50. ‘Candide’ by Voltaire

I have a vague memory of reading Candide back in high school. Similar to many of my high school reading experiences, very little comes to mind. I remember it was funny and also a tad risque. Unfortunately, the rest gets lost in that jumble of forced readings. Picking it up as an adult with way more experiences under his belt was a much more rewarding time. Published in 1759 as a satire on certain religious and philosophical theories, I can’t remember the last time a classic made me laugh but also contemplate my role in human existence. I also found that the work is still relevant in today’s tragicomic world.

VOLTAIRE

The story centers on Candide, the bastard nephew of a powerful Baron in Westphalia, a region in Germany. Candide lives a life of luxury in the Baron’s castle along with his tutor Pangloss who teaches his students that “everything is for the best” and that they “live in the best of all possible worlds.”  Candide is a simpleton who believes in this optimistic philosophy with all his being. He is also romantically in love with the Baron’s daughter. When the two are caught showing their love for each other, Candide is immediately ostracized from the castle which begins a comedy series of misadventures. During his travels around the world, Candide witnesses all manners of the world’s cruelty such as illness, torture, wars, religious intolerance, an earthquake, and death. Over the course of time, Candide begins to question the blind optimism of Pangloss. Voltaire manages to keep the mood light in this book by filling it with ridiculous characters and several humorous moments. Never since Jonathan Swift, have I seen satire done so well.

First, I think it is so awesome that the writer Francois-Marie Arouet changed his name to “Voltaire.” He truly was the rock star of the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire detested the overly optimistic philosophy of Leibniz and had no issues with criticizing it throughout the story. Although written as a novel, it does read more like several philosophical conversations. On the one side, we have Pangloss who argues that we should just accept the world as it is and remain optimistic. Then there is a philosopher named Martin who Candide meets during his adventures. Martin who believes the world was created “to drive us mad.” In between, we have Candide whose “face was the true index of his mind.” Although he grows and changes by the end of the book, the one factor that kept Candide going was the thought of reuniting with his beloved. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say it is funny yet endearing at the same time.

After meeting an old farmer, Candide’s final advice is that we must “cultivate our garden.” Throughout Candide, there were numerous gardens serving as religious motifs. As I closed the book, I thought a lot about what this final statement meant. Although the world has changed a lot since the time of Voltaire, in many ways it’s still the same. There is hatred and cruelty everywhere we go. Simply turn on the news and within five minutes, you’ve heard about three deaths, or a rape, or another act of violence. Often, there is negativity and heartache everywhere you look. When all of this is happening, it makes it difficult to continue looking for the fairy tale. My take on Voltaire is that he didn’t want us to just turn a blind eye to the darkness whenever we encounter it in all its forms, but to try and create the best life possible for ourselves. Optimism is an essential element, now more than ever, to survive this insane world. It doesn’t mean we should just be positive and let fate dictate our paths in life. We work hard to build the best possible world we can. It is also essential to truly believe in ourselves. A friend once told me that rather than exalt others, I should put myself on a pedestal. These wise words will always resonate with me in whatever path I pursue in life.

“It is love; love, the comfort of the human species, the preserver of the universe, the soul of all sentient beings, love, tender love.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

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49. ‘The Last Man Who Knew Everything’ by Andrew Robinson

In my ongoing efforts to read more nonfiction books, I came across this rather interesting one in my local library. I have always considered myself a bit of a polymath (psychology and fiction writing), and have been interested in understanding scholars who have multiple interests. When you think of the term “Renaissance Man,” historical figures such as da Vinci and Einstein come to mind. But as biographer Andrew Robinson, states, Thomas Young “beats them all”.

ROBINSON

If you’ve never heard of Thomas Young, don’t beat yourself up. I hadn’t either until I read Robinson’s biography. Thomas Young (1773-1829) was a scientist who devoted himself to a number of disciplines. Trained as a physician, Young found his curiosity was too overwhelming to devote purely to the practice of medicine. In the course of his short life, Young made significant contributions to the world in the areas of physics, vision, musical harmony, and deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. If you think that’s already a lot, trust me when I say I’m just barely scratching the surface!

“Open any book on the science of light and vision, and you cannot miss the name of Thomas Young.”

In physics, Young had the nerve to contradict the great Isaac Newton who theorized that light was composed of particles. Young developed the wave theory of light which was proven correct. In physiology, he made several advances in understanding how they eye works, defining astigmatism, and proposing a theory of how our retina’s detect color. Young’s three-color theory was finally confirmed over a century later! His additional credits to science include his theory of elasticity and a formula for better understanding the workings of human pulse. He contributed dozens of entries in the encyclopedia from music theory to carpentry. In short, Young was like Buckaroo Banzai except he didn’t have a rock n’roll band or save the world from an alien invasion.

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“For those of us lesser mortals who feel instinctively drawn to versatility of genius, Young is guaranteed to be an inspiration; while others whose taste is for genius with a narrow focus will feel bound to regard him with skepticism.”

One of the reasons why Young isn’t as popular as other scientists is that he chose to be anonymous in his studies for a number of years. He worried that his patients might not take him seriously as a medical doctor if they learned his attention was divided among so many different subjects. This leads to the other reason why Young is not as world renown; he spread himself fairly thin. Although he contributed so much to the world, he never truly specialized in one field meaning his impact would be minimized. As an aspiring polymath myself, I can empathize. It seems nearly impossible to truly become a master of multiple fields. Finding time to expand my work in the counseling field in addition to writing seems almost impossible sometimes. I haven’t come close to achieving 1% of what Young accomplished, and I feel like there will never be enough time to experience other fields.

“It is a disturbing thought, especially for a specialist, that a non-specialist might enter an academic field, transform it, and then move onwards to work in an utterly different field.”

One of Young’s greatest and yet most controversial of his many accomplishments involved his attempts to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Young had a passion for Egyptian hieroglyphics and spent years working on understanding the language. Eventually, his work would be overshadowed by the French scholar Champollion. With the work Young did complete, one can argue the field of Egyptology would be nonexistent. Champollion never viewed Young as a colleague and often appeared harsh in his criticism of him, likely due to the fact that Young was viewed as more of a dabbler. Young once remarked that “scientific investigations are a sort of warfare … against all one’s contemporaries and predecessors” and he attracted more than his fair share of hostility. As well as being criticized for being a non-specialist, Young was also viewed as not being the most genial person to be around. I guess when you are trying to accomplish so much, it leaves little time to make lots of friends.

48. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

I wanted to read Lincoln in the Bardo for two reasons. It won this year’s Man Booker Prize for George Saunders, a writer I’ve been curious to try for some time. My second reason is that I’ve always held a fascination for Abraham Lincoln and this period in American history. Lincoln not only guided our country through one of its darkest hours, but the former President also had an interest in the supernatural. While this novel was definitely unlike anything I’ve read in the past, I can’t say I necessarily loved it.

SAUNDERS

Lincoln in the Bardo is based on the tragic death of Lincoln’s son William. The story is that following his funeral, Lincoln returned alone to the crypt several times to hold his son’s body. Saunders uses this to create a story about a realm that exists between life and death known as “the Bardo.” Souls from different time periods exist there and interact with each other. In fact, most of them don’t even know that they are dead but instead believe that they are just sick and recovering. Lincoln’s arrival to the crypt to spend time with his dead son creates interest among the various residents of the Bardo, as this is an occurrence that has never happened before. The other souls develop a fascination for young Willie and start to question the nature of this existence. They begin remembering their own lives and the circumstances that led to their arrival in the Bardo.

It’s always interesting to read an author who breaks down the walls of writing and creates something unique. The majority of Bardo is written in the form of a play told by the different deceased inhabitants. There are three main characters who narrate most of the action with several other spirits appearing throughout the story. This took some getting used to for me, but I finally got there. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters that contain excerpts from fictionalized historical documents pertaining to the events leading up to and following Willie’s death. These two styles actually work together quite well to tell a story about loss and coming to terms with grief.

I think that the unique way Saunders tells this story is what makes this work and takes it a step above any other book about loss. The use of the outside narrators witnessing these events creates a distance between them and the reader creating the effect that they are not exactly here with us. There are moments that are funny, while others are very sad. I particularly liked the scenes where a spirit would briefly transform into the person that could have been.

Another quality of the book I enjoyed was how Saunders portrayed Abraham Lincoln. Seen through the eyes of others, the former President is a deeply conflicted man who is extremely caring and would do anything if it meant saving his son. Even after Willie’s death, his father refuses to let go and accept its finality.

Although a good story, I’m not sure if Bardo was worthy of the Man Booker. In fairness, I haven’t read the other nominees for this year so perhaps Saunders did deserve the prize. I think my problem is that the story didn’t move me the way it was supposed to have done. Once I got used to the style, I felt like I was just making it through the book and not taking away the deeper meaning. I get that the themes of the book are learning how to let go and making peace. I also thought it was an interesting story, just not one I would pick up again. For me, this was a case of the writing structure overshadowing the story itself.

Perhaps there is something with me I’m not willing to let go of yet.

“And yet no one had ever come here to hold one of us, while speaking so tenderly.”

 

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

 

47. ‘Orphans of the Sky’ by Robert A. Heinlein

In my ongoing efforts to read more classic science fiction, I picked up this 1941 novel by the legendary Robert A. Heinlein. Since I’ve reviewed the greats like Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury this year. it seemed fitting to add Heinlein to the mix. Stories set on gigantic spaceships have always held a thrill for me. While I wouldn’t rank this one among my all-time favorites, I really did enjoy several parts of its pulpy goodness.

HEINLEIN

Orphans of the Sky was originally published in two separate parts, “Universe” and “Common Sense.” The entire story takes place on the ship Vanguard which was designed to take the crew to “Far Centaurus.” The majority of the crew was wiped out from a mutiny, and its descendants now live in ignorance of existence outside of their spaceship. They have come to believe that the “Ship” is their universe. Moving back to a  pre-technological culture, the “scientists” interpret the old textbooks under religious metaphor. For example, written references to a ship’s voyage would be looked at as a metaphor for attaining inner enlightenment. Most of the inhabitants, with the exception of a few brave souls, do not venture to the upper levels where the “muties” dwell. There is a process at birth where any identifiable mutants are immediately killed and fed into the processor to be used as energy for the Ship.

The story centers on Hugh Hoyland who has been selected to be a scientist. Hugh is different than his fellow scientists as he possesses both curiosity and bravery. While out on a mutie hunt, he is captured and made a slave by the leader of the muties, the two-headed Joe-Jim Gregory. Both Joe and Jim have separate identities and as it turns out, are both quite intelligent. In fact, Joe-Jim have developed an understanding through reading and exploring of the true nature of the Ship. When Hugh is introduced the the wider universe outside his own little world, he is forever changed.

I think I’ve fallen in love with a specific sub-genre of science fiction, the generational ship story.  It was fun watching Hugh develop a true understanding of the universe, but the two-headed mutant consisting of Joe and Jim were by far my favorite characters. Of course, Hugh is eager to share what he has learned with the rest of the crew (surprise, it doesn’t go well). Heinlein creates a fantastic world within the confines of the Ship, and the plot moves fast as this is one of his shorter novels. I loved Hugh’s awakening to the truth and his attempts to convince others. There’s a great scene where the rebels overthrow the captain by manufacturing swords, an idea taken from one of Joe-Jim’s favorite books The Three Musketeers. I also loved the religious interpretations behind many basic scientific theories. Although a complete story in itself, I think many of the themes could easily have been expanded further such as the hatred of the mutants and the lines that get crossed between science and religion. Female readers might also find the way women are portrayed as rather sexist.

Despite being written nearly a century ago, Heinlein uses a great story to explore themes that are still worth discussing today.

“Life within the Ship, alternately harsh and workaday, had placed no strain on his innate capacity to experience beauty; for the first time in his life he knew the intolerable ecstasy of beauty unalloyed. It shook him and hurt him, like the first trembling intensity of sex.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!

 

 

 

Triple Graphic Novel Review!

As the year winds down, I realize that I don’t have many more weeks to post my 2017 reviews. Lately, I’ve been checking out quite a few graphic novels from my local library. It was a lot of fun reading these books over a weekend. All three of these were really good (and quite twisted too).

44. The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman

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When Barbara moves into her new apartment at 141 Rottin Road, she has no idea that the Victorian building houses some rather unique individuals. There’s Brian, who is only sexually attracted to women who are either dying or have some incurable disease. Then there’s Janet who is obsessed with weight loss. Another neighbor feels so invisible that she literally blends into her surroundings. Did I mention the lady upstairs who embraces a hedonistic lifestyle of eating and debauchery? Each of these residents is very lonely and possess a dark secret. The House That Groaned is a delightfully twisted book that explores our bodies and the spaces we inhabit.

I was initially attracted to this book for its awesome cover of the building itself with real cut-out windows. The art style in the rest of the book is unlike anything I’ve read before in a graphic novel. Fransman uses a dark blue palette with all of her characters drawn with very pronounced cheeks. She also doesn’t shy away from nudity or gore, both in abundance here and works well with the more beautiful side of life that she creates.

I loved getting to know all of these characters from a psychological perspective. As the story progresses, we get flashbacks into each of their lives revealing a dark secret. Each revelation pertains to their physical bodies (either how they see themselves or others). I love graphic novels that are about real social issues! Sometimes the truth is hard to look at but necessary as Fransman’s art and words blend together beautifully. Also, I love how the building itself serves as a character in its own right.

This is a quick read that can be finished in under an hour. However, I still feel like Fransman created a complete story. As I was reading, I had no idea where the story was going and had to stop for a moment during a pivotal scene where everything started happening fast. It was very shocking! I will definitely check this author out again in the future.

45. Coraline: The Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman

IMG_0231[1]Although I’m a huge Gaiman fan and have watched the film of this story a couple of times, I’ve actually never read the book. Coraline Jones and her parents have just moved into a very old house in the countryside. Every day, Coraline finds herself quite bored. Her parents are both too busy to pay her the attention she craves while her neighbors can’t even get her name right (they call her Caroline). When she is given the task to explore and outline their new home, she finds a mysterious door that opens into a brick wall. One night, she discovers the wall is gone and the door leads her into a twisted version of her own home. There’s another mother there and another father, and they want Coraline to stay with them. Forever.

Gaiman’s dark children’s story is brought to life wonderfully by P. Craig Russell. The illustrations are beautifully rendered and detailed. There is a richness of color during the daytime scenes while the nighttime ones are extremely creepy and dark. I particularly love how Coraline’s “Other Mother” is drawn.

Gaiman’s stories are always so much fun, but he also always captures humanity so well. Russell does an excellent job of preserving the emotion of the original story while enhancing it with his great illustrations. If you are a Gaiman fan, or just love dark fantasy in general, I highly recommend this book.

46. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Image result for the night bookmobileAlexandra, also known as Lexi, first discovers the Night Bookmobile after she has an argument with her boyfriend and spends the night walking the streets of her city. In the middle of the night, she finds parked an old Winnebago blasting some of her favorite music. As it turns out, the vehicle is a library run by the enigmatic Mr. Openshaw. This mysterious bookmobile is special because the only literature it contains are books that Lexi has read during her lifetime. As the Night Bookmobile leaves for the night, Lexi becomes determined to read as much as she can and to become night librarian herself.

This is a book for all of us lovers of books out there. It is beautifully drawn. I love all of the little details relating to the bookmobile, like how every time Lexi finds it again, the building has grown to encompass everything she has read since the last visit. A particular book becomes blank at the point where she abandoned it. It also contains anything non-book related that she has read, such as old cereal boxes.

This is another short work, but is so very emotionally rewarding. The ending is both disturbing but beautiful at the same time. The Night Bookmobile is a great book about the relationships we develop with books and what we are willing to sacrifice for that love.

“Each spine was an encapsulated memory, each book represented hours, days of pleasure, of immersion into words.” –The Night Bookmobile

 

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Please comment below!