Tag Archives: journey

She (1887) – H. Rider HAGGARD

This is the second of Haggard’s novels I have read in the last three weeks – too many, I say! And, I have been unwell, so this book has taken me a lot longer to read than it should have, meaning that by the end of it, I was very, very sick and tired of it. My bad.

She is Ayesha, a mysterious woman who rules over her kingdom through the fear of her magical powers, and the fact that she is said to be immortal. When three proper English gentlemen – Horace, Leo and Job – are shipwrecked onto the coast of her lands, conveniently fulfilling their own quest to avenge the death of one of Leo’s ancient ancestors, they unwittingly become involved in her mysterious and magical ways, and realise that the quest they set out upon may be far more difficult than they had ever previously imagined.

I think the best way to talk about this book is in reference to King Solomon’s Mines. While that novel is fairly simplistic in both its plot and philosophy, She is considerably more complex. No surprise there, considering that She was written several years later, when Haggard had become far more popular with the public. This is not to say, however, that this novel is a piece of high literature, right up there with the best. It isn’t.

But, it is a lot better than King Solomon’s Mines which filled me with anger every time I read Haggard’s opinions on women or the African people. While these ideas are also here in She, they are toned down a bit, especially the casual racism, which makes for a less painful read. Haggard seems to have a new appreciation for women in this novel, and there are far more positive female leads in here than before. Ustane, for example, the ‘savage’ wife of Leo, is given almost a personality, and even some dialogue that rises above grunts and snorts. Big if Haggard, really. And Ayesha herself is perhaps the most complex character Haggard has ever written. For me, at least, she elicited some sympathy, as a woman who has lived for two thousand years, tortured by the memories of what she had done to her lover. She has become this kind of sarcastic bitch, who doesn’t take any nonsense, and is particular calm-headed about everything.

For an adventure novel, however, Haggard does waste a lot of time trying to be all philosophical, spending pages and pages of dialogue trying to have ‘deep’ arguments about the philosophy of love and history. Move on, man! He also spends far too much time describing everything around his characters (hello, Tolkien), and I must confess to having occasionally skimmed through quite a few of them. I think both of these contribute to what I can only call a pacing problem, and between the occasional set-piece, we have lots and lots of either travelling, philosophising or, in Leo’s case, sleeping. Seriously, a lot of time sleeping.

So, is She worth reading? I think if I were going to pick between the two Haggard novels, then I would go with this one. It seems to be more mature, more complex, and more thoughtful. This does get it into a bit of trouble sometimes, when Haggard goes all philosophical, but the adventure bits are still good, and really, we all love to read a novel about a bitchy immortal woman who doesn’t suffer fools. At all.

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King Solomon’s Mines (1885) – H. Rider HAGGARD

I’m not dead! Sorry it has taken so long for me to write another review – I have been insanely busy with uni stuff and the such. But, now that I am back into the full swing of things, I can review the stuff that I have been reading lately. I have to read nine (!) novels for one of my courses, so there will definitely be some reviews coming along soon. This novel is the first on the course list, so what better place to start?

Allan Quatermain is a middle-aged Englishman living in the wilds of Southern Africa. When he is approached by two men – Henry Curtis and John Good – to help them find Curtis’ lost brother, and also some very big, and very valuable diamond mines, Quatermain’s sense of adventure is piqued. So begins one of the most famous adventure novels of all time, that has influenced everyone from Clive Cussler to Matthew Reilly. Three upright English gentlemen and their ‘helpers’ travel to the depths of Africa, to discover lost lands, treasures, and evil witch-doctors.

As with every novel, there are some phrases and ideals that seem very, very out of place in today’s world. Though, this one takes the cake. King Solomon’s Mines is one of the most misogynistic (going so far as to say the death of a woman was probably a good thing), racists (let’s not even mention the descriptions of the ‘natives’), and anti-environmentalist (you killed how many elepahnts?!) books I have ever read.

The only major problem with the story itself is that it is not very good. Well, no, that’s not totally true. The original intention of the characters is largely forgotten in most of the action, instead, Haggard relies on a twist that is insanely obvious (though, to his credit, he deals with it quickly), to trigger events that make up the majority of the book. It is not until the almost epilogue-style last few chapters that the original intention of the expedition is remembered, and acted upon.

Haggard wrote this book as a challenge – one of his friends had told him he could not write a novel as good as Treasure Island. I think his friend was right. Quatermain ‘puts’ a little note at the beginning of his text, saying he is just writing what happened to him, not caring about the style and such. This is certainly true. As with a large number of other adventure novels of the time (see, for example, The First Men in the Moon), I find it very difficult to believe that these very proper English gentlemen could ever find themselves in a situation like this, and somehow manage to remain pompous and maintain a sense of superiority about everyone they meet. Though, in a sense, this is exactly what this book is really all about. It is about the white man in the colonies, who, despite the barbarians around him, manages to maintain a sense of dignity and evolution – the latter point more pertinent with the publication of Darwin’s works.

If you are looking for some kind of retro fix when it comes to adventure novels, give this a go. Be warned, though, there are some seriously offensive passages that you should watch out for. Or, you could just go and read the latest Clive Cussler/Matthew Reilly/Dan Brown, which are, at the very least, more relevant and less offensive.

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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John STEINBECK

So, uni holidays are upon us, and this has been sitting on my shelf staring at me for ages. What better way to spend one’s time than by reading a piece of literature that is widely considered one of the greatest American books ever? Though the last American classic I read, Moby-Dick, was really not that good. So I didn’t come into this book with high expectations. Which, it turns out, was probably the best thing. Oh, and it hasn’t taken me three weeks to read – I just haven’t had access to the internet.

The Grapes of Wrath introduces us to Tom Joad, recently out of prison, and returning to his family home after several years away. Picking a preacher up on the way, he soon discovers that the family are moving west – their land is worth nothing, and they feel that they will be better served in the promised land of California. Along with millions of others, they begin their journey to a better life.

On the surface, the plot of The Grapes of Wrath is not that exciting. But, it is an insanely excellent book. Steinbeck is such a genius writer, that I think I could read a novel from him about paper bags that would still be exciting, gripping, and brilliantly written. Seriously, this guy writes like a poet, but in prose form. And I haven’t read it for two weeks, but if I could remember any of it, I would give it to you. My bad.

Steinbeck was very clever when he chose his characters, trying to find a unique point of view that would present a cross-section to be explored in the face of the Depression. Read this book over any history of the Depression to get a glimpse into real life. Mama’s arc in particular is a nice touch for an early sense of feminist uprising, and the inability of men to act in the face of imminent collapse, with the woman coming through to save the day. Several times. Similarly, Jim Casy, the preacher, and his disillusionment with God and the Church is a fantastic look at the effect this massive world event (the Great Depression) has on faith.

It’s not even the characters that make this book, though the Joad family is very nicely done. It is the alternate chapters of the book, which comprise a more holistic telling of the Depression, taking the action away from the trials of the Joads, and instead looking at other people, who sometimes turn out to be the Joads. Sometimes, this is just an excuse for Steinbeck to show off, but that’s ok, because he is very good at it. And this clearly works well – regular readers will remember that James Frey riffs off this in Bright Shiny Lights, in which a similar construction gives us the history of Los Angeles.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is an impressive award. To receive it, you have to make some kind of impressive contribution to humanity. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel in 1962, he won it for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” And that pretty much sums up this book. Don’t let the Nobel tag scare you off – this is one of the most accessible classics, and certainly one of the most brilliant.

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Homesickness (1980) – Murray BAIL

I have tried to read this book about three times in the last three years. Each time, I’ve read about ten pages, and given up. Which is a shame, ’cause I loved Bail’s later work Eucalyptus, that doomed film with Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. I think I’m glad it didn’t get made – Bail’s novels would not make very good films, I think. But enough about his famous work. Homesickness is Bail’s first novel, so despite his popularity and fame as a genius short story writer, I much prefer a good novel to sink my teeth into. And, I finally read it fully. So go me.

Homesickness is the story of thirteen people who have never met before. They have all been pushed together on a world tour, and together, must try to deal with the differences and similarities that every tourist must face when they leave the comfort of their own home. From the traditional married couple to the communist, the young naive girl to the wife beater, each of these characters provides a fascinating look at how people react to the changing world around them, in places they would normally never visit.

Murray Bail is a brilliant writer. I can’t believe it took me so long to get into this book. I don’t know what I was on. Maybe I was too young. Who knows. The point is, I’m an idiot. The language that fills this book is some of the most beautiful and evocative I have ever read. Eucalyptus comes a close second. I should stop mentioning that book. This book pulls off the unenviable task of having to try and recreate six different countries in a way that makes them all seem different, yet somehow similar at the same time. And Bail does it brilliantly. Each place they visit – Africa, London, Quito, New York, Russia – are all clearly different, yet there is somehow a sameness that runs through the book. Genius.

The other thing that I really love in this book is its museums. While Bail could very easily (and justifiably) treated a large number of his characters with contempt, he doesn’t. Each visit by these people is dominated by a visit to a museum of some kind – no doubt a subtle(-ish) message to all of those potential tourists who read this book wanting to do nothing but see everything that ‘has to be seen’ wherever they are going – and while there is the occasional moment of realisation for these characters that they are doing something highly superficial, for the most part not even we as readers are even aware of it. Though, there is one character who takes photos of everything. He’s there for a little knowing comic relief. Each museum is carefully chosen to represent an ‘intrinsic’ part of each country – New York’s museum is about marriage, while Quito’s is about feet (it makes perfect sense in the book) – and despite this, you still sometimes get the feeling that these tourists are still not quite getting ‘it’. Some of these scenes in Russia, in Lenin’s tomb, are downright hilarious – with the Cold War in full swing, some pretty naive Australians from whoop-whoop are saying some pretty dumb things.

The only criticism that I feel I should mention is that some of the passages begin to drag – especially in the middle. Maybe I’d just been reading too much of it at once. But enough of that. I could talk about this book for hours, and how wonderful it is. I won’t though. Suffice to say, I really like this book. Everyone needs to go out and read it. Now. Especially if, like me, you’ve done a bit of travelling. I suspect some of the jokes and ironies are there for people who have spent time travelling, whether it be on a bus, or some more ‘dirty’ exploring.

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The First Men in the Moon (1901) – H.G. WELLS

Huzzuh for free books from work. Thank you, Pearson. That’s pretty much the only reason I picked this book up. Also ’cause I like H.G. Wells. I say that, and what I actually mean is, I like two other of his books. And movies. Yes, I’m a terrible person. I was vaguely aware before I started this that Jules Verne and Wells had a debate as to what kind of science fiction was the best kind (keeping in mind that this was when science fiction was still new and shiny), with Verne believing that the science was the most important part, and Wells believing that the fiction was the most important part. I’m beginning to understand that now…

Mr Bedford, an upper-class English gentleman, down on his luck, has moved to the seaside to write a play. There, he meets Mr Cavor, the ‘scientist next door’, who is working on a way to get to the moon. When Mr Bedford hears this, the businessman inside awakens, and convinces Cavor to pursue the project, so they might be able to make money from it. Succeeding, they go to the moon, and encounter one or two problems that they did not exactly see coming…

So, the first few chapters of this book made me laugh. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t supposed to. Though, I think the satirical undertones give me some kind of allowance. The notion that these two upper-class Englishmen are somehow suitable is laughable, considering what we now know about space travel. And I know, I should be accepting of the context, but seriously, a material that repels “gravity waves”? I understand now how frustrated Verne, a man very much of science, must have been with Wells.

On the plus side, once they actually land on the moon, everything gets much, much better. Wells uses the moon, and its alien inhabitants, to give a biting criticism of the British imperial mindset, and how British colonists operated. Bedford, in particular, is the most ridiculous character I have ever met. I’m not sure what he had in mind when he went to the moon (other than making money), but there are some people that should just not be allowed to represent humanity. He’s one of them. To be fair, Cavor is not much better, but he redeems himself somewhat by the ending of the novel, which did feel very tacked on. The story proper ends about four chapters before the end, allowing a rather long epilogue on topics that I won’t spoil for you.

I think a lot of contemporary science fiction authors should be given this kind of stuff to read. Not for the dodgy, dodgy science, but for the plotting and themes. I think science fiction works best when it is commenting on our own humanity, but mirrored in fantastical events. I suspect that a lot of contemporary authors feel the need to include giant space ships, scary aliens (that are inherently evil because they are not human), and needlessly complex plots that entail thousands of pages and characters. The First Men in the Moon is not the best novel in the world, but it is certainly a solid science fiction novel that deals with interesting ideas.

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What is the What (2006) – Dave EGGERS

This is a very odd novel. If we can call it that. I like to think we can. Having said this, What is the What is very much based on the experiences of one person – indeed, Eggers himself said that he was not sure whether he would write a biography or a novel. If nothing else, it is probably one of the truest portraits of modern Sudan, in any format.

Valentino Achak Deng is a young Sudanese man who has recently come to America to live. He opens his door one day, when someone asks if they can briefly use his phone, and finds himself on the ground, being mugged. In an attempt to placate the people who have mugged him, he begins to tell them the story of his life. Growing up in a small village in the south of Sudan, he finds himself in the middle of a civil war, on the run from the government, and the rebels, unsure of whether his family is still alive, and whether or not he himself will survive much longer.

Eggers has a very specific purpose in this novel. Having spent months talking to the real Valentino (on whose life this book is based), he essentially retells the story of the Sudanese Lost Boys, and the struggles they faced, both in their home country, as well as the refugee camps in neighbouring countries – Ethiopia and Kenya – as well as the troubles they still face after relocation into America. While this is certainly one of the strengths of the novel (precious few other books are talking about modern Africa), it can also be a burden. The pacing is very inconsistent – it begins very strongly, the middle of the book drags on, and then the end happens very, very quickly.

I think that this attempt to inform occasionally gets in the way of Eggers’ atempt to tell a good story. While he makes extensive use of flashbacks, he is dealing with three different time periods, and they can get quite confusing after a while. Perhaps having spent so much time writing very postmodern books, a switch into realism was a bit tricky. Having said this, it is certainly an effective way to highlight both lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the American parts are a really interesting look into integration of an entire culture into a new land, and the difficulties this throws up.

A quick note on some of the criticism this book, and Dave Eggers, has faced. A lot of people have complained that a white person should not have written this novel – one critic finds the novel’s “innocent expropriation of another man’s identity … a post-colonial arrogance.” I’m not sure how much collaboration Eggers and Deng actually had in writing the book – I suspect there was quite a lot – but I don’t think I really agree with Lee Siegel on this one. If you look at the other charity work Eggers has done over the years, I think this is just a larger part of Eggers’ attempt to inform as many people as he can.

In the end, I’m not totally enamoured with What is the What. It is not a bad book, and it is certainly an important book, but it took me a long time to connect with all of it. I certainly learned a lot about something I never really understood, so I suppose Eggers has done his job well.

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Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph CONRAD

So, here’s the first book I have to read this year. As such, forgive me if I go all English student on you. My bad. I have just had a lecture about this, let’s be fair, quite famous and controversial book. Well, controversial if you are in the book world. I don’t know about the rest of you people…

Heart of Darkness is a story within a story. While we being on the river Thames, we end up in the Congo River, in deepest darkest Africa (though maybe I’m not allowed to say that.) Marlowe, our intrepid hero, has been sent on a steamboat by ‘the Company’, in whose employ he finds himself, down the Congo River to find Mr. Kurtz, a renegade member of the Company, who is selling ivory, making a mint, and not giving the money to the Company.

The story itself is quite simple. It is Conrad’s style, however, that makes this book worthy of ‘classic’ (for want of a better word) novel status. While he is often considered a forerunner to the modernists (read: really hard to read 20th century literature), I found it to be deeply enjoyable. There are, of course, some quite dense parts, but when you read them carefully, the meaning behind them becomes clear, and really lucid.

Conrad is concerned with a whole load of things, including British colonialism, the inhabitants of Africa, and the effect this continent has on people. It is this last part that makes a real impression. On me, anyway. All of the characters (white ones, anyway) are not quite there in their head. The people running the Company in the Congo have become wild – almost reverted to their more natural, primeval states. Marlowe himself is not unaffected by this change – he also takes time to think about his own experiences in this crazy, very not-British land, and comes up with no definitive answers.

It is, however, the character of Mr. Kurtz who becomes the star of this novel. While having very little stage time, his presence and legend is woven throughout the whole (admittedly short) novel, and his journey from (assumed) normal life as a British man, into what he is at the end, is very, very important.

I’m going to refrain from getting any more technical than that, or I will start writing my assignment, and you don’t want to read that. I am, however, going to quickly talk about the controversy that surrounds this book. Famous African author, Chinua Achebe, attacked this novel in 1975, citing Conrad’s portrayal of the African people as racist. Now, I’m going to be honest, I don’t really see this. Conrad is, I think, no more racist than any other British person at the turn of the 20th century. Some of his descriptions of the native people are, let’s face it, quite shocking when you compare them to today’s world. But I wouldn’t have said racist.

Misogynistic, however… That I will give to Conrad.

Heart of Darkness is very good. It has withstood the test of the last century, and despite many other books attempting similar things (the exploration of the unknown continent, and all that) , this novel stands up as one of the best. Conrad’s characters, prose and narrative (the big three) are all going to leave a good impression. And, at less than 150 pages, it’s quick, too.

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Moby-Dick (1851) – Herman MELVILLE

Moby-Dick was not particularly well liked when it was first published in 1851. Somehow, though, between then and now, it has achieved ‘classic novel’ status, and is often, if not always, on the list of ‘Great American Novels’. This is, to be quite honest, a bit of a worry. ‘Cause if this is the greatest American novel, I’d hate to see the others.

“Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous lines to ever open a novel. Everyone knows it. And it kicks off a book with so much potential, you really really want to like it. Or I did anyway. And, for a while, I really did. Ishmael tells us that the sea is in his blood, and he will go down to Nantucket (the whaling capital of America at the time) every now and then to jump on board a boat, and go sailing. This particular time, he meets a wild savage, Queequeg, on his journey to Nantucket, and together, they decide to travel upon the Pequod, owned by three mad captains, one of whom is almost never seen on land. Captain Ahab. Despite many people’s warnings, Ishmael and Queequeg maintain their decision, and thus, the three year whaling mission is born.

The mystery that surrounds all of this is brilliantly done. Melville brings us everything we come to expect from a ‘classic novel’ – interesting characters, intrigue, and most of all, exceptionally dry humour. It is unfortunate then, that once we get onto the ship itself, it all goes downhill. Quite quickly.

Melville, as a member of the Romantic school, believes that the novel is the best place for history. It is the job of the novel to tell the history of the time it is in. Unfortunately, Melville chooses to tell the history of whaling. The entire history of whaling. Which, to be honest, is interesting for about ten pages, then just gets deadly boring. On the plus side, I now know everything I ever could about whaling in the 1850s, but that’s not really what I set out for. As the story progresses, if there is even the slightest hint of whaling jargon, he will spend an entire chapter explaining the term, and how it relates to whales. For goodness sake, there are almost 30 pages describing the scientific classification of every known species of whale, and how they relate to each other.

When the story does find its way to prominence, it is really quite good. The beginning in particular, as well as the final showdown, are both excellent examples of Melville in full swing, creating a fantastically imagined world. His own whaling background, I suspect, helped immensely in his ability to recreate life aboard the Pequod, and the ship politics that take place.

Moby-Dick is very much a book of two halves. The story that Melville tells – a mad sea-dog trying to take revenge against an almost mythical creature, because of a lost limb – is pretty good. It is unfortunate, then, that this gets bogged down by the whale encyclopaedia that ensues. I think if this was taken out, then yes, Moby-Dick could very well be one of the greatest American novels ever written. But, since this is never going to happen (and I’m certainly not advocating that it should,) it is up to each person to decide how much they really want to know about whales.

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The Memory of Running (2004) – Ron McLARTY

So, this book got a lot of hype when it came out, thanks to Stephen King recommending it as a fantastic book, and then berating the publishing industry for not publishing it when they first saw it. As such, McLarty became a first-time author at the age of 56 – not something that happens very often in book land. But, is the book any good?

The Memory of Running is a good, old-fashioned road book – much like the road movie, but in book form. Our protagonist takes the massive shape of Smithson Ide, who weighs in at a whopping 279 pounds (127k for those of us using real measuring systems.) After the unfortunate death of his parents in a car accident, he discovers a letter in his parents’ house that tells him of where his long-lost mentally disturbed sister is. She is also dead. Smithy gets on his childhood bike, and starts cycling to the other side to see his dead sister’s body, to pay his respects. On the way, he meets many exciting people blah blah blah. You’ve all heard it before.

As road novels go, this is, perhaps, not the greatest one you’re ever going to read. There are many better. Jack Kerouac, for example. It is pretty formulaic, with Smithy meeting people that are outside his comfort zone, who teach him lessons about life and all that kind of good stuff. To be fair, some of the characters he meets are quite interesting, including the man dying of AIDS, and the three young girls he meets on an accidental bike ride, but the vast majority are not. The love interest is also not particularly interesting, either. And, after he gets shot for the third time over a simple misunderstanding, you also want to knock some sense into him. Quickly.

However, the road book part of the novel is not the only part. Every alternate chapter is a flashback to his childhood. Well, his sister’s childhood, really. This is actually done quite well. His sister, Bethany, is an excellent creation, and watching her try to live a normal life, despite the problems she clearly has (at home, as well as in her head) is actually quite enthralling. This doesn’t, unfortunately, take all that much of the book, and I found myself wanting to get back to Bethany’s life, and skip Smithy’s journey, which becomes painfully repetitive at times.

Look, this is not the most terrible book I have ever read. It certainly isn’t the best, though. The repetition of the same thing over and over again really grates after a while (much like this review) , and the redeeming features are not enough to overcome the few parts that are quite interesting. If you want a road novel that actually looks at America properly, as McLarty tries to do, read Kerouac.

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