BOOK REVIEW: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Man And The SeaOld Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.

The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.

I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.

This short book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is set in Italy during World War I. The protagonist, Frederic Henry (like Hemingway, himself) volunteered to drive an ambulance in Italy during the war. The story is informed by, if not based upon, Hemingway’s personal experiences. Central to the story is a romance between Henry and a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their tentative flirtations deepen when Henry is wounded and spends a considerable amount of time at the hospital while recuperating. Barkley becomes pregnant with Henry’s child in the middle of the war. Henry returns to service for only a short time before he finds himself in the midst of a chaotic retreat from the swift advance of the Austrians and Germans. This retreat continues to go sour for Henry, leading to a flight for his life as he attempts to get back to Catherine so that he can get them both (plus the unborn child) to safety.

There’s a [variously-attributed] quote about war being: “long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by sheer terror.” This book captures that feel, but even during the moments of quiet from the opening through Henry’s rehab to the weeks hiding out in the Swiss mountains, Hemingway keeps the story engaging by shining a light into the protagonist’s psychology – and, occasionally, through wit. Then there are the thrilling moments like the shelling that wounds Henry or his various narrow escapes.

I found this book to be highly engaging. It has some beautiful language, exemplified by the famously well-composed opening paragraph, mixed with the taut suspense of life in a war zone. If you’re interested in war stories or classic American literature, it’s a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects ten pieces of short fiction penned by Hemingway. Each of them is a stand-alone short story; though there’s indication that they all take place in the same universe. Notably, the character Nick Adams recurs in four of the stories (“Fathers and Sons,” “In Another Country,” “The Killers,” and “A Way You’ll Never Be.”)

The first and last stories present intriguing similarities that make them interesting bookends to the collection. The first, and eponymous, story—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—follows the last hours of a man who is dying of gangrene from an infected wound he sustained on Mount Kilimanjaro. The dialogue pits a wife in denial against the man who seems resigned to the inevitability of his death. The last story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is also set in Africa and features a man and wife whose adventure goes awry. In this case the story begins with the man having been emasculated when he bolted in the face of a charging lion, and all in front of his harpy-esque wife. Francis Macomber manages to redeem himself only in the last seconds of his life.

Besides the aforementioned book-ending stories, among the most substantial and well-developed stories in the book include: “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” “The Killers,” and “Fifty Grand.” The first of these is about a gambler put in the hospital by a disgruntled competitor and the happenings in the hospital while he is on the ward. “The Killers” is about two hitmen who venture into a small town diner looking for a boxer who apparently owes someone money or decided not to take a dive. “Fifty Grand” is about an aging boxer who bets against himself (and will probably soon be in the same boat as the boxer in “The Killers.”)

There are a couple of stories that feel fragmentary, including: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “A Day’s Wait.”

This collection features the usual elements of Hemingway fiction, e.g. punchy and spare prose, artfully constructed dialogue, tales of manliness and inadequacy. It’s a short readable book of only about 150 pages.

The stories included are:

1.) The Snows of Kilimanjaro
2.) A Clean, Well-lighted Place
3.) A Day’s Weight
4.) The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio
5.) Fathers and Sons
6.) In Another Country
7.) The Killers
8.) A Way You’ll Never Be
9.) Fifty Grand
10.) The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber

I’d recommend this for readers of short fiction who haven’t gotten around to it yet.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whatever the blurbs or critics might say, this book is about the raft of men left in the friend-zone after brief dalliances with Lady Brett Ashley. One may have been led to believe it’s about the life of Jake Barnes. Barnes is the lead character, but he’s not the most influential character.

Besides Barnes, the list of men who fall hard for Lady Brett Ashley include, boxer Robert Cohn, the bankrupt Michael Campbell, and the bullfighter Pedro Romero. Oddly enough, the physically toughest, Cohn, is the one who falls the hardest. Barnes may be the strongest in this sense; perhaps because his relationship with Ashley is over before the novel begins. Barnes comes off as likable with a pragmatic “live and let live” nature. (He can maintain a friendship with a woman that he loves, a feat that seems beyond Cohn’s ability. Campbell is used to having lost everything, and so seems to bob comfortably in Ashley’s wake. We don’t reliably learn about how Romero takes it.)

As the blurb says, The Sun Also Rises is about a journey from Paris to Pamplona. In Paris, the cast of Lost Generation friends hang out in cafés. In Pamplona they attend bullfights. In between, Barnes goes fishing with friends.

In a broader sense, the book is about dissatisfaction and restlessness, and not only within Ashley. This is summed up nicely by Cohn’s words to Jake, “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it?”

Of course, the book shines in its language. Hemingway’s lean buy meaty prose is readable and engrossing. The minimalist dialogue beautifully conveys the interaction of a group of intimate friends.

Here’s a great line that captures the character of Hemingway’s writing in this book, “The beer was not good and I had a worse cognac to take the taste out of my mouth.”

The book rises to crescendo with the Pamplona bullfights and Hemingway adeptly ends on a sad note apropos of the morning after a great party.

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10 of My Favorite Quotes on Writing

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. –Kurt Vonnegut

 

Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for. –Mark Twain

 

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.  –Ray Bradbury

 

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. –Elmore Leonard

 

The first draft of anything is shit.—Ernest Hemingway.

 

Omit needless words. –William Strunk

 

The only rule for writing I have is to leave it while I’m still hot… –William Faulkner

 

Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother, unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather?  –Robert Penn Warren

 

When you write the thing through once, you find out what the end is. Then you can go back to the first chapter and put in a lot of those foreshadowings. –Flannery O’Connor

 

As far as I’m concerned the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.  –Neil Gaiman