Book Review: Candide

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“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide, by Voltaire

I’m a little hesitant about reviewing classics. What new insights can I have to offer about these centuries-old books, researched and torn apart by academics and popular audiences alike? But then I remind myself about the purpose of my blogging: not only to provide information for others, but to provide information for myself—a record of my own interpretations of books.

I know that people complain about how prolific blogs have become, and how nowadays anyone can just post their thoughts on the Internet, but I personally think that’s exciting. For me, thoughts are unique, not only to the person, but to the moment that they’re set down. It’s neat (for lack of a better word) to have a record of my thoughts on a particular subject at a particular time. There’s a Nelson Mandela quote about how returning to a place unaltered lets you realize how you yourself have changed, and this blog allows me an outlet to feel those emotions virtually. For me, books are pretty unique that way.

In any case, I’ve been on a classics binge lately, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because since I got my Kindle, I’ve been happily downloading free e-books from the Kindle store, and many of those free e-books are classics. After plodding through heavy titles like The Count of Monte Cristo and Crime and Punishment, Candide was a welcome change of pace, light and refreshing, despite also being from the 1800s. In comparison to the weeks I spent on both of those titles, Candide only took me a week to read. It’s more like a few hours’ read, actually, but I was quite busy this week, with ordinary life getting in the way of reading and blogging.

What can I say about Candide—both the book and the character? As the type of person who tries to remain optimistic in the face of, well, life, I couldn’t help but identify with Candide, who tries to cling to his philosophy of “all is for the best”, despite basically enduring every indignity and danger known to man.

The journey that Candide goes through, nonsensical as it is, ends with possibly the most profound thought I’ve read so far this year: “let us we cultivate our garden.” I guess I’ve always been fond of the life-as-garden metaphor, and I simply liked Candide’s embracing of productivity and his satisfaction at leading a small but productive and well-meaning life.

Other than that, what I enjoyed about Candide was its sarcastic tone, which reads like something written in the modern day (I guess depending on which translation you read). Its many quips, whimsy, and the type of subversive humour used reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s dialogues and essays. I also tend to get annoyed with protagonists who aren’t quick to catch on, but for some reason, Candide didn’t annoy me. I guess as an optimist, I just sympathized with Candide and wanted things to work out for him.

YES OR NO?: YES. But as with most books, I don’t think Candide is for everyone. The fast-moving, erratic plot takes a bit of getting used to, and sometimes characters can be hard to keep track of, but all in all, it makes for a quick read, especially if you’re looking for a classic that won’t take up weeks of your time.

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

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For I am firmly persuaded that, sooner or later, the good will be rewarded, and the wicked punished.

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Many people dread reading classics. And I can see why. Many classics are filled with archaic language, uninteresting and unnecessarily detailed prose, and characters that a modern audience is simply unable to identify with. However, in my opinion, most titles that deserve the title of a true literary classic are those that have endured the test of time. And The Count of Monte Cristo is definitely, in my opinion, a classic.

Not to say that the book doesn’t have its faults. Since it was originally serialized, it tends to feel unnecessarily long. There is a huge cast of characters, who can be difficult to keep track of, although Dumas takes care to introduce them gradually. As for the archaic language, reading on my Kindle helped, since I could instantly look up any words I didn’t know (many of them having to do with sailing or being specific to French culture in the 1800s).

One notable complaint I had about the book was the count’s relationship with Haidee. Other than being beautiful and supposedly witty (although described as such, I couldn’t find very many examples of Haidee’s wittiness in the book), she seemed to have no real redeeming features. She seemed more like a plot device than anything else. And her strange relationship with the count, a blend of mistress/daughter/ward, simply felt wrong to me.

Actually, in general, the female characters fell flat for me. They were all universally beautiful, and, in most cases, virtuous—Haidee, Mercedes, and Valentine. The only female characters I actually found interesting were Eugenie Danglars and Madame Villefort. Eugenie is a surprisingly independent young woman who eschews marriage and decides to travel in the guise of a man, and Madame Villefort, whose wrongdoings are intended to provide an inheritance for her young son, is a realistically drawn character. The other female characters, beautiful and virtuous to a fault, didn’t really do it for me.

Other than that, though, The Count of Monte Cristo is well-deserving of its designation as a classic. It is long, and sometimes grueling to get through, but the plot is full of twists and turns. I enjoyed that the whole of the count’s machinations weren’t spelled out for the reader, but at the same time not too difficult to figure out if you were paying close attention.

What I liked the most about the book, though, is that it’s not your average straightforward adventure story. The way that the count’s plot of vengeance is carried out causes suffering for many more people than just those he’s targeted. And actually, for me, the actual revenge plots carried out in the book were too over the top. I actually ended up feeling sorry for his targets, who mostly go through both mental and physical torture, and whose families end up being hurt as well.

Although I sympathized with the count at first because of his initial hardships in the first half of the novel, I found him an unsympathetic character in the second half. He simply manipulates people to get what he wants, and he resembles a robot in his ways, with a lack of real depth or human emotion. I understand that he’s that way because of the time he endured in prison, but still. Not exactly the most appealing protagonist.

YES OR NO? YES. Although I definitely don’t think this book is for everyone, I would recommend it if you have the patience to endure long classics.