Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Yeah I'm still alive

Sorry it's been so long since I've updated last. Moved back home at the end of May after finishing up my Peace Corps service so I've been pretty busy with all that. Problem is it's been so long that I've updated that I'm certain I've forgotten a few of the books I've read in the past 2 months or so. Oh well, serves me right.

We The Living by Ayn Rand
I never really set out to read all of Ayn Rand's books, it just sort of worked out that way. We The Living was the last major work by Rand that I hadn't read, which is somewhat ironic considering this was her first novel written in English. Rand is pretty polarizing, some absolutely despise her and some absolutely idolize her. I found both camps pretty annoying, frankly. She's hardly a perfect writer and her philosophy isn't as mindbogglingly brilliant (or mind-numbingly foolish) as so many seem to think. She falls somewhere in the middle. In my case, I like her books for the most part, but I don't love them. That said, We The Living is probably my second favorite Rand novel (after Atlas Shrugged) because I enjoyed the characters, the Soviet Russia setting, and found that Rand's philosophy came through much more clearly than I'd seen in her other efforts. I always understood that Rand thought Communism was wrong in practice, but could never grasp why she was against it in concept until We The Living.

Killing Pablo
by Mark Bowden
I've been on a non-fiction kick for the past few months and Killing Pablo was right in my wheelhouse. It's a well-written account of the hunt for one of history's most notorious outlaws, Pablo Escobar. Not much to say about this one, besides that I enjoyed it. My favorite sections were in the beginning discussing Pablo's exploits and eccentricities. Did you know Pablo Escobar had a gynecologist's chair in his mansion? Look out for the film adaptation coming out starring Christian Bale.

American Sphinx
by Joseph J. Ellis
Thomas Jefferson was one of history's most important Americans for a number of reasons. He penned the Declaration of Independence, served as a foreign ambassador during tumultuous times, was one of the architects of the United States Constitution, and expanded our national borders on a grand scale. However, he's a hard character to get a grasp on due to his remarkable ability to house two completely contradictory mindsets in that noble Virginia brow of his. Ellis (also author of The Founding Brothers which I loved) does an excellent job of tackling one of America's most enigmatic Presidents.

The Firm
by John Grisham
I had no idea that Grisham was popcorn literature. I suppose because he writes about the legal field and such that I expected his stuff to be a little more dense. I was happy to find out he writes the type of book you can read on the beach in an afternoon. I'm going to law school in the fall so I thought I'd give Grisham a try and I wasn't disappointed. He's a little formulaic from what I hear, but I enjoyed The Firm and would recommend it to anyone looking for a fun, quick read. Also: did anyone else who's read this find it hilarious that there was no retribution whatsoever for the whole adultery thing?

Can I Keep My Jersey?
by Paul Shirley
Paul Shirley became an NBA free agent after graduating from Iowa State. This began a short, journeyman career that saw Shirley playing in Los Angeles, Chicago, Spain, Russia, Atlanta, Kansas City, Japan and a few other places. Shirley is obviously a really funny, intelligent guy and it comes through in his writing. If you like sports, definitely check this out. It's sort of like a Ball Four for basketball.

by Christopher Moore
I've enjoyed a lot of Moore's books (Bloodsucking Fiends, Practical Demon Keeping, and Lamb specifically is one of my all-time favorite novels). Fool was not really up to snuff, as far as I'm concerned. Good, but not up to Moore's calibur. Long story short, Fool is Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear told from the perspective of the fool. It has some good moments and I enjoyed it. But I was a little disappointed because I had high hopes. If you're a Shakespeare fan (Chris) then check this out. You can read it in a couple of days.

by Paul Auster
Chris recommended The New York Trilogy to me a few years ago. I read it but didn't really get into it. For whatever reason I just wasn't really into it. When I came across Leviathan I recognized the author but it wasn't until after I finished it that I realized they were by the same author. I enjoyed Leviathan much more. It's a novel about a writer whose friend has just killed himself and is telling the story of how that came to pass. It's got interesting characters and is well-written overall. I definitely recommend Leviathan to anyone looking for a quick read.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Dianna Wynne Jones; Wild at Heart by John Eldredge; Every Young Woman's Battle by Shannon Ethridge

You know that you've picked a winner when you not only know and love a book, but so do your sisters and the owner of the bookshop where you managed to find it for $3. When people ask me for book recommendations, I try to personalize them as much as possible based on personality and expressed preference, but I'll also try surreptitiously to discover whether I can just overwhelm them with teen fantasy recommendations instead. Enter Diana Wynne Jones, whose writing has earned her a permanent "Fantasy Writer of the Month" parking space in my mind.

Dark Lord of Derkholm is the first of two books written about the odd but lovable family headed by the wizard Derk. His family includes a wife, Mara, two natural children, Shona and Blade, and five griffin children, Kit, Callette, Lydda, Don, and Elda. Plus about a million strange animals that he has bred using his ingenuity and wizarding skills. The family must bring all of its unique strengths together to defeat a formidable foe, Mr. Chesney, who is using their world as a sort of off-world tourist playground.

As ever, the story is delightful and filled with all sorts of interesting twists. If it has any flaw, it's that the climax drags on and the transition lines between rising action/climax are thereby blurred, but I enjoyed it enough that this was not a serious concern for me.

Wild at Heart was sitting on my parents' bookshelf, and I'd heard enough about it to be curious. Those opinions tended toward the "fairly solid, occasionally just a bit hokey," and on this side of reading it, I am inclined to agree.

The book is written for men, so I can't speak to the truth of most of it. Basically, Eldredge claims that men are seeking several things in life, but when they fail to act  on the desire to seek, they become either passive or violent. Additionally, their struggle is complicated by wounds that they receive from their relationships with their fathers, and until they dare to face those and resolve them in God, they will be helpless to live fully in the adventure.

It was an interesting read and an enlightening one. Again, I have to take it with a grain of salt, being female and unable to affirm its veracity, but I enjoyed it anyway. Plus, Eldredge talks about life in the context of story (not quite in those words), and I'm always keen on story. I'll probably not be recommending it to all of my male friends, but that's more because the ones who would care to read it have most likely already done so.

Ah, we're back in my territory. Sort of. The original book was written for men, but Every Young Woman's Battle isn't the original restructured a bit for women, so that's not a huge factor even if the authors do reference it occasionally.

In a very broad summary, it's a breakdown of all of the things that young women face personally and relationally, and the authors aim to give some insight into dealing with those life experiences/issues. Honestly, since the age range is probably 10-20 years old, most of it wasn't helpful to me. But I can understand why someone a bit younger might be edified by the book. And why parents might use it as a discussion tool or something along those lines.

And that, friends, is a week in books.

A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White

Whether today or tomorrow's or yesterday's [march] it was all one by now, a continuous seamless tapestry, its details recurrent and interchangeable. Giant, wooden birds stalked the earth, or paused to consider the similar movements of the apparitions confronting them, or flumped towards safety if some more than usually grotesque gesture destroyed their sense of security.

There was an occasion when she fell down, scattering skywards a cloud of ashen parrots. She would have continued lying on the ground and perhaps become her true self: once the flesh melts, and the skeleton inside it is blessed with its final articulate white, amongst the stones, beneath the hard sky, in this country to which it can at last belong.

But he had got down, and was beating on her skull with his fists. 'Come on, fuck yez!' he was shouting. 'Wotcherthinkwereerefor? To die?'

I admit to picking up A Fringe of Leaves because it seemed similar to Voss, which I adored, and if I liked it less than the latter I blame White only partially, saving some fault for whoever wrote this atrocious dust-jacket synopsis for Penguin:

Returning home to England from Van Diemen's Land, the Bristol Rose is shipwrecked on the Queensland coast and Mrs Roxburgh is taken prisoner by a tribe of Aborigines, along with the rest of the passengers and crew. In the course of her escape, she is torn by conflicting loyalties--to her dead husband, to her rescuer, to her own adoptive class.

The myriad sins of which are, in descending order: 1.) The ship is not called the Bristol Rose, but the Bristol Maid. 2.) Mrs Roxburgh is not taken prisoner "along with the rest of the passengers and crew," because "the rest of the passengers are crew" are killed by the aborigines. 3.) Revealing that her husband dies is a pretty egregious spoiler for the back of the book. 4.) The events described here take place roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, and as such cannot really be considered what the book is about.

Let me try to do better. Yes, Ellen Roxburgh is shipwrecked and taken prisoner by a group of aborigines, but A Fringe of Leaves is one of those books that presents itself as being about one thing and then suddenly, in the middle of the narrative, rips the proverbial rug out from beneath the reader and becomes about something else. I think this particular custom, while rare, needs a name. The only other book I can think of that does this is J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace--Can anyone else think of one?

Rather, the book is about Ellen, who was plucked from the Cornish lower classes by a young, aristocratic lodger named Austin Roxburgh. Austin is in poor health, and they exhibit a kind of co-dependence--Austin has provided a way of escape from the poverty of Ellen's youth, and in return she takes care of him. Yet they seem to truly love each other. Their trip to Van Diemen's Land--what we now call Tasmania--is to visit Austin's brother Garnet Roxburgh, who is his brother's opposite: strong, adventurous, domineering. Ellen dislikes him but, perhaps responding to the restrictive nature of her marriage to Austin, lets Garnet bed her in a moment of weakness, thrown from her horse in the Tasmanian countryside.

The jacket is right, however, when it notes that the book is about "conflicting loyalties." Ellen exists in the overlap between opposite groups--the high class and the low, the "civilized" English and "uncivilized" aborigines. Because she belongs to everywhere she belongs nowhere. She is isolated, a stranger to the blacks and once again to the whites, who view her suspiciously after her escape:

Mrs Roxburgh again received the impression that they visualized her as the naked survivor, who doubtless t he moment before had finished defecating behind a clump of their father's bamboos.

So she smoothed her dress before appealing to them, 'You will breakfast with me, I hope, and give me courage to face the morning.'

It was too strange for them to contemplate for long.

Those described here are children, but as is so often the case, they represent the sentiments of their elders more boldly presented. So the push and pull exhibited on Ellen by the elements of English civilization and the elements of aboriginal civilization mirror the push and pull of Austin's class and her Cornwall origins, and the push and pull of Austin himself and his rakish brother.

It is also a book about responsibility and power--though Ellen is a position of service toward her husband, she, as his keeper, holds a great power over him. (So one might read her giving of herself to Garnet as an expression of her desire to forsake power.) This paradox--the power of the servant--is expressed again when the aborigines try to force her to breastfeed a child who has fallen sick. Again, when she is rescued by an escaped prisoner who has fallen in with the aborigines, she tries to promise a pardon for his help, an offer of life against death, even at her lowest point. That these efforts are fruitless--she is too dry to breastfeed; the frightened convict abandons her as soon as they come to the settlement--force Ellen to come to terms with powerlessness.

White's style is strangely schizophrenic: When among the English, his prose has the sort of intricate formality that the Victorians had, and he saves his most exotic writing for exotic places and situations, like the passage I've copied at the beginning of this post. My biggest complaint about Voss was that it seemed to develop with painful slowness, but that the sections situated in the Outback were well worth the wait. Because of the synopsis on the back, I was expecting the same from A Fringe of Leaves, and so perhaps I didn't give this book the patience that it required. Had I read the excellent assessment by the Complete Review, which begins, "It is misleading to describe this as the story of a shipwreck," I might have liked it quite a bit more.

The Problems of Jurisprudence

Richard Posner solves all our jurisprudential problems!

(Disclaimer = I'm no Posner scholar and it took me so long to read this book that by the time I finished it I had trouble remembering the beginning).

I will try to briefly review this book, given that (as far as I know) there's only one law student reading this blog, and so this book probably has only a passing interest for the other readers. Judge Posner sits on the Seventh Circuit, and is currently most famous for his affiliation with the law and economics movement. He has somewhat controversial views which come as a consequence of applying economic analysis to many legal questions. For those of us who have taken first year contracts his name was thrown around with the idea of an efficient breach of contract (although a breacher would still be liable, Posner believes that if damages are cheaper than performing a contract, we should allow a party to breach a contract and simply pay damages).

In this book Posner sets out to show how every philosophical foundation for law previously argued for is inadequate; in the absence of an adequate foundation, the only thing for a responsible judge to do is to make judgments pragmatically. This is the main thesis of the book (law and economics is brought up as a sub-thesis; but really only tangentially; this book is mostly about pragmatist jurisprudence). His basic method is to take a given explanation of what the law is (let's say originalism), and then point out how that explanation does not fully address the complexity of making legal determinations. For instance, with originalism, Posner points out that all textual analysis is open to indeterminacy. As a result, the idea of a "plain-meaning" of a text (or say, a constitutional clause) is non-existent for a vast array of legal questions.

This method of pragmatism leaves a great deal of discretion to a judge; and Posner is perfectly comfortable leaving open a legislative role for judges. He considers it constrained by the role judges have to play. For example, though Posner is comfortable allowing judge-made law, under his pragmatism a judge must take into account the damage done to the law-making system by judge-made law. Only in cases where judge-made law is less damaging than undermining the legislative branch, would it be okay for a judge to make such a decision. Of course, a judge determines the relative merits of these courses of actions.

Posner's pragmatism goes a long way towards explaining how judicial decision-making is actually made. That is, his work feels like a realist explanation of decision-making. Nonetheless, it feels somewhat vacuous in how little guidance it provides to a judge who is making a decision. I must make the decision which strikes me as most practical. It will seem most practical to me because it is most practical.

How is one to determine what is practical? Posner shies away from providing an answer; it will be up to the individual judge, and this lack of clarity is a necessary condition of the law. Posner does not say this, but it seems that he means this is a necessary condition of the idea of reason. For difficult cases, it is not easy to say what is reasonable and what not. With all things almost equal, there may not be anything to make a decision other than the judge's "gut" feeling about the case. This is not to say Judge Posner advocates haphazard decision-making. On the contrary, he implies that economic analysis is probably the most effective and most correct way to make a legal decision. His argument is that society can agree that economic efficiency is preferable to inefficiency; thus it is at least a reasonable basis for making decisions. He also points out that economically efficient decisions also provide the least incentive for appeals or re-argument or lobbying to change the law. If a decision is inefficient, there will be an incentive to change the decision (whether by legislation or appeal).

Thus, for Posner, there is always a basis to call into question a decision; but the basis will be as flexible as rationality is flexible; insofar as we cannot agree on what's reasonable, we will not agree on what's practical. We need judges to decide what's practical, not because they'll necessarily give the right/best answer; but because we need an answer.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

His sins trickled from his lips, one by one, trickled in shameful drops from his soul festering and oozing like a sore, a squalid stream of vice. The last sins oozed forth, sluggish, filthy.

A month or so ago, Randy posted a scathing review of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he and I (and Christopher) had a short discussion about it. You can read it in the comments for the post, but it boiled down, I think, to this: Randy felt like nothing that happened in the book was particularly interesting or significant. He felt like the events were interesting only to the extent the reader was invested in the character of Stephen Dedalus, the titular artist. I responded out of ignorance, not having read Portrait, but now, having finished it, I have to say, while I disagree with many of Randy’s conclusions, I do agree with one thing: Stephen is a difficult protagonist to really like.

The extent to which a character must be likable to be successful is variable; Ignatius Riley is an ignoble beast, but since A Confederacy of Dunces spends time pointing out his follies, he’s paradoxically easier to forgive. Stephen, on the other hand, seems to be presented as exactly the artist he believes himself to be. Reading Portrait, it’s difficult to determine the extent to which the reader is meant to like Stephen. On the one hand, it’s easy to cheer for his progression from mousy, guilt-ridden child to independent young artist; on the other, Stephen’s attitude changes from subservient and weak-kneed to almost unbearably arrogant and self-important.

Ok, so a quick summary for those who didn’t read the review linked above: Stephen Dedalus, a young man growing up in Dublin, Ireland around the turn of the 18th century, grows up in a factitious family, headed by a once great father who now lives mostly in a whiskey-clouded past and a mother whose only identifiable characteristic is her passive love for her son. He attends Catholic school, hears a lengthy sermon about Hell, turns devout, gets cold feet when approached with the idea of the priesthood, turns agnostic, seeks to find his purpose in art rather than Catholicism, and finds it. The end.

The novel is structured around two Joycean epiphanies, mentioned above: first, Stephen’s venture into devout Catholicism, and second, his change of direction into the world of art. Portrait seems to present the second of these as the more legitimate, ending with a blissful, purposeful Stephen out to face the world with his newfound philosophy. Is Stephen a successful character? Well, that depends. Had I only read Portrait, I think I would feel that the story was unfinished and that Stephen, as a character, was a bit simple. However, having read Ulysses last year, my feelings about Artist are significantly more positive. Spoilers for Ulysses follow, such as they are.

While Ulysses doesn’t spend most of its time on Stephen, he does appear as the most important secondary character in the novel, and what we see of him shows us where his path will eventually lead. Education and art, far from being the void-filling purpose Stephen believed them to be in Portrait, have proven just as stifling as his pursuit of religion, leaving him a depressed, empty intellectual who garners little respect and still lingers in the shadow of his father. This, to me, seems rather in keeping with Stephen’s character: every epiphany satisfies, but only for a little while. There is, in Joyce’s world, no one solution to the human problem, and so there is none for Stephen’s either. End Ulysses Spoilers.

If I may leave Portrait behind for a moment, I’d like to say that, brilliant as his novels are, Joyce’s books make me feel sad. It’s sad to imagine that such a brilliant man spent his entire life trying to create art that would satisfy him, and, though he went blind and died nearly friendless in the pursuit, he, like Stephen, never achieved it. It’s hard to read Stephen as anything but a surrogate for Joyce, the artist as an old man who ended up exactly like I imagine Stephen will.

So, to return to the point: Is Stephen, and by association, Portrait, successful on its own terms? Stephen, with all of his ambiguities, is successful in portraying the sort of man he is. If the novel seems a bit empty to me, it’s only because, ultimately, it is, but in the best possible—and I think, intentional—way.

Read Nathan's much more coherent review

Friday, June 25, 2010

Game Change: Obama and the Clinton's, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann

After reading this, I've learned something about myself...I love reading about other people's problems, especially famous, super rich people. I lap it up like a dog attached to a soup bone. I don't want to know what that says about me..

Some suspicions that were confirmed by this book:

- Bill Clinton is just as gross as I assumed he was. Smart, but ew. Ew. Eeewwww!

- Hillary swears like a f%$#^&king sailor. You rock,#^^$&#@*&, Hillary! And surprise, surprise, she may actually love her husband! Go figure!

- McCain had an affair in the 90's with someone my age.. gosh. Can you imagine? Probably you shouldn't. That gag reflex is a hard one to control.

- Biden didn't get along too well during the campaign. Really?? By the way, where is Joe Biden? Sounds like a book name doesn't it. Has anyone seen Joe Biden on the news lately? What, he fall of the face of the Earth?

- My biggest surprise of the book?? I actually came off feeling slightly bad for Sarah Palin.. Yes, I know, I'm currently clutching my chest and breathing heavily at the thought of it.

Ah, you poor, poor multi-millionaires. Life would be rough without you for entertainment. As for me, I'd rather have my feet scraped than run for office...and I'll mail anyone a pretend dollar if anyone knows what movie that last line is from.
A must read for any political junkie..
4 stars.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

Exit, pursued by a bear.

While The Winter's Tale hardly does justice to the brilliance of Shakespeare, it still bears the distinction of its playwright. I confess, I am more a fan of the tragedies with their seemingly endless profundities than the comedies which, in their lightheartedness, struck me as being shallow. This particular play combines some of both worlds, with unfortunate events leading to joyful circumstances, all spiced with the usual madcap whirl of disguises, mix-ups, ravishing beauties, lovelorn (and rather silly) boys, whimsical songs, and sadly-the-wiser men.

(Begin spoiling here...)
The plot recalled to mind Sophocles' Oedipus the King, beginning as it does with the tragic blindness and (rather like Chesterton's purely rational madman) small-minded logic of King Leontes of Sicilia. He accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of adultery, the other party being his dear friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. In his rage, he cannot bear even to look at the child when it is born, and condemns it to the Oedipal fate of being cast out in the wilderness to whatever terrors or delights the gods might have for it. Baby Perdita ends up with shepherds (again...), King Leontes' heir dies, and Hermione basically turns into a statue. The oracle at Delphi says Leontes can't expect an heir unless he reclaims his daughter, who has been completely lost. There you have the tragedy.

Comedy turned out to be shades of The Tempest, with lots of disgustingly sweet love language exchanged between Polixenes' son, Florizel (whose name predisposes him to his speech; "flor-" is the Latin root for "flower"), and the shepherdess maiden, Perdita. Of course they're crossed in their love because that makes the plot more interesting, and from that, drama ensues, leading to happily ever after for practically everyone. Not Antigonus though. He got eaten by a bear. But that eventually freed dearest Paulina to marry Camillo, so all's well that ends well.

This play was an interesting stretch for me because I have only ever read one other Shakespeare play without the handy definitions page opposite, but the more I read, the more understandable his English becomes. That's neither here nor there, although I do recommend trying it at least once for the sake of the experience.

In terms of Shakespeare, it's not the first play I would recommend to anyone who hasn't read any of his work. In fact, it's rather far down the list. That being said, it is still miles ahead of the work of most playwrights, so in relative terms, it still ends up near the top. And there's always the satisfaction of knowing that you've read one of his more obscure works, so you can impress people that you meet at dinner parties. If you're the sort of person who goes to those sorts of events and wants to impress that sort of people, of course.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

"Marge, you must understand that I don't love you," Tom said into the mirror in Dickie's voice, with Dickie's higher pitch on the emphasized words, with the little growl in his throat at the end of the phrase that could be pleasant or unpleasant, intimate or cool, according to Dickie's mood. "Marge, stop it!" Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge's throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left her, limp, on the floor. He was panting. He wiped his forehead the way Dickie did, reached for a handkerchief and, not finding any, got one from Dickie's top drawer, then resumed in front of the mirror. Even his parted lips looked like Dickie's lips when he was out of breath frm swimming, drawn down a little from his lower teeth. "You know why I had to do that " he said, still breathlessly, addressing Marge, though he watched himself in the mirror. "You were interfering between Tom and me--No, not that! But there is a bond between us!"

Warning: Spoilers within.

Tom Ripley's talents are unusual: They involve a little skill at mimicking, an ability to forge signatures, and a keen sense of observation. When The Talented Mr. Ripley opens, they are going to poor use: Tom is living in New York doing tax work, embarrassed by his apartment an his poverty, running a small scam in which he writes to artists charging them for nonexistent back taxes. When the father of a minor acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf, mistakes him for one of Dickie's close friends and asks him to travel to Italy to beg Dickie to return home, Tom welcomes it as an opportunity to escape the mediocrity of his existence.

But when Tom arrives, he isn't particularly interested in retrieving Dickie. In fact, he becomes enamored of Dickie's lifestyle: his leisure, his jetsetting, his style. He desperately wants to be liked by Dickie, but Dickie is a class-A dick: Selfish, aloof, dismissive of Tom and of his own companion Marge, whose adoration he returns with diffidence. Eventually, Tom, in a moment of severe frustration, decides that he could be a much better Dickie than Dickie himself, and murders him.

This is Tom's M.O.: He despises himself and his own background. It isn't about money; he doesn't even cash the checks that he collects from his tax scheme. It's about stepping out of the cage that is Tom Ripley and entering into the freedom that is Dickie Greenleaf. So easily does Tom do this that he is interviewed twice by the same police officer, once as Dickie, and once as himself, and raises no eyebrows.

A friend of mine likened this book to Dexter, and I think that's especially apt. Not only in the sense that Tom is a murderer, and that we sympathize with him because his victims are especially noxious, but because the thrust of its plot is predicated on the elaborate tricks that Tom has to play to fool Marge, Dickie's father, and the Italian police. His ruse requires another murder and another cover-up, and soon Dickie's disappearance is plastered all over the Italian newspapers. Like the best episodes of Dexter, The Talented Mr. Ripley always asks the question, "How could he possibly get out of this one?"

One thing I especially liked about it is that Highsmith avoids the sort of identity crisis that characterizes a lot of Dexter. Tom feels no guilt about slipping into Dickie's identity, about absconding with his clothes and possessions and becoming him. He challenges us as a character because he is a completely amoral being--unlike Dexter, with his rigid ethical code--and yet we cheer for him, and hate Dickie. Fifty-five years after The Talented Mr. Ripley, in our celebrity obsessed culture, I think it's easy to see why--certainly there are some people out there whose wealth and lifestyle we think we could use a lot better.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Join Our Facebook Group!

Fifty Books participant and Beard-Grower extraordinaire Josh has started a Facebook group for the Fifty Books Project. We'll be trying our best to keep it updated with the latest reviews and changes to the blog, so if you're on Facebook and want an easy way to follow us, go here:

Fifty Books Project Facebook Group

And thanks again to everyone who is helping make this project a success!

Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

If the lovely fact that our sun will probably burn out in 4 billion years and our beloved Earth will turn into a huge ball of black rock because of it (until it's vaporized that is) bothers you, keeps you up in the night, this book might not be for you. If you're worried about an asteroid hitting somewhere between Hawaii and California in 2039 and Idaho becoming ocean front property (hmm, maybe an improvement?), then this book might not be for you. If you're worried about what might happen to you if you inadvertently get a little, tinsy bit too close to a black hole of death! (even your atoms get pulled apart) then again, I might not read this book.Because, if you thought your ulcer was healing and you could eat salsa with your chips again. Think again! A collection of essays about a myriad of cosmic topics from Natural History magazine written by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (you've probably seen him on PBS, and no he's not the night sky guy with the weird voice), this book entertains. Frightens. Enlightens. And inevitably makes you feel much, much smarter for reading it. But believe me, sometimes this knowledge is a scary, scary thing! In fact, now I'd like to take some of it back. Oh, brain atrophy!

Except for a few about half way through that made my eyes start to glaze over, I found most of these essays really interesting and readable. Tyson is obviously one of those well known science professionals who is actually interested in, and good at, teaching (believe it or not!) instead of just doing research and publishing. So yes, they do exist..

Way, oh way back in the dark ages when I was in college I took a series of physics classes from an astronaut named Don Lind. He was a cocky ass who said stuff like, if you ever get a chance to fly in space.. . I wanted to slap him...anyway, I remember learning about prisms and color and how our brain interprets it, and thinking that was the coolest thing! I remember telling my twelve year old sister about it, about how a prism works and why we are able to see that myriad of colors without moving our eyes (look it up, it's really cool!). She looked at me like I was a martian from outer space who'd just landed and interrupted an episode of Get Smart, and made fun of me for years because of it.

Well, neiner neiner. Now I feel vindicated.
Sort of..
Crap, she's probably still making fun of me.
Oh well..
4 stars

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

They had a dozen children, six boys and six girls, in 17 years. Somewhat to Dad’s disappointment, there were no twins or other multiple births. There was no doubt in his mind that the most efficient way to rear a large family would be to have one huge litter and get the whole business over with at one time.

First things first: this book has nothing in common with the 2003 movie starring Steve Martin except the title and the number of offspring in the featured family. Where the film was just a standard family comedy with a larger cast, the book is a genuinely sweet and funny look at an atypical family in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s also worth noting that this book doesn’t take much longer to read than the movie takes to watch.

Written by two of the dozen children, Cheaper By the Dozen is a memoir, basically a loosely-connected series of vignettes, mostly funny and occasionally moving. Although the title makes it sound like it focuses primarily on the children, the most vivid character in the story is actually Frank Galbrath, Sr., the father of the titular dozen. Both he and his wife Lillian are efficiency experts, making their living by showing companies and individuals how they can reduce “motion waste” and save time and money. They choose to apply these same principles to their family: irregular jobs are bid on by the children, with the job and the subsequent reward going to the lowest bidder; Morse code is taught by painting legends in every room of the house, and, similarly, foreign languages are taught by means of phonographs in every room.

Cheaper By the Dozen, like most funny books, doesn’t really benefit from a review. You can pick it up and read a couple pages and see if it’s for you. If you come from a family of thirteen, like me, it just might catch your attention.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard

Brent recently noted that my reviews of Muriel Spark's books never seem to reflect a real enthusiasm, even as I claim to be a fan of her work. It's hard to argue with this; certainly I disliked both Aiding and Abetting and The Finishing School (the last two books Spark ever wrote), and while my esteem for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is clear, my reviews of Robinson, The Girls of Slender Means, and The Driver's Seat must seem rather indifferent.

But it seems to me that Spark's books function differently from other novels, that if I seem to not engage with them it is because they do not ask to be engaged with in that way. They offer little in the way of human connection. The characters are ripe, but they are also frequently grotesque and off-putting. You are not permitted under anyone's skin, and neither would they want you there. But they certainly attack the mind with some shocking precision; for such slim books they present quite a bit to think upon.

Martin Stannard's new biography of Spark is a welcome opportunity to see her fiction from another, more human angle. I am not usually a fan of biographies--I prefer to think that the literature ought to speak for itself--but something about Spark's coldness and sparseness makes me want to find out more about her. In fact, Spark was adamant that nothing could be gleaned about her from her work, even when it mirrored autobiographical details. She leaves precious few holes through which the author can be glimpsed. It is no wonder, I think, that one should be naturally curious.

This reflects one of the major themes that seems to arise in Stannard's biography: Spark's obsessive need to control her own biography. Stannard speaks early on of something he calls the "nevertheless principle," illustrated by an uncharacteristically stark, black cathedral spire in the middle of Spark's native Edinburgh--the idea that nothing is one thing only. In spite of this--or because of it?--she kept stern watch over her public image, threatening to sue those who got even the minutest details wrong or dared to mischaracterize her. Her own biography, Curriculum Vitae, is described as a disappointment, seeking to correct the inaccuracies of the way she was depicted, but offering no substantial insight into her own life. These details form part of a larger capriciousness, torpedoing friendships for small or perceived slights. As her friend Ved Mehta notes, "She'd absolutely conquer you immediately. And then of course she'd move on to someone else."

Stannard depicts all of this in what is probably the most charitable way possible. His work hews as closely to Spark's point of view as it is able, allowing her always the last word in her own defense. As an account of her life, I find this approach fairly reasonable. He does not, for instance, mention that although Spark asked him to be her biographer, she disliked the final product and tried to go at it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to preserve her own careful conception of herself. This is probably much of the reason that it took eighteen years to complete. However, it is impossible to ignore what Stannard elides: frequently Spark could be a nasty piece of work.

Not a single friendship seems to last or simply fade, they all seem to implode. (The one exception being Penelope Jardine, who was her platonic companion for the last few decades of her life.) God help you if you were her agent, editor, or publisher. But most distressing was her relationship with her son, Robin. Born in Africa to Spark and her unstable, violent husband, Spark sent Robin to live with his grandmother when he was small, partly because of monetary and custody concerns, but also because, as Stannard admits, having Robin around interfered with her literary goals. As an adult, Spark and Robin treated each other with open contempt. He increasingly aligned himself with Orthodox Judaism, waging a public campaign claiming that Spark's mother was a Jewish convert and that therefore she herself was fully (not half-) Jewish, and that Spark, a Catholic convert, had purposefully concealed that part of her identity.

It is easy to see why Robin's actions enraged Spark, especially in light of her obsession over controlling her image. Her conversion was a fundamental part of her identity, and Robin's insistence on her family's Judaism in a way sought to annull her personal religious freedom and trap her in the traditions of her family. That would have been a gross insult to her independence. But Stannard cannot conceal a lifetime of indifference to her son, and even he lets in a little soft criticism when describing Robin's art career:

Muriel usually applauded those who followed Gaugin's example. She had followed it herself. But her son, she felt, was not Gauguin and she suspected ulterior motives: a flavour of competition ('Anything you can do...'), a desire to cash in on her fame. It seems not to have occurred to her that is desire to become an artist was a genuine passion perhaps connected with his craving for her approval. Instead, she saw the problem as twofold: he was fifty and lacked talent.

If I speak too much of Spark's negatives, it is because they are what Stannard leaves unsaid. She is also brilliant, and the biography is at its best when it attempts literary criticism--as it does for each of Spark's 22 novels--refracting the themes of her work in her life's prism. In her later years, Spark seems brittle, irritable, and often cruel, but it is those same qualities that make her, in her youth, such a compelling figure: fierce, independent, spiritually incisive but not dogmatic. Her palming off of Robin is more favorably mirrored in her slavish obedience to her writing, enduring long bouts of poverty and hardship in order to create. One of the most fascinating--though surely difficult--periods Stannard describes is a spell of strange hallucinations brought on by Dexedrine, which she took to help stave off hunger while she wrote. (Among other things, she thought that T.S. Eliot was concealing threatening messages to her in his work.)

She would have loathed being identified with Fleur Talbot, the heroine of her novel Loitering with Intent, even though it is cobbled together from the bits and pieces of her own personal history. But Fleur also says something that seems to me as good an epitaph as any:

When people say that nothing happens in their lives... I believe them. But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

Maybe it wasn't so bad, he thought. He had staked everything, and that was all he had lost. [Then] the thunder of his own guns filled him with stupid wonder.

So I decided to take a break from the Song of Ice and Fire series (because none of the books really ends, they just pause and pick up again in the next one, making it like reading one several thousand page novel, which hasn't gotten tedious yet, but could...) and go back to the Dark Tower. Brent commented that as the series goes along the novels become more Stephen King-esque, and I can already see it in this installment. I enjoyed this book more than The Gunslinger and am looking forward to the third one.

This book was interesting because we got to know a little more about Roland and his relationship to his companions. When he draws Eddie, Eddie is hooked on heroin and struggling to handle himself, not to mention the trek and quest for the Tower. He hates and resents Roland, thinking only of himself. When Roland draws Odetta/Detta, she is still tormented by the split in her personality and is more of a liability and danger than an asset. But by the end Roland has basically saved Odetta/Detta from herself and she emerges as Susannah, capable and strong, but still kind and caring, while Eddie has found strength, love, and someone to take care of, undertaking some serious character building. By the end of the book, Roland acknowledges that he loves them both, though his profession intrigues me. It seems that in the end Eddie and Susannah are only Roland's tools and he'll use them in whatever way helps him get to the Tower. He admits to Eddie that even though he loves them, he won't hesitate to let them die or kill them, as he did the boy in The Gunslinger, but I think it goes further than that. Early in this one, he recognizes Eddie's capacity to love and the way he has let that capacity atrophy in himself in his single-minded pursuit of the Tower. Roland realizes that reaching the tower stripped of his humanity might be worse than not reaching the Tower at all, which makes me think that deep down he is only using Eddie and Susannah as people to love. I'm interested to see how this dynamic evolves over the course of the series.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

"You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now.”

First up, confession time. Apart from Harlequin-grade romance, I’m less familiar with crime fiction than any other genre. I cut my grown-up teeth on John Grisham and Stephen King and moved on to classics, so with the exception of Victorian crime novels like The Woman in White, I’m unfamiliar. That said, there was an awful lot in The Big Sleep that felt familiar. As Chris mentioned in his review, this isn’t really Chandler’s fault. His books and his protagonist Philip Marlowe have been so influential that returning to the source is a little like watching your first performance of Romeo and Juliet.

That said, it’s worth noting that The Big Sleep, like Romeo and Juliet, is much better than most of its derivatives. This is hard-boiled crime fiction at its most hard-boiled: The women are all beautiful femme fatales, the men are all tough guys, and the plots are twisted and complex in all the ways you’d expect. A plot summary would probably run longer than one of Christopher’s reviews, so just think about a noir you’re familiar with, say, L. A. Confidential, and imagine it’s a lot like that, because it is. For better or worse, it was almost exactly the way I expected it would be. That’s not to say it’s bad. Marlowe is a likeable guy. In spite of his noir exterior, he repeatedly resists seduction by various women, large bribes from dangerous men, and polite conversation with, well, everyone to pursue the best interests of his client. The ending is pretty surprising, and the book doesn’t take too long to read. If this all sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s not exactly what’s up—it’s just that The Big Sleep is out of my regular ballpark and I don’t really know what to say about it.

It’s worth noting, though, that Chandler is quite a good writer, and sometimes he’ll turn out a surprisingly evocative paragraph, like the excerpt above. He’s also quite good with similes—witness, “He wore a blue overcoat that fitted him like a stall fits a horse” or "The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings."

As for themes, I struggled to find anything in particular beyond “the world is a violent, dangerous place”, but a repeated line in the novel, “This is a big city now” might give some insight into Marlowe’s mind and help explain the popularity of Chandler’s novels seventy years after their publication. Marlowe is a complex character, but his motives are simple. He wants to complete the job and be able to live with himself. However, throughout the novel, he finds himself stymied by the big world: gangsters, police, women. Through it all, Marlowe is true only to himself and his own moral code. To him, the world is still, at its heart, a simple place, full of complex people with complex motives who are nevertheless the same as they’ve always been: petty, greedy, sometimes noble, and, in spite of their complex circumstances, simple.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty in the morning to wait on the boat the Bishop was coming on.

Spoilers, such as they are.

I realize that, for most people, the best place to start with an author is one of their most acclaimed works. You wouldn’t read Youth for your first Tolstoy, The Original of Laura for your first Nabokov, or The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner for your first Meyer. Still, there is something to be said for starting with a lesser work, particularly if the works upon which an author’s reputation has been built are massive, and you happen to stumble across a much shorter, lesser-known work by a well-regarded author at Goodwill for 50 cents. It gives you a chance to check out an author’s style and themes without investing hours and hours of reading; however, the downside is that some works are minor for a reason. All of which is a long way of saying that Chronicle of a Death Foretold was my first Marquez, and I really didn’t like it.

The story opens by introducing us to Santiago Nasar, a young Arab who, we learned in the first line of the book, has been murdered. The day of his death immediately follows the biggest wedding in his town’s history, that of Bayardo San Roman and Angela Vicario. As it goes, Bayardo San Roman returns Angela Vicario to her parents’ house the night of the wedding after learning that she isn’t a virgin. When her brothers find her the next morning, laying in the living room bruised from the beaten her mother gave her upon her return, they demand the name of her love, intending to kill him and thus preserve Angela Vicario’s honor. She gives them the name of Santiago Nasar, even though the narrator tells us that he couldn’t possibly have been her lover, and the twins make preparations for the kill. While doing so, they tell virtually everyone they come into contact with that they are preparing to kill Santiago Nasar, and soon everyone in the town knows, except Santiago Nasar himself. The murder becomes a sort of spectator sport, with no one intervening even as the twins brutally murder Santiago.

I don’t know where to start with the things that bothered me about this book. By the time I finished the first ten pages, I was tired of the writing style, which is, I guess, magical realism. The narrator, unnamed but certainly a resident of the town, delivers the story, injecting asides about dreams and mystical occurrences that seemingly have nothing to do with the story. He also repeats himself, over and over. Indeed, the book would be half its length if he didn’t spend time meeting every resident of the town and telling us that they all knew that Santiago Nasar was going to be killed, and didn’t do anything about it. By the end of the first chapter, I already felt like I was being bludgeoned over the head with the point. I get it—everyone in town is complicit in the murder because they did nothing to stop it. What’s this a reference to? World War II? The Catholic purge in Mexico? Rwandan genocide? Basic human nature? We’re left to speculate, which is fine.

Less fine: throughout the book, we’re introduced to dozens of characters—indeed, Chronicle may have the highest character-to-page ratio I’ve ever seen—but we never learn enough about anyone to much care what happens to them. Even if we did, everyone here seems pretty terrible, or at least terribly apathetic. Again, I get it, that’s the point, but without any sort of relatable or sympathetic characters, the blurb on the back of the book is almost as impactful as the book itself. Angela Vicario probably gets the most development of anyone, and yet, when the narrator speaks to her years after the murder, she laughs about the things that happened, and admits that she picked Santiago Nasar’s name out of thin air. Intended or not, this makes her seem just as terrible as everyone else in her stupid town.

I’m not glad I read this book. It was awful and pointless and the writing style bothered me, although I can’t put my finger on why (although always using everyone's full names probably contributed). Can anyone who’s read any of Marquez’s major works tell me if they’re better, or am I better off staying far away?

Jim's One Hundred years of Solitude review, in which Jim is also bludgeoned with themes.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: Stories By Lydia Davis

At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.

Some weeks back, while the upstate winter was still in full swing, I bundled up and drove over to the University at Albany to hear Lydia Davis give a reading from her most recent collection of short stories. I had never before read any of Davis’ work, but after an hour or so of listening to her material I resolved to remedy this posthaste. I went directly to the library and checked out her celebrated 2002 book Samuel Johnson Is Indignant.

To call Davis’ stories “stories” seems an understatement. Drawing from Proust - she’s translated much of his work – Davis spins out little poems, or rather, tiny vignettes filled with humor, philosophy and even bleak depictions of life, although some are surrealist depictions of what could only be described as dreams. Davis finds that liminal space between poetry and prose and its here that she does her best work. Rarely do her stories spill onto a second page - the title of the book is itself a story - but when they do readers will no doubt greedily flip the page for more.

Davis gives readers an intimate glimpse into her own life in musings like a funeral parlor's letter, one of the best ruminations of the commercialization of death that I have ever read. All in all Samuel Johnson Is Indignant is an engaging book, and while occasionally marred by excessive introspection, readers are sure to enjoy its petite, philo-poetic treats.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry

These dreadful summoners grace. I am a man

More sinn'd against than sinning.

So, four years into 50 Books, I’ve finally read my first Shakespeare. I can’t say, not having read anything else by the bard, whether King Lear was a good or bad choice. It seems like a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I was unfamiliar with the story, so there was some suspense that wouldn’t have been present had I chosen, say, Romeo and Juliet. On the other hand, King Lear may be Shakespeare’s most complex play, and, reading it mostly without commentary like I did, I’m sure I missed a lot.

But the real question is, is it good? And I am thankful to validate Shakespeare scholars everywhere when I say, yes, it is. King Lear is a seriously dense play, full of double crosses, emotional subtleties, eye gouging, and swordfighting. The basic gist is this: One day, King Lear, old and ready to pass on his power, gathers his three daughters, Gonreil, Regan, and Cordelia. He asks each of them how much they love him, and while Gonreil and Regan answer with flattering hyperbole, Cordelia attempts to give an honest answer, and, for her troubles, is banished. The remaining daughters set in motion a fairly complex plot, most of it out of their control, which ends with almost the entire cast dead, including King Lear himself, who first has a short period of being completely bonkers. And yes, these are spoilers, but Lear is a tragedy, after all.

I don’t feel competent to really dissect Lear, but here are a few observations. King Lear himself is a pitiful character, overthrown by his own pride but unable to see it. It’s ironic that he makes almost as much sense crazy as he does sane, having the gall to claim himself wronged after banishing his truest daughter for the unforgivable sin of honesty.Not that the moral/sane characters get off much better. Many of them receive their unearned comeuppance. In spite of Albany’s late declaration that divine justice has been served, it’s difficult to see any justice or order at all by the end of King Lear. In that way, the play functions as a critique of divine intervention, and takes no sides. Good does prevail in the end, but at what cost? Is justice gained through injustice just at all? In the same vein, it’s interesting that Shakespeare chose to set Lear in a pre-Christian world. It allows him to ask difficult questions that nevertheless require some transposition to consider in a Christian context.

Although Lear is hundreds of years old, it’s likely to always be resonant. Leaders don’t change much, and neither do men. Kings will always be brought low by pride, the good will always die at the hands of the wicked, and the question will always remain, can it really be any different?

Chris's Review

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Song of Ice and Fire (books 1-3) by George R.R. Martin

Winter is coming.

Those are the words of the house of Stark, but in Westeros winter isn't coming, it's effing there. Kings and lords fight and betray, heroes and villains are killed and maimed alike, and the people of the realm face numerous and unspeakable dangers. Dun dun dun DUN! (dramatic music)

I won't say a lot about these books because they aren't too deep or meaningful (of if they are I've ignored it because I think over-analyzing them would ruin some of the charm/magic). A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords are the first three books in the (as yet unfinished) epic chronicle, A Song of Ice and Fire. I have to say they kind of remind me of Tolkien or Rowling, though the magical element is a little bit dialed down (though it's still there). The books take place in a different world, made up (as far as I can tell) on two continents, Westeros (which is more or less like medieval Europe and is where the majority of the action takes place) and another (which is more or less like North Africa/the Middle East, at least as far as the terrain goes). I won't go into the plot much, because it's detailed and the books are long, but I will say that these books are fun and addictive. Certainly not high literature, but just about everything I want in a book: an interesting, compelling story that I want to read for hours on end with characters I both love and hate. Jim got me turned on to these books (I also started because they are going to turn it into an HBO mini-series, which I'm quite looking forward to). If you are looking for something fun and entertaining with some dragons thrown in for good measure, I definitely recommend these books.