Brave New World – 4/5 Stars
Another book I read in high school and college, but hadn’t re-read for 15 or so years. I was thinking about using this for a unit on dystopian literature in my English 12 Special Ed classes, but for a few reasons and a few conversations I don’t really want to have with students, I don’t think I will after all. For one, the sexuality in the book is a lot more forward than I originally remembered, and includes some pretty direct references to kids fooling around with each other. My high school AP Literature teacher was basically Martha Stewart and so I will leave those conversations to the Martha Stewart of English teachers. The other thing is the for a book that’s actually pretty simple and straight-forward the language and structure of the novel is pretty complex. The opening section is beautifully rendered based on a conversation in a government facility with the background noise and conversations digressions of a tour group laying the expositional groundwork and introducing the characters and stakes of the society. I also don’t want students to feel like there’s a parallel between their circumstances in a English 12 special ed class and the stratified structure of that society. I will let them decide on their own whether they think it’s going on.
The book though, given that it’s a dystopia, is interesting to me, because something that I will say about it and it’s true for We as well, is that honestly, the dystopian part just isn’t that bad. Most people are having a pretty decent time of things. The horror at eugenics and social engineering is the obvious criticism, but throughout the whole book only three characters are specifically failed by the society: John Savage, Benard, and Linda. So in terms of numbers, not bad. I would also like to suggest that the “Savage” community is equally as rigid and unforgiving, but that we get less of them and they have less power. For me, then, the problem isn’t necessarily the structures of society being so oppressive you can’t manage them, but they can’t accommodate difference.
We – 5/5 Stars
We is another of the early dystopian novels that was always on a list of “You have to read one of these” lists of AP Literature for me. I always elected to read Vonnegut’s Player Piano or 1984. I went back and forth between the short ones and the more famous ones. I was also always intimidated by Russian literature as a thing because its reputation for being difficult.
Anyway, We is told through a series of diary entries as a mathetician in a far-future Russian dystopia called “OneState” is preparing to build a spaceship and conquer the far reaches of the universe. He starts his diary amid a series of events, becoming more aware of his own sense of self, watching a poet friend be all poety, and meeting a woman who goes against multiple social norms and is not his assigned consort. As the novel progresses he becomes more and more self-aware, starts dreaming, is confronted with his difference, all leading not to a big stand off, but a large social confrontation of his worldview.
Ultimately this novel is about being uncomfortable with one’s own difference and sense of self in a society that is demanding you conform. The nature of this novel is more one of ideas and thoughtfulness and self-reflection than others. The state apparatus are less violent and more repressive than anything. Its plot is very similar to a lot of Brave New World and is one of those things where Huxley was all like, what I never heard of it, but probably did.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey – 5/5 Stars
This is one of the first adult novels I ever read and felt like I had an earnest appreciation of. The book was on a summer list or out of class list and I picked it up, possibly because of the length (it’s short) possibly because of the title, or some other connection to it. Regardless, I read it, “understood” it, or at least connected with it and felt accomplished because of it. It’s ostensibly a novel, but it’s more or less a collection of short stories or short novellas connected by a singular event that helps to pose some thematic questions in the frame narrative surrounding the event. It won the Pulitizer back in about 1928, and it’s one of the few early winners that remotely hold up (Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis aside). The novel is about a bridge collapse in Peru that kills five people. We are “reminded” of the event and the acclaim that met the only record of it from a local Catholic priest who put down the stories of those killed. We are also told how the bridge had been up for several decades and had been an old Inca bridge. The collapse of the bridge clearly works along the theme of the ancient world meeting with the modern world, indigenous versus Catholic religious influences, and other similar ideas.
The the rest of the novel, before a final bookending chapter that revisits the event itself tells the story of the five people killed. In the first, we meet the Marquesa de Montemayor and her servant Pepita, an older woman who was born an ugly child of a rich merchant, whose only daughter is now gone and married in Spain, and who is on the bridge en route to visit the daughter. Poor Pepita was simply along for the journey.
In the second (and best section) we have Esteben who is crossing the bridge in order to join a captain on a sea voyage. He was recruited in his grief of having lost his twin brother, with whom he recently quarreled over the love of a woman and who died from a minor infection.
In the last, and least good section, Uncle Pio and Don Jaime, tell of a singing sensation traveling the country performing.
The final section of the novel revisits the question of fate and faith, and whether or not the older religion or the newer religion have within them the capacity to explain the event in any meaningful way.
Go Set a Watchman – 2/5 Stars
This ain’t your daddy’s daddy! I will share that I was never much enamored with Atticus Finch, but I do appreciate that this novel helps to pinpoint some of my issues with him, while still not fixing them, dealing with them very directly, or otherwise making compelling justifications for its own existence. One thing I will say is that this novel is more complex and thoughtful than a lot of white nonsense written about race. That said, I don’t think this novel should have been published. It’s a mess with very little narrative and a whole veneer of fake framework simply to give a voice to issues of race. It’s broadly uncomplicated of a novel and is little more than a polemic of white justification on race and white people scolding other white people for actually having to grow up and face the world. It’s more telling of white notions of what their own responsibility for race issues in this country is, but it doesn’t reckon with the violence caused in the name of supremacy.
Even putting Scout as the “good guy” in all this conversation is weak. It suggests that once Scout outlives the Atticuses of the world who would slow down progress that will working toward fixing things, except, no it didn’t Atticus is dead, and his children, just not Scout picked up the mantle and kept it up for two more generations. So I don’t buy it. And I don’t buy that the wait and see attitude isn’t still what’s going on. I am not sure who is the person making the money grab for this novel, but that’s what it is. It’s a mess of a novel, and as far as the racial politics goes, Harper Lee always could have simply written nonfiction.
Call of the Wild – 4/5 Stars
Jack London has a lot of problems, but being a dog in his world ain’t one. I grew reading versions of this novel and seeing movies, but I never really sat down and read the whole thing. And now I have. It’s wonderful. Like others of his stories, this one focuses solely on the perspective of the dog, Buck, an Alaskan husky who is shipped up north during the 1897 Alaskan gold rush. While there he has a series of owners from a judge and his sons, who are perfectly adequate, to drunken Scots who are unprepared and violent, and finally to Thornton, the only human he could possibly love and who loves him. The overall thrust of the novel is that this land is a violent land that belongs to those who learn to adapt. It’s Naturalistic in form, meaning that even the best of preparation cannot save from the ferocity and savagery of the land, and being ill-prepared is a downright sin. In fact, the land quickly teaches Buck that values and virtues mean nothing if one cannot survive.
This is a nicely told story where bad things do happen to dogs, but you get a dog through and through as the main perspective. It’s problematic in the sense that while it’s in the dog’s perspective (not voice mind you) but it’s set up like it’s a super naturalistic/scientific type story, it doesn’t quite work because the dog is aware of things it just couldn’t be aware of. In addition, it’s about the most personified/anthropomorphized story you could imagine, which is fine, but moves against the argument of realism.