1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, CC-Spin, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Literature, metafiction, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part Two by Miguel Cervantes



The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part Two

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 40

The Second Part of Don Quixote was published in 1615, exactly ten years after the first. According to Cervantes’s dedication, it was written, “in order to purge the disgust and nausea caused by another Don Quixote who has been running about the world masquerading as the second part.” Indeed, ironically, after his first part in some ways posed the question of “honesty in fiction,” another writer (pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda), without consent or collaboration, took it upon himself to write the sequel which was foreshadowed at the end of the original Part One.

Part Two begins again in La Mancha, where Don Quixote has been for some time. His friends and niece have tried to cure him of his obsession for knight errantry, but to no avail. Once again, he and Sancho Panza (who seems much wiser in this second part) leave La Mancha to wander Spain and seek adventures. Unlike the first part, though, which was primarily concerned either with the misadventures which Don Quixote brought upon himself or with the adventures of minor characters, relayed to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at various times throughout (to bring in historical context and to add depth to the overall narrative), this second part adds two new antagonists, the Duke and Duchess, who are hell-bent on causing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as much grief as possible, for their own amusement. Also, Don Quixote’s motivation changes somewhat, after Sancho Panza convinces him that his great love, Dulcinea del Toboso, has been transformed from the most beautiful flower of Spain into a poor, peasant girl, by an evil enchanter. Instead of scouring the globe trying to prove his love to the lady Dulcinea, Don Quixote is instead on a mission to disenchant her (which, thanks to the Duke and Duchess, will result in great grief and pain for poor Sancho). Sancho will eventually earn his governorship, though it turns out to be more trouble than it is worth, the great knight Don Quixote will be challenged, twice, and ultimately vanquished by the Knight of the White Moon, and Cervantes, in all his wisdom, will ensure that Don Quixote’s story will end on his terms (via the historian Cide Hamete Benengeli) this time.

As it turns out, the continuing adventures of Don Quixote (or Part Two) is a bit of meta-fiction, constantly interrupting itself to talk about its own story, mostly about Part One and the imposter who wrote the false sequel. Many of the characters in Part Two have read Part One and the unauthorized Part Two, so they have preconceived notions (some accurate, others not) about Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho. In addition to writing about his own writing and acknowledging the story as a story within this story, Cervantes also mentions a variety of other literary works, including plays and poetry, which help to place this particular text into a literary timeline (especially important, here, as Spain and Europe are in the midst of great intellectual changes, as mentioned in my discussion of Part One). While this allows for a conversation about literature itself, Part Two is also, in general, a deeper, more fully realized work. Unlike Part One, wherein the characters were primarily flat, Part Two sees a variety of characters with varied motivations – they engage one another in more realistic ways, although their motives are still generally suspect.


Cervantes further builds on some of the concerns he laid out in Part One, including religious and social commentary. He is critical of Spain’s caste system and makes clear that is not one’s property or title that speaks to one’s worth, but one’s actions and beliefs. This point is elaborated on through the foul deeds of the Duke and Duchess, who, though members of the nobility, are downright nasty people. Furthermore, Cervantes makes a concerted effort to raise the wisdom of Sancho Panza (and also of his wife, Teresa) – education, goodness, and common sense are, for Cervantes, the markers of true character, wisdom and self-worth; obsessions over money, land, and practicality lead to pettiness and cruelty.

Although Don Quixote is generally published as one large work, it is clear that Part One and Part Two are indeed separate books, and not just because they were published a decade apart. Cervantes’s motivations and styles are strikingly different in the two books. Part One is largely parody, with plenty of social and historical commentary as well, but with much to be desired in terms of construction and complexity. Part Two adds, in my opinion, what Part One was missing. Although there is still a great deal of humor, it is not as slapstick or farcical as Part One (at least, not the majority of it). The work is more serious, more intentional, and well-realized. It certainly works as meta-fiction (though Cervantes’s anger at Avellaneda can sometimes overshadow the story) but also as a pioneering piece of literature caught in a time of great change and transition. It aptly pays tribute to the bygone era of romantic chivalry (the Renaissance) and meaningfully presages, perhaps unknowingly, the Enlightenment to come. The depth and complexity, and especially the character development, make Part Two quite superior to Part One. For more, see my thoughts on Part One.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Meta-fiction, Sequels.

Notable Quotes:

Don_Quixote_6“I know very well what the temptations of the Devil are, and that one of his greatest is to put it into a man’s head that he can write and print a book, and gain both money and fame by it” (Prologue to Part Two, p. 468).

“It is not pleasant to go about with scruples on your conscience” (478).

“To have companions in your troubles generally helps to relieve them” (547).

“If the blind lead the blind, both will be in danger of falling into the ditch” (548).

“So, let’s consider now which is the madder, the man who’s mad because he can’t help it, or the man who’s mad by choice” (561).

“He who reads much and travels much, sees much and learns much” (635).

“The Devil must certainly be an honest fellow and a good Christian. For if he weren’t he wouldn’t swear by God and his conscience. So I suppose that there must be some good people even in Hell” (697).

“For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy” (937).

Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge
Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 
Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge

1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Historical Fiction, Literature, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part One by Miguel Cervantes


The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part One

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 40

Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first example of the contemporary novel-as-we-know-it, though I believe this is much more applicable to “Part Two” than it is to “Part One.”  The story is set in the year 1614, shortly after publication of Part One (1605) and just before the publication of Part Two (1615).  In this hilarious adventure tale, Don Quixote, a self-proclaimed Knight Errant, with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, set out on a journey to restore chivalry to the world, with a goal of defending the helpless and destroying the wicked. The two foolish men wander throughout Spain and encounter all sorts of bizarre adventures, from giants mistaken as windmills to village taverns mistaken for castles.

Sancho Panza joins Don Quixote in these adventures because he believes that his squireship will bring him riches, or at least the governorship of an isle, as that is what Don Quixote tells him has happened in all the books of chivalry (which must mean it is true!).  As for Don Quixote, he claims to be on a quest to make himself worthy of the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, and he demands that all who would challenge him must proclaim to the world that Dulcinea del Toboso is the most beautiful, most wonderful woman in all of Spain.  Of course, Dulcinea del Toboso, like Sancho’s riches and Don Quixote’s texts, is just a fiction.

After numerous adventures, wherein Don Quixote repeatedly proves just how foolish (and dangerous) he is, he and Sancho eventually meet a woman who quickly comes to understand Don Quixote’s “affliction” and uses it to her advantage, pretending to be a royal woman in distress who needs the assistance of a noble knight. What is fascinating is how very sane and, indeed, brilliant Don Quixote can be when speaking about anything other than knighthood and romances.  It is only when he is invested in his chivalric adventures (which is most of the time) that he becomes, essentially, a madman. In the end, a priest and barber from La Mancha, who had disguised themselves in order to get in with Don Quixote’s company without raising suspicion, capture Don Quixote and convince him that he has been enchanted; in this way, they manage to bring him home, where they hope to cure his insanity and obsession with fictional tales of knight errantry.


Don Quixote is a parody of the romances of the time.  The Renaissance (15th-16th centuries) which, in Spain, had immediately preceded Cervantes’ life and the creation of this novel, gave rise to new discussions about and interpretations of art, morality, identity, and humanism; however, the popular literature of Cervantes’s era continued to be rife with books of chivalry – melodramatic fantasies about the adventures of wandering knights who slay giants, rescue damsels in distress, and battle evil wizards and enchanters.  These were highly stylized tales with shallow characters who were playing out the rules of tired, dusty old dramas.  In those dramas, the main theme was chivalry: protecting the weak, lauding women, and celebrating brave knights who traveled the world in search of good deeds to be done.

The character Don Quixote is obsessed with these romances and these knights.  He truly believes himself to be one of the greatest of knights errant, who must live and die by the code set down in these fictional texts.  Through him, Cervantes is commenting on the ridiculousness (and tiredness) of these old ideas.  He desperately wanted to bring Spanish Literature into the new age (which, though Cervantes wouldn’t know it, yet, was anticipating the Enlightenment).  All is not a joke, however.  Cervantes was a soldier and he was deeply devoted to Spain.  The country was making great advances in technology and social enterprises, and it was earning a great deal of wealth from its American colonies.  Amidst all this change, Cervantes did believe that a code of values (like the ancient codes of chivalry) could be useful for a nation confused by war with England, militarily, and also with the Muslim religion.

One of the most ground-breaking elements of Don Quixote is its narration.  The book is narrated by the author, who is commenting on a “true history” as written by a fictive historian called Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Moor who originally chronicled the adventures of Don Quixote.  Cervantes as narrator charges himself with translating the original text; thus, he narrates most of the book in the third-person, but does sometimes enter into the thoughts of the characters or into first person, such as when he is commenting on the novel itself or the original manuscript (written by Benengeli).  There are three sections to Don Quixote, the first two being in “Part One” and the third being all of “Part Two.”  The first section is largely a parody of the contemporary romance tales and is likely what most people think of when they think about Don Quixote.  The second part, however, takes a narrative shift toward historical fiction.  It proceeds episodically, is not as comedic, and is pulled much more from Cervantes’s life experiences, via third-party tales (not just the narrator telling us what is happening with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, but other characters talking to our main heroes about their own histories and adventures).  In these first two sections (or “Part One”) it is Cervantes as narrator who is reporting the entire story, in direct narrative style, but this is something which will change for “Part Two.”


In addition to the interesting narrative choices (which become much more interesting and complex in “Part Two”) there are other major themes and motifs, such as: Morality (old ideas versus new ones); a comparison between Class and Worth (Cervantes’s claim being that one’s class does not necessarily speak to their personal worth – an extremely radical idea for the time); Romance (romantic love being of highest value); Honor (the idea of being personally honorable is lauded, whereas the idea of living up to a lofty, ancient code of honor seems to be mocked and leads to sometimes disastrous consequences); and Literature (there is a raging debate about the need for truthfulness and historical accuracy in fiction, and about how much of literature can/should be expected to be honest and how much of it pure imagination).

Some of the most interesting elements of Don Quixote, are those which are drawn from Cervantes’s own life.  His fears, his biases, and his own experiences very much contributed to the themes in the book, even giving him inspiration for the creation of it.  Mistrust for foreigners, for example, is a prevalent theme, as is the tension between the Moors and the Catholics.  Cervantes and his brother were captured by pirates and sold to the Moors (Muslims), after which they ended up in Algiers.  Cervantes tried to escape –three times- but could not get away until he was ransomed in 1580, after which he was able to return to Spain.  This experience, in addition to the defeat of the impenetrable Spanish Armada in 1588, by the English, are the backbone of the tale, and make up some of its intermediary tales, such as the tale of the captive (Chapter 34).  Many of the battles Cervantes engaged in when he was in the Spanish Army are recounted somewhat in this book, through other characters’ tales, which adds depth and autobiographical history to this fantasy tale.

Ultimately, Part One of Don Quixote is historical fiction disguised as literary parody.  It is great fun, for a while, but is, in my opinion, longer than necessary; one could get the point in half the time, though what Cervantes starts to work on in the second section of Part One is definitely a shift away from the pure farce and fantasy of the first section. Cervantes does explore some interesting notions, such as cross-dressing, self-worth, female independence, and the nature of love, all of which are looked at it relatively new ways. For its autobiographical exploration, its historical significance, and its narrative uniqueness, Don Quixote (Part One) is a valuable read, but it is Part Two, in my opinion, which really stands out and, perhaps, keeps Don Quixote in the canon of important classics.  Continue to my thoughts on Part Two.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Historical Novel.

Notable Quotes:

DonQuijoteDeLaMancha-767176“I am too spiritless and lazy by nature to go about looking for authors to say for me what I can say myself without them” (17).

“And so from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.  He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooing, loves, torments and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that to his mind no history in the world was more authentic” (32).

“I do not understand why, merely because she inspires love, a woman who is loved for her beauty is obliged to love the man who loves her” (108).

“I do swear, I tell you, that I will keep silent to the very last days of your honour’s life. And please God I may be free to speak to-morrow” (125).

“A knight errant who turns mad for a reason deserves neither merit nor thanks. The thing is to do it without cause” (203).

“They say we ought to love our Lord for Himself alone, without being moved to it by hope of glory or fear of punishment. Though, as for me, I’m inclined to love and serve Him for what He can do for me” (273).

“Love, I have heard it said, sometimes flies and sometimes walks. With one person it runs, with another creeps; some it cools and some it burns; some it wounds and others it kills; in a single instant it starts on the race of passion, and in the same instant concludes and ends it; in the morning it will besiege a fortress, and by evening it has subdued it, for there is no force that can resist it” (304).

“Women have naturally a readier wit for good or for evil than men, although it fails them when they set about deliberate reasoning” (308).

Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge

Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 

Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge

2013 TBR Pile Challenge, Book Review, Gender Studies, GLBT, Historical, History, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Homosocial Relationships, LGBT, Morris B. Kaplan, Non-Fiction, PhD, Queer Theory, Sexuality, Victorian

Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

1025812Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 20

Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.

Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case.  In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed.  Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.

Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students.  It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school).  Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships.  He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).

Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance).  His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press.  Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye.  Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.

The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument.  He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work.  He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack.  Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book.  Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.

Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

Fantasy, Historical, Mythology, Rick Riordan, Young Adult

Review: The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan

The Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 26

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Rick Riordan’s The Throne of Fire is an incredibly fantastic follow-up to Book 1 of his Egyptian mythology series, The Kane Chronicles.  Once again, Sadie and Carter Kane narrate us to the end of the world and back again – poor kids!  Just when the Kane family feel like their greatest threat – Set – has been muted, a new danger arises.  The Lord of Chaos, Apophis, is beginning to awaken, and without the Lord of Ma’at around (Ra, the Sun God, lost in a deep sleep deep in the Duat), Chaos may manage to take over and destroy the world.  The Kanes find themselves not only in a race against time to find and awaken King Ra, but also to save their friend Zia from a magician-induced coma and find a cure for their ailing apprentice Walt.  With so much going on – with so many foes, and so few allies – most of whom are unprepared, there seems to be little hope that Sadie and Carter can triumph again – but help is found in unexpected places, new gods rise to the challenges and grave sacrifices are made to aid the Kanes in their quest.

3 – Characters well developed.

Sadie and Carter, the main characters, are just as well developed as in the first book – which is good and bad.  They are written well in general, which of course is a good thing, but a bit more growth and development would have been welcome, as I like to watch characters grow (not just in age, but in maturity and roundedness) in a series.  The auxiliary characters, however, are much more developed and just down-right fun to read than in the book’s predecessor.  Some of the new gods, such as Bes, are given near-equal page time as the magicians, which adds another layer of intrigue and interest to the story.  Old gods and magicians, like Bast, Anubis, and Desjardins are back and better than ever – truly more developed and connected with the story.  The newest evil, Vladimir Menshikov, the third most powerful wizard in the world, adds an element of mystery and empathy to the overall story – another added layer to the overall story, which makes it more than just a YA fantasy, but a psychological examination as well.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

As with The Lost Hero, I found the prose and style concurrent with the mood and reading level of the book, as well as the subject matter; however, once again, like with The Lost Hero, there were numerous proof reading errors.  I am highly frustrated by this, as Riordan is a major author and these mythology series’ are hits – his publisher (Disney/Hyperion) needs to be more responsible with their final editing reviews before publication – I wonder if the same people are responsible because, if so, I would strongly encourage Mr. Riordan to choose new proofreaders.  Five or six major errors (like missing or incorrect words) in a publication marketed and anticipated at this magnitude is unacceptableThat being said, six (or so) errors in a book of this length is not exactly distracting, even if it is irritating to someone as ridiculously meticulous as this particular reader.  The pace is great, the dual narration works well again, though it is not always easy to distinguish which character is speaking when, even though each chapter has an identified narrator (sometimes I realized I mixed up narrators – thinking Carter was speaking, until little comments about the hotness of Anubis or Walt were dropped in).  In total, though, the language level is appropriate, the structure is appealing, and the prose is fluid and progresses at a great pace.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Once again, what is so great about these Riordan mythology series’ is their ability to teach as well as entertain.  By the end of the book, you find you have learned so much about Egyptian (or Roman, or Greek, whatever the case may be) mythology and history without even knowing it, because you were having such a great time reading the story and engaging with the characters’ adventures!  I find Riordan to have an advantage over many writers in this regard – he does his research and incorporates the mythologies into modern culture seamlessly, with a style that is appealing to contemporary readers.  The larger issues and topics, too, such as the importance of loyalty to family and friends or the need to work with people we do not necessarily like in order to overcome larger problems are well presented and woven into the stories so as to guide and teach without preaching to or overburdening the reader with glaring didactic motives.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: YA+
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Action/Adventure, Magic, History, Family/Friendship
1001 Books, Book Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Historical, Isabel Allende, Latin Fiction, Literature, Magical Realism

Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 50

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I finished reading The House of the Spirits approximately 20 hours ago; I have held off on writing a gut-reaction review because I felt this book deserved much, much more.  This is definitely one of the best books I have ever read, and probably the second best this year (after Lust for Life by Irving Stone).  The story spans three generations of Chilean women, grandmother-mother-daughter, but all from their births and onward (so, really, we also get glimpses at a fourth generation – the grandmother’s mother).  Of course, the many other families, friends, foes, and “others” in these women’s lives are also present and one of the great things about Allende’s delivery is that, though the book is about the women, she manages to never make their husbands and lovers or their children feel like “stand-ins” for any portions of the story.  The women are all endowed with certain supernatural gifts – Clara, the mother and beloved wife, is one of the greatest seers and spiritualists of her time. Her daughter, Blanca, is not nearly as gifted as her mother, but she has a certain sensuality and telepathic ability which results in her being sought after by pretty much everyone. Blanca’s daughter (Clara’s granddaughter), Alba, re-inherits, so to speak, the grandmother’s gifts – and it is Alba who eventually tells the long, tangled story of love and politics, history and family, tradition and superstition.  What made this book further fascinating for me was the discovery that its author, Isabel Allende, is the niece of former President of Chile, Salvador Allende.  He was apparently the first democratically elected Marxist in Chile and he was either assassinated or committed suicide.  Historical fact seems to point toward suicide, but Allende’s narrative clearly drives home the point that she, at least, believes the former President to have been assassinated, as the man made a radio speech during a bombing and siege of the Presidential Palace stating that he was democratically elected by the people and would serve until the end.  Suicide, then, within hours of this claim seems unlikely and Allende is clearly claiming that his opposition (which included the Nixon administration), assassinated Allende and made it look like he had killed himself.  The intrigue, the history, the intense sensual and spiritual and political passion – it is almost too much to grasp.  The story of these three women is so engaging and interesting that you almost do not realize that you are learning an incredible amount about the history and people of Chile.  It was not until the end, when the greater political action began to take precedent that I realized Allende had been teaching me so much about a country which I have taken for granted pretty much always.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
I was very worried at first that I would begin to get characters confused, particularly because the main characters were all female and “gifted” in one way or another, and they were related and interacted regularly with the same minor characters throughout the book.  But this was not a problem.  Allende delineates each character quite well, clearly defining and describing each so that it is almost impossible to mistake them.  She also does the same for her minor character, like Clara’s brothers, Blanca’s lover, Pedro Tercero, the phony Count and husband de Satigny, Alba’s lover, Miguel.  Even more crucial than the characters being genuine and identifiable, though, are the way the grow and develop throughout the passage of time.  The prime examples are Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter, Alba, who are the two characters present (physically) for the majority of the story and who close the novel at the end.   We watch Alba grow from a small child to a strong, capable woman.  We watch Trueba visit the del Valle family as an immature, self-conscious youth and ultimately witness him grow into the wealthiest landowner and most staid, powerful Senator in Chile.   The way these characters, all of them, interact with one another – from the poor peasants of the ranch to the doctors, the soldiers, the neighbors, and the ridiculous mystics – is so interesting to watch, so fun to engage in, and so real, despite being largely impossible most of the time (at least the magical side of it).  The strength of characters and their interactions, coupled with their continued growth and development throughout the storyline does wonders in terms of holding up a plot which, in lesser hands, could have reeled off into the realm of fantasy. 

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I will admit to one misgiving I had with the prose.  The novel is mostly written in the third-person omniscient.  This is perfectly fine and acceptable, particularly in a novel which spans so much time and tackles so many themes – historical, political, and social.  What threw me off quite a bit, though, were these brief interruptions throughout the novel where suddenly the reader finds the prose has switched from third-person to first-person narration.  At first, I thought this must be a fluke – a mistake of the translator, maybe.  After it happened time and again, though, I realized it was intentional and I did not understand or enjoy it.  It was a break from the flow of the story.  Then, I got to the end of the book and I realized what was happening, and it was beautiful.  I cannot deny that, as a first time reader, I was disconcerted by the flip-flop in prose but I can argue, now that I am finished with the book, that it was a masterful stroke and that, when I re-read the book (as I surely will someday, maybe many times) these switches in narration will be lovely and bittersweet, and I will probably chuckle slyly about how superior Allende is and always will be to me as a writer. The magical realism element, too, was done extraordinarily – so well, in fact, that I can only compare it to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or perhaps some Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though, if I’m being honest, I enjoyed Allende more).  What makes the magical elements work so well in this book, aside from Allende’s hand being at the palate, is the intensely sad but romantic and passionate, personal story behind the story.  This is the story of a people, an impossible, unbelievable story, told from the memory of one of its characters who survives incomparable, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, simply for loving whom she does and for being the grandchild of a man’s mortal enemy.   The ways that history comes back to haunt us is real and terrifying – the bitter, brutal lengths that people go to in order to avenge themselves for grievances in a past barely memorable is stunning, but true.  Whether we are to believe that the magical side of this child’s ancestors was real or not is hard to say – perhaps we are to accept that it is fact or perhaps we are to infer that these are strengths the storyteller imbued her ancestors with because she had found herself so helpless and vulnerable at one point.  Either way, it works.  It works very well.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

I am still stunned by the amount of political and societal history that Allende packed into this novel.  I had never heard of the Socialist struggle in Chile, and I certainly had no idea that Chile was the first nation in the Americas to elect a Marxist President.  The insight into this history, and its ramifications at home, particularly, but also the glimpses of world involvement (or non-involvement) that the reader gets seems, now, essential.  How could I not know this had happened?  Why did we never learn about these struggles – the people’s oppression and revolution; the extraordinary failure that it was, and the metaphorical beheading that the movement endured after the loss of its leader?  How awful was the military coup that followed and the economic sanctions and embargoes?  The greedy, nasty politics of the world.  What haunts me is how similar much of the history seems to U.S. history; how dangerously close we dance along the precipices of time, poised to fall one way or another at the softest whisper or wind.  The similarities to the Nazi movement in Europe and the McCarthy era of the U.S.A – the blacklisting, the “code” words, the censorship – it is so clear to see, in hindsight, how wrong these events were in history and how seemingly easy it would have been or should have been to prevent or curb the movements; but Allende knows better, and she explains the interwoven fates of us all, the uncontrollable, unavoidable chaos which we are all wrapped up in and which, try as we might, fight as we might, tends to barrel over each and every one of us until it gets its way.   The novel winds its way back towards its beginning, closing with the memory of the scene and the very words which opened the book, and this idea of the worlds circular, perpetual fate is planted firmly, though the story seems to carry off into the vast, three-dimensionality of forever.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Latin-American history, political history, magical realism, family, literature, fiction

Notable Quotes:

“I am beginning to suspect that nothing that happens is fortuitous, that it all corresponds to a fate laid down before my birth….” 

Book Review, Creative Biography, Fiction, Historical, Irving Stone

Review: Lust for Life by Irving Stone


Irving Stone’s Lust for Life is a biographical novelization of the life of Vincent van Gogh. The novel is based on the many letters (approximately 700) written between Vincent van Gogh and his younger brother, Theo. Stone takes author’s creative license and invents dialogue, situations, etc. but many of the characters, places, and events are based on events which really happened and which were described in the brothers’ letters. The novel spans approximately ten years, from the time van Gogh leaves home to become a missionary, to his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Stone appropriately captures van Gogh’s temperament, as well as his passion for art, though never quite having been accepted as an artist in his lifetime, by critics or peers.

The Good:

Where to begin? Essentially, almost any and every aspect of this novel is “good.” The novel is written so well, so fluidly and vividly, that for much of the novel I truly felt like I was watching a movie. The characters – many of them historically familiar- came to life for me, were distinguishable from one another and were eerily true to the impression I had of many of these people (at least the ones I had heard of prior to reading this book). I appreciated especially that Stone recreated such a believable, seamless biography from letters composed between the two van Gogh brothers. It would have been simple to present this in epistolary form, but I think the beauty and connection between the reader and the characters (aka historical figures) is greatly enhanced by being presented in the biographical novel form. Not only was the novel entertaining and beautifully written, but as someone not too familiar with art history and the “schools” or relationships between these artists (Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Pissarro, Seurat, Degas, etc) I was pleased to have been able to learn so much and to appreciate the life and works of these men (and women) without necessarily feeling overwhelmed by all of the new information. I was impressed by the attention paid to each of the major artists and their particular artistic style: Seurat’s scientific/intellectual approach; Gauguin’s love of color; Rousseau’s imagination. I found myself running to my cell phone or laptop many, many times so I could look up examples of the artists’ paintings (sometimes specifically referenced, sometimes particularly styles – like pointillism – mentioned in dialogue) and this greatly enhanced the novel for me, in terms of connectivity and imagery. The minor characters, too, such as the miners, the weavers, the peasants, and van Gogh’s many “women” were also well established – something I found particularly endearing as van Gogh himself spent his greatest energies on representing beauty in the “real” people, and not the typical interpretations of the beautiful. I felt this was one of many ways in which Stone paid homage to the work and character of van Gogh, while telling his life story. I was quite impressed by the author’s desire to remain honest and respectful – Stone presents the reader with the good and bad, the instability and the romance – and he lets the reader make his own judgments (as van Gogh would strive to represent the spirit of the painting, without putting his own moral judgment on the model).

The Bad:

The one singular fault I could find with this novel is that, though I came to understand van Gogh’s life and time quite well, I don’t know that I particularly understand van Gogh much better. I certainly know more about his painting style, his relationships, his general character and family life. I learned much about his devotion to his brother and his respect for his parents. Yet, for instance, when van Gogh begins to go a bit mad (we get the impression this is induced by sun stroke) and that madness ultimately leads to his suicide, I don’t get a clear understanding of the “why?” What was really going on with van Gogh? He would have his episodes every three months, like clockwork, but does any real ailment actually happen like that? It seems, almost, that these episodes/fits were self-induced, but this is something the author does not hypothesize about – possibly because he means to speak strictly from the van Gogh letters and not put any of his own interpretations of the situation into the work. Still, I would have appreciated a better understanding of why, for instance, van Gogh was so disturbing to women – he had no wealth, no real income, and a boisterous character, certainly, but that the only woman he could claim as a wife (in name, not legality) was a prostitute, and even she left him – this seems, too, to say something about van Gogh’s personality that is conspicuously absent from the novel. Vincent van Gogh also had no real friends – many people are said to be frightened of him, even. I am left with the impression that van Gogh’s temperament may have been unstable for much of his life, but only became more pronounced in his later years – the inability to stay in one place, to go into passions over an idea (such as the artist’s commune) and then suddenly, without warning or reason, drop and dismiss the passions entirely. The sun stroke and the isolation in Arles perhaps further subjected van Gogh to his own mental instability. It is interesting that in Arles and St. Remy, where he begins to lose his wits (and is committed to an insane asylum), is also where he paints his acclaimed masterpieces: “The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum”, the “Sunflowers” series, and “Starry Night Over the Rhone.” It’s almost as if van Gogh needed to work himself to mental exhaustion, to starve his body and rack his mind to its limits in order to create his very best work. While some of these episodes are well written, and the decline is indicated clearly and orderly, I still found the reasoning, the underlying cause, missing.

Final Verdict: 4.5/5.0
Upon reflection and review, I find Lust for Life to be an almost perfect novel. It is well-written. It is, as far as I can tell, honest to history and the historical figures it represents. Stone does a masterful and delicate job of re-telling the life story of one of history’s greatest and most well-known artists. Though I would have appreciated more time having been spent on van Gogh’s mental decline, I did find the decline easy to follow and to witness. Some other elements, like van Gogh’s infamous alcoholism and “smoker’s cough” were left out (there was plenty of drinking – but a “problem” was not implied) which, perhaps, Stone did not find necessary, but I believe it detracts from some of the underlying problems (does a sober man really cut off his ear?). Still, though, the language, the relevance, the relationships, the characterization and emotion are all brilliant. Stone even makes an effort to present his characters in the manner which van Gogh would paint his own models and landscapes, an ingenious and, I’m sure, incredibly difficult task to accomplish. This has been one of the best pieces of biographical fiction I’ve ever read, and even one of the best novels I’ve enjoyed in my rather large reading history. I eagerly await the chance to read Stone’s “masterpiece,” The Agony and the Ecstasy which is another biographical novel, this one about Michelangelo.