It's been many, many years since I first read this series. It was one of my favorites as a child, so I just recently bought the boxed set to work my w...moreIt's been many, many years since I first read this series. It was one of my favorites as a child, so I just recently bought the boxed set to work my way through it again.
Over Sea, Under Stone is, if I recall correctly, not really part of the main series, being more of an introduction to the war between Light and Dark, with few of the characters appearing in the later books, except of course for Merriman Lyon. I remember even as a kid thinking that this was the least interesting book in the series, and rereading it as an adult, it was decent light entertainment, but very much a fairly typical children's adventure. Three pre-adolescent children, Simon, Jane, and Barney, visiting a Cornish seaside town on vacation, are caught up in an adventure when they discover a mysterious map, which their Great-Uncle Merry tells them is a clue to a priceless treasure that Must Not Fall Into the Wrong Hands. The justification for the wise and ancient Dumbledore figure letting three kids get themselves involved with a battle against the forces of darkness that they barely understand is a bit thin, but it's typical for this kind of book.
These early depictions of Merriman (who is the only character of major importance in the later books) and relatively banal servants of the Dark are a gentle easing into the series for younger readers. There isn't much in the way of magic in this first book: supernatural elements are only hinted at. The kids are plucky and clever about gathering clues and finding the MacGuffin, but mostly they benefit from nick-of-time rescues and the reader's knowledge that even minions of evil won't really hurt children in a children's book. But for all that, it's a fairly intelligent book and draws on old Arthuriana and ancient history, so definitely one I can recommend to kids who are willing to read a book that's rather more thoughtful than exciting.
I'm going to plunge ahead into the other books, but with the hope that they pay off, and that this first book isn't an indicator of the entire series being simply not as interesting and fun as it was when I was twelve.(less)
I don't understand people who say they hate Dickens and find him boring. He was a master wordsmith. He crafted humor, sadness, pity, nobility, and pat...moreI don't understand people who say they hate Dickens and find him boring. He was a master wordsmith. He crafted humor, sadness, pity, nobility, and pathos with ease. He could be witty, ironic, and occasionally melodramatic. Great Expectations is the quintessential Dickens novel. Featuring a likable but rather meek orphan named Pip, raised by his tyrannical older sister and her gentle blacksmith husband Joe, it's full of stock Dickens characters and Dickens dialog, which is a treat to be savored, not disdained because it's "old-fashioned" and Victorian.
Starting with Pip's chance meeting with an escaped convict, an incident that makes quite an impression on the child but seems to have no bearing on the story that follows, Pip is then invited to play at the house of the local rich and crazy lady, Miss Havisham:
"Now," said Mrs. Joe, unwrapping herself with haste and excitement, and throwing her bonnet back on her shoulders where it hung by the strings, "if this boy ain't grateful this night, he never will be!"
I looked as grateful as any boy possibly could, who was wholly uninformed why he ought to assume that expression.
"It's only to be hoped," said my sister, "that he won't be Pompeyed. But I have my fears."
"She ain't in that line, Mum," said Mr. Pumblechook. "She knows better."
She? I looked at Joe, making the motion with my lips and eyebrows, "She?" Joe looked at me, making the motion with his lips and eyebrows, "She?" My sister catching him in the act, he drew the back of his hand across his nose with his usual conciliatory air on such occasions, and looked at her.
"Well?" said my sister, in her snappish way. "What are you staring at? Is the house afire?"
"—Which some individual," Joe politely hinted, "mentioned—she."
"And she is a she, I suppose?" said my sister. "Unless you call Miss Havisham a he. And I doubt if even you'll go so far as that."
"Miss Havisham, up town?" said Joe.
"Is there any Miss Havisham down town?" returned my sister.
"She wants this boy to go and play there. And of course he's going. And he had better play there," said my sister, shaking her head at me as an encouragement to be extremely light and sportive, "or I'll work him."
I had heard of Miss Havisham up town,—everybody for miles round had heard of Miss Havisham up town,—as an immensely rich and grim lady who lived in a large and dismal house barricaded against robbers, and who led a life of seclusion.
Miss Havisham has a young ward named Estella, a perfect little ice queen who taunts and teases and scorns him, and so of course becomes the focus of his unrequited love for the rest of his life.
Not long thereafter, the young orphan is told by a lawyer that he has been bestowed with "great expectations" by a mysterious benefactor. He sets off to London to become a gentleman, and the bildungsroman proceeds in a Dickensian fashion. Dickens never wastes a character -- even minor characters introduced early in the book reappear later. The way he ties up his stories is impressive to watch -- like a knitter expertly tying off every loose end. Coincidences, improbable twists, exaggerated characters? So what -- Dickens was a better plotter and storyteller than 99% of writers today.
Great Expectations is a rather dark and melancholy tale. The ending is not exactly a downer, but it's not an everyone-lives-happily-ever-after one either. Neither is there as much social commentary in this book as in some of Dickens' other novels. It's not my favorite Dickens work, but it's a worthy classic and definitely worth reading when you're old enough to enjoy it for its own sake and not just because it was on your high school reading list.(less)
Beautifully written but tediously plotted, I struggled with whether to give this 3 stars or 4. I ended up knocking off a star because in the end my ra...moreBeautifully written but tediously plotted, I struggled with whether to give this 3 stars or 4. I ended up knocking off a star because in the end my ratings are based mostly on how much I enjoyed a book, and while I can appreciate the aesthetic and literary qualities of The Sea, the bottom line is that it bored me.
Banville is one of those authors who makes art out of every sentence, and if you enjoy that sort of writing, you can immerse yourself in it and enjoy each and every word. However, I found him to be an almost but not quite perfect craftsman; his writing is not self-conscious in that pretentious way some self-styled "literary" authors get, but here and there some of his sentences were forced, like a painting where you can see the brush strokes if you look closely.
The more fatal flaw, for me, was that the story moves so very slowly, and it's a story that could easily be condensed to one page. Do you like introspective meandering by a middle-aged man who's wasted his life and now is holding each and every one of his regrets up to the light to examine it? Do you want to read about a man who turns into a washed-up alcoholic after his wife dies, and the most important thing that ever happened in his life happened when he was thirteen? Then you'll enjoy the beautiful, literary prose with which Banville delves into every nook and cranny of his protagonist's psyche, and he does illustrate every character in marvelous, sometimes breathtaking detail. His writing skill is enviable, but I'm one of those nikulturny readers who thinks storytelling is important too. This isn't a book you read to be entertained, it's a book you read so you can talk about it in book clubs and brag about how you read a Man Booker Prize-winner.(less)
Interesting for its discussion of language and language acquisition. But: too many people take Pinker's word as gospel, when in fact his theories are...moreInteresting for its discussion of language and language acquisition. But: too many people take Pinker's word as gospel, when in fact his theories are quite controversial. This book also bears a lot of responsibility for the rise of pop EvPsych. Evolutionary psychology is a field that has a few worthwhile observations mixed with an awful lot of BS used to justify all sorts of learned behavior. So, read this book with a very large grain of salt.(less)
The first-person narrator of this book is Magda, the daughter of an Afrikaner sheep farmer on a remote ranch in the South African veldt. Magda has gro...moreThe first-person narrator of this book is Magda, the daughter of an Afrikaner sheep farmer on a remote ranch in the South African veldt. Magda has grown up alone with her stern, patriarchal father and the servants. She is a bitter old maid, ignored and disregarded. By page ten, you figure out that Magda is kind of nuts. Somewhere along the way, you figure out that between one paragraph and another, sometimes within the same paragraph, Magda slips between fantasy and reality without warning. By the end of the book, she has completely lost her mind and you have to reevaluate everything you've read because it's not clear what really happened and what was Magda's imagination, fabrication, or delusion.
The story centers around Magda and her father and Hendrick, a black African servant who comes to work on the farm, and his wife Anna, whom Magda's father, living alone and wifeless out on the veldt, soon covets. Obviously this isn't going to end well, especially with Magda watching, judging, and resenting. The violence seems to be the point where Magda goes off the rails into complete unreliability. She tells multiple separate and conflicting stories over the course of the book, with no textual clue to the reader that they are not all part of one seamless narrative.
The imagery is stark and isolating as Magda and the handful of other characters scratch out a living in the scorpion and jackal-haunted boonies, but what's really stark and isolating is the relationship between the white farmer and daughter and the black servants, initially friendly and benevolent on the surface, but their every interaction is fraught with the weight of colonialism. The power dynamic between oppressor and oppressed switches several times over the course of the novel, which I think was probably Coetzee's intent. It is indeed a bleak and powerful tale.
That said, this is a book for readers who like literary prose, meaning sentences and paragraphs worked and reworked to artistic effect rather than to tell a story. Magda's internal monologue, even when it's not spinning off into crazy la-la land, is incessantly navel-gazing, dense, and verbose. In the Heart of the Country is one of those books where sometimes you have to reread a paragraph several times to figure out what is actually being said and what's going on. You would think a novel with as much sex and violence as this one packed into its sparse few pages would be more, well, interesting, but it's only interesting on the level of verbiage and literary analysis. It's the kind of book literature professors like to talk about and ask midterm questions like "Describe some of the metaphors the author uses for colonial and patriarchal relationships," blah bah blah.
Honestly, I don't understand people who read books like this for "fun." Literary, prize-winning prose is often not exciting, storytelling prose, and in this case it's almost like simple declarative sentences and a linear narrative are verboten. Yes, I understand the story, yes, I saw the hidden depths in Coetzee's book and I'm sure I could write a term paper about it as well as the next English major (even though I was never an English major), but boy did did it drag and unlike some other literary authors (like Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami) who sometimes annoy me but also tell a story even when they are experimenting, and intrigue me enough to want to read more, Coetzee makes me want to stay away from anything else he's written because this book did not endear him to me.
That sounds like a pretty negative review, and if I were rating this based on my enjoyment of the book alone, In the Heart of the Country would probably get 1.5 or 2 stars. But I can't help but admire an author who puts words together in a way that most can't and manages to drag such powerful weight and layered meaning into such a small book. So I am bumping it up to 2.5 stars based on "literary merit," but rounding down because I still thought it was self-important dudeliness. I can't say I recommend it unless you are reading it for a specific purpose, though, or you just really like this kind of book.(less)