The Time Machine – H.G.Wells

Book#797

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TTMThe Time Machine was first published in serial format in 1895 and was subsequently collated as a book.
This, to my embarrassment, is the very first of H.G.Wells’ works that I have read despite having seen many screen adaptations of his various stories since childhood.  It is a short work, my edition being 81 pages in total, and takes very little time to read.

The story starts with a weekly meeting of men over dinner in an unnamed scientist’s home.  Most of those attending are described by their profession.  The scientist himself is described as the Time Traveller.
The others are the narrator, who is never identified by name or profession; the Psychologist, the Provincial Mayor, the Medical Man, the Very Young Man, and a man called Filby. The discussion is about things scientific and especially the dimension of time.
One of the men states, “And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.” To which the Time Traveller replies, “My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave.”

As the conversation continues the Time Traveller then presents the men with a model – a metal framework containing ivory and crystal parts, the size of a small clock – which he proclaims to be his plan for a machine to travel through time. He then demonstrates it to the men, “We all saw the lever turn. I am absolutely certain there was no trickery. There was a breath of wind, and the lamp flame jumped. One of the candles on the mantel was blown out, and the little machine suddenly swung round, became indistinct, was seen as a ghost for a second, perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory; and it was gone – vanished!” After a small discussion the Time Traveller invites his guests to see the actual, full-sized, machine in his laboratory and states to the assembled group, “Upon that machine,” said the Time Traveller, holding the lamp aloft, “I intend to explore time. Is that plain? I was never more serious in my life.”

The men, unsurprisingly, are more than a little dubious of the scientist’s claims and leave for the night in varying senses of humour over the disappearing model and claims of the impending exploration of time.

The following Thursday evening the narrator travels again to Richmond and the home of the Time Traveller. By the time he arrives there are several fellows already present, the Medical Man, the Editor, the Psychologist, a quiet man and a certain journalist. The Time Traveller was absent but had left a note saying to begin without him should he not be there. Just as dinner is about to begin, in staggers a rough and tumble version of the Time Traveller, shocking those assembled. Like a good middle class Victorian, he throws back a couple of glasses of wine to revive himself and begs off to wash and dress for dinner. Upon his return he begins the remarkable tale of his journey to the future.

The journey takes him to the year 802,701 where he meets the “Eloi”, tiny and beautiful humans all alike.  He describes his experiences with the less enticing Morlocks. The story muses on the future of man and society, reflecting a late Victorian view of the rich and the poor or the upper and lower classes translated into a future decay. It also retains a measure of the adventure story about it; a brave traveller exploring new territory – in this case, the future – and despite the story aging it is still intriguing to follow the Time Traveller’s story to its end.

I found the novel to be incredibly easy to read.  Although by the end I thought perhaps he could and should have used the word “incontinently” a little less frequently. Also, naturally, over a century later many of the ideas are dated, but as an early science fiction story about time travel it is well written and certainly puts out the some initial ideas of utopia and even dystopia in the same small volume.

It is a quick and untaxing way to spend a few hours.

Happy reading!

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Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell

Book # 892
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published July 23, 2012)

CranfordIn the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple comes to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon. For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everyone’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient.

So begins Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. This opening nicely foreshadows what is to come, as Gaskell lightly and gently describes the country life of the women, and occasional men, in this small English town. It quickly emerges that the ladies of Cranford are nearly all in tight to dire financial straights, and while they are ever concerned about living in properly genteel ways, they also make aristocratic virtues of the extensive lengths to which they must go to economize.

After this promising opening passage, I briefly rolled my eyes and thought, “Really, another 19th century novel of manners?” But then I came to appreciate the features that make this novel unique, and began to agree with its place in all editions of the 1001 Books list. This is a novel that deals with social class in gentle and observant ways, which acknowledges the gossip and small town rivalries that are inevitable in a social microcosm, but which also celebrates a tremendous spirit of basic human kindness that does the ladies of Cranford proud.

There is a section toward the end of the book in which a bank fails, and the behavior of one of the ladies involved and victimized by the failure is a lesson in ethics from which we could only wish that modern bankers and financiers would learn. I came to love this little book, after my initial skepticism, and am glad for my general commitment to seeing (at least well-reviewed) books through to their conclusions.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

Book #918
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

Oliver TwistReading Oliver Twist was my first foray into the novels of Charles Dickens. I have vivid memories of lying in the sun at my parents’ house, reading the copy my mother had read when she was at school. It is fair to say that Oliver Twist was an excellent introduction to to the Dickensian world, and I have been a huge fan ever since.

If you haven’t yet read Oliver Twist, you will no doubt be familiar with it in its screen and stage adaptations. That famous scene where Oliver dares to ask for more gruel is etched in many memories as a poignant moment in a tragic tale.

In brief, Oliver Twist is a young orphan who finds himself journeying towards London. Along the way, he meets a young pickpocket (Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger) who tells of a place where he can get free board with a group of “gentlemen”. Oliver is an innocent, naive, good-hearted boy who often doesn’t see the true nature of people, and agrees to join Dawkins in London, where he finds himself surrounded by a host of delightfully-unsavoury characters. The leader of this group, Fagin, is a criminal with a devilish nature; he tricks and corrupts young men, and is often portrayed as shying from daylight, prayer and anything of a decent nature. Ultimately, the decency of Oliver’s character wins out, and we have a happy ending where good triumphs evil, but Dickens tells a very interesting story along the way.

He paints a very dramatic, miserable picture of poverty, unusual for a time when many writers glossed over the plight of the poor. The novel reflects on the effects of industrialism on the working classes of England, and states that many resorted to theft and crime in order simply to survive. However, Oliver’s character is different – he remains innocent and decent throughout the novel, regardless of the situations he finds himself in, and never resorts to the life of crime presented to him. He speaks properly, compared to the rest of the poor, and from the outset, I found myself hoping that better things would be in store for him.

I am a fan of Dickens’ writing style, and as I said earlier, this was the novel that cemented my love for his work. I enjoy his descriptive passages, the realism of his characters and their plights, and the interactions between them. He describes his characters so well, down to the last tic, that when I saw a local stage production of this a number of years ago, I was pleased to see the actor playing Fagin had adopted his mannerisms perfectly.

Passages such as:

The sun, – the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man – burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.

serve to create a powerful image as you read, and the novel is filled with such eloquent descriptions. There are, in true Dickens-fashion, moments of comedy, which serve to cut through the inherently sombre nature of the story:

“Bless their dear little hearts!” said Mrs. Mann with emotion, “they’re as well as can be, the dears! Of course, except the two that died last week.”

If you’ve never ventured to read anything by Charles Dickens, this would be my recommendation as the place to start. An incredibly good read, with a happy ending that sees good triumph over evil in that ultimate of symbolic and moral battles.

A well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars from me.

Thérèse Raquin – Émile Zola

Book # 864

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TRThérèse Raquin is the first of Émile Zola’s five entries on the 1001 Books list to be reviewed here and my first contact with his work.

As a novel it was first published in 1867 and it caused quite a scandal, which is unsurprising considering the subject matter.  It is apparently considered to be an example of naturalism, and there is plenty of detail to be had throughout my translation (the Penguin Classics edition).  I would be slightly dubious as to the true reality of the world described by Zola it has to be said, however.

The novel follows Thérèse Degans, a young woman who is brought back to France by her father Captain Degans in order to be raised by her over-bearing aunt, Mme Raquin.  She grows up in the company of her aunt and sickly cousin, Camille.

Thérèse grew up sleeping in the same bed as Camille and wrapped in the warm tenderness of her aunt.  She had an iron constitution and was treated like a sickly child, sharing her cousin’s medicine and kept in the warm atmosphere of the sick boy’s room.  She stayed for hours crouching in front of the fire, lost in thought, staring straight into the flames without blinking.  This convalescent life that was imposed on her drove her back into herself.

Mme Raquin eventually sells her small haberdashery business and retires to a little house by the water, which suits Thérèse’s nature but not Camille’s egotism.  Eventually Mme Raquin decides to marry Thérèse to Camille, feeling that her niece is the perfect person to take care of him as part sick nurse, part guardian angel.  The two children grow up with this idea as a foregone conclusion.
A week after they marry, Camille insists that they will move to Paris, thus upsetting his mother’s nicely planned out life of retirement.  But resilience wins through and Mme Raquin heads to Paris and buys a small and dingy haberdashery shop in the Passage du Pont-Neuf and the family duly move there.  Camille finds himself a place in the offices of the Orléans Railway Company and they begin their life in Paris.

The shop and apartment are where everything changes in Thérèse’s life, and this is foreshadowed in the description of it.

When Thérèse entered the shop where she was to spend her life from then on, she felt as though she were going into the clammy earth of a pit.  She shuddered with fear and a feeling of nausea rose in her throat.  She looked at the damp, dirty passageway, toured the shop, went up to the first floor and examined each room; these bare rooms, without furniture, were terrifyingly lonely and decrepit.

For three years she lives in a dank and dreary world.

Every week the family entertain old friends, and the head clerk from Camille’s office.  Then one week Camille brings with him “a tall, square-shouldered young fellow”, an old school friend from their time in Vernon.  Laurent is pretty much everything that Camille is not and catches Thérèse’s eye straight away.

Laurent amazed her: he was tall, strong and fresh-faced. She looked with a kind of awe at his low forehead with its rough black hair, at his plump cheeks, his red lips and his regular features with their sanguine beauty.

Unsurprisingly Thérèse enters into an adulterous affair with Laurent.  But that is only really the start of the story.

It was quite suspenseful and I found myself on the edge of my seat waiting for the inevitable moment of discovery.  It was a long wait.  It was a long, drawn-out wait.  There was lots of passion, hatred, madness and plenty of very evocative passages.  But it was a long, long, long piece of character description that could have done with a bit of editing down, in my opinion.

I enjoyed the translation that I read.  There were plenty of gems amongst the psychological observations of an adulterous affair gone wrong.  Especially the passages describing Laurent’s visits to the morgue.

One morning, he got a real fright.  For some minutes, he had been looking at a drowned man, short in stature and horribly disfigured.  The flesh of this body was so soft and decayed that the water running over it was taking it away bit by bit.  The stream pouring on the face was making a hole to the left of the nose.  Then, suddenly, the nose collapsed and the lips fell off, revealing white teeth.  The drowned man’s head broke into a laugh.

I hope I haven’t put you off your breakfast, lunch or dinner with that passage.  There are plenty more where that came from if I haven’t.

While I found this fairly short novel to be a bit too drawn out for my liking, it has not put me off reading more of Zola’s work.  The observations are interesting, if stretched out, and in a good translation the descriptiveness of his characters’ lives and environment are very well done.  I will definitely be seeking out the others on the list to see how they fare by comparison.  I think you would not be too disappointed if you did so too.

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Book #985
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

Moll FlandersWhen I began Moll Flanders, I thought I may have already read it for an English class at high school, but I soon realised that my semi-conservative all-girls school would have been hesitant about a novel about prostitution, bigamy and crime. Indeed, if the novel was known by its full title, it may cause more of a stir than it already does:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

What better plot summary can there be? Moll Flanders was indeed a prostitute and thief, numerous-times married (once, unknowingly, to her brother).

Moll’s mother is a convicted felon; shortly after Moll’s birth, her mother is transported to America, and Moll is raised by a kindly woman. She grows to be a beautiful young woman, and is seduced by a young man who promises they will be married; however, he has no intention of marrying her, and begins to leave money for Moll after each of their encounters. When he abandons her, she marries his younger brother, a sweet young man who truly loves her. He dies after a few years, and she quickly marries again; however, her new husband flees England as a fugitive from the law. Moll marries again and moves to America with her new husband, but discovers that he is actually her half-brother. She is horrified, and returns to England, where she becomes mistress of a man whose wife has gone insane. Their relationship ends after he experiences a religious epiphany of sorts, and she begins a relationship with a banker whose wife is cheating on him. Moll agrees to marry him if he will get a divorce; while awaiting his decision, she travels north and marries a rich gentleman, who turns out to have as little money as Moll. They discover each others “fraud” (having let everyone believe that each was very rich), and separate. Moll returns to marry her divorced lover, but he is poorly and dies soon after.

Moll is thrust back into a life supporting herself and soon becomes an expert thief with a reputation for being talented at her trade. Eventually she is caught and sentenced to death; in prison at Newgate, she is reunited with her “rich” husband, who has also been arrested. They are both transported to America, where they become plantation owners, and return to England in their old age, finally rich and successful.

This was a surprisingly easy read, although initially I struggled with the first-person female character being written by a man. The characters were colourful, believable and natural, while still a little larger-than-life – typical of the era, of course. I enjoyed Defoe’s plain, simple style, and his ability to create such strikingly vivid imagery of dark and dangerous nights without an overuse of literary elements.

There were many moments of darkness in the story, and that helped temper the slightly comic nature of Moll’s many relationships and marriages. Each step in her life was both tragic and exciting; as a reader, I found myself caught up in wondering just where she was taking me next. Interestingly, I found myself sympathising and celebrating with Moll more than chastising her; Defoe has created a strong character who, despite her lack of morals, is self-sufficient, strong and smart.

It frustrated me slightly that the entire novel was written as one chapter (called, rather cleverly, Chapter One); there were no natural pauses or breaks for finishing those late-at-night readings…my issue more than the novel’s! I thoroughly enjoyed Moll Flanders, and give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.