Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

“‘We came into this world so that we could meet. We didn’t realize it ourselves, but that was the purpose of us coming here. We faced all kinds of complications—things that didn’t make sense, things that defied explanation. Weird things, gory things, sad things. And sometimes even beautiful things. We were asked to make a vow, and we did.We were forced to go through hard times, and we made it. We were able to accomplish the goal that we came here to accomplish.”

1q84Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 has it all: dystopian setting, love story, surrealistic fairy tale, crime, cult, murder. Surely the novel, with its more than 1100 pages, has the space to cover such a panoply of things, but what allows this tome to stand out is its ability to create a seamless yet engrossing narrative. Indeed, despite the novel’s length, I was able to read it in just under three weeks.

Set in Tokyo in 1984, the gist of 1Q84 is dominated by two independent plot lines following two different protagonists. The first surrounds the character Aomame, a thirty-year-old personal trainer who, outside of her regular work, conspires with an old dowager to assassinate men guilty of domestic abuse. The other surrounds Tengo, a thirty-year-old math teacher who works as a writer in his spare time.

While at first the jumping between the two different plots is tremendously confusing, as the novel progresses the reader begins to see hints of how the two plotlines and their characters are related. The general thrust of the novel is the publication of a work called Air Chrysalis. Written by quiet seventeen-year-old Fuka-Eri and reworked by Tengo, the book at first glance appears to be nothing but an enjoyable and unique fairy tale, but ultimately it holds secrets about a mysterious religious organization, Sagikake, of which Fuka-Eri’s father is the leader. Aaomame too becomes involved with Sagikake after the dowager gains information that the leader of the organization engages in the abuse of young girls, in accordance with the cult’s practices.

Yet Sagikake is not the only link between the two protagonists. Perhaps the more compelling aspect of the novel is the fact that Tengo and Aomame are deeply in love with each other, although they have not seen each other since the fourth grade. Ultimately 1Q84 is the story of two lost lovers, a tale told many times before, but the weird, wild journey of their attempt to find each other makes 1Q84 such a compelling read.

-Sebastian R., 12th grade

Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

anna_kareninaFrom the retrospective view that we as readers have today, it makes sense that much 19th century literature deals with love and romance of the aristocratic sort. The presence of Victorianism in the English-speaking world and largely congruous social standards in the rest of Europe provided for strict gender roles and behaviors, to which all members of the elite echelons especially were expected to adhere. In protest of the aforementioned values or perhaps simply in pursuit of a gripping narrative, many authors of the age told stories of characters who challenged the accepted marital and social expectations of their time. Leo Tolstoy’s greatest work, Anna Karenina, is such a tale.

Set amongst the parties and offices and residences of the highest members of society in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, the novel follows the character from which it gains its name, the wife of a prominent Russian politician who has engaged in a passionate affair with Vronsky, a respected military officer. Concerned exclusively with the interactions between characters and the events that develop among them, in the eves of the contemporary reader for whom magical or action-packed narratives are the norm, Anna Karenina, especially considering its voluminous length, may seem difficult to stomach. Nonetheless, its subject matter and its nine hundred or so pages are two of the qualities that make the novel great.

Indeed, no matter what language in which it is read, Anna Karenina is masterful. It is a romance, yes, but the realism with which Tolstoy writes is unlike any other author. His simplistic yet grand portrayals of a conversation between two lovers at a party, of the farm life and labors of the peasant population, of a suitor’s gallant horse race, of Russian life in its entirety, among a panoply of other scenes, make the read worthwhile. It is not possible to do justice to such an important and wonderful novel in a review such as this.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Two Plays: Blood Wedding by Frederico García Lorca and A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

wells-theatre-210914_640While in contemporary times we do not perceive it as greatly as we once did, the theatre has unquestionably had an vast impact on art and culture. Since the days of Ancient Greece, the common man has flocked to the theatre to fulfill his urge to be entertained and engaged by stories. Today, drama is something of which the average person is latently cognizant, but it seems access to this artistic institution is increasingly hindered. Nonetheless, albeit the stage is the best mode to experience them, we do have access printed copies of these same theatrical works. I would like to briefly share two works which I recently read.

dolls_houseA Doll’s House (Et dukkehjem) is a late-19th century play composed by the prolific playwright Henrik Ibsen. In the spirit of realism, the major artistic movement of the time, the play does not aspire to amaze with a grand, heroic plot but rather observes the daily life of a typical, middle class Norwegian family. Set around Christmastime, the play follows Nora, a housewife, and her interactions with her husband, Tørvald, among others.

The driving factor of the play is that of Nora’s indebtedness to Krogstad, from whom she received a loan that saved her husband’s life. As Krogstad is about to lose his job at the bank, of which Tørvald will soon become the manager, the former man threatens Nora that she must persuade her husband to allow Krogstad to keep his job or he will reveal to Tørvald the loan, a shameful contract in which was not socially acceptable at the time for women to engage. Ultimately, Nora is paralyzed in her dire situation, and hopes for, as she says, “a miracle” that her husband may accept the actions she performed behind his back.

blood_weddingAlmost diametrically opposed to A Doll’s House in its stylistic features, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s early 20th-century play, Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre), is a work composed at the hight of modernism, the artistic movement focusing on symbolism and the usurpation of traditional theatrical norms.

Despite its utilization of the aforementioned devices, the central focus of the play is one that is not significantly out of the norm—a wedding. Lacking names for its characters, except for the antagonist, Leonardo, Blood Wedding depicts The Groom, a prosperous young man now in possession of a vineyard, and The Bride, Leonardo’s former lover whom she rejected for his poverty, in the days directly preceding their nuptials. Despite Leonardo’s quiet protestations, everything seems to be progressing smoothly. Soon the two youths are married, and the reception is at hand when the play take a turn for the worst. Leonardo and The Bride have eloped, and tragedy supersedes any prior joy.

Both plays discussed here have their merits in various aspects of their artistry, and though the components of their composition differ, perhaps the most fundamental concept that both is explore is the relation of the individual to society. Nora is suppressed in her domestic role and is largely ignorant of the word outside her door and herself. The Bride and Leonardo are prohibited from the free expression of their love because of the social limitations of economic viability and propriety. Both are tragic in their own right, but in their courage to present the problems of these individuals, they seem to support the individual and denounce society and the destructive forces that lie therein.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

constellation_vitalWhat is life?

The prior question was once pondered solely by humanity’s greatest minds, but now, to the chagrin of some, has become somewhat cliched ponderation of the masses. Yet this propagation of the question what is life? is neither deplorable nor unexpected, for, in all verity, it is a fundamental consideration in the collective human consciousness, a driving factor that motivates us to make sense of this experience we all share.

In an attempt to address this question, or at least provide a platform by which it can be effectively considered, writer Anthony Marra reduces this ubiquitous thing we call life to the following: a constellation of vital phenomena-organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaption, a definition whose first three words title his debut novel. By Marra’s own admission, he extrapolated the aforementioned definition of life from a medical textbook, an object which, as his novel even seems to suggest, is a prodigious, lifeless, static pool of knowledge surveyed and marked by wise men of ages past. Despite the seemingly esoteric and perhaps at first bland nature of this definition, through the course of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it becomes a stunningly beautiful mechanism by which the whole of human life can be understood.

While a new novel, published in 2013, Marra’s work can easily be counted among the highest ranks of literature from all ages. The writer’s prose drips with mastery, perhaps best evident in his provision of detail, which, although occasionally rambling, is rich and luscious. Indeed, these subtleties, albeit meritorious for their exquisite verbiage in themselves, perhaps more importantly contribute to the storytelling for which Marra is even more laudable as they color events in the lives of the novel’s characters.

Indeed, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to a substantial degree ignores the traditional and popular sense of plot, with its linear and structured qualities, adopting a more free-flowing composition in which various moments of the lives of a slew of characters who live in a war-torn Chechnya are criss-crossed. In actuality, the novel spans the five days after the capture of Dakka, father of Havaa and friend of Akhbar, the latter of whom takes the former to a hospital in the Chechen capital city, Grozny, which lies 12 kilometers from their village of Eldár, in the hopes that the renowned surgeon, Sonja, who runs the nearly defunct medical facility, will allow the young girl to reside there.

One of the most rewarding facets of the novel is the full development of all the story’s major characters, a feat achieved through that very detailed presentation of different moments in each of their lives. Similarly wonderful is the fact that Marra ties the characters together in the most seemingly trivial, yet achingly touching and poignant ways. The author creates with his web of characters and events a mirror to the definition of life from which he draws his inspiration. Truly, the novel becomes its own organism, a cornucopia of characters who tell a hauntingly beautiful tale of a lost girl and allude to the complexities of life in general. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena calls the reader into deep reflection, in particular to view his or her own life as just that, a series of inseparable and interrelated moments and people and things, making all of life’s constituent parts ever more lovely and significant.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

ivan_ilych“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

All humans who were, who are, and who will be have existed, exist, and will exist, respectively, as unique entities, each discrete and different from every other. In our vast variety, it is peculiar to think that all of us, collectively, could find anything of commonality. Indeed, our discrepancies are often cited as the sources of our social and cultural distinctions, our conflicts, and even our wars. Nonetheless, as human beings we do truly share something, or perhaps a few things, that constitutes the essence of our existence. Possibly the most important of these constituent parts, or, as some may perceive, an equivalent of this essence, is human life itself, its progressions and turbulences, its peaks and nadirs.

It is this very concept, life in its truest form, that Leo Tolstoy, in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, seeks to explore. Tolstoy’s work is a summation of the life of a judge in mid-19th century Russia, focusing in particular on his final days of life. As an audience, we are first introduced to Ivan Ilych through the perspective of his colleagues, who, in regards to their fellow official’s death, are most interest in the fate of his position and estate. With this introduction, the remainder of the novella chronicles the passage of years in Ivan Ilych’s life. He appears to live comfortably, dedicated to his career, and exists happily, despite the mounting pangs of a loveless marriage. Ilych, with wife and children, lives awhile in the exile of a peasant village with his wife’s family, but soon he is returned to a more honorable post in his old line of work, affording him the opportunity to begin a good life anew. Yet in the excitement of a new home all his own, Ilych’s life begins to run downhill after he contracts an internal injury whilst decorating the new residence he so cherishes. Ever quickening, his dying days pose for him an existential crisis, causing him to question the value of his life and how his once ubiquitous comfortableness has been lost.

In regards to its plot and subject matter, there is nothing extravagant or instantly engrossing about The Death of Ivan Ilych. To the contrary, the work is defined by and truly is bold for its simplicity. Indeed, Ivan Ilych himself is a simple man, a highly physical being who seeks only to live and to live well. Perhaps this is why his death, as opposed to that of a more prominent figure, is so significantly tragic. Ivan Ilych is an everyman, and thus his sufferings, those of a man who sought only to do what is good and right, become frighteningly familiar and immediately applicable to our own lives. Even with its brevity, The Death of Ivan Ilych has much insight to offer on this human experience we all share.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

awakening_coverAt the turn of the 20th century, the western world, emerging from a long period of industrialization and cultural change, finally began to recognize its mothers, its wives, and its daughters. In the early years of this new century, the fledgling feminist movement reached its pinnacle, achieving suffrage for womankind in the United Kingdom in 1918 and the United States in 1920.

Nonetheless, this insatiable drive to achieve equality did not merely appear from nothingness; rather, the feminist movement had been growing for years beforehand. Perhaps a precursor to the cause was Kate Chopin and her greatest novel, The Awakening. Relating the tale of a young woman, Edna Pontellier, and her development from a subordinate wife and mother to an independent member of society, Chopin’s tale strikes the feminist tone as Edna’s dissatisfaction with her social and familial current status, which reflects the status of all woman at that time.

As the novel begins, Edna and her family are on vacation in the removed vacationland of Grande Isle. Here Edna begins to realize her boredom with the maternal society that is embodied in the protagonist’s peer, Adéle Ratignolle. Increasingly severing her ties with this cult of mothers, Edna finds satisfaction in her relationship with the young man, the son of the proprietor of Grande Isle, Robert Lebrun. Unlike her dominating husband, Leonce, Robert is engaging and treats her as an equal, or so she thinks at the time.

Soon the dreamy stay at Grande Isle comes to an end, and the Pontellier family returns to its bourgeois home in New Orleans. Now set in her recalcitrant ideology, Edna begins to distance herself from her previous life. She finds a new friend in the brilliant pianist, Madamoiselle Reisz, and elderly widow whom she first met on her summer holiday. Edna tries her hand at art, in an effort to support her own living, and begins to find new companions, a number of them men with whom she seemingly has affection. At her dinner party, Edna seems to become a queen, a powerful and respectable sovereign. But that old ennui, the feeling of boredom and discontent lingers. And amongst all this, Edna longs for Robert, who is away in Mexico. But even when he returns, Edna recognizes that he is the same, paternalistic man as her husband, the very threat from which she was trying to escape. The novel’s end is gripping, tragically so, but you must pick up the novel yourself, for I shall not discuss it here.

Overall, The Awakening is not for every reader. Some of its content is rather adult, as are its themes. But I found in Chopin’s magnum opus an inspiring spirit of contrariness. I found inspiration in Edna’s unwillingness to accept the norms of a repressive society. I think The Awakening is worth the read not only for the burgeoning feminist, but for anyone who has aspirations, anyone who has that determination to rise against injustice and enslavement of any sort.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

atlas_shrugged_coverIn this great nation of the United States, we have long maintained our democracy on a strict, two-party platform. In more recent times, these two positions have been filled by the left-leaning Democrats and right-leaning Republicans, but, aspiring to exercise to the fullest their rights as participants in the democratic process, smaller third parties have always managed to remain in existence. Among these more peripheral groups, one of the most prominent has long been the Libertarians who, in the opinion of this writer, offer a captivatingly stringent ideological adherence to the fundamental principles of liberty and small government.

Today’s brand of Libertarian represents a diverse membership, but many holding such a political ideology often cite in their political development one common influence. A Russian immigrant to the United States in the early 1900s, Ayn Rand, ceaselessly propagating her philosophy of objectivism, would later write one of the century’s most influential novels, an ideologically dense yet invigorating tale she named Atlas Shrugged, which appears to have become the gospel of the contemporary libertarian movement.

Set an ulterior, dystopian United States, in a world that is increasingly Marxist, the novel follows the events that surround Dagny Taggart, an executive of her family’s transcontinental railroad company. As her brother, James, the president of the corporation, increasingly engages in reckless and destructive business choices, seemingly sympathizing with the notion and proponents of a totalitarian state, Dagny becomes the real director of the company, attempting to extend its longevity to the greatest extent possible. Our protagonist finds solidarity with another rational man of business, Hank Rearden, president of Rearden Metal, whose innovative steel, the strongest and most durable of its kind, she utilizes for the construction of a new section of the Taggart rail network. Time progresses, and a trend of successful businessman leaving their corporations to fall into despair exponentially develops, yet Dagny and Hank fight on in their endeavor to merely remain above water.

While the world around them continues to grow grimmer and increasingly less hopeful, Dagny and Hank find one spark of hope in an abandon factory: a revolutionary engine that possesses the capacity to transform static electricity from the atmosphere into the energy needed to power a locomotive. Unaware of but desperate to discover the inventor of this engine, they embark on a quest that takes them to various places in a now hellish American country. Eventually, miraculously they find themselves in Galt’s Gulch, where they become acquainted with various figures, from business, medicine, art, and other important social spheres, including the aforementioned businessmen, all who have left their respective trades to join John Galt, with whom the reader, at this point in the story, is already somewhat familiar as the result of the novel’s widespread street phrase, “Who is John Galt?”

As the novel closes, the storyline wraps the mystery and uncertainty of why these people are present in Galt’s Gulch and what the future of the nation, and indeed the world, will be all together into a coherent, revelatory, and gripping ending, but that, as well as the answer to the question of Mr. Galt’s identity, is for you, reader, to discover for yourself.

In all verity, Atlas Shrugged is not an easy read. Its length alone might frighten some readers, but requiring even more mental faculty than that necessary to trudge through the nearly thousand pages is that required to pore the dense philosophical dogma that lies therein. Why, then, do I still maintain a positive opinion of and recommend this novel? The story is one that, though gripping, is even more so absorbing for its excellent use and conveyance of Rand’s beliefs. As it has affected countless others, Atlas Shrugged has similarly influenced my philosophical outlook and beliefs.

There will be those who will wholeheartedly disagree with Ms. Rand and her writings, yet the novel discussed here is worth the read even for the mental debate it will inevitably spark. If you are up for the challenge, as any good reader should be, and are open to intellectual growth, give Atlas Shrugged a shot.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

tale_two_cities_coverThis past year, I immersed myself in the study of the history of the world, a mighty feat that required exhaustive hours of reading and memorization. As with most students, I, at times, found this endeavor dry and lifeless, yet, conversely, often I was so captivated by a figure or civilization or event that history ceased to be a chore. To illustrate, an example of such an historical topic is the French Revolution.

Throughout all periods of history, there has been change; for stagnancy is something we humans seem incapable of maintaining. Nonetheless, at the end of the 18th century, change took on a form more radical than ever seen before. Shortly after its American counterpart, the French Revolution consisted of rapid metamorphoses in government and society, spurred by turbulent times and the boiling anger of the French People.

It is easy to find and study these happenings in history books, but the best way to understand the general sentiment of the period, in my opinion, is to read Charles Dickens’ immortal work, A Tale of Two Cities.

Set in both Paris and London (hence the title) at the onset of the French Revolution, Dickens’ tale chronicles the occurrences surrounding a small group of characters, most notably the long-imprisoned Dr. Manette, his near perfect daughter Lucie, and her husband the, as the reader comes to learn, French noble Charles Darnay. In the first book of this three-part novel, Lucie and the Tellson’s Banker, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, travel to Paris to retrieve the former’s father, who was previously thought to be dead but has, instead, been released from a lengthy imprisonment in La Bastille.

This action sets the basis for the rest of the tale and the second book, where, as it commences, the reader is introduced to Charles Darnay, who is being tried for treason against England. Upon his acquittal, Darnay begins a life in England and eventually comes to wed Lucie. Yet simultaneously, in France, the reader observes the wine-shop owners of Saint Antoine, Madame and Monsieur Defarge, who are at the forefront of the revolution as they lead the storming of the Bastille and the resistance against the French nobility. A son of the aristocracy, Charles is summoned to help by the proprietor of the estate of his uncle, whom we know as the Marquis. Yet, as both an immigrant and a noble, Charles is imprisoned in Paris, and so Lucie and her father travel to the aforementioned city in a desperate attempt to save their loved one.

I shall not discuss the climax and conclusion of the novel; that, reader, is for you to discover on your own. But I warn of the turmoil of the events that transpire subsequent to the actions stated above. The revolution is unrelenting in its wrath, and quite frightening, especially as it is manifested in the character of Madame Defarge herself. Ultimately, however, the indomitable spirit of the tale’s protagonists yield them a bittersweet refuge from the terror of the new French Republic.

Dickens is truly innovative; through the lens of a few characters, he is able to summarize and recount a whole period of turbulence, and, in so doing, seems to provide his own critical view of an epoch we now see as influential in the establishment of liberty and democracy in the west. One may read this novel for the entertainment of the gripping plot and richness of the majority of the novel’s characters alone, yet there is much greater historical resonance to A Tale of Two Cities below the textual surface. It is this ingenuity Dickens offers that has allowed his novel to obtain its status as a timeless classic of English literature.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

Book Review: Galapagos, by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos_coverThere is an archipelago, six hundred miles from the western coast of South America, isolated from the rest of the world. For some, this remote location is a destination sought in the pursuit of relaxation, others engaged in the hunt of research. Yet most uniquely, this island chain is the focus for a novel written by one of the 20TH century’s greatest authors.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos, his eleventh elongated tale, remains a true example of his characteristic cynicism and caustic humor which have long attracted a devoted audience, including myself. At a rather superficial level, Galápagos is extremely humorous for those with an attraction to keen wit. Yet upon delving further into the text, one comes to grips with the more profound revelations Vonnegut has to offer. At its deepest level, Vonnegut prophesizes, criticizing the society celebrity-worshipping cult of “big-brained” buffoons that he observes. This is where Darwin comes into play; Vonnegut incorporates evolutionary ideas to suggest that our noggins have outgrown their necessity, and have driven us into despair. And so, as our author predicts, we shall regress to the animalistic state of furry ocean-dwellers.

Vonnegut’s scattered scenes mimic the geography of the story’s setting, and while occasionally disorienting, they lead to a comprehensive narrative regarding the tale of the crew of the fictional Bahía de Darwin who take on a sort of Noah’s Ark as the survivors of the human race. Stranded on the island of Santa Rosalia, the outcasts ultimately are the ancestors of a new species that inhabit earth, which Vonnegut continuously visits a few thousand years in the future. In this way, the only true antagonist of the story, the brain, is victorious.

While not a challenging read, Galápagos is advanced in its writing and revelations, but should be intriguing to any curious teen. There is no doubt that Vonnegut sparks some compelling questions: What is our relationship to the rest of creation? Are the fittest really the ones who survive? Have our brains become the enemy? Surely the author has his own opinions and predictions, but we are not necessarily compelled to agree. Rather, Vonnegut seeks to entertain us, his rhetoric present only under jocularly sardonic remarks and plot.

-Sebastian R., 10th grade

Book Review: Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

enders_game_coverIn my nearly fifteen years of life, I have read a good deal of literature. I can recall from my unconscious the many titles I have read without great difficulty, yet there are a few novels that, upon recollection, produce a certain nostalgia the others lack. One of these is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

In retrospect, I find it problematic to discern the source of my enthrallment with this work. Neither Ender’s Game nor its author will not be remembered as comparable to Shakespeare, Twain, Tolstoy, or the writings of that lot, but it I believe it is a fundamental piece of literature to the young adult of this age.

I read Ender’s Game in some of the most jubilant and prosperous days of my life thus far, a circumstantial factor that likely influences my opinion of the work. Yet I feel that almost any reader would be able to connect with and place himself or herself in the context of Ender’s Game as easily as I did. Continue reading