Caligula by Albert Camus
“Still nothing.” So opens the epic tragedy of the the Roman Emperor Caligula. The repetition of the word ‘nothing’ in the first scene drives forward the theme of nihilism throughout this profound play. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of tragedies. There’s something about tales that are full of absolute despair which show the very scope and might of the human mind and soul.
Caligula is the tale of a compassionate leader who is driven to despair after the death of his sister and lover. Caligula declares, “The world as it is is unbearable” as he realizes the absurdity of life and then begins a violent and sick rampage through which he acts wholly “logically” in his pursuit in finding freedom. This play oozes with intellectual and philosophical banter and I was completely entranced by this dark dictator and the various players who are either completely loyal, disgruntled or plotting against him.
The aspect which I believes brings me back to tragedies time and again, is their ability to look bluntly at life and even in the heart of despair, show a small beam of light. That’s the way Caligula works. In particular, the character of Cherea teaches how to accept the absurdity of life and still carry on in a healthy way. If you enjoy philosophy pick this up. Camus’s tale is not to plunge its readers into sorrow, but instead to teach a worth-while lesson.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to read this. I’ve always been a fan of Wilde; I performed a bit of The Importance of Being Earnest in my high school english class and simply loved it. Dorian Gray is like Wilde’s earlier play but much darker and more profound. The story still manages to be peppered with Wilde’s characteristic caustic and sardonic insights, mainly portrayed through the character Lord Henry.
The plot centers around three characters and how their flaws bring about their downfalls. The title character begins innocent and pure then becomes conceited after seeing his portrait. He makes a promise that he would give up his soul if the portrait would age instead of him. Through miraculous reasons, this happens. Basil is the artist who idolizes Dorian and paints his portrait; his very love of the boy is the reason for his end. Lord Henry is a decadent man who refuses that there is a moral code or any type of decency in the world and he has a heavy hand in corrupting Dorian. Lord Henry, however, perhaps ends up with the worst fate of all.
This book is just so well written and is the perfect mix of humor and reflection; all with an extremely dark tone. If I had to sum it up in two words I would say it’s, “Delightfully unsettling.” Wilde is simply a genius in prose form and it’s such a shame this is his only novel! So seriously, I recommend picking it up, it really flies by.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
This delightful novel was a Christmas present from my father. I absolutely adored it and wish that I had read it earlier! I’m slowly trying to work my way through everything Nabokov’s written and I really took my time savoring this novel.
If you haven’t read much Nabokov, I would be inclined to recommend this one as an excellent starting place. First of all, several of the narative tricks he incorporates are characteristic of this brilliant writer. I really believe he is an example of style creating content. But what’s this book actually about? Basically it’s the delightful tale of a Russian intellectual with faultering English trying to make it in America as a college professor. He doesn’t have a permanent house and grows a strange relationship with his ex-wife’s son. But how do I even begin to describe a Nabokovian novel? It is so much more than all that.
It’s a story about a man whose love is bigger than himself. It’s a tale about identity and self-pride and loneliness. I think my favorite part of the story was when Pnin has all of his teeth removed so he can have pristine dentures put in. Nabokov writes on about how Pnin’s tongue had been like a seal and his teeth, the rocks he once happily frequented. Or the moment as Pnin wonders idly what it would be like to go back before an influential moment and think again with an untouched mind.
The other thing about Nabokov’s writing is how human it ends up being. Pnin is both the story of a complete clown- a man who bumbles through life and has trouble forming lasting relationships with others- and the tale of a hopeless romantic. (The charming Russian writes to his love, “A genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do.”) It’s endlessly funny and moving.
Though I’m not sure anything can top Pale Fire, Pnin managed to be a more… dare I say? romantic version of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. It’s as touching as Invitation to a Beheading without the morbidness and as funny as King, Queen, Knave. A real treasure. If you’re new to Nabokov, start here. Please.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Ah, I haven’t written a book review in so long! I miss it! Well, here we gooo!
Alright so Carmilla was basically the best way to start off winter break. It’s a lovely eerie vampire story which was actually written before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are quite a few parallels between these two stories, but after reading this initial version, I think I’ve grown to prefer it. (How hipster of me…) Carmilla is not your run-of-the-mill vampire. She’s of a more archaic breed which can walk outside during the day and likes to seduce wealthy girls. She’s also quite good at charming people.
Oh yeah, there were some vague lesbian undertones to this book which I thought was kind of cool. There’s no denying that this was a pretty unsettling book. In our modern age which defines horror as a mindless blood bath, Carmilla was, to me, a breath of fresh air. It’s creepy but in a very phycological way.
“Thus fortified I might take my rest in peace. But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.” p.38
Highly recommended to anyone who thinks this looks interesting. I read it in a few hours, not a long read.
Shout out to my friend Dorian for the recommendation and letting me borrow it!
#25 - tinkers by Paul Harding
Beautiful. Lovely. Human. tinkers was the perfect end of summer book for this reading challenge. The basic premise is an old man lies dying, and he reminisces about his life. It tells the story of his life, but also the story of his father and his father’s father. Clearly, there was a lot of genealogy. But what I thought the book was really getting at, was a prose version of Hamlet’s “Alas Poor Yorick” speech. Especially the part when Hamlet says, “Imperious Ceasar died and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” It was really an ode to death and dying and also the miracle of life and how everything on earth is one. Sounds weird, but this short book was oddly all-encompassing. I loved it. I think it needs a re-read for me to grasp everything, but this would also be a great winter book!
So, this is book #25! And because I start class tomorrow, I feel like I have successfully completed my summer challenge, yay! I hope some of you enjoyed my little reviews, perhaps this year I’ll keep writing them or review books I read in class?
Top Five Books of the Summer (In order of enjoyability and content):
1. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
2. Salt Water by Charles Simmons
3. Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
4. Catch-22 by Jonathan Heller
5. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
#24 - Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
“The cradle rocks above the abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” So begins Nabokov’s beautiful autobiography, and the only non-fiction piece I have read this summer. Nabokov deals with his usual themes: love, time and place. We see his childhood in Russia, his years in exile in France and England as well as a taste of his time in his new home of America. There are many stories of Nabokov’s parents, as well as other authors he has known and memories of married life and raising a son.
Like all Nabokovian books I have read, I was dazzled by his beautiful phrasing and word choices. I delighted in his truisms. I especially liked the passages about his synesthesia, a condition which puzzles me but seems so incredible. This man was just so intelligent and it comes through with everything he writes. His writing makes the smallest daily things a wonderful masterpiece. I’ll probably have to read through it a few more times before I grasp everything he was getting at.
Here’s an example of how this author takes the most mundane occurence and electrifies it. He’s talking about missing a step at night and explains it like this, “At the top of the stairs, one’s foot would be automatically lifted to the deceptive call of ‘step,’ and then, with a momentary sense of exquisite panic, with a wild contraction of muscles, would sink into the phantasm of a step, padded, as it were, with the infinitely elastic stuff of its own nonexistence.”
I recommend this autobiography so high. Then again take this with a grain of salt because Nabokov is (probably) my favorite prose author.
#23 - Looking for Alaska by John Green
Looking for Alaska is basically a modernized, less-subtle version of The Catcher in the Rye. The plot deals with girls, love and loss just like Cather, as well as having characters whose names are significant to their personalities. (Miles Halter is the narrator and Alaska Young, his love interest.) Similar to Salinger’s famous work, there is a lot of discussion on Religion and the different views of it, Eastern and Western.
But that is not to down-play that it was a lovely little story, albeit aimed for a younger reader than myself. The first half of it is basically was a set up for the second half which contained some really beautiful passages.
I wouldn’t call this a fun read, but it’s very nice at some points. I would say that if you haven’t read The Catcher in the Rye that would be a better choice than this book.
#22 - Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
This book was such a crazy, amazing, unforgettable experience to read. I was underwhelmed by the description on the inside of the book which said that basically it’s about an author traveling to the Ukraine to look for the family that saved his grandfather from the nazis. However, after just the first chapter I realized that it was so much more. It’s really the story of Alex, the translator who helps the author (who in the story is named Jonathan Safran Foer… hm) find the woman who helped his grandfather and was a potential lover of his. There is an amazing twist and surprise but before all that I think this is a story about the way family heritage passages down through different generations. The story of the translator progresses to their search for the past while simultaneously there is a narrative of the ancient village that Jonathan’s grandfather came from. It’s just so intricate and beautiful and true.
It’s not that this was an easy book to read. As a matter of fact, I struggled with a lot of it. It was just so emotional. And the characters weren’t even characters, they were people. I’ve grown to love them a lot. It was so honest and powerful, and there are so many heartbreaking passages.
At the same time, I can also truthfully say that this is one of the few books I have read that has completely made me laugh out loud. Especially the Ukrainian translator, I simply adored him! He, I believe, was the true gem in this story. There were so many brilliant quotes from this book that I’m going to post them here over time, instead of all at once, but here is one so that you can see Alex’s unique writing style and humor:
“‘How much currency will I receive for my toils?’ I inquired, because that query had very much gravity on me. ‘Less than you think you deserve,’ he said, ‘and more than you deserve.’ This spleened me very much and I told Father, ‘Then maybe I do not want to do it.’ ‘I do not care what you want,’ he said, and extended to put his hand on my shoulder. In my family, Father is the world champion at ending conversations.”
This book is amazing. No, it’s magical in its ability to capture the real. I highly recommend it.
#21 - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This is one of those books I was always embarrassed about not having read. Now I’ve read it and it was undeniably American, simple, clear and sorrowful. I don’t know what else to say but that is was a lovely, much shorter version of The Grapes of Wrath. I simply adored the two main characters and thought the simple plot was embellished well by the poetic descriptions and the camaraderie between two men during the Great Depression.
It’s definitely worth a read if you’ve got the time, as it is an unarguable American classic.
#20 - Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Salinger sure can write troubled youths. This book had characters which were very similar to Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. I think the main difference was that Holden was caught up on identity and friendship, whereas Franny and Zooey both cared deeply about religion, family and intellect. I think this focus made the book less relatable to some readers, so I can definitely see why this is his lesser-known book after Catcher.
That said, I liked this book a lot more than Catcher in the Rye! At first I thought it was a book about two girls, but soon I found out that Zooey is a boy’s name! Shocking, I know. ;] I love books with interesting family dynamics, and the title characters were the youngest siblings of a family with seven children. The plot of this book is simple, it follows Franny’s break up with her boyfriend and exploration of what religion and family means to her. The first third of the book is surrounding her, then the second and third parts of the book follow Zooey and her mother’s reaction to what she is going through.
I loved the little ways you could tell that they are a family, for example, the children have some of the speech patterns of their mother. Also: there were great passages!
“I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect…”
“Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day.”
“‘You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.’ There was an other, slighter pause. ‘I used to worry about that. I don’t worry about it very much any more. At least I’m still in love with Yorick’s skull. At least I always have time enough to stay in love with Yorick’s skull.
That last quote especially I love. I’m a huge Hamlet fan, so his words really rang true. If you can find something- an idea, a book, a person- and love it, always and always, well then your time on earth has been well spent. That’s something I like to think about.