I have been reading a collection of novellas and short stories by the German Nobel-laureate Thomas Mann for quite some time, and I am bored out of my mind! I bought this book because of the reputation of the novella Death in Venice. That was the first story featured in this volume, and it took me several days of forced labor to get through. I still have six and a half stories to get through, and I don’t know if I can do it. Perhaps its an issue of translation watering down the writing. Maybe the author’s reputation simply raised my expectations too high. I might have chosen the wrong book with which to acquaint myself with Mann. Whatever the reason, you can expect Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories to remain in my currently reading sidebar for quite some time. For now, I am going to retreat to the Swiss-German author I know won’t disappoint, Hermann Hesse.
I intentionally chose a shorter work for my most recent book, as I hoped its brevity might help kickstart my pace and revive my flagging hopes of succeeding in the challenge. Kahlil Gibran‘s The Madman certainly accomplished that. The book is roughly 75 pages long, but has so much simple beauty and wisdom crammed into those pages that it feels as if I have finished a philosophical tome of epic length. Narrated by the titular madman, this book is a collection of parables and poems that remind me of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Hesse’s Steppenwolf.
This book is short by necessity. Any longer would be too much. As it is, I could not put down the book as soon as I began reading. If you are in a ponderous mood and want a book that inspires reflection, The Madman is an excellent choice. This is the second work by Gibran that I have ever read (the other being The Prophet earlier this year), and I am hooked. I recently purchased a single volume that has ten of his books in it, and look forward to reading them all. I will leave you with one of the short selections from The Madman.
In the ancient days, when the first quiver of speech came to my lips, I ascended the holy mountain and spoke unto God, saying, “Master, I am thy slave. Thy hidden will is my law and I shall obey thee for ever more.”
But God made no answer, and like a mighty tempest passed away.
And after a thousand years I ascended the holy mountain and again spoke unto God, saying, “Creator, I am thy creation. Out of clay hast thou fashioned me and to thee I owe mine all.”
And God made no answer, but like a thousand swift wings passed away.
And after a thousand years I climbed the holy mountain and spoke unto God again, saying, “Father, I am thy son. In pity and love thou hast given me birth, and through love and worship I shall inherit thy kingdom.”
And God made no answer, and like the mist that veils the distant hills he passed away.
And after a thousand years I climbed the sacred mountain and again spoke unto God, saying, “My God, my aim and my fulfillment; I am thy yesterday and thou are my tomorrow. I am thy root in the earth and thou art my flower in the sky, and together we grow before the face of the sun.”
Then God leaned over me, and in my ears whispered words of sweetness, and even as the sea that enfoldeth a brook that runneth down to her, he enfolded me.
And when I descended to the valleys and the plains God was there also.
The Current Count:
54 Read, 46 To Go
It has been a hectic few weeks, with returning to work and welcoming students back to school, but I have finally finished another book. The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Plutarch’s Greek Lives contains a selection of nine lives ranging from the ancient lawgivers Lycurgus and Solon to the inimitable Alexander. Plutarch’s aim is not careful history, but moral biography. He focuses less on the great events in the lives of these men and more on anecdotes that illustrate their character. Plutarch has a remarkable talent as a storyteller. His lives are captivating and informative, containing historical gems that have not survived from any other sources. Although he wrote in the late first and early second centuries, he relies on many sources contemporary to his subjects. Many of these eminent ancients have faded from the common memory. Plutarch’s works serve to preserve the examples of these men for future generations. I particularly enjoyed the lives of Alcibiades and Alexander. My only caution about this book is that it can take a bit to get into, especially when you are trying to clean and decorate a classroom and craft lesson plans before the barbarian hordes return.
The Current Count:
53 Read, 47 To Go
It’s that time again– school starts tomorrow. I spent the past week sitting through in-service and frantically cleaning, organizing, and decorating my classroom. Needless to say, my reading pace has suffered. I am part of the way through two books, and hope to finish them soon. After a week or so things should settle down and my reading should get back on track. As I return to the jungle that is teaching high school (Speech and Debate this year instead of English), I offer you this video. It features a then-unknown Jim Carrey lip synching Guns’n’Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” in the movie “Dead Pool”. Enjoy!
I was struck by the urge to read some Hemingway a few days ago and settled on A Farewell to Arms. While I have read The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls a handful of times each, I had only read A Farewell to Arms once. I had forgotten what an amazing book this is.
A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer with an Italian ambulance unit in World War I. Henry meets Catherine Barkley, a British nurse, and the two begin a relationship. Henry is severely wounded by a trench mortar and is sent to Milan for medical treatment. Catherine manages to get transferred to the hospital where Henry is being treated. Although Henry intended for the romance to serve only as a diversion, the two quickly fall in love. Catherine gets pregnant and Henry promises to stay with her forever. Following his recovery, he is again dispatched to the front lines. The Italian army suffers a major defeat and Henry deserts in the confusion of retreat after narrowly escaping execution by several Italian soldiers who thought he might be a German spy due to his accent. After returning to Milan, Henry and Catherine make their way into neutral Switzerland. They lead a happy life there until Catherine goes into labor. The child is stillborn and Catherine dies from a series of hemorrhages. Henry is left alone to walk back to the hotel in the rain.
Many of Hemingway’s books have less than happy endings, but this one is particularly heartbreaking. Henry has had his faith in everything shattered by the brutality and senselessness of the war. His only source of comfort and peace is his love for Catherine. The personal tragedy that he suffers somehow manages to dwarf the massive tragedy of the World War. This was the book that cemented Hemingway’s status as a truly great writer, and the reasons are clear. His terse prose perfectly captures the inhumanity of war and the emptiness it leaves inside of the participants. It is so easy to see deaths in war as numbers on a page, but Henry’s personal tragedy reminds us of how important a single life can be to another human being. Even knowing from the start how it will end, this book breaks your heart. For Whom the Bell Tolls is still my favorite Hemingway book, but A Farewell to Arms runs a very close second.
The Current Count:
52 Read, 48 To Go
After nearly two weeks of toil, I finally completed Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum last night. I enjoyed this book very much but it took a lot of effort to get through it. Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, and his erudition is dazzling. There is so much information packed on every page that it can be difficult to generate momentum.
Foucault’s Pendulum tells the story of three editors at a Milanese publishing firm. The firm begins publishing a series of books on the occult, with submitted manuscripts ranging from the Templars to the Illuminati. The three friends begin using a computer to generate random connections between the various conspiracies proposed by their authors, building a completely fictional conspiracy. The creation of their fictional plan becomes a game for the editors, taking up more and more of their time. Eventually they become somewhat obsessed by their game. This isn’t a real problem until a group of occultists catches wind of the fictional plot and doesn’t realize the fiction. I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say the editors run into a bit of trouble thanks to the occultists.
The thing that distinguishes Foucault’s Pendulum from the many other conspiracy based thrillers is the irony. Three men who don’t believe in conspiracies eventually become consumed by a fictional one, and a group of people devoted to finding secret conspiracies don’t accept that the fictional plan is really fictional. Instead of encouraging conspiracy theorists, Eco is highlighting the pointlessness of seeking out conspiracies. Foucault’s Pendulum is like The Da Vinci Code, if Dan Brown didn’t take himself so seriously. Foucault’s Pendulum predates the Dan Brown craze by more than ten years, and Eco is less than fond of Brown. In fact, Eco has stated that “Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.” Ouch. If you like thrillers and appreciate that conspiracies generally don’t really exist, Foucault’s Pendulum is a good choice.
The Current Count:
51 Read, 49 To Go
Fifty books… Not too shabby! I am still a bit behind schedule, but am certain that I will get to one hundred. For the first time, I don’t have more books left to read than already read! I have kept my choices fairly diverse and have an average book length of 241 pages. My target is an average of 250 when the challenge is over. At the 25-book mark I ranked my top five books, and will now rank my top ten. Once again, this is a very subjective list and does not mean that I think Nikos Kazantzakis is a better or more important writer than William Shakespeare. These are simply the ten books I enjoyed the most over the past seven months, and think my readers might enjoy also.
THE TOP TEN (SO FAR)
The quintessential Cold War spy story, replacing the glitz and glamor of James Bond with the grit of the real world. Le Carre’s story of a washed up spy used as a pawn in power politics is surprisingly poignant. This book is absolutely a modern classic.
This story of perseverance and determination in the face of unspeakable hardship is a beautiful piece of writing. It tells the story of four urban men on a canoe trip gone horribly wrong. Intense and engaging, frightening and vivid. One of the best psychological thrillers I have ever read.
#8: The War of the Roses Tetralogy by William Shakespeare
Consisting of Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III, the War of the Roses tetralogy is an outstanding example of Shakespeare’s dramatic prowess. All of the plays are very enjoyable, but Richard III is definitely the best. Read all four of them to get the entire story.
Kesey’s novel about the inner workings of an insane asylum is one of the most disturbing but inspiring books I have ever read. The book features anti-hero Randle Patrick McMurphy, one of the great modern literary figures. Read the book, watch the movie, and thank God for whatever dash of sanity you possess.
McCarthy is an author with a tremendous reputation in modern literature. I am happy to say that this book lived up to McCarthy’s fame. Telling the story of Cornelius Suttree and his band of homeless associates, Suttree is a darkly humorous look at humanity from the underside.
Vonnegut’s heartbreaking story of Howard Campbell is both humorous and depressing. Through subtle wit, Vonnegut reminds us that the person we present to the world is the person we are, whether we realize it or not. Read it and remember the value of sincerity in everyday life.
This book was the first one I read this year and remains one of my favorites. It follows Oleg Kostoglotov as he undergoes treatment for cancer in a Soviet hospital. At once an examination of the harsh nature of Soviet rule and a look at the frailty of all existence, this book is not easily forgotten.
Described as Kazantzakis’ fictionalized autobiography, Greco is one of the most honest spiritual confessions I have ever read. The author presents his intellectual and spiritual development for all to see. His descriptions are beautiful and his philosophy is sincere. This is not a book to casually read. It is a book to savor.
Gibran’s slender volume about a fictional prophet preaching a final sermon before departing a village is more like poetry than simple prose. The philosophy espoused by the titular prophet is one of inclusion and love. We all would do well to take his words to heart.
And at last, the number one book from the first fifty…
I admit it, I have a minor obsession with Kazantzakis. Zorba presents the classic struggle between spirit and intellect, with the titular Zorba representing the wildness within us all. Stunning in its originality, this book will make you both laugh and cry out at the strictures society has placed on our individual spirits.
I hope you enjoyed the list! You can check out the list of all fifty here. If you don’t agree with my rankings, feel free to comment!
Halfway done! Last night I finished my fiftieth book of the year, Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. I am still about eight books behind schedule, but definitely still have time to get to the hundred mark before the end of the year. In the next day or two I will post my top ten list out of the books I have tackled so far.
I have previously read Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and The Sirens of Titan. I love Vonnegut’s dark humor and apparent nonchalance. I am also a long-time science fiction nerd, so these other books were doubly enjoyable to me. That said, Mother Night might be my favorite Vonnegut book. It has no elements of science fiction, but is so intelligently written that it is irresistible.
Mother Night is presented as the memoir of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell is writing his story in the days leading up to his trial as a war criminal in Israel. Campbell is an American who emigrated to Germany with his parents shortly after World War I. He becomes a moderately successful playwright and marries a beautiful German actress. As World War II looms, Campbell is approached by Frank Wirtanen, an American spymaster. Wirtanen tries to convince Campbell to climb as high as possible into the Nazi propaganda machine, from whence he will broadcast secret messages to the Allies. Wirtanen tells Campbell that no response is needed, the Allies will know by the jobs he takes during the war if he is on their side. Campbell becomes a broadcaster of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, using changes in his pace and inflection to send messages to the Allies. He becomes one of the most hated members of the Nazi regime. After the war, the US can’t openly claim Campbell, so he must live a life of obscurity. His cover is ultimately blown and he is taken to Israel to be tried for his complicity in the Holocaust.
I cannot praise this book enough. It features all of the best elements of Vonnegut’s writing. His trademark wit is on full display, and the irony of Campbell’s situation is heartbreaking. I intentionally didn’t go into much detail about the events in his life following the war. In order to fully appreciate the message, you have to read it for yourself. It is short and reads very quickly. In a brief introduction, Vonnegut states that “This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it is a marvelous moral, I just happen to know what it is.” I would disagree with Mr. Vonnegut on that point. It is a marvellous moral. In his words, the moral of the story is “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” If the humor, wit, irony, and heartbreak aren’t enough to convince you, then read this book for that moral.
The Current Count:
50 Read, 50 To Go