Review of The Power and the Glory

Image result for the power and the gloryWhat was it about?

A cleric known as the “whisky priest” is the last surviving priest in Mexico. Despite his reputation, the “whisky priest” secretly hears confessions and administers the Sacrament to the faithful in Mexico. The Lieutenant, an inquisitor for the socialist state, considers the Church to be the greatest threat to the revolution. What has the Church ever done to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor? Priests seem to serve the poor only so that the Church looks good; they have no desire to abolish the social hierarchy. As long as the poor remain poor, the Church is needed. And look at the priests’ lifestyles!

The “whisky priest”, on his end, doesn’t really know why anybody would waste their time pursuing him. He is comforted by the idea that, despite his sins, he can administer the sacraments, but the “whisky priest” is not martyr material. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene explores the lines that divide saint from sinner and liberator from oppressor.

What did I think of it?

I read this book more than six months ago, but it had such a great impression on me that I think about it nearly every day. The questions Greene deals with in The Power and the Glory are questions that come up a lot in public discourse. How should poverty be addressed? Is religion the opium of the people as Karl Marx claimed, or can it play a role in social justice? The book also explores sainthood and martyrdom. Should a person as sinful as the “whisky priest” be considered a martyr? What cause is he dying for if he is? If you like character studies, you will enjoy The Power and the Glory. The prose is gorgeous. I am not surprised that it is included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time.

Favorite Quotes

“It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy–a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all.”

“How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

 

Review of Orlando: A Biography

Image result for orlando a biography harcourtWhat was it about? 

At the start of the novel, Orlando is a teenage page to Elizabeth I in 16th century England. He serves as an ambassador while writing poetry and plays. He even falls in love with a Russian princess named Sasha. At the age of 30, he suddenly transforms into a 19th century woman. As a woman in Victorian England, Orlando faces limitations that she had not faced as a man. Her loves and interests remain the same, but she struggles to find her voice. Even as a man, Orlando didn’t know how to write good poetry. What does good poetry look like anyway? Who gets to decide? As a woman, Orlando wonders if she should even pursue writing. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf is a nonstandard Bildungsroman replete with meditations on history, historiography, time, memory, gender, sexuality, love, and literature.

What did I think of it?

What is a biography? That is one of the major questions explored in Orlando: A Biography. Is a biography a slavishly literal retelling of a person’s life? If not, what are the details most important in a person’s life? Perhaps, a biography is never really a history of a single individual. But what sources do we use, and most importantly, how do we interpret them? Orlando writes dozens of works, but what do/can they tell us about the author’s identity or the author’s political, social, and literary context? Historiography is a field that particularly interests me. Memory is not simply the recollection of past events:

Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind. Instead of being a single, downright, bluff piece of work of which no man need feel ashamed, our commonest deeds are set about with a fluttering and flickering of wings, a rising and falling of lights.

Life experience and authorial intent influence the understanding of past events.

Orlando is quite an enigmatic character. At the start of the novel, Orlando is a boy but becomes a woman at the age of 30. Therefore, gender and sexuality are prominent themes in this biography. Virginia Woolf wrote about gender as a social construct almost a century ago. She challenged the belief that gender is a binary:

Many people, taking this into account, and holding that such a change of sex is against nature, have been at great pains to prove (1) that Orlando had always been a woman, (2) that Orlando is at this moment a man.

Orlando’s love for literature and Sasha remain constants, but society dictates what people of different genders can and cannot do. As a trans/gender nonconforming individual, Orlando struggles to fit into the societies of early modern and modern England.But does it matter what people think? Where does individual identity stop and social influence begin?

Orlando: A Biography was the perfect book to read for The Literary Others reading challenge hosted this month by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader. If you have had difficulty reading Woolf’s works in the past, I recommend Orlando. It is more straightforward than her other works. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness style allows her to say things that simply cannot be communicated as powerfully in traditional prose. This is the second of her novels that I’ve read (the first was Mrs. Dallowayand it simply reinforced my conviction that Woolf is one of the greatest prose writers in the English-speaking world.

Favorite Quotes

And she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head.

Review of O Pioneers!

Image result for o, pioneersWhat was it about?

After the death of her parents, Alexandra Bergson, a Swedish immigrant, becomes responsible for the well-being of her three brothers and for the running of the family homestead. Her friend Carl Linstrum suddenly leaves Nebraska for Chicago in hopes of making a fortune. When he returns after 13 years, Alexandra learns that Carl is on his way to Alaska. He has never found his place in the world. He is not alone. Marie Shabata is in a love-less marriage, and Ivar has earned the name “Crazy Ivar” for his outlandish mystical views. Faced with so many responsibilities, Alexandra does not have time to tend to her own personal needs. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather explores love and friendship in the beautiful but unforgiving Nebraska plains.

What did I think of it?

What can I say? Willa Cather has produced yet another literary masterpiece. Like My ÁntoniaO Pioneers! chronicles the lives of immigrants from Scandinavia. In fact, O Pioneers! and My Antonia are the first and third books in Cather’s Great Plains Trilogy. The Nebraska plains are stunningly beautiful, but the immigrants who live in the region have only one thing on their mind – survival. Alexandra is forced to take on many responsibilities as a young woman, but she and her friends are constantly scrutinized by her two older brothers. The woman runs the homestead, but it never really belongs to her. Alexandra takes care of everyone else, but no one takes care of her. People marry for purely economic reasons, so romance, if it exists at all, is found outside of marriage. Willa Cather is one of the three most poetic writers I’ve ever encountered (the other two being Marilynne Robinson and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).She can pack so much emotion into a phrase. While I thought My Ántonia was a more powerful work, the female characters in O Pioneers! are more compelling. If you love character studies, you will enjoy Cather’s novels.

Favorite Quote

“There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain.”

Review of Giovanni’s Room

Image result for giovanni's roomWhat was it about?

Giovanni’s Room is told from the perspective of David who recalls the time he was in Paris, away from his fiancée Hella and in a relationship with a barman named Giovanni. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Giovanni has been executed though we do not know his crime. The rest of the book is told in flashback and anecdotally. Hella is in Spain while David has an affair with Giovanni whom he met at a gay bar. David is torn between desire and guilt, not sure whether to continue his relationship with Hella, return to the U.S., or stay with Giovanni. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David struggles to accept his sexuality, make major life decisions, and relate to his father.

What did I think of it?

James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room in 1956, long before gay rights received any serious consideration in the United States. But although the work deals primarily with sexuality, it also touches on family, the woman’s place in society, moral responsibility, and national identity.

This work really reminded me of Sartre’s Nausee and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In all three works the narrators are pretty unpleasant characters with similar personalities, but their relationships and existential crises are so beautifully and hauntingly described. While the story of Giovanni’s Room is not very eventful, the prose is absolutely gorgeous. Giovanni is a very lovable character despite the crime he commits. I look forward to reading more works by James Baldwin.

Favorite Quote

[Giovanni] laughed. “Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”

Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God

What was it about?

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford sets out in search of love and freedom. A black girl growing up in a plantation shack on Logan Killick’s farm, Janie spends her childhood in the shadow of her grandmother’s dreams. Her grandmother wants her granddaughter to have the life she never had, so she makes Janie marry Logan even though Janie doesn’t love him. Logan has land. But Janie expects more of life. Over the course of three marriages, Janie learns about herself and her desires. She comes face-to-face with the joys and sorrows of life, developing into one of the most compelling protagonists in all of literature.

What did I think of it?

I admit that it is hard to put into words my reaction to this book. I know that Janie is not a character that I will soon forget. She is a strong Black woman, overcoming hardships foisted on her race through slavery and sustained by the Jim Crow laws of pre-Civil Rights America. Hurston’s prose is lyrical, and all the characters (even the most minor ones) have their own distinct personalities. The story about a man’s mule is at once a humorous episode and a commentary on the systematic oppression of Black people. I look forward to reading more of Hurston’s works. Much has already been written about the value of reading diversely. I know that I have neglected works written by and about people of color for far too long on this blog. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is certainly a great place to begin as it is part of the “Black Canon”.

Favorite Quote

“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!”

Review of Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars)


What was it about?

Terre des Hommes is a memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about his career working as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. The longest story in the memoir recounts his 1935 plane crash in the Sahara. Antoine and his navigator André Prévot survived for days in the desert without food and water. Terre des Hommes is dedicated to the author’s friend Henri Guillaumet, whose plane crash in the Andes mountains of Argentina is also recounted in the book. Like Courrier Sud (Southern Mail)Terre des Hommes describes the beautiful but often melancholic and dangerous life of a pilot in the early years of flight.

What did I think of it?

As you may know, my favorite book of all time is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), so naturally I begin all of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s other works with very high expectations. Nevertheless, I have never been disappointed by anything written by this author. His prose is ridiculously gorgeous and his philosophy on life is much-needed today. Since reading Terre des Hommes, I have started noticing the connection between details in the author’s personal life and events in Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry loved being a pilot, but he suffered a lot. He was stranded without food and water in the desert, lost friends to flight, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and finally died in the Mediterranean sea during a reconnaissance mission in 1944. Parts of his plane were finally discovered in 2000. Terre des Hommes only tells us a part of his story, but in just over two hundred pages Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures the magic of flight and reveals the desires of the human heart.

Favorite Quote

“Être homme, c’est précisément être responsable. C’est connaître la honte en face d’une misère qui ne semblait pas dépendre de soi. C’est être fier d’une victoire que les camarades ont remportée. C’est sentir, en posant sa pierre, que l’on contribue à bâtir le monde.”

[To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.]

 

Review of Diary of a Country Priest

What was it about?

An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.

What did I think of it?

The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.

Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.

Favorite Quotes

“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”

[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.

“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”

[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!