Thérèse Raquin

My favorite part of the book might be Zola’s preface to the second edition, where he berates his critics and relates what his friend tells him, “You have one huge failing which will close every door to you: you cannot talk for two minutes to a halfwit without letting him know that he is one.” Overall, a good introduction to Zola’s works, short chapters, good pacing, excellent translation by Robin Buss.
The story involves a sickly child, Camille, who is brought up with his orphan cousin Therese, and they then marry. Therese traps all emotion and interest under a hard shell of immobility, sitting for hours just staring out at the world, uncurious. They take possession of a haberdashery in a dingy Parisian alley, Camille’s mother churning out work while Therese waits dutifully on her. Camille brings home a friend from the office, Laurent, who captivates Therese, the first “real man” she has ever lain eyes on, pulsing with energy and strength. Laurent paints Camille’s portrait, decides to take Therese as his lover.
As soon as Laurent kisses Therese, it unleashes a wild passion in her, transforming her cold, immobile state into a frenzied being. They meet upstairs from the haberdashery every day, indulging in their adultery. Laurent soon comes to appreciate the house as his own family; he is doted on by the mother, ravished by the wife, and cheered as a good friend by the husband. But eventually Laurent wants to take Camille’s place, to be able to wake up with Therese one morning. Thus hatches the murder plot which pushes Camille into the lake they are boating around one evening, Camille unable to swim but biting Laurent’s neck as he struggles.
The couple then pretend not to be involved with each other for a few years, and are eventually persuaded to marry by the dead son’s mother. Once married, they are haunted by Camille, and hate each other with an equal passion that they loved each other. The mother suffers a paralyzing stroke, they forget she is around and confess their crime within her earshot, shattering her. Eventually she sees them poison themselves, and is able to die peacefully.

The Guns of August

Great look at the first 30-ish days of World War I and the events leading up to it. Tuchman assumes a baseline of historical knowledge which challenged me in a good way– I had to refresh my memory on the Dreyfus Affair, Rasputin, etc. She drops references in along the way that are a pleasure to recognize ( calling one officer from Gascon another “D’Artagnan”), or to look up (thinking I found a typo, I found that “Casabianca” refers to a poem where a boy stands on the burning deck). Thoroughly researched, written in an engaging style with great use of quotes sprinkled in from people who were there. It draws a clear picture of German militarism, their “right” to rule the world because they’re the most efficient and smartest, their battle plan perfected, but then human nature cracking perfectly laid plans. Fear crumbling the iron will of Headquarters when on the battlefield. Germany invades the neutral state of Belgium, which brings England into the war in name only. Four battalions are sent over to help France, but under the bumbling leadership of Sir John French, they hang back for the most part, until the end. Galleini’s defense of Paris, sending taxis with soldiers from the train station to the front. The Russian army providing a diversion for two critical German divisions that otherwise would have crushed the Western Front in the initial month. At the end, they settle down for a 4 year slog, but it is the critical push on the Marne that saves France from German rule.

The Marriage Plot

Disgusting, maudlin, ridiculous novel I should never have given into the myriad of “great book!”s to procure from the library. Strike 1: the title. Why do I even bother with books that I want to hide the title of? Strike 2: more egregious, the ending. Awful. Wretch-inducing. If I wanted my books tied with a dandy pink bow, I will ask for that up front. Strike 3: it was almost good at the beginning. What’s not to like about a lit nerd gorgeous girl whose love affair with a manic depressive turns bad? Name dropping authors like nobody’s business, I felt all warm and tingly. And then the grind that the entire book put you through, worthless.
Avoid at all costs.

Selected Dialogues

These five works are a great intro to Plato, showing off his more literary side. Through Plato we learn of Socrates (469BC- 399BC) and the modes of philosophical inquiry Plato experimented with.
Ion – Ion is a performer of epic poetry who insists he is the expert on Homer, Plato goes to show him as stupid, which proves that memorizing Homer does not create wisdom. So then, what is the source of poetic wisdom or knowledge?
Protagoras – Protagoras bills himself as a teacher for hire. Teacher of what? Virtue. But can this be taught? Socrates proves it cannot. How is knowledge gained and imparted? Socrates drags a reluctant Protagoras into a dialectical back and forth.

Surely knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care that the sophist does not cheat us when he praises the goods he is hawking, like the wholesalers and retailers who sell the food for the body… Those traveling salesmen of knowledge praises them all alike; though I wouldn’t be surprised if some were really unaware which articles of their merchandise are good for the soul, and which bad.

Phaedrus– inquiry into rhetoric, is it possible for truth to exist in a speech or writing meant to persuade? The three speeches are regarding the act of a lover with his beloved; is it better to love a lover than a non-lover? Socrates hears Lysias’ speech (by way of Phaedrus), then covers his head and mockingly makes another more eloquent speech, then atones to the gods by making a proper speech wherein love is adored as Eros and Aphrodite. The art of a speech is to know the truth, start at the beginning, define each truth, divide the truth until it cannot be divided any more, then recap the speech saying what was said.
Symposium– everyone makes speeches in honor of Love at Agathon’s dinner party. At the beginning, they decide to abstain from alcohol since some of them were still feeling the effects of the prior night’s festivities. (“It was agreed that drinking was not to dominate the evening’s activities, but that they were all to drink only so much as they pleased.”) Coercive toasting was banned, as was the flute-girl. Phaedrus’s speech names Love as the oldest of the gods, points out that dying for one’s beloved was the highest of honors and the gods reward such sacrifice with rebirth. Pausanias’s speech distinguishes heavenly love from lustful common love. “Those inspired by this (heavenly) Love turn to the male, delighting in the more valiant and intelligent nature.” (Bullshit sexism from the Greeks should be expected.) This type of love strives toward betterment of individuals and cities. Eryximachus takes Aristophanes’ place due to hiccups, giving him a recommendation to hold his breath, if that fails then gargle with water, then force a sneeze. (The sneeze finally cures them). Aristophanes claims we used to be two halves, male/male, male/female, female/female, and were split apart in punishment for insolence to the gods, forever seeking to heal ourselves by coupling with others. Agathon says Love is the youngest of the gods, and tender, living in soft places in the body, the most beautiful and best in himself and causing that in others. Socrates puts the smackdown, proving that Love cannot be a god (you desire what you lack, and the gods are beautiful thus they don’t lack beauty, Love is beauty); Love is a demigod, intermediate between the divine and mortal. Socrates’ wisdom is derived from Diotima, an instructress in Love (e.g. prostitute). Love is love of the everlasting possession of the good. The life one should live is in contemplation of absolute beauty. After the speeches, a very drunk Alcibiades crashes the party and exposes information about Socrates, how Alcibiades tried to seduce the older man and failed, how that is the reverse of how things should be, how Socrates always manages to lure people into seducing him, how he values no possessions, is able to drink and eat as little or much as he wants, his valor in battle, the day (and night) he stood in one spot thinking about something for 24 hours.
Apology– Socrates’ defense in his trial accused of corrupting youth. He shows the invalidity of the argument (how can he be both atheist and teaching the wrong gods?) and the apathy of the prosecutor for the sacredness of youths’ minds. He explains that he’s been trying to prove that he isn’t the wisest man in the world by questioning others in an attempt to find someone wiser, but that most people pretend wisdom. “A life without examination is no life for a human being.” Once convicted, he pleads against the death penalty but rather for 30 lbs of silver as a fine that his friends will pay. Upon getting the death sentence, he praises it, saying death is welcome either as a pleasant night’s dream or a reunion with great past heroes he can question.