The Last Day of a Condemned Man – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

9807116

This has my to read list for a little while:

One of Hugo’s shorter works, The Last Day of a Condemned Man follows the journaling of a man sentence to death for an unspecified crime.

Given six weeks until the day he faces the guillotine, the man reflects on his life and his inescapable end.

The story is an intentional writing on Hugo’s behalf – a strong opponent to capital punishment in his day. Reading his other works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, you get this impression throughout.

Faced with his inevitable and dated death, the condemned man describes the mental torment he goes through, knowing the hour of his end.

Longing for his family and freedom, or at least a quick death rather than a wait, the man describes how he feels no capacity for repentance now all his thoughts are occupied with his approaching doom, which people will watch for fun.

Dostoevsky, in his book The Idiot, reflects similar ideas – describing being hit by a horse-drawn cart as preferable to awaiting a hanging. Dostoevsky himself having been in a similar situation himself in his youth (only being pardoned minutes before his hanging) he is quite a significant sympathizer to the thoughts of the condemned man.

Capital punishment is clearly different nowadays: for one it is now very uncommon for a country to still practice it frequently. Another perhaps is that its no longer publically viewable – the Romans loved it and crucifixion drew crowds, but more recently hangings in the 19th century drew similar crowds too.

Reading this led to interesting discussions on a topic which goes deeper than I initially thought.

If you are a fan of Victor Hugo, it’s certainly worth exploring his ideas on a topic he was clearly passionate about.

 

 

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (Book Review)

8690609

Read based on a recommendation. I haven’t really delved into a lot of science fiction, especially not seriously:

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

The story is written as a series of Progress Reports by Charlie for the lead experimenters in the study. Beginning pre-operation, Charlie struggles to write coherently and spell correctly. He explains about his job and his friends there, and how he longs to become smart and join in the serious conversations people are always having around him.

The experiment is a success, and it’s not long before Charlie begins realising that his ‘friends’ were always mocking him, and that the conversations about politics and religion he often heard were misinformed, and even that the lecturers at the university knew little in their own area.

As he begins to struggle with his new life, he begins to lift the veil of his past, especially in regards to his family, and in particular, his mother.

The storyline becomes very moving as Charlie begins to understand more about himself and his past, and begins to explore new relationships. The novel challenges many views on people with learning difficulties, and pushes to humanise those we don’t understand due to their disabilities. Echoing throughout the novel is the fact that Charlie existed long before he become intelligent: the researchers didn’t create him.

It’s written in a very unique way, and is certainly memorable; it is unlike any novel I have read previously. The book is also not very long, but felt like the storyline was full and complete, and I struggle to think of any unanswered questions. I certainly felt melancholy once it ended though, but it ended well.

A must read for sci-fi fans!

How Saints Die – Carmen Marcus (Book Review)

31348258

Discovering the release of this book was happy accident – the cover caught my attention, followed by the plot, followed by the discovery that the author and I share a hometown(!):

Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s the 1980s and her mother’s breakdown is discussed only in whispers, with the promise ‘better by Christmas’ and no further explanation.

Steering by the light of her dad’s sea-myths, her mum’s memories of home across the water, and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn – in these sudden, strange circumstances – who she is and what she can become. By the time the first snowdrops show, her innocence has been shed, but at great cost.

The story is set in a quickly changing fishing village on the coast of the North Sea. Peter, a fisherman suffering from vertigo, makes a living mending nets and supporting fishermen to support his small family – his wife who is now in hospital, and his young daughter, Ellie.

Ellie is unaware what the state of her mother is, but the whole school know her mum is ‘mad’. As Robin, a new boy joins, a friendship sparks despite the current against them.

The story is interesting in the sense of it’s atmosphere – it all seems very dimly lit, but captivating. My curiosity kept me reading, despite aspects that often put me off – namely magical realism (though granted allowing for metaphor).

Allowing for the time the novel is set, I would have expected further consequences for the actions of some characters, though perhaps, not being born then, I am interpreting past situational circumstances in the light of modern time.

The characters are certainly intriguing and I quickly felt strongly about them when the novel began, and this developed well throughout.

It was great to read a book set in a location I am familiar with, and will certainly encourage me to read more ‘local’ fiction in the future.

1984 – George Orwell (Book Review)

518844

After much delay I finally got around to reading the famous “1984” – perhaps it following so closely after Shades of Grey is somewhat telling, but nonetheless it had been on my reading list far too long:

Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith’s desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

It is likely that you have heard of this book: in a dystopian reality, there are now 3 major world powers – one of these being Oceania, ruled by The Party and their political head: Big Brother.

Within this state, people believe what they are told and think only what the party allow, or else face punishment from the Thought Police. Winston secretly has anti-Party thoughts, however, and with the similar thinking Julia, begins seeking revolution.

The story is sometimes a difficult one, and I read one person describe it as “an essay”, which I get – many chapters feel like the characters are decoration to something Orwell really wants you to understand. That being said, there certainly is a plot, the conclusion of which will have you squirming.

What is interesting about this book, and is surely intentional, is that it reflects much of society as it began changing and certainly some ideologies held highly now. Not least among this we would recognise as the post-modern thought that somehow we should no longer fight for the reconciliation of subjective thought and external truth, but that we decide what truth is – if we all agree that 2+2=5, then it must. This is something Winston argues against vehemently, and I with him – we don’t determine our external reality, simply because we don’t like it.

As news is fabricated and reports constructed in order for the thoughtless mass to believe anything, the struggle in the society where “Big Brother is watching” is surely a terrifying one. The ending left me feeling a little defeated, and it certainly had an impact.

If this is a classic you have been delaying reading, it may be worth your time. Be prepared though as it isn’t particularly light reading!

Beren and Luthien – J.R.R. Tolkien (Book Review)

32708664

I’ve been following this books release since early 2017, with the prospect of reading more Tolkien, and furthermore illustrated by Alan Lee, being a hopeful one:

Essential to the story, and never changed, is the fate that shadowed the love of Beren and Lúthien: for Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was an immortal Elf. Her father, a great Elvish lord, in deep opposition to Beren, imposed on him an impossible task that he must perform before he might wed Lúthien. This is the kernel of the legend; and it leads to the supremely heroic attempt of Beren and Lúthien together to rob the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy, of a Silmaril.

The book is essentially a collection of writings from Tolkien showing the story of Beren and Luthien, a story which foreshadows Aragorn and Arwen’s love in Lord of the Rings: a mortal man and an immortal elf.

This is done through a mixture of poetry and narrative, all illustrated by Alan Lee; the original illustrator of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Overall the tale is well written and very high fantasy – I would say that anyone who has not read Tolkien, however, may find themselves a it lost as to what is happening.

I try not to sound harsh when saying this, but I feel like I would have enjoyed this book more with less interruptions by Christopher Tolkien talking about the text – to some this is likely very interesting, but to myself it meant I could barely keep immersed for long enough.

Necessary for any Tolkien fan to add to their collection, and something which was clearly very dear to the authors heart. As an introduction though perhaps stick with The Hobbit for a more narrative structure than curious one.

Shades of Grey – Jasper Fforde (Book Review)

7739723

Though never reading any of his books previously, I am aware of Jasper Fforde. This book was recommended by a friend strongly enough to persuade me to buy it:

Hundreds of years in the future, after the Something that Happened, the world is an alarmingly different place. Life is lived according to The Rulebook and social hierarchy is determined by your perception of colour.

Eddie Russett is an above average Red who dreams of moving up the ladder by marriage to Constance Oxblood. Until he is sent to the Outer Fringes where he meets Jane – a lowly Grey with an uncontrollable temper and a desire to see him killed.

For Eddie, it’s love at first sight. But his infatuation will lead him to discover that all is not as it seems in a world where everything that looks black and white is really shades of grey . . .

This book is a dystopian fututre where society has been divided into classes based upon the individual’s colour perception: from Purples at the top, to greys at the bottom considered little more than savages. Relationships are determined almost exclusively by who will benefit your hue, with strong blues and reds looking to marry for the purpose of a purple child, leading them into a higher social standing.

Eddie is sent with his dad to a small town where corruption is evident in what is known as ‘loopholery’; still adherence to the rules, though a questionably one.

As it becomes clear that not everything people are told is true, Eddie strays dangerously close to Rule-breaking to seek the truth.

This book is bizarre to describe but incredible to read – it is a book that is certainly difficult to put down. With so many hidden secrets and unsolved questions, the reader is lured into the solution as much as the characters – hoping for a more emotive society than what is currently there.

I haven’t read many dystopian future books, and this is certainly a great introduction to them – thankfully it is also a series so I look forward to the release of the next volume!

Highly recommended – the humour is spot-on on the plot fascinating.

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

34137327

Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.