July 30, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Review)

Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
First published: 1960
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Rating: ★★★★★

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was a little more than 10 years old, and I didn't like it. I have no idea now why it was so, but I suspect that I either didn't know much about the situation with African Americans in USA at that time or the translation was not very good. I don't know if I would have picked up the book again if not for To Kill a Mockingbird read-along hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, and I'm very glad I did, because this time I enjoyed it immensely!

The novel tells the story of a jail case involving a Negro Tom Robinson in a small rural country of Maycomb in the South of US in the 30th. At that time there was no justice towards the blacks: even though the case was very plain and there was all the evidence that Tom hasn't raped Mayella, the girl in question, he is still found guilty by the jury. The story is told from the point of view of Scout Finch, daughter of Atticus Finch, who is a lawyer appointed to defend Tom and considers it his duty towards his children and conscience to do his best in the case. Most of the citizens, though, don't like that Atticus is a "nigger-lover" and try to abuse him and his children because of this. This trial is a heartbreaking experience for Scout and her brother, not only because they acutely feel the injustice of the outcome and helplessness of their father, but also because Mayella's father attacks them with a knife some time after the jail.

Scout's perspective is one of the things that makes this book so amazing. All the children's games, school experiences, joys and sorrows are captured most beautifully. Unlike grown-up citizens of Maycomb, children in the book are not so hardened racists, and choosing to tell the story from their point of view gives some hope that the situation will become better when they grow up, and this early experience will help them be to become better people. This is essentially a coming-of-age story, and a very powerful one.

It may seem that the book is very moralistic, but it is not so. There is a message in the novel, and a very clear one, but it is not obtrusive. And there is so much more to the book that ideology! The writing is lively and witty, the characters are well-developed, and the row of events is so gripping it is sometimes impossible to put the book down. While I was reading the jail scenes I missed the supermarket's closing time and had to order food not to stay hungry all the evening :)

In my book:
There is a reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, and a very widely known one, and the reason is that it is amazing! From my own experience, the book is better appreciated if you read it as an adult rather than a child, but maybe it's just me. Now it's one of my favourites!

July 29, 2013

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

Title: Ficciones
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
First published: 1944
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Rating: ★★★★★

I wasn't expecting to like this book, because I was aware that it is metaphysical and surreal, and I'm not a big fan of stuff that needs a lot of interpretation to start making sense. However, it ended up being one of my favourite books in The Fiction of Relationship course.

It is very difficult to describe what Ficciones is about, but I'll try. The book is a collection of short stories and is divided into two parts: The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices, which were once separate collections. The themes vary from literary analysis of the works that never existed, to memory phenomena, to Bible interpretation, to the origins of chance in our fortunes. Borges is a great admirer of books and labyrinths, and nearly in all of the stories one or both of these play the key role, be it an endless library which is a labyrinth, or a labyrinth which is a book. The stories are very bizarre, and sometimes it's hard to make sense of them, but re-reading them or looking at them in the light of other stories usually helps. It's for those who enjoy riddles.

The whole collection have an indescribable collective effect on the reader's consciousness: it's as if Borges opens your cranium, takes your brain out, mixes it thoroughly, paints it with some markers and returns it back to front to its place. After most of the stories I found myself staring at the ceiling for some time completely bewildered while trying to digest what I have just read. An unforgettable experience!

In my book:
Ficciones is a must-read for everyone who enjoys mind games and surrealistic writings. This short story collection was the brightest reading experience of this summer, as well as one of the most dynamic ones. It is one of the few books I intend to re-read, and I'm certainly picking up more of Borges!

Oh my God, look at this edition! $1,985 only ;)

July 28, 2013

Language Freak Summer Challenge July Update

Hi, guys, how are you doing? It's time for July update for those who participate in Language Freak Summer Challenge and is reading books or watching films in foreign languages this summer! Speaking of participants, please welcome this month's only newbie!

New participants:
  1. Priya @ Tabula Rasa - German

Now to our progress! We have 5 new reviews this month, one of which is a film review. And you still have a couple of days to contribute to this month's list. The reviews I added this month are marked as NEW!!!, so that you don't forget to check them out! :)

I have not read anything for the challenge this month, as I had a two-week holiday in the beginning of July, and now I'm suffering from the heat and can't do much in such conditions. But I guess I'll have to brace myself and read a German book finally. It must be less hot in August.

How are you doing? Are you enjoying the challenge? Are you going to complete your goals? Only one month left! :)

Good luck and see you all in a month, when I'll be putting up a wrap-up post!

Challenge reviews by language:

Radost pro duši by Margaret Silf (me)

Det caribiske mysterium by Agatha Christie (Jean @ Howling Frog Books)


Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen by J. K. Rowling (Amy @ book musings)
Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman (Jean @ Howling Frog Books) - NEW!!!

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol and "Kukushka" by Alexander Rogozhkin (Juleschka @ Buchlogbuch)
"Kukushka" by Alexander Rogozhkin (Juleschka @ Buchlogbuch) - NEW!!!

July 26, 2013

Light in August by William Faulkner (Review)

Title: Light in August
Author: William Faulkner
First published: 1932
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Rating: ★★★★☆

Last week's book for The Fiction of Relationship course was not an easy read not only because of Faulkner's stream of consciousness style, but also thanks to the abundance of violence, racism and perverse sex. Reading some scenes was very unsettling, and besides my imagination is too good for this stuff - I even saw a couple of nightmares! But I'm not saying Light in August is offensive, it is just problematic, and I guess it reflects the ruthless situation in South America of the time described in the book.

The plot of the novel unfolds backwards: the reader gets the present state of affairs first and then dives into the reflections and remembrances of the characters involved in the situation to learn their history and understand how they feel. This technique worked great for me: I really enjoyed gradually discovering the underlying motifs and meaning of the events. But as Woolf's books, this type of narrative requires a lot of concentration and ideally a rereading.

The protagonist of Light in August is a mulatto with such a little amount of supposed black blood, that nobody can tell by the looks of him. However, he is very aware of this "defect" in his ancestry, and he is trying to come to terms with himself his whole life, which is by no means easy, of course: his memories go back to an orphanage, where he was bullied as a "nigger", then through his life with an adoptive family that had very strict rules and continue with the useless years he has spent sleeping with women, working hard and being miserable and offensive. But the first thing reader knows about him is that he is actually a murderer. All the history is there only to get an understanding of how he has become one.

In my book:
Faulkner writes very well, his narration is captivating and vivid. He deals with some unpleasant psychological and sociological issues very straightforwardly, and certainly gives the reader something to consider. It would be 5 stars if not for my nightmares. I really hate having them :)

July 23, 2013

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov (Review)

Title: The Seagull
Author: Anton Chekhov
First published: 1895
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Rating: ★★★★★

I've read quite a few of Chekhov's works, including short stories, novels and plays, but somehow one of his most famous plays has eluded me. The Seagull was a disaster when first staged, and some years had elapsed before it became popular. The reason for this may be that the structure of the play is too difficult for general public and not everybody could understand it.

The difficulty is that the play features a play. I guess this device is called "play-within-a-play", and I've already encountered it quite recently in A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. Treplev is a young apologist of introducing new forms to the theater and he writes an experimental play that stars his sweetheart Nina, who is idealizing theater and is dreaming of becoming an actress. It is staged in the estate of his mother's brother, on an open-air stage. But the play leaves everybody indifferent, including Treplev's mother, an acclaimed actress. Treplev hopes to find understanding in Nina, but she is too infatuated with Trigorin, a well-known writer who is invited for a summer stay by the host.

After the play everything goes awry: Nina leaves with Trigorin and becomes an actress and his lover, Treplev tries to commit suicide, Sorin, in whose estate everything is happening, is getting ill, Masha, the estate manager's daughter, marries without love, some of the old passions surface, and everything falls apart.

We next see the characters of the play two years later, and I will not describe how it all ends, because it will spoil everything for those who have not read the play, but the ending is very powerful and dramatic. The Seagull throws art and feelings together in such a way that one is uncomprehensible without the other, and both are palpable and equally important for the characters of the play.

In my book:
Chekhov has never disappointed me before, and this play is as astonishing as everything else I have read by him. For those who are not familiar with Chekhov, I have two reasons why you should try him: 1) he is a Russian classic and 2) most of his works are less than 100 pages long, which is a rare virtue in Russian literature :) And he is totally amazing, of course.

July 20, 2013

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Review)

Title: To the Lighthouse
Author: Virginia Woolf
First published: 1927
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Rating: ★★★☆☆

Remember this feeling when you get distracted while reading and can't remember what was on the page you just read and have to read it again from the top? Well, with Virginia Woolf I experience this all the time, although I stay concentrated as hell. Her writing is just soooo hard to follow, although it is beautiful at times, of course.

However, I found this novel much more coherent than Mrs. Dalloway, that I read and reviewed in spring. Maybe prof. Weinstein's lectures from The Fiction of Relationship course helped, but I didn't feel as at a loss after finishing To the Lighthouse as after finishing Mrs. Dalloway.

The book is divided into three parts, the first and the last describing one day in a life of a family in detail, and the second one dealing with the events that happened during the 10-year time elapsed between these days. The Ramsays may be called a happy family, leading a quiet life with their 8 children in a summer house with some lodgers. Mrs. Ramsay is the one the narrative concentrates on, and she is a kind of "world mother", for whom family life is everything. She has learned to manage and sometimes even admire her husband, Mr. Ramsay, who is a philosopher with a terrible need for approval and sympathy from outside. In pretty much the same way she also quietly manages the life of other lodgers, arranging marriages a well as meals.

But everything changes in the household when the war brings terrible changes to their lives: Mrs. Ramsay dies suddenly, leaving the family without her soothing and leading presence, then Prue, the eldest daughter marries and dies in childbirth, and then Andrew, one of the sons, is killed on a battlefield. And all this is quite ruthlessly conveyed to the reader in no more that three phrases hidden in the musings of the second chapter.

But then they come back: Mr. Ramsay, the remaining children and some of the lodgers. And they undertake the trip to the lighthouse that they failed at in the first chapter, 10 years ago. The narrative now follow mainly the thoughts of Lily Briscoe, one of the lodgers, an aspiring painter, who tries to put to the canvas this family, the lighthouse and the meaning of life. A lot has changed in these 10 years, but Mrs. Ramsay is still there, in the house, in the remembrances of the moments she was so good at capturing.

In my book:
Reading Woolf may be very demanding and tiring, but I've discovered that not giving up on her is the best policy, because you get something from her books and they stick with you and haunt you for a long time.

July 17, 2013

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
First published: 1957
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Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Beats of Summer event prompted me to finally pick up On the Road, and I'm happy I've read it, although I'm not sure I'll pick another book by Kerouac any time soon.

I really liked the beginning of the book: the style conveyed the most reckless mood I've ever encountered in literature and it kind of reminded me of my first Europe trips :) But then the farther Sal went from home the crazier things got and the less I enjoyed these nasty episodes. As for the style, it got very incoherent every time Dean appeared on stage, and in some places it was just impossible to understand what was happening and what was the reason for it.

Dean Moriarty is probably the most repulsive and unlikable character I've ever read about. What is there in him to outweigh his horrible attitude to women, his negligence of law, betrayal of his friends and all his addictions? Some original philosophical opinions? Or his energy? That's not enough, to my mind. I understand that he is more of a symbolical, ideological figure, but I can't help thinking how many young people might have taken him as a role model and how bad it might have ended for them.

Unlike Dean, Sal is a good boy, thoughtful of his aunt, his friends, the girls he really cares about and even Dean himself. For him these crazy roams is only a stage in his life, and although he preserves some of Dean's freedom in him, he can still lead a normal life and, I hope, be happy.

In my book:
This kind of literature is important to read, because it defined and formed a generation, but I couldn't either enjoy it as a work of literature or approve of it as a suggestion of a pattern of behaviour and ideological landmark. But anyways, it's always better to know and disapprove than to have no idea about something.

July 9, 2013

The Metamorphosis and A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka

The fifth week of The Fiction of Relationship course was really tough: Kafka is no easy writer to interpret. So this time I waited until I watch the lectures to write my short reviews.

Title: The Metamorphosis
Author: Franz Kafka
First published: 1912
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I've read The Metamorphosis before, or rather listened to it, and, strangely enough, in Spanish. I didn't really give it a thought, I just decided it was creepy (no pun intended :)) and Kafka was a crazy guy. This second reading was much more profound, and the story shocked me with how thought-provoking it is. Really, what is to be done if you are turned into a bug? How is family to react to this? Maybe he was a bug all along, considering the life he lead? And the story is not only about the problem of a terminal illness of a family member, but also about general loneliness, inability to communicate and selfishness of people. Professor Weinstein also suggests father-son problems here, and if you know Kafka's relationship with his own father, it is really a very plausible reading too. This is a story everyone should read, if only to challenge yourself to find all the meanings it has, the task a lot of scientists have only tackled for a century.

Title: A Country Doctor
Author: Franz Kafka
First published: 1918
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It is even more difficult to make sense of A Country Doctor than of The Metamorphosis. The plot follows the logic of a dream and needs a Freudian interpretation, which allows to connect different parts of a dream to reinforce one meaning. Moreover, it investigates the relationship between a doctor and his patients: a patient sees a doctor as a priestly figure and expects miracles from him, but a doctor is sometimes unable to do anything or even understand the cause of an ailment even if he puts himself in the patient's place.

Now I'm opening Nabokov's lectures to read his interpretation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Really, I have never needed so much critical writings/lectures to get to the core of a book. And I rather like it! :)

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