Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas

 I finished this novel several nights ago but the writers block I have been suffering from recently has seen me struggle to put pudgy fingers to keys! It took me only five days to rattle through the entire book. At the most I read two hundred pages in one night and at the least only fifty when I was on the tail end of a migraine. So it is fair to say I blitzed through its seven hundred and fifty two pages!!

  Alexandre Dumas is probably my favorite 19th century author. Unlike some authors of the era Dumas wrote what I call 'pure' novels and didn't delve into tangents in discussing politics, religion, or other social issues of the day. Look no further than Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo who were masters at these tangents within their novels. Dumas was a writer of fiction and kept it that way. I like his works the more for it.

  I read The Count of Monte Cristo just over three years ago immediately after finishing War and Peace. It is a novel I just loved from the first to last and is probably Dumas' finest work. Interestingly it is a more complex book to read than The Three Musketeers, and far longer as it was split into two seven hundred page books. But it still show cases Dumas' clear writing style which is easy to get into and enjoy.

  What I like about Musketeers is that it is easier to read than most novels of the era. Dumas didn't bog his narratives down with complex sentence structure that the like of Charles Dickens did. Dickens is a great writer but his complex style can be a hindrance to the story.  I find I have to be in a very settled state of mind to fully concentrate with his writing. Whereas with Dumas his sentence structure is less complex, and yet, like Dickens, he can fit so much into just the one sentence! He just does it with more economy of words.

  This is not to say that Dumas is a simplistic writer because he had a very distinctive way of writing his novels. In Musketeers there are many passages that mirror William Shakespeare. What I mean by that is in a play Shakespeare had to describe so much within the words of the actors. Scenery, castles, furniture, people,etc, were described not in text but in word, and of course when you see a Shakespeare play there are very few props as the actors are describing what is around them. It is up to the audience to imagine what the actors are portraying. It is in essence the Shakespearean eras version of a modern film makers use of CGI.

 Dumas in Musketeers takes this technique and novelises it. He brilliantly uses the characters speech and words to describe their surroundings and props. Instead of writing, the four went to the castle, one character would say, 'now let us retire to the castle yonder'. The spoken line lets the reader know there is a castle nearby and the four are going to it. This technique provides an economy of words and is an enjoyable reading experience. I love the technique, and it is what I took most away from from the book.

 The other thing so noticeable about Musketeers, as it is with The Count of Monte Cristo, is the way the characters speak to each other. It is all politeness, even to enemies. To my modern sensibilities it was quite quaint!! Speech has moved on and been dumbed down so much it was a joy to read the by gone eras way of communicating. At times their speech was a bit long winded, and again shows the difference in the use of speech from our modern usage. Whereas an author today would take a paragraph to make a statement or describe something, Dumas would take four or five to describe the same thing!! It is indicative of the era, and whilst frustrating at times it was the style of the times and must be read as such.

  It is not to say that Musketeers drags because of the long windedness of some passages. It moves along at a very good clip and I was able to average about forty pages a hour comfortably. Not once did I find a part I slogged through. After I put the book down I was amazed at how much I had read compared to how much I thought I had. The narrative is swift and with the amount of speech involved many pages can be read quite quickly compared to a dense page of complex descriptions. This again comes back to the writing style. It is a long book and yet it can be read very quickly which is an acknowledgement to the crisp writing of Dumas. It is a classic example of less being more!!

 The plot is very easy to follow and doesn't get bogged down in too much sub-plot or tangents. For a 19th century novel it is relatively clear and concise compared to many of the era. An interesting thing to note is the short list of characters. There are only fifteen named. Any others are referred to by rank or as nameless civilians or soldiers ( as those at the siege of La Rochelle ). This brevity is great compared to say War and peace that has over two hundred different characters. It all helps to the pacing of the novel as the reader doesn't have to search back constantly to remember a character that hasn't been mentioned for some time.

  Hollywood has made many adaptations of this novel and they have all been a disgrace. They all pick up on the sword fights and costumes, but at detriment to the plot. It isn't a difficult plot to follow and would be quite an easy novel to adapt.

 In some ways Musketeers has dated especially in regards to women. Dumas portrays the fair sex as delicate, sweet natured, maidens who faint and swoon at anything even mildly unpleasant. They are afraid of heights and....well almost everything! In essence they are completely useless!! It is to our modern eyes quite laughable and I wonder how a modern woman who reads it feels. It is quaint and indicative of 'ladies' of the time, but I'm glad woman aren't like that any more!!

 Also, compared to our Hollywood saturated culture of graphic violence, rape, and pillage, the killing and death in Musketeers is minimally described and quickly moved on from. It is so refreshing that death isn't a selling point compared to a good plot. There are no graphic descriptions of sword wounds or be-headings even though there are many, and it is quite amusing when a character has been run through with a sword says,' oh, I have been killed'!! Very amusing, quaint, and Shakespearean in delivery, with a very noticeable lack of blood, guts, and histrionics that modern audiences all but bay for.

 All in all The Three Musketeers is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It has a good fast moving plot which is delivered through some very clever writing from Dumas. Although it can be a bit long winded at times it is still good reading as you admire the language and use of words modern writers cannot even begin to make use of. It is somewhat dated in some terms but it is still a great novel, with a superb plot, a great cast of characters, which, combined with a brilliant writing style, make The Three Musketeers a thoroughly entertaining and memorable read.


Roots - Alex Haley

 I'm sure that all of you who have made your way to my humble blog and its views on literature will know of Alex Haley's famous book, Roots. It was of course made into a mini-series in the early 1980's and I vaguely remember parts of it nearly thirty years on. The book itself I read sometime last year. It had been on my 'to read list' for some time and I picked up an old copy several years ago and finally manged to read it after several previous false starts.

 The story revolves around a so called 'ancestor' of Haley's named Kunta Kinte. He is snatched from Gambia in the mid eighteenth century as a sixteen year old, and transported to America as part of the slave trade. There has been much controversy over this book as Haley purported so much of it to be historical fact and backed it up with his 'research'. Subsequent historical analysis has found Haley's findings to be incorrect. He also blighted his name because he was taken to court charged with plagiarism, which he settled out of court. He was again charged with plagiarism by another author but it was thrown out to. I haven't read either plagiarised book but I have read the very famous slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Haley refers to several times in Roots.

 For me as I read Uncle Tom's Cabin I couldn't help but feel certain parts and passages were lifted straight from it and into Roots. Sure both are about slavery, and their will always be similarities, but there is in Roots parts that are way too similar to be original and reek strongly of plagiarism. Roots has had its due recognition, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is the foremost book in bringing the abhorrence of the slave trade to the world's attention. It is a shame that Haley delved to the depths he did for Roots is a very fine book for all the faults of its author.

 For all the faults of Roots though the reader must read it with a grain of the proverbial salt. All of Haley's personal anecdotes and references to his 'researches should be some what dis-regarded because they are faulty to say the least. He has embellished much to his own purposes, which again is unfortunate because all he has done for posterity is leave a legacy of lies and a flawed book. If you read Roots it pays to read it as a straight novel based on historical events. It is not at all a family history as Haley would have us believe.

 If you read this as a straight novel then you will enjoy it the more. It isn't original in describing the plight of Africans taken from their native country for the slave trade. But unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin it starts in Africa and is far, far more harrowing than Uncle Tom. The description of the slaves on the slave ship is so harrowing and vividly described I felt physically sick and found it almost impossible to keep reading at times. It is embellished, and for Haley's faults he must be praised for his descriptions of the sufferings of the slaves themselves.

  The slaves were transported in ships chained down close together, lying in their own filth, with only one wash a week. They were whipped and the open sores festered from the filth and stung unmercifully when sea water was used to wash them. The women were raped, and the men were powerless to help them. The reader is led into the impotent rage these men felt at their plight and their inability to do a thing about it. Over half of them die en-route from their appalling conditions. They are treated worse than animals and fed on a diet of flour and water for months on end. It is despicable. As a white it makes you bow your head in shame for what was done to the black man.

 After Kinte is landed in America his rage is so great he attempts several escapes but is caught each time. He finally has one of his feet cut off with an axe. Can you even begin to imagine that??! He is sold to a owner who uses him as a carriage driver as he can barley walk. He marries late in life and has a daughter who is sold off for helping a young boy she likes escape. She is repeatedly raped by her new owner and has a child by him. A 'mulatto', a term that crops up repeatedly when reading the slave trade ( as does that word, you know the one, 'nigger' ). Mulatto being a person of mixed white/black parentage. Even with white blood the person was treated as black, and hence a slave.

 The tearing up of families runs right throughout Roots. In many respects it is more harrowing reading than the transporting of the slaves. Woman have babies torn from their arms as they are sold separately from their mothers. Husbands and wife's separated, and children sold off unceremoniously. It is all vividly told and the reader can't help but feel extreme anger towards those doing the buying and selling. The blacks are treated like so much cattle and aren't even given the credit for being human. Once Kinte daughter Kizzy is sold off he disappears from the book completely and we never learn what happens to him.

 The book goes through all the conditions the slaves lived in, to the attitudes of the owners towards their 'property'. Some are good to the slaves, while others are terrible and employ sadistic over-seers to make them work. The slaves themselves know they are stuck but quietly rebel by intentionally breaking tools and woman house-cooks putting their 'bodily wastes' into their masters food. Oops, sorry they pronounce it 'masser'.

  Unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, Roots is easier to read. The slaves have a pidgin sort of English and in Uncle Tom it is extremely difficult to read. Mammy's speech in Gone With the Wind is a very good example and I had trouble deciphering her speech ( at times I just skipped it as it was starting to annoy me as I stumbled my way through it ). Haley in Roots has made it a bit clearer and easier to read, and yet it is still undeniably slave talk. It was with relief it was so, because I seriously doubt I would have had the patience to slog through such pidgin type speech and found it enjoyable.

  The story Haley tells is quite a good read. He encompasses the many decades of the slave trade within a novel extremely well. The Civil War is gone through and the subsequent emancipation, as is the white owners attitudes to having to set free their slaves. Slavery may have ended but the attitude of the predominantly white population didn't change. The blacks were still 'niggers' and though slavery was gone another evil manifested itself in the guise of racism. Haley goes through the end of slavery and how blacks had to adjust to being free and the uphill struggle they faced to gain equality.

  Roots is an extremely good book. It is flawed because Haley plagiarised some of it and insisted his researches on his own family's history was that of the book. But that aside, Alex Haley has written an outstanding novel ( because that is what it is ) on the slave trade through one hundred and fifty years. It is brutal, sad ,disgusting, and quite harrowing. It will appall the reading in knowing how a whole population of people were treated. You will feel anger like very few books can make you experience. You watch human beings treated worse than animals, and yet by the end these same people ultimately triumphed, and you feel uplifted by it.

  An astonishing 'must' read. A book you will never forget and will think about over and over again.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Heidi - Johanna Spyri

 Isn't it amazing that a novel that was written for children should become one of the most famous books to come out of Switzerland?! It shows how good Heidi is and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting down and reading this about six months ago.

 Heidi is of course a very famous children's novel written in 1880. It is very 19th century in writing style and narrative. For instance the title is typical, Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning! Un-necessarily long and now commonly abridged to just Heidi!! After having read it I don't think that today's youngsters would be able to read it! Young people today are Harry Potter fans and J.K. Rowling's books are very clearly written and of today's style. Johanna Spyri obviously wrote in the style of her time and children of today just wouldn't understand, or even comprehend it. I as a forty year old took some time to get into the swing of its style, so a young child wouldn't have much hope.

  So in many respects Heidi has passed from being a children's book into being a simpler to read 19th century classic for adults. It is isn't as difficult to pick up and start reading as is Charles Dickens for instance, so Heidi would be a good starting point before delving into some of the heavier classics of the time. Once into the book the style becomes simpler and easier to read and you get into the rhythm of it very quickly. Picking up a heavier novel of the time after Heidi would then be somewhat easier. It is a good starting point if you are contemplating a go at the classics and want something light to start with.

  I would not give this to a child to read as it would be too difficult for them to read now. It says volumes about the literature of its day and the children's ability to read it compared to our generations dumbed down-ness. As an adult I really enjoyed Heidi, the style once you get into it is quite basic and the story is very much child driven. But for an adult it is still a surprisingly rewarding read.

 Heidi as a character is just wonderful!! She is a very precocious little girl with a big heart, combined with an insightful intelligence. The story starts with her being dumped unceremoniously on her unwilling grandfather who is in self exile in the Swiss alps. She slowly softens his heart and they get on famously. He is then obviously unhappy at losing her when the aunt who dumped her takes Heidi away to be a companion to a crippled girl in the city. He despises the aunt's self-regard and lack of his or Heidi's wishes to stay together. We can see why he has exiled himself.

 In short Heidi and the crippled girl get along very well but the house keeper is somewhat of an ogre and is unable to accept Heidi or her ways. She is cruel to her, and yet the girl's father who has to travel a lot is very kind hearted, as is his mother. They both see the attitude from the house keeper and put her back in line. But Heidi is homesick and falls ill. A kind doctor recognises her malaise and she is sent back to her grateful grandfather who is so happy he breaks his exile and starts to visit the local village.

  Heidi herself is friends with a Shepard boy named Peter who tends to her grandfathers goats. He skips school alot and Heidi teaches him to read and write so he can read to his blind grandmother. She is an amazingly unselfish person!! Of course we as adult readers can see Spyri's train of thought, and it is to be seen today in animated movies. It is never syrupy or overly goody two shoes. Heidi is just an amazing young girl who inspires those she meets with her kindness.

  The crippled girl, along with her father and Grandmother come to visit. After all sorts of adventures the cripple, after her wheel chair is destroyed by a jealous Peter, learns to walk. Her father is over joyed and financially looks after Heidi, her grandfather, and the village.

  It is all happy endings, but remember this was a children's book and it reads as one. But it is still a wonderful read. Heidi is a lovely character and the reader just falls in love with her!!! She is one of the more memorable fictional characters I have come across. The book is also very heavily christian in tone. It doesn't quite go into shoving the Bible down the readers throat but it does say to children 'be good, say your prayers, believe in god, etc'. I didn't find it too bad, but it shows how a children's book was used to instill into them the difference between right and wrong.

 Heidi then is a lovely book. As an adult I'm sure you will enjoy it and the style of its writing. It has dated in terms of its religious under tone as we of today witness the slow demise of religion within our world. As a character Heidi is truly lovely and a neat young girl. Her heart is big, she cares about those a round her, and she has a very keen intellect. Just the sort of kid we as adults like!! Put aside any reservations you have about this being solely a kids book because it isn't. You read the Harry Potter books don't you? Then read Heidi because it is the 1880's equivalent. Somewhat dated but still a very good and satisfying read. Believe me after you have finished it you'll be mulling it over in your mind for some time afterwards, and you will never forget the Little girl called Heidi, she is a real cracker of a character!


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

War And Peace - Leo Tolstoy

 War and Peace, or should that be, how not to write a review that doesn't mirror the length of the book?! To say Leo Tolstoy's legacy to the eyes minds of humanity is lengthy is an under-statement. At fourteen hundred pages it is one of, if not, the longest novels ever penned. Many people are put off by its length and don't even attempt to read it, whilst it is a constant source of jibes from stand up comedians world wide.

 I personally wasn't fazed by its tomeness. I have read many books of over one thousand pages so War and Peace held no demons for me. I was fortunate that I was on holiday when I started my epic quest to read this novel. I initially was reading a hundred plus pages a day and read the first of its two volumes in seven days. The second took longer as I got to within two hundred pages of the end and literally ran out of breath. I put it down for several weeks before picking it up and polishing it of one quiet Sunday afternoon.

  As with all novels of the era I found the first twenty or so pages difficult going until I got into the swing of the prose and the style of writing. In those first few pages I not once felt it too difficult to the point of giving up on it. I'm sure I am like all readers in that if I can't get into a book within a few pages then I know I won't get into it at all. Fortunately all things conspired my way and I ripped into Tolstoy's masterpiece with gusto.

  The copy I had stated on the back cover that War and Peace is considered the greatest novel ever written. I dispute that and consider it the second. Gone With the Wind claims top spot for me as it is a more pure novel than War and Peace. Let me explain. The problem with War and Peace is that Tolstoy hasn't written a straight novel. Right throughout there are chapters and long paragraphs where Tolstoy interrupts the narrative to add his views on such things as politics, religion, war, freemasonry, and the likes. It is incredibly frustrating and annoying because it is supposed to be a novel and not a sounding board for Tolstoy's personal views ( Victor Hugo in Les Miserable went down the same road but to a greater extent than Tolstoy ). This is what I mean by Gone With the Wind being a more 'pure' novel as there is no author butting in with his or her ruminations on the ills of the world. I feel if an author wants to do that then do it within the novels narrative.

  I suggest you obtain an unabridged copy and judiciously edit Tolstoy's ramblings out for yourself. Fortunately they are fairly condensed and not long so they can be easily and quickly skipped. I estimate that Tolstoy's views equate to about 100-150 pages so it isn't really a lot fortunately. Once his fluff has been skipped it is all novel and his views nothing but a minor irritant that should never have been put in. This is all I would abridge because the rest is too great in scope to want to miss out on. The whole novel moves along quite smartly and I found no real parts I had to slog through. Quite the opposite as some I absolutely raced through as they were extremely vivid.

  My absolutely favorite is when the Russians have set fire to Moscow and Pierre is wandering through the blazing city until his capture. It puts you in his place and you see and hear all he does. It is a very good piece of descriptive writing, it engaged me totally and its chapters whizzed on by in no time. Also the Battle of Borodino is well described, historically inaccurate, but well described. Tolstoy himself served in the Crimean War so knew what was warfare was about and his descriptions of Borodino, etc, come from his own experiences and vast reading on Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

  Also I particularly liked the scenes towards the end where the Cossacks are hounding the retreating French across the steppes. Very vivid, and again well written and I literally flew through their respective pages. But the novel isn't just about 1812. It is like Gone With the Wind in being a love story set against an historical backdrop, and I can't help but feel that Margret Mitchell got her inspiration for her masterpiece from Tolstoy.  The sweep of both books are marked as they both deviate from country to town to city, and they have a myriad of characters. Tolstoy's book is infamous in having a vast amount of characters supposedly into the two hundreds!

  War and Peace also has some ball scenes and again Tolstoy's ability to put you there is marked as they are so vivid. The whole book takes you from ball room in St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to the huge estates of the wealthy, to the courts of the Tsar, along snow swept steppes, and into Napoleon's own private quarters. It is an immense achievement and never, ever boring. The reader can only gasp as you are taken on a fourteen hundred page tour of Russia and its people. The translation I read was excellent and there were very few Russian words to stumble over. The whole narrative moves along very smoothly and it helped me read it in the time I did.

  This is an epic work of literature. If it wasn't for Tolstoy butting in and adding his un-needed views then I would unhesitatingly state that War and Peace be the greatest novel ever. But I can't. It is something of a given within much of the 18-19th century's literature that many authors did what Tolstoy has done. I find it frustrating, especially if I am enjoying what I am reading and have to stop to skip this type of rubbish.

 But for me, in the end minor quibble, War and Peace is quite simply a master piece of literature and is a must read. The scale, the scope, the sheer epicness of it has to read to be believed. It is also one of those rare books that once you have read it you can skit about the fact because there are many who will never even try!!

   A 'must read before you die' novel. Simple as that. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

 Ah yes, the almighty Charles Dickens! What has  been written about this great of the written English word this humble writer only all to well knows he can't add a thing! It has been almost twenty years since my nose wheedled its ways into a Dickens novel and after a spur of the moment ( and months of readers block ) my hand picked up his second novel , Oliver Twist.

 I mentioned the term 'readers block'. I'm wondering if anyone else suffers this frustrating condition whereby they are not able to read a thing of note. There is no particular reason for it, but from time to time this reader finds himself unable to digest a word. The affliction can last mere weeks up to months on end, and my last dose of this mysterious illness ( !!! ) lasted two and half months. Then last Monday, on a whim, I picked up Oliver Twist, and lo and behold my ability to read and concentrate on said activity had returned!! I tried a novel as I couldn't even begin to face picking up the almost finished memoirs of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf ( which has been so for almost three months! ).

 The last Dickens's novel I read was Great Expectations many years ago when I was in my early twenties. I started Oliver Twist and suddenly found that I had read almost one hundred pages in one sitting. I had a vague outline of the story having seen a recent mini-series adaptation on the story box ( telly!! ). This helped as I got used to the prose without needing to follow the plot as closely as I might otherwise have had to do. The initial thing that strikes you as you read an author of that era is the sentence length and the prodigious use of commas to make them comprehensible. Modern writers have lost this skill with commas. I actually know a woman who, in her job does a lot of writing, who won't use them. She says she hates them but I, delicately as possible, said that it is more likely she doesn't know how to use them.

  This is borne out somewhat in my years of extramural slog through uni where so many of the high and all mighties sigh at the poor punctuation within the newer generations coming through. So it was very refreshing to delve into Dickens and delight in how the English language was once so well written and I ripped through Oliver Twist in four days. It is four hundred and eighty pages long but the print is small and the concentration levels must been keen, for if you wander you lose the thread of what is happening very fast.

  Oliver Twist is a very sharp and satirical look by Dickens into the lives of the poor in early 19th century England. It is a prescient and honest look at the sordid  face of the orphanages , workhouses, and career criminals of the time. Dickens's himself is purported to have grown up very near to these type of institutions so had first hand knowledge of their goings on. Twist may be one hundred and seventy years old but it its descriptions of the filth and squalor are still vivid and send shivers up the readers spine in revulsion. You can almost smell the seediness of the bad end of London and its inhabitants.

 The contrast between the rich and poor is marked, and Dickens's shows this well. The poor are dressed  in virtual rags and stink to high heaven. They are uncouth, vulgar, devious, and have to steal to survive, after all, this is the hey day of the pick pocket. But the scum of the earth are well aware of the consequences of being caught and often refer to the gallows and transporting. Newgate prison of Dickens's time had an appalling reputation for filth and brutality and even hardened criminals feared its notorious walls and gallows.

  The rich are of course are well dressed, fed, and educated, and quite unaware of the situation of the paupers of the world. Dickens conveys which side of the fence it was better to be on quite convincingling! But one can't quite escape a bit off 'sniffery' from Dickens. It is an unfortunate part of life in that there will always be rich and poor. Dickens does try though to temper his tone by having young Oliver land on his feet after some dark adventures within the under world and those who had wronged him all getting their just deserts.

  It is pure novel though, with a happy ending for Oliver. Somethings have dated but it must be read with an eye for the times. The language between the rich friends of Oliver got on my nerves at times, especially when talking about the lady characters ( sweet lady, fair maiden, so lovely a soul, etc). Bram Stoker's Dracula was like that and it drove me spare!! We of the equal opportunities generation would have a fit if we had to speak to woman like that today!! The other thing is one character, Fagin, is more commonly called 'the Jew'. Would an author today be able to get away with this? Not likely, and it shows the attitude of the times to the Jewish race. Dickens has shown the anti-semitism of his era loud and clear.

  Oliver Twist is a very good and enjoyable read. Like all of Dickens novels it has  characters with memorable names, who can look past 'the artful dodger!!  It is a snapshot into pre-Victorian life in England. There is something of the puritanical though. Nancy is a girl from the streets who is eventually murdered. Dickens has no compunction it telling us how so but will only imply, in disguised language, her former trade as a prostitute whose former looks were gone. Dickens's also had his faults in regards to the Jews, but his eye for the depredations and attitudes of those socially inferior to him are apparent, and he is quite sympathetic to their plight. He is well aware of the criminal class and what awaits them if caught but in his under stated way feels their treatment is unwarranted and that there are better ways of dealing with them. It is a novel indicative of its time. It is a social, satirical commentary of life in England encompassed within novel form. It is both informative and a good story to boot.

  I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it to all. If you wish to tackle Charles Dickens then Twist is a good place to start. Its length isn't as forbidding as say The Pickwick Papers or Bleak House and is a relatively short and easy introduction to Dickens's style. I first thought I would read his novels in the order he wrote them but after the first few pages of The Pickwick Papers I found I had bit off more than I could chew and thought it better to start with something shorter and lighter.