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.