Review of The Moviegoer

What was it about?

Binx Bolling is an injured Korean War veteran and a stockbroker in New Orleans. When he is not working he is either going out with his most recent secretary or visiting his aunt and his niece Kate, a young woman who struggles with depression. One Mardi Gras, Binx decides to take a trip across America to break out of his everyday routine and to “find himself”. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s debut novel, is centered around one man’s quest to find clarity in his life.

What did I think of it?

The Moviegoer is a surprisingly fast-paced novel although hardly anything happens by way of plot. I had to get adjusted to the writing which was Southern-style with a dash of stream-of-consciousness. I don’t recall ever having read another work by a Southern author. On the whole, though, reading The Moviegoer was a pleasant experience. I enjoy introspective novels and this is certainly one. But, I am still not sure about my feelings toward the narrator. Binx is a thirty year old man who has one existential crisis after another. He is so much like Antoine Roquentin from La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre, but, I was more drawn to the character of Antoine than I was to Binx. Binx’s thoughts sometimes resembled those of an angsty teenager. I think part of the reason for my ambivalence toward Binx may be the philosophy that underpinned the whole novel. Walker Percy was heavily inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard; in fact, it is through reading Kierkegaard that I learned about Percy. Unfortunately, Percy is not too subtle in this novel. I could list at least four of Kierkegaard’s works that I am certain influenced the characterization and dialogue in the book. The use of Kierkegaard motifs was too heavy-handed for my liking. At one part of the book, Binx even references him as “the great Danish philosopher”. One of the front pages contains a quote from Sickness Unto Death. If you need a lighthearted introduction to Kierkegaard, The Moviegoer could be a good place to start. But if you are are not a fan of explicit philosophical references, this may not be the book for you. While I enjoyed reading the book, there was nothing really memorable about the narrative.

Favorite quote

“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts and brittle.”

Review of Adam of the Road

AdamOfTheRoad.JPGWhat was it about?

Adam attends a preparatory school, befriends a boy named Perkin, and secretly cares for a stray dog named Nick. But Adam is not like any other child at the school. He is the son of Roger Quartermayne, a well-known minstrel in the kingdom. Adam dreams of being like his father and living life on the road. But he never expected the journey to start so soon. All of a sudden, Adam is separated from Roger and Nick. Over the course of the story, Adam takes an unintended pilgrimage through thirteenth century England, meeting new places and new faces at every turn of the road. Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray is about one boy’s search for his father and a purpose in life.

What did I think of it?

Good historical fiction is hard to find. Many bestsellers are sensationalist but can hardly be considered historical. Adam of the Road is quite the opposite. The sights and sounds of thirteenth century England come alive in this children’s book; the time period is described in such a way that the reader feels fully immersed in the world. The writing is as simple and unassuming as Adam’s journey.

But despite the elegance of the narrative, the story lacks a plot or a purpose. I know that Adam of the Road is supposed to be more about the journey than the end goal, but the journey is quite underwhelming. The people Adam meets don’t really leave a lasting impression on him. To be perfectly honest, it was a boring story. I love a good character study, but Adam isn’t a very compelling character. It is never clear how the people he meets contribute to his personal growth.

Overall, I thought the book was OK. My expectations going into the book may have been too high, but I wasn’t really wowed by anything. Adam of the Road won the Newbery Medal in 1943. I can certainly understand why the Newbery committee thought this book was deserving of the medal. With respect to historical accuracy and plausibility, this is historical fiction at its finest. I just did not find it very memorable.

Favorite Quote

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

 

Tips For New Book Bloggers

I recently “celebrated” my one year blogging anniversary. I can’t say that I know all the ins and outs of blogging (html etc.) but I think my limited experience could be of help to start-up recreational book bloggers. So here are my tips:

1) Read what you want to read.

Yes, YA bloggers have the most followers, but if you don’t like YA or don’t generally read books categorized as YA, don’t feel pressured to do what’s popular. I read mostly Classics. At first I thought I was alone in my interests, but boy was I wrong! There is a community for every book lover.

2) Set a book buying limit.

I guarantee you that if you start blogging you will also start buying more books. It’s inevitable. Your TBR (To Be Read) pile will grow out of control unless you set a book buying limit.

3) Book blogging is a hobby, not a career. 

Unless you are a professional book blogger, you should never feel stressed out about blogging. It is a hobby. You earn no money from doing it. Bloggers are constantly afraid that people will stop following their blogs if they don’t blog consistently, do book hauls, or participate in memes/reading challenges, etc. They won’t. Hardly anyone follows one or two blogs. Most bloggers follow at least 50 blogs, so don’t feel stressed out that you let the ball drop on one reading challenge or didn’t post for three weeks. I am a case in point. I am a very eclectic reader. Although I mostly read Classics, I don’t review all the books I read on my blog because I often read books that I feel are not appropriate to review on this blog (ie. theology books, Christian devotionals, etc.). Because of this, I sometimes take a few weeks off from blogging. I don’t think I have ever lost a follower. If I did, oh well. Maintain your freedom as a blogger and take time off if you need or want to.

4) Request ARCs sparingly or not at all.

Only request ARCs (Advance Review Copies) if you have many followers and (most importantly) if reading and reviewing ARCs fits with the overall theme of your blog. I hardly ever read contemporary works, so requesting ARCs has never been a temptation, but I have followed quite a few bloggers who regretted requesting ARCs because they constantly felt pressured to review them or were disappointed by the kind of books they were reading. If you request ARCs you have to review them, so don’t request them unless you have the time and the desire to read and review the books you receive from publishers. Always ask yourself “Why am I blogging? What do I hope to get from blogging?”

5) Interact with other bloggers

If you want others to follow your blog, you should interact with other bloggers. Like I said earlier, there is a blogging community for everyone. Post constructive comments on others’ blogs, and you will inevitably get followers.

Most importantly, have fun! We in the book blogging community are generally a nice bunch of people. Most of us started blogging because we didn’t know anyone with whom we could discuss books. When it comes to blogging, only do what you love. :)

Words of Encouragement from Kierkegaard

In recent months, there has been a lot of suffering in the world due to hatred and fear. In times like these it is important to be reminded again and again of what true, selfless love looks like.

“[T]he men we see (and it is the same when others see us) are not perfect. And yet it is very often the case that one develops within himself this queasy weakness which is good only for loving the complete epitome of perfections. And yet, although we human beings are all imperfect, one very rarely sees the sound, strong, capable love which is good for loving imperfect beings, that is, the men we see.” ~Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Howard and Edna Hong, p. 164)

Earlier in the chapter, Kierkegaard tells a parable about two artists:

“[S]uppose there were two artists, and the one said, “I have traveled much and seen much in the world, but I have sought in vain to find a man worth painting. I have found no face with such perfection of beauty that I could make up my mind to paint it. In every face I have seen one or another little fault. Therefore I seek in vain.” Would this indicate that this artist was a great artist? On the other hand, the second one said, “Well, I do not pretend to be a real artist; neither have I traveled in foreign lands, but remaining in the little circle of men who are closest to me, I have not found a face so insignificant or so full of faults that I still could not discern in it a more beautiful side and discover something glorious. Therefore I am happy in the art I practice. It satisfies me without my making any claim to being an artist.” Would this not indicate that precisely this one was the artist, one who by bringing a certain something with him found then and there what the much-traveled artist did not find anywhere in the world, perhaps because he did not bring a certain something with him! Consequently the second of the two was the artist. Would it not be sad, too, if what is intended to beautify life could only be a curse upon it, so that art, instead of making life beautiful for us, only fastidiously discovers that not one of us is beautiful. Would it not be sadder still, and still more confusing, if love also should be only a curse because its demand could only make it evident that none of us is worth loving, instead of love’s being recognized precisely by its loving enough to be able to find some lovableness in all of us, consequently loving enough to be able to love all of us.” (p. 156-157)

Maybe, many of the acts of hatred in the world stem from a misunderstanding of true love. When people seek perfection in others, they inevitably become frustrated and angry because no one lives up their expectations. In despair, they assume the worst of everyone.

Kierkegaard admonishes us to never give up hope:

“[N]ever in unlovingness give up a person or give up hope for him, for it is possible that even the most prodigal son can still be saved, that the most embittered enemy, alas, he who was your friend, it is still possible that he can again become your friend; it is possible that he who was sunk the deepest, alas, because he stood so high, it is still possible that he can be raised up again; it is still possible that the love which has turned cold can burn again – therefore never give up any man, not even at the last moment; do not despair. No, hope all things!” (p.238)

 

Reflection on Gulliver’s Adventures in Houyhnhnm Land (Spoilers Included)

Note: As the title says, spoilers are included in this post. If you have not read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift I suggest you read the book first before reading my reflection because I don’t want my views to influence how you read the text. Now, on to my reflection on Gulliver’s adventures in Houhnhnm Land (a.k.a. Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels)…

Reflection

Jonathan Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope because of the way human nature is portrayed in Gulliver’s Travels. Lemuel Gulliver leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms with a deep dislike for mankind. He treats his wife and daughter infernally and considers it a great privilege to have met the Houhnhnms – that superior race of horses. Throughout the whole book, in fact, the weaknesses of society and human nature are described in great detail giving the impression that Swift thinks he is superior to others.

But is Lemuel Gulliver the same as Jonathan Swift, and are the Houyhnhnms as excellent as Gulliver thinks they are? I purport that a closer look at Part IV reveals a message that is a lot less misanthropic than at first glance.

But let’s first take a look at Gulliver’s previous voyages. The first land that Gulliver visits is Lilliput, a land inhabited by doll house-sized people. From their perspective, Gulliver is a giant and a freak. He eats hundreds of times more food than the Lilliputians and can deter invaders with his bare hands. In Brobdingnag, everything is reversed. Gulliver is tiny while the inhabitants are giants. It is safe to say that his adventures in both lands cause Gulliver to lose a sense of proportion. He is either the most conspicuous figure or the least noticed. In both cases, he is a freak whom people pay to see. Gulliver’s identity is no longer defined by his political or religious affiliations or by his profession. He is great or small not because of anything he does but solely because others perceive him as such.

I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

When Gulliver returns from Brobdingnag, he stoops down to kiss his wife because he is so used to being surrounded by giants. In comparison to the Brobdingnagians, his wife is tiny. But notice that Gulliver still thinks he is larger than his wife otherwise he would not have stooped down to kiss her. Gulliver wants to be normal. He doesn’t want to be a freak. No one does. To avoid feeling like a freak, Gulliver adjusts his worldview to match that of the Brobdingnagians.

The voyages Gulliver takes to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan aggravate his sense of proportion even more. In those lands, the inhabitants are eccentric and frankly stupid. Gulliver doesn’t know whether he should criticize or praise them. The historical figures he meets are nothing like the image he had of them:

“A general confessed in my presence, that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct; and an admiral, that for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy to whom he intended to betray the fleet. Three kings protested to me, that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person by merit, unless by mistake or treachery of some minister in whom they confided…”

Now, let us turn to Part IV of the book in which Lemuel Gulliver encounters intelligent horses and degenerate humanoids. The Houyhnhnms claim that they are an intelligent race – a race that lives by reason alone. In Houyhnhnm Land, the greatest and the least are side by side. Gulliver is at first horrified by the Yahoos, but the Houyhnhnms convince him that humans are even worse than these beasts. The Houyhnhnms introduce us to their society, which at first glance seems perfect. The first four times I read Gulliver’s Travels I too envied the horses. Even though certain aspects of their society made me feel uncomfortable, I didn’t bat an eye. Why should I? They are the superior race. They say so themselves. Like Gulliver, I took their word for it. The Yahoos, in comparison, disgusted me.

The Yahoos are in the way. They undermine an otherwise perfect society. So, the Houyhnhnms debate on what do about these creatures:

“The question to be debated was whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth.”

 

I don’t know which is worse: the Houyhnhnms’ belief that they are superior to others and therefore have the right to determine who should live or die, or Gulliver’s agreement with the Houyhnhnms that humans are worse than Yahoos and therefore, by analogy, even less worthy of life and love.

Gulliver leaves Houyhnhnm Land with a profound hatred for humanity, but he feels so grateful for having met a race of intelligent horses. He should feel like scum, but because he knew the Houyhnhnms he feels superior to the other humans. Gulliver is convinced that he alone knows the truth while others continue living in absolute ignorance of their degeneracy. By now it should be clear that Lemuel Gulliver is an unreliable narrator. He has allowed the Houyhnhnms to define his identity and the identity of his fellow humans. Gulliver’s Travels is on the surface a critique of human nature, but underneath this surface it is a two-fold commentary on oppression and the nature of pride. Throughout history, oppressors like the Houyhnhnms (or the English imperialists) have convinced the oppressed (like the Irish Swift knew so well and whose plight he sympathized with) that they are nothing – that they are unworthy of life. Oppressors depict their slaves as beasts, and unfortunately, the slaves come to believe it. If an oppressed person is granted special status (like Gulliver) that individual turns on his own people. Gulliver can no longer even look or touch his wife and child because, to him, they have no dignity. It is in this context that I read the final passage of the book with which I will leave you:

“But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess, than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm, which no man in his wits would boast of, although he must be miserable without them. I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.”

 

Review of Gulliver’s Travels

What was it about?

Lemuel Gulliver used to be a surgeon but took up sailing late in life. He became the captain of several ships. On the last voyages of his career, Gulliver found himself in hitherto unknown lands occupied by creatures so unlike himself. His personal journals were later given to Gulliver’s cousin Richard Sympson for publication. Unfortunately, an unabridged account of Gulliver’s Travels was not published; instead, Sympson edited down the book to eliminate what he felt were unnecessary details. At the start of the book, Lemuel Gulliver expresses his displeasure toward the alterations; yet, it seems that all major events in Gulliver’s travels were still retained.

On his voyages, Gulliver encounters doll house-sized people , 70 ft tall giants, philosophers living on a floating island, eccentric scholars, historical figures, and finally a race of intelligent horses. The dark side of human nature and English society is exposed in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most famous satirical works of all time.

What did I think of it?

When I heard that Cleo @ Classical Carousel was going to read Gulliver’s Travels for the latest Classics Spin, I offered to do a buddy-read with her. Gulliver’s Travels is on the list of my top 5 favorite books of all time. The first time I read it was in 8th grade. The English teacher mentioned the work in passing, and I just had to get my hands on a copy. I remember devouring it in two sittings. Although I have read the book five times, it was only during my last re-read that I fully understood the underlying message of Gulliver’s Travels. The last land Gulliver visits is Houyhnhnm-landThe Houyhnhnms (evidently pronounced ‘winums’) are a race of horses who far surpass humans in reason. They live alongside human-like creatures of beastly proportions whom they call Yahoos. Since much of the book is about the dialogues held between Gulliver and the bizarre creatures he meets, I don’t want to go too much into the conversations in Houyhnhnm-land lest I spoil the book for you. I will only say that I fell for Swift’s trap. What makes Jonathan Swift such a brilliant satirist is that he hides what I feel is the ultimate message of the book behind a boatload of overt and scathing criticisms of human nature. Unlike the irony in Voltaire’s Candide which I felt was too simple and obvious, the irony in Gulliver’s Travels is a lot more subtle. Satire is not for everyone and Gulliver’s Travels is no exception. Offensive humor and exaggerated imagery abound. Because this is my kind of humor (I wonder what that says about me :-o ) I loved it. As I wrote on Goodreads, Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope, but I beg to differ.

Favorite Quote

[Musings from Brobdingnag (the land of giants)]: “I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison. It might have pleased fortune to let the Lilliputians find some nation, where the people were as diminutive with respect to them, as they were to me. And who knows but that even this prodigious race of mortals might be equally overmatched in some distant part of the world, whereof we have yet no discovery?”

Literary Flashback: Pascal on Truth

Today’s Literary Flashback is one entry from Pascal’s Pensées:

La vérité est si obscurcie en ce temps et le mensonge si établi qu’à moins d’aimer la vérité, on ne saurait la reconnaître.

Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.