The Mersault Investigation

Image from the New York Times

This man, your writer, seemed to have stolen my twin Zujj, my own description, and even the details of my life and my memories of my interrogation! I read almost the whole night through, laboriously, word by word. It was a perfect joke. I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double. I finally came to the last lines in the book: “… had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” God, how I would have wanted that! There was a large crowd of spectators, of course, but for his crime, not for his trial. And what spectators! Adoring fans, idolaters! No cries of hate ever came from that throng of admirers. Those last lines overwhelmed me. A masterpiece, my friend. A mirror held up to my soul and to what would become of me in this country, between Allah and ennui.

The Mersault Investigation is Algerian journalist Kamel Daued’s first novel, the story of the younger brother of the un-named Arab in Camus’ The Stranger. In The Stranger, a Frenchman named Mersault  murders the Arab on  a hot beach in Algiers in 1942.  He is tried for his crime, but convicted for his uncaring attitude about the world, most specifically the death of his mother.   The Mersault Investigation picks up in the current day, with the Arab’s much younger brother (he was 7 when his brother died) telling his story, and to some extent that of his brother, to an investigator.  In this telling, The Stranger was not written by Camus, but rather by Mersault himself.  

The Arab, Musa, was murdered that day on the beach.  His body was never recovered (which makes no sense as in The Stranger the lawyers know how many bullets were in the body), and his family was thus not able to prove that their missing Musa is the same person as the Arab killed on the beach.  The mother lives in constant misery at the loss of her eldest son, and the younger brother (Harun) grows up feeling alone in the world, secondary to his brother, detached from his surroundings.  He tells of the days after the murder, then about a period in 1962, at the time of the Algerian revolution from France, when he is confronted with the murder anew, in unexpected ways.

The story is deftly told, and explores not only Harun’s identity in the shadow of his dead brother, his brother’s identity in the shadow of The Stranger, but also Algeria’s identity and people as well.  

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea

He was asleep in a short time and he dreamed of Africa when he was a boy and the long golden beaches and the white beaches, so white they hurt your eyes, and the high capes and the great brown mountains….

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife.  He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.  They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy.  He never dreamed about the boy.

Santiago is an old fisherman living in Cuba, making his living fishing for large fish.  He has recently had an unlucky streak, 84 days without a fish, and now his young friend and apprentice isn’t even allowed to fish with him, and instead must fish with younger and more successful fishermen.  The boy loves and admires the old man, and wants desperately to help him and to continue to learn from him.  He brings the old man food every evening, and helps him bring in his mast, and they talk of fish and baseball.

Santiago vows that the 85th day will be a lucky one, and so he goes out further than any of the other fisherman, and he is successful in hooking a great marlin, a fish that he estimates to be about 1,500 pounds.  This fish is strong, and the old man feels, noble.  There is no way that the old man can kill the fish until it tires out, so he hangs on for two days and nights while the fish pulls his boat further and further away from home.

The story here is simple and improbable, full of allegory and symbolism.  The language is lovely and rich.  Santiago feels such a kinship with this marlin, the fish he has determined to kill, that he is almost sorry when he is finally successful.  He struggles with the concepts of sin, and wonders if he has committed a grave sin by killing so great a fish, a fish that he had come to love.

I enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea a great deal.  This was my first Hemingway, though either his last or one of his last books.  I’ve heard that the writing and style is different than his other works, which makes me wonder if I would enjoy them as much.  Any Hemingway fans out there?



In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. tells the semi autobiographical story of Billy Pilgrim, a man who has come unstuck in time.

Much of Billy’s time is spent during World War II.  As an new soldier, Billy is sent to the front, where he is captured at the Battle of the Bulge by the Germans, and sent to Dresden as a P.O.W.  Billy is not prepared for war, had just gotten through his training when his father died.  He was furloughed home for the funeral, and is sent to the front so quickly after his return that he is wearing dress shoes in combat.  Because he travels through time, he understands that he is helpless to change anything, helpless to save anyone, helpless to even control his own time travel.  But he has been through all of this before, so he knows who will live and who will die.

The P.O.W.s are kept in a deserted Slaughterhouse, from which they witness the fire bombing of Dresden, a horrific attack on civilians that left tens of thousands dead and decimated a city.  This is the pivotal moment in Billy’s (and Vonnegut’s, as he was indeed imprisoned in Slaughterhouse-Five during the bombing of Dresden) life, one that he returns to over and over again, one that flavors the timbre of this anti-war story.  When Billy returns to the U.S., he wants to write a book about the bombing, about the everyday people who died, about what he witnessed.  He goes to the house of a fellow soldier to discuss the book, and his friend’s wife can barely contain her contempt and disgust at the prospect.  Billy doesn’t understand her hostility, until he realizes that she believes they mean to write a book glorifying war, one that will continue the cycle of violence.  When she discovers  that Billy wants nothing of the kind, that he wants to write an anti-war book, one that tells about how children (such young men!) are sent into battle to die, she warms to him, as do we.

Later in his life, Billy’s daughter worries that he is going insane, and  that he will humiliate the family, because he talks openly about his experiences on the planet of Tralfamadore, where he was taken and put in a zoo, where he lived for several years in an exhibit on the reproduction of humans, where he makes love with a beautiful (thankfully human) adult movie star while the Tralfamadorians watch.  He is, of course, never missed on Earth, because he is returned at the very moment that he leaves.  From the Tralfamadorians he learns that not all beings experience time the way that we do.  Not even the way that Billy, unstuck as he is, does.  For the Tralfamadorians, all time exists at once, all that was or is or will be, they all exist side by side.  From them he also learns the Tralfamadorian saying, “So it goes”.  They are not disturbed to see a tragedy, because they are able to see the entire before and after of that tragedy, so they understand that when someone is killed, that is but a moment in their time, and all that has come before is still every bit as real as the fact of their death.

I very much enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five.  I’m not sure how I missed reading it in High School.  Perhaps I was too busy reading the short stories of James Joyce (which I adored), or being taught speed-reading (I know, right?).

Gift from the Sea

Gift from the Sea“Herein lies one key to the problem. If women were convinced that a day off or an hour of solitude was a reasonable ambition, they would find a way of attaining it. As it is, they feel so unjustified in their demand that they rarely make the attempt. One has only to look at those women who actually have the economic means or the time and energy for solitude yet do not use it, to realize that the problem is not solely economic. It is more a question of inner convictions than of outer pressures, though, of course, the th outer pressures are there and make it more difficult. As far as the search for solitude is concerned, we live in a negative atmosphere as invisible, as all-pervasive, and as enervating as high humidity on an August afternoon. The world today does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone.”

Gift from the Sea is a lovely, lyrical group of essays written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She wrote them during a mostly solo vacation at the beach, a time when she was contemplating the different stages of our lives and loves, specifically womens’ lives. She writes about the problems inherent in our modern world, that pull us away from our families, and more specifically, from our selves. She extols the benefits of contemplation and self discovery, of the need for creativity and solitude in all of our lives.

When I think of creativity, I think of my gifted friends, who write books and paint paintings, who make beautiful pottery and take amazing photos. She admires all of these, but also the art and creativity in making a loaf of bread, the joy in cleaning your house. That sounds horrible, but it isn’t. She means that there is much to be proud of in the every day chores of women, and that the artistry of these chores is lost in our modern world, with modern conveniences. She doesn’t think we need to go back to washing our clothes on a rock in the river. Rather, she wants us to take pride in all of the things that we do, and not be always in a hurry to get on to the next thing. To live in the present, rather than the future or the past.

The essays are wrapped around different shells that she finds on the beach. Shells that represent the different phases in a woman’s life. Shells that represent new and romantic love. Shells that represent the exhausting time of raising small children. Of that time when our children are grown, and we have more time for self-discovery and contemplation. Of the joys and sorrows of being alone. Of being surrounded by family and friends.

My mom gave me this book when I was 19 or 20, I think. It’s a beautiful book, out of date in some ways, but more current and modern that ever in others. When she writes of the many directions women are pulled, of the distractions and diversions, she had little idea of what our world would look like, these 54 years later.

Changing The Rules

I’ve decided to switch out a few of the books on my reading lists. There are only three months left in the year, and I keep getting distracted from the books that I’ve ‘challenged’ myself to read. Maybe I’ll get to some of the books I had originally planned to read, and maybe I won’t. So there. I thought of being all sneaky and just changing the list on my sidebar, since no one seems to read my book posts, and the people holding these challenges couldn’t care less if I switch my books or not. But then I thought, hey, I can get a blog post out of this. Why waste that? So, here’s what’s out, and what’s going in in its place.

Casual Classics Challenge ~ This challenge is very lenient in its definition of ‘classics’. You’re allowed to pick any book written before 1970. How’s that for crazy, huh? So, here’s what’s out, and what’s in.


Out: Kim. I tried with this one. I wanted to like it, because I loved Kipling’s Just So Stories. Maybe I’m just not a big fan of adventure tales, because try as I might, I could not get into it.

The Old Man and the Sea

In: The Old Man and the Sea. Believe it or not, I never read this in High School. I don’t know how I got through without it, but I did. So I’m thinking maybe it’s time to go fill in at least one gap in my education.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve read any Hemingway at all before.

Mrs. Dalloway

Out: Mrs. Dalloway. I didn’t even give this one a try, and I know I should have. Maybe I’ll try again some time.  I suspect it’s lovely, but the last time I tried to read it, I couldn’t do it.  But there’s a part of me that just really, really wants to have read this book.  Ever feel that way?  Like I’m not sure I want to read it, but I want to have read it.  Odd feeling.

Gift From the Sea

In: Gift From the Sea. This was a gift from my mom when I was a teenager, and I loved it then. I re-read it in my mid 20s, but I don’t think I’ve touched it since then. I wonder if reading it from the ripe old age of 43 will give it new perspective? I know that when I re-read Madame Bovary a few years ago, it was like I was a different person. Which in some ways, I guess I am.

TBR Challenge ~ This is just 12 books that you want to read. Easy, right? I don’t have a real reason for taking the books off of this one that I’m taking, except that between January and now, my interests have changed a bit. So maybe I’ll read some of the ones I originally listed, and maybe I won’t.

Tale of Murasaki

Out: Tale of Murasaki. I kinda do want to read this one. I read Tale of Genji in college, and this is a fictional story of the author. But I’m just not feeling it right now.  I suspect I’ll come back to this one, perhaps next year.  The author is the author of Geisha, and is herself the only westerner to have ever become a Geisha, at least according to the book jacket.  This is a historical novel about the author of what is usually considered the first novel ever written.

In: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I know, I already read this. So what?  My step-mom and I agreed that this was an unfortunate title, and both of us were turned off and almost didn’t read it for that reason.  But enough people told us it was really good, so we both (separately) read and loved it.  So don’t be put off by the dumb title.

The Gargoyle

Out: The  Gargoyle.  I’m vacillating on this one.  Has anyone read it?  Sounds like it might be interesting, but I just can’t seem to motivate myself to read it.  Yet.


In: Neverwhere. I was telling a neighbor how much I enjoyed Stardust, and she suggested I might like Neverwhere, which is also by Neil Gaiman. She then loaned me her copy, which sort of ups the ante on when I need to read it, right?

The Road Home

Out: The Road Home. This one isn’t really totally out. I’m still reading it for Dewey’s challenge.  I was going to read it for two challenges instead of one, but then I decided that I wanted to include the book I just got from the library on the recommendation of my step-mom.  Which is….

Broken For You

In: Broken For You. My step-mom was telling me how much she liked this book, and that a friend of hers said it was one of her favorite books ever. I’m on page 34, and already I like the characters better than I ever did most of the characters in Saving Fish From Drowning.

The Member of The Wedding

The Member of the Wedding “A last difference about that morning was the way her world seemed layered in three different parts, all the twelve years of the old Frankie, the present day itself, and the future ahead when the three of them would be together in all the many distant places.”

Frankie Addams is the bored twelve-year-old protagonist of Carson McCullers’ novel, The Member of the Wedding.  Frankie’s boredom comes from the invisible prison walls that she feels trap her in her mundane existence.  Though World War II rages on in the world outside, there is no part in it for her.  She cannot go overseas and fight, she cannot even donate blood in support of the cause.  She is trapped.  When the wedding of her older brother is announced, Frankie finds herself falling in love with the idea of the wedding, with the importance that being a member of the wedding affords her, and with the hope that her brother and his wife will take her with them, out of her achingly provincial life, into a world of adventure and intrigue.

The book is divided into three parts, the past, present, and future, signified by her three different names.  In the first part of the book, she is Frankie Addams, frustrated child, trapped in her boring life.  In the second part, she is F. Jasmine Addams, sophisticated member of the wedding, who feels connected with the world around her, though she struggles to understand the motivations of the adults she comes into contact with.  In the third section, she is Frances Addams, newly thirteen-years-old, and seems to have broken free of the chains that bind her to her dull existence.

The other main characters in the story are Berenice Sadie Brown, the black housekeeper of the Addams family, and John Henry West, her much younger cousin.  Berenice is Frankie’s friend, mother figure, and confidante, and her stories of her own lost love and the trappings of being a black member of society in the South are lessons to Frankie about love and life, and serve to show how much Frankie still has to learn about life.  The harshness of her background serve as a reality check to Frankie’s dreams of escape and adventure.   John Henry also serves as a foil to Frankie, in his calm demeanor and old soul attitude, trapped in a very young body.  While she is taken by fits of fancy, he is grounded and far more realistic.

This is a largely internal novel, concerned with evocative settings and the emotions of the characters far more than actions.  What actions do occur are described as though you were seeing them from the corner of your eyes, and when you turn to face them head on, they dissapear.

Casual Classics Challenge

MizB over at MizB Challenges You is hosting 5 different challenges this year, one of which is the Casual Classics Challenge.  I’ve been looking for some motivation and accountability to inspire me to read “Mrs.  Dalloway”, in case I decide to read “The Hours”.  Do you find my life pathetic when you read that sentence?  I sorta do, but also, I suspect that those of you who read book blogs and participate in challenges probably understand.  The rules of this challenge are quite casual, which is nice.  The goal is to read 4 Classics in 2009.  That’s it.  And the definition of Classics* is pretty loose, too.  Any book written before 1970 can be included.   Without further ado, here’s my list.   Book descriptions are from, and are listed as Publisher Comments.

Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

“Mrs. Dalloway chronicles a June day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway–a day that is taken up with running minor errands in preparation for a party and that is punctuated, toward the end, by the suicide of a young man she has never met. In giving an apparently ordinary day such immense resonance and significance–infusing it with the elemental conflict between death and life–Virginia Woolf triumphantly discovers her distinctive style as a novelist. Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s first complete rendering of what she described as the “luminous envelope” of consciousness: a dazzling display of the mind’s inside as it plays over the brilliant surface and darker depths of reality.”

I tried to read this book several years ago, and I failed.  The beginning of Clarissa’s day was just too drawn out and kind of boring.  I’m hoping that I have matured enough since then to read the book and enjoy it, because I’ve heard such wonderful things about it.  Wish me luck.

The Member of the WeddingThe Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.

“Here is the story of the inimitable twelve-year-old Frankie, who is utterly, hopelessly bored with life until she hears about her older brother’s wedding. Bolstered by lively conversations with her house servant, Berenice, and her six-year-old male cousin — not to mention her own unbridled imagination — Frankie takes on an overly active role in the wedding, hoping even to go, uninvited, on the honeymoon, so deep is her desire to be the member of something larger, more accepting than herself. “A marvelous study of the agony of adolescence””

I read another book by Ms. McCullers several years ago, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and I was blown away.  It was a quiet, beautiful book, written when she was just 23.  Truly a wonderful, wonderful book, that I highly recommend.  I was at the library the other day picking up a few other books, and I saw this and had to have it.  See, another reason to join this challenge!  I’ll probably read this book soonish, as it is a library book.

Slaughterhouse FiveSlaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world’s great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.”

I’ve seen the film, years ago, which was pretty amazing. I honestly don’t remember if I’ve read this before, but if I have, it was so long ago that it doesn’t count.  Billy is a time traveler, shooting back and forth, forwards and backwards in his life, between his youth in WWII and his middle age in the suburbs.  It’s a lot better than I make it sound.

KimKim, by Rudyard Kipling

“Kim is an orphan, living from hand to mouth in the teeming streets of Lahore. One day he meets a man quite unlike anything in his wide experience, a Tibetan lama on a quest. Kim’s life suddenly acquires meaning and purpose as he becomes the lama’s guide and protector — his chela. Other forces are at work as Kim is sucked into the intrigue of the Great Game and travels the Grand Trunk Road with his lama.

How Kim and the lama meet their respective destinies on the road and in the mountains of India forms one of the most compelling adventure tales of all time.”

Several years ago, my Grandmother moved from her house in Modesto to an assisted living facility in Portland, where she can be closer to my father, step-mom,  and my sisters.  While we were going through her things, I found this book, which had been my fathers way back when he lived at home.  I brought it home with me, and vowed to read it sooner or later.  Looks like the time has come, or at least, will come, this year.  I grew up with Kipling’s Just So Stories (my favorite being The Cat Who Walked By Himself, O my best beloved).

Thanks, MizB, for hosting this challenge.  I’m looking forward to it.

*The idea of reading ‘Classics’ reminds me of when I went to talk to the department Chair of the Comparative Literature department, before I enrolled in graduate school.  He was talking to me about reading the Classics, and I told him I had read quite a few…he asked which ones I had read, and I mentioned books like these, like those written by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin, Shakespeare, etc.  It turned out that what he meant was the types of Classics you read when you’re a Classics major.  Cicero. Homer. Ovid.  Ancient works.  I hadn’t read much, just snippets in High School Latin, but he was very gentle and kind and didn’t make me feel stupid or anything.  I signed up for that department, partly beause he was kind.  The people in the English department were snobby, and there was a recession, so I couldn’t find work that paid more than I was making at my hotel job, so I decided to go back to school…I liked the books in the Comp Lit section of the bookstore.  Not the best way to choose a major, but actually, not the worst either.