Tag Archives: Book review

Have you read Notes from Underground?

23 Jul

Bear with me, Readers. I read this book not too recently, and thus my memory of what precisely happens it’s quite vague. However, if I decided to make a review of it it’s because I do remember it is quite a powerful book, for it left a lingering existentialist question in my soul, that I yet have to answer today. And you know a book it’s really good when you remember the sensation, despite the oblivion shrouding your memory…

It’s really pointless to give a description of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life and persona. There’s a reason why he’s so famous, both in Russia and around the globe: he’s one of the best novelists ever in the whole literature history! Introducing him would be quite…nonsensical. However, some background will help us unravel a bit more of the philosophy behind his work. But beware: it won’t be a happy.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Vasily Perov - Портрет Ф.М.Достоевского - Google Art Project.jpg
Dostoyevsky lived in the 19th century, and had quite a rough childhood with his religious family. As he grew up, he joined a merry group of socialists that, as you can expect, was eventually disbanded, arrested and sentenced to death by the government in turn. But because God knew our dear Fyodor would do a terrific job at writing, He decided to change his fate and modify at last minute his sentence to another merry trip of forced hard labour at Siberia. He came back to St. Petersburg 10 years later, and man, he sure hated the new world he saw, after he came back from the shilling hell. But let’s resume by saying that this little experience at Siberia molded his philosophy and seated his future writings, for he became quite an…interesting man ever since. What with his affairs, his gambling addictions… Goodness, who would have known that such a frosty place like Siberia can be hell on earth…

Anyways, he’s best known for being the author of classics just as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which apparently wasn’t finished completely. Surely you might have read one of these, or even one of his other works, like Demons and The Idiot, which all encompass one philosophical idea rooting back to bitterness of life, the hypocrisy of society or, why not, to Christian themes, to which the author was fond of. Notes from Underground is not a far less known work, but I am sure that, if the name Dostoyevsky pops up, people might think immediately on the first two titles and not on this one. Such a pity…

Anyways, now that you know, it’ll be easier to resume Notes from Underground.

Notes from Underground

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One of Dostoyevsky’s shortest works, the first part is dedicated to quite an amusing existentialist rambling done by the nameless narrator, whom we rapidly assume’s quite a grouchy man with some temper problems. We come to know his philosophy, his exposition of human wickedness, our inherent mediocrity, and, of course, the doomed condition that, no matter what do, we will never overcome our unhappiness. Or in short: how we humans are losers by nature and creatures predestined to fall despite our best efforts. All of this is written with an acid and sarcastic tongue that will immediately burn some sensitive positive tummies, mostly of those who happen to be avid believers of Oprah’s positive philosophy and readers of Paulo Coehlo’s self-help techniques in his narrative.

The second part is the actual start of his narrative. Now we come to meet the still nameless narrator and his rather mediocre life. See, we immediately see he’s been obsessed over many things ever since he was young, ranging from his own flaws to the other people’s flaws, in some herculean attempt to prove what a big piece of trash life is. There’s no precise story in this part, but rather a recollection of memories that showcase his socially inept demeanor. We see him, for example, obsess on bumping into a man who previously, and in an unconscious way, shoved him out of the way when he was walking. The narrator, who takes this as a gesture of aggression, seriously considers taking revenge by bumping him later just to start a fight and prove he’s no coward, and when he finally does it…well, would you harm a man who bumped you on the street? Really.

Another obsession of his is to belittle other people in a fit against society. It happens when he meets with his college “friends” (the narrator doesn’t really have friends, but they kinda invite him to a birthday party just because they have no choice…it makes sense on the context) and tries to impose himself as a superior being during a rather awkward reunion, and again when he meets a young prostitute whom he humiliates through comments of her uselessness. This exposition might sound rather mean when I explain it, but trust me, when you read the novel, it suddenly turns quite deep and interesting. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s greatest talent is to make you think on humanity through all kinds of characters, and this narrator’s one of his best creations.

The prose is exquisite. It’s not poetic per se, but it is not realistic either. It’s, literally, just the ramblings of an old mediocre man who truly has no idea of what humility—or banality—is. Dostoyevsky’s grandeur makes it possible to makes all of this rambling not only bearable and credible, but also intriguing, attracting and, moreover, powerful. It does leave you thinking. It does! Every word he chooses rains above you as an icy shower, and every scene can be disgusting and sickening, but in a well-crafted way—in a way that you do feel and empathize with the man’s paranoia and gloominess, despite all the monstrosity that can bloom from deep inside of his heart. This is philosophy; a pure, well-crafted story that showcases a whole philosophical opinion through several scenes, and in a very humane and interesting one. So don’t worry: there won’t be any preachiness in the book. Just sheer awesomeness.

It is fast paced. Its length’s excellent. It won’t bore you, but you’ll crave for more after you’re done reading, because you’ll feel like you owe Dostoyevsky a whole new perception of life once you drop down the book on your shelf.

Notes from Underground is a great analysis of human psyche and an interesting psychology exam. It has been called a founding base of the existentialist movement and one of the best books of the author, if not of the world. And it shows.

In this epoch of the Two Thousands, I do recommend you a lot, O Reader, to give this book a little chance. Trust me, the exposed mentality’s not quite different of the actual mentality of most average men, whom have such a sick aversion towards humanity nowdays. I recommend reading it, mostly because most people might understand the psyche of those people and even start a psychological exam of one’s own.

Dostoyevsky should be read by everybody. It does make one wonder how much mediocre one is, deep inside…
Thanks for reading!

P.S.: If you’re interested in reading the book, which is rather short compared to his other works, you can find an online edition here. Enjoy!

[All images redirect to their respective Wikipedia page. Click on each if you feel more curious about the author and the book]

Have you read Tracks and Shadow Tag?

5 May

I am pretty sure that some of you might recognize the name of the following author that I’ll make review of in the incoming texts, so I don’t think it is quite necessary to introduce a huge deal of her and her work.

However, just in case, and especially for those who don’t know her (as you’re the guys I’m specifically aiming to with my book reviews, as I want to spread as much as possible the word of these authors) and if you’re feeling quite lazy of clicking on the Wikipedia link, I will make just a brief description of her and what she has written so far, so you can have an idea of what’s coming…

…And what’s NOT coming.

Louise Erdrich.

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Erdrich is a living Ojibwe author of European roots, nowdays stationed in the reservation of North Dakota, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and one of the most significant authors of the called second wave of the Native American Renaissance, which is, as you may guess, a way to refer to the considerable literary production done by Native Americans. Erdrich has won several prestigious awards, and currently owns an independent bookstore as well, called Birchbark Books, whose online store you can find it here and actually discover some neat titles on the list. You should check it out; it’s quite cool and got lots of Native American titles.

Erdrich has written, naturally, of the Native American’s present, not just about the past as usually a Hollywood screenwriter would. She actually captures with amazing style the life of contemporary Indian reservations and pours lots of mysticism and Native style on her works. Her most known and famous one is the Native American series, which include books like Love Medicine, The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse, Bingo Palace, Tracks… I recommend you reading this series; I’ve read three of these titles and they’re sure worth your time. They’re informative, they’re magical, they’re not preachy, they’re mysterious… They’re humane. And that’s something no author can easily do in these Two Thousands, which is filled with marketing, commercialism, frivolous prose… Erdrich can sure make miracles at anything she touches and you usually don’t end up disappointed.

Usually.

See, I want to make a double review of two of her works, which comprise the best and the worst of her, which I had to meet in such an awful manner, to my chagrin. I would have loved to review my favourite ones—Love Medicine and The Last Report…—and transmit to you, O Reader, why I loved them. However, since it’s been quite a while ever since I read them, I will refer to the most recent readings I did of her and which are complete opposites. One’s the pleasant surprise; the other an AWFUL surprise respectively.

Tracks and Shadow Tag.

Let’s start with Tracks.

Tracks

Tracks

This is one of the Native American series titles, and I consider it one of the weakest titles, but still, it’s a pretty good catch.

It is about one of the most recurring characters on the series, Fleur Pillager, and the mysterious things that happen around her and the mysterious entity she actually is. We follow her from the very moment she’s rescued by one of the narrators, Nanapush, when the blizzard destroys her whole family. We see two viewpoints of this character, coming from Nanapush, who’s the only one to understand the feared and dreaded Fleur’s mysteries, and another one coming from one of the most complex characters of the series, Pauline Puyat, who’ll eventually transform in the…quite crazy Sister Leopolda, a key character in Love Medicine and The Last Report

The plot itself could sound almost boring, as it just deals with the weirdness happening around Fleur. However, it ends up becoming a great book thanks mostly to Erdrich’s poetic and mystical prose, which is one of the best points of this book. In fact, it’s the prose, the characters—very mysterious all of them and very endearing with their complex mindset—and the humane way in which the author deals with the Indian problem back in the beginning of the 20th century.

This is a fan-art-like illustration done by Chicago illustrator, Kathleen Joyce. Click on the drawing to direct to her own blog and check out her other works.

As I said, it is not preachy, so it’s quite easy to relate to the characters without feeling the demand to do it. You do get inside of their minds and their skin, and you can feel the way they deal with their world, which is slowly crumbling apart because of the gradual intervention of non-Indians and even Fleur’s almost diabolical presence.

There’s rarely a long piece of dialogue, and most of the prose focuses on the descriptions of the weird events and the “oral” tradition-like way of exposing them, to make them sound as rumours. Rumours that, of course, the reader can choose to take them as such, or even as mere hallucinations created by the slowly degrading people who bump into Fleur. Or even coincidences. Frankly, who knows? Nobody knows in the end what’s going on, and that’s the best thing of the book: the reader in the end’s the one with the final answer, and the one living through these characters the experience of seeing one’s culture tearing apart in a very harsh moment of their history.

The only flaw I see in this book is that it might not be very well appreciated if you don’t read first the other novels of the series. I appreciated it mostly because I knew of whom was the author talking about, and I actually picked it up because I wanted to dive more into Fleur and Pauline, but then, as the lecture progressed, I became aware that this book, as a standalone, might have some problems. It wouldn’t erase any of the beauty the author crafted, but I say and take it as a warning that you might love this book mostly if you read first previous works from the author, just in case, because too many names and too many references will only make sense if you do. So yeah, I don’t recommend this book if you don’t have any idea of what’s behind these characters, which is actually exposed in Love Medicine, Erdrich’s debut novel. So I recommend, for the maximum pleasure, diving just a bit into deeper water before walking to the shore.

Now, onto a harder piece…

Shadow Tag

Shadow Tag

I’ll be honest. I’ll be completely honest, O Reader. I am surprised of this book, and not in a good way. In fact, I still can’t believe it was written by Louise Erdrich. Not only is her enriching and poetic prose absent in this book: her craft in her characters is also gone in here.

The story is as follows: Irene America’s the alcoholic wife of a prominent local painter, Gil, who tends to use her as a model for his work. She’s got a red diary, and one day she discovers Gil’s been reading it secretly, and as revenge, she starts writing lies and malicious things on it so she can write a more “honest” one in a blue notebook. Naturally, she writes disturbing and shocking stuff to Gil, who slowly starts becoming quite desperate when he starts suspecting of his wife’s love. He tries to desperately win her back, but for no real reason specified, Irene keeps torturing him. You get the idea she’s trying to get her revenge, but as the novel progresses, you start wondering if she’s mentally unstable or something…which is not what the author seemed to intend on her, at least on my opinion.

So in few words, this book’s just about a spiral of (unintended) madness. So, yeah.

Unlike her previous novels, specifically those of her Native American series, this book lacks an imaginative prose. It’s dull and gray, and walks in a rather tedious pace, even though it is fast paced as it was correctly pointed out in a review on the back cover. And unlike other reviewers whose scathing reviews I also read, I didn’t find the “grim” or “malicious” vibe on the book. In fact, I felt nothing. I didn’t find it grim: I found it boring.

Boring. Boring. Boring. Because the real stuff behind all the intensity and drama…is not there. It’s all so…shallow.

Unlike what the back-cover premise said, this book doesn’t have the promised diary drama that was remarked everywhere. In fact, I feel…scammed, to say the least, because this book had a nice concept and did seem to have a good point to land in… But no. Erdrich, for some mysterious reason, didn’t play with the very strong points she got in the idea and, instead, played on silly scenes that were supposed to be intense, violent and uneasy to deal with, and which in the end were…stiff and almost inhuman. You could say it is because of its very nature as a fast-paced novel, but still it’s no excuse. The House of the Sleeping Beauties of Yasunari Kawabata is a fast-paced novel (I finished it in four hours), and yet it got all the intensity of an anvil. Really!

7 lb Cast Iron Anvil

That sensation you feel when a cartoonish anvil falls over you is the same you feel when you read Camus’ The Stranger and most of Dostoievski’s and Kawabata’s prose. So yeah, maybe all writers should begin their careers as smiths!

The diary plot was unused. I think there were only 10 entries in total, and none of them did an actual shocking moment to the plot. In fact, I think you could remove them and still the plot could have kept going, albeit even more boringly. Let’s face it: it was just some…odd fight between Irene America and Gil. We never find out why they were deteriorating as a couple in first place, and even though we do see their breaking apart, it feels…odd. Not forced, but it doesn’t have any sense, nor reason to exist. I still wonder what was wrong with Irene, and why she acted this way towards her husband, aside of that “reading my diary” excuse. Gil is perhaps the only a bit more realistic character and who acts more alike his personality. But Irene… Seriously, what’s wrong with her?

To resume it all, this book is disappointing. Or better said, the back cover, at least personally, disappointed me horribly. This is the second time the plot description has deceived me, but, unlike The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, this one really punched my gut. The characters are flat—the leads, by the way, show no reason or road to mistreat this way, so I still wonder how this book came to happen—, the best idea was unused, and… Was I the only one who disliked a lot the children? I dunno, I felt them…unreal, almost disgusting, almost parodies of the actual nature of real children. It’s not the first time I’ve read porcelain children like these ones, but it surprises me, coming from Erdrich, whom I always considered an almost almighty author…

I guess I committed the mistake of liking her a lot, huh.


So these are the reviews. The best and the worst of Erdrich. And still, I recommend her a lot. Not Shadow Tag, but do know her first through the Native American series and, maybe (haven’t read it completely, but the first 20 pages did catch my attention), The Master Butcher’s Singing Club (if you’ve read it, feel free to comment on this article your recommendation). Those do contain Erdrich’s wondrous signatures and her vivid talent.

After Shadow Tag, though, I came to a concise conclusion towards Erdrich’s novels, especially the ones that promise a lot in their book covers. And take this as a heart-to-heart advice, O Reader: read their first 50 pages before you buy them. Read them consciously and without any discrimination nor obsession. Just read, and if the story comes to you as in Love Medicine, Tracks and The Last Report..., then it is worth your time.

Because after I read 50 pages of Shadow Tag, I realized I committed a great mistake in buying it.

Thanks for reading!

Please, do comment! All other recommendations of Louise Erdrich’s books are welcome.

[All images redirect to their original sources]

Have you read Los días terrenales?

17 Mar

Ever since I participated in a specific Daily Post Challenge and used one of my favourite books of them all for it, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, I had the little urge of working more with books, as it is part of my educational formation and, obviously, I need to give some use to what I’ve learned during these years of excruciating pain, don’t you think?

And thus, I thought it would be a nice idea to present some Hispanic little gems to the English-speaking public (as I tend to read Latin American literature over other international titles), especially with this specific author that suddenly reminded me of the dark side of life.

José Revueltas.


As you may guess, José Revueltas is a rather unknown author, even in Mexico, possibly because of his status as communist (let’s remember that the only red that our actual government’s tolerating so far is that of blood) and because of the few demand of his books. I happened to meet his work by chance for a school assignment, but I reread a book of his some days ago in search for inspiration for a project I am currently working for. And this rereading made me catch several key factors that I didn’t see in the day I met this text, and thus I decided to talk about it and, hopefully, open the curiosity among my English speaking readers so they can come give a try to this magnificent piece of underrated literature.

The book I am talking about is Los días terrenales, whose literal English title is The Earthly Days.

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What’s Los días terrenales about? Well, there’s not much to tell on this book. In fact, the plot it’s very, very simple: it’s the daily routine of the Mexican communists during the first half of the 20th century. That’s all. I swear to you, this is all. Or better said, it starts with a young Mexican communist, Gregorio Saldívar, helping a group of indigenous people during a fishing night, until they accidentally kill the head of a local group when they mistake him with a crocodile. This triggers some discomfort inside of his party, which will call for him in the next days to reassign him to another task for the communist agenda, which is, as you may guess, hidden and secret from the public, to conceal itself from the regime.

And…well, this is not all, but it’s the actual and straightforward plot of the book. In fact, Los días terrenales distinguishes itself from other Mexican works because of its prose and ambivalent way to connect past with present. You might be reading, for example, how Gregorio’s admiring one of the heads of the indigenous group, El Tuerto Ventura, and then suddenly the prose will jump to the day Ventura lost his eye and narrate it in a rather dark and violent way. It might sound annoying and even unnecessary, but trust me: it is done in a masterful way, almost as if it was the only way possible to give this character his background and humanity, as Revueltas is not a noob in literature. He really knows what the hell he’s doing and he achieves it with his style.

As a matter of fact, I think it is the Revueltas’ prose the pinnacle of this book.

Such simple plot is interwoven with very philosophical prose and a poetic description of the characters’ motivations and political ideas, aside of their emotional struggles with their life and themselves. For example, one of the main characters, Fidel, appears only from two to three chapters in total, and we only see him typewriting coldly and submerged into the communist agenda while the corpse of his baby daughter, Bandera, is abandoned in her cradle, with his wife, Julia, as the sole mourner of the poor child. This is the sole action of those two characters in a scene: writing and mourning. But the prose dives us into their psyche, their memories, how they met each other and how they’re reacting internally to their daughter’s premature death in her very own home.

In fact, if you’re looking for a book that includes lots of dialogue and external action, this book might not be for you. Most of the action occurs inside of the characters, in the way they contemplate and philosophize their life, and in the way the narrator presents to us the real personas behind those modern rebels which, in appearance, might seem too idealistic, cold or even naïve, as all of them have a distinct view of what Communist should be like.

Just in case you don’t believe me, allow me to translate the very first lines of the book so you can have an idea of Revueltas’ apocalyptic prose:

In the beginning, there was Chaos, yet suddenly that excruciating spell shattered into pieces and life came to be. The atrocious human life.

Contrary to what it might seem, Los días terrenales wasn’t actually a darling among the communists back then. In fact, because of its rather harsh criticism towards the ideology of that time (courtesy of Fidel’s rather cold, if not inhuman, left wing tendencies, which include treating his daughter’s death as a sacrifice in favour of the party), it was both unpopular with the right wing leaders and the left wing leaders. Revueltas was a proud red wing activist, but he was also dissatisfied with the local communist party and the way it leaded itself. Go figure how much controversy this book got!

Possibly because of that extremist left wing approach, and because of the author himself, this book is just known by very few people inside of the nation, and obviously he’s almost a ghost outside of Mexico.

However, I truly want this to change, as I think this book is a vanguard if we take into consideration its context and the power of its poetic prose, especially during the ending. In fact, the ending is the whole sum of power that Revueltas’ prose can bring into the reader. I recommend it due to its philosophical approach to the life and Communism, and even more because it is not as long as one would expect it to be.

Sadly, and as I said, I am not sure there is an English translation, so Spanish readings are the only ones available. However, if you happen to find it on English, or in any other language you read as well, trust me, it’s worth the time. It truly opens your mind and your conception of language, politics and even of Communism itself.

A recommended reading.

Thanks a lot for reading!