit out of character (Anne is supposed to have mellowed her by this point!), it is always good to see a friend in an unexpected place. Mrs. Rachel Lynde, played by Patricia Hamilton, is also back for some uncharacteristic escapades.
I do not believe Road to Avonlea would be a fantastic introduction to Avonlea due to the quality of the actors, but it can still be pure fun for those already in love with the town and its inhabitants. I will be watching more episodes, which is always a good sign!
Summary: Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert meant to adopt a boy to help on their farm. But when Matthew gets to the train station, he finds a girl waiting—a girl who talks all the way home about scope for the imagination and names the trees and gushes about how she has always wanted a real family. Matthew likes the girl, but he will need to convince the practical Marilla that their house needs a girl to brighten it up more than it needs a boy to plow the fields.
Review: Anne of Green Gables is a heartwarming book that bears numerous rereadings. Anne’s spunkiness, vivid imagination, and desire to simply be loved make her a fresh and likeable character each time readers meet her—and every time they will want to adopt her themselves as their bosom friend. Her knack for naming things and her fierce loyalty make her the perfect companion for any situation.
The other characters are equally as wonderful, starting with the shy Matthew Cuthbert who always seems to know what Anne needs and likes to listen to her talk. He and Anne match perfectly through all their differences. And Marilla, though seemingly stern and always taking pains to be practical and proper, has an equally warm heart that cannot help but shine through. They form an unusual but perfect family.
And Anne’s antics and their reactions are absolutely hilarious. The fun starts on the ride home from the train station, with Anne asking ridiculous questions and Matthew completely perplexed and giving strangely straightforward answers. When Anne stops saying funny things, she starts doing them. Almost every chapter seems to have Anne in a new scrape. Watching her grow up into an elegant young lady will make readers just as proud as Matthew and Marilla, but it is good to know that no matter how old Anne gets through the following books, crazy things tend to happen to her.
L. M. Montgomery is a naturally charming writer with her wonderful characters and beautiful descriptions of Prince Edward Island, and Anne of Green Gables is one of her most charming books. It is no wonder that generations readers have fallen in love with the book and the girl (and often with the handsome Gilbert Blythe!).
Goodreads: The House at Pooh Corner
Series: Winnie-the-Pooh #2
Summary: A collection of short stories featuring such adventures as the search for a house for Eeyore, the introduction of Tigger, and the invention of Poohsticks.
Review: Pooh and his friends form an endearing cast of characters who manage to make every day into an adventure. They do not always get along and often misunderstandings arise amongst them, but generally they manage to remain good-natured and forgiving. Their friendship—a mishmash of personalities—imparts to the book much of its charm. A cynical worldview insists that the morose (and often rude) Eeyore, the pompous Owl, and easygoing Pooh would have stopped talking to each other long ago. Instead, they not only willingly overlook their differences, but also go so far as to humor each other’s foibles. Their interactions prove as amusing as they do heartwarming.
Milne’s gently ironic and rather whimsical writing style enchants the readers as much as his characters. The author makes his audience feel simultaneously as if they are enjoying a good-natured joke at the expense of Pooh and company, and that they actually form part of the group that lives in the Hundred Acre Woods. He invites the readers to remember what it was like to be growing up, to have days on which it was good to be doing nothing, and to have an imagination that could believe in the impossible. A sort of nostalgic melancholy overhangs the work.
The book speaks to readers of all ages, assuring them that they are not alone in believing in magic or delighting in the innocence of youth. It has special charm, however, for those readers who have grown up and thus know what it is to lose innocence. Hints of loss are sprinkled throughout the story, and the final chapter will resonate most strongly for those who remember the day they, too, had to grow up. Milne reminds readers, however, that true friendships never really die.