“The General in his Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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After reading ‘Looking for Alaska’ from John Green I was compelled with the protagonist of the novel. So it came as no surprise that I chose ‘The General in his labyrinth’ as my next book as it was quoted on various occasions by Alaska. Also I had never even flipped the pages of something written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and it was a great opportunity to not only get new insights of the story behind John Green’s character but also to enrich my culture with one of the masterpieces created by the pen of such a well-known author.

The plot is revolved around the last days of Simon Bolivar, liberator and leader of Gran Colombia. And although the tale of his last days on Earth is fictionally accounted in the book, the person was quite real and quite important. The novel traces the General’s final journey from Bogota to the Caribbean coastline of Colombia in his attempt to leave South America. The year is 1830 which adds to the exotic feeling of the atmosphere. Most books set and develop their stories in Europe or in North America and rarely have I personally come across a tale of the countries around Brazil. It was interesting to delve into such unfamiliar waters and to investigate a culture that is similar and at the same time differs greatly from what I am accustomed to. But the good thing about the process of learning is that the more you seem to know, the more there is yet to be found out.

The protagonist of the novel is not presented as the strong, influential and determined Simon Bolivar that history books portray but shines a light on a pathetic, prematurely aged man who is physically incapable of anything and mentally exhausted. The reader is confronted with a man who is barely the ghost of his past, enveloped in splendor and majesty, a man who can not even bask in his former glory, a man who is left helpless and alone in the sunset of his life. Struggling with his own mortality the General is stuck in the labyrinth of life, where no exit can be found.

Even in such a horrible state of body and mind, the General still stands out as an incredible man. Through a series of flashbacks the reader sees like a faded reflection the life of this extraordinary human who at the end of his road has come to be a wreck, forgotten and unloved by all. The true illness from which he dies is never precisely pinpointed in the novel (although tuberculosis is put as the cause of death in the official statement) it is led to believe that he slowly leans away from the absence of love. Despite his numerous lovers, his intimate companion Manuela Saenz and all the people who worshipped and adored him, the General finds himself abruptly alone before his final breath leaves his tortured body.

Time does not wait for anybody, the sand in the hourglass is falling and nothing can stop it before it runs out. The feeling of inevitability is strongly highlighted in the novel. A clock stuck at seven minutes past one, the exact time of the General’s death, appears repeatedly in the novel. The end of the book is known beforehand unlike the secret of the labyrinth. The constant return of the General to places he has visited before creates the feeling that what belongs in the past, belongs in the present. As if he is following a path already marked with his footsteps with no hope of trailing aside from it. He wanders lost and confused through the course of his life, finding no passage out from the labyrinth.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez proves himself a genius writer by describing moments of the life of a great man, left out from history books, in such a way that the reader becomes a part of the eluded story of Simon Bolivar. If you are looking for a good biographical novel, don’t hesitate to grab ‘The General in his labyrinth’ for it is a moving tale which will leave you pondering over the questions of existence long after the book is read and resting on the book shelf of your library.

Sophie

Sophie

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein

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I’m sure you have experienced the second-to-none feeling of morbid despair which goes hand in hand with the realization that there are 75 minutes left till class is over, even though in your mind half an hour should have passed by already. This tedium can be summarized in one word: Physics. I like studying Physics, solving problems, and learning about the laws which make the existence of the whole universe possible, but I abhor the very notion of having to listen to my teacher regurgitating the new lesson. So, as any bookworm would do, I conceal the book I am currently reading behind my textbook and abscond from the stagnant, crammed classroom into the rapture of a brilliant novel. You can’t hold me culpable!

Last Monday, though, little did I know what was awaiting me as I ensconced myself and submerged in between the pages of my book, invisible from the teacher’s desk. Suddenly, 10 more minutes to go till the end of class, a muffled sob reverberated in the room. And all eyes turned on me. And what did they see ? Yep! You guessed it. A girl, weeping silently over her Physics textbook. If they didn’t think me a freak till them, I bet they do now! Okay, laugh all you want at my misery, but once you read “The Art of Racing in the Rain” you’d comprehend why I couldn’t keep myself from shedding tears even though it was blatant from the first chapter onwards how it was going to end.

The book encapsulates the life of Enzo – a dog. Enzo is incongruous from the rest of his species. “Everyone knows that shepherds and poodles aren’t especially smart. They’re responders and reactors, not independent thinkers… Sure, they’re clever and quick, but they don’t think outside the box; they’re all about convention” Not only is he a free-thinker, but also a profound philosopher. He watches TV in order to educate himself. He tried to teach himself to read and succeeded in distinguishing between the “pull” and “push” signs on doors.  He despises monkeys because of their opposable thumbs and envies all humans for the deftness of their tongues.

On the eve of his death, Enzo – this resplendent dog, takes stock of his life and everything that befell him and his family. He recalls all the mirth and joy, all the anguish and woe he has witnessed, as he ponders over the deep insight he has gained into the human soul and conscience and the meaning of one’s life. Contrary to what you and I would assume, Enzo is not doleful about the impending end of his life. Actually, he has been anticipating it for a while now. “I’m old. And while I’m very capable of getting older, that’s not the way I want to go out” He believes in reincarnation and is quite certain (due to a Mongolian documentary show he once saw on TV) that once his existence as a dog is relinquished, his soul would find shelter in a human body. As he shares with us his journey through life he finds out that “we are all afforded our physical existence so we can learn about ourselves”, that “inside each of us reasides the truth, the absolute thruth. But sometimes it is hidden in a hall of mirrors. Sometimes we believe we are viewing the real thing when in fact we are viewing a facsimilie, a distortion” and last but not least that “Fate is a mean bitch of lab”. In the end “he died because his body had served its purpose. His soul had done what it came to do, learned about what it came to learn, and then was free to leave”.

The book is replete with splendid thoughts and outstanding epiphanies but what struck me most is the parallels Enzo draws between life and racing. His best friend and master, Denny, is a car racer and they spend together countless days watching Formula 1 shows and analyzing recordings of Denny’s old races. Enzo is proficient in the ways and means of driving. However, unlike humans, he doesn’t see racing as part of life. To him, racing is life. As a broad-minded and passionate creature, he does not succumb to the urge to label characters, activities and notions. Instead of looking for the controversy and contradiction in beliefs in inklings, he has devoted his whole life to reconciling the incompatibles. “I don’t understand why people insist on putting the concepts of evolution and creation against each other. Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one? That bodies evolve and souls evolve and the universe is a fluid that marries them both in a wonderful package called a human being. What’s wrong with that idea?”

Through the comparisons he makes between the art of racing and the feat of living, Enzo conveys inspiring ideas about the nature of control we have over our destinies. He points out that our choices and decisions do not affect solely us by the subtle implication that invisible strings attach us to every other creature in the universe, and a simple fidget of ours causes a ripple in the seeming respite of matter. Notwithstanding whether we acknowledge Fate, it is undeniably true that “That which you manifest is before you”  We have to try assiduously, to work diligently and to stubbornly strive towards our final destination, while suffering the outcomes and bearing the ramifications of those ignominious assaults and endless pursuits. And in the end, despite our burdensome struggles there are adventitious events and unforeseen obstacles that would bar our way to glory, happiness and victory.  Yet, “the race is long – to finish first, first you must finish.”

If you are a dog-lover, a F1 fanatic, or a wiseacre, you shouldn’t dither before grabbing and devouring “The Art of Racing in the Rain”. Provided you have a soft spot for kitties, their snake-like eyes and lethal claws, then you should put aside your prejudices and explore the life and wit of a remarkable dog. I’m positive that afterwards you would find puppies way more adorable than cats!

Mery

Mery

‘You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves! ‘
Doctor Who

‘Oracle Night’ by Paul Auster

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One of the books I received as a present for my birthday was ‘Oracle night’ by Paul Auster. Never having read any of his novels, I could only guess the surprise that awaited me between these pages. Not being a big fan of stories set in contemporary background, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the descriptions of the streets of New York. They gave the atmosphere of the novel a down-to-Earth feeling which made the story sound even more realistic.

The protagonist is a writer called Sidney Orr who we find still recovering from a near-fatal illness. On one of his usual walks in his neighborhood in Brooklyn he comes across a stationary shop where he buys a blue notebook. Not having written a single sentence since he almost died, Sidney Orr is eager to begin something new between the lines of his new possession. To this moment the story sounds quite ordinary and unless something magical happens there is little to be expected in the further development of the plot. But sometimes reality surprises us with its hidden secrets and unexplained mysteries more than the fantastical tales that human imagination can make up.

From the moment Orr’s pen touches the first blank page of the blue notebook the world around the writer starts changing. He loses grip and floats away in a universe created by him. Sidney Orr is more than compelled and words just seem to flow like a river from his mind and into the material world. His absence from reality threatens to ruin his marriage. And that’s when strange things begin to happen. His wife bursts into tears in a cab with no particular reason hours after he begins writing his new story. The owner of the stationary shop M. R. Chang disappears alongside with his business the day after Sidney Orr buys the blue notebook. And the apparition of the seemingly non-existent connection between a 1938 Warsaw telephone directory and a lost novel in which the hero can predict the future. I’m going to stop here before I unintentionally give out any spoilers.

Paul Auster gives his readers an amazing opportunity to a first hand glance in the every day life of a contemporary author. Through the entwined fate of his characters the true power of words is brought out from the depths of passivity in a seat in the front row. Because there are certain circumstances that shape our destiny and what is once written may come to pass. Sidney Orr is bound to find that out in practice and by a much unexpected way. One must be careful with not only what is said but with also what is penned down.

The story does not have a one-way-highway type of a plot line that is extended in a few layers. By this method the novel acquires a depth with which the author can send different messages to his readership. Blood is not always thicker than water and at some point animosity can explode into violence. At such moments all human is forgotten. But at the end of it all, after all the obstacles and all the absurdities that life throws, it is understood that forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love. Paul Auster’s ‘Oracle night’ is a book fit to be devoured at only one sitting. As sad as this may sound to those who like to enjoy the long process of reading, I assure you that the aftertaste is worth it all. So don’t waste any more time in front of the computer screen and grab this book and see for yourself what a wonder the “Oracle Night’ truly is.

Sophie

Sophie

“An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green

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Honestly, I was a bit biased when I embarked upon “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green.  So far I had read 2 of his books and I found them both ethereal. “The Fault in Our Stars” is one of my ultimate all-time favourites and actually the very first book in my life I found so compelling that I read it 3 consecutive times. “Looking for Alaska” isn’t lagging far behind. It is one of those books that should be devoured. What I admired most in both of them was not only the absence of the customary dichotomy between tragedy and comedy but their incredible symbiosis. I mean, those two books were hilarious but nonetheless, they made me weep buckets. When Augustus Waters… ok, I am going to restrain myself and not spoil the book for you!

On the other hand, though, “An Abundance of Katherines” had nothing morbid and poignant about it except that the protagonist Colin Singleton, a teenage prodigy and would-be genius, has been dumped 19 times in a roll by 19 different girls all named Katherine. “Not Katrina, not Kathy, not Katie, not Trina – K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E.” I guess, everyone has a weird fetish of their own. I like only boys made up of ink and words so I am not going to be presumptuous or anything, but there is nothing heart-wrenching, dour or grim about Colin’s preposterous dating history. It’s downright pathetic!

I was quite disappointed with the book the first hundred pages  probably because pivotal issues were relationships, meant-to-be love, self-deprecating devotion, happily-ever-afters and more jiggery-pokery of the same sort. I considered giving it up a few times but I persevered due to the author’s name and his inimitable humour, and I am so glad I did.

“Lindsey coughed, mumbled, “Bullshit,” and then coughed again. Hollis’s eyes grew wide. “Lindsey Lee Wells, you put a quarter in the swear jar right this minute!”
“Shit,” Lindsey said. “Dick. Craptastic.”
She glided over to the fireplace mantel, and placed a dollar bill in a glass Mason jar.
“Don’t have any change, Hollis,” she said. “

The first time we meet Colin he is lying on the carpet in his bedroom, wallowing in self-pity until his best and only friend Hassan, a devoted Muslim, bursts in and comes up with the ridiculous suggestion of a road trip. Of course, laden with a broken heart and shattered dreams, Colin disagrees.  We’re on a road trip. It’s about adventure,” apparently this isn’t convincing enough for a teenage prodigy, who craves to matter, to snap out of his defeatism, and become blithe and enthusiastic about the trivial side of life that ordinary people, like you and me, savour. However, soon enough (around 150 pages later) he is going to realize that “Like it or not, road trips have destinations.”  From a geographic perspective, the road trip takes them to the Eternal Resting Place of the Archeduke Franz Ferdinand where they encounter the convivial Lindsey Lee Wells. From a philosophical perspective, they go on a journey into the inexorable depths of the intractable soul where the meaningfulness of their purpose in life would be tested.  The indolent Hassan would come to question his strong belief in permanent idleness, whereas the sanctimonious Colin would ascertain that there are countless variations of eminence. Their voyage of self-discovery is effulgent, and I am grateful that I could accompany them as they came to terms with who they are and who they want to be.

I was extremely impressed by the subtle idea that all antitheses not merely coexist but are compatible. It starts off with people’s idiosyncrasies and beliefs – Colin being a Jew, Hassan being a Muslim. But then it spreads its intangible tentacles and applies a meaning to the whole wide world. Day begets night. Inhalation begets exhalation. And the most brilliant of all paradoxes, life begets death. Although Epicurus once sagaciously expounded that: “Death does not concern us because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”, I believe that Death is under no conditions restrained to its unknown domain of probable heaven and hell. I think it envelops us like a gray mist, bristling with elusive memories of late relatives and subdued adulation of bygone greatness. It reminds us that we are as fragile and ephemeral as dandelions on a windy spring day and this constant evocation of our transience somehow makes life on a daily basis more precious.

Furthermore, future begets past. It’s unperceivable and shocking to think that the bright, brimful of hope, dreams and joy, future will actually be the doom of us, our acknowledged existence and our cravings.  (I had a hard time coming to grips with that) “If the future is forever, he thought, then eventually it will swallow us all up. Even Colin could only name a handful of people who lived, say, 2,400 years ago. In another, 2,400 years, even Socrates, the most well-known genius of that century, might be forgotten. The future will erase everything – there’s no level of fame or genius that allows you to transcend oblivion. The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.”

I already disagreed with the prominent Epicurus, so I think I have the brass to disagree with a fictional prodigy as well. “In this world, Colin figured, you’re best of staying with your kind.”  The difference and diversity of one’s traits and personalities are reflected in ourselves. I mean, the fact that such adversaries like past and future, life and death are cheek by jowl proves that everything in this world is intricately connected and of use in some twisted way. “But I always wonder about that. If people could see me the way I see myself – if they could live in my memories – would anyone, anyone, love me?” I used to be scared that if anyone dropped by my inner world, they would break out, screaming and screeching at the top of their voice. However, now I figure that they would probably end up realizing how much more in common we have than they could have possibly imagined.

I could go on talking about this book forever. There are so many things I haven’t told you but I am worried that you would have to fathom them out on your own as you join Colin and Hassan on their marvelous road trip where they get to know one another and themselves, and perhaps you would discover something about yourself as well, while running along with them away from a feral pig and a swarm of hornets.

Mery

Mery

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” by Alan Bradley

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Who doesn’t love a good detective story? Introducing you to a plot line where a gruesome crime has been committed that can only be solved by a genius. We all look with affection towards the fan-favorites Sherlock Holmes – a dashing lad who can find more secrets from one glance at you than you ever thought you were keeping and Hercule Poirot – the little Belgian man whose little brain cells never seem to stop working. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dame Agatha Christie create characters that will not only last throughout the ages but also set up models that will serve to many generations to come. Their legacy inspires many to try their luck in the field of detective work. Even children find it compelling to look for clues and uncover and discover what others fail to see. Nothing can escape the curiosity of a child and nothing can stay hidden for long when the hungry and praying eyes look up and decide to investigate something.

Alan Bradley creates the amazing series that follow the adventures of the 11-year-old Flavia de Luce starting with a novel called ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’. The title itself draws attention with its simple yet hard to grasp significance. To be honest it was the good book reviews that made me start reading it which led to me devouring the next three novels from the series. And before I get to the characteristics of the wonderful Flavia I’d like to say a few words about the world she lives in.

The story is set in the 1950 in a small town in England where the family of de Luce lives in a big mansion. The whole atmosphere is filled with mystery and hidden secrets that just wait there in the dark ready for the beam of light that will help them craw back into the world. The de Luce family is anything but wealthy. The house they live in is dark and cold and only the small inhabited arrears are a little bit friendlier than the dungeon-like hospitality the rest of the house presents to its guests.

Flavia has two older sister Ophelia and Dapnhe who are anything but comfort to their younger sibling. They frequently plot against her which leaves Flavia with nothing else to do than spend time alone in her laboratory. Did I mention that her one passion is chemistry? As much as Daphne loves reading fantastic tales and as much as Ophelia likes to admire her reflection in the mirror, Flavia enjoys making poisons. Not the typical hobby for a decent young lady. The three sisters’ parental supervision is that of their father Colonel Haviland de Luce who is still devastated by the sudden death of his wife 10 years ago and prefers to devote his time to his loving collection of stamps. The other inhabitant of the lonely house is the retainer Dogger who frequently suffers from hallucinations due to posttraumatic stress disorder from his time as a prisoner of war.

After this introduction in the life of Flavia de Luce it comes as no surprise that she is eager to unveil the story behind the death of a man who she overheard quarrelling with her father a day earlier than her discovery of his body in front of the de Luce’s mansion. Another occurrence that separates Flavia from her beloved laboratory and throws her in the world of the deduction is the dead jack snipe which was found on the porch with a Penny Black stamp pierced through its beak. And all of this leads up to the corpse she confronts in the cucumber patch of her home. Flavia is witty, bold and brilliant, all good qualities that help her prove herself as useful in such delicate situations She even outsmarts the police and is able to solve the crime before the agents of the law. ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ proves that sometimes we forget that the children’s point of view does count especially when it belongs to someone as observant as Flavia.

Alan Bradley gives a book as sweet as any cherry pie filled with humor and witty comments that will definitely make anyone’s day better. If you need to catch a break, get your hands on ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ and enjoy the adventures Flavia de Luce takes you on. Have a nice time!

Sophie

Sophie