Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

“Thou art god, I am god. All that groks is god.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 448 pages.
Read from April 17, 2018 to May 7, 2018.

I have to say the cover of this book is my all time favourite, the 1986 edition that is, and the one I have featured here. I have been drawn to this book long before I even know about this classic or the author or even science fiction as I remember seeing this cover when I was a kid and it left an impression.

Did you know? The artist that created the 1987 cover that I love so much was created by Andy Warhol’s brother, James Warhola

stranger
Such striking artwork.

This novel was originally published in 1961 and made waves with its literary, yet firmly science fiction, plot. The eventual promiscuity of the characters I am sure also helped with the interest in this book as well as things did get pretty sexy at times but free love is just one of the delicate topics that are breached in this story.

Valentine Michael Smith is a Martian. Or rather, he was born on Mars but is actually a human. After an expedition from Earth to Mars, the Martians ordered Valentine, who was a bit of an outcast, to go back to Earth with the astronauts.  After recovering in a hospital to adjust to the atmosphere of Earth, Valentine meets a nurse called Gillan who helps him escape the Earthly politics that he has yet to understand. Gillan enlists the help of Jubal, who is a wealthy man of many intellectual qualities that has a harem of women that he keeps around to serve him. Jubal ensures that the US government cannot claim anything on Valentine or on Mars while also taking the time to learn about Valentine and teach him what he can about Earth.  Valentine, despite being with his own kind, knows nothing about the cultural ways of humans and through his journey to understand, or grok, he also teaches his friends or water brothers what it means to be Martian which, offers amazing internal insight, knowledge and powers that humans did not even know they were capable of.  Valentine comes to understand humans so well that he even founds his own religion in order to teach those who are wanting to know his ways.

Throughout Valentine’s story, the author intensely reevaluates major institutions and taboos like religion, money, monogamy, the fear of death and even cannibalism. There are sections that are highly philosophical but they also occasionally derail the main intrigue of the plot making for some very dull moments. The philosophy itself is interesting, but as a reader, you feel as if you are no longer reading a science fiction novel but rather a piece of academia and it can be jarring. The political nuances were particularly boring and just about put me off the book. Some of the sections involving free love are quite sexy and liberating but in general, the author was still a man of his time as there are some highly misogynist sections. Here are two such examples,

“No, you’re really bright, for a female.”

“Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped it’s partly her fault.”

While the misogyny is forgivable due to the timeframe the book was written in, it doesn’t make it any less annoying when you are reading it as a modern woman.

Valentine’s character is superbly executed and watching him grok his new world is a unique experience that not many authors could not have pulled off.  I enjoyed portions of this book and the ending but in general, I felt bogged down with sidetracked details and characters that added little to the main plot.  Did I grok this book in fullness?  As Valentine would say, perhaps not, but I have no regrets in finally picking up the novel whose cover art fascinated me so long ago.

The Return by Joseph Conrad

There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 75 pages.
Read on April 6, 2018.

The the last time I read Conrad I was in high school devouring Heart of Darkness, a book I should really put on my reread list. I was sauntering through the library looking for a short read to help me catch up on my reading goal when I came across this short novella.  Unlike the adventures in the Congo in Heart of Darkness this story focuses on the deeply psychological nuances of marriage.

Did you know?
Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and English was not his native tongue. He did not speak it fluently until his twenties. There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

It was a normal day for Alvan Hervey and as he arrived home from work he was expecting to find his wife at home, instead, he left with a letter. The letter explains that wife has left home for another man. Alvan is beyond surprised with this shocking betrayal and he starts in a downward spiral and examination of his relationship in which it becomes clear that Alvan is more concerned with appearances and what sort of shame this event will bring him.  As his frantic thoughts race, his wife interestingly returns home. She has come to tell Alvan that she has made a mistake and that her affair was never consummated. Alvan’s wife is distant and her return appears reluctant and more out of a sense of duty than anything.

“You are deceiving yourself. You never loved me. You wanted a wife – some woman – any woman that would think, speak and behave in a certain way – in a way that you approved. You loved yourself.”

The story is emotionally and psychologically driven and anyone that has ever been in an intense argument with their partner or spouse can appreciate the terse environment that is created in this extremely personal setting. This book was published in 1897 and would have offered a rare insight into the very private lives of people at the time.

By the time the novel ends, Alvan’s revelations and jealousy reaches a new height,

“Can you stand it?” and glared as if insane. Her eyes blazed, too. She could not hear the appalling clamour of his thoughts. She suspected in him a sudden regret, a fresh fit of jealousy, a dishonest desire of evasion. She shouted back angrily–

“Yes!”

He was shaken where he stood as if by a struggle to break out of invisible bonds. She trembled from head to foot.

“Well, I can’t!” He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away, and strode from the room.”

Alvan can’t cope with his own failings and revelations that there is no going back from this point in his marriage. The wife, while she has returned, has expressed her deepest needs that she feels were not being met and pointed out some harmful and hurtful truths that Alvan is having trouble digesting.

The story shows both sides of the conflict equally, the reader all seeing insight into the couple’s troubles. By the end, the reader appreciates the choices made by either side of the conflict. If only we had that kind of insight into our relationship disputes, hey?

This book is a good quick read and introduction to Conrad if you have not read him before. If you are looking for another good reason to read this book, you can also read it online for free!

No One Writes to the Colonel Anymore by Gabriel García Márquez

“The only thing that comes for sure is death, colonel”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 170 pages.
Read from January 16, 2018 to January 19, 2018.

Márquez has been on my TBR list for way too long. This novel was a gift and a perfect way to start reading this phenomenal author. Márquez won the Nobel prize for literature in 1982 and has been praised as one of “the most significant authors of the 20th century“.

An elderly and unnamed colonel and his wife live in a small village in Columbia during the 1970s. Columbia is in the midst of a civil war that spans nearly a decade and is called the “La Violencia Era” and the country is being governed by martial law as result. The novel opens with the colonel attending the funeral of an older man who has died of natural causes, an event that has not happened in a while, making the funeral a somewhat happier and noteworthy event. The colonel spends his days waiting for his pension that he earned during his service in the military. Each day he checks with the postman to see if it has arrived but to no avail, with the country in upheaval, pensions are not a top priority.

Unfortunately, as he and his wife are elderly, they need that money in order to survive as their funds are slowly dwindling. His wife begins to sell their prized possessions to make ends meet and to make matters worse for the couple, their son is believed to be dead as a result of the current war. The colonel has been taking care of his son’s fighting rooster as there is a fight scheduled in the near future. The wife wants the colonel to sell the rooster but the colonel cannot part with it. He claims it is because there is a lot of people who have bet money on the upcoming fight and that they might make some money if the rooster wins but, in reality, the colonel has not given up hope that his son will return.

The story of the colonel is a mix of tragedy and the awful realities of war but ultimately it is about hope. The colonel has lost his purpose in life but has not given up hope that things will turn around. He has to, as hope is all he has left.  The rooster becomes the colonel’s metaphor and symbol of his hope. Even at the end when he and wife have next to nothing he still insists on feeding and caring for the rooster, much to his wife’s dismay.

Márquez has a distinct, brusque and masculine style of writing that lends itself well to the emotional subtleties of his characters and the bitterness of a setting stricken with the pains of war and poverty. Indeed, Márquez’s prose is gorgeous, even in translation.  If you are not paying attention to this carefully worded story, however, you may misplace or not understand the colonel’s attachment to the rooster and thereby not see or enjoy the beautiful pinnacle of this story.

This book is a quick read and seems like a good place to start if you have not read anything by Márquez, as some of his works, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, are quite lengthy.  One Hundred Years of Solitude will be my next read by Márquez as this short novel has given me a desire to read more of Márquez’s outstanding writing style.