Saturday, July 19, 2014

War and Peace Book Review

Beyond the panoramic Battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, the muffled burning of Moscow and Napoleon’s dilapidated retreat, Tolstoy in War and Peace painted the Napoleonic War’s dislodging the cast of characters from their apparel concerns, gossipy sorties, troubled marriages and career ambitions and through their social clumsiness, oppressive ideals, spiritual dullness and determined naivete, extorted their unavoidable responses to these tidal waves.

While Napoleon sought to drive history’s course through his lashing will and reining determination by marching onto Moscow, Kutuzov by sensing and attuning to the historical current tactically retreated beyond Moscow and after the Napoleonic army’s natural dissipation trailed its chaotic retreat. Tolstoy, who believed historical crosswinds to be too complicated for any Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan to align, favored Kutuzov’s naturalistic craftsmanship and through Pierre, applied it to personal destiny.

French Retreat from Russia by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov

After his wife had left him, Pierre’s clumsy and sometimes-comic search for meaning led him to freemasonry, whose esoteric philosophy failed to pave a new path beyond the thorns and thistles. Although he accepted life storms serenely, his what for and so what would continue to harass him until he met Karataev, who showed him the life unified to the land, the sea and the air and harmonious with their rhythms¾a mystical naturalism favored by Tolstoy. However, at the novel’s conclusion, our hero’s life as a conscientious nobleman, a contributing intelligentsia and an accommodating family man, perhaps a sign that age would squander aspirations and the years would sap physical and emotional energy, smelled of defeat to his previous pilgrimage.

The Battle of Austerlitz by François Gérard 

On the other hand, Andrei’s escaping from marriage, career and the mundane drudgery, and impulsively grasping after the wintry Polaris led to the battlefield where he almost died. Although Natasha’s love provided respite, her unfaithfulness confirmed his suspicion of an earthly Eden. In the end, even though he had forgiven her, he gave up that love for the ultimate rainbow, death, wherein he finally could rest. If he had not died, he probably would have been disillusioned by his love for Natasha.


It is sad that Andrei had given up youth, love and the possibilities of life, but it is equally sad that Pierre had decayed into a Nikolai Rostov after his courageous journey through what for and so what. Must we like the samurai commit seppuku to immortalize youth, vitality, creativity and aspiration so as not to decay into a grumpy and lecherous old man or a jealous and nagging old woman? Tolstoy’s determinism would dictate that Pierre would ultimately return to the natural cycle of birth, growth, education, career, marriage, procreation, contribution, decay and death. But whether we agree with Tolstoy or not, War and Peace would continue to tower above the greatest novels.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

1984 Book Review: The Ultimate Dystopian Novel

"Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four."

Under Big Brother’s omniscient eyes, Winston Smith tried to ignite his only freedom, the freedom to believe in "obvious" truths, but by the novel’s end, at the café Winston was unsure what two plus two would make, a sign that O’Brien had successfully reintegrated a "lost soul" and Winston had become like his friends and neighbors, unable to question and thus unable to revolt. What sends shivers down our spines is not the various tortures O’Brien performed, but after these tortures, Winston’s total capitulation¾mind, body, and soul¾to Big Brother. When the mind kowtows to external authority and ceases to reflect and question, then the individual had successfully metamorphosed into a machine.

Winston, by editing previous documents to conform to Oceana’s present position, such as whether Eurasia is friend or foe, had helped the regime’s guardians, who like O’Brien believed "who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past," mold the citizens’ minds. But Oceana, like other totalitarian regimes, also turned to the indispensable tool, fear, to chisel its citizens’ minds and hearts to its agenda’s shape and form. To stimulate fear and rouse its citizens to a common cause, it would when necessary create fathom enemies, either Eurasia or Eastasia, even though these totalitarian regimes also had similar ideologies, or rather, like Oceana, no ideologies.

Oceania Society

Under 1984’s dystopian sky, Winston must bow, not only because of Big Brother’s overwhelming power and presence, but also because of Winston’s inability to form any ideologies. Even though he wanted to think freely, he lacked the training and thus the analytical mind to counter O’Brien’s offenses. In the end, his mind followed the path of least resistance.

George Orwell

Orwell’s 1984 is a dark apocalypse of sub-human society where homo-sapiens had replaced machines to operate an efficient hierarchy, an apocalypse which any people would usher wherever and whenever they ceased to question "intuitively obvious truths."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut through humor jabs at science, religion, and government. Bokonon, founder of the religion Bokononism, stated, “If I were younger, I would write a history of human stupidity…” A summary of Vonnegut’s theme in this novel.

Cat's Cradle

When the narrator John sets out to write a book about what important people were doing during the Hiroshima bombing, he begins a journey into human destruction. Through the children of Felix Hoenikker, a co-founder of the atomic bomb, he learns of the mad genius of this nuclear physicist. And stumbles upon the man’s invention, ice-nine, a substance when in contact with water changes it to ice. Like the atomic bomb Vonnegut was alluding, ice-nine can destroy the world. Indeed, it did, changing the seas and oceans into ice, killing anyone whose lips touches it. That potential for human destruction has only increased since Vonnegut wrote the novel. We no longer doubt that we can tilt the earth’s axis, contaminate our food and water, and change the earth’s climates.

The Possibilities of Ice-Nine

When John travels to San Lorenzo, a Caribbean island, he learns about Bokononism, a religion of absurdity and contradictory wisdom, invented by Bokonon, born Lionel Boyd Johnson, a friend of US Marine deserter Earl McCabe, who found the nation of San Lorenzo. Its nihilistic and anti-religious wisdom gives the natives the illusion of hope that they needed so much to endure their poverty, illiteracy and suffering. Absurdity: the government has banned the religion but the dictator practices it. Absurdity: the nation’s official religion is Christianity, but everyone practices Bokononism. Absurdity: Bokonon, the founder of the religion, advised the ruler to ban the religion to instill the people’s fervor for the belief. Indeed, Bokononism succeeds in what institutionalized religions should do: give people hope what reality is too difficult to bear.

San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo is not much different from other banana republic. Colonialists came upon the natives and took over the land. They set up a government and imposed their religion, language, and values. They left or died off, leaving room for a dictator to seize power and oppress the people. The dictator allies himself with a superpower and can do whatever he wants within his country. But of interest here: the dictator “Papa” Monzano’s ice-nine frozen body drops into the ocean to destroy San Lorenzo and the rest of the world. A symbol that even after he had died, he still could wreck havoc.


Cat’s Cradle is Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian novel. His humor only adds to the novel’s poignancy. The theme is as relevant today as when it was written decades. In trying to advance civilization through science, religion and government, we may instead destroy it. A vision worth considering.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X



When Yasuko Hanaoka’s ex-husband shows up to exhort money, she and her daughter kill him. Her neighbor Tetsuya Ishigami, a high school math teacher, volunteers to help dispose of the body and divert the police’s attention. What results is a scheme to deceive the police into solving the wrong crime.

A dead body whose face is smashed to hide the identity shows up near the river and Detective Kusanagi must identify the murder and find the perpetrator. On reaching a dead end, he solicits his friend and schoolmate, physics professor Dr. Manabu Yukawa, to sift through the clues and red herrings. Thus, pinning the two masterminds against each other.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, Ishigami and Yukawa try to outwit each other in this cops and robbers game. What Yukawa couldn’t fathom is the depth in which Ishigami is willing to devote himself to and ultimately sacrifice for Yasuko. This mystery is among the handful of mystery novels whose plots surprise me. And though I wish the key characters have more depth, the plot more than compensates for that flaw and the sparse prose pushes the plot along without extraneous verbiage. Smart and powerful. I almost wish Ishigami could triumph over Yukawa.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Albert Camus's The Stranger

Meursault, an alien not of France or Algeria but of the world, shot the Arab and after the man had fallen, pumped four more bullets into the body. The sun made him do it just as if El Nino toppled the financial markets and urge disgruntle employees to shoot their colleagues and managers. He showed the same nonchalance toward a possible promotion, his mother’s death, his making love with Marie the first time, his neighbor Salamano’s beating the dog, and his friend Raymond’s beating his wife as toward killing the Arab. During the trial, contrary the social convention he offered no convincing motive and refused to defend himself against he crime.

To prevent him from contaminating society, from spreading meaninglessness and detachment to others, the jury found him guilty of callousness and condemned him to death for being a stranger to his mother, his lover, his friends, moral codes, social norms, and cultural conventions.
Arzew, Algeria

For the generation after WWII, for the survivors after the stench of Hitler and Stalin and the taste of Aushwitz, Nanjing and Hiroshima, what could be more seductive than embracing absurdity and thrashing humanity?

Nineteenth century optimism had crashed into a stonewall; utopia had metamorphosed into the Holocaust; the unlimited possibilities of reason, science and humanity had created the machine guns, the gas chambers, and the atomic bombs. Stranger, welcome to the brave new world!

The Guillotine

Just as a starving child would ignore Zeno’s problem or Fermat’s Last Theorem, so a stranger would neglect the alien faces and tunes, desiring to smell his home soil, to shake his kinsmen’s hands and to hug his "ground of being." In an absurd world, moral, social and cultural contracts would appear frivolous and irrelevant, and those who had feasted upon absurdity may view the world with a different pair of colored glasses and appreciate the Meursault’s methodic actions and orderly world.

When you are among lunatics accusing you of being insane, can you maintain your sanity? What is absurdity but a relative evaluation based on preconceived and accepted norms. Who really is the stranger in the world, Meursault or Marie or the prosecutor or the magistrate or the chaplain?

Albert Camus

In The Stranger, a must-read to understand one view of the human predicament, Camus depicted the post-modern mileau where the Holocaust had dethroned and demythologized reason and science and the mutual critique among various claims to truth and meaning¾religion, politics, science, etc¾would result in a pluralism of absurdities that would provide new insights to humanity.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Miyuki Miyabe’s All She’s Worth

While Police Detective Shunsuke Honma is on leave after he injured his leg, a distant relative of his late wife appears and asks for help. His fiancée Shoko Sekine has disappeared after a bank rejected her application for a credit card, revealing her past bankruptcy.

Tokyo

Honma’s investigation reveals the woman’s descent into debt, a common problem in Japan’s consumer driven economy. But soon he finds out the fiancée might have murdered the real Shoko Sekine and taken over the woman’s identity. When he digs out the imposter’s background, he realizes that her family’s financial problems had driven her to assume the new identity.


Though the pace is slow and parts of the novel can be taken out without much loss, the search for the identities and backgrounds of the two women is interesting. But what really holds the story together is the problem associated with debt-driven consumer-oriented economy, the common link between the two women, the real and the fake Shoko Sekine. The desire to escape from debt, driving their lives to the sad ending. The issue is as relevant today as it was in the 1990’s.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit

“Hell is other people.” What if hell is not an inferno but being trapped in a room with people who judge and condemn you? In Sartre’s play No Exit, three condemned souls must stay with each other for all eternity, watching, condemning, torturing one another. Garcin seeks understanding from Inez for deserting the army but only receives her judgment. Estelle, who killed her newborn baby and caused her lover to commit suicide, seeks Garcin’s affection to define who she is, but only receives his snub. Inez tries to seduce Estelle, but only scares the latter. They seek redemption through others but only receive condemnation. For Sartre, that is the picture of hell, and hell exists not in the afterlife but here in this life.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The most poignant moment in the play is when the door is opened, but Garcin doesn’t leave the room to escape his hell. He remains to persuade Inez to accept his cowardice, his betrayal of his country and his wife. This is Sartre’s vision of the contemporary person, unable or perhaps unwilling to escape his hell for fear of taking on the responsibility of defining his own person. As Erich Fromm has said, freedom can be frightening when we have to accept the responsibilities associated with that freedom. Ultimately, for Sartre, hell is when others, friends and family, career and leisure, society and culture, religion and government, define who we are.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir

Saturday, May 31, 2014

All Quiet on the Western Front: Book Review

Remarque's Modern Classic on the Horror of War


The horror of poisoned skin and flesh, mangled arms and legs, whistling shells, hopeless moans, and ubiquitous filth complemented the sterile wall between Paul Baumer and his father and mother and sister when he was on leave. The war had destroyed his youth and any hunger for sunlight, twitter and soft skin. When he turned the schoolbook pages, he realized all the texts’ fragrances sweet or pungent had fled into the misty dawn. His past had fallen away and his future withered, leaving him in a limbo of body parts, scorched earth and bomb fragments. Only when he returned to the trenches could he feel at home. But when he looked into the enemy’s eyes, he would see himself, a soldier fighting for a country that would no longer recognize him, a future that would expel him, and a new generation who could not understand him.

W.W.I. Trench

    Remarque depicted not just the horror of W.W.I but that of all wars, no matter how noble and inspiring the rhetoric. Whichever side triumphs, the soldiers on both side will lose; he will lose his youth, his innocence and his belief in human decency. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the, if not the, greatest war novel.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thoughts on Bram Stoker's Dracula

In Dracula, Bram Stoker, amid the rising demand for women's equality, tried to portray Mina as the new breed of woman who has "come of age." She is an assistant schoolmistress and therefore might not have to depend on a man. She could use the typewriter and therefore sought to better herself. But in the end, she subordinates herself to Harker and only seeks to support him with her skills. Her mentality confines her to be a "proper" lady in Victorian England. So, she remains the ideal for the nineteenth century man, who seeks a wife to support him in his enterprises. Furthermore, Stoker portrayed all the other female characters, Lucy and the "Brides of Dracula," as objects of sensuality. So, the spirits of the times confined Stoker's vision of women even as he sought to be more enlightened and through his novel, he reflected much of that period's cultural norms.

Vlad the Impaler

Stoker's portrayal of Dracula reflects the fear of "enlightened" Western Europe toward the "unenlightened" world. During the period just before W.W.I., Europeans were worshipping reason and science as the golden fruits of Enlightenment and they believed in the unlimited potentials of mankind. They had not experienced trench warfare, the depression, the holocaust or the atomic bomb. But the unenlightened world was mysterious and threatened to destroy European achievements. The Balkans was seething with disasters and indeed history shows it to be the spark that ignited the World War. Of course, not only the Balkans. Africa and India and China, wherever the British and the Europeans had their presence, these lands were also mysterious, their customs threatening. Western Europe must enlighten these cultures and overcome their superstitions and darkness. Dracula, the foreigner from a strange land, epitomizes the evil that lurks around enlightened Western Europe. And in killing Dracula, Dr. Van Helsing and his band was destroying the darkness that threatened centuries of Western European enlightenment.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

In reading Dracula, we begin to understand more about Bram Stoker's values and perceptions, which he might not have been aware of, and also more about the fears and anxieties in late nineteenth century Great Britain, and other Western European countries. That understanding will allow us to reflect on our fears and anxieties and access how much we have progressed a century later.

Bram Stoker

Monday, May 19, 2014

William Golding's The Lord of the Flies: Innocence Lost

Of the required readings in high school English classes, I liked The Lord of the Flies the most. Its depiction of innate evil helped me understand the nature of humanity. And though institutions can and do oppress the defenseless, the creators have designed these structures to maximize their (the creators') gains at the expense of others. So in the end, the nature of the systems reveals the nature of humanity.

William Golding in The Lord of the Flies shows how innate evil surfaces when civilization's rules and moral codes no longer suppress human impulses, a view that Freud would probably take issue. For Golding, social norms and civil laws construct rather than suppress humanity. Jack represents the beast that seeks self-gratification at the expense of others; while Piggy the reasoning that has led humankind from darkness to enlightenment. When Jack and his group destroy the conch, a symbol of law and order, and steal Piggy's glasses, a symbol of reason and science, they were asserting savagery over civilization, much like the barbarians ransacking Rome and leading Europe into the Dark Ages.

Ralph tries to maintain a semblance of civilization, but Jack lures more and more members from the group and of those who stand by him, Piggy is killed and the twins Sam and Eric are tortured until they submit. In the end, Jack has to run for his life and only when the naval office arrives, when the instruments of law and order reassert themselves, does he escape death. He could not save himself anymore than he could Piggy.


A bleak picture of humanity William Golding has painted. We would like to believe that children are innocent and that society baptizes them into evil. When children kill other children, we would like to find the parent or teacher or school or church that has corrupted them. And often enough, we do find it. But Golding reminds that there is more fundamental source of evil.


Of course, in the novel, Golding didn't consider that social norms and moral codes are also human constructs, and at times, their designers have hidden agendas. Individuals can and do exploit the legal, financial and political systems to benefit themselves. And although, unlike olden times, now the law applies to everyone, some can better protect themselves against exploits while others can sneak through loopholes. Still, The Lord of the Flies gives great insight into the human heart.

William Golding (from Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Leonard Seet Blog Tour for Novel Meditation on Space-Time

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Richard Henderson 
rh0188@gmail.com

Leonard Seet will be going on a blog tour for his novel Meditation on Space-Time from May 12th to May 18th. For more information about this tour and the novel, please go to the Goodreads link:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1755979-meditation-on-space-time-by-leonard-seet-may-12th---may-18th

Midwest Book Review recommends Leonard Seet’s novel Meditation on Space-Time as “a strong pick” with “plenty of humor about life.” According to the review, the novel “follows one man who tries to consider the world around him and considers the very personal side to the universe-spanning question, trying to understand natural laws in an unnatural world.”

The novel portrays a man’s struggle to discover his identity in contemporary society, to sacrifice for his friends and to take the road less traveled. For readers who would eat up the hero’s every morsel of laughter and tear as if each were bittersweet chocolate. While sifting through clues to the characters’ true identities and hidden agendas. The protagonist proclaims “More than once, the broken moon would cast through the window a silver light and remind me of independent events yielding to their own momentum and interacting under natural laws while my mind would impose happiness, grief, beauty, ruin justice and chaos.”

According to David Lentz, author of Bloomsday: the Bostoniad, “Leonard Seet has left no literary devices on the table to narrate his tale…I was enthralled by the pure beauty of the writing among all the plot points. The scintillating writing is elegant, pure, grownup, originally cast, heartfelt, intelligent… The writing is simply breathtaking… brilliant bit of poetic science… If you prefer intelligently crafted novels, then do yourself a favor and by all means read this unforgettable novel by Leonard Seet: the writing is to die for.”

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Alternate Hilarities, Edited by Giovanni Valentino

An anthology of humorous stories in the Science Fiction, Fantasy,and Horror genres (description from Amazon).



This anthology was published on May 1, 2014 and is available at Amazon.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Nathaniel Hawthorne 's The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter depicts the dynamics of guilt and shame in seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay Colony's Puritan society, but we may find similar forces in communities where established social norms direct members' behavior.

Hester Prynne has to wear the scarlet letter "A," a symbol of shame, for committing adultery. The town fathers seek to enforce the Puritanical code through shame and alienation from the community. But grounded in her identity, Hester stands tall and calm on the scaffold and refuses to acknowledge the power of the town fathers or of the social nrom. Throughout the novel, we see her directing her destiny: helping the sick and the poor, seeking to leave Boston with her lover, returning from Europe wearing the scarlet letter, not as a symbol of shame but one of defiance.

On the other hand, her lover, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, avoids shame, because Hester refuses to name him, but guilt torments him so much that his health deteriorates. His guilt may have come from having an affair with Hester, though her husband is presumed dead, or from allowing her to suffer alone. Whatever the reason, the same power that Hester refuses to acknowledge crushes and ultimately destroys him. So, while Hester embodies shame without guilt, Arthur does guilt without shame. He has internalized the Puritanical system such that internal punishments may exceed any external ones.

Massachusetts Bay Colony

The contrast between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale is an interesting study in human character. While some in society respond more to external punishments, other avoid transgressions for fear of internal ones.

Salem Witch Trial

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, like other communities, uses both external and internal forces to direct behaviors. But one problem comes from government merging with religion, and the legal code, besides protecting individual rights, enforces morality. Laws and punishments curtail behavior and therefore have vital roles in society, but they cannot "create good people." Whenever, we force people to be "good," the result is either conformity or rebellion, not "goodness."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Another problem: though Hester's husband is presumed dead, the town fathers punish her for having an affair and consider it adultery because she is legally married to him. And she probably couldn't get a divorce. So, here the legal code traps wives whose husbands have passed away and they become widows for life. So legalism can be dangerous.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

I grew up watching Frankenstein (the monster), along with Dracula and the Wolfman, on TV, but Mary Shelley's novel is, beyond a tale of horror, a literary work where the narrative and themes are as important as the plot. The framed narrative allows the reader to understand Dr. Frankenstein's worldviews as well as those of Captain Walton and the monster. We can compare Captain Walton Dr. Frankenstein and see their similar ambitions and sense of adventure in conquering nature and we can contrast their final decisions. Then, we can contrast the monster's outer monstrosity with Dr. Frankenstein's inner one. Perhaps it is fitting that we refer to the monster as Frankenstein; in a sense Dr. Frankenstein is a monster.

Shelley, through the story, warns against the danger of pursuing knowledge, the possible disaster from abusing that understanding, and specifically scientific knowledge, to satisfy one's ambitions. In this sense, Frankenstein is a typical science fiction.

The Frankenstein Monster

That Shelley wrote this compelling novel when she was eighteen testifies to her imagination and literary power. Frankenstein, perhaps the first science fiction, is a literary classic that sheds light into the nature of humanity.


Mary Shelley

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Knut Hamsun's Hunger: A Psychological Novel

In Knut Hamsun's Hunger, the narrator and protagonist roams the streets of Kristiania (Oslo) and searches for food and later lodging. A writer of questionable success, he submits his writings to a journal but rarely gets the story accepted. Without money, he often doesn't eat for days.


As we read the novel, we dwell into the mind occasionally delusion of a man trying to maintain his dignity in poverty. Though he had no food, he gives money to children and vagrants. And though he fancies a girl, he feels unworthy of her. His unstable state of mind reminds us of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. And indeed, Hunger is as much a psychological novel as Dostoyevsky's classic work but it dwells into the unstable mind in greater details.

Kristiania (Oslo)

Through the novel, Hamsun comments on Oslo's coming of age and on civilization crossing into the twentieth century. The narrator's interactions with others reveal the alienation in a modern city. His plight and despair, and his suffering and struggles are those of modern men and women. In the end, he leaves Kristiania, a symbol of his escaping from the modern life.

Knut Hansum

Hunger is a powerful tale of the currents of history sweeping individuals off their grounds of existence and tossing them into an ocean of despair. Even now, more than a hundred years later, we confront similar challenges and the novel remains relevant. The question was and is: how shall we respond to such challenges?