BOOK REVIEW: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No OneThus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The gist of this philosophical novel’s story is that the Persian sage, Zarathustra, comes down from his cave to inform people of his breakthrough, only to find the townspeople are utterly uninterested. This leads Zarathustra to take his show on the road, where he does better in discovering individuals who rise above the common man, but still they miss the mark of Übermensch – the Superman.

This book somehow simultaneously manages to be abstruse and readable. It can be tough reading when it uses symbolism and leitmotifs that are tough to crack, and when the story arc consists of long sequences of Zarathustra talking at people one after another. [It’s worth noting that I read that this was a particularly challenging book to translate, and so some of the difficulty may result from the edition I read being too literal or not literal enough.] On the other hand, it’s packed with pithy, quotable lines. The most famous of these is, “God is dead.” Others include: “Die at the right time!” “Better know nothing than half-know many things!” and “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.” Also, as I stated the plot in a tiny paragraph, it should be clear that the general flow of events isn’t hard to keep up with.

The quotes I presented above offer substantial insight into the philosophy being presented. First, with “God is dead” Nietzsche is advancing the existentialist fundamental that one needs to look not at religion for life’s meaning or for the means of proper behavior, but one must create one’s own meaning and morality. While some believe that Nietzsche is arguing for amorality, it seems that he’s more arguing to move beyond accepting pre-labeled boxes of “good” and “bad” handed down from on high, and rather insisting that one must make one’s own decisions about such matters. It must be remembered that society’s dictates also include collective prejudices and other negative biases. Second, the whole of the book is dedicated to the recognition that mankind must move beyond its current state of being constrained by the shackles of church, state, and society, and rise to a super-state (i.e. “Man is something that hath to be surpassed.”)

For me, this book picked up in the fourth and final part. This section brings together the more intriguing people Zarathustra interacted with along the road. In general, the book started as a slow read, but became much clearer and more readable as I went. The arguments are not hard, nor is the chain of events, but the way things are stated can be a bit incomprehensible. This may be one of those books for which one would be served by opting for a more heavily annotated edition rather than just the raw text.

I’d recommend this book. Whether one accepts its arguments or not, they are worth understanding.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Blue ed. by Ameena Hussein

Blue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri LankaBlue: The Tranquebar book of Erotic Fiction for Sri Lanka by Ameena Hussein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is an anthology or erotically-themed short fiction and poetry of Sri Lanka.

Readers who are interested in cultural idiosyncrasies, particularly related to sexuality, will find the works included offer fascinating insights. That said, readers whose primary experience with erotic fiction is, for example, French erotica will probably find the stories tentative and occasionally creepy in a desperation-derived way (e.g. the hotel employee who sneaks into an admired guest’s room and – among other things — sniffs clothing.) For readers outside South Asia, one must read these works with a recognition that it is a culture that is less open about sexuality, in which the sexes don’t co-mingle as freely in youth, and where people have to take love when and where they can get it to a greater extent than readers from elsewhere may be used to. That said, the characters in these stories tend to be from a more open and progressive segment of society, but they are still operating within the constraints of the society. Some readers will find the tentativeness endearing and nostalgic, others may find it slow or tame.

Before describing each work in brief, the reader may wish to be made aware that – unlike many works of erotica – this book does not target a particular sex or sexual orientation. By that I mean, it bounces around between straight, lesbian, and gay male relationships in its stories.

– The Proposal: The first-person narrator has a friend who is on the outs with his girlfriend, and said narrator has an opportunity to bed said girlfriend. There isn’t much deliberation about whether a “bro” should be put first here

– Sex in the Hood: A poem about art and life in challenging environs.

– Undercover: A middle-aged woman whose marriage has gone lukewarm, gets groped at a movie theater, and returns the next day.

– Me and Ms. J: An ex-pat in Brussels looks back on a youthful lesbian dalliance with an older woman.

– The Lava Lamp: When girlfriends end up staying together overnight, the lava lamp becomes a representation of the couple’s flow with each other. A short piece.

– Bus Stop: A young man works up the courage to advance a relationship with a pretty girl he’s been seeing (wordlessly) at the bus stop for months. This is one of the longer and more developed pieces.

– A Courtyard: An imagery-intensive poem not only about a courtyard, but what is glimpsed across it. Probably my favorite of the poetry.

– Veysee: If you thought my mention of a hotel employee who sneaks into a guest’s room and sniffs her clothes was creepy, this story about a porn-addicted thirty-something carrying out a covert relationship with an under-aged girl takes creepiness to a new level. (Though there are hints of recognition on the part of the character of the error of his ways.)

– No: This is less erotic than a commentary on things that go unsaid in sexual relationships because the individuals involved don’t know how to broach the subject, or because they are operating on fundamentally different wave-lengths. I should say that it’s not that it lacks the sensuality of erotica, but it deals heavily with consent being mowed down.

– I’d Like to Hold Your Hand: A poem describing how the author would like to proceed from holding hands to ecstasy.

– Bi-Cycle: This is a very brief dreamy piece about the author’s personal dilemma.

– Bookworm: A bookish young man gets ushered into sexuality by the shopkeeper of his favorite bookstore.

– What Reminds Me of You: A sensual poem of nostalgia for a past love.

– Room 1716: A lobby manager at a hotel in Colombo develops a secret crush on Alicia, a tourist from an undesignated Western country. When Alicia makes a short overnight trip, the manager arranges for her to keep her room without charge. Said manager then sneaks into the room to investigate clues about her girl-crush.

– 76, Park Avenue: A Russian (or other undesignated Slavic) man has a relationship with a Sri Lankan woman.

– Flower Offering: A sensual poem about flowers – literal and symbolic.

– Hot Date: A guy ends up in drama through pursuit of the most sexually willing girl.

I found this book to be interesting. As I said, to relate to many of its characters and their motivations one has to be aware of setting and cultural norms. It has a mix of more and less developed stories and characters. (Though there are no isolated sex scenes, as sometimes occur in erotic works.) There’s a lot of power-dynamics playing out, but not at all in the explicitly sadomasochistic dominant / submissive way. There are many characters and actions that a reader might find unsavory (e.g. the grown man who acts like he’s fresh out of puberty and has no self control is a recurring theme) but loathsome characters can be as readable as likable ones. (Only indifferent characters are unreadable.)

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in taking a world tour of erotica.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Tempest by William Shakespeare

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The storm (i.e. tempest) in question takes place off a remote, desolate, and magical island upon which lives the usurped and exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter, Miranda. The reader realizes that the storm’s timing is too great a coincidence when it’s revealed that among those on a ship caught in the tempest is Antonio, the usurping Duke of Milan. The learned Prospero has developed some magic abilities and gained control over some of the island’s airy spirits — most notably Ariel — as well as the deformed monster / slave named Caliban. Caliban was the son of a witch who was previously in charge of the island, Sycorax. Under Sycorax’s rule, Ariel and the other spirits were imprisoned, so Ariel and the others are now in indentured servitude to Prospero.

The brilliant mind of Prospero has hatched a plot that isn’t all vengeance, but also intends to get his daughter a worthy husband in the form of Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. Both father (Alonso) and son (Ferdinand) are washed ashore after the apparent capsize of the ship, but Prospero sees to it that they are separated. The separation not only allows Ferdinand and Miranda to get acquainted, but also allows Alonso to be put through some trials to hasten his willingness to agree to the intended marriage. As Prospero is using Ariel to carry out his plot, under promise that he will free her, Caliban has joined with some drunken sailors and is plotting to kill Prospero so that he can be free of his bookish master. Needless to say, the crude scheme by the trio of Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo is easily thwarted by Prospero and his spirit minions.

In the song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who, there’re lines that say: “meet the old boss / same as the new boss.” This play focuses heavily on ideas of hostile take over, the inevitable mixed effects, and how tensions are created that will play out. Ariel has at least the promise of being better off — when she works off her debt to Prospero, that is. Caliban is worse off because he is no longer in the power lineage. Caliban’s partners in plotting see a chance to go from being minions aboard a ship to kings of a tiny dynasty on the island. There is also the theme of relinquishing power, and the difficulty of doing so.

Some fun facts about “The Tempest.” First, it’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play (although evidence is insufficient for certainty.) Second, while Shakespeare’s plays are typically readily divided into three categories: tragedies, comedies, and histories, scholars are a bit divided about which category this play belongs. It’s sometimes categorized as a “tragicomedy” because of its mixed features.

With the storm-washed, rocky island as setting, and the supernatural happenings on the island, this is one of Shakespeare’s eeriest and most mind-bending works.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The book’s lead, Clay Jannon, takes a job as night clerk at a 24-hour bookstore, having found himself jobless in the wake of a recession that sealed the fate of the tech startup for which he’d been working. The job is easy enough, but the workplace is an enigma. It attracts few paying customers, and mostly exists to serve a regular clientele who come in to borrow very old books that aren’t for sale. Working the night-shift, and with little real work to do, Jannon starts trying to make sense of the riddle of the bookstore, and ends up neck-deep in a world of secret societies and medieval encrypted codices.

The book is an entertaining read. There are certainly things about the story that are a little too easy, such as Jannon having a circle of friends that have the perfect set of resources and capabilities to carry out the story’s arc. This allows Clay to be presented as a scrappy underdog character, but he never has to be constrained by that status because he has a wealthy friend who will buy him anything he needs and a girlfriend from Google with the chops to gain him access to unlimited computing power. All that said, the book is more fantasy than strict realism, and so this isn’t really a problem for the reader who wants to lose him- or herself in an intriguing story. It’s also true that Clay is gregarious and likable and so one can imagine him easily building friendships – though, with a notable exception, he already has these friends before the story starts. But the characters are all distinct, and generate the desired state of liking or loathing.

[When I say “fantasy,” I should clarify that while there are hints about the possibility of the supernatural, readers don’t see real evidence of it. So, it’s realism in the sense that it’s a world limited by the same constraints as ours. However, it’s a world that features a secret society, The Unbroken Spine,” that stretches back almost to the Middle Ages, and which has been striving to decode a book produced by one of the earliest printers because they believe it may hold secrets of a supernatural nature. So, it feels like an urban fantasy / down the rabbit hole kind of story though, strictly speaking, it’s not.]

I enjoyed this book. The story is gripping even if it does feature some deus ex machina Hail Marys. The characters are likable and interesting. I’d recommend it for readers who like mystery and intrigue in the stories they read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

Story of the EyeStory of the Eye by Georges Bataille
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.com

 

This story follows a couple through a destructive series of events as they chase sexual hedonism. They aren’t a couple in the romantic sense so much as friends who share in common both intense sex drives and also a particular psychology. It’s a psychology commonly associated with rebellion against a repressive upbringing. This rebellion manifests both in a longing for perverse and taboo activities, and also in an urge to debauch the virtuous. This love of depravement is first seen in the pair’s actions with a conflicted girl of their own age, Marcelle, and in the climax and conclusion with a young priest in Seville. In yet a darker turn, the two also conflate violence and sexual arousal.

Character development is not particularly strong in this book, and without the requisite background, the actions of the unnamed male narrator and his companion, Simone, can seem hard to believe at times. (To be fair, the book is more surrealism than realism.) While lack of character development and character complexity are a common problem in erotic literature, this book is also smothered in Freudian belief about how strange sexual drives always and everywhere exist in the subconscious in a struggle to break free. In other words, Bataille may not have felt he needed to set up the reader for the bizarre behavior of the narrator and Simone because he saw the pair as not as unusual, but merely as how most people would behave if they were a bit braver and less inhibited.

Marcelle is the most multi-dimensional character. We see her on a teeter-totter that balances primal urges and constraining morality, or shame and abandon. But we don’t get much depth of her either because she is treated largely as a puppet or plaything for the lead characters.

The novel shares some tendencies in common with the works of Marquis de Sade, but it also displays some differences. The eroticizing of degrading virtuous characters is a theme that holds over. It might also seem that the involvement of a Catholic priest is a continuation of Sade’s philosophy as well. However, there’s a difference. In Sade’s work (and similar works of erotic political philosophy) the priests are lecherous and are villains in league with the aristocracy. Bataille’s priest is a man minding his own business, who would like to be virtuous, but the young priest just doesn’t have the inner strength in the face of a strong-willed debaucher.

From the discussion above and the comparison with the works of the Maquis de Sade, it should be clear that there is a great deal of graphic sexual activity and even a little bit of graphic violence in this book. For readers who aren’t disturbed by that, and who are amenable to a bit of bizarre and surreal activity, the book is intriguing both as a story and for its psychological insight. If you read horror, and aren’t disturbed by fetish sexual activity, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Milkman by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This quirky novel is about a girl struggling to stay out of the limelight in a place where a socio-cultural schism leads to the most mundane happenings becoming a source of intrigue and speculation. The reader is never told that the aforementioned location is Belfast, Northern Ireland. However, between reading the author’s bio-blurb and having been around for the news stories from that city a few decades ago, it’s easy enough to draw that conclusion.

There’s a lot readers aren’t told in this novel. For example, we don’t learn anyone’s proper name. The characters are defined by their relationship to the protagonist (e.g. “ma,” “may-be boyfriend,” or “wee sisters”), his or her profession (e.g. “real milkman” the qualifier distinguishing said individual from the titular character [who is not nor never was – to anyone’s knowledge – an actual milkman],) or a peculiarity of said character (e.g. “tablets girl” or “nuclear boy.”) There is actually a character named “Somebody McSomebody.” One can only speculate about the author’s choice to not name the characters. My guess is that it reflects an attempt to emphasize a craving for anonymity and an avoidance of being free with detail.

The titular Milkman is a mysterious militant who takes an interest in the lead character. While the narrating lead tells us that she is definitely not interested in the Milkman, the community soon concludes that she is in a covert relationship with him. While the lead wants to keep her business to herself, there are a couple of factors working against her. First, one of her idiosyncratic behaviors – which one gets the impression she engages in to get a break from people – is walking home while reading, rather than taking the bus. This draws unwanted attention, perhaps ironically as one presumes she does this thinking that she’s slipping out of the public awareness. A second factor is that, while we are never told as much, one gets the impression that the lead is a beautiful young woman. Of course, the biggest factor is that everybody is watching everybody else like a hawk, attempting to find faults in what I call tribe signaling behavior (those actions – e.g. FaceBook posts – that serve to tell people who one is part of some group A and definitely not part of that vile group B.) For example, may-be boyfriend wins a Bentley turbo-charger and there is furor over the fact that said product usually has a little British flag on them, putting may-be boyfriend in a traitorous camp.

In one sense, this is a book about life in a place that has a specific socio-cultural fault line, specifically Northern Ireland. However, there is a lot in the story that is relevant to readers today, as we see sharp politico-cultural divides forming in many places in the world – certainly, for example, in the US. The book will make one sympathetic to the woes of those trying to opt out of tribe-signaling in a community in which to be unaffiliated is to be relegated to the lowest status imaginable.

I would highly recommend this book for all readers. Its humorous, albeit with the dark undertone of conflict ever-present. It’s readable and the reader will find themselves carrying about the plight of the lead.

View all my reviews

5 Literary Classics That Could Have Used an Editor

I’ve got nothing against long novels. Some of my best friends are long novels. Sometimes a book either needs to be long, or — at least — manages to be a joy to read despite being long. However, I’m arguing here that there are some novels that could afford to have a little taken off the top.



5.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: This is a funny and clever novel, but the gag goes on a bit too far. We don’t need to see every man, woman, and child in Spain kick the man of La Mancha’s butt because he hallucinates that each is a brigand or neer-do-well while he imagines himself a knight.




4.) Tale of the Genji by Lady Murasaki: To be fair, some consider this to be the first novel, and so it’s a little unreasonable to expect perfection of style and readability. (Not to mention that its target audience of 11th century Japanese courtiers are all long dead.)


3.) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: Irrespective of how one feels about Rand’s work as a political statement, we should all be able to agree that it doesn’t take 1,100+ pages to show us a world where entrepreneurs and capitalists go on strike.



2.) Moby Dick by Herman Melville: I realize that many consider this to be the great American novel, but I knew far too much about ambergris and whale bile ducts when I finished reading it… just sayin’.



1.) Ulysses by James Joyce: I’m aware of the stunningly beautiful language, but almost 800 pages to cover a single day in the life of one guy?

5 Readable Philosophical Novels

There are many philosophical novels in existence. However, many of them are difficult reads either because they are complex in language or concepts (e.g. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” or “Faust“) or because — while readily understandable — they were badly in need of an editor (e.g. “Atlas Shrugged.”) Here are a few novels with interesting philosophical lessons that aren’t killers to read.


5.) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn: A man answers an ad that begins: “Teacher seeks pupil.” The teacher he discovers and the lessons he is taught aren’t what he bargained for. The book considers the impact of modern man versus aboriginal people, and the two groups’ respective place in the world.

 

4.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In a futuristic world, people are controlled and manipulated by genetic engineering, classical conditioning, sleep-teaching, not to mention heaping helpings of drugs and promiscuity. The book considers the role of technology in humanity’s trajectory, and it contrasts Orwell’s bleak vision of dystopian governance with one that is every bit as manipulatory — if a great deal more pleasant in appearance.

 

3.) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A young prince from a far-away land comes to Earth, and shows how wise the young can be and how absurd adults often are.

 

2.) Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse: A man who feels out of step with humanity faces events that force him to reconsider what it means to be a man in the world of men.

 

1.) The Journeys of Socrates by Dan Millman: The prequel to Millman’s acclaimed book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” It blends Eastern and Western philosophy in the training of a warrior.

BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

View all my reviews

5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]