Monday, April 30, 2007

Deliverance by James Dickey

This book is completely terrifying. Many are probably familiar with it from the film version: A quartet of suburbian clock-punchers go on an impulsive canoing trip down a secluded north Georgia river, and along the way two are molested by a pair of rednecks. This horrible act causes a struggle for vengeance and survival that the survivors (I won't say how many) carry with them for the rest of their lives.

The movie is well known--though, sadly, it has become a one-word joke about sodomy in our popular culture--but you may not be aware that the book is equally highly regarded, appearing on Time's 100 Greatest Books Since 1923 list. The author, James Dickey, was best known as a poet before the publication of Deliverance, and accordingly he gives the book a sense of hideous wonder, preventing it from becoming the plain sort of thriller the topic might suggest.

Deliverance is a book about primitivism, the way it remains in us like a reservoir waiting to be tapped. At the end of the book, the dead lie at the bottom of the river which is about to be dammed into a lake, suggesting that the primitive part of all of us that remains from our ancestors lies dormant beneath what society makes out of us. What it brings out in Ed Gentry, the main character, is both amazing and awful: the power to survive as well as the power to kill. Perhaps the most frightening part occurs when Ed waits in a tree with a bow and arrow for one of the molestors, who plans on returning and shooting the suburbanites, and forces his mind and the molestor's to merge so that he might anticipate where and when he will return. Ed is forced to recognize that what the rednecks do to them, their violence and perversion, is not something that they possess alone but something that dwells within himself, and is necessary to survive in this backwoods Southern jungle.

This brings my total from the Times List to 22. I'd like to read them all, but I don't think I could sit through Infinite Jest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Why is love intensified by absence? Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry.

This is easily the best book I’ve read this year, and probably the most moving book I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. It was great.

Henry, the time traveler of the title, has a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time, mostly his own past, without warning. His episodes can be triggered by stress, illness, surprise, or even standing up too quickly. He finds himself whenever and wherever, completely naked, often vomiting, and occasionally surrounded by very confused strangers. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel were when Henry had to cope with being dropped in different situations that were completely out of his control, often having to seek help from his past or future self. Clare is Henry’s wife, in some, but not all, layers of time that the story follows. The story is almost evenly divided between her narration and Henry’s. She plays Penelope to Henry’s Odysseus, and a lot of her plot is figuring out how to cope with this strange part of their relationship, but she does it gracefully. "Love conquers all," or so I've heard.

As you can probably imagine, a lot of Niffenegger’s plot is very circular. Henry grows up, meets Clare, marries her, then travels back into the past and meets her as a six year-old girl. Clare grows up, recognizes Henry in a library, and asks him out. This is the first time Henry meets Clare. There are all kinds of situations like this one: one of them has almost always experienced the majority of their relationship before the other, past and future. Often times, something very important to their life and the story happens only as a result of Henry accidentally (or intentionally) affecting their past or future. But, and here’s the only place where the book teeters on the frontier of science-fiction land, everything that’s ever happened, or will happen, or is happening, is unchangeable, and on the same plane. Time is viewed as something very parallel. The whole novel is written in the present tense to emphasize this, which I liked very much. You might expect a plot that constantly jumps backwards or forwards in time any number of years or days to be a headache, as I did, but Niffenegger handled it perfectly, and managed to completely avoid any redundancy that probably could have sprung up very easily.

The most beautiful thing about this book is the joy or pain that they share (or that Henry keeps from Clare) at knowing certain inevitable parts of their future, good or bad. The Time Traveler’s Wife raises a lot of questions about how much of our lives are actually in our own hands, and I don’t mind that it doesn’t bother to answer them, or speculate as to whose hands they might be in. That’s not the point. The point is that they fell in love, and they couldn’t help it, and nothing can change it. It’s completely new to see love overcome something like a genetic time travel disorder, but it still feels familiar. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love, or cared deeply for anyone, will be able to understand a lot of what Henry and Clare go through, even if they don’t have a genetic disorder that causes them to instantaneously travel through time and space, completely naked.

Niffenegger, although she has a silly name, wrote a great novel. And I don’t care what you think about love stories; this is a great story no matter what you call it. Read it.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre

Jesus Navarro was born with six fingers on each hand, and that wasn't the most different thing about him. It's what took him though, in the very, very end. He didn't expect to die Tuesday; they found him wearing silk panties. Now girls' underwear is a major focus of the investigation, go figure. His ole man says the cops planted them on him. Like, 'Lingirie Squad! Freeze!' I don't fucken think so.

Why do people find Vernon God Little difficult to finish? In an informal survey, the BBC found that more than a third of Britons put this book down before they've finished it. It isn't a particularly dense or boring book, like fellow Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, and it's not particularly long, like the second least-finished book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Maybe it's because VGL is so distasteful--you see, it's about a school shooting in the small town of Martirio, Texas by an abused Mexican boy named Jesus Navarro. Jesus' best friend in the world is Vernon Gregory Little, a typical white Texan boy who feels trapped by the insanity of small-town living. When Jesus goes on a rampage and ultimately kills himself, the town and the country turn to Vernon, the killer's only friend, as a scapegoat for the murder, trying him as an accessory. But it's a delicate subject that Pierre treats with a sledgehammer.

I planned on reading this book before what happened at Virginia Tech a week ago, but those events pushed it to the front of my reading list. But VGL isn't necessarily about the shooting, which occurs before the action of the novel, but the later reaction, which is dark, hilarious, obscene, scatalogical, and terrifying. It's full of vain, fat proto-American characters who are always coming from or going to the local Bar-B-Chew Barn, overcome by their own idiocy and shallowness. Vernon's mother never really seems convinced of Vernon's innocence, though she tells him tritely while waiting for her new fridge to arrive, "Even murderers have mothers who love them." No wonder Vernon feels he has to escape to Mexico. It is tempting to scorn Pierre, who was born in Australia, lived in Mexico during his youth, and currently lives in Ireland, for satirizing Americans so ruthlessly, but his satire falls embarrassingly near the mark.

It's a punishing read psychologically, but it has a certain poignancy given the media frenzy over the identity of Cho Seung-Hui. The plot of VGL is driven by a similar media frenzy that whips up over Vernon: Every murder that occurs in the state of Texas during the time he's on the run is attributed to him. A power-hungry would-be reporter cashes in on his affair with Vernon's mother and buys the rights to televise his trial--and possibly his execution. Reading it, I couldn't help but think about the decision of NBC to televise the video manifesto made by Cho, and the outpouring of disgust at that over copycat concerns. This book was written four years ago, but it seems even more relevant now, if you can get over its general tastelessness.

Side note: I don't know why I've read so many more Booker Prize books than Pulitzer Prize books. (The Booker Prize is the analogous prize for Britain or former members of the British commonwealth, minus America.) But the Pulitzer Prize was recently awarded to The Road, so it's not like I'm some weird Anglophile or something.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Sometimes I think Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America
Have such a sad time together

--The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”

The way I felt about this book before reading it was pretty similar to the way I felt about Catcher in the Rye: It’s such a hallowed tome for so many people, especially college kids, that I was wary to sit down and read it. I’m suspicious of popular things; that’s who I am. With Catcher in the Rye I was rewarded with a book that exceeded all the expectations I had for it, with On the Road, my expectations were pretty much spot on.

On the Road is a story not about one road trip, but about several—I think there’s roughly four or five, each one corresponding to a different “book.” There’s something amazing and fascinating about it, the way that, in essence, it is a day-by-day account of three formative years in Kerouac’s life, compiled in copious notes and then written down in a “creative explosion” that took only three weeks. It’s hard to tell, but I’d guess that there’s more truth to it than fiction; all the characters in the book are people Kerouac knew. Kerouac himself is narrator Sal Paradise, but the focus of much of the book belongs to Dean Moriarty, the analogue of hipster-king Neal Cassady. It’s the whims of Moriarty, who is a fickle, half-crazed pseudo-intellectual who moves from place to place and wife to wife without thought, that really drive the events of the book. Moriarty is a sort of god-figure to Paradise, who admires his impulsiveness and raw human nature, but throughout the book Paradise has to confront the fact that both Moriarty and their adventures are in some ways failures that cannot possibly live up to Paradise’s hopes for them.

There are some heartbreakingly beautiful scenes in this book; I am particularly fond of the final trip in which Sal and Dean venture to Mexico City and end up lost in a sort of marijuana-fueled haze. However, in between those heartbreakingly beautiful scenes, there is a gross amount of tedium. I suppose that is, after all, real life, but it makes for a really frustrating book. Truman Capote famously dissed Kerouac’s style by saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” but that doesn’t quite pinpoint the huge flaw with this book: Even at only 300 pages it’s a lumbering monster that never much answers the question why we ought to care about the minutia of the life of Sal Paradise and his jackass friend. Whereas Catcher reads so breezily that you could finish it in a matter of hours, reading On the Road can be like trying to wade through pudding.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Tales from Watership Down by Richard Adams

I read Watership Down a few years ago, and it has quickly become one of my favorites. It's one of those books that you just don't want to end. Apparently Adams didn't want his stories of Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig to end either. In 1996, over twenty years after the publication of Watership Down, he published Tales from Watership Down.

The book is divided into three sections. The first contains stories about El-ahrairah, which Adams describes as traditional tales that all rabbits would know. The second section is made up of stories told about the journey that El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle took to see the Black Rabbit of Inle. The last section of the book picks up the story with the Watership Down rabbits in the months that followed their defeat of General Groundwort at Efrafa.

The first two sections were a little hit-and-miss for me. There were some stories that I found very entertaining and others that failed to hold my attention. The third section was by far the most satisfying portion of the book. I loved being able to read about all the Watership rabbits once more.

Although Tales from Watership Down came a long time after its predecessor, I wonder if some of the book wasn't simply portions that Adams cut from the original. Most all of the tales from parts one and two could have easily fit into Watership Down. That said, if you enjoyed Watership Down, then you simply cannot pass up this book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I’ve resolved to read more classic fiction. I’ve always been skeptical of the classics because these were the books that used to bore me in high school English classes (this has nothing to do with the books themselves, and is due entirely to the simple fact I was reading them for said English classes). I got lucky when I found these incredibly cheap ($3.00) Penguin classics; I love the simple binding too: thin paperweight, lime-green covers. I also seem to have this notion that anything written in the 19th century is bound to seem stuffy and outdated today, but Wilde proved me wrong.

Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous and uncouth.

There were certainly parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray that would appeal more to someone reading it in the late 1800’s, particularly the dinner scenes in the beginning. Oscar Wilde spends a lot of time writing snappy dialogue for his aristocratic characters, the kind whose inheritances permits them to do nothing but sleep late, drink a lot, stay out late, and think of stupid philosophies to try out on one another. Sound familiar? This wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I’d led myself to believe that this book was much more grim and fantastical, but it didn’t keep the frivolous, social atmosphere for more than the first few chapters.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a young, English noble, Dorian Gray, and his degeneration as a result of his extreme indulgence. Dorian Gray sits for a portrait while Lord Henry Wotton talks to him about his ‘New Hedonism,’ in which one cures the soul with the senses. When Gray sees his finished portrait, he’s struck at the injustice of the way his beauty will one day fade, but the portrait will always be young; in a moment of passion he prays that he could sell his soul if only the painting would bear the weight of all his sins and the affects of aging. Not too long after, Dorian discovers that, for better or worse, his wish was somehow granted. He immerses himself in a vulgar life of self-indulgence (the descriptions of his varying obsessions are particularly interesting: jewels, fabrics, books), participating in acts that are more and more vile. He becomes possessed by his own transgressions, obsessing over the changes he sees wrought in his portrait, both by time and by whatever evil acts he commits. Guided by Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian goes through various stages of regret or bitterness, but slowly and surely destroys himself throughout the book. It’s an amazing thing to follow.

One thing that interested me was something that Chris also pointed out in his review of The Catcher in the Rye: people never change. It’s easy for me to imagine that members of the English high society of the late 19th century never did a thing—that they were disciplined and virtuous and highly religious—but it just isn’t so. They were rich brats, lazy partiers, and pretentious snobs. The Picture of Dorian Gray had a slow start, but was absolutely gripping by the end, and a peaceful, monotonous beginning only serves to punctuate his later decline. Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but there’s something about watching an honest man become consumed by his own vices that makes for a very good story.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I saw this book numerous times on endcaps and special tables at Joseph-Beth, and the snob in me decided that I wouldn't read it. I tend to baulk at things that are popular. It is one of my many personality defects. But the book came highly recommended. So, I read the first chapter at the bookstore and was hooked. I challenge anyone (of the 8 people who regularly view this blog) to read the first chapter and try to put the book down.

The book essentially follows a family from the 60's through the late 80's. I found the structure of the book particularly alluring. The reader gets little snapshots from different areas during this 30-year period. I don't want to give anything away, because there are relatively few twist and turns of plot. Although The Memory Keeper's Daughter had a good plot, the characters are what really drive the book.

As I was reading the book, I got the distinct feeling that the end was going to ruin the story. However, Edwards does an excellent job tying up all the loose ends she created throughout the book, bringing the storylines of the various characters to a satisfying close. This was an excellent first novel.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey

After Christopher read this, he told me I would probably like it. Since I had an old copy I hadn't yet read, I decided to give it a go. Chris summarized it well in his earlier review, so I'm going to give only my thoughts about it.

It was quite different from the movie, probably to the extent that a new movie could be made and be almost entirely different.

It's interesting to see how the 60s' mindset of "anything goes" being equivalent to real freedom is portrayed in the changes McMurphy makes to the ward, and also to see the general disdain for authority exhibited throughout (Not that the authority needs any help to be disdainable, since Nurse Ratched is one of the most easily hateable antagonists in recent memory.)

Chief Bromden narrates the book, and his story is easily the poignant.

And, I think that's it for me.

Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz by Burger and Starbird

As a certified Mathophobe, it was a little upsetting to me when I came up with an idea for a brilliant, earth-shattering novel based on, what else, mathematical principles. Since I know less about Math than I do about books under 100 pages, I tried to find the simplest primer on complex mathmatics I could. I believe I've succeeded. Most of the concepts in this book were explained in a simple enough way for even me to understand, although, as both Carlton and Chris can attest, not simple enough for me to actually explain.

The book touches on some very interesting topics, such as probability (What do mathematics say about your chances of winning the lottery?), to chaos theory (Can your calculator be trusted?), to the relationship between pineapples and Debussy. There are also chapters on alternate dimensions, and topics such as imaginary numbers are touched upon at points.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and one of the topics, the Golden Ratio, is something I'm hoping to study a little more in depth. In a nutshell, this book won't turn you into Steven Hawking, but at least it will make you a little less like Homer Simpson.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Even I am a bit surprised by the clip I've been moving through books; this is the fifth book I've read this month, which is only half over. I credit this to a.) choosing books that are short or easy to read, and b.) having a lot of dead time recently in the form of plane and car rides, and jury duty. In short, it's a combination of luck, effort, and strategy, none of which describe Brent's efforts to read War and Peace, the poor schmuck.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, the story of a butler dealing in his old age with the fact that his employer during World War II had been a Nazi sympathizer. Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and appears on the Time list, but it's a completely different kind of book: a science fiction tale about cloning and organ farming.

It follows the lives of three youths, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, who are clones who will one day become "donors," which basically means their bodies will be harvested for their organs. Never Let Me Go is short on the details of this process, but it's not the kind of book that's interested in minute scientific details, only broad concepts and the way they affect the minutiae of human life. It is perfect in its scope, realizing that the most genuine way to analyze the social effects of its particular vision of the future is not through sweeping narratives about the history and development of the cloning culture, but through the everyday accounts of three people who wholly inhabit it. At first it is unclear how much the three and their friends, who reside at a private home for future donors, understand about the process, but as the details become clearer there is a surprisingly small amount of resistance to the program. The donors do not protest their lives, which must inevitably end in their 20's or 30's after they have "completed" their organ donations, because they are the only lives to know. It is almost as if it never occurs to them to protest--strange to say, but how true is this in our own lives? The clones live together throughout their adolescence, isolated; they know no other life.

A lesser author might have turned Never Let Me Go into a novel that beats you over the head with the "big picture." But at its heart it is about friendships, crushes, petty arguments, because it is about people and not concepts. The characters only consider questions like "what does it mean to be human?" in the periphery of their minds, as we all tend to do. Because of all this it is all the more powerful when, in the book's final chapters, Kathy and Tommy learn that in truth most outsiders have always reviled the clones and considered them something less than human, because Ishiguro paints his characters with all the creativity, pettiness, and inconsistency that we've come to expect from human beings.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Part III in the ongoing series, "Books that everyone else read in school but me": Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

This book is widely regarded as one of science fiction's canonical classics, and it's one of the few science fiction books to really have a massive cultural impact; that it did not make the Times list is criminal. Summarizing it is perhaps unnecessary: in an unspecified future period, homes have been made fireproof and the role of firemen has mutated into the role of book-burners, cauterizing the wounds that literature and art have given society. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who has sudden qualms about burning books and begins to horde them in secret.

The thing about this plot is that it's inherently ridiculous. If Bradbury had pitched this book to you, you probably would have thought the notion of book-burning was a little hokey. But Bradbury, like the best science fiction writers, can turn hokey concepts into believable narratives because of the weight of his striking prose. The way Bradbury writes is really unmistakable, but somehow unquantifiable at the same time.

The theme here is the rise of anti-intellectualism. Bradbury's world is one in which real literature and art are dead, not because a fascist regime killed them, but because we voluntarily put them to sleep because they discomforted us. Montag's wife Mildred lives in a world that is populated only by her "family," recorded television shows projected onto the living room walls that allow you to become a participant. One wonders if Bradbury updated Fahrenheit for today, what he would make of reality tv. The hip thing for teens to do is street race--the billboards, a young girl makes Montag notice, are actually stretched out so that you can read them at ridiculous speeds--and by the carful they die, unmourned by parents who hardly knew they existed. America is at war, but no one knows or care with whom or how it might affect them. People are completely unanalytical about their own lives to the point where they hardly exist at all.

There is a point at which Montag, fed up with the shallowness of his wife and her friends, grabs a collection of poems and reads 'Dover Beach' at random. The last lines of the poem make one of the women cry, which settles the matter for Mildred--all literature does is make you cry; it's not fun like her "family." Bradbury did not choose 'Dover Beach' at random--Mildred's friend says that she doesn't know why she cries, but she cries because that's what the last lines of 'Dover Beach' do to you. They make you face the confusion, the isolation, the uncomfortableness of what it really means to be alive. 'Dover Beach' makes you cry, so you shut it in a box, throw it away, or you burn it. That's the future that Bradbury wants to prevent--one in which we voluntarily destroy our ability to look at ourselves and the short span of life we're given. No one cares or notices when kids die in car crashes because the devaluation of literature means the devaluation of life.

Side note: This version of Fahrenheit 451 includes two short stories by Bradbury: "The Playground" and "And the Rock Cried Out." I haven't read a short story by Bradbury in years, so I read them as soon as I finished the book, but they were oddly unsatisfying. It's as if Fahrenheit 451, though short (~150 pp.) has been given enough room to develop the complexity of its ideas, whereas the two short stories are simply novel ideas, twists without narratives to accompany them. If you get this edition, skip the stories and read Dandelion Wine instead.

Next up: Part bazillion in the ongoing series, "Books I ought to be reading to class but am not."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

This is not an easy book to summarize; I’ve been typing and erasing reviews for the past 20 minutes. On Beauty is Zadie Smith’s third novel, but it hardly shows.

The story follows an upper-class family of academics in the fictional New England college town of Wellington. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. Smith explores different issues of personal growth and identity that are relevant to almost anyone through each of the five family members. Howard, a white, English, art professor, slowly alienates everyone in his family with a series of stupid infidelities. Kiki, his black, Floridian wife, asks herself tough questions about what it means to fall in love, to give your life to someone, and how much love can actually overcome. Their three children all deal with growing up and forging their own identities in their respective close-knit communities. One tries to make a name for herself as a liberal intellectual at Wellington College, the oldest breaks away from his parents close-minded liberal ideologies by adopting Christian, conservative values, and the youngest awkwardly tries to come to terms with his racial identity in his upper-class, New England suburb. In dealing with each of these personal challenges, Smith manages to expand the small world of college politics and New England social life into something much more familiar to her readers. In no way is this book limited in its scope.

Her characters, while unique in their professions, racial identities and beliefs, could be anyone. On Beauty is guaranteed to touch on at least one problem that each of its readers has dealt with at some point. Smith explores problems of identity, such as what it means to be white or black, old or young, conservative or liberal.

The older we get the more our kids seem to want us to walk in a very straight line with our arms pinned to our sides, our faces cast with the neutral expression of mannequins, not looking to the left, not looking to the right, and not—please not—waiting for winter. They must find it comforting.

If you can’t relate to what it’s like to grow old or fall out of love, you can almost certainly recognize some of the personal struggles that the younger characters face as they learn more about themselves and what it means to long for someone else. And she writes it all so well that it’s easy to forget that her characters aren’t actually having affairs in a small New England town, or that Smith herself hasn’t experienced all of this. Her prose is sharp and witty, and the way she so effortlessly follows around different characters is very refreshing.

Smith has a very fluid style, and manages to slowly, and naturally, leak out more details of the plot without relying on forced dialogue, so characters aren’t saying things like “remember that time when I did that thing that relates very much to an important plot development we’ll soon face?” The only problem I had was that sometimes she didn’t seem to say much about the issues she brought up. She seemed to point excitedly to the fact that the oldest son was a conservative Christian in a family of liberal atheists, and then just lose interest. Overall, I’d imagine that this book can speak to just about anyone, even though it leaves you to draw perhaps too many of your own conclusions. Plus, the cover is very pretty.

Frontiers of Freedom by Nikki M. Taylor

The full title of this book is Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati's Black Community, 1802-1868. Any history book worth its salt will have a colon in its title...true. This book was written by a professor at the University of Cincinnati, which I currently attend. It may sound a little dry, and I'll admit that if you don't have some interest in Cincinnati, you may not find it that interesting. However, knowledge of or a connection to Cincinnati is not necessarily a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

During the time that the book covers, Cincinnati was a fairly unique place due to its location. The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery East of the Mississippi River and North of the Ohio River. This meant that the Ohio River was the only barrier between freedom and slavery for many African Americans. Because of its location, Cincinnati had an unusually active Underground Railroad.

Dr. Taylor's goal is to construct the history of Cincinnati's black community, paying special attention to the transition from small, disparate groups to a cohesive community that acted in its own interest.

I found the descriptions of Cincinnati's various race riots particularly interesting. The aggression of Cincinnati's white residents was usually at the heart of these incidents. Angry about the ever-increasing black population, job scarcity, or other social issues, whites would retaliate against the black community. This was the case in 1841. After hours of violence, white residents dragged a canon from the docks to a black neighborhood six blocks to the North. They filled it with scrap metal and began firing it at black residences and businesses.

Taylor does of good job off peppering the pages of her book with stories of fugitive slaves, stevedores, black school teachers, and successful black entrepreneurs. These stories help breathe a little life into this academic work.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Part II of "Books that everyone else read in school but me": J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

I kind of resisted reading this book, in part because of the hallowed status it has among high school- and college-aged persons. This and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five probably compromise 90% of the subjects of college admisson essays that begin, "Describe a book you love and the effect it's had on your life." So many people my age seem to identify so strongly with Holden Caulfield that I just didn't want to be one of them.

Problem is, Caulfield is exactly like me. He's smart, well-read, articulate, vain, idealistic, obsessive, disillusioned, and deeply, deeply flawed. I am tempted to say that he is the most human character I've ever read about in my life. He says things impulsively and then says the opposite later; he loves and hates things and people simultaneously. It sounds maddening but it's human, and it would be impossible for anyone in high school or college not to identify with him.

The story follows Caulfield during the few days between when he's kicked out of his prep school for academic reasons and the day he has to return home for what his mother thinks is the beginning of winter break; in the meantime he hangs out in New York and sort of just exists, alone and fighting the power of phoniness in the world. He's severely depressed and expresses hatred for almost everything, but inevitably shows many of the same characteristics that he so dislikes. It is not an easy book to figure out; it's neither possible nor necessary to determine whether Caulfield's outlook on the human race is correct or incorrect. Somehow, I believe, it is both at the same time.

I could go on and on about what happens in this book, but the plot isn't really as important as the character, and to really appreciate that it has to be read. So read it.

On a side note: The "frank" depictions of sex in this book make it one of the more challenged high school readings in America. Challenges to it are clearly bunk, but the book's openness about sexuality interests me because it's set in the late forties and if you took out all the temporal markers like the names of actors, it could be a milder version of I Am Charlotte Simmons. It's a great depiction of "hook-up culture" in school, which is great because you don't always think of things being the same so long ago, but they were. Holden's accounts of sexuality and alcohol could be lifted from my roommate's diary, if he kept one and it weren't in Dutch.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Part I of an ongoing series called, "Books that everyone read in school but me."

Lord of the Flies is a sort of classic. It's about a group of boys whose plane has crashed on an island and the society that they create there. The principle actors are Ralph, a fair-minded boy who is elected chief, Jack, a rash and bloodthirsty boy who is his opposition, and Piggy, a fat, nerdly boy who is derided at first but later becomes Ralph's closest advisor. Throughout the course of the book, Jack begins to despise Ralph's power and fights for the allegiance of the other boy, seducing them away with the promise of wild, savage hunting and protection from 'The Beast' that the boys claim to have seen. It's an allegory of sorts in which Ralph represents a democratic society and Jack a barbarian, anarchistic one. In his review of the movie version, Roger Ebert calls Ralph a "little liberal humanist" and Jack a "little market economist," though that description really only underscores Ebert's hatred for free market economics. In truth, Jack represents the bloodthirstiness of fascism; it's not by coincidence that the book is set during World War II when Jack could be seen as an analogue for the Hitler or Mussolini regimes.

I was disappointed by it. First of all, the prose can be very clumsy--At noon, "floods of light fell more nearly to the perpendicular," for instance--and the characters are too archetypal to incur any sort of empathy. Piggy is too awkward, Jack too malicious, Ralph too bland. Golding's depiction of children is at times difficult to believe; kids at this age in any decade would be incapable of standing around naked with one another, for instance. The characters are simply sacrificed at the altar of allegory, and the symbols are hit too hard.

I do believe that Lord of the Flies is constructed from the pieces of a great novel--the darkness of it can be at times terrifying, especially after Jack and his followers split off from Ralph's group and become murderous, and the theme of what happens to man when social rules become null and void never fails the test of time--but it just doesn't come together. Brent swears by it, but then again, he's not known for his taste.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I remember all my nerdy friends reading this in high school. I was a nerd as well, just not quite as big of one as they were. I didn't know how to say anything in Klingon. However, had I read this book while I was in high school I would have loved it. Although I am sure I would have been tempted to steal ideas from it, since I was constantly working on a "novel" set in space. I really wish I could find my unfinished "novel". I am sure it would be absolutely hilarious.

I bought this book in the children's section at Joseph-Beth, but I don't think it is a kids book...maybe young adult. The candy-coated cover of this version (there are more adult-looking versions) belies the violence and serious themes within the book. Beyond that, I think that many kids would not understand much of the political content of the book.

The basic plot of the book is that the people of earth are in the middle of a war with an alien race that the humans referred to as buggers since they look like insects. Children are monitored throughout their lives to see if they would make good commanders or pilots. If they show promise, then they are sent to a space station set up specifically for training children for battle. The book follows a boy named Ender Wiggin throughout his training.

The author, Orson Scott Card, provides excellent descriptions. This is not to say that he went all "Tom Clancy" and spent four pages describing a laser gun. Card does a superb job of describing something just enough and then allowing the reader to easily fill in the rest. While reading, I realized that the vivid mental images of the battle rooms, simulator rooms, and barracks were really of my own creation, since Card did not described any of these places in detail. The writing was good, and the characters were developed very well.

I loved this book. It was like Lord of the Flies meets The Matrix meets StarFox. What's not to like?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Platoon Leader by James McDonough

Platoon Leader is the story of a lieutenant fresh out of West Point sent over to Vietnam to command his own platoon. He tells his story of battle experience, leading men, and dealing with civilians. A plot synopsis here would be a little silly -- imagine all the bad things that could happen in war, and fill them in with a Vietnamese context.

Unable to sleep, unable to move, I lay there wondering which I would turn out to be: the crazed killer I had met in Qui Nhon or the blatant coward beside me in the dark. Which one was more devoid of humanity, I did not know.

+ Interesting Story I typically say this a lot with the books I read because a moving plot line is pretty much required for me, but I really enjoyed the story. Like most war stories, it can be rather episodic, but it's still interesting just to know what happens to one guy during his year in Vietnam. It's also nice how he juxtaposes interesting stories with his opinions on the events. The explanations he offers of the feelings one experiences in a war like Vietnam will make you think. It helps you understand how such atrocities could occur like the famous My Lai massacre.

+ True Confessions McDonough writes as an officer leading a small group of no more than 20 men in a hostile Viet Cong-controlled section of north Vietnam. The best part of his narrative is that he doesn't hold back. Most men in a position of power would write their memoirs without revealing the 'bad' parts. McDonough, however, writes about the good and the bad: his strengths, his weaknesses, his fear, his courage, his anxiety, his skepticism of military orders, his successes as a leader, his failures as a leader. He lays it all out for the reader, baring it all, even through some embarrassment. It's refreshing for someone to admit to all these various aspects of fighting a war.

+ Universality Did I just make that word up? Anyway, the other cool thing about this book is that a lot of different people would enjoy it. Of course, people who have no interest whatsoever in anything military might not enjoy it. But otherwise, it's interesting enough to entertain someone who isn't a military buff, but still offers enough to someone who is. Some critics have even gone so far as to say that every platoon reader should read it before assuming command.

I'm sure there's something wrong with this book somewhere, but I'm not in a very judgemental mood and I'm not going to waste my time to search for something to write here. Read it and find the problem for me if you're concerned about it.

Overall: A-

Monday, April 2, 2007

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

First of all...I love the cover art for this book and for Brave New World. Okay, now that that is out of the way, I had a lot of trouble getting through this book. It is not even half as long as Brave New World, but it took me nearly as long to read. There is no doubt that Huxley was a brilliant man. After all, he was 62 years old and blind in one eye when he penned this rumination on his most famous work. However, while I thoroughly enjoyed the writing of Brave New World, I found large portions of Brave New World Revisited to be rather tedious.

The twelve chapters of this book were originally published as a series of articles for Newsday during the height of the Cold War. They varied in topic from, over-population to brainwashing to subconscious persuasion. In the final chapter, by far the most interesting, Huxley discusses what can be done to combat the problems he outlined throughout the rest of the book. Most of the societal threats outlined in the book are described by Huxley as threats to freedom. For this and other reasons, it is painfully obvious that Huxley wrote this during the middle of the Cold War. A fear of communism pervades this work.

Despite these drawbacks, if you have read Brave New World, this may be worth your time. You may find it easier to get through than I did. I did find some parts of the book very interesting and thought-provoking.

2007 Tournament of Books Winner: The Road

A month ago Nathan linked us to The Morning News' 2007 Tournament of Books, in which books from 2006 were pitted against each other in a no-holds barred battle. The final match pitted what I pegged as the pre-tourney favorite and the last book I read, The Road, against Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, which was eliminated in the first round but brought back by reader demand.

As I predicted, The Road creamed the competition, 15-2. The two dissenters are two of the clownier figures of popular culture, Colin Meloy and Sasha Frere-Jones. Now, I'm a big fan of the Decemberists, but Meloy tends to come off a bit ridiculous in his more literary pursuits, and his review for the Tournament of Books for the match between The Lay of the Land and English, August was a long and painful extended metaphor. Frere-Jones is a music columnist for the New Yorker who embarrassed himself last year by foaming at the mouth over Stephin Merritt's nonexistent racism. Also, he gets an unfair shot in at Jonathan Safran Foer--I don't care who you are, if Everything is Illuminated didn't affect you, you must have been reading it with a flashlight inside your ass. Totally unsubstantiated claim: If his name were Gabriel Garcia Foer, everyone would think Illuminated is a masterpiece.

So, The Road wins. Some of the commenters intimated that The Road is a classic-type novel, something that will be remembered for years and years as one of the lynchpin novels of our time. That's certainly possible; I'm not sure how I feel about it myself but I can say without a doubt that I have never read anything like it and hope to never read anything like it again. I can't comment on Absurdistan, but something tells me that it's not quite up to the challenge of The Road.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.

Holy shit, this is one book that's never going to be made into a movie. The guy at the library told me this was the most depressing book I'd ever read, and he was right. Cormac McCarthy's critically acclaimed novel The Road is about a nameless man and his nameless son some years after some sort of disaster that has covered the skies of the earth in ash and killed everything but some humans, who survive by foraging for canned food and eating each other. The man and boy are trekking south because the world is getting colder, and they know that they can't survive another winter wherever they are.

The thing about The Road that makes it so different from other post-apocalyptic literature like Oryx and Crake is that it is extremely short on the specifics. Whereas Margaret Atwood composed a complex social history for her eradication of the human species, McCarthy--who before this book was best known for writing Westerns--never explains what caused the events that precede the book, though the description of it is similar to the depictions of nuclear winter that became popular in the 70's and 80's. It doesn't even give a name to its characters. That's because The Road isn't a book about our society and its problems; it's about the deeper character of the human spirit/mind and its will to survive in the bleakest of odds. The man and the boy fight to live, though daily they struggle with the question of why it is exactly they want to survive, and whether or not death might be better than the road. It is human nature, distilled to its essence; all the rest is "ceremonies" constructed "out of the air."

For some reason--probably in light of accusations that her choices are often too maudlin and shallow--Oprah just recently chose The Road for her book club. What kind of response this will cause I can't imagine, but the idea of middle-aged ladies reading this super-depressing novel en masse is delightful. I may even let my mother borrow my copy.