Friday, August 22, 2014

Kindle Countdown - Poetry

My poetry collection, The Silence Before Dawn remains in the Kindle Select program, so I decided to do the Kindle Countdown deal they offer. Starting on August 31, the books will be on sale for $0.99 and the price will increase in equal increments over the following seven days.

 Of course, it is free any time on the Kindle Unlimited program.

The Balzac Project - Harlot High and Low

Note: My edition from 1899 has this book titled Harlot's Progress. Later, the title was changed to Harlot High and Low.

A Harlot High and LowA Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why should anyone care about Esther, a prostitute from a young age, a harlot with powers over men? Why should anyone care about a spoiled feeble individual such as Lucien, the poet whose ambitions are to secure a noble title and live in luxury for the rest of his life? The same Lucien who, by the way, in Lost Illusions ruined his sister and her husband, the only man that cared for him. Why?

Because of Balzac.

Yes, it is all Balzac's fault.

This unbelievable author has taken over most of my reading time for the past several months, and I do not see the end of this 'binge' arriving anytime soon.

Balzac wrote in a style like no other. His descriptions are vivid, his metaphors exquisite, and his understanding of humanity alarming. And this is precisely why I enjoy his writing.

It is as if one was reading two works at once: One, a social commentary on the high society of Paris. The other, a psychological study of the characters. And what characters those are. It's been said that throughout his work, about three thousand characters circulate within his novels. Some appear more frequently than others do; yet they are never the same. Depending on the narrator, they are all depicted as the narrator sees them, which, is a unique approach. But I had already made this observation in my previous reviews of his other works, so I shall not bore you with the details.

Balzac created faulty characters that often cross social boundaries and norms, while, on the surface, they hold on to strict moral codes of the time. His men are often cold and removed, his women often passionate beyond reason. Yet, they all wear the masks society expects of them, and appear untouched by the events around them. Deep inside, however, they love and hate, cherish and condemn, and often sell their souls to maintain the facade of perception.

One cannot help but sympathize with them, whether they are likeable or not, because Balzac masterfully shows both sides of their personalities. Even in the case of the original villain, Jacques Collin, Balzac creates a softer side to the man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.

After reading this book, I am still amazed at how well it ties together with the books I read earlier, and how everything becomes full circle. Of course, a new circle begins, spun off the threads of the original circle, but Balzac does not leave the reader hanging with a cheap plot line to spur the reader's curiosity. Each novel has its own end, its own closure. Yet, a few books later, a character reappears, enters the scene, and proves the reader wrong all along. And for this, I adore his writing.

So what is this book about? Well, it is about Lucien, the poet; Esther the prostitute; and a villain who has a soft spot for the former whom he wants to see rise in society while using the latter to secure it. Throw in a few counts and countesses, a greedy banker, politicians who care more about their future than justice, spies, the secret police, some forged bills, drugs, poison, murder, kidnapping, mistresses and lovers, gambling, and a love one would die for, and you have it. Oh yes, don't forget the powerful social commentary that Balzac did so well.

It's a complicated yet rewarding read. Technically, Harlot High and Low finishes the tale started in Lost Illusions, as well as the tale in Distinguished Provincial in Paris, the tale in Father Goriot, and the tale in M. Gobsec. It also brings in characters from other novels that are not directly tied to any of the above mentioned. Nevertheless, if my previous reads have taught me anything, it is to expect the unexpected, so I'm fairly certain that the tale spun here will continue elsewhere.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Flight into Egypt - a review

Flight Into EgyptFlight Into Egypt by Timothy C. Ely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Flight into Egypt is the first artist's book I've seen. The concept of a book without words, where the images themselves are the storyline, the plot, the drama, the protagonists . . . is completely new to me.

I must admit that, until recently, I had no idea books like this existed.

I 'read' or rather viewed this book about ten times today. The first viewing was a mere cursory glance, whereas the subsequent viewing were concentrated efforts to absorb images, symbols, and, in a sense, discover their meanings. The last viewing was a casual leafing through the pages with an unfocused eye, seeing where the mind will focus.

Each viewing evoke different emotions, but the casual, unfocused one was, by far, the most rewarding.

I mean, the focused reader will surely appreciate the quality of the images, the complexity of the symbols, and the variety of directions taken by the artist. The unfocused reader, however, will perceive a journey - a story told by the images where the mind writes the words the eye cannot see.

It is a book I will revisit often.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Balzac Project - Lost Illusions

Lost Illusions (La Comédie Humaine)Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Balzac's Lost Illusions is a massive literary undertaking, and an attempt to delve deep into the world of humanity with all its great deeds and basest desires. Yet, taking the entire volume of Balzac's Human Comedy into perspective, Lost Illusions is nothing but a small piece of the enormous mosaic this author created in the short span of a decade.

Like with all his works I read to date, Lost Illusions offers its readers spectacular writing, well developed characters, just enough but not too much backstory, and a purely human conflict with multitude of players affecting the final outcome.

While most of the works in the Human Comedy take place in Paris, Lost illusions offers a glimpse of the life in the countryside; nevertheless, the ambitions there are not much different, the nobles are just as bad (if not worse) than their Parisian counterparts, and the long-reaching allure of the Parisian society finds a fertile ground amidst the country nobles.

The story opens quite simply with an old man, a printing press, and a child in the beautiful French countryside. The child goes to study the art of printing in Paris, the father sees him as his successor, and there is the making of a bright future, of growing business, of independence, and a happy life.

Readers familiar only with contemporary genre works will likely expect a happy-ever-after, and probably wonder why there are five hundred pages yet to be read in the book. Ha, they do not know Balzac.

In a few pages, the printing press turns out to be an aging building with antiquated technology, the father shows his darker side and his avarice, and the son, while educated and humble, lacks any balls whatsoever.

As the pages turn, more and more characters make their appearance, some nice, some mean, and some downright ugly. The list of main players quickly grows to more than a few, and the plot thickens.

Without disclosing any of the plot (and there are several plots running at once), I must bow and show my respect to M. Balzac. Lost Illusions is one heck of a novel, and one heck of a study of humanity, at its best and at its worst. Balzac, as expected, throws some unexpected punches, stirs some unforeseen troubles, and lets you get down to the muck and get dirty while you are at it. He knows humanity, he knows what makes us tick, and he knows how to shine the light from just the right angle.

Bravo, sir!

That being said . . . there are those who connect with Lucien and disregard David. I could not. Lucien is his own character, and yes, he plays a large part in this story. David, however, David is the story. I can relate to David better than I can relate to any character in this work.

I'm still a bot torn between Pere Goriot and Lost Illusions. If I had to make a choice, I would not know which one I liked better. The two works are very different, and yet very similar at the same time. Both books are on my 'favorites' list.

One final note - some reviews mentioned how different Rastignac was in this novel from how he was portrayed in Pere Goriot. Balzac has some two thousand characters circulating throughout his work, and making appearances here and there, sometimes playing a major, yet other time a very minor, part. Balzac's narrators are describing the characters, and each narrator sees a person differently. Also, we must keep in mind the transformation Rastignac underwent following Goriot's funeral, and the last lines of the novel.

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Balzac Project - M. Gobseck

GobseckGobseck by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting little story, which indirectly continues the tale started in Father Goriot. While the main theme in the story is avarice, there is a thin thread of continuity that touches upon the fate of Mme. de Restaud and her children, shedding new light on what happened after her father's, M. Goriot's death.

As in in his other works, Balzac superbly depicts the passing nature of fame and popularity, of the perceived power within the noble circles, and of the harsh reality that is paid for the privileges. In reality, it is man like Gobseck that hold the real power over the elite and poor alike, a man whose supreme intelligence and life experiences enable him to penetrate the thoughts and desires of his clientele before the thoughts and desires even become reality.

Unfortunately, even someone as calculated as Gobseck has his faults, and succumbs to his own greed.

A fine portrayal of the mind of an usurer.

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The Balzac Project - Father Goriot

Père GoriotPère Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pere Goriot or Father Goriot is but a one novel in Balzac's massive work, The Human Comedy. Like his other novels from the same collection, Father Goriot is set against the backdrop of excessive wealth (at any cost), striking poverty, and nothing in between.

Some familiar characters go in and out of this novel, only to reappear in later works, but for the sake of simplicity, I must concentrate on the two men who carry this work forward - Goriot and Rastignac.

Only Balzac could have created these two characters. Goriot - a simple poor man who came to riches; Rastignac - a poor nobleman. What ties these two men together is, at first their lodging situation and later their love for a woman. In Goriot's case, it is his daughter Delphine. In Rastignac's case, it is the same Delphine, but he sees her as his ticket to the riches he promised himself to obtain.

In an era where the Parisian women ruled the social scene, a young man is nothing unless a woman takes him under her wing. When both husbands and wives maintain lovers on the side, and your social status is judged by how much money you have and whose ball you are invited to, nothing is sacred and the end always justifies the means.

Goriot renounces everything to make his daughters happy, and Rastignac renounces his pure and noble ideals to get ahead. Along the way, they meet in the middle, in the place where poverty dug its claws into every fiber of their surroundings, emotions are questioned, ideals abandoned, and decency is as scarce as water in the desert.

Balzac has a way of portraying the disparity between the two social contrast that is both admirable and revolting. His characters are complicated human beings, and while we are afforded only a momentary glimpse at their lives, we cannot but love or hate them.

His ability to find the best and worst in people is second to none, and while his works are often full of slow-moving passages, the language alone is beautiful enough to carry the prose forward.

It is difficult to talk about this work in depth without disclosing spoilers, so it must suffice to state that Father Goriot is a spectacular study of the human condition and society. The characters in this book undergo multiple internal changes, and the ones that come across as unscrupulous turn out to have more decency in them than the noble ones. But such is our society, and such is the [rightfully called] human comedy.

I am now tempted to read the all novels that form La Comédie humaine.

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The Balzac Project - The Girl with the Golden Eyes

I decided to read more Balzac - actually, I'd like to complete the entire Human Comedy, which, by itself, is no easy task. I'll be re-posting my older reviews here now, and filing everything under "Balzac Project" tag.

The Girl with the Golden EyesThe Girl with the Golden Eyes by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Girl with the Golden Eyes...such an unassuming title. If one considers Balzac to be one of the classical writers, than one would reach for this book thinking it would go along the lines of other classic novellas. Hmmm...the title sounds almost romantic.

The Girl with the Golden Eyes is an interesting piece of literature. Despite its short length, it could be divided into three separate books: First, the reader is introduced to the scene - Parisian life - in no flattering terms.
"In Paris, there are only two ages, youth and decay: a bloodless, pallid youth and a decay painted to seem youthful." or "Everything is tolerated: the government and the guillotine, religion and cholera. You are always welcome in this world, and you are never missed." Here Balzac splits the Parisians into three main classes. "The class that has nothing: The worker, the proletarian, the man who lives by his feet, his hands, his tongue, his back, his good arm, his five fingers."
Balzac blatantly exposes this class with severe judgement, observing the never-ending labor whose fruits are blown away at the end of the week: "Then they take their pleasure and relaxation in an exhausting debauch, which leaves their skin brown with filth, black and blue with violence, blotched with drunkenness, or yellow with indigestion. This lasts only two days but steals tomorrow's bread, the weekly soup, the wife's new dress, and swaddling for the ragged child."
Then there are the workers who see future, save money, and start a small shop - the "...king of Parisian scene who has submitted to time and space. Yes, hats off to this creature made of saltpeter and gas, who gives children to France during his industrious nights and during the day runs here and there in the service, glory, and pleasure of his fellow citizens. This man resolves the problem of satisfying simultaneously an agreeable wife, his household, the Constitutionel, his office, the National Guard, the Opera, and God, all for the purpose of transforming the Constitutionel, the office, the Opera, the National Guard, the wife, and God into gold."

The second Parisian scene, "...the world of those who possess something." ... "Wholesalers and their boys, civil servants, small bankers of great honesty, rogues and rascals, head clerks and errand boys, the bailiff's bookkeeper, the lawyer, the notary, indeed the seething, scheming, speculating members of that lower middle class that caters to the demands of Paris and stays on alert, hoarding provisions, handling products manufactured by the proletariat, dealing in fruit from the Midi, fish from the sea, wines from every sun-kissed slope. This class reaches out its hands to the Orient, takes shawls the Turks and Russians discard, casts its net as far as the Indies, waits for sales and looks for bargains, discounts bills of exchange and rolls along, gathering everything of value. It wraps up Paris bit by bit and carts it off, on the alert for the fantasies of childhood, spying out the whims and vices of maturity, and extorting advantage from its disease."

The third class, "...a kind of Parisian belly in which the interests of the city are digested and condensed into forms known as affairs, the crowd of layers, doctors, notaries, barristers, business men, and magistrates are stirred and shaken by and acidic and bitter intestinal movement." ... "In the end, of necessity they become cynical about all feeling, forced as they are by laws, men, and institutions to hover like vultures over still-warm corpses."

Above this third class lies the realm of the artist. "An artist's face is always extraordinary; it is always above or below the conventional lines of what fools call ideal beauty. What force destroys them? Passion. In Paris every passion is resolved into two terms: gold or pleasure."

And lastly, above the artist is the realm of the aristocrat, where this story takes place. "Don't look for affections here, any more than for ideas. Embraces conceal a profound indifference, and politeness an unrelieved contempt. No one here is capable of loving his fellow man." ... "This empty life, this constant anticipation of unfulfilled pleasure, this permanent boredom, this frivolity of mind, heart, and brain, this weariness with the great Parisian reception is mirrored in their features and produces those cardboard faces, those premature wrinkles, that physiognomy of the rich in which impotence grins, gold is reflected, and intelligence has fled."

Thus, after reading twenty-six pages of politically charged social commentary on Balzac's day Paris, the story finally begins. It begins here, switching gears and style from the preceding pages into the realm of romance (and satire). The prose shifts towards poetic (and over the top), and we are introduced to Henri de Marsay, "...the handsomest young man in Paris. From his father, Lord Dudley, he had inherited the most amorously enchanting blue eyes; from his mother, thick curly black hair; from both parents pure blood, a girlish complexion, a gentle and modest manner, a slim and aristocratic figure, and beautiful hands." However, his "... fine qualities and charming defects were tarnished by one dreadful vice: He believed in neither mean nor women, God nor the Devil. Capricious nature had given him gifts; a priest had finished the task." There is also a seemingly out-of place mention that Lord Dudley had several children, one of who is Euphemie, the daughter to a Spanish lady. She was raised in Havana, then taken to Madrid with a Creole man. She was married to an old and immensely rich Spanish Lord, Don Hijos, Marguis de San-Real who has come to live in Paris.

Henri de Marsay is a playboy who likes to play. He has the looks and the means to enjoy life to its fullest. But, strolling on a promenade one fine afternoon, Henri meets the "girl with the golden eyes", a mysterious, protected creature who is the talk of all the young Parisian men. This girl turns out to be Paquita Valdez.

De Marsay uses his advantages and influence to find out where Paquita lives, bribes a postman, and has a letter delivered to her. Once Paquita accepts his advances, she drugs her female guardian, and de Marsay sneaks into the house. Eventually they end up in a love nest built specifically for pleasure. The decor is rich and lavish, the walls are soundproof. Here, in a moment of passion, we learn that Paquita is a virgin yet very well versed in the ways of love. Henri begins to suspect something. Unfortunately, throughout this part of the novel, the language turns more towards the romantic, even cheesy at times with overly flowery descriptions and unrealistic comparisons. Still, I kept reading on.

Once Henri 'conquers' Paquita, he is torn between the pleasures she offers, and a new potential 'target' a woman hundred times more beautiful that all the young men talk about. This woman turns out to be the Marquise, the wife of Don Hijos. One night, when Henri fornicates with Paquita in the love nest, Paquita keeps begging him to kill her because she could never escape her prison. It turns out Paquita is the daughter of a Georgian slave to Don Hijos, and that her mother also sold her. Paquita, while making love to Henri (whom she made dress up in woman's clothing), cries out a woman's name. Henri gets upset and ready to strangle her, but a huge Creole man, Christemio who guards Paquita stops him. De Marsay shoots Paquita a look that says, "You will die" before departing from the house.

And here the novel yet again changes style and language, shifting towards the unexpected.

(view spoiler)

I generally don't disclose endings, but this novella was rather unexpected, so I make an exception. If I were to pick up this book in the middle and start reading, I would have stopped assuming it is all but romantic mumbo-jumbo. However, this could not be farther from the truth. It's a very short read that is worth the time, especially if you enjoy the unforeseen. Balzac is great at crimes of passion, at forbidden fruit and consequences, and this one is no exception.

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