Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

It’s amazing how often I start reading a book and realize that it’s referencing a classic that I haven’t read – which immediately makes me want to read the classic. I picked up Connie Willis’ time travel Hugo Award winner, To Say Nothing of the Dog, to share during January’s Science Fiction Experience, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings. But it quickly became evident that the main character’s thoughts and actions were heavily influenced by his reading of Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian “buddy” story, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). It was also evident that I wasn’t going to understand the Willis book completely unless I understood the references. So I put down Willis temporarily, and downloaded the classic* that inspired her.

I am so glad I did! How on Earth did this book escape me for so long?

The first-person narration describes a two-week trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford in a skiff with two close and quirky friends and an enthusiastic fox terrier, Montmorency. Parts of it are pure Victorian travelogue, describing in overwrought and sentimental fashion the towns, inns and historic sites they encounter along the river. Sounds dreadful, right? But what makes the book a classic of British comic literature are the narrator’s hilarious digressions, describing incidents from the lives of himself (an inveterate hypochondriac) and his companions, George (a lazy banker) and Harris (a prodigious tippler), as well as sending up some of the recurring themes in British history. In fact, the inclusion of these humorous sections actually renders the flowery travel writing funny in comparison, since it reads as satire of the genre.

What was most amazing to me was that even though the book was written in 1898, most of the humor still seems fresh in 2011. At one point, the narrator, J., shares the miraculous story of how he survived his first sailing experience, undertaken with absolutely no knowledge of the craft.

Possibly the result may have been brought about by the natural obstinacy of all things in this world. The boat may possibly have come to the conclusion, judging from a cursory view of our behavior, that we had come out for a morning’s suicide, and had thereupon determined to disappoint us. That is the only suggestion I can offer. p. 89

This book is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm and comic understatement. It occurs to me that a lot of what I love about British humor probably has its roots in this classic. The chapter about the mounted trout in the pub should be required reading for every fishermen – and every person who lives with a fishermen. Honestly, I laughed out quite a few times reading this book.**

Certainly, I’d recommend this to lovers of classics, but those who enjoy humor and travel books will also find it a pleasure. Really, unless you’ve had your funny bone surgically removed, I think you’ll find something to like in this book.

It’s so awesome to start 2012 off with a great surprise of a classic! This was my first book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, so thanks to Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much for hosting. Next up, of course, is To Say Nothing of the Dog for Carl V.’s Science Fiction Experience, which I hope to appreciate far more thoroughly after reading this book.

*I am having so much fun with the free and almost free classics that are available in e-book format. My Kindle has already paid for itself with public domain works that I didn’t have to buy, find or wait for!

**Unfortunately for my husband, at one point I was reading long after he had fallen asleep. Let’s just say he didn’t find my chuckling as funny as I found the book.


16 comments:

  1. I LOVE this book, too- it was just so, so funny in a very Wodehouse-ian way (though I've only read one book by Wodehouse, so what do I know?). Have you read Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog? I highly recommend that as a brilliant complement.

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  2. I have never heard of this classic before but it sounds charming!

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  3. And that's how one book begats another & another & you ended swapping continents, time zones, genres etc. all by following one writers curve.

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  4. I love the quote you shared! This sounds like a timeless book.

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  5. What a great way to start the New Year and your challenge!

    I am struck by your comment about the humor standing the test of time -- in this case an awful lot of years.

    I am putting this on my classics tbr list - I was not aware of it, but I am all in for British humor :)

    Great review today!

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  6. @Aarti -- I've already started To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I am loving that one as well. I haven't read science fiction in years, so this is a good, literary start in that direction.

    @Amused -- It was a new one to me too, and I can't figure out why it's so neglected in the US, except for the fact that it may not be serious enough for people who teach literature. But it 's great.

    @Parrish -- This is my "magpie" reading initiative! "Ooh, look, there's a shiny book! Let's read that. Ooh, and there's one too!" And so my TBR list grows and grows!

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  7. @Kathy -- It is such a funny bit. The trout bit is even funnier, but it builds over the entire chapter, so I couldn't figure out a way to share it!

    @TheBookGirl -- Thanks! This is truly a gem. I hadn't heard about it until recently either, but now I'm suggesting it to everyone I know :)

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  8. This sounds fantastic! I also love how one book will lead to another... it is a wonderful cycle!

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  9. I LOVE Three Men in a Boat! I always describe it as if Bertie Wooster went on a boat trip with two equally clueless friends, but with a fox terrier instead of Jeeves.

    And the bit with the tin of pineapple always makes me laugh out loud. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Martin Jarvis, and the kids loved it too.

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  10. Luckily I heard about the relation between this one and the Willis one and read this first. It was just wonderful and I then went and bought the Penguin version that also has the sequel about the Bummel in it (I think that means a bicycle?). I think I'll read that story this year! I think you will love the Willis even more now. :)

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  11. This might be a good follow-up to Travels with Charley. Reading it has me in the mood for both more nonfiction and travel writing. Have heard that it is wonderful on audio, too. Glad you enjoyed it!

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  12. I love both of these books! I read the Willis book first and then tracked down the Jerome book. I'm not sure how I missed (never even heard of!) the Jerome book for so many years.

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  13. Hi: Sounds good - I had not heard of that author before, so thanks! Like you, I'm constantly amazed by how the sensibilities and humor of classics just keeps on seeming modern. My post is athttp://yearofreadingmybooks.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/happy-belated-birthday-edith-and-top-ten-and-teaser-tuesday/ Happy reading, Ruby

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  14. I absolutely adore this book. The 'Cheese' episode, 'of Uncle podger', the 'packing' bit, everything was hilarious. No wonder, the book hasn't been out of print since it was first published.

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  15. J.K. Jerome was one of those hard working writers who became an overnight success after years of rejection. His best known work, Three Men in a Boat, took a bath with the critics. They saw him as a jumped up clerk writing "threepenny shockers" and not a serious novelist.

    The people of Victorian Britain did not agree with the critics, and bought this book in their droves. In contrast to the usual three volume monsters of the day this book is a small and light read. The plot follows the cruise of three friends from London to Oxford in a rowing skiff, but the author charges off on frequent hares to illuminate his tale.

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  16. Loved your review. It's one of my favourite books (though I do have to be in the right mood). I was brought up in a Thameside town, know some of the places they visit, and always found watching inexperienced hirers hit their first lock was most enjoyable - not that I could do any better. Anyway, I've pulled the book from the shelf for a reread, so thank you.

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