Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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A quick snap of the book on my way out. Pardon the lack of artistry in the image. I promise the book is better than the photo.

When it comes to the horror genre, few writers can hold a candle to Stephen King. There’s a reason why both fans and critics alike refer to King as the undisputed King of Horror or the Grand Master of Horror Fiction. He’s just that good. For many of us horror fans who grew up in the 90s, Stephen King has managed to instill in us both a fear of clowns and a love for terrifying reads that will have us begging our parents for a night light or to check under our beds for imaginary monsters that reside solely and spectacularly in our heads.

There’s something to be said about how well Stephen King manages to turn the creature comforts and the reality of small-town living into something sinister and nightmarish. Birthday clowns and balloons? Here’s a creepy killer clown with a red balloon. Family vacation in a hotel? Madness, mayhem, and murder, or rather bloody Redrum. Man’s best friend? How about a friendly nip from Cujo? And as if high school bullying and getting your period for the first time weren’t horrible enough, King had to up the ante with Carrie’s murderous rampage. I still can’t look at tampons in the grocery store without imagining a gaggle of teenage girls screaming, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

In Mr. Mercedes, King does it again. This time with a psychopathic killer computer repairman/ice cream truck driver. Except, there’s a twist. There’s nothing paranormal about Mr. Mercedes. No, this isn’t another one of King’s horror bestsellers, though I assure you that it’s just as terrifying as his scariest books. In this 2014 starter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King ventures into the territory of mystery and hard-boiled detective fiction. And man, it’s definitely a nail-biter.

***Possible spoilers ahead***

The book starts out in the parking lot of a sports stadium in the Midwest, where thousands of desperate jobseekers are expected to line up for a chance at a job—any job will do. It’s 2009 and the recession has hit the United States really hard. The early birds camp out before dawn, squeezing themselves into the spiraling queue, trying desperately to keep warm on that chilly spring day. As cars begin to fill up the stadium’s massive parking lot, one vehicle stands out. It emerges from the mist in all its shining grey glory—a Mercedes SL 500. The lights of its headlamps cut through the morning fog before the car revs up and goes straight for the crowd, killing eight people and injuring over a dozen more. It’s a terrible image but an effective one. It’s one heck of a potent symbol for the inequality experienced by the working class, often under the hands of their rich employers.

In the next chapter, King fast-forwards to months after the crime. Here, we meet Bill Hodges, the book’s protagonist. As far as crime fiction clichés go, this book carries some big ones. Hodges is a retired and divorced lead detective who is profoundly unhappy with his newfound ‘freedom.’ He sits in front of the telly, day-in and day-out, occasionally contemplating suicide. One fateful afternoon, Hodges gets a letter from the stadium killer who calls himself, Mr. Mercedes. The letter is heavy-handed and an obvious taunt for Hodges to kill himself—after all, the Det. Ret. did fail to solve the biggest case of his career. Of course, it does just the opposite for Hodges. It fires him up, and we all know that a desperate man is always a dangerous one.

Now, because this isn’t a whodunnit ala Agatha Christie, King discloses the identity of the killer early on. It’s 28-year old Brady Hartsfield—the bland and forgettable computer repairman and ice cream truck driver with mommy issues and a dark, dark past. Months after successfully evading the cops, Hartfield is feeling restless for his next kill. He could have gotten off scot-free, but instead, he makes the mistake of targeting Bill Hodges. It’s game on between the detective and Mr. Mercedes.

Throw in a few more clichés—a beautiful love interest, (Janey Patterson), who inspires Hodges to fight harder, an unlikely duo as his crime-fighting partners, (teenage tech master Jeremy Robinson and anxiety-riddled genius Holly Gibney)—and you might think it’s going to be a predictable story. Except you’d be forgetting one thing: It’s Stephen King. Fresh and terrible twists are his forte. Just when you think you know where Mr. Mercedes is headed, the book careens off the usual path, starting you down on the fast lane and keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire ride.

Mr. Mercedes is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that has a plethora of strong and well-written characters. While the book may not delve too deep into their backgrounds—barring Brady Hartsfield, of course, who might be evil to the core but knowable through his trauma and childhood experiences—we still get a good feel of why each character is the way he/she is. Personally, I really like the character development of Holly Gibney. We see a lot of growth in her character without compromising too much of her personality. As for the inevitable and trademark Stephen King scares, well, let’s just say that there’s enough unsettling and stomach-turning imagery to satisfy the most gore-loving of readers—this one included.

All in all, Mr. Mercedes is one heck of a page-turner and one that I’d recommend to all fellow Stephen King, horror, and crime fiction fans.

Rating: A

Playing Favorites: Rediscovering A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Author: Madeleine L’Engle
First Published: 1963
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Literature
Awards: Newberry Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Sequoyah Book Award
**A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet Series**

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

For the bookish child, there is at least one book that will ignite his/her lifelong passion for literature. This favorite book will speak to the child at the most fundamental level. In moments of crisis, it will lend him/her the strength of its protagonists. Between its covers lies a safe space where the child will feel understood and less alone. In some cases, the book may even open up a world of possibilities beyond what the imagination readily offers. It will be a solace to the child, an escape from the rigors and prison-like confines of real life.

In my case, my favorite childhood book is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was a book that served all the aforementioned purposes and more. Its protagonist, Meg Murry, with her social awkwardness, her struggles with conformity, and inability to fit in, reflected the same issues I had growing up. See, like Meg, I was a socially awkward kid. I was eager to please and painfully shy, which as I learned in adulthood is a terrible combo as far as developing your self-worth is concerned. Books, for me, provided the companionship I craved and a much-needed haven where I could be myself—oddities, queer habits, quirks, and all that.  Hey, I even liked Math and was pretty good at it, pre-algebra too, at least.

I remember the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time. I was about 9. It must have been a borrowed copy too, because I was extra-careful not to bend the spine. In lieu of dog ears, I’d slip scraps of paper between its leaves. Now, did I borrow it from the library? Did I borrow it from a friend? The memory is a tricky thing. Some details in life stand out starkly, but I suppose the details that do, do so because of how they made you feel—at least for me. I’ve always been pants at memorization.

Anyhow, in case you haven’t read Wrinkle, I’ve included a lengthy summary of its plot below. Summaries and synopsis are weak spots of mine, so I hope I can do Wrinkle some justice.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry’s adventure starts with that ominous, if overused, first line. At the start of the book, the reader is introduced to the Murrys via Meg’s viewpoint. We learn that Meg is the eldest of the Murry children. Her mother is a beautiful and brilliant scientist with doctorate degrees in Biology and Bacteriology, while her father is a top-level government physicist. Mr. Murry mysteriously disappeared over a year ago while he was working on a top-secret government assignment involving fifth-dimensional space travel (a.k.a tesseract).

On top of missing her father and worrying about her mother, Meg is also riddled with insecurities. She considers herself the oddball and the disappointment in the family. Despite her high IQ, she is struggling in school and is unable to make friends. She is shown to be a loving and loyal daughter, albeit prone to moments of violence and volatility particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones. Her three younger brothers include the ‘perfectly normal’ twins, Sandy and Dennys (aged 10), and her baby brother, Charles Wallace (aged 5).

Like Meg, outside the family, Charles Wallace is also shown to be very misunderstood. He is often referred to as her ‘dumb baby brother,’ mainly because despite his large vocabulary, he refuses to speak when other people are around. The reader also learns early on that Charles Wallace has telepathic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to read Meg’s and their mother’s minds.

The plot really starts moving a few pages in when the Murrys admit a late night visitor into their house. Meg somewhat correctly assumes that it is the tramp she’s been hearing about—the one that stole their neighbor’s sheets. But Charles recognizes the visitor and introduces her to his mother and sister as Mrs. Whatsit. He claims to have met Mrs. Whatsit, along with her two companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, while he was out walking the family dog.

Now, Mrs. Whatsit may appear to be a tramp, but she’s actually a telepathic celestial being that knows far more about the universe than any of earth’s greatest minds. Testament to Mrs. Murry’s stellar character, she offers Mrs. Whatsit shelter from the raging storm, but Mrs. Whatsit insists on going her way.

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

As she makes her way out of the Murry’s house, she tells Mrs. Murry that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Although the words initially mean nothing to both the children and the reader, they catch Mrs. Murry off-guard, leaving her upset and deep in thought. She later tells Meg that the tesseract is a concept that she and Meg’s father had been studying before his disappearance.

                “But you’re good at basketball and things,” Meg protested. “You’re good in school. Everybody likes you.”

“For all the most unimportant means,” Calvin said. “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.”

The next afternoon, Charles Wallace invites Meg for a walk and leads her to Mrs. Whatsit’s house. There, they meet Calvin O’Keefe—a kid two years above Meg’s grade. Calvin is a golden boy—a member of the basketball team and extraordinarily smart, to boot. But what really sets Calvin apart from his peers is his almost psychic intuitiveness about things. Throughout the book, he takes on the role of Meg’s protector and, spoiler alert, love interest. He accompanies Meg and Charles when they meet Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—completing the book’s three Mrs. W’s.

The Mrs. W’s explain to the children that they know where Mr. Murry is and that the children are the only ones who can save him. They tell the children that Mr. Murry is being held captive by the Dark Thing, this malicious shadow that is the root of all evil in the universe. IT is a malevolent force that is threatening to engulf the entire universe in IT’s darkness. Despite the Dark Thing’s power, they assure the children that IT can be defeated—and is in fact being defeated time and again by good. On Earth, these heroes include the likes of Jesus, Einstein, and Da Vinci to name a few.

Using fifth-dimensional travel, or tesseract (illustrated in the diagram below), the Mrs. W’s whisk the children off into a grand adventure through space.

tesseract

(an illustration of how traveling through tesseract works.)

Their fight against IT culminates on the planet of Camazotz—a place, much like earth, with inhabitants that are much like humans. The inhabitants of the entire planet have been brainwashed by IT, an oversized, disembodied brain that forces everyone into conformity through IT’s hypnotic and rhythmic pulsing. Like a puppet master, IT possesses anyone who succumbs to IT’s power, including Camazotz puppet leader, the Man With Red Eyes. Through The Man With Red Eyes, IT tells the children:

“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet. I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”

To save Mr. Murry, the children must steel themselves against IT’s powers of mind control. During one of their standoffs, Meg utters my favorite lines from A Wrinkle in Time. She realizes that multiplication tables and nursery rhymes are too rote, so she launches into an impassioned narration of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

“No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”

-Meg deflecting IT’s attempts to slither into her mind

(Note: I’m sure you can guess how the novel ends, but I’ll leave some of the hows to your imagination.)

On Themes and the Value of Persistence

Now, before we proceed to the more personal part of my review, here are some interesting facts about this award-winning novel.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers before being snatched up by the American publishing company, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

Madeleine L’Engle may have finished writing Wrinkle at lightning speed in 1960, but finding a publisher for the novel turned out to be a slow and agonizing uphill battle that lasted three long years. According to L’Engle, she received no less than 26 rejection slips before the manuscript was picked up by John C. Farrar of FSG. L’Engle had submitted Wrinkle to Farrar at the insistence of one of her mother’s guests at a family tea party.

Wrinkle may actually be a political piece that mirrored America’s anti-Totalitarian sentiments.

In Anna Quindlen’s essay, “An Appreciation,” which appears as the introduction to the current issue of A Wrinkle in Time, the Pulitzer-winning journalist reflects on how the dark dictatorship of Camazotz echoed 1960s America’s fear of communism.

This sentiment is confirmed by what may be the ‘lost pages’ of A Wrinkle in Time. According to an article from Oregon Live, L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis discovered three pages that were cut from the original manuscript. In one of the pages, Mr. Murry warns Meg about the dangers of totalitarianism, mentioning the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, and Krushchev.

It is a book about the war between Good and Evil, the dangers of Conformity, and the importance of challenging the status quo for the good of all.

Throughout Wrinkle, we find countless allusions to God and his greatness. Whether it be from the heavenly songs of the celestial beings of Uriel or the quotes of the Mrs. Ws, the book is peppered with passages from the Bible. Now, I can’t comment about the rest of the time quintet—as I am actually yet to find and read them—but I can say that Wrinkle does show the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s faith. The fact that the main theme of the book has to do with the good/light defeating evil/darkness can already be seen as a nod to her Christian background.

But the beauty of the book, particularly for the non-religious, is how it includes vastly universal themes that we all can identify with. Take, for example, the issue of conformity. In a world that is mistrustful of what is different or unknown, acceptance and security are hinged on a person’s ability to abide by the dictates of society.

You are allowed to be ‘different,’ so long as you’re not too ‘different.’ And this is a lesson that’s ingrained in us from childhood. I believe the phrase is “beaten into submission.” A strange child is seen as no better than a miscreant or a future hoodlum.

Naturally, what a lot of these conformity coaches don’t see is that a different viewpoint is necessary for change. And to better the status quo, citizens must have the capacity for critical and independent thinking. To thwart individuality is akin to thwarting progress. And sameness or blind acquiescence may offer the advantage of easy rule and surface-level order, but ultimately, these two ‘pros’ will only benefit the lucky few. And I’ve gone didactic on you. Apologies for that, dear reader.

On to the Rest of the Review

Reading A Wrinkle in Time at the cusp of prepubescence taught me countless life lessons. The book reaffirmed what I knew about the importance of family, love, and faith. But perhaps the best lesson of all was the importance of being yourself—regardless of who, what, or how you are. At 9 years of age, I learned that even socially awkward children (or adults) had the capacity to become the heroes of their own lives. Sure, we won’t all get the chance to save the world or experience interstellar travel, but we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by choosing to do what is good and brave instead of settling for what is easy and convenient.

Now, it’s been about two decades since I last revisited A Wrinkle in Time. I decided to reread this old favorite so I could give it a proper, and dare I say it, unbiased review. The way I saw it, twenty years was more than enough time to shake off sentimentality in favor of impartiality. I wanted to see if Wrinkle could still impart the same sense of magic it had offered me some 22 years ago—and obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

Wrinkle is a book for people of all ages. It may be my favorite childhood book, but it also takes its place on my shelf of all-time literary greats.

 

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: The Dowry by Margaret Culkin Banning

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Author: Margaret Culkin Banning
Published: 1954
Genre: Romance, Drama, Fiction, Social Commentary

At first glance, Margaret Culkin Banning’s 1954 novel, The Dowry, reads like a brilliantly written but simple exploration of how ambition, insecurity, and betrayal, can wreck a wonderful marriage. Our lead characters include Katherine “Kay” Ryland, a 37-year-old interior decorator with her own design firm, and her husband, Stephen “Steve” Ryland, a 38-year-old lawyer and Speaker of the House who’s on the fast track for Radisson’s governorship.

Although the two are very much in love and committed to their marriage, cracks in their 17-year union surface within the first few pages of the book. Despite Stephen’s success in his political career, Kay is their family’s main breadwinner. She earns a lot more than her husband. And while he had initially been thankful for her contributions to the family, constant reminders of this fact was wreaking havoc with his pride.

When he finds out that Radisson’s current governor is keen on passing the baton to him, Stephen realizes that taking on the 2-year governorship means that Kay would have to give up her company. As Governor Elston points out, being a governor’s wife is a full-time job. Things are further complicated when Stephen meets Lisa Bowes—a rich and beautiful widower and the niece of Governor Elston’s wife.

Stephen falls for the beautiful and manipulative Lisa. He wants Kay to divorce him, but his wife is keen on saving their marriage. Kay and Stephen’s heartbreaking story unfolds alongside the stories of a medley of well-written secondary characters.

Now, for this particular reader, The Dowry isn’t a story to be chewed lightly. A novel of this magnitude deserves a more thorough digestion. So, indulge me as I attempt to go through the most significant themes in this densely packed narrative.

Continue reading

Book Review: Good Benito by Alan Lightman

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Title: Good Benito
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman
First Published: 1994, Pantheon Books

In a world where the everyman struggles to perfect one craft, Alan Lightman is one of those rare individuals whose immense talents lie in multiple fields. Not only is Lightman an award-winning novelist, he is also a celebrated physicist and social entrepreneur. In his fictional works, he deftly injects a touch of physics into the novel’s equation. His first novel, Einstein’s Dreams offers a whimsical and fictionalized take on a slice of Einstein’s life—featuring dreams that lead up to the theoretical physicist’s formulation of the theories of relativity.

Einstein’s Dreams was an absolute delight to read. Its stunning prose and breathtaking ideas left a serious and indelible imprint in my mind’s landscape. So it was with tremendous excitement that I turned to Lightman’s second novel, Good Benito.

Simply put, Good Benito is a non-linear account of the life of Bennett Lang, a physicist trying to make a name in the world of science and academics while struggling to comprehend and navigate the chaotic plane of human emotions and relationships. Each chapter reads like a vignette, showing an episode of Bennett’s life. We see his journey from an emotionally stunted child, creating his first ‘rocket,’ to an assistant professor for a second-tier college—still trying to find his place in the academic world.

Along the way, we meet a myriad of interesting, well fleshed-out, and incredibly flawed characters that helped shape Bennett’s viewpoint of the world. We meet his emotionally distant father who had dreamt of being a WWII hero but now wishes he had died with his men, his lonely mother trying to find happiness anywhere she can, his African American nanny who has let him into her life but refuses to let him into her house, his uncle with a severe gambling problem, and his self-destructive wife who pushes Bennett into becoming a cruel version of himself. We see how a promising romance and marriage devolves into an emotionally abusive relationship that ends in divorce.

All this, we witness through Lightman’s naked, prosaic, but impossibly precise prose. Though not as beautifully, or rather as poetically, written as Einstein’s Dreams, what makes Good Benito so compelling is how grounded the whole work feels. The matter-of-fact and yet introspective and eloquent manner by which Lightman writes ensures that the reader is along for the ride in this strikingly profound novel.

Rating: A+

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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Title: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi

First Published: 2001

Pages: 588

**Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards**

For some reason, I have long associated Neil Gaiman with the masterful storytellers of old. Not necessarily Shakespeare, though Gaiman does have a unique writing voice that basks quite comfortably between poetry and prose. Maybe dead-center between Dickinson’s nebulous metaphors and Palahniuk’s gut-churning and pulse-racing straightforwardness. In my head, Gaiman joins the ranks of the literary colossi that aspiring fantasy writers look up to.

Gaiman is among those rare breed of writers who can gather existing ideas and create something uniquely their own. In American Gods, Gaiman plucks out his characters from the pool of forgotten deities, breathing new life into each one to partake in this fast-paced and epic novel.

The story commences the way most novels today begin, with an empty-handed protagonist with seemingly nothing to live for. Shadow, our unlikely hero, is a 30-something convict, who patiently counts the days to his release from prison. He promises himself, no more shenanigans. All he wants, after all, is to spend the rest of his life in quiet anonymity with his pretty wife, Laura. A day or two before he gets out, he receives news that his beloved wife has been killed in a car accident, alongside his best friend, who had promised him a steady job after Shadow’s stint in jail.

His release date is pushed forward to allow Shadow to attend his wife’s funeral. En route to Laura’s burial, he meets a strange and pushy conman, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. He offers Shadow a job, which our protagonist tries to turn down. A series of unsettling events that culminate in drunken fisticuffs with an odd fellow, who calls himself Mad Sweeney, has Shadow finally agreeing to become Wednesday’s bodyguard.

Shadow soon learns that there’s much more to his employer than he lets on. As they travel across America, he discovers that Wednesday is no mere mortal. The odd and ageless conman is apparently a manifestation of Odin, the Old Norse All-Father. Wednesday had employed Shadow to help him recruit American incarnations of the almost-forgotten gods of ancient mythologies, to help him fight a war against the continent’s “new gods.” Like Wednesday/Odin, many of these “old gods” appear to be fading in existence as the people’s belief in them wanes over time. Shadow meets many of these antiquated idols, including Czernobog, Mad Sweeney (Suibhne), Mr. Nancy (Anansi), the Zorya Sisters, Mr. Jaquel (Anubis), and Mr. Ibis (Thoth).

Although these deities recognize the danger posed by the “New American Gods” – Media, The Technical Boy (Technology), The Black Hats (Men in Black), and the Intangibles—most of them are reluctant to partake in Wednesday’s risky war. They would rather fend for their existence by gaining worship from mortals by any means possible.

Wednesday, who appears to be always one step ahead of every situation, wrangles Shadow into an agreement that should he perish, Shadow would be the one to hold his vigil—which includes a reenactment of Odin’s time hanging from a “World Tree.” To avoid further bloodshed, Wednesday agrees to meet with the “new gods,” but is murdered in the process. This act of Wednesday’s ‘sacrifice’ is enough to rally the rest of the “old gods” to participate in one final, epic battle against the “new gods.” As Shadow holds vigil for Wednesday/Odin, he discovers that he was a mere pawn in Wednesday’s pursuit of power. It is now up to him to put a stop to the carnage that lies ahead for all the deities participating in the war.

A Reader’s Reaction

There’s a special place on my bookshelf for all things Neil Gaiman. Because, save for a few shorts, which I found to be so-so, I generally enjoy everything that Gaiman releases. Like Nick Hornby and Chuck Palahniuk (except for Pygmy), Gaiman is a go-to when I find myself yearning to devour stellar fiction. Though not my favorite work from the author, American Gods provided a very satisfying reading experience. I don’t think I need to gush about the book’s tone and research, as the author is very adept in both.

Perhaps the minor grievance, (for I assure you, reader, it is very minor), that I have about the work has to do with its characters. In terms of character development, I’ve found Shadow, Wednesday, Mr. Nancy, Laura, and even Loki, to be very well-written, very fleshed out. But I also thought the piece to be a bit too convoluted, visibly crammed with deities I didn’t have time to fully appreciate. At times, the novel read like a who’s-who of ancient mythology.

Now, I know, I know. The truncated story lines and character breeze-throughs were necessary, because at 588 pages long, American Gods is pushing Stephen King and GRR Martin territory. I know, I know, that Gaiman couldn’t possibly flesh out every character, as he runs the risk of running out of pages and ruining the main course. But still licking my chops, tasting the vestiges of Joe Hill’s eminently filling, N0S4A2, I can’t help but wonder if a bit of restraint could have made American Gods a little more fluid. Would it improve flow if we had less characters to contend with? Or perhaps a glossary at the end? (My copy doesn’t have one, but feel free to correct me if later editions do.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. As I do love American Gods. And I do recommend it to every literature hound that’s come across this post.

Grade: A+

Book Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Stranger by Albert Camus

Title: L’Étranger (The Stranger)

Author: Albert Camus

Translated from French by: Matthew Ward

First Published: 1942, Libraire Galliimard

Pages: 123

*Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” Thus begins one of the most striking, complex, and widely read novels of the twentieth century. L’Étranger, translated as The Stranger, is arguably the most popular work of French novelist, author, and philosopher, Albert Camus.

The story follows the life of its main character, Mersault, as he goes from learning about his mother’s death to being tried for one of the most senseless murders in the history of literature. The novel unfolds through Mersault’s perspective, and is divided into two main parts—before he committed the crime, and after his arrest.

As a side note, let me start off by saying, translation matters.

Bear in mind that the Mersault I met was the byproduct of Matthew Ward’s translation. In reading this book under a different translator—whether it be Joseph Laredo or Sandra Smith—you may encounter a different version of Mersault—one that’s either more apathetic or sympathetic depending on who you’re reading. Though all roads lead to pointless murder and an equally ludicrous trial, these translations offer nuances that could shift your perception of the novel’s protagonist.

And on with the summary, we go…

The novel begins with Mersault’s acknowledgment of his mother’s death. It’s important to note his matter-of-fact tone, when he talks about needing to borrow a black tie and catch the two o’clock bus to Marengo, where the old people’s home was located. When he gets to the home, he refuses to see his mother for the last time, choosing to keep the casket closed. He doesn’t divulge what he feels about the matter, opting instead to offer a commentary about the wake and the long walk to the funeral. His indifferent behavior doesn’t escape the notice of the home’s director and caretaker.

The way he describes what ought to have been a tragic occurrence also speaks volumes of how his brain was wired. Mersault observes, “It occurred to me that anyway one more Sunday was over, that Maman was buried now, that I was going back to work, and that, really, nothing had changed.” (p.24)

Upon returning to the city, he immediately takes on a girlfriend, Marie, and makes friends with his neighbor, Raymond—a shady, woman-beater who is generally disliked in the neighborhood. With his help, Raymond manages to lure his mistress back into his apartment, where he proceeds to beat her up after suspecting her of carrying on an affair.

The young woman’s brother, an unnamed Arab, begins tailing Raymond. During a beach trip with Marie and Raymond, Mersault proceeds to kill the Arab. He shoots the Arab four times with such jarring apathy, with his only explanation being that he did it due to the intolerable heat. While the crime was not premeditated, his lack of motive only served as proof of his unacceptable character and his obvious guilt.

In the second part of the novel, we find Mersault incarcerated and the subject of a circus-of-a-trial. While his few friends and girlfriend testify to help clear his name, the fact that he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t feel remorse for his crime only serves to land him a hasty “Guilty” verdict. In the midst of the trial, Mersault observes with annoyance that his fate was being determined without his participation. The reader also gets the feeling that the novel’s protagonist was being sent to the gallows for more than his crime—he was being condemned to death because of his behavior after his mother’s death. It was a trial against the protagonist’s character more than it was about his crime. As Camus puts it, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The novel concludes with a breathtaking monologue that is equally true as it is tainted by choice. Faced with a chaplain attempting to salvage Mersault’s soul, our protagonist launches into an impassioned tirade about how nothing mattered, for everyone was privileged to live and be carried by the tides of fate, and everyone was equally condemned to face an end—whatever that end may be. With this statement we find Mersault taking command of his fate, for his death was merely the result of the choices he’s made. Choices that didn’t matter to the protagonist. It was simply the way his life unfolded.

Down to a personal review.

To be honest, I itch at the term ‘protagonist.’ For while it’s true that Mersault is the subject of the book, in many ways, his personality becomes the main deterrent against his freedom. But perhaps, that is the point of the whole novel. For if a man condemned to death feels that he is free, if he thinks that he is more free than the rest of the world which is shackled by societal norms and notions of convention, than are we in any position to deem him as limited, condemned, or even damned?

Here was one man who lived according to his terms, though his actions were deplorable, his thought processes, irrational. The point is that they were his, and no one else’s. With Mersault, remorse was an alien concept. He shunned introspection and worship (religion), simply because he had no time for them. To him, these were pointless activities, for what did it all matter in the end? How did such things figure into a man’s final moments?

Though I don’t subscribe to such a bleak outlook in life, I can respect Mersault’s views. I find the desire to be free, free as defined by the individual, to be completely human. Despite the character’s cold and detached nature, he was, purely and simply, a man exercising his right to exist as he saw fit.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy and existentialist and absurdist literature. Also, for a thinking piece, this one’s a surprisingly easy read that leaves you pondering the purpose of human existence.

As a parting note, here’s some trivia regarding Camus. Although he is now lauded as one of the most important existential writers, he actually rejected the idea of being thought of as an existentialist. He was very vocal about his criticism of this branch of philosophy. To Albert Camus, existentialists “deify what crushes them and find reason to hope in what impoverishes them. That forced hope is religious in all of them.

Verdict: A+

Book Review: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding

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Title: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

Author: Helen Fielding

Genre: Fiction, Chick Lit, Romance, Comedy

First Published: 2013

Pages: 390

There is a lot to be said about Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy—most of them, good things. I had loved Helen Fielding’s first and second offerings, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that I would be a fan of Fielding’s third “Bridget” book. But to be honest, it was a big surprise that I liked it at all. Here’s a tiny confession: ever since I heard it was out, I had done my best to avoid reading Mad About the Boy. I was convinced it would be a major let down. But when my best friend got me this book for the holidays, I knew it was time to finally have a sit-down with dear ol’ Jonesey.

The reason for my reluctance to read the novel was that, like most fans, I had heard about its major spoiler long before the book became available in nearby bookstores. In The Edge of Reason, we had left Bridget in what felt like a “happily ever after” scenario with Mark Darcy. The way things were going for the lovebirds, it seemed like their domestic spats would consist of petty jealousies, Bridget’s hyperactive imagination, disagreements on child-rearing—all the good quarrels associated with a healthy marriage. And, like most readers, I would’ve been perfectly happy reading about these things. It would’ve been gratifying even, to find the two in the midst of saccharine normalcy. But instead, we find out that Mark Darcy’s gone—done away in a ‘blaze of glory’ or in a rather gruesome manner, depending on how you look at things.

I had wanted to ask Helen Fielding, “Now why would you do that?” It just seemed cruel to get half the population of women, (a gross exaggeration, I know), to fall in love with a male lead only to kill him off immediately after a fairy tale ending. And the questions kept coming. “Isn’t Bridget Jones supposed to be a modern-day retelling of Pride & Prejudice? How can you have Elizabeth without Mr. Darcy?” But that’s the sad premise of Mad About the Boy. And the book starts off with Bridget, once again, trying to find love in a horridly superficial and ageist world.

It’s 5 years after Mark’s death, and Bridget’s 51 with two young kids to look after. Though Mark had made sure that their family was well-provided for, Bridget is left struggling to stay sane while trying out a new career as a scriptwriter, attempting to keep her children well-fed and not raised purely by technology or Sponge Bob, and of course, shedding her dismal add-on poundage and “Born-Again virginity.”

The first problem, she tackles by creating a modern script for Hedda Gabbler by Anton Chekhov. (To you, dear literatus, I know. It’s part of the fun, really.) At the start of the novel, Bridget gets a call from her agent, saying her latest script is ready for film adaptation. This turns out to be an exceedingly humorous, and at times, embarrassing experience for Jonesey. Unfortunately, it also serves as a prop for the novel—at times, completely forgotten, as Bridget goes on her usual love-centric existence.

The second situation, I’ll have to say, is the heart of the story. Though one may doubt it sometimes, due to Bridget’s laughable thoughts and whims, our lovable heroine has certainly grown up some since the last book. Her love for her children, Billy (a mini-Mark) and Mabel, is palpable throughout the novel. She does well as a single mother; though not without the help of her perfect babysitter, Chloe, the children’s ‘fun’ godfather, Daniel Cleaver (Yes, *that* Daniel!), and the odd, aloof, and admittedly Daniel Craig-esque sports teacher, Mr. Wallaker.

And lastly, Bridget overcomes her third problem with the help of her ever-hip and ever-reliable posse of Tom, Jude, and Talitha. Sharon, the feminist of the original group, has since moved to the United States after marrying her successful dot.com husband. With the help of her three friends, a touch of Botox, and the diet plan of the local Obesity Clinic, Bridget manages to once again bring out her “wanton sex goddess” side.

Her amusing foray on social media, particularly Twitter, also leads her to the handsome boy-toy, which the reader meets at the start of the book. Roxster is, as his handle suggests, quite the rockstar in the bedroom and in real life—if you can categorize smokin’ hot, 30-year-old environmentalists as real-life rockstars (which I do!). Despite the raging chemistry between the two, Jonesey still finds herself in the midst of heartbreak and self-doubt. But that’s to be expected. This is, after all, Bridget Jones we’re talking about. In the end though, she does find what she’s looking for—a lasting love with a great father-figure for her kids. Though the introduction of this ‘great love’ is quite abrupt, it does work in a multitude of levels. At the very least, it’s a good way to tie up what would’ve been a gloomy story.

The Verdict: a well-deserved A.

Now, the rest of my two cents. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is a feel-good novel that has enough laugh-out-loud moments to keep you turning the page, despite Mark Darcy’s depressing exit. Again, I really don’t agree with killing Mark off just to create a story. I believe that a marriage offers a wealth of ‘stories’ on its own. And no matter how greatly written her new love interests are, there’s simply no replacing Mark Darcy.

But, and this is quite a big BUT, that’s also what I loved about the book. Helen Fielding’s treatment of Mark’s death—with Bridget’s private grieving, particularly in that scene with her mother—left me in tears at least a couple of times. Mark is gone and he is missed. There are no over-the-top dramatics with Bridget, but you do acutely feel her loss. And the new men in her life aren’t Mark, nor are they designed to replace Mark. They are there to show that there is life after a loved one’s death. That, like most women in her situation, Bridget has had to move on, no matter how difficult the process was.

In the end, I do believe this is the type of story worth recommending to all fans of the Bridget Jones series.