Review of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus

What was it about?

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins with a series of letters between a man named R. Walton and his sister, Margaret, in which the former describes his desire to explore the North Pole. This young explorer is hungry for knowledge. He may not be an intellectual, but he has a “love for the marvellous, a belief in the marvellous, intertwined in all [his] projects, which hurries [him] out of the common pathways of men.”

His ship sets out from St. Petersburg, Russia and is well on its way, when Captain Walton spots on the ice a man who is clearly on the brink of death. The man is quickly brought on deck where the sailors try to save his life. But the man has a pressing question. Had the captain seen a large creature on a dog sled? The man was in pursuit of this creature, and Walton notices that he is more distressed by its escape than by his present condition. Walton tells his friend about the expedition and his insatiable desire to master the elements. But instead of being impressed, the man howls that Walton is no better than himself – greedy, selfish, and mad. The captain is surprised that his friend doesn’t share his excitement for the expedition.

After a few letters, suddenly, the nature of the letters changes, and instead of describing his personal journey to the North Pole, Walton sends his sister a detailed account of the mysterious man’s life. This man is Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist who, not unlike Walton, had an insatiable desire for knowledge. At the University of Ingolstadt in Germany, Frankenstein studied chemistry and aimed to impress his professors. He also had a dream to create a living, breathing human being. For two years, Frankenstein isolated himself from his family and friends and cared for nothing but the success of his dream project. One night, Frankenstein finally managed to create intelligent life. But this creature was nothing like the one the scientist had dreamed of creating. The creature Victor created was a monster who followed his creator all over the Earth, leaving death and horror in its wake.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you hear of Frankenstein’s monster? Do you think of a grunting brute, arms straight out, with a walk like a zombie’s? This may be the monster in film adaptations, but this is not the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s monster reads classical works, listens to music, and appreciates the beauty of the natural world. Except for his appearance, Victor’s creation is not much different from a human person. It is because of his resemblance to man that the monster is such a relatable and pitiful creature. The monster desires love, but he is a hideous figure. No one, not even his creator, gives him the love he craves. Love is a basic human need that the creature, through no fault of his own, is not allowed to experience. The monster is a victim of his circumstances. There is so much responsibility that comes with being a creator, and Victor finds, to his horror, that he cannot accept the responsibility. However reasonable the request may sound, Victor cannot convince himself to do the monster’s will. Although the cover of my edition has a picture of the fiend, Victor’s creature does its damage backstage, so to speak. It only appears a handful of times in the story, but from the shadows, it destroys so many lives.

Although the plot was predictable with a slow, drawn out ending, the questions explored in Frankenstein are more relevant than ever.  So many scientists want to understand life. There have been many attempts to create primitive life in vitro. All attempts have failed thus far, but there is a constant hunger for knowledge and the mastery of life in the scientific community – a hunger that may well be unhealthy and disastrous. The central theme in Frankenstein is the responsibility of a creator toward his/her creation. Victor never considered the consequences of creating such a unique being. He was so wrapped up in the objective world that he lost sight of the things that really matter – love, friendship, and family. I am convinced that there is a great need for bioethics in the medical and scientific world.

Favorite Quote

[M. Waldman, a professor at the University of Ingolstadt, ends his lecture on modern chemistry]: “‘The ancient teachers of this science,’ said he, ‘promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know the metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”


7 Storytelling Pet Peeves

Below are a few of my storytelling pet peeves:

1) When magic saves characters. If magic is a normal part of the world the author has created, magic rules should be explained and then not breached to save a character’s life.

2) When characters seemingly come back to life. Unless resurrection is a major theme in the story, characters should die when it is reasonable for them to do so. That is my greatest criticism of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf should have died on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

3) When female characters are sweet, precious angels. I am speaking to YOU, Johanna Spyri (author of Heidi), Charles Dickens, and Eleanor Porter (author of Polyanna).

4) When there is religious stereotyping. As a Catholic, this irks me to no end. Not all priests are awful people. Not all monks are assassins. Not every historical fiction novel set in Medieval Europe needs to have lovely Catholic characters, but I have met a few good Catholic priests. They exist.

5) When the Virgin can’t wait to be “sexually liberated”. This bothers me a lot. I know that sex sells, and that people have sex, but once in a while I’d like to read a book in which a female or male character chooses to be or is OK with being celibate.

6) When the single or married (but always female) secretary becomes de facto a love interest. This bothers me because I see it as a misogynistic trope. Why are secretaries always hit on by their bosses? Why do authors assume that a secretary wants to get into her boss’s pants?  Why are secretaries always female? Geesh. This needs to stop.

7) When there are glaring historical inaccuracies in a historical fiction work. The word “historical” is in the name of the genre for a reason.

What are your storytelling pet peeves?


Other Places Where You Can Find Me #socialnetworking

I joined the dark side a few months ago and bought a Kindle (which I love immensely). I have now made matters worse by creating a Facebook page (Exploring Classics) for my blog and by deciding to be more active on Twitter (@FaribaKanga). I know. This is inexcusable behavior. But many bookish folk are on Twitter and my Facebook friends are probably tired of seeing near-daily book reviews and reflections in their news feed (they do not all share our enthusiasm for the classics).

Feel free to indulge in these new amenities if they so interest you. 🙂  I will do more than post reviews, so stay tuned…

Review of The View from Saturday

What was it about?

Mrs. Eva Marie Olinski has chosen four students from her sixth grade class to participate as a team in the Academic Bowl. The students – Nadia, Noah, Ethan, and Julian – call themselves The Souls, and become the first sixth graders ever to win the Bowl at Epiphany Middle School. But when asked how she chose the team members, Mrs. Olinksi can’t give a good reason. Mrs. Olinski doesn’t really know why she chose those particular students.

Izzy Diamondstein, Nadia’s grandfather, has recently married Ethan Potter’s grandmother, Margaret Draper, at Century Village, a retirement community in Florida. Shortly before the wedding, Nadia’s mother obtains a divorce from Allen Diamondstein, Izzy’s son. As part of the divorce agreement, Nadia visits her father in Florida during the summer holidays. During one of these summers, Nadia meets Ethan who reluctantly tells  her that, after the divorce, Grandmother Margaret had found Nadia’s mother a job at a dentist office in New York. The dentist is the father of Noah Gershom, the boy who was best-man at the Diamondstein-Draper wedding. Although Nadia, Noah, and Ethan are related by familial ties, they do not become friends until they meet Julian Singh, an Indian boy who was educated in England but is now a new student at Epiphany Middle School.

The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg tells the story of four sixth graders whose personal experiences have equipped them to win the Academic Bowl. While the events of Bowl Day are told in the third person omniscient, every other chapter is told from the perspective of one of the students. The novel’s unique narrative style allows the reader to learn about the students’ personalities and stories from the students’ own perspectives.

What did I think of it?

The narrative style really sucked me in. Some of the children jump from thought to thought which can be hard for an adult reader to follow, but it would not do for the story to be told in an adult voice. Children do not speak in highfalutin language. In an interview, E.L. Konigsburg explained how she decided on the writing style for her book. She said, “I thought children would enjoy meeting one character, and then two characters, and that they would enjoy seeing parts of the story repeated but in a different way. I thought that they would enjoy having the second character interact with the first character, with each story moving the general story along. And I had hoped that readers would feel very satisfied with themselves when they had it all worked out.”

My favorite chapter was the one told from Nadia’s perspective. A Divorce  is always complicated. Two people who were once in love no longer want to share a life together. Nadia resents the fact that no one ever consults her about anything. She feels like nothing more than a clause in a divorce agreement. It is refreshing to read a book in which divorce is seen through a child’s perspective. While divorce is not a major plot element in the story, Nadia’s reactions to her father and grandparents were powerful and memorable.

Admittedly, the plot is very predictable, but as I wrote on Goodreads,  we all need to read a feel-good story once in a while. We all need a story that embodies the values we hold dear. The View from Saturday does just that. It celebrates diversity, equality, and respect. Because of the values it promotes and because of its unique narrative style, I am glad that The View from Saturday won the Newbery Medal in 1997.

Favorite Quote

[Ethan]: “The way I see it, the difference between farmers and suburbanites is the difference in the way we feel about dirt. To them, the earth is something to be respected and preserved, but dirt gets no respect. A farmer likes dirt. Suburbanites like to get rid of it. Dirt is the working layer of earth, and dealing with dirt is as much a part of farm life as dealing with manure. Neither is user-friendly but both are necessary.”  

 This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

Moby-Dick Read-Along: The Power of the Color White

f8f13084-5301-4dd4-afdb-dcc0d7e9bd4f_zpsce6462f4I am a bit behind in Moby-Dick, but I am really enjoying the book. Because this is a very dense work, I don’t want to race through it. There are so many beautiful and insightful passages. In a series of passages, Ishmael reflects on the color white. He wonders why the white whale incites so much fear in sailors. More generally, he wonders why the color white makes people feel so uncomfortable. Below is one such passage:

“Is it that by [white’s] indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of the annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge  – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt.” 

Pinwheel Galaxy. Image: European Space Agency & NASA

Pinwheel Galaxy. NASA and Space Telescope Science Institute, 2006.

The best way to analyze this passage is to break it up. I am convinced that the major point Ishmael is making here is that the color white makes people feel uncomfortable because it represents the truth about the world and about themselves. Because it is the base of all color and also “the visible absence of color”, white represents divinity and infinity. Infinity, like the Milky Way galaxy, is at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. I know that when I see pictures of space from the Hubble Space Telescope, I feel uncomfortable. I realize how infinitely small I am. I realize that I am not at the center of the universe.

I don’t exactly understand what Melville means by the “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink”. He is certainly juxtaposing opposites to make a point about the mysterious power of the color white. White is the essence of everything but it is also emptiness, annihilation. Color is just a facade. The “wretched infidel” experiences discomfort before a white landscape because it gives him a sense of uncertainty. Maybe the “wretched infidel” here refers more particularly to Captain Ahab who is hard-bent on killing Moby-Dick. His hatred of the white whale consumes him. The whale haunts him. I think Ishmael is suggesting that Ahab hates the whale because it reminds him of his mortality. By dismembering Ahab, Moby-Dick challenged Ahab’s feeling of superiority. Ahab must destroy the whale to win back his dignity.

I feel, though, that there is something missing in my interpretation. The harpoonists are all men of color. So, maybe Ishmael is making some sort of racial commentary here. This may be a bit far-fetched, but it is possible that Ishmael thinks that the reason for racial prejudices lies in the belief that people of color are in some way tainted.

What do you all think? If you are currently reading Moby-Dick, what is your interpretation of the passages on the color white?

Summer Reading Plan – I’m Going On An Adventure

This summer, I am going on an adventure. No, don’t worry! I am not going on a physical journey but on many literary journeys. Below is a list of books that I plan to read this summer. I may or may not get to them all, but that’s OK. I just want to go on an adventure, and I have chosen these books because the characters go on adventures.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (I’m currently reading this for a read-along)

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

A few Jules Verne novels (read in French, of course)

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Louis Carroll

Are there other books that I should have included in my list? 

Review of The Maltese Falcon

What was it about?

Private Investigator Samuel Spade has a new client. Miss Wonderly wants Spade’s help to find her sister Corinne who has run off  to New York with a man named Floyd Thursby. Thursby will be arriving at the St. Mark’s hotel at 8 pm this very night, and she is afraid that Thursby will attack her. Spade informs Miss Wonderly that his partner Miles Archer will accompany her to the hotel to spy on Thursby.

Early the next morning, Samuel Spade receives a call from the Police Detective Tom Polhaus. Miles Archer has been found dead with a loaded revolver in his pocket. An automatic revolver was laying near him. Tom believes that this is the revolver that was used to kill Miles. Shortly after returning home from the crime scene, Spade receives another call, this time from Lieutenant Dundy. Floyd Thursby has been found dead, shot in the back before entering the St. Mark’s hotel. Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus blame Spade for Miles’ and Thursby’s deaths. It doesn’t seem like a very far fetched conclusion to make. It is no secret that Spade hated Miles. On top of that, he was in love with Miles’ wife, Iva. Iva even blames Spade for her husband’s death. But Spade denies having anything to do with the murders.

Spade is convinced that Miss Wonderly has been lying to him. Finally, after much interrogation, Miss Wonderly, whose real name is Brigid O’Shaugnessy, admits to having lied to Sam about her sister. Sam isn’t surprised by this revelation. She had paid the detectives too much to spy on Thursby.

Sam receives another client in his office. Joel Cairo is looking for a certain falcon statuette, and he is willing to pay five thousand dollars to get his hands on it. Spade agrees to help Cairo, but he secretly has his suspicions. Maybe the murders of Floyd Thursby and Miles Archer are somehow connected to this falcon – this Maltese falcon.

What did I think of it?

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was a fast-paced and fascinating detective novel. Spade is a very typical fictional private detective. He is brilliant, self-interested, and a womanizer. Because of these characteristics, he is a great literary detective; Spade has the ability to think like a criminal. He also works alone. Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus want Spade to share what he knows with them. When he doesn’t, the police think that their colleague is complicit in the murders. The Maltese Falcon is suspenseful but humorous, a great summer read.

Favorite Quote

[Brigid O’Shaugnessy]: “I’m eighty years old, incredibly wicked, and an iron-molder by trade. But if it’s a pose it’s one I’ve grown into, so you won’t expect me to drop it entirely, will you?”