All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about books that occupy a position in the popular consciousness without people necessarily having read them, particularly me. I always find it interesting when I actually read them to see how different they are than the idea I’ve formed of them. However, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is a bit different. This book is pretty much what I expected.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Susan Vreeland.)

Mind you, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m not saying that the book was necessarily predictable. However, how much surprise can you expect from a book about trench warfare in WWI? I’d expect the characters to be revved up when they first get sent (or horrified, one of the two) and get disillusioned later. I’d expect lots of scenes of horrible, grinding death. I’d expect the characters to be ruined for normal life, presuming they survive.

This is what I expected when walking in to All Quiet on the Western Front. Pretty much, that’s what I got.

There is certainly carnage, some close up and some further away:

Already it has become somewhat lighter. Steps hasten over me. The first. Gone. Again, another. The rattle of machine-guns becomes an unbroken chain. Just as I am about to turn round a little, something heavy stumbles, and with a crash a body falls over me into the shell-hole, slips down, and lies across me I do not think at all, I make no decision–I strike madly home, and feel only how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses. When I recover myself, my hand is sticky and wet.

The man gurgles. It sounds to me as though he bellows, every gasping breath is like a cry, a thunder–but it is only my heart pounding. I want to stop his mouth, stuff it with earth, stab him again, he must be quiet, he is betraying me; now at last I regain control of myself, but have suddenly become so feeble that I cannot any more lift my hand against him.

So I crawl away to the farthest corner and stay there, my eyes glued on him, my hand grasping the knife–ready, if he stirs, to spring at him again. But he won’t do so any more, I can hear that already in his gurgling.

I can see him indistinctly. I have but one desire, to get away. If it is not soon it will be too light; it will be difficult enough now. Then as I try to raise up my head I see it is impossible already. The machine-gunfire so sweeps the ground that I should be shot through and through before I could make one jump.

Regardless, it is always present. Even when things are lax, it is never too far away.

However, the characters still have to try to live throughout all of this. When not immediately facing destruction, they focus on trying to survive the moment. Food. Women. Really, whatever they can:

We must look out for our bread. The rats have become much more numerous lately because the trenches are no longer in good condition. Detering says it is a sure sign of a coming bombardment.

The rats here are particularly repulsive, they are so fat–the kind we all call corpse-rats. They have shocking, evil, naked faces, and it is nauseating to see their long, nude tails.

They seem to be mighty hungry. Almost every man has had his bread gnawed. Kropp wrapped his in his waterproof sheet and put it under his head, but he cannot sleep because they run over his face to get at it. Detering meant to outwit them: he fastened a thin wire to the roof and suspended his bread from it. During the night when he switched on his pocket-torch he saw the wire swing to and fro. On the bread was riding a fat rat.

At last we put a stop to it. We cannot afford to throw the bread away, because then we should have nothing left to eat in the morning, so we carefully cut off the bits of bread that the animals have gnawed.

Frankly, the biggest surprise to me was that the book was from the perspective of a German soldier. I don’t know why, but I always assumed it was an English one. Not that it really makes a difference, though. Soldiers on both sides of the trenches probably had a pretty similar experience. They were there because they were told to be there and they probably had just as high a chance of dying without a satisfying reason.

Though I wasn’t much surprised by All Quiet on the Western Front, I did think it was well done. The characters seem real, the scenes are engrossing, and there is all the grit you could ask for. I don’t really dig war books on the whole, but I can certainly admit that this one is impressive. Of course, it’s hard not to be humbled looking into the face of something like that.

1984 By George Orwell

So, I actually did something amazing.  I finished a blog book 3 days BEFORE Thursday.  I was all excited and then realized I had no idea of what to say about the book.  I didn’t have any uniform thought on it that I could write about.  I don’t know if I even have it now.  I read 1984 by George Orwell.  I read it on my Kindle (really on my Kindle app, but you know, semantics) and as such have no quotations from the book for this entry.

Stephen King, David Mitchell, and Ian Rankin all put this in their top ten books. 

It was good.  I am definitely glad I read it.  In fact, I’d rank it amongst the top books I’ve read for the blog.  I’m just going to put this in like a bullet point format, I think.  Basically, sharing the different things I’ve been trying to marshal in my head to write about 1984.

  • At first, I thought that it was a statement/visualizing of what the world would have looked like if Russia had taken the Cold War to a “Hot War” and taken over the world.  (that statement made me just think of Pinky and the Brain).  Then I got to the part where it explains the history/actual workings of the government.
  • I couldn’t figure out where people were getting the comparisons I hear all the time in the common lexicon in regards to the United States government and comparisons to the novel.  I don’t know if half the people making those references have even _read_ 1984.
  • For awhile, I thought it was a love story.  The story is divided into 3 parts.  In the 2nd part, there is a love story.  However, it is just Act Two, and Act Three takes the story and changes it to a story where a love story just plays an overall part in the story.
  • All stories (for those of you that know otherwise, please let me know! I’m going on knowledge that was gained years ago) are one of three things, or more than one.  There’s Man vs Man, Man Vs Self, and Man vs Environment.  I think that this falls squarely into Man vs. Self BUT I can’t decide if the crux of the story is Man Vs. Environment, or Man vs. Man.  I think I know what someone living in the world of 1984 would say.  They would say that the government is stronger than any one individual so it would be Man vs. Environment.  But I don’t know if I agree with that or not.  I’m undecided.
  • I’m geek excited that it was in Stephen King’s Top Ten.
  • I thought that part of the book got too dry.  For those of you that read it, the book for the Brotherhood part was just…blah.
  • Orwell did an amazing job at building the world of 1984.  I almost could taste and feel it all. 
  • It still completely confuses me how many people compare the government to the novel.  Yes, there’s the NSA stuff, blah blah blah.  But I don’t see it.  Yes, you’re no longer allowed to say certain things.  But, beyond those type of considerations there is very little resemblance of today’s society in the society of 1984.
  • I’ve been hearing about this book for years.  It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Not sure how to explain what I mean. 

 

There you have it, those were my different thoughts and realizations.  I still couldn’t figure out how to thread it all together into a cogent essay type entry.

Have a great weekend!

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

I don’t always pay a huge amount of attention to the subtitles of books. However, in the case of Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant, the subtitle is important.  What is the subtitle? The history of a scoundrel.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Tom Wolfe.)

Bel-Ami chronicles the adventures of a young man named Georges Duroy who has come to make his fortune in Paris after serving in the military in Algiers. At first he does poorly, only finding a low paying clerk job. However, he is helped along by an old acquaintance and starts to do better as a journalist.

Immediately, Duroy starts in on the women. In short, he is a success with them. He receives the nickname, Bel-Ami (beautiful friend) from the daughter of one woman he is pursuing. However, it would be better to call him ‘beautiful enemy’ because he isn’t a nice guy about it. He takes a lover, but throws her over when he has a chance to marry his acquaintance’s wife after he dies.

Mind you, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t see his lover again. He does. He and his wife both have lovers, but he is much more of a scoundrel about it. He has no qualms about betraying his lovers and even picks up one, ruining her life, just to see if she loves him. It’s dizzying how many women he pursues at one time and then doesn’t concern himself with a moment later:

“She is really very pretty and fresh looking,” thought he. But Mme. Walter attracted him by the difficulty of the conquest. She took her leave early. 

“I will escort you,” said he.

*****

He seemed to make a great effort, then he continued in a subdued voice: “See, how I can control myself–and yet–let me only tell you this–I love you–yes, let me go home with you and kneel before you five minutes to utter those three words and gaze upon your beloved face.”

She suffered him to take her hand and replied in broken accents: “No, I cannot–I do not wish to. Think of what my servants, my daughters, would say–no–no–it is impossible.” 

*****

She hesitated, almost distracted. As the coupe stopped at the door, she whispered hastily: “I will be at La Trinite to-morrow, at half past three.” 

After alighting, she said to her coachman: “Take M. du Roy home.” 

When he returned, his wife asked: “Where have you been?” 

He replied in a low voice: “I have been to send an important telegram.” 

Mme. de Marelle approached him: “You must take me home, Bel-Ami; you know that I only dine so far from home on that condition.” Turning to Madeleine, she asked: “You are not jealous?” 

Mme. du Roy replied slowly: “No, not at all.” 

*****

When she was alone with Georges, she said: “Oh, my darling Bel-Ami, I love you more dearly every day.” 

The cab rolled on, and Georges’ thoughts were with Mme. Walter.

He even betrays his wife so that he can get rid of her in favor of a more advantageous marriage. Mind you, that’s to the daughter of one of his lovers.

Frankly, Duroy seemed to me to be more a hollow vessel of impulses (mainly striving and greed) than an actual character. Only the supporting characters in the book seem like real people. The idea that a character has to be likeable is absurd, but Duroy barely seems to be a character. When it came down to it, I just didn’t care much about him.

I really can’t see why Bel-Ami made #3 for Tom Wolfe. Balzac’s Cousin Bette only made one spot higher for him and is a much better book. I can think of a handful of Balzac’s novels (such as Lost Illusions, Father Goriot, or A Harlot High and Low) that didn’t make the list for Wolfe and should have above Bel-Ami. Of course, I might have put some of those above Cousin Bette as well.

Bottom line? I guess Tom Wolfe and I just don’t agree on Bel-Ami. It was okay, but I’ve seen Guy de Maupassant do better.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

For today I read Crime and Punishment.  Unfortunately my copy of Top Ten has walked off again so I can’t tell you exactly which authors liked it.  However, there were at least five.  I do remember Joyce Carol Oates was one of the authors that picked Crime and Punishment, because I really love a lot of what she writes so it left an impression.

Okay, so I’ll admit, I never really got the complete adoration some people have for Russian literature.  I read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy and while it was a pretty amazing story, Tolstoy would go off on so many tangents and rambling story lines that it didn’t speed along.  But after reading Crime and Punishment, I get it.  Dostoyevsky wrote a book that is also quite long (though not quite as long as Anna Karenina, I think).  But Crime and Punishment remains well paced, and any plot that comes along that you wonder “What?  Why is this thrown in there?” ends up tying into the major plot in some well placed way.

Crime and Punishment is about a young man, a prior law student, who becomes ill.  It’s left to theorize whether his actions were born of the illness, or whether the illness was born out of the thought processes leading to the actions and the action themselves.  Raskolnikov, the main character, ends up in the first part of the book murdering a pawnbroker and her sister.  The pawnbroker is the intended victim and he sees her as pretty reprehensible.  The sister, a sweet lady, is a mistake.  He then falls quite ill.  His friends take care of him.  When he finally comes to, he is in a state of paranoia about what he said and did while quite ill.

Crime and Punishment is about so many different things, so many themes run through it.

1.  The role of forgiveness in Christianity, and a rebirth.  In fact the book ends with the following:

“”Nor did he open it now, (speaking of a New Testament given to him), but he thought: “Can her beliefs not be mine, too?  Her feelings and aspirations at least…”

“At the time he did not know that a new life had not been given him for nothing, that it would have to be bought dearly, that he would have to pay for it with a great deed in the future…

That is the beginning of a new story, though; the story of a man’s gradual renewal and rebirth….That would m ake the subject of a new story; our present story is ended.”

I paraphrased from the last two paragraphs above, as some of it would give away more of the story than I think needs to be known by those of you that haven’t read the book.

2.  The rationales that we give ourselves for our “misdeeds”.  An individual can talk themselves into almost anything.  Raskolnikov talks himself into believing that he is above the law, that he wants to know if he would be like Napoleon and obliterate anything that got in his way to success.  He convinces himself that the pawnbroker is a horrible person, a louse, and as such was okay to kill.

3.  Whether our good deeds can outweigh our bad.  Throughout the book, Raskolnikov is always helping people in need.  With his own money or money given to him by others.  He attempts to help a drunken young girl he sees on the street from getting attacked by a creepy man following her.  He helps a man he meets in a bar who tells him the sad story of his life.  He helps a widow of a man who is killed.  It comes out later about even more people he had helped prior to the story.  The question becomes, does this general character of his outweigh the murders he commits, as he ends up saving people from destruction?

4.  The role of personal responsibility for our actions.  I won’t go into detail here, but this covers not only Raskolnikov, but a wealthy man that his sister worked for as well.  Also, a fiancée of his sister and the wretched thing he does.

The book does have hope in it, it’s not the complete gloom and doom that people tell you Russians are just full of.  But, it does have more than its fair share of the doom and gloom.

I definitely have to count this in my list of the things I’ve read for the blog that I am completely satisfied I read.  The translation I read is by Sidney Monas.  I’m not sure how any other translations stack up comparatively, but I highly recommend this one.

One last thing, Crime and Punishment has all these heavy ideas and themes.  But in some other ways, there is a definite mystery in here.  Granted, the reader knows the “whodunit” part of it quite well already.  But, the why (which I didn’t fully divulge) and whether he will be caught or not, Dostoyevsky definitely keeps you on the edge of your chair with.

Read this.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

I don’t normally use my quick little Goodreads reviews for this blog, but I’m going to use it this time to talk about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:

I have to say that I was a bit disappointed by this book. After “Pride and Prejudice” and “Northanger Abbey,” I was looking forward to more Austen. However, I don’t think this should have been it. There weren’t any real defects as such, but I just didn’t see the wit and vitality that I expected from Austen. I also kind of found the characters to be a bit of moral puppets. There was the good but meek, the clueless good, and the rotten. Everyone behaved accordingly and met their ends accordingly. I was appalled by much in the novel, but that is really more from what I find morally reprehensible in the time period as opposed to a fault of the prose. I can’t fault Austen for that aspect, but I just didn’t find a whole lot I really enjoyed about the novel.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Susan Minot.)

Mind you, I wrote a real review for this one. I started out with the above and expanded. I talked about how though I was appalled by the treatment of women in the book, I understood that was a function of the time period. I talked about how my problem was with how the writing just didn’t seem up to Austen par and how the characters seemed to be simple reflections of their function in the book. I provided extensive textual examples.

However, then I went to write another review. I started from the document containing my in depth review for Mansfield Park. After finishing the review, I noticed that I hadn’t saved it as a new document. No problem, right? I just hit control Z until I had my original Mansfield Park review, hit save, hit control Y until I have the complete new review, and then did a save as and saved it as a new document. I closed the doc and reopened. My new review was in the new doc under the new title. However, when I opened the Mansfield Park review doc, it was still the new review. Word hadn’t saved the fix when I told it to.

To say that I was pissed is an understatement.

At that point, I had to decide what to do. I was mad. Mansfield Park was no longer even fresh in my mind. Given that I hadn’t really cared for it, I certainly didn’t want to write the review twice.

As such, I did exactly what you see before you. I decided to share the saga instead and hope that the quick Goodreads review above tells you enough about the book. Frankly, to me at least, this is more interesting than Mansfield Park anyway. You’ll just have to take my word for it.