Book: Great Expectations

"Great Expectations"

Great Expectations, Dicken’s funny, frightening and tender portrayal of the orphan Pip’s journey of self-discovery, is one of his best-loved works. Showing how a young man’s life is transformed by a mysterious series of events–an encounter with an escaped prisoner; a visit to a black-hearted old woman and a beautiful girl; a fortune from a secret donor — Dicken’s late novel is a masterpiece of psychological and moral truth, and Pip among his greatest creations.

This book should come with a warning: be wary of great expectations. Which is as much a pun as the novel’s title is.

The long-short of it is that I liked the book enough, but I also found it terribly tedious. Maybe it’s the usage of the English language, or the way Dickens wrote the dialogue as how the characters would pronounce them? Let’s just say that it became easier to read when protagonist Pip became more educated.

Moving beyond that, I don’t think I can really say anything more about the book. It’s a classic. There’s a reason why it’s a classic. I guess what I can add is the fact that Great Expectations, even with its very dated milieu, can still happen in our day and age.

Reading it, I can see how people in Victorian England entertained themselves without television. The novel is actually a compilation of a series of chapters published one at a time in a weekly periodical. It’s the Victorian version of a dramatic series. Kind of like Downton Abbey, if you will. And something seems to always be happening.

Still, I don’t think this book is for everyone. I’m not being an elitist. Let’s just be real here: many people will not invest their time in reading a classic because of the reason I started with: Victorian English just isn’t as easy to read as plain old English.

But, time and again, it helps to touch base with the classics that made it possible for printed stories continue to live on. And it sure puts into perspective our claims on what constitutes as a classic now. For example, I don’t think we’ll be lining the Eragon cycle up alongside the novels from Dickens, Verne, and Gaiman.

Book: Goldfinger

"Goldfinger"

Auric Goldfinger: cruel, clever, frustratingly careful. A cheat at canasta and a crook on a massive scale. The sort of man James Bond hates. So it’s fortunate that Bond is the man charged by both the Bank of England and MI5 to discover what this, the richest man in the country, intends to do with his ill-gotten gains–and what his connection is with SMERSH, the feared Soviet spy-killing corps. But once inside this deadly criminal’s organization, 007 finds that Goldfinger’s schemes are more grandiose–and lethal–than anyone could have imagined. Not only is robbing Fort Knox his agenda, but mass murder as well…

Goldfinger was a fun read, even if it’s not as action-packed as today’s action thriller novels. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except for the fact that many of the tight corners our hero finds his self in, sorts themselves out without much sweat from our hero. Well, a lot of sweat, not so much effort.

In fact, I see Goldfinger as the more developed character in this book. As the one who actually does things. James Bond kind of just skates through it all, doesn’t he?

Granted, my only exposure to James Bond comes from the Daniel Craig movies. I’ve seen parts of the Pierce Brosnan movies, but they never really intrigued me enough that I would actively seek out a title. Too much high-tech gadgets, not so much characterization. The Daniel Craig era puts more focus on us getting to know James Bond. And, coming off from reading this book, I’m appreciating the Daniel Craig movies more. It has a more realistic approach to the whole spy business, for one thing.

And that’s my main concern with Goldfinger. Lack of believability. Our villain Goldfinger sets himself up to be a very suspicious man, on the account that he is a very rich man. And while I could suspend my disbelief that he didn’t do a background check on Bond in their first two entanglements, I refuse to believe that he doesn’t think about asking his SMERSH contacts about him after the third incident. Especially since, in the last part of the book, he eventually does approach SMERSH about Bond.

The delay wasn’t so much because Goldfinger was highly independent from his SMERSH contacts, or because he was embarrassed about being beaten at his own game. It really was just because the author didn’t want Goldfinger to know about Bond before he could get around to the big evil plan: robbing Fort Knox.

Another thing I could wrap my head around was how Goldfinger thought he could use Bond to his own gain. Why would you trust someone who tried to kill you, but wouldn’t tell you why? Seriously?

I’m going to cut myself off there. Let’s just say that Goldfinger is a fun read–so long as you don’t give much thought to it afterwards. Enjoy it for the light read that it is, but don’t think too much about the intricacies of the plots, and the deception, etcetera. It really doesn’t hold up, especially if you’re into action thrillers.

It is true that authors now are more aware of smart readers. I don’t think Goldfinger would exist in this form had it been pitched with today’s market of readers in mind. I mean, sure, the plot is still interesting, and it will still hold up against today’s more technologically-advanced criminal plots. But Bond’s part in the novel would have to be rewritten. He’d have to be smarter and more resourceful than he was in this novel. He’d have to rely less on his luck and gadgets. And it would be a different book.

All that said, I really did enjoy the book for what it was. It’s just that–the book really doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I must say though, I am now looking for a copy of the Goldfinger film to see how the novel holds up to its film version.

Book: Little Lord Fauntleroy

"Little Lord Fauntleroy"

Seven-year-old Cedric gets quite a shock when he is whisked away from the streets of New York to an English stately home. He gets an even bigger shock when he discovers he’ll inherit a great fortune and a title. And Cedric is daunted to meet the grandfather he has never seen before, who is mean and selfish. But Cedric–now known as Little Lord Fauntleroy–is a very unusual boy, who takes it all in his stride…

I find this synopsis odd and very unappealing. It’s a good thing Little Lord Fauntleroy is a classic–and is well-loved by many Filipinos for spawning the animated series Shoukoushi Ceddie.

I’ve mentioned before that I have been looking for a copy of this novel for a while now. I finally found one, thanks to the assistance of the customer service representatives of Fully Booked in Green Hills. And while reading (and taking a break, in general) has taken a backseat because of all my real-world deadlines, I still snuck in a few minutes in between meetings to start and finish the novel.

As what I’ve come to expect from Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy doesn’t disappoint when it comes to lovable yet still believable characters. Our central character himself, though a tad too good-natured, doesn’t seem like a caricature of the martyr. Cedric Errol knows that there are bad things and bad people, and yet he chooses to look at what’s good. It’s something taught to him by his mother, and by the people who populated his life, prior to him being “whisked away to an English stately home.” And it’s this world view that arms him when he is confronted by a man whose generosity and kindness are widely exaggerated.

The bulk of the story happens after Cedric Errol, who is now known as Little Lord Fauntleroy, moves to England to live with his grandfather. And, as soon as this new chapter begins, a role reversal happens. Prior to this, Cedric Errol has been on the receiving end of people’s good nature; now, it is his turn to impart his good nature to the people who are coming into his life.

Admittedly, Cedric Errol is a simpler character compared to Sara (of A Little Princess) and Mary (of The Secret Garden). The latter two characters are more nuanced when it comes to their personalities. But, I think, it’s also Cedric Errol’s simplicity that makes him all the more endearing. And it’s this simplicity that makes Little Lord Fauntleroy a very fast and enjoyable read–if not as engrossing as the other two novels.

Nowadays, we don’t encounter many simple characters. Mayhaps because simple characterization makes protagonists boring. In Little Lord Fauntleroy though, we could argue that Cedric Errol isn’t really the main character–but rather, his grandfather is. It’s the Earl that takes on a journey of self-actualization, and the events of Cedric’s life are mostly plot developments to push the changes in the Earl’s life and being.

But that’s just what I think, and I’m very open to discuss this.

Which, by the way, is something I really liked about this novel. While I enjoy reading novels immensely, I never seem to want to discuss them with other people afterwards. I usually just say what I think about a book, recommend it (or not), and then move on. There have been exceptions to this, like in the case of the Harry Potter series, but it’s been a while since a book moved me to actually look for someone to discuss it with.

And there are plenty of things to discuss about the book: like the perspective changes that the author employs in writing the novel, the plot twists (and the deus-ex-machina like development in the latter part of the novel), and the effectivity of a protagonist that has no negative attributes. There are more, but these are the ones that are on top of my mind right now.

Have you read Little Lord Fauntleroy? What are your thoughts about the novel?

Book: A Little Princess

"A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson BurnettAs a young child Sara Crewe is brought over from India by her father to join a girl’s seminary in London. Her greatest joy is to ‘pretend’ things to make life more magical, for herself and those less fortunate than herself. She is a general favourite, but her splendid clothes, French maid, and personal carriage set her apart from the rest and create jealousy in Miss Minchin, the avaricious head of the school. When Sara is suddenly and tragically thrown into poverty, she must keep a strong hold on her vivid imagination and tender heart to prove to those who ill-treat her that even through hardship and want, she can remain ‘a little princess’.

After reading The Secret Garden, and enjoying it completely, I sought out other classics written by Miss Frances Hodgson Burnett. And while Little Lord Fauntleroy continues to elude me, I was able to find a copy of A Little Princess in the bookstore I grew up in (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore.)

This being one of the books I managed to sneak into my busy schedule, it will come as no surprise that it was a very quick read. So far, most of the classics I’ve read are quick reads–save for Journey to the Center of the Earth. But that might have more to do with the fact that I found the main character tedious. And that’s not the case at all for Princess Sara.

Sara Crewe is as lovable as can be. She’s the complete opposite of Mary Lennox (of The Secret Garden) in which she knows how to hold her temper. But, oddly enough, I don’t remember Sara having this much spine when I look back on the A Little Princess stories I’m familiar with–the Japanese animated series, the American film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, and the Filipino movie. This is a pleasant surprise, because while I am used to female protagonists who are such martyrs, it’s very pleasant to find one who knows how to fight back–but prefers not to because it would be beneath her to do such thing. n this way, Sara Crewe is a real princess.

What makes a classic? My guess is it has to do with the story being timeless–and you can’t go more timeless (which is a weird thing to say aloud, try it) than A Little Princess. While certain things are very regional (chimneys, for one thing, are very rare in the Philippines), and some things are dated (the diamond mine boom, the Indian colonization), when you strip the story down to what Sara goes through in Miss Minchin’s school, you can imagine it really happening at a local boarding school–which we don’t have, I don’t think. Let’s say orphanages then.

But Miss Minchin isn’t completely unreasonable either. She’s just really driven to succeed, which I gleaned from the original source material. In the Japanese animated series, and the movies, she just came off as one sadistic bi—

Moving on.

With the current success (and popularity) of The Hunger Games, I think it’s important now more than ever for people to get exposed to the classics again. Not that I’m disparaging The Hunger Games in any way. It’s a very well-written book, and I’m a fan. But it also features too many +1’s: it’s set in a dystopian future, it has action, adventure, a love story–it’s a mutt. And people should learn to appreciate the beauty of a simple story again. Like A Little Princess.

Book: The Secret Garden

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson BurnettOrphaned and sent to live with her uncle in his austere manor on the moors, Mary Lennox is a lonely and unhappy child. A meeting with Dickon, her servant’s brother begins her adventure and it is through their friendship and her relationship with her troubled hypochondriac cousin Colin that she begins to learn about herself. Their lives all begin to change when a Robin shows Mary the door to a mysterious secret garden.

There’s a reason why some stories become classic. Because no matter how long ago they were written, they could still touch hearts and lives in the present.

My first exposure to The Secret Garden was through a Japanese animated series that was dubbed into the local language. I loved watching cartoons when I was a kid. Yeah, I said cartoons. There were no distinctions back then on whether something was a cartoon or an animé. My mornings, whenever we didn’t have school, was scheduled around the Japanese cartoons that would be shown. One of them was The Secret Garden.

Back then, I loved the plucky character of Mary. Miss Mary who was quite contrary. A girl with an attitude problem sent to live in an almost-abandoned mansion with no one to keep her company. And then she found the Robin, and then the garden, and then she started to like people. It’s a tale of self-discovery, of friendship, of making the most of what you have–and being happy with what was given you. It’s a simple story of choosing to be happy.

Reading The Secret Garden now, I am reminded how great stories don’t need to rely on gimmicks and unexpected twists. All you need is a story that comes from the heart, and the talent to tell that story well. And it also helps to have written the story in the age of innocence, when people weren’t so desensitized with the shock value of the things they’ve seen/read.

This is just my opinion, but I feel we need more stories like this. While I’m a big fan of world-buildin, and great fantastical stories, I can’t help but appreciate the ones that can spin magic in the most ordinary of worlds too.