REVIEW: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Published in 1899, Heart of Darkness is told in one night on a boat by the Thames as Marlow’s tale of his search for the infamous Kurtz through the hellish jungles of the Congo River. Much like A Passage to India, it explores colonialism and racism, this time Belgium over the Congo Free State, but it does so in a much darker and haunting style. There are no redeeming qualities in Conrad’s characters.

The unsettling story is one atrocity after another that ends with the death of Kurtz and the now famous deathbed words, “The horror! The horror!”

Conrad’s prose takes the reader to the depths of hell with him, only occasionally surfacing to some minute breath of humanity. It is perhaps the greatest condemnation of colonialism ever written.

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REVIEW: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

Like most of McDermott’s novels, The Ninth Hour is set in Irish Catholic Brooklyn. This time the story centers around nuns and a young widow.

Annie is newly pregnant when she returns from shopping to find her husband dead of suicide.  The strong and capable Sisters of Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor immediately step in to take care of the mess. They clean and warm the apartment, get Annie safely to a neighbor and try to get the death listed as accidental so Jim may be buried in holy ground.

Annie takes a laundry job at the convent and brings her daughter Sally to work with her. At the prodding of the nuns, she makes friends with another young mother and steps out every afternoon for a little fresh air. Soon her afternoons of fresh air are actually stolen time with a lover, Mr. Costello, who has an incapacitated wife. The compassionate nuns look the other way.

Sally grows up happily amidst the nuns and thinks of joining them, but a trip to a Chicago nunnery quickly dispels that idea and she returns to Brooklyn and marries a childhood friend. It is one of their children that narrates the story.

The Ninth Hour is a heartfelt book with sin acknowledged, but not dwelled on. McDermott chooses to focus on the compassion of the nuns and humanness of the characters rather than any strictness of doctrine. The characters balance their sins against heaven’s rewards and strive to just be good people who do the right thing when they can. They aren’t perfect, but then no one is, and their faith allows them to believe in forgiveness and redemption knowing God’s mercy is greater than they can imagine.

McDermott writes most beautifully about ordinary lives in Irish Catholic Brooklyn. Her The Ninth Hour continues to showcase that gift.

REVIEWS: Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell

I’m not sure I should have read Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 so close together, or at least not in this particular day and age. These days I tend to avoid politics and cable news for blood pressure reasons, but these books brought it all too close for comfort. I was angry for weeks on end as I watched current events mimic what I was reading in these classic dystopian fiction novels.

Animal Farm was written in 1945 as Orwell’s criticism of communism as he saw it at the time. The short novel tells the story of a farm run by lazy and abusive farmers that is taken over by its socialist leaning animals. The pig species then uses the ignorance of the other animals, fake news and alternative facts to become the leader and repeats the cycle of abuse on the other animals. In addition to the manipulative, ego-maniacal and self-serving pig, the stereotypes of other peoples are all there as well: the slow and uncommitted donkey, the frivolous and vain riding horse, the superiority complexed cat who refuses to work, the hens who protest with acts of subterfuge, the sheep who unquestioningly repeat political party soundbites, pups trained to be the secret police, and the workhorses who kill themselves in service to the whole.

In 1984, Orwell continues his anti-dictatorship writing, this time with the Thought Police, Big Brother, doublethink and newspeak as the villains. The party controls the ignorant masses with a common enemy to rail against and be afraid of, shifting it to suit their needs. “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.Winston Smith tries to defend truth, love and real knowledge. He fails and becomes a hollowed out shell who publicly agrees with the party that 2+2 =5 in order to save himself.

What all of these books have in common is the underlying message that an ignorant and uneducated populace will always fall victim to tyrants and dictators. Knowledge and education are the only true freedom paths of any civil society.

REVIEW: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Continuing with more of PopChartLab’s 100 Essential Novels, I finally read an E.M. Forster novel, A Passage to India. I enjoyed the book, but I can’t say I’ll rush to read any of his other works.

Published in 1924 and beautifully written, the novel is set in turn-of-the-century British India and explores the colonialism and racism of the time. British schoolteacher Miss Adela Quested and her widowed companion Mrs. Moore have travelled to India to meet up with Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny, Miss Adela’s potential husband. The women tire of the British India and wish to see the real India. Their trip to do so sets off tragic consequences when in a cryptic passage Adela believes she is being attacked and later accuses Dr. Aziz, a respected Indian, of perpetrating the attack. The Indians were already disheartened by their failed attempts to befriend their English rulers and this only serves to deepen the divide. Adela’s withdrawal of the charge during the court hearings causes further damage between the races and within the races.

Forgiveness for any of the damage, personal or racial, doesn’t come from any direction in the novel, but Forster leaves the reader with a sense of its possibility at some distant future point.

REVIEW: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke over the long Veteran’s Day holiday weekend, appropriately enough. I was struck by the overall sense of hopelessness that runs through the novel.

As layers of deceit are unwrapped around William “Skip” Sands it becomes clear that “Tree of Smoke” is a CIA web of kidnapping, assassination and double agents in 1963 Vietnam. He entered the agency because of a childhood fascination with his operative uncle, the colonel, and is now mired in a world of horrific evil fraught with the mob mentality inhumanity of war described perfectly in scenes with the lowly Houston brothers as U.S. Soldiers.

He has an affair with Kathy, a Canadian woman who is in Vietnam trying to save as many orphans from the tragedy as she can. Her missionary husband was murdered during their time in the Philippines. She continues to be driven in the work. The affair serves as a small respite from all the surrounding violence and atrocities.

Johnson’s novel travels through 20 years and allows for views of where the characters end up, where the CIA and the U.S. Military end up, where Vietnam ends up and where America ends up with regard to Vietnam. There is no light at the end of any of these tunnels. “This is a fallen world.”

REVIEW: Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop was first published in 1927 and although it has been hailed as the greatest novel about Roman Catholicism written, it was written by Protestant Willa Cather. The novel is as much an ode to the beauty of Catholicism as it is to the beauty of New Mexico in the mid-19th century.

Father Jean-Marie Latour travels west to begin his humble mission work in the American Southwest. He is awed by the beauty of the landscape and the spirit of the people and the descriptions of each leave the reader equally in awe.

With his native guide, Jacinto, he travels to three pueblos: Isleta, Laguna and Acoma. The landscapes of the three are described with a romantic tone and vivid detail, “The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere anthills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky,” and the reader can easily picture the white adobe cathedrals and towering rock formations as you journey with them.

Death does come at the end, in heartfelt passages that bring tears to your eyes. Cather’s novel is an emotional read that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

REVIEW: Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare

The Hogarth Shakespeare Series is a series of retellings written by bestselling authors that are slowly being released by Hogarth Press. I plan to read them all and am adding them to my TBR shelves as they are released.

I read The Merchant of Venice as a prelude to reading Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson and to satisfy Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classic’s challenge: A classic originally published before 1800. I enjoyed the play by Shakespeare much more than the retelling by Jacobson.

Venetian Bassanio wishes to marry the heiress Portia, but first he must pass her father’s test and in order to court her he must borrow money, through his friend Antonio, from the Jewish money lender, Shylock. Shylock purports to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio if the debt is not repaid on time.

Bassanio passes the test and Portia agrees to marry him, but trouble falls to Antonio and he is unable to make good on his loan. Bassanio hurries to his rescue with a disguised Portia following him. She defends Antonio in her disguise as a lawyer and not only frees him from the debt, but turns the tables on Shylock requiring him to turn his wealth over to Antonio and Venice.

Antonio returns his portion of the money to Shylock but requires him to forgive his daughter for running off with a Christian and to convert to Christianity himself, both of which he unwillingly does.

Shylock is the only bitter person at the end of the play. A bitterness that Jacobson used well in his retelling.