Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bibliovile: Holiday Terrific Book Exchange

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All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

“It is the common fate of our generation. The war has ruined us for everything.”

              All Quiet on the Western Front tells the story of Paul Baumer, a twenty-year-old soldier in the German army during World War One, and his experience during the war. The book, in short, is incredible. It describes war in ways that are so poignant and so haunting that it breaks your heart with every page.

One of the recurring themes of the book revolves around men Paul’s age, who went to war between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. As Baumer describes himself and his peers, “We stood on the threshold of life. We had as yet taken no root. The war swept us away. We have been gripped by it and do not know what the end may be. We know only that in some strange and melancholy way we have become a wasteland.”
Older soldiers, men who have wives and children, who had jobs and lives and histories prior to the war, have something to hold onto as they struggle with what they are witnessing on the front lines. As they experience fear and tragedy throughout the war, they have a future to look forward to, since they know that if they survive they will be returning to their established and familiar lives. For the younger men of Paul’s generation, however, there is no future to look forward to, nor is there a normal life to anchor them throughout the war. They joined the army straight from school, so they have memories of childhood and their parents and siblings, but they do not have anything concretely their own to hold onto.
Paul and his fellow soldiers spend quite a bit of time talking and thinking about what would become of them after the war, should they survive. They did not have the opportunity to find jobs or learn a trade before they became soldiers. All they know is school and the army. Toward the end of the novel, Paul asks, “What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -- it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?”
This sense of not having an identity beyond their role as soldiers leads to a sense of hopelessness. One of the most powerful and gut-wrenching passages in the book covers this same topic:

“We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.”

The only thing that seems to give the men any comfort is each other. Seven of Paul’s comrades were students at the same school, and joined the army at the same time. Along with a few other men, they went through training together, left home together, and have experienced the war alongside one another for several years across the span of the book. They find comfort in conversations with each other, in spending time together, and in finding moments of normalcy together. Paul speaks beautifully of the relationship he has with these other soldiers, saying, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness; I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” Sadly, but unsurprisingly, throughout the course of the novel, all of these men die. Paul is with several of them in the moment of their death, including Katczinsky, one of his closest friends, who dies while Paul is attempting to bring him to a hospital.
              All Quiet on the Western Front is a really beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of men whose lives are ruined by war. Every sentence, every chapter communicates the sense of pointlessness that these men feel about the war, and the hopelessness they feel about how the war has ruined their lives. Throughout their conversations, Paul and his comrades struggle to understand the purpose of the war. In one conversation, a soldier insists, “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.” Another answers, “Well, I’m not one of them.”

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

              Well, I had an entirely different book. This book is very fun. It’s also very engaging and terrifically written, but the biggest piece of it all is the page-turning fun of it. The Lies of Locke Lamora is set it a medium-fantasy world (it’s hard to tell just how high the fantasy goes sometimes), but doesn’t concern itself with lords, ladies, or knights, and there’s only one duke. Instead, we follow the titular (heh) Locke Lamora, who is basically this world’s first con artist, pulling huge scores through lying and acting instead of picking pockets and intimidating.

              This glimpse into a different section of fantasy is a whole heck of a lot of—oh who needs a thesaurus—fun. It’s like The Sting if it were set in King’s Landing. Locke’s quick wit and planning ahead make for the interesting pieces, not stodgy old men pushing pieces around planning for war. He’s fleet but not strong, witty, but not always wise. He’s not perfect and gets the absolute crap beaten out of him multiple times, which is always nice to see. A character that can’t be touched is a boring one.
              The book is one Dukes-of-Hazzard-esque “How them Duke Boys gonna get outta this one?” freeze frame after another one, but with less racist iconography. Locke becomes sandwiched between different organized crime obligations, different heists requiring attention, and all sorts of goings on. His Gentlemen Bastards help in the ruses, offering different skills and fun character interaction.
              The world-building as well is top notch. As the first novel in this series, it’s got a lot of work to do, and admittedly drops you into the deep end for you to figure it out for yourself. It’s a little bit of a relief to be treated like an adult who will adapt through context. The plot necessitates that our main eyes and ears be a lifetime resident of this world—no one is sitting him down to explain how the organized crime works, for goodness’ sake, he’s been in it his whole life. Harry Potter came to the wizarding world an outsider, so he helps us get acquainted. Locke Lamora has lived that life, and we’re left to catch up, like an exchange student who fell asleep during culture lessons.
              All the pieces fit amazingly together. My favorite pay off includes Locke’s original mentor and master teaching them the ways of con-manning in their youth. They practice lock picking and heists and what not, but they also practice the ways of fine dining, manners, cultured speaking. They practice voices and accents and etiquette common to different parts of the kingdoms, because the smallest stuff makes up for convincing lies. It was hilarious to think about a group of orphans practicing bowing to imagined lords and ladies, preparing for a possible future con in which that would be necessary. The one we see, an advanced Nigerian Prince style extortion, really shows off the prepared skills.
              There are a few trouble spots. The lessons are taught in flashbacks as needed throughout the plot, which, although fun to read, doesn’t have nearly the payoff as if it were told chronologically. Chekov’s Gun doesn’t work if you stop the play and say “By the way, I brought a gun in to the house. Just in case, you know?”
              The varied height of fantasy in this book also can throw you for a loop. You’re pretty sure you’ve got the ropes—ancient advanced and disappeared civilization, Spanish-influence early Renaissance style culture, daggers and rapiers and whatnot—and then a major plot device revolves around the use and power of magic, which was heretofore not a part of the world. It doesn’t ruin anything, but, like the flashbacks, put some recalibration bumps into the fun rollercoaster ride of the book.
              All in all, I’ve said basically nothing about the plot specifics at large, and that’s because I want you to read this book. It’s pretty sizable, but an extraordinary fast read. It was nice to read fast again for once, not slog through it.

              The Lies of Locke Lamora was perfect for our holiday exchange, because it is perfect for reading underneath a blanket between meals and naps or what have you. Read it, ya’ll.

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