Since I continue to play catch-up on reviewing books, you know what that means. Each of these lovely books deserves its own full review, but I’m afraid you will have to make do with these lovely, bite-sized mini-reviews.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
My first time reading a work by the existentialist Albert Camus was quite an extraordinary experience. It’s difficult to describe my emotional reaction to the book as The Stranger is quite unemotional throughout. Despite being a novella-length work, quite a lot happens. Meursault, the protagonist, learns that his mother has passed away in a nursing home. He appears unphased by this loss, and immediately begins having an affair with a former coworker. After befriending a shady individual and helping him humiliate his former girlfriend, he spends a weekend at the beach, where he kills a man for no good reason. After being arrested, Meursault stands trial and is condemned not just for murder but for his lack of emotion at this mother’s funeral. In fact, his apparent callousness seems to hang over him more than the killing on the beach.
The Stranger is the most famous work of Albert Camus, a French existentialist philosopher and novelist. Existentialists believe that we’re born into this world without a purpose. Meaning is unique to the individual’s experiences. While the summary I provided may make The Stranger seem like a rather bleak story, I argue that it actually speaks to the importance of living in the now. Meursault realizes that he’s happy – that living is a privilege, and that no matter when he dies, he will cherish his moments of life. Also, I think this book speaks to how we each deal with grief and loss in our own individual ways. When my mother passed away, I didn’t necessarily show my emotions to others. The Stranger is one of those works that I believe one must read a second time to fully appreciate its meanings, an opportunity I look forward to having someday.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
I haven’t read nearly enough sci-fi this year. Fortunately, Mike Chen’s novel completely satisfied my buzz for the genre. As a matter of fact, this book completely exceeded my expectations. This book is a fun mix of time travel, family drama, and action movie. The amount of technobabble and discussion of paradoxes is kept to a minimum, allowing the book to be both fast-paced and deeply moving. While the book is more fiction than science, I found myself enjoying every moment of the ride.
Kin is a secret agent from the future. After his latest mission backfires and leaves him trapped in the past, he eventually does what anyone would do. He learns to adapt to his new world, gets married, and starts a family. Kin is living a life of domestic bliss with his wife and teenage daughter when his associates from the future arrive to rescue him. In order to protect his loved ones, Kin agrees to return to the future. However, Kin broke the cardinal rule of time travel: he got involved and in a very big way. When the life of his daughter is threatened, Kin will do whatever it takes to make sure her future is secure. One of the main reasons this novel stands out is in its depiction of the relationship between a father and daughter. I look forward to more creations from the mind of Mike Chen. Thank you, Natalie Getter, for this fantastic recommendation.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
This debut novel by John Darnielle was recommended by my bestie. If roleplaying games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and examining the darkness of the human psyche are areas of interest, then this book may just be right for you. Yes, it is quite dark and covers some disturbing content. However, the author’s writing is so beautifully polished that you will find yourself unable to put the book down.
Wolf in White Van follows Sean, who creates mail-in roleplaying games that help him generate a modest income. The most popular of these slow-burn games is called Trace Italian and is set in a post-apocalyptic United States. The setting is the early 2000’s, and while the growing use of the internet is making Sean’s business nearly obsolete, he figures there will always be some people who enjoy this type of old-fashioned gaming. As the book progresses, we learn that Sean is horribly disfigured due to a botched suicide attempt as a teen. As a result, he is unable to live a normal life due to the facial damage, requires a caregiver, and has a strained relationship with his parents. Tragedy once again enters Sean’s life when two teenage players of his game die in a suicide pact.
The story moves in a non-linear fashion, mirroring the chaotic nature of Sean’s own thinking. Due to the bleeding together of several of his memories, it leads to a rather surreal reading experience. Throughout the story, we slowly gain more information into the events that led to Sean’s attempted suicide. The narrative is also interspersed with text from the game featured in the book. I thought this novel was a thought-provoking look into how our imaginations often are our only escape from the harsh realities of life.
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
My next read was easily one of the best graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. On a Sunbeam operates on so many levels. While it is a fantastic story set in space, it is also a beautiful story of young love. The protagonist is troubled Mia and is interwoven between her time as a rebellious schoolgirl at a boarding school in space and her time as crewmember aboard the spacecraft Aktis, where she travels the deepest reaches of space to help restore broken-down structures. As the past and present slowly come together, we learn of Mia’s lost love and how her current circumstances may give her a second chance.
One of the best qualities of this book is in the way you are immediately immersed into the story. All the characters of this world are female, with the exception of one who defines as non-binary. No explanation is provided for the lack of males in this universe. It just works. The characters are fleshed out to perfection, and many of the interactions are so priceless. I also appreciated the artwork as I felt like I was part of an intimate story set within a huge space opera. The dialogue sparkles, but my favorite chapter is the one where there is no dialogue at all. If you are looking for a good graphic novel, check this one out as soon as you can.
The Classic Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Now it is time to bring this post full circle, as I consider Rainer Maria Rilke to be one of the greatest existential thinkers of all time. While I’m not the world’s biggest poetry buff, I know what I like. In fact, love would most appropriately capture my feelings about this collection. Rilke is complex, his images interweave and play off each other magnificently. There are too many individual favorites to name here, but if I have to pick some favorites, I would name “Let this Darkness be a Bell Tower,” “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and “Lament.” However, so many others resonated with my spirit. I also enjoyed Rilke’s thoughts on writing poetry in general.
Rilke champions the inner strength of the individual. While some may find his poetry to be a tad on the depressing side, I found a lot of comfort. Actually, I found his work to be quite transformative. His poetry was perfect reading during my pandemic experience. So I leave you with the following lines: