Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (novel #126)

"Fish" he said, "I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends."

The Old Man and the Sea is a novella by Ernest Hemingway. It tells the story of Santiago – the old man – a Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish for 84 days.


Santiago, well past his prime, and impoverished by lack of success, takes to the sea each day in a dilapidated skiff.

The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.


But in spite of his reduced estate, he is a seasoned fisherman, with a healthy respect for the sea and his prey.

…the old man always thought of her [the sea] as feminine and as something that gave or withheld favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.


His young apprentice, Manolin, just a boy who loves the old man, is prohibited from fishing with Santiago because the old man is considered bad luck.


On the 85th day of his draught, Santiago hooks an enormous Blue Marlin that will test his skill, stamina, and resolve. He battles the fish for three days and two nights. Santiago gets little sleep and must eat raw fish to maintain his strength. Although, he is not religious, Santiago prays and adds a little something to the standard Hail Mary…

Blessed Virgin, pray for the death of this fish. Wonderful though he is.


He considers the fish a friend or brother, even though he knows he must kill it, and he often talks to it.

“Fish” he said softly, aloud, “I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”


Santiago is a fan of the New York Yankees and admirer of Joe DiMaggio. He wonders if the great DiMaggio would be proud of his epic struggle. Being a Tigers fan myself, I smiled when Santiago worried about the Yankee’s chances…

I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.


I’ll spare the spoiler – though you probably know how it ends. This is my first read of The Old Man and the Sea, though I have read several works by Hemingway. I always admire Hemingway’s writing, but I don’t always love his stories. This one however, was superb; it is now my favorite work by Hemingway. It is a tender, thoughtful story, heartbreaking and heartwarming.


Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this work in 1953, and it was cited as one of the factors for his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. Hemingway’s friend Charles Scribner wrote:

It is a curious fact of literary history that a story which describes the loss of a gigantic prize provided the author with the greatest prize of his career.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I read this for The Classics Club spin #20.



Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (novel #125)

"At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives."

Goodness – that excerpt, sums up this entire novel.

I am desperately saddened from reading this non-fiction novel – and powerfully impressed with the author.

I have to admit, I held a perception of Truman Capote as somewhat frivolous. I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffanys, and a few short stories of Capote’s, and I know just a bit about his life, all of which made this non-fiction novel, or true-crime novel quite unexpectedly profound.

Profound, riveting, disquieting, I don’t quite know what else. I’ve dreamt of the events of this novel since reading it. Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve described greatness in literature as that which makes me feel and think. This work does both.

I expected the New Orleans born, dirty-south acquainted, New York socialite, intellectual, arrogant author to treat the Kansas yokels as – well – yokels. But no. He treated them with tender, genuine, respect, while at the same time humanizing the cold blooded killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who murdered four Kansas innocents in the fall of 1959.

I’ve never known a murderer, though I’ve known a murder victim. I never expected to feel sympathy for a murderer – but Capote evoked such a feeling.

Which is not to say, I wished for their pardon. Their crime was unpardonable, but their lives were pitiable, believable, tragic, and sadly repeatable.

But I wax melodramatic. In Cold Blood is an astonishing work. It challenged me. I didn’t love it, but I respect it.

And for writing alone – the man can write. Excerpts below.

My rating: 4 1/2 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies a classic tragedy for the Back to the Classics challenge 2019.


It was ideal apple-eating weather; the whitest sunlight descended from the purest sky, and an easterly wind resulted, without ripping loose, the last of the leaves of the Chinese elms. Autumns reward western Kansas for the evils that the remaining seasons impose…

He [Perry Smith] and Dick [Richard Hickock] were running a race without a finish line…

But Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded, that the detective could not disregard.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare

Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare 

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a comedy, written in early 17thcentury.

It is the tale of Pericles, of course. Who must flee his own country as the King of Antioch has set an assassin after Pericles – for Perciles knows the king is involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter, causing Pericles to state…
   One sin I know another doth provoke:
   Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke:
   Poison and treason are the hands of sin,
   Ay, and the targets to put off the shame:
   Then lest my life be cropp’d to keep you clear
   By flight I’ll shun the danger which I fear.

His flight sets off a series of tragedies. He takes a wife, Thaisa princess of Pentapolis, but shortly after she gives birth to their daughter Marina, Thsisa is lost in a storm at sea. Pericles leaves Marina in the care of trusted friends, as he returns to his own kingdom – as those seeking his life have met poetic ends. Later, upon returning for Marina, he learns she has died, and Pericles slips into a listless and speechless depression.

But lo, Thaisa or Marina are alive after all, but each believes the others to be dead and hence none of the three are searching for the others. It will still take some clever Shakespearean twist of fate to bring them all together again – but fear not – it is a comedy after all.

Not my favorite. I’m probably not alone, as this is certainly not a very popular play. Also, possibly not entirely the work of Shakespeare.

I hope it sill counts, as I read it for the 2019 Year of Shakespeare Challenge. The last comedy for this year. Next month/quarter it will be histories.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Classics Club Spin #20

Classics Club Spin #20

It is time for the 20thedition of the Classics Club Spin – List 20 books from your CC TBR, before April 22, the mods will pick a number at random, and then you have until January 31 to read the corresponding book.

Last time, I stated what number I was hoping for…and I got it, so this time, I am hoping for #15 or #11.

My 20 Classics for the Spin:

1.   Greenmantle by James Buchan
2.   The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
3.   Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
4.   The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
5.   The Oak Openings by James Fenimore Cooper
6.   The Adventures of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
7.   Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
8.   The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
9.   Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
11. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
12. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
13. The Stranger by Albert Camus
14. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
15. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
16. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
17. Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
18. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
19. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
20. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett


Friday, April 12, 2019

Candide by Voltaire (novel #124)

All is for the best

Candide is an 18th Century satire. The title character is a privileged, innocent young man, and illegitimate nephew of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh. Also residing in the baron’s castle are the baron’s daughter Cunegonde, and tutor Pangloss who teaches…

That they live in the best of all possible worlds
That things cannot be otherwise than as they are
And that all is for the best

A philosophy Candide embraces without doubt or reservation.

Until his world begins to unravel. Candide is evicted when a fairly innocent kiss with Cunegonde is discovered. Alone and unprotected, he is conscripted into the army, beaten and carried away, later to learn of an attack against his uncle’s castle, the murder of the entire household, and the rape and murder of Cunegonde.  

And yet, Candide is merely confused – he loses no faith in Pangloss’ teachings, but merely wishes for his tutor to help him understand the apparent contradiction of his philosophy and the reality of life.

In time, Candide happily finds Pangloss and Cunegonde – not dead after all, but in severely humbled condition – nonetheless there is hope for reward of Candide’s innocence and faith.

But no. A series of events brings the characters together, and then separates them, and causes them by force or freewill to leave Europe for the Americas. Candide concludes…
We are going into another world, ….and surely it must be there that all is for the best.

But no. Back to Europe, and then the Mediterranean. And slowly, though narrated very quickly, Candide is disillusioned.

The satire is quite evidently Voltaire’s rebuttal of Optimism. Meh…OK. I get it. But I was unimpressed, and I didn’t find it very funny.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies A Classic Comedy for the Back to the Classics 2019 challenge.


Monday, April 8, 2019

Papillon by Henri Charriére (novel #123)

"My duty to myself was not to get even, but above anything else, to live – to live in order to escape." ~ convict Henri Charriére aka Papillon

Papillon is an autobiographical novel, in which Papillon tells his tale of imprisonment and escape from the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana, 1931-1941.

Autobiographical novel is a new genre for me, and it gave me a little trouble in deciding how I felt about this classic.

So, bear with me. Let me pretend for a moment that Papillon, the novel, is pure fiction, and that Papillon, the person, is a fictional character. I’d call this an exciting adventure of unjust imprisonment, inhuman conditions, daring escape, and the indomitable spirit of man. The narrator, Henri Charriére aka Papillon [French for butterfly], for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest, is a safecracker and thief in 1930s Paris underworld. He is framed, tried, and convicted for murder and sentenced to life in the infamous penal colony in French Guiana.

Papillon is by his own admission a criminal, but no murderer. If this is only fiction, I’d definitely classify him an unreliable narrator. No problem – the unreliable narrator is an effective literary device.

The penal colony in French Guiana, which includes Diable or Devil’s Island, is certainly infamous. It is the repository of France’s discarded citizens – those either unworthy or incapable of reform. Papillon calls it…
…guillotining of men without benefit of a guillotine.

After more than 10 years, and several failed attempts, Papillon manages to escape from inescapable Diable, along with a partner, by riding the tides on rafts made of coconuts. His partner nearly makes it, but dies in quicksand when they reach land. Papillon however, finally wins his freedom and becomes a legitimate and productive citizen of Venezuela.

An exciting and satisfying tale. If just a novel, I’d probably give it 4 stars.

Except – it isn’t pure fiction.

It is supposed to be autobiographical, as such the unreliable narrator is no longer just a literary device; if the author expects me to believe him, he needs to be reliable, and to be blunt, he isn’t. He was after all, a confirmed criminal – a dishonest man. His assertion of his innocence is rather self-serving, as are repeated assertions that all he wants is the chance to prove himself a productive member of society.
True, my punishment wasn't worthy of the French people, and if society need to protect itself, it didn't have to sink so low - but that's beside the point. I can't erase my past with a swipe of the sponge. I must rehabilitate myself in my own eyes first, then in the eyes of others.

Very noble, but he wrote these words after he’d gained his freedom. We can’t know his true motivation back in prison, but I suspect it was more about gaining freedom than proving his virtue. Finally, there is some rather compelling evidence that he borrowed details of some of his exploits from another author, casting further doubt on his reliability.

The definition of autobiographical novel is a bit fuzzy, and some fiction is allowed – but this felt much more like Charriére’s manifesto – to convince himself and the world that he was a decent fellow and a victim of French injustice.

I don’t really buy it. I’ll give him this though – he was a remarkable human being.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies A Classic in Translation (from French) for the Back to the Classics 2019 challenge.

Excerpts, all the words or thoughts of Papillon:

A society that had no intention of helping me. Men who couldn’t be bothered to find out if I was worth salvaging. A world that had rejected me and cast me beyond the reach of hope, into holes like this, where they had only one thing on their minds: to kill me off, no matter what.

Dear God, you’ve got to realize that I must live among civilized people and show them I’m capable of taking part in their lives without being a threat to them. That’s my real goal – with or without your help.

I looked around my cell. It was hard to believe that a country like mine, France, the cradle of liberty for the entire world, the land which gave birth to the Rights of Man, could maintain, even in French Guiana, on a tiny island lost in the Atlantic, and installation as barbarously repressive as the Réclusion [solitary confinement] of Saint-Joseph.

My duty to myself was not to get even, but above anything else, to live – to live in order to escape.

I touched God, I felt Him around me, inside me. He even whispered in my ear: “You suffer; you will suffer more. But this time I am on your side. You will be free. You will, I promise you.