Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Thank you Brianna for lending me your copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus (published 1942).  Albert Camus was a major French philosopher and writer of the 20th Century and I had been planning to read The Stranger eventually but there is no time like the present.  This review will contain spoilers.

When The Stranger (translated by Matthew Ward) begins Meursault, the main character in the novel, is living in Algiers.  His mother has just died.  As Mersault travels to the nursing home where his mother was living it becomes clear that he is not broken up by her death.  He's not happy or sad.  He doesn't cry.  It's just that nothing affects him one way or the other.  After his mother's funeral for example he begins a relationship with a young woman named Marie.  She brings up the subject of marriage and Meursault responds::

"I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her.  "So why marry me, then?" she said.  I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Besides she was the one who was doing the asking  and all I was saying was yes.  Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious tbing.  I said "No".  She stopped talking for a moment and looked at me withot saying anything."

Mersault also makes friends with Raymond, a neighbor.  Raymond beats up his mistress who he believes is cheating on him.  She has two brothers who vow revenge.  Meursault, Raymond, Marie and another couple are vacationing at the beach when they spot the two brothers.  Later that day Meursault goes back to the beach where the brothers are staying and for no reason shoots and kills one of the brothers.  The second part of the book involves Meursault's trial where he is facing the death penalty.

The Stranger is a philosophical novel and needs to be read with that in mind.  Meursault behaves as if life is meaningless and because of this he is a threat to the other characters in the book.  At his trial the prosecutor, judge, even the defense attorney are obsessed not with the murder but with why Meursault did not cry at his mother's funeral.  Why didn't he visit her more?  Why did he begin a relationship with Marie so soon after his mother's death?   Meursault will not conform to what society expects of him.  He will not pretend to have emotions he doesn't feel.  He sees life as fundementally meaningless and everyone else in the novel including the prison chaplain at the end of the book is trying to get Meursault to come around to their point of view.  They don't want to acknowledge that he may be right, maybe life is meaningless.

In one of his other books, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus lays out the philosophy of absurdism which sees the universe as chaotic and uncaring.  To offset this grim picture humanity has tried to build a world with meaning:  religion, marriage, children, work, laws, art politics etc but its all futile.  Camus who was an atheist believed that people would be happier if they could admit to the absurdity of life and he encouraged people not to give up in the face of absurdity but to revolt against it.  Live a life with meaning anyway.  This was the road to true happiness and freedom.  At least I think that's what Camus is saying.  I would have to read more to be sure. 

The facts of Camus' life may have contributed to his philosophy of the absurd.  His father died iwhen he was a year old.   Camus grew up poor but happy and he loved his mother. Camus got accepted to the University of Algiers but had to drop out because of TB.  Camus lived through World War II which must have reinforced his view that life was uncaring and where was God?  But he was a brave man who joined the French resistance and published the underground newspaper Combat.  He was very troubled by the bombing of Hiroshima and what these devastating weapons meant for humanity's future.  Camus continued to speak out against the death penalty, poverty, war.  He was critical of the Soviet Union and their treatment of Eastern Europe which caused his break with Jean Paul Sartre. As Camus once put it "I am for the left, despite myself, and despite the left."  Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.  He died in 1960 in a car crash.   He had bought a train ticket to Paris but at the last moment his publisher offered him a ride and they were killed when their car hit a tree.  Camus was 46.

I recommend The Stranger and am glad I read it. It's not a beach read but it's a novel that causes you to think.  I came away from The Stranger wanting to know more about Albert Canus and read his other classics, The Plague, The Fall and his book The Myth of Sisyphus where he goes into more depth about absurdism.  Thanks once again Brianna for recommending The Stranger

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Back To The Classics Challenge 2018

As 2018 approaches I have been looking at the various Reading Challenges out there and I have decided to try the one hosted by Karen K who runs the Book review website Books and Chocolate.  The challenge is to read 12 Classics in 2018 one from each category listed below and here are my choices:

A 19th Century Classic -  New Grubb Street by George Gissing.  I read his book The Odd Women years ago in which the lead character is a 19th century suffragette and Gissing portrays both her and women's suffrage in an understanding and respectful light.  Very impressed with the Odd Women so now time to read the classic that Gissing is most known for, New Grubb Street.

A 20th Century Classic -   There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  My niece Brianna gave me this book over Thanksgiving.  Always meant to read it and based on the first few pages that I skimmed, it's good.

A Classic by A Woman Author -  Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  Read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and I don't want to leave Anne out.

A Classic In Translation -  The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.  It's a great classic and written in the 14th century.  I have a pretty good translation too which is key.

A Classic of Children's Literature -  Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I love the series and now its time to read the books.

A Classic Crime Story (Fiction or Non Fiction) And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Haven't read her in decades but I remember how much I enjoyed her books and this book is considered one of her best.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative (fiction or non fiction) Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon.  One of the many yet to be read books stored in my kindle and so it's now or never.

A Classic With A Single Word Title - Belinda by Maria Edgeworth.  Jane Austen was a fan of this author.

A Classic With A Color in The Title -  The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare  Newberry Award Winner set in Puritan New England in the 1600's.  .

A Classic by An Author that's New To You -  The Trial by Franz Kafka.  Never read him but have become curious based on a review of his diaries in Literary Hub.

A Classic that Scares You -  Sound and Fury by William Faulkner.  Heard his books are difficult but we'll see.

Reread A Favorite Classic - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Read this in high school and loved it.  Big Steinbeck fan.

I plan to read and review many other books in 2018 but the above books are definitely on my to do list.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

From the Archives: Siddartha by Herman Hesse first posted on 1/15/2017

Thanks Alexia and thanks Brian for recommending Siddartha by Herman Hesse.  I may have read a short story by Hesse when I was in high school but never got around to reading his classic novel Siddartha about a man's search for enlightenment and I am happy to have finally done so.  This review will contain spoilers.

Siddartha is a beautifully written poetic novel published in 1922 and set in India around the 6th to the 4th century B.C.  When we meet Siddartha he is a young man, the son of a Brahman which is a priestly cast in Hinduism.  Everyone in Siddartha's village including his parents admire him greatly for his piety, his knowledge.  But Siddartha decides to leave his village because he does not feel his father and the Brahman elders have the answers he seeks.  He notices that after all their years of studying, making offerings and praying they have not found peace and enlightenment.

So accompanied by his best friend Govinda, Siddartha joins the Samanas who practice lives of extreme self denial, fasting and meditation.  Siddartha at first takes very well to this ascetic life but he becomes disillusioned once again because after fasting and meditation he can't maintain the altered state and he awakens back into the material world with all its pain, suffering and complexities.  Siddartha and Govinda leave the Samanas and decide next to follow Gotama, the historic Buddha.  Siddartha admires this great man but comes to the realization that the Buddha has achieved enlightenment not by learning it from teachers but rather by going on his own journey which cannot be taught.

Govinda though decides to stay with the community of Buddhist monks while Siddartha leaves to continue his search.  Siddartha also makes the decision to have no more teachers and that rather than trying to negate the self in an attempt to reach enlightenment he will try to find out who he is and listen to his own voice.  Siddartha decides he must embrace not only the world of thought and meditation but also the physical world, the world of the senses which he has shunned up to now.

Siddartha armed with this insight moves to the city.  He finds love and wealth.  He lives in a beautiful house, eating rich foods, drinking fine wines, gambling.  Years go by.  He forgets what he learned from the Samanas, the Buddhists and the Brahmans.  Siddartha becomes disgusted with himself and leaves the city.  Now no longer a young man Siddartha becomes depressed about how his life has turned out decides to end it all by drowning himself in the river.  But something stops him, the Brahman faith and the holy word "om" returns to him in his hour of need and rather than drown himself, Siddartha goes into a deep sleep by the side of the river with the word "om" in his thoughts and he awakens no longer depressed but at peace.

I'll end it there but my summary cannot match the experience of reading Siddartha.  There are many truths to be found in its pages.  Siddartha is a book that I feel needs to be read more than once throughout one's life because as one's life changes what you take away from the book will change as well.  So thanks again to Alexia and Brian for recommending Siddartha. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

From the Archives: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte first posted on 11/26/2016

As with Great Expectations which I reviewed a few months ago, Jane Eyre, is a 19th century coming of age novel in which the main character looks back on their life and recounts the experiences the've had and the lessons learned.  Tbere are a number of similarities between these two great classics and differences too but I have to say I much prefer Jane Eyre, a novel that touches on so many themes and which also presents us with a young woman, Jane Eyre, without friends or family trying to make her way in the world.

When you consider that Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1846 that is remarkable.  One passage stood out for me in terms of the feminist aspects of the book.  Jane is 18 and a teacher at Lowood Institute, a boarding school for poor girls where Jane's Aunt had callously shipped her off to when she was 10.  Jane has been at Lowood for almost half of her life and though the school is much improved and Jane has a steady income she wants something different:

"What do I want?  A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.  I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.  How do people do to get a new place.  They apply to friends I suppose; I have no friends.  There are many others who have no friends who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?   I could not tell; nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response and quickly ...I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two, shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.  A kind fairy in my absence had surely dropped the suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down it came quietly and naturally to my mind - those who want situations advertise - you must advertise in the - Shire Herald".

After placing the ad Jane receives an offer from a Mrs Fairfax who lives at Thornfield Hall and works for Edward Rochester, the master of the estate.  Mrs Fairfax is seeking a governess for young Adele who is a ward of Mr. Rochester.  Jane accepts the job to teach Adele and comes to live at Thornfield and so begins the passionate yet rocky romance between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester.

For me the main attraction in this novel was Jane Eyre who narrates the book but I was charmed by Mr. Rochester too, a brooding Byronesque hero who says to Jane at one point: "nature meant me on the whole to be a good man, Miss Eyre, and you see I am not".  But actually Mr. Rochester is a good man.  Jane would not love or respect anything less.  Granted, Mr. Rochester is flawed.  Life has dealt him a bad hand but he has good qualities too and courage when called upon.

Jane Eyre when it was published was a phenomenal success with readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  The literary critic Elaine Showalter said that women everywhere were reading Jane Eyre and a kind of Jane Eyre mania took hold.  A fascination developed as well with Charlotte Bronte and later with Emily Bronte.  Having now read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I can only marvel at how much genius could exist within one family.

Friday, December 15, 2017

From the Archives: The Hate List by Jennifer Brown posted on 10/16/2016

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown is a young adult novel that tackles a disturbing topic, the aftermath of a Columbine type school shooting.  The novel is narrated by Valerie Leftman a student at Garvin High School where the shooting takes place. When we meet Valerie she is in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained when she saves the life of a classmate by hurling herself at the school shooter, also a student at Garvin High.  Nick Levil, the shooter, then turns the gun on himself thus ending his killing spree in which six students and a teacher are dead and others wounded.

Valerie is a hero for risking her life to save a fellow classmate, Jessica Campbell, and for bringing Nick's killing rampage to an end.  What complicates this story though is that Nick was Valerie's boyfriend.  She had no idea what he was planning on that awful day but many students and teachers don't believe her.  The newspapers report that Valerie and Nick kept a hate list, a notebook in which they would write down things and people they hated including the classmates who regularly bullied them and made their high school life miserable. For Valerie the list was just a way to let off steam but for Nick the hate list became something much darker.

And that's the premise of this powerful novel.  How does Valerie make it through her senior year when she returns to Garvin High?  How does she recover both physically and emotionally?  Do her friends stick by her?  Are there classmates who suprisingly reach out to Valerie who prior to the shooting wouldn't have given her the time of day?  The novel spends time on Valerie's parents' reaction to the shooting and then there is Nick.  Valerie knows she should hate him for what he did but she still remembers the thoughtful boyfriend before the bullying began to change him and the author does a good job of letting us see Nick before the rage overtook him.  Valerie blames herself.  What signals did she miss about Nick and how he was changing?  Why did she come up with the Hate List?  Was she secretly hoping that Nick would take action?  These are the questions that haunt Valerie as she tells her story to the reader.

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown was published in 2009 and was given a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  The book went on to win numerous young adult novel awards but it's not a book just for teens.  Everyone will benefit from meeting Valerie who is a bright strong and complicated young woman or as the author says a character who is a hero, a villian but most of all human.  A starred review from me as well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

From the Archive: A Drinking Life by Pete Hamil first posted 10/2/2016

One of my Mom's favorite books was A Drinking Life: A Memoir by Pete Hamil and I am sorry that I never got around to reading it at the time.  I would have liked to have discussed it with Mom.  I have read the book now though and here are my thoughts.

A Drinking Life is an important book with interesting things to say about how a young Pete Hamil, born in Brooklyn in a nieghborhood where you did not dream big found the drive to become a legendary newspaper columnist and an author of eleven novels.  Pete Hamil clearly loved his mother who encouraged him to folliw his dreams.  He loved his father too but as Pete explains his father worked long hours and drank too much when he was home.  Also his father, Billy Hamil, didn't understand his son's passions when it came to cartoons and love of books.

As a teenager Hamil got a scholarship to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan.  He dropped out of Regis at 16, got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began taking art classes at night.  In 1952 at age 17 he joined the Navy and after a few years in the Navy moved to Mexico to study painting.  In 1960 at age 25 with a wealth of experience behind him, Pete Hamil started working as a reporter for the New York Post.

A Drinking Life is about drinking of course and how it  affected Hamil's early life and the nieghborhood he grew up in.  As the novel progresses Hamil's drinking becomes serious and he writes about what finally caused him to quit.  The memoir is also about trying to be a cartoonist and then a painter before he became a writer.  And in A Drinking Life it's interesting to read about the great comic strips and cartoonists of the era.

Also what stood out for me was Pete Hamil's unwillingness to settle.  When at 16 he got a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for many that would have been their career path, job security and after 30 years a good pensiion. But as Pete Hamil describes it in his memoir, he wanted more.  Throughout his teenage and young adult years he was constantly questioning himself.  Is this where I want to be?  And if the answer was no he moved on and changed his situation.

As I read A Drinking Life there was parts of it that reminded me of Angela's Ashes but Angela's Ashes is the better book although to be fair very few memoirs can compete with Frank McCourt's memoir about his impoverished Limerick childhood.  Pete Hamil is quite honest in his memoir, shockingly so, and he has truths to tell too but the book dragged for me a good part of the way.  So instead of A Drinking Life I suggest you try out one of Pete Hamil's novels specifically Snow In August about a ten year old boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940's which I can highly recommend.

Monday, December 11, 2017

From the Archives: A Wilder Rose by Susan Wittig Albert first posted on 8/27/2016

I knew that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a daughter Rose Wilder.  I figured that Rose grew up and with her husband and children continued the family tradition of farming.  Then in her middle years, inspired by her mother, Rose might have tried to get something published but as we all know her mother was the talent in the family.

Or do we?  Because in her splendid novel, A Wilder Rose, Susan Wittig Albert
(best known for her China Bayles mystery series) raises the question was Rose Wilder the real author of the Little House books?  At the very least should she have co-authorship with her mother based on the amount of editing and rewriting Rose may have done?

Mainly though A Wilder Rose introduces us to a fascinating woman who led an extraordinary life.  Born in 1886 Rose Wilder was a woman ahead of her time.  In her 20's she was a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin.  After World War I Rose travelled through Europe as a reporter for the Red Cross.  Her short stories and articles appeared in The Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post.  A few of her stories were nominated for the O'Henry Award.  Rose Wilder's personal life equally as interesting.  She was married but she and her husband Gillette Lane eventually split up.  Her other serious relationship was with Helen Dore Boylston (who would go on to write tbe popular Sue Barton Student Nurse series).  Rose and Helen lived together for six years, two of which were spent  in a country house in Albania that Rose fell in love with during her reporting for the Red Cross.  Rose never wanted to leave.

But then in 1929 the stock market crashed and the money Rose had invested, her life savings earned from writing, was wiped out.  Her parents farm was also failing and since her father's health was not good Rose moved back home to try to support herself and her parents the only way she knew how, by writing.  It was during this time according to the novel that Laura Ingalls Wilder who had never published a book before conceived the Little House series and asked her daughter for help.

A Wilder Rose has been described by Kirkus Review as "pitch perfect"  and Publisher's Weekly gave the book a starred review.  I recommend a Wilder Rose and an added bonus is a good part of the novel is Rose recounting what it was like living through the Great Depression and how she and her friends in the literary world got by in those years after the magazine and book publishing industry  dried up.  Living in the Midwest, Rose also tells us about the dustbowl and the devastation that wreaked on farmers.  We learn about the romanticized view The Little House books and the TV series gave with regard to what the Ingalls family faced as they tried to eek out a living on a Kansas farm in the 1870's.

After finishing A Wilder Rose I decided to read Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in the Little House series.  It's a children's classic but I would recommend it for all ages.  It's a wonderfully written and all the more reason that Rose Wilder if she was the co-author should have her name on the cover.

From the Archives: How the West Was Won by Louis L'Amour posted on 8/10/2016

I am a fan of the TV series Bonanza.  I also enjoy reruns of Gunsmoke and the Riflenan.  So you would think I would like Western novels but I don't as a rule.  I find them rather dry and the heroes two dimensional.  However a year or two ago I was watching the movie How The West Was Won starring Debbie Reynolds, Carol Baker, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck.  The movie begins in the 1840's and takes the characters on through to the 1880's and you get to see pivital points in the history of the American West along the way.

I enjoyed the movie and then a few weeks ago I found out that Louis L'Amour had written a Western based on the film and now having finished the book I can say it was an informative and enjoyable reading experience, just like the movie. Louis L'Amour is a prolific writer (100 novels, 250 short stories) and he is talented.  He's a big name in the Western genre along with such writers as Zane Grey, Max Brand, Larry McMurty, Owen Wister etc.

How the West Was Won tells the story of the Prescott family, specifically the Prescott daughters, Eve and Lilith.  The Prescotts are heading west in the 1840's when the novel begins.  Like many families they are hoping for a better life but tragedy strikes early on when the parents, Zebulon and Rebecca are killed as the family is crossing the Ohio river.  This will leave the Prescott children, Eve, Lillith, Sam and Zeke on their own and as the novel progresses through the 1850's, 1860's, 1870's and 1880's the focus is on Lilith and Eve.  Eve marries Linus Rawlings, a mountain man. and they settle in the Midwest to farm and raise a family.  Lilith, a free spirit becomes a singer in dance halls and marries Cleve Van Halen, a gambler and business man and they settle in San Francisco.

The novel is divided into five chapters: the River, the Plains, the War (Civil War), the Iron Horse (the Railroad) and tbe Outlaw. Each chapter moves you forward in the journey of Eve, Lilith, their husbands and Eve's son Jeb Rawlings who becomes a Marshall in Arizona in the 1880's.  Louis L'Amour knows the west, its history, its key figures and he's a good writer which is the most important.  If you have never read a Western but are curious about the genre, How the West Was Won, either the film or the novel is a good place to begin.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

From the Archive: Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac first posted on 7/24/2016

Published in 1835 and set in the Paris of 1819, Pere Goriot is a masterpiece of world literature and its author the French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) is one of the world's great writers. Balzac has influenced Emile Zola, Charles Dickens, Gustav Flaubert, Henry James, Jack Kerouac to name just a few and reading Pere Goriot I could see the influence he must have had on Dickens.

As with Great Expectations, Pere Goriot tells the story of a young man Eugene de Rastignac who comes to the big city, in this case Paris, to make his fortune but then the novels Pere Goriot and Great Expectations diverge in that Pere Goriot is also the story of Vautrin a shady character who the police are after and Pere Goriot an elderly man who has two grown married daughters.  Goriot stands as a cautionary tale to parents who bankrupt themselves so their children can have everything.  All three along with several other down on their luck characters reside in a boarding house in run down section of Paris. 

As I read Pere Goriot I kept making notes of passages that stood out for me.  Here is Eugene de Rasignac for example writing to his mother and sister for money which the can't afford.  He feels guilt and Balzac writes:

"He was ready to renounce his attempts.  He could not bear to take the money.  The fires of remorse burned in his heart and gave hin intollerable pain, the generous secret remorse which men seldom take into account when they sit in judgement of their fellow men but perhaps the angels in heaven, beholding it, pardon the criminal which our justice condemns".  

In a later passage, Vautrin explains to Eugene why he should court a fellow resident at the boarding house, the sweet shy Mlle Victorine whose wealthy father has disowned her in favor of her older brother.  Vautrin hints that if the brother were suddenly out of the way the fortune would go to Victorine and he tells Eugene:

"If you pay court to a young girl whose existance is a compound of lonliness, despair and poverty and who has no suspicion she will come into a fortune, good Lord! It is quint and quatorze at piquet; it is knowing the numbers of the lottery before-hand; it is speculating in the funds when you have news from a good source...the girl may come in for millions and she will fling them as if they were pebbles at your feet".

And lastly there is Pere Goriot who over the years increasingly gave away his fortune to his daughters who have married well and have no time or money for their father but Goriot is not angry.  As he explains to Eugene:

"Dear me why would I want anything better?  My real life is in my two girls you see and as long as they are happy and smartly dressed and have soft carpets under their feet what does it matter what clothes I wear or where I lay down of a night?  I shall never feel cold as long as they are warm.  I shall never feel dull if they are laughing.  I have no problems but theirs".

Pere Goriot is a book in which Balzac is quite critical of Parisian high society although the author himself from what I have read was a monarchist.  Balzac is insightful and sarcastic about human nature and he can be funny as I hope some of the passages I quoted show.  It is hard to know if Balzac is mocking Pere Goriot for his deluded views about his selfish daughters or feels empathy and respect for how deep a parent's love can go even when the parent gets nothing in return.  As the critic Leslie Stephen wrote there is a King Lear aspect to Goriot without a Cordelia to come to his defense.

I recommend Pere Goriot.  It's a classic and though I did not have the experience I had with Crime and Punishment where upon closing that book I wanted to read everything else Dostoyevsky wrote, ditto with Pride and Prejudice, I still prefer Pere Goriot to Great Expectations.  Balzac can be quite humorous in his novels which gave Pere Goriot for me a lighter reading experience.