Reviewing The Lord of the Flies

The original UK Lord of the Flies book cover

The original UK Lord of the Flies book cover

Somehow, I knew almost nothing about William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies prior to my beginning reading it. I had no ideas about any of the characters, the plot, or even the setting. The only thing I had heard about the book came from my cat. Well, to an extent anyhow. I was on the Amazon page for the book when my cat decided it had been long enough since the last time he walked across my keyboard. His paws expertly scrolled my browser down to the product reviews section of the page. There, before I was able to toss him aside and scroll back up and away from any potential spoilers, I read the title of a single review: “Terrifying”. Back up at the top of the page, away from the synopsis and reviews, a click of an icon immediately and magically deposited the book onto my Kindle. A few cups of coffee, a comfortable chair, and an empty house (save for the cat with his obnoxious food-anxiety issues: you keep his bowl full or he snaps into a violent rage; otherwise, he’s quite congenial) and I was deposited onto an uninhabited tropical island, spectator to unsupervised children finding their way in a seeming paradise.

I sat there, enjoying a paradisaical retreat from the burdens of reality. I quickly realized this book fell into the genre known as ‘Robinsonade’: survivalist fiction set in some sort of isolated locale, taking its name from the 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe. As the pages turned, a portion of my thoughts wandered into any number of fantasies, and memories of fantasies, that all kids, as well as adults, have about the prospects of being marooned on an uninhabited and unknown tropical island. Conveniently, our imaginations shy away from an examination into the circumstances that put us there to begin with: the scream of wind buffeting against failed jet engines, the mumbled prayers of the passenger next to you, and then, of course, everything that happens in conjunction with a jetliner tearing a scar through a jungle. If you can avoid thinking about the scene the survivors, and they’re more than likely the less-fortunate ones, find themselves in, only then do we allow our fantasy to begin. The dead and severely maimed fade away, along with the flames and toxic stench of what burning jet fuel does to metal, plastic, and corpses, leaving us conveniently plopped, and remarkably unscathed, into a simple paradise.

I relaxed as I tap-tap-tapped my way through the Kindle version of the Lord of the Flies, the completion percentage steadily reaching for 100.

 Non-spoiler Premise:
A plane full of school children, all boys, crashes on an uninhabited tropical island. The pilot and all other adults are not featured, leaving the reader to presume they perished in the crash. In any case, the cast of characters essentially consists of preadolescent boys.

Now, I’m not going to go any further than this. If you’ve read the book, you know where this all ends up going. If you somehow have not read the book and are not familiar with its twist—a group I was fortunate enough to find myself a member of—then you simply must read this story. Do not seek further reviews or commentary, the less you know the more you’ll enjoy the book.

A little past half-way through the story is when things really take a sudden turn. At one point, I set the book down and said aloud, “Whoa, that escalated quickly.” By then, the hook was set and, with a jerk on the line, I had no choice but to ride this thing out. The curtain is lifted and the allegory reveals itself. The second half of the book moves very quickly, and by the end you find yourself sitting there not unlike a scared child that just became aware that they lost their innocence.

I’ve often fantasized about finding myself mostly alone on an uninhabited island. Now, maybe not so much.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 (a must read allegory a la 1984, Animal Farm, etc.)
Genre: Robinsonade, Dystopia, classics, fiction, allegory
Length: 227 pages (Kindle version)
Kindle Price: $5.66 as of March 2014
Paperback Price: $12.11 as of March 2014
Year of Publication: 1954

First lines:

THE BOY with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat.

Selected lines:

“He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.”

 

“The crying went on, breath after breath, and seemed to sustain him upright as if he were nailed to it.”


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Ottawabollah

If you live in the United States, consider this scenario:

Canada is hell-bent on erasing Mexico from the map. Ottawa organizes and funds a militia and sends them to a suburb of D.C. to set up a state within a state, setting into place the resources and framework needed to begin terrorizing Mexico. What’s more, this Canadian militia has no qualms about terrorizing the U.S. to meet their ends; a number of U.S. leaders are assassinated in car bombs if they seem like they might speak out against Ottawa. The Canadian militia regularly moves into neighborhoods in the U.S. Southwest, hiding among civilians as they launch rockets across the border into Mexico. Mexico responds by striking back at its attackers– once peaceful neighborhoods now collateral damage. Your suffering, the result of unfortunate geography.
Fatima-Gate-Cover
If this scenario makes you a bit uncomfortable, then you’re starting to understand– albeit just barely — a small part of what the citizens of Lebanon have been experiencing under the hammer of Hezbollah for the past few decades.

In his most recent book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, Michael J. Totten articulately covers the chaos that has consumed Lebanon for the better part of the past decade. Totten lived in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, during periods of unrest and was able to add to his writing the flair that only a first-hand account can provide. As is constant in Totten’s work, he digs into the history, as well as the country’s recent past, to build the setting for his readers.

While covering foreign people and events may be Totten’s literary raison d’être, his analysis occasionally circles back on his home country, the United States of America. Totten does well at explaining foreign concepts in a domestic manner and voice.

In 1991, the U.S. signed off on Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in return for Hafez al-Assad’s “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The U.S. had enough of Syrian foreign policy, though, by the time the second Iraq war rolled around. The younger al-Assad helped terrorists and insurgents from all over the Arab world transit through Syria into Iraq to fight American soldiers and car bomb civilians. In 2003, a fed-up U.S. Congress retaliated with the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

Totten collected interviews from a number of key places and people, including time spent inside Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburb, known as the “dahiyeh”, and in Northern Israel as Hezbollah katyusha rockets came screaming over the Libyan-Israeli border. His first-hand accounts not only offer credibility to his writing, but they engage the reader in contemplation. I found myself spending more time thinking about Totten’s words than actually reading them; and I mean that with the utmost praise for his work.

I stepped out of our car and braced for an explosion. The Israelis fired artillery shells over our heads every couple of moments toward points unknown on the other side of the horizon. I jumped every time and tried in vain to get used to it.
[…]
Bang, followed by an arcing tear in the atmosphere. Bang, followed by the sound of ripping sky. A mile or so in front of us, a series of glowing surface-to-surface missiles hurtled toward Lebanon at impossible speeds and somehow got faster as they flew farther.

The Road to Fatima Gate offers its readers unique insight into the turmoil in Middle East and will leave you with a greater understanding of an extremely complex situation that is fueled by even more complex set of politics and relationships. Let Totten draw the connections, as he does plainly and articulately, and finish this book with an expanded view of a troubled, yet fascinating, corner of our globe.

At least the Israeli homes on the other side of Fatima Gate were out of rock-throwing range. They were not, however, outside rifle, mortar, and rocket range. Living in a house so close to South Lebanon in 2005 was like living on a seasonal floodplain or atop a tectonic fault. The false peace couldn’t hold. How could it hold? Hezbollah’s hatred of Jews and Israelis was white-hot and total. It was difficult, if not impossible, for Westerners like me to wrap our minds around it.

Also, read my review of Totten’s previous book, Where the West Ends.

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Fade to East: Reviewing Where the West Ends

North America’s Pacific Rim is the western edge of the West. In the east, the West fades slowly like twilight. – Michael J. Totten – Where the West Ends

Where The West Ends Cover
In Where the West Ends, Michael J. Totten opened up a world I previously, only vaguely, knew from my childhood memories, flipping through the cable news channels. I am a child of the 80s and 90s (I claim two decades on the basis of teeth; my deciduous came in during the early 80s and left me by the early 90s). Countries with names like Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo have generally garnered memories of images of tanks rolling through cityscapes and snippets of speeches by President Clinton, but little more. Those countries were on the other side of the world and I was too young and disinterested to care. Graduating into adulthood, I began to think more about the worlds that exist outside of the realm of my familiarity — it’s now something I spend a great deal of energy dwelling upon.

Totten paints a face on those countries and many others in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Middle East, and makes them feel real to the reader; in fact, what so thoroughly drew me into his writing was how hyper-real some of his descriptions were. As evidence, I offer his words on staying at a hotel in Sarajevo’s “Sniper Alley”:

If you can see the hills, the hills can see you, and the hills loom beautifully but ominously over everything. That night I dreamed I was trapped there during the siege, scrambling to find a place where I couldn’t see hills.

At times, I found it impossible to not empathize with the subjects of war, such as in this description of the battle between Serbia and Croatia:

When you fight for your own house, your own family, believe me, you don’t see black and white. You see only black.”

But Totten is quick to highlight the beauty of these regions as well. The dull, grayish images in my mind took on a new layer of color and beauty after reading some of this descriptions. He speaks about the “perfection” of Dubrovnik, Croatia and the stand-out beauty of Kiev, Ukraine. (Both are places I have realistic plans to visit, inspired in part by Totten’s descriptions.)

I also enjoyed learning the small things that every culture holds, pinned to their hearts, that add a unique contribution to their identity. In Romania’s capital, Bucharest, an argument between a husband and a wife on a bus will quickly involve everyone else on the bus. Whereas in America, we become uncomfortable and try to ignore a lovers’ quarrel, in Bucharest you pick a side and join in!:

 “You should take the bus in this city,” said Alina, my translator. “Every time there is an argument between two people, everyone on the bus gets involved. Everybody takes sides. A husband will yell at his wife, and half the bus takes his side while the other half takes hers.”

Or the compassion and tolerance of Georgians, even in the face of their “enemies”:

Georgia: I even heard that some Georgian civilians took pity on the underfed Russian soldiers and cooked meals for them in their kitchens. I don’t know if it’s true. What I do know is that many Georgians believe it is true and think it a plausible thing for Georgians to do. And I didn’t detect anything in the Georgian character that made me believe the rumors to be false.

Throughout the accounts in Where the West Ends, what resonated most with me was how he communicated the foreign viewpoints towards the United States and Americans. I knew Kosavoans had a special place in their hearts for the United States, but it was affirming to read about a statue of President Bill Clinton that’s displayed prominently in Kosovo’s capital on, of course, Bill Clinton Boulevard, or how ubiquitious the American flag is displayed in that new country.

Kosovo:

 “And I definitely think they were right,” Fana said. “We are not European, we are American! We are the 51st state!”

Romania:

“People here liked President Bush more than people in other places,” Voinescu said, “but they now love President Obama. Romanians are ready to embrace any U.S. president. There is a certain kind of emotional attachment to whatever the Americans decide about their own country. I think people liked President Bush because they liked his toughness on certain issues. You know that in this part of Europe, after the whole communist era, you need sometimes a stronger approach when you talk about various issues. On the other hand, they like Obama because, you know, his charm is seductive everywhere.” I don’t know if President Barack Obama reciprocates that feeling of affection, but Vice President Joe Biden almost certainly does.

One of the most memorable moments in Totten’s accounts touches on the fall of former Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. He describes how people publicly respected Ceaușescu, but harbored hidden ill-feeling towards him individually. The true story of Ceaușescu’s fall from power, and subsequent execution, is the type of drama that exists even beyond the imagination of the greatest of writers of political fiction:

 Apostol is my age. He was a teenager when Ceausescu’s regime was overthrown, so he remembers it vividly. It began during one of the president’s outdoor speeches when thousands of people suddenly stopped applauding and cheering and started booing and jeering at him instead.

Where the West Ends is foreign-correspondent journalism at its best: travel diary kindled with observations of war and its scars, doused in politics, and set ablaze with the match of historical context.

I highly recommend you afford this book your time:

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