Victoria Jelinek


Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

frankenstein-book-pageThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497

 

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Emma by Jane Austen

emma_jane_austen_book_coverOn a long list of my favorite authors and beloved books, Jane Austen is always prominently featured. I think she’s hilarious and subversive. I’d even argue she’s a feminist. Other readers have obviously found Emma irresistible because the book has continuously been in print since 1816 (it helps, however, that it’s mandatory reading for most secondary schools in the English-speaking world).

My favorite Austen book is without-a-doubt Persuasion, even as I truly appreciate Northanger Abby. Nonetheless, this is a brief review of Emma, which I have just re-read, so while it’s fresh I thought to write a note encouraging readers to read this novel if they haven’t already.

Emma is a special work. Along with Pride and Prejudice it’s frequently adapted for film and television. Austen wrote this book shortly before she would die and by this time, she was at the height of her authorial skills. While the deceptively simple plot of Emma is similar to Austen’s other novels – a cycle of wrong-headedness, misunderstandings, remorse, penitence, and, finally, self-realization (inclusive of a romantic pairing of ‘equals’) – this work is richer in its twists-and-turns even as it maintains narrative control. Moreover, the themes of status and marriage are still relevant. As is the ‘moral’ of the book, which is that self-knowledge is elusive, and vanity a source of pain. What appeals to me most about Austen’s work in general is that they are all acute studies of humanity: “the happiest delineation of its varieties,” prompted by “the most thorough knowledge of human nature.” Her ability to create compelling and universal characters is awe-inspiring. Sly and subtle observations, humorous quips and asides, and we’re chuckling at the foibles and frustrations of humankind. Moreover, the omniscient narrator, which Austen had perfected by the time she wrote Emma, means the reader is privy to the innermost thoughts of our heroine as she finds her way through the narrative. And this heroine is complex and difficult. Austen famously wrote to a friend that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true. There are times when I find Emma’s character repugnant – snobbish, rude, obstinate, foolish and thoughtless – but then I find patience and kindness for her. She is young after all, and she doesn’t mean to be hurtful. In the end, I find my own best nature in my judgement of Emma, which parallels the heroine’s own journey, and makes for a richer literary experience.

 

 



Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

indexAn English friend of mine loaned me this “must read” book because she had so thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted me to share in the experience. Indeed, Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell is fascinating because Bell is a strong female character and the Middle East remains relevant.

The book begins with Bell’s birth in 1868 to industrialists in the North of England. Outspoken and quick-witted, she became a historian, a linguist, an “Arabist,” an archaeologist, a mountaineer, an author, and a photographer. After many explorations into the Arabian deserts and a passion for Arabian culture, she became one of the architects for an independent kingdom in Iraq, helping to put its first king, Faisal, safely onto the throne in 1921.

Queen of the Desert is superbly researched and includes Bell’s own writing, both published and unpublished. However, while I admired Bell’s courage and persistence, I was not particularly intrigued by her personal story. Even as she was a woman in a man’s world who achieved things most women wouldn’t dream of, she was the daughter of an extremely privileged family with immense resources at her disposal. Instead, I found the information about the history and politics of the region captivating. The insight into the historical meddling from foreign countries, the social protocols of the desert, the diverse sects that abound throughout the Middle East, and their respective perceptions of the world as well as their feudal wars, are, in my opinion, the most engrossing aspects of this book. The information gained from reading Queen of the Desert also made me realize that the challenges that existed at the turn of the 20th century in the Middle East still exist today.

 



Plainsong by Kent Haruf
July 21, 2016, 2:24 pm
Filed under: Book reviews | Tags: , , , , , , ,

PlainsongA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

earthly-possessionsFor thirty-five-year-old Charlotte Emory, leaving her husband is the only way out from the humdrum of her days and the banality of life’s earthly possessions. She goes to the bank to withdraw what money she has, but finds her getaway is not at all what she expected when a young bank robber takes her hostage and they head south for Florida in a stolen car.

I don’t read the “blurbs” on the back of books anymore, relying, instead, on its reviews. John Updike, Nick Hornby, The Times on Sunday, and The Observer all write that Ann Tyler is “wickedly good.” So I dug in. While I appreciate Tyler’s prose and her astute eye for the “ordinary” detail that’s telling about a person, circumstance, or context, I didn’t rush to bed at the end of the day to read the book, nor drag it everywhere I went in case I found a moment to read a page or two.

That said, the book remained with me after I finished it. I found myself lingering on elements of it, particularly the characterization. Our heroine, seemingly mousy in all ways, from her looks to her actions. The obese mother who told her own daughter she was a changeling. The husband, who seemed so romantic and moody. The bank robber who appears to be a greasy loser. It was only upon reflection that I understood how expertly Tyler had developed these characters and given them a wholeness that wasn’t immediately apparent. They are at once repellent and utterly sympathetic. There’s a line in the book that reads, “I never did have the knack to realize when I was happy.” This sentiment remains with me because of its message, and also its subtlety, truthfulness, and its poignancy — three words that encapsulate Anne Tyler’s book Earthly Possessions.



The Miniaturist

miniaturist1The year is 1686 and the locale is Amsterdam. Eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at the imposing house of her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a successful and wealthy shipping merchant. A marriage arranged because of her name and his wealth, Nella finds herself overwhelmed with loneliness and by her new surroundings. Due to the Calvinist authorities, the people in Amsterdam are repressed and colorless – they even eat their sugar in secret. Johannes’s peevish sister frightens her. The maid disrespects her. And his manservant, a former slave, alarms her. Moreover, Johannes never visits her in her rooms during the night or at any other time, leaving her doubtful and confused about herself and marriage in general.

He does, however, give Nella an exquisite dollhouse that is the exact replica of his grand home, and invites her to fill it with miniature furniture at his expense. To this end, she commissions a miniaturist to make a few initial items for the dollhouse. What ensues for Nella are a series of puzzles as the elusive miniaturist sends Nella items which are exact replicas of the people and things in her home and which Nella has not ordered. How does the miniaturist know so much about her and the other members of the Brandt household? Does the miniaturist know the future? What secrets are Johannes and his sister keeping from Nella?

What should have been a charming book given its plot, its vividly drawn setting (having been impressively researched by the author, Jessie Burton), and some beautiful passages, left me feeling indifferent. While our heroine exhibits an exhilaratingly modern attitude as the story unfolds, I didn’t feel compelled by any of the characters or their events and circumstances. We  discover each of their tastes, and we’re even told about each character’s failings, but we never learn what is in their hearts or what motivates any of them. As a consequence, I felt the characters lacked depth and the novel was a lukewarm experience rather than the passionately engaging one promised by many reviewers.



Burial Rites

Burial Rites book coverThe novel, based on a true story, takes place in Iceland in the early 19th century. Agnes, a housemaid, has been charged with murdering her former master and is sentenced to death. But as the ground is too hard to bury a body till the spring, she awaits her execution at an isolated farm located in the valley where she grew up.

Initially, the family who own the farm are horrified that a convicted murderess will be living with them and they avoid her as much as is possible. It is only Toti, a young, inexperienced priest Agnes has chosen to be her spiritual guardian, who listens to and attempts to understand her. Despite being a pariah to the family on the dilapidated farm, however, Agnes finds the routine of its chores comfortingly real, and slowly opens up to Toti about the circumstances surrounding the murders. It is through her telling of these details that the family – overhearing her in the small shack of a farmhouse – learn that there is another side to the scandalous story they’ve heard.

A dear friend who recently visited left this behind for me to read. Hungry for English, I devoured it. I found it lyrical, haunting, and quietly dramatic, particularly as it takes place in the harsh environment of Iceland among the impoverished (majority). So I truly did enjoy it and I appreciate that this is author Hannah Kent’s debut novel, which is a great accomplishment. Even so, its primary tale (a convicted housemaid kills her masters), based on a true story, as well as its circa (early 19th century), keenly recalls Margaret Atwood’s book Alias Grace. As a result, I couldn’t help but read Burial Rites in a critical fashion, comparing it to Atwood’s book throughout. In my opinion, while a good read in a very similar ‘vein’, this book is not as good as Atwood’s in terms of literary prowess, insight, wisdom, and cultural and historical knowledge and complexity.