I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

So far I have been doing write ups on books that I enjoy reading. I’m interested in the world of Scientology and of course Clarice Lispector so I have posts concerning them and I have also written posts on other books I find interesting and I think you should also consider that you may have not been aware of. Which leads me to I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. In many respects this is quite a famous book, has had a film adaptation made (albeit which diverted quite a bit from the book). So why am I doing a post on it? Well I think this book is prescient in respect to what it portrays. Fear, ignorance and (though not a virus) bacterial infections that has a massive affect on the world after war and unrest.

I Am Legend.

There are vampires in this story but it isn’t really about vampires, there is elements of science fiction with respect to a future world but this is not really about science fiction. This is more about how we see the world of Richard Neville, he appears to be in the last man alive in world full of vampires. At night they harass him in his fortified house and by day he looks out for food and other supplies and hunts the vampires. We see his loneliness and depression as he remembers his loved ones and plays his music from a different time.

As the story develops he realises that not all the vampires are ruthless killers and are upset with the fact that he is killing their loved ones. He meets one vampire he gets attached to but again it is too late. To him they were the horrible monsters to them he is the bogeyman, he has become a legend.

When I said that this book was prescient I was also referring to the fact that Neville does what he does based on his own experiences not being made aware of the thoughts of the vampires before it’s too late. That ‘not all’ vampires are mindless killers. Just like in the real world, we fear and belittle that which we do not understand. You would only have to look at the insults on social media and that some people only surround themselves with people of the same opinion creating echo chambers and refusing to even consider why some people think in a particular way. If there is anything that I have learnt from I Am Legend is that nobody what you do, you have to try and understand the consequences of your actions. Are you doing the right thing. Try to understand. As stated by a character in the book ‘I know you were just as much forced into your situation and that we were forced in ours’. We need to understand people’s reasons for doing things in order to find a better way.

[Published in 1954, this edition on Kindle by Gollancz 2010]

Nadja by Andre Breton (translated by Richard Howard)

[Below is a quick first impression of this book, I will come back to it and write about it in more detail but I’ve thought after just putting it down]

I have never really given much thought to surrealism other than the paintings. I know Breton was one of the founding fathers of the surrealism movement and it that it about a vision of life displayed from our own unconsciousness and dreams (I am aware that this is a simple definition). Which brings us on to Nadja.

Nadja by Andre Breton.

Nadja as you would expect is an interesting book which going on the introduction is somewhat semi-autobiographical. For the first fifty pages or so Andre Breton meditates on what he thinks and his life in general to a point. He starts with ‘Who am I?’ and continues to write about his contemporaries and discussing the theatre. As you would expect the narrative is not anything you would recognise as traditional but is in no way hard to follow. For example Breton writes:

‘Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain.’

I could be guilty of filling this post with excerpts of the book so I will keep it to a minimum. This is an easily quotable book although I will say I was not too sure where it was going for the first segment of the book as it was not what I expected. I thought it would be about a man’s obsession with someone like with Lolita but it’s nothing like that. This is more of a fascination of thought

As soon as Breton meets Nadja, he his fascinated by the way she presents herself at first meeting her, as well as her responses and thoughts that Breton presents to her to ponder upon. When he asks who she is she responds by saying she is ‘a soul in limbo’ among other thoughts. Once Breton learns more about her however, as with many things Breton’s fascination decreases a little bit. Breton eventually leans that Nadja is mentally ill which may have had an affect on what she thought, he also contemplates Nadja’s way of being with respect to the society she is in. He contemplates on the effect she has had on his life if only for a brief time.

This book has given me a lot to think about and as I write I am already aware that I am not giving the justice it deserves and I have missed going into detail about some points such as how the fascination for Nadja envelopes and if it is love he is feeling or not, but I do like how Breton almost spills out his thoughts and only writes what he deems relevant to the story. I also liked the fact that he put pictures and photographs in the book. It helps when describing Nadja’s drawings Breton is shown.

I think this is another one for me that will need another read as well as learn about the Surrealism movement and how it has influenced our current age.

[First published in the French by Librairie Gallimard 1928, this Englsih translation by Penguin Books 1999]

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, see a pic of the paperback below I will show you that much, I will however, write about some of the characters you will meet. I will say I loved this book and I could have written so much more about it, I don’t want to spoil anything for you…. Read the book.

In the beginning we are introduced to our narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood otherwise known as Merricat. She a little bit about herself like you would to a group of people you have met for the first time. We learn that she is an an unreliable narrator though we do get to learn so much more about her.

Merricat for her eighteen years of age appears somewhat childish at first but as we get to know her we realise she is actually quite intelligent and can read people quite well. Merricat knows the history of her respected family, is fully aware of what of the villagers and rival rich families in the local area along with her own family and the scandal that had tarnished them through the eyes of the locals.

As we learn about Merricat we also learn of her older sister Constance and of how at her core is a good person who is the only authority figure Merricat has. She looks after old Uncle Julian and is the defacto head of Blackwood family. The incident years prior has clearly affected her.

Uncle Julian when we are introduced to him tells of the murder of the rest of the family to some guests (one of which was uninvited to the annoyance of Merricat) and reminds them that Constance was acquitted and we later learn his mind is not as focused as it once was.

Paperback of my Penguin Edition with a picture of Shirley Jackson.

Mental health is an underlying issue in this story. Merricat creates her own little world (or rather moon) in her head and has her own unique way of thinking, her older sister Constance, appears to have agoraphobia (a New England Woman who won’t leave the house and liked gardening reminding me of Emily Dickinson) aft er the incident and Uncle Julian who despite being an intelligent man himself, gets easily confused and thinks people around him are who they are not as well as having an obsession with his memoirs and what happened ‘that day’.

We learn more of each character with respect to how they view Cousin Charles. He just suddenly shows up with suspected ulterior motives. Constance sees the good in people and likes Cousin Charles at first, Merricat is distrustful (quite rightly) and goes as far as damaging things in the room he stays in. Uncle Julian despite being confused is also suspicious.

The personality of each character is well displayed in this book especially when you consider that we are seeing this world through Merricat’s eyes only. For its 146 pages, you just get enough information to know what is going on and you want to know more about the story. For example, what was the motive for the murder of the family? Why did Constance not tell us of what she knew back then?

Despite Merricat’s formal introduction we at the end are assured of her love for her sister and her somewhat peculiar way of thinking and that Constance is the true heroine in this story (for me personally at the least).

I liked the way it ended with the conversation between Constance and Merricat which in conclusion defines who they are. Merricat with her dark way of thinking and Constance with her domestic housewife like response to her. Ultimately you are reassured of the love they have for each other.

[Penguin Classics first published 2009 / First Published by Viking Press in 1962 USA]

Archangel by Robert Harris

If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.

With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.

The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.

What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.

I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Kapek (translated by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair)

Before cyberpunk and Asimov, before Star Trek and the film Metroplis there was the play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. The play premiered in Prague in 1921 and introduced the world to the word ‘robot’ (other words had been used). The thoughts and questions raised in the play have been pondered and mediated on ever since almost a century later with respect to robots and artificial intelligence.

The SF Masterworks publication’s cover is little misleading in that the robots themselves are not mechanical.

The play looks at themes with what we have come expect with respect to the relationship of humans and robots. The ethical treatment of robots, what happens if the creation and advancement of robots goes too far, when robots rebel and become self conscious, when they start to glitch. What I was surprised by with respect to the play was that Capek looks at what would happen not just if the humans went too far, but if the robots did as well. Capek also looks at how far an organisation would go to satisfy shareholders for the sake of profit, so there is a little pop at capitalism to a certain point there. The main company in the play never question what the buyers of their robots do with them before it’s too late. We also get to see the worries of the robots when they realise they can’t create other robots. We read about the concerns of being treated like slaves (origin of the word ‘robot’ has its roots in the word ‘slave’ in the Czech language)

It is a relatively short play, there’s four acts and an epilogue with a form of introduction of what’s going on, the problems that arise and a conclusion which see the world change drastically. The Robots in Capeks play are mechanical robots but organic ones like the replicants in Blade Runner for example, as they are designed to be more human they become to behave in that way. I wanted to read this play because despite being a fan of science fiction myself, I never really knew much about it. I heard a mention of it on the TV show QI about where the word ‘robot’ came from and there is a reference to it in the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which is also set in Prague where of course the play originates but other than that. Capek had also written a novel War With the Newts which has some similar themes as RUR and other science fiction works which I want to have a look at in future.

Karel Capek from what I’ve read lived a fascinating life, coming from what was then Czechoslovakia and lived through the interwar period but sadly passed away in 1938 before the world took major a turn for the worse, the only solace if any that could be gained is that the Nazis did not get to him before he died.

RUR surprised me in that the themes and thoughts that Capek writes about are still written today, to compare it to anything it is like piece Bauhaus furniture from the 1920s. Despite the decades that have past, it still feels somewhat modern.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector (translated by Idra Novey)

This is one of Clarice’s more famous works and a lot has been written about this book. For those of you who don’t know much about it, this post is for you. I could go on about all sorts of details about this book but I will try and be brief.

The Passion According to GH by Clarice Lispector.

My friends are aware of my Clarice fascination and to the ones that I have introduced her works to, they find this one to be somewhat puzzling, they find it for want of a better word, odd. What we do see is Clarice at her best when it comes to style, we know that this book ‘best corresponded to her demands as a writer’ (Clarice by Nadia Gotlib).

The Passion is not like many other books you will read and this is is the first Clarice book I’ve read (other than what is seen in her short stories at the least) that is written in the first person narrated by the character GH an artist specialising in sculpture, I was always amused by the fact that our initials are the same. There is another character in this story, an unfortunate cockroach.

I’ve heard people argue (my friends in particular) that GH comes across as a bit self indulgent and full of her self. GH is more complicated than that. When we first meet GH she has a comfortable life as an artist and is clearing out her former maid’s tidy room, she comes to the realisation that this maid did not like her, she finds that the maid (who she has little recollection of) had daubed pictures of a man, a woman and a dog on one of the walls. This realisation upsets GH which starts a shift in her mind, she has an anger attack, she sees the cockroach and attacks it, what remains affects the mind of GH and this is when GH tells us about how she is thinking and feeling. She questions her life, her relationship with God, her own existence in the world. We also read about the unfortunate cockroach and how GH’s existential experience affects it.

Within her meditations for example GH says,

‘Ah, at least I had already entered the Roach’s nature to the point that I no longer wanted to do anything for it. I was freeing myself from my morality and that was a catastrophe without crash and without tragedy.’

GH sees some of her former maid in the cockroach. I was reminded a little bit of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor as the monstrous vermin is the cockroach, Greta is GH who after confronting the creature sees a change in her life. GH’s change comes originally from her fit of rage after associating the room and the cockroach with the maid who didn’t like her. Going on personal experience when you have a depressive fit of rage, how you thought a second before is gone and everything feels different so I could understand GH’s sudden shift in thinking if only to a certain degree.

A more seasoned picture of Clarice from what you see on the back of the English Penguin editions

This is seen as one of Clarice’s better works. It is definitely well contained and felt easier to read than The Chandelier and The Besieged City. I still think Near to the Wild Heart and her short stories is when we see Clarice at her best especially with character interaction. The Passion is a fascinating treatise on the mind of a human being. Although we read about GH’s passion, it is the cockroach that suffers more. From what I have seen in the world it’s those that are repulsed by others that seem to do the most suffering.

Before the story starts Clarice herself says that people with fully formed souls should only read this book. I definitely broke that rule I read it anyway. Read this book if you want something different from everything else you have ever read. Contemplate on what GH thinks. The only down side with a book is that you can’t debate with the characters. I would love to with GH.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is one of my favourite books and work of fiction in any language. A magical book. Master and Margarita works on so many levels, from farce to comedy, satire, comedy and tragedy.

The story has many layers to it. We see demons playing havoc in communist Russia and we also get to see the story of Pontius Pilot who meets a certain Yeshua Ha-Nozri or Jesus Christ as it may well be. One of the demons tells the tale of proving his existence to a couple of Moscow atheists, we get to see the ruthlessness and vanity of intellectuals, we see a fat talking demon cat. It shows the best and worst of people of which the demons take full advantage of. I could go on more about it, how sane men are seen as mad, how individuals suddenly show up thousands of miles of way, how there’s a party where the worst type of people in history are invited.

We also get to follow the story of the Master and Margarita themselves showing their love for one another and what they would do for each other,  we see much more than that. Even the demons themselves have their soft sides and you begin to like them as well. With the probable exception of the Master and maybe Homeless (who bares witness to the most change in the story) the demons take advantage of the sins of the people they come across.

I have happily read this book a dozen times, even going as far as reading different English versions of it from different translators. Which ever one you get to read you will not be dissapointed. I fell in love with it.

There is an audio book version of it on Audible narrated by Julian Rhind-Tutt which is a marvellous narration of the story. He talks with the right tone and nuance for each character.

If you haven’t done so already read this book. Beg for a copy, buy one, borrow one, listen to the audio book. I wouldn’t go as far as stealing the book. Even the demon Behemoth in the story would rather pay for his ride instead of not paying.