I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
The author does a great job of allowing her letter-writing protagonist to damn himself through his own words. Somehow, although we never see their responses, we imagine the eye rolling and sighing that every one of his recipients must do when one of his letters arrives. He's not the only villain in this story, but it's really interesting to see through his words into the motivations that drive him.
The novel's format somewhat limits the action that can take place, but it allows a deeper than usual dive into one character's world view. I recommend this especially for readers in academia who're looking for a funny, character-driven drama (I wouldn't say this is a comedy).
Not long after I finished Beyond Belief, I happened across a new Scientology building that was hosting an open house. A friend and I went in. This experience was sort of like watching a movie and then walking into the theme park attraction built around that movie. Suddenly, the characters and settings and the whole fantasy world has jumped off the screen and into real life where you can interact with it. You may feel a little shy, never realizing you’d need to think of something to say when meeting the characters face to face, but there’s everything exactly where you imagined it would be.
I’ve long been curious about and rather fascinated by this “church,” and I learned a lot from Beyond Belief about how it all works. Every time this organization makes the news for some reason, it seems to validate the author’s description of how things work. There should be no question that she and many people around her suffered abuse—mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The most bizarre thing about the story is why it’s allowed to happen in America at all. But then, there are a lot of things about power in America that seem insane.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Scientology.
More of a poem than a novel, and a better poem than most. Virginia Woolf pulls threads of images through the fabric of individual characters’ lives in a way that exposes their innermost thoughts and feelings, impressions they may even hesitate to admit to themselves, let alone to the other characters around them. By exposing her characters down to their essences, Woolf creates a cast of distinct individuals that readers can relate to one by one through the common humanity of their anxieties and sudden waves of affection.
Although the narrative jumps frequently from one character’s mind to another, the impressions are distinct and clear enough that the reader doesn’t get lost in the translation of these cloud-like expressions to the printed page. We understand James’s seething hatred just as we understand why his father continues to tickle his leg. We understand Lily’s certainty about moving the tree toward the middle just as we understand Tansley’s insistence that women can’t paint, can’t write.
There’s not much plot to the story. In parts 1 and 3, the focus instead is on a microscopic view of a few hours of life. In part 2, the view zooms out so far that 10 years pass in an instant. These hours may not seem significant in the scheme of things—in parts 1 and 3, no one is born, no one dies—but they influence every life who experiences them. And Woolf‘s genius conveys this quiet drama beautifully.
When I picked up this book, I expected it to be a self-help style, “here’s what I did and maybe you can make some positive changes in your life too” kind of book. It’s not that. Let’s just get that out of the way first. This is much closer to a coming of age story. It’s the story of a man who lies without money and the life events that led him, almost inevitably, to such a decision.
Daniel Suelo lives (most of the time) in a cave. He scavenges for his food in dumpsters, takes advantage of free meals in town, or harvests from forgotten vegetable patches that have gone wild. He blogs from the public library and rides a bike, walks, or hitchhikes to get around. He has a lot of friends and followers who provide him with food and open offers of shelter for nothing more than an exchange of ideas with him. His life is extreme, but he believes fully in what he’s doing. A spiritual rejection of capitalism and consumerist culture, he lives his life closer to an Indian mystic or a Biblical prophet.
But The Man Who Quit Money is not an attempt to advocate for Suelo’s lifestyle or convince us all to quit our jobs and start eating expired packages of Chips Ahoy. Instead, it’s a picture of one life, so far. Suelo was raised in a small evangelical church in the American West in a loving family that never had much money or stability. Suelo bought fully into his family’s religion until he left home and started studying other religions and experiencing how Christian missionaries live throughout the world. Over many years, he became disillusioned with his ideal picture of a clean, pure life. He suffers from depression. He couldn’t seem to fit in with several of the jobs he tried. When he finally admitted that he’s gay, his family reacted poorly. He attempted suicide.
But author Mark Sundeen presents Suelo as one of the happiest, most at peace people you could ever hope to meet. For Suelo, checking out of the system of who he was “supposed” to be was his salvation. Still a Christian, Suelo blends in similar philosophies from many major religions and points out that all of them preach giving up material wealth in favor of spiritual awakening. He takes the “What would Jesus do?” idea very literally. Jesus wouldn’t commute two hours each way to work in an office that he hated jut to make a paycheck to buy a house and a car and insurance. Jesus would rely on God to provide for him (like the lilies of the field) and would spend his time helping others in whatever way he could. And that’s what Suelo tries to do every day.
I really appreciate that Sundeen doesn’t try to raise Suelo up to Prophet level, even though he takes him very seriously. He doesn’t try to say that these choices are right for everyone—not everyone can or should live like Suelo any more than everyone should live like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But he paints a fascinating picture of humanity, illustrating how our life experiences lead us to be the people we come through the choices we make. After reading this, I’m not ready to live the scavenging lifestyle of an ascetic philosopher, but I have more respect for those who do. And I love seeing someone so confidently turning his back on the whole broken system.
Anansi Boys made me laugh, learn things, and cry just a bit. I loved the dynamic characters and the way they interacted with each other. In retrospect, there are quite a lot of characters who come in and out of the story throughout, but I never struggled to keep up with who was who. Each one felt well rounded and acted with motivation. And the plot moved forward at a good pace, jumping between three main locations and justifying each jump. The magic mixes seamlessly with the non-magic world in a way that the reader could believe that this maybe just could happen, does happen every day.
I listened to Anansi Boys narrated by Lenny Henry, who was spectacular. I often forgot that there was one reader doing the different voices for the characters—each one was so distinct and so suited to the character. Before many details of the character were revealed (and Neil Gaiman does a wonderful job of doling out details of the characters throughout the narrative), I felt like I knew a bit about them just from the voice that Henry gave them.
A few years ago during a long, white winter, I read Moby-Dick and loved it. I loved the descriptions of the boats and the oceans and the day-to-day life of sailors who signed up for this incredibly demanding and dangerous lifestyle. They risked everything for the promise of adventure, travel, and the admiration of the folks back home, but almost no money. They chose to pursue and butcher by hand animals so large, so strong, and so intelligent that it’s almost unbelievable that they ever managed to capture a single one. And yet they did succeed, in the middle of the ocean with not much more than a small ship, a few row boats, some spears, and an awful lot of rope. They brought back enough whale oil to light most of a country.
Being fascinated with the mindset that would make a whole group of people choose such a lifestyle, it didn’t take much for me to pick up In the Heart of the Sea (with its fancy new movie-inspired cover). This thorough history covered everything I wanted to learn about—and some things that hadn’t occurred to me yet—but remained readable and engaging throughout. It opens with cannibalism and builds from there.
Philbrick’s mastery here is to shape these historical figures as well-rounded characters before relating the entire “plot.” You get to know each of them through his primary source research, so you empathize with the choices they make when faced with a variety of dangerous situations. He also establishes well the culture of the Nantucket from which they came, exploring the role of women, African-Americans, Quakers, greenhorns, children, and other social groups within the larger culture—a culture that revolves entirely around whaling. This background enables the reader to not only understand but also sympathize with decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, we know will be disastrous.
I also learned a lot more, even than from Moby-Dick, about the daily life upon a whale ship during this time. Especially fascinating was the excursions the crew made onto the Galapagos Islands to harvest sea birds and tortoises, which they would cook right in their shells. Sailors brought as many live tortoises as possible back to the ship (by strapping the tortoises onto their backs). The tortoises would live on the deck eating and drinking very little until the crew was ready to eat them. This kept the sailors in fresh, unspoiled meat without having to share nearly as many of their provisions as the live pigs on board demanded. Before this, my imaginings of a whale ship didn’t include sailors tripping over pigs and tortoises on deck, sliding side to side in rough waters.
The print book includes a lot of historical paintings and photos as well as technical drawings of ships and whaleboats, which supported the text. I’d recommend reading the paper copy. Also, yes, I saw the movie not long after finishing the book. Although I could watch Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy do just about anything for two hours, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book (and I don’t think that’s always the case). The characters are flattened and simplified to fit them into easier personas that don’t require as much backstory. The effects were, of course, impressive and thrilling, but it’s no substitute for the engaging, detailed and horrifying narrative presented in the book.
I don’t read a lot of “women’s fiction,” and this book reminded me why. It’s like the Lifetime Network in book form. Thoughtless characters in ridiculous situations who explain every bit of their inner dialogues without addressing the gaping plot holes or even what anything looks like.
The Summer of France is about a woman. She has a husband who is an uptight, well-muscled accountant. That makes him among the best-described characters in the book. They have two teen-aged twins, a girl who swims a lot and a boy who… I don’t remember what he does. Due to an implausible series of events, the woman finds herself managing a bed and breakfast in southern France, on her own, without experience or the ability to speak French. Her family is there, but they all choose not to help their obviously struggling wife/mother and instead go have sex with French people elsewhere. And she’s like, yeah, that’s cool, nothing I can do about it.
Then, though another implausible series of events, she ends up on the back of a motorcycle in a borrowed full-leather outfit, holding on to a very sexy (but maybe not trustworthy?) Frenchman, in an effort to smuggle a stolen painting into the Krakow museum in Poland. Does it matter how this came about? Only enough to say that she discovered the painting in her B&B and never addressed why she couldn’t smuggle it into a French museum, closer to home. She definitely had to drive to Poland and stay in sexy, fancy hotels because it possibly came from there originally. Possibly.
Despite how asinine I found these characters and the plot, I did finish it (on the beach), so at least it kept me that much engaged.
A trustworthy friend in college recommended Jesus’ Son to me. About 13 years later, I got around to reading it. After wading through the first half or so, I put it aside without a favorable impression. I thought maybe my moment for these stories had passed. Like Bukowski, maybe they seemed more interesting to undergrads. Stories of the gritty side of life that none of us had experienced. As I got older, I got a few glimpses of that grittier world, and I went running in the other direction.
A (different) friend noticed that I left two stars on GoodReads without comment and reached out. Amanda and I met one evening for dinner and talked about the book. What she made me realize is that I tend to want to place myself wholly in the shoes of the main character. Especially with a first-person narrator, I want to live and breathe this personality. I want to feel his choices and the effects of those choices. But that’s maybe not the best way to take Jesus’ Son.
I felt very uncomfortable and vulnerable reading this, which manifested in getting defensive against it. But Amanda helped me realize that this was a very safe way to view this world. I’m not actually there. I’m not actually too stoned to deal with a dangerous situation. I’m not driving a dead body around in my car without brakes. I’m not lost in the woods in a pick-up with some dying bunnies. I’m safe in my room/on the beach/at the coffee shop, just hearing a story about someone else’s life.
Once I could disconnect from the narrator in that way, I enjoyed these stories much more. I finished the book, and I could finally see the poetry in the language, in the images, and in the plot structures. I still don’t wish I knew this narrator in real life. But I appreciate that these stories gave me a glimpse into a world that’s safer viewed from the outside. And I’m grateful that Jesus’ Son and Amanda helped me learn how to read in a new way.
I found this one though an online algorithm and was not disappointed. Sebastian is a relatable-enough character (even without reading the first installment of this series), and I liked that the mystery was neither obvious nor difficult due to omission.
The story is pretty intriguing. There’s an eccentric nobleman who may have been driven mad in the Amazon, a spate of abused and murdered girls, English suffragettes, a freak show, a local terrorism event, metal health disorders, early electric technical glitches, and lots of other stuff. Without having lived through the era myself, it felt well researched and coherent, even though it gathered a lot of different aspects of the times.
And even with all that, I think it was the characters who really drove this story. Sebastian works too much, but is empathetic, and the decisions he make all make sense in the context of the story. He’s surrounded by an autistic son, a working wife (as a hospital administrator), and an old maid sister-in-law, who all have distinct personalities. One event near the end of the novel--too spoiler-y to mention in detail--actually brought me to tears.
Overall, a good, easy read that kept me engaged throughout.
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