Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

A friend of mine tweeted recently that we were living Brave New World. I hadn’t read it yet, but coincidentally (or not), I’d just ordered it from ThriftBooks. Well, I suppose I better move it up the list, then.

Aldous Huxley certainly wastes no time in horrifying the reader. From the very first chapter, I read slack-jawed in terror about the “utopia” he had created for us. There are definite similarities to what we are seeing today. I don’t know that we are there yet, but we should certainly be wary. It is alarming, for sure.

As far as the book goes–this is going to have to be a twofer. I will need to reread it again. I understood the overall themes and concepts, but I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Maybe it was just too abstract for me.

I have two observations to make:

The first, is just about utopias in general. In every other utopia I’ve read–The Giver, for example–the drug use is hidden. The leaders don’t want society to know they must have drugs to suppress their natural urges, go on with the utopian lifestyle, etc. The drug is always hidden in vitamins, or the water, or something. Here, it is relished, open, necessary. Not taking high doses of soma is frowned upon. You SHOULD be an addict. But don’t take TOO much. Don’t take 20, or you will die. Take a lot, but just enough. Have fun, all of the time. Be high, all of the time.

Second, the caste system–bred into the new embryos, then taught while the children sleep. HOW CREEPY IS THAT?! This is the part that really resonates to today’s world, because while we don’t have a utopian system built for this yet…we have a societal structure that is already this way. Parents teaching children without realizing some of the toxic things that are getting in. I don’t want to get full on conspiratorial but…I think you could see how it could go downhill fast.

Brave New World is a book that would be burnt first if ever such a thing were to happen. If literature starts disappearing, hide your copies. Read it now, while you still can. It should be read, by everyone. And read it more than once, so you know you truly understand what is happening.

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Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.

As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.

I found this book, on one hand, extremely boring. I kept putting it down every few paragraphs. The Prologue was lovely, and I copied much of it into my reading journal, but after that I really struggled to hold my attention to the story.

However, on the other hand, Invisible Man was eerily familiar. Even though it was published in the 40s, all of this could have happened today. Switch The Brotherhood with the Black Lives Matter movement and it all becomes recognizable, especially the second half of the book. I realize there are some big differences, since The Brotherhood was based on a communist organization, but there are also some parallels too–a factional group fighting for their beliefs, recruiting members, training people to serve their cause. Some of the things that happened just gave me so many chills. This is a big part of why it’s such a hard, heavy book–these are hard, heavy times and we are seeing all of these hard, heavy themes in our own current events every day.

It’s a hard book to review and rate. I didn’t really “like” it, but I definitely see the importance of the literature. I’m adding it to on my ongoing list of books that should be read in schools, because I think kids would benefit from teacher-led group conversation on such a heavy theme.

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Voltaire: Candide

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.

WHY THIS BOOK WAS BANNED:

As expected by Voltaire, Candide has enjoyed both great success and great scandal. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté. (Wiki)

Let me start by saying that I have had this on my list of “study books” since the beginning of my list of “study books” because I thought this was a serious book of philosophy in line with Plato and Aristotle. I was so very very wrong.

From the very first line, this book is ridiculous.

In a castle of Westphalia, belonging to the Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, lived a youth, whom nature had endowed with the most gentle manners.

Who do you picture the moment you read that? Do you rap it, because I rapped it.

 

When you start a book thinking about The Fresh Prince…all thoughts of serious literature pretty much go out the window. From then on, it was all about the satire. Which is what Voltaire intended. He intended to “bring amusement to a small number of men of wit.” Not a man, sorry Voltaire, but I think he would still be pleased by the rapping.

While I did make quite a few FP connections while reading Candidethe satire REALLY reminded me of Monty Python style humor. People dying, but not really. Cutting off butts to feed people. Satire about existential crises. I haven’t watched enough Monty Python to really get into it, but what I have seen, struck me as familiar.

Did I like this? It’s an I don’t know. Parts of it were very amusing, but there was almost TOO much satire. Sort of like Monty Python really. I lose the plot in those kinds of things, because every single joke that possibly can be shoved in does, and I prefer a little more actual development. Does that make me less witty? I don’t think so, I get the wit just fine. I just need substance to go with it.

BY THE WAY–If you aren’t following me on my new Instagram account, you are missing out on things like me rapping along to Voltaire to the tune of Fresh Prince, so you should probably get on that.

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Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Desperate to escape his abusive father and the constraints of the civilized life, young Huck Finn fakes his death and, with the help of his slave friend Jim, embarks on a vagabond life rafting down the Mississippi River. Yet life is anything but carefree for Huck and Jim. Their travels bring them into contact with scores of rogues, rascals, ruffians, hucksters, and law-abiding citizens who would as soon seen Jim returned to his owners and Huck to his Pa. Looking out for each other, Huck and Jim forge a bond that protects them from the prejudices and bigotry of their time and place, and a society whose rules and regulations seem as perplexing as they are inflexible.

By turns hilarious and heartwarming, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, is considered Mark Twain’s masterpiece and one of the greatest novels written on the nineteenth-century American experience.

WHY THIS BOOK WAS BANNED:

The first ban of Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885 called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.” (bannedbooksweek.org)

I listened to Huck Finn on audiobook several years ago when I had a job that was primarily filing. I remember being terribly confused by the plot because it simultaneously didn’t seem to go anywhere and everywhere at the same time. I figured it was just my inattention to audiobooks and decided I’d try again later to actually read it.

Flash forward to present day, when my handsome leatherbound copy has been sitting unread on my shelf for 3 years now. I have been dreading the reread of this famous novel, but I knew it must be done eventually. Since this week is Banned Book Week, I decided now is as good a time as ever. Grumble Grumble.

Unfortunately, I am apparently still one of the very few people in the world of literature who dislike The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The plot still simultaneously goes nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and the dialects are near impossible to read in visual format (that WAS easier to listen to via audiobook). I mean, even Twain himself says by way of dedication:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

I still haven’t read Tom Sawyer. I know some day I must, but I will drag my feet even harder now. Can you see the ruts?

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James Ellroy: The Black Dahlia

On January 15, 1947, the torture-ravished body of a beautiful young woman is found in a Los Angeles vacant lot. The victim makes headlines as the Black Dahlia-and so begins the greatest manhunt in California history.Caught up in the investigation are Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard: Warrants Squad cops, friends, and rivals in love with the same woman. But both are obsessed with the Dahlia-driven by dark needs to know everything about her past, to capture her killer, to possess the woman even in death. Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of postwar Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl’s twisted life, past the extremes of their own psyches-into a region of total madness.

Next week is Banned Books Week, and then we have #OwnVoicesOctober. I’m telling you this because I’ve been so disappointed in my reviews this week and hopefully I can get some decent reads after this. Besides Toni Morrison things have been a little rough around here lately.

I’ve been trying to read The Black Dahlia on my phone a chapter at a time and I have just not been having it. I finally gave up. Noir just isn’t my genre, generally. It’s dark and gritty and incredibly sexist. And it’s always got this horrific voice to it. You know what I mean–it’s always the SAME voice. Cocky-ass detective in a floppy fedora talking about some bird with the legs, trying to solve some murder on poor innocent females.

BD is the same exact voice, same exact theme, except it’s true crime, not something made up. Two boxers-turned-cops in the 40s worked a horrific murder. I didn’t get much further than that, mostly because of the voice. I just couldn’t stand it.

So, nope for this one. At least I can mark it off on the Boxall’s list. Making some progress with that!

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Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom. Pecola’s life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrison’s most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction.

I have been having a lot of discussions lately about why diverse cultural representation is important in media, and The Bluest Eye is the exact book to prove such a point. Toni Morrison’s entire theme is based on the fact that not only do white people think black people are ugly, but black people believe it to be true as well. Only blonde-haired blue-eyed little girls are considered perfect and beautiful. Everyone with dark skin deserves to be designated as “less-than” and their lives too.

Through that terribly sad filter, we see those “less-than” lives:  the poverty, the brokenness, and as a plot-driver–the pedophilia. Morrison puts a very human face on this subject, both on the abuser and the victim. I don’t think her point is to make us sympathize with Cholly, but to show us the dangerous path one can go down. She doesn’t release him from the responsibility of what he does. His actions are cruel, harmful, and unforgivable. But I wonder if she is asking, “Could this have been preventable?” It’s a difficult question to answer, and one I am not sure of.

Morrison’s writing is legendary. Trigger warning on this, for obvious reasons, but if you can read it, please do. There are lessons here that absolutely should not be missed. Everyone needs Toni Morrison in their lives, she is an author that cannot be replicated. I only hope that by encouraging more diversity in publishing, we find more out there with just as much talent as she.

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Review: The Woman in White

‘In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop… There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white’

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright’s eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his ‘charming’ friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

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I’ll be real honest with you. I had no flippin’ idea what was happening in this book for the first half. This was one that I had to Wiki before I could start following the plot! That helped a LOT.

Don’t be afraid to cheat, kids. At least not when reading literature.

Once I did, I realized that Wilkie Collins 1)was a goddamn genius; and 2)probably confused the hell out of every single person in the 1850s. Think about the modern detective novel:  multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, documents as plot devices, and of course redirection. Those things we all expect now, but in fiction written before the turn of the century? I have never seen that before. It’s always written with one narrator, a steady, but pretty predictable plot. There might be some twists and creativity, of course, but The Woman in White does not look anything like a normal 1850s novel.

And that’s why I couldn’t follow it at first. I was expecting the normal classic pattern, and that is not what I was getting.

There IS a fair maiden, trapped in an arranged marriage, in love with someone else. But she’s not even the heroine of the story. She is the victim, and a secondary character. It is her sister–ugly, dark, mustachioed–who plays the femme fatale, with mind instead of body. The men may love fair Laura, but Marian is everybody’s friend and confidante, in on the schemes. She was by far my favorite.

Mental illness plays an interesting role in this as well, especially for the time period. Again, instead of being super stigmatized as it normally would be, the leads try to help the woman suffering instead of sending her back to the horrible asylum where she was kept.

Nothing in this book is normal or predictable. It was long, and hard to read, but once I found the rhythm I found I did not hate it. I can’t say I like it…not yet…but at least I understand it. I am intrigued. It’ll go onto the reread list for someday. I think a second read-through will make everything more clear.

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The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

I can’t do it, you guys. I can’t. I have absolutely zero idea what is happening in this book. And I have TRIED to figure it out. I wanted to show myself that I could read ONE RUSSIAN LITERATURE without failing. This one isn’t that long, right? Surely I could do it.

NOPE.

My one thought while reading this was this:  “This feels like the book that the Bohemians from Moulin Rouge would have written while high (drunk?) on absinthe.”

I’m pretty sure I saw a green fairy once or twice while trying to read it. I got a little more than halfway, but nothing made sense. There were references to Jesus and Pilate, the devil, someone got their head cut off by a street car. One of the men was schizophrenic, and maybe it was all just in his head somewhere.

Blah! I don’t know! Another Russian Lit bites the dust. This was both our AdultBooklr pick of the month AND a Boxall read, so it’s doubly frustrating. It is what it is. On to the next one.

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The Pilgrim’s Progress

Often rated as important as the Bible as a Christian document, this famous story of man’s progress through life in search of salvation remains one of the most entertaining allegories of faith ever written. Set against realistic backdrops of town and country, the powerful drama of the pilgrim’s trials and temptations follows him in his harrowing journey to the Celestial City.
Along a road filled with monsters and spiritual terrors, Christian confronts such emblematic characters as Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Talkative, Ignorance, and the demons of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But he is also joined by Hopeful and Faithful.
An enormously influential 17th-century classic, universally known for its simplicity, vigor, and beauty of language, The Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the most widely read books in the English language.

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I really should have titled this review:  ODE TO THE BOOK SLUMP. Not doing so hot on these reviews lately, ya’ll. In fact, if I’m being honest, the ONLY reason I’m posting this at all, is so I actually have a review today.

I did not finish this book. I didn’t even make it halfway–which is my general rule of thumb on reviews. Otherwise I just rate it 1 star on Goodreads and move on. But I am STRUGGLING lately. And, since this is a Boxall book, I’ll go ahead and let you know what I think. It’s ok…ya’ll can skip this one. I won’t be offended.

You see that summary up there in Italics? The one that is all “The Pilgrim’s Progress is as important as the Bible” and “It’s enormously influential.” I’m pretty sure they’ve been using that same exact description since it was published in the 17th century. The grammar is almost unreadable, unless you are a scholar in such things–or maybe a Puritan Yoda. Remember that the next time you give a Millennial a hard time about how they text–language CHANGES. And this version from John Bunyan? Mostly unrecognizable now. I’ve agonized over it all day and I’ve maybe read 75 pages?

From what I have read, it seems to be a judgmental Dante’s Inferno type of progress, where instead of hell, the pilgrim tries to escape damnation. He’s pretty much an asshole to every single person he meets, fueled by some evangelical figure telling him that everything he does is wrong. His trip to heaven is based on his succeeding on this journey through…faith…I suppose? My skepticism runs high.

I tried, but days are just too short to waste them on 75 pages of Puritan Yoda. Maybe they should put that on the next cover release.

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Giovanni’s Room

Baldwin’s haunting and controversial second novel is his most sustained treatment of sexuality, and a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.

I was supposed to read Giovanni’s Room in June for LGBT Month. It was one of AdultBooklr’s picks. However, my book order took forever to get here, so I’m late, as usual! We finally read a classic, and I don’t have it!!

Holy crap this is good! And SEXY. And GAYYYYY. Wowzers. I’ve read Drarry fanfiction that was not as sexy, gay, and angsty as this book was. Is all James Bald

win like this? Sign me right the hell up.

Because my brain works the way it does, I kept mixing up the time periods. This did not occur in the 1950s for me–it was all turn of the century in my head. Who the hell knows why? I know these were more bars than men’s clubs, but that’s what I was picturing. Maybe the word “patron”–old men sponsoring the young ones into their private dark wood-paneled billiards rooms.

Anyway.

I loved this. It was so short, though! Not only is it super gay literature, but there’s also a pretty fantastic feminist vs misogynist conversation going on as well. You don’t see writing like this even in today’s fiction. Giovanni’s Room is a bold statement, no matter what time period you are in, and we need so much more of it.

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