Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for the sympathies that ye have shown!
Thanks for each kindly word, each silent token,
That teaches me, when seeming most alone,
Friends are around us, though no word be spoken.

Kind messages, that pass from land to land;
Kind letters, that betray the heart’s deep history,
In which we feel the pressure of a hand,–
One touch of fire,–and all the rest is mystery!

The pleasant books, that silently among
Our household treasures take familiar places,
And are to us as if a living tongue
Spice from the printed leaves or pictured faces!

Perhaps on earth I never shall behold,
With eye of sense, your outward form and semblance;
Therefore to me ye never will grow old,
But live forever young in my remembrance!

From “Dedication” by H. W. Longfellow

Unreviewed Books – 2021

So… it’s nearing the end of the year (how?!), and there’s quite a few books I never got around to properly reviewing for various reasons. I have today off, so I thought I’d just go through some of them and give short reviews for each:

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki

Three Summers (1946) was the Greek novel my reading buddy Blaz and I chose for our “Reading the World” challenge. It follows the lives of three sisters—Maria, Infanta, and Katarina—coming of age in Greece between the wars. Maria is boy crazy, Infanta is horse crazy, and Katarina wants to see the world. 😉 The novel is beautifully written, even creatively, with changing first/third person perspective and questionable reliability of the narrator. My main problem with it is that the author builds up a lot of plotlines and characters, then it sort of fizzles out towards the end. That didn’t work well for this family drama IMO, and I felt a bit shortchanged by the ending.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Another NYRB classic! I got this on ebook from my library, and I wish I had bought it instead. Chess Story (1943) starts out as a comedic tale of some passengers on a ship trying to put an arrogant chess master in his place. When one of the passengers turns out to be a serious contender against the champion, the story takes a dark twist when we find out why this man is so insanely good at chess. It’s been a while since I read a book which touched me so deeply and yet maintains a strong charm from start to ending. I want to find more books by Zweig, and I would already like to reread this novella as well. In three words: funny, tragic, and tantalizing.

The Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris

I struggle to find a way to describe this novel, our choice for Guyana. Broadly speaking, The Palace of the Peacock (1960) is about a rather sinister man called Donne leading a group of men on a trip down the river searching for a changing target (at first a woman—or place?—named Mariella, and then “the folk”). However, Harris uses a fluid timeline and set of events to such an extent that the only way to describe it is “dream-like.” You don’t know exactly when things are happening or even if characters are alive or just ghosts. The closest thing I could compare it to is Virginia Woolf’s The Waves—in the sense of feeling anchorless (no pun intended)—but at the same time, it’s very different from The Waves, too. I really struggled in the first 2/3 or so, but towards the end there was some beautiful Christian symbolism that won me over, and the ending was spectacular. I still don’t know exactly what Harris was trying to say—let alone whether he meant for the Christian symbolism to be so impactful—but it was a unique reading experience and a book I may very well read again in the future. Not sure if I can recommend it to everyone, though; as with Woolf, you really have to read it more like poetry than prose. Lastly, I’ll just mention that there’s a Heart of Darkness connection, so as soon as I reread HoD, I’m going to try to see if I can compare the two.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My brother Nigel and I were stoked to read The Secret History (1992), which is the “cult classic,” if you will, of the dark academia movement. It’s also a murder mystery told in reverse—from the beginning, we know who was killed and whodunnit. The story covers the events and relationships leading up to the event, centered around an eccentric group of students who study Greek at a college in scenic Vermont. For me, it started out well enough—I loved the descriptions of the college—but the more it went on, the less I could stand it. My favorite character was Bunny, for all his faults (and they were many), and the rest of the characters disgusted and bored me beyond tolerance. The plot and prose, likewise, failed to check any boxes for me, and the book is mostly devoid of the kind of introspection and moral examination you might get from, say, Crime and Punishment. Once Bunny was out of the picture, it was really hard for me to read… I actually gave up at 83%, in sight of the ending, too (it’s 559 pages!). I am glad I made an attempt, but I have to say this was one of the worst books I’ve ever read (sorry, Nigel :/ ). A lot of my Goodreads friends liked it as well, so don’t take my word for it—give it a try, if you like!

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Seeing Red (2012) is a novel from Chile, and that’s about the best thing I can say about it. 😆 The story is interesting enough—it follows a young woman who goes partially blind and has to adjust to her a new lifestyle. There is also commentary on her identity as a Chilean in America and as a Chilean in Chile, neither of which seems to bring her peace. These would all have been fascinating topics by another author, but Meruane’s novel (partly autobiographical) is relentlessly negative. The main character seems to despise everybody and everything, except her boyfriend whom she just about worships. Between horrifying medical descriptions and gratuitously gross sex descriptions, I was in danger of seeing red myself… The ending was the cherry on top of a very disturbing sundae.

Panorama by Dušan Šarotar

Panorama (2016) is a Slovenian book about history, immigrants, time, and much more. It’s more autofiction than novel—Šarotar writes of his travels in different places in Europe, the people he meets along the way, and the places (and weather) that leave an impression upon him. Like W. G. Sebald, he supplements his writing with black-and-white photographs which help elaborate his narrative but also shed other angles on what he is telling the reader. (A bittersweet anecdote about some students, for example, is juxtaposed with a photo of the students smiling as if carefree.) The passing of time, the personal impact of historical events, and the ambiguity of relationships are some of the major themes. This book begs for a slower paced reading, a pace which (as Blaz observed) seems to purposefully reject the kind of fast-paced media we consume today. I really enjoyed the author’s commentary on technology and social media. This is a book you have to be in the right mood to read–and it is very slow— but it holds some real gems of scenes for those who will take the time.

Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther

This was an impromptu readalong with a Discord friend. In spite of an in-depth Christian education, I hadn’t actually read the 95 Theses (1517) before, so we pulled up a copy online and went down the list… Rather than being a manifesto or creed, the Theses are really just a critique of the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences—specifically, money paid to the church by people wish to ease or remove their relatives’ sufferings in Purgatory. As such, it’s not an anti-Catholic document per se, and Luther is largely careful to not call out the Pope himself (towards the end of the Theses, he frames his critiques as a hypothetical third party!). The indulgences Luther was criticizing reminded me and my friend of prosperity gospel messaging. Other than it, it definitely seemed like a document specific to the situation, and not something you’d use to get a full picture of Luther’s beliefs. I will say, it made me appreciate the Reformation a bit more, having this new insight on some of the problems the Church had. Based on the 95 Theses, I did not get the sense that Luther wanted to abolish the established Church (at least at the time) but to correct its flaws. However, it does have his signature fiery personality, and there were one or two phrases that left me shaking my head…

The Great Gatsby – Musings and Memories

Curled up in my oversized chair, I plied the pages of The Great Gatsby… at times smiling over some witticism, at other times choking back tears. The tragedy of false hopes, shapeless dreams, and empty materialism was getting to me. Was this novel really that “great” (pardon the pun), or was I just getting older and sentimental?

I hadn’t planned to read it this year, but when Stephen said he was rereading it for the Classics Club challenge, I jumped at the chance of a readalong. It was a revisit for both of us. I first read The Great Gatsby in 2015, nearly seven years ago. At the time, I gave it a middling 3.5 stars.

“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

My ties with the story go back further, though, to the release of the 2013 film. I mostly ignored the hype, except for my would-be boyfriend sending me Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” It was fitting, though perhaps not in the way he intended… I never cared for the lyrics, but the melody haunts me still.

When I finally got around to reading Gatsby, I thought I had matured. I was impressed, but with a sense of detachment. These were selfish characters, vastly removed from me in their lofty 1920s microcosm of parties, alcohol, and general debauchery. The book was interesting, even touching, but I didn’t love it. I certainly didn’t learn from it.

After all, what did I have in common with Daisy, the southern debutante who falls for a poor soldier but marries the comfortably wealthy, shockingly cruel Tom Buchanan? Or Jay Gatsby, the title character, whose mysterious mansion across the water from Daisy’s is the site of endless parties and frivolity?

Nick, the protagonist, comes to West Egg, New York—home of the nouveau riche—with much the same feeling of detachment. He soon discovers his neighbor Gatsby has moved to the area with the dream of winning back his young love, Daisy. Gatsby believes that now he is a “somebody,” with wealth and prestige, he can reverse the past and be reunited with her. Too little, too late…

His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.

Eventually I watched the film and hated it. Well, the second half was pretty good, but the first half was so crass as to make it nearly unwatchable. In spite of any book quotations, the movie, in my opinion, completely missed Fitzgerald’s poetry. Because nobody writes heartache like Fitzgerald. The substance of The Great Gatsby delves deeper than the surface-level bawdiness and riches which the film emphasizes (arguably, given the sudden popularity of 20s-themed parties). The novel, rather, pushes that aside to expose the things every human being wants—being loved, understood, and needed.

I should have first read it as a cautionary tale. As a murder mystery, a dark comedy, and a tale of horror. That’s how I read it this time. Every strained scene, every painfully oblique conversation added to a general feeling of dread, even though I knew what was coming.

Gatsby’s futile desire to rewrite the outcome of his past is symbolized by the green light coming from Daisy and Tom’s house. He stares towards it at night, dreaming of his happy reunion. In short, he’s crazy… drunk on nostalgia. I can say that with conviction because in the years since that first reading, I carried my own “green light” which failed as spectacularly as Gatsby’s, though thankfully not with such dire consequences. Still… if I had “gotten” the novel the first time, could all of that have been prevented? Maybe.

But the book does not try to sermonize. It’s simply Nick Carraway’s recollections of a tragic friend and neighbor.

I’ll just end by saying I felt more empathetic towards Daisy this time. There was much more to her than “spoiled rich girl.” Her fidelity to Tom, her lack of drinking, and most of all, her ultimate decisiveness lent a weight to her character I didn’t notice before. Not saying she’s particularly likeable, but we can be quick to take Jay’s side while forgetting that a woman in this time period, in spite of her wealth, was in a position to make few choices. On some level, I understood her forging ahead in life and owning up to her decisions. Jay should have respected her more than he did.

5 stars this time, and recommended.

The Give Thanks for Books Tag

Saw this tag over at Rachel’s blog, and I really liked the theme and questions. Here’s my take on it—I made a video of my answers (soon to be uploaded to my YouTube channel) and also wrote them down below. If you’d like to do it, too, consider yourself one of my four friends tagged!

The Rules:

1. Thank the person who tagged you. – Thanks Rachel for creating the tag!
2. Fill out the tag.
3. Share the tag graphic in your post.
4. Tag four friends.
5. Provide a clean copy of the tag for easy copying.

G — A book you’re Grateful to a friend for recommending:
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Julia on Goodreads); The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (Blaz)

I — A book that fires your Imagination:
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

V — A book with a Vivid setting:
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

E — An Encouraging book:
Spiritual Writings by Søren Kierkegaard

T — A book that Taught you something:
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

H — A Happy book:
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

A — An Amusing book:
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

N — A New-to-you book or author you discovered this year:
Hermann Hesse

K — A fictional character you feel a Kinship with:
Prince Myshkin from The Idiot

S — A book you want to Share with others:
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Clean copy:

G — A book you’re Grateful to a friend for recommending
I — A book that fires your Imagination
— A book with a Vivid setting
E — An Encouraging book
T — A book that Taught you something
H — A Happy book
A — An Amusing book
N — A New-to-you book or author you discovered this year
K — A fictional character you feel a Kinship with
S — A book you want to Share with others