Monday, April 30, 2007
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
The story follows an upper-class family of academics in the fictional New England college town of
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
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.
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
Sunday, April 8, 2007
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
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
Monday, April 2, 2007
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.
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.