The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea
by
Ernest Hemingway

Rating:

Warning – some spoilers below:

I’ve been on a Hemingway kick lately and The Old Man and the Sea is another great way to experience a writing style that is deceivingly simple but has deeply thoughtful and powerful themes.  I have always enjoyed books that feature man versus nature.  It is one of the primary themes in this classic, studied each year by a new crop of both students and leisure readers.  And because I love stories about hope and overcoming adversity, another important idea in the book, this one is on the top of my list.

The Old Man and the Sea is the story of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish in eighty-four days.  Every day, he goes out to sea in his fishing skiff, and returns empty-handed.  His companion, a boy, no longer fishes with him, sent by the boy’s parents to a more successful fishing boat.  From the beginning, despite this bad luck streak, there is something enduring in Santiago’s being.  In the first pages, Hemingway writes, “Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

When Santiago hooks a giant marlin, he knows he has a big challenge ahead.  Strength, patience and resolve sustain him as the fish pulls him far out into the ocean.  For two days, the fish pulls the fisherman before finally slowing.  But much will test Santiago’s resolve in a series of triumphs and losses.  In the end, the old man remains undefeated in spirit, despite returning with a much lighter haul.  Instead, Santiago simply notes how well the boat sails now that it is lighter.

Old man and the sea pic
Hemingway’s story has inspired a lot of art work. I like this picture by Carey Chen from fineartamerica.com

Santiago’s respect for nature and the power of his opponent make him much more than a fisherman.  He is part of a bigger scheme and he knows his place.  He feels deeply for the fish, the birds and the life around him.  Santiago’s connection to nature is most evident when he finally faces the marlin.  “Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother,” he says.

And when he finally returns to his village, Santiago may discover how much he is revered by the other villagers and most of all, by his fishing companion, the boy who so tenderly cares for him.

The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952 and was a huge success.  Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954.  Check it out and see what I mean!

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The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells pic
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by
Andrew Sean Greer

Rating:

What would you do if you discovered yourself living different lives during different times? What if, in these other lives, you had the chance to fix things, to point others towards happiness, or to alter your own life? What if you found a chance at happiness in one of these alternate lives, a chance that has been lost in your present life? These are some of the central questions Greta Wells must contemplate in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.

I loved this very original story by Andrew Sean Greer, in which Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941. In her modern world, Greta has just lost her adult twin brother to AIDS. Her long-time lover, Nathan, has left her and Greta is impossibly lost. Feeling hopeless, she agrees to electroconvulsive therapy and is surprised to find herself living both similar and different lives in these earlier times. During this twelve-week period, Greta receives twenty-five procedures and cycles between her three “impossible” lives. Early on, Greta wonders, “So maybe I can perfect their lives. And maybe, while I’m missing, they can perfect mine.”

These lives all take place in her Patchin Place apartment in Greenwich Village and Greta finds things that are both familiar and unknown about her circumstances. In her 1918 life, she has been unfaithful, in 1941 she has been betrayed and in both she watches as her brother Felix struggles to find a way to reconcile his homosexuality with what the times expect of him. Greta sees the relief and euphoria of one war ending and understands how only she can know that another war is coming.

Greta describes the 1918 soldiers returning from war and celebrating the future:

These same soldiers would come home, never speaking of what they’d seen, and marry those girls and raise children, and they would send those children off to war again. With Germany, again. We would be here again, in this parlor singing this same song. I stood there, in wonder, at the madness of it all.

While this is technically a story about time travel with well-placed historical references that really take you there, it’s mostly a story of love, understanding, forgiveness and second chances. I think the author does a great job showing Greta’s desire to get it right with Nathan, in at least one of her lives. She works hard, too, to create happiness for Felix by steering him towards the right people and encouraging him to acknowledge his homosexuality to her. In addition, Greer shows Felix’s personal pain of not fitting in, but desperately trying to do the right thing. These double-layered efforts fit just right with the twin relationship between Greta and Felix.

I’ve read some reviews complaining that the story is confusing. Its complexity did not bother me and, once you get the characters and their lives down, the story drives itself. I felt invested in all three time periods.

Here are some of the things I liked about the book:

  • Greta’s relationship with Nathan in 1941. Her capacity for forgiveness in this time period is very moving.
  • Learning about Patchin Place in New York. It’s fun to imagine what this part of Greenwich Village looked like then and Google Maps shows a great picture of the gated entrance.
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place in 1910
Patchin Place now
Patchin Place now
  • The secret key and room in the Washington Square arch.
  • Greer’s use of three different clocks at the beginning of each chapter, with different times on each face. I can’t figure out what the different times mean, but I like thinking about them anyway.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“There almost has to be a heaven, so there can be a place where all things meet.”

“We are so much more than we assume.”

“What is a perfect world except for the one that needs you?”

“Mark your hour on earth.”

“I understood nothing, Felix. But it was a great show.”

A little bit of fantasy, a little bit of history, a little bit of sadness, and a lot of hope and understanding – this is a great read!

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

the fault in our stars picThe Fault in Our Stars
by
John Green

Rating:

This is the kind of book you are self-propelled to read non-stop until you finish. I want to say I loved it, because there are so many things that are truly gem-like and they give you the wonderful, emotional feeling you sometimes get when you read really great books.

But you must be warned that this is a very sad story, with heart-breaking moments. To be fair, there are also a lot of positive relationship moments. Seventeen-year-old Hazel is dying. She meets Gus, a bone cancer survivor, and they fall in love. They have an intense courtship and they know they are short on time.

I think John Green does a great job portraying Hazel and Gus. I have heard others say their conversations are too intellectual for teenagers. I don’t think so and I think he really captures the teenage intensity along with their heightened sense of the loss of time.

Although the story is written through Hazel’s point of view, Green also shows us what it is like to be parents of cancer patients, and how they must prepare themselves for loss. And he shows how Gus and Hazel cling to each other and their friend Isaac, and try to have normal teenage lives.

There are unexpected plot turns and surprising characters, and the story is nicely tied together, with some open endings to keep the reader thinking. I think the ending is uplifting and makes the best of tough loss.

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