Friday, 2 December 2016

Book #68

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

A classic story of friendship between man and beast. Saved from the jaws of the evil tiger Shere Khan, young Mowgli is adopted by a wolf pack and taught the law of the jungle by lovable old Baloo the bear and Bhageera the panther. The adventures of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the snake-fighting mongoose, little Toomai and the elephant's secret dance, and Kotick the white seal are all part of Mowgli's extraordinary journey with his animal friends.

I, alongside many others, have only until this point based my entire knowledge of The Jungle Book on the Disney adaptation. In the present day, I doubt that's anything to be ashamed of, but I'm ashamed nonetheless. Having now successfully traversed my way through Kipling's jungle, I am delighted (albeit initially disappointed) to report that it's a collection of jungle stories, rather than a novel. I wanted more Mowgli, but the trade-off was worth it.

Much darker than Disney, Kipling teaches us of friendship, courage, loyalty, and rules, in the form of short stories and poetry. I was surprised at the depth Kipling gave to his stories, and this only made it all the more enjoyable. Most of all, his jungle social commentary is on point, and still resonates today with certain personalities or groups.

Mowgli and all his well known friends star only in the first three chapters. It was wonderful to see Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa, and all of the others again, and to share in Mowgli's adventures in the jungle. Kaa was a good guy, the wolves are sometimes bad guys, and Shere Khan actually gets what's coming to him. Learning the laws of the jungle was brilliant, and Kipling did a good job ensuring his animals remained as animals; not behaving like humans, and having thought processes particular to their species; the monkey behaviours were my favourite of all in this respect.

My favourite story of them all was that of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. What a badass mongoose that guy is. Taken in by humans after their son falls in love with him, the bold RTT makes it his mission to kill off anything that threatens his new family; mainly the two arsehole snakes that live in the garden. Kipling gives us a mongoose vs snake battle royale; suspenseful, horrific, and somewhat delectable, I was absolutely engrossed with it.

A gorgeous collection of adventures written with style, profundity, and charm. And I will repeat (as it can only be a good thing), darker than Disney.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book #67

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov perfected the short story, as shown in these three moving miniature dramas of love, dread, and lies.

These three short stories were excellent. All touching on humanity's quest for happiness, the importance we place on love, and the ability we have to deceive each other; they were stirring, and quite impressive.

The Kiss was definitely my favourite. In a darkened room, a soldier is kissed by a woman mistaking him to be her lover. The joy this brings to the soldier is immeasurable, and he begins to invent situations in his head, of love and marriage, despite never having seen the face the kiss belonged to. He is soon plunged into an melancholy, as he realises the scenes he's created in his mind will never come to pass. His feelings are beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, and Chekhov's commentary on the fatalities optimism and hope can bring, is devastating.

The Two Volodyas tells of Sophia, who married for money. Meeting an old friend who, despite a prior life of immorality, has converted to life in a convent, she mourns the friend's loss of life, living in an oppressed and dull dungeon. Soon after the meeting, she begins to realise her own life is much the same, and she reverts to affairs and debauchery, understanding her greed has not brought her happiness.

Gooseberries is absolutely the most dismal of the three. A man tells the story of his brother, whose life's ambition was to live in the country in a grand house surrounded by gooseberry bushes. Once he has achieved this goal, the man visits his brother and becomes aggrieved at the superiority of his happiness. This being told, the narrator pontificates on the meaning of happiness - how can one be happy when so many others around the world are suffering? To be happy, we must shut out the misfortunes of others, and pretend they don't exist. It's thought-provoking; the brother worked hard all his life in order to pursue his dream, now he has it, he should not be allowed to enjoy it because of the world's sufferings. Can he single-handedly stop these sufferings, however? He can't. So should he be allowed to be happy, despite the deprivation of others which he's unable to control? Such questions.

It reminds me of the feeling that occurs when something traumatic happens in our lives. After the loss of a loved one, you see others carrying on with their lives in the same way as they usually do. You wonder how they can be do audacious as to do so; you cannot believe they're completely unaware of the grief you're experiencing. How dare they?

An excellent first experience of Chekhov; his commentary on the human condition is timeless, as is his ability to relate the complexities of life. I found this is to be another success story of the Little Black Classics range, and long may it continue.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Book #66

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

When Alice steps through the looking-glass, she enters a world of chess pieces and nursery rhyme characters who behave very strangely. Humpty Dumpty, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the dotty White Knight and the sharp-tempered Red Queen - none of them are what they seem. In fact, through the looking-glass, everything is distorted.

I'm sure a huge number of us, as children, have wondered what's on the other side of the mirror. Is it a world where everything is opposite, or is it something else entirely? Does the entire world mirror our own, or does the area just outside of our view hold something completely different? Carroll once again taps into the inner curiosities of our younger friends, and delivers another illogical, yet captivating, tale of Alice's adventures.

The world through the looking glass is infinitely more complex than Wonderland. Alice is given a clear route to follow here, which reads like more of a quest than her wanderings through Wonderland ever could. Although the characters she met in Wonderland could never be described as friendly, most of those through the looking glass have something not quite right about them; whether disdain, an agenda, or something else ticking under the surface, I couldn't quite make my mind up.

Carroll's word play here is twice as fascinating as it was in Alice, and our girl's frustration at being mocked for the words she uses is absolutely delightful. Most of the characters Alice meets here regale her with some form of poetry or song, all peppered with nonsense. My favourite of these is The Walrus and the Carpenter, a macabre sort of poem which sends Alice into a flurry of confusion as to which of the two is the biggest villain, and to whom she should apportion the most blame, as though that's of any importance. The poem itself can be broken down into all sorts of interpretations, mainly religious, however I love it for exactly what it is: an act of evil coaxing in order to satisfy a hunger. Ponder that.

Although I didn't prefer it to Wonderland, I definitely laughed more here. There were some excellent characters, and some excellent moments that will no doubt continue to live on in my memory. I'll leave you with my favourite:

"And when I found the door was shut, I tried to turn the handle, but-"
There was a long pause.
'Is that all?' Alice timidly asked.
'That's all', said Humpty Dumpty. 'Goodbye.'

Friday, 25 November 2016

Book #65

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

On an ordinary summer's afternoon, Alice tumbles down a hole and an extraordinary adventure begins. In a strange world with even stranger characters, she meets a rabbit with a pocket watch, joins a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and plays croquet with the Queen. Lost in this fantasy land, Alice finds herself growing more and more curious by the minute.

Everyone knows this story, so I won't insult anyone's intelligence by trying to explain it all to you. Undoubtedly, the characters of the Disney film will be imprinted in your memory, making it entirely impossible to imagine the characters of Wonderland looking any different to how they were drawn for that. Unlike many book to film nightmares I've experienced, this phenomenon only created a sense of nostalgia, rather than frustration, when coursing my way through the pages.

Children's literature is a difficult feat. I've written before my thoughts on young readers' minds, and their capacity to hold, enjoy, and interpret so much more than many authors think them capable of. It's a real shame to place in front of them a novel that deals only with trivialised and dumbed down accounts of life. It's even worse to give them a story which only holds loud, patronising, and obvious moral messages in an attempt to make them a good person.

Carroll understood this. In Alice, he gives us a complex and confusing world which children will have to wrap their minds around. He gives us illogical nonsense within its pages, which will fill the readers with complete awe and (no pun intended) wonder. The colourful characters, their ridiculous reasoning, and the pace of Alice's adventures, have no doubt kept kids gripped for years.

Despite its renown for being a children's classic, there are many important sections to analyse here for adults. Admittedly, there's no real need to, as the story is wonderful on its own, but it's great to understand Carroll's hints towards growing up, politics, the law, and the monarchy. He gives us a clean exacted prose littered with word play and language twists, which, although entirely uninteresting to children, will cause the wordy adults amongst us to giggle with joy.

Yeah, he liked a bit of the old opium, as evidenced by the caterpillar smoking hookah on a magic mushroom, but thinking DRUGS whenever Wonderland is mentioned means discounting its merits. Carroll has created a story which transcends time, and has remained in our minds since the 19th century. Drugs, though.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Book #64

The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen

A selection of Austen's dark and hilarious early writings - featuring murder, drunkenness, perjury, theft, poisoning, women breaking out of prison, men forging wills and babies biting off their mothers' fingers.

This is quite possibly my favourite instalment so far in the Little Black Classics range. I could read Austen until the end of the time, and have quite an irrevocable love for her. To be able to read a collection of short stories she wrote as a teenager, which were never meant to be published and were only written for her own amusement, alongside that of her family and friends, was a complete treat for me.

They are not the Austen we are used to; they don't involve important satirical social commentary, nor do they come across as affected by love as some of her later works. They are somewhat hilarious and provoking little clips of fun, that glaringly show Austen's talent was within her from an early age. Her spelling in places is incredibly askew, and Penguin's decision to leave these unedited portray a gorgeous picture of the naive author. I loved it.

It's so easy to imagine a young Austen amusing herself by writing these, and giggling along to herself as she came up with more scandal and shock to surprise her family. She has her characters behave in ways which would be thoroughly condemned in her time, and this mischievousness is completely loveable.

Lastly, as I probably say in every Austen review, she resonates today with her empathy for women's emotion, as clearly shown in the title of the final story:

What a woman.