Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

I found it interesting that unlike other classic literary horror characters such as Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there is almost nothing in the novel Frankenstein that corresponds with the popular image of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster or the 1931 movie.  The introduction by Maurice Hindel from the beautiful Penguin clothbound classic edition that I read (pictured above) notes that Shelley incorporated what was then cutting edge science (galvanism, ie electricity) to allow Frankenstein to bring his creation to life. But it wasn’t even raining on the night of the monster’s creation in the book…so no thunder or lightening needed.  In fact, there is no description of the making of the monster at all; it mostly happens off the page.
What I like most about the book (besides its length, only 225 pages!) was its structure.  It starts off as a series of letters from a dilettante arctic explorer Captain Walton to his sister back in England. In his letters, he tells of rescuing a man who is near death with cold and exhaustion. Once this man is nursed back to health, he relates to Walton his story about why he is alone out on the ice and within the rescued man’s narrative a first person account of the monster’s short and unhappy life is given. So it is a story, within a story within a story, like a set of nesting dolls.

What I didn’t like was Victor Frankenstein’s constant “why me?” moaning and teeth-gnashing, all the while doing nothing to actively change the situation for which he and his hubris is directly responsible.  It isn’t just that he comes off as unsympathetic, but I found most his behavior unaccountable. I much preferred the monster’s narrative over Frankenstein’s and while the monster’s actions are equally despicable, I feel as if I understand where his motivations lie.  There are also some preeettty craaaazy leaps of faith the read must make in order for the story to hang together. For example, not just that Victor was able to make a man from left over body parts, but also things such as how the monster just happens to find three intact novels in the forest, he just happens to be able to eavesdrop on a Turkish girl learning French enabling him to learn French, etc.  This really strained my credulity.
Of course, what is fantastic about the book is the questions it asks about humankind in the here and now (like all great science fiction). Certainly one of the questions the book raises can be extrapolated to modern man and modern science:  just because we can do something (split an atom, genetically modify corn, clone sheep, etc.) should we?  And just how much responsibility do we have for our creations when they escape our control? But for me, most important and most poignant is the question of who is the real monster of the story.

I read this for the  2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate for the Fantasy, Science Fiction, or Dystopian Classic category

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

While The Pickwick Papers is considered Charles Dickens’ first  novel, it actually began as a commission to write brief, satirical sketches about a private Gentlemen’s Club to accompany comic drawings for serial publication.  However, Dickens soon convinced his publishers that this should be the other way around and the drawings should be commissioned to accompany his ever mushrooming story regarding the adventures of the members of the Pickwick Club.  [There is also a rather sad side story of the original illustrator, Robert Seymour, committing suicide after the first two issues were less successful than anticipated and whispers of Dickens’ bullying ways contributing to his untimely demise.  Dickens addresses and defends these rumors in the preface to the 1867 edition which was included in the Modern Library Classics edition that I read which is pictured above.]
Since I did know the history of the book prior to reading it, I readily noticed as it went on that the chapters got longer, the plot more convoluted and the character arcs more apparent. Most importantly, the titular Pickwick starts off as object of ridicule but ends up (along with his faithful servant Sam Weller) being the hero of the book. The notion of satirizing private clubs is eventually dropped and replaced with social critiques of Victorian society which will later be more fully expressed in subsequent Dickens’ novels such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit. All this makes for a slightly rambley and inconsistent read and no doubt there were humorous bits I didn’t fully grasp since I am so far removed from the type of society Dickens was satirizing, but nevertheless I did really enjoy it.   
I don’t know if The Pickwick Papers is the best place to start with Dickens, but then again, maybe it is or rather maybe it doesn’t really matter? Martin Chuzzelwit will forever remain my favorite if only because it was the first book of Dickens that I read and made me fall in love. I admit the superiority of certain other works by Boz, but that title will always be on the top of my list for purely sentimental reasons!  And certainly The Pickwick Papers has everything that I love about Dickens, exaggerated characters, humorous pokes at human nature, sympathy for the poor, indignant anger at hypocrisy, etc.   So perhaps this first novel is absolutely the best place to start, because if you like this “sampler’, you will probably like the rest of Dickens as well!

This book was my read for the category of 19ths Century Classic in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate.