The Classics Club

Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Journey to the center of the earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, Kindle Edition, Dover,  1864, 240p.

3 stars.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is the first of Verne’s works that I’ve read, and although I enjoyed it, I won’t be running out to pick up another. I think because the ‘science’ that is used in this book is now so laughable, it doesn’t have that element of reality that I like in sci-fi or adventure novels.

There are plenty of things that I really enjoyed about Journey to the Center of the Earth, like all the talk of volcanoes. When I was younger, I was adamant on becoming a volcanologist. Sometimes to this day I regret the adults in child-me’s life for dissuading that career path. Yeah I know there’s no volcanoes in Australia. Do I care? Nope. It would have meant I got to travel. Anyway, I digress.

Journey takes the traditional adventure novel and pairs it with science fiction. The plot is essentially finding a way to the center of the earth, and then the journey to get there. What’s annoying is that the adventure is told in a narrative style, as having happened in the past. It leads to much of the story being told, not shown. There is little description, and hardly any build up to the thrilling parts. It’s not scary when you are told there was a rock slide – you need to have that rock slide described to you through illuminating words and description of what is actually happening to the characters. I suppose that means I’m not a big fan of Verne’s style in Journey, and I have a feeling that he continued in this same way in his other novels.

The characters were interesting, if a little sketchy. We had Professor Lidenbrock who I sometimes liked and other times loathed, and his nephew, the orphan Axel, who was the narrator for this story. I mostly hated Axel, I don’t like reading about cowardice in adventure novels, and Axel generally needed to be goaded into action and saved every twenty pages or so. Hans was my favourite character, but that could be because we know nothing about him. He was quite two dimensional, and I wanted to know more about him but was left hanging.

The ending was completely unbelievable, but the setting is somewhere I used to beg my Mum and Dad to take me during school holidays. They always said no. For good reason.

Overall, Journey to the Center of the Earth was not a complete waste of time to read, but it’s certainly not one of my favourite books. I’d advise fans of adventure and sci-fi novels give Journey a read, if only to see where their favoured genres have taken Verne’s work and made it their own.

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Review: Dispatches by Michael Herr

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Dispatches by Michael Herr, Picador Classics Paperback, 1977, p. 272.

5 stars.

It is really tough to review those books that touch you on such a deep level, change your thinking regarding a topic and leave you a different person. I read a lot of war and military themed fiction and non-fiction, and consider myself not an expert, but an enthusiast in this field. I had become jaded – since reading Matterhorn a couple of years ago, no war novel (covering a real life war) had come close to romancing me – and no non-fiction about war was as engaging anymore. Until I picked up Dispatches. It was a Classics Club Spin – and it just proves that sometimes you need a little encouragement to read books that might become favourites in the future.

I will try to offer my opinions and impressions of this book, but I can assure you that they will be childish, trivial and kitsch in comparison to the actual work reviewed. Dispatches starts with a chapter entitled “Breathing In” and as I started reading it I thought it was about literally breathing in the air in Vietnam. Herr uses the senses in exquisite ways to convey the story, and I just thought the chapter was alluding to that. Once I realised the final chapter was entitled “Breathing Out” I became sure that these chapters were in reference to death, and the writers’ brush with death and his survival. Dispatches talks about death in a unique fashion, treating it as a gruesome reality that is viewed by some as a spectator sport. It was only when I sat back and thought more about the book and the final chapter that it became clear that Herr was talking about things on a much grander scale, a much deeper scale, then I could fully appreciate.

The book holds its breath from the first page to the last – and it reflects the way that Herr sees his time in Vietnam.

He held his breath, and he ceased to exist outside of Vietnam, his time in the war there meant he had lived two different and completely disparate lives – the life ‘back home’ and the time in country, when he was holding his breath.

I also think it is in homage to the fact that the young men who were over in Vietnam stopped living as soon as they were in Vietnam, to the Americans at home they were fighting an unpopular war and were almost invisible – and soldiers deaths were often under-reported. They stopped living in the minds of their commanding officers, the brass and the politicians – they became bodies to be utilised in a grand-scale and ultimately doomed chess game. Most horrifying of all however, is that they stopped living in their own minds – Vietnam came to consume them, and for so many, death or serious injury was a welcome vacation away from their horrible reality, Herr describes more soldiers dealing with insanity and mental illness than soldiers processing their time healthily. Because in reality, how can you process a war such as Vietnam healthily?

Dispatches is not written from memories of a soldier’s time, Herr was a war correspondent who was sent to Vietnam for Esquire magazine. The soldiers don’t understand why he is there (he chose to be there, they were ordered), and it seems that the other correspondents working for the larger papers look down at him for writing for a ‘lesser’ publication. I just think that there is such an element of irony to Dispatches that most people won’t ever read those news reports sent back to the states (unless one is a historian, really) but Michael Herr’s novel is rightfully considered a classic and will be read by many generations in the future.

The introduction to this book, which I read after reading the book itself, is enlightening. Kevin Powers was a serving soldier in the U.S. Army when he read Dispatches in Iraq and while reading his very harrowing introduction, one his passages made clear to me why Dispatches is such a hard hitting book:

“What readers of Dispatches have is meaningful reportage about death. It is in my estimation the most lucid, resolute, and compassionate writing to have ever been done on the subject. It sets aside every manner of illusory thinking that would distract us as readers from the fact that war is in the simplest terms an industry of which death is the sole product.” p. ix

Dispatches is one of the best books about war I have ever read. (And I’ve read dozens, maybe even hundreds) It’s a firm favourite for me, and I will certainly be revisiting it in the future.

Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Wordsworth edition paperback, 1911, 117p.

4 stars.

I picked up this Wharton in the wrong season – sweltering through a series of 40C days in Australia while the cast of characters in Ethan Frome were freezing through snow and a general feeling of melancholy.

Ethan Frome is the first book by Edith Wharton that I have read, and I fell in love with the setting and the style of this novel. It is a great book that can transport you so fully to another place that you start to shiver – while sitting outside sweating buckets.

I felt like we got to experience the misery of these characters in step with the narrator, and I was as excited to get to the bottom of the story as he was. Ethan Frome, the titular character, is so delightfully enigmatic that unraveling the layers seems difficult at times, but overall rewarding.

I would be remiss to review this classic without mentioning the way that Wharton excels at creating isolation, depression and ruin through her style and setting. The setting gives away quite early in the book that there would be no happy ending, and to be perfectly honest, I would have been annoyed and angry if the author had tacked on a happy ending.

Characters in Ethan Frome are permitted to love, to have deep passions – but these are always curbed by society or nature – and that is a wonderful thing to read, in a dark depressing way.

I felt like I could have enjoyed Ethan Frome more if it was fleshed out into a fleshier novel, the novella length generally doesn’t satisfy me when there is so much potential for a good story.

I will pick up more works by Wharton in the future, and most likely will venture into Ethan Frome at a later date for a deeper, more critical reading.

The Revised Classics Club List

So, I have been looking at my old Classics Club List and come to the startling realisation that I will never achieve those goals! I also have neglected to review so many of the books I have read for the challenge. So here I am with a fresh shiny new Classics Club List. I’ve cut my list from 100 to 50. This time I am going to review all the books I read, and tag them separately so I can track my progress by how many reviews I have completed.

My goal completion date is 31st December, 2020. This is so far in the future, but I think I’m going to need the time! Anyway, onto the list!

  1. Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
  2. Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  3. The House of Mirth – Edith WhartonReview
  4. The Secret Agent – Joseph ConradReview
  5. Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
  6. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  7. Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
  8. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
  10. Agnes Grey – Anne BronteReview
  11. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  12. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  13. Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules VerneReview
  14. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  15. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  16. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne – Review
  17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  18. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
  19. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  20. What Maisie Knew – Henry James
  21. The Awakening – Kate ChopinReview
  22. Heart of Darkness – Joseph ConradReview
  23. Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton Review
  24. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
  25. Night and Day – Virginia Woolf
  26. The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
  27. The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind
  28. Vile Bodies – Evelyn WaughReview
  29. North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
  30. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
  31. The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett
  32. A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
  33. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  34. The Scarlett Plague – Jack LondonReview
  35. White Fang – Jack London
  36. Out of Africa – Isak Dineson
  37. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  38. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  39. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen – BorowskiReview
  40. The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
  41. Casino Royale – Ian Fleming
  42. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  43. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  44. My Brilliant Career – Miles FranklinReview
  45. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote
  46. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  47. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  48. Generals Die in Bed – Charles Yale Harrison
  49. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  50. Dispatches – Michael HerrReview

Has anyone else had to revise their lists or cut them down so drastically?