Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Naturally she had not realized it until now. How could she have? The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives us our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

Sometimes, the books you end up picking up on a whim end up being your favorites. That’s how I stumbled upon Murakami. I was at the library one day and randomly picked up 1Q84, unaware that Murakami would dominate my reading habits for the next four (!) years and counting. Similarly, I was aware of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by virtue of its famed Magritte-esque bowler hat cover art, but I didn’t know too much about the book other than the cover.

In a way, I’m glad I had so little knowledge of the book. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded by five-minute long movie trailers and teaser chapters, it felt lovely to be bowled over (pun intended) by a work I had little to no expectations for. Funnily enough, this novel contained many of the elements I look for in a book: believable characters, an interesting plot, masterful prose, and insight into a political situation. The novel revolves around a group of characters during the Prague Spring, narrating the political situation in Prague at the time, the complex romantic and familial relationships between the characters, and Kundera’s own philosophical musings. The characters are deftly drawn, each with their own motivations and justifications, and are lifelike, lovable, and imperfect.

One particular aspect of the book I found refreshing was the way Kundera explores philosophical ideas in the text. At times these ideas belong to the characters, and at other times, these ideas are explained by an unnamed narrator, presumably Kundera himself, although even in this case, the ideas relate back to the characters or plot. One of my pet peeves is when an author feels the need to blatantly declare the novel’s theme or message, without any analysis or interpretation required by the reader. One summer while staying at my uncle’s house, I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and I was bored by the book’s preachiness, as well as the obviousness of its morals and idea. Often, books that employ this overt method of conveying morals and ideas do it in a way that is lacking in creativity or originality, bogging down the narrative and the very ideas they were meant to bestow upon the reader. There’s no sense of reward or enjoyment when morals are just handed to you. However, the whimsical and personal nature of Kundera’s prose, as well as the originality and subversiveness of his ideas, simply worked. I found myself constantly marking down page numbers so that I could return to and reread these passages.

In my post on Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, I discussed what it means for a work to be a classic: relatable outside the context of the time and place it was written, provides insight into its time and place, and allows the reader to derive greater insight with multiple readings. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, without a doubt, a classic. The ideas around relationships, romantic and otherwise, are just as applicable to our relationships today as they were when the novel was written. Despite my limited knowledge on the Prague Spring, the book was easy to read and understand, while also expanding my knowledge of the history of Czechoslovakia.

YES OR NO?: YESThe Unbearable Lightness of Being is a perfect read. Filled with realistic characters, believable character development, history, and philosophy – this is probably my favorite book of the year.

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last

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The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

We expect more from the people we love. It’s simply just the way it is. We have certain expectations about their behaviours and are disappointed when those expectations aren’t fulfilled. The same goes for authors. When I truly love an author’s work and admire it for both its style and content, I tend to aggressively pursue as much of their work as possible. (I’ve now read all but two of Murakami’s novels, although I guess I could continue onto his short stories and nonfiction).

I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood in high school with Oryx and Crake. After high school, I finished the MaddAddam trilogy (The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam), as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, which a friend recommended to me. I found what Atwood calls her “speculative fiction” fascinating. The dystopias depicted in those works are shocking but believable, with the world-building so brilliantly and thoughtfully done. The characters are, despite their faults, largely likeable and interesting.

So, I expected the same from The Heart Goes Last, which begins with a couple, Charmaine and Stan, living out of their car after an economic and social collapse. They are offered the chance to live in an experimental community called the Positron Project where they are provided with a clean home, food, and employment, as long as half their time is spent as ordinary citizens and the other half is spent as inmates. While Stan and Charmaine are inmates, another couple (their “Alternates”) occupy their home, and vice-versa.  It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, and I found the first few chapters engrossing. The depiction of Charmaine and Stan’s poverty as they struggle to find work is raw, real, and relatable.

However…there were a few problems I had with this novel. I simply couldn’t suspend disbelief. The plot was simply full of too many coincidences and deus ex machinas, with characters miraculously reappearing to solve problems. The premise of Positron itself I found underwhelming and not particularly believable, especially compared to the ones found in Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale. For the most part, the characters were bland, insipid, and one-note. Charmaine was irritatingly simple, while Stan’s thinly veiled misogyny wasn’t coupled with enough redeeming features for me to actually enjoy his character.

My favorite aspect of the novel was its dissection of consent, especially coupled with the available technologies. Early in the novel, Charmaine considers prostitution as a way to support herself and Stan, but quickly rejects the idea due to Stan’s disapproval. The possibility of rape, for both Stan and Charmaine, is constantly on their minds as well. As the plot advances, the reader is exposed to some of the seedier inner workings of Positron, including sexbots that can be exactly modelled after another person without their knowledge, elaborate celebrity impersonator escort services, and the practice of modifying people’s brains to ensure their undying devotion to their partner. I loved all the different ways the novel explored sexuality, distorting nearly every sexual relationship in the novel with some sort of conspiracy or technology. Still, as much as I’m interested in the notion of consent and technology, I found the novel’s take on it a bit heavy-handed and repetitive.

YES OR NO?: I didn’t think the novel was completely unenjoyable, but simply not up to par. If I were to recommend an Atwood work, it would definitely be Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale. This work is much lighter and often more humorous, I didn’t find enough of it engaging to label it a necessary read.

Book Review: Tender Is the Night

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Well, you never knew exactly how much space you occupied in people’s lives. Yet from this fog his affection emerged — the best contacts are when one knows the obstacles and still wants to preserve a relation.

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I was a little girl, my mother encouraged me to read classics: Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. Until you’ve read Crime and Punishment, she insisted, you haven’t read much at all. I enjoy reading classics more than the average person, but I also think it’s necessary to read classics to be able to discuss much of modern literature, and often other media. Even the ever-popular superhero movies of today can be easily compared to equally magical heroes from eras past: Odysseus, Aeneas, Dr. Jekyll.

But what constitutes a classic? I was reading a Reddit thread on this topic just the other day, and the top answer was that a classic is a work that exemplifies the following:

  • Withstands the test of the time and contains universal and relatable themes that can be applied outside the context of the time and place it was written
  • Provides valuable insight into the culture of the time and place it was written
  • Allows readers to derive greater insight with additional readings, especially those not originally intentioned by the author

This is a tall order, obviously. But there’s a reason works like Hamlet and 1984 and Pride and Prejudice are shoved on us by our high school lit teachers and society at large. Despite being written centuries ago, Hamlet’s perpetual state of indecision, Orwell’s totalitarian dystopia, and the will-they-won’t-they nature of Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s relationship are all universal and relatable, even if the language makes them seem not to be so.

Is Tender Is the Night a classic? It’s no argument that Fitzgerald penned perhaps the greatest American novel, The Great GatsbyTender Is the Night echoes Gatsby in the portrayal of extravagance and excess with an overwhelming sense of personal and romantic dissatisfaction. I expected this from what little I know about Fitzgerald, but I discovered that the novel also explored the portrayal of mental health, which I found relatable even today.

Another question that came to mind as I read Tender Is the Night is how much we can dismiss the work’s shortcomings as being a “product of its time”. You hear this phrase a lot in college lit classes, especially when discussing anything earlier than 1900. Can we dismiss the inherent racism in this work, especially if it seems simply misguided and ignorant rather than outright malicious? There are passages in Tender Is the Night that involve black characters, but refer to them in a way I found offensive: using terms that are not politically correct, using black characters only as plot devices or as indications of violence, and so on. On the other hand, Fitzgerald paints a world where no character is wholly good nor bad, and where the female characters are equally as complex as their male counterparts. However, reading the passages revolving around black characters made me uncomfortable enough that I had to skim them. Is there a better way to compartmentalize this and not let it taint my opinion of the book as a whole? Or is it better to accept this about the novel and the time it was written in, and remark on it openly? I’m leading toward the latter.

YES OR NO?: I’m undecided on this book. I can see why Gatsby is considered Fitzgerald’s great masterpiece as opposed to Tender Is the Night. The prose is lovely and the characters masterfully painted, but the plot often felt meandering and pointless (I think often purposefully so). If I knew more about Fitzgerald’s life and his relationship with his wife Zelda, I’m sure it would have been a more fascinating read as well.