BOOK REVIEW: Candide

Candide

by Voltaire

Candide was in love with the lovely Cunegonde, and the two were caught entwined in their first kiss. Candide was then banished from his castle and Cunegonde was punished. Soon after, Cunegonde was “cut open by Bulgarian soldiers after having been violated by many.”

Candide traveled the world with Professor Pangloss, a philosopher, as his companion, in search of paradise. Always the optimist, Candide suffered despicable acts, acts impossible to tolerate and certainly not survive, yet he did survive. No matter what happened, what horrors were endured, what atrocities were witnessed, Candide, under the guidance of his philosopher companion Pangloss, and later Martin, believed that all is for the best.

As he hopped from country to country, and continent to continent, Candide miraculously crossed paths with his not-dead heartthrob, Cunegonde, but she was not free to be with him. Candide rejoiced at the sight of her and continued his quest for paradise, then in search of reunion with the lovely Cunegonde.

At one point, Candide questioned the philosophy of his trusted Pangloss:

“Well, my dear Pangloss,” said Candide to him, “when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything is for the best?”

“I am still of my first opinion” answered Pangloss.

After insurmountable trials and tribulations Candide was ultimately reunited with Cunegonde, who had grown old and ugly, but a fine pastry cook, Candide realized he no longer loved her but after consideration, the two were finally married.

Pangloss later explained to Candide:

“If you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde, if you had not been put into the inquisition; if you had not walked over America, if you had not stabbed the Baron, if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado, you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

And so Candide cultivated the land and enjoyed the pastries of his Cunegonde’s making.

Satire at its best. Candide, the novella, is thoroughly enjoyable, lively, and laugh-out-loud funny, even during the most horrific tales, and yet I am certain there is much more there that I did not grasp this first reading, and much, much more that I got but did not include in this brief review.

BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Ilyich was 45 years old when he died. He had injured himself while hanging curtains, a seemingly minor bump that damaged his intestines, and only months later died  from that injury. He was married, a father of two, and a lawyer living a comfortable life.

Over the weeks and months of his physical decline, Ivan Ilyich reflected on his life, his illness, his relationships. He had experienced death before with the deaths of three of his five children, the death of children being more common at that time. He had remained somewhat detached from his children, a defense mechanism, no doubt. His own death had not previously been in question, however.

Tolstoy takes a careful look at each of the five stages of death, stages that were first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying, in 1969, but Tolstoy recognized those yet undefined stages 100 years before: denial, anger, bargaining (with God, presumably), depression, and acceptance). Additionally, he looked at all the people touched by Ivan Ilyich’s death and their responses, including the discomforting awareness, denial, the inconvenience, and most importantly the awareness that it happened to the other guy and not to themselves.

This novella is a fascinating, in-depth, emotionally gripping, and timeless study of death and dying.

BOOK REVIEW: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook

His Wife for a Hat

By Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks has compiled a selection of anecdotes from his experience as a neurologist. Previously, he had written (among other things) Awakenings, a short story which was turned into the movie by the same name and starring Robin Williams. From this, I was aware that Dr. Sacks presents stories of neurological disorders in a light, easy-to-understand manner, but at the same time with compassion. He conveys a desire to understand and the desire to help others to understand.

From the title, I expected The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to present in much the same way. The title suggests humor. I expected to be amused while enlightened about some of the neurological disorders that afflict people.

After more than 20 years of transcribing medical notes for more than a dozen neurologists and psychiatrists all across the United States, I have learned their language. I am familiar with most of the terminology and jargon. Yet, this book, filled with references to theory and studies, and thick with medical language, was difficult and oftentimes impossible to read and/or understand. I think Dr. Sacks targeted the wrong audience. The stories in this book, as written, are more appropriate, in my opinion, for the clinical water cooler.

BOOK REVIEW: Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety is a semi-autobiographical story centering around the relationship between two couples who share a close bond that lasts a lifetime. We meet Sid and Charity Lang and Larry and Sally Morgan at the start of the men’s careers. They are both enmeshed in university life, aspiring writers and poets. Their wives play supporting roles.

Early on, they all attended a stuffy dinner party of academics, a party that introduced not only the two professor wannabees to the establishment, but even more importantly (to the story) to each other. The wine flowed and as everyone relaxed, one woman got up and recited a poem in Greek, not only to her own delight, but to everyone’s delight. Oh, the joy! Oh, the titillation! Oh, how pompous and overbearing!

As the two couples grew closer, their challenges and struggles were shared and analyzed, their career-long efforts to achieve tenure always the carrot.

There were times I got caught up in the lives of each of the characters, alone and as part of the group. Unfortunately those times were separated by long sections of agonizingly boring tales of travel and haughty philosophy.

For a story about relationships against the backdrop of academic life, I would recommend Stoner by John Williams. Both Stoner and Crossing to Safety start at the beginning of university life, although the characters come from very different backgrounds. The main characters march through decades, striving for tenure, and both books end on the same tragic note. Stoner kept my attention; the Langs and the Morgans kept me at bay.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth

by Jane Hamilton

Ruth Grey lived with her mother May and her brother Matt in rural Honey Creek, Illinois. Ruth grew up in her brother’s shadow, he a coveted, mathematical prodigy. After high school, Ruth married Ruby Dahl, a petty criminal and misfit, but a charmer. They lived with Ruth’s mother, barely making ends meet, the friction between Ruby and May always there. Ruth became pregnant after just of few months of married life and the new baby was a source of love and pride, and jealousy. For May, baby Justin was her hope that she could do things better this time and she tried to control his care much as she tried to control everyone who lived under her roof.

The story moved along slowly, a meticulous development of the few characters as Ruth’s school years are detailed, her entry into young adulthood, her marriage to Ruby, her hopes and dreams, her thoughts, her fears. The author succeeded in capturing the reader’s mind and heart. It was clear early on that there had to come some major event, a big finish – and the author did not disappoint.

An underlying theme is Ruth’s view of religion which she questioned from a very young age and continued to question into adulthood. She wondered if God and Jesus Christ were real or imagined. She grew firm in her belief that the Bible and the preaching by the local reverend were stories, symbols perhaps, and she attempted to make sense of them. I suspected that in the end, Ruth would “find religion.” I feared this book would turn out to be little more than “inspirational” literature and the big finish would be Ruth finding God or redemption, or something. I was wrong.

After years, generations really, of struggles and challenges, emotional and physical and sexual abuse, and escalating violence, Ruth emerged battered and alone. She will face life anew, this time with only her two young children in tow. She is a survivor. She has a future. She has hope. She also has her past. As the title of this book suggests, she just may need God.

BOOK REVIEW: The Power Broker

The Power Broker

by Robert Caro

This is the true, behind-the-scenes story of Robert Moses, a brilliant, egomaniacal city planner and strategist whose vision for New York City was carried out over the course of more than 40 years. Not a politician, Moses wrote the laws he needed to get things done, new laws neatly containing buried verbiage so deep within the body of those laws that only he was familiar with them enough to act on them, realizing his first increments of power.

As his power grew, so grew his projects. He created parks and playgrounds, highways, bridges, tunnels, Jones Beach and Riis Park, the Central Park Zoo, Lincoln Center, and the list goes on. Like a bull in a china shop, he carried out his plans, stopping for no one and no thing, manipulating laws, ignoring protests, side-stepping work stop orders, and displacing the poor and the not-so-poor by the hundreds and thousands.

In spite of more than the 400 miles of highways he built (the Southern State, Northern State, Belt Parkway, Cross Island Parkway, Cross Bronx Expressway – just to name a few), Robert Moses never had a driver’s license, never drove a car. Notably, his plans excluded, by design, any and all interest in mass transportation. In so doing, he succeeded in creating clogged arteries, traffic jams, and gridlock.

This book contains 1162 pages. Robert Caro said it all so thoroughly, so eloquently. So good my husband read it twice!

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins

When riding the New York City subway as a small child, my mother would have us play a game to help pass the time. We would pick out a person somewhere in our subway car and each tell what we think that person’s life is like. Rachel in our story plays that very same game.

Rachel rides the train into London every weekday morning and back home each evening. The faces she sees and the places she passes all conjure up thoughts and images and her mind clamors to tell their stories from the little that she sees.

One street of houses is particularly well known to Rachel. It was there that Rachel spent some happy times – before her troubles began, before her drinking began. Each trip provides another glimpse into the lives she passes, and she longs for each sneak peek.

Rachel’s vision of the world is often a blur, altered by her frequent cans of gin and tonic and her bottles of wine. When the young woman four houses down from the home she used to call hers goes missing, Rachel immerses herself in the mystery. She even goes to the police to tell what she saw, what she knows, what she thinks she understands.

The story is told from three perspectives. From the eyes and mind and lips of Rachel, a sad and lonely alcoholic, the mystery of Megan’s disappearance is explored and explained. Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband recounts her problems, her anguish, her despair, all wrapped up neatly under cover of the blissful suburban housewife. Megan reveals her own tale of wedded instability, discontent, and betrayal, a tale that differs from what everybody sees.

Paula Hawkins plays the game my mother taught me so many years ago, and plays it beautifully.