One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

hundredTo read One Hundred Years of Solitude is to be thrust into a vivid tale of loss, love, nostalgia, and memory that spans over a century. The novel follows the rise and fall of Macondo, a mystical South American town founded in the early 19th century by José Arcadio Buendía. The fate of Macondo is tangled within that of the Buendía family, a family of dreamers and revolutionaries who the reader follows through five generations. Márquez beautifully weaves together a story that is simultaneously hypnotically whimsical and heartbreakingly real, a story that depicts humanity at its glittering highs and disturbing lows.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is not only Márquez’s most acclaimed work; it is also regarded as one of the best pieces of literature from a Latin American author and as the foundation of the genre magical realism. When I picked up the novel, I did not know of its reputation. I simply chose it off the library shelf one day and opened it to a random page, as I do with many books. The first sentence I read was gorgeous, filled with beautiful imagery and poetic rhythm – every sentence in the book proves to be similarly poetic. Márquez beautifully takes images of dissimilar feelings or visions and brings them together in harmony, such as a character who feels “protected by [a] supernatural light, by the sound of the rain, [and] by the feeling of being invisible”. Due to the descriptive nature of Márquez’s writing, however, the novel is not a simple read. Towards the end of the novel, there is one sentence that covers over three pages of text. The book is comprised of descriptions after descriptions of everything from the weather to the innermost thoughts of the characters, interrupted occasionally by a rare quotation. The people of Macondo rarely speak, preferring the silence of the hammock where they take their siesta.

Márquez manages to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and the impossible into the mundane. The novel is filled with mystical happenings that are made to seem perfectly normal. One character is able to survive off of nothing but dirt for months, while another floats up to heaven with the laundry one day and is never seen again. Early in its history, Macondo is struck by an “insomnia plague”, and those infected are unable to sleep and gradually lose their memories of people and everyday objects. The plague causes a state of wakeful dreaming, in which people see “not only… the images of their own dreams, but some saw the images dreamed by others”. The words of One Hundred Years of Solitude rise off the page, intriguing the reader’s imagination with tales of the impossible.

Towards the middle of the book you may feel as though it will take one hundred years to finish. You will begin to drown in the never-ending stream of Aurelianos and José Arcadios (the Buendía family tradition is to name newborn children after their ancestors – there are twenty-two Aurelianos and five José Arcadios in total, which can make the characters difficult to distinguish). You will grow weary of the repeated mistakes and misguided loves passed down through generation after generation of Buendía. Yet, just when you are about to collapse, your will to continue in the same state as the aging Buendía house, Márquez will once again enchant you with his beautiful imagery. Márquez’s words will raise your spirits along with Remedios the Beauty as she is lifted up to heaven by “a delicate wind of light” and “[waves] goodbye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her”. You will find yourself unable to lift your gaze from the gorgeous words, and you will grow closer to the novel as you find your own nostalgias reflected within its pages. Once you have read the last lines and have set the chronicle back on the shelf, the story of the Buendías and the people of Macondo will not leave your thoughts or heart.

Review by Tara F. ’18

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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

coverInstead of sending it off to the conveyor belt of the dining hall, I decided to finish my last piece of bread and felt the guilt, more strongly than ever. I went upstairs to my room and picked up the half-opened book on my desk, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As the food was swallowed down my throat and the warmth spread inside me, I was once again unsettled by the stories of survival in One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, feeling a sense of responsibility to carry on the weight of the darkest days of Soviet history so that both the impotency and resilience of human life under extreme conditions shall never fade away from the collective memories of human race.

One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an account of life in the Gulag—the Soviet forced-labor camp—during the years of Stalin. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a prominent intellectual and dissenter of the Soviet Union, drew from his own experience in the Gulag in writing the novel, making the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich, somehow a truthful reflection of Alexander himself. As suggested by the title, the novel is written in the voice of Shukhov (Ivan Denisovich), a prisoner who has been in one of the Gulags in Siberia for seven years. From Shukhov’s perspective, we not only have a detailed account of the extreme and inhuman conditions of the camp, including the schedule of the prisoners, constant hunger and coldness, stringent discipline and savage treatment the of prisoners; we also empathize with his fervent thoughts and emotions that he buried deeply within.

It is perhaps difficult for us who live in the post-Soviet world today to imagine and truly comprehend the experiences of those who persisted in Gulag. It is easy to dismiss the sense of other-worldedness that one can find in this book because the description is perhaps too forthcoming and abominable to be a true. However, the camp is like a complex and hostile ecosystem where the rule of natural selection created a hierarchical social ladder that governed the lives of all. Prisoners have to follow strict, semi-military discipline of the camp that controls every aspect of life: Organized into gangs and labeled by number, they eat and sleep all together under the constant watch from the authority, ranging from the foreman to warder to commander and to soldier. Lives of the prisoners are worthless, and there are a millions ways one can die in the camp—coldness, insufficient food, penalties due to misdemeanor of disobedience of any formal or informal rules all attribute to an unnatural death. Nonetheless men persist in these extreme conditions

What moves me deeply about this novel is the admirable resilience of human souls in face of institutional cruelty. The will to survive is so strong that they adapt to the system, and one of the means they succeed in doing that is to forgo the ability of thinking, to think as minimally as possible. It is perhaps insane to say that Gulag simplifies one’s life in confinement, but it is a cold, relentless truth in the most tragic sense. Solzhenitsyn captures this truth with short, choppy sentences and realistic articulation of one’s thoughts, and the following description of the dinner scene reflects the effect of his style:

“He began eating. First he just drank the juice, spoon after spoon. The warmth spread through his body, his insides greeted that skilly with a joyful fluttering. This was it! This was good! This was the brief moment for which a zek lives. For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances… For the moment he had only one thought: we shall survive. We shall survive it all. God willing, we’ll see the end of it!”

Solzhenitsyn’s plain, simple language and hopeful tone not only illustrates the incredible strength and the will to survive of each prisoner; it also conveys a sense of tragedy by putting the noble resilience of a human being against the backdrop of unimaginable cruelty. As I was reading this, a vivid image came across my mind—a candle burning in the darkness; its flame was tragically cheerful.

I decided that I will try my best not to waste any food after putting down One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It might seem silly—how much a difference would my action actually make? However, a book like One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich has the power to remind us over and over again that those who have suffered, who are suffering, and who will suffer are real human beings, whose stories not only bear testimony to any difficult memories of the past but also transcends history itself. Those stories are as timeless as this simple truth: we all have the alienable right to live regardless of the conditions we find ourselves in.

Reviewed by Charlotte C ’17 for Literature of the Millennium

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

coverAs frustrating as this book was to read, with the coupling of a dizzying layout of the story and an endless character list, never before have I been so satisfied to complete a novel. The complexity of the plot lends itself perfectly to the story that it is relaying. In Wuthering Heights, Brontë masterfully entices her reader to persevere through thick language by carefully crafting a novel that captures every element of the imagination.

While this is no Nicholas Sparks novel, it does have all the makings of such a love story; a brooding lead character and a doomed romance. The story begins with a Mr. Lockwood renting Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff, who lives in a home called Wuthering Heights (hence the title). None of the people living in this house are very welcoming, neither Heathcliff nor his daughter-in-law nor the strange boy that does not say much are kind or well mannered. As he stays the night at Wuthering Heights, he “dreams” that a ghost, who identifies herself as Catherine Linton, is trying to gain entrance to his room through a window. Upon his return to his own home after that strange night, Lockwood is told the story of Heathcliff and the Earnshaws from his housekeeper (who narrates most of the story), Ellen, who also worked at Wuthering Heights. So begins the tale of Heathcliff and Cathy’s complicated friendship-turned-love story.

Wuthering Heights chronicles a love so strong that not being able to be with her lover caused Catherine descend so far into despair that she cannot go on with her life, which is explained through her haunting of Heathcliff; as “the murdered do haunt their murderers.” Through Brontë’s beautiful metaphor and evocative language the reader gains insight into the true meaning of love to the two main characters and what happens when true love is forbidden. Comparing her current husband to the ever changing foliage of a forest, Catherine compares Heathcliff to the steadfast rock beneath, “a source of little visible delight… He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being” The narrative allows the reader access to an insider view to this romance, as both Heathcliff and Catherine seek out comfort and advice from Ellen, who narrates the tale. The remainder of the novel is full of ghosts, revenge and impossible love, most of this occurs through Heathcliff’s wish to get revenge on Hindley Linton and to reunite with Catherine Linton, the girl who “burned too bright for this world.”

Rarely does a book’s roundabout chronology and seemingly never ending expanse of characters entice one to read just one more page (which in the case of reading this novel often turning into just one more chapter.) More often than not when faced with such a challenge, one tends to coast throughout the remainder of the book hoping to eventually make sense of the story. Never before have I willingly created a timeline of events and a family tree connecting the characters simply because I wanted to understand the story and avoid missing a single detail. With each turn of a page a new twist or turn in the plot was unearthed, creating an engaging tale of love and revenge, that I never wanted to end, though I was happy when things seemed to be (relatively) resolved.

 

Reviewed by Meg B ’17 for Literature of the Millennium

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

coverAs a 21st century, romanticist, I’ve only every read Young Adult romance novels released in the 21st century. So, picking up Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a mythological novel written in 1956, was something I felt that I wouldn’t have enjoyed.  After reading the first few chapters, I was hooked.

Till We Have Faces is a remake of Cupid and Psyche’s story, told through the perspective of Psyche’s half-sister, Orual. It tells the story of Orual and her beloved half-sister, Psyche. Psyche meant everything to Orual. They both shared a deep, unconditional love for each other that they lacked with other members of their family, and their kingdom. So, when Psyche was ordered to sacrifice herself to appease the Gods, there was no hesitation in trying to save her. But after finding out her sister hadn’t died, but is instead living happily with an unknown man and refuses to come home, Orual is shocked. C.S. Lewis’s take on writing the book through the sister’s perspective is very interesting. He makes the character’s choices and actions very realistic; there was no shame nor regret in the way he had written Orual’s perspective. Through Orual’s character, he was able to show readers the entire spectrum of the dark side of human nature: jealousy, ignorance, anger, and selfishness etc. One part in particular that I felt was human, was when Orual described her feelings for Bardia, her love interest, “My love for Bardia (not Bardia himself) had become to me a sickening thing. I had been dragged up and out onto such heights and precipices of truth, that I came into an air where it could not live.” I really liked how C.S. Lewis’s expresses her one-sided love with Bardia. It captures the unhealthy part of love, rather than an idealistic love that many authors tend to describe.

I think that everybody should read this book because it explores the type of love one can have and how there is a fine line between a healthy love and an unhealthy love. Overall, it’s just a great read that captures you once you begin. With many of C.S. Lewis’s books, he tries to incorporate themes that relate to Christianity, but this one doesn’t reflect it at all. So, if you’re not into the religious scene, and like themes such as sacrifice and love, then this book could be the one for you.

Reviewed by Iliyeen Z. ’17 for Literature of the Millennium

 

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

coverSomehow I had never heard of this book before I read it, so I had very little idea of what I was getting into. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, follows an unnamed young African American narrator as he struggles to find his identity and place in society in pre-civil rights movement America.

From the start, Ellison’s novel is dense, powerful, and graphically violent. The story opens by describing a speech the narrator gives to a white audience in order to receive a college scholarship – preceded by a dehumanizing battle royale he is forced to compete in. During the battle royale, he is forced to fight a group of larger, more experienced men until he is bloody and barely conscious, and then made to crawl around on an electric rug grabbing at fake gold coins. All of this dehumanization and violence serves to make his speech calling for peace and cooperation seem weak and comical, thereby appeasing the consciences of his oppressors. Throughout the rest of the novel, the narrator finds himself in similar situations of degradation because of his race, and it is interesting to follow the shifts in how he describes and processes these events as his ideology changes.

The narrator spends most of the first half of the book believing, as he has been taught to, in white superiority and seeking only to be an exceptional member of his race. When a series of encounters at his southern all black college leads to his expulsion, however, he is sent North to seek employment in Harlem, New York. Slowly, New York and the treatment he receives from the various people he interacts with lead the narrator to understand and question the systemic racism he experiences in both the North and the South. He cycles through different levels of disillusionment, serving for a while as a community civil rights organizer, but ultimately finds that his skin color makes him invisible to everyone with real power.

The first person narrative allows for a fascinating documentation of the narrator’s convoluted thoughts and emotions as he processes his experiences. His internal dialogue is frustrating at times but realistic and empathizable as he progresses from a naive, obsequious student to a disillusioned former activist who muses that “my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself.”

In all, Invisible Man was an excellent book that explores themes of race, identity, and discrimination that echo problems in contemporary America with disturbing similarity. Although Ellison’s novel is long and requires close reading, it is eloquently written and well worth the time.

Reviewed by Reed F. ’17 for Literature of the Millennium

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

danteImagine a place beyond the universe and time, where the sun never shines, where you can smell dripping, roasting flesh and “sighs and cries and wails [coil] and [recoil] on the starless air, spilling [your] soul to tears.” This is Hell, and this is where Dante Alighieri, the author and narrator of The Inferno, must risk his life and his eternal soul to venture.

It’s Good Friday. The year is 1300. The story begins in a dreamlike, dark forest. Stumbling through literal and symbolic shadows, Dante finds himself mysteriously commanded to travel through the circles of Hell, to observe the sufferings of the damned. Dante is stunned: in his own words, “I felt my senses reel and faint away with anguish. I was swept by such a swoon as death is, and I fell as a corpse might fall to the dead floor of Hell.” And so begins his epic journey into the heart of human evil.

At each level of Hell, Dante observes a different group of sinners being punished, along with mythical monsters that guard them. The book is carefully, meticulously structured; each aspect of each circle holds meaning, and each punishment corresponds allegorically to the sin. From the Falsifiers, whose guts are eternally ripped out of their bodies, to the Thieves, who are locked in a cycle of shape-shifting between human and lizard form in representation of how they stole the substance from others in life, the pace never flags over nine circles, each more imaginative and excruciating than the last. Nor are the sinners simply homogenous metaphors for the sins they committed. They are individuals: in each circle, Dante converses with notable people, including recent popes and Muhammed, the founder of Islam (whom Dante as a medieval Christian believed guilty of disloyalty to the true God).

The Inferno was written over 600 years ago in Italian verse. It is not easy reading. As I worked through it, I found it was jam-packed with references to people and events I’d never heard of; it was a jumble of names, like wandering through the story in a cloud. Reading the footnotes and section prefaces only confused me more. I really wanted to understand the “poetical and architectural brilliance” the footnote author kept referring to, but sometimes I could barely make it through a page without misunderstanding the basic plot, never mind stretch my brain to the heights of metaphorical and allegorical genius Dante had reached. So, about eighty pages in, I found myself wondering the same thing you are probably thinking if you are reading this book review: why read The Inferno?

In retrospect, most of the reasons I originally wanted to read the book had to do with its age. I wanted to learn about history, about the dawn of modern Western literature, to get a seminal perspective on Western civilization. All of those are excellent reasons to read The Inferno, but the most compelling reason has nothing to do with any high-minded intellectual fancies—nothing to do with everything that is insanely hard and scary about The Inferno. It is that even though this book is over 600 years old, even though the language is so archaic you can feel the rust around its edges and it’s full of characters whom you can never quite understand—it’s timeless. The drama of the story, the richness of description, and the flights of imagination still strike a chord, can still give you tiny shivers, like slivers of magic sent through time. That is what is amazing about the Inferno—not what makes it unique, or binds it to its time period, but the fact that it’s still accessible after so long—the fact that you can enter worlds—universes—beyond time, so central to human consciousness and storytelling that they can conjure the same feelings across centuries. The Inferno is breathtaking—and because of this, because it is still so powerful in scope and detail—it speaks to the universality of human experience as well as its diversity. In short, The Inferno may be archaic, and scary, and confusing but it will leave you with hard questions, deep insights, and most of all a new understanding of beauty—and this is what makes it such a masterwork and so worth reading.

Reviewed by Victoria A ’17 for Mr. Mossop’s Literature of the Millennium class

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