Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Down and Out in Paris and London

It has been a while since I’ve reviewed a book about Paris/France in general on my list and I was excited to read something a little different after being spellbound to the Chaos Walking trilogy. Down and Out in Paris and London was George Orwell’s first published novel and it details, with some embellishment, his experiences being broke and trying to make it on the streets of Paris and then later in London. Orwell’s writing is both entertaining and enlightening, a perfect combination for the subject material. As the book opens, Orwell finds himself completely broke in Paris with no prospects for work anytime soon. During this period, the number of unemployed upon the urban streets was vast and it was incredibly difficult to find work that paid a livable income. After several weeks of scrimping, Orwell finds himself a dishwasher at the very prestigious Hotel X. Orwell is well fed and moderately well paid for a time but describes the appalling state of the kitchen hygiene in a very expensive establishment. Orwell then travels back to London on the prospect of a well-paying job but finds that he needs to make his way upon the streets for another month until the employer returns from vacation. Orwell proceeds to adopt a state of homelessness and wanders the streets with other tramps such as Paddy and Bozo.

While Orwell did have access to funding through various friends and family, for reasons unknown, he chose not to take it. While I don’t love the fact that he viewed his experience with those in abject poverty as entertaining “research”, he does provide a critique towards the way that society treats those on the lowest part of the social ladder. Orwell mostly critiques this in London as he finds the aid provided by secular and ecclesiastical authorities to be both inadequate and humiliating towards the impoverished. Orwell’s writing about poverty in Paris is more revealing of the daily struggles of the impoverished Parisian migrant and the horrific conditions in which he worked. I liked the tenor of the book but there are several obvious issues. While casual anti-semitism was a norm of Orwell’s time, it’s jarring to read. I found it a upsetting but didn’t find that it was so pervasive that I couldn’t finish the book. Orwell’s racial and ethnic attitudes are reflective of a time with very different social norms and should be read with such a perspective. Orwell’s book is a good read but perhaps for the more mature reader who can contextualize his narrative.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Orchid Thief

I’m writing this post after just finishing this book less than ten minutes ago. It was such a thought-provoking read that I feel like I both digested it as I read it but also have no idea what kind of literary journey I just took. The Orchid Thief was Susan Orlean’s debut novel after being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years. I actually read her second novel, The Library Book, over the summer. The Library Book was such a poetic tribute to the power that books and the literary arts hold over ordinary lives that I limited myself to a certain page count per day in order to stretch out the reading experience and savor the words. I enjoyed The Library Book so much that I couldn’t help but search out Orlean’s first book in an effort to repeat the experience. While I was disappointed that The Orchid Thief didn’t evoke such an emotional response for me, it was a great book. Orlean spends the novel both detailing her experience with the exotic plant world of Florida while recounting the history of exotic plant collection. She interweaves the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title, with a larger reflection on the existence of Florida as both a part of the United States that stands truly alone.

Some of the description in this book didn’t resonate with me very much but I’m also not an attentive plant lover. Orlean’s writing was powerful in this first novel and I think that she really perfected her prose in The Library Book. I’m also from California and was able to find resonance in her words about California and its history more than I was able to relate to the story of a state that I have never visited. Orlean does meditate on a lot of the elements of modernity in this novel and I would say that for that alone, The Orchid Thief deserves a read. Orleans passes no strong judgement upon the people that populate her book which I think is part of the fun. Orlean’s presence as a neutral narrator makes the reader think harder about their own biases in life. Definitely a book for an adults, The Orchid Thief is a unique reflection on life and plants and everything in between.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Monsters of Men

I could not believe how fast I finished this book. It’s the third in the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness that I posted about about a week ago. Wow!!!! This was a thrilling conclusion to the books and most of it was totally unexpected and the action kept coming! I started on a Wednesday and finished by Thursday evening! I absolutely ripped through this book and am still reeling from the ending!

The last installment of Ness’ trilogy brings us right back to the end of the second book, The Ask and the Answer. Just as Mayor Prentiss and Mistriss Coyle are about to have their epic showdown, their rivalry has to be put on pause to combat the massive Spackle army that has marched on their city. The Spackle previously appeared in the trilogy but not as main protagonists. When the settlers from the Old World settled on the New, a massive Spackle war ensued with several thousand Spackle being enslaved to the settlers as part of the peace agreement. These enslaved Spackle are slaughtered wholesale by Mayor Prentiss in the second book, leading to the mobilization of the Spackle across the planet. In the third book, the settlers face extinction in the face of the imminent arrival of more settlers and the rivalries of the second book haven’t gone anywhere. Tension is high and Todd and Viola are doing all they can to save each other while saving the rest of humanity but will they succeed and keep their lives?? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

I talked over the entire trilogy with the aforementioned friend who introduced me to the trilogy and we both had some pretty strong opinions about each of the characters in a world where nothing is quite black and white. I found that this trilogy is incredibly insightful in its treatment of humans and the basic moral battle of good versus evil that has faced humanity for many millennia. Ness does a really good job of showing how easy it is for evil to seep into our lives but encouragingly shows how to confront that same evil. I cannot believe how much I enjoyed reading these books and would recommend them to YA lovers. It provides a layered and nuanced story that makes you question even your own perceptions of the world.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Ask and the Answer

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve had time to review a book but I absolutely raced through this one! I started in on a Sunday night and was finished by the next evening, I just couldn’t put it down! This novel is the second in the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. I was introduced to this trilogy by a dear friend from high school who kindly provided the first one, “The Knife of Never Letting Go”. Unfortunately, I was hooked on that book and finished it with similar speed and my friend did not have the rest of the trilogy so I had to wait! I was able to find the second and third books on Thriftbooks at the end of July and was very excited to dive into the world of Patrick Ness once again!

The Chaos Walking trilogy tells the story of the settlements on a New World after the inhabitants of the Old World had to leave it. The series specifically follows Todd, a young man born in the New World settlement of Prentisstown where there are no women, and Viola, a scout from a new group of settlers from the Old World. “The Knife of Never Letting Go” follows Todd and Viola as they race to stop Mayor Prentiss from conquering the other settlements of the New World. The second book focuses on what happens after they fail and Mayor Prentiss becomes President Prentiss of the New World. Viola and Todd are separated and have to find themselves before they can find each other once again.

This novel is nuanced and absolutely devastating at points. It asks the questions that we are often afraid to ask in our day and age of the Trump Presidency. It asks how far will you go to save your own skin? Ness also explores the power of the individual throughout the novel which I found very thought provoking. I think this book is appropriate for 10 and up and especially for adults but it does contain dark topics so read with discretion. I cannot wait to read the next one to learn the final fates of Todd and Viola.

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Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s been a rough summer for everyone around the world right now, with raging coronavirus and protests over the systemic inequalities within our society so I decided it was a great time to get my wisdom teeth out because I wanted to add some more pain and suffering into my life…yay? This past week has been pretty miserable for me so I took the time to watch four whole seasons of Grantchester (fantastic but a lil moody) on Prime and finish up this little book. A Wizard of Earthsea was Ursula Le Guin’s breakout novel, leading to a longer series that follows the exploits of Sparrowhawk, the most powerful sorcerer in all of Earthsea. I’ve been reading a fair amount of non-fiction recently, with all my France research, and decided that this would be a lovely fantasy book vacation.

I did like this book but did not find that I preferred it over many of the more modern fantasy writers that I’ve read. Le Guin’s style is revolutionary for her time but appears a bit dated to the reader who have such a large collection of available books of fantasy and science fiction from female writers. Furthermore, I have always found books with a male protagonist to be a little harder for me to read. I’m not sure why, but I think that in fantasy I like to envision myself in the protagonist’s shoes and it’s a bit more difficult for me to do this for a man. It took me a little longer that I thought it would to get through this book. It’s no more than 180 pages, but it look me about two days. Le Guin introduced some pretty thought-provoking themes into her novel such as the importance of names, the true nature of good and evil, and the balance that is needed for the world to continue to turn. It’s pretty deep stuff for a fantasy novel but it’s presented in a way that is digestible for a younger reader. Le Guin takes the time to dwell on some heavier themes than normally seen in fantasy writing and I really appreciate the gravity that she was able to bring into the genre.

Because I’ve been spoiled by modern fantasy writing that is more detailed and action packed, I am not able to fully appreciate the ingenuity that Le Guin brought to the genre when A Wizard of Earthsea was first published. I would recommend this book for younger readers, around early adolescence. My father enjoyed the book far more than myself so perhaps a male reader would be more appreciative of the travails of Ged/Sparrowhawk the young protagonist.