Emma is an accomplished young woman, busily engaged, at least in her own mind, with settling the lives of the people around her. Considering herself a...moreEmma is an accomplished young woman, busily engaged, at least in her own mind, with settling the lives of the people around her. Considering herself a consummate judge of character, she takes on Harriet, a well-schooled girl of poor pedigree, as a pet project, and seeks to marry her off to an eligible gentleman. This leads to disastrous misunderstandings and Emma's first humbling, in which she is chided by her clear-sighted, plain-speaking friend Mr Knightley. The arrival on the local scene of a neighbour's prodigal son, Mr Churchill, gives Emma further opportunities to misread events and cause damage. At 200 years' distance, I don't think I'll be giving too much away if I say that Emma learns her lesson and it all comes out alright...
Austen's writing is slyly witty and of course beautifully observed. Still, although I wouldn't dare suggest what could be discarded here, I did feel that she insisted on including every fly-on-the-wall detail, whereas a later writer might tell a tale like this in a more concentrated form with deft selection of telling incident. However, I suppose this unrelenting attention to social foibles is what distinguishes her novels in the first place. And if the story does not directly challenge the class and sex conventions of the time, it certainly forces the reader to think about them with a wry smile - perhaps the gentlest, and thus wickedest, of subversions...(less)
A world-weary Kublai Khan seeks news of his sprawling empire from his travelling ambassador Marco Polo. The book consists of Polo's descriptions of st...moreA world-weary Kublai Khan seeks news of his sprawling empire from his travelling ambassador Marco Polo. The book consists of Polo's descriptions of strange and far-flung cities, punctuated by dialogues with the Khan. Each of these imagined cities, though not lacking physical detail, is distinguished by some thought-provoking peculiarity that makes it of more interest as a META-physical notion. Argia, for instance, is a buried city whose inhabitants presumably tunnel their way around:
"From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen... The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam."
It's a short book, but not for me a quick one. Lacking conventional plot and characterisation, it did not pull me along but left me to travel under my own steam (like Polo). But also it was as if the author lowered a barrier at the end of each city's description, a built-in and unavoidable pause for thought. For Calvino is not of course talking about mere cities, but about life, human nature, time, fate, memory and civilisation.
It's an intellectual, anachronistic fabulation, a collection of philosophical fragments rather than a traditional novel. As such, it made me think more than feel; but it's no less impressive for that.(less)
This is a much-flawed yet fabulous book. Set mostly in a fantastically distant future, on a dark Earth whose sun has died, it is an adventure and a ro...moreThis is a much-flawed yet fabulous book. Set mostly in a fantastically distant future, on a dark Earth whose sun has died, it is an adventure and a romance that spans eternity.
First the bad news:
It's written in a clunky, artificially-archaic style. This lends gravitas to the solemn and distant world depicted, and to our heroic narrator, but it is wordy and sometimes laborious.
Some parts of the book portray a land riddled with mighty creatures that are nonetheless natural (as opposed to the supernatural 'forces' arrayed against humanity elsewhere). These beasts exist in an ecology apparently devoid of prey-animals; nor is it clear how vegetation (leafy trees!) can survive, illuminated only by the dim red glow of distant volcanoes. Hodgson appears not to have considered these concerns, but they jar on the intellect of the Educated Modern Reader (yours truly).
The second half of the book rather belabours the lovey-dovey stuff, trying this reader's patience. And feminists will shudder from the first page to the last: enlightened sexual relations are NOT on the agenda...
There are smaller quibbles I could mention; but on to the more important good news:
The book presents a vision of the last millions of humanity crowded together for defence in the Last Redoubt, a steel pyramid seven miles high, surrounded by giant malicious beasts so huge and slow that their movements are barely detectable in a human lifetime. Malign influences bear down upon the Last Redoubt: the House of Silence, the Giants, the Strange Things that Peer from the Precipice, the Silent Ones. He who ventures out beyond the protective circle of the Great Earth-Current risks not merely death but the eternal destruction of his spirit.
If that all sounds a bit OTT, it most certainly is. It's hair-prickling Deep Horror, wonderfully evoked. Our hero is a fellow from our time who, losing his love, awakes reincarnated in this far future and hears her mind call to him from far across the Night Land - where there shouldn't even be any more humans. The book relates his epic lonely pilgrimage to find his beloved and return her to safety.
It is, in other words, a Romance, and in grand style. Though it makes the reader work, the broad and dark vision of a dying humanity, the arduous adventures, the thrilling climax and the heart-wrenching ending make this book a timeless classic.(less)
Gustave Doré's illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe's poem are gothic, dramatic, crowded with angels and spirits, revelling in light and shade. There are...moreGustave Doré's illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe's poem are gothic, dramatic, crowded with angels and spirits, revelling in light and shade. There are some technical errors - the suggestive cone of shadow repeatedly shown over the chamber door doesn't really make sense, and an ornithologist would be unlikely to identify the depicted bird as a raven! - but the eye-poppingness of the pictures overwhelms any failings. I'm always impressed by engravings because the artist has to attend to every square millimetre of the page - there's precious little 'white space' in such dark images - and that in turn compels the viewer's eye to rove over the picture, picking up details and relishing the light and forms.
The edition includes a page of commentary, the full text of the poem, and then the plates, all full-page, accompanied by the relevant lines. These Dover editions are lovely things to have around.(less)
I can't recall the details, but the story depends on not-one not-two but three improbable coincidences in its setup, which rather soured the suspensio...moreI can't recall the details, but the story depends on not-one not-two but three improbable coincidences in its setup, which rather soured the suspension of disbelief for me. Then I found the whole thing to be okay rather than great - not a patch on Frankenstein, for instance. A more ordinary read than I was expecting.(less)
Bleauch. Couldn't be having with it. What I really disliked about it was that Flaubert seemed to have nothing but scorn for all his own characters. I...moreBleauch. Couldn't be having with it. What I really disliked about it was that Flaubert seemed to have nothing but scorn for all his own characters. I felt like telling him, If you don't have anything good to say, keep yer trap shut! Seemed scathing to the point of mean-spiritedness. And so smugly self-consicous: certainly it's accomplished, but it doesn't half know it!
However, even in these days of infinite Internet sex, the liaison in a horse-drawn carriage retains its power to scandalise. That at least was an achievement in fiction worth reading.(less)