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I can think of few classic novels that have had such a widespread influence on both popular culture and literature as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus”. Even if people haven’t read Shelley’s novel they have a sense of Doctor Frankenstein’s creation from the many films which have (mistakenly) portrayed him as a senseless monster. I even went to a show recently called Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster where talented young musicians from the BAC Beatbox Academy re-created the body of the monster in song as a way of describing terrifying issues and people they experience in everyday life. But Shelley’s characters, ideas and powerful story have also permeated the imaginations of so many novelists since the book’s initial publication in 1818. Most recently it’s been directly referenced and reimagined in the novels “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi and Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel “Frankissstein”. Winterson’s novels have always had strong ties to the work of past writers (most notably Virginia Woolf) but her recent novels more strongly incorporate this influence such as her remix of The Winter’s Tale in her novel “The Gap of Time”.

“Frankissstein” goes a step further creating a dual narrative which switches back and forth between a historical section where we see Mary Shelley writing her famous novel and a near future where a non-binary individual named Ry Shelley engages in a complicated romantic relationship with a secretive scientist named Professor Stein. The historical sections have a more philosophical feel as Mary engages in meaningful discussions with her husband, the poet Byron and other interesting figures from the time period. The modern section is much more playful as it initially begins at a convention where a madcap capitalist named Ron promotes the use of his advanced range of sexbots designed to suit everyone’s emotional and physical needs. There’s even a Germaine Greer sex doll! Meanwhile, Professor Stein gives a lecture about the future of humans in a post-human world and engages in some edgy scientific experimentation. While the tone of these two narrative threads sound totally at odds with each other they feel strangely cohesive – especially as the novel increasingly becomes concerned with questions about the advancement of our species, the meaning of consciousness and the complicated dynamics of love: “Love is not a pristine planet before contaminants and pollutants, before the arrival of Man. Love is a disturbance among the disturbed.” The novel also has a political edge engaging with issues to do with feminism, gender identity, ethics and Brexit.

One of Winterson’s greatest talents is mixing an ardent seriousness in her writing with a richly playful sensibility to form stories that are both engaging and deeply poignant. Initially I felt more emotionally engaged by Mary’s 19th century tale and her struggles with marriage, friendship, money and nationality. But as the story progressed I became more attached to the character of Ry (whose shortened name could be a part of the names Mary or Ryan.) Ry encounters prejudice because of their gender identity and also develops a strong sexual connection and relationship with Professor Stein who is frustrated because falling for Ry wasn’t a part of his plan. Both Mary and Ry find themselves oddly positioned in relation to men whose grandiose ideas about mankind’s advancement don’t encompass matters to do with the human heart. In a sense, Mary and Ry are a continuation of the same person who has changed through the centuries like Woolf’s “Orlando”. In this way Winterson brilliantly messes with the perceived linear nature of time and the way certain issues emerge continuously amidst society’s progression: “Our lives are ordered by the straight line of time, yet arrows fly in all directions. We move towards death, while things we have scarcely understood return and return wounding us for our own good.”

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The novel also considers ideas about storytelling itself - both in forming fictional narratives and the narrative of history. Mary Shelley was in the unusual position of producing a brilliant novel so early in her life and its themes go on to haunt her as Winterson shows how her life plays out in subsequent years. I like how Winterson considers how oddly abstract experience becomes when it’s formed into a story: “Only in the living of it does life seem ordinary. In the telling of it we find ourselves strangers among the strange.” But I also appreciate how she confronts popular notions of nationalism and that the idea of Britishness is just another story we’re telling ourselves: “The timeless serenity of the past that we British do so well is an implanted memory – you could call it a fake memory. What seems so solid and certain is really part of the ceaseless pull-it-down-build-it-again pattern of history, where the turbulence of the past is recast as landmark, as icon, as tradition, as what we defend, what we uphold – until it’s time to call in the wrecking ball.” I think this notion is good to keep in mind when any politician cites historical references to support their own ideological campaigns.

While I like to linger on many lines in Winterson’s novels (she’s a very quotable author) because she can poignantly encapsulate powerful ideas in few words, sometimes these grand statements pull me out of the flow of the story. The point of view can at times feel more like Winterson’s rather than her characters. There’s also occasional clunky lines such as a discussion about feminism where Mary self-consciously names her mother in a way that’s more for the reader’s benefit rather than for the characters she’s conversing with: “My mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would not agree with you, I said.” Yet, these are minor quibbles I had with a novel I so thoroughly admire and enjoyed. I like reading novels which aren’t afraid to converse so self-consciously with stories that have come before. I think “Frankissstein” does this artfully while making a tale that is entirely new and immensely fun to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

The year is flying by and so many great books have already been newly published (including so many I’ve still not got reading). It was difficult making this list because I’ve read 48 books so far this year, many of which were excellent. I’m only going to mention 10 here. But I’d love to know some of your favourite books so please leave a comment to let me know about your top recent reads. If you want to know more of my thoughts about any of these click on the titles for my full reviews.

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck – This is a novel, longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, about a retired professor in Berlin who becomes involved in the lives of several refugees. It’s a topical story about immigration, but I think it’s also so much more than that too. It’s a really emotional story with a teasing mystery at the core of its protagonist and it also contains such profound philosophical thoughts about identity.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – This debut novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and I made a silly early prediction that it will win this year’s Booker Prize. Readers’ reactions to this novel have been very polarized. It’s a very particular kind of introspective story that won’t be for everyone. But personally I loved it for the way it shows the transition in identity from child to parent and the artful way it blends nonfiction with the pressing ontological issues its protagonist faces.

Crudo by Olivia Laing – Laing’s nonfiction has shown how she has a very personal and intelligent way of looking at historical figures. Her first novel Crudo really cleverly blends her passion for the writer Kathy Acker with her own preoccupations about modern life. The more I think about this novel the more it affects me. It speaks so meaningfully about this crisis we feel inhabiting our bodies and minds in a chaotic world where global politics that are increasingly bleak and how challenging it is wrestling with our own egos every day.

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli – I can’t think of another book that has proved to be so relevant to the immediate emergency Americans recently faced concerning illegal immigrants and refugees being forcibly separated from their children. Luiselli describes her experiences speaking to asylum seekers who are children and the reality of their crisis in a way that is incredibly enlightening. When I read this a few months ago I said this short book should be required reading for every school in America, but I think it should be required reading for every adult as well.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson – This historical novel is based on the true story of a large group of Icelandic villagers kidnapped and enslaved by Barbary pirates in 1627. Many are forcefully taken to Algiers and this novel mainly focuses on the story of the plight of a reverend’s wife. It may sound bleak and there are distressing scenes but it is also richly detailed, beautifully told and intensely poignant in the way it asks questions about: where do you belong?

Beautiful Days by Joyce Carol Oates – A book of short stories that are intensely dramatic and show a magnificent range from tales of stark psychological realism about the conflict between lovers or the conflict between a mother and her son to stories that are slightly more surreal in tone like an ex-president forced to dig up the graves of all the victims of his policies or a girl trapped in a painting like some nightmare fairy tale. They are so imaginative and gripping and this is the second book of short stories Oates has published this year. Her other book Night Gaunts is equally as compelling and you can watch me talk at length about these HP Lovecraft-influenced stories in a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekmgrCyZqDg&t=155s

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro – This novel describes a woman who is a wife and mother and how she enters into an affair. It’s well-trodden fictional territory but Quatro speaks about it in such a thoughtful and considered way. It shows how challenging it is to grapple with our desires – not just our desire for sex – but also for an engagement with someone that is intellectual and spiritual. And it gives such a sobering take on how messy all this unruly passion is.

Problems by Jade Sharma – This debut novel is about an anti-hero named Maya who can’t connect with life in the way she knows she should. Her marriage is inane. Her lover is distant. Her job at a bookstore is going nowhere. Her thesis is unfinished. Her mother is nagging. Her drug habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her very non-PC sexual impulses. But through all this the author has a frank candour and humour which makes this novel oddly comforting in a way that acknowledges what a disaster all of our lives really are.

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Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith – I was lucky enough to see Smith read some of the poetry from this book in person. He is such a passionate and lively reader. And these poems are so engaged and revelatory in how they speak about black bodies in America, gay culture and being HIV positive. They’re politically aware and playful and sexy. Even if you’re not someone who normally reads poetry, I think anyone can connect with this incredibly original and relevant writing.

And finally, not a new book, but a classic. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley! I’ve been reading more classic novels than I usually do – not just for some Rediscover the Classics campaigns that I’ve been curating – but also other books and it’s been so enlightening. And it was such a joy to read Frankenstein for the first time and it’s appropriate too since it’s been 200 years since this novel was first published. It really wasn’t what I expected as it was so much darker and complex and philosophical than I thought it’d be.

So those are my choices! I feel glad to have read such amazing books and I’m sure I’ll discover many more great reads in the next six months. Now I’d love to hear about what books you’ve most enjoyed so far this year.

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It’s so interesting reading Mary Shelley’s hugely influential novel “Frankenstein” after having so recently read Margaret Cavendish’s fantastically bizarre “The Blazing World” since both of these novels begin with a journey to the North Pole. I’ll need to read more about Shelley’s life and influences, but I assume having published her novel 152 years after Cavendish’s she must have been somewhat influenced by it – not just by the story’s action but the engagement she makes with scientific and philosophical ideas. Although, I have to say, Shelley’s novel is far more immediately engaging and readable for the incredibly gripping and sympathetic plot she created. While doctor Frankenstein’s infamous creation may have been reduced to an unreasonable monster in popular culture, in the novel he’s incredibly sensitive and articulate. It’s the fact that society sees Frankenstein’s creation as a monster that turns him into a monster rather than there being anything inherently evil about him. For this reason, I can see why this novel has really stood the test of time. As the ultimate tale of an outsider to society, it has a universal resonance and its meaning is still powerful today – for instance, Guillermo del Toro credited and thanked Mary Shelley when he won best director at this year’s BAFTAs for his film ‘The Shape of Water’.

I was encouraged to finally read this novel because of my involvement in curating the “Rediscover the Classics” project for the company JellyBooks. I talk more about this project and how you can join in with it in this video. It gives a great excuse for finally getting around to reading some much-lauded books. It feels especially poignant reading “Frankenstein” this year because it’s been exactly 200 years since it was first published. That a novel written so long ago can still feel so fresh and relevant is astounding. It’s no wonder that this book makes such a great choice for classrooms because young people can naturally relate to and understand the intense feelings it expresses of being an outsider – and the language it uses is very easy to read. There are so many moral and social issues raised in the plot that can be considered from different angles. It considers notions such as ambition, artificial intelligence, community, education, revenge, righteousness and many more.

It’s interesting how Shelley frames her story within the correspondence between a captain named Robert Walton with his sister Margaret. By beginning and ending the novel with his perspective it’s like she keeps this dramatic tale at arm’s length and invites the reader to consider how they would react if they came across a monstrous giant being chased through the arctic by his tortured and resentful creator. It’s also interesting how Robert insists how lonely he has become in his journey towards the North Pole in his quest to achieve some success and fame. This parallels with Frankenstein’s creation who expresses such an achingly intense feeling of loneliness in being rejected by anyone he encounters because they are repulsed by his hideousness. Frankenstein’s drive to achieve scientific recognition led to him creating an independent being that he quickly discarded. It’s as if Shelley is stressing how important it is to maintain empathy when attempting to realize our ambitions because we can easily forget about other people’s feelings in our drive towards achieving success and furthering the progress of civilization.

A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

Something I found curious about the story is when Frankenstein’s creation describes his experiences living nearby a family that he observes over many months without revealing himself. It’s touching the way she describes his appreciation for this tight-knit family and the way that he learns the elements of language and society through observing them. He beautifully expresses the propulsive force of learning: “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock.” But he also interestingly describes learning about other cultures through their subjective understanding. When describing the colonization of North America and the slaughter of Native Americans he expresses how he “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.” But he also learns disdain for “the slothful Asiatics” which are so characterized because of a complicated sub-plot to do with their family involving slavery in Turkey. It seems curious how there is empathy for one nationality, but a sharp condemnation and stereotyping of another. Certainly the politics surrounding both these areas of the world understandably lead to such broad characterisations for this particular family. But I think this shows how the family's subjectivity induces them to make generalisations about people based on nationality. It adds to the novel’s broader message about not rejecting other people because of outward appearances. 

I didn’t expect “Frankenstein” to be such an emotional and heart breaking story. The isolation and misery of doctor Frankenstein’s creation is so powerfully depicted. It feels especially cruel that the creation is never given a name, but only referred to by the doctor as “the fiend” or “monster”. To deny someone a name feels like essentially depriving them of their own humanity. But the way the creation describes so vividly his feeling of longing, rejection, despair, anger and regret makes him one of the most dynamically realised humans I’ve ever read about. This is such a powerful book that I now feel eager to explore much more about Mary Shelley’s life and the many permutations of this narrative that have been created since this story’s inception 200 years ago.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMary Shelley
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