Review | Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

OBLOMOV by Ivan Goncharov

This is a confusing book to review. The back of my copy has quotes from two Russian giants, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekov, claiming Oblomov as a must-read novel. Despite this, my expectations were less then what I ordinarily expect from a Russian novel because…well, it’s a book about a guy who is lazy. What can it really have to offer?

Upon finishing this, my response is the same as the one I had after finishing [book:Don Quixote|3836]. Well…huh.

Oblomov, and oblomovism, introduces me to something that I haven’t come across fiction yet. I’m considerably young so maybe this is just a lack of experience speaking, but Oblomov’s character and his way of life really threw me into a loop. While there are likely many interpretations of Oblomov and this novel, one that I took from it is: is it wrong to want to look into the past for comfort and not thrive for more? Enjoy the moments that are granted and sleep through the rest? Or is it just so different that it disconcerts us? I can phrase this question I have at least ten different ways.

Another interpretation offered by the synopsis on my edition itself states that Oblomov is a symbol for the Russian aristocracy in the 19th century. This is certainly plausible given the life of the character and his ending; the parallels are easy to establish. The contrast between Stolz and Oblomov also expands this meaning and displays the downfalls of the aristocracy if they aren’t quick enough to adapt to the change coming their way—which as history has proven was accurate. I understood this interpretation best, it’s straight forward and easier to grasp, but have to admit that ‘oblomovism’ still has me more intrigued.

Putting that aside though, there also ran a sense of melancholy throughout the book about the lack of ambition Oblomov has for life. If I know anything about humans then it is that they are curious, that they reach for change despite resenting it. Oblomov defies this basic understanding and in fact throws this idea back in my face. The reactions to change are so incredulous that it is certainly funny, but there remained a tinge of sadness in it’s hilarity. I couldn’t help but feel pity for him.

I don’t think my thoughts are coherent enough to make too much sense right now, so hopefully this review isn’t too muddled. I liked this book in the end. I can see myself coming back to it in the future and reading it more carefully each time.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

SUNSET SONG by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Sunset Song is the story of Chris Guthrie, a strong, independent woman who is trying to find her own way through her earlier years. Her story is a gritty one but poignant and inspiring. In fact, it’s difficult to believe how well a male author such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon has been able to write such a brilliant figure.kly became their new threat to freedom.

Not only is Chris just written really well, the dominating male characters and their relationships with her are also well depicted. It’s not just one or two mere examples, but the entire book from start to finish conveys relevant struggles in Chris’s life. The nature of her environment is violent and the men in her life remain a constant threat to her.

Chris’ father has an insatiable lust that almost pulls her into the same darkness as her mother had to endure. Ewan, on the other hand, develops depression in the war and then returns home to create war on her. While clearly some of these things are stretched to the brink of dramatics, there is a point to it all at the end of the day, and it’s one that is easy to understand.

Scattered throughout the book are also essences of the Scottish culture and as someone who is quite ignorant of it, these little gems were both amazing and endearing to read about. Despite the bleakness of the novel, these moments of discovering new words and such were quite pleasant.

I hesitate to read the next two novels in the trilogy but am sure will do so in the future as I’m eager to see how Chris’s story evolves.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE by Thomas Hardy

I felt like I’d been in a Hardy-slump lately, in my attempt to read 1 Hardy novel a month this year, so veered off the schedule and read this when I was meant to be reading The Trumpet-Major. Like every Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge is another case of extreme dramatics attempting to illustrate a point.

This reads somewhat different to previous Hardy novels that had become slightly repetitive for me. Instead of the concentration being on an individual female, the main protagonist is a male who is extremely unlikable many times throughout the novel. I don’t think Michael Henchard is necessarily written to be unlikable, but his all too human emotions certainly lead him into a pathetic state of being.

The consequences of attempting to escape your past, the tragedies of a drunken mistake, the all-too convenient coincidences that define your present and future are heavy struggles for Henchard. Although for most of the novel I despised his character, in the end all that’s really left to feel for him is pity.

Often what makes Hardy a very cruel writer is his ability to abuse his powers as the God of his novels. He’s always played it fast and loose with the concept of deus ex machina and many times some of his characters like Henchard react badly to the consequences of Hardy stepping in and taunting their fates. In fact, Henchard might be the worst case I’ve seen yet. And yes, that includes Jude the Obscure, which frankly drew no sympathy from me at all.

In the end, I did not like Michael Henchard but I certainly did like this novel a lot. It’s melodramatic, gut wrenching, and beautifully written.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

IRON CURTAIN by Anne Applebaum

“This book is dedicated to those Eastern Europeans who refused to live within a lie.”

History of World War II during my academic years has always been compiled of how the war began, who where the enemies and allies, and how the West saved the world,—forget colonization, forget imperialism, forget the East, forget the rise of Communism—fast forward and now we’re on the Cold War. When the West abandoned the East—the Western betrayal, as they call it—at the hands of the Soviet Regime, Communism took over. A silent and deadly enemy that at first gave the East hope given that the Nazis had already destroyed half of their worlds, but quickly became their new threat to freedom.

“The people of the region were not faced with a blank slate in 1944 or 1945, after all, and they were not themselves starting from scratch. Nor did they emerge from nowhere, with no previous experiences, ready to start fresh. Instead, they climbed out of the basements of their destroyed homes, or walked out of the forest where they had been living as partisans, or slipped away from the labor camp where they had been imprisoned, if they were healthy enough, and embark upon long, complicated journeys back to their homelands.”

This book not only covers the political events of the time, but also the cultural influences of the media on the Eastern cultures (specific portions of the book dedicates itself to explaining how the Soviet regime tried to censor radical movements of freedom of expression pouring from the West). The consistent ban over the idea of freedom of expression is something, if you look close enough, is still a tactic utilized by many Middle-eastern totalitarian regimes today. History, as they say, repeats itself.

A massive advantage I had whilst reading this book was that I already knew a lot of material Applebaum covers in this book. In fact, my sole interest in this book was due to having studied Eastern European countries my third year of University and being completely amazed at how much Western Europe dominated my history textbooks.

Applebaum focuses on Hungary, Germany, and Poland specifically in this book and while I wished we get more from other regions of the East, I was amazed at the density of the history. Eastern Europe is an area more diverse then the West so while I was happy to read German and Polish history (both of these I would consider Western nations), I also wanted to hear from the Eastern/Central countries (ex. Serbia, Croatia, etc.) where a lot more tensions remain today because of what happened 60+ years ago. Both in terms of how the West made bad decisions on behalf of people they knew nothing about but also how they were abandoned after the “victory” of WWII, I wanted to enlighten myself with the perspective of the other side of the world.

I loved that not only is Applebaum thorough in her research but also privately blunt about what happened after WWII ended. She frequently quotes the average person observing the changes in history and not only are many of these words razor-sharp and chilling, but her own observations of listening to these accounts are eye-opening. Of course I knew of the brutality that Communism opposed on it’s neighboring nations, but to hear about how people coped in this barbaric environment was frankly too much at times.

For instance, in “Ideal Cities,” Applebaum quotes Ryszard Kapuściński—a writer himself—going to observe a neighbor on behalf of his newspaper(Sztandar Młodych):

“Not long ago, a fourteen-year-old girl infected an army of boys [with venereal disease]. When we met her, she described her achievement with such vulgarity that we wanted to vomit. She isn’t alone. Not all of them are so young, but there are many. Go to the Mogilski forest, to “Tajwan,” to “Kozedo” [names of pubs]…In Nowa Huta there are apartments where in one room the mother takes money from men, and in the other the daughter makes it up to them. There is more than one such apartment…

And now look at the life of a young man here in the factory. He gets up early, he goes to work. He comes back at three. That’s it. At three, his day ends. I’ve walked around the dorms where such men lived. I’ve looked inside: they are sitting. Actually that’s the only activity they do. They don’t talk, what is there to talk about? They could read, but they aren’t used to it; they could sing, but that would bother others; they could fight, but they don’t want to. They just—sit. The more active wander around the streets. Hell, maybe there is somewhere to go[…]”

The author generally writes in a reader-friendly style but it definitely will not read as easy as fiction. Take notes. Highlight. If you don’t like to do either in your copies, buy another copy. Don’t just “wing it,” because the history narrated here is incredibly important.

On a final note, I think the book also ends on an incredibly powerful Epilogue:

Before a nation can be rebuilt, its citizens need to understand how that was destroyed in the first place: how its institutions were undermined, how its language was twisted, how its people were manipulated. They need to know particular details, not general theories, and they need to hear individuals stories, not generalizations about the masses. They need a better grasp of what motivated these predecessors, to see them as real people and not as black-and-white characters, victims, or villains. Only then is it possible, slowly, to rebuild.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review | The Story of a New Name

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante

First half of this novel is quite repetitive in the constant cycle of teenage silences, jealousies, and resentments. The second half moves rapidly; firing one blow after another at you—the drama never stops. I devoured this book.

I love Lila. I know this might be a contradictory opinion but honestly, if you stop and think about it, Lila has to go through so much fucking shit. She is literally cursed by her own beauty. In the previous novel she uses her appearance to gain what she wants—can we blame her? Wouldn’t we all do the same?—and her naive mistakes lead her into even bigger tragedies. The men in her life constantly treat her either as child or a kept mistress who might as well have killed someone for all the blaming that she has to take.

What Lila is searching for is what all women want. Safety. And she does everything that she can to gain it, but it remains just outside her reach. She marries because she wants safety, realizing her husband exercises his rights as her husband to beat her more often then love her. She has an affair with another man because she hopes her lover will protect her. But an affair in this society clearly isn’t going to work out well—and it unfortunately doesn’t. But she still searches. She gets raped, abused, humiliated, and so much much more. Analyzing the psychology condition of this woman’s mind would drive one to insanity.

Elena, in comparison, has the easier road. It would be horrifying to say it’s because she wasn’t as “pretty” as Lila but, once again, these women are living a ferocious, savage world and a woman’s beauty is her curse. Elena escapes this curse. Lila doesn’t.

Ferrante is incredibly skilled at making you care even when you don’t want to. Making you watching when you want to look away. I loved this book, I loved Lila, and I loved Elena.

And much like its predecessor, this novel also hangs you at the end of a cliff hanger. I learned my lesson; never buy a Ferrante novel unless you have money handy for the next one.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review | Bleak House

BLEAK HOUSE by Charles Dickens

A new favorite. This almost never happens.

I curse listening to readers of my generation and all those who’ve kept me from Dickens so long. One of the major complaints I hear about Dickens is that he’s verbose. Maybe it’s because today we expect everything short and quick and thus our minds are trained to gloss over any sentence longer then 10 words long, but I have to disagree with this statement. I think Dickens has a tendency to meander about here and there but to say a 900 page book could’ve been reduced to 300 pages…I dare you on that note: tell me how.

At the center of ‘Bleak House’ we have the Jarndyce and Jarndyce court case and supposedly, Dickens wrote this novel as a part commentary of the English justice system. I do not know, nor do I care a bit, about what he intended to achieve in terms of discussing the law and the government’s failure to deliver justice. What I was most engrossed with was the story. Because…wow.

What most amazes me is the detailing of the novel and how masterfully it is written. I am not a writer so I don’t know how hard writers have to work, but I cannot imagine the amount of work put into producing this novel. I adore Dickens’ writing style and the way he weaves one story into another as we progress. I’d be lying if I said sometimes the innumerable characters gets to be stressful, but they all have a purpose and when you read the last page of the novel and close the book…you’ll love it. I have rarely ever been as deeply embedded into such a large work and despite all its complexity, this novel was incredibly difficult to put down. (Really, I can’t stress this enough—I’m a coward when it comes to big books. I don’t do big books.)

I did have to reflect more thoroughly on the way the novel is structured—in a dual narrative, with one side following a unidentified narrator and on the other, Ester Summerson. I loved Ester’s chapters much more then the other ones but in the end, I did struggle with understanding why she had to have her own narrative (and why she couldn’t be replaced by anyone else residing in the Bleak house). I have since dug deeper and realized that Ester’s instinct to want to heal others is a much-required contrast to the chaos which ensues in the other narrative.

Ester herself I truly loved. Her compassion was honorable and there were times when I just wanted to hug her for her sweet and admirable gestures, in attempts to keep everyone at peace. Mr. Jarndyce himself quite surprised me in the end with his supportive gesture towards Ester. I was saddened by the ending some of the other characters receive but knowing at least one of my favorite characters gets her own happy ending, I am content with it at this point. Although it’s hard not to feel disheartened by Lord and Lady Dedlock’s fates.

I can go on for a while here but I’ll end it there.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review | Irlanda by Espido Freire

IRLANDA by Espido Freire

Irlanda opens with the death of Natalie’s sister and her going to live with her cousin, Irlanda, for a little while. Natalie is a peculiar person in that she talks to dead turtles and sees the ghost of her dead sister, Sargario, wherever she goes.

The writing (or rather the translation) is done quite well. It was a pleasure reading this book and some of the passages in the story are so dark that I was completely enthralled. I read this book in one siting and was blown away by it’s quick ability to grasp my attention so thoroughly.

I think the book is too short for me to have taken my time guessing and thinking, but I ended up predicting the mystery behind Natalie’s strange personality and why she does/thinks the way she does. It doesn’t take much away from the enjoyment but it does make me wish the novel was longer or perhaps the mystery had been more intricate.

Rating – ★★★★☆