Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound (1818) by Mary Shelley


Image result for frankenstein movie karloff
Boris Karloff's 1931 film portrayal of Frankenstein's monster has become synonymous with the book.

Book Review
Frankenstein or Prometheus Unbound (1818)
 by Mary Shelley

   There aren't many books more succesful over time than Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley between the ages of 18 and 20, and published in 1818.  Overtime, cultural memory has given priority to the imagery from the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff, which has also confused the memory of the original narrative via its powerful imagery.  Frankenstein the movie monster does not speak, the monster of the book can speak and is, indeed, literate and even educated.  The primal scene of Dr. Frankenstein giving life to the monster in the film via a jolt of lightning is moderately anachronistic, in the book Dr. Frankenstein is more clearly inspired by the "science" of alchemy.   An even more jarring contrast between book and film is the final denouement of the film, where the monster is pursued by the quintessential mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks.   This is absent from the film, which, aside from the flashbacks conveyed from one character to another, takes place entirely on a boat near the arctic circle.

  The book continues to be read heavily in school today- personally I was taught different takes on Frankenstein in both high school and college, where I had a literature professor who saw it as "the" novel. The combination of an early publication date, a female author, and the prescient theme of "man's" relationship with technology and his creations continues to be potent. I think the 1989 paperback edition I've had on my shelf for two decades dates from high school.   Having read that copy at least twice, I listened to an Audiobook edition, which I found disappointing, likely because of the epistolary character of the narrative.  The epistolary novel is obviously an important part of the history of the novel, particularly in the 18th century, where it constitutes a significant swath of the novels published, but by the mid 19th century it was virtually abandoned, and in the 20th century I can't even think of an epistolary novel, let alone the 21st.   Thus, it is an awkward listen, and perhaps the early 19th century, like the entire 18th century, doesn't work very well in Audiobook format.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

84K (2018) by Claire North


Book Review
84K (2018)
 by Claire North

   Claire North is one of the several pen names of English writer Catherine Webb, 32, who has been a published author since 2002, when she was 16.  Her father, Nick Webb, was an author and publisher well known (mostly as a publisher) in the world of science fiction/fantasy.  Notably, he published The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which was a huge, world wide success- continue to the present day.

  Thus, if there were any 16 year old capable of obtaining the status of published author in the world of science fiction and fantasy, it would be a child of Nick Webb.  Not to take anything away from Webb, who writes not only under Claire North but also as Kate Hopkins- I'm guessing perhaps to keep science fiction and fantasy personas distinct.  The use of so many pen names at such a young age suggests a sophisticated concept of the idea of authorship.

  84K is her entry in the dystopian science fiction genre, and it is unusual in that she has written about a dystopia of utilitarianism, moderated by late consumer capitalism, set in either an alternate reality similar to ours or slightly in the future.   The United Kingdom has become a corporate state and in a final abdication, sold all functions of government to a single corporation,  called "the company," which presides over a decaying "pay as you go" society, where an inability to pay results in being "sent to the patty line"- i.e. used as slave waiter in any one of a number of post-industrial enterprises, from actually making meat patties for consumption to writing fake on line reviews (for juveniles).

  Each town requires a corporate sponsor, both for employment and civic services, and those who can not pay end up exiled where they become ranters or screamers.  The narrator and hero is "Theo Miller" (not his real name), son of a small-time criminal, who obtains a sponsorship for Oxford after his Dad is sent to prison, due to the largesse of a local crime boss, at whose direction Theo's dad was operating.

  After an illegal duel, he assumes the identity of his dead classmate, Theo Miller, and settles down to life as an "auditor" this world's version of the police, where every crime has it's price, called an indemnity.  Pay, and all is forgiven, don't pay, and you have to work off your charges on the patty line.  Theo is living the small, anonymous life of all protagonists in the early stages of dystopian fiction when he is disrupted by the arrival of former girlfriend type from his small town.  She is desperate to find her daughter, who she says Theo Miller fathered while on break from school.

  I listened 84K in Audiobook format, probably a mistake because of the numerous stylistic fillips that North inserts into her prose.  Commonly, characters do not finish their sentences.  North includes the numerous jumps back and forward in time that are common to both literary and now I suppose genre fiction as well.    The second and third act clearly mark 84K as belonging to the genre rather than literary end of the dystopian fiction continuum. Published in May of this year, the sales figures at Amazon don't proclaim a hit.   I have no idea whether this is the type of book to win a genre level prize, but her prior success in that area (World Fantasy Award) would seem to indicate that it is a possibility.

  The idea of a fully late capitalist dystopia is more interesting that the story North chooses to tell.  Nearly 100% of dystopian scenarios involve some iteration of 20th century totalitarian.  Technology, the environment, feminism are favorite overlays or explanations for why a particular totalitarianism, but the totalitarianism itself usually resembles conventional totalitarianism, with a government that is
"always watching" and usually maintains a vibrant domestic military presence, with a high level of diabolical professionalism.

  Here, the dystopian government  is tatty and poor, the plot, considering the limited resources available to the hero and his rag tag group of supporters, wholly relies on the tattiness.  There was a clear echo of the graphic novel, V for Vendetta, in North's depiction of a semi-collapsed England.
  

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Idiot (1869) by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Book Review
The Idiot (1869)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky


   The trilogy of major Dostoevsky books: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, are central to my argument that Audiobooks are not just an intellectual short cut, but a legitimate medium in and of themselves, and further, that the importance of Audiobooks is on the cusp of skyrocketing, as the digital/mp3 phenomenon that engulfed popular music belatedly makes it into the less freewheeling world of book publishing.

   Not every book works as an Audiobook- I've noticed that books from before the 19th century aren't very listenable.  Genre level books that can be digested quickly in print form take longer to listen to, even if the playback is sped up.  A crime fiction book that runs 200 pages in print still takes 7 hours in Audiobook format.  Experimental fiction isn't really susceptible to Audibook formatting, especially if the writer plays with the conventions of written speech or the format of the book itself.   But The Idiot, and really all of Dostoevsky's major works are particularly GOOD as Audiobooks because of his style, which features monologues that are often dozens of pages in length, and often made by characters in succession.  This declamatory style READS like a play, and hearing the Audiobook, it sounds like a play.  Hearing The Idiot made me think about, what if any, was the connection between Dostoevsky and the stage.

   Hearing Dostoevsky animated the oft febrile atmosphere of his work- while reading one of the 600 page books invites the reader to slumber through hundreds of pages without considering what, exactly, is being said and why.  I'm sure if I had read The Idiot I would have missed major themes and sub plots, but listening helped me focus on the actual events and avoid cursing my fate.

The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) by John Bunyan


Book Review
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678)
by John Bunyan

   The Pilgrim's Progress is another consistent contender for "first novel;" though that status in recent years has suffered because the Christian themes are so thoroughly out of date with the bulk of academics and critics who opine on such matters.  A more recent, and perhaps more accurate assessment is that The Piligrim's Progress was the first "best seller" in terms of a mass-produced work of prose allegory(if not a novel)  which captured the attention of the then reading public, which, in the mid to late 17th century, was very interested in religious tracts.  Religious tracts do in fact comprise a large segment of the first centuries out put of what today we would call "popular culture" and as you go back in time towards the Renaissance and Middle Ages, the segment stretches to close to 100%.  Popular culture was religious culture, and non-religious culture was treated with suspicion.

  The introduction of the Reformation and it's suite of associated ideas that strongly involved people reading and thinking for themselves gave direct rise to both authors, fired by the religious ideas of the day, and an audience of literate folks interested in the subject.  Since The Pilgrim's Progress is generally considered to be the first novel-like book to fire the imagination of a popular, English language audience, the description of it as the "first novel" isn't totally wrong.

  Unfortunately, none of that makes this book enjoyable, and at 300 pages, it is not brief.  The entirely allegorical story involves a man named Christian who travels from the city of despair to the celestial kingdom, and presumably it appealed to people at a time when someone writing a work of straight fiction would probably be taken to task for lying- a criticism that lasted for centuries through the early history of the novel.  The second part involves the same trip made by Christian's wife and children.   Along with John Lyly's Anatomy of Wit, The Pilgrim's Progress the least readable of all the books in the 1001 Books project, and it doesn't surprise me that it was dropped from the first revised list in 2008.

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