Book review — ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Published under this cover by Penguin books

I feel when reviewing a book such as this, I must either come out with some new and unthought-of insights into the meaning of the novel, revolutionary perspective or — dare I say it — extreme criticism, and perhaps derision at the long-lasting hype over such mediocrity.

I’m not sure I can offer any of these things. However, I would hope that if someone wants my thoughts, they would come here — if you want the views of the many more eloquent academics that come before me, they’re readily available online, I’m sure. My insights are ones already much explored, my perspective far from revolutionary and as for derision … I just can’t. This novel was wonderful. So many facets of the work came together to dazzle, stupefy and chill the blood of the reader. What immediately catches the attention is the prose — delicate, evocative, florid, yet at no point descending into the overbearing lectures of other antiquated authors that have, just recently, been the bane of my existence.* The book is an absolute joy to read, in a purely linguistic sense, from start to finish. If you let yourself become absorbed in the language, the story flows.

Of course, as always my attention is captured most easily by the philosophical aspects, and in this area the book is a triumph indeed. Even aside from the heady language, the value of this book is within the controversial, subversive, psychologically challenging philosophy expressed. One is never sure if Wilde is enamoured with, or abhors such cynical nihilism — an argument could be made for both, simultaneously. The nihilistic aspect, explored rather seductively, is ultimately condemned — nonetheless it is written as an argument, a persuasion, into harsh, logical, witty and blunt mannerisms and a casual, perhaps nonexistent, stance on morality in any traditional sense. It appears to be Wilde’s exploration of the allure of such methods of thought, yet as attractive as it is written to be, the consequences are clear.

The plot, is one widely known, at least in part, through the famous nature of the classic, as well as the many adaptations of the work for stage and film. However, spoilers are a concern for many, so I will simply say that this book is not for the easily disturbed — though the sinister nature of the book lies not in open terror or violence, but a disturbing and slow rot of the soul, which I found unnerving to say the least. It’s horror lay in psychological unease, no shocks or starts. But this form of fear lingers long after closing the book.

As for the subtext, this book was known for being what began trouble for Oscar Wilde. Beyond the nihilistic cynicism, there is much to do with love in the book — whether of others or one’s self. However, it is easy to spot an extremely homoromantic tendency among the characters of the book, which led to public suspicion of Wilde himself. Of course, as a retrospective analysist  of such ideas, it’s simpler to connect Wilde’s known sexuality to the views of his characters, but in the 19th century this still lead to Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for ‘unnatural acts’. Leaving behind such outdated controversy, the descriptions of character and personal/inner beauty within the book are truly moving at some points, though the book was certainly never a romance of any kind.

I must confess that I disliked the vast majority of the characters, but in such a novel I hardly expected otherwise. What I adored was how they yet seemed so human, in the worst ways. Not monsters, just far too human. Then the beautiful prose, the beautiful and horrifying story of morality and the soul — and the corruption of both — makes ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ one of the most rewarding books I have ever had the pleasure to read, and I’m sure my (already battered second-hand copy) will inevitably suffer through many a re-read, and cause much reflection.

*  ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo. Really good book thus far, but with no sense of brevity or conciseness. If I have to hear the history and geography of Paris one more time …

———————————————-

Apologies for the lack of posts lately, but I was busy. Exams and such. But that’s all over and I have my results and I did pretty well! (*cheers*). But I’m back now and hoping to post with much regularity this summer!

Advertisements

Book Review — ‘The Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss

Image“It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”

So it began, and I was hooked.

A page-long prologue begins this story, and you feel a shiver of anticipation, a burning curiosity, a certain knowledge that what follows will be something wonderful.

‘The Name of the Wind’, by Patrick Rothfuss, was recommended to me by a good friend months ago. Our tastes differ on occasion, yet coincide often enough to be interested by his profession that this was his favourite book. He also sent me links to Rothfuss’ blog every time we talked online. Still, I haven’t been reading as much lately through lack of time, lack of concentration and general laziness. I’m working on it. I was wary when I saw how large this book was. I have been a fan of fantasy, but my problem with it is often that it relies a bit too heavily on my curiosity lasting long enough for the story to be begin properly. This large epic fantasy seemed like an investment of my time and energy, as well as the oft-unwilling efforts of my scarce concentration. I was wrong. This was impossible not to read.

I read the prologue a week ago, because I saw it was only a page long. I regretted it. I had to go back to college and do a million essays and read other, far less intriguing stories. I did not have the time, and I know myself well enough to assume that I would not be able to read this book in stops and starts. No, I would need to keep reading, and nothing else would be done. Regretfully, I set it back down.

I came home this weekend, checked my emails, said a perfunctory ‘hello’ to my family, and curled up with this book. I finished it two days later, and was very proud of myself for resisting the temptation to skip meals and sleep.

It is subtitled ‘The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One’, which causes brief panic that we might have another ‘Ulysses’ on our hands but several times larger. But no, the day passes within the novel, but the story mostly takes place over flashbacks that span several years. I won’t spoil the particulars of the this epic — I wouldn’t know where to begin — but I laughed, cried, felt suspense and fear and rejoiced in the beauty of this book. There is no gratuitous description, but enough to make the story live and breath and positively glitter in your mind’s eye. It is possibly the most beautifully written fantasy epic I have ever read. The characters are full of bravery, cruelty, folly and love in the most delicately demonstrated ways. They feel heart-breakingly possible. Within a page, I wanted to know the story of Kvothe the Kingkiller, the Arcane, the Bloodless. I needed to know.

Fantasy always has magic, and it needs to be carefully handled. If the magic is too carefully applied, the reader is bored. If the magic is too powerful, it feels untrue. The magic within this novel is wonderfully conceived, wonderfully controlled and utterly believable — almost scientific in its intricacy, working along with existing physics. Nothing appears made up for the convenience of the plot — the laws of this world appear rigid and uncontrolled by the author. He never breaks them.

Despite being a fantasy novel, this book’s true magic lies within language, realism, harsh truth, beauty, human cruelty and horror and only occasionally within the extraordinary. I would have kept reading even if Kvothe was just going on a walk. That’s the power that lies in this brand of artful storytelling. I was bewitched.

I shall halt my ramble, and must simply end with an eager recommendation to one and all. This book is worth any time  you have to spare. Read the prologue, and see if you can stop there. I bought the sequel yesterday, and if I didn’t have more work to do, I’d already be reading it. It’s beside me now, tempting me …

Book review — ‘Coraline’ by Neil Gaiman

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” ~ Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton

This quote, which I’ve often seen attributed to G.K. Chesterton, is to be found at the beginning of the children’s novel Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. The sentiment is indeed Chesterton’s, but according to Neil himself,* the original quote is quite different. The words are Gaiman’s, and they are beautiful.

Our favourite childhood books teach us a lot about the world — how it is and how it is imagined and the little fantasies that help protect us from a vast and uncaring universe. Reading Coraline with that quote in mind, I could see what this book would have meant to me as a child, sometimes being so afraid (of comparatively inconsequential battles and hardships) and wondering how I was supposed to just … battle on anyway. Gaiman doesn’t offer a divine solution, but sometimes what you need to know is that some things you have to do, even though they’re hard. I think that would have meant a lot to my ten year old self. It means a lot to my twenty year old self.

Coraline, for those who don’t know, is the story of a girl who is bored and ignored in her house as an only child with busy parents. She is constantly called ‘Caroline’ by well-meaning and inattentive old neighbours. One might get the impression that not one person actually listens to a word Coraline says. The story changes into something out of a dream — or a nightmare — when the lonely child discovers a strange and twisted version of her home through a magical door, complete with strange and twisted versions of her parents. These ‘other’ parents pay her a great deal of attention and listen raptly when she speaks. This seductive and false ‘other’ world — where people have buttons for eyes and rats watch your every move — wishes to keep Coraline forever.

This plotline is very relatable for a child. When children don’t get what they want, they might wish that they had different parents. When they are ignored, it hurts. Her parents aren’t perfect. They do need to work, but their child needs attention, company, love. But they do love her, even if they aren’t always there, and she loves them. There is a huge emphasis on family connection, and such frank appraisals of loving but stilted family relations is ultimately very touching.

One thing I would worry about is that I, as a cowardly adult, was frightened by this book, though that may have been more a maternal, protective instinct than anything. But I would perhaps avoid giving this to very small or easily frightened children. Then again, fear builds character, so … you’d have to judge for yourself, there.

Coraline was a beautifully conceived, beautifully executed story full of suspense and wonder. It made me want to find my parents and give them a hug, and then find my little brother and tell him to not ever go outside — the world is dangerous.**

Highly recommended to all.

 

End note *WARNING SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE*:

I must confess that I saw the movie long before I read the book (scandalous!), which I usually try not to do. But there was one major difference between the book and its adaptation that cannot go unmentioned. In the book, there is no Wyborne. I don’t know if he was created for the purpose of the movie, or if he appeared in perhaps the graphic novel, but this had several effects: 1) Coraline was a kinder figure in the book, as we didn’t see her lashing out at another lonely child, 2) The resolution was a bit less … happy. She had learned to appreciate her life, but she was still alone — though this is perhaps more realistic. There are no convenient solutions, but simply a change in perspective, 3) The ending was scarier, because partners in crime make the suspense less suspenseful, and 4) Coraline herself was a little bit less fleshed out, through our limited knowledge of her interactions — we only ever really see her speak to adults, ghosts, cats and monsters. Not mundane, childish interactions. None of these differences are inherently good or bad, but it did create a notably different atmosphere in the story. But, having seen the movie first (though it was a while ago), I missed Wyborne.

 * I find the phrase ‘Neil himself’ funny because I think his name on Twitter is @neilhimself.  I think he actually mentioned the quote paraphrasing on Tumblr, though.

**  This may be extreme — he’s 15.

The gift of words …

“We read to know we are not alone” ~ C.S. Lewis*

When I was five, I hated reading. I loved stories, but others had to read them to me — it was just too much work. It was so much easier to just make up my own stories (and act them out using my hands — my parents are still talking about this, for some reason).

That all changed with one book. My brother read the first Harry Potter to me (he was only eight at the time — retrospectively I’m really impressed by his patience), and then refused to read out the second.  So, if I wanted to find out what happened next to Harry and his friends (who seemed so brave and cool, being a whole 11 years old) I would have to, horror of horrors, read the next one myself.

I like to tell my brother that he created a monster, but really he gave me my love of reading, which I think has defined me as a person more than anything else in my life, except perhaps for my family. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that I would have discovered the joy of literary endeavour anyway, but I don’t think as soon, or with such a passion.

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” ~ John Green

I think the most important thing about books is that they can be an insight into the mind of the Other. An insight into a mind completely unlike your own unlocks thoughts, and the realisation that everyone thinks, just as you do. That everyone remembers and dreads and hopes and dreams. That the same thoughtless fury that provokes your own harsh words can be why others lash out — books taught me that the villain can be human, and that the hero can be flawed. They taught me that my own flaws must be recognised and overcome. And even better when you discover a like mind, a kindred spirit, and realise that you are not some bizarre abnormality for thinking the way you do.

“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.” ~ John Green

I was not a neglected child, by any means, but we all have our hardships, and I found solace in the stories of others, feeling like Matilda as I escaped to Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Time City, the amazon and even rural Britain. Books made me think about the world, and its complexity.

The first time I truly began to think about my own morality, or my own possibly passive immorality, was when I was 12, and read a heart-breaking book called Is Anybody Listening by Larry O’Loughlin. Almost anyone in my class who read this book seemed to say, “It was good, yeah. Sad, though.” I cried at least once an hour for about two days. It made me think of horrible things happening in other places, it made me think about how privileged my own existence was, and it made me feel achingly guilty for the fact that I ever forget this, or ever ignore the suffering in the world.

I came to realise that, in fairness, I was only 12, and there’s a limit to what a 12 year old can do. A cause for current guilt is that I still don’t do a lot to help in various matters. But if ever I make any sort of difference or impact in this world, I think it will be because of that book, and others like it that I stumbled upon in later years.

Another advantage to reading: people often assume that I’m smarter than I actually am, and I attribute this directly to a rather good vocabulary. You really don’t need to be smart to have a good vocabulary, you just need to read a shit-load of books. But this can be a serious asset when writing essays or engaging in debates — if eloquent and verbose sentence construction is second nature to you, you will be able to more accurately convey your precise meaning and thoughts. So, on a purely technical level, reading helped me with my writing and those silly comprehensions they make you do throughout secondary school. Also, good knowledge of English can help with comprehensions in French, or Italian, or other Latin-based languages. They can have very similar roots.

So yeah, reading is good from that aspect. But I think the true value will always be emotional, historical and intellectual. Books taught me to think in the way I do. Books taught me why others might think in the way they do. They taught me about historical events — not with dates, but from psychological and sociological perspectives (Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Good book). Books were my first peek into philosophical thought.

The Discworld series (by Terry Pratchett) taught me folklore, sought out the absurdities in both foreign and familiar cultures, taught me the beauty of parody, and taught me that no matter how silly a character, or how flawed a person, they have the ability to inspire with their own quiet determination. Also, for comedic works, Pratchett’s books contain an astounding amount of philosophical insight — no, really! (A philosophy lecturer of mine even quotes Discworld from time to time).

The Lord of the Rings (by J.R.R. Tolkien) taught me that heroes can come from anywhere. That bravery, especially in the face of fear, is far more admirable than physical strength or worldly knowledge (especially Samwise Gamgee — my hero).

“Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”
~ The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

A Little Princess (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) taught me the strength of the will, the strength of the imagination, the desperate need for it in the darkest days.

And Harry Potter … well, Harry Potter teaches me new things every time I read it. Honestly. It taught me to re-evaluate my first impressions. It taught me the importance of forgiveness, the value of friendship, the bravery of necessity, that people are people no matter where they’re from or what gifts they possess.  It taught me that

“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~ Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling).

These lessons cannot be undone, and nor would I want them to be. Sometimes they were hard to learn (the tears — good god, the tears), but they’re important, and I will endeavour to always remember them.

This post is about books, but by no means do I wish to ignore other media of expression, I simply express that which had the most profound effect on me. Graphic novels can also be powerful (Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and Watchmen by Alan Moore are very much recommended). Films, while falling short of books in some areas, surpass them in others (Groundhog Day. Don’t even get me started. Everyone should see that film). Art, photography, plays and poems (Emily Dickinson’s where it’s at) all help to shape the world, and describe it in a way that our own minds cannot.

Tonight, I am going to a Harry Potter quiz. 14 years and infinite re-reads later, it’s still one of my favourites.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

A little doodle depicting one of my favourite quotes of all time …

*Attributed to C.S. Lewis in the film ‘Shadowlands’ — my lazy researching (by which I mean Googling) did not verify whether he actually said that.