Category Archives: Books

Don Quixote, Volume 1 (1605) – Miguel de Cervantes

200px-El_ingenioso_hidalgo_don_Quijote_de_la_ManchaWell written but repetitive – Don Quixote sees a vision, mouths off, gets thrashed. Repeat.

Don Quixote is a satire. Even though the chivalric ideals have driven Don Quixote mad, the world he moves through, the reality outside the delusion, is seeped in romantic love. Most everyone he meets and knows is living a chivalric reality where love rules and drives their lives –  love at first sight, star crossed lovers, or true love stolen away.

Whether the target of Cervantes’s satire was romantic love itself or the pious anti-love efforts of the church, I still have not determined.

Perhaps the novel’s greatness is in this ambiguity.


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Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad

300px-Blackwood's_Magazine_-_1899_coverAbout halfway through Heart of Darkness there is a jump in the narrative that made me feel as if I had missed something. After placing Marlow in Africa, on a steamer heading up the Congo, and giving him a growing obsession with Kurtz, we finally approach the Far Station – and then suddenly Kurtz is on the steamer and they are all heading back to the coast.

An anti-capitalistic story, what horrors are done in the name of money.

Rather that being too long, this novel feels too short.

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Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo

220px-EbcosetteI wonder if Victor’s work is diminished by the commercialization of Jean Valjean’s story, the goodness of man in an unending battle with the worst of man – want, envy, indifference.

The story is a well written tale of redemption that does suffer a little by the many coincidental events that bring key players together again and again as if it were a story really titled “Trois Degrés de Séparation“. But Jean Valjean’s story is only a portion of Victor’s work. Victor is a philosopher and historian, and at his core, a humanitarian.

It seems that everyone knows the story of Les Misérables if only by societal osmosis. But everything I knew about the story – the stolen loaf, Fantine, the galleys, Cosette – occurs very early in the book. With 20% of the novel behind me and most of the story I knew concluded, I squinted at the remaining work, shades of War and Peace darkening the edges of my vision. Turns out Victor created a very successful hook in Jean Valjean, one that kept me coming back while I patiently listened in on the author’s thoughts on France, French history, and humanity’s stuttering attempts at building a just society. He is relevant even today, his views on the dangers of complacency in the middle class and the dangers in disparity of wealth for example.

He ties his lofty thoughts back into Jean Valjean’s story with only the most tenuous of threads.

We learn that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo because of the sunken road that decimated the French cavalry assault. One of those dying cavalry men filling the ravine is Marius’s father who is saved by the Thénardiers (soon to be Cosette’s evil step parents). We hear why the monastery and convent are bad for society and then watch as Cossette and Jean find refuge in one. And we hear too much about the Paris sewage system before Jean Valjean escapes into one with Marius on his back.

Also during my reading of Les Misérables, I learned that the normal response at a dinner party to the statement, “I am reading Les Misérables” is an eye roll and a comment along the lines, “Oh, I read that when I was thirteen”.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), Ernest Hemingway

ErnestHemmingway_ForWhomTheBellTollsCourage and cowardice in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, just prior to the Battle of Segovia.

An almost real-time tale of three days in the life of Montanan Robert Jordan fighting fascists alongside republican guerillas as he makes plans to blow up a key bridge.

Robert is a walking advertisement for the virile American male stereotype. He is calm and collected, smart and heroic, good in the sack, and trying to prove he is not afflicted by his father’s cowardice.

Ernest paints a picture filled with minute detail, from the rope soled shoes to the steaming breath of horses. And even though everyone is speaking Spanish, Ernest gives a sense of another language, different and formal, while writing the novel in English – sanitized, of course, with all the cussing obscenities bleeped out.

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Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut

SlaughterhousefiveThe story of Billy Pilgrim who becomes untethered in time during World War 2 and whose past present and future blend together to tell his tale, with the atrocities of the Dresden fire bombing at its core.

The novel is named for the place where Billy and his fellow POWs are housed during their brief stay in Dresden, the fifth building of a slaughterhouse used to kill pigs.

Similar in feel and format to Heller’s Catch-22 – nonlinear antiwar – but with a trip to Tralfamidor for a stay in their zoo and discussions on the futility of worrying about time – everything that is was and will be.

So it goes.

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Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Bronte

300px-Jane_Eyre_title_pageIs Jane Eyre the Twilight of its time? Is the romance genre just a feminine commentary on the strange condition that is man? Does this make Tolstoy’s take on women in Anna Karenina more relevant or more insulting to women?

Jane Eyre has extremely flawed male characters bracketed by good (or good-ish) men. Between the unseen Mr. Reed and the reformed and closet-cleaned Mr. Rochester are a series of extremely damaged men, sadistic cousin John Reed, stingy Mr. Brocklehurst, and the emotionless and manipulative St. John Rivers. Mr. Rochester himself is selfish and distant but oh so deliciously mysterious.

Similar to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane is intelligent and intriguing in a story with good pacing. Good, that is, until Jane throws reason under a train three-quarters of the way through, where she strongly considers becoming a frigid trophy wife before divine intervention brings her back to her true love’s arms.

Divine intervention – the writer’s ‘get out of jail free’ card.

In its time the entirety of Jane Eyre was enjoyed by many a teenaged girl. Not so much anymore.

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Remembrance of Things Past (1927) – abridged, Marcel Proust

51ns76375hL__SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_This isn’t a novel it is a memoir. Remembrance is a particularly homophobic and misogynistic memoir that I did not fully understand.

Perhaps I was distracted. Perhaps the abridged version does not provide a good Proust experience. Perhaps I will revisit in the future.

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