Month: November 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Date of Publication: 1928 (my edition, 1982 Ballantine Books)

Number of Pages: 296

Synopsis (from back cover): This is the testament of Paul Bäumer, who enlists with his classmates in the German army of World War I. These young men become enthusiastic soldiers, but their world of duty, culture, and progress breaks into pieces under the first bombardment in the trenches.

Through years of vivid horror, Paul holds fast to a single vow: to fight against the hatred and meaninglessly pits young men of the same generation but different uniforms against one another…if only he can come out of the war alive.

Review: This has been called the greatest war novel of all time, and it certainly deserves this praise. Not only does the author accurately portray the experience of a soldier during World War I (Remarque himself served in the German army during the war), but he delves deeply into the emotional toll of war that is universal to all soldiers: the loss of hope, the feeling of foreignness at home, and the joy of companionship with your comrades. Paul and his fellow soldiers quickly become accustomed to the horrors of war, and even going home seems to be no longer an option. The story remains relevant today, as thousands of our troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will remain so as long as there is still war.

Rating: 9/10

Germinal by Émile Zola

Date of Publication: 1885 (my edition, 1998 Oxford World’s Classics)

Number of Pages: 524

Synopsis (from back cover): Zola’s masterpiece of working life, Germinal (1885), exposes the inhuman conditions of French miners in the 1860s. The central figure, Étienne Lantier, is an outsider who enters the community and eventually leads his fellow-miners in a strike against pay-cuts which becomes a losing battle against starvation, repression, and sabotage. Yet despite the violence and disillusion which rock the mining community to its foundations, Lantier retains his belief in the ultimate germination of a new society, leading to a better world.

Germinal is a dramatic novel of working life, sexual desire, and everyday relationships, but it is also a complex novel of ideas, given fresh vigour and power in this new translation.

Review: For those who don’t know, Germinal is the month of April on the Revolutionary calendar, instituted in France in the late eighteenth century. The idea of germination, the springing forth of new life, pervades the entire story, and it is rich with symbolism throughout. Étienne, a newcomer who quickly becomes the leader of the workers’ rebellion, literally plants the seeds of socialism and the promise of a new world order in the minds of these otherwise simple miners. But throughout the book, the lives of the miners remain bleak, going from simply struggling to make each day’s soup and constantly running out of coffee, to simply dying from starvation during the strike, which lasts for more than two months.

But in spite of their poverty and general misery, the miners still enjoy a level of freedom that the bourgeoisie, whole live a life of idleness and ignorance among their workers, do not. They are free to openly engage in sexual activities, which is something that is absolutely forbidden to the upper classes. Even the manager of the mine, M. Hennebeau, as he looks out his window at the swarm of strikers, envies them for their emotional freedom, his own marriage being nothing more than a loveless sham.

There are events in the book that will shock the uninformed reader. The miners regularly beat their wives and children, and the mothers look on their children as little more than wage-earners in some respects. A reader must place himself in the period and environment in which this story takes place. These mining families are holding on with both hands, and struggle everyday just to simply survive. So it’s no wonder that when a child’s legs are crushed in a tragic mining accident, his mother laments the loss of his income more than his injuries and pain. In the end, this book simply shows that the will to survive, and to achieve a just world, can conquer anything.

Rating: 10/10

Booking Through Thursday: Conditioning

Are you a spine breaker? Or a dog-earer? Do you expect to keep your books in pristine condition even after you have read them? Does watching other readers bend the cover all the way round make you flinch or squeal in pain?

My answer: I am definitely NOT a dog-earer! I used to be, when I was young, but I quickly grew dissatisfied with the condition of my books. I always use bookmarks, even on cheap paperbacks. I do tend to break the spines of my books a little bit. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making your book look as though it’s been read. When I look at a book that I’ve read many times, with multiple spine breaks, it reminds me of how much I enjoyed it.

Covers are a different thing, though. I try, though I don’t always succeed, to keep my covers in perfect shape. When a cover gets torn, cracked, or badly bent, it drives me insane! I don’t just like to read my books…I like to look at them!