Existentialism – It’s Not Just for France Anymore: Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

Sabato_Tunnel.jpgWhen I think about existentialist fiction, I tend to think of three names: Albert Camus, Simone De Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom are French. In fact, while I know plenty of people consider the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkagaard and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky precursors to the three aforementioned names, to me there’s still something quintessentially French about existentialism.

After reading Argentinian writer Ernesto Sábato’s The Tunnel, I realize how wrong I was.

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The Greek Tragedy of Irish History: Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916 – The Easter Rising

Coogan_EasterRising.jpgIt’s fitting that Tim Pat Coogan’s riveting 1916: The Easter Rising draws so heavily on the past. Every country is, of course, shaped by its history, but time hardly seems to exist in Ireland in a neat past, present, and future. Centuries-, even millennia-old enmities not only inform contemporary events, but are their driving force. It’s fair to call the various uprisings, revolutions, and conflicts that have been waged on this small island merely individual battles in a long, long war that has finally (and hopefully permanently) given way to relative peace.

But, you may ask, what if I’m more into reading fiction? I usually am, too, but the bloody history of Ireland is frankly as engaging, if not more so, than any novel I’ve ever read. Ireland is a particularly literary country, too, with myths as memorable as any other nation, and a rich tradition of revolutionizing literature itself. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and W.B. Yeats are famous Irishmen but did you know Oscar Wilde was Irish, as was George Bernard Shaw, and Bram Stoker (the author of Dracula…who incidentally married Oscar Wilde’s one-time girlfriend)?

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Satire as Scathing as it Gets: Philip Roth’s Nixonian Novel Our Gang

Roth_OurGang.jpgIt’s hard to imagine a book being shocking these days. Novels like The Catcher in the Rye, once considered obscene by many, now seems quaint and prudish in comparison to some contemporary works. And Fahrenheit 451, which also sparked a backlash, is now part of a dystopian canon that feels vital rather than something to avoid. There are obviously still parts of the world – towns, cities, entire nations – where some books are still banned, including the two mentioned above. The Handmaid’s Tale is another perfect example, where despite its critical acclaim and popular success (particularly with the Hulu series), it’s still banned in certain places.

Nevertheless, Philip Roth’s Our Gang shocked me, which is all the more impressive because it’s a political satire, and it’s hard to imagine a political book crossing any line given the times we live in.

But to be clear, Our Gang is not shocking because it uses bad words or evokes obscene or outrageous situations. It does all this and more, but what jarred me most was how brutal and intelligent the satire itself was. That, and the fact that it was so much fun to read.

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An American Story: August Wilson’s Fences

wilson_fences.jpgFences, written by August Wilson, is a powerful, deeply American play. But before I explain why you should immediately read the play yourself, I want to confess something – until recently, I had never heard of August Wilson. I consider myself a pretty well-read person, who is aware of plenty of authors and works I’ve never read. But sadly, Wilson, a distinguished poet and dramatist, wasn’t on my radar. Now, however, I’m looking forward to diving into his many works, including a ten-play series called The Pittsburg Cycle, each of which focuses on a different decade. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the entire cycle once I get through it, but for now I want to focus on the play that deals with the 1950s, Fences, which as I said, is not only powerful, but deeply American.

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The Samurai Writer: The Absurdly Intense Life and Death of Yukio Mishima

MishimaYukio Mishima is an author so intense that he makes Dostoevsky look like a clown. Maybe that’s taking it too far, but not by much. And as powerful as Dostoevsky’s novels certainly are, there is something so visceral, so violent about Mishima’s style that all his works exude a muscular quality I have yet to find in another author.

As for Mishima’s life, well, considering he died in the process of trying to overthrow the Japanese government, you can see why most authors seem so tame in comparison.

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How to Inform Yourself in an Age of Information Overload: Columbia University’s Global Reports

ColumbiaGlobalReports.pngIt’s hard to be informed  about what the hell is happening in the world these days.

I suspect you’ll agree with me. But even though “fake news” and “alternative facts” (or whatever phrase we’re using instead of “lies”) pose serious problems, that’s not what I want to talk to you about today. Because while there are significant issues with the media in terms of its quality, the way it potentially traps us in confirmation-bias-bubbles, I think the scarier truth is that, even if we didn’t have to worry about bias or the manufacture of consent (to borrow from Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman), etc., I think it would still be difficult to stay informed. And that’s because the world is not that simple.

Before you accuse me of stating the obvious, trust me when I say that it’s not nearly as obvious as it seems, and I have the perfect solution for you if, like me, you’re interested in having informed views on our world.

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Second Article Published On The Millions

millionsDid you know Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem “The Raven” was almost “The Parrot”?

Check out my second article on The Millions, “The Mathematical Poet: Exploring Edgar Allan Poe’s Logical Imagination” to find out why he wisely went with a raven instead, learn about Poe’s uniquely scientific approach to literature, discover what’s so inspiring about his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” and much, much more.

 

Modern Parable: The Cost of Blind Obedience in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”

TheLottery.jpgShirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is so famous that you probably know about it even if you haven’t read it. But if you haven’t heard of it, it won’t take long to summarize because, frankly, very little happens. For about six pages, men, women, and children in an unnamed village gather together and make small talk while taking out pieces of paper from inside an old box. Though we don’t know what this lottery is all about, there is a mounting sense of dread until we learn that the “winner” – the person who pulled out the only piece of paper with a black spot on it – earns the right to be stoned to death.

Congratulations?

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Lost Paradises: The Haunting Novels of Tarjei Vesaas

vesaasThere are a lot of great writers out there, but it’s a rare writer who manages to create an entire universe through their books. Franz Kafka is one of them. Someone (I unfortunately forget who…maybe Jorge Luis Borges?) once said Kafka’s books “take place in infinity,” and I’ve never heard a more perfect description of the surreal worlds his stories take place in. For instance, when you read The Castle, it’s easy to believe there’s nothing beyond the wintry village that K. finds himself in.

But I’m not here to take about Kafka. Rather, I want to tell you about another writer whose books evoke a haunting, fairy tale-esque world that feels both realistic and strangely timeless. That writer is Tarjei Vesaas of Norway.

Having read four of his novels, I feel confident saying there is a fundamental formula to all his plots, which is this – a stranger enters a community and all hell breaks loose. That might sound simplistic, but The Seed, The Bridges, The Ice Palace, and The Birds all follow that formula more or less, and that’s part of what makes them all so powerful. Vesaas’ worlds feel isolated and innocent, unblemished Edens that are ruined when a force intrudes from the outside. That force might come in the form of a monster or a child, but nevertheless, paradise always descends into pandemonium.

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Breaking Through Your Reading Comfort Zone: Six Publishers You Need To Know

comfortzone.pngOne of the most invigorating benefits of reading is the feeling when you find a new author or subject. Sometimes you’ll stumble on him or her while browsing a bookstore or library, or perhaps Amazon will use an uncannily (and borderline unsettlingly) accurate algorithm to suggest something you’ll like.

The problem, though, is that it can be hard to find authors or subjects that are way outside your typical reading comfort zone. That happens rarely on websites, since their algorithms are meant to suggest things you will like by design, as opposed to things you may like. That’s why browsing through books in a physical store is always a better option, but even then there’s a problem – namely, with so many books out there, how do you know which ones are good?

Well, I’m here to help by suggesting six publishers whose books I guarantee will significantly widen your reading tastes and make you stronger reader. You may not like everything these publishers release, but if you want to avoid getting stuck reading the same kinds of stories by the same kinds of authors, you can do no better than check out books published by NYRB Classics, Verba Mundi, Archipelago Books, Pushkin Press, Other Press, and Dalkey Archive.

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