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?
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.

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.


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.

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

Magnolias in Paradise

 Leonard Seet brings his intelligence and wit and gifts as a writer to a broader audience in "Magnolias in Paradise" in a gritty, realistic novel... narrative style... reminiscent of the narrative technique of "As I Lay Dying" and "Charming Billy." Mainstream audiences will appreciate the intelligence of the narrative of this book in this genre, which is so often short-changed by lesser lights just out to make a buck. Seet has reinvented himself as a writer in his evolution from his deeply rich, engaging and inspirational books about spirituality to the rough ride on the mean streets of "Magnolias in Paradise."'ll definitely be engaged by this novel.
                  -David Lentz, author Bloomsday: the Bostoniad

"This book is immensely readable and is packed with fast paced actions and cliff hanging chapter endings."
-Ashok Shenolikar, Author of What Did You Say Your Name Was?

In Paradise, No One is Innocent

Ernst arrives at the Paradise train station with fifty-thousand dollars to ransom his sweetheart, and while looking among the crowd for the young man with a magnolia, a beggar seizes his bag of cash and escapes through the revolving door. Chasing after the rascal, he slams into his contact--his girlfriend's lover in town. Now, he must beat his love-rival to the money and rescue her before the deadline.

Magnolias in Paradise, which writer David Lentz compared to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, is a crime novel and the first in a potential series. As in Larry Brown’s Father and Son, good confronts evil in a southern town. And as in Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July, an ordinary man gets sucked into a conspiracy, with psychopaths terrorizing a small town and FBI agents going after a corrupt sheriff. In the end, the man must take the law into his hands. But in this case, ending in tragedy. Here, he combined Will Christopher Baer’s surreal settings and mentally unstable villains, with Brian Evenson’s literary minimalism and heroes cursing their knowledge.

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.

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

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)

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.

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

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?

Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen

In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts introduces us to Zen Buddhism and to some extend Taoism to the average John and Jane. The history and background of Zen and Taoism in part one helps us understand the cultural contexts behind these philosophies: how Taoism developed in China, how Buddhism spread to China and how Zen developed in China and spread to Japan.

Watts explains Zen, to the extend that it can be explained, so that we can understand it, to the extend we should try to understand it. Though Zen is a branch of Buddhism, it responds to the formal ritual of its progeny with spontaneous thoughts and actions. The emptiness and silence of Zen contrast with our hectic everyday life amid rush hour traffic. The preoccupation of the self as the one to think and feel and to act and improve, and the desire for enlightenment all hinder our spiritual walk.

I particularly like the section on Zen and the arts. Zen has influenced artwork and poetry in China and Japan. Through Zen, we realize the white spaces in the paintings and the silence within the koans are as important as the brush strokes and the words. And cha-no-yu, or the tea ceremony, is as much a spiritual experience as an aesthetic one.

Alan Watts

If you are curious about Zen, this is the book to start with. Zen 101 for beginners.

Herman Koch's The Dinner

Some readers complain that none of the characters in Herman Koch's The Dinner is likable, but a good story need not have likable ones as along as they are interesting. And the narrator Paul Lohman is certainly interesting, though unbalanced and even creepy. Through this unreliable narrator, Herman Koch reveals the dark secret behind the two respectable middleclass families: those of Paul and his brother Serge. And the high-class restaurant in which they dine sharpens the boys' atrocity and Paul's madness.

At first, we empathize with Paul about his brother being a bourgeois snob and a sleazy politician, but we eventually learned of his violence and insanity and the brother is revealed to be a better man, though less than likeable. It is this use of the unreliable narrator to uncover not only the boys' atrocities but also the narrator's madness that makes the story interesting. Yes, the boys' killing the homeless woman is horrendous, but Paul's and Claire's abetting their son to eliminate Serge's adopted son in order to hide the original crime, that is malicious and even evil.

Guinea Fowl (Photo: Ewan Munro. London, UK)

Though Paul Lohman is interesting, Koch's peeling off layers of facade to reveal the dark soul within this man is what pulls me to the book. First person narration certainly helps to confine our view to Paul's and forces us to try to sympathize with his thoughts and actions, but only up to a certain point. As our view begin to expand and we learn of the truth, our feelings turn from sympathy to disgust. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day where we keep learning bits of the butler's biases and idiosyncrasies after each page.

The Church of St. Nicholas, Amsterdam (Photo: Swimmerguy269)

The Dinner is an indictment of the bourgeois lifestyle, the preoccupation with appearances, and the resulting skeletons hidden in the proverbial closet. The humorous style lends greater impact to the enormity of the dark secrets and the sick minds. Sure, there aren't any likeable characters in the story, least of all the restaurant manager, but the story is enjoyable.
Herman Koch

Frank Herbert's The White Plague, A Dystopian Novel

Molecular biologist John Roe O'Neill is on vacation in Ireland when a bomb explodes and kills his wife and two children. The trauma splits his personality and he splices genes into viruses and contaminates bacteria with them, creating a disease that targets women and speeds up their aging. When he releases the bacteria in Ireland, England and Libya, the plague begins to spread around the world and governments have to close their border and expel these countries' nationals. And Barrier Command under Canadian Admiral Francois Delacourt seeks to isolate the plague by patrolling borders and controlling travel among countries. As women begin to die off, the U.N. gathers a group of scientists from the U.S., France and U.S.S.R. to find a cure. In the meantime, O'Neill sneaks into Ireland as John O'Donnell only to be captured by the IRA-controlled government and tried for genocide. The politicians of the U.S., England and Ireland manipulate one another to come up with the cure while trying to gain an upper hand.

When the scientists, with the help of O'Neill's insights, find a cure, they are able to spread the knowledge without allowing any government to gain an upper hand. But with only one woman for every tens of thousands of men, women begin taking on more than one husband. And with greater knowledge about genetic engineering, scientists are able to assure female newborns. But that knowledge also allows potential terrorists to engineer a plethora of deadly diseases. Welcome to the brave new world as Frank Herbert imagined it.

Gene Splicing (Drawing by Agathman)

The White Plague is a thoughtful exploration of the abuse of genetic engineering and it consequences. We do not read it for its science but the details of gene splicing, science and pseudo-science, make the reading interesting and I prefer this to science fiction without the science. The plague and the resulting apocalypse reveal more the darkness of the human soul than the failings of science and Herbert's discourse on political machination among the U.N., the U.S., England and Ireland--combined with the IRA's bombing and O'Neill's vindictiveness--reaffirms this theme. And Kevin O'Donnell and Herity are the epitomes of that darkness.

South Kildare, Ireland

Herbert's constant shift from one character's point of view to another's distracts from the story. (At times, there are multiple shifts in POV within a page.) We have trouble sympathizing with any single character though we dwell mostly in O'Neill's mind and may be ambivalent about him, an innocent bystander turned into a mad scientist turned into a schizophrenic. Perhaps the shifting points of view reflect the disintegrating world of the white plague and we aren't meant to focus on any single character or sympathize with him or her.

Frank Herbert

Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground: Confession of a Madman

The memorable words “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man” introduces us to the bitter and misanthropic narrator of Notes from the Underground. Through this underground man, Dostoyevsky warns against the influence of western enlightened thoughts on Russia. The unreliable narrator, a veteran of the Russian civil service, through his distorted ramblings, criticizes logic and reason and enlightened self-interest. This reflects Dostoyevsky's turning away from such ideas after his arrest and imprisonment in Siberia. For the underground man, freewill will triumph over determinism as dictated by logic and reason. And a person will act illogically just to show that she is human and she has a choice.

When an officer moves him out of the way, the underground man becomes a non-being, an object in the path, which is confirmed when he later confronts the officer and the latter doesn't recall what happened. In the eyes of his friends, he is also nobody. They changed the time of the farewell party for one of them but doesn't tell the underground man. And later when the underground man looks for them in a brothel, they have retired with the prostitutes and again he realizes he is a nonentity. Even when he tries to be a hero to the prostitute Liza, he ends up mistreating her and invalidating his own existence.

St. Petersburg (Photo: Graham from London, UK)

The underground man believes he is miserable because he is intelligent and well-read.  He can appreciate beauty, but his reason and knowledge show how unprofitable it is to cling onto such outdated ideals, ideals contrary to logic and maximum utility. He despises utilitarianism but after understanding it, can't get rid of it. Like after being infested by the plague, he will have suffer it until death.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

During the second half of the nineteenth century, most of Europe was worshiping reason and science and so Dostoyevsky seemed like a madman calling out from the wilderness. But today we have seen how reason and science can fail us and we can appreciate Dostoyevsky's warning though it would be as foolish to abandon reason and science and return to pre-modern society. We have moved beyond either/or and in the post-modern world we must grapple with the dialogue between romanticism and utilitarianism, between truth and beauty, between faith and reason, between the individual and the community. Pluralism but not total relativism.

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea

Santiago hasn't caught a fish in eighty-four days and must set out in deeper waters to end his draught and gain his fellow fishermen's respect and the boy Manolin's admiration. After days at sea, he comes upon a marlin and struggles with it for two days before killing it and tying it to the side of the skiff. But while he is returning home, sharks follow the scent of blood and though Santiago kills several of them, they eventually eat most of the marlin, leaving only the fish's skeleton.

The Old Man

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago struggles though he couldn't win but because to struggle is human. He fights not to overcome, but to assert his humanity and transcend destiny and fate through his determination amid destruction. In his own words: "… man can be destroyed but not defeated." Like Dr. Rieux and his friends in Camus's The Plague, struggling with the plague, while people continue to succumb to the disease. Perhaps Hemingway has seen enough death and destruction while reporting on the Spanish Civil War to understand that at times, a person can only fight without the hope of victory, and he or she must choose either to give up, or to fight and be destroyed. In his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, in accepting the assignment to blow up the bridge, knows he wouldn't survive the task and he didn't. Still, he, like Santiago, chooses to fight. Hemingway in praise of human resolve.

And the Sea