Monday, December 31, 2007

Year in Review: Brent

Making this list was really difficult. On another day, Huck Finn, Vernon God Little, Of Human Bondage, or Lolita might have made it, but I guess it really just means that this was a great year for reading. Here's hoping 2008 is as good.

Best of the Year
1. War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy

2. Don Quixote
Miguel Cervantes

3. East of Eden
John Steinbeck

4. Underworld
Don DeLillo

5. The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis

6. Ethan Frome
Edith Wharton

7. The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen

8. As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

9. Middlesex
Jeffrey Eugenides

10. Watership Down
Richard Adams

Books I Hated:

Invisible Monsters
Chuck Palaniuk

Song of Susannah
Stephen King

Books I just didn't care for:

]Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J. K. Rowling

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

Books that were bad but still a lot better than Invisible Monsters:

Scavenger Hunt
Christopher Pike

Carlton's Year in Review

I have a problem of overthinking things in general. Lists pose a particular problem. Here goes...

Top ten books I read this year:
10. The Chamber
by John Grisham
9. All Aunt Hagar's Children
by Edward P. Jones
8. Colors of the Mountain
by Da Chen
7. Tuesdays with Morrie
by Mitch Albom
6. Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton
5. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
4. Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov
3. A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
2. To a God Unknown
by John Steinbeck
1. The Man Who Was Thursday
by G.K. Chesterton

Less than stellar:
The Hobbit
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling
Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
by Lewis Carroll
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings
by Charles Dickens

Books that made me laugh:
by David Sedaris
A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
by Vladimir Nabokov
The Wednesday Wars
by Gary D. Schmidt
I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!
by Bob Newhart

Sexiest 50 Booker:
Christopher Chilton

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings by Charles Dickens

Apparently Charlie Dickens only had a few ideas regarding Christmas. They are as follows:
1. ghosts, ghouls, or goblins
2. a large, poor family
3. someone who is either sick, dying, or dead…preferably a small child
4. a miserly old man
Nearly all of the eight stories in this collection feature at least one of these themes. On a number of occasions, it felt as though Dickens was forcing them into the story.

While I realize that it is not fair to judge Dickens by this collection alone, the poor quality of these stories was shocking. Like most, I was familiar with ‘A Christmas Carol’, but I had never heard of the other seven stories that make of this collection. There is good reason that I hadn’t. Again, to be fair, they were not necessarily selected because they were some of Dickens’ best work, but because they deal with Christmas in some way.

‘Christmas Festivities’
This was a very short article describing – you guessed it – Christmas festivities. Not bad, but nothing noteworthy.

‘The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’
This short story was about a gravedigger who is working on Christmas Eve, which I am sure Dickens considered tantamount to blasphemy. As he is toiling away late in the evening, he is confronted by a group of goblins, who, based on Dickens’ description and the accompanying engraving, strongly resemble court jesters. They take the gravedigger deep into the earth, possibly to one of the outer circles of hell, although this is not clear. Then they proceed to show him various people celebrating Christmas, as they feel he should be doing. They end by showing him the family of the little boy whose grave he had been digging. The gravedigger wakes up the next morning in the graveyard and is so freaked out that he just leaves. People speculate that he was taken by goblins (the natural assumption) and stories abound about his exact demise.
Dickens’ was not quite there yet…something was missing.

‘A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock’
This was an extremely short story about a man who befriends a deaf man on Christmas. A deaf man…that’s close, but not good enough. Come on, Dickens. Tug at my heart strings.

‘A Christmas Carol’
A tiny, dying boy who can only walk with the aid of a crutch…bingo! This was generally well written, and it featured the most character development of any of the stories in this collection. It was also funny. The same cannot be said for the other stories.

‘The Haunted Man’
Boy I hated this story. It was about the length of ‘A Christmas Carol’, maybe even a little longer. However, it was convoluted and disjointed. Much of the problem stemmed from ill-defined characters coupled with poor use of names. Dickens would refer to the numerous characters in this story by more than one name, making it very difficult to understand what was happening.
As far as I could tell, everywhere that this old man – a professor – went, he sowed discord and strife. For some only partially explained reason, this man was haunted by a doppelganger ghost…a doppelghoul if you will. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a young lady who seems to spread cheer. She is a maid for the professor. Because their paths were inadvertently similar one evening – with the geezer always a few minutes ahead of the girl – this young girl catches the brunt of the ill will that resulted in others due to the presence of the old man. The professor realizes this and sets out to make it up to her…sort of. Along the way, he encounters a ragamuffin orphan (bingo!), an old dying man, and a young student who appears to be faking an illness (at best he is milking his recovery time for all that he can). The professor also encounters a Cratchit-esque family, sans dying/crippled child. The old man, who doesn’t really appear to be particularly mean or bad, has a “change of heart” and miraculously the story concludes with essentially every character sitting around the professor’s table.
Ham fisted to boot.

‘A Christmas Tree’
This story was the most bizarre of this collection. Dickens spends most of the essay describing a decorated Christmas tree. A tree that is adorned with bulbs, string, pictures, scary porcelain masks, books, dolls, trains, and a slew of characters from The Arabian Nights, which Dickens apparently loved. About 10 pages into this 16-page essay, Dickens begins describing places or people that are haunted or visited by ghosts. He spends little more than a paragraph on each person or place. The result is a ridiculous, unimaginative listing of haunted people and places. Feliz Navidia de los Muertos!

‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older’
In the same style as ‘Christmas Festivities’, this essay describes a Christmas celebration, centering on the elderly family members in attendance.

‘The Seven Poor Travellers’
Dickens describes a Christmas dinner that he planned with the expressed intent of inviting some travelers that were boarding close to his house. Luckily this was rather short.

Most of the pieces in this collection were uninteresting, unimaginative, and really quite awful. Some of them made very little sense. At best they felt like toss offs by Dickens, which I suspect they were. Read ‘A Christmas Carol’ and avoid these other stories entirely.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

2007 Post-Mortem

Well, it's been a wonderful year. Those of us remaining have read, between us, 222 books. That only comes to less than 40 books a person, but, hey, that's why there's 2008.

Here is the top ten books I have read in 2007, in descending order of awesomeness, not including re-reads like Huck Finn:

10. The Man Who Was Thursday
by GK Chesterton
9. Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre
8. The Power and the Glory
by Graham Greene
7. The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
6. A Scanner Darkly
by Philip K. Dick
5. Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov
4. Money
by Martin Amis
3. Watership Down
by Richard Adams
2. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
1. Catcher in the Rye
by JD Salinger

And the bottom of the list...

60. The Children of Men
by PD James
61. Those Who Blink
by William Mills
62. Sexing the Cherry
by Jeanette Winterson

Post your own and tag them "top ten 2007"

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Here is my 62nd, and most likely final, book of the year, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Here is a review of the same book by Brent.

For those of you too lazy to click the link (Carlton), here is a plot summary: The Corrections follows the Lambert family as it deals with the quickly deepening Alzheimer's of its patriarch, Alfred. Five major narratives are weaved together: Alfred's, his wife Enid's, their sons Chip and Gary's, and their daughter Denise's. Chip is a former university professor disgraced by an affair with a student who gets involved with a complex scheme by a Lithuanian politician to defraud American investors. Gary is a wealthy but intensely unsatisfied broker whose family life is like a battlefield. Denise is a restaurant chef dealing with her sexuality.

On the surface The Corrections is very boring; most of the issues at hand are commonplace to the point of being uninspired. But Franzen imbues them with a deep wit and cautiously observed meticulousness that lends them the fullness of realism, tracing each character's life from early childhood. The Corrections has an epic sweep to it; it endeavors to capsulate five lives in five hundred pages and does pretty well.

I liked The Corrections, but I didn't really love it. For one, it reminded me of too many other books--White Noise, Disgrace, Money, Absurdistan--at different points, but each isolated part didn't really measure up to the work that it reminded me of. Furthermore, Franzen's prose is extremely bloated--some sentences ramble on for half a page. Here's a sample:

It was the alarm bell of anxiety... By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for as long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound.

It isn't that this style doesn't work; to the contrary, the way that it pyramids upon itself accurately reflects, I think, the jagged but connective nature of human thought and experience, which Franzen seeks to capture. But at times it can often be straning. Information in The Corrections comes at an overload pace, and because the phrasing can be so ungainly it seems anything but effortless. It's as if you can hear Franzen typing--as opposed to say, someone like Cormac McCarthy, whose sentences are so carefully composed and minimalist that they seem to exist absolutely and without a creator. Franzen's style works for the purpose; but to me it wears out its welcome.

Still, I enjoyed the book. If I hadn't known how much Brent liked it already, I probably would have recommended it to him because it has that quirky, true-to-life feel that seems to me in Brent's own style.

Postscript: I forgot another thing that bothered me about the book. There are lots of references to modern pop culture, but Franzen seems to be of two minds: at one point, he references a "famous director," but at another point, he namechecks Stephen Malkmus. One style suggests that Franzen wishes to strip temporal reference points from his book in order to give it the tone of timelessness; the other suggest that Franzen wants to act as a testament to his own place and time in the universe. Choose, dammit.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Underworld by Don DeLillo

"They had the rear of the bus to themselves on the ride back, the motor right below them, heat beating up, and they dozed on each other's shoulders, faces sun-tight and eyes stinging slightly, tired, hungry, happy, the bus belching heat below them."

"I long for the days of disorder. I want them back the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. That is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself."

If you require a strong, linear plot to propel you through a novel, then Don DeLillio's massive tome about Cold War America isn't for you. If you like endings that time up everything neatly, or where all the loose ends are tied together into a nice braid, this probably isn't the book you should pick up. If Hemmingway is your favorite author, well, the excerpts at the top of the review should tell you all you need to know.

If you've enjoyed DeLillo in the past and you like sprawling, epic novels, you owe it to yourself to check out Underworld. Ostensibly tied together by the movement from person to person of the home-run ball from "The Shot Heard Around the World." Within its path are the lives of dozens of characters, the main one of which, Nick Shay, has a secret that forms what tension exists in the book. The book isn't intended, however as a thriller. It's a slow moving slice-of-life about paranoia, death, religion, growing old, America, the Cold War, and the latter half of this century. I personally found it hard to put down, and I have to say that the prose is some of the most beautiful I've ever read. There's a passage near the end of the book that describes a landfill in such a tragic, nostalgic way that it almost gives me chills. That takes some skill.

The book is 827 pages long, but despite that, felt a lot shorter than Cosmopolis, one of the other two DeLillo novels I read this year. Underworld also eschews DeLillo's usual trademark of keeping a safe emotional distance from his characters, choosing instead to relate their inner turmoil through incomplete sentences, awkward pauses, strange guestures, and every other tool at his disposal. This book was recently chosen as runner-up for the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years. I would say it deserves those accolades. It was a challenging book, and it ends my 50 with a bang.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


2007 is almost over--is everyone who is still posting (me, Brent, Carlton, Kelly) down for another year?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Christopher wrote a nice review of this book, in which he placed the work within the larger historical context of children's literature. That is an interesting facet of the book. At the time when Wonderland was published, children's literature was instructive and largely religious in nature. So, Carroll's absolute absurdism was something out of the ordinary.

The comedian Jim Gaffigan does a bit about dreams, in which he points out how people are alway really keen to tell others about their dreams, but to anyone but the ones having them dreams are horribly boring. That's how I felt about Wonderland and Looking Glass. While each had their moments of creativity, I generally found them to be quite tedious. I am sure that within the pantheon of children's literature, these works are extremely important, that they marked a veritable sea change...I just didn't care for either.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex tells the story of Cal(lie) Stephanides and his family, several generations of it. Cal is a hermaphrodite, a person with both male and female sexual characteristics, and the book traces the gene that made him what he is.

From his grandparents' unusual courtship and exodus from Greece in the wake of Turkish Invasion, to his parents' taboo pairing, I found the stories of Cal's family very interesting, and it's a good thing too, since Cal's actual story only takes up about one-third of the book's nearly 530 pages. A lot of the reviews I read complained about this, but it didn't bother me, probably partly because I knew nothing about the book before starting it except that I liked the cover and Eugenide's previous book, The Virgin Suicides.

As you might expect, there's some pretty hosed-up stuff in the book, from some horrific violence during the escape from Greece to the dryly medical explanation of Cal's condition. His first sexual encounter, the growing sense of dread that someone will eventually learn his secret, the anticipation of when Cal himself will realize he's different—all of these combine to make the book compulsively readable.

The ending is very well done and quite affecting, and I think Middlesex probably ranks as one of the best modern novels I've read this year. If you're not too bothered by disturbing imagery and you don't mind sprawling narratives, check it out.

Edit: I'm finally caught up. Take that, Nathan.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynn Truss

I was in SC visiting Liz, and I was with her at her office with no internet and nothing to read. I enjoy punctuation as much as the next guy, so I picked up Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. If collections of essays don't lend themselves to reviewing, humorous punctuation handbooks lend themselves to it even less so, so I don't know how much I have to say about it. Lynn Truss is a pretty funny writer, and she had a lot of good one liners. Most of the grammatical rules, I already knew, although the evolution of certain punctuating characters was interesting, and I'm still hoping the interrobang will pass into popular usage.

I sort of like the panda bear with a gun on the front cover too. I'd read a book about him.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

When Noah Webster wrote the dictionary in 1757, he created the English language, but more importantly he created the word super. Well, when our neighbors across the pond found out about this new language a hundred years later, they decided to make a dictionary of their own, but they weren't satisfied with the word super. The OED needed a better word, so James Murray and some looney named Minor added a letter to it, thus inventing the word superb. That is what this book is.

Oedipa Maas is our protagonist. On page 1 she is summoned to execute the estate of a billionaire friend and heads off to southern California to do so. Once there she discovers a clandestine postal system with roots in the middle ages that's been illegally competing against the USPS in a massively orchestrated conspiracy. The muted post horn is their symbol and it's seemingly graffitied everywhere once she starts to look for it.

The book is filled with references. Everything is a reference. I don't even think Pynchon would catch them all if he reread it. He pokes fun at cultural phenomena like Beetlemania and urban sprawl (read California). He mocks used car salesmen, psychiatrists, commercial radio, stamp collectors, pseudo scientists, sex, marriage, and drugs. There are words in Spanish, French, Greek and Dutch. The novel is short in length but huge in scope. Yes it's about a conspiracy, but you won't find it mixed in with those cheap paperback mysteries you find in the grocery. It's not just plot. It's dense.

I think it merits a second read. I'll probably go back through it next year. This is the first book by Pynchon I've read, and I've heard his others are much longer, so it's a good starting point. Read it and enjoy it.

Friday, December 21, 2007

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

Like the other collections of essays I've reviewed this year, How to Be Alone doesn't lend itself to easy reviewing. It's made up of a series of essays that Franzen wrote between 1995 and 200o-something, and they cover topics ranging from his father's slow descent into Alzheimers, to some of the unbelivable oversights of the US Postal Service, to the ubiquity of sex-help books.

I found the essays in the collection quite moving and interesting for the most part. The running theme throughout is a loss of privacy and personality in a modern world, but the essays rarely seem curmudgeonly. The exception is his essay on literature in which he direly predicts that the novel will be virtually extinct within a few years, a bit of a paranoid reaction to have immediately before hitting it big with The Corrections. And, speaking of that book, the first essay about his father's disease makes it clear just how personal much of that work was. My favorite essays, however, were the one about the derelict postal service in inner city Chicago, and 'Reading in Bed,' the bes essay on sex in the public life that I've read.

If you enjoy essays (or if you liked The Corrections, as I did) you'll probably enjoy How to Be Alone. At least check out 'Reading in Bed.'

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Judge McKelva - A kindly old judge whose surgury for a detatched retina goes wrong
Laural McKelva - The kindly judge's daughter, in town to support her sickly father
Wanda Fay - Judge McKelva's boorish second wife

This is pretty much the entire cast of The Optimist's Daughter. I purchased this book at a library book sale for a quarter, partly because I'd heard of Eudora Welty and partly because this book won the Pulitzer Prize.

Well, on one level, it's not too difficult to see why The Optimist's Daughter appealed to the Pulitzer committee: It's got both death and self-discovery, some regional humor and commentary, and a slow-moving plo that probably has a lot going on beneath the surface. The prose is prety without being overwrought, and the first part of the book, while Judge McKelva is recovering from surgury for a detatched retina, moves along at a nice clip, and fosters a fine sense of dread. The downside is that, once the Judge dies, the narrative movement in the book halts almost completely. Although the entire novel is only about 120 pages long, the last 60 pages moved at a crawl as either a) Fay does somehing cruel and thoughtless and Laural reacts to it by running off to be by herself or b) Laural has some personal revelation that never packs the power we sense it should.

I'll be honest, I may have gone into the book with the wrong expectations, but I read through waiting for a revelation that never happened, following characters I didn't care much about. There were a couple spots where the writing was powerful enough to make up for it, but for the most part, The Optimist's Daughter was too lethargically paced for me. It's not a bad book, but I don't think it's for me.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A group of ex-patriots go out drinking in Paris and San Sebastian sometime after WWI but before the Great Depression. Jake, a journalist and classic Hemingway bad-ass tough guy catch-fish-with-his-bare-hands character, once had/still secretly does have a thing for Bret Ashley, a somewhat shallow yet entirely human British aristocrat who is basically a tease to every man she meets. All they and their cohorts seem to do is get drunk in cafés, an activity that culminates in a week-long bull fighting fiesta in Northern Spain.

The novel, like every other Hemingway, is written in a really simple, natural style, but is never lacking in depth or characterization or description or anything else that makes a great novel great. I personally liked The Old Man and the Sea better, but that's probably because I just don't understand this generation at all. They don't really do anything. It actually reminds me of some of my friends who just go to the same bars with the same people week after week after week and never do anything exciting or unique. Except in this novel the people were doing stuff... fishing, bull fighting, traveling, but they were still incredibly jaded.

I'd read The Sun Also Rises over The Great Gatsby for sure. Plus, Hemingway could kick Fitzgerald's ass if it came down to it. Solid B+

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palaniuk

Holy crap, did this book suck. The review is going to be one big spoiler.

I'll summarize the plot as quickly as possible. The protagonist is a former model who had the bottom of her face shotgunned off. She travels around the country with her ex-boyfriend, a former cop/male hooker, and Brandy Alexander, a transexual “queen supreme.” Together, they run around the countryside, stealing drugs from old rich people. There's also a former best friend, Evie, who mostly stopped associated with Daisy. Brandy and Protagonist are both slipping female hormones into Boyfriend's drinks, so he is developing breasts and crying a lot.

So, here are the twists: Brandy is Protagonist's twin brohter, who she didn't recognize because of the sex change operation. He doesn't recognize her because half her face is gone. Also, we find out that Protagonist shot her own face off because... well, because Palaniuk had an idea that might have sounded neat when I was 15. She shot off the bottom of her face because it was the thing she least wanted to do. Same reason Brother became Brandy. Duh. Oh, also, Evie turns out to be a transsexual too, and Brandy blows her away at the end. At least, I think it's Brandy who does that.

Despite its pulpy sensationalism, Invisible Monsters was unbelievably dull. This is the second Palaniuk I've read (Diary was the first), and I feel fairly confident in saying that he's a total hack. There's nothing compelling or interesting in his work. Only a grade-school subversiveness and lots of dirty words. This book wasn't worth the time it took to write this review.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I enjoyed this book very much. Had I not stopped for a lunch break, I probably would have finished it in one sitting. Read Brent's review for a plot summary.

The plot reveals itself gradually throughout the book, with characters and events becoming more and more connected along the way. He hints that stories mimic spiderwebs, which describes his own story well. Is metanarrative the right word? It's all done really cleverly, but it's not disposable in the way that M Night Shyamalan movies are. Not a one-time use. The ending is nothing special. The real entertainment is in how the story is put together. I give it an A.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying currently holds the prize for the book I've started and put down the most times. I think I started it four times, got about 25% of the way through, and then realized I really didn't know what was going on. This last time I read it, I finally made it through, and now I'm not quite sure why it was so difficult.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of Addie Bundren, her death, and the subsequent trip to her hometown where she wanted to be buried. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person, and the book has quite a large cast. The sons: enigmatic Cash, borderline-empathic Darl, loner Jewel, youngest child Varadman; the daughter, confusingly named Dewey Dell; Anse, the selfish, uneducated father; and an extended cast of characters encountered along the way. Even Addie takes a single chapter to speak from beyond the grave.

Spoilers Follow.

Although the family's quest to bury Addie where she requested initially seems like a selfless act, some of the family members have ulterior motives for wanting to make the trip to the big(ger) city. Anse is already looking for a new wife and Dewey Dell is looking for a way to kill the baby no one knows she's carrying.

The tone of the entire book is pitch black and macabre, full of distasteful and distubring bits. Vardaman, drilling holes in the casket so his dead mother can “breathe”, drives a spike too far into the casket and into her face. Cash's leg is broken, so Anse encases it in cement, creating a makeshift oven in which it is eventually essentially baked alive. Dewey Dell is duped into a “Treatment” for her pregnancy that's essentially rape. Anse finds a new wife a day afer burying his old one. Not to mention that about halfway through the book, Addie Bundren's body begins to rot and smell so badly that the Bundren's are nearly arrested.

I read some analysis of this book after I finished it, and a lot of folks read it as a sort of black comedy. It's not an impossible viewpoint to adopt, but it requires a darker eye for humor than I have. I found the story mostly disturbing, but I also found that the initially confusing style added quite a lot to the narrative. We don't know if we can trust the narrators, and even if we could, their stories are delivered in a stream of conciousness style that is reinterpreted everytime a new character shares his viewpoint.

Overall, As I Lay Dying was a very good book, and I'm unsure if it made me want to read more of Faulkner's work or stay away from it. Faulkner reportedly wrote As I Lay Dying insix weeks and claims he didn't change a word. He is also quoted as saying that he wanted to write one book that his reputation could stand or fall upon. The book is a fish.

Edit: When I googled for this cover, the entire first page was the metalcore band As I Lay Dying. Lame. guys.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen

I was in an airport bookstore and decided to purchase this book because it matched the outfit I was wearing, thinking that I would look cool carrying it around Terminal B. I bought it, flipped it open, stuck a bookmark between two random pages, and began strolling through the airport, confident in the look that I had carefully cultivated.

The book is written by Da Chen, who was born during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. His family was part of the landlord class, a class that was despised under the new communist regime. His father and grandfather were forced to perform strenuous physical labor, were often beaten, and nearly always ridiculed. Here is an excerpt regarding the rules that were to govern Grandpa’s conduct:

“Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the commune cadre in charge of landlord reform had set the following rules: Grandpa could not visit his friends, he could not leave town without advance permission, and he was to write a detailed diary of his life every day. This was to be turned in every week. He wasn’t welcome in any public places, could not engage in any political discussions, and should look away if someone spit in his face. If they missed, he was to wipe the spit off the ground. There were more rules, but Grandpa forgot some when he came home to tell us about them.”

Chen befriends a group of hoodlums in his early teenage years, and he almost completely gives up on school, which was not that much of a surprise since intellectualism was a big “no no” during this time. This part of Chen’s life has elements of Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, and the countless other young, ragamuffin protagonists of English literature, the chief difference being that these “stories” are the real-life experiences of Chen.

Chen describes his early life and his hometown of Yellow Stone with simple prose. He manages to be clear and straight-forward while at the same time interesting and humorous. The book ends with Chen in his late teens, but it really feels like the story is just beginning, that there is still so much more. I wanted to know what transpired that enabled this young man in this small Chinese town to have his memoirs published by Random House. That is obviously not the story that Chen wanted to tell. But I think it too would have been an interesting one.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is probably most famous for the brouhaha that occurred when Oprah selected it for her book club. Franzen made some unflattering comments about Oprah's audience and that ubiquitous sticker, and Oprah retracted her invitation for him to appear on her show. The Amazon reviews for The Corrections are split almost exactly between 1 and 5 star reviews, with many of the 1 star reviews mentioning Franzen's slight of Oprah and barely commenting on the work itself. Even Carlton, a huge fan of the greatest woman who has ever lived, dismissed the book after reading it because of what he termed Franzen's "inappropriate comments." I ask you, how is a book like this supposed to get a fair reading? Well, by being read, of course.

The plot of the book is rather simplistic on its face. Alfred Lambert is suffering from progressive dementia brought on by Alzheimers. Enid is his put-upon wife. Their son Chip is a disgraced college professor turned slacker. Their other son, Gary, has been financially successful but feels like an outsider in his own family, due partly to his clinical depression and partly to his shewish wife, and their divorced daughter Denise, who is experimenting with lesbianism. The storyline in the Corrections takes place mostly in the past, showing how each member of the family arrived at their current state and ultimately culminating in the family's last Christmas reunited. I won't say much about their eventual decisions and the results because Chris is reading the book and I don't want to spoil it.

This year, I've read more postmodern literature than ever before, and The Corrections seems to fall in that class. Most notably, I detected echoes of Delillo's White Noise. Many of the trademarks of pomo lit are here: the trivialization of the personal, the degeneration and reinvention of traditional roles, and the isolation and impersonality of the modern world. What was more surprising to me is the heart present here. Although there are elements of nihilism in The Corrections, the tone of the book overall is fun and incisive, and the characters, though deeply flawed, aren't emotionless caricatures. I wanted Chip to come home for Christmas, for Gary to reconnect with his family, and for Denise to succeed in something, and the book wants them to as well.

I am curious about why postmodern writers seem to have a fixation on bodily functions. There were two or three passages in the book about Alfred being tormented by a small chunk of fecal matter. I don't think that happened in any of the other books I read this year.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the story of a bridge that collapses in the early 18th century between the cities of Lima and Cuzco in Peru. A Franciscan monk named Brother Juniper witness the incident and decides that this tragedy provides him a perfect test case to prove that we live by God's plan, and that there are no true accidents. Accordingly, he investigates the lives of the five people who perished on the bridge, and goes so far as creating a chart of their goodness and usefulness to compare to those who survived.

That, however, is only the frame story--the bulk of San Luis Rey is three tales which describe the five victims of the bridge collapse: The Marquesa de Montemayor, Esteban, and Uncle Pio (also perishing are the Marquesa's orphan ward Nina and Uncle Pio's student-to-be Jaime). The three stories are finely intertwined, and share many other characters in common, principally a character named the Perichole, a reknowned (and historical) Peruvian actress. The Marquesa is a widely belittled public figure whom the Perichole ridicules during a performance (but, we learn later, the Marquesa's letters to her daughter in Spain become treasured as a literary achievement after her death). Esteban is the bereaved twin brother of Manuel, a poor orphan copies letters for and is in love with the Perichole (before he dies of gangrene). Uncle Pio is the Perichole's benefactor, to whom she entrusts her son Jaime as a student. There are other recurring characters, like the Abbess and orphanage director Maria del Madre Pilar, and the Spanish Viceroy Don Andres de Ribera, but the Perichole is the closest thing that San Luis Rey has to a main character.

Ultimately, Brother Juniper is unable to come to a conclusion regarding the plan that sent these five to the great beyond, and the book he writes is condemned as heretical. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, too, seems to lack a certain answer regarding why they had to die this way, but there is no doubting that there is an interesting pattern at work in the interwoven threads of the story. When the Perichole and the Marquesa's daugter, Dona Clara, come to serve in the Abbess Maria del Madre Pilar's abbey, there is the suggestion not that their dedication to God in the face of suffering is the result which justifies the tragedy, but that at least there is some faint echo of purpose and design.

I liked this book, though at a tiny 110 pp. it seemed a little inconsequential--which is quite the opposite of what it intends, I think. That however, is probably just my hang-up. It did win the Pulitzer prize in 1928.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

At exactly 11:25 am this morning, the last American to never read a Harry Potter book finished The Sorcerer's Stone. That American was me.

What did I think of it? Well, it's hard to say, exactly. Harry Potter has inundated our culture at a ridiculous speed; the stuff in The Sorcerer's Stone might as well be Alice in Wonderland. Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, the golden snitch, Gringotts, Nearly Headless Nick--all that stuff is as widely known as the Queen of Hearts or Tweedledum and Tweedledee (and probably more widely known than the Lobster Quadrille). As a result, there was no way to reproduce in me the sense of wonder and amazement that is one the Potter series' chief virtues. I mean, shit, how many times have I seen the film of this movie, which already contains the best ideas and jokes?

That being said, even though I stubbornly resisted Pottermania, I do have a lot of respect and admiration for the colossal panorama that is the Potter series, which is basically a modern pop opus stitched together with ideas from lesser works (I can think of two or three "school for wizards and witches" books and shows from when I was a kid, though none so fully realized) that has the unique quality of growing darker and more mature as it follows its main character.

Still, I had trouble enjoying The Sorcerer's Stone, which, for me, was almost like reading a hastily written novelization of a popular movie. The prose is as good or worse than I had imagined, and often times descends into what sounds like advertising copy ("Had Hagrid collected that package just in time? Where was it now? And did Hagrid know something about Snape that he didn't want to tell Harry?"). Shouts and screams are rendered in all caps and dialogue is paced like a movie script, and Rowling does a whole lot of telling rather than showing.

It isn't great literature, then, but I don't think it's supposed to be; the Potter series' worth ought to be gauged more as a pop culture phenomenon. Still, I didn't get much out of the book (I'd rather watch the movie) and I hope that if I actually bite the bullet and read anymore they'll get a little bit better.

Bonus note: The American version of this book uses the title "Sorcerer's Stone" instead of "Philosopher's Stone," but also "soccer" instead of "football," which I guess made sense when they thought it was going to be basically a kid's book but now is kind of annoying and/or insulting. I suspect "candy" has been changed from "sweets" as well. Ought we to understand the fact that the movie uses largely American vocabulary in the mouths of British children as an example that America has appropriated what might otherwise be seen as a peculiarly British work of literature? Go USA!

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Sack of Panamá by Peter Earle

This is the story Captain Henry Morgan. Before he was on the rum bottle, he was a pirate, or as they were more politely called, privateer. He and his associates dominated the Caribbean sea during the later half of the 17th century, robbing the Spaniards into a state of fear and poverty. The book culminates with his campaign across the isthmus of Panama which successfully halted the shipment of gold and silver from Peru to Spain. My favorite story, however, was definitely his battle in Maracaibo. He pulled the ol' wooden-planks-painted-like-sailors trick and caught the Spaniards off guard. Classic pirate adventures for sure.

The book reads more like fiction than history, probably because the subject matter is so action packed. Earle is really knowledgeable and a good storyteller to boot. I plan on reading more privateer biographies, but for now haven't come across any more. Suggestions?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beloved by Toni Morrison

When eminent critic Harold Bloom says that there are only four great living American writers (McCarthy, DeLillo, Roth, and Pynchon), it is not difficult to cry sexism and racism at Toni Morrison's omission, and I say that as a person that does not bandy those terms around lightly. Yes, those four are truly great, but why not Morrison, who's style is as vivid, inspired, and tightly controlled as any of those four, and whose works speak to something truly American? In a recent poll, Beloved was voted the greatest work of literature in the past 25 years, just ahead of DeLillo's Underworld.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who now lives inCincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Eighteen years prior to the main action of the story (which has a snaking, elliptical plotline), Sethe was a runaway slave living with her grandmother Baby Suggs, when suddenly she spied her old slaveowner walking into the backyard, and instead of allowing her to return to slavery, slit her baby daughter's (unnamed, not Denver) throat--and would also have done the same to Denver and her two sons, Howard and Buglar, if she had not been caught. After Sethe was released from prison and the Civil War over, she continues to be haunted by the ghost of the murdered baby until the spirit is chased out by Paul D, a fellow slave from Sethe's former plantation who comes to live with her in Cincinnati. But then the spirit takes the form of a young girl (the age the child would have been if it had lived) who emerges from the nearby lake and comes to live with Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. Lots of other crazy and magical shit happens, and all the while you learn the strange and sordid details of Sethe and Paul D's past lives as slaves. Morrison is particularly graphic about some of the details she feels have been lost in slave narratives, such as rampant slave murder and sexual abuse.

I do not think that Beloved speaks to me as it might to an African-American, and so I haven't formed an emotional connection with it like I did other books I've read this year, but it's clear reading it that it's a true monument of American fiction. It is complex, imaginative, and brilliantly but tightly conceived. Jonathan Demme made a movie about it starring Oprah, but I cannot believe that that movie is any good--partly because it doesn't seem like Beloved, which is frequently strange and obtuse, could translate to the screen, and partly because I'm not sure Oprah really has the chops to take on a character like Sethe, who is troubled, complex, and somewhat otherworldy, none of which describes Oprah.

Highly recommended.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

--Sailing to Byzantium, Wm. Butler Yeats

I told Nathan I wouldn't see the Coen Brothers' film No Country for Old Men until I had read the book, which I did in a couple of days during my vacation to Cancun. It didn't take long at all, maybe two or three total hours, but a lot of that has to do with McCarthy's unique style. No Country contains a lot of paratactical sentences with very few quotation marks ("Chigurh did this and did this and did this and did this and did this"). The result is stark, much starker than The Road, which was comparatively intricate and detailed, and gives No Country a style which I have not seen successfully replicated in any novel. But also it makes the reading go very fast, sometimes to the point where I would read a page in thirty seconds and then realize that my brain had not had enough time to absorb what I had read, and I would have to go on and read it again.

In No Country for Old Men, we get the story of Llewellyn Moss, a rather ordinary young Texan with a wife named Carla Jean who happens to chance upon the result of a drug deal gone wrong while hunting in the desert. There are bodies everywhere, and abandoned vehicles, and a big bag of cocaine and a shitload of cash in a suitcase. Moss, in a rather nonplussed way, takes the money, but this sets of a chain of events in which Moss is hunted down by a cold and ruthless professional killer named Anton Chigurh who uses an air-powered steergun (it shoots out a tab which punctures a cow's skull and then pulls it back in lightning-quick) to kill his victims. Chigurh is the kind of villain that thiller writers try to create every time they write a thriller but rarely succeed: emotionless, austere, living both simultaneously outside of the law and in accordance to a strict interior moral code. The italicized monologues of aging Sheriff Bell, who relates his own horror at the deterioration of the county which he protects, are woven throughout.

In fact, No Country is a thriller through and through, but avoids the platitudes that so often come together to make good triumph over evil before the credits roll: the plucky hero cannot out-clever the professional killer; he doesn't play some cheap psychological trick (I'm looking at you, Vincent D'Onofrio) that goads the killer into violating his own methodicalness or let his guard down. The most important death and ostensibly the book's climax happens "off-screen;" what traditional thriller would be content with not allowing the reader/viewer to see that moment? And most importantly, there is no intimation that, even if Moss is able to beat Chigurh--which I will not say if he does or not--that this would mean anything, because even Chigurh, as fascinating and unique as he is, is simply a cog in a faceless, evil, all-consuming machine. The insinuation of the title is that even if you can prevent single crimes and tragedies, you cannot prevent humankind from succumbing more and more to its primeval urges; that is why Bell becomes so alienated and disillusioned. If The Road is a book about the way that humankind carries hope when hope makes no sense, No Country for Old Men is a book that screams, "Hope is lost," and in that way might even be more depressing.

I did like this book, but after The Road it was a little disappointing. I think I will read Blood Meridian, a more traditional Western.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I kind of wanted to avoid reading more than one book by any author this year, but for some reason, I've read four Tolkien books: this one, and the three Lord of the Rings books proper, and I have to say, if I had read this first I probably wouldn't have wanted to read the others. In that way, I echo Carlton, who thought the book was boring and juvenile.

The story is promising enough: Bilbo the hobbit finds himself volunteered for some reason for an adventure by Gandalf the wizard in which a bunch of dwarves travel to their ancestral home, the Lonely Mountain, to defeat the dragon Smaug that has taken up residence there and lords itself over the dwarves' rightful gold. Along the way, Bilbo meets the Gollum and gets his magical ring, which has a minor role to play in the three LOTR books.

But ultimately, this book has all the "negative" aspects of a Tolkien book--the possible racism, the boring poetry, the flat characters, the artless battle scenes--but none of the really interesting stuff, like the extensive maps, detailed histories, and invented languages. It hints at those things, of course, but by the time he had written The Hobbit Tolkien really hadn't conceived of his opus quite so grandly, and a lot of the stuff that makes the LOTR books so fascinating was sort of made up after The Hobbit and projected backwards on to it. It sucks for Carlton that this is where he decided to start with the series, but, then again, who gives a crap about Carlton?

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

So, I have a confession to make. Prior to reading Huck Finn, every bit of information that I had about it came from the 1998 Disney film starring Elijah Wood. I hadn't even read the Great Illustrated Classic. In fact, the only Twain I'd read all the way through was Captain's Visit to Heaven, and that's not even a book. So when I found Huck sitting on the third shelf of the local Goodwill for .69, I had no excuse. I had to read it. And I did.

Initially, it was tough going because most of the book is written in a dialectical form due to the fact that Huck himself is the narrarator. In case you've been living under an even bigger rock than me, here's the summary: Huck Finn and the Nigger Jim run away from home, Huck from his father and Jim from his mmaster and slavery in general. They build a raft to float up the Mississippi, and along the way, hijinks ensue.

The forefront issue always mentioned in regards to this book is race, and I confess, I was surprised by the constant usage of the word “nigger.” It's hard for me to see Huck Finn as being entirely a childrens' book when considering that, but, on the other hand, I am looking at it from a very 20th Century perspective. It's interesting too that, unless you simply take extreme umbrage to the word itself, there's nothing racist in Huck. Indeed, Jim is nobler and kinder than anyone else in the novel, including Huck himself.

The best part of the book concerns the Duke and the Dauphin, certainly two of the greatest comic villians in all of literature. The civil war beween two families is also interesting, mostly in that it points out that, even though neither one of the families can remember the slight that sarted the fight, both are willing to keep on killing until kingdom come.

And, I guess those are my thoughts on Huck Finn. Oh yeah, one more thing, I doubt this would be considered a childrens' book at all if it didn't feature Tom Sawyer in the beginning and end. It's a much more diverse and mature work than Tom Sawyer, Great Illustrated Classic.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Chris reviewed this book much earlier in the year and gave a very good summary of the plot. Rather than type it out again, you can just read his. His writeup and mine both have major spoilers so read on at your own risk if you ever intend to read this book.

Here's a very brief, spoilerific summary: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were all students at Hailsham, a boarding school where children are raised to eventually be harvested for their organs. It's set at some indeterminate time in the future, although there's nothing particularly futuristic about the actual story.

One interesting thing to me was the way the story was constructed. Throughout, there's never really any huge reveal. Ishiguro drops hints about the childrens' ultimate fate so that nothing that happens in the book really blindsides the reader (with the possible exception of the very end). In most novels, this would seriously undercut the dramatic tension, but in Never Let Me Go, it serves to ratchet it up, making the book more of a tense journey to an inevitable, foretold destination than a thrill ride to an unexpected conclusion. Because of this, my focus throughout the book was on the characters and the way they interacted with one another and I found it to be the most thought-provking aspect of the novel.

Unlike many books of this nature where the protagonists find out about an awful fate awaiting them and then fight it until their last breath, the characters in NLMG seem to, for the most part, accept their eventual fate. Until they are harvested, the subjects are caretakers of other donors, so they know exactly what will eventually happen to them, yet they've been indoctrinated throughout their lives that this is their ultimate destiny. Even Tommy and Kathy, who attempt to find a loophole, are blandly accepting once their last chance is finally shot down. It's just an interesting facet of human nature (and one that Christopher may have mentioned in his review) that people tend to adjust to just about any circumstances, given enough time.

The other thing worth noting is that the ending of the book is very affecting, maybe moreso than anything else I've read this year.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

At the risk of falling out of favor with the hip, college-kid crowd, I don’t think Vonnegut is all that great. He is a prime example of hype gone bad. People talk about Vonnegut like he is some kind of genius or god, or some kind of god-genius, or a god who is really smart. The combinations of ways that people talk about him are seemingly endless.

I have only read two of Vonnegut’s books, so how much can I really say? Well, I can say that I found both to be interesting, generally well-written, and perhaps most importantly, humorous. However, neither bowled me over, as I was led to believe they would by so many people.

Cat’s Cradle was recommended to me by a few people after I read A Man without a Country. In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut tells the fictionalized story of Dr. Hoenikker, the scientist responsible for the atomic bomb. Really, it is the story of a man who is writing a book about this scientist. His search leads him to the island country of San Lorenzo, where Hoenikker’s children have gathered. While on the island the writer meets a beautiful woman and falls in love, discovers a new religion, and narrowly escapes being wiped out by one of Hoenikker’s virtually unknown creations. Ice-Nine, which was originally created so the Marines would no longer have to trudge through mud, is essentially a restructuring of water so that its melting point is 150 degrees Fahrenheit. By simply tossing a bit of Ice-Nine into some muddy slush, the Marines would soon have a hard, “frozen” surface to travel across. The only problem is how to stop the reaction once it has started. Needless to say, Ice-Nine kills people. But stupidly enough, only if they touch it to their lips. Vonnegut seemed to ignore the fact that human skin in quite porous. This really annoyed me.

Anyway…sure Vonnegut has a gift for satire, but that alone does not elevate someone to the status of a great writer. Cat’s Cradle was good. Just good. I think I will try Slaughterhouse 5 next.

I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! by Bob Newhart

Bob Newhart is an incredibly funny person, not to mention successful. (Don’t know who he is? Check him out on IMDb.) His 1960 debut comedy album, The Button-Down Mind, sold more than a million copies, and supposedly outsold every album made by the Beatles in that decade. At that time there were a lot of guys still doing “take my wife, please” but Newhart and a group of younger comedians were carving out a niche as comedic storytellers. But even that fails to accurately describe Newhart’s act. He would present one side of a conversation, often on the phone. It may not sound all that funny, but it was…and is.

For example, in “The Submarine Commander” Newhart addresses the audience as if they were members of the crew, saying, “I’d like to congratulate you men on the teamwork we displayed. We cut a full two minutes off the previous record of four minutes and twenty-nine seconds in surfacing and firing at the target and resubmerging. I just want to congratulate you men on the team work. At the same time, I don’t want to in any way slight the men that we had to leave on deck. I think they had a lot to do with the two minutes we cut off the record, and I doubt if any of us will soon forget their somewhat stunned expressions as we watched them through the periscope.”

I don’t care who you are, that’s funny.

This book is essentially a memoir. Beginning with his early childhood, Newhart jumps around from one seminal event to the next, ending pretty much in the present. It was really interesting to see how long it took for Newhart to get his big break, and all the weird stuff he had to do to get by while waiting for this to happen. Newhart’s wry sense of humor comes through in the material, even when dealing with serious topics – which is not all that often.

I bought the paperback edition, so I was surprised at the number of simple typos, word omissions, and silly grammatical mistakes. It never ceases to amaze me how some things make it to press with so many basic errors. Some editor at Hyperion really dropped the ball. Besides these minor nuisances, the book was an enjoyable read, and often made me laugh out loud.

Newhart was the voice of Bernard in The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under. What more do you need to know? (That was a rhetorical question.)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker

A friend of mine who doesn't read much more than he has to once turned down a night buffoonery and drunken revelry to stay home and finish reading this book. So, I decided to pick up a copy. Good call.

Here's the premise. Weisbecker's old friend and surfing buddy Chris, aka Captain Zero, deserts his old life in the States and heads somewhere into Central America, cutting off all contact with his family and friends. Something like five years later, Weisbecker loads up his trailer and sets off along the Pacific in search of him.

It's more than just an account of his journey, it's a memoir. He inserts little tales from his past with Christopher. He talks about living in Hawaii during the advent of the short board. He describes a few failed attempts at running drugs from South America, and talks about growing up fishing off the far end of Long Island. He lets his personal philosophy bleed into all of the stories, and he really draws you into his worldview. Above all, it's entertaining. You'll probably find yourself wanting to do something slightly illegal and adventurous when you're finished.

As a side note, I think Nathan met Captain Zero in Costa Rica. Apparently he owns a book store somewhere near Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers started McSweeney's. He runs a high school literary group in San Francisco called 828 Valencia that puts together The Best American Nonrequired Reading every year (they also sell pirate apparel I think). He wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and a bunch of other books that people like, but the only one I've read is You Shall Know Our Velocity!

The story takes you inside the mind of a couple mental-whack-job characters as they travel the world giving away wads of cash. Their goal is to completely circle the globe in a week and hand out something like $30,000 to total strangers. The story's told from the perspective of an understandably disillusioned, fairly idealistic but totally irrational thirty-something named Will. His travel-mate, Will, brings a little reason and adventure along.

In this updated edition, Eggers has inserted a 50 page interlude narrated by Hand into the middle of Will's story. After reading both sides of the story, you can really see how unstable both of these characters are. The insertion is a good improvement on a great characterization novel. Everyone (in the English-speaking world anyway) can relate to parts of both of these personalities. Read it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ship of Fools by Katherine Porter

I realized with some chagrin the other day that I've posted nine books for class since the last one I finished as a personal choice, Tropic of Cancer. That's awfully depressing. To make matters worse, I had to suffer the ignominy of actually renewing the book I'd been reading, Katherine Porter's Ship of Fools, which had passed its one-month checkout limit. Clearly, school takes up far too much of my time, but at long last, here it is.

I decided to read Ship of Fools after I read one of Katherine Porter's short stories, "Flowering Judas," in the textbook for my 20th Century American Literature class (instead of actually paying attention to the lecture). It was a really beautifully written story, full of bright imagery and concentrated more on relating certain moods and images than advancing a plot.

Ship of Fools isn't like that; it lacks the hazy-but-languid style of "Flowering Judas" and replaces it with something dryer, but it isn't without its flashes of beauty. Instead, it's a character-based novel that examines what happens when a large group of strangers--an ensemble cast somewhere in the twenties--comes together on a transatlantic voyage from Mexico to Germany in the period leading up to the Second World War. Some of these characters are more interesting than others, and these are the most interesting: Jenny Brown and David Scott, a pair of American artists and lovers whose relationship is falling apart, Wilhelm Freytag, a young German who is banished from the captain's table when it's revealed that his wife is Jewish and who cultivates a relationship with Jenny, Dr. Schumann, the ship's conservative doctor who falls in love with La Condesa, an upper-class Mexican political prisoner and drug addict on her way to exile in the Canary Islands, and a group of Spanish zarzuela dancers who are also thieves, pimps, and prostitutes. Apart from being a well-developed character study, Ship of Fools is also somewhat of a political allegory that traces the rise of Nazism in Germany in the way that not only Herr Lowenthal, the voyage's only Jew, is treated by the censorious Germans, but also the uber-Gentile Freytag and the "unrespectable" lower-class passengers quartered in steerage.

I wasn't sure of this book at first, but I grew to really like it; by focusing on the more interesting and affecting strands and relegating others to B-plots, it actually becomes a heartbreaking study in human cruelty and loneliness. The most moving part, I think, is when Ric and Rac, the two troublesome twins that travel with the zarzuela company, throw overboard Bebe, a bulldog that belongs to a professor and his wife. Bebe is saved by a steerage passenger, who dies in the process. Porter offers the man's name--Echegaray, a common Basque name--but nothing else about him, and so we are forced to examine him uncomfortably through the eyes of the well-to-do first-class passengers on the upper deck, who regard his funeral with disdain or amused detachment. He is buried at sea without any known family to contact, forgotten somewhere in the Atlantic.

Its flaw is that many of the ensemble characters are wholly single-faceted, like profane, racist Texan William Denny or the Jew-hating Herr Rieber, but the detail given to the other characters more than makes up for it, I think. All in all, I enjoyed this book, though I think the next one I choose for myself will have to be a bit shorter than Ship of Fools' 497 pages.

An interesting observation

These are the five most popular books at UNC according to Facebook, which published it as an item in my newsfeed for some reason:

Harry Potter
Pride and Prejudice
Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Great Gatsby

Except for Harry Potter, which is unsurprising, the newest book on there was published in 1960 and the oldest in 18-freaking-13. I am comforted by the thought that literature endures enough that college students could prefer "classics," for the most part, to newfangled crap like The Notebook (which is the no. 2 movie, after Wedding Crashers). I would not have expected that at all.

Here are the next five:

The Bible
The Da Vinci Code
Angels and Demons
Ender's Game

Not quite as inspiring, but still. Also, if I have to hear another person say, "Never read The Da Vinci Code, huh? Read Angels and Demons, it's better," I might have to stab them in the mouth.

Depressing side note: The number four "interest" is "The Beach."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Nathan reviewed this book awhile ago, read his review. Some of the jokes did feel a little stale by the end, but I still enjoyed reading them. Adams did a wonderful job weaving together some very perceptive observations with a well-characterized cast, making the 800 page journey an entertaining read. If you pick it up not expecting to gain any huge insight into anything, you'll probably enjoy it. Basically it's a good vacation read if you don't feel like completely throwing intellect out the window.

The last book doesn't really come to any closure, but the fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, was definitely my personal favorite. It's relatively independent from the rest of the series, so if you can only read one, make it that one (you'll probably still miss half the jokes though).

Friday, November 9, 2007

The World of Pooh by A.A. Milne

So, think about this: When you think about Disney, you think about Mickey Mouse first, right? Well, profits for Pooh alone for the Disney corporation are greater than all of the Mickey Mouse characters combined. Pooh is a juggernaut figure in our culture, which in many ways is a tragedy because it makes Disney's interpretation of Milne's character the most prominent conception by a tremendous ratio, and in many ways serves to obscure some of what Milne intended. I stop short of condemning Disney for this; there was no way for them to foresee the way that Pooh would blow up, and no reason for them to do anything differently even if they did. But it's a shame that the Disney version--which, though even I will admit in its earliest film versions shared much of the qualities that makes these books so enjoyable--has, through the litany of poorly conceived television shows (has anyone seen the new one where they're like, superheroes or something?) and new characters, has whitewashed some of the charm out of Pooh.

What is the charm about Pooh? I've been thinking about it, and I think part of what's so likeable about most of the children's books I've read for this class is that they work on two levels--one for children, which focuses on wonder, whimsy, and notions of "play", and one for adults, which focuses on cleverness and secondary levels of meaning. The Pooh books, though, are written for a much younger audience than the rest of these books, and they really only work on a single level, but in some way I think that that single level--innocent and carefree as it is--speaks to something in us that we carry with us from childhood but mostly ignore as frivolous. Wind in the Willows, too, I think, speaks to a similar notion of Arcadia--that realm that is lacking in the problems that characterize our adult lives, and which we identify with our own idealized childhoods--but focuses too much on the adult, transcendentalist notions of what simplicity and innocence are. Studio executives once complained that the Pooh stories lacked conflict, but that's central to what makes them so appealing.

Furthermore, they're genuinely funny. My favorite character is Eeyore, whose crippling depression is much more overstated and sardonic in the book. This is when Tigger and Roo are stuck in a tree (a plot element I do, in fact, recall from my childhood videos):

"I thought," said Piglet earnestly, "that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore's back, and if I stood on Pooh's shoulders--"

"And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha ! Amusing in a quiet way," said Eeyore, "but not really helpful."

Eeyore is a jackass, and that's funny. It's also funny that Owl, the supposed wise member of the bunch, can't really read or write (he spells his name WOL). It's funny that Pooh, using a balloon to float up to a honeybee hive, thinks that he can trick the bees by painting himself black--like a small black cloud--and furthermore enhances the deception by singing a little song "such as a cloud might sing." Will it work? Who knows? "You can never tell with bees." Much of the humor, I think, is rooted in a child's sense of insecurity when compared with adults--by making the characters quite literally idiots, the humor is accessible to children, who, let's be serious, aren't very smart.

The history of criticism on Pooh is marked by scores of semi-serious books that use Pooh as a blank template to deal with concepts that Pooh really has nothing to deal with--I'm thinking of the Tao of Pooh, specifically, but there are also tons of half-baked lit crit theories on Pooh that revolve around feminism (Why does Kanga have to take care of all the other characters, anyhow?) or Marxism (How fucked up is it that upper-class Owl moves into poor lower-class Piglet's house?) or whatever. In some way, those books prevent us from looking critical at Pooh, but I'm not sure that there's any secondary level to be found here. If this were a book for adults, that might be a problem, but Pooh ought to get a pass just for being charming and idyllic. If it speaks to us, it's because there is a part of us that doesn't have that sort of need gratified enough.

N.B.: This book, The World of Pooh, contains two books: Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Funny story: Kenneth Grahame couldn't find a publisher for Wind in the Willows, and so he sent it to the president of the United States at the time, Teddy Roosevelt, who had been a fan of his childhood memoir The Golden Age. Roosevelt didn't care for it, but his wife picked it up and started reading it to their children--and then, as Roosevelt overheard the book being read aloud, slowly came to like it and recommended it to his own American publisher. The rest is history!

I told that story because I didn't have much else to say about this book. I never read it as a kid, but I was pretty familiar with it by the cartoon film and it's various spinoffs. It tells the story of Mole and his friend Rat, and their friend Mr. Toad. Mole and Rat represent different class archetypes--Mole being the lower class and rat the middle class. They do things like go boating and walking through the woods and stuff. These sections of the book, I think, are supremely boring and their main characters awfully dull. The themes--most of which center around an appreciation for the outdoors and "simple living," along with a sort of wistful suggestion of childhood's implicit innocence. Boring.

But I did like Toad--the wealthy proprietor of Toad Hall--who is the antithesis of those things: vain, proud, extravagant, and obsessive. Midway in the book Toad gets on a kick where all he does is buy automobiles and drive them like a jackass until he crashes them. Awesome. Then, after Mole and Rat try to intervene, he escapes their clutches, steals a car, crashes it, and goes to jail. Awesome. He's the quintessential id-character. When he escapes from jail by dressing as a washer-woman, he ends up back at Toad Hall to find that it's been taken over by stouts and weasels, and so he, Mole, Rat, and the not-yet-mentioned Badger storm it with pistols and swords to take it back. Not only is that badass, it's meant to mirror Odysseus' return to Ithaca disguised as a begger in The Odyssey. Wind of the Willows is loosely modeled on that epic, though the particulars seem to escape me.

WTF moment: At one point in this book, Toad brushes his hair. What.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous work, The Known World, which I believe was his first novel. Prior to that he had written Lost in the City, a collection of short stories, as is All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

Jones uses a wide variety of writing styles throughout this book. ‘Spanish in the Morning’ is told from the perspective of a kindergartner who skips a grade in Catholic school. ‘All Aunt Hagar’s Children’ is a brilliantly written piece of detective fiction, similar to that of Walter Mosley’s. The main character and narrator of the story, is convinced by his elderly mother and her group of friends to look into the death of the son of one of the women. It was ruled a drug overdose by the police, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise.

‘Root Worker’ was one of my favorite stories, in which a medical doctor comes to terms with her mother being healed by a root worker (at that time, thought to be nearly synonymous with a witch doctor). ‘Blindsided’ was an interesting story about a young woman who unexpectedly lost her sight while riding a bus to a Sam Cooke concert. By far my favorite story was ‘The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River’, which was about a woman who met the Devil (sans horns and pitchfork) in a grocery store.

I like reading collections of short stories for a number of reasons. And there is something unique about the stories in Hagar. Although few of them are longer than 40 pages, they read like full-length novels. Jones is so adept at developing his characters that it hardly feels like reading short stories. Two things are central to all of these stories: the African American experience and Washington, D.C. Ranging throughout the 20th Century, each of the stories either takes place in D.C., or involves the area in some way.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Chamber by John Grisham

Until two years ago, I had never read a Grisham novel. I obviously knew of his work through the various film adaptations of his books, films that I mostly enjoyed. I decided that I would read his books in order, since I have been told on more than one occasion that his earlier books are better than his later ones. While I liked A Time to Kill, I thought that the ending was a little lacking. I felt the same way about The Firm. I was beginning to wonder if Grisham was one of those writers who have trouble concluding their stories. The Pelican Brief and The Client were both improvements. Both were taut thrillers that came to a satisfying close.

Brent (a fellow 50 Booker) had recommended The Chamber to me a couple of times, telling me that it is one of his favorite Grisham novels, right up there with The Rainmaker – incidentally, that is the next of Grisham’s novels. The Chamber marked a slight departure from Grisham’s previous works. It was much slower paced, both the story and characters took a while to develop. But, any hack can write quick, spastic action (see Dan Brown’s bibliography). It is much more difficult to create a slow-moving story that is interesting and entertaining for the reader. With The Chamber, Grisham does exactly that.

The storyline of the book is rather simple. Sam Cayhall is on death row in Mississippi for a crime that he committed when he was much younger and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He is in his sixties and a month away from the gas chamber, when his lawyer grandson – who had not previously met him – arrives to take up his case. Grisham describes the legal battles that take place in the ensuing weeks. Throughout this time, Adam Hall gets a lesson in his extended family history, often learning things that he wished he hadn’t. As with his two previous books, Grisham ends The Chamber well.

Although it is just a novel, I don’t know how someone could read this book and not give some serious thought to the death penalty.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan is interesting because there really is no definitive text for him: Author J.M. Barrie first conceived of him as a baby wandering around London's Kensington Gardens in the novel The Little White Bird, and then wrote a play about him in his more familiar form. The play went on for a long time, often with changes made to the plot from year to year--at one point, Peter had a goat, for instance--and then finally Barrie novelized Peter in Peter and Wendy.

I liked this book much more than I expected to. It's much more complex than the Disney version, which is sort of simplistic in its idealization of Peter. In the book, Peter is a much more complex and tragic figure--he's vain, self-centered, forgetful, violent, and foolish. And Tinker Bell is just a bitch. Peter and Wendy is full of allusions to sex--like the way that Peter fails to understand how "interested" Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and Wendy are in him--and death--like Hook's ticking crocodile, which is one of the best metaphors for death that exists in English literature. Peter and Wendy is great because it's dark, sarcastic, and ultimately heartbreaking. At the end, Peter agrees to come back in the spring every year for Wendy (to help with spring-cleaning), but he misses a year, and when he comes back the following year, he doesn't notice that he's missed one. This is a passage from that part:

"Who is Captain Hook?" he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.

"Don't you remember," she asked, amazed, "how you killed him and saved all our lives?"

"I forget them after I kill them" he replied carelessly.

When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, "Who is Tinker Bell?"

"O Peter," she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.

"There are such a lot of them," he said. "I expect she is no more."

I expect he was right, for fairies don't live long, but they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.

How fucking sad is that? After that, he misses whole decades before returning again for Wendy, and by then she has a child of her own. Peter is as forgetful as a child; that is his virtue and his shortcoming. I think perhaps too many children's books extol the virtues of the innocence of youth without any reservations. Peter and Wendy recognizes that growing up is both a tragedy and a triumph; that's what I think is so great about it.