Wednesday Quote: Souls

G. K. Chesterton at work

“I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”

A great Chesterton quote from a book of his I’ve yet to read (What I Saw in America).  It is easy enough to view people through the narrow lens of our interactions with them, but to view them in the context of their own life story is another thing.

She – A Classic, or a Trendy Tale of Obsession?

John William Godward - Atalanta

If the title brings to mind a song by the classic tenor Charles Aznavour, you wouldn’t be far off from the theme of H. Rider Haggard‘s book.  The song’s tender, yet at times worshipful lyrics could be one way to describe the “spell” which She, Ayesha, inspires in those who are privileged (or cursed) to look upon her unveiled face.  As might be expected, those who do so find their lives bound to hers, and, like a drug, she compels them to love her, in spite of her unpleasant ways.

But let’s start at the beginning.  It’s the late 19th century, and young Leo Vincey learns from his adoptive father Horace Holly that he is heir to a special family heirloom, comprised chiefly of an ancient piece of pottery.  The pottery is covered in writing, which tells a grim tale of Leo’s ancient ancestor, Kallikrates, being lusted after and then murdered by a mysterious, white sorceress, who lives in Africa.  Kallikrates’ wife urges her descendants to seek out Ayesha and avenge their father.  Leo, evidently finding life in Cambridge too safe for his liking, decides to go to Africa and see if there’s any truth in the story.  Holly and Job, like the good friends they are, agree to accompany him.

She caverns

What follows is an adventure that is both bizarre and, at times, humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally).  On the one side, you have a classic premise of a search for lost treasure – in this case, lost revenge – and on the other hand, there’s a reverse Sleeping Beauty twist, in which an innocent prince is to be “awoken” by a wicked witch.  This rather unique premise seemed like a good idea for a story, but personally I found its execution to be lacking, both in terms of content and message as well as in the somewhat pedestrian writing style.

In spite of its flaws, Haggard’s novel and the fierce title character influenced both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who would later create their own “queen” characters not dissimilar to Ayesha.  Fortunately for us, the less savory aspects of She – including its dated handling of race, class, and female characters – were either greatly reduced or replaced in those later works, particularly in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  For more on that (and some other fun facts), please check out my latest podcast episode on Classics Considered, which goes into it in detail.

Overall, I would give She 2.5 out of 5 stars; it’s interesting in a historical and literary context, but not a must-read.  For a stronger “lost world” novel, I’d recommend The Lost World (surprise!) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

She…Who Must Be Obeyed! – Episode 11

An ancient family heirloom – and a mother’s call for vengeance – sends young Leo Vincey and his adoptive father on a quest to find a mysterious sorceress, Ayesha, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.  In this episode, I review H. Rider Haggard’s She, a novel which influenced the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

Sources / Further Reading:
How to Pronounce Ayesha? (Sci-Fi StackExchange discussion)
Biography of H. Rider Haggard
“The Annexation of the Transvaal” (The Spectator archives) – Haggard directly participated in this political event.
“Fawcett’s Deadly Idol”
Article on Percy Fawcett’s disappearance (The History Channel)
The Lost City of Z, by David Grann – My parents read and were fascinated by this nonfictional story of Percy Fawcett and his obsession with lost cities.  We also watched the movie by the same name, but it wasn’t very well done… skip it and go straight to the book!

Friday Thoughts: Do You Write in Books?

Sneak-peek at an upcoming review…

Recently I found these wonderful page/line markers at the local Daiso.  For those unfamiliar with Daiso, it’s a Japanese $1.50 store (only in a few U.S. states, unfortunately).  They’re just the right amount of sticky to be reusable but not damaging to paper.  I’ve found these work great for marking lines in a book that I want to return to later.

This method of line-marking has been my habit for quite a few years now, but sometimes I wonder if I’m missing out on something by being so careful.  Is it important to keep books looking pristine, or is part of the reading experience lost by not writing notes in books?

When I was a kid, I grew up on library books and family books, so being careful was ingrained in me.  I remember one particular horror story (to my perceptions, anyway) of my mom lending a book to someone and the book being returned in, shall we say, lesser condition.  I really intended all my own books to last forever, including paperbacks, and I was going to do all I could to avoid harm coming to them.  Even cheap, secondhand books I treated gingerly, as if to make up for the hardships they’d gone through…  I viewed highlighting and dog-earing and annotating as the height of “book cruelty,” because it meant someone else couldn’t read the same book without those things getting in the way.  (It never occurred to me some people actually enjoy reading other people’s notes, which I’ve since learned via the internet.)

Reading Jules Verne’s An Antarctic Mystery on the NOOK.

The coming of e-readers certainly changed the way I read.  I got my NOOK Simple Touch as a high school graduation gift, and from then on I found a new and liberating world of note-taking that didn’t damage any paper and could be easily erased.  More surprisingly, I found I had a lot to say, and it was quick to type down anything that came to mind as I read (including random gut reactions).  To this day, I love e-readers and tablets for reading, and I have grown used to the capability of highlighting and adding notes.

My mini note-taking notebook (any guesses what store this is from?).

Circling back to hard copies – I am starting to have second thoughts about writing in books. I have a little notebook which I have tried to use for note-taking when not using an e-reader.  It works, but to be completely honest, I’m usually too lazy to carry around two books, even if one of them is very small. Maybe I just need to make some concerted effort to do that.  Or, maybe I should just get a light pencil and start annotating.  I have the budget for replacement copies, so the only thing to prevent me from writing in books now is my aversion to it.

Fellow book readers and reviewers, what are your thoughts on this?  Do you “personalize” your books by jotting down thoughts and highlighting quotes in them, or are you like me, paranoid of your paperbacks becoming anything but well-preserved and speckless?  Maybe one of you can change my mind, or reinforce my existing feelings.  😉

Wednesday Quote: Independence

'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' by Neuville and Riou 027

“The sea doesn’t belong to tyrants. On its surface they can still exercise their iniquitous claims, battle each other, devour each other, haul every earthly horror. But thirty feet below sea level, their dominion ceases, their influence fades, their power vanishes! Ah, sir, live! Live in the heart of the seas! Here alone lies independence! Here I recognize no superiors! Here I’m free!”

A memorable scene from a science-fiction classic, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  This is the excellent F. P. Walter translation, which you can find on Project Gutenberg.

That said, I actually prefer the more succinct version of this quote from the 1954 Disney movie.  James Mason’s suave, measured enunciation brings out the introspective side of Nemo here and less of the passionate (though that he demonstrates elsewhere in the film). 

“Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight and tear one another to pieces. But a mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here, on the ocean floor, is the only independence. Here I am free!”

As Nemo proclaims his confident autonomy, we see Professor Aronnax’s reaction through the eyes of Paul Lukas, which is both awe and a sense of solemnity, maybe even uneasiness as he has seen how the captain’s words play out in his actions.

Side note – this is my favorite movie of all time!  It’s no purist’s adaptation, but I love how Disney infused the themes, characters, and events into an imaginative script, which still manages stays true to the spirit of Verne’s original.