Thursday, December 20, 2012

516. Whatever – Michael Houellebecq

History: This book was published in 1994 in France titled as Extension du domaine de la lutte (literal English translation: 'broadening the field of struggle'; published in English as Whatever) and is the debut novel of French writer, Michel Houellebecq. Although this word does not relate to the original French title, it connects to the protagonist's defeatist view of life. The struggle of the original title is expressly associated with class struggle in a parody of slogans made popular by the Parisian student movement of 1968, which Our Hero extends to sexual, as well as economic antagonism.
Plot: The protagonist (Harel), known only as "Our Hero" during the entirety of the story, lives a solitary life, and has not had sex for over two years. Within most of the book and film versions of Extension du domaine de la lutte, Our Hero draws on recollections of Schopenhauer and Kant to lambaste the commodification of human contact, punctuating his inner monologue with bouts of nausea and onanism. He is wracked by the implications of decisions that would seem minor to the average person, such as disclosing his lack of a sex life through the purchase of a single bed. He is teamed up with a disturbing, desperate 28-year-old virgin, Raphael Tisserand, to deliver a series of seminars on the use of IT. Raphael looks up to Our Hero for ever having been able to hold down a relationship, and listens to his musings on love with tragic, but ultimately inspirational consequences.
Review: The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq's novel is Marcuse's one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq's view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn't take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals. When his company sends him and a colleague, Bernard, out to Rouen and La Roche-sur-Yon to consult on software, nothing much gets done. In Rouen he suffers from heart problems. Since Bernard visits him in the hospital, a bond develops between them. Bernard, cursed with a repulsive appearance and a horny disposition, makes obnoxious advances to every woman he sees and is predictably rejected. Sexual deprivation is the atmosphere in which these men exist. That both men see women only in terms of their sexual features makes their impotence even more pathetic. After breaking up with his last girlfriend two years ago, the narrator has withdrawn from the romantic arena. And yet he has developed an intricate and mean-spirited, if ill-defined, theory of sexual hierarchy. The loose narrative condenses to an action sequence when the narrator tries to get Bernard to murder a woman with a steak knife, but the incident is gratuitous. In the end, Houellebecq displays none of the novelist's eye for detail and, further, defaults on the development of a vital main character, who might have connected this series of threadbare incidents into an interesting social comment. FYI: A bestseller in France, this novel won the 1995 Prix Flore for best first novel.
Opening Line: “Friday evening I was invited to a party at a colleague from work’s house.”
Closing Line: “It is two in the afternoon.”
Quotes: “...beds last on an average much longer than marriages...”
Rating: Didn’t Understand it.

515. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

History: This book was first published in 1950 when Shute had newly settled in Australia. Jean Paget was based on Carry Geysel (Mrs J. G. Geysel-Vonck) whom Shute met while visiting Sumatra in 1949. Geysel had been one of a group of about 80 Dutch civilians taken prisoner by Japanese forces at Padang, in the Dutch East Indies in 1942. Shute's understanding was that the women were forced to march around Sumatra for two-and-a-half years, covering 1,900 kilometres (1,200 mi), with fewer than 30 people surviving the march. However, the Nevil Shute foundation insists that this was a misunderstanding, and that the women were merely transported from prison camp to prison camp by the Japanese. "Shute, fortunately misinformed about parts of her experience, mistakenly understands that the women were made to walk. This was possibly the luckiest misunderstanding of his life..." says the Foundation. 
Shute based the character of Harman on Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign, whom Shute met in 1948 at a station (ranch) in Queensland. Edwards had been crucified for 63 hours by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. He had later escaped execution a second time, when his "last meal" of chicken and beer could not be obtained. Crucifixion (or Haritsuke) was a form of punishment or torture that the Japanese sometimes used against prisoners during the war.
The fictional "Willstown" is reportedly based on Burke town, Queensland and Normanton, Queensland, which Shute also visited in 1948. (Burke and Wills were well-known explorers of Australia.)
In a note to the text, Shute makes it known to the reader that a forced march of women by the Japanese did indeed take place during World War II, but the women in question were Dutch, not British, and the march was in Sumatra, not Malaya.
Plot: The story falls broadly into three parts.
In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary in a leather-goods factory, is informed by solicitor Noel Strachan that she has inherited a considerable sum of money from an uncle she never knew. But the solicitor is now her trustee and she only has the use of the income until she inherits absolutely, at the age of thirty-five, several years in the future. In the firm's interest, but increasingly for his own personal interest, Strachan acts as her guide and advisor. Jean decides that her priority is to build a well in a Malayan village.
The second part of the story flashes back to Jean's experiences during the War, when she was working in Malaya at the time the Japanese invaded and was taken prisoner together with a group of women and children.
As she speaks Malay fluently, Jean takes a leading role in the group of prisoners. The Japanese refuse all responsibility for the group and march them from one village to another. Many of them, not used to physical labour, die. Jean meets a young Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a truck for the Japanese and they strike up a friendship. He steals food and medicines to help them. Jean is carrying a toddler, whose mother has died, and this leads Harman to believe that she is married; to avoid complications, Jean does not correct this assumption.
On one occasion, Harman steals six chickens from the local Japanese commander. The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is beaten, crucified, and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The women are marched away, believing that he is dead.
When their sole Japanese guard dies, the women become part of a Malayan village community. They live and work there for three years, until the war ends and they are repatriated.
Now a wealthy woman (at least on paper), Jean decides she wants to build a well for the village so that the women will not have to walk so far to collect water: "A gift by women, for women".
Strachan arranges for her to travel to Malaya, where she goes back to the village and persuades the headman to allow her to build the well. While it is being built, she discovers that, by a strange chance, Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia. She decides to travel on to Australia to find him. On her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe has become manager of a cattle station. She soon discovers that the quality of life in 'Alice' is an anomaly, and life for a woman in the outback is elsewhere very rugged. Willstown is described as 'a fair cow'.
Meanwhile, Joe has met a pilot who helped repatriate the women, from whom he learns that Jean survived the war and that she was never married. He travels to London to find her, using money won in lottery. He finds his way to Strachan's office, but is told that she has gone traveling in the Far East. Disappointed, he gets drunk and is arrested, but is bailed out by Strachan. Without revealing Jean's actual whereabouts, Strachan persuades Joe to return home by ship and intimates that he may well receive a great surprise there.
While staying in Willstown, awaiting Joe's return, Jean learns that most young girls have to leave the town to find work in the bigger cities. Having worked with a firm in England that produced crocodile- leather luxury goods, she gets the idea of founding a local workshop to make shoes from the skins of crocodiles hunted in the outback. With the help of Joe and of Noel Strachan, who releases money from her inheritance, she starts the workshop, followed by a string of other businesses; an ice-cream parlour, a public swimming pool and shops.
The third part of the book shows how Jean's entrepreneurship gives a decisive economic impact to develop Willstown into "a town like Alice"; also Jean's help in rescuing an injured stockman, which breaks down many local barriers.
The story closes a few years later, with an aged Noel Strachan visiting Willstown to see what has been done with the money he has given Jean to invest. He reveals that the money which Jean inherited was originally made in an Australian gold rush, and he is satisfied to see the money returning to the site of its making.
Jean and Joe name their second son Noel, and ask Strachan to be his godfather. They invite Noel to make his home with them in Australia, but he declines the invitation, returns to England and the novel closes.
Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is multi-layered expat novel, which was made into a TV mini-series in 1981. It has been one of my favorites for a long time, not only because of the expat themes, but because it also features a strong female protagonist who overcomes some truly daunting obstacles. Author Nevil Shute is interesting in his own right. A prolific author, with over 20 novels to his credit, Nevil Shute Norway was by profession an aeronautic engineer and pilot. Shute became an expat himself. He was born in 1916 in London, and emigrated with his wife and daughters to Australia in 1950 following World War II. His books strongly reflect his love of airplanes and flying, and his adopted country. He died in Melbourne, Australia in 1960.
Opening Line: “James McFadden died in March, 1905 when he was forty-seven years old.”
Closing Line: “I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging, and blackstock riders, of Cairns, and of Green Island, of a girl I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection.”
Quotes: “She looked at him in wonder. "Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done."
"That's as it may be," he replied. "The fact is, that you did it.”
Rating: Excellent Reading!!!

514. The Ravishing of L Stein – Marguerite Duras

History: This book was published in France by Gallimard in 1964.
Plot: At the beginning of the novel, Lol Stein (her middle initial is omitted in the English translation) is a woman in her thirties. She was born and raised in South Tahla in a bourgeois family and is engaged to Michael Richardson at 19. However, at a ball in the seaside resort of Town Beach, Michael Richardson leaves Lol for Anne-Marie Stretter, an older woman. After a difficult recovery from this shock, Lol marries Jean Bedford, a musician she meets on one of her daily walks. Lol leaves South Tahla with her husband.
Ten years later, with three children, Lol is an established woman with no time for fantasy. She returns with her family to South Tahla and moves into the house she grew up in. Lol goes on her daily walks as she did ten years before. She thinks she recognises Tatiana Karl one day, the friend who consoled her after her breakup with Michael Richardson. The man who accompanies Tatiana makes a deep impression on Lol.
Lol reestablishes her contact with Tatiana and gets to know both her husband and her lover, Jacques Hold. Lol is able to get information from Jacques about events at the ball at T Beach 10 years before. Lol reveals to Jacques her interest in him but forbids him to stay with her instead of Tatiana.
Lol spies on Tatiana and her lover but Jacques notices her. One day Lol tells Jacques that she has been to T Beach alone and plans to return with him. While doing this, Lol shows Jacques the room where she and Michael Richardson had split up. Lol and Jacques spend the night together. The next day, Jacques has one last meeting with Tatiana Karl.
The novel is seen through the obsessive eyes of Jacques Hold. The primary character in novel shifts from Lol to himself as you delve further into his pursuit of Lol.
Review: This isn't a happy book, despite Lol's protests to the contrary. The author's writing style is changeable and intricate, depicting the turbulent thought patterns of the characters. The landscape is broad and bland. Lol is lost in a desert of supressed pain and love. It is a tortuous tale, difficult to watch so much anguish. Somewhat unreal, one may come away sensing this is almost a mythical story. Some of Duras' work is notably autobiographical. One may wonder what brought this tale to light.
Opening Line: “Lol Stein was born here in South Tahla, and she spent a good part of her youth in this town.”
Closing Line: “She was asleep in the field of rye, worn out, worn out by our trip.”
Quotes: “That she had so completely recovered her sanity was a source of sadness to her. One should never be cured of one's passion.”
Rating: Not too good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

513. Quo Vadis – Henryk Sienkiewicz

History: Published in installments in three Polish dailies in 1895, it came out in book form in 1896 and has since been translated into more than 50 languages. This novel contributed to Sienkiewicz's Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.
Plot: Quo Vadis is a novel that takes place during the time of Nero and follows the story of a patrician and military leader who falls in love with one of Nero’s state hostages who turns out to be a Christian. This is a novel of love and conversion and the struggles the young patrician encounters between his Roman upbringing and ego of deserving all he has as it meets the teachings of Christ. The novel casts it eyes on Nero, the Christian community including St. Peter and St. Paul, and then the burning of Rome and the persecution of the Christians as scape-goats. The title Quo Vadis s a Latin phrase meaning “Where are you going?” or “Whither goest thou?” taken from the legend that as St. Peter leaves Rome to escape he encounters Jesus and on the way and asks him Quo Vadis and Jesus replies “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.”
Review: Quo Vadis? has actually remained more popular over the years, in fact it is one of the best selling novels of all time, so there have been decent translations available all along, but you really should seek out the W. S. Kuniczak version if you can find it. Kuniczak, himself a novelist, devoted at least six years to updating Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and his dedication to the author's work paid off brilliantly. Though still recognizably written in the style and language of a hundred years ago, the books now read with a much more natural flow. His background as a novelist seems to have served him well, because rather than reading like someone converted Polish to English verbatim, they read like an English retelling of the Polish tale. That obviously could be cause for concern to folks who have a thorough grounding in the original, particularly if he took great license with the author's work, but as a reader, all I really care about is that his versions are terrific books.
The novel is set in Nero's Rome and is built around the stark contrast between the voluptuary decadent Romans and the ascetic Christians. Vinitius is a patrician in good standing at Nero's court until he falls in love with the Christian girl Ligia. At first somewhat reluctantly, but then with gathering fervor, Vinitius is drawn out of the moral depths of his prior life and himself becomes a Christian. By the time that Nero burns down Rome and blames the Christians, Vinitius has become a believer and is prepared to sacrifice his position and even his life to save Ligia from the Coliseum and the Games where Nero sacrifices Christians to distract the restless populace of Rome.
In addition to Bread and Circuses and the romantic tale, there are scenes of surpassing beauty centered on Christian faith. desert my flock, those whom He has given me?"
Another such scene explains the title of the book. "Quo Vadis?", means "where are you going?" and derives from a New Testament verse (John 13:36). At the core of the story lies the miracle of how an obscure religion embraced by the people at the very fringes of this society, literally hiding in catacombs to escape persecution, could rise up, conquer the Empire and reshape the world. On either plane, the physical or the metaphysical, this is an exciting story and is sure to send you scurrying to find the rest of Sienkiewicz's work.
Opening Line: "Petronius woke only about midday, and as usual greatly wearied.”
Closing Line: “Near the anciety Porta Capena stands to this day a little chapel with the inscription, somewhat worn: Quo Vadis, Domine?”
Quotes: “But I think happiness springs from another source, a far deeper one that doesn't depend on will because it comes from love.”
Rating: Difficult

512. Cryptonmycin – Neal Stephenson

History: This novel was published in 1999. Portions of Cryptonomicon are notably complex and may be considered somewhat difficult by the non-technical reader. Several pages are spent explaining in detail some of the concepts behind cryptography and data storage security, including a description of Van Eck phreaking.
Stephenson also includes a precise description of (and even Perl script for) the Solitaire (or Pontifex) cipher, a cryptographic algorithm developed by Bruce Schneier for use with a deck of playing cards, as part of the plot.
He also describes computers using a fictional operating system, Finux. The name is a thinly veiled reference to Linux, a kernel originally written by the Finnish native Linus Torvalds. Stephenson changed the name so as not to be creatively constrained by the technical details of Linux-based operating systems.
Plot: The action takes place in two periods: the Second World War and the late 1990s, during the Internet boom.
In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a young U.S. Navy code breaker and mathematical genius, is assigned to the newly formed joint British and American Detachment 2702. This ultra-secret unit's role is to hide the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the German Enigma code. The detachment stages events, often behind enemy lines, that provide alternative explanations for the Allied intelligence successes. Marine sergeant Bobby Shaftoe, a veteran of China and Guadalcanal, serves in unit 2702, carrying out Waterhouse's plans. At the same time, Japanese soldiers including mining engineer Goto Dengo, an old friend of Shaftoe's, are assigned to build a mysterious bunker in the mountains in the Philippines as part of what turns out to be a literal suicide mission.
Circa 1997, Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence's grandson) joins his old Dungeons and Dragons companion Avi Halaby in a new startup, providing Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos via new fiber-optic cables. The aptly named Epiphyte Corporation uses this income stream to fund the creation of a data haven in the nearby fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta. Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy do the undersea surveying for the cables and engineering work on the haven is overseen by Goto Furudenendu, heir-apparent to Goto Engineering. Complications arise as figures from the past reappear seeking gold or revenge.
Review: Neal Stephenson enjoys cult status among science fiction fans and techie types. According to critic Jay Clayton, the book is written for a technical or geek audience. Despite the technical detail, the book drew praise from both Stephenson's science fiction fan base and literary critics and buyers. In his book Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (2003), Jay Clayton calls Stephenson’s book the “ultimate geek novel” and draws attention to the “literary-scientific-engineering-military-industrial-intelligence alliance” that produced discoveries in two eras separated by fifty years, World War II and the Internet age.
Cryptonomicon zooms all over the world, careening conspiratorially back and forth between two time periods--World War II and the present. Our 1940s heroes are the brilliant mathematician Lawrence Waterhouse, cryptanalyst extraordinaire, and gung ho, morphine-addicted marine Bobby Shaftoe. They're part of Detachment 2702, an Allied group trying to break Axis communication codes while simultaneously preventing the enemy from figuring out that their codes have been broken. Their job boils down to layer upon layer of deception. Dr. Alan Turing is also a member of 2702, and he explains the unit's strange workings to Waterhouse. "When we want to sink a convoy, we send out an observation plane first.... Of course, to observe is not its real duty--we already know exactly where the convoy is. Its real duty is to be observed.... Then, when we come round and sink them, the Germans will not find it suspicious."
All of this secrecy resonates in the present-day story line, in which the grandchildren of the WWII heroes--inimitable programming geek Randy Waterhouse and the lovely and powerful Amy Shaftoe--team up to help create an offshore data haven in Southeast Asia and maybe uncover some gold once destined for Nazi coffers. To top off the paranoiac tone of the book, the mysterious Enoch Root, key member of Detachment 2702 and the Societas Eruditorum, pops up with an unbreakable encryption scheme left over from WWII to befuddle the 1990s protagonists with conspiratorial ties.
Cryptonomicon is vintage Stephenson from start to finish: short on plot, but long on detail so precise it's exhausting. Every page has a math problem, a quotable in-joke, an amazing idea, or a bit of sharp prose. Cryptonomicon is also packed with truly weird characters, funky tech, and crypto--all the crypto you'll ever need, in fact, not to mention all the computer jargon of the moment. A word to the wise: if you read this book in one sitting, you may die of information overload (and starvation).
Opening Line: “… is the best that corporal Bobby Shaftoe can do on short notice – he’s standing on the running board, gripping his Springfield with one hand and the rearview mirror with the other, so counting the syllables on his fingers is out of the question.”
Closing Line: “But after Golgotha has been burning for an hour or two, underneath the shallow water, indeed right around the isolated boulder where Randy is perched, is a bright thick river of gold.”
Quotes: “Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker's game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”
Rating: Couldn’t read it.

511. The Poor Mouth – Flann O’Brien

History: Published in 1941, this novel in Irish by Brian O'Nolan, published under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish-language novels of the 20th century.
Books of this genre were part of the Irish language syllabus in the Irish school system and thus mandatory reading for generations of children from independence in 1921. O'Nolan was in fact a great admirer of An t-Oileánach, which is widely regarded as being the greatest work of the genre, but critic Declan Kiberd has noted how O'Nolan's admiration for a writer tended to express itself as parody of the writer's work.
The Irish expression "to put on the poor mouth," ("an béal bocht a chur ort" in Irish) is mildly pejorative and refers to the practice, often associated with peasant farmers, of exaggerating the direness of one's situation, particularly financially, to evoke sympathy, charity and perhaps the forbearance of creditors and landlords or generosity of customers.
All of O'Nolan's other novels were published under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien; this is the only one for which he employed the "Myles" pseudonym that he normally reserved for his journalism. In the case of An Béal Bocht, O'Nolan altered the name slightly; the novel was published under the name Myles na gCopaleen, whereas his celebrated Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn was published under the more anglicised byline of Myles na Gopaleen. The suffix "na Gopaleen" is not a real Irish surname, but derives from a character named Myles-na-Coppaleen in Dion Boucicault's 1860 play The Colleen Bawn; it is ultimately derived from the Irish na gcapaillín, "of the little horses". As if to confuse matters, the English translation of An Béal Bocht is published as the work of "Flann O'Brien".
Plot: An Béal Bocht is set in Corca Dhorcha, (Corkadorkey), a remote region of Ireland where it never stops raining and everyone lives in desperate poverty (and always will) while talking in "the learned smooth Gaelic". It is a memoir of one Bónapárt Ó Cúnasa, a resident of this region, beginning at his very birth. At one point the area is visited by hordes of Dublin Gaeilgeoirí (Irish language lovers), who explain that not only should one always speak Irish, but also every sentence one utters should be about the language question. However, they eventually abandon the area because the poverty is too poor, the authenticity too authentic and the Gaelicism too Gaelic. The narrator, after a series of bloodcurdling adventures, is eventually sent to prison on a false murder charge, and there, "safe in jail and free from the miseries of life", has the chance to write this most affecting memoir of our times.
Review: The Poor Mouth relates the story of one Bonaparte O'Coonassa, born in a cabin in a fictitious village called Corkadoragha in western Ireland equally renowned for its beauty and the abject poverty of its residents. Potatoes constitute the basis of his family's daily fare, and they share both bed and board with the sheep and pigs. A scathing satire on the Irish, this work brought down on the author's head the full wrath of those who saw themselves as the custodians of Irish language and tradition when it was first published in Gaelic in 1941.
This book is an inside joke, and a classic at that. It is a grand send up of professional Irish (both at home and abroad). As example, consider a book written in Gaelic making sport of the Gaelic movement by means of a Gaelic festival. ( In ourland of the professional ethnic festival, this might serve as an effective antidote to "Irish" nights and "Scots weekends.") If you are inclined to romanticize villages of the old sod dominated by pigs, mud, rain and potatos, avoid this work.
Opening Line: “I am noting down the matters which are in this document because the next life is approaching me swiftly – far from us be the evil thing and may the bad spirit not regard me as a brother! – and also because our likes will never be there again.”
Closing Line: “I do not think that my like will ever be there again!
Quotes: “In my youth we always had a bad smell in our house. Sometimes it was so bad that I asked my mother to send me to school, even though I could not walk correctly. Passers-by neither stopped nor even walked when in the vicinity of our house but raced past the door and never ceased until they were half a mile from the bad smell. There was another house two hundred yards down the road from us and one day when our smell was extremely bad the folks there cleared out, went to America and never returned. It was stated that they told people in that place that Ireland was a fine country but that the air was too strong there. Alas! there was never any air in our house.”
Rating: Okay

510. The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector

History: This book was published in 1977, shortly after the author's death. Clarice used her own childhood in the Northeast region of Brazil as reference to build the protagonist Macabéa. She also mentioned a gathering of people from this region in the São Cristóvão neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where she first captured the "disoriented look" of the Northeasterns in the city. Clarice was also inspired by a fortune teller she visited, an event upon which she bases the final part of the plot. When she was leaving the fortune teller's house, she found amusing to imagine herself being hit by a yellow Mercedes and dying immediately after hearing all the good projections the fortune teller foresaw for her future.
The novel was composed from short fragments that Lispector and her secretary, Olga Borelli, pieced together. Lispector was not aware that she was dying at the time she wrote it, though the work is full of premonitions of her upcoming death.
The Hour of the Star deals with the problems of the rural Northeast versus the urban Southeast, poverty and the dream of a better life, and, of an uneducated woman’s struggle to survive in a sexist society. In February 1977, Lispector gave her only televised interview, with Júlio Lerner of TV Cultura in São Paulo. In it, she mentioned a book she had just completed with “thirteen names, thirteen titles,” though she refused to name them. According to her, the book is "the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. That’s not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
Plot: Narrated by the cosmopolitan Rodrigo S.M., this brief, strange, and haunting tale is the story of Macabéa, one of life's unfortunates. Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a poor living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola, and her rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly, underfed, sickly, and unloved. Rodrigo recoils from her wretchedness, and yet he cannot avoid the realization that for all her outward misery, Macabéa is inwardly free. She doesn't seem to understand how unhappy she should be.
Lispector employs her pathetic heroine against her urbane, empty narrator - edge of despair to edge of despair - and, working them like a pair of scissors, she cuts away the reader's preconceived notions about poverty, identity, love, and the art of fiction, taking readers close to the true mystery of life.
Review: Clarice Lispector died young but not quite unknown in Brazil, and her novels are neglected but not quite unknown internationally. Those who have read her agree that she was a thoughtful, twisted, occasionally brilliant author of short novels about very little on the surface: a woman killing a cockroach, for instance. The ingenuity lies in what Lispector did with her mundane situations: she turned them into fables of horrible psychological bullying, protestations against the weirdness and incoherence of things, dirges for the loss of magic. In Lispector's world, events are both intimately connected and entirely unconnected. Anticlimax is the norm and everywhere present. Virtue is unrewarded, but so is crime. And the great irony is that for all the darkness, Lispector's writing is still beautiful, life-affirming, enchanting.
Lispector's final novel was written before she knew she was dying of cancer. It is, nevertheless, a death book. Everything about The Hour of the Star hints at the final moment. More than the death of the body is tackled in it — the gradual death of hope and optimism. Its protagonist, Macabea, is so tragically ordinary, and painted with such violent malice by the male writer-narrator for being so ordinary, that by the end of this 90-page work this reader was left feeling sick. The tiny novel moves from incident to pointless incident without things ever turning out well for Macabea, and nobody (not her philandering boyfriend, not her workmate, not even the narrator who claims to imagine her whole life story out of a single memory of a girl he once saw) seems capable of caring about her. From the novel's opening pages — which bounce about aimlessly as the narrator flexes his muscles and indulges in all manner of philosophical trickery — to the last paragraph, wherein we are reminded, immediately after the absurd but tragic final scene, that we are in the season for strawberries, there is no drop of hope for Macabea. She is an antiheroine simply because there's nothing heroic about her, yet she is also not a villain. Macabea is the loneliest character in her world of lonely characters.
Why would anyone want to read a novel in which nothing but bad things happen to a good person? That is the mystery of The Hour of the Star. It is a difficult but moving read, and its heart is entirely compressed into Macabea. It does not matter how cruelly the narrator invents her, or how manipulatively her boyfriend toys with her feelings, or how indifferently the universe kills her off: we still like Macabea. She is anything but clever, and too naive for her own good, but precisely because of these qualities, which are so rare in the novel's universe, she stands out as the brightest light in this very dark story. In juxtaposing the senselessness of existence with the potential for good in human beings, Lispector makes her case remarkably well. Even if our narrator-creator seems self-absorbed and tyrannical and quick to bore; even if our friends are vain and try to use us for no real gain; and even if death comes suddenly and unfairly, the moments of beauty make the suffering seem a little more worth it. Macabea is this hope.
Opening Line: “Everything in the world began with a yes.”
Closing Line: “Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”
Quotes: “Do not mourn the dead. They know what they are doing.”
Rating: Good.

509. Against the Grain - Joris–Karl Huysmans

History: À rebours (translated Against Nature or Against the Grain) was written in 1884. Joris-Karl Huysmans is most famous for this novel Against Nature and he predicted it would be a failure with the public and critics: "but I don't give a damn! It will be something nobody has ever done before, and I shall have said what I want to say." The book created a storm of publicity; though many older critics were scandalised, it appealed to the young generation. 
The painter Whistler called it a "marvellous" book. Oscar Wilde regarded it as his "Bible and bedside book." It was to him "one of the best I have ever seen." It was reviewed everywhere as the guidebook of Decadence.
Against Nature is the "poisonous French novel" that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The book's plot dominated the action of Dorian, causing him to live a life of sin and hedonism.
The best-known example of fin-de-siècle decadence, this novel has been banned and expurgated for years. À rebours marked a watershed in Huysmans's career. His early works had been Naturalist in style, being realistic depictions of the drudgery and squalor of working- and lower-middle-class life in Paris. However, by the early 1880s, Huysmans regarded this approach to fiction as a dead end
Plot: Jean Des Esseintes is the last member of a powerful and once proud noble family. He has lived an extremely decadent life in Paris, which has left him disgusted with human society. Without telling anyone, he retreats to a house in the countryside.
He fills the house with his eclectic art collection (which notably consists of reprints of paintings of Gustave Moreau). Drawing from the theme of Gustave Flaubert's Bouvard and Pecuchet, Des Esseintes decides to spend the rest of his life in intellectual and aesthetic contemplation. Throughout his intellectual experiments, he recalls various debauched events and love affairs of his past in Paris.
He conducts a survey of French and Latin literature, rejecting the works approved by the mainstream critics of his day. Amongst French authors, he shows nothing but contempt for the Romantics but adores the poetry of Baudelaire and that of the nascent Symbolist movement of Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière and Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as the decadent fiction of the unorthodox Catholic writers Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Barbey d'Aurevilly. He studies Moreau's paintings, he tries his hand at inventing perfumes, and he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. In one of the book's most surrealistic episodes, he has gemstones set in the shell of a tortoise. The extra weight on the creature's back causes its death. In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow though with his plans.
Eventually, his late nights and idiosyncratic diet take their toll on his health, requiring him to return to Paris or to forfeit his life. In the last lines of the book, he compares his return to human society to that of a nonbeliever trying to embrace religion.
Review: Huysmans himself thought the public would have no interest in it. Chapters that do nothing more than expound upon Des Esseintes's favorite painters or Latin writers amount to little more than reader abuse, endlessly fascinating regardless. No doubt part of this was nothing more than shocked delight at the sheer perversity of the little experiment--Huysmans is actually quite a good, and Des Esseintes's whims, desires, and recollections are often so extravagantly bizarre as to be quite funny. And then, of course, there's the 'plants' chapter, which is quite probably the most grotesque and macabre thing I've ever read. It's a bit of a shame that it's stuck right in the middle of the book, as it does make the subsequent material seem a bit anticlimactic, but then again, if Huysmans had any sort of regard for narrative structure, he wouldn't have written this diabolical piece of work in the first place. If Zola was Pink Floyd, Huysmans was the Sex Pistols.
Opening Line: "More than two months slipped by before the time came when Des Esseintes found it feasible to immerse himself definitely in the peace and silence of his house at Fontenay; purchases of all kinds still kept him perambulating the Paris streets, tramping the town from end to end."
Closing Line: "Ah; but my courage fails me, and my heart is sick within me!--Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the sceptic who would fain believe, on the galley-slave of life who puts out to sea alone, in the darkness of night, beneath a firmament illumined no longer by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope."
Quotes: “Immersed in solitude, he would dream or read far into the night. By protracted contemplation of the same thoughts, his mind grew sharp, his vague, undeveloped ideas took on form.”
Rating: No comment