For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway

 

So I was at a bar a while back, books came up because I talk about stupid shit a lot, and it came out that I’d never read anything by Hemingway. I was made to feel bad about this, so I decided I’d give it a shot. I spent half an hour searching my brother’s room (sorry John) and found For Whom the Bell Tolls.

I actually liked it, in some ways more than I expected to. I went in to it knowing nothing about either Hemingway or the book, except that both were connected to the Spanish Civil War. Truth be told, I kind of figured it would be a war-is-horrible tirade from the days when people were just beginning to realize that war is horrible. Upon reading it, I found that it was not concretely anti-war, and contained no moral certitude. Though the main character, Robert Jordan, occasionally reflects on the virtue of his cause and the necessity of war, he waffles on both points so much that it is difficult to know where he, much less Hemingway himself, stand. It’s like, ambiguous and stuff, man.

The aforementioned Jordan is an American with the International Brigades sent by the Republic to destroy a bridge with the help of local sympathizers. If you don’t know about the Spanish Civil War, it was fought in the thirties between Fascists and Republicans, who each had international backing, making it something of a prequel to World War II. (Like the Clone Wars were to the Galactic Civil War.) Jordan notes that his commanders are mostly Soviets, and that even many of the supposedly Spanish peasant leaders mysteriously speak Russian. He claims that he himself is simply a Republican rather than a Communist, though he often seems to compromise his beliefs when they conflict with his duties.

While the book is pretty linear, Jordan finds plenty of time to reflect upon all of this. Many of the themes are conveyed this way; I could feel Jordan’s creeping cynicism when he thought about the cruelties the Republic was capable of, and his renewed faith when he would rationally consider the alternatives. Hemingway, through Jordan, often gives a fair assessment of situations, with surprising emotional detachment.

In fact, some of the most powerful parts of the book were very straightforward passages simply describing events as they happened. I couldn’t stop reading a passage in which a peasant leader, Pilar, explains what happened when the revolutionary movement showed up in a small Spanish town. The tale was long and violent, to say the least, but neither side is demonized, either by characters or through the author’s commentary. It neither reinforces nor undermines the characters’ dedication to the cause; it simply happened.

It was refreshing, for me, to read a war novel that could relate the horrors and contradictions of war without sounding preachy. For Whom the Bell Tolls is so clearly from the heart, and so powerfully written, that it would be difficult for me to imagine disliking it. That being said, it is something of a commitment, and as much of the dialog is a faux Spanish translation, it is not the easiest read. In a way I’m glad I didn’t have to read it in high school. Many books are meant to be enjoyed at one’s own pace, and for an undisciplined high school student such as I was, falling behind meant Sparknoting the second half. Reading it now, I could reflect on the themes at my own pace, without having to listen to analysis of Chapter Sixteen before I’d even started. Yes, I was a lazy student, but in this case I dodged a bullet, because I was able to enjoy Hemingway on my own terms, at an age where I can (hopefully) understand him a little bit better.

If you do have the time and the commitment, For Whom the Bell Tolls is excellent. Take it from a latecomer, Hemingway is definitely worth it.

Jamrach’s Menagerie

by Carol Birch

 

Wow, this one took a weird turn. Don’t be fooled by its whimsical name and cover art, its young protagonist, or the numerous ecstatic blurbs; in Jamrach’s Managerie, shit gets dark pretty quickly. And I don’t mean, a boy and his best friend go through hardship together, I’m talking dark.

I got this book for Christmas and read it in early January. I hadn’t heard of the book till it was in my hands, but the aforementioned blurbs described it as a some sort of combination of Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, and Moby Dick. Indeed, it starts out appearing to be just that. A boy, Jaffy Brown, growing up in a 19th century London slum, has a chance encounter with a tiger, and ends up working for Mr. Jamrach, a trader in exotic animals. He makes quick friends with Tim Livner, another boy working for Jamrach, and falls in love with Tim’s sister, Ishbel. After a few years, when Tim is recruited to help hunt down a dragon that lives in the East Indies, Jaffy decides to sign up as well, boarding a whaling ship in the search of adventure.

So far so good, right? There is, actually, a good deal of wonder and adventure in this book, starting with Jaffy joining the crew of the Lysander. He experiences the sea and falls in love with it, despite the duties that being a crew member implies. He gets drunk at a bar in the Azores, experiences the grueling and gruesome whaling process, and explores exotic islands looking for the dragon. It was all shaping up to be an excellent coming-of-age story, or bildungsroman, as my friend Jake would say. I thought this was when Jamrach’s Menagerie really shone, and even though it had done little to stand out, I could understand the praise that it had gotten.

The back of the book says that “Jaffy’s journey will push faith, love, and friendship to their utmost limits.” I don’t want to give any details away, but given what happens in the second half, I would say that is a serious understatement. Now, I know what you’re going to say: don’t judge a book by its cover, the summary isn’t even written by the author, etc. So true; this is all meant to entice us to buy and read the book. Only a moron would be disappointed that the book didn’t meet the promise of the back cover.

And yet I think it is strange. Yes, it is a coming-of-age story, and I can appreciate why everything happened, but it almost felt like I was reading two different books. The first was like any young adult adventure novel, and I enjoyed it as such. As for the second half, I can’t think of anything to which it compares, nothing I’ve read at least. It’s like how I went to see Pearl Harbor thinking it would be a beautiful love story set in Hawaii, and then halfway through it a war comes out of nowhere and runs away with the plot. Birch does something similar with Jamrach’s Menagerie. (Kidding about Pearl Harbor.)

Thinking over it again, I think I’m giving the impression that this was a bad book, and I don’t think that’s fair. On the other hand, I don’t know that I gained all that much from it. Ignoring my main gripe, I didn’t like the character Skip, who all the other characters see as completely crazy, but who, it is implied, may have the second sight after all. This feels too familiar to me, though the only similar character who comes to mind is Abed from Community. So maybe I’m wrong. None of the other characters seemed like archetypes to me, and most were pretty minor anyway.

Anyways, I think my attempt to not spoil the plot resulted in a confusing review, and I probably made the book sound much worse than it is. As far as young adult fiction goes these days, I thought that Birch had a genuinely unique story to tell, which seems to be an accomplishment in and of itself.

I really don’t know who I’d advise to read this book; perhaps if I had a gothic teenager, or if I knew someone who could use a shot of depression.