Yesterday, October 31st, I finished reading Cloud Atlas, which is a cause for celebration for several reasons. For one, it was my 72nd book of the year which means I have OFFICIALLY met my reading goal for this year! And two, I’ve been struggling to get through this book since July, so I’m also celebrating the fact that I’m finally able to read something new.
I’m doing three books at once in this review also for two reasons: One, I was unable to post a review last week and so I’m a week behind in my reviews. Two, I was voraciously reading at the end of October in order to meet my annual goal and to power through as many sci-fi novels as I can (also part of my annual goal). There are only a couple months left in the year, so I’m trying to commit as fully as I can to the goals I set to get out of my reading comfort zone this year.
My feelings about these three books are… complex. There were things I liked about each one, but also things that really rubbed me the wrong way. I realized that the last several books I’ve read were written by old white men (except for David Mitchell who is relatively young). This was unintentional, but definitely left something to be desired by the limited representation and irritating (offensive, objectifying) portrayal of women (again, Cloud Atlas excluded). I’ve already decided that one of my goals for next year will be to be more intentional about the order in which I select which books to read in an effort to diversify my reading (based on characters, plot, and author). I had intended to do this already, but clearly could do better.
Once again, the summaries included in these reviews come straight from the publisher (in this case from the Goodreads website). I have also included the name of the narrator for any audiobooks.
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
- Year of Publication: 1897
- Genre: Classic (Horror)
“Dracula is an 1897 Gothic horror novel by Irish author Bram Stoker. Famous for introducing the character of the vampire Count Dracula, the novel tells the story of Dracula’s attempt to move from Transylvania to England so he may find new blood and spread undead curse, and the battle between Dracula and a small group of men and women led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Dracula has been assigned to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel and invasion literature. The novel touches on themes such as the role of women in Victorian culture, sexual conventions, immigration, colonialism, and post-colonialism. Although Stoker did not invent the vampire, he defined its modern form, and the novel has spawned numerous theatrical, film and television interpretations.“
- Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Susan Duerden, John Lee, Graeme Malcolm, Steven Crossley)
- Themes: Patience and teamwork lead to success. Women are fighters. Adventure. Purity. Courage.
- Windows and Mirrors: Victorian society/culture. Treatment of women in the 1890s.
- Overall Thoughts: I actually liked this one! It was definitely on the slow side (as older stories often are), which was unfortunate considering the length (the audiobook was over 15 and a half hours long). I definitely felt that it was unnecessarily long. Many of the plot points were repeated over and over again throughout the story, making the story drag and making it less thrilling/scary as it could have been.
The representation of women was interesting in this book. They were still treated as fragile, innocent human beings with a tendency to faint when faced with stressful situations (did women really used to faint so often??). However, Mina Harker (though she didn’t have much of an identity beyond being the wife of Jonathan Harker), proved herself to be very useful throughout this adventure. She is organized and clearly very intelligent, and it’s obvious how much the male characters respect her. That being said, when they acknowledge how intelligent she is, they refer to her as having “a man’s brain” because apparently being smart is a man thing? They also initially don’t allow her to participate in any of the action because she is a frail woman who must be protected by these good, brave men. Luckily, they end up regretting this decision and eventually take her along in their final endeavor to defeat Dracula.
Speaking of Dracula, it was really interesting how he was portrayed. He actually doesn’t even show up that often in the story. The story is told in letters and journals documenting various character’s experiences of either dealing with him directly or dealing with the aftermath of his attacks. I found that made Dracula a much more compelling villain; he was just constantly lurking in the shadows of each account (you knew he was responsible for the mysterious happenings in the town, but you never get to witness it yourself).
Finally, this book was much more religious than I had anticipated. I forgot how many of the tricks for warding off vampires revolved around Christianity (crosses/crucifixes, holy water, consecrated Host [I had to look this up, it is essentially a cracker-like wafer], etc.). The intersectionality of these religious themes along with the treatment of women in the book was really interesting (as well as troubling). The part that most stands out to me regarding this topic is after the male characters discover Dracula has been visiting Mina Harker at night to suck her blood (all because they believed they needed to protect her and keep her out of their manly escapades). At one point, they confront Dracula and stop him mid-attack. When Mina realizes what has happened, her biggest concern is that she is no longer pure or clean (both for God and for her husband). Also, the most notable characteristic of the female vampires we encounter throughout the story is their overt sexuality. This is portrayed as the most disturbing part of their existence (and not the the fact that they are literally sucking people’s blood and killing them). While I appreciated their portrayal of Mina as an intelligent and capable woman, there were still some highly sexist moments throughout the story.
- Recommendation: Yes, I absolutely recommend this book. It’s a classic for a reason and is worth reading. I actually wish I had been reading this for a class so that I could have discussed it more and learned more about the historical context of the story (specifically Victorian culture and society). I think I would have gotten even more out of the story this way.
- Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Planet of the Apes” by Pierre Boulle
- Year of Publication: 1963
- Genre: Science Fiction
“‘I am confiding this manuscript to space, not with the intention of saving myself, but to help, perhaps, to avert the appalling scourge that is menacing the human race. Lord have pity on us!’
With these words, Pierre Boulle hurtles the reader onto the Planet of the Apes. In this simian world, civilization is turned upside down: apes are men and men are apes; apes rule and men run wild; apes think, speak, produce, wear clothes, and men are speechless, naked, exhibited at fairs, used for biological research. On the planet of the apes, man, having reached to apotheosis of his genius, has become inert.
To this planet come a journalist and a scientist. The scientist is put into a zoo, the journalist into a laboratory. Only the journalist retains the spiritual strength and creative intelligence to try to save himself, to fight the appalling scourge, to remain a man.
Out of this situation, Pierre Boulle has woven a tale as harrowing, bizarre, and meaningful as any in the brilliant roster of this master storyteller. With his cutomary wit, irony, and disciplined intellect and style, the author of The Bridge Over the River Kwai tells a swiftly moving story dealing with man’s conflicts, and takes the reader into a suspenseful and strangely fascinating orbit.”
- Format: Audiobook (Narrated by Greg Wise)
- Themes: Power isn’t everything and can lead to destruction. Arrogance allows history to repeat itself. Alliances are necessary for survival. Prejudice. Creative problem-solving.
- Windows and Mirrors: Colonialism, sexism, racism? Alternate reality?
- Overall Thoughts: To be honest, I almost gave up on this book after the first 20 minutes. The sexism, racism, and colonizer perspective were so abrasive right off the bat that I really had to consider if I wanted to put myself through this. I hate giving up on books though, so I kept listening in the hopes that it would get better.
While the sexism and racism didn’t improve, the story did end up having some interesting themes that I find myself still thinking about. The story opens with a couple on a spaceship that have just come across a letter floating through space (like a message in a bottle floating in the ocean). The man is trying to read the note, and gets annoyed any time his wife tries to make a comment or ask a question. It’s incredibly condescending and portrays women as annoying, chatty, and nagging.
Once we get underway reading the note describing the planet of the apes, it begins with a team of men traveling through space who stop on a planet that has shockingly similar characteristics to Earth. After landing, they see a woman who just so happens to be completely naked. The reader is then subjected to a horrible and objectifying description of this woman and her body. I also forgot to mention that before they saw her they saw her footsteps in the sand, and these footsteps, apparently, could only have belonged to a woman (because apparently all women have very distinctive and dainty feet?).
It gets better though (and by better, I mean worse). After observing her and some other humans that show up, the male characters immediately decide that, although these creatures are unmistakably human, they don’t look or act exactly as these white, European men do and therefore must be savages incapable of reasoning or intelligence. They even comment on how they would rather have met aliens on a strange planet because at least these aliens likely would have a basic sense of reason.
It’s important to point out that the men have not even attempted to interact with the human-like inhabitants of this planet yet. They waved and smiled at them from a distance, and then were upset when their gestures were misunderstood and not reciprocated. Why would you go to a strange planet and expect any species to magically know, understand, and use the same gestures as you?? For this reason, it’s very much a “colonizer” perspective. These people are not exactly like me and therefore must be inferior savages. The characters even compare them to “the people living in the forests of Africa” (or something along those lines). The author is French, and France was still actively colonizing African countries in the early 20th century, which likely explains this sentiment (though it absolutely does not justify it).
Continuing to get worse, the main characters have established that they view these human-like creatures to be savages and essentially sub-human, but the first woman they saw was really hot, so the main character immediately pursues her and tries to have sex with her. This part of the plot continues throughout the story, with the main character being incredibly possessive of her and eventually getting her pregnant. The main character also seems to think he’s the most attractive and intelligent man in the entire universe, and references his looks and intellect frequently. These parts of the plot honestly made me kind of nauseous.
However, at the end they make a discovery that shows men weren’t always inferior to apes on this planet (much like on Earth); a dangerous discovery which threatens to throw a wrench into the existing social hierarchy of the planet. What was really interesting, though, was the ending (which is very different from any of the movie adaptations). SPOILER ALERT: They eventually escape the planet and return to Earth (many, many years later), but when they get there they discover that the apes have taken over this planet as well. I had assumed they were somehow on Earth the whole time, but the fact that history was repeating itself at different points in space and time was really intriguing.
The only other redeeming part of the story was the alliance and friendship the main character formed with a monkey that was working in the lab where he was being held (I believe she was a chimpanzee). Her lack of prejudice allowed her to see him for who he really was. They worked together and learned from each other, which was nice. However, the insufferable main character eventually made a pass at her when they were saying their final goodbyes. He actually came on to an actual monkey. Why was this necessary?
- Recommendation: I honestly don’t know if I can recommend this book. It did end up having some interesting themes, but it was really hard to get past the extreme sexism and colonizer perspective. If you enjoy the movies and the themes they investigate, you might want to check this book out (it’s a pretty quick read). However, it’s problematic to the point of being hard to read so I can’t say I highly recommend it.
- Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell
- Year of Publication: 2004
- Genre: Science Fiction
“Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . .
Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.”
Trigger warning: Suicide. Rape. Sexual assault. Murder. Marital affairs.
- Format: Paperback
- Themes: All of our realities, past and present, are connected and intertwined. All of our lives and decisions contribute to our collective reality. Obsession with power can only lead to destruction. We all can make a difference. Our souls float through time like clouds in the sky. Determining your identity, who you truly are and want to be, is the most powerful thing you can do.
- Windows and Mirrors: 1850s Chatham Isles. 1930s Belgium. 1970s California. Present-day England. Future dominated by corporations and consumerism/capitalism. 19th century colonialism and racism. Corporate greed and conspiracy. Music composition.
- Overall Thoughts: I struggled so much to get through this book. I started reading it in July and just finished it yesterday. It is long (509 pages), but mostly the issue was just motivating myself to read it.
The most noteworthy characteristic of this book is that it has six unique narratives, each one interrupted by the next (one even being interrupted mid-sentence). After the sixth narrative ends, you work back through each narrative in reverse order. Each narrative is also a distinctly different genre. While I found this to be incredibly creative, it was really unpleasant to read. As soon as I would become interested in a particular story, it would abruptly end and a new, entirely different one would begin. It was so jarring; it felt like I was starting over with a new book constantly. The language was also incredibly pretentious and difficult to read; at times I could barely follow what was happening. Also, by the time I got back around to the second part of each story, I had forgotten the details of what had happened initially! I recognized names of characters, but I had trouble recalling important details.
The six narratives also weren’t equally compelling, so it made it difficult to be emotionally invested in all of the characters. I really considered giving up on this book when I was less than 100 pages in and still couldn’t get into it, but I forged ahead. I hate giving up on books because two of my all-time favorite books are books that I initially hated but then ended up loving once I got to the end, so I’m always hesitant to give up on books for this reason. That being said, I am glad I finished this book. I thought the themes of how everything and everyone is connected, and all of our lives and actions are like contributing a drop of water into the ocean of life we’re really thought-provoking. A single drop in an ocean is seemingly insignificant, but it all adds up and contributes to the overall product (the “present” that we experience and the virtual future we’re working toward or trying to avoid). However, it wasn’t so profound or moving that it made up for the intense effort it took me to get through this book.
- Recommendation: I kind of recommend this book. The second half of the book definitely moved quicker since the narratives were familiar this time, but it was still a lot of effort for minimal reward. I appreciated how unique the format of the book was and how brave the author was to take on so many genres at once, but it honestly was a pretty unpleasant reading experience. I do wish I had read this for a class so that I could have gotten more out of it, because I’m sure there were many things that went over my head. If you’re looking for a challenge or a book that is different from anything you’ve ever read, you might want to check this one out. Otherwise, maybe skip this one.
- Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?
All of these books have been adapted into movies (some of them multiple times!), so I’m definitely looking forward to watching them! I’ve seen all of the recent adaptations of Planet of the Apes as well as the original version with Charlton Heston, but I haven’t seen Cloud Atlas nor have I seen any of the adaptations of Dracula. I hope to watch those soon and review the adaptations here!