Adventure, Jensen, Carsten

Review of We, The Drowned

Image result for we, the drownedWhat was it about?

We, The Drowned by Carsten Jensen (tran. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder) is basically two stories in one. The first half follows Albert Madsen through the turn of the twentieth century. The second half follows Knud Erik during World War II. At the start of the novel, Marstal, Denmark is one of the most successful ports in the world. Men are trained from a very young age for the violent life that is sailing. Albert’s schoolteacher is abusive; he flogs the students on a daily basis for anything and everything. When the boys are of age and begin to work as cooks on Marstaler ships, however, they realize that their teacher was only preparing them for the sea. Albert’s father Laurids was the sole survivor of the Christian the Eighth in the Danish-German war of 1848. He lives in Germany for a short time as a prisoner of war, but when Laurids returns to Denmark he can’t resume his former life. So he boards another ship, abandoning his wife and young children. When Albert turns fifteen, he decides to search for his father whom he still believes is living. Along the way, he meets a man who kills indigenous people and keeps a shrunken head on him at all times. He also falls in love with a widow.

Knud Erik also goes to sea at the age of fifteen, but the early twentieth century is nothing like the nineteenth. The shipping industry has undergone a transformation. Some of the most successful men in the business have never stepped foot on a ship. But although his father died at sea, Knud Erik wants to experience all of the things Albert experienced as a young man.

We, The Drowned not only tells the history of the shipping industry in Denmark through the eyes of two men, it also gives us a glimpse into the lives of the women the sailors leave behind.

What did I think of it?

We, The Drowned is written in the tradition of Moby-Dick and the Odyssey. It is more than a story about a handful of sailors. It is the story of a people. The sailors exhibit the most extreme form of masculinity in their society. They do not know how to love. The sea brings out their animalistic side. Survival is the only thing that matters in this society, and most sailors die in unmarked graves. Jensen could have written 700 pages of pure violence, but he doesn’t. There are beautiful moments in Albert’s life. Just when the reader feels that she can’t take any more of the violence or the romance, the story switches course. It’s neither sensationally violent nor sentimentally romantic. It is gripping without straining belief. The unpredictability of the sea is felt throughout the novel.

I was entirely immersed into the lives of Albert and Knud Erik. I cared deeply about their stories. To be honest, I preferred Albert’s life to Knud Erik’s. This may be because we follow Albert to old age, while Knud Erik remains a young man throughout the second half of the novel. Knud Erik is also somewhat of an unlikable character. While there were a few events at the end of the novel that felt a bit too coincidental, We, The Drowned is definitely one of the five greatest books I’ve read this year. Jensen knows how to write beautiful prose, but the prose doesn’t bring attention to itself. Except for a few places at the very end, I felt that the pacing was perfect and the characters were fully fleshed out. If you like seafaring novels, you will love what I now consider to be a Danish modern classic. The sea is the perfect environment I think to explore the complexities of human nature. This novel does it very well. It also has a beautiful cover.

Favorite Quote

“But that’s how it is on a sailing ship, and in this respect its journey parallels that of life: simply knowing where you want to go isn’t enough, because life is a windblown voyage, consisting mainly of the detours imposed by alternating calm and storm.”

Adventure, Conrad, Joseph

Review of Lord Jim

Image result for lord jim coversWhat was it about?

As first mate, Lord Jim abandons a sinking ship with 800 passengers on board. After being publicly disgraced for his cowardice, he meets Marlow who offers Jim a fresh start working for a friend. But Jim’s wounded ego is not easily healed. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one man’s quest to make peace with his past. The novel explores cowardice and guilt as well as the motivations behind British imperialism.

What did I think of it?

Joseph Conrad doesn’t have a rosy reputation today. His most famous novel Heart of Darkness has been condemned by authors like Chinua Achebe for its racism and imperialism. Despite his reputation, I decided to read Lord Jim because it is one of the few works of fiction in the English language that explores the psychological effect of guilt. The premise intrigued me.

Conrad writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Rich imagery and psychologically-complex characters fill the pages of this novel. Jim’s story is told from the perspective of all the men and women Marlow met on his travels. Because the narrator is not omniscient, the reader can never know for sure what Jim felt and thought. Lord Jim is cited as one of the first psychological novels in the English language.

Jim’s character resonated with me. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his cowardice. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, so he invents a story to explain why he jumped. Jim desires Marlow’s affirmation, whatever the cost. Most novels look at guilt from the perspective of the victim, but this novel looks at the effect of guilt on the guilty. How do the guilty deal with their past? How should they cope? The second part of the book follows Jim’s adventures on a Malaysian island. The White Man’s Burden theme is balanced by a not entirely positive portrayal of British imperialism. Lord Jim may not bear well under post-colonial scrutiny, but it is a brilliant study of personal guilt. Conrad intended for Jim to represent all of humanity. In that regard, Lord Jim is a good companion to Moby-Dick.

Favorite Quote

“We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.”

Adventure, Cervantes, Miguel de, Satire/Comedy

Review of Don Quixote

Image result for don quixote edith grossmanPerhaps, I am being generous in my 4-star rating. Don Quixote could have been half the length. Still, most of the stories were entertaining, and our knight and his squire were pretty compelling characters. The brilliance of this work is in its narrative style. Don Quixote is a story within a story within a story. Cervantes published the first part years before the second part. Between the publication of the two parts, Cervantes was imprisoned. The story of Don Quixote was continued by Avellaneda without Cervantes’ permission. The narrator as well as the characters in the real story ridicule Avellaneda’s account. The narrator insists that the only true story about Don Quixote is the one we are reading. It was translated from the Arabic by the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli. And of course there is Don Quixote himself who tries to imitate the knights errant described in popular Spanish courtly romances. To deceive Don Quixote, the other characters have to play into our knight’s delusions.

Don Quixote is a satire on Renaissance Spain. The speeches of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are almost literally lifted from the writings of the Renaissance humanists. Despite Don Quixote’s insanity, his speeches are often quite moving. Sancho Panza loves stringing proverbs together, but he often cites them out of context. While this is certainly an entertaining work, it is also somewhat tragic. People take advantage of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to serve their own selfish ends. But who can help Don Quixote? Most tragically, Sancho Panza believes in some of his master’s hallucinations and promises. Don Quixote means well, but he resembles a cult leader. Courtly romance and hagiography were two popular literary traditions in Renaissance Spain. By exploring the theme of heroism in both tradition, Don Quixote addresses the purpose of historiography.

Because this work is as much about the writing of Don Quixote as the story of Don Quixote itself, I cannot ignore the role Edith Grossman played in translating it from the Spanish. This is an astounding accomplishment. Based on the quality of the footnotes it is clear that Grossman spent a lot of time researching the literary and historical references in Don Quixote. My edition included an interview with the translator as well as an introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom.

I do wish Don Quixote was shorter, but I know that I won’t forget Don Quixote or Sancho Panza anytime soon. With its commentary on truth vs. falsehood and wisdom vs. folly, the work feels particularly relevant to our social media age.

Favorite Quote

“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Adventure, Historical Fiction, Stevenson, Robert Louis

Review of Kidnapped

What was it about?

In the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745, recently orphaned David Balfour receives a letter from Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, to give to his uncle Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. It soon becomes clear to David that the Shaws have a bad reputation in Scotland. No one is comfortable to give David directions. When he reaches his uncle’s house, Ebenezer hesitates before accepting his nephew. He forbids David from asking questions about his father and generally seems displeased to have David in his home. But it is only when Ebenezer sends David to fetch his inheritance from the top of a tower without any light to guide him that David realizes that his uncle wants him dead. The tower is unfinished and the ladder leads to nowhere. He nearly avoids falling to his death. The next morning, Ebenezer has him kidnapped by a ship headed to the Carolinas. On the ship he meets Alan Breck, a Jacobite, who tries to convince the captain of the ship to drop him off on the mainland. When Alan learns that the crew is plotting to kill him, he and David work together to kill the assailants. Although David is a Whig, perilous circumstances cause him to befriend Alan and to help him in his quest to bring justice to the Highlanders of Scotland. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson highlights the tension between the Highlanders and Lowlanders in Scotland in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising, making it one of the most famous works of Scottish historical fiction.

What did I think of it?

I have absolutely no knowledge of Scottish history, so the Historical Note at the start of the book gave me a much-needed introduction to the Jacobite rising. In many ways Kidnapped reads like an adventure novel for young boys. The story line is simple and the conclusion quite predictable. Still, David and Alan’s relationship is quite interesting. Although their friendship waxes and wanes throughout the book Alan and David know that they need each other. Alan is a bad man, but the reader cannot but love him as a character. He has a lot of affection for the youthful David. I wasn’t overly impressed by the book, and some of the dialogue was poorly written, but it was much more memorable than Treasure Island, and it has made me want to learn more about the history of Scotland.

Favorite Quote

Sir,” says I, ‘with a proper reverence for your age and our common blood, I do not value your favour at a boddle’s purchase. I was brought up to have a good conceit of myself; and if you were all the uncle, and all the family, I had in the world ten times over, I wouldn’t buy your liking at such prices.’

Adventure, Estes, Eleanor, Mystery

Review of Ginger Pye

What was it about?

Jerry Pye (aged 10) and his sister Rachel (aged 9) wonder whether Gracie the cat would be bothered if the Pyes purchased a dog. Just the other day, Ms. Speedy offered to sell one of her puppies for a dollar. After seeing the puppies in the barn, Jerry and Rachel knew that they just had to have one. Mom said that it was OK and Sam Doody, their high school friend, promised the children a dollar if they would dust the church pews. With the help of 3-year-old Uncle Bennie, Jerry and Rachel dust the pews and purchas their puppy Ginger. But things suddenly go very wrong. The dog hasn’t been in the Pyes household for very long when he’s suddenly taken by a stranger in a yellow hat – or at least they think the thief has a yellow hat for they have spotted it at various locations in town. They don’t, however, know what the thief looks like. Rachel is sure that he must be ugly and sinister. Jerry agrees and draws a likely portrait of the “unsavory character” to give to the local police. Ginger Pye written and illustrated by Eleanor Estes is the 1952 Newbery Medal-winning book about Jerry, Rachel, and Uncle Bennie’s search for a beloved missing dog and his unsavory thief.

What did I think of it?

Eleanor Estes has successfully accomplished a rare feat – writing a compelling story from the perspective of 9 and 10-year-old children. It is difficult to write believable dialogue between children, but there was never a time in the whole book when I felt like the children were acting in ways atypical of their age group. This is probably the primary reason why Ginger Pye was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1952. But this cannot have been the only reason. While I was able to predict early in the book the identity of the thief, a young child would be left guessing until the very end because Rachel and Jerry react very believably to the situations they encounter. I was entertained by the light suspense as well as by the humor. It is worth noting, however, that the eponymous dog is mostly absent from the story, for obvious reasons. Some children see a dog on the cover of a book and assume that it is a “dog book”. In reality, Ginger Pye is mostly about the children who are looking for their dog. The cover and title may be slightly misleading, but the book is exciting just the same. I am glad that I read Ginger Pye and definitely think it deserved the Newbery Medal.

Favorite Quote

“Well, of course, since Mama was such a young little thing and wore only a size two shoe, and, moreover, ate like a bird, Papa had to marry her. They fell in love at first sight and though she was only seventeen, they got married as soon as all the permissions could be granted.”

 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

 

Adventure, Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Reflection on Gulliver’s Adventures in Houyhnhnm Land (Spoilers Included)

Note: As the title says, spoilers are included in this post. If you have not read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift I suggest you read the book first before reading my reflection because I don’t want my views to influence how you read the text. Now, on to my reflection on Gulliver’s adventures in Houhnhnm Land (a.k.a. Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels)…

Reflection

Jonathan Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope because of the way human nature is portrayed in Gulliver’s Travels. Lemuel Gulliver leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms with a deep dislike for mankind. He treats his wife and daughter infernally and considers it a great privilege to have met the Houhnhnms – that superior race of horses. Throughout the whole book, in fact, the weaknesses of society and human nature are described in great detail giving the impression that Swift thinks he is superior to others.

But is Lemuel Gulliver the same as Jonathan Swift, and are the Houyhnhnms as excellent as Gulliver thinks they are? I purport that a closer look at Part IV reveals a message that is a lot less misanthropic than at first glance.

But let’s first take a look at Gulliver’s previous voyages. The first land that Gulliver visits is Lilliput, a land inhabited by doll house-sized people. From their perspective, Gulliver is a giant and a freak. He eats hundreds of times more food than the Lilliputians and can deter invaders with his bare hands. In Brobdingnag, everything is reversed. Gulliver is tiny while the inhabitants are giants. It is safe to say that his adventures in both lands cause Gulliver to lose a sense of proportion. He is either the most conspicuous figure or the least noticed. In both cases, he is a freak whom people pay to see. The presence of the other shapes Gulliver’s identity.

I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison.”

When Gulliver returns from Brobdingnag, he stoops down to kiss his wife because he is so used to being surrounded by giants. In comparison to the Brobdingnagians, his wife is tiny. But notice that Gulliver still thinks he is larger than his wife otherwise he would not have stooped down to kiss her. Gulliver wants to be normal. He doesn’t want to be a freak. No one does. To avoid feeling like a freak, Gulliver adjusts his worldview to match that of the Brobdingnagians.

The voyages Gulliver takes to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan aggravate his sense of proportion even more. In those lands, the inhabitants are eccentric and frankly stupid. Gulliver doesn’t know whether he should criticize or praise them. The historical figures he meets are nothing like the image he had of them:

“A general confessed in my presence, that he got a victory purely by the force of cowardice and ill conduct; and an admiral, that for want of proper intelligence, he beat the enemy to whom he intended to betray the fleet. Three kings protested to me, that in their whole reigns they never did once prefer any person by merit, unless by mistake or treachery of some minister in whom they confided…”

Now, let us turn to Part IV of the book in which Lemuel Gulliver encounters intelligent horses and degenerate humanoids. The Houyhnhnms claim that they are an intelligent race – a race that lives by reason alone. In Houyhnhnm Land, the greatest and the least are side by side. Gulliver is at first horrified by the Yahoos, but the Houyhnhnms convince him that humans are even worse than these beasts. The Houyhnhnms introduce us to their society, which at first glance seems perfect. The first four times I read Gulliver’s Travels I too envied the horses. Even though certain aspects of their society made me feel uncomfortable, I didn’t bat an eye. Why should I? They are the superior race. They say so themselves. Like Gulliver, I took their word for it. The Yahoos, in comparison, disgusted me.

The Yahoos are in the way. They undermine an otherwise perfect society. So, the Houyhnhnms debate on what do about these creatures:

“The question to be debated was whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth.”

 

I don’t know which is worse: the Houyhnhnms’ belief that they are superior to others and therefore have the right to determine who should live or die, or Gulliver’s agreement with the Houyhnhnms that humans are worse than Yahoos and therefore, by analogy, even less worthy of life and love.

Gulliver leaves Houyhnhnm Land with a profound hatred for humanity, but he feels so grateful for having met a race of intelligent horses. He should feel like scum, but because he knew the Houyhnhnms he feels superior to the other humans. Gulliver is convinced that he alone knows the truth while others continue living in absolute ignorance of their degeneracy. By now it should be clear that Lemuel Gulliver is an unreliable narrator. He has allowed the Houyhnhnms to define his identity and the identity of his fellow humans. Gulliver’s Travels is on the surface a critique of human nature, but underneath this surface it is a two-fold commentary on oppression and the nature of pride. Throughout history, oppressors like the Houyhnhnms (or the English imperialists) have convinced the oppressed (like the Irish Swift knew so well and whose plight he sympathized with) that they are nothing – that they are unworthy of life. Oppressors depict their slaves as beasts, and unfortunately, the slaves come to believe it. If an oppressed person is granted special status (like Gulliver) that individual turns on his own people. Gulliver can no longer even look or touch his wife and child because, to him, they have no dignity. It is in this context that I read the final passage of the book with which I will leave you:

“But the Houyhnhnms, who live under the government of reason, are no more proud of the good qualities they possess, than I should be for not wanting a leg or an arm, which no man in his wits would boast of, although he must be miserable without them. I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to come in my sight.”

 

Adventure, Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Review of Gulliver’s Travels

What was it about?

Lemuel Gulliver used to be a surgeon but took up sailing late in life. He became the captain of several ships. On the last voyages of his career, Gulliver found himself in hitherto unknown lands occupied by creatures so unlike himself. His personal journals were later given to Gulliver’s cousin Richard Sympson for publication. Unfortunately, an unabridged account of Gulliver’s Travels was not published; instead, Sympson edited down the book to eliminate what he felt were unnecessary details. At the start of the book, Lemuel Gulliver expresses his displeasure toward the alterations; yet, it seems that all major events in Gulliver’s travels were still retained.

On his voyages, Gulliver encounters doll house-sized people , 70 ft tall giants, philosophers living on a floating island, eccentric scholars, historical figures, and finally a race of intelligent horses. The dark side of human nature and English society is exposed in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of the most famous satirical works of all time.

What did I think of it?

When I heard that Cleo @ Classical Carousel was going to read Gulliver’s Travels for the latest Classics Spin, I offered to do a buddy-read with her. Gulliver’s Travels is on the list of my top 5 favorite books of all time. The first time I read it was in 8th grade. The English teacher mentioned the work in passing, and I just had to get my hands on a copy. I remember devouring it in two sittings. Although I have read the book five times, it was only during my last re-read that I fully understood the underlying message of Gulliver’s Travels. The last land Gulliver visits is Houyhnhnm-landThe Houyhnhnms (evidently pronounced ‘winums’) are a race of horses who far surpass humans in reason. They live alongside human-like creatures of beastly proportions whom they call Yahoos. Since much of the book is about the dialogues held between Gulliver and the bizarre creatures he meets, I don’t want to go too much into the conversations in Houyhnhnm-land lest I spoil the book for you. I will only say that I fell for Swift’s trap. What makes Jonathan Swift such a brilliant satirist is that he hides what I feel is the ultimate message of the book behind a boatload of overt and scathing criticisms of human nature. Unlike the irony in Voltaire’s Candide which I felt was too simple and obvious, the irony in Gulliver’s Travels is a lot more subtle. Satire is not for everyone and Gulliver’s Travels is no exception. Offensive humor and exaggerated imagery abound. Because this is my kind of humor (I wonder what that says about me 😮 ) I loved it. As I wrote on Goodreads, Swift is often accused of being a misanthrope, but I beg to differ.

Favorite Quote

[Musings from Brobdingnag (the land of giants)]: “I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian [a very tiny person] would be among us. But this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me? Undoubtedly philosophers are in the right when they tell us, that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison. It might have pleased fortune to let the Lilliputians find some nation, where the people were as diminutive with respect to them, as they were to me. And who knows but that even this prodigious race of mortals might be equally overmatched in some distant part of the world, whereof we have yet no discovery?”