Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicole Kraus

"And then I know. Nothing I've said so far will make them love him the way he needs to be loved. Or allow me to leave with any grace. I hear Grayer: 'Be smart, Nanny. You'll be smart'."

The Nanny:

Her name is Nanny, or at least that is how everyone, herself included, refers to her. She is working on a Masters in Child Psychology at NYU, and attempting to stay afloat financially as an off campus student in New York.

She is also Grayer's nanny.

Nanny met the X's in a park. Having just applied to the Parent's League to find a family to work for, she is delighted when she is hired on the spot by a seemingly normal family. The arrangement is for Nanny to work 15 hours a week at $10 an hour. Her duties include picking up Grayer from school, feeding him a snack, and being with him until his mom gets home in the evening.

Mrs. X:

The mother from Hell. 15 hours a week become 15 hours a day. Weekly paychecks come once a month if she is pressed for them. Oh, and the last nanny: Had no idea she was fired until Nanny (current nanny) shows up. Mrs. X lives to pamper herself, and will do so at any expense. From calling Nanny during classes, making her late for her thesis defense, to having Nanny run errands and coordinate party favors.

Mrs. X sees her son as an accessory. He is there to make her look good, she doesn't want a relationship. Grayer is not allowed to touch his mother, not allowed to talk to her, he rarely sees her, and anything he chooses to do must not be an inconvenience to his mom. Mrs. X even keeps him in a separate wing of the house so as not to disturb her decor with anything child-like.

Mr. X:

The bastard husband who is tearing his family apart. He has no idea that Grayer has a new nanny. He is gone to other cities for months at a time. Grayer is shut down when he even tries to approach his father. Literally, this man pushes his four-year-old son aside when coming home for one of his brief visits, which had to be forced by his wife.

Another huge pro for Mr. X, he is having an affair with Ms. Chicago. He schedules times for his wife to be gone so that he can bring Ms. C into their home. Grayer walks in during one of their rendezvous. Eventually the rift between Mr. and Mrs. X is so bad that Grayer is no longer allowed to talk about his father when he is not home.


Grayer Addison X is the first and only child of Mr. and Mrs X. He is caught up in their selfishness, being raised by whatever nanny his mother is still on good terms with. He is lost and afraid without a friend in the world who doesn't leave him eventually. His parents don't speak to him and his nannies are continuously fired. However he is still a child, and has the resilience of one. He is still enthusiastic at each prospect of seeing mommy and daddy, still wonders at each new discovery in life. He does eventually feel the horrible tension in his home, when no one is allowed to turn on lights and he can't play because mommy is depressed. He starts to pee on the furniture, have nightmares, and get very sick.

His mother's reaction? Go to the spa for a week and let Nanny deal with him. And so she does, with her son's temperature at 108 she leaves. While she is gone he develops the coup, and it takes several days for his fever to break so that his cough and subside. Mrs. X comes home the morning after his fever is broken, to find blankets in the floor, where Nanny slept with Grayer, trying to keep him close without disturbing his sore little body. Mrs. X tells Nanny to leave, the mess is unacceptable.

Nanny eventually loses her job, apparently riding to Nantucket a day late so that you can finish your finals just not something any reasonable person would do.

I like how this book makes everyone except Grayer into a stereotype. No one involved has an actual name, they are just called nanny, and the X's. I also feel like it is a fairly accurate description of the nannying job. I worked with a family for a year. I had an excellent family, they loved their children, but it still comes down to this: another person is raising your kids.

I really liked this book, it was easy to read, and relaxing, but showed a real truth at the same time.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

"He's all right! Aren't you, cat? Poor cat! Poor slob! Poor slob without a name! The way I see it I haven't got the right to give him one. We don't belong to each other. We just took up one day by the river. I don't want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together. I'm not sure where that is but I know what it is like. It's like Tiffany's."

In interest of full disclosure, I must confess this: Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of my favorite romantic movies. Except for the unfortunate Mickey Rooney role (playing a particularly painful Asian stereotype), its as good as anything I've seen in the genre. I liked the film a lot : I'd never read anything by Capote : and it was very, very short.

For those unfamiliar with the story : An unnamed writer living in a tenement in New York becomes embroiled in the eccentric, over-the-top affairs of Holly Golightly, his upstairs neighbor. She brings men home almost every night, lies constantly, and holds everyone at arm's length. She's also completely irresistible to the writer, and the book(and movie)'s dynamic rests on his unrealized desire to be with her.

The film ends writer and Holly kissing in the rain, and my sentimental streak says it's one of the most effective scenes in cinema. The book's ending is sadder and more open, as Holly leaves for Brazil and leaves her cat with the writer. Personally, I prefer the movie, but both are good.

Other changes : Holly is much more sexually involved : her language is rather coarse : she's blonde. Besides that, the novella and the film are pretty similar. Capote's writing is very pleasant. it has a nice flow and fits very well with the story he's telling. Breakfast at Tiffany's feels a little slight at points, but it was a worthwhile read and I might check out more Capote in the future.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Monk and the Two Assistants by Lee Goldberg

"'What he did was unforgivable,' Monk said. 'Luring you away to New Jersey with his smooth talk and false promises, forcing you to abandon the people who needed you most, plunging them into the impenetrable darkness and despair that lies in the pitiful depths of their tormented souls.'"

So the story goes...

Monk is trying to solve a case where his only clue is some crisscrossed bloody footprints. While puzzling over the mystery, Natalie takes him to Julie's soccer game, where he sees the coach doing an odd victory dance; the footprints of which are in the same crisscrossed pattern as those left in the blood. I guess the creep did a victory dance after killing a guy. So, one murder solved.

Next, Julie's wrist is broken during her soccer game. Monk and Natalie take her to get it set, only to find that Sharona is her nurse, and has moved back to San Fransisco. Oddly, Julie has her own complete sub-plot. Sharona's husband (Trevor) killed a woman and is now awaiting trial. Monk is thrilled that Sharona is back and determines to have two assistants (Wait, I'm getting a title idea) working on a shared salary.

Natalie isn't as thrilled about Sharona's unexpected return, and decides to get rid of her by proving Trevor's innocence. After visiting Trevor in jail, convincing Sharona to fight for her husband, and talking Monk into investigating the murder, Natalie is well on her way to getting her wish. On the way to L.A. Monk solves another mystery, but once he gets there his powers of observation are impaired by the smog.

He spends the next several days wearing an allergy mask. He meets an author, who works with the L.A police dept. in the same capacity as Monk. They are instant enemies. He also talks to all the people involved in the murder, sends one of them to jail for theft, but determines that none of them are 'the guy". He returns to San Fran at square one.

Upon his return, Monk is faced with yet another murder. This time it is a man killed by an alligator. Disher does him a favor and calls in the author from L.A. Eventually, we know that it is the author who killed the guy in L.A. and the alligator guy. Apparently he just isn't up to writing four books a year, so he kills his fans for story fodder.

As with the episodes, the point of a Monk novel is not about the mystery, but about how Monk solves it. Although, they don't tell you who the bad guy is until the end, his guilt couldn't be more obvious if he had scary music playing behind him. Having Monk in writing does make it more difficult to figure out the 'how' of the mystery on your own, because it takes out the visual cues. Mostly, this book is a comedy for those with a special place in their heart for an obsessive-compulsive detective.

I know a lot of people have been wanting to see "Sharona vs Natalie", but I didn't think it went over that well. Also, the story builds heavily from the show, so if you don't know the history of the characters, don't look here to find it. The book also had a couple of surprising sexual references, considering how clean the show is.

Basically, if you like the show, you will like the book. It is easy to read, fun, and fulfills the need for a "Monk fix".

The Secret Bedroom by R. L. Stine

This was a young adult thriller about a girl who discovers that her attic is being haunted by the ghost of a girl who killed her parents. The ghost possesses the protagonist (we'll call her Dana) multiple times until the protagonist finally musters up the willpower to force that ghost right back to Hell. Or something.

It was still a lot better than Anthem.

Anthem by Ayn Rand

The following is the only part of Anthem I liked:

"This would wreck the Plans of theWorld Council," said Unanimity 2-9913," and without the Plans of the World Council the sun cannot rise. It took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils
for the Candle, and to decide upon the number needed, and to re-fit the Plans so as to make candles instead of torches. This touched upon thousands and thousands of men working in scores of States. We cannot alter the Plans again so soon."

Think of your favorite dystopian novel (1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, We) and extract the barest bones of the plot (we now live in a Communist society; we are not allowed to love; etc). Now imagine the protagonist is a first person narrator with less personality than Ben Stein, and that the author thinks you, the reader, are a complete dolt. That's what reading Anthem feels like. The pot is this: dull protagonist finds ancient (read:modern) technology in an underground bunker, tries to show his fellow men, is punished, triumphs by giving a long speech to himself about himself, the end. Oh, also, there's a forbidden word. It isn't "I" if that's what you're thinking.

I'd never read any of Ayn Rand's books, but, what can I say, I'm behind in books and Anthem is mercifully brief. I'd heard that Rand was a poor writer and that her books were basically skeleton plots to spread her philosophy of Objectivism (i.e. selfishness), but it didn't prepare me for the utter ineptitude of this book.

Not much happens in the book to begin with, but when something does (Person 12422494934843's capture for breaking the law, his presentation of electricity to the Council of Scholars), every effort is made to eliminate any trace of tension or importance. For example, Person 12422494934843 is beaten and placed in prison for breaking some laws. To escape, he just... knocks down the door and walks out. There are no guards, no pursuit, no sense of heroics. An infant escaping from a roomful of dead paraplegics would be more dramatic. Virtually the same thing happens when he "escapes" from the Council of Scholars: he goes out a window into the forest where he lives until Person 489023984, his love, finds him.

The book has a philosophical and a material climax, both of which are boring. The material climax occurs when the recently renamed Prometheus (SWM/21) and Gaia (SWF/18) discover a house from the old times, decide to build an electric fence, and live happily ever after. The philosophical climax occurs about 15 pages from the end of the book when Rand forgets that she's writign a story and has Prometheus speechify about Objectivism, which, if I understand correctly, is this: I am the most important person in the universe, everything revolves around me, I shouldn't help anyone, etc, etc. Objectivism is strongly opposed to etcetering.

The forbidden word? EGO. Objectively, this book sucks.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Let us not forget that the reasons for human actions are usually incalculably more complex and diverse than we tend to explain them later, and are seldom clearly manifest. Sometimes it is best for the narrator to limit himself to a simple account of events.

When you really get down to it, the plot of this story amounts to nothing more than a soap opera, full of love triangles, unscrupulous people, and deceit. But the plot is really not what drives this novel. It is driven by its complex characters, lead by Prince Myshkin. The novel, which is written from the perspective of someone who knows about the story but wasn't a part of it -- an omniscient narrator -- opens with Myshkin returning to Russia from a long stay at a Swiss sanitarium. He has epileptic seizures (although this does not become apparent until much later in the novel) and there is a childlike simplicity to his interactions with others. This causes people to view him as a simpleton, thus giving the novel its name.

After he arrives in Petersburg, Myshkin looks up some distant relatives of his who usher him into the social circles of the city. Myshkin meets and falls in love with Natasya Filippovna, who very well may have more problems than the prince. He admits to some of those that he is close to that his feeling for Natasya are closer to pity than to love. In turn, she vacillates between wanting to be betrothed and physically fleeing from Myshkin (a la Runaway Bride). During this time, Myshkin corresponds with Aglaya, another unconventional young woman, who seems to have genuine feelings for the prince, but cannot come to terms with his mental state. More accurately, she is concerned what people will think.

A word about the Myshkin's mental state... Other than epilepsy, Myskin appears to have no extreme mental problems. Unusual candor and a propensity to speak from his heart are his big "problems." He is able to intelligently discuss current events, Russian history, literature, and debate philosophy. He does not abide by the social mores of Petersburg and speaks his mind, regardless of whether or not his opinions are popular. This is shocking to people who are supremely concerned with how they appear to others (most of the people Myshkin interacts with can be described in this way).

Amongst the many characters that surround the prince, there are two who are noteworthy: the nihilist Ippolit and the cad Rogozhin. What makes these characters important is that they bear some similarities to Myshkin. These three men start with the same basic beliefs, but each take a completely different philosophical path. As a result, they approach life in three very different ways. Some readers have asserted that Rogozhin and Ippolit represent the two ends of the spectrum of Myshkin's personality. While this is an interesting idea, I think is a bit of stretch to read this into the novel.

Others have described Myshkin as a Christ figure. I saw this in numerous places throughout the novel. Indeed, he is innocent and good to a fault. Whether the Christ analogy holds water or not, Dostoevsky uses Myshkin to address philosophy, religion, and the nature of Christ. With all these complex themes, The Idiot is firstly a novel of ideas.

Since Tolstoy is the only other Russian writer that I know much about, and since Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote during the same time, I feel compelled to compare the two. From what I have read, I like Tolstoy's writing better then Dostoevsky's. There. Comparison done.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

" I could just remember how my father use to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time. And when I would have to look at them day after day each with his and her secret and selfish thought and blood strange to each other and strange to mine and think that this seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead. I would hate my father for ever having planted me." -Addie Bundren

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. The sons: enigmatic Cash; borderline-empathic Darl; loner Jewel; youngest child Varadman; the daughter, 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.

The tone of the entire book is pitch black and macabre, full of distasteful and disturbing 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. Later he believes his mother has escaped through the holes, because she is actually a fish. 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 after 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 found the story mostly disturbing. Overall, As I Lay Dying was not 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 in six 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.

My mother is a fish.

My post is a revision of Brent's.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block

Francesca Lia Block has been my favorite author since I was twelve. Her books have helped me through family drama, break ups, graduating high school, moving to Boone… you name it, her writing has counseled me through it. Her style is unique, poetic, and decadent and chalk full of heady imagery. The content of her novels is often a bit dark but instead of flat out telling the reader ugly things, she insinuates them with beautiful language. Her books are always in the young adult fiction section, but I’ve never understood why, as her novels are laced with content inappropriate for children like AIDS scares and threesomes and child abuse. Her protagonists are usually strong but deeply flawed women in their late teens or early twenties, about where I’m at now, so despite having read most of them again and again I’ve started to revisit them.

Claudia just read my cards. “The Hanged Man,” she said. “Renunciation. Self-deprivation. Suspended in illusion. In the Egyptian deck, he is condemned to hang in hell eating his own waste. Self-poisoning. Also, resurrection.”

In The Hanged Man, Laurel is starving herself so that she can be childlike, so that she can look like she is too young to be touched, because her father that has just died did a little too much of that. She’s a Rose White to her best friend Claudia’s Rose Red, quiet and tame while Claudia is doing heroin and sleeping with too many men. Laurel’s mother keeps seeing white moths everywhere and thinks they are the spirit of her dead husband coming to visit her while she scrubs and scours her house, trying to get rid of the impurities that she thinks caused her husband's cancer. Laurel has a certain kind of mental strength that causes dishes to break when she’s upset without her touching them, glasses to shatter. She’s afraid that her pain brought her father’s cancer into being. During Laurel’s healing process, she meets Jack. We don’t know if he’s a man or a demon but he helps Laurel to reclaim her body and her voice and brings her and her friend Claudia together in new ways.

Each chapter is named after a tarot card and their meanings play into what Laurel is working through in each chapter. Claudia’s mother reads tarot cards for a living and Laurel is planning on designing her own deck. Each character takes on different properties and is ascribed a particular card that their face will go on when she paints them.

This is an intense and disturbing book about incest, family, recovering mother-daughter relationships, mythology, healing, urban violence, drugs, death, magic, and sex. It’s also a very short read with an insane amount packed into only 137 pages. I curled up with it on the back porch and finished it in a little over an hour.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer

"We were both caught in something so large and so terrible. His people came over in chains and my people sat on the porch sipping gin. Something that begins that badly can never end well..."

Daniel is a lawyer, who recently moved back to his small hometown, just south of NYC. He was forced to leave the city when a black man he was defending didn't get off, and a few other black men decide Daniel is too blame. After being thrown down a flight of stairs, Daniel becomes terrified of every African-American he sees, and flees the city.

But when Daniel returns home he meets Iris, a black woman. He believes he is in love with her, but it is not her marriage that keeps him from her, so much as her race. The story begins with their flirtation and ends with the futile continuation of their affair.

I don't really know what I thought of the book. It made some good points, and made them cleverly, but still the plot and dialog were very crass, and it was difficult to root for any of the characters.

A few things that stuck out to me were:
  • Contrasts are drawn between two other men in the town who are having public affairs, which are not condemned even though they are with minors, because the young women are white.
  • Daniel and Iris want to have a child together so that they can create "raceless" offspring.
  • When Iris is no longer in love with her husband she asks him to rape and sodomize her.
  • Iris never indicates an awareness that she shares her name with a flower that is, ironically, not black.
Everyone in the story ends up changed, but no happier, but something that begins that badly can never end well.

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

To be relieved of love, she thought, was to give up a terrible burden.

How much can you ever truly know another human being? Does being married for over a decade prove you know something, anything? Does having and raising a child with someone guarantee you a bond with them that will help you understand them? It’s harder to be sure of anything, of course, if the person you think you know is away traveling with work quite often, if you’ve never met any of their relatives, and they have a separate bank account that you don’t have access to.

These are the things that our main character, Kathryn, is faced with. The novel opens when a man named Robert from the pilots' union wakes Kathryn up at three in the morning to tell her that her husband Jack, a pilot, has passed away due to an explosion on his plane over the coast of Ireland. Robert has to stay with Kathryn to keep her from speaking to the press, to console her, and to provide a certain level of security for her when the press comes out with the theory that Robert might have been committing suicide and dragging over a hundred other people down with him due to what was heard on the CVR recording from the moments leading up to the explosion. When Robert starts to leak her information he isn’t suppose to and starts spending time with her after his work obligations have been fulfilled, it’s hard to tell what his motivations are and what his actions mean.


The grief in the novel is very real and my heart ached for the characters. Kathryn has lost a husband, is seeing her young daughter fall apart in response to the crash, and is finding out that Jack is a completely different man than she thought he was. As a pilot with a set route, he lived back and forth between two different countries, being America and Ireland. In America, he has Katheryn and their daughter. In Ireland, he has a different wife and family, a strong connection to the Catholic community, and a highly risky and illegal involvement with the IRA that comes to be the death of him. The novel closes when the two wives meet and the details of the crash finally come together for Kathryn.

I really enjoyed this book, but I can’t see the other 50BPers reading it and being drawn in the same way. It’s a little too heavy to be “chick lit” and I think it’s fair to say that the writing is fairly literary, but The Pilot’s Wife will never be on any kind of Times must-read list.

The Pilot’s Wife was published in 1998. It was made into a movie for television. I found out from the New York Times online that it was scheduled to air right after September 11th, 2001 but had to be pushed back out of respect due to the relevance of the story line to our nation’s tragedy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The White House Mess by Christopher Buckley

Have you ever found yourself annoyed by the White House memoirs of former Presidential aids who swore that everything would have been just fine if people would have only listened to them? If so, you’ll enjoy Buckley’s novel The White House Mess, a satirical tell-all written by the fictional, fumbling Herbert Wadlough.

Wadlough is a boring square with a rather effeminate nature about him, who was brought up in English boarding schools and destined to have a love affair with accounting. He’s not a drinking man and you can tell he has reached his limit when he orders tea from his assistant instead of his regular hot water. After getting on President Tucker’s nerves for his constant foibles, he is moved to the East Wing of the White House to help the First Lady, a former actress itching to make a comeback to the silver screen despite disapproval from her husband. After a scandal in the press involving one of her homosexual friends and a misunderstanding, Wadlaugh is brought to further embarrassment, is beaten up by the First Lady, and fired. After thinking about moving with his wife his job is saved just in the nick of time. During all of this, the President is dealing with a marital crisis, trouble with Castro, and disloyal aids who are courting their own agendas. While Wadlaugh is inept, he has good intentions and is loyal through and through.

The reason that this book is so successful in accomplishing its aim is probably that Buckley himself was a White House speech writer and has relevant insight and experience with the goings on of the West Wing and its messy personal politics. Now, he’s "the poor man’s Jonathan Swift."

If Buckley is starting to sound familiar to you, it’s probably because he is more famous for the book Thank You For Smoking, made into the popular film with that tall glass of water Aaron Eckhart. His book Little Green Men is also being adapted into a movie and will come out sometime this year.

Deliverance by James Dickey

Can you hear the banjo music?

When people think of Deliverance, more than likely the movie comes to mind before the book and the gruesome rape scene comes to mind before the quality of writing does, if it ever does. What most people don’t seem to know is that before Dickey wrote this popular novel he was known for his poetry. His knack for poetic language flows over into his prose writing, where he uses descriptions and metaphors that other people wouldn’t think of. For instance, when Ed is struggling to climb up the cliff that will take him to the man who has killed his friend Drew, he’s described as making love to the cliff, using his hips in ways he never had with a woman.

I had a hard time reading Deliverance given the subject matter and some of the graphic descriptions, but I also had a hard time putting it down. Lewis is an Alpha male with a strange infatuation with the life that can only be found out in the hills where there’s music never before heard or recorded and the mountain people have resisted civilization. He has talked three of his friends into going on a weekend rafting trip out in BFE, Georgia, where even he finds himself ill-equipt to deal with the harsh realities of the area he was so excited about sharing with his friends.

At first, their only problems are the rapids in the river. Things escalate when they run into two locals who sodomize one of the men and attempt to sodomize another. A local is killed during the rape scene and the rest of the book deals with the revenge taken on the city dwellers by the local left alive. Bodies are buried, the living are injured, and the fight for life is met with questions, desperate struggle, and animal-like instinct.

Dickey also wrote the script for the film, so the book and the movie are more or less the same. Apparently, though, Dickey and the director had a squabble because Dickey was too demanding on set and made too many orders. He was asked not to return to the filming because of all his micromanaging.

I'd give Deliverance an eight out of ten.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

When I finished Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, I had the strange inkling to turn it to the cover and start over again, because I had the feeling that there was a lot to it that I had missed, a lot of insight that I failed to pick up on. Ultimately I decided to put some time between readings, but more than most books I have read I think that The Moviegoer promises to be a repeat read, a book that offers a new insight every time you read it.

It has only the barest bones of plot: It is the first-person narrative of Binx Bolling in the week leading up to Mardi Gras, as well as Binx' thirtieth birthday. He is a stockbroker in the suburbs of New Orleans, pleased with his lot but overcome with strange existential angst, finally waking up one morning and deciding that he must go on "the search"--but the search for what? Percy is never so unsubtle to supply the answer to this, though in many ways it seems that it is the sort of thing that Binx will only be able to identify when he finds it. It reminded me of Rabbit, Run, where Rabbit tells the Reverend Eccles that there must be a "thing behind things." Is it God? God, as much as He can be a member of any set, is a part of it, but pinning it down seems beyond even Percy's well-honed authorial grasp.

Binx calls himself a "moviegoer" because--well, obviously--he goes to a lot of movies, but the significance of this is that in some way films anchor and validate existence. Here is a passage in which Binx and his foil, a distant cousin named Kate whose angst is greater than Binx', go to see a film:

There is a scene which shows the very neighborhood of the theater. Kate gives me a look--it is understood that we do not speak during the movie.

Afterwards in the street, she looks around the neighborhood. "Yes, it is certified now."

She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside of him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

I think this insight is particularly cunning--who among well-traveled people hasn't thought that the experience of a film seems more real than their own experiences? My mental image of Piazza San Marco in Venice is constructed of as much--if not more--the numerous depictions of it in film as my own experience there. There is something validating, certifying about films that informs our own experience and soothes our own existential angst.

I made a casual agreement with an old teacher of mine; if he would read Lolita, I would read this book. I hadn't been looking forward to it, because I tried to read it once in high school and barely got past the first few pages (which I thought were mind-numbing) and I brought it back to the library. I think I lucked out to some extent; I don't know that I would have been able to sympathize with Binx Bolling in high school--that is to say, at least in my experience, the peculiar kind of despair that Binx possesses doesn't occur until the teenage years are coming to a close. I appreciate much more now than I would have then, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

For One More Day by Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie made my favorites list last year. Out of the 50 books I read last year, 48 of them made me weep openly. Tuesdays was one of them. I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven a few years ago and had to compensate the Cincinnati Public Library for the warping that my salty tears brought to the book's pages. Albom has an amazing ability to tug at my heartstrings (located in the right ventricle). I hadn't cried in a while, and thought that it was about time. So while biding my time in Dayton's airport, due to flight cancellations and delays, I picked up For One More Day.

Although this books strikes the same tenor as Albom's other works, I would imagine that it is entirely fictional, unlike Tuesdays. (Frankly, I don't care enough to find out if this story is based on true events.) The book is about Charles "Chick" Benetto, a former professional baseball player who actually got to play in a world series. However, he never really became a successful baseball player. His life begins to spiral out of control and one night, at a low point, Chick decides to take his own life. Thoroughly drunk, he heads to his home town to bring his suffering to an end. But when Chick arrives at his childhood home, he is greeted by his mother, who has been dead for ten years.

The title really sums up the plot of the book. Chick gets one more day with his mother, a day during which he ponders his life and rethinks some of the choices he has made. The story of Chick's extra day is broken up by flashbacks from his life and poignant interstitials entitled "Times I Did Not Stand Up for My Mother" and "Times My Mother Stood Up for Me". This book was quite a bit clunkier than Tuesdays, it was rather ham-fisted in a couple places, and the plot was really simple. Regardless of its shortcomings, about halfway through this book I gave my mom a call, in the spirit of Stevie Wonder's 1984 hit.

Rabbit Remembered by John Updike

This novella finds Rabbit's family in the early 2000's, ten years or so after Rabbit's death. Rabbit's wife Janice is now married to Rabbit's longtime friend/archrival Ronnie Harrison, with whose late wife Rabbit had an extended affair dating back to Rabbit is Rich. Rabbit's son Nelson, now approaching forty, is still living at home, separated from his wife Pru (also with whom Rabbit had sex--the man got around, basically). But the main plot thrust here is the appearance of Annabelle, Rabbit's illegitimate daughter by Ruth, the girl he shacked up with in the first book, Rabbit, Run. When the book opens, Ruth has died and on her deathbed told Annabelle the truth about her father, recommending--quite in the contrary to the way she acted when Rabbit visited her in the previous two books--that Annabelle look up the family she never knew so that she might be alone in the world.

This book really belongs to Rabbit's son Nelson, who welcomes Annabelle into the family with open arms despite resistance by Janice, Ronnie, and basically everyone else in the book. I'm not sure the novella was necessary, but it's nice to see that ten years on Nelson has cleaned up his drug habit and become a good person instead of the little shit he was in Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest; in his eagerness to make everything right he reflects his father's finest qualities and creates not only a welcome post-mortem assessment of his father's life but a sense of reprieve for Nelson, who throughout the first four books had not yet come into his own.

One of the strangest things about this one is that I am old enough to actually remember events and pop culture references that appear in this book--for example, the denouement of the story takes place as Nelson, Pru, Annabelle, and another character I haven't mentioned named Billy go to see American Beauty. Weird! But this is one of the reasons I am grateful for this epilogue; while Updike labors dutifully to encapsulate the America that exists in each decade, until now I have been unable to connect to the books by experience.

Carlton asked for my final thoughts on the whole series, and I told him I'd wait until I'd read this novella, so here they are, though not quite to the extent of my final thoughts on Harry Potter: I love these books. Much of it has to do with aspects I cannot describe to you, but I think that the crux of it is this: I have never read a book in which the life of one man is described in such intricate detail as the Rabbit series; no character is as real to me in the entire corpus of world literature. Updike gives us not only the great crisis moments of Rabbit's life, though they are there, but the mundane details, the songs on the radio, the changing of the movie marquee like the changing of the seasons, the small things that make up a human life. When beautiful moments appear--and in each book I can think of two or three passages which simply awe me every time I read them--it as if they are a validation of the infrequent but real moments of beauty that occur in my own life. The Rabbit novels are proof positive that beauty and insight are the realm of the common man as much as the romantic hero. The worst part of Rabbit Remembered is that it lacks a single moment as vivid and arresting as Rabbit's dream about death.

I wouldn't recommend reading the whole series to everyone; it's simply too detailed and, well, dull for everyone to appreciate. But I think that everyone here ought to read Rabbit, Run.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A couple of years ago, I started reading A Brief History of Time. I didn't get very far before I realized that I was totally not going to be able to comprehend the book. I was happy to hear that Hawking was working on an updated version with illustrations, a version that was supposed to be more accessible.

While Briefer is more accessible, parts of it are still quite complex. I had a good high school science teacher, so I had a working knowledge of some of the early theories of quantum mechanics. However, when Hawking started putting two or three of these theories together, trying to show how a unified theory of the universe might work, I felt out of my element. Needless to say, I re-read a lot of paragraphs. But for the most part, Hawking did a excellent job of explaining unbelievably complex theories. Also, his ruminations about the universe's need (or lack thereof) for a creator was really interesting.

Toward the end of the book, Hawking made me feel a little better about my apparent lack of knowledge about our universe, saying, "In Newton's time, it was possible for an educated person to have a grasp of the whole of human knowledge, at least in broad strokes. But since then, the pace of the development of science has made this impossible." Thanks for that, Mr Hawking.

With help from Leonard Mlodinow, a scientist who has written for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Hawking reworks his classic for the better, with plenty of nerd humor sprinkled throughout. The glossary at the end was extremely helpful, and the brief biographies about Galileo, Newton, and Einstein taught me something new about each man, such as Isaac Newton was a royal dick.

I would have been interested in knowing how much of the content of this book was original to Hawking, or is he merely explaining complex theories in his own cogent way. Also, I am interested in the process by which Hawking wrote the book, and to what extent Mlodinow was involved.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne

"The world has seen Christian extremists who will blow up abortion clinics and dance on doctors' graves. We have seen Christian extremists who hold signs that say, 'God hates fags.' The world has seen Christian extremists who declare war in the name of the Lamb. But where are the Christian extremists for love and grace?"

I often become frustrated with books about God because they are either written in a way that seems inaccessible to me or too watered down. I'm no academic theologian but I need the knowledge and the motivation as much as everyone else, so I keep looking for that book that will clarify the gray areas and make things click, some kind of Biblical Answers for Dummies. The Irresistible Revolution did not answer any of my burning questions, but it did offer a fresh and exciting perspective. It also put me in my place page after page as a young believer who has become complacent in a secular world where that's maybe the worst wrong of all.

The author is Shane Claiborne, who describes his job to people as being a "vocational lover" of Jesus when they ask him. He lived in Calcutta and worked with the lepers, with Mother Theresa, and people who were on their death beds, helping them to pass their last hours or days in comfort and dignity. When he was a college student, he fought for the homeless. Now, he's living in Philly in a kind of Christian commune, working with the poor, inner city kids, and the prostitutes. He uses his interesting (and unorthodox) experiences to help explain the points that he is trying to make. He quotes everyone from Mother Theresa to the writers of the Bible to Bono to get his point across and manages to shed light on some fairly heavy subjects without confusing the reader or simply reiterating everything they've probably heard before in Sunday school 23908253 times over. I thought the things that he had to say about being an ordinary radical in your faith, how discipleship is often compromised because of political correctness and seeker sensitivity, divine multiplication, Jesus' "holy mischief" and knack for using imagination to problem solve and glorify God were just too right on for words. There were also things I had never even thought about before, like remaining single for a life of work and love for Christ that made me get out my Bible and start doing some researching.

This book was about social justice and living an informed and intentional lifestyle of love and activism as much as it was about God, because as we know, we must love our neighbors. When talking to students at Princeton about taking up a cause, he told them, "Don't choose issues; choose people. Come play in the fire hydrants in North Philly. Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering, and then you won't have to worry about which cause you need to protest. Then the issues will choose you" (293). Whoa! On campus, there have been so many protests lately-- abortion, sweatshops, you name it, I've seen it, and there are about a thousand other things I can think of that we should be engaging in productive dialogue about, but it's easy to become overwhelmed in all of the negative things going on around us... All one has to do to become discouraged is just turn on the news. To think that just actively loving people is the first step seems too easy but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. If God is love, why aren't we doing more loving?

My favorite part was what he had to say about how dysfunctional the family of God can be and how anyone can be a part of God's army. "There is something scandalous about grace. It's almost embarrassing that God loves losers so much. It flies in the face of the world's myth of redemptive violence. No wonder the early Christians had such bad reputations and questionable credibility. No wonder they were called 'the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world,' as one of the leaders, a former murderer himself, wrote (1 Cor. 4:13)" (263). I grew up hearing about God's redeeming love all of the time, but after several years of disbelief and more sin than I'd ever imagined I'd be bogged down by, it's comforting to be reminded. Especially when the church is as full of gossip as it is full of God. How easy is it to tell a little child who has yet to do terrible things about the power of grace and how hard is it to tell a teenage girl that who has done everything you've ever told her not to? Now, what about people like Saddam Hussein and Timothy McVeigh?

Another quote, to close with:
"When we have new eyes, we can look into the eyes of those we don't even like and see the One we love. We can see God's image in everyone we encounter. As Henri Nouwen puts it, 'In the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face, and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands. Their flesh is my flesh, their blood is my blood, their pain is my pain, their smile is my smile.' We are made of the same dust. We cry the same tears. No one is beyond redemption. And we are free to imagine a revolution that sets both the oppressed and the oppressors free."

Friday, May 2, 2008

London Review of Books Young Reviewers Competition

From the LRB website:

"The London Review of Books is holding a competition for young reviewers. The prize for the best entry is £1000 and a one-year subscription to the LRB. Prizes may also be awarded for runners-up.

Each entrant should submit one review, praising or unpraising, between 2500 and 3000 words long, of any work of fiction or poetry published after the beginning of 2007. The review must be original, unpublished work (it is allowed to have appeared in a student periodical).

Entrants must be under the age of 26 at the closing date, 2 June 2008.

Please send submissions, along with contact details, to (as an attachment), or by post to:

The Editors
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street