Tuesday, August 25, 2009

235. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

July 2009
History: This book was published in 1997.
Plot: Make-believe and reality are fluid concepts in the universe of Haruki Murakami, and as as Toru Okada tries on the worldviews of his different friends, peculiar things begin to happen to him.
Toru Okada has left his job as a “gofer” in a law firm, and instead of studying to pass the bar, he settles into a routine of housekeeping, doing laundry, buying groceries, cooking dinner and waiting for his wife Kumiko to come home from her work as editor of a health food magazine. Also listening to the cries of the curious bird which gives the volume its title. The family cat disappears, and Toru's wife insists that Toru should spend his time wisely by looking for it. While searching near a neighbor's land, he meets May, a precocious sixteen year-old, who says what she likes and likes what she says, and who regards her visitor as something of an interesting specimen, who might be his best ally or his most dangerous adversary—it’s hard to tell. She calls him Mr Wind-Up Bird. She is a high-school dropout obsessed with death.
In the first pages we are introduced to a strange woman caller, who doesn’t identify herself but urges Toru to participate in phone sex. He hangs up on her. But Kumiko is also calling, and tells him to meet with someone who will help with getting the cat back. This is Malta Kano, who is a mystic and medium. She gives him advice but, clouded as it is in a typical Murakami fog, her guidance is far from straightforward. She introduces him to her sister, Creta Kano, who is a psychic prostitute. Creta visits him in his dreams as well as in reality, and has cerebral- or brain-sex with him, many pages before indulging, as it were, in the real thing. Creta reveals to Toru that while she was a prostitute, paying off loans, she was raped by his wife's brother, who is a powerful politician whom Toru has always detested. A strange old soldier, Lieutenant Mamiya, literally comes to his door to share a long, disturbing story about his activities in Outer Mongolia during the 1930s. This involves being thrown into a well and left for dead. The well is also a huge hinge in the story.
The other, even more central male character in this novel is Toru’s brother-in-law Noboru Wataya. As the book evolves, this disagreeable figure becomes poised as the antithesis and adversary of Okada. If Toru is indecisive and passive, Wataya is driven and
power-hungry. If Toru is a failure in the eyes of the world, Wataya is a prodigious success. He has parlayed his notoriety as an author into fame as a media pundit, and now politics looms as his next arena of dominance. He is a symbol of the leaders of Japan during WWII.
Then Kumiko, Toru's wife, also disappears, much to the delight of the politician character, who detests Toru right back again. Because the reader has already seen some of the telltale signs of her adultery (the long hours at work, the unreliability of her phone calls, the gifts of perfume), it is all the more heartbreaking when Toru learns that she has left him for a man who is better in bed. Needless to say, he does not take the news very well; Toru lowers himself to the bottom of a well, the better, in the dark, to get in touch with his true feelings and to introspect. Then May takes away the ladder that will lead him back up to his freedom and leaves him there, hungry and thirsty, for three days...
While he's down there, he has a bizarre experience, which might or might not be another dream: he passes through the subterranean stone wall into a dark hotel room, where a woman seduces him. This experience leaves a blue-black mark on his cheek that gives him miraculous healing powers. Eventually, he's rescued by Creta Kano, who reveals to him that she has been defiled in some hideous, unnatural way by Toru's brother-in-law, a politician whose rising career appears to be propelled by demonic powers.
Toru spends months wandering the streets, remembering Kumiko, her abortion a couple of years ago and the night he spent in a club afterwards, her stories of her childhood, the death of her sister, and her brother. As he is sitting in a subway station one day, he meets a woman who calls herself Nutmeg. She is also a mystic and medium, and runs a mother-and-son partnership that occupies a haunted house and operates a healing parlour for rich women under the guise of a chic boutique. The land that has the well is purchased, because that land has connection with the supernatural. Somehow, the author doesn’t go into much detail, the blue mark on Torus face is healing for women, when they suck on it… I don’t know. But he does work for them for several months, also spending a lot of time in the well. Her son, Cinnamon, is mute, but has powers, with use of the computer, to get Toru back in touch with Kumiko. By use of the computer, Toru and Kumiko communicate, and Toru is able to connect her story with his experiences. Kumiko has been under her brothers power, who defiles women as control, which he did to her sister and also to her numerous times. Not only sexually, but mentally as well. It began when Toru lost his job, and eventually Kumiko left and her brother took total control of her. Toru eventually connects with her again, by going down the well again and going through the wall. He ends up in a pitch black room, with her there and they discuss it, he ends up totally solving the problem. However, someone comes in, and Toru uses the baseball bat (another symbol) to smash his head in. He runs away, comes back to the well, but wakes up to find the well filling with water. Cinnamon rescues him, and he recovers to find the blue mark has disappeared. He receives an email from Kumiko that she plans to kill her brother, and stand trial. At the end of the book, she is on trial but the outcome looks good. He has traveled to see Mae, who is working in a factory up in the mountains making wigs. He says goodbye, and rides the train home.
Review: I felt this book to be a wonderful relief from most nonfiction and makes most novels look boring. The book is unpredictable as anything, and no matter how far off the story goes, it always comes together and connects at the end of every chapter. I didn’t love the violence, but I think Murakamis writing goes all over the place, explores every nook and cranny of existence that violence is just a part of the novel, just like sex, psychics, and even materialism. He describes clothing, food, décor to detail. He goes into long paragraphs of tidying up, preparing food, getting dressed.
Opening Line: “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”
Closing Line: “In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment”.
Quotes: “I don’t know how to put it, but it’s kind of like by not hiking about myself I can get closer to the core of myself.”
“When someone gets on my nerves, the first thing I do is transfer the object of my unpleasant feelings to another domain, one having no connection with me. Then I tell myself, Fine, I’m feeling bed, but I’ve put the source of those feelings into another zone, away from here, where I can examine it and deal with it later in my own good time. In other words, I put a freeze on my emotion. Later, when I thaw them out to perform the examination, I do occasionally find my emotion still in a distressed state, but that is rare. The passage of time will usually extract the venom from most things and render them harmless.”
Rating: Superb.

234. Life & Times of Michael K. – J.M. Coetzee

July 2009
History: This book was written in 1983. Some commentators notice a connection between the character Michael K and the protagonist Josef K. in The Trial by Franz Kafka. The book also bears many references to Kafka, and it is believed, "K" is a tribute to Kafka.
Plot: The novel begins with Michael K, an institutionalized simpleton who works as a gardener in Cape Town, South Africa. Michael tends to his mother who works as a maid to a wealthy family. Eventually, the city breaks out in a massive warlike riot, and Michael’s mother becomes very sick. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace of Prince Albert .
Michael finds himself unable to obtain the proper permits for travel out of the city so he builds a shoddy rickshaw to carry his mother, and they go on their way. Soon after escaping, Michael’s mother dies in a hospital. He lingers for some time, carrying his mother’s ashes around with him in a box. Finally, Michael decides to continue on his journey to Prince Albert to deliver his mother’s ashes. Along the way, though, he is detained for not having the required travel papers, thus being assigned to work detail on a railway track.
After his job on the railway track is finished, Michael makes his way to the farm his mother spoke of on Prince Albert. The farm is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael discovers how to live off the land. However, when one of the relatives of the real owners of the farm arrives, he treats Michael like a servant. Michael dislikes this treatment so he escapes up into the mountains.
In the mountains, Michael goes through a period of starvation while he becomes aware of his surroundings. In his malnourished state he finds his way down to a town where he is picked up by the police and is sent to work on a work camp. Here, Michael meets a man named Robert. Robert explains that the workers in the camp are exploited for cheap labor by the townspeople. Eventually, there is an attack on Prince Albert and the workers of the camp are blamed. The local police captain takes over and Michael escapes.
Michael finds his way back to the farm but soon feels claustrophobic within the house. Therefore, he builds a shelter in the open where he is able to watch his garden. Rebels come out of the mountains and use his garden. Although Michael is angered by this he stays in hiding. Michael becomes malnourished and delirious again because he has not come out of hiding. He is found by some soldiers and is taken to a rehabilitation camp in Cape Town.
At the rehabilitation camp, a doctor becomes interested in Michael. He finds Michael’s simple nature extremely fascinating and finds him to be unfairly accused of aiding rebels. Michael becomes very sick and delirious because he refuses to eat. The doctor tries to understand Michael’s stubborn ways while attempting to get Michael released. However, Michael escapes on his own.
Upon his escape, Michael meets with a group of nomadic people who feed him and nourish him back to health. Also during this section he meets a women who has sex with him, later we see him attracted to women for the first time. Ironically, he returns to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town, the same apartment and city he had tried to escape some time ago. Michael reflects on the garden he made in Prince Albert.
Review: The deadpan tone of the narrative creates a vacuum that sucks you along, and as you get more involved you grow to identify with the stoic hero as the ultimate ''escape artist'' in a world of violent and brutal contention.
There are stabbing touches of irony in the scenes where police put down Cape Town rioters from apartment buildings or when someone wearing a San Jose State sweatshirt shows up as a volunteer-helper in what for all intents is a concentration camp. Not merely stabbing is the irony that Michael K - trying to survive by raising pumpkins and living in a hole in the ground on an abandoned farm - is assumed to be part of a mountain guerilla force and is tortured for information. Then there is the shift in the second of the three sections to the narrative point of view of a doctor in a hospital where Michael K shows up. The doctor sees meaning in this strange little hair-lipped figure who, like Melville's Bartleby, refuses all offers to help him survive. The doctor makes imaginary speeches to the man he insists on referring to as ''Michaels''. Finally, there is a problem raised by Michael's supposed slow-wittedness. In fact he is not in the least slow- witted. He is clever with his hands; he often perceives other people's motives even before they do, and he is, as the doctor-narrator of Part Two keeps pointing out, a genius of an escape-artist. Of course, it is certain Cape Town authorities who once perceived Michael K as feeble-minded. The narrator knows better, and this becomes still another source of the novel's irony.
Still, often when I read yet another passage that implicitly celebrates Michael's cleverness, I found myself wishing I could see him as those anonymous Cape Town authorities had done. One trouble with the novel is that the omniscient narrator tells us too much about what is going on inside Michael's head.
Opening Line: “The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K. when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.”
Closing Line: “He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle o the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.”
Quotes: “When he heard the rumble of an approaching convoy he would creep away onto the bushes, though he wondered now, within his filthy clothes and his air of gaunt exhaustion, he would not be passed over as a mere foot loose vagrant from the depths of the country, on benighted to know that one needed papers to be on the road, too sunk in apathy to be of harm.”
Rating: Okay

233. The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Salmon Rushdie

July 2009
History: Published in 2000, it is a variation on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth with rock music replacing Orpheus' lyre. The myth works as a red thread from which the author sometimes strays, but to which he attaches an endless series of references. Orpheus’wife Eurydice, while fleeing from Aristaeus (son of Apollo), ran into a nest of snakes which bit her fatally on her heel. Distraught, Orpheus played such sad songs and sang so mournfully that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus traveled to the underworld and by his music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone (he was the only person ever to do so), who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following and in his anxiety as soon as he reached the upper world he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever. Since his love was not "true"--he did not want to die for love--he was actually punished by the gods, first by giving him only the apparition of his former wife in the underworld, and then by being killed by women.
Plot: The lovers of the novel are Ormus Cama, the founder of the most popular rock group around, and Vina Apsara, the sexually charged lead singer of the group. Narrated by a mutual friend and photographer Rai Merchant, the novel opens with Apsara’s disappearance during a terrifying earthquake in 1989.
After Apsara vanishes in the wake of the earthquake, Rushdie takes the reader back in time in order to chronicle the bizarre and twisted lives of Cama and Apsara and those who also inhabited their world. From India to New York and numerous places in between, the novel is a very bumpy roller-coaster ride. There is no shortage of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There is also no shortage of mythology, Americana, literary doodling, and religious fervor. As the ever-observant narrator, Merchant is the perfect stand-in for Rushdie. Merchant can seemingly bend with the wind and also stand outside of events to better understand what has transpired. Moving forward to 1995, Apsara somehow reappears and she and Cama are reunited. However, she continues to get together with Rai, who in turn holds deep affection for her. After her death, both men mourn pitifully, but this is not the end of the novel! After visiting several Vina look alike shows for several years, Ormus begins stalking a very young Vina impersonator that actually does look like Vina. And even gets cameras in her dressing room and apartment. He shows the secret films to Rai, who gets real excited, and goes down to meet this woman, who actually falls in love with Rai, more than twice her age but never mind.
In the end, Ormus gets shot, like John Lennon, and Rai gets to marry the Vina impersonator, who really doesn’t mind that she is an object, and she is also a rock star.
Review: This book is about a woman named Vina, whose name is mentioned about thirty times on every page. The story is narrated by Rai, who is in love with her. She is a rock star, and no matter how many times Rushdie wants to write out her name, she is still seen to me as an unintelligent and uninteresting woman. Her husband, Ormus, is the most interesting character in the story, probably because the character is borrowed from real life, John Lennon and/or Elvis Presley. At the end of the novel, again, Rai, a middle aged photographer gets to sleep with a really young sex pot, and she doesn’t mind being an object. What an uninteresting plot, character sketch this book is!. I like a lot of his play on words, and I do like his ability to use words, but his character development is so bad.
I am trying to like Rushdie, but, like Jane Austen, I am thinking I do not.
Opening Line: “On St. Valentines Day, 1989, the last day of her life, the legendary popular singer Vina Apsara woke sobbing from a dream of human sacrifice in which she had been the intended victim.”
Closing Line: “I thought they were supposed to be dead, but in real life they’re just going to go on singing.” ”
Quotes: “We three kings of disorient were.”
“She’s spitting out of her mouth the things he needs to say to her.”
Rating: Okay

232. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

July 2009
History: Published in 1987, this is the beginning of a short series, the last incomplete due to his death of a heart attack at age 49.
Plot: Four billion years ago, nine dozen multi-tentacled creatures called Salaxalans, discontent with their own world, leave and attempt to populate Earth. They leave their mothership in orbit, but, because of the laziness of the engineer and faulty advice from their Electric Monk (an automaton designed to believe things so its owners don't have to), their landing craft explodes on Earth, triggering a spark that creates amino acids and the start of life on earth. The Salaxalan engineer, having thus failed to complete a task during his life, is forced to wander the Earth as a ghost. He watches as terrestrial life develops. In the early 1800s, the ghost learns of a time machine owned by Professor Reg Chronotis at St Cedd's, but is unable to use it. The ghost finds he can influence humans, and possesses Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write a second verse to his "Kubla Khan" poem that includes instructions on fixing the damaged lander, as well as additional references in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The ghost then continues to look for a way to influence Reg to use the time machine to "correct" the past.
In the present, the Salaxalan ghost manages to weakly influence Reg to use the time machine, disguised as his chambers at St. Cedd's, to travel to a distant planet, taking possession of another Electric Monk wandering it. However, this particular Monk had developed a malfunction and practises all sorts of random religions, each for only a few minutes at a time. Finding the Monk unreliable, the ghost leaves it to wander on Earth, and through a series of additional influences, finds itself able to possess that of Michael Wenton-Weakes, a writer recently fired as editor of a magazine. The ghost urges Michael to kill the magazine's new editor, Albert Ross, and then has him read Coleridge's works, preparing him to confront Reg to use the time machine in order to prevent the lander's explosion in the past.
Meanwhile, the Electric Monk is told by a porter to "shoot off", and so "shoots off" at Gordon Way, president of Way Forward Technologies II, during a call to his sister Susan's answering machine. The Monk goes on to suffer several other misadventures. Gordon's ghost, having not yet finished his phone call, witnesses Ross' murder, and manages to relay this to Susan over the phone before fading away. Richard MacDuff, Reg's friend, Susan's boyfriend and Gordon's employee, is found as a possible suspect in Gordon's death; he is contacted by Dirk Gently (Richard's college friend and sole detective in his "Holistic Detective Agency") while attempting to erase a message on Susan's answering machine. After hearing Richard's mishaps and consulting with a child- as only children can provide obvious answers as they have not yet developed the 'blinkers' that prevent adults from doing so-, Dirk works out that Richard's actions (among others) have been influenced by a ghost, and that the only thing that could explain the events would be a time machine. Reg admits having a time machine when Dirk and Richard question him about it; they are then convinced by Michael, still possessed by the Salaxalan ghost, to use it to go back just before the lander exploded so he can fix it. As the three see the possessed Michael off, Richard learns from Susan about Michael murdering Ross, and then they realize that the lander's exploding is what creates life on earth. Using Reg's time machine, they travel to visit Coleridge, so that Dirk ("the man from Porlock") can distract him and thus alter "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" so that the Salaxalan ghost will not have the proper instructions to stop the lander's explosion. They then destroy the Salaxalan mothership.
Dirk, Richard, and Reg return to the present to find things much as they were before, though Reg's time machine no longer works; his phone has been fixed to never go wrong again, but the time machine always caused the phone to malfunction when it was used. Reg "rescued" a small proportion of the wondrous music heard by Richard on board the Salaxalan satellite, explained as the oeuvre of J. S. Bach (although Reg brought back many times more music than one man could write in a single lifetime). It was in fact "the music of life itself," created by the ship's computer from the data it collected over four billion years of observing the planet. This echoes Richard's work on the conversion of data into music. One of Dirk's old cases no longer needs to be solved- the cat that he was looking for having apparently never vanished, and indeed having died two years ago in its owner's arms- and he sends a revised bill to the client, "For saving humankind - no charge."
Review: A ghost, an alien ghost, a horse, an Electric Monk, a time machine, synthesized music, and a quirky detective whose modus operandi is a misapplication of quantum physics in the realm of the macrocosm is the cast of a humorously surreal and intelligent murder mystery. I read this while in Cape Cod. I got lost a few times, because the book is not linear, and the chapters change quickly from one setting to another. The most interesting thing about this book is Douglas Adams imagination and humor, he seems to be laughing at himself, with the rest of the population.
Opening Line: “This time there would be no witnesses.”
Closing Line: “He put on his hat and left for the day.”
Quotes: “The other was small, roundish, and moved with an ungainly restlessness, like a number of elderly squirrels trying to escape from a sack.”
“And a thousand slimy things lived on”; and so did I.
Rating: Good

231. The Temptation of St. Anthony – Gustave Flaubert

June 2009
History: Author Gustave Flaubert spent practically his whole life fitfully working on, in three versions he completed in 1849, 1856 (extracts published at the same time) and 1872 before publishing the final version in 1874. The Temptation of St Anthony is an often-repeated subject in history of art and literature, concerning the supernatural temptation reportedly faced by Saint Anthony the Great during his sojourn in the Egyptian desert. It is written in the form of a play script. It details one night in the life of Anthony the Great where Anthony is faced with great temptations, and it was inspired by the painting by Hieronymus Bosch , which he saw at the Balbi Palace in Genoa. It was this work, rather than his better known Madame Bovary, that Flaubert considered his masterwork.
Plot: Anthony, a monk, goes out to the desert to meditate, gets tempted. But what temptations! Flaubert pulls out all the stops in a decadent, phantasmagorical, hallucinatory, excessively brilliant novel. While the book is written like a play, it is clearly a novel, since staging this would be impossible.
Our benighted monk gets tempted by all manner of beasts, demons, and sexy ladies, while the reader is treated to a panoply of cults, heresies, and sects, fighting for his attention.
Review: This is a work that should not be neglected by those interested in Flaubert or by lovers of French Literature. It's format resembles an old-fashioned cyclorama, which was basically a revolving canvas, portraying various interpretive images to an audience that would be seated in the middle of a room. Or it may recall the same period's "magic lantern" which would produce a similar effect, projecting a series of images on a flat wall, the precursor of modern cinema.
Flaubert ushered in an entirely new sensibility to the world of letters. He reinvented the concept of the literary artist as word-and world shaper. The word is the world and vice-versa. No writer ever engaged in such a Herculean struggle to shape every word, every sentence, every image, every assonance or consonance to perfectly conform to his intention.
Flaubert engaged in a kind of ascetisism his entire adult life, which is hardly news, but is central to an understanding of this work and to his attraction towards St. Anthony for a protagonist. Flaubert was for many years a kind of hermit in his study at Croisset, where he retired to his study to read books and write novels. He had contact with his mother and adopted niece and wrote letters to a mistress (Louise Collet, and later to George Sand) along with a few male friends. He would make brief sojourns into Paris, but for the most part, stayed to himself in his provincial hideaway. What he dreamt of there, besides his most famous works (Madame Bovary and L'Education Sentimentale) were reveries such as this novel and Salammbo, another book set in the Near-East and equally evocative in terms of his treatment of that region's sensual and Byzantine richness.
"The Temptation" sparkles with some of Flaubert's most carefully and lovingly constructed imagery. It is the author's own homage to the fertility of his imagination. He never fathered a child literally that we know of, but this work and Salammbo were his ways of saying that he was fertile in all other respects. Each passing personage or creature is a seed sewn by this father of imagery. To actually enjoy this book, one would need to have knowledge of the characters in the bible, greek mythology, and other cultural mythological adventures and imagery.
Opening Line: “The setting is the Thebald, high on a mountain, where a platform curves to a half-moon, shut in by large boulders.”
Closing Line: “Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.”
Quotes: “At the edge of a cliff the old palm tree with its tuft of yellow leaves becomes the torso of a woman, leaning over the abyss, her long hair floating.”
Rating: Okay.

230. Possessing the Secret of Joy – Alice Walker

June 2009
History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: It tells the story of Tashi, a minor character in Walker's earlier novel The Color Purple. She comes from Olinka, Alice Walker's fictional African nation where female genital mutilation is practiced. Tashi chooses to undergo circumcison because she is a woman torn between two cultures, Olinkan and Western. She wants to honor her Olinkan roots and has the operation in her teen years, although it is usually performed on female children. Tashi later sees several psychiatrists because of the trauma she has suffered before finding the strength to act. Tashi eventually goes back to Africa and murders M’Lissa, the woman that performed the operation on her, and she is killed by firing squad. The novel explores what it means to have one's gender culturally defined and emphasizes that, according to Walker, "Torture is not culture."
Review: Genitally does it. FEMALE circumcision is a neutral phrase which hardly hints at the horrifying practice and consequences of genital mutilation. In an author's note at the end of Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker writes that between ninety million and one hundred million girls and women alive today have undergone the procedure, which varies from simple excision of the clitoris - thus denying the victim sexual pleasure - to a full-scale scraping away of the labia.
Walker's protagonist, Tashi, made a brief appearance in The Color Purple as an African woman living in America who decided to go to Africa and have the operation as a gesture of solidarity with the women of her village. Possessing the Secret of Joy is her story, in which she returns to America a physical and emotional wreck: barely able to walk, hardly able to urinate, and stinking of the decaying menstrual blood trapped inside her body. 'That her soul had been dealt a mortal blow was plain to anyone who dared look into her eyes,' her sister-in-law observes. Yet it is the lurid details of the operation and its aftermath, rather than Tashi's emotions, which remain in the memory; this is because Walker has written a fevered melodrama in which character and plot are sacrificed to the imperatives of polemic.
The book's fractured and non-chronological structure, which seems to be an attempt to replicate the Jungian analytic experience, further alienates the reader. Nor is it possible to differentiate the seven or eight voices which relate Tashi's story, for they share a fatal tendency to slip into Californian New Age vocabulary. A young Frenchman improbably reminisces about reading a book by 'Langston Hughes, the laughing spellbinder whose sadness almost hid itself in the insouciance of his prose'; a wise old psychoanalyst writes that Tashi and her husband 'are bringing me home to something in myself. I am finding myself in them. A self I have often felt was only halfway at home on the European continent. In my European skin. An ancient self that thirsts for knowledge of the experiences of its ancient kin. Needs this knowledge, and the feelings that come with it, to be whole.'
This character, variously described as 'The Old Man', 'Mzee' and 'uncle Carl', is revealed in an author's note to be Carl Jung himself. Walker thanks him, without humorous intent, 'for becoming so real in my own self-therapy (by reading) that I could imagine him as alive and active in Tashi's treatment. My gift to him.'
Why is Alice Walker, who is so moved by Tashi's story, unable to portray her as anything more than a dolorous puppet? The answer requires, I suspect, a subtlety and insight not much in evidence from a novelist who dedicates her book 'With Tenderness and Respect To the Blameless Vulva'.
Opening Line: “I did not realize for a long time that I was dead.”
Closing Line: “There is a roar as if the world cracked open and I flew inside. I am no more. And satisfied.”
Quotes: “It is only hard work that fills the emptiness.”
Rating: Poor.

229. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

History: Written in 1931 and published in 1932. Brave New World was inspired by the H. G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods. Not only was Huxley outraged by the culture of youth, commercial cheeriness, sexual promiscuity and the inward-looking nature of many Americans; he had also found a book by Henry Ford on the boat to America. There was a fear of Americanization in Europe, so to see America firsthand, as well as read the ideas and plans of one of its foremost citizens, spurred Huxley to write Brave New World with America in mind. The "feelies" are his response to the "talkie" motion pictures, and the sex-hormone chewing gum is parody of the ubiquitous chewing gum, which was something of a symbol of America at that time.
Plot: The novel opens in London in the "year of our Ford 632" (AD 2540 in the Gregorian Calendar). In this world, the vast majority of the population is unified under The World State, an eternally peaceful, stable global society, in which goods are plentiful and everyone is happy. In this society, natural reproduction has been done away with and children are decanted and raised in Hatcheries and Conditioning Centres. Society is divided into five castes, created in these centres. The highest caste is allowed to develop naturally while it matures in its "decanting bottle". The lower castes are treated to chemical interference to cause arrested development in intelligence or physical growth. The castes are Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, with each caste further split into Plus and Minus members. Each Alpha or Beta is the product of one fertilized egg developing into one foetus. Members of other castes are not unique but are instead created using the Bokanovsky process which enables a single egg to spawn (at the point of the story being told) up to 96 children and one ovary to produce thousands of children.
All members of society are conditioned in childhood to hold the values that the World State idealizes. Constant consumption is the bedrock of stability for the World State. Everyone is encouraged to consume the ubiquitous drug, soma, which is probably a historical allusion to a mythical drink of the ancient Aryans. Soma is a hallucinogen that takes users on enjoyable, hangover-free "vacations".
Recreational heterosexual sex is an integral part of society. In The World State, sex is a social activity rather than a means of reproduction and is encouraged from early childhood; the few women who can reproduce are conditioned to take birth control. The maxim "everyone belongs to everyone else" is repeated often, and the idea of a "family" is repellent. As a result, sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are obsolete. Marriage, natural birth, the notion of being a parent, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation.
In The World State, people typically die at age 60 having maintained good health and youthfulness their whole life. Death isn't feared; anyone reflecting upon it is reassured by the knowledge that everyone is happy, and that society goes on. Since no one has family, they have no ties to mourn.
The conditioning system eliminates the need for professional competitiveness; people are literally bred to do their jobs and cannot desire another. There is no competition within castes; each caste member receives the same food, housing, and soma rationing as every other member of that caste. There is no desire to change one's caste.
In its first chapters, the novel describes life in the World State and introduces Lenina and Bernard. Lenina, a beta plus, is a socially accepted woman, normal for her society, while Bernard, a psychologist, is an outcast. Although an Alpha Plus, Bernard is shorter in stature than the average of his caste—a quality shared by the lower castes, which gives him an inferiority complex. He defies social norms and despises his equals. His work with sleep-teaching has led him to realize that what others believe to be their own deeply held beliefs are merely phrases repeated to children while they sleep. Courting disaster, he is vocal about being different, once stating he dislikes soma because he'd "rather be himself, sad, than another person, happy". Bernard's differences fuel rumours that he was accidentally administered alcohol while incubated, a method used to keep Epsilons short.
Bernard is obsessed with Lenina, attributing noble qualities and poetic potentials to her which she does not have. A woman who seldom questions her own motivations, Lenina is reprimanded by her friends because she is not promiscuous enough. Both fascinated and disturbed by Bernard, she responds to Bernard's advances to dispel her reputation for being too selective and monogamous.
Bernard's only friend is Helmholtz Watson, an Alpha-Plus lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering (Department of Writing). Helmholtz is also an outcast, but unlike Bernard, it is because he is too gifted, too handsome. Helmholtz, successful, charming, attractive, is drawn to Bernard as a confidant: he can talk to Bernard about his desire to write poetry. Bernard likes Helmholtz because, unlike anyone else, Helmholtz likes Bernard. He is also, Bernard realizes, everything Bernard will never be.
Bernard, desperately wanting Lenina's attention, tries to impress her by taking her on holiday to a Savage Reservation. The reservation, located in New Mexico, consists of a community named Malpais (which in Spanish means "bad country", one of many Spanish puns throughout the novel). From afar, Lenina thinks it will be exciting. In person, she finds the aged, toothless natives who mend their clothes rather than throw them away repugnant, and the situation is made worse when she discovers that she has left her soma tablets at the resort hotel. Bernard is fascinated, although he realizes his seduction plans have failed.
In typical tourist fashion, Bernard and Lenina watch what at first appears to be a quaint native ceremony. The village folk, whose culture resembles that of the Pueblo peoples such as the Hopi and Zuni, begin by singing, but the ritual quickly becomes a passion play where a village boy is whipped to unconsciousness.
Soon after, the couple encounters Linda, a woman formerly of The World State who has been living in Malpais since she came on a trip and became separated from her group and her date, whom she refers to as "Tomakin" but who is revealed to be Bernard's boss, Thomas. She became pregnant because she mistimed her "Malthusian Drill" and there were no facilities for an abortion. Linda gave birth to a son, John (later referred to as John the Savage) who is now eighteen.
Through conversations with Linda and John, we learn that their life has been hard. For eighteen years, they have been treated as outsiders; the natives hate Linda for sleeping with all the men of the village, as she was conditioned to do and John was mistreated and excluded for his mother's actions, not to mention the role of racism. John's one joy was that his mother had taught him to read although he only had two books: a scientific manual from his mother's job and a collection of the works of Shakespeare (a work banned in The World State). John has been denied the religious rituals of the village, although he has watched them and even has had some of his own religious experiences in the desert.
Old, weathered and tired, Linda wants to return to her familiar world in London; she is tired of a life without soma. John wants to see the "brave new world" his mother has told him so much about. Bernard wants to take them back as revenge against Thomas, who threatened to reassign Bernard to Iceland as punishment for Bernard's antisocial beliefs. Bernard arranges permission for Linda and John to leave the reservation.
Upon his return to London, Bernard is confronted by Thomas, the Director of the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre who, in front of an audience of higher-caste Centre workers, denounces Bernard for his antisocial behaviour and again threatens to send him to Iceland. Bernard, thinking that for the first time in his life he has the upper hand, defends himself by presenting the Director with his lost lover and unknown son, Linda and John. The humiliated Director resigns in shame.
Bernard makes John the toast of London. Pursued by the highest members of society, able to bed any woman he fancies, Bernard revels in attention he once scorned. Everyone who is anyone will endure Bernard to dine with the interesting, different, beautiful John. Even Lenina grows fond of the savage, while the savage falls in love with her. Bernard, intoxicated with attention, falls in love with himself.
The victory, however, is short lived. Linda, decrepit, toothless, friendless, goes on a permanent soma holiday while John, appalled by what he perceives to be an empty society, refuses to attend Bernard's parties. Society drops Bernard as swiftly as it had taken him. Bernard turns to the person he'd believed to be his one true friend, only to see Helmholtz fall into a quick, easy camaraderie with John. Bernard is left an outcast yet again as he watches the only two men he ever connected with find more of interest in each other than they ever did in him.
John and Helmholtz's island of peace is brief. John grows frustrated by a society he finds wicked and debased. He is moved by Lenina, but also loathes her sexual advances, which revolt and shame him. He is heartbroken when his mother succumbs to soma and dies in a hospital. John's grief bewilders and revolts the hospital workers, and their lack of reaction to Linda's death prompts John to try to force humanity from the workers by throwing their soma rations out a window. The ensuing riot brings the police who soma-gas the crowd. Bernard and Helmholtz arrive to help John, but only Helmholtz helps him, while Bernard stands to the side, torn between risking involvement by helping or escaping the scene.
When they wake, Bernard, Helmholtz and John are brought before Mustapha Mond, the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. Bernard and Helmholtz are told they will be sent to Iceland and the Falkland Islands, two of several island colonies reserved for exiled citizens. Helmholtz looks forward to living on the remote Falkland Islands, where he can become a serious writer but Bernard is devastated, throws a fit and has to be dragged away. Mond explains that exile to the islands is not so much a threat to force freethinkers to reform and rejoin society but a place where they may act as they please, because they will not be an influence on the population. After Bernard and Helmholtz leave the room, Mustapha and John engage in a philosophical argument on the morals behind the godless society, which leads to the decision that John will not be sent to an island. Mustapha says that he too once risked banishment to an island because of some experiments that were deemed controversial by the state, alluding to an understanding of Bernard's, Helmholtz's and John's position as outsiders and even ceding to John's perception of the flawed society.
In the final chapters, John isolates himself from society in a lighthouse outside London where he finds his hermit life interrupted from mourning his mother by the more bitter memories of civilization. To atone, John brutally whips himself in the open, a ritual the Indians in his own village had said he was not capable of. His self-flagellation, caught on film and shown publicly, destroys his hermit life. Hundreds of gawking sightseers, intrigued by John's violent behavior, fly out to watch the savage in person. Even Lenina comes to watch, crying a tear John does not see. The sight of the woman whom he both adores and blames is too much for him; John attacks and whips her. This sight of genuine, unbridled emotion drives the crowd wild with excitement, and—handling it as they are conditioned to—they turn on each other, in a frenzy of beating and chanting that devolves into a mass orgy of soma and sex. In the morning, John, hopeless, alone and horrified by his drug use, debasement and attack on Lenina, makes one last attempt to escape civilization and atone. When thousands of gawking sightseers arrive that morning, frenzied at the prospect of seeing the savage perform again, they find John dead, hanging by the neck.
Review: Huxley was able to use the setting and characters from his science fiction novel to express widely held opinions, particularly the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. Huxley's satire only increases in intensity as the book progresses. The metaphors of the book are all taken to the extreme, such as the assembly line: in this society, people make the sign of the "T" and say of their deity, "Our Ford." The concrete reality of the book, while a compelling story, isn't the point. Huxley is worried about a state of mind, one that puts happiness into a materialistic paradigm, and then uses it as a method of control, justified as what the people want. This human tendency is hardly news, but Huxley saw quite clearly how technology would change everything. A look around at our society shows no sign of World Controllers or soma in the literal sense, but the specific technologies of happiness are just as perturbing as Huxley's fictions. This overarching idea is well justified The novel is seamlessly written with a tight plot that never wavers. The original ideas and the way they are expressed remain fresh today.
Opening Line: “A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”
Closing Line: “Slowly,very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left, South-south-west, south, south-east, east….”
Quotes: "You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high
"You all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk."
Rating: Very Good

228. The Godfather – Mario Puzo

History: originally published in 1969. Much controversy surrounds the title of the book and its underworld implications. Although it is widely reported that Puzo was inspired to use "Godfather" as a designator for a Mafia leader from his experience as a reporter, the term The Godfather was first used in connection with the Mafia during Joe Valachi's testimony during the 1963 Congressional Hearing on Organized Crime
Plot: The plot deals with a gang war fought between the Corleone family and the other four of the five families of New York. After Don Vito Corleone is shot by men working for drug dealer Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo, his two sons, Santino and Michael must run the family business with the help of consigliere Tom Hagen and the two Capos Peter Clemenza and Salvatore Tessio. When Sollozzo and an Irish police captain are murdered by Michael, the conflict escalates into a full scale war which results in Santino's death and Michael, despite his wishes, ascending to the head of the family. He slowly becomes more ruthless than his father, even killing his brother in law Carlo Rizzi, who played a part in Santino's murder. Also as the story progresses many of the minor characters, such as the Don's godson Johnny Fontane and his friend Nino Valenti, Sonny's former girlfriend Lucy Mancini, and Michael's bodyguard Al Neri, are expanded on and given their own subplots. Many of these subplots are not included in the movie. The novel culminates when Michael has his two main enemies, the novel's main antagonist, Emilio Barzini and a lesser but still severely important antagonist, Philip Tattaglia, assassinated. After the total elimination of the Tattaglia Family and Barzini Family, Michael sells all his business in New York and makes the Corleone Family a legitimate business in Las Vegas.
Review: Written in an acerbic Mafia vernacular, and read at turbo-charged speed, Puzo delivers a gritty, yet oddly romantic look inside the mechanisms of the "Family". While repulsed at the violence inflicted among its members, we remain spellbound in spite of it. Mario Puzo manages to write the characters so well that when Carlo Rizzi is beating up Don Corleone's daughter, you want him to get hurt, or when Santino Corleone dies and Lucy Mancini is distraught because she is carrying his child (a plotline that was only explored briefly in the films, but has an entire chapter dedicated to it in the book). Puzo seems to bring each character to life. He also lets the reader in on the secrets of the inner workings of the "family business". The book is better than the film.
Opening Line: “Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.”
Closing Line: “Then with a profound and deeply willed desire to believe, to be heard, as she had done every day since the murder of Carlo Rizzi, she said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.”
Quotes: "Y ou're taking it personal, it's just business and you're taking it personal."
Rating: Good

227. The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allen Poe

History: this short story was first published September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine.
Plot: The tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his comfort. It is revealed that Roderick's twin sister, Madeline, is also ill and falls into cataleptic, death-like trances. The narrator is impressed with Roderick's paintings, and attempts to cheer him by reading with him and listening to his improvised musical compositions on the guitar. Roderick sings "The Haunted Palace", then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be sentient, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it. Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in a vault in the house before being permanently buried. They inter her, but over the next week both Roderick and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. A storm begins. Roderick comes to the narrator's bedroom, which is situated directly above the vault, and throws open his window to the storm. He notices that the tarn surrounding the house seems to glow in the dark, as it glowed in Roderick Usher's paintings, although there is no lightning.
The narrator attempts to calm Roderick by reading aloud The Mad Trist, a novel involving a knight named Ethelred. As the narrator reads of the knight's forcible entry into the dwelling, cracking and ripping sounds are heard somewhere in the house. When the knight kills the dragon, described as shrieking as it dies, a shriek is heard, again within the house. As he relates the knights shield falling from off the wall, a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard. Roderick becomes increasingly hysterical, and eventually exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed and that Roderick knew that she was alive. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls violently in death upon her brother, who dies of his own terror. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch it break in two, the fragments sinking into the tarn.
Review: Poe's intention when writing The Fall of the House of Usher was not to present a moral, lesson, or truth to the reader; he was simply trying to bring forth a sense of terror to the reader. The book also shows Poe's ability to create an emotional tone in his work, specifically feelings of fear, doom, and guilt.
Opening Line: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and that length found my self, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
Closing Line: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."
Quotes: “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect - in terror.”
Rating: Mediocre.

226. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

June 2009
History: This book was published in 1968, and was written along with the screenplay for the movie. The story is based in part on various short stories by Clarke, most notably "The Sentinel" (written in 1948 for a BBC competition but first published in 1951 under the title "Sentinel of Eternity").
Plot: In the background to the story in the book, an ancient and unseen alien race uses a mechanism with the appearance of a large metal monolith to investigate worlds all across the galaxy and, if possible, to encourage the development of intelligent life. The book shows one such monolith appearing in ancient Africa, three million years B.C., where it inspires a starving group of the hominid ancestors of human beings to conceive of tools. The ape-men use their tools to kill animals and eat meat, ending their starvation. They then use the tools to kill a leopard that had been preying on them; the next day, the main ape character, Moon-Watcher, uses a club to kill the leader of a rival tribe. Moon-Watcher reflects that though he is now master of the world, he is unsure of what to do next—but he will think of something. The book suggests that the monolith was instrumental in awakening intelligence, and enabling the transition of the ape-men to a higher order, with the ability to fashion crude tools and thereby be able to hunt and forage for food in a much more efficient fashion.
The book then leaps eons to the year 1999, detailing Dr. Heywood Floyd's travel to Clavius Base on the Moon. Upon his arrival, Floyd attends a meeting. A lead scientist explains that they have found a magnetic disturbance in Tycho, one of the Moon's craters, designated Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One, or TMA-1. An excavation of the area has revealed a large black slab. It is the first evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Floyd and a team of scientists drive across the moon to actually view TMA-1. They arrive just as sunlight hits upon it for the first time in three million years. It then sends a piercing radio transmission to the far reaches of the solar system. The signal is tracked to Iapetus, one of the many moons of Saturn, where an expedition is then planned to investigate.
The book leaps forward 18 months to 2001 to the Discovery One mission to Saturn. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Francis Poole are the only conscious human beings aboard Discovery One spaceship. Their three other colleagues are in a state of suspended animation, to be awakened when they near Saturn. The HAL 9000, an artificially intelligent computer addressed as "Hal," maintains the ship and is a vital part of life aboard.
Poole and Bowman become suspicious at Hal's refusal to admit that there could be something wrong with his failure detection sensors. Hal then claims that the replacement AE-35 unit will fail. Poole and Bowman radio back to Earth; they are told that there is most definitely something wrong with Hal, and will possibly need to disconnect him. These instructions are interrupted as the signal is broken. Hal informs them that the AE-35 unit has malfunctioned.
Poole takes a pod outside the ship to bring in the failed AE-35 unit. As he is removing the unit, the pod, is killed when his spacesuit is torn, exposing him to the vacuum of space. Bowman is shocked by Poole's death and is deeply distressed. He is unsure whether Hal, a machine, really could have killed Poole. He decides that he will need to wake up the other three astronauts. He has an argument with Hal, with Hal refusing to obey his orders to switch the hibernation pods to manual operation, insisting that Bowman is incapacitated. Bowman threatens to disconnect him if his orders are not obeyed, and Hal relents, giving him manual control to wake the sleeping scientists.
But as Bowman begins to awaken his colleagues, he hears Hal open both airlock doors into space, venting the ship’s atmosphere. The pressure on board is rapidly dropping as the ship is equalizing with the vacuum of space. Bowman makes his way into a sealed emergency shelter which has an isolated oxygen supply and spare spacesuit. He then puts on the spacesuit and re-enters the ship, knowing Hal to be a murderer. Bowman then laboriously disconnects the computer, puts the ship back in order and manually re-establishes contact with Earth. He then learns that the true purpose of the mission is to explore Japetus, the third-largest moon of Saturn, in the hope of contacting the society that buried the monolith on the Moon.
Bowman spends months on the ship, alone, slowly approaching Japetus. A return to Earth is now out of the question, as Hal's sudden decompression of Discovery severely damaged the ship's air filtration system, leaving Bowman with far less breathable air than either returning to Earth or waiting for a rescue ship would require, and hibernation is impossible without Hal to monitor it. During his long approach, he gradually notices a small black spot on the surface of Iapetus. When he gets closer, he realizes that this is an immense black monolith, identical in shape to TMA-1, only much larger. He decides to go out in one of the extra-vehicular pods to make a closer inspection of the monolith. Programmed for just such an occurrence, the monolith reveals its true purpose as a star gate when it opens and pulls in Bowman's pod. Before he vanishes, Mission control hears him proclaim: "The thing's hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it's full of stars!"
Bowman is transported via the monolith to a star system far outside our galaxy. During this journey, he goes through a large interstellar switching station, and sees other species' spaceships going on other routes; he dubs it the 'Grand Central Station' of the universe. (This is rather different from the film, which portrayed the entire journey as surreal.)
He is brought to what appears to be a nice hotel suite, carefully constructed from television images, and designed to make him feel at ease. Bowman goes to sleep. As he sleeps, his mind and memories are drained from his body, and he is made into a new immortal entity, a Star Child, that can live and travel in space. The Star Child then returns to our Solar System and to Earth. Once there, he destroys the many thermonuclear weapons threatening the very survival of the human species. Like Moon-Watcher three million years before him, the Star Child is now master of the world and uncertain what to do next—but as Moon-Watcher eventually did, the Star Child too will think of something.
Review: In the background Clarke introduces us to an advanced civilization that helped Earth's "dumb" apes evolve millions of years ago into modern humans by teaching them how to kill prey. I'm fascinated by these mysterious characters lurking in the background. They, like us, evolved from ocean slime, then into intelligent, self-aware carbon-based beings like us, then into machines, then finally into states of organized energy. Then the reader is suddenly translated into modern times. Humans, developing powerful artificial intelligent life, are at the cusp of taking the next evolutionary leap. This, post-Darwinian evolution, is what 2001 is REALLY about--all of the conflict between humans and their AI life forms is just a side topic.
Opening Line: “The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended.”
Closing Line: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next, but he would think of something.”
Quotes: "Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."
"Now times had changed, and the inherited wisdom of the past had become folly.”
Rating: Good, can’t wait to see the movie.

225. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

June 2009
History: Published in 1958. Capote was also unsuccessfully sued for libel and invasion of privacy by a Manhattan resident named Bonnie Golightly who claimed that he had based Holly on her. But she was an overweight forty-year-old woman and lost the lawsuit without much effect. But in truth the person that Holly most resembles is her creator.
Plot: The novella tells the story of a one-year (Autumn 1943 to Autumn 1944) friendship between the main character, Holiday ("Holly") Golightly and an unnamed narrator. The two are both tenants in a brownstone apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Holly Golightly (age 19-20) is a Texas-born country hick turned New York cafe society girl, who makes her living coaxing dollars off of rich, older gentlemen. The narrator, who lives in the flat above her, is an aspiring writer. Golightly, who likes to stun people with carefully selected tidbits from her personal life or her outspoken viewpoint on various topics, slowly reveals herself to the narrator. She was married at age 14 to a Texan who had many children, and soon left to move to NYC. She entertains various aquaintances in her apartment, and eventually settles on Jose, from Brazil, and plans to marry him, and is early in pregnancy. Then she is arrested, under suspicion for being an alliance to Sally, who is in prison. She loses the baby, and escapes to Brazil. She sends a postcard to the narrator, and that is the last he hears of her, except that, in a few years (this is part of the beginning of the book) he hears from the bartender, Joe Bell, who found a photo of a man in Africa, holding a sculpture he had carved of Holly. This is never confirmed.
Review: The novel showcases Capote's talent for writing comedy touched with remorse. The book is clearly meant to be a character sketch of Holly Golightly. She is hard-headed and smart-mouthed, but at heart she is a romantic, looking for that little slice of perfection typified by the calm majesty at Tiffany's. Holly is an elusive spirit, a woman difficult to pin down, her emotions and past alternately worn on a sleeve and deeply hidden. She is beautiful and sad, adventurous and free. Capote captures Holly beautifully, and the confusion and yearning of the people around her.
Opening Line: “I am always drawn back to places I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.”
Closing Line: “African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has too.”
Rating: Okay

224. Mao II – Don DeLillo

June 2009
History: Published in 1991. The title is derived from a series of Andy Warhol silkscreen prints depicting Mao Zedong.
Plot: A reclusive novelist named Bill Gray toils endlessly on a novel he can't finish. After publishing two celebrated novels he is stuck perpetually editing and rewriting his much anticipated new work, much to the chagrin of his publisher and old friend, Charles Everson, and his obsessive live-in assistant Scott Martineau. Scott would prefer Bill didn't publish the book for fear that the mass-production of the work will destroy the "real" Bill. Bill has a dalliance with Scott's partner Karen Janney, a former member of the Unification Church who is married to Kim Jo Pak in a Unification Church Blessing ceremony in the prologue of the book.
Bill, who lives as a complete recluse, accedes to be photographed by a New York photographer named Brita who is documenting writers. In dialogue with Brita and others, Bill laments that novelists are quickly becoming obsolete in an age where terrorism has supplanted art as the "raids on consciousness" that jolt and transform culture at large. Gray disappears without a word and secretly decides to accept an opportunity from Charles to travel to London to publicly speak on the behalf of a Swiss writer held hostage in war-torn Beirut.
Meanhile Karen ends up living in Brita's NY apartment and spends most of her time in the homeless slums of Tompkins Square Park. In London, Bill is introduced to George Haddad, a representative of the Maoist group responsible for kidnapping the writer. Bill decides to go to Lebanon himself and negotiate the release of the writer. Cutting himself off from Charles, he flees to Cyprus where he awaits a ship that will take him to Lebanon.
In Cyprus Bill is hit by a car and suffers a lacerated liver which, exacerbated by his heavy drinking, kills him in his sleep while en route to Beirut. In the epilogue/last chapter, Brita goes to Beirut to photograph Abu Rashid, the terrorist responsible for the kidnapping. The fate of the hostage is never revealed, though the implication is grim. The plot unfolds with DeLillo's customary shifts of time, setting, and character.
Review: I listened to this book. Mao II is not a fun book. It won't make you laugh out loud, nor will you cry with gentle joy when the hero is reunited with the princess. The book is unsettling, a prescient book about what ails the modern world.
It is written from a bizarre distance. The author is far away from us readers - and has no mercy with us. It's as if he finds the world - or more narrowly, the US - an incredibly strange place, and he'll go to any length to prove it to us. We don't yearn to meet him - or his characters - at any imaginary cocktail party ...
Mao II is a book of ideas told through three-dimensional characters. Most of the characters are lonely and unsure how - or even whether - they fit into the world as a whole. Long passages, entire chapters are in dialogue, and who the characters are and how they interrelate is revealed in what they say rather than in wordy descriptive passages. There's an easy flow from dialogue to inner monologue, though DeLillo doesn't use 'he said' or 'she thought'.
One of the book's themes is about losing one's identity in a mass of people. The opening scene - a Moonie wedding in Yankee Stadium - is as unsettling on second reading, ten years later, as it was the first time around. In another spooky scene, a crowd of spectators is crushed at a football stadium in Europe - but our narrator is not on the scene, nor is she discussing what she saw or heard or read with others; she's watching TV with the sound off, her boyfriend asleep next to her. This character is uniquely susceptible to atmosphere and to influences; she often serves as a filter for what's going on in the outside world.
Another theme is about consuming the world visually. Another main character is travelling around the world photographing writers, trying to capture an ineffable something in their auras. In other passages, words describe the process of writing visually, reversing the process. "Here was the old, marked and melancholy head, the lost man of letters, and there was the early alphabet on the wall, the plan of his missing book in the form of lopsided boxes and felt-tipped scrawls and sets of directional signs like arrows scratched out by a child with a pencil in his fist." Andy Warhol's paintings of popular icons are also discussed - hence the book's title.
Mao II is also about terrorism and anonymity. Terrorism from a 1991 vantage point does not mean a huge gesture hurting Americans to their very core; it means a cold, vague threat to the individual - torture drumming who you are out of you; the act of standing up to terrorism as a gesture of humanity. A representative of a terrorist group tries to persuade Bill to make a significant political gesture
Opening Line: “Here they come, marching into American sunlight.”
Closing Line: “The dead city, photographed one more time.”
Quotes: "He caught the back-and-forthness. The way things fit almost anywhere and nothing gets completely forgotten." [
“He had tumbled into the new culture, the system of world terror, and they'd given him a second self, an immortality, the spirit of Jean-Claude Julien. He was a digital mosaic in the processing grid, lines of ghostly type on microfilm. They were putting him together, storing his data in starfish satellites, bouncing his image off the moon. He saw himself floating to the far shores of space, past his own death and back again. But he sensed they'd forgotten his body by now. He was lost in the wavebands, one more code for the computer mesh, for the memory of crimes too pointless to be solved.”
Rating: Good, but meaningfully depressing.

223. Rob Roy – Sir Walter Scott

June 2009
History: The book was published in 1817, and it was published anonymously and came in three volumes. The novel is a brutally realistic depiction of the social conditions in Highland and Lowland Scotland in the early 18th Century. The Highlanders were compared with American Indians, as regards to their primitive, isolated lifestyle. Rob Roy was written at a time when many Europeans started regretting colonialism and imperialism as reports circulated back of horrendous atrocities towards primitive cultures. It was also a time when debates raged about the slave trade, the British occupation of India, and, more relevant to the novel, the disastrous effect of the Highland Clearances. Many writers would praise pre-commercial cultures and their defiance against the corrupting influence of commercial imperialism and "civilized" values.
Plot: Frank Osbaldistone, the narrator, quarrels with his father and is sent to stay with an uncle, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone, in Northumberland. Frank falls in love with Diana Vernon, Sir Hildebrand's niece, whose father has been forced to go into hiding because of his Jacobite sympathies. Frank's cousin, Rashleigh, steals important documents vital to the honour of Frank's father, William, and Frank pursues Rashleigh to Scotland. There he meets Robert Roy MacGregor, an associate of Diana's father. When Rashleigh attacks Frank, Rob Roy kills Rashleigh. All Sir Hildebrand's other sons are killed in the Jacobite rebellion, and Frank inherits Sir Hildebrand's property and marries Diana.
Review: I listened to this book, and I loved the narrator, Frederick Davidson. However, I was unable to understand most of it. In fact, I couldn’t finish it. I thoroughly enjoyed the voices of the narrator and his pleasant accents, but because I couldn’t understand the story, my mind would wander. This is the third book on the list I couldn’t finish: Emma by Jane Austen, Nostromo by Joseph Conrad were the first two.
Opening Line: “You have requested me, my dear friend, to bestow some of that leisure with which Providence has blessed the decline of my life in registering the hazards and difficulties which attended its commencement.”
Closing Line: “Old Andrew Fairservice used to say that “There were many things ower bad for blessing, and ower good for banning, like Rob Roy.”
Quotes: “ My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor”
Rating: Horrible but loved the narrator, Frederick Davidson.

222. Nana – Emile Zola

June 2009
History: Completed in 1880, Nana is the ninth installment in the 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series, which was to tell "The Natural and Social History of a Family under the Second Empire”. In Nana, Zola examines the nature of his heroine as well as her conquests. He is also criticizing the excesses, sexual and political, of France before 1870. The section of the novel that describes the system of policing imposed on Paris prostitutes provides an interesting study of the intersection between medicine and society.
Plot: As the book opens, Fauchery, a drama critic, is waiting for the hottest play in Paris to open. "The Blonde Venus" has bad music and bad actresses, but a new star, Nana, who appears on stage clad only in a diaphanous wrap brings down the house anyway. Nana is an experienced concubine. She exploits the hysteria caused by her nearly nude performance to win Steiner, a wealthy banker. Steiner buys her a country house where she entertains other lovers to win more gifts. Here she also has a brief affair with the penniless student George, who is much younger than her.
There are long sequences about the late night parties that Nana gives, the men that compete for her attention, and the humiliation they will endure to have her.
Soon Steiner runs out of money, and she disposes of him. She takes up with Fontan, an actor. She tries to be domestic and kind, but Fontan beats her, then abandons her and she turns to streetwalking. Threatened by the police, who in order to prevent the spread of syphilis can imprison women and perform mandatory gynecological exams, she quickly searches for a new, wealthy lover. She finds Count Muffat whom she humiliates, trampling on his uniform and sleeping with whomever she likes. Count Muffat is married, and his wife is having an affair, and Nana reminds him of this constantly. He is very traumatized by this. Like the other men, he is in love with her, and isn’t able to control himself. She also has an affair with Satain, a streetwalker, and is open about it toMuffat, telling him if he doesn’t like it, too bad. She also continues to rake in money from men for sex, but she never has enough. And she is very critical of the gifts they buy her, laughs at them when they propose to her, humiliates them to see how far she can push them. Young George finally grows so jealous of Muffat and of his brother, another of Nana's conquests, he stabs himself with scissors in the door of her bedroom. He eventually dies, his brother Phillipe, is in prison for not paying his debts, from gifts he has bought for Nana. Her other lovers must step over the bloodstain to approach Nana's bed. Satain also dies, and her maid, Zoe, the loyal servant, gives her notice to become a prostitute herself. At the end of the novel, Nana leaves Paris to travel abroad. At that point the story is told from the young prostitutes that knew of her. When she comes back, she is in the hospital dying from smallpox. There are chants of war in the street when she dies. She dies in 1870 just as the Franco-Prussian War begins.
Review: I listened to this book. I didn’t like the narrator Walter Zimmerman. But I appreciate the honesty and realism, the description of a prostitute’s life, and the vacancy of the lives she destroyed. Zola tells the book in a straight forward manner, does not judge her, but points out her abuse to the men that come back for more.
Opening Line: “At nine o’clock in the evening the body of the house at the Theatres des Varietes was still all but empty.”
Quotes: “She becomes a blind power of nature, a leaven of destruction, and unwittingly she corrupts and disorganizes all Paris, churning it between her snow–white thighs as milk is monthly churned by housewives.”
Rating: Fair.

221. Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

History: Published in 1969, the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five is an author's preface about how he came to write Slaughterhouse-Five, apologizing, because the novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled", because "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre". The Narrator introduces Slaughterhouse-Five with the novel's genesis and ends discussing the beginning and the end of the Novel. The story proper begins in chapter two, although there is no reason to presume that the first chapter is not fictional. This is a technique common to postmodern meta-fiction. The story purports to be a disjointed, discontinuous narrative, of Billy Pilgrim's point of view, of being unstuck in time. Vonnegut's writing usually contains such disorder.
Plot: Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist that married his bosses daughter, and they have a daughter and son. He is in a plane wreck in which he is the only surviver, and is severely injured in a coma. His wife dies before he is conscious. In WWII he is aChaplain's Assistant, a disoriented, ill-trained American soldier, and is captured by the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans imprison him and other PoWs in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden. PoWs and guards alike hide in a deep cellar; because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm.
For unexplained reasons, Billy has come "unstuck in time." He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. They exhibit him in a zoo with movie star Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives. They believe they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the correctness of their theories.
Billy travels forward and back in time, reliving occasions of his life, real and fantastic. He spends time on Tralfamadore; in Dresden; in the War, walking in deep snow before his German capture; in his post-war married life in the U.S.A. of the 1950s; and in the moment of his murder.
Billy's death is the consequence of a string of events. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets Roland Weary, a jingoist character who constantly chastizes him for his lack of enthusiasm toward war. At their capture, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has, including his boots, giving him clogs to wear; Weary eventually dies of gangrene caused by the clogs. In his deathbed, Weary managed to convince Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge Weary's death by killing Billy, because revenge is "the sweetest thing in life". Time-traveler Billy, already knows where, when, and how he will be killed: Paul Lazzaro hires someone to shoot him after a speech in a balkanized United States on February 13, 1976.
Review: I listened to this on the way back from NYC. The narrator was Ethan Hawke, who is a terrible actor, but did a good job of narrating. A dark Kurt Vonnegut, but very good. I like it that the book takes an anti war slightly political slant. Vonnegut also manages to put a human face on the tragedy at Dresden and expose one of World War II's darker moments to the general public in an accessible form.
While the fragmented nature of time in the novel is largely a thematic device used by Vonnegut to contrast the different events in Billy Pilgrim's life, Vonnegut also contemplates the nature of time and fate.
Opening Line: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts are anyway.”
Closing Line: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, woo-tee-weet?”
Quotes: "All this responsibility at such an early age made her a bitchy flibbertigibbet."
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference."
"The legs of those who stood were like fence posts driven into a warm, squirming, farting, sighing earth. The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons."
Rating: Very Good.

220. Thank you, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse

May 2009
History: This book, one of many of the Jeeves series, was first published in the U.K. in 1934. The story had previously been serialized during the year of 1934. Jeeves is Wodehouse's most famous character. The name "Jeeves" comes from Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire cricketer killed in the First World War. Both the name "Jeeves" and the character of Jeeves have come to be thought of as the quintessential name and nature of a butler, inspiring many famous similar characters
Plot: After a falling out concerning Bertie's relentless playing of the banjolele, Jeeves leaves Bertie's service and finds work with Bertie's old friend, Lord "Chuffy" Chuffnell, of Chuffnell Hall, Dorset. He is replaced by Brinkley, a most unsatisfactory valet, and together they travel to one of Chuffy's rental properties in Dorset, the remote location of the cottage allowing Bertie to continue practicing the banjolele without complaints from his neighbors. Chuffy, whose high rank is only matched by his low financial status, hopes to sell his dilapidated family manor to raise cash, and enlists Jeeves' help in persuading visiting American millionaire J. Washburn Stoker to stump up the cash. Stoker's daughter, the beautiful Pauline, is not only a former fiancee of Bertie, but has quickly become the object of Chuffy's finance-impaired affections. Stoker himself, meanwhile, covets the talents of valet extraordinaire Jeeves. Of course all kinds of confusion ensues, including the fiery destruction of Bertie's cottage and banjolele, but fortunately Jeeves' enormous brain enables him to unravel everything satisfactorily as the story ends: the home is sold, the two couples are headed to the altar, and Jeeves has re-entered Bertie's grateful employ.
Review: I listened to this book on the way to NYC. It was easy and fun, and I liked it. I loved the narrator, Jonathan Ceril.
Opening Line: “I was a shade perturbed.”
Closing Line: “Thank you Jeeves”, I said. “Not at all sir”.
Quotes: “ Excellent companion though I’d always found him in the past, Chuffy had not shown himself at his chummiest, during the recent scene, with the result that for some little time, had been feeling like Daniel In the lions den.”
Rating: Very Good

219. The Three Musketeers – Alexander Dumas

History: The Three Musketeers was first published in serial form in the magazine Le Siècle between March and July 1844.
Plot: This is actually a story about d'Artagnan, a boy who has grown up in Gascony, poor but from a noble family, who is sent by his father to M. de Tréville, the captain of the King’s Musketeers in Paris. There he meets the three Musketeers, and immediately recognizes that the Cardinal is his greatest enemy. He becomes greatly admired by the King for defeating the Cardinal’s men in a small battle, and becomes a Musketeer, attaching himself with Porthos, Athos, and Aramis. After a few months of living well, he meets Constance Bonacieux, the young wife of his landlord (who is in alliance with the Cardinal) and is also one of the Queen’s personal servants. D’Artagnan falls in love with her, and is pulled into an adventure that involves the Queen. The Duke of Buckingham is in love with the Queen, but because an affair would bring war between England and France, it is very secret. The Cardinal, for some reason, would like the Queen dead, so he tries to prove the affair to the King, without really saying so. Madame Bonacieux has helped the Queen meet with The Duke, who expresses his love for her, and she to him by giving him a cluster of 12 diamonds that had been a present from the King. However, because the Cardinal found out about this present, he convinced the King to have a ball, and to demand that the Queen wear the diamonds. So d'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers went to England to get the diamonds back, but d'Artagnan was the only one that made it to the Duke’s Palace, retrieved them (and received a diamond ring for a present from the Duke) and delivered them safely back to the Queen, just in time for the ball. But the other three were scattered in France, and d'Artagnan went to find them. Porthos was stuck at an inn, because he could not afford to pay the innkeeper and therefore could not leave until his mistress delivered him some money. He found Aramis, wounded and also at another inn, who had been born again, so to speak, and was considering going back to the church. After finding Athos, who was on a month long drunk, Athos revealed a story that he had been married before to a woman that was evil, who had been branded the fleur de lis by the executioner. He thought she had been executed by law, but unknown to him, she was still alive. She was Milady, and she worked for the cardinal and she is one of the best female villains in literature.
Constance Bonacieux is kidnapped just before their first date, and d'Artagnan meets Milady, and becomes seduced by her beauty. But through her servant, learns what a horror she really is. He learns of her plot to assassinate the Duke of Buckingham. So the three musketeers send a letter to her brother in law, telling him of her plan, and he arrests her. but while she is imprisoned she seduces Felton, his helper, and he helps her escape, cross the channel, and goes and kills the duke of buckingham! She escapes back to France to the convent where Constance is at, and befriends her. Then right before d'Artagnan comes in she poisons Constance, and she dies. Then the friends chase down the evil woman, and expose her to all she has done, and conveniently there is the executioner, who cuts off her head. And the friends then ride down to Paris, where d'Artagnan has to meet with the cardinal, who lets him off, admiring his courage, and d'Artagnan becomes lieutenant of all the Musketeers.
Review: Friendship. Love. Hate. Revenge. Secrets. Danger. Adventure. Adventure. Adventure. Adventure with a dash of romance. Swordfights. Duels. Honor. Jealousy. Agendas. Ambition. Greed. Lust. And more than a little humor and sarcasm. So much of this novel is historical fiction, and Dumas certainly took liberties. But his characters are fascinating, very dramatic and interesting. Milady is one of the most intriguing villains I have ever encounted in literature.
Opening Line: “On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it.
Closing Line: “the opinion of those who seemed to be the best informed was, that he was that he was fed and lodged in some royal castle, at the expense of his generous Eminence.”
Quotes: “We always feel superior to those whose lives we know better than they think we do.”
“Isn't fantasy the basis of all love and jealousy?”
Rating: Good.

218. A Death in Venice – Thomas Mann

May 2009
History: It was first published in German in 1912. Thomas Mann's wife Katia recalls that the idea for the story came during an actual holiday in Venice, which she and Thomas took in the spring of 1911: “All the details of the story, beginning with the man at the cemetery, are taken from experience … In the dining-room, on the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about thirteen was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband's attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn't pursue him through all of Venice — that he didn't do — but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often…” The boy who inspired "Tadzio" was Baron Władysław Moes, whose first name was usually shortened as Władzio or just Adzio. This story was uncovered by Thomas Mann's translator Andrzej Dołęgowski around 1964, and was published in the German press in 1965. Some sources report that Moes himself did not learn of the connection until he saw the 1971 film version of the novel. Moes was born in 1900, and was aged 11 when he was in Venice, significantly younger than Tadzio in the novella.
Plot: The main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous author in his early fifties who has recently added the aristocratic "von" to his name. He is a man dedicated to his art, disciplined and ascetic to the point of severity, and was widowed at a young age.
Three times in the book, he has abrupt encounters with red haired men that disturb him, which is a symbol for the god of reason, whom he is ignoring.
He is finishing a manuscript, and decides to take a trip, or sabbatical. He decides on Venice, reserving a suite in the Grand Hôtel des Bains on the Lido island. He observes people from a distance, has an uncomfortable confrontation with a Gondolier who apparently is not licensed, soon arrives at the hotel. From his observings, we can see he is a very stiff and severe man, hard on himself and others. He is very proper. Aschenbach checks into his hotel, where at dinner he sees an aristocratic Polish family at a nearby table. Among them is an adolescent boy in a sailor suit; Aschenbach, startled, realizes that the boy is beautiful. His sisters, however, are so severely dressed that they look like nuns. Aschenbach overhears the lad's name, Tadzio, and conceives what he tells himself is an abstract, artistic interest.
Soon the hot, humid weather begins to affect Aschenbach's health, and he decides to leave early and move to a more salubrious location. On the morning of his planned departure, he sees Tadzio again, and a powerful feeling of regret sweeps over him. When he reaches the railway station and discovers his trunk has been misdirected, he pretends to be angry, but is really overjoyed; he decides to remain in Venice and wait for his lost luggage. He happily returns to the hotel, and thinks no more of leaving.
Over the next days and weeks, Aschenbach's interest in the beautiful boy develops into an obsession. He watches him constantly, and secretly follows him around Venice. One evening, the boy directs a charming smile at him, looking, Disconcerted, he rushes outside, and in the empty garden whispers aloud "I love you!"
Aschenbach next takes a trip into the city of Venice, where he sees a few discreetly worded notices from the Health Department warning of an unspecified contagion and advising people to avoid eating shellfish. He smells an unfamiliar strong odour everywhere, and later realises it is disinfectant. However, the tourists continue to wander round the city, apparently oblivious. Aschenbach at first ignores the danger because it somehow pleases him to think that the city's disease is akin to his own hidden, corrupting passion for the boy.
Next, Aschenbach rallies his self-respect and decides to discover the reason for the health notices posted in the city so he can warn Tadzio's mother. After being repeatedly assured that the sirocco is the only health risk, he finds a British travel agent who reluctantly admits that there is a serious cholera epidemic in Venice. Aschenbach, however, funks his resolution to warn the Polish family, knowing that if he does, Tadzio will leave the hotel and be lost to him.
One night, a dream filled with orgiastic Dionysian imagery reveals to him the sexual nature of his feelings for Tadzio. Afterwards, he begins staring at the boy so openly and following him so persistently that Aschenbach feels the boy's guardians finally notice, and take to warning Tadzio whenever he approaches too near the strange, solitary man. But Aschenbach's feelings, though passionately intense, remain unvoiced; he never touches Tadzio, or even speaks to him; and while there is some indication that Tadzio is aware of his admiration, the two exchange nothing more than the occasional surreptitious glance.
Aschenbach begins to fret about his aging face and body. In an attempt to look more attractive, he visits the hotel's barber shop almost daily, where the barber eventually persuades him to have his hair dyed and his face painted to look more youthful. Freshly dyed and rouged, he again shadows Tadzio through Venice in the oppressive heat. He loses sight of the boy in the heart of the city; then, exhausted and thirsty, he buys and eats some over-ripe strawberries and rests in an abandoned square, contemplating the Platonic ideal of beauty amidst the ruins of his own once-formidable dignity.
A few days later, Aschenbach goes to the lobby in his hotel, feeling ill and weak, and discovers that the Polish family plan to leave after lunch. He goes down to the beach to his usual deck chair. Tadzio is there, unsupervised for once, and accompanied by an older boy, Jasiu. A fight breaks out between the two boys, and Tadzio is quickly bested; afterward, he angrily leaves his companion and wades over to Aschenbach's part of the beach, where he stands for a moment looking out to sea; then turns halfway around to look at his "lover". To Aschenbach, it is as if the boy is beckoning to him: he tries to rise and follow, only to collapse back into his chair.
His body is discovered a few minutes later. When news of his death becomes public, the world decorously mourns the passing of a great artist.
Review: The novella is constructed on a framework of references to Greek mythology, and Aschenbach's Venice seems populated by the gods. By dedicating himself to Apollo, the god of reason and the intellect, Aschenbach has denied the power of Dionysus, god of unreason and of passion. Dionysus seems to have followed Aschenbach to Venice with the intent of destroying him: the red-haired man who keeps crossing von Aschenbach's path, in the guise of different characters, is none other than Silenus, chief follower of the god of unreason. Silenus' role is disputed, since he bears no physical resemblance to the secondary characters in the book. The idea of the opposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian seems to have been introduced by Nietzsche, and was also a popular motif of the time.
Opening Line: “On a spring afternoon in 19-, a year that had been glowering so ominously at one continent for months, Gustav Aschenbach, or von Aschenbach as he had been officially called since his fiftieth birthday, left his home on Prince Regents Street in Munich, in order to take a rather long walk by himself.”
Closing Line: “And that very same day, a respectfully shocked world received the news of his death”.
Quotes: “This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty - this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”
Rating: Okay.

217. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein

History: Published in 1961, it has been called the most famous science fiction book ever. The late-1960s counterculture, popularized by the hippie movement, was influenced by its themes of individual liberty, self-responsibility, sexual freedom and the influence of organized religion on human culture and government, and adopted the book as something of a manifesto. In 1968 Tim Zell and others formed a neopagan religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, loosely modeled after the religion founded by the primary characters in the novel, but Heinlein had no other connection to the project.
Plot: Valentine Michael Smith is the son of two of the eight astronauts of an ill-fated first human expedition to the planet Mars. Orphaned when the crew died, Smith is raised in the culture of the native inhabitants of the planet, beings whose minds live in another world. After the arrival of a second expedition to the planet some twenty years later, Smith is taken "home" to Earth, where he is consigned to Bethesda Naval Hospital. However, he is effectively imprisoned. Nurse Gillian Borgman slips past the guards to get a peek at Smith, and in doing so inadvertently becomes his first female "water brother" by sharing a glass of water with him. That night, Jill has a date with Ben, a journalist who is trying to get a story on the Man from Mars which is top secret. The next day, Ben tries to get more information about Mike, and disappears. Gillian, sensing danger helps Mike escape. They escape to Jubel Harshaws residence, who finds out that Mike can levitate, read minds, and make things and people disappear. Jubel attempts to explain the world to Mike, including sex and religion. Mike is naïve, basically good and anxious to explore the world. Now free to travel, Smith becomes a celebrity, and is feted by elite of Earth. During his stay with Harshaw, Smith is invited by Bishop Digby, the leader of the Fosterites, to visit their temple. Fosterites train squadrons of teenagers and young adults, the Spirit-in-Action League, to physically attack other religions, newspapers, etc., who fail to respect their version of the truth. Ironically, the Fosterites, along with all other religions, turn out to be true agents of divine forces. Smith is taken to a Fosterite service and introduced to Bishop Digby, whom Smith apparently kills for reasons never fully explained. He then starts a Martian-influenced "Church of All Worlds," which teaches its members how to rise above suffering, such as "pain and sickness and hunger and fighting." However, parts of the religion, such as group sex, communal living, and ritual cannibalism, make Smith's church a target for enemies following more conventional religions. Eventually a Mike allows himself to be brutally killed by a mob. Harshaw attempts suicide by overdose; Mike returns as a voice in Jubal's head and both helps Harshaw vomit the pills and causes him to realize that Mike's sacrifice was only of the body, not of the soul. Smith is explicitly portrayed as a modern Prometheus, and implicitly as a messianic figure; in the ending of the book, one interpretation is that he is in reality the archangel Michael, who has assumed human form. The book ends with Mike promoted to another plane of existence, similar to Heaven. The original Rev. Foster appoints Rev. Digby as Mike's assistant.
Review: This one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. It was funny, almost how ridiculous it seemed. However, I get what the author is trying to say – about religion, sex, competition, and the basic inhumanity in the way we treat eachother. The first part of the novel read more like a sci-fi adventure, but suddenly it just got too weird and kind of lost me, especially when Mike became the leader of a cult.
Opening Line: “Once upon a time there was martian named Valentine Michael Smith.”
Closing Line: “Mike pushed back his halo and got to work; he could see a lot of changes he wanted to make.”
Quotes: “Thou art God”
“I grok that you don’t grok how we share water.”
Rating: Weird.