A Clockwork Orange

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Although I had several book suggestions from my friends up next on my “to read list”, I started this book until I could get the chance to acquire those. Having heard its name multiple times, I got this novel last year without knowing any more about it. I excitedly started it as soon as I brought it home, but right from the first page, I was faced with multiple odd words like “droogs, rassoodocks, mesto, vesch, mozg, peet, deng” and became frustrated with not being able to understand most of what I was reading. Although the novel is mainly in English, these strange words prevented me from understanding the entire meaning of the sentences, and unfortunately, being too eager to dive into a new fictional world, I moved on to a new book. Few months in and having forgotten why I stopped the first time, I thought I’d give A Clockwork Orange another try – nope!

Finally, I picked it up for the third time a few days ago – this time, expecting what was coming. So, I did some more intensive research beforehand. These “gibberish words” were none other than Anthony Burgess’s own made-up Nadsat language: a Russian-inspired, secret slang language used by the teenagers in this dystopian setting. For the first few pages, I tried to guess the meanings of the words based on the context. While it worked for some of the simpler ones, I couldn’t quite figure out all of the words and had trouble moving along. At that point, I started using an appendix of all of the Nadsat words I found online (Appendix). I read the first couple of chapters with my book in one hand and my phone with the glossary open in the other hand. There were instances where I did have to look up the same word several times as there were too many to remember in such a short time. But, with each page, I began to become familiar with more and more of the words, and by the last third of the book I was able to read 99% comfortably without needing to look up any. By the end of the novel, Burgess not only told me a story, but he also taught me a whole new language – one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen an author do with his/her literature.

As for a quick recap of the plot: the story revolves around a group of teenagers who terrorize the public after dark with robberies, assaults, and even murder. The rest of the story focuses on the dystopian government’s unconventional methods of “curing” our antihero. That is the most I should say so as not to ruin the rest. However, the novel focuses on themes like good & evil, free will, and violence – a lot of violence. The book is very dark with many graphic scenes (the main reason for getting banned from multiple high schools). However, it does have a lot of dark humor that makes up for some of the more heavy themes.

I wanted to use the book’s own title as the name of the blog post since it is strange enough to begin with (its meaning is more fun to discover while reading the novel). Described online as a form of metafiction (“fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality”), the title is actually the name of a book written by a character within the novel itself. Simply put, this book is filled with many dark twists and turns, including lots of secrets the author has hid along for us to find! For those who have read the book, I would love to hear your perspective and thoughts about it! What started as an infuriating piece of literature has definitely become one of my new favorite books.

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Barrabás came to us by the sea

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Surprise! This blog post is NOT about a Russian novel! Maybe I’ll start with how I came to put a hold on my quest to read all the Russian classic novels. I mentioned many, many moons ago that I was spending the 23rd year of my life exploring NYC by reading novels on the trains and teaching middle school science classes. Fast-forward nearly five years: I am finishing up my last few months of medical school (hence, why I’ve suddenly started updating my blog after so many years!). I spent the majority of my fourth year working on applications for residency programs, which meant not only a lot of traveling for interviews, but also having many opportunities to discuss books with people I met along the road – including my interviewers. When I mentioned to one of my interviewers that the last book I had read was by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she asked whether I had ever read The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende, an author who (like Marquez) uses predominantly magical realism themes in this novel. Although I immediately jotted down the name of the book in my black portfolio so as not to forget, the excitement/stress of the application process got the better of me, and I did end up forgetting it. However, a few months later, while running my fingers along used-book shelves at the bookstore, I coincidentally ran into the only copy of this book there. Without thinking twice, I grabbed it, excited to have woken up so lucky that morning.

Having really enjoyed several of Marquez’s works in the past, I was excited to enter another magical realm with this book. What I did not expect was to be pulled into a page-turner. The general plot focuses on several generations of the del Valle family, their familial and romantic relationships, the turbid political environment they live in, and the unspeakable secrets they hide from one another (similar to those of the Buendia family of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). However, Allende begins the story with magical elements right from the first page with an introduction to Clara, the family clairvoyant, and Rosa, the unearthly beautiful (mermaid-like) older sister. From there, she pulls in her readers with further mystical (or odd?) events such as an uncle with an exceptional adventurous spirit and an abnormally large pet dog, Barrabás. These are just a few of the initial oddities the readers face. The rest of the book addresses ghosts, mummies, and other paranormal activity, but the natural and effortless incorporation of these elements into the story (as if the abnormal is expected or easily accepted) distinguishes the story as belonging to the magical realism genre rather than horror or supernatural fiction.

As I mentioned, the story deals mainly with the familial dynamics of several generations. There are themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, justice, feminism, revenge, political resistance, punishment… I could list at least ten more. Because this is a longer novel, Allende explores all of these themes eloquently. Her writing is engaging, poetic, and flows effortlessly. In fact, it has helped me create such a vivid visual of the settings and characters that I am sure I will keep these mental snapshots for years to come (see my first post!!). In order to express these ideas effectively, she does use strong (and even a bit graphic) descriptions. Some of the treatments of her heroines were painful and upsetting to read, and I wondered how difficult it must have been for an author to put her leading characters in those situations. But I understood the importance and necessity of it in the end.

Before I wrap up, I will mention that the name of this post is the first half of the first sentence of the novel. Although it has contextual significance, I simply loved the way in which the words just seemed to complement each other so perfectly, and it is the first phrase to pop into my mind when I think of the prose itself. I realize I could keep talking about how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll leave this post short(ish). I hope that it at least gives you an idea of what the book is about and has gotten you curious enough to jot its name down on a corner of the nearest sheet of paper.