Review

12. THE STRANGER By Albert Camus

This is one of those books which I finished only in two sittings (mostly on a plane). It’s simple and to the point, fast paced, and being quite short also helped.

It starts with Meursault learning about the death of his mother, uncertain of when it happened, and follows as he goes to her funeral. He describes the funeral in a way that is bleak and eerily dissociated, and then that bleakness continues throughout, as he gratuitously kills a guy, right until his death sentence.

Other than a couple of paragraphs, Meursault is apathetic and blasé. The way he was described dealing with his mother’s death, possibly the worst thing anyone could ever go through, is corporeal rather than emotional, using sentences that are monotonous, business-like, and robotic. Whether Meursault is a sociopath or a psychopath, or whether he was battling depression, it’s never mentioned nor is it at all relevant.

What we’re dealing with here is a person who realised that nothing matters, and therefore to have emotions at all e.g. mourning his mother, remorse for murder, love for his girlfriend, it’s all futile. When he was certain he couldn’t take care of his mother, he sent her to a home. It was not the best option in a lot of people’s eyes but having her with him would have ended up being worse for her. He didn’t cry at her funeral, he didn’t fear death, and couldn’t justify killing the guy. The reasons he had for doing anything, and the reasons people have are completely different, because people tend to put meaning to things they didn’t understand in order to feel better — or feel something. 

The book didn’t make sense to me until I finished reading it and thought for a while, and I’m sure once I revisit it years or so from now it would make even more sense. I believe that nihilism as a state of mind is something everyone eventually reaches as they advance through life.

4/5

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11. STARSHIP TROOPERS By Robert A. Heinlein

Buckle up because this is the worst book I’ve read this year.

Although I watched the film years ago, this was my first introduction to Heinlein, and I have to say I was pretty confused at first. Right off the bat, there were soldiers killing aliens on their home planet, and something about that rubbed me the wrong way, almost reading as satire.

Being anti-war, and anti-military myself, I couldn’t have an unbiased opinion. I wanted to stop reading early on when I found out it’s not satire, but I thought I shall give it a try. It was difficult for me to figure out what Heilein wanted to say. His opinions were often contradictory and obscure. Whether he glorified war or only thought of it as means to an end, I had no idea. Reading up on Heilein himself I found out he was just as confused as I was.

The book tells the story of Juan Rico*, a young man who joins the Mobile Infantry, protecting Terra from alien invasion by some unspecified arachnid-like, and human-like aliens in an intergalactic war, the circumstances of which are never disclosed. There is no beginning or end to this war and the focus is not at all on the war itself. The war was merely foundation on which Heinlein builds his militaristic utopia.

With insipid prose, palpable military arrogance, he threw in platitudes like “freedom isn’t free,” and “infantry is for men,” and delineated with tedious details a perfectly brainwashed individual in a cultish clique. There was very little about the aliens and far too much about military ranks, training, flogging, court martials, and what the percentage is of Lieutenants compared to Sergeants, so much that I had to say “I don’t give a shit” out loud quite a lot.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but I came out of it with my opinion on the military unchanged. In fact maybe I detest it a little more. Although I have to say, I can understand. Military personnel do the dirtiest of jobs, and in order to do it with your head held high, you have to have those beliefs instilled indelibly within your core. It’s the same reason why doctors like to say they’re saving lives, when in fact they’re surrounded by death day in day out —only their feeling of self righteousness can keep them alive.

2/5
I’m going to watch the film again. Also apparently Stranger in a Strange Land is a better book.

*Juan, for the better part of the book, has been referred to as Johnnie, his physical features and the tone of his skin never mentioned. Only later in the book we find out he’s Juan Rico from The Philippines. I think this is the best thing Heinlein has done, introducing a non-white character as well as a racially integrated army (judging by their surnames) must have been a breakthrough at the time.

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10. THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE AND OTHER STORIES By R. L. Stevenson*

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE

Vintage books from the 19th century have a special allure to them. I find them linguistically fascinating. Even though it takes me a while to get through one page, there’s still a part of me that wishes people still talked like that.

I read this book years ago when I used to read in Arabic. It was a brief translation which somehow left me under the impression that it was about dissociative identity disorder. That probably had to do with every film adaptation of the novel, and every usage of the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” in popular culture implying the same thing.

“And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself.” —p.64

What is dealt with here is the normal incongruity of a single man, rather than two separate identities. Dr. Jekyll’s lust for Evil, his desire to break free from the steadfast life forced upon him by the uptight Victorian society and inherent shame have led him to create Hyde. Originally he’d meant to separate his Evil side from within him in order to live as the honourable man, as was expected of him, but his plan didn’t work quite well.

He began to enjoy living as the ape-like, appalling man with all the freedom it came with, delving in every sin imaginable and imbibing the pleasure of which he was made to deprive himself as Jekyll. Jekyll and Hyde, therefore, aren’t two different beings, and the question that is being asked here is how far will a person go, what kind of crimes would they commit, if impunity were to be guaranteed.

The theme could apply to many concepts, however I found striking similarities to substance abuse e.g. change in personality, compulsion, longing, adaptation, etc. This might be only a fancy of mine as I’ve found no evidence of this being the author’s intention so don’t hold it against me.

Duality is a topic that’s overdone in many genres, and Stevenson set the framework. This is a book that should be read by everyone.

4/5

OTHER STORIES

The Body Snatcher

Creepy story of medical students robbing graves for science. Gave me the chills as I remember the days when I used to be surrounded by cadavers. It’s an entertaining horror novella, perfect for a night time read. The ending was a let down —unimpressive attempt at a plot twist.

3/5

A Lodging for the Night

Markheim

Thrawn Janet

The Misadventures of John Nicholson

*Mainly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other stories will be updated as I go along, if at all.

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9. BRAVE NEW WORLD By Aldous Huxley

Futuristic dystopian novels have been knocking about since the dawn of civilisation, and some even brilliantly foretold the future decades ahead of time, notably Orwell, Alan Moore, Bradbury, and of course Huxley.

Brave New World tells a story of a futuristic world set in 2500 where genetic engineering is the only way humans are created. Meticulously, humans are conditioned to fit into certain social classes without aspiring for more or contemplating change. Entertainment, sex, and recreational drugs are advertised through hypnopaedic methods to fill in their spare time and eradicate from the root any hint of dread they might feel. Humans don’t age, they don’t get sick, they don’t get emotionally attached to one another in a way that could become —by their understanding— dysfunctional. There are no families, no gods, and no need for anything artistic or beautiful. The way the world is so diligently controlled to maintain order gets the social outcast, Brandon Marx (I’m not entirely sure if Marx is a coincidence) frustrated. He visits a savage reservation and so the story begins.

I’ve made a joke when I started reading it, saying I was reading the Tory manifesto, and to be honest, it does seem like a Tory wet dream —the slogan used in the book even has the word stability in it. Maintaining stability, getting everything and everyone under control, keeping the “savages” closed off in a reservation, implementing and reinforcing social strata, institutionalised racism, and media propaganda, and so on.

Technology has been directed towards creating a perfect world, and the methods used, while ostensibly inhumane, the overall contentment of the community has rendered such abstract concepts as immorality or oppression redundant. Nonsensical.

The flawlessness of this book, however in my opinion, is exactly where it has fallen short. The author has opted for perfection over beauty, substance over style, so much that I found the book to be painfully tedious and even soporific —no exaggeration, I fell asleep reading it so many times. It started off with a spark that slowly dwindled after the end of the first couple of chapters because nothing really goes on. There’s hardly any character development, no conflict, even the rebellious characters are restricted by their own conditioning, they fade out one after the other and the only thing left is the community.

It’s not your average entertaining book. If you’re reading this for entertainment, stop reading after Chapter II because there’s all you need to know about how. Beyond that, it’s all about why. That’s where it gets controversial and thought provoking. The question of whether civilisation really is the best thing for humanity —something I’ve often wondered myself, having been raised in a developing country. Drawing a parallel, I often see the Western world the way one would view the New World, with everything readily available and all the problems either solved or compensated for. I sigh in frustration and say, “everything’s so easy!” to which I’m often met with a scoff and a “you say that like it’s a bad thing.”

3/5
Recommended, definitely.

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8. MOTHER NIGHT By Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is a master of wit, and of the best authors to have ever existed. There are many aspects of his style that are singular, but what fascinates me the most is his perfect timing. While most writers know what to say, he knows when to say it.

Through his minimalistic prose, introduction of unforgettable characters and events imbued by the trademark Vonnegutesque bleakness, nihilistic pessimism with the occasional glimpse of hope and dark humour, he’s captured the woes of war, love, and subsequent despair of the two in the roller-coaster of emotions that is Mother Night.

The story is told as the confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a Nazi war criminal, or so he was told. As the mockery of something as serious as Nazi propaganda plays out, the lines are blurred, and the only thing made abundantly clear much as it is often a recurring theme in Vonnegut’s books is that WWII was a fucking bonkers era in history.

Mother Night is a book to read in one sitting*. It is short and simple, but will challenge the reader, change the way one views the dichotomy of good and evil, and the helplessness of man. It is a book that will stay with you forever.

5/5 for sure.

*I didn’t read it in one sitting, personal reasons, although I wish I had.

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7. ROOM By Emma Donoghue

I’ve made the mistake of watching the film way before I’ve read the book. It was because I didn’t think I’d be able to find the book anywhere here, and didn’t want to wait for too long. As I was watching, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the book was written in first person as Jack?

And it is.

Writing a child character, first person or not, is one of the most difficult tasks for an adult writer. It’s rarely compelling or convincing, because it’s not easy to remember what being a child was like. Writers often make the child either too smart and precious, or too naive. Emma Donoghue perfectly captured the voice of a child. The incongruity of intellect, the volatility, the way he made sense of everything even when it didn’t, and most importantly, the innocence. Viewing this world through his eyes, he’s just a child that wants to play and loves his Ma, he’s unaware of the damage that’s being done to him, he’s scared, and it will break your heart.

Every chapter of this book is heartbreaking but for different reasons. Even still, it’s so gripping the reader will want to look away but can’t. You’re angry then sad then mellow, and you don’t even know how it happened. Events flow effortlessly and change of pacing happens swiftly, the characters are just as real and convincing as the narrator, since Donoghue managed to convey the flawed nature of humans just as well as the alien, complex nature of a child.

One thing Room has opened my eyes to, something ‘Ma’ has pointed out to Jack and others (not giving much away,) is how little a child needs in order to be society’s idea of ‘normal.’ She managed to provide a healthy environment using only few supplies and all the love a mother can give. Besides the basic necessities of life, that’s all children need.

Room is beautiful and shocking, definitely risky for a writer to go down that path but Donoghue has proven more than capable.

5/5
Recommended.

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6. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA By Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been mulling this over for what seems like ages. I thought about abandoning a review altogether and just writing a two sentence long entry, homage to Hemingway, but that would have been lazy.

Thing is, I found this book difficult to digest.

After Paulo Coelho, considering they both have different styles of expressing symbolism and life lessons, this is certainly refreshing. It’s a short book, there isn’t much going on, but comparing the two, The Old Man and the Sea has more to offer than The Devil and Miss Prym.

Here’s my take on the book: Going down a list of things that make a good book, this one is a winner. Coherent plot, perfectly-set pacing, diligent scene illustration, three dimensional character(s?), and most importantly symbolism that doesn’t come off as trying hard. It’s simple and to-the-point, but there’s more to it than let on. There’s more to extrapolate, and there’s room for the reader upon which they can reflect their own emotions. However, while reading this, from beginning to end, I was bereft of all sorts of feelings.

It’s about Santiago overcoming all the obstacles after almost believing he’s doomed to failure. He persists and perseveres, compromising what his own body needs and blindly fighting off whatever gets in his way. Even though in the end he hardly had anything to show for it, winning in the conventional sense was not his end goal. He wanted to feel alive and competent. Catching the fish was irrelevant. Looking at the bigger picture, this is about life as a whole.

Overall, I get what the book was getting at, and I saw the events and characters as if they were real, but emotionally I had no connection whatsoever. Quick pacing and short sentences, it felt automated.

The tip of the iceberg is a method that works for many readers, but not for me. Give me details. Give me a profound psychological analysis of every single one of those details. Mostly I avoid minimalist authors but I have a few exceptions. Sometimes minimalism is absolutely imperative, Kurt Vonnegut is a good example of this, but if I had to choose, I’d go for authors that dig deep.

Admittedly, The Old Man and the Sea is a book I would recommend and always talk about as an example for perfect writing, but wouldn’t want to read it again. I liked it, but didn’t love it. It’s an above average experience, and a nice little gateway to more Hemingway.
4/5

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