Classic

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Date of Publication: 1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Number of Pages: 211

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

Review: Having only very vague memories of reading this as a child, I was pleasantly surprised this second time around. I immediately fell in love with the Murry family, especially oddball Meg, who seemed to be a mirror image of myself as an awkward adolescent. This story is completely enchanting, from the very beginning, and L’Engle’s writing totally drew me into her world. I found myself tearing up at certain, heartbreaking moments in the story (I don’t want to give anything away). Also, I found that reading it as an adult allowed me to grasp the writer’s philosophical theme. Normally, I steer clear of books with heavy Christian overtones (my one exception being The Lord of the Rings), but L’Engle masterfully weaves together science and spirituality. This is not, by strict definition, a “Christian” book. Jesus is mentioned only once as being one of many people from Earth who have battled evil throughout human history. And it somehow delightful that the most pious characters in the story are the aliens of the planet Ixchel. The three Mrs. Ws (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which) act as guardian angels (and are referred to as such by Calvin), and various mythological names and beings make appearances throughout the story, a further demonstration of the un-religious (as in specific, organized religions) spiritual theme of the book.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that teaches. It teaches the importance of love, as both a simple emotion and as a weapon against great evil. It teaches the importance of trust, as the children’s trust, in each other and in those around them, is repeatedly tested and shaken. And it teaches that the simple pleasures of family, friends, good food, and good health are all that are needed to live a good life.

I recommend this book both to children and adults, as it has lessons and delights for people of all ages.

Rating: 10/10

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics

Number of Pages (including notes): 268

Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.

Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:

I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”

The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.

Rating: 10/10

Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 1927 (my edition: 2000, Tuttle Classics)

Number of Pages: 141

Description: A mental patient tells his doctors about an adventure he had with the Kappas, known to most Japanese people as mythological creatures who drag children into rivers to drown them. The madman, known as Patient No. 23, tells a remarkable story, of Kappas and Kappaland, Kappa government, Kappa philosophy, Kappa friendships, Kappa culture, and the Kappa’s link to our own human world.

Review: This is an enchanting story, mostly because it doesn’t try to be. The narrator tells the story of his life with the Kappas very matter-of-factly, which is what allows readers to suspend their natural disbelief and accept the reality of Kappaland and its inhabitants. Kappas are as different from each other as humans. Some are shy, some are arrogant, some are friendly, and all are unique. The lone human is accepted into their world readily, and they are all eager to teach him about their world. He is given lessons on Kappa philosophy, Kappa culture and literature, and Kappa relationships. He befriends several of the creatures, experiences loss, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with what at first seemed like a utopia under the ground.

Most people are familiar with Akutagawa’s other works, such as Rashomon, but Kappa is a wonderful place to start if you are unfamiliar with Japanese literature. I enjoyed every page of this book, and recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales and modern adventure stories. Although the narrator is presented as a madman, it’s really left up to the reader to decide if his experience was a dream, or if it really happened. And if it did, could it happen to you?

Rating: 10/10

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

Rating: 10/10

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Date of Publication: 1926 (my edition: 2001, Cold Springs Press)

Number of Pages: 239

Synopsis (from back cover): Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the small country Dorimare, is a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin beyond the Debatable Hills to the west of Lud-in-the-Mist, in Fairyland. In the days of Duke Aubrey, some centuries earlier, fairy things had been looked upon with reverence, and fairy fruit was brought down the Dapple and enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. But after Duke Aubrey had been expelled from Dorimare by the burghers, the eating of fairy fruit came to be regarded as a crime, and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. Now, when his son Ranulph is believed to have eaten fairy fruit, Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds himself looking into old mysteries in order to save his son and the people of his city.

Review: This is a very delightful story, and one that meets every reader’s expectations of what should happen. In terms of good versus evil, right versus wrong, innocent versus guilty, every expectation is met. One may think that this sort of predictability would make the story dull and stale, but in fact, it elevates the story to a higher plane.

One of the most important themes in Lud-in-the-Mist is the unreality of our reality. Life is a story that we have control over. If we have control, why shouldn’t the innocent be vindicated and the guilty punished? Mirrlees points out, rather uncomfortably, that we has humans choose to believe in what we believe in, but nothing is at all certain. Is Fairyland a myth, or is our all-important belief in Law and Order actually a myth? Our hold on reality is tenuous at best, and in order to regain control, sometimes we must choose to believe in things once cast aside, which is exactly what Nathaniel Chanticleer does.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wrote the foreword to Lud-in-the-Mist writes that this book “is, most of all, a book about reconciliation – the balancing and twining of the mundane and the miraculous.” Mirrlees achieves this balancing act superbly, and she deserves a much higher place among the ranks of modern fantasy writers. I recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, or to anyone looking for a great story that helps to disrupt the monotony of daily life.

One warning: the Cold Springs Press edition, which is the most common, is fraught with typos. Please be patient when reading.

Rating: 8/10

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Date of Publication: 1848 (my edition, 2001, W.W. Norton & Co.)

Number of Pages: 385

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): Having grown up an orphan in the home of her cruel aunt and at a harsh charity school, Jane Eyre becomes an independent and spirited survivor—qualities that serve her well as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him whatever the consequences or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving her beloved?

Review: Charlotte Brontë skillfully weaves together a memorable study of a woman’s life, from childhood to adulthood, and of the unique challenges she faces. Jane Eyre is a wholly unprotected young woman, forced to make her way in the world in the only position she can respectfully acquire: that of a governess. Brontë herself was a governess and understood the distinct misery such a situation can cause. A governess in the Victorian age was a woman in social limbo: she was held to be above the station of the servants, meaning she was not accepted into their society (it would appear insultingly condescending on her part), and yet underneath the status of the family, who would shun her. A governess was one of the loneliest women in the world. Luckily for Jane Eyre, she is welcomed into the limited society at Thornfield and is even held in affection by her young French pupil. However, her world is turned upside-down upon the return of Mr. Rochester to his home. The bond between the tortured master and his young, inexperienced governess is strong and immediate, and the passion that grows between them is inevitable and consuming.

I would not dream of spoiling the delicious mystery and dramatic plot by saying much more. One can easily get carried away when discussing this book. I will say, however, that the book is beautifully written, if somewhat preachy, and the characters themselves are remarkably believable. No one is perfect in this book. Mr. Rochester is domineering, Jane herself is a little too morally strict for modern tastes, and many of the other characters, most notably St. John Rivers, have obvious flaws. This all combines to make the story, which is fiercely romantic, much more accessible than it otherwise could have been. I believe that any reader of both Victorian literature and modern romances and mysteries will enjoy this enduring classic.

Rating: 10/10

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Date of Publication: 1850 (my edition: 1959, Grosset & Dunlap)

Number of Pages: 850

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): David Copperfield is the story of a young man’s adventures on his journey from an unhappy and impoverished childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters he encounters are his tyrannical stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; his formidable aunt, Betsey Trotwood; the eternally humble yet treacherous Uriah Heep; frivolous, enchanting Dora; and the magnificently impecunious Micawber, one of literature’s great comic creations. In David Copperfield—the novel he described as his “favorite child”—Dickens drew revealingly on his own experiences to create one of his most exuberant and enduringly popular works, filled with tragedy and comedy in equal measure.

Review: This is, by far, my favorite Dickens novel. But it’s not the hero so much that I love, although David is an extraordinary hero, it’s the myriad other characters that drift in and out of his life. This is the true magic of this book. David himself is steady, upright, passionate, proud, and sincere; all qualities a good hero needs. He fulfills his duty admirably. But the secondary characters are the ones that shine through. There is the tyrannical Murdstone, David’s domineering stepfather; Uriah Heep, a fawning law clerk who professes his own “‘umbleness”, but who really seeks to attain power over all others; the relentlessly ruined and cheerful Mr. Micawber, who is one of the greatest comedic characters in all of literature; Agnes, the angel who watches over David with sincere disinterestedness; and Traddles, the constant and steady companion who thinks nothing of himself and everything of his friends. These are only a few of the memorable cast of characters that David encounters throughout his eventful life.

This is truly one of the great classics of the Victorian age. Besides these entertaining characters, the story delves into some of the most disturbing social issues of the nineteenth century: child labor, debt, emigration, crime, debauchery, and class struggles. Woven within the complex story is an evocative landscape which ranges from the quiet countryside, to the bustle of London, and even to a wild and rugged seaport. Dickens succeeded in all aspects of storytelling: plot, characters, and setting are all developed to perfection. It’s hard to praise this book too highly, and it deserves its place among the great classics. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone…and, indeed, I have!

Rating: 10/10