Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

Review: I started reading this for a book club, but I couldn’t help finishing it earlier than we were supposed to. I was surprised at how engrossed I was with Jane Eyre’s story – I expected a decent, but unsurprising romance, and instead found a compelling tale that kept me interested to the end.

Charlotte Brontë’s writing is very limpid and clear, and her storytelling is simple and effective. The story itself benefited from the characters, which were well explored and mostly realistic – I particularly liked Mr. Rochester. All in all, I liked this book, but didn’t love it. I can appreciate it as a classic and see why it’s become one, though.

Highly recommended!

Nome de Guerra by José de Almada Negreiros

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Review: This is a novel that chronicles the journey of a country man, Antunes, from a wealthy family, when he is taken to Lisbon at the bidding of his uncle, a powerful man in their village, so he can be initiated in “being a man”. D. Jorge, his uncle’s friend who has the task of taking him into a nightclub and thrust him into the arms of a woman, sees his hopes thwarted after watching Antunes do nothing when with a naked woman in his arms, and gives up on him. However, this episode sets into motion a transformation in Antunes’ life, as he decides to go after the woman, “war name” Judite, that circumstances had forced into his life.

I liked the writing and the story, the insights that were interwoven into the narrative, and the evocative descriptions. However, I had the same problem which I seem to have with every Portuguese classic I read: they always seem to focus on protagonists who don’t really have anything bad going on, and yet they can’t see their life as anything other than meaningless, and just have to contemplate the futility of it all in near inaction, hoping that in the end they will find themselves.

Annoying characters notwithstanding, there was a hint of redemption and true growth here, and overall, I liked the book.

Húmus by Raul Brandão

Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Review: “Húmus” is a monologue / diary about the emptiness of life, the misery of the human condition, and the grotesqueness of the hidden lives everyone leads.

This was the first book I read by Portuguese writer Raul Brandão. As a classic, it would have benefited from some kind of introduction or background – as it was, without a context, I had a harder time getting into it.

It was very well written, with a few beautiful passages, but I found it rather repetitive and self-pitying. Not really my cup of tea.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Background: An undeniable classic and a must-read. I actually started reading the Portuguese translation of this book a long time ago, but it mysteriously disappeared when I was about midway – it’s been years and I still have never seen it again. I don’t mind – actually I think it’s funny that it happened to this book in particular! When I saw the Anniversary Edition from Penguin (which has a truly amazing cover) I decided to buy it.

Review: This is a book that has had such an impact on culture that hardly anyone, even those who have never read the book, hasn’t heard about the concept of Big Brother (who is always watching). “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is a dystopian novel which follows the story of one individual, Winston Smith, who lives in Oceania, one of the three remaining super-powers in the world. Oceania lives in a constant state of war, and their inhabitants disappear behind the needs of the Party, the ruling collective mind of those in power.

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, which concerns itself with changing the past according to what the Party needs. Every historical document ever made is constantly being reinvented and adapted to the present, so that contradictions never exist. Human memories are all but obliterated, and the truth becomes what the collective mind can remember. However, Smith, born before the Party rose to power, is sure he can remember a time when things were totally different.

The book goes much deeper than just presenting the story. In fact, it felt more like an exercise, or study, if you will, on the organization of society, the economic and social needs for the war, the viewing of power as an end (as opposed to being a means to an end), the controlling of people until they are only a shadow of what we would consider human. In this world there is no privacy, there is no individual – the people are described as being cells in the body of the Party, inconsequential and unimportant by themselves, unless in relation to the whole. Every effort made is towards the advancement of the control the Party has over everyone, but at the same time that control must be unconscious. The contradictions are solved by applying doublethink – the power to accept two contradictory facts as simultaneously true.

Like any well-made dystopia, this is a chilling book that successfully explores the extremes to which a totalitarian, completely controlled regime could go, and the ugly consequences of the quest for power. Recommended for everyone.

What’s Next: I’m interested in reading more dystopias, and have already added some to my wish list. I think they’re a great way to study human behaviour and society.

Next on my reading list is maybe a graphic novel or some fiction… Since I now have around 50 books in my shelf it’s getting kinda hard to decide what to read next!

Decline of the English Murder by George Orwell

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Background: Anything with George Orwell as an author is something that interests me, specially if it comes in the form of a charming little Penguin book. Seriously, if for nothing else, these books are worth checking out by their cover designs alone!

This book, like Books v. Cigarettes, is a collection of short essays written by Orwell. While the other one focused more on reading habits and childhood, this one deals mostly with popular English cultures, with the addition of a couple of amusing essays documenting Orwell’s insider investigations.

The essay on popular fascination with crime stories in newspapers (which gives the book its title) was a great read, and so were the investigations (seriously – the author tried really hard to get arrested so he could see what it was like to be in prison, and it’s funny how he complains that he couldn’t stay in prison for longer than two days!). But the essays on weeklies, as well as the one on illustrated postcards, while interesting, seemed far too long and drawn-out, in my opinion.

All in all, a nice read if you like Orwell, though I would recommend you start by reading Books v. Cigarettes.

What’s Next: Penguin’s anniversary edition of 1984 is waiting for me on my to-read pile.

So, I admit. I’m addicted to Penguin’s Great Ideas series. I just can’t seem to pick up anything else if there’s one of these in my to-read pile. They look so small and attractive… Of course, I always end up spending a lot more time reading them than I expected, since they’re usually not fiction. Speaking of fiction, maybe that’s what I’ll read next. Stay tuned.

Of the Abuse of Words by John Locke

Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Background: I am a fan of the Penguin – Great Ideas series of books, so when I saw this book for sale I thought it would be a great opportunity to further my knowledge of philosophy, since I knew John Locke and his writings only on a very general level.

Review: As you can probably tell by the title, this is mainly a book about epistemology and etymology. He starts by exploring the way ideas are formed by the human mind, and explains how some types of ideas are more liable to error than others. He explains what it means for an idea to be “adequate” or not, on the basis that words will always be liable to mistakes if the ideas they are trying to convey aren’t clear. He goes on to explore language itself, and how it is prone to mistakes (and, eventually, to “disputes”) because men usually believe words to be the thing that they supposedly stand for. Since we mostly learn words before learning about ideas, most of the definitions we have will not be exactly the same everyone else has, and we will be using the same words to signify different things.

The book is interesting but, I must admit, I found it a bit hard to get into, mainly because of the language – some words, specially prepositions, seem to have changed somewhat, which confused me a bit. Also, the sentences are unusually long. I suspect this might not be as big a problem for English native speakers as it was for me (I’m fluent in English and quite used to reading in this language, but it’s still not my primary language). If I had read this in Portuguese it would probably have been an easier read.

If you’re interested in philosophy and language than this is definitely an important book to read. Just keep in mind it’s not an easy one.

What’s Next: I have a few others from this collection, though not from a philosopher. It’s a really good-looking collection too (the covers are gorgeous) so I will most definitely keep getting them when I have the chance.

Next on my reading list is On Writing by Stephen King. I’ll probably have to read some easy fiction too to counter the effects of reading this one for a month…

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Rating: ***** (5 out of 5)

Background: This is one of those books that have become such an integral part of culture that you just have to read them if you call yourself a book lover. At least I’ve always felt like that, and it’s been on my wishlist for quite some time, so I was very happy when I came across this charming little edition from Penguin.

George Orwell initially named this “Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale”, but the second part of the title has been largely dropped, something that I found quite interesting. It reminded me more of Aesop’s fables than of any fairy tales I’ve come across. The introduction to this edition, written by Peter Davison, was short but very informative. I was particularly amused to read about some of the initial reactions from publishing houses to the book. Can you believe it was once rejected on the grounds that there was no market for children’s books? I wonder what it felt like for Orwell to hear things like this – I hope he felt at least some amusement, but it does show some of the sad ignorance (even from apparently literate people) that we encounter eventually in the book.

The story begins when the animals of Manor farm, owned by an incompetent farmer named Mr. Jones, decide that they had enough of being mistreated and subjected to the whims of the evil humans, who did no work but took all the fruits of the animals’ labour to themselves. Old Major, a pig, gathers the animals and gives them a vision of a better future, of a society ruled by animals, where there were no humans to answer to and every animal was treated equally. They succeed quite rapidly at overthrowing Mr. Jones, and the guidance of the farm is taken over by the pigs, the most literate and intelligent of the animals. Two of the pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, quickly come into disagreement with one another over many things – Snowball keeping true to their vision of equality of rights among animals (to which they gave the name of Animalism), putting his brain to work to figure out ways of making their lives easier and better, while Napoleon works secretly to overthrow him and seize control of the animals and the farm.

For anyone with a basic knowledge of recent history, it’s very easy to read this as an allegory for the Soviet Union. Old Major might be a representation of Karl Marx (this is what I originally thought – but I’ve read some people argue that he might just be a representation of the socialist ideals, which I guess makes sense as well), Napoleon represents Stalin, slowly corrupting the ideals, twisting them to fit his own agenda, all the while taking advantage of the ignorance and illiteracy of the other animals to convince them, by the use of propaganda (here represented by the pig Squealer) that all these changes were for the animals’ benefit. While I read this I thought of Snowball being a representative for Trotsky, who was deported from the Soviet Union for opposing Stalin – in the story, he is chased out of the farm by Napoleon’s dogs, whom he had trained since puppies to serve as bodyguards and law enforcers.

The story unfolds as little by little the initial dream of an ideal society where everyone is a comrade and an equal to everyone else is corrupted cunningly by the desire of a few to get power for themselves. The fact that one knows how it’s going to end (since the story is very well-known, and almost everyone knows at least a bit about the USSR and Stalin) does nothing to diminish the power of the story. At times it’s painful to see how easily most of the animals were deceived, and it’s all too obvious that this happens all the time with humans.

And that is the true moral of the story. It’s not a book against Socialism. To me, it’s more like a mirror to society, with anthropophormized animals in the place of actual humans or groups of humans (hence my initial opinion of classifying this as fable). Some individuals corrupt ideals to fit their own agenda, but they can only do this if the “masses” are easily deceived – either because they’re too ignorant, because they don’t care, because they’re scared or because they no longer remember clearly what things were like in the past. Look at any dictatorship and you will find these things in common.

Overall, I thought this was a brilliant work. I’m very happy to finally have read it, and recommend it to everyone.

What’s Next: I’ve already bought Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I had already started reading a Portuguese translation, but the book mysteriously disappeared about midway (and really, what better book for that to happen than this one? Talk about coincidence!) and I ended up buying this much better looking edition in English. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Next up I think I may read one of the many graphic novels I have laying around, and start going through the various art /photography books I ordered a while ago. It’s been a while since I read anything art-related that wasn’t in blog form, so keep your eyes peeled for that!