Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll

Book # 854

REVIEWER: Kara


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In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

For me, this second installment about Alice is even more wonderful than the first (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and that isn’t an easy feat! Both books feature Alice, a 7-year-old girl with a wildly vivid imagination. In her dreams, she enters magical worlds populated by smart and witty animals and everyday objects. She fearlessly explores, makes friends, and learns, taking the twists and turns of logic and magic that constantly alter the reality around her in stride. For child and adult readers alike, this is about as much fun as literature can be.

The reason I so love Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There is its excellent poetry. The book contains both Jabberwocky, a poem stuffed with old-fashioned words that Alice needs help from others to decipher, and The Walrus and the Carpenter, a lovely poem with both sad and silly moments that has stuck with me as a favorite since my childhood.

What Carroll does so well is lift up and glorify the witty and imaginative ways that children think about words and logic as they grow and learn. He gives credence to what seems silly and absurd, and offers the puns, riddles, jokes, and even nonsense that children love and adults tend to groan about. He refrains from preaching or infantilizing, and an authentic sense of child-like wonder at the world pervades the book.

I highly recommend both of Lewis Carroll’s stories about Alice as family read-aloud options – there’s no better way to experience them.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Book # 609

REVIEWER: Kara


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In the opening scene, Janie has just returned home after running away with Tea Cake, a young man she fell in love with. Arriving at her house, she tells the story of her life to her friend Pheoby; as readers we are listening in to the tale. Beginning in her youth, Janie has several bad relationships. Her first husband is kind, but she doesn’t love him. Her second is successful and charismatic, but she feels as though she has been placed on a pedestal, unable to be part of her community. When Janie finally gains her independence, it is Tea Cake whose style of love allows her to finally do and be what she has always wanted.

This is an action-packed novel and the story held me unceasingly throughout. The climactic scene between Janie and Tea Cake was terrifying, heartbreaking, and exultant all at once. I loved Janie’s tone and powerful belief in herself and her right to reach out and take the life and love she wants. She’s a smart and strong woman who has learned from her difficult life experiences and the life-altering decisions that were made for her by being ready and willing to take risks:

Pheoby: “…But you’re takin’ uh awful chance.”
Janie: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ’em theyselves.”

The discussion of race from Janie’s (and probably also Hurston’s) perspective was illuminating for me. I was particularly interested in Janie’s response to her grandmother’s hopes for her, which is tied up in both race and gender:

“She was born in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

It’s clear that Janie understands that her grandmother wanted only the best for her. She wanted Janie to have what she never could. But having experienced it, Janie now knows the truth: that her grandmother’s greatest hope was not what she needs or wants, and that both being black and being female will keep her from ever really having what she wants.

My favorite part of the book is right at the very end, when Janie tells Pheoby that she can tell all the nosy neighbors anything she wants to tell them – she trusts her friend and cares little about what the others think of her. She also shares two lessons (see the quotations below) she has learned through her experiences, one about love and one about life. Both are worth remembering.

“Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

 

Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse

Book # 684

REVIEWER: Kara


SSteppenwolf is the story of Harry Haller, a man who is miserably struggling to deal with two very different aspects of his personality – one of these he views as a man and the other as a wolf. He finds his ‘man self’ excited by the trappings of the bourgeois lifestyle he more or less leads, but his ‘wolf self’ hates it and finds it ridiculous. He is only really happy in the moments where he can feel completely man, or completely wolf. These moments are few and far between.

Soon Haller meets Hermine, a woman who tells him she is just like him, and spends an unforgettable night in a theatre “for madmen only.”  The bulk of the novel is Haller’s experiences in the theatre and their impact on the condition of his dual soul.

I was surprised at how accessible and digestible this novel was, based on what I’ve heard and read about Hesse in general. Though I will admit it did give me a few nights of very intense dreams, especially the night I put the book up and went to sleep in the middle of Harry’s theatre visit.

While I know very little about philosophy, Eastern or Western, and have just a basic understanding of Jung’s work, it’s easy to see their influence here.

The multiplicity of the soul:

“In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.”

Humans as a grand experiment:

Man is “nothing else than the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit. His innermost destiny drives him on to the spirit and to God. His innermost longing draws him back to nature, the mother.”

The unimportance of physical objects:

Experiences are our “life’s possession and all its worth.”

And the fluidity of the soul:

“My personality was dissolved in the intoxication of the festivity like salt in water.”

I was very impressed with Harry as a character. His struggles, while extreme, make a lot of sense and express what I know that I certainly feel occasionally – that life can lack a sense of progress or greater purpose, leaving dissatisfaction and lack of motivation. In the end, and I don’t think this is a spoiler, Hesse’s answer for Harry is this:

Just like the radio spoils and beslimes music “and yet cannot altogether destroy its spirit, just so does life, the so-called reality, deal with the sublime picture-play of the world and make a hurley-burley of it…All life is so, my child, and we must let it be so; and, if we are not asses, laugh at it.

Easier said than done, and difficult to wrap the mind around, of course. Seeing as how we’re alive, living life and have been as long as we’ve had consciousness, we can’t really get an outside perspective on this the way we can on music. But it is helpful as a reminder to relax and remember that not everything is rational, nor does it need to be.

My favorite part of the book was the surreal, bizarre culminating scene (the last third of the book, really) because I was very intrigued and impressed with how Hesse took the conscious thoughts and actions of Harry and developed a fitting subconscious dream-world that served as both a source of and an outlet for who Harry is and what he believes. It’s an impressive feat of writing.

Vile Bodies – Evelyn Waugh

Book # 659

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


Vile BodiesI first laid eyes on Vile Bodies back in 1989 while travelling through Europe on my OE with a friend from university.  It was my first time reading the very English wit of one of the Waugh family and I remember absolutely loving it.  It fit in with my penchant (then and now) for stories written or set between the two world wars.

This was all brought back to me when I pulled my copy off the bookshelf in order to revisit it this year.  As I opened the page, out fell two tiny pieces of paper.  One was for the Casa del Libro in Madrid and the other for the Paperback Exchange in Florence.  After so many years, I am unsure which was the supplier of my Waugh but I am grateful to whichever it was.

This satirical look at the era and goings-on of The Bright Young Things was first published in 1930.  It is the story of two young lovers, Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount.   They are part of the crazy, hedonistic set of young aristocrats known as the Bright Young People.  It is raw satire, with seemingly ridiculous goings-on and brilliantly silly character names.  I mean, you can’t go wrong with names like Miles Malpractice, Fanny Throbbing, Lottie Crump and Mrs Melrose Ape, can you?

At the very start of the novel we find Adam aboard the Channel ferry during a rough crossing and it is here that Waugh begins introducing us to some of the colourful characters he has created,

Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of sea-sickness they had indulged in every kind of civilized witchcraft, but they were lacking in faith.
Miss Runcible was there, and Miles Malpractice, and all the Younger Set.  They had spent a jolly morning strapping each other’s tummies with sticking plaster (how Miss Runcible had wriggled).
The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P., last week’s Prime Minister, was there.  Before breakfast that morning (which had suffered in consequence) Mr Outrage had taken twice the maximum dose of a patent preparation of chloral, and losing heart later had finished the bottle in the train.

Throughout the work there are passages of wonderfully expressive writing and the crossing of the Channel is one of them. Waugh describes it thus,

Sometimes the ship pitched and sometimes she rolled and sometimes she stood quite still and shivered all over, poised above an abyss of dark water; then she would go swooping down like a scenic railway train into a windless hollow and up again with a rush into the gale; sometimes she would burrow her path, with convulsive nosings and scramblings like a terrier in a rabbit hole; and sometimes she would drop dead like a lift.  It was this last movement that caused the most havoc among the passengers.

The main line of the story follows the ups and downs of Adam’s attempts to wed Nina.  As a writer he is hoping to get published until the customs men decide to confiscate and burn the one and only copy of his manuscript.  His great intention of being able to support a wife evaporates in that instant.  We then chase along behind him as he gains employment and then loses employment, approaches his future father-law for assistance and gets embroiled in all sorts of unexpected adventures.  All the while he and Nina are ‘on’ and ‘off’ again, before he faces the ultimate challenge of a rival in the form of Ginger Littlejohn.

It is at once cutting and full of caricatures.  The behaviour is over the top, the reckless abandonment of several of the characters and the whimsical choices made are both ridiculous and poignant.  It is as though the aftermath of World War I seemed to imbue a spirit of living totally in the moment with little regard for the outcome.  As a young woman I certainly thought it was extremely funny and crazy, but as an older adult I can now see a huge depth of poignance in the behaviour of the Bright Young Things.  I can now see the underlying sadness and the carelessness with life, as well as the humour.

At 220 pages, it is a snip of a read.  If you are a fan of writing about or during the Interwar period, then you will most probably appreciate this.  If you are not, you may still enjoy it as a somewhat exaggerated view of a time of past glories and excess.  The huge dose of humour will help it go down, but don’t be expecting a Wodehouse-style read, as it is nowhere near as gentle.

Happy reading.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Book # 992

REVIEWER: Kara


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 “I have seen no book of chivalry that creates a complete tale, a body with all its members intact, so that the middle corresponds to the beginning, and the end to the beginning and the middle; instead, they are composed with so many members that the intention seems to be to shape a chimera or a monster rather than to create a well-proportioned figure. Furthermore, the style is fatiguing, the action incredible, the love lascivious, the courtesies clumsy, the battles long, the language foolish, the journeys nonsensical, and, finally, since they are totally lacking in intelligent artifice, they deserve to be banished, like unproductive people, from Christian nations.”

As this long quotation from Don Quixote makes clear, romantic books of chivalry are terrible. So author Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in 1605 to satirize the form. And he does it well, taking each negative about books of chivalry he lists and, through comedy and wordplay, turning it into a positive. The result is a long, epic novel in two parts that is about chivalry but anything but terrible. After all, “The benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?

While very over the top, Don Quixote is a wonderful reading experience. Don Quixote is a fantastic character, with a stubborn streak that lets him truly believe in his own inventions. He even manages to convince one other person, his squire Sancho Panza: “Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires who ever served a knight errant; at times his simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure.

Sancho was my favorite character. He waxes and wanes between knowing his master is crazy and utterly believing in his inventions and adventures. Sancho is somewhat prone to malapropism, but not to the extent of, say, Mrs. Slipslop in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews. His more extensive verbal tendency is using endless proverbs, some more apt than others in any given situation. Here’s an example of Sancho’s speech: “Because in a well-stocked house, supper is soon cooked; and if you cut the cards, you don’t deal; and the man who sounds the alarm is safe; and for giving and keeping, you need some sense.

Sancho keeps things moving, adding humor to situations where Don Quixote’s ridiculousness might just seem sad. Above all, I loved the scenes where Sancho carried out his duties as ‘governor.’

I did feel that the novel could have been shorter – some of Don Quixote’s adventures are a bit repetitive. He basically attacks anyone and anything, demanding they admit his beloved Dulcinea is the most beautiful woman in the world – there are only so many ways to make this amusing. I also found the ending a bit of a let-down; it was clear that Cervantes just wanted to make certain no one else would ever write about Don Quixote. That said, this is a 400-year-old novel – it’s literally exemplary.