Reviews: V

Review: “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” by Jules Verne [1864]; translated from French by William Butcher [1992]

It was rather timely that I read this in light of what has been happening with Iceland’s volcanic eruptions, a small country and that, through the act of nature, had effectively stopped the world. In Journey, we follow an uncle-nephew team who attempts to travel to the centre of the Earth through a crater in an extinct volcano in Iceland.

Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a rather eccentric geologist, stumbles across ancient runes in a book from the twelfth-century one day. The runes are written ancient Icelandic and once deciphered reveals that to be written by a famous fifteenth-century explorer, Arne Saknussemm, who was declared a heretic. Once the runes are eventually translated, they read:

Go down into the crater of Snaefells Yocul which the shadow of Scartaris caresses before the calends of July, O audacious traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth. I did it. Arne Saknussemm. – p. 25

So off Professor Lidenbrock goes, taking (or rather dragging) along his very reluctant nephew, Axel. From their home in Germany, they travel across Denmark to Iceland where they enlist the help of an eiderdown hunter, Hans, an icelandic of very stoic nature. While in Iceland, Professor Lidenbrock attempts to do more research on Saknussemm and what ensues from Lidenbrock’s host is a lovely ode to the wonders of reading and beauty of books:

“Every farmer, every fisherman knows how to read, and does read. We believe that books, instead of mouldering behind bars, far from interested examination, are meant to be worn out by readers’ eyes. So these books are passed from person to person, looked at, read and re-read; and often they do not come back to the shelves for a year or two.” – p. 51

As Lidenbrock, Axel and Hans make their way through the volcanic ash and down the crater they encounter dead ends, the threat of dehydration and starvation, hot mineral springs and, amazingly, an entire ocean deep down under the seabed of Europe. While deep within the earth’s craters the crew come across extinct animals, who are very much alive, and remnants of what seems to be early forms of human beings.

As fantastic as it all sounds, Verne has a way to make it all sound very scientific and believable but this is a reader who have absolutely no background in science and have not touched a beaker or bunsen burner since high school. This being my first Verne, I think it was a great introduction to his writing and imagination. His most popular story is the very well known Around the World in Eighty Days. Professor Lidenbrock was a very fun character but Axel was the most timid man I have come across recently. Reading about the volcanoes in Iceland, and Icelandic culture (although it was written by Frenchman) gives it a quite contemporary feel.

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Review: “Slaughterhouse Five, or, The Children’s Crusade” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

So it goes.

Long regarded as one of America’s great works, Slaughterhouse Five is a unique and provocative novel. The story begins with a narrator who shares common facts of Vonnegut so readers are to think that this book will be an account of Vonnegut’s life. The narrator tells us that he is in the process of writing a book about his experience of the infamous Dresden firebombing near the end of World War II. By the end of the first chapter, the narrator switches over and we are now reading about a man called Billy Pilgrim instead, who was also in the war and survived the Dresden bombing.

The story has one of the most amazing timelines I’ve ever read, and it is credit to Vonnegut that I was not lost once. The main story of Slaughterhouse Five is Billy Pilgrim’s ability to time travel. At moments of stress, Billy’s mind travels back and forth in time with no warning. He is also later kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and made to live in a zoo. The Tralfamodorians have a unique philosophy for their outlook life – everything happens because they simply happen. There is no reason. Vonnegut coins his famous saying, “so it goes”, which comes from the aliens in the text. They believe in eternity and pity humans who cry at death. Death does not exist to the aliens because it does not signify that somebody is gone forever. Rather, that person is only dead at that certain stage, that certain moment, that certain scene, and that they remain alive forever in other scenes. People can never die.

I have been reluctant to pick up this book because I’m not all interested in books about the war. I know I’m missing a whole genre and significant section in literature, where there are huge amounts of books that were published during the Cold War who criticize the recent WWII, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. What surprised me about Slaughterhouse Five is not its pretext about war but rather its underlying philosophy. Nobody can ever really explain the atrocities of war, what the human race went through, the indescribable acts they committed, and why some survived and others didn’t. I suspect the reason behind Billy’s time travel is due to his post-traumatic stress. To escape the atrocities during the war, he shifts his mind, and to which he simply never recovered from.