The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Book #521

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

old man

I have long associated Hemingway as being the most masculine of writers.  I was aware of him being a keen hunter and the titles of his books, in particular A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and this The Old Man and the Sea also screamed “manly!”. While this was not entirely off-putting for me, it did mean that it has taken a long time in getting around to reading anything by him.  And so this, my first Hemingway, was both as expected but also a revelation in being so thoroughly deserving of all the accolades it has been awarded.

Santiago is our old man, a  fisherman in his twilight years.  A lifetime spent as a fisherman has left him little to call his own, wizened but still in relative good health for his advancing years.  Manolin is his young fishing companion and when they go 84 days without catching a fish, Manolin’s parents stop him from going out on Santiago’s skiff, sending him to fish on more successful boats.  Still full of admiration for the old man, Manolin is there to see off Santiago as he embarks on a solitary trip that lasts over two days and nights battling to catch and bring back the biggest marlin of his life.

As are many of the other reads on this list, this is a deceptively simple read.  This is the struggle of one man in a story of perseverance and strength. Nearly two thirds of this book are spent with Santiago on his lone boat struggling with this catch.  Where his mind goes, the conversations of companionship and respect that he has with this mighty marlin, his thoughts on many other things including, endearingly, baseball star Joe DiMaggio.  In an age where there is so much to fill your time, noise and distraction at your fingertips, this aspect of the book is of an age and yet timeless  because of its familiarity.  When left to your own thoughts, where does your mind stray to? What conversations do you have with yourself?  Santiago brings age-earned wisdom to his musings.  On accepting Manolin’s help;

He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility.  But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.

And as his task would dictate, his mind often turns to the relationship with his prey.  He is so respectful of the mighty marlin, marveling at it’s size and what it will contribute to his life.  Income, of course, but a source of pride especially coming off an 84 day losing streak.  Something to prove to his peers who think he is too old, something to prove to Manolin’s parents.  And something to show Manolin, a thank you for his continued support and a justification for his admiration.  There is struggle here and a bloody minded persistence, necessary to stay out there for two days and two nights.  But this isn’t a the story of a fevered Ahab type trying to land his Moby Dick.  Yes Santiago has all the those above motivations but he also is a fisherman and this is his job.  And can’t this be said for so many of us?  The slog, the perseverance, the determination of getting the job done for income, but also for pride for yourself, respect from your family and friends and just because it has to be done.  Written in 1952, when a lot more employment was manual labour based, the physical task of landing this giant fish would have been more familiar.

The novel ends on a bittersweet note, one which makes this tale more of a fable, its moral clear to decipher but one I don’t want to spoil because this really is a great read.  Yes, it is one man fishing, and it is very masculine in its feel.  There are no flowery passages of prose, but there is a beautiful clarity of language, a straightforward but no less masterful manipulation that left me often re-reading paragraphs in appreciation.  Please, don’t be put off like I was.

 

Animal Farm – George Orwell

Book #564

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

animal farm

There are not many unfamiliar (well, many readers) with this allegorical tale of farm animals rising up to overthrow their human owner and install a new regime in which all animals are equal and whatever goes upon two legs are the enemy.  With clear lines able to be drawn from this novel to the Russian revolution and the rise of Communism and Stalin, this novel has long been a popular staple of English curricula the world over.

Old Major, the ageing prize winning boar, calls all the animals of Manor Farm to a meeting, where he tells them of his thoughts on how animals are unfairly treated, that they are slaves to unworthy humans. When Old Major dies, his message is taken up by some of the younger pigs, who rally the animals into action, rising up against their particularly inept farmer and claiming the farm as their own.  With the pigs behind the brains of the operation, the animals successfully make the farm their own, creating Animalism, a mandate that follows seven commandments;

  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  3. No animal shall wear clothes.
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
  7. All animals are equal.

However, this idealism is short lived and not all continues on in Animal Farm as initially hoped for, especially when some animals become “more equal” than others.

Written in 1945, Animal Farm is of a certain time and yet timeless in what it is trying to say and how it is being said.  Criticised at the time for being too heavy handed in its obvious views on Communism, particularly Stalinism,  by its author, this novel is short and clearly written.  This direct allegory allows for easy identification of its themes, even specific historical figures and events, making this ideal for younger readers and an obvious choice for English teachers.

Having never had to read it in this environment, I did not suffer for having to analyse and nit-pick at it over  a few months.  I was drawn into the story, sympathising with the well defined characters; rallying with them against their human oppressors, becoming horrified at the actions of the pigs as the story progressed.  I was entertained and enjoyed the time I spent in this  fable.  I will be passing it on to my 13 year old son to read, not knowing if it will be in any of his English classes as a set text, but I will be brushing up on my Russian Revolution knowledge.

Beasts of England is the rallying song of the animals movement.  I am off to see if I can find a youtube clip of it.

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland, Beasts of every land and clime, Hearken to my joyful tidings Of the Golden future time.
Soon or late the day is coming, Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown, And the fruitful fields of England Shall be trod by beasts alone.
Rings shall vanish from our noses, And the harness from our back, Bit and spur shall rust forever, Cruel whips no more shall crack.
Riches more than mind can picture, Wheat and barley, oats and hay, Clover, beans and mangel-wurzels, Shall be ours upon that day.
Bright will shine the fields of England, Purer shall its waters be, Sweeter yet shall blow its breezes On the day that sets us free.
For that day we all must labour, Though we die before it break; Cows and horses, geese and turkeys, All must toil for freedom’s sake.
Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland, Beasts of every land and clime, Hearken well, and spread my tidings Of the Golden future time

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

Book #78

Reviewer: Angelo

1sputknik

Please welcome our newest reviewer Angelo.  We haven’t had a new addition to the team in a while and we look forward to many more insightful reviews.

“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hiddenstrength.”  – Jack Kerouac

Sputnik Sweetheart (translated from  the Japanese by Philip Gabriel) is the second Murakami novel I’ve read after Kafka on the Shore, which was my baptism of fire into Murakami’s perplexing world filled with unusual characters and dream-like events. And as it turned out,Sputnik Sweetheart hinges on the uncanny, and lonely.  If I did not make up my mind to deal with the theme of loneliness like it’s my closest neighbor knocking at my door., however, I would have had a nervous breakdown out of empathizing with the characters.

Sumire is an aspiring writer, who falls in love for the first time with, not a man, but another woman, Miu, Korean, seventeen years her senior. K, her close male friend who is infatuated with her, calls Miu her Sputnik Sweetheart. K, as the narrator, sees through what is happening to Sumire and Miu in the entire novel, and as such has a healthy sense of balance with the world and himself, his feelings, his philosophies. Miu, on the other hand, is poised and sophisticated, a businesswoman and knows French and Italian, is married but lonely.

Sumire’s relationship with Miu intensified when she accepted the latter’s offer to work for her. On their trip to Europe,  Sumire got lost (and in the end came back) leaving as clues two documents she wrote and hid, which K discovers and deciphers. The platonic relationship between K and Sumire makes it unbearably difficult for K whose feelings for Sumire never gets reciprocated. Sadly, Miu’s entrance into Sumire’s life slowly changed the seemingly misfitting Sumire, and her output as a writer waned.

The entire novel is told from the point-of-view of K, but  Murakami gave enough space for the two other characters. And, typical of him, Murakami meshes together disparate narratives that adds mystery to the entire novel. Just when the novel is about to end, that is when Sumire could not be found, K encounters a boy, his student, whose mother happens to be one of his girl friends, who steals things for no clear reason in the same way that Sumire gets lost and later comes back with no explanation for her disappearance.

The question this novel makes me ask is: Is loneliness so scary that it has to be removed from life? I can remember the lonely times of my life as a child, but I barely recall the intensity as much as that of loneliness in the adult life. Upon reflecting, I realized that loneliness relies on one’s dependency on another individual, thinking that such a complimentary association makes us feel complete when in fact, it is when we are alone  that we feel its power over us. We feel lonely when we do not get what we want from someone, another soul, undeniably a feeling so much stronger and longer-lasting than the loneliness we feel for things we can’t have.

Sputnik Sweetheart is neither for the faint of heart nor for those looking out for a predictable story. It is for those who are brave enough to embrace their loneliness, and hoping to make sense of their lives whenever solitude confronts them.

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Book #365

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

the-bluest-eye-by-toni-morrison-profile

There is a commonly held belief that a reader will live a thousand lives in a space of one lifetime.  Sometimes those lives are fun, sometimes morbidly fascinating.  But sometimes they are important, they are necessary and it is here where The Bluest Eye firmly lies.

Pecola Breedlove is a young black girl, growing up in a small town in a post-Depression USA.  History dictates that this was not a great time to be any of the things that Pecola is – poor, a girl and black.  Her parents are locked in a bitter disdain-fuelled marriage; her mother only happy when she is at work as a maid for an affluent white family, her father an alcoholic who turns to abusing his daughter.  In this, the most horrific of childhoods, looked down upon everywhere she turns, Pecola takes to praying and wishing to be white with blue eyes, because surely life would be better if she were those things.

A majority of the story is told through the eyes of Pecola’ s peer, nine-year old Claudia MacTeer, whose family take Pecola in after her father burns down their house.  She is Pecola’s counterpart.  Claudia’s family life is stable, enabling a confidence and fierceness that allows her to defend herself, her sister and by extension her friend Pecola who is passive and run down and unable to do these things for herself.  The contrast is most blatant in how Claudia questions a blue-eyed , yellow haired baby doll and why it was loveable.  No wishing for blue eyes for Claudia.  Also in Claudia we see how Pecola is viewed as ugly, something to be pitied but also as a comparison to make one feel better about themselves.

This is no tale of the triumph of the human spirit, no tale of redemption through self-realisation.  Pecola’s life is horrible, becomes more horrible through factors that are beyond her control.  She is a victim, but not because of her ethnicity.  Claudia too is poor, and black and female but her home life enables her to be strong. This is where the difference is between her and Pecola, Breedlove being a farcical name.  Cholly and Pauline, Pecola’s parents,  are the villains in this story, are also victims,  victims of their upbringing, their stories told to humanise these “monsters” not as a way of excusing them but by as a way to ground this story.  This happened, does happen still, everyday, everywhere.

This is a powerful and moving book.  Morrison’s first and my first Morrison, it is an eye-opening introduction to an author who plays around with language, time, even grammar to bring her own refreshing touch.  I did not find this “poetic license” a distraction, but can see how some might do.  For example, the opening passage is of Dick and Jane and their ideal life, repeated again in the following paragraph word for word except without any punctuation, no full stops, capital letters, commas etc.  The following paragraph is a repeat again but with all the words running together, no spaces.  Her manipulation of the structure in this book adds a surreal touch, poetic and lyrical at times.  The themes though are clear; obviously race is a big one in a story of a black girl wanting to be white. But self-hatred and that hatreds influence on those around you also plays a major part here.

This is not an easy read, but is an important one.  Going back to my opening sentence, there is a resulting empathy that comes from reading stories like these, even if it is on some minor level, that can only work towards a greater awareness of the the world outside of yours, and an appreciation of the world in which you occupy.  Highly recommended.

The Body Artist – Don DeLillo

Book #45

Reviewer: Inspirationalreads

BA

Lauren Hartke is the body artist of the title.  A performance artist, she is married to film maker Rey Robles who shortly after we are introduced to him, drives to his first wife’s house and kills himself by way of gunshot wound to the head. Staying on at the rented beach side holiday house they had been temporarily living in, Lauren becomes mired in her grief, drawing in on herself, isolating herself.  Until one night she happens upon a stranger in the house with her, a stranger who happens to be able to speak in Rey’s voice and recall whole conversations between Lauren and Rey leading up to the day of his death.

So far, pretty straightforward.  Yet, this book is nothing of the sort.  Let me give you the first paragraph;

Time seems to pass.  The world happens, unrolling into moments, and you stop to glance at a spider pressed to its web.  There is a quickness of light and a sense of things outlined precisely and streaks of running luster on the bay.  You know more surely who you are on a strong bright day after a storm when the smallest falling leaf is stabbed with self-awareness.  The wind makes a sound in the pines and the world comes into being, irreversibly, and the spider rides the wind-swayed web.

This leads in to the last morning that Lauren and Rey are together, their morning routine laid out in a seemingly pointless routine, familiar to many couples and yet not.  Because when Lauren bent

…she let out a groan, but not really every time, that resembled a life lament.

Or about Rey shaving;

“Why shave at all?” There must be a reason,” he said. “I want God to see my face.”

I really had trouble reading past this first part.  There is a forced feel about this mundane ritual that immediately left me cold.  A widely lauded post-modern author, DeLillo use of language is brought to bear heavily on this couples morning ritual perhaps to elevate it beyond what it was, but only inducing eye rolling in me.  But at just shy of 130 pages, I decided to push on and while the rest of the book improved for me, my opinion is a mixed bag.

The reader is delivered the news of Rey’s demise via a news article, perfunctory and concise, filling in a few more details of Rey’s life as per any regular obituary article.  But this is where the clear and straight-forwardness ends.  We are then plunged into Lauren’s grief, returning to her in their holiday home, the perspective flicking back and forth between first and third person.  The reader is privy to Lauren’s thoughts and like anyone’s personal thoughts, there are non-nonsensical leaps and turns that are dream-like and at times, hard to follow.  When a young stranger suddenly appears in one of the rooms in the house, his arrival is not startling, but inevitable her instincts having known there was someone always there.  This stranger, whom she names Mr Tuttle after one of her teachers, is childlike in appearance and capabilities but has the unnerving ability to parrot past conversations with Rey, mimicing his voice and his side of the conversation. I struggled to understand the significance of Mr Tuttle beyond the obvious; he is a representation of Rey one that Lauren can care for, nurse due to his childlike state.

Why shouldn’t death bring you into some total scandal of garment-rending grief? Why should you accommodate his death? Or surrender to it in thin-lipped tasteful bereavement? Why give him up if you can walk along the hall and find a way to place him within reach?

But his utterances are confusing too; repetitive and making little sense.  Is this to reinforce his childlike fragility?  He isn’t a total blank space for her to write Rey into, so again confusing and distracting in its oddness.

I went to have a look at some other feelings about this book from other readers on Goodreads, as I was feeling a little like a lot of this book went over my head and maybe my feeling of inadequacy led to my dislike of it.  However, there is the general feeling that it is deliberately vague and “hallucinatory”, leading to differing opinions of what the story actually is even among the literary reviewers.  While this appealed to some, I can not count myself among them.  I found the ideas and the tone of this book quite personal to DeLillo himself, a creation of art that is particular to his specific vision and thus making it not accessible to everyone, but then in leaving it to taste, not something that will be enjoyed by many also.  I did have to laugh at one reader addressing DeLillo as “you post-modern gargoyle of unmeaning“.  And I agree; I think his unmeaning was the undoing of my enjoyment.