Saturday, 28 March 2009

23 - 'Billard um Halbzehn' by Heinrich Böll

The German department at Monash University, my (indirect) employer for the past six years, must have had a liking for Herr Böll as his works seem to make up a disproportionate part of the foreign language selection at the second-hand bookshop. Of course, that means that the students weren't so keen on him... Whatever the opinions, the fact is that there were several books available for me to buy, and after reading (and liking) 'Ansichten eines Clowns' (see previous post), I thought I'd risk another $8 on 'Billard um Halbzehn' (Billiards at half-past nine; Germans do time strangely).

The story takes place over one day in September, 1958, on David Fähmel's eightieth birthday. We are told the story through the eyes of several of his family members and friends, and we are thrown backwards and forwards in time from 1907, when Fähmel senior arrived in the big city to make his mark as an architect, through both World Wars and into the society of post-war Germany. The narrative is held together by the central thread of the time bringing the tale towards its conclusion on the evening of the birthday, where the family comes together in slightly unexpected circumstances. So, money well spent?

Well, yes, but I had a harder time with this book than the last one. On top of the usual issues of reading in a second language (and you should try that when you've got the flu; like solving a Rubik's cube in a very dark room while wearing really effective sunglasses), the structure of the book was a little unbalanced for my liking. The book runs over 240 pages, divided into 14 chapters; however, the core chapter, describing David's arrival in Cologne and his success in being awarded the contract to build the abbey of Sankt-Anton, is spread over almost fifty of them. Half-way through this part of the book, I was very tempted to skip on to the next chapter (especially as the outcome was already known).

The spreading out of the narrative point of view to include most of the main characters was another dificulty I found with the text. At times, it was difficult to follow the writing and determine who was meant, especially as Böll often deliberately introduces new information at the start of a section, which only makes sense a few pages later. I also thought that some of the sections were a little weak; Joseph, David Fähmel's grandson, gets his turn late in the book and doesn't really add a lot to the story whereas more could have been said about his father, Robert.

However, on the whole, the same qualities which led me to enjoy 'Ansichten eines Clowns' shone through in this work too. The device of using a single day to describe the culmination of events going back decades and having the characters paint in the details of these events, selectively at first, keeps the reader thinking and guessing, and while the multiple viewpoints, as discussed above, don't always work, the ability to show several sides of the same situation enhances the reality of what is portrayed.

Another common stylistic device is the way the characters, especially the main character of each chapter, speak and think. Often, the scenes are more of a monologue than a dialogue; events are described in great detail without the need for a response or signs of interest from the listener. It's also common for the speaker to make a short statement but then think about the same material in great detail as if the information is meant more for the reader than the other characters present. In some ways, there is a little of the stream-of-conciousness type writing of Lawrence or Woolf, but the focus here is more on description rather than feelings; the narrative is much more structured than Woolf's chaotic streams of thought.

There are multiple themes packed into this relatively short book, but the main one is the temptation to conform to society's norms (which, in a German book, has obvious, sinister undertones). The Fähmel's are one of the few who do not swallow the ideology whole (although this does not mean that they stand up against their country and ther leaders; they merely refuse to accept the unpalatable parts of the package); however, many of their contemporaries do seize hold of these ideals, and as in 'Ansichten eines Clowns', many of these are able to use their connections to succeed in the post-war period.

Böll also looks at the idea of family and what that actually means: is a family constructed by blood ties, or is there something more? Several examples are given of family members who aren't connected by blood, and we are shown at least two examples of blood relatives who reject, or are rejected by, their family. At the end of the book, David does not have the celebration he had wished for, with seven children and seven times seven grandchildren, but he is surrounded by a group of his nearest and dearest, even if some of them are not 'real' family.

I have one more novel of Böll's to read, his Nobel-Prize-winning work 'Gruppenbild mit Dame', but I think I'll leave it for a little while. Much as I enjoy his novels, I need to take a bit of a time out from forcing my brain to decipher strange foreign words; I have work to do, a toddler to help look after and a Master's degree to work at (and the footy season has just started...). Nevertheless, I will get around to reading it at some point, and next time I visit the campus bookshop, I'll have a look and see what else they have available. For now, it's time to take off the glasses, put down the cube, and go and give my daughter a big hug!

Friday, 20 March 2009

22 - 'Blind Faith' by Ben Elton

Imagine a divided world where logic has been turned upside down. Where privacy is frowned upon. Where your every move, even at home, is closely monitored. Where language no longer means what it used to.

George Orwell wrote about this in his classic novel '1984'. Ben Elton pretty much copied it in 'Blind Faith'.

Elton, a comedian, script writer and novelist, is obsessed with two main themes: the environment and the impending danger of global warming; and celebrity culture and the rise of reality television. His early novels ('Stark', 'Gridlock', 'This Other Eden') went squarely down the environmental path while two of his later books ('Dead Famous' and 'Chart Throb') analyse the vapid arena of instant fame. In 'Blind Faith' he combines the two in a dystopian vision of a world which has abandoned science and is instead clinging to a bastardised version of religion to support itself, a version where the idea of marriage has been perverted to encourage people to get married as often as possible (apparently, Jesus didn't encourage the sanctity of marriage, it was the fun of the wedding he was promoting...). Your every move, including your sexual behaviour, is watched inside your own four walls by neighbours and the general public on the internet, and posting every single detail of your life on blogs or youtube is mandatory. London is a shrinking, overcrowded, disease-ridden hell, where scantily clad commuters invade each other's private space and where silence is impossible to come by (well, some things never change).

One of the central arguments in the book concerns vaccination, with The Temple (the church-like organisation, obviously overseen by an American umbrella organisation, which controls every aspect of life, including the creation of laws) seeing this affront to the Lord as the poisoning of children and the perversion of God's will. The desire to save his child is the catalyst for the main protagonist's progression from a sullen tacit obedience to society's norms to becoming a rebel with a very big cause indeed; to change society as we (don't yet) know it.

This all makes for an interesting read, and the author does manage to paint a chilling picture of a world without privacy, a world overtaken by the religious right (with slightly more liberal sexual attitudes), but it loses its significance somewhat when the reader is constantly looking for references to Orwell's version of a world gone mad. Trafford might as well have been called Winston Smith because their experiences are eerily similar (give or take a trip to McDonald's). Perhaps Elton thought that in a celebrity-obsessed, past-forgetting, reality-star revering age, he would be able to pass off this kind of literary plagiarism as his own ideas as (art imitating life) nobody really reads books any more. It's more likely that he thought it would be clever to rework a classic novel with more relevant current themes. Whatever the rationale, I don't really buy it.

'Blind Faith' is entertaining enough; however, it's aimed more at the kind of people who are lampooned in the novel, the movie-star-worshipping internet generations with their Facebook pages and lives lived out in public in the hope of being seen and loved (and yes, I know that this is slightly ironic coming from someone who is posting these views in a blog...). It's 320 pages of fluff; easily digestible and over in a matter of hours, a fitting tribute to the disposable age. Do yourself a favour, and read the original instead.

But please feel free to keep reading my blog.


Thursday, 19 March 2009

21 - 'The Riders' by Tim Winton

Australia is a big country. But you knew that already.

Not that many people. You probably knew that too.

It's a fairly new country. Common knowledge.

All those things together, however, contribute to a unique psyche; a mixture of strength and confidence blended with a sense of respect for nature and wide spaces and a mistrust of the ancient; a sense of belonging but a certainty that things are different from the way they are in the north.

No wonder they drink lots of beer.

This unique perspective can also be artistically productive though, and Australian authors can produce great novels, whether they are set in the vast expanses of the Outback, the sun-kissed coastal cities of the east or west, or far away in Asia or Europe, detailing the troubles of Australians abroad. Tim Winton, a native of far-flung Western Australia, is well known for his tales of life and troubles in and around Perth, but 'The Riders' takes its protagonists on a rollercoaster ride around Europe, a continent that is both familiar and exotic, accommodating the visitors in good times and spitting them out when things get tough.

This book is brilliant.

Scully, an Australian labourer, is in Ireland, fixing up an old house which his wife, Jennifer, decided to buy on a whim after the family's wanderings throughout Europe. While Jennifer and their daughter, Billie, fly back to Perth to tie up the loose ends in their old life back in Australia, Scully prepares for his new life. However, on arriving at the airport to greet his girls, he is shattered to find that only his daughter gets off the plane...

This event is the catalyst for a mad dash all over Europe in search of a woman who seems to have disappeared without a trace (and who obviously does not want to be found). Scully drags his poor daughter, cold, sleep-deprived, wounded and traumatised (initially unable to speak from the shock of what has happened) from Ireland to Greece to Italy to France to Holland, desperately chasing the faint trail his absent wife may, or may not, have left behind. In the process of this Odyssean journey, the father and daughter begin to change roles; the strong labourer clutching his frail daughter to his chest becomes confused, injured and drunk while his daughter, physically resembling her father but with the intelligence and adaptability of her mother, gradually comes out of her protective shell and begins to take over responsibility as Scully sinks deeper and deeper into desperation. By the end of the novel, she is the adult of the two, taking control of the finances and making decisions for the both of them.

From the start of the book, the omens are not good. Back in Ireland, Scully sees a crowd of ghostly horsemen in the night, the 'Riders' of the title. These harbingers of ill fortune give us the first clue of what is in store for the Australians, and when Billie sees some young boys racing beside the train during their travels in Italy, Scully reacts as if they were the same spectral riders as he saw before. In Mythology, the tradition of the Wild Hunt, known throughout Europe, was thought to warn of doom, destruction, war and also inclement weather. This latter theme is a constant throughout the novel; the constantly moving family seem to be plagued by bad weather, from the treacherous boat trip in the Greek Islands to the wintry weather (and watery floors...) of Amsterdam. In addition, there is a theme of highs and lows which appears in most of the locations. Scully looks for truth and happiness in the Greek mountains and the bell towers of Notre Dame (Billie, with her comic version of Hugo's famous story, constantly compares her father to the famous, misunderstood Hunchback), but the realities of life continue to drag him down to the underpasses and metro stations of Paris, and the police station basement and submarine resting place in Amsterdam. By the end, he really has hit rock bottom.

The front cover of my edition contains a quote from the New Yorker magazine saying 'The curse of this haunting book is that you read it too fast', which is incredibly apt; the first time I read 'The Riders', probably about five years ago now, I read and read and read until I had got to the last page. Winton sets up the story in Ireland and then sucks you in with his writing until you experience the frantic pace of Scully's desperate flight; his mad dash becomes your own personal race to the end of the book, and when you finish, Billie and her father are not the only ones left feeling drained and in need of recovery! This time, I was able to take it a bit more slowly, but only a little; the story still pulled at me, requiring me to keep going for just a little longer, just as Scully is pulled from city to city in the need to chase what may be just ahead, but also to escape the mess he has just left behind.

I need a drink just from writing about it.

At the end of it all, when the chasing is over, and we are back in Scully's old new house, it is difficult to reflect and understand the reasons for it all. There is a deliberate ambiguity in the rationale for what occurred, and it is this which is the scariest part of the story. Through Scully, as he searches his memories, trying to find something which would explain his wife's disappearance, the reader is given various glimpses of the family's past life and possible reasons for Jennifer's decision, but nothing becomes clear, and the haunting truth of the matter is that this is something that could happen to anyone at any time. Is it possible to know anyone well enough to be sure that they will always be there and that they won't vanish into the night? Something to think about while you fail to sleep at night...

Australia. Lots of Kangaroos. Kylie Minogue. Incredible writing.

Yes, OK, and lots of beer.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

20 - 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' by Thomas Hardy

Tess, Tess, Tess; what a bloody mess.

An accurate description of my thoughts about Hardy's most tragic of heroines and the book itself (but not in a bad way). Confused? Let's start again.

Reading this book is like watching a film about a famous person who died at an early age; you revel in their charm and success and think and hope and pray that events will conspire to turn out for the best every time, but, of course, they never do. Poor old Tess is doomed to make the same mistakes, whether they be of her own making or not, for all eternity, as much as the reader wants things to turn out for the best. For a twenty-first century reader, the tragedy is arguably greater as Tess does not really commit any great sin by our standards, and the punishment which comes her way thus seems disproportionate to the 'crime'. That is, of course, until the fatal denouement...

A book which came to mind while reading this one was George Eliot's tale of country folk and a fallen woman, 'Adam Bede'. Both novels tell of the tragedy of a country girl courted (in slightly differing circumstances) by a man from a higher social class, and both heroines suffer for being caught up in affairs outside their social sphere (and both, in different ways, eventually pay the ultimate price for their sins). As well as Hetty Sorrel's being a far more willing participant in events than Tess, the main point of contrast, however, between the two tales is that Eliot's centre of focus is the honest yeoman, Adam, who wishes to marry Hetty himself. Hardy's focus on the woman in the middle, 'seduced' (read raped) by one gentleman and abandoned by the other is bolder by far; much too bold, in fact, for Victorian audiences.

I first read this book in a different edition about a decade ago and vaguely remembered something about a mock marriage which was the cause for Angel Clare's treatment of Tess. So when I read the edition I'd picked up at 'Borders', I was slightly surprised (to say the least) to find that this part of the plot had been replaced by what was, for the times, a pretty obvious reference to rape. This was actually the version Hardy chose to publish in 1891 and was the plot he had not been allowed to release when the novel was being serialised in various publications (as was the norm in the Victorian era). The highly annotated version I bought included various emmendments, alternative versions of the story and references to several different editions of the text; 'Tess' is less a book than a shared myth, seemingly told (or at least published!) in a different form each time it is released.

Hardy famously eventually got sick of the moral sniping his works received, abandoning the novel fomat after 'Jude the Obscure' was similarly cut by timorous editors and slaughtered by zealous moralists, something that current authors should be grateful they do not have to go through (although some see shocking the public as a badge of honour and would be happy to be attacked in the same way!). This constant criticism of Hardy's 'pure woman' is hard to grasp as Tess is blameless for D'Urbeville's conduct; by today's standards, Angel, who leaves his new wife and condemns her to a life of hardship and her subsequent submission to her rapist's advances, seems as worthless a man as Alec and deserves everything he gets.

Like Eliot, Hardy portrays the country folk of England in the eighteenth century as they really were. The traditions of the past centuries still survive, but the intrusion of modernity and urban life, the inheritance of the industrial revolution, has started to take its toll on country life. The author is succesful in his attempt to make the pastoral dwellers individual and human, and the cycles of the country year, so alien to the modern, city-dwelling reader, appear as real as our own tax years and football seasons. However, the whole book is overshadowed by the fore-knowledge of the tragedy to come. Just like Romeo and Juliet, we know, from a shared cultural knowledge, that Tess is doomed; this sense of fatalism makes reading this book, as vibrant and well written as it, a difficult task. It's a far cry from some of his earlier works, such as the (comparatively) cheery 'Far from the Madding Crowd', and I finished the book with a heavy heart and a sense of regret for a woman wronged.

Poor, poor Tess. Gone, but definitely not forgotten.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

19 - 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' by Dan Holloway

Reading my latest book was somewhat of a voyage of discovery as it involved several aspects I'm unfamiliar with. Firstly, I'm pretty monogamous with my reading, so reading two books at the same time was an unusual feeling (and as close as I hope to get to adultery). In addition, one of those books was an e-book, and, not wanting to risk losing my job for using the office photcopier to print the whole thing out, I read the story straight from the screen. However, the most novel of the novelties was the fact that the book I was reading was by an unpublished author who had sent me a copy for free.

So how does that happen? No, I didn't get an unsolicited e-mail (although many Nigerians have contacted me recently owing to issues with sending their private funds out of the country; I must get back to them some time soon...), and I didn't find a USB in the street. One day, I was idling my time away on Facebook (as you do), flicking through the contributions on a group dedicated to Haruki Murakami, when I saw a post from someone offering a free PDF copy of his novel (not Murakami's, someone else's. Hope you're still with me). As I like reading a lot (and like not spending money almost as much), I took up the offer, and that is how 'Songs from the Other Side of the Wall' made its way into my life, and onto my Compaq Presario.

Reading two books at a time wasn't really a big issue; I'm a big boy now, and I'm able to keep two ideas in my head at the same time. Reading directly from a PC was more of a challenge as it was difficult to focus for any great length of time. Because of the issues of reading from a monitor (scientific studies have shown that people blink less when looking at a computer monitor than when reading print), I occasionally got a headache when reading, leading me to read in short bursts. Which was OK because I probably should have been having shorter lunch breaks anyway.

It was the unpublished author part which was the most interesting experience though. The whole concept of knowing that the book has not been published affects the way you look at the text; in fact, I found myself becoming more and more critical and analytical than is normally the case when enjoying a book. This was, in some ways, justified: there were several spelling mistakes which (understandably) had been overlooked in the editing process, and there were other errors of language which could be attributed to the fact that the book had not had a professional eye cast over it. As well as these typos though, there were some basic errors (e.g. using 'their' instead of 'there') which seemed a little less forgivable (if anyone finds a typo here, I apologise profusely and blame it on the distraction of my daughter. She's currently asleep, but I'm blaming her anyway).

In terms of the book itself, I found the spread of locations and nationalities a little overwhelming for such a short work and wondered whether it had been over-done a little. While all the places had their own reasons for being included, the story would have been affected very little by condensing the action into just a couple of places. Szandrine is undoubtedly a citizen of the new Europe, but there wasn't really a need to spread her cultural heritage so thinly over 137 pages. I also found the character of Yang to be incongruous and, in some ways superfluous. The book is about Szandrine and her past and future; to me Yang seemed a bit of a side issue (titillation almost?), and the discovery of her role in events towards the end of the novel appeared to be a device to tie loose ends together.

Looking back at what I've just written, my poor blog readers (if, indeed, there are any) must be commiserating with me for the waste of my time and assuming that any such offers will be sent straight to the little green bin on my desktop in future, but that is definitely not the case. Apart from the issues above (which are relatively minor and only my humble opinion), I enjoyed most of what I read in this book. The influence of Murakami, freely admitted by the author, is apparent in many areas. Food and drink (Gulas and Hungarian wine rather than 'Cutty Sark' Whisky, pasta and grilled eel!) are important elements of the novel, binding Szandrine to her Hungarian heritage and providing a link betwen the pre- and post-communist eras. Szandrine herself is fairly Murakami-esque as a character (apart from being female - then again, her sexuality means that her partners can be portrayed in a similar way, and Murakami often describes secondary characters more than the main protagonist); we discover things about her life, but we never really get an insight into who she is and how she feels. One thing we do know is that she is not part of the usual working society, and that she is trying to find a place to fit into. Oh, and there's a talking statue. And a cat.

The charm of this book is the way we start with Szandrine trying to make sense of her life and follow her through, learning about things almost at the same time as she does. It's a voyage of discovery which leads to an open ended finale, and we are left wondering where she goes from here. The way forward is most certainly not clear, just like the start, but in a different way perhaps?

Dan's latest project is a book, 'The Man who painted Agnieszka's Shoes', written incrementally and published on a Facebook group page:

This method of publishing allows members of the group to comment on each short chapter as it appears, thus possibly influencing the progress of the book (which is reminiscent, in the sense of a life being discussed by virtual friends, to Szandrine's blog in this novel: life imitating art or vice-versa?).

In short, give unpublished authors a chance, read what they have to say, appreciate the chance to read for free, and enjoy being part of a small artistic community. Unless, of course, Mr. Holloway gets the shits with me over this review; in which case, feel free to never read anything not bought in 'Borders' again. Your call, Dan :)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

18 - 'Mrs. Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf

Tony was walking home, thinking about all the things he had to do that evening, gazing idly at the dandelions (silly things, really, when one thinks about them, yellow, fluffy, idle things) growing in the field next to the road leading up to the station. 'What am I going to say about Mrs. Dalloway?', he thought, 'What are the main themes, why did she write it (she being Virginia Woolf of course, a stream-of-conciousness writer Tony had lately become aware of; a little late in the day, but never mind), what does it all mean?'. He continued walking, passing a woman, probably in her mid-thirties, pushing a pram down the slight incline which rolled down towards the university buildings before levelling out slightly, pushing a chubby-cheeked baby in the pram (and wasn't that one of the things that most came through, the role of a woman, the energy, the effort expended - wasted - on organising the household, holding parties when, and this is the tragedy, the talents of the wife far outstripped those of the bread-winning husband?). The woman nodded as she passed, happy, content to have escaped the gloomy living room and enjoying the fresh air; the child looked on ignoring Tony.

And as he trudged up the hill, thinking back to the characters and events of the book, he thought how topical some of it still was; poor old Septimus, a victim of medical malpractice, misdiagnosis - well initially anyway. Unable to cope with the aftermath of a terrible ordeal during an awful war (just like those returned from the first Gulf War, or the soldiers, and civilians, on both sides out in Iraq and Afghanistan): post-traumatic stress they called it nowadays, 'shell shock', the specialist had labelled it. He had, nevertheless, the moment of peace and happiness with his wife before taking the fatal step - Tony paused while crossing the road, careful not to be caught by the impatient traffic (another parallel?) - out of the window, and into... who knows? Was he starting to come round? Was it merely a moment of lucidity before the inevitable? If the doctor hadn't come, would he have... - one more road safely navigated, on the last stretch now.

But the writing, he thought, actually said, for a moment talking to himself as he walked past the playground, his voice tailing off as he became aware of the parents pushing their daughter on the swing, looking suspiciously at him until he smiled, looked away and continued down the road, thinking (not speaking) once more of the way the dialogue, the thoughts of the protagonists meandered, got sidetracked, mingled with other people's minds, before giving way to the next person, sometimes so quickly that you were never quite sure who was thinking. It's people like that that you have to be careful of, she thought, pulling her daughter off the swing and looking coldly down the road. But Tony had gone.

And now he was springing down the last hill, remembering the party, the bringing together of all the characters, making them interact, act, perform for the reader in one last hurrah before the fall of the curtain (not far to go now, just around the corner), although Clarissa seemed deliberately kept back, away from Richard and Sally, prolonging the suspense until (just coming up the driveway now) when Clarissa finally comes up to Richard, (his wife comes to meet him at the door) and the blood starts to come to his face (he bends toward her and kisses her, still thinking, distracted), and the book ends -

"Tony, for God's sake, you are not Virginia Woolf. Stop daydreaming, and go and pick up the baby."

Make of that what you will.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

17 - 'Candide' by Voltaire

There are many things which come together to make a good novel; an interesting plot, sparkling wordplay and deeper themes to make you think are just a few of those. 'Candide', an eighteenth-century tour-de-force by the French writer Voltaire, has all these things in spades, and, just as importantly, it has more than a hundred llamas. Now that's what I call a book.

Candide, the title character, is a young German growing up in a luxurious country house when he is beaten and thrown out for innocently flirting with the daughter of the house, Cunegonde. In the next thirty chapters, Candide travels half-way around the world, accompanied by a variety of fellow unfortunates, most of whom disappear and reappear in slightly unbelieveable circumstances. After traipsing round most of the civilised world (but not Australia - unsurprising for the mid-eighteenth century, but disappointing nonetheless) and winning (then blowing) his fortune, the young Westphalien ends up in Constantinople with his team of faithful retainers, comitted to a life of cultivating his garden.

The book is actually Voltaire's response to various philosophical theories and literary critics of the time, and most of the events and characters are related to this concept. Pangloss, Candide's first teacher and mentor, believes that everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds, but Candide's experiences in his journey around the globe gradually lead him to become disillusioned with this view of life. Martin, an unfortunate who is chosen by Candide to accompany him back to Europe after his spell in South America, is much more of a cynic, and it is he who is proven by events (and people) to be more in tune with the ways of the world.

The peripheral characters serve to demonstrate the wisdom (or folly) of the philosophical principles. Happiness is nowhere to be found when Candide and Martin return to Europe, and every time that the young German thinks he has found someone who is happy, it turns out that their lives are wretched and that Martin, once again, is right. Cunegonde's brother, who Candide meets again twice (and kills once - not when you might think either...), refuses to accept Candide's pursuit of his sister, despite all that the hero has done for the family. He is not the only character who refuses to accept the reality of the world and wishes to ignore what is actually there.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book (despite having to marry a sweetheart who is no longer quite so sweet - both on the inside and the outside...), Candide does seem to have found a kind of happiness and a purpose to life. In the words of Voltaire, to be happy in this life, "il faut cultiver notre jardin". This simple statement can be interpreted in several ways:

1) As is related in the Bible, man was created to serve God and was put into the Garden of Eden to improve God's work and make life there as good as it can be (a very Panglossian approach).

2) The devil really does make work for idle hands to do, so it is necessary for people to find an occupation if their lives are to be meaningful and they are to avoid the temptation of sin (perhaps a critique of the idle nobility, of whom Cunegonde's brother is a prime example).

3) Gardening is a great way to spend your free time, and it also helps you to save on your grocery bills (not quite so profound, but every bit as meaningful; I'm sure Voltaire would have approved).

Without delving deeply into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophical treatises, it is impossible to understand every nuance of the scenes sketched out in this novel (controversial in its time for bringing fiction into the sphere of prose); however, it's also very enjoyable just read as a parody of the trashy literature of the time. The style of writing is very tongue-in-cheek, coincidences abound (the book is a little 'I Know What You Did Last Summer'esque for the number of people you could have sworn were dead but...), and no ethnic, social or religious group is free from the satire. Apart from the Australians, of course.

The other main reason I enjoyed the novel though, was that I read it in French (the only use I now have for my Bachelor's Degree - four years at the expense of the taxpayer well spent). For those of you who can speak the language fairly well, it is a surprisingly easy book to read, especially if you have an annotated study edition, as I have. There were a few sticky moments here and there, but, judging by the footnotes, many of those may have caused problems for modern French speakers as well.

All in all then, 'Candide' may not be the best of all novels in the best of all possible worlds, but it is a great way to practice your French and entertain yourself at the same time (for those who aren't that into gardening, anyway). And the llamas? Well, I'm not going to reveal everything; you'll just have to read it for yourself...