Wednesday, May 30, 2007
The thing about Substance D, however, is that it dissolves the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres of your brain and can result in the development of two different personas. Because not even Fred's superior's are allowed to know his secret identity as Bob Arctor, Fred is assigned to spy on himself. At first what is a mildly comic result of Dick's police state becomes a bizarre scenario in which Fred and Bob separate, and neither realizes that they're the same person. The title is a reference to the Bible, which refers to seeing oneself "through a mirror darkly," as Fred/Bob surveys his own life through a "scanner," which is basically a glorified surveillance camera, unable to look upon himself completely.
Supposedly, writing this book was agonizing for Dick, who based much of it upon his own experiences as a drug addict. The dialogue in the book between Bob and his drug-buddies is both surreal and sincere, reflecting a genuine but skewed view on reality that wavers between comedy and tragedy. The destruction of Fred/Bob's mind is heartbreaking, and given extra force by the epilogue, in which Dick dedicates the book to all of his friends who died or were permanently damaged by drug use--including himself, listed with the rest, as having severe pancreatic damage due to his addictions.
This novel is probably the most stirring rejection of drug use that I've ever read. Somewhat peculiarly, the Times 100 Greatest Books of the 20th Century list only includes Ubik from Dick's extensive corpus, instead of one of his more popular novels like this one, The Man in the High Castle, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but I can't imagine any of his books being more genuine or affecting than this one.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
He could run, and no one would ever know he had been there. But he couldn't just leave them lying here.... He had to get help.... Would anyone believe he hadn't had anything to do with this?
Harry is one year older and, according to Rowling, must be able to handle slightly darker and slightly more sophisticated plot lines -- a trend through the years. The darkness in this installment comes from Harry's identity crisis. The Heir of Slytherin has opened the Chamber of Secrets, which means that the monster within will begin attacking all students who are not pure-blooded wizards (only about half the school). When student after student gets Petrified, and Harry accidentally reveals he can speak Parseltongue (snake language, a rare gift that Slytherin himself possessed), students begin to suspect Harry to be the Heir himself. Although Harry knows this isn't true, the rumors do get to him, and he questions himself. He possesses strange similiarities to Slytherin and to Voldemort himself, and the Sorting Hat did say he would be great in Slytherin House. Although this aspect was still interesting in the book, I think the movie did a much better job at portraying how an entire school turning against Harry can cause distress -- the emotions came through better on-screen. I hate saying that because I usually champion books over films, but whatever.
And speaking of movies, the second film was also directed by Chris Columbus, so the film and book are virtually identical. That made for another interesting read.
I won't go deeply into Harry Potter predictions because I doubt many of you care, but for those of you who do, consider this: In the Half-Blood Prince, we find that Voldemort has split his soul into various Horcruxes in order to stay alive. Harry's charge for the Deathly Hallows, the last novel, is obviously to find and destroy all the Horcruxes so he can therefore destroy Voldemort. In the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore explains Harry's similarities with Voldemort:
"Unless I'm much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I'm sure..."
"Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?" Harry said, thunderstruck.
"It certainly seems so."
Ominous, I should say. Though Dumbledore does say at some point in the Half-Blood Prince that he believes Voldemort made a Horcrux for each important/significant murder he committed, and as he failed to murder Harry, he wouldn't be one. But who knows? Okay, enough of my nerdiness until the next post.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep is pretty much the prototype for hard-boiled detective fiction, taking elements from earlier crime and detective novels and combining them into a genre that seems as common as whitebread to us today. As a result, this, his most famous novel, can seem a bit uninspired at times; if an author wrote this today he would be deservedly accused of writing a very narrow and unimaginative novel. But The Big Sleep was written almost seventy years ago. While some of the tropes have become familiar to us--the uncertainty of who is on whose side, the frank depiction of violence and organized (and disorganized) crime, candid sex--this novel is pretty much where they began.
What The Big Sleep does have is Philip Marlowe, who is as definitive for his kind of character as The Big Sleep is for its genre. In it, Marlowe, a private investigator, is hired to investigate a fairly unspectacular blackmailing scheme for a retired general that ends up uncovering the connections between the general's daughters and a number of seedy underworld characters including casino-owner and extortion magnate Eddie Mars. Marlowe's approach is more about attitude than fantastic sleuthing and Chandler goes to great lengths to do away with the idea of a private investigator outsmarting the police at every turn. His cynical, acerbic, wisecracking personality has often been copied (cf. every detective show ever) but never reproduced.
All in all, unless you're superaware of The Big Sleep's literary/historical value, it comes across as enlightening as a beach read, for the most part. Bonus trivia: The Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski is loosely based on this novel--but only very, very, very, very loosely.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
[Baby] Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous... He couldn't know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in hushed voices: "To Harry Potter -- the boy who lived!"
Now that I know the future of Harry Potter and how dark the series gets toward the end, it was interesting to go back to the beginning. Harry and his friends -- and the book's style in general -- all seem so innocent. It's also interesting to note how identical the first book and the first movie are: Chris Columbus, who directed the first and second films, was a huge Harry Potter fan and made sure to include every little detail in his movies. There are even lines of dialogue that are identical, which made it a bit odd to read -- I could hear the characters' voices in my head.
One of my favorite things about this series are all the little unrelated details that Rowling adds into her stories. She includes all sorts of things that don't matter to the plotline at all, but still make a big difference in the story. Short one-sentence descriptions pop up all over the place. For example, right in the middle of the part where the kids figure out that the stone will be stolen that night -- a very serious, dark part of the story, Rowling writes: "They wandered down to the lake and flopped under a tree. The Weasley twins and Lee Jordan were tickling the tentacles of a giant squid, which was basking in the warm shallows." I think these sorts of additions lend to what makes the Harry Potter world come alive, and how it feels so real when you read or watch the movies. The details make the story.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Here is something similar to a summary: A college student in Dublin is writing a novel. His novel is about a man named Dermot Trellis, who himself is writing a novel. The idea held by both the student and his character is that it is unnecessary to create characters when you can use the ones that exist in the corpus of literature, so Trellis' novel (and by extension the student's, and by extension O'Brien's) is filled with strange characters: cowboys, fairies, and denizens of Irish myth like a pooka (demon) and the legendary hero Finn MacCool, which sounds like a mascot for a family seafood restaurant. But the characters won't stay put and they drug Trellis so that he'll stay asleep and they can do what they please instead of doing what he tells them to do by writing.
So, yeah. The story of the college student is told, but mixed in with it are pieces of his novel as well as whatever excerpts the student feels necessary to include, like a lengthy translation of the legend of Finn MacCool or selections from (probably fictitious) books meant to explicate on given concepts. Structurally, the whole thing is messy, and stylistically it's purposefully formalized and stiff, but humorously so, in a way. I can't on good conscience recommend this to anyone without a certain warped kind of taste, but just beholding it produces in me a certain kind of awe. It lacks a certain sense of direction, but that too is on purpose it seems, and in a way reflects on the character of the student, who constantly avoids doing any real schoolwork.
This is one of those books that you're not sure whether you love or hate. If you're a big Joyce fan, you might enjoy it, because it's as difficult and twice as Irish. Maybe I should just say, "approach with caution."
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Cloud Atlas was one of the best books I read last year. Not having been familiar with David Mitchell beforehand, I was surprised and impressed by the Russian-doll storylines and the diversity of writing styles and characters it encompassed. I'd heard virtually nothing about Black Swan Green before purchasing it, and that might have been a good thing, since it's nothing at all like Cloud Atlas.
The blurbs on the back cover compare it to Catcher in the Rye, but I think Lord of the Flies would be a more apt comparison, minus Flies' bleak ending. Coming-of-age stories and kids-are-cruel stories are a dime a dozen, but rarely does one create such a believable world as Black Swan Green. There's almost nothing in the book that rings false. It's not over the top, and it's not particularly symbolic. It's a lighthearted but sobering reminder than being a kid isn't the easiest thing in the world. Its structure is fairly standard, although there is something of a minor revelation at the end that ties together the book, which plays something like a series of loosely connected vignettes.
The other pleasant surprise of Black Swan Green, besides its overall quality, was the expansion of the story of Robert Frobisher, a character from the best story in Cloud Atlas. Such an inclusion could have been jarring, since the books are so different in tone and context, but it works wonderfully, dovetailing nicely with Cloud Atlas if you've read it, and playing as just another sideplot if you haven't.
This is a good book.
I read this as devotional literature, but it also works quite well as a satire or just a generally comical novel. Lewis' wit is on full display here, as Screwtape chides Wormwood for each failure and attempts to give him advice on how to proceed. My copy of the book has been misplaced, but the tactics that Screwtape advises Wormwood to use will be familiar to any Christian, and, while reading through, there were several times when it was nice to think, “Oh, so I'm not the only person who has a problem with that.”
Wormwood ultimately fails in his task to distract the young unnamed Christian, who (SPOILER) dies fighting World War II. The last section of the book is Lewis' “sequel” to Letters, Screwtape Proposes a Toast. It's more of a lengthy essay than a novella, ubt it addresses several aspects that had come to light since the publication of the initial novel. I know this review doesn't do it justice, but Screwtape Letters is one of the best books I've read this year, and I'd highly recommend it. Also, John Cleese reads the audiobook. Just saying.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
Daniel's discussions about math and how he visualizes numbers were detailed and interesting. Synesthesia, a neurological condition in which two or more sense are coupled, informs how Daniel thinks about numbers and is the key to his mathematical abilities. But these abilities are only a small part of the book.
Born on a Blue Day is written in a very straightforward manner. Because of this, there were times when it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. However, there are not many linguistic flourishes. But it is quite interesting. I was intrigued by Daniel's thoughts on languages, and how he is able to learn them so quickly. He learned Icelandic, which is considered to be an extremely difficult language, in one week.
Daniel has amazing insights into his childhood, and what growing up with Asperger Syndrome meant on a day-to-day basis. I enjoyed seeing the ways in which he learned to cope with Aspergers and eventually lead a very fulfilling life.
Sunday, May 6, 2007
Water for Elephants has a premise that I found quite interesting. Jacob Jankowski, a young man studying at Cornell to be a veterinarian, has his world turned upside down his his parents are killed in an automobile accident. Finding himself penniless, he quits school and joins a traveling circus in the Depression-era 1930s. Once in the circus, he meets all manner of madcap characters, from the ruthless uncle Al, to the half-crazy animal trainer August, to his beautiful wife Marlena, and all kinds of kooky freaks and weirdos in between. It's told from the viewpoint of Jacob, now ninety (or ninety-three), who lives in a nursing home and lives off his old memories. Sounded interesting to me, and, in fact, the first half of the book is quite riveting with its details on the practices, slang, and folklore of the traveling circus. Also, Sara Gruen is quite attractive for an author. No offense, Danielle Steele.
Unfortunately, once the main storyline begins, the book heads steadily downhill. It devolves from interesting period piece to bland soap opera fairly quickly, with one implausible action building upon another until the story reaches a climax that manages to be both unbelievable and predictable, quite a feat. And, actually, the ending to the elder Jacob's story is no more believable or satisfying. Another problem, one that doesn't become clear until the characters are all introduced, is that they all sound pretty much the same. It takes some special gift to make a ruthless ringmaster, a schizophrenic, a stripper, and a bitter dwarf sounds identical, but Gruen pulls it off with aplomb.
It's not to say that I hated the book. As I mentioned, the circus stuff was all pretty interesting, and I think there's probably a great book to be written on the topic. Unfortunately, Water for Elephants isn't it.
This is the first of two books I'm posting that I've read during my daily devotions, although this one fits more snugly into the category of devotional literature than The Screwtape Letters (the second).
It's not a particularly easy book to review, since, divorced from the context of devotional literature, it probably doesn't sound particularly interesting. It was written in the early 30s, and is essentially a chronicle of the author's desire to see a fresh movement of God in his church. The opening chapters of the book are a bit more general, focusing on the steps that Christians should take to ensure revival. These include the expected steps of prayer, fasting, and self-examination. There are also many quotes from the biographies of various revivalists such as Charles Finney and John Smith. The second half of the book is a collection of entries from author Oswald J. Smith's journal, detailing his own experiences following the guidelines he sets down in the first half.
As devotional literature, I found it inspiring. In addition, there is some historical interest in it as well, although if you're interested in the early revival movements in the United States, there are books that go far more in depth.
Friday, May 4, 2007
Through the open door we could hear the croaking of our resident frog, and the long, sliding song of a nightingale. We took a final glass of wine outside and looked by the light of the moon at the new lavender bed while the dogs rooted for mice in the
Mayle and his wife live in the Lubéron, a Provençal mountain range, supposedly out of the way of so much of the
He describes so well such a simple, idyllic lifestyle that I wonder, and hope against, how much change the region must have gone through in the past 18 years. But Mayle is very impersonal, and, for that reason, Bill Bryson is still my favorite travel writer. Where Bryson really helps you relate to him, and see experiences through his eyes, Mayle keeps the reader at arm’s length. The book is minimal on dialogue, at least on Mayle’s part, and relies more on observations and briefly summed up conversations. It’s a quick read, and often very humorous, as only an outsider’s perspective can be. You could probably get through it on a slow afternoon if you wanted too, and it’s definitely worth the time.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
when small talk goes wrong:
--Hey, you look familiar. Have we met?
--Oh my God, I've gained so much weight that you don't even recognize me. This is the single most humiliating experience of my life. We dated for seven years.
It's really short and it's really funny. That's about all there is to it. John Stewart says it's "hilarious," so it must be. Actually, I had to force myself to stop reading it on the bus because I kept giggling and then feeling all self-conscious. It's a breeze to read and it will pick you up when you're feeling down! Also, I'm going to keep counting tiny little books as long as Nathan keeps counting his "graphic novels."
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
I'm going to keep using graphic novels until I can no longer justify it with the fact that I read long novels.
This was awful. I’d heard of this series a while back, heralded as an exemplary, powerful graphic novel representation of the biography of the Buddha. Tezuka is supposed to be the father of Japanese graphic novels. If that’s true, I have no desire to read any Japanese graphic novels.
He wrote Buddha when graphic novels were still mostly a children’s medium, so it’s annoyingly juvenile. There’s a lot of humor that you’d expect from a Saturday morning cartoon. The story consisted of very loosely linked episodic plots, and only just began to talk about the Buddha. There are six more volumes that I don’t plan on reading. Just when I’d expect it to develop into a mature novel, someone would get hit in the crotch with something. A lot of stupid anachronistic jokes, like a pack of cigarettes falling from a monk’s pocket, a yeti, and a cameo appearance by the author (in doctor uniform) don’t quite make this the “insightful, amazing” work that was promised.
The only redeeming quality about the art was the few landscape scenes. These were truly impressive. For everything else, anatomy was way off, faces were amateur and inexpressive, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a horse do a front flip, especially not with a rider on its back.
Bad art aside, I wondered if maybe it was the translation that made this book so bad, until I came to this wonderful piece of work:
“Look… heh, heh, we’ve been pierced through. But it’s better like this… skewered together… don’t you think, mother?”
“We’ll never be parted again… never…”
There is no language on earth that could keep that from sounding stupid.
If you promise not to tell anyone that I read this, I promise not to make you read it.
The story follows Dedalus from birth to age 22, usually skipping a few years between each episode. He grows up, over about 300 pages, from a schoolboy in rural
What did it mean? Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?
Dedalus struggles against Irish culture at a time when Irish nationalism was gaining popularity. He’s initially embarrassed by his people’s history, their language and their religion, which is another thing that he slowly comes to terms with. Joyce left a lot of pieces of the story to be filled in by the reader; a lot of important events in Stephen’s life are only vaguely alluded to in the narration of his train of thought. Also the reader is subjected to a miserable thirty pages of fire and brimstone sermon, and, later, another equally miserable thirty pages of philosophical discourse on the aesthetic. There’s a lot to dig through, but there’s also a lot to say about personal growth, and “finding yourself.” I’ll bet it spoke volumes to the Irish in the early 1900’s. I, unfortunately, cannot identify myself as such, but thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Note: I’d recommend this version (pictured at the top of this review), published by Penguin, with a black cover and a picture of Joyce, for its great introduction and tremendously helpful notes in the back. I, regrettably, bought the shittier version, and had to borrow a friend’s to find out what doing something “for a cod” meant (it does not mean doing something in order to get a fish, as I had previously assumed).