Archive for October, 2012


Candide — Voltaire

This is a classic I some how missed in my youth.  What with all the raping and pillaging and murdering you’d think it would be a bigger draw for HS students.

I am not pretending to be some learned philosopher, nor am I presuming to believe that my perceptions of this work accurately represent the author’s intentions.  The one thing I believe whole-heartedly is that Voltaire’s desire was  for his audience to think about those things he so fervently skewers.  As a satire this is filled with back-handed insults to many powerful members of society.  As was the style of the time, his  narrative is overblown in order to stress the nature of Candide’s optimism.

Candide is a naive simpleton when it comes to matters of the world.  You cannot blame him for this state of affairs at the outset, he’s been raised in an idyllic setting and taught that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  This is the crux of the matter. Candide’s belief system has the cart before the horse.  There is war because war is necessary for this to be the best of all possible worlds. Whatever is, is because it’s always been that way, and it is the necessity of these things that makes this the best of all possible worlds.  (An example that is more revealing is this:  Our faces are made the way they are because it is what’s needed for spectacles to fit.  Our legs are designed to hold pants.)

Being thrust into the cold, cruel world for feeling up the Baron’s daughter, should have been the beginning of a much different education. The lessons were there but Candide proves to be a slow learner.  After being kicked out, he is conscripted by the Bulgar army, escapes, finds his tutor Pangloss who is now a syphilitic, learns his family has been slaughtered by the Bulgars.  He acquires a friend Jaques who nurses Pangloss back to health, and then is lost at sea. Candide manages to survive an earthquake, tidal wave, and fire, but is arrested as a heretic. He loses Pangloss (again) to the Inquisition, escapes and finds his one true love, kills two men to avenge her honor,  and has to escape to Argentina.

This is only the beginning, his misfortunes only get worse from here.  Does he learn from this? No. In some way he manages to see that all of this is for the best, that there is always a reason for the things that happen, and that reason is always for the good. Well, actually for the best.  He is almost like Job.   He continues to believe that this must be the way it is for this to be the best of all possible worlds.

He befriends a man named Martin who is much more pragmatic if not cynical about the world and tries to enlighten and protect Candide at the same time.  At this point, Candide is cash heavy and just about every opportunist in Paris can see him coming, and quickly divest him of most of his recent wealth.

In all of this, he has lost his one true love again, lost a couple of very faithful and devoted companions, all his money, but none of his optimism.  With Martin at hand he has the opportunity to speak with an extremely wealthy Italian nobleman who finds no happiness in anything. (This is not a poor choice of grammar.  To say the man finds happiness in nothing, implies he finds happiness and this is not the case.)  Everything Candide asks about his replies are disparaging, negative and disdainful.  As they return to their quarters, Candide expresses appreciation for a man such that he needs nothing as he is clearly satisfied and happy to be above it all.  Martin points out that quite to the contrary the nobleman has no ability to be happy because nothing meets his criteria of goodness.

Candide once again finds his companion from Argentina who brings him to his true love and her servant, he finds Pangloss, and the handmaid that gave Pangloss syphilis, Martin remains.  They spend their days discussing what the best of all possible worlds actually means.  In the end Candide and his companions realize that happiness is derived only from being productive and contributing something to the greater good.  But you’ll need to find out how they got there.

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Three reviews:

I’ve gone through a lot of “easy listening” material on my Kindle lately.  Having completed Anathem and still having so much to think about there, I thought it would be better to enjoy some light entertainment.  The three novellas that follow definitely fall into the ‘light’ category.  Sadly, for the most part not in a good way.  I haven’t put them in any order so don’t feel like I’m picking one out to maul, and saving the best for last or anything like that.  They aren’t worth that much effort.

 

 

First: Letting Them: An Absurd Short Novel — Ken Brimhall and Catherine Knepper
This is not an Absurd Short Novel.  I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not absurd.  It’s also not really a novel, it’s more a teacher’s reflection on the circumstances under which he finds himself teaching and his existential dilemma about how it came to be that way, whether he did enough for his students and  what has happened to public schools and the surrounding community that things have become the way they are.

 
We open with Mr. Sizemore’s final year of teaching in a public high school in a small Texas town on the Mexican border. He and a fellow teacher are comparing notes on their class schedules and the number of “Mojos and Mojas” in each class.  How they are not allowed to discipline but are blamed for any bad behavior or damages caused by their students.

 
The plot follows the course of the school year, detailing the problems Sizemore must deal with as students come and go both from the classroom and the educational system as a whole. It describes how he approaches problems with emotionally disturbed, and learning disables students stuck together with students who are well acquainted with the criminal justice system, and the immigration system.

 
It all comes down to Mr. Sizemore squeezing out one last year to reach retirement, and wondering if he did his best.  If we set aside the location and circumstances of the narrative, we end up with the ultimate question: looking back on our lives can we say we’ve done our best.

 

-Not very uplifting.

 

 

Second: The 11th Floor — Charles Culver
It starts with a very good premise, and the author works some very Stephen King like suspense, and maybe a little horror in there.  But the climax, and the surprise conclusion, aren’t much of either. I’d spoil it here for you, but that’s bad etiquette.

 
A story about an elevator in an empty office building doesn’t support the amount of effort that has gone into building the suspense. If there had been a bit more character development of the main character and little less stereotyping of the minor characters the storyline wouldn’t have sagged so much in the middle.  It’s not a very long story, the amount of description and reiterating of character traits fills in most of it’s length.

 
Isolating each of the characters from the other until the very end makes the plot feel a little disconnected.  It may be that he intended the disconnect to induce a certain dread as they all converge on the final scene. I don’t know.  The author could have been thinking a lot of things.

 

That he’s thinking (well, already published) a sequel is scary enough.

 

-Uplifting, if only for the wrong reasons.

 

 

 

 
Third: Messages — John Michael Hileman
I thought this would be a very good short, paranormal, how does this work kind of thing.  The premise is there.  Is there such a thing as foresight.  Do some people have the gift of being able to ‘draw’ messages out.

 

I need to put in a short disclaimer here.  A) I didn’t finish reading this, which will be explained momentarily; B) Because I am not the appropriate audience for a specific work does not lessen the quality of the work, nor does it lessen the validity of my opinion; C) When you tumble into something you are not expecting, it can be very difficult to shift gears and appreciate what you are reading.

 

As I said, I didn’t finish reading this. I was mentally setup to enjoy a brainteaser of a puzzle of a quandary our hero finds himself in. He receives messages in the most unlikely of manners, and he is compelled to follow them.  In the very first chapter his life is saved when he is ‘told’ to slam on the brakes of his car, only to see the car behind him roar past into the path of an oncoming semi.  (The message said “Stop. Now.”)  I was immediately captivated by what might be happening and what difficulty this gift might cause for the protagonist, and his family.

 

He then saves his neighbor’s life and while his neighbor is recovering in the hospital he visits.  This gives the neighbor the opportunity to explain that his gift is from the Lord.  The neighbor had prayed that God would somehow protect him from death and our hero got the ‘message’.  There ensued a long discussion of what it means to be a vessel to the Lord and His Will.  And I realized that rather than being a true work of fiction this is more of an allegory on how God can speak in our lives and in speaking to us, speak to, help, and influence others.

 
In B) above, I clarified that I am not the target audience here. There are many people out there who will surely, enjoy and be edified by this work. I wasn’t prepared to mentally engage in a theological discussion at 0545 on the bus to work.  Not planning on giving my brain that type of work out. I set it aside.

 

 

-Uplifting, just not for me.

 

 

 
Messages was not the last of the three books I read. When I finished the third, I realized that what I was looking for was something with a little more depth.  I will follow up with my review of that soon.

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Anathem — Neal Stephenson

I am not ready to write a review of Anathem. I am still absorbing all that has transpired in a novel of epic proportions. This is an ambitious sweeping tale of…math…and physics. Not really.

Here we have a story of a young man who has been raised in the shelter of a scientific cloister (not unlike many educational institutions that focus on the hard sciences). He’s somewhat immature and socially awkward. When his mentor is expelled from the convent, and then he and his friends are called out by the world government to face a threat from space. He learns quickly what it means to fight for everything that he never knew mattered.

I believe that if you want to know what a story is about you can always read the synopsis from one of many websites. To me the object of a review is to compel you to read the story, not to have you want to know how it ends. A ship appears suddenly in orbit over the planet. Finding a way to save the world from obliteration, and understanding who and what is threatening their survival falls to our hero and his unlikely group of companions. That’s what this novel is about, in the most simplistic sense.

It is also about parallel universes or realities, and whether there can be more than one reality at any time. The author presents a specific set of concepts that supports the premise that at each moment the future can become any one of an infinite number of realities, and that at a given moment in the past, the present has become an infinite number of threads. Some of these threads are closer together than others. In the end, Stephenson leaves the choice to you how that actually works and whether you can be in two places at one time, or if there is a true divergence of timelines.

Stephenson has also created a complete social culture in a way that distinguishes it from our own popular culture  He incorporates elements of social commentary that reflect our attitudes toward science and a critique of how our culture is organized. The similarities of class system and other common elements are viewed through the eyes of an outsider, and thus are remarked on as a generic statement of fact rather than as an encoded statement of culture. (Do you “have a Big Gulp” or “drink a bucket sized container of sugar water through a straw”?) His observations allow us to see ourselves without these cultural adornments.

The detail and complexity of this tale makes it impossible to give you even a glimmer of the larger story. This is a fantastic, overwhelming, engrossing story I think everyone should read. But it is not a book for everyone. As I said in my initial review, the beginning is hard to get through. There is a lot of detail involving math and science that is necessary to the telling. If the reader is open to understanding, the concepts are presented mostly through dialogue in a very informal manner.

I want you to read this book. I know it’s dense in its prose, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s a brilliant tale filled with a range of complex ideas, and a deeply textured narrative rarely seen in science fiction. This book is definitely worth the effort.

If you read it or have already read it, please let me know what you think.