Friday, August 31, 2007

Naked by David Sedaris

A few years back I caught David Sedaris on The Late Show. Letterman asked him if he would like to read an excerpt from his then-current book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. It was the first ever reading on The Late Show. I forget the passage that Sedaris read, but I remember thinking that it was really funny and deciding that I would read the book. From there I hopped around his bibliography, with no particular design or order.

While I remember enjoying Me Talk Pretty One Day – it was good enough to make me want to read more by Sedaris – it is not my favorite of his. Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim are vying for that position. Invariably, the essays that I find the most enjoyable are the ones that involve Sedaris childhood, and as a logical extension, his family. And essays of this nature are in abundance in both Naked and Dress Your Family. The interaction between young Sedaris and his siblings, especially Amy and Lisa, never fails to make me laugh.

In the essay “True Detective”, Sedaris describes how his mom and his older sister, Lisa, would watch detective shows on TV and then try to put what they had learned from these boobtube gumshoes to use, attempting to solve real crimes they came across in the local paper. “‘We know that the girl was held at knifepoint on the second floor of her house,’ Lisa said, tapping the pencil against her forehead. ‘So probably the person who robbed her was…not in a…wheelchair.’” Sedaris describes the fictional detective world that his sister and mother were so enamored with as, “a world of obvious suspects. Looking for the axe murderer? Try the emotionally disturbed lumberjack loitering near the tool shed behind the victim’s house. Who kidnapped the guidance counselor? Perhaps it’s the thirty-year-old tenth-grader with the gym bag full of bloody rope.”

Although I find Sedaris’ essays hilarious, I would not necessarily describe them as laugh-out-loud funny. There is a difference between Sedaris’ writing and that of Michael J. Nelson, and even Paul Feig. The humor in Sedaris’ essays builds slowly. Sedaris doesn’t rely on jokes or oneliners, but rather uses his cunning wit and vocabulary to describe the situations that he gets himself into. “Painfully humorous” is an apt way to describe his style. Sedaris mines humor in fairly serious situations such as, a horribly racist speech given by one of his grade school teachers when it was announced that their school would be integrated, a prostitute being beaten up a few days before Christmas, and even his mother’s death.

Sedaris is a excellent writer and a top-shelf humorist. I hope that he releases another book before I read Barrel Fever, thus exhausting his current oeuvre.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash is not the source of the 2005 Best Picture film; it is, however, the source of a movie made by David Cronenberg of Naked Lunch fame. The plot is simple: a man (identified as James Ballard, ostensibly the author) is involved in a car crash in which the other driver is killed and the driver's wife seriously injured. Ensuing events lead Ballard, as well as the driver's widow, to meet Vaughan, a shady once-semi-famous television star now obsessed with car crashes. Ballard, the widow, Vaughan, and others form a casual group of car crash fetishists, who drive around visiting crashes they discover on a police scanner, and designing gruesome and erotic crashes for actresses and famous figures. In turn, Ballard has crazy automobile sex with every (yes, every) character in the novel, and Vaughan finally dies in a car crash meant also to kill Elizabeth Taylor.

Understandably, this book caused a bit of controversy when it was published, controversy that was fomented on a larger stage by the release of Cronenberg's film (which puzzlingly stars James Spader and Holly Hunter). I have some sympathy for those who object to this novel, as I'll explain later, but my larger objection is this:

Crash is boring. Its conceit sounds promising, I think, but instead of dealing with any of the deeper issues that exist at the nexus of sex and violence, Ballard provides a litany of gross-out images and blankly pansexual and unreflecting characters. He has nothing to say about, say, the way that looking into our own death molds our understanding of what is exciting, or the parallels between the sexual act and violence (it has been suggested by feminist scholars that the sexual act itself resembles and symbolizes violence), or the conflation of sex, power, and technology in the modern era. This book is so unconcerned with deeper issues and unexplanatory of the origin of the character's fetishes that it approaches the level of pornography, not only for its graphicness but because it seems to lack insight as a stylistic choice. The sex is mildly disturbing, but also banal. For a book about thrills, it is unexplicably thrill-less.

As for the controversy, in most cases I'm suspicious of such claims. Usually they're ill-informed, prudish, or artless. In this case, I think, there is one serious objection to the content of Crash: Instead of creating an actress to be the focus of Vaughan's insane fantasies, Ballard uses Elizabeth Taylor, who would have been in her early forties at the time of this publication (and whom I thought was dead until looking it up on Wikipedia). The fantasies are at times disturbingly graphic, referencing not only the most intimate parts of Taylor's anatomy but alluding to various imaginary wounds to those parts of her body. It seems to me that while most content is permissible in a novel, books that deal so frankly with sexual and violent fantasies concerning real people ought to be condemned. In Crash's case, Taylor is presented as a cipher for fame with no real qualities as a character; why couldn't Ballard have used a fictional person if their character doesn't matter?

But Crash isn't really concerned with thought processes like that; it's more of a dull fever dream that you float through unawares. If you want to read a book like this, read Palahniuk instead, whose third-rate hackery is much more interesting.

P.S.: Here's an angle I forgot to cover: What is the point of Ballard using his own name for the main character? To suggest that this mirrors his own life? I tried to think of all the books I've read where the author includes themself as a character (Money, Everything is Illuminated, Absurdistan), and I can't think of any as unabashedly unnecessary and egotistical as this one.

P.S.S. check out that stickshift-penis in the picture.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisernos

This was a bus read, meaning I only read it on the bus to and from campus. It worked out pretty well and I finished it surprisingly quickly considering I read about 15 minutes per day.

The book is written from the point of view of Esperanza, a young Latina living in the inner city of somewhere. Rather than a narrative, it consists of 2-3 page "stories" that jump around, but do seem to signify that Esperanza is growing up. This is an interesting style because you can meet a million different intriguing characters without having to worry about following them, but I prefer novels with a clear direction. It's also interesting to read from the point of view of a child, but after a while, it gets annoying reading awkward writing and poor metaphors. Seemed to me like Cisneros was trying a little too hard to be both childish and poetic. But as I said, it was rich in character and culture, and it was a quick read. Not a bad book to choose for reading away from the complexity of school textbooks.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The first book I ever read of Neil Gaiman's was Good Omens, the one he cowrote with Terry Pratchett. My feelings pretty much mirrored Nathan's. I'm a big fan of Pratchett, and after reading Anansi Boys, I'm guessing that Good Omens' shortcomings were a case of too many cooks in the word processor, because Anansi tops it in every way.

The protagonist is Fat Charlie, who is not particularly fat. He is leading a relatively normal, boring life, engaged to a girl who doesn't seem to like him much, stuck in a job under a weaselly boss, and basically spending life in as average a way as possible. However, things are about to change.

Charlie's father dies, and, surprise, he learns that he has a brother and that his father was the god Anansi, a sort of Loki for the Indian set. Hijinks ensue.

This book is very funny and well-plotted, and worth reading if you like light fantasy. And this review sucks. It is not recommended to anyone.

The Greedy Bastard Diary by Eric Idle

Well, this book was a truck book, which is to say that I'd read it during lunch break or while sitting in drive through. It still didn't take long to read, since most of the pages aren't even totally full of text.

Eric Idle, of course, is part of the legendary Monty Python comedy troupe. The Greedy Bastard Diary chronicles his experiences touring the united states on a "greedy bastard" tour, that is, a tour that's just the singer and his guitar, intended to make a lot of money quickly. The title is something of a misnomer since a) Idle takes an entire cast with him and (SPOILER!) b) he doesn't make any money.

The parts about the tour itself are interesting, but more worthwhile are Idle's thoughts about everything from sex to religion. Particularly touching are his comments about his late friends George Harrison and Graham Chapman. And, now for something completely different.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

“When gods die, they die hard. It's not like they fade away, or grow old, or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. it hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is you're not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place. Or if you'd ever want another god to fill their place. You don't want fire to go out inside you twice.”

This was one of my favorite passages from the book. However, it doesn't really fit with the rest of this review. I just thought I would share it.

I thought I knew what I wanted to say about this book. But as I thought more about it, it became less clear. Initially, I felt that the first half of the book was great – funny, witting, creative. As compared to the last half which was a little more somber. But I have come to the conclusion that the two halves worked well in concert.

The books begins, “Of all the kids in seventh grade at Camillo Junior High, there was one kid that Mrs. Baker hated with heat whiter than the sun. Me.” The “me” is Holling Hoodhood (a downright Nabokovian name), who thinks that his homeroom teacher has it in for him because he is a Presbyterian. This means that every Wednesday, when all the other kids in his class go either to temple or mass – depending on which side of town they are from – Holling remains at the school, meaning that the teacher has to figure out what to do with him. After a wide range of chores, she finally settles on making him read Shakespeare.

Each chapter focuses on one month out of the school year, complete with mean teachers, trips to the principal’s office, surly playground bullies, and revenge meted out with snowballs. If Bill Watterson had lacked the ability to draw, he would have written something like The Wednesday Wars.

The last half of the book gives the first half of the book some meaning and importance. The last few chapters also make it evident that Holling has grown up quite a lot in less than a year. Although portions of the book are a little over the top, most of it smacks with the realism of growing up in the 1960s. The day-to-day stories of Holling’s life are framed by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the threat of nuclear war, and somewhat serious – although not that unusual – family problems.

I wonder how much of this book is autobiographical. Schmidt did grow up on Long Island during the 60s. Regardless, The Wednesday Wars was definitely worth the read.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I really liked The Prisoner of Azkaban, but The Goblet of Fire is my favorite of the series so far. I was told many times that each book was going to get darker as the series went along. This becomes evident by the fourth book.

Besides being notably darker, The Goblet of Fire is unique because it breaks from the established formula of the first three books. You know: Harry Potter's muggle relatives are horrible people. Harry loves going back to Hogwarts. Something is up at Hogwarts. Harry, Ron, and Hermione suspect they know who is responsible. They turn out to be wrong and the culprit is someone you don't expect. Instead, Rowling introduces the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament, and a couple of new and interesting characters. The Goblet of Fire is also the first book of the series that doesn't tie up all of its loose ends. I am guessing that books five and six will follow suit.

Mountain Man Dance Moves by the editors of McSweeney's

It's a book of lists. I wasn't going to include it as part of the fifty books project but then realized it's too funny not to share. Here are a couple of the lists:

by Eric March

Navajo burial ground

Twelve billion tons of reinforced concrete and steel

Government-protected wetlands

Drunken dare

Waterlogged corpses of Irish immigrants

Previous bizzaro underground version of this city

by Adam Koford






I'm pretty sure that second one is one of Nathan's favorites. For more McSweeney's lists, check out their website. For an intelligent review entirely unlike my own listen to what NPR has to say here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Grimm's Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

So I picked this one up because I've always heard that the original fairy tales by the Grimm brothers were actually violent and bloody stories. It turns out that's just a rumor. Take the description of Little Red Riding Hood being eaten by the Big Bad Wolf for example. This is all they have to say on the subject, "No sooner did the wolf say that than he jumped out of bed and gobbled up poor Little Red Cap." That's it. Where's the gore? There's no mention of the wolf using his abnormally large teeth to rip the flesh off of the poor girl's body bit by bit, no account of him ripping out her still beating heart, or even the slightest hint of the pool of blood that would have obviously been spilled. I mean come on!

What makes matters worse is that Penguin decided not to even include Little Red Riding Hood, in this collection at all. I had to get it online. And they went so far to put here face on the cover. Talk about false advertisement.

I will say that a couple of the stories were kind of entertaining. The one about the little elves that make shoes for the old cobbler before he wakes up is a great one. And to the Grimms' credit, they didn't actually create any of these stories. They're all old tales from the oral tradition in Germany. I guess it is somewhat of a linguistic accomplishment or something.

Dubliners by James Joyce

This collection of short stories really didn't impress me. Maybe it's just that it's so old, or maybe I don't really understand Ireland that much. Everything was dull. Lots of descriptions of dreary weather, and talk about dreary weather, and really poor attempts at socializing... pretty standard Victorian stuff.

Maybe I could have appreciated it more had I read it in an English Lit class and had it explained to me, but I somehow doubt it. My advice: steer clear unless your and English major and you like this sort of thing.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

When people found out that I had started reading the Harry Potter books, they kept telling me that the series really takes off with the third book – that things really get started with The Prisoner of Azkaban. Well, everyone was right. This was leaps and bounds better than the first two, which were both pretty good. The main difference was that Azkaban felt like less of a kid's book.

Harry starts to find out more about his parents and his past in general in the third installment of Rowling’s series. Rowling also spends less time describing the wonderful world she has created, and a little more time developing her characters, which is good, considering that most of the new characters will no doubt be around for a while.

So I have read three of these books so far, and my main complaint is that Rowling starts each book as though her readers are almost completely unfamiliar with the series and its characters. Guess what? By the third book, I know how Quidditch is played, and that Mr. Dursley is fat. I just started The Goblet of Fire, and Rowling doesn’t do it quite as much. I am hoping it will stop altogether.

Beside that rant about something rather minor, I really have enjoyed these books.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I had such unreasonable expectations for Atonement that I'm almost disappointed it's not the best book I've read all year--though it is, safe to say, very good.

Some books are good because of their plot, and some because of their style; few, I think, boast both. The style of Atonement might be perfect for someone who likes a lot of James, Austen, or Auden, who are sort of reference points for the book though it takes place in the 1930's, but to me it was a little dry--but it's also one of the most intense books I think I've ever read.

In the early 1930's, 13-year old Briony Tallis, a girl with a very active imagination and a jones to become a serious writer, is witness to a series of events that she does not understand: a scene in which her sister emerges from a fountain in her underwear while the son of the family housekeeper stands by, a mistakenly sent letter, an illicit moment in a library. But Briony, the conceiver of plots, feels compelled to connect these events into a narrative which leads to a misunderstanding so great it threatens to ruin the lives of two people. I wish that I could say more, and were this a book I really didn't expect anyone to read, I would elucidate, but I think everyone here would probably enjoy Atonement, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone if they should choose to read it. But what happens in the first, longer section of the book possesses both the convincing detail of realism and the dread of inevitable doom, and it's very affecting.

The book has three other sections, one set in 1939 as the British Army retreats through France to the port of Dunkirk, one set in the same period that follows Briony as a nurse--trying to "atone" for the horrendous misunderstanding of four years previous--and a fourth set in 1999 that reveals that the book is actually of Briony's creation, as a way of atoning and coping with the events of her childhood. It is somehow both enormously sad and reassuring. The final three sections, however, seem somehow less consequential than the first, as lagging after the novel's true climax. Not to say that McEwan ought to have ended it after the first section, but in parts the final three seem brief and perfunctory, and too little attention is given to Briony's realization of her mistake and the ensuing, eponymous atonement.

A movie has been made of this book and will be released in December starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. It's directed by the same guy who directed Pride and Prejudice, so it should be very good.

We are better than most people

1 in 4 people say they read no books last year.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter is a good wizard.
Voldemort is an evil wizard.
Hilarious hijinks ensue.

This book is a little longer and quite a bit darker than the first. As a result, I liked it better.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lolita by Valdimir Nabokov

Note: I am not qualified to talk intelligently about this book.

This book has a stigma attached to it. Most people don’t really know anything about it (until recently I would have had to include myself) and assume that it is nothing more than glorified pornography. Believe me I got some weird looks while reading this. Just sitting on a bench at a children’s playground, wearing my long trench coat, with my puppy by my side, and my sign that announced “Free Candy.” People can be so judgmental.

Lolita is written from the perspective of Humbert Humbert—a pseudonym taken by the man who is telling this story. He recounts in the form of a diary/confession his experiences with Dolores Haze (aka Lolita). The very first lines of the book provide a good summation of his feelings for the girl: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” Later, Humbert provides an unflattering description of himself: “I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspool of rotting monsters behind my slow boyish smile.”

There is obviously a sexual nature to this novel, but Lolita refrains from being lurid. Just as a good murder mystery is more that just page after page of morbid descriptions of people being killed, Lolita is about more than just one taboo sexual experience after another. While Humbert is really a horrible person, he is also human. I often felt sorry for him.

Lolita is one of the best books that I have ever read. Nabokov’s mastery of the English language is phenomenal. I can’t begin to describe how excellent the writing was from beginning to end. He is exceptionally witty. I laughed aloud much more that I thought I would (which was never). Although I don’t know much about Nabokov, I can safely say that the man is a genius, and that much of his writing would have gone over my head, completely unnoticed, if it were not for this addition. Lolita is full of puns and allusions ranging from literature to history to zoology. And that is just scratching the surface.

While this annotated addition was helpful in some ways, it was quite burdensome at times. For example, it took me much longer to read this book than it should have because I was always flipping to the back to read an annotation. Even worse, some of the annotations gave away future plot points. The first time this happened I stopped reading the annotations nearly altogether. Highly annoying.

The introduction by the book’s annotator, Alfred Appel, Jr., becomes extremely pretentious quite quickly. I did finish it, but besides the biographical information about Nabokov and description of how Lolita was first published, I found the 51-page introduction unbelievably tedious. This edition would be perfect for someone who was already familiar with Lolita and wanted additional insights. However, The Annotated Lolita should be avoided by one who is reading the novel for the first time.

Check out Christopher’s review of Lolita, and Brent’s review of Lolita.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

This book amounts to nothing more than a How-To book for kids about witchcraft. I am surprised that there weren't any boycotts by religious groups around the time of its publication. Go ahead. Let your kids read this book if you don't care about where they are going to spend eternity.
Now to read the next one.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Children of Men by PD James

Christopher has already reviewed this book and most of us have seen the movie, so I'm leaving out any synopsis. There isn't much to synopsize anyway. Sorry if my review is more negative than Christopher's; I don't like being disappointed or bored.

If from infancy you treat children as gods they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.
(I probably could have found a quote that relates more directly to the novel, but I like this one.)

Boring: I swear, nothing happens in this book until the last 70 pages. The first two thirds is just stuff. I don't even know what was in there. A lot of stuff I don't need to know to understand the book, obviously.

Insulting: I found her writing style to be a little insulting. What I do remember about the first 2/3 of the book is that she talks a lot about Theo's character: selfish, self-centered, uncaring, inconsiderate, et cetera, et cetera. And then Theo of course has a change of heart, in late middle age his personality suddenly changes for the better as a result of the extraordinary circumstances and people he's encountered. And Ms. James must think I'm a total idiot because before she explains to me this new change, she boils down Theo's personality into a Cliffs Notes-like paragraph. Maybe she thinks that after 150 pages of only Theo's character development, religious philosophy, and explanation of the Omega, I might have forgotten that first part.

Dialogue: This might be the worst dialogue I've ever read, excepting my little sister's short stories for her 5th grade writing class. I'm gonna take up a lot of space and give an excerpt of dialogue between Theo and an old woman who runs a B&B.

Theo: I'm afraid I've had an accident. I'm very wet. I don't think I'm fit to drive home tonight. Have you a vacancy? My name is Faron, Theo Faron.
Old Woman: I have a room vacant if you would just wait until I've taken Chloe for her evening duties. There's a special little place reserved for the dogs. We take care not to soil the beach. Mothers used to complain if the beach wasn't clean for the children and -- old habits remain. I'm EMO -- Evening Meal Optional. Would you be wanting that? ... I'm afraid I haven't very much in the refrigerator tonight, but I could give you soup and an omelette.
T: That would be wonderful.
O: The soup isn't home-made, I'm afraid, but I mix two tins to make it more interesting and add a little something, chopped parsley or an onion. I think you will find it palatable. Did you want it in the dining-room, or here in the sitting-room, in front of the fire? That might be cosier for you.
T: I'd like to have it here.

It's so terrible. There was actually a line where I sat up in bed and said, "Whatttt?" I would tell you, but I can't remember what it was. (Hey, it was 4 in the morning and I had insomnia. How much do you expect me to remember?)

Overall: All in all, the writing gave the impression that it was an undergrad's first attempt at novel writing -- she had already studied Philosophy 101 and Character Development 101 but hadn't yet made it to the courses on Dialogue and Plot. Interesting concept of a novel, poor execution. Because I'm feeling hateful, D+.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Falconer by John Cheever

Farragut was adrug addict and felt that the conscious of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced drug addiction. The drug he needed was a distillate of earth, air, water and fire. He was mortal and his addiction was a beautiful illustration of the bounds of his mortality... Yesterday was the age of anxiety, the age of the fish, and today, his day, his morning, was the mysterious and adventurous age of the needle.

is the story of Ezekiel Farragut, phlegmatic university professor, heroin addict, and new inmate of Falconer prison, where he has been sentenced for ten years for fratricide. It is the prototypical "on the inside" novel, about how prison changes people and brings out qualities that had yet lay dormant--like bisexuality. There's very little prison rape or intimidation; this isn't Oz. Instead it's more about the culture that develops inside prisons, the strange friendships and connections, the unusual rituals and desires that surface.

I included the quotation above because I think it's a good sample of the writing in this book, which is very good. The characters are interesting and some of the episodes very clever--my favorite is the episode in which Farragut's lover, a man named Jody, escapes from the prison by arranging to buy a red robe from the outside and posing as a visiting priest when a Catholic Cardinal comes to speak at Falconer, and then leaving with the Cardinal's entourage on a helicopter. But as a whole Falconer seems somewhat lacking, and slight at around 200 pages, as if the book were a vignette of life in prison instead of a comprehensive study of it. (Spoiler) It seems like Farragut barely gets in prison before he escapes. Maybe if the book were longer, or more focused, it would have been more satisfying.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

In The Assistant, a hard-working and selfless but unsuccessful grocer named Morris Bober is held up by a pair of masked "holdupniks" late one night in his store who beat him and take all of the money in the cash register. One of these men is Frank Alpine, a young Italian who only joins the hold-up reluctantly and later returns to become an assistant to Bober, without confessing his part in the crime, in order to make up to himself for some of his transgressions. Frank is continually caught between his respect for Bober and his desire to pocket more money from the grocery, and eventually falls in love with Bober's daughter, Helen.

The first thing I thought about this book is that it would make a good indie film. It's subdued, but not so philosophically complicated that it would lose much in the filming, and the characters operate on the slightly superficial but often heartbreaking model of so many indie film characters. My second thought was about Jews--Malamud was one of the century's first and foremost Jewish authors, and his depiction of Bober, a kind and dignified but long-suffering man, seems to be the model for many modern Western depictions of Jewish people. At the end of the book (SPOILER), Frank becomes a Jew, but only after learning the value of suffering, hard work, and selflessness. Isn't it interesting, I think, how Western stereotypes about Jews have developed through Jewish literature and art from the money-hungry, sub-human depictions that characterize much of non-Western depictions of Jews? It fascinates me to think about how Americans understand the concept of Jewishness, and how different it must be from a century ago.

But anyway, this book was kind of boring. It was a lot like the Philip Roth book I read, but without the nasty sex. And what book is complete without nasty sex?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

I worked at Blockbuster for over five years. I know. It’s kind of depressing to think about. But during that time, I contemplated renting I am the Cheese a number of times. It must have been the title that drew me to it – that and the cover, which was a drawing of a young boy on a bike. I never read the back, so I had no clue what it was about. At some point we purged the store of VHS and I am the Cheese was not on the list of movies to order on DVD. It was by no means frequently rented. The other day I found out that it was a book, and decided that I should take a break from Lolita and read it.

I am the Cheese is written almost exclusively in the present tense, much of it first-person. This always takes some getting used to for me. Robert Cormier’s novel begins with a boy, of undetermined age, biking to see his dad. This is no short trip, but one that will cross state lines and no doubt place the boy in some degree of peril. This is where the first-person, present tense really adds to the book. It creates a sense of immediacy, putting the reader in the moment right along with the character.

The second chapter begins with what appears to be a transcript from a recorded interview. After a page or two, it is obvious that the person being interviewed is the boy on the bike, and that the interviews are taking place after the bike trip. The chapters alternate this way throughout the book, allowing the reader to slowly piece together the story and fill in the gaps that Cormier intentionally left blank.

I am the Cheese is relatively short, well-written, and an easy read. It was published back in 1977, winning many prizes and awards. I liked Cormier’s style and am planning on reading other works of his.

Now to track down that VHS.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

When the final Harry Potter book came out a couple of weeks ago, I found a lot of the comments left by people on articles discussing the book went something like, "Harry Potter is a children's book and I am an adult. As an adult, I don't read children's books." The obvious question about whether or not the Harry Potter series is really meant for children notwithstanding, I think this is a pretty forced piece of logic. Adults are certainly not precluded from reading children's books; in fact I like to read many books that I feel have been written for some demographic other than myself. Secondly, books that were once considered or written as juvenile literature have since become widely read by adults, like Tom Sawyer or The Hobbit. Furthermore, to write a good children's book requires a certain kind of talent for distilling information, and the kind of children's book that can tackle topics of great importance while simultaneously employing the kind of adventure and clarity to which children respond is a pretty impressive feat.

The Phantom Tollbooth isn't just one of those books; in many ways it's a book about writing that kind of book. It is an allegorical romp through the world of knowledge, and part of what its protagonist Milo learns in the land of Dictionopolis is to value clarity, brevity, and simplicity.

But more than that, The Phantom Tollbooth is a primer for young kids about the nature of knowledge itself. In it, the smart but bored-of-school Milo comes home one day to find a tollbooth (some assembly required) left for him at his door, and in his wind-up car he passes through it, ending up in a strange land. This land is split into two parts, the Kingdom of Dictionopolis, ruled over by King Azaz the Unabridged, and the Kingdom of Digitopolis, ruled over by the Mathemagician, King Azaz' brother. The kingdom has fallen into shambles since the exile of princesses Rhyme and Reason and the disagreement between the two kings about whether words or numbers are more important. Milo, with his friends the Watchdog and the Humbug, sets off through the Mountains of Ignorance to free the princesses.

The writing is so clever, and the topics so complex: One of my favorite parts is when, while traveling through the Mountains of Ignorance, the three heroes meet a character called the Terrible Trivium, who sets them to tasks like moving water from one well to another with a dropper or digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. This sort of lesson--that to live life fully, one must ignore trivial tasks and focus on important ones--is something that many adults live their entire lives without learning. That's what impresses me about this book: the whole thing tackles concepts of knowledge and learning that border on the philosophical, while being written simply enough for kids to understand.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

Aztec priests strip blue feather robe from the Naked Youth. They bend him back over a limestone altar, fit a crystal skull over his head, securing the two hemispheres back and front with crystal screws. A water-fall pour over the skull snapping the boy's neck. He ejaculate in a rainbow against the rising sun.

What. The. Fuck. I don't even know how to describe this book to you--at some level, it seems to be about a drug addict who undergoes recovery and then is cured, but along the way it takes on the form of an extended fever dream of drug use, sexual perversion, and graphic obscenity. Much of the book takes place in Interzone, a city of unspecified location (and perhaps meant to represent the state of a junky's head) where the inhabitants perform a lot of fellatio and other sexual acts on each other, as well as the strange creatures that live there. Youths hang each other, excited by their death spasms. Some people are addicted to the semen of strange translucent creatures called Mugwumps. A man teaches his asshole to talk, and eventually it takes over his body and eliminates his other parts.

If that sounds less than appealing, you're not the first to think so--this book set off a firestorm of media frenzy and obscenity charges in the early Sixties. It's not hard to see how that happened; lacking any semblance of a narrative (some episodes are arranged at random, using a Dada-like system of "cut-up"), and often being nigh incomprehensible, it is hard to piece what artistic value, if any, Naked Lunch has. I think that on a deeper level, Naked Lunch probably makes many interesting satiricial points--commenting on commercialism in society, the idea of normality, the relationship between sex and destruction--but who wants to read this revolting book closely enough to better understand them? Plus, for some reason, Burroughs has a knack for using verbs without any sort of augmentation--the phrase "he ejaculate" in the quote above is not a typo.

I've decided to officially call bullshit on the Beat movement. Having read its two flagship novels, On the Road and Naked Lunch, I can't imagine any genre in which its seminal works are of such mediocre quality.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

Nadia is a Ukrainian woman raised in Britain with her older sister. The story begins just after her mother's death, as her father falls in love with a bombacious 30-something Ukrainian woman. Nadia and her sister Vera try to team up together (after a long history of fighting) to convince her father not to marry this woman, attempting to make him see that all she wants is British citizenship. When he marries her, the two begin to tackle the question of divorce and deportation. Along the way here and there, Nadia adds in excerpts from her father's memoir (A Short History of Tractors) and stories of what she knows to be her family's past.

This book was okay, I guess. There were some funny parts, mostly her father's ludicrious behavior. His eccentricity is amusing. There were some sad parts, like when she finds out about her family's history in Soviet labor camps, or when she realizes her father's new wife is beating him. But mostly, it was just kinda ho-hum. Not bad, but not that good either. Easy and short to read, I guess I recommend it if you're at the beach and forgot any other books.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This is the first book I read this year that I didn't enjoy. The blurb on the back sounded like a good enough set up, but Conrad failed to deliver. It's a frame story, but the frame doesn't enhance the book at all. More than that, the so called "heart of darkness" isn't really that terrifying.

The main character takes a steam boat into then unexplored Africa in search of an ivory trader named Kurtz. Turns out Kurtz doesn't live up to his reputation as the ass-kicking, elephant-hunting, all-around frontiersman that Marlow, the protagonist, builds him up to be.

The book just kind of peters out and ends without a discernible climax. Thankfully it was only a shade over a hundred pages long.

Also, Conrad comes off as a bit of racist in his depiction of the Africans in this book. He doesn't seem to have a problem with poaching elephant tusks either.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness... wow... I mean, just... amazing... just go read it... read the whole thing, read all of them... wow...