Beware the Monster!: Frankenstein

Last year around Halloween, I could not resist detailing my excitement over reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the first time. This year, on Halloween and at the risk of this becoming cliché, I am going to do it again. Only now with Mary Shelley’s mind-blowing Frankenstein.

If you have not read this book yet, you can find it here. This post will still be here when you are finished. See you then. Just kidding. Please keep reading, but put aside everything that you thought you knew about the story of Frankenstein. If you have already read this novel, please suspend your judgement of my only just finding it in my thirty-ninth year. It is inexcusable.

From the first page to the last, Frankenstein was astounding. One by one each of my pre-conceived ideas about the book was crushed beneath an onslaught of remarkable creativity, brilliant writing, and surprising relatablity. Mary Shelley not only changed the game with this book, she refined what writing could be. The book gives you drama, action, suspense, thrill, moral dilemma, emotional trauma and leaves you in wonder. What is famous for being a “monster story,” is eerily human.

Every single thing I thought I knew about this story was wrong. I cannot detail for you the ways I was wrong without giving away key parts of the story, but suffice it to say the Frankenstein pop culture lore and the actual novel differ a very great deal.

It is not this:

Or this:

Definitely not this:

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But more this:

I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were, high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these acquisitions; but without either he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few. And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endowed with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they, and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded their’s. When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled, and whom all men disowned?

For all that pop culture has gotten wrong with this story, it has had one positive effect. And that is that now the real story has even more depth and meaning when taken in juxtaposition with what we have been told. For my part, there are a few things I found most compelling.

  1. Mary Shelley was brilliant and I am thoroughly jealous of her. To have written a novel of this magnitude by the age of nineteen is indeed remarkable and enviable. I would encourage you to read the foreword, written by her, describing the process of how this book came about in her imagination. It is fascinating. While I am jealous of her abilities, I do not envy the life experiences she had that gave her the capacity to write like this at such a young age.
  2. The uniqueness of this story is undeniable. While there are many components that make that true, the one most significant to me is the lack of a clear hero. Both main characters are equally admirable, pitiable, and inexcusable. The story is not the quintessential one of a good guy versus a bad guy, but rather a story of each character battling good versus evil within themselves. It makes for fascinating moral dilemmas and ambiguities, the likes of which could be discussed for centuries. As they have been.
  3. Unrequited love is devastating on an individual scale, but whole scale, world-wide unrequited love is the worst kind of living. Shelley describes this perfectly with the monster’s famous quote: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
  4. The question of how to balance scientific advancement and moral obligation is not new.
  5. Moral responsibility, or a lack there of, can have extreme ramifications.

I am left asking, “Who is the real monster?”

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Immigration: Fiction Books to Read

I realize there are precious few words left to say about immigration to the United States of America. Don’t worry, this is not a political treatise.

As is usually the case, I have found myself referring back to books that resonated with me on this issue. Over the last several years, many excellent books have been written featuring immigration as one of the main characters. These books serve to either give us solace in the realization that we are not alone in our experience or they give us access to a perspective we may not have considered, much less experienced. While I would not go as far as to say that you can “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” simply by reading a story, I will say that the understanding gained through seeing the world through another person’s story is invaluable.

These are stories of fiction, but that does not dampen their impact. May you enjoy them as much as I have.

A Timely Ode to Dracula

(Don’t worry, this one is not for the kids! This is the beginning of a new type of post titled “Child Free Reading” because I want to talk about the books I am reading too. It is great to virtually bond over what our children and students are reading, but how much better to extend that to our favorites. Plus, this book was just too good, I had to talk about it.)

“Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring!”  – Count Dracula

The book club I am a part of decided to read Dracula by Bram Stoker for our October read, mostly because they are awesome like that. My expectations were quite low due to the fact that I, quite honestly, thought I knew all there was to know about Dracula and the centuries of vampire lore that have followed in his wake. Sparkly vampires aside, I am a very big fan of the genre.

I was beyond excited with what I discovered within the pages of this fantastic book. My curmudgeonly approach and skeptical attitude could not have been more misplaced. From the first page to the last I was wildly surprised by the telling of the story. Bram Stoker masterfully delivered beyond expectation, a difficult accomplishment in an era of over-exposure.

Since reading it through, Dracula has become an instant favorite of mine. There are a great many things that I thoroughly enjoy about the book. I will save the long list for an actual conversation, here are the highlights.

  • The letter/diary format of the writing created a suspenseful quality that I did not think possible, particularly for those of us reading it after so many re-tellings and variations. It was fascinating eavesdropping on each person as they come to an understanding of their circumstances at different paces and through different means. The letters and diary entries evoked a deeply personal experience while reading.
  • I reveled in every moment reading about and getting to know the original vampire and his hunter. As I mentioned, I did not think I could be surprised by the details of this book, particularly with the descriptions of  Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing (!) but I could not have been more wrong. Both of these characters were written superbly. I had many “fan girl” squeals over moments of discovery as I read the original telling of Van Helsing. Arguably, none of the spinoffs from this original do these two characters justice.
  • While there are the anticipated doses of machoism for a book of its time, I was shocked by the strong, smart, kind, thoroughly capable character of Mina. The story turns not on the male characters as expected, but on the female character embodied by Mina Harker. She has easily become one of my favorite literary female protagonists.
  • Despite thinking that I knew the story already, I did not. The end is excellent, suspenseful, and satisfying; actually this could be said of the book as a whole. Chapter after chapter I was surprised by my involvement in the story. I got goosebumps, audibly gasped, looked over my shoulder, reread brilliant sentences, and generally poured over the story details.

To say that I liked the book is a significant understatement, this was one of the most enjoyable, engaging fiction books I have read in awhile. Oddly enough, one of my favorite features of my copy was found outside the actual story. At the back of the Barnes & Noble Classics version is a “Comments & Questions” section that gives a quote from Bram Stoker’s wife, Charlotte, taken from a letter she wrote to him about Dracula:

My dear, it is splendid, a thousand miles beyond anything you have written before, and I feel certain will place you very high in the writers of the day…No book since Mrs. Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ or indeed any other at all has come near yours in originality, or terror – Poe is nowhere.

Brilliant!