Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Chamber by John Grisham

Until two years ago, I had never read a Grisham novel. I obviously knew of his work through the various film adaptations of his books, films that I mostly enjoyed. I decided that I would read his books in order, since I have been told on more than one occasion that his earlier books are better than his later ones. While I liked A Time to Kill, I thought that the ending was a little lacking. I felt the same way about The Firm. I was beginning to wonder if Grisham was one of those writers who have trouble concluding their stories. The Pelican Brief and The Client were both improvements. Both were taut thrillers that came to a satisfying close.

Brent (a fellow 50 Booker) had recommended The Chamber to me a couple of times, telling me that it is one of his favorite Grisham novels, right up there with The Rainmaker – incidentally, that is the next of Grisham’s novels. The Chamber marked a slight departure from Grisham’s previous works. It was much slower paced, both the story and characters took a while to develop. But, any hack can write quick, spastic action (see Dan Brown’s bibliography). It is much more difficult to create a slow-moving story that is interesting and entertaining for the reader. With The Chamber, Grisham does exactly that.

The storyline of the book is rather simple. Sam Cayhall is on death row in Mississippi for a crime that he committed when he was much younger and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He is in his sixties and a month away from the gas chamber, when his lawyer grandson – who had not previously met him – arrives to take up his case. Grisham describes the legal battles that take place in the ensuing weeks. Throughout this time, Adam Hall gets a lesson in his extended family history, often learning things that he wished he hadn’t. As with his two previous books, Grisham ends The Chamber well.

Although it is just a novel, I don’t know how someone could read this book and not give some serious thought to the death penalty.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

Peter Pan is interesting because there really is no definitive text for him: Author J.M. Barrie first conceived of him as a baby wandering around London's Kensington Gardens in the novel The Little White Bird, and then wrote a play about him in his more familiar form. The play went on for a long time, often with changes made to the plot from year to year--at one point, Peter had a goat, for instance--and then finally Barrie novelized Peter in Peter and Wendy.

I liked this book much more than I expected to. It's much more complex than the Disney version, which is sort of simplistic in its idealization of Peter. In the book, Peter is a much more complex and tragic figure--he's vain, self-centered, forgetful, violent, and foolish. And Tinker Bell is just a bitch. Peter and Wendy is full of allusions to sex--like the way that Peter fails to understand how "interested" Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and Wendy are in him--and death--like Hook's ticking crocodile, which is one of the best metaphors for death that exists in English literature. Peter and Wendy is great because it's dark, sarcastic, and ultimately heartbreaking. At the end, Peter agrees to come back in the spring every year for Wendy (to help with spring-cleaning), but he misses a year, and when he comes back the following year, he doesn't notice that he's missed one. This is a passage from that part:

"Who is Captain Hook?" he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.

"Don't you remember," she asked, amazed, "how you killed him and saved all our lives?"

"I forget them after I kill them" he replied carelessly.

When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, "Who is Tinker Bell?"

"O Peter," she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.

"There are such a lot of them," he said. "I expect she is no more."

I expect he was right, for fairies don't live long, but they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.

How fucking sad is that? After that, he misses whole decades before returning again for Wendy, and by then she has a child of her own. Peter is as forgetful as a child; that is his virtue and his shortcoming. I think perhaps too many children's books extol the virtues of the innocence of youth without any reservations. Peter and Wendy recognizes that growing up is both a tragedy and a triumph; that's what I think is so great about it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace begins with Gene, the narrator, returning to the boys school where he spent his formative years. As he introduces the reader to the various buildings and features of the school, you get the sense that he has not simply returned to the school to reminisce, but to lay to rest something that he has lived with for many years.

After a few pages, the story hits flashback mode and never really returns to the present. Gene begins to tell the story of Devon School, and more importantly, the story of his friendship with Phineas. Finny and Gene were roommates and close friends, but in many ways they were polar opposites. Finny was athletic and magnanimous, while Gene was neither. Gene received good marks in his classes, while Finny struggled just to pass – often Gene did Finny's homework for him. Although the two were friends, they were also competitive with each other, in a passive aggressive way. As the competition between the two increases, it puts a strain on their friendship. Across the Atlantic, World War II is raging, but the latent one-upmanship between Finny and Gene is just as real of a battle.

With A Separate Peace, John Knowles is saying just as much about the War and the nature of war, as he is about the lives of teenage boys. Knowles makes it clear that the older boys got, the more diligently they were primed for combat. The seniors at Devon School spent a lot of time in physical training, expected to enlist after graduation, or be drafted. The specter of war hung over this New England boys school, permeating the student’s minds and the curriculum alike.

A Separate Peace is beautifully written and laden with vivid, true-to-life characters. The pacing of the book is excellent. It moves along at an even keel, toward a conclusion that is not forgone, but at the same time not necessarily unexpected.
As a side note, I have to believe that John Irving was influenced by this book when writing A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Wow, but it's been slow here lately. We've purged one (Alyson), one is incommunicado (Kelly), and Nathan hasn't posted a book in like six months because he's a little bitch. It's up to the rest of us to pick up the slack, so here's a book I finished two weeks ago: Five Children and It by E. Nesbit.

"Would you like to rest a little?" asked Anthea considerately.

"Yes please," said the Psammead; "and, before we go any further, will you wish something for me?"

"Can't you do wishes for yourself?"

"Of course not," it said... "Just wish, will you, that you may never be able, any of you, to tell anyone a word about Me."

"Why?" asked Jane.

"Why, don't you see, if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life. They'd get hold of me, and they wouldn't wish silly things like you do, but real earnest things; and the scientific people would hit on some way of making things last after sunset, as likely as not; and they'd ask for a graduated income tax, and old-age pensions, and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them, and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. Do wish it! Quick!"

This is, I'm told, a pretty famous children's book in England that never really made it across the pond. There's even a movie where the voice of the Psammead--the sand fairy that the five titular children find, and which gives them wishes--is voiced by Eddie Izzard.

Because of that, I was able to approach this book with complete ignorance--which is nice, because nothing else we're reading in my Children's Lit class is unknown to me; most of the texts have been made into countless movies and Saturday morning television shows and lunchboxes and what not. It is a pretty standard be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale, as all the wishes the children make turn sour (e.g., they wish to be "as beautiful as the day" and then their own family fails to recognize them and they get no supper), but it's probably the first modern instance of such a story (it was written in 1904), and ten times as clever as most of them to boot.

Um, guess there's not much else to say about it. Believe in your dreams!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

For Men Only by Jeff and Shaunti Feldham

This is a relationship book. It's pretty good, but I don't have any idea what to say about it. According to Liz, it's a mostly accurate representation of the way most women think and act. I'll take her word for it.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

I would say that Cosmopolis is the strangest book I've read this year with the possible exception of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It follows a day in the life of Eric Somethingortheother, an extremely wealthy stock picker in the near future. He's so powerful that when the Yen makes an unexpected rally, his faulty recommendation nearly cause a market crash. He spends most of the day in his cork-lined car (it doesn't keep the noise out, but the lining is the point) watching things on televsion that seem more real to him than real life. All he wants is a haircut, but a political assasination, a funeral for a rapper, and shooting for a bizarre movie impede his progress.

This is the second book of DeLillo's that I've read, and I found it rather difficult intially. The first half of the book is so strange that it's offputting, particularly an episode that involves a Eric receiving a prostate exam while talking to his sweaty coworker. At some point during the conversation, the look at each other and have a mutual, uh, climax. It's really bizarre in a way that even the rest of the book is not. Still, the themes are familiar ones for postmodern literature. The equation of the trivial and the personal to the same level of importance, the growing distance between people (comically illustrated by Eric's inability to recognize his wife immediately as he runs into her throughout the day).

Portions of the book are brilliantly written and even somewhat moving, such as the funeral for the rapper. Other parts, like the prostate exam, are offputtingly bizarre. Still others are confusing and probably laden with symbolic significance that I'm incapable of picking up on, such as the running theme of assasinations. (In the book, there is one actual assasination, one attack by the “pie assasin,” a man who throws pies at celebrities, and the repeated atempts on Eric's life). The end of the book is appropriately bizarre and oddly satisfying, but I can't really recommend this book to hardly anyone. Read White Noise or Underworld instead. Both are beter and more accessible than Cosmopolis.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maughm


You know that kid in school with the clubfoot who you always picked on even though his mother had died and his caretakers were old and incapable of showing much emotion? Remember how he eventually rejected all religion because of its restrictions only to fall in love with a waitress who was green skinned and treated him horribly? Also, you may recall how he traveled the world seeking satisfaction and found it at his own back doorstep. This book is more less about him. His name was Philip, by the way.

The preceding paragraph will only seem familiar to you if you attended school with W. Somerset Maughm, author of Of Human Bondage, a book with Maughm himself claims is partillay autobiographical but more largely fiction. However, reading the book, one gets a strong impression that, rather than the events being entirely fictitious, they are more symbolic. The introduction for this edition says that the club foot was representative of Maughm's bisexuality, which is an interesting idea since Philip's club foot keeps him from feeling secure in several of his relationships.

Of course, the centerpiece of Of Human Bondage is the love story, such as it is, between Philip and Mildred, a worldly, selfish woman that treats him horribly, even going so far as to sleep with his friends. Philip is a doormat for most of their relationship, and it made him a slightly less sympathetic character. Of course, it's debatable whether Philip is entirely sympathetic anyway. For the bulk of the book, he's spineless and swayed by whaever company he is in. Whenever the situation is bad, he just goes someplace else, falls in with a different group of people who are going nowhere, and starts over. He's capable of extreme selfishness himself, such as when he briefly entertains the idea of “mercy killing” his uncle to get his inheritance. The truth is, I doubt I'd like Philip if I met him on the street.

That said, Of Human Bondage is essentially a coming-of-age story with a more or less happy ending, and, while I don't agree with all the conclusions Philip eventually reaches, his journey is worthwhile and relatable, even when things are a bit extreme. And, I guess that's all I have to say.

Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov

Well, another entry in the “books that several other 50 Bookers have already reviewed this year.” These are actually sort of nice, since they let me skip the introductory summary of the book and get right into my thoughts about it.

Mostly, I just want to echo what Carlton and Chris both mentioned: this is probably one of the most immaculately crafted English books of all time. The entire thing is like poetry, which can be a little disturbing when the language is being used to describe Humbert's lust for his 12-year-old nymphet. Also, the book is packed with tons and tons of allusions and wordplay, most of which I didn't even realize existed until I flipped through Carlton's annotated edition.

Lolita is only about 300 pages long, but it was one of the slowest reads of the year for me. The language is so dense that skimming is virtually impossible. Important events will happen within one or two well-crafted lines, and the inattentive reader can find himself confused in the middle of the next paragraph. There are also a couple chapters near the middle where the book bogs down with Humbert's exhaustive list of places he and Lo have visited.

The ending of the books picks right back upthough, with one of the oddest encounters ever between Humbert and his mysterious nemesis. It's comical and disturbing, and seems like an appropriate way to end this literary, perverse, bizarre meditation on love and obsession.

Edit: Blogger won't let me post images right now. Sorry visual learners.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This is the second time I've tried to make it through The Sound and the Fury; the first time I made it halfway through and just told everyone I finished it. Well, I didn't finish it. I'm sorry. I never meant to betray your trust. I've finished it now.

The Sound and the Fury is the story of a once proud Southern family, the Compsons, and their downfall. It is split into four parts: The first is narrated by Benjy, the family's youngest son and a mentally retarded person. His account jumps through time with little warning or help to figure out what's going on. The second is narrated by the neurotic son Quentin, who is sent off to Harvard and has trouble dealing with his childhood incestual feelings toward his sister Caddy. The third is narrated by Jason, who is an asshole and controls his mother and Caddy's daughter Quentin (confusing) with an iron fist. The fourth is a third person narrator. The plot itself is difficult to describe, but the central character seems to be Caddy, and how she's depicted throughout the book. She's presented as a tragic figure, who becomes sexually active at a young age and is ultimately the cause of her brother's suicide (guess which one), and is then kept from seeing her teenage daughter.

Faulkner, in fact, found the story so powerful that he said The Sound and the Fury caused him the most grief to write of all his books. But to me it seems that, like most Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury is best enjoyed at an intellectual level and not an emotional one. Faulkner is surely a genius, and the four-part narration (similar to As I Lay Dying) is an amazing thing to behold, but the book for me lacks emotional heft. The Benjy section in particular is too confusing to really be affecting, though Quentin's and Jason's sections fare a little better.

So, I've finished it. Between this and As I Lay Dying, I'll take the latter: it has a dude who can read minds.

Monday, October 8, 2007

God Keeps His Own Time by Reid Lehman

This is a book that the CEO of Miracle Hill Ministries, the company I write for, wrote as a general history of the company. Mostly it talks about the founding and then highlights the major events in our growth and times of relying on God. It is a very interesting book, esp to me since I have grown up around Miracle Hill and knew most of the people talked about in the book.

It is written in a simple straightforward style. An easy read, this book is more of a testimony than anything else.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam is the very sad story of four men who, in their own way, loved the same woman. Now that she is dead their reactions to one another are intricately woven together in a smooth reflective style.

I liked Amsterdam much better than Atonement, although it did not elicit such a strong reaction I felt the story was simply more agreeable, with only slightly less interesting characters.

The writing, while not as profound, was more consistent, and therefore infinitely more likable.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

This is my fiftieth book. I own each and every one of you, and you are far beneath me in all aspects, including aesthetic taste, intellectual aptitude, and general attractiveness and good hygiene. Next to me you are all hideous, vapid fools.

In other news, I was less than impressed with Wizard of Oz. I think much of this has to do with how familiar I was with the plot already from the MGM film. If Baum's novel has anything to boast about, it's the book's concept and plot, certainly not its style or character development. But even still, I didn't grow up thinking much of The Wizard of Oz as a kid, so maybe there's just not much to be taken with. To me, the fanciful lands and peoples seem like little more than a poor man's Alice in Wonderland, which tries to reproduce that sense of wonder but lacks much of the humor and absurdism that made Wonderland so successful. Also, it took me about 45 minutes to read all the way through. I did it at lunch.

On the other hand, I understand that one of the reasons people are so fond of the Oz books is that there are so many of them: 40 or 41 in the "canon," and scores of other non-canonical Oz books. So certainly when you look at the breadth of the Oz universe it seems fairly impressive, but then again, it doesn't quite seem to all add up to anything the way that Tolkien's legendarium does.

Of all the children's books we've read so far for my class, it seems that this is the one most explicitly written for children. Despite modern (and probably false) claims that it is an allegory for the contemporary politics of the turn of the century, Oz just doesn't have the subversive charm or secondary level of appreciation that makes it rewarding for an adult reader.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Language of God by Fancis S. Collins

Francis Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project, which successfully mapped the human genome in 2000. I remember seeing this press conference live when it happened, and remember hearing what I assumed was religious rhetoric coming from those speaking. No scientists at this high of a level could believe in God, could they? It is this line of thinking that Collins looks to correct with his book, The Language of God.

Collins was not raised in a religious family. His parents sent him to church as a kid, but only so he could learn to sing in a choir. At some point he decided that he was an atheist, a view which he espoused through his college years. There came a time, however, when he felt that he needed to give God another look. He points to the writer, C. S. Lewis as an important influence on his thought processes during this time. And it is clear to see Lewis’ imprint on Collins’ way of thinking and even his writing style. He quotes heavily from Lewis and other religious writers through his book. Collins acknowledges this toward the end of the book, saying, “Few if any original theological concepts are portrayed within these pages.”

Collins basic argument: a strong belief in science does not preclude a belief in God, or vice versa. He makes no claim that science can prove there is a God, but neither can it prove that God does not exist. He argues that there are certain questions that science simply cannot answer, such as, ‘Why are we here?’, ‘How did we get here?’, and ‘What is the meaning of life?’.

By far the most interesting section of the book was the discussion of evolution, and description of BioLogos, which Collins jokingly refers to as “crevolution”. BioLogos is the belief that evolution is the process the God devised to create life on earth. It is interesting and worth thinking about, and Collins does a good job addressing questions that might arise from such a belief.

The appendix, “The Moral Practice of Science and Medicine: Bioethics”, is worth reading. Collins tackles issues, such as stem cell research, cloning, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In this section, and the rest of the book, Collins does a great job of explaining complex scientific theories and experiments. He is by no means a great writer, but neither is he a bad one. Regardless, it is the subject matter that makes The Language of God what it is, not Collins’ writing.

My review of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Road / No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Partly because of Chris has already reviewed The Road, partly because I'm lazy, and partly because they're both by the same author, I'm going to combine my reviews of The Road and No Country for Old Men.

The Road has become pretty ubiquittous, pretty impressive for one of the most depressing books I've ever read. It tells the story of a man and his son struggling to survive in a post-nuclear(?) world. The imagery is stark, the prose is poetic and spare, and the characters are mostly unnamed, except for one old man who occurs near the middle and lies about his name anyway.

The theme of man against forces he can't possibly defeat is repeated in No Country for Old Men, a novel that is, at points, nearly as depressing as The Road, but with a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. Alternating between chapters told in third person and chapters narrated by an aging sheriff unfortunate enough to run up against an almost supernaturally skilled killer, it's a strange mixture of philosophical treatise, adventure story, and dark (very dark) comedy.

Both books are set, ostensibly, in the West, although the setting plays less of a part in The Road than it does in No Country. I hesitate to say much more about the plot of No Country because if anyone here is planning to either read the book or watch the upcoming film, I don't want to spoil it. I'd highly recommend both books, just don't read them late at night after a big tragedy.