Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

As if I didn't have a ton of books to read already, I accepted a challenge to read and review this philosophical fiction from my good friend Sergio (he does comics, you should check his site out HERE). In any case, I don't really regret taking this challenge, because The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a fantastic, insightful book that really makes you think. Kundera takes what could have been a standard love story between a man and his wife, and between that man's mistress and another of her lovers, and integrates theories and philosophies regarding the human psyche and the irrevocable decisions we all make in daily life. I fully enjoyed it, and it gets 4 out of 5 stars here on my blog.

From the publisher:
A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover -- these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel.

Controlled by day, Tereza's jealousy awakens by night, transformed into ineffably sad death-dreams, while Tomas, a successful surgeon, alternates loving devotion to the dependent Tereza with the ardent pursuit of other women. Sabina, an independent, free-spirited artist, lives her life as a series of betrayals -- of parents, husband, country, love itself -- whereas her lover, the intellectual Franz, loses all because of his earnest goodness and fidelity.

In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence we feel, says the novelist, "the unbearable lightness of being" -- not only as the consequence of our private acts but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

This magnificent novel encompasses the extremes of comedy and tragedy, and embraces, it seems, all aspects of human existence. It juxtaposes geographically distant places (Prague, Geneva, Paris, Thailand, the United States, a forlorn Bohemian village); brilliant and playful reflections (on "eternal return," on kitsch, on man and animals -- Tomas and Tereza have a beloved dog named Karenin); and a variety of styles (from the farcical to the elegiac) to take its place as perhaps the major achievement of one of the world's truly great writers.

My thoughts:
At first, I wasn't sure which way this story was going to go. Who was I going to relate to the most, and why? Should I feel bad for Tereza, who was knowingly staying with a womanizer? Or for Franz, who spent his life still living under the influence of his mistress? Nah, I didn't feel bad for any of them because the decisions they made influenced the person they became, and further influenced other decisions they made. The human life only occurs once, complicating our decision making process. How do we know if the decision we've made is the right one in a given situation, considered we only have one life, and therefore no previous knowledge in that situation to base our decision on? What if we make the wrong decision? (This is particularly poignant to me, as I can never make up my mind and am always thinking about the decisions I've made and what would have happened if I had chosen differently). We don't have another life in which to rectify this and make a different choice. Oh, and I have plenty of quotes from the book to reference in this review!

- We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.

- Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

Because life only occurs once, does this make our lives more or less meaningful? Is my life valuable because it only happens once, or is it less valuable because once it happens, it's done and that's it? After reading the book, and discussing with Sergio (let's admit it, he's a modest genius), I've come to the conclusion that life has meaning if somebody is around to experience it and for which it holds meaning. A life is finite, and if when somebody passes on there is nothing left of him, or nobody left for whom his life held meaning, then the meaning of that life ceases to be. This is why people are so set on leaving a legacy, be it children, music, art, and so on. "Something that is experienced timelessly to many escapes this meaninglessness" as Sergio put it. This also helps explain religion, the need for an omniscient and omnipresent being to watch over the human race and therefore give our lives meaning (again, the idea being that our lives have meaning so long as they are perceived by someone or something else).

I think this line of philosophy was the most prevalent in this book, although there were plenty of other theories and insightful views throughout. I honestly didn't follow the entire idea of kitsch: "... that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch... kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." This definition from the book seems to make sense, but I wasn't following Kundera's use of the concept in the latter third of the book. Maybe I need to reread it, or see some discussion in the comments on here ;)

Kundera does a fantastic job blending philosophy and history into The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and makes this story fun and easy to read as well as interesting and insightful. I'll leave with you with a  few other quotes that I liked, and hopefully get a few of you to pick up this novel as well :)

- Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

- Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. (Must it be? Yes, it must be).

- Es konnte auch anders sein. (It could just as well be otherwise).

- Only the most naïve of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answers is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.

- What is unique about the 'I' hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, what must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered.

- We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions- love, antipathy, charity, or malice- and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

- Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals.

- And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.

Don't forget, leave comments about your own thoughts on my review, these quotes, and the book if you've read it. Happy reading!
- Justin

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Hunters by Heidi Angell

It is so refreshing to see a vampire book that actually involves vampires, not shiny creatures that don't kill humans. The Hunters was an interesting look at the world of vampire hunters, and the challenges faced by a young group as they hunt the vampires that were their friends and neighbors before being turned. I enjoyed this story, and felt like it was well written and worthy of a 4 out of 5 star review, although I did have an issue or two with it as well.

From the publisher:
What would you do if you found your town had been infested with vampires? For Chris and his brother Lucas, the answer was simple enough: you fight back. Gathering a small band of other people in their town who have been affected by the vampires, they begin a resistance. But after a year of fighting, they have only managed to kill a handful, while the vampire leader has turned five times that many.

Then two enigmatic strangers appear, changing the groups lives even further.

Fury and Havoc. They call themselves hunters, and want no part in this little band of heroes. Ordering them to lay low, the duo vow to rid their town of vampires. When Fury is injured, Chris aides these strangers, entwining his future with theirs.

Now that the vampires know the hunters are here, and that Chris and his friends have helped them, the group is in more danger than ever before. Lucas is torn between protecting his new family from the vampires, and protecting them from these seemingly inhuman beings who say they are there to help.

After all, what beings could be so powerful as to scare a vampire?

My thoughts:
Chris and Lucas were just two young brothers who, after a vampire infestation in their neighborhood, bands together with a jumbled assortment of others who had been victimized and affected by the monsters. These people have been through a lot, Lana even having to handle her own father becoming a vampire. They are tough and resilient, and it was great watching them fight to defend their town against the relatively unknown. It's easy to feel the protective urges of Lucas over his younger brother, or Chris' need to prove himself and actually do something instead of just talk and plan. You can't read this story without feeling sympathy for these characters, having to fight something they know so little about, and having to fight against people they used to know and speak with. Family, friends, the mailman, they could all be vampires now that you have to fight and kill, or be killed yourself. That can't be an easy thing to go through.

One of my favorite lines from The Hunters comes after Fury and Havoc are brought to the sanctuary by Chris, and Lucas is fighting to have them kicked out. Doc, who he believed would understand and back him up, agreed with the rest of the group that the two strangers should be allowed to stay as a source of knowledge and assistance. The betrayal Lucas felt "was akin to that of Caesar and Brutus..." and as someone who loves Roman history and mythology and stories, I was pretty excited to see this comparison.

One thing I wasn't completely sold on was the necessity of sex scenes in this book. The Hunters is about a group of vampire hunters taking a stand against the plague that's overcome their town, so why are we treated to a barn romp between Fury and Havoc, which Chris watches? I feel like while the later dialogue between Chris and Carissa makes sense, given that any of them could die that night (so why not give it up for the afternoon?), the barn scene almost served as filler. Maybe you could fill me in a little bit Heidi? Why show that side of Fury and Havoc?

All in all I had a great time reading this, and hope the author decides to write a sequel, or at least another story about Fury and Havoc because I would love to learn a little bit more about who they are and where they came from. And of course, I'd like to know what becomes of the ragtag group of vampire hunters, whether the town is truly scourged and what they do in the aftermath of the final battle in The Hunters :)

- Justin