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All Quiet on the Western Front: Erich Maria Remarque

Cover image for All quiet on the western front / Erich Maria Remarque.

All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Maria Remarque, is regarded to be the finest war novel ever written. 

It starts (and ends) on Germany’s frontlines amid World War I. In this, context and atmosphere are revealed through description (at times quite graphic). However, since the story is told in first person, the most significant soldier is Paul Baumer – a young German who offers his services to his country and the Kaiser. Though most authors choose a main character to narrate their experiences to demonstrate war’s horrors, Remarque does notably well in its execution. This is likely due to the fact that his stories have a touch of personal truth – he was a reluctant participant in both wars, and had to face the cruelties and destruction head on. Thus, the terrors he witnessed (though vile), give new life and unexpected curiosity to his work. To put it simply: to get the full message, every page must be read twice. 

Now, to the plot: it’s fairly simple. Paul and his friends have entered a war in which, without regard to survival, they have been physically and mentally scared beyond recovery. In other words, they can no longer return to innocence and the foolish years they spent as children – they’ve grown old faster in a three to four year span than for most. As such, Remarque is able to illustrate and weave themes still relevant to our time. For one, war’s terrible brutalities. As most novels tend to romanticize war and demonstrate honor and adventure, All Quiet does quite the opposite. To explain, the scenes that aren’t dedicated to hunger and filth depict even harsher conditions – corpses, lice infestation, mice, loss, and so on. Therefore, a more realistic ‘picture’ is represented, which clarifies to readers that war is indeed, not a matter to trifle with. 

Moreover, the message above ties in with yet another lesson: its effect on soldiers. For instance, Remarque illustrates (I won’t spoil though!) war’s overall impact as “ruinous” and “severe.” In turn, his characters (such as Paul) must face emotion suppression and disconnection from reality in order to last the battles. To be entirely aware, Paul claims, would be impossible – there’d be too much to bear and fight through on a physiologic degree. 

In short, All Quiet on the Western Front is, at most, a must read. 

-Emilia D.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Top 5 Books w/ Quick Summaries

I thought I’d share a few books that’ll keep you inspired throughout the school year! 📚

  1. Stoner (John Williams): academic/campus genre; follows and explores William Stoner, a farmer’s boy who sacrifices his familial relationship in pursuit of literature. Throughout, he must face the failures within his career, workplace, and marriage, along with his losses as father to his daughter, whom he’s grown distant from. (10/10)
  2. 1984 (George Orwell): dystopian genre; follows and explores Winston Smith, a member of “the Party” who begins to retaliate (in quiet secrecy) against the totalitarian regime and its ruler, Big Brother. In this manner, Orwell examines the manipulation of truth (and thus facts) within politics, and how it impacts public opinion. (10/10)
  3. The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton): historical genre; filled with suspense, this novel follows and explores Nella Oortman, a young village woman who must face the challenges of love and obsession, twists and retributions, illusions and truth. For in Amsterdam, many secrets lie within. (10/10)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): bildungsroman genre; Atticus (a Maycomb resident and lawyer), is tasked to defend Tom Robinson, an African American who is accused of raping a white woman. He takes on the case despite the public’s certitude (that) he won’t win. (10/10)
  5. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho): fantasy/allegorical genre; Santiago, a young shepherd, goes on an adventure to discover an unimaginable treasure. Throughout, he learns to listen and follow his heart’s path, and that his dreams/passions are in fact a part of a larger whole: the universe. (9/10)

Honorable Mentions: Book Series Edition! 

  1. Witchlands (Susan Dennard): though the series is not quite complete (just books one through four are out; book five has yet to be given a release date), it’s worth the wait! Check them out on goodreads for more information; https://www.goodreads.com/series/124183-the-witchlands  (5/5)
  2. The Book Thief/I am the Messenger (Markus Zusak): though they’re not a series (but rather two books from the same author), they’re good enough to earn a spot as honorable mentions! Check them out on goodreads for more information; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19063.The_Book_Thief & https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19057.I_Am_the_Messenger  (5/5)
  3. Ash Princess (Laura Sebastian): good news; all three books from the trilogy have been released! Check them out on goodreads for more information; https://www.goodreads.com/series/191507-ash-princess-trilogy (4.5/5)
  4. The Renegades (Marissa Meyer): more good news; all three books from the trilogy have been released! Check them out on goodreads for more information; https://www.goodreads.com/series/208653-renegades (4.5/5)
  5. The Poppy War (R. F. Kuang): extra good news; all three books from the trilogy have been released (+ an added collection of short stories that can be read here: https://rfkuang.com/2020/12/01/the-drowning-faith/). Check them out on goodreads for more information; https://www.goodreads.com/series/243623-the-poppy-war (4/5)

-Emilia D.

The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises, a novel written by Ernest Hemingway (an admired American writer and journalist), wrote this book for the “lost generation” impacted by WWI and its aftermath. As the plot is divided into three sections, I’ll split the review as per this format! Note: this book addresses mature topics that might make certain readers uncomfortable. 

Book 1: Main characters Jake Barnes and Brett Ashly are introduced with injured yet carefree qualities. For one, they each played a role in WWI, both stationed on the front lines for different reasons (Barnes as a soldier and Ashley as a nurse). However, either have no qualms taking risks, as they often drink, make love, and celebrate. In turn, Hemingway demonstrates war’s unquestionable force, strong enough to arouse reckless behavior when one feels as though death is so near. In addition, while the plot is still sparse and unclear, certain love interests (which stem from various side characters) and fallouts are revealed. Their friends, despite their minor roles, are rather important in setting up tension as they compete for attention, romance, and passion. For the most part, their interactions take place in Paris, although Barnes eventually takes a trip to Spain with Brett and their colleagues to watch the famous bullfights. 

Book 2: As one would expect, this part is dedicated to how characters interact and are shaped by the present culture (in this case, the Spanish customs they face upon arriving in Spain). Likewise, the main tradition Hemingway points out is bullfighting. Hence, it leads Brett to fall in love with a matador, which raises conflict between the other male characters when they fight to win back (or remain with) Brett. Thus, Hemingway illustrates friendship’s destruction at the hands of love, even when the attraction is shallow or is shaped through pressure, competition, or spite. In all, the events take place during a week-long spanish fiesta, with glamours that include dances, music, and drinks. 

Book 3: In Hemingways’s last chapter, little more is accomplished; it serves to end the work. As a result, it leaves room for theme exploration and expansion. For example, a common topic revolves around morality, as Jake, Brett, and the others seem to have an empty lifestyle, and so fill their time with repetitive and menial activities, such as drinking, conversing, and dancing. In this, readers are forced not only to face the aimless goals and hostilities between the characters, but must realize that these attitudes were the norm in a time when war damaged individuals and communities both psychologically and morally. 

In short, The Sun Also Rises opens our eyes to a world ravaged by violence, allowing us to appreciate life as is. 

-Emilia D.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway is available to checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It is also available to download for free from Libby.

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner, a novel set in the 1920s, is a golden classic hidden beneath time. 

It begins with a slight allusion to the William Stoner’s (our main character) end, citing that he made little to no impression upon his students and colleagues at the University he had attended and worked for. Moreover, he seems to symbolize to these characters the harsh realities that await them (death, of course).

Afterwards, the author (John Williams) slowly appears to construct his life from the start: Stoner was born and raised on a farm with parents that treat him fine. Quite often, he’d help with chores and learn the lifestyle of an average farmer. Therefore, when Stoner was old enough, he was sent to the University of Columbia where he intended to study agriculture. However, these plans were cut short when he fell in love with literature. In turn, his passions for written works (both old and modern alike) seem to act with (or as) the message, for Stoner was willing to cut off his past ties with farm life –  and thus his parents – to study a field he held fondness for. 

In turn, similar elements within the text are brought together to form this wondrous book. For one, the characters and their interactions are so alive, which gives them such a robust roundedness. Furthermore, the plot is pushed onward with descriptions and actions that reek of loss. To illustrate, he loses his parents when he chooses a path towards literature; he loses his sense of importance when he decides not to fight in either war (WWI and WWII); he loses his marriage when he realizes the hard resentment his wife has toward him. Even at its conclusion, Stoner leaves readers empty and restless, perhaps frustrated or confused that he never took the chance to fight against his evident torment. 

Nonetheless, despite these dark matters, Stoner had happier moments to take pride in. For instance, he was able to enjoy a quiet but significant bond with his daughter when she was first born, and also gained some recognition from his students when he decided to integrate new techniques into his classes (much to his colleagues displeasure). 

In this manner, Williams communicates to readers that cold realities have bits of warmth and comfort too. 

Nightfall and Other Short Stories by Isaac Asimov

Nightfall and Other Stories is a collection of works written and compiled by Isaac Asimov, who was considered a major science fiction writer in the 1900s. Though each narrative is a classic in its own right, I’ve picked out a few that stood out so that I may write a short explanation and/or analysis. Here goes! 

 Nightfall

“Nightfall,” regardless of its age, has certain themes that are quite relatable. For one, its premise  speaks to readers with caution, as it demonstrates our stubbornness and our outright rejection to believe what we cannot see, and so when an outcome occurs the consequences are far more severe. Therefore, despite its shortness in length, Asimov is able to structure his points skillfully. To explain, as his main purpose is to establish the ease at which people lose themselves once shown a foreign situation, he creates a civilization that has never been covered in darkness. In turn, once citizens are able to see their first eclipse, none can take the experience (and go mad as a result). In this manner, Asimov illustrates the importance of balance: we cannot learn to appreciate light (yang) if we’ve never felt our way out of the dark (yin). 

Fun Fact: “Nightfall,” which was published in 1941, was soon voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as the best science-fiction short story ever written. 

Green Patches

“Green Patches” was an unexpected surprise, as it questions our private values. It asks us whether we could survive as a single “organism” (or consciousness), or if our human instincts for independent growth and movement would smash that chance. In this case, Asimov demonstrates that despite our cries for unity, society thrives on anarchy and thus prefers chaos over peace. 

Fun Fact: “Green Patches,” which was published in 1950, had its title changed to “Misbegotten Missionary” (which was later on changed back to “Green Patches”). 

Eyes Do More than See

In “Eyes Do More than See,” Asimov paints out a distant future in which humans have given up their physical forms (and become energy beams). However, these entities soon realize the repercussions of such a choice, for they can remember memories that spoke of earlier passions, love, and far off adventures. In turn, readers are met with a lesson that hints at appreciation – in other words, we should learn to value our concrete, more tangible lives that we abide to, in which we experience sorrow, passion, and loss. 

Fun Fact: “Eyes Do More than See” was nominated in 1966 for a Nebula Award under ‘Best Short Story.’ 

-Emilia D.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a classic work written to surprise us, is a difficult text that requires utmost care. As the book is divided into four segments (w/ a prologue), I’ll split my review into sections in order to address each part from top to bottom. 

Prologue

It opens with Zarathustra, and serves to give a basic illustration of his character through action, interaction, and dialogue. Moreover, as Zarathustra descends from a cave he dwelt in for ten years of solitude, he brims with wisdom, love, and an urge to teach his brethren about the overman (caution: some books translate it to the “superman”). However, when he arrives in town and announces that the human race is a bridge between creature and overman, he’s met with disinterest and scorn. Thus, readers are left with Zarathustra cast aside, together with his determination to convince those few who wish to separate from the herd. 

1st Part

Zarathustra gives an overview of the three stages that lead towards the overman; camel, lion, and child. In the first stage, he declares that we must renounce our comforts, learn self-discipline, and accept difficulties which guide us to knowledge. Thus, we assert our independence, and decide to speak against outside influences and commands. Afterwards, the act of new creation is born, when we become oblivious to prior mistakes and grow to become an ‘overman,” hence a metamorphosis.

2nd Part

In addition to Zarathustra’s message about the overman, he establishes certain matters in regards to the weak and powerless. He states that each resent their masters, but detest themselves more so because they’re unable to strike back against them. Thus, he asserts that divine justice is set up as a means to secure vengeance for those that are too feeble to care for each other. In addition, he cites “evil” as a concept invented by man, once more as an excuse to explain wealth, health, strength, and vigor. In contrast, the poor view themselves as “good,” for they deem the concept of “unhappiness” and “sickness” as misfortune which we must experience if we are to embrace the “bigger” or “better” side of ourselves in the afterlife. Zarathustra, though he doesn’t agree with this exactly, does support natural inequality between people, as he claims it evokes creative freedoms, ambition, and the ultimate end. 

3rd Part

Zarathustra’s alone, and begins to mainly address himself, for he is soon to realize that his efforts to reach the overman might be futile. In the process, he becomes a “yes-sayer,” a person who loves life as it is. Therefore, it serves to represent the acceptance of fate, a characteristic of the overman that perhaps he and a few others can achieve. 

4th Part

In the book’s finale, Zarathustra is able to assemble a number of men in his cave who are close to the overman. Throughout, these characters enjoy a feast, some songs, and poetry. However, Zarathustra is soon given the gift of eternal recurrence, and it’s implied that he’s reached his goal. 

Thoughts

In truth, this wasn’t an effortless read, as Thus Spoke Zarathustra is quite uneven. As Nietzsche wrote it in ten days, his work is longer than it needs to be, and is often repetitive. Thus, it appears as though certain segments are oftentimes uncertain, and are torn between symbolism and the desire to be direct. That said, its unique outlook and doctrine is passable enough to recommend. Enjoy!

-Emilia D.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, a historical romance written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is known as an American Classic. 

It begins with a narration to the reader, a token of awareness and readiness to start the tale. In addition, the description of the prison suggests that the exposition will either begin or end with this as its conclusion. Nonetheless, the first few chapters serve to build upon atmosphere, symbolism, and the emergence of theme (which I’ll mention often throughout this review). 

To sum up what first occurs in The Scarlet Letter, Hester, our main character, is accused of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her bosom. As Hester begins to adapt to this reality, she wonders about the value, weight, and depth of sin. In other words, she questions whether she’s the only “sinner” in town, as she concludes that she can’t be the only one to have ever been ungodly. Thus, Hawthorne awakens the need to call out religion’s insincere role and the impact it has on communities. 

Moreover, Hester births a daughter as a result of the affair; Pearl. This newborn, described as “elf-like” by the narrator, is a symbol that takes an important role. As Hester stands charged with an unholy crime, Pearl is hence a product of that “sin.” Therefore, she is another representation of the “A” that is woven into Hester’s clothes, a more intimate, organic consequence derived from Hester’s mistake. Furthermore, Hawthorne points out that though Pearl acts with an appropriate demeanor as anyone her age (rambunctious and childish), her actions are “defiled” by the perspective that she’s a demon, a misdeed due to her mother.  

A quote that carries great elements of figurative language is somewhat in the middle of the rising action, when Hester takes Pearl to the town’s church leaders in order to convince them not to seize her daughter. As she waits for them to address her, the narrator notes that “the shadow of the curtain fell on Hester Prynne, and partially concealed her” (102). It’s implicit to readers that they should be able to make a connection between Hester’s sin and what the “shadow” from the curtain could mean – a form of taint within her, driven by human imperfection and fault. As a result, such examples illuminate Hawthorne’s ability to craft not just specific scenes, but also the smallest details that have a chance to foreshadow what’s to come next. 

I would also like to take a quick note on the language used, which can have an impact on a reader’s perspective of the era. To illustrate, phrases such as “thee” and “thy” hint at old English, those which were common in Shakespeare and in poems similar to Beowulf. Therefore, take the time to make sure this doesn’t make a major difference on your experience; if it does, re-read certain passages or write short annotations as possible interpretations of what’s addressed, said, or argued. 

Thus, The Scarlet Letter’s conclusion, though not the most fortunate, is one of redemption, and demonstrates that characters and readers alike can learn from mistakes within the consequences that impact our futures. Thence, coupled with Hawthorne’s expertise and style, allows this text to serve as a book worth its time. 

-Emilia D.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

What it Means to be an Artist

Biutiful, a foreign film written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is a movie I’d seen a while back. It moved me, as it discusses misfortune under a poetic guise. Curious, I decided to check its “tomato” score, and compare both the views of critics and regular moviegoers. To my surprise, most were furious over its length, vague structure, and theme. As an artist, I took this to its core. 

Art is subjective, as is most we indulge in. However, there should be a fine line between how we define entertainment and art. For example, movies such as Amour, Biutiful, even La Moustache, display imperfections, and a merciless perception on death, the dying, and the mad. Though they’re tragic lessons, each is notable to accept nonetheless. For how can we be ready to “possess” our own faults, the mistakes yet to come and be made, if we are to close ourselves in? 

If we allow the lines to blur, art will fail to hold depth. Nevertheless, although entertainment can have its share of effective lessons, they’re not enough to satisfy the themes we have yet to appreciate. Once again, an example. While Marvel has a shred of themes to learn from, it misses that desired depth, which in turn makes “character tragedy” short-term, and merely serves to assist action rather than character/theme. 

In other words, superpowers aren’t what solve problems, as they’re plausible to the imagination, not reality. Instead, hard choices in the midst of trepidation, raw courage (with hints of fright) to fight for the tangible, such as compassion, freedom, and happiness, is what makes art a gift, a contrast to entertainment which chooses to side with adventure and the unattainable over human imperfection. 

I realize this is a firm, almost stern standpoint, but take a different approach. Feel, rather than imagine. 

When you see/read/draw character burdens, feel them as if they were your own. If a character walks slowly, heavy with a guilt which threatens to drown them, feel that guilt, let it tug you down. For once your own burdens emerge, when your guilt or sorrows arrive to pull you lower, you’ll be ready. In hindsight, you’ll be able to accomplish what they (the characters) couldn’t, what most still can’t. 

I also recognize that quite a few of these examples are from one aspect of art: movie production, which isn’t fair. However, you can find it elsewhere: with books, it’s quantity over quality (The Darkest Minds vs. Something Wicked this Way Comes), and with music, it’s modernism over centuries of history and knowledge. Of course, though such changes might fit the times, poetic art shouldn’t be forgotten, nor should modern art that “acts” old be ignored. Therefore, next time you see a foreign movie, or a book you’d see in an english language course, give it a chance – it might amaze you. 

-Emilia D.

Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist

Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.

The Miniaturist, written by Jessie Burton, begins with a conclusion, which sets the scene for some confusion, though is soon explained over time. Furthermore, although the prologue is written aside from the rest of the book, it is, nonetheless, significant. 

Burton writes The Miniaturist in present tense, which is suitable for the storyline. Plus, as most modern literature is written in past tense, this difference plays a major role in the enjoyment of the work. In hindsight, the tense chosen intensifies tension, depth, and pace. It feels as though you read “a movie,” with each scene similar to that of an act, a continuous moment of time. 

Now, onto its plot. Nella (our main character) is an outsider. Johannes, her husband, doesn’t seem to have much interest in her. Marin, his sister, is distinct and stern, a woman in charge rather than complicit. Their servants (Cornelia and Otto), too, are more open and harsh than the average servants/maids. Though only when Johannes gives her a replica of their home does she somewhat feel accepted. However, even then Nella confronts trouble, for as soon as she takes interest in ‘the miniaturist’ (a craftsman who creates miniatures), an unknown woman begins to watch her, as though she weren’t there. 

Later, when Johannes comes to the decision to take Nella to a feast at the Guild of the Silversmiths, Nella must confront her vulnerabilities, together with the tension and competition aroused by other traders. In addition, a notable confrontation occurs in this scene; Nella meets the Meermans, who have tasked Johannes with the storage and sale of their sugar. As the Meermans have a supercilious nature (which is soon shown in their behavior, dialogue, etc), further questions emerge, those which at first have no answers. 

I must take note of the major twists that happen throughout the book, some of which might seem uncomfortable to some readers. Therefore, make sure you’re fine with topics such as marriage, race, servitude, illicit romance, etc. They’re important to the storyline and atmosphere! 

That takes me to a theme I’d like to go into. A portion of the book is dedicated to what it means to be a wife, as Nella finds a hard time fitting into her role (I won’t explain – it’d be a spoiler!). In the process, she questions the necessity of childbirth and the hidden potentials she has as a woman; talents and opportunities she’s missed because of the church’s (and society’s) view of women. Though this is a common theme, it’s a nice refresher to have every now and again, notably because parts of it are quite prevalent to modern times. 

One aspect I admire is its ability to make us examine. For example, the suspense and distrust between newer and older characters is never rushed, off-kilter, or unreasonable. In fact, its stable pace makes room for realism, characters that behave and act as we might, even if the era and context varies from our own. It’s a rare and difficult element to integrate, but one that, at length, drives this work to be a (possible) classic. 

In short, The Miniaturist warns to handle misfortune with caution, as it might lead to continuous trouble … 

-Emilia D.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is available for checkout at the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free on Overdrive.

Book Review: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is clever through its attempts to build character, plot, and atmosphere. Though classics are known for their rigorous word choice, Frankenstein is in fact in the middle of this type of spectrum. For the most part, language is simple to grasp, and does not shy away from the necessities of detail and plotline. In other words, it’s easier to follow than most classics you’ll encounter.

The story is set up as though the narrator were the author, recounting a tale a stranger tells him while on an expedition as captain. He, the stranger, is Victor Frankenstein, the inventor who would come to create a monster. This knowledge, coupled with Shelly’s other efforts to foreshadow, attributes to the tension and intrigue the narration creates. It allows for readers to engage thoroughly with the text, as we’re eager to learn the origins behind Frankenstein and his reasons for the creation of the creature. The more you discover about the character, the more you question his morals and decisions throughout the chronicle. 

The establishment of themes early on in the book makes way for their progression and development. For example, the idea of creation and dangerous knowledge is implied early on, and therefore clears a path for further acknowledgement of the main character’s lack of responsibility and recognition of consequences. Another important aspect to take note of is Shelly’s usage of weather. To illustrate, when Frankenstien is at the pinnacle of his misery (I won’t say why – that’d be a spoiler!), the tone/mood shifts to storm grey, which is supported by the thunderstorm that comes soon after. It is reasonable to assume a connection between unhappiness and rain, as such weather is known for its implications. Season, too, has it’s significance. The start of Frankenstien’s biggest woe occurs in spring, which is usually associated with rebirth and renewal. However, the shock of this major contrast between the real situation and the symbolism we come to know of with season leaves room for irony, and possible implications of doom for our “protagonist.” 

Near the resolution of Frankenstein, an important question arises: who is the “hero?” As I went through the plot and reflected afterwards, I came to the result that the answer to this makes Shelly a master of her craft. There is no hero – it’s more of who, or what, is the lesser evil. To explain, Victor is the creator of the monster, and therefore is responsible for the beast’s actions. Thus, his neglect, or lack of management over the creature created a domino effect, which led to Victor’s ruination. The fact that the monster was miserable and melancholy wasn’t exactly his fault. In reality, it can almost be concluded that Victor is more of a monster than the daemon he brought to life … 

-Emilia D.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.