Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling

Warning 1: This review contains spoilers.

Warning 2: I will not rest until this is my longest review yet.

I'm happy to report to you that this time, the conventional wisdom was correct: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is far and above the best book in the series so far. In fact, I would go so far as to say that after reading it I was satisfied, which is not the way I would have described myself after reading the first three. The reasons for this are myriad, and I shall address them each as well as some other facets of the novel.

Style: Lo and behold, this book doesn't open up with a comically repetitive depiction of life on Privet Drive with the Dursleys, but a long episode contained in a chapter called "The Riddle House," in which the groundskeeper of the Riddle family's old house stumbles upon Wormtail and the newly solidified Voldemort inside it. When Voldemort realizes he's there, he kills him, which, if I am not mistaken, is the first actual non-historical death in a Harry Potter book (but more on that later). What is really remarkable about this section is that it's well-written. No one ever required Rowling to be a fantastically gifted prose writer; all these books really need to work is a sort of utilitarian but well-balanced style that that doesn't get in it's own way, but parts of this book are even better than that. Somewhere between the third and fourth book, Rowling wisely threw away the formula that had been working for so long and went in another direction. Even the dialogue has improved from the sub-television pilot stuff of the first three books. Again, there's nothing really amazing, but it has good flow, and seems natural. Here is a paragraph that comes from the climax, when Voldemort kills Cedric Diggory:

For a second that contained an eternity, Harry stared into Cedric's face, at his open gray eyes, blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house, at his half-open mouth, which looked slightly surprised. And then, before Harry's mind had accepted what he was seeing, before he could feel anything but numb disbelief, he felt himself being pulled to his feet.

It doesn't bowl you over, but, hey, I've been reading the short stories from my Creative Writing class for the past hour, and I'll tell you, this reads like Nabokov. And what's more, look at the carefully chosen phrase, "blank and expressionless as the windows of a deserted house." That is a clear reference to the Riddle House that appears in the opening chapter and here at the climax, where two of the three deaths in the novel take place. The Riddle House symbolizes death! Rowling has discovered symbolism, and Harry Potter is a better book for it.

Plot: Each of the three previous books has had serious ending problems, the second one being the worst contender. This novel, however, ties things up quite nicely, I thought. The story is basically this, as if you didn't know: The Quidditch tournament has been cancelled because two other famous wizarding schools, Beauxbatons and Durmstrang, have been invited to come to Hogwarts to take place in the resurrected Triwizard Cup, a competition which pitches one wizard from each school against each other in three tasks. After three years of Quidditch--oh, the first game is against Slytherin, is it? Who knew?--Rowling is wise to give her wizarding sport a break for a while and focus on something new; for this reason Goblet of Fire feels particularly fresh. Harry is supposedly too young to enter, but someone enters his name for him--someone surely trying to kill him--and he is selected as the fourth champion to compete with Hufflepuff Cedric Diggory, Beauxbatons sexpot Fleur Delacour, and Durmstrang student/international Quidditch star Viktor Krum. In the end, it is revealed that the trophy he must grab is actually a "portkey" which whisks him off to the Riddle House to face Voldemort one-on-one, and the whole thing was staged by Voldemort supporter Barty Crouch, Jr., pretending to be Dark Arts teacher Alastor "Mad-Eye Moody." Unlike some of the earlier books which tried to be intense and suspenseful, Goblet of Fire really is both, and it's full of questions and mysteries that keep the reader in. Who put Harry's name in the goblet? Where is Barty Crouch, Sr.? What is Voldemort playing at, exactly? Will Cho Chang go to the ball with Harry? The scene where Hermione yells at Ron for not taking her to the dance is particularly good.

But for all that, the whole thing still takes a little suspension of disbelief, especially for one big plot hole: Why would Barty Crouch, Jr. go through so much trouble to make sure Harry Potter got in the tournament and won just so he could touch the trophy/portkey? Why not just make one of Harry's books a portkey or something? There are probably a thousand things Moody could have gotten Harry to touch far more easily--without running the risk that Diggory, Krum, or Delacour would touch them first (Let's not forget that Diggory actually beats Harry to the thing in the first place). Oh well.

The Wizarding World: One of the great things about the Potter series is how each book adds a little bit to our conception of what the Wizarding World is like. From what I could tell from the movie, the fifth novel gives us a lot more insight into the insides of the Ministry of Magic; in this book, it's the Wizarding World outside England. First, there's the Quidditch World Cup--in which the Irish are pitted against the Bulgarians--and then the Triwizard Cup. They say in the book that no one quite knows where the two other schools are located, but, come on. After all, "Beauxbatons" means "Good Wands" in French. As for Durmstrang, well, all their names (like "Igor Karkaroff") are expressly Russian, but the name of the school is expressly German (Sturm und Drang, anyone?), so, I'm gonna guess Poland.

Death: Brent remarked to me earlier he didn't think the books got perceptively darker until the fourth, and he's right, but the sea change is obvious from the beginning: It begins with the murder of Frank Bryce by Voldemort. Of course, one would expect things to get darker as soon as Voldemort turns up in the flesh again. And then the novel is book-ended by the climax, in which Voldemort kills Diggory. This really is quite exceptional; I can't imagine how many people who read this upon its first release were surprised to find a character killed off, especially one as likeable and genuinely well-developed as Diggory. But Diggory's death represents a great shift in Harry's world--until then, the danger to Harry has always seemed a bit ineffective. How many times have we heard Hermione quote from Hogwarts, a History about how well the castle is protected, especially with Dumbledore's watchful eye around? But Dumbledore's watchful eye does nothing for Diggory; and for the first time in the series Hogwarts isn't all sweetness and light and shifting staircases and headless ghosts and shit. At the end of the year ceremony, all the tapestries, which usually are decked out in the colors of the winning house, are all black in honor of Diggory's death, and they are a sign that Harry no longer has a haven in Hogwarts. From now own, his world, like our own, is surrounded on all sides by the threat of death, misery, and ruin. Awesome.

As a sidenote to the progressive darkness of the books, we also get our first view of Lucius Malfoy, the Death Eater. In the first few books, it seemed to me that Draco Malfoy was the kind of template bully who would end up allying with Potter in the end to overcome some greater evil, but by the fourth book, it's clear that isn't so, and I think the series is better for it. Draco knows his father is a Death Eater, and he's delighted about it; he is full with bigotry and hatred for non-purebloods. Watching Draco go from bullying pest to truly evil should be fun.

House-elves: I'm sick of this B-story. Having to read through Dobby's vaguely racist dialect was bad enough, but having to read about Hermione's crusade to free the house-elves is excruciating, and the one element of this book I really didn't like. I feel as if it wasn't Rowling's plan to include it, but somewhere along the way it came to her attention in the second book that she had basically come up with a legal form of slavery in the Wizarding World, and she felt indebted to soften the practice of keeping house-elves. And so, Hermione creates a society to free the house-elves, whom she learns are the ones keeping Hogwarts clean and well-fed, and to give them benefits, unionization, and competitive wages. But the house-elves resent this effort, because the only thing they like to do is work and being "dismissed" by their master is their idea of torture. All right, that's all well and good and fixes the problem from before, suggesting that Dobby is basically an anomaly, but is anyone else not buying this? Isn't the "but they like it" defense scarily close to what we know to be justifications used by pro-slavery elements in the United States leading up to the Civil War? I'm not saying that Rowling intended anything offensive or racist, but I don't think that this was the right solution. Not to mention the things are just damn annoying.

Hooking Up at Hogwarts: Is anyone else really interested to find out what happens after the Yule Ball? I mean, these kids are all drinking Butterbeer (which is, I think this book implies, an actually alcoholic but relatively weak drink, and really shows you how different it would have been if written by an American) and getting rutty. It's basically a Wizard prom, right? And, well, I don't know this from firsthand experience, but some less morally conflicted than I might use the Wizard prom as an excuse to get a little Wizard booty. What is Wizard sex like, exactly? Does Cho Chang hook up with Cedric Diggory, leading to an awkward discussion when she starts to get involved with Harry? And what would have happened with the 18-year old Krum and the 14-year old Hermione if she hadn't been all pissed at Ron? I shudder to think. These are the things I really want to know about Hogwarts.

I don't think that's longer than the last one, but it'll have to do. Anyone have any other observations?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

At a little over five hundred pages, finishing this book felt like an accomplishment. I was grateful for the length, though, because despite certain clumsy patches I could have done without, the book was so well written that I did not want it to end.

Throughout the novel I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of fiction and not a biography. The story of three generations of a Greek family were woven in seamlessly with historical happenings: the Turks' invasion of Greece, WWII, The Detroit riots, ect. You first meet a couple-to-be whose relationship is so taboo that it can't start until they leave their country and start over in America, where the next two generations are born. Lefty and Desdemona's working conditions and slow assimilation into American culture add a little spice and help the story kick up a notch. Later on in the novel, watching Lefty work his way into old age tugged at my heart. Overall, he was my favorite character and seemed to be the most realistically written. (Other characters in the novel seemed to act out against Eugenides and think/behave differently than you would want or expect them to in ways that did not ring true... or to me, at least.)

The second generation of the Stephanides takes up the shortest portion of the book. I found them to be less likable characters. The further into adulthood Milton progressed, the more redeeming qualities started to show themselves. His wife always seemed like a pest to me. In the middle of such an unusual story, their subplot (minus two small twists) was too stereotypically middle class American to really fit in with the rest of the book.

The third generation brings you to the main character/narrator, a hermaphrodite that we see morph from a middle class Greek-American trying to fit in with her schoolmates to a character brave enough to set out to become who s/he was born to be. You see Calliope's friendships, adolescent humiliations, and triumphs. You also see how things unfold with the first object of Calliope's affection. This section made it seem even more like a biographical account, as the love interest's name is never given and they are called the Object in order to "protect their identity".

While I was frustrated with the way Eugenides ended the family's story, I was happy with the way he ended Calliope's.

Relic by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child

Relic by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child A novel hailed by Chris Strube as being, “better than Jurassic Park.” Of course Jurassic Park wasn’t much.

Anyhoo, back on task…Somewhere in the New York Natural Museum of History a three clawed creature lurks. Could it be a legendary Rodent of Unusual Size, abandoned by it‘s owners, forced to forge for life in the filthy under-places of New York City? Perhaps it’s alligator flushed away to reside in the sewers. Perhaps when left to it‘s own devices it became what it always dreaded, a second rate beast in a crappy paper back edition, found in the local Wal-Mart, for 7.99+tax. Whatever this creature maybe, it unscrupulously disembowels and removes the thalamus and hypothalamus, of it’s victims. From small children, security guards and so on up the social ladder no one is safe. This monster must be stopped, it’s giving the museum bad publicity.

It is up to Miss Margo Green and her wheel-chair bounded doctorate advisor, a smart mouth cop and an unorthodox FBI investigator to get to the bottom of this mystery. If they make it in time they’ll get a major motion picture with signed contracts and deals all around.

So this book, wasn’t that great or especially intriguing. For those of you concerned it’s not a ROUS or an embittered alligator. It’s not even a dinosaur, for which I was un-endingly thankful. I guess the thing about this novel is after reading a great deal of Michael Crichton and seeing a few sci-fi-ish type movies, this novel was pretty much a stereotypical disaster and rescue type of thing. The real intrigue is in the last chapter but by the time I reached it, I was so entrenched in the same survival plot, of all the precedent books that the ending was anti-climatic at best.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

I started this book late last year, then it disappeared. I was cleaning my bed and it reappeared. Hard Times, magic novel. The story begins with the paragraph above, spoken to a group of children in the fictional city of Coketown. In Coketown, children are taught to be perfectly logical and utilitarian, and things such as fiction, imagination, and poetry are considered blights on society. The primary advocates of this doctrine are Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind, who run the school, and the bulk of the narrative follows them and Mr. Gradgrind's children as they reap the fruits of their utilitarian philosophy.

The book is split into three sections, 'Sowing', 'Reaping', and 'Garnering', based on Galatians 6:7, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” The plot is fairly complex (and I think Carlton might read this, so I won't spoil it), but Hard Times is a novel with an agenda. It's completely viscious to many of its characters, Mr. Bounderby in particular, and toward their overly-practical ideology. It also takes some pretty stinging swipes at factory conditions during the Industrial Revolution, the moral and social split between the rich and the poor, and the role of women in Victorian society.

It's also very funny, somewhat unexpected considering the topics at hand. Mr. Bounderby cuts a particularly ridiculous figure, as he spends most of the novel talking down to his formerly-aristocratic housekeeper and saying things like:

'By George!' said Mr. Bounderby, 'when I was four or five years younger than you, I had worse bruises upon me than ten oils, twenty oils, forty oils, would have rubbed off. I didn't get 'em by posture-making, but by being banged about. There was no rope- dancing for me; I danced on the bare ground and was larruped with the rope.'

Anyway, I enjoyed this book, but since I'm no good at deep analysis and I don't want to spoil the plot, I'll just end here.

Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss

The utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door.

Lynne Truss continues her saga by leaving the good pandas to eat their shoots, and stepping outside her door to teach the world a lesson in manners. However, while her lesson has reached grammatical perfection it is little more than a published rant.

The book is split into six sections where Truss delves into specific areas of manners that are sadly lacking. She explores both the effect on society and her personal feelings in each area, pointing out many problems and offering no solutions. She has given up on the hope of changing the world, but does wonder what brought about this onslaught of disrespect in our era.

Truss offers several good insights into why our world is falling apart, and I defiantly enjoyed the last section of her book where she explains how society has set up rules for getting along with one another, and these rules are called manners. I found this particularly interesting when compared to modern thoughts presented about religion by the secular world at large.

I know I am deviating from anything to do with the actual book, but this is the main thing I got from reading it. Many people will argue that religion has come about as man's way of organizing a system for all of us to get along. With a code of ethics we are able to survive as a species.

However, I found it interesting that this is exactly what Truss says about manners. Good manners are man's structure for knowing how interact with one another. The higher call to morality is something else that God Himself has put inside of every person. Man kind ultimately doesn't care so much about getting along, as each man cares about himself. This is what has brought manners into their current sad state of affairs.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas.

John Updike's third Rabbit Angstrom novel, Rabbit is Rich, opens up to find Rabbit in an unaccustomed state: He is satisfied. In the ten years that have passed since Rabbit Redux, Rabbit has started working at his father-in-law's Toyota dealership and, ultimately, upon Springer's passing, found himself in charge of it. It is a cushy job and provides him with financial success. His relationship with his wife, while never quite what one might call affectionate, has become stable and intimate, and he no longer feels the pull to run. Rabbit has even made peace with Charlie Stavros, the man who cuckolded him in Rabbit Redux, working with him side-by-side at Springer Motors and going so far as to call him one of his best friends.

But satisfaction causes a few problems of its own, of course--the backdrop is spelled out in the opening paragraph above: During the 1979 gas crisis, Rabbit himself feels his life--and his country--"running out of gas," losing spirit and movement to gravity, torpor, and "satisfaction." No longer are we in a world where Rabbit Angstrom can run off and find a girl to fuck--he seems to stumble upon them without looking in the first two novels--because he's far too old and it seems far less appealing. When his son Nelson brings home two girls in succession, his friend Melanie and his knocked-up fiancee Pru, he marvels at his own disinterest in having sex with him. Unlike in Rabbit Redux, in which we find Rabbit in a "devil's threesome" with Jill and Skeeter, there are no opportunities for strange trysts and absurd drug-addled affairs. Once, Rabbit sleeps with his friend's wife (they pee on each other, no joke) as part of a wife-swapping scheme, but even that happens on a holiday to the Caribbean, an otherworld far removed from the real time and space of Rabbit's Pennsylvania.

External conflicts frame Rabbit's internal struggles: Foremost is the return of his son Nelson from Kent State, shiftless and angry, looking for a job at Rabbit's Toyota dealership so that he can both support his pregnant fiancee and avoid going back to college, which he feels is phony. Nelson and Rabbit do not understand each other: Rabbit refuses to give Nelson a job and resents his alienation from his son; Nelson seethes with anger and hatred for his father over the tragedies of the first two books (which I will not enumerate for Brent's sake). But unlike Nelson and Rabbit we have the benefit of Rabbit's very youth documented in Rabbit, Run, and we see how much Nelson is like his father, in his frequent nastiness toward Pru, in his stubborn avoidance of his problems, of the way he finally leaves his wife as she is about to give birth and escapes back to Ohio. What Rabbit only knows in a halfway fashion is that much of his resentment toward Nelson stems from how closely Nelson's life is coming to mirror his own. When he insists that Nelson is a "Springer, through and through," we recognize his willful ignorance. And then there is the girl who comes into the dealership one day in whom Rabbit also sees something from himself, and who he believes might be the child his ex-lover from Rabbit Run claims to have aborted.

And then there are the ghosts of the dead, whom Rabbit faces because in the downswing of his own life he faces his own death as well. Rabbit thinks of them while running near his vacation home in the Poconos:

Becky, a mere seed laid to rest, and Jill, a pale seedling held from the sun, hang in the earth, he imagines, like stars, and beyond them there are myriads, whole races like Cambodians, that have drifted into death. He is treading on them all, they are resilient, they are cheering him on, his lungs are burning, his heart hurts, he is a membrane removed from the hosts below, their filaments caress his ankles, he loves the earth, he will never make their mistake and die.

When Updike is really on, I can't think of anything I've ever read more affecting. Though I doubt any of the Rabbit books could be as powerful as the first, I liked this one much more than Rabbit Redux, because it is more full with moments like that one. Updike wisely tones down some of the period details, resisting the impulse to make Rabbit the "prototypical American," as I wrote about that book. Rabbit isn't a metaphor; he's his own man, unique, individual, lonely, and that's why we identify with him.

Up next: Rabbit at Rest.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

" I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses , into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all its innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. "

Mere Christianity gives an argument for the truth of Christianity, and tells what Christans believe. Lewis explains how the Christan World View is the only belief system to adequately answer the questions men ask about their own existence.

He begins by giving the basic idea that all men have a built-in moral code that they demand others to follow, but that they themselves ignore. He goes on to say there is a part inside each person that makes them feel guilt at ignoring this standard. (A man will acknowledge that he has not been fair, but he will have reasons why this was acceptable in his case.) Our sense of justice is a proof that God exists, not because we expect other people to 'keep to the code', but because we feel the need to excuse ourselves when we do not.

Lewis then looks at the practice of the Christan life. What does a Christian life look like when followed to its logical conclusion? The answer is both convicting and encouraging. However, it is unlikely that a non-Christian or atheist would be able to grasp many of the concepts. As Lewis says, the more badness a man has the less likely he is to see it.

Finally, I do respect Mr. Lewis very much and I am thankful for the gift God gave him in encouraging other Christians in their faith. I do have a different understanding from Lewis' belief that anyone who is sincere will take part in heaven. At this point I am still of the opinion that you must sincerely accept Christ, and that it is Christ, not sincerity that gets us into heaven. I may be misunderstanding Lewis or simply wrong in my own belief, but there it is.

Lewis is a wonderful writer. His style makes you want to keep reading no matter how heavy the content. He makes you think and develop your reason. His writing is clear and understandable to most people, but insightful and compelling at the same time.

Haunted-Chuck Palahniuk

“To save us all,
please, tell someone.
To create real peace on earth.
Let us all be-

Haunted is another weirdly twisted novel by nihilist author Chuck Palahniuk. Due to its graphic content I suggest that the morally sensitive and the easily nauseated go read something else.

Nineteen desperate people each with their secrets attempt to escape their past by signing up for a writer’s retreat. They use pseudonyms such as, “Lady Bag-Lady,” Sister Vigilante” and my personal favorite, “Saint Gut-Free”. Each nick-name will eventually fall into place with the stories they tell.

Unfortunately for them, this particular retreat is held not on a compound with private cabins, rolling hills, and a gentle lake, but in an abandoned theater, which doors get locked as soon as they get inside. It turns out that the “director” of this retreat is boy suffering from progeria, who is using this particular set of people for an experiment. His point is that everyone needs someone to blame. And so starring Mr. Whittier as “Mr. Devil Hisself” and they do a pretty good job at proving his point.

In an attempt to get out of their prison they resort to damaging the electricity and plumbing and destroying three months worth of food. Eventually they resort to self-mutilation, but to no avail. Their captor is bound and determined to have them tell their stories. Eventually one by one their stories each accompanied by a poem. None of them are pleasant or worth mentioning, and most of the observations seems to be between the stories with Mr. Whittier, forever talking about humanities dependency on victimization.

This probably isn’t one of my favorite Chuck Palahniuk, in fact reading this book is like staring at something horrible and perverse but not being able too look away. Sometimes I wonder if Palahniuk is King Lear’s fool who knows that mockery is no longer a venue for hiding truth, so he moved onto to shock value. Or maybe Palahniuk really is just some sick bastard who doesn’t really seem to put any redeemable qualities in his characters, that aren‘t hidden under steaming piles of dysfunction.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Apparently, I am the only English major I know that has made it this far along without reading this book, so I suppose it’s about time I got around to it. If you haven’t read it, I should warn you that this contains spoilers.

Heart of Darkness is a long short story about a man named Marlow whose career as a boatman mirrors Conrad’s own. It opens with Marlow recounting a past trip down the River Congo to several other men on a ship called the Nellie. The text is told with a strange combination of English liberalism and racism that would later enrage the famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to speak out against Conrad, fifty years after his death.

While this book is well written and reeled me in, I still found it hard to swallow. Specific scenes, like Marlow finding some shade under a tree and then realizing the people sitting around him were not doing the same, but instead propping their emaciated bodies up against the trunks as they waited to die, were understandably disturbing. The thing that upset me the most was the character Kurtz. Everyone from the company was in awe of this man who had been sent not only to procure ivory but also to be a missionary who desired to better the lives of the natives. Some missionary… After running out of materials to trade with, he procured his ivory by raiding the villages with his guns. Furthermore, he did not bring God to the natives. Instead, he let them believe that he was some kind of god himself after he won them over by showing off the firepower his guns made possible to him. When Marlow and others from the company went to relieve him from his station that had run out of materials, he had the natives attack the company’s ship so that they would turn away because he did not wish to leave a place where he was held highly to return to a place where he was merely a man.

The story was exciting, though, minus the seemingly unending period where Marlow was waiting for rivets to mend his ship so that they could set off. Extinguishing fires! Sharing a ship with thirty starving cannibals! Dodging whizzing arrows! I can’t quite imagine than any combination of yoga or breathing exercises would get me through that trip.

My one disappointment with the book that had nothing to do with morals or the stripping of humanity from the natives of the Congo was that the reader does not get to hear much from Kurtz until he is on his death bed, fever dreaming. This man who “enlarges minds” and is known as a Voice above all other things, who seems to impart wisdom to everyone around him gives the reader none. Instead, what we see is an obsessive and flawed character through Marlow’s fixation with him. We see his hypocrisy but never get to understand why the other men of the company (minus the irked Manager) were so inspired by him, making their adoration slightly less than believable.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Treasure of Kahn by Clive Cussler

A couple weeks ago my car broke down in this tiny little town in the Smoky Mountains, and I was trapped there for 2 days. The closest thing they had to a bookstore was a CVS, where I found this book.

It wasn't bad. It far exceeded my somewhat low expectations of the produced-for-mass-consumption paperback genre. Once I realized it was almost 100% plot, I kind of enjoyed it.

It's the latest in a series of novels following the adventures of Dirk Pitt, an Indiana Jones meets James Bond type character. The story is that a supposed descendant of Kublai Kahn, emperor of 13th century Asia, has discovered a technology that can create earthquakes. The evil genius then uses that technology to disrupt the international oil market and attempt to reconquer China in the name of Mongolia. Of course, Dirk and friends foil his plan and the world is saved. The utter predictability didn't really take away from the book. With most of the words dedicated to action, a lot was left to the imagination, which I had a fun time doing. Cussler apparently works with a crew that salvages shipwrecks, a job that's probably a lot less glamorous than how it's presented in the novel, but that's the fun in imagining, right?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in high school and never cared for it much. Upon revisiting the novel a second time, I came to appreciate it. Knowing a bit about Shelley’s background helped me become more emotionally involved. I can’t imagine being the daughter of a great feminist but writing to appease two brilliant but no doubt difficult to live with men, being Percy Shelley and William Godwin, who were pushing her to make a name for herself.

Nothing draws me to an author like a good and proper amount of description. The grotesque nature of Shelley’s descriptions of Victor sewing the monster together out of various parts of numerous dead bodies absolutely gave me chills. It wasn't hard to see why Victor would become ill every time he saw a scientific instrument (though it was hard to see why Henry would nurse the sulky and elusive Victor back to health). I haven’t seen any of the cinema versions of this book but my bet would be that none of them could give her work justice.

Both Robert Walton, who was on a journey to the North Pole, and Victor, the young college student playing God, were too single minded in their pursuits not to be frustrating at times, and I was glad Walton did not play much of a part in the novel. My professor brought up a point that I hadn’t though of (and don’t know that I agree with) that Victor might have potentially been afraid of adult relationships/sexuality and that was what made him become so alienated from his family and what made him become so devoted to his work. At any rate, his both possessive and detached relationship with his “almost sister” was both interesting and problematic to me.

As a child, who didn’t at some point confuse the magical and the impossible with science? Victor’s interest in alchemy and his devotion to it even after his professors all told him more or less that it was hog wash made him seem both foolish and enchanting despite what happens as the plot unfolds. You would think, however, that a man smart enough to do what he did would have a little more common sense.

I wanted to adopt the monster and protect him up until the point in which he was denied a mate and became a killing machine. His fascination with the impoverished De Lacey family made me ache for him and his loneliness. As he got his hopes up, I worried and hoped for him, even as I scowled at Shelley for making certain things, like the way he so quickly picked up reading from Ruins of Empires, seem even more impossible than the actual creation of the monster.

I’m sure you all have probably read this, but if you haven’t, I’d recommend it.

Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen

I decided to jump on the books by comedians wagon… I wish I had jumped onto it with a better book.

I adore Woody Allen. I like his ridiculous glasses, his sometimes too grandiose gesticulations, and his movies. I did not, however, like Mere Anarchy. It called seductively from the library bookshelf, misplaced beside a Post Secret collection. When brilliant men call you, you answer…On the rare occasion that this happens. I think that maybe Woody was calling to someone other than me, like the cute chick in the overstuffed arm chair near the section of books about Iraq and the war. They could have been more compatible.

When asked at my interview to write for The (Cr)Appalachian and was asked what I wanted to write on, I said I would be interested in doing book reviews on recent releases and dropped the name of Mere Anarchy, just knowing it would be fabulous before I even opened it.

I was so wrong. It’s a collection of short stories about everything obscure you could imagine, where someone who was clearly modeled after Allen himself is being subjected to numerous improbable situations that should be comical but aren’t. I’m not sure if the main character is always meant to be the same or not, but in most all of them, the character is called boychick, which for some reason seemed to get under my skin. The language employed was too hip, too forced, and too much after the first several stories. This might have been better as an audio book with everything read in his voice.

My honeymoon period with Allen is over. Or maybe I’m just jealous that the story about the New Age commune taught boychick, but not the reader, how to levitate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

“Why shouldn't the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin? You don't know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your networks of give-and-take. “

Instead of trying to match the geographical and chronological sprawl of his opus Underworld, DeLillo decided to narrow his focus as much as he possibly could for the follow-up, The Body Artist. Both its size (124 pages wide-margined pages) and its scope (the narrative rarely leaves the head Lauren Hartke, the titular protagonist), The Body Artist is the polar opposite of Underworld and isn't much like anything else I've read of DeLillo's either.

The book opens with some very creative writing, exploring in vivid and sometimes disconnected detail the thoughts that go through third-wife Lauren's head as she is having what will end up being her final breakfast with her husband, Rey. Rey is an art film director who, distressed by the critical and commercial failures of his recent work, will leave breakfast, head over to the house of his first wife, and shoot himself in the head. We're informed of Rey's death only through an obituary. The middle section details Lauren's discovery of a man in her house who talks and acts an awful lot like Rey when he's being comprehensible. Oddly enough, she never calls the police, although she does entertain the thought of turning him in to a mental institution.

Lauren's experiences with and interpretation of the man comprise the bulk of The Body Artist, but DeLillo steadfastly resists giving any real answers about his identity. Is he a construct of Lauren's grieving imagination? The reincarnation of Rey? A ghost? An idiot savant? Lauren never learns and neither do we. In practice, he's more of a plot device, a way for DeLillo to examine love, death, the significance of time, and memory with a tangible being. Despite this seeming nod to the audience, who probably prefer a plot, The Body Artist is a novel of ideas rather than action, and the review of Lauren's performance piece that wraps up the narrative isn't as satisfying as it could be.

Still, one wonders if DeLillo even intended for The Body Artist to be a page-turner. In the review of Lauren's act, the reviewer notes that many audience members left out of boredom or confusion, and, given the nature of this work, it's hard not to see the parallels between the art of the protagonist and the art of the author. And, that is all.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower-Stephen Chbosky

"I guess what I’m saying is, this all feels very familiar. But it’s not mine to be familiar about.”-The Perks of Being A Wallflower.

I think I came too late to identify with Holden Caulfield’s all encompassing rage. So instead I read the words and observations of Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is definitely one of my favorite books, and the copy I have is battered and high-lighted. I’m afraid that someday, I’ll find this book in a forgotten corner somewhere and re-read it, and I’ll be trying to figure out why this book seemed so special in the first place. I’m afraid I’ll have forgotten what it’s like to be young and confused and afraid, and see Charlie’s keen observations as trite, when compared to my oh so deep well of logical wisdom. But enough of that…

This book is written as a series of letters to Charlie’s anonymous friend. In them Charlie writes about his first year in high-school and discusses everything from picking out the perfect Christmas present for his dad, to his feelings on his sisters secret abortion. He does this simply with at times an alarming sense of detachment. But always he comes back to his deep concern for others and his one true wish that everyone could just be happy.

Charlie also struggles with his first crush and his first few dates with another girl. From his ever present analytical view of his involvement with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to his feeling on The Fountainhead, and his first encounter with pot. Through it all Charlie presents his life with an honesty that would frighten most of us and an undertone of wistfulness for something more of a connection with the world he lives in.

Monday, January 21, 2008

What is the What by Dave Eggers

The oughts, the 2000s, the O-Os. Call this decade what you will, but Dave Eggers has to be one of the best writers from it. This is somewhere between his 5th and 10th book depending on how you count them. It's the "autobiography" of a Sudanese lost boy. It's a truish story. A novelized memoir, written by a third party. It's hard to put Eggers' works into categories.

The story follows Valentino Achak Deng from his childhood in southern Sudan, along his march to refugee camps during the Sudanese Civil War, and through his adjustments to life in the US. The book opens with a robbery in his apartment in Atlanta. Bound and gagged, he tells his story silently to his assailants. Jumping back and forth from the present, he explains the conflict and how a whole population of Sudanese boys wound up in the States.

It's a personal story. People all around him die. He's separated from his family, forced to join a rebel army. He finds love. He struggles to adapt to a new culture, contemplates murder and suicide. And nowadays he travels the country recounting all of this, in short and long versions, to churches, schools, crowded bookstores, and youtube-ees. All Eggers did was come up with a way to get all that down in book form.

If you like audio books, definitely go that route with this one. It's narrated by Dion Graham (of The Wire) who does an excellent job with the voices. I listened to it on two consecutive 8 hour drives and never got road weary. A+ to everyone involved.

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

Tobacco Road takes place in sharecropper country in rural Georgia in the bleakest times of the Great Depression, centering around the Lester family, a bunch of idiotic, amoral, and generally unlikeable bunch living hand-to-mouth. Foremost is the patriarch of the family, Jeeter Lester, who refuses to move to the city and get a job in a mill to feed his family. His wife Ada is a shrew and his ancient mother putters around the house essentially ignored, feeding off crumbs and such to survive. Most of his seventeen children are gone, married off, except for two: Dude (these names read like an episode of Hee Haw) who marries a woman preacher with a disfigured nose named Sister Bessie because she buys a new automobile, and Ellie May, who is a fair enough girl except for a hideous hairlip that makes her unmarriageable. Ellie May does however receive some interest from local Lov Bensey, who just isn't getting enough out of his marriage to Jeeter's twelve-year old daughter Pearl.

These are probably some of the most reprehensible people I have ever read about. The book opens as Lov comes to seek Jeeter's help about how to get Pearl to sleep with him--to which Jeeter responds by stealing Lov's sack of turnips and running into the woods to devour them alone. Jeeter spends the entire novel wondering where his next dollar is going to come from, and the family is always just at the edge of starvation. At the end, Dude and Bessie run over and kill Mother Lester in their automobile without so much as turning back, and then Jeeter accidentally sets his house on fire killing everyone inside including himself. These are truly disgusting people.

But why? What's the point? I'm not one to point fingers at unfair representations in literature, I think that too often that's myopic and short-sighted, but Tobacco Road plays only as a cruel parody. Caldwell gives a whopping zero redeeming traits to his characters; their exploits afford no insight to anything but their own idiocy and moral shortcoming. There is no urgency to be felt in the Lester family's closeness to starvation. In fact, if anything, I rooted for these characters to die and in horrible fashion. If this book is a drama, it lacks honesty; if it is a satire, it lacks wit. Worst of all, it is boring. Not recommended.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Elements of Style by William Shrunk JR. and E.B. White

"The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that comes to mind is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day."

The Elements of Style is an excellent book to read through and keep on hand as a reference. It gives a simple and compact list of rules and common writing mistakes, as well as giving guidance on how to develop an effective style.

The book lays out the basic grammar and general style rules. The major focus being to teach us how to use the rules so that we can break those same rules effectively and create our own style. The writers encourage readers to be clear in their communicating and to build a structure on nouns and verbs, rather than adjectives and adverbs.

The difference between works which stand the test of time and works which die after their initial release are outlined. The book's own style reads like a textbook. The index and glossary make it an easy to use reference book, and its size makes it worth carrying with you. Familiarity with the content provides a foundation for young writers to expand into their own style.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to write. It offers the tools for writing clear, direct, logical prose. Shrunk and White set a high standard for writing. With most of the world offering their two cents worth in writing, I think this is great. They encourage us to shine out by first mastering the basics and then developing our genius as we discover it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gig: Americans talk about their jobs at the turn of the millenium

It's a bunch of interviews with people about their jobs. A cross-section of the American worker. The point was to get people talking about what they do for a living, but that got people talking about all sorts of things, some personal things that they probably don't share too often. Sometimes it's just about life in general.

In full disclosure, I'm not sure if I read all the interviews in the book. There's no need to read them in order, which I didn't, and I ran out of renewals from the library. Here were some of the more memorable jobs:

McDonald's crew member, CEO, supermodel, Kinkos co-worker, drug dealer, escort, highway flagger, temp.

Flip through the table of contents on Amazon. It's worth picking up a copy if only for a couple chapters.

Triple Espera

This is a collection of three short novels, No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez, Aura by Carlos Fuentes, and Goodbyes by Juan Carlos Onetti. They are all writers from the latino 'boom.'

No One Writes to the Colonel is one of García Márquez's most popular short works. It depicts a poor, retired colonel living in an impoverished Colombian town controlled by a corrupt government. The colonel's last hope for making enough money to eat is his prized gamecock. A good novella; I also like One of These Days which is much shorter but just as good.

Aura was my favorite of the three. It's a gothic story set in Mexico City. Think Edgar Allen Poe meets Voodoo. The most interesting part is that it's written in second person. "You wake up." "You read an ad in the newspaper." "You take a job." "Then all sorts of crazy witch doctor stuff happens to you." It works even better in Spanish, because there are two forms of "you" that kind of signal who is talking to who.

Goodbyes is a really confusing story. It's about a guy in an insane asylum that gets letters from people. You never know what's real though. It's all about whether you trust the narrator, the characters, the letters. Probably deserves a second reading on my part.

Friday, January 18, 2008

New Fifty Booker, Part II

Christine, who started out with us last year but was pulled away by the complexities of life, is rejoining the 50B fold. Welcome her with open arms, cakes, etc.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I was looking forward to seeing the big-screen adaptation of this book; you might even say that I was excited. I liked the visuals that I saw. It had a good cast. It had talking, armored polar bears. It was co-written and directed by Chris Weitz. What could go wrong? Apparently everything. The movie was a startling disappointment.

The main problem with the movie was that it felt cobbled together. It jumped from scene to scene, with very static, utilitarian dialogue. This was odd, because I would describe Chris Weitz as a good writer. The movie just barely made sense, giving the impression that it had been heavily edited. Supposedly this was the case. Whether to quell the cries of conservative watchdog groups that were calling for a boycott of the movie, claiming it was anti-religion and even anti-God – something that simply does not come across in the film – or because they thought that it needed to be punched up, or because of any number of reasons the studio stepped in, chopped the film to pieces, and shoved it back together again.

I knew the books had to be better. The overall premise of the story was intriguing. In an alternate universe much like our own, people’s souls are outside their bodies, in the form of animals. (The explanation and depiction of this in the movie was incredibly piss poor.) The book opens with Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who was deposited at Jordan College after her parents died. The college has no means in place to train a small child, but Lyra gets a cursory education from the various scholars that grace the campus.

When a mysterious socialite shows up at the college, Lyra is intrigued. She is more than happy to accompany this lady to the North. But not long into the trip, Lyra realizes that things are not as they appeared. She becomes involved in a plot, involving warring polar bears, skyships (think Teddy Ruxpin but less colorful), and the Aurora, or what we here in our universe would call the aurora borealis or northern lights. (Incidentally, this book was first released under the name Northern Lights in England. They must have assumed that U.S. kids would be uninterested in one of the most amazing natural phenomena that our world has to offer...but how about a shiny piece of metal?) Lyra is guided along her journey with the help of a compass of sorts that she alone appears to be able to read.

Philip Pullman does an excellent job of progressing the plot. It moves at a quick pace, with surprise and danger always waiting in the wings. His writing is fluid, and he does a good job with dialogue, especially with capturing the differences between the ways children and adults speak. His description of battles were great, unlike the battles in the movie, which were quite boring, and resorted to standard film tropes, like deus ex machinas, which were not in the book.

At the beginning of the book, Pullman explains that this story is set in a universe like ours, but different in many ways. The way that this is played out in the book is rather bizarre. Lyra lives in Oxford, England. They refer to the 17th century, and wine from 1898, so they appear to be using the Gregorian calendar. The United States does not appear to exist, but one of the characters is described as coming from the nation of Texas. This character mentions sending money back to the Wells Fargo Bank. There are countries and ethnic groups that don’t exist in our universe. It is rather odd. I hope Pullman has an interesting explanation for these crossovers from our universe to this one. I wonder if his explanation will be similar to the view espouse in the "documentary" about spirituality and quantum physics, What the Bleep Do We Know?. I suspect it will be.

The Golden Compass is the first book of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I plan on reading the next before too long. Now that I am familiar with the material they had to work with, I can't believe how crappy the film was.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

A few thoughts on the political system in the Harry Potter books:

I think one of the most interesting things about Rowling's Potter books is the government that's in charge of the Wizard world, the Ministry of Magic. It certainly seems to be a peculiar system: First of all, it seems to have little to no relationship with the Muggle government of Britain, though in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban we first find out that the Muggle Prime Minister is aware of its existence and can communicate with the Minister of Magic (or Minister for Magic, if you're reading in Britain). However, it does not seem that the Prime Minister holds any authority over the Minister or the Ministry of Magic; mostly the relationship consists of the Minister of Magic informing the Prime Minister of important goings-on in the Wizard world that affect Muggles, such as the importation of dragons for the Triwizard Tournament, or, in this case, the escape of Sirius Black, about whom Harry first learns from his Muggle television set. This reminds me of other certain political systems that divide government not just by region but by ethnicity or identity; such governments have recently been in the news because of the controversy over Sen. Akaka's bill to reorganize the Hawaiian government creating a branch of government solely for native Hawaiians. If I were a Harry Potter fanfic writer (and who knows, maybe one day I will be), I would be interested in situations in which these two governments overlap--what happens if a Muggle murders a Wizard, or vice versa? Would the Muggle Prime Minister cover up for the Ministry of Magic if the Ministry decided to send a Muggle to Azkaban for murdering a Wizard? And if a Wizard killed a Muggle, would the Prime Minister push for the harshest penalty under Wizard law (since, after all, holding a Wizard in a muggle prison seems impractical)? Have the two sides ever come close to civil war?

But besides that, as fanciful as Rowling paints the Wizard world, its political system is clearly in need of reform. The system is Sovietesque in its densely organized bureaucracy: In this book we have the example of the trial of Buckbeack, the hippogriff that Draco Malfoy goads into attacking him. The council which decides Buckbeack's fate is unfortunately under the sway of Draco's father and all-around git Lucius Malfoy, and passes a death sentence on Buckbeack (this is an animal, though, so really I guess it's "putting it down"). After an appeal that seems to have been forced through a kangaroo court (who moves the appeal up in a very insidious attempt to block the trio's efforts to research their defense), Buckbeack is SPOILER executed. Another example that comes to mind is Ron's father Arthur Weasley, who works for the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office--but in the second book, it expressly states that Weasley is the author of a law that is being directly opposed by the Malfoys. Why is Weasley, a bureaucrat, making laws? Where is the Parliament in the Wizard world? Where is the independent judiciary which exists for Buckbeak's appeal? Quite simply, there aren't any; the Ministry of Magic is an oligarchy which is presided over by a number of closed (and unelected?) councils which create, pass, and execute laws, and also have complete power over the appeals process. There is no separation of powers--this is not a government, it is a junta. (Side note: you might say this is like the British House of Lords, who are both a lawmaking body and in effect an appeals court, but the House of Lords is nothing like it used to be and has few lawmaking powers, and certainly the Ministry of Magic is much, much more extreme in its monolithicness.)

Is it any wonder that this system leads to the unchecked power of unsavory elements in Wizard society: The Malfoys, the Crouches, Cornelius Fudge? These men are, at best, incompetent, and at worst corrupt and evil. Voldemort's forces have infiltrated the Wizard government to extremely high levels. The resulting policy is disastrous, and this part really does contain spoilers if you haven't read it: Harry's godfather, Sirius Black, escapes from Azkaban prison to exact revenge on Peter Pettigrew, who actually betrayed James and Lily Potter, the crime of which Black was convicted. When his plan for revenge goes a bit haywire, he is accused of trying to kill Harry (which everyone believed he was doing anyhow), and taken into Hogwarts to have his soul sucked out by Dementors. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment! Not only does Black not receive a trial for this new charge, his "execution" (and, let's face it, that's what having your soul sucked out is) is scheduled for less than an hour after his crime. Executions don't even happen like that in Saudi Arabia, people.

On the other side of the equation is Hogwarts, Wizard Britain's preeminent social institution. It is unclear to me whether it is a public or private school: The students don't seem to pay for it but for books and supplies, and the Ministry of Magic surely exerts a great power over it (going so far as to removed Dumbledore as headmaster in one book), but on the other hand the history suggests that it was privately founded by the four namesakes of the houses. Its similarity to Eton, Britain's most famous public school, certainly suggests it's public, but I tend to think its connection to the Ministry of Magic is not necessarily indicative of Hogwarts being run by the Ministry but indicative of the Ministry's absolute unchecked power over the Wizard world. But in any case, repeatedly Hogwarts acts as a foil for the Ministry of Magic, and this is the lynchpin of what can be seen as a libertarian streak in the Potter books: a corrupt and all-powerful government balanced out by a wise, tradition-bound, but not bureaucratic social institution. The relationship between the two is clearly contentious--from my understanding, much of Minister Fudge's blindness to the Voldemort issue in the latter books hinges on his paranoia of being replaced by Dumbledore, an immensely powerful and popular wizard. The fact that Dumbledore--who Rowling suggests is the greatest wizard of his age--is toiling away as a school principal strongly suggests that Hogwarts, to a degree unlike any school in Britain or America, is a huge pillar of Wizard society.

So what to make of this? Here is a suggestion: Rowling depicts magic as similar to technology in that the things Muggles do through technology Wizards do by magic. But magic is a highly traditional institution; there is no evidence in Rowling that it changes. That is to say, while Muggle technology expands at an ever-growing late, magic has no innovation. Are we surprised, then, that the Wizard government lags sharply behind in its political systems? It is Arthur Weasley, with his strong interest in Muggle technology and life that provides the examplar which will save Wizard society from its own baser instincts. Only by embracing the Muggle system of change and continual growth can Wizards create political reform. The solution: It's time to come out of the closet, Wizards. Reveal your existence to the Muggle world and create a unified society.

A few thoughts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, with spoilers:

The main plotline in this book has to do with Sirius Black, a famous Wizard murderer in Azkaban for betraying Lily and James Potter, effectively handing them over to Voldemort. Throughout the book, Black seems to be getting closer to Harry, and the consensus is Black wants to kill him. The truth is that Black is Harry's godfather, come to find the real traitor: Peter Pettigrew, hiding out as Ron's pet rat Scabbers. Oh, and there's a new teacher who turns out to be a werewolf. And Hermione can turn back time because she wants to take more classes. Plus, Gryffindor wins the house cup for the first time in seven years!

Once again, the common contrivances are here. The books continue to grow stylistically and developmentally, but if you didn't follow the last few chapters, you're not alone. (Though Alfonso Cuaron seems to make pretty good sense out of it for the film.) These books, for whatever their virtues, have some serious ending problems.

New Addition

Matt Marshall, a friend of both Carlton and Brent, has decided to take the plunge and join us here at 50 Books. Each year he reads The Hardy Boys Casefiles #s 2 - 51. (He says that Dead on Target is just too painful to read, what with the death of Iola and all.) I am sure he is planning on doing the same thing this year...he is not very creative. Maybe we should think about making some light rules as to what you can read.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

I'm still behind on reviews from 2007 so this will be short.

Mediocre isn't the best word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

Repetitive isn't the best word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

This is the first Palahniuk that I read, and I wasn't very impressed. The first and last couple of chapters were well written, but the rest was kind of boring and repetitive. Example: near the beginning of the book he mentions that "deja vu" has an opposite, "jamais vu." Interesting. A few chapters later he mentions the same thing, but not in an offhand or clever way, he just copied and pasted the same paragraph that I had read 5 chapters ago. It's repetitive, did I mention that yet? So in then end, what could have been a great book comes off as demeaning, as if he assumes the readers are dumb.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

When Updike published Rabbit, Run, his protagonist Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was only two years his junior; at intervals of almost exactly ten years he wrote the next three Rabbit books, wherein Rabbit ages at exactly the same rate. This is, I think, an achievement of unparalleled ambition. Rabbit is Updike's everyman, and it seems as if Updike spends each of his ten years gathering material for Rabbit; for this reason Updike's legacy is tied to his character just as Updike's life is. The effect is like meeting an old friend--ten years have passed since you've last seen each other, but life has not stalled since then, and Rabbit grew with the rest of his generation in real time.

Rabbit Redux finds Rabbit back with his wife Janice, living in a small starter home in the suburbs of Brewer, Pa. with their now 12-year old son Nelson. Harry's infidelity and the tragedies of the first book (which I will not recount because Brent is going to read it) have been pushed to the corners of the Angstroms' consciousness, but not forgotten; they inform much of what the characters do or think. When Janice leaves Rabbit to stay with her lover, Greek car salesman Charlie Stavros, Rabbit, through a strange series of plot turns, takes in a rich young runaway from Connecticut named Jill, who pays her rent in nookie. It isn't long before a friend of hers, a young black radical named Skeeter, ends up at Rabbit's house on the lam from the cops.

What this sets up is a strange chunk of the novel in which Rabbit, Nelson, Jill, and Skeeter live in Rabbit's house in a peculiar commune-type situation: Skeeter, who styles himself as a "Black Jesus," spreads his dogma to the other three during nightly discussions. I looked for a passage from these discussions to quote, but I got lost and exhausted really quick; they're dense and full of odd anger and mishmash radicalism. It is this section that didn't feel quite right to me--Rabbit, despite his frequent escapes from domesticity, is a conservative man who believes strongly in the Vietnam war and is suspicious of blacks. In some way I think that Rabbit clings to this life because it is peculiar and perverse, and refreshing after a stagnant and not particularly satisfying twelve years of marriage, but I find some scenes (especially those in which Rabbit does not rebuke Skeeter for his savageness toward Jill or Nelson) to not quite jibe with Rabbit's character. The culmination of this is a scene in which Rabbit and Skeeter very nearly double-team Jill in the living room--what the fuck? It's Updike's prose that is the saving grace here, turning the ridiculous into the believable.

The other thing I didn't like quite so much about Rabbit Redux is that Updike seems to keen to turn Rabbit into a reflection of the American psyche. In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit was just Rabbit, and didn't need to be anymore--we could identify in him the human desires to be loved and to be free, and all the mess and complications that result from them. But in making Rabbit the prototypical American--and not the prototypical human being--Updike actually narrows his focus and Rabbit's relevance. Updike places Rabbit Redux squarely against a backdrop of social and political change and upheaval: the moon landing, Vietnam, race riots. At one point, Rabbit has a lengthy argument about Vietnam with his Stavros, his wife's paramour (who is a dove). And then, of course, the Skeeter sections. These all have their charms and their positives, but forty years later, I find this aspect of the book to be the least appealing.

Of course, I still recommend this book strongly, if only not quite as strongly as I do Rabbit, Run. Up next: Rabbit is Rich!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

"This is how I'm guessing it started. They were hanging out at the house in the islands, Jimmy and his bride. She probably walked into his studio and caught just enough of the track to know it was better than anything she had in the can. She asked her husband to play it again and he probably said, “No, it's not ready.” Then she batted her eyes and stroked his neck and asked if he'd give her the song, and he said, “Sorry babe. This one's mine.” Time went by and Cleo's label was hounding her and she kept nagging Jimmy for the cut. She probably flirted and teased and begged and cried and threw a hissy, but he wouldn't budge. And when it became plain to Cleo that her husband was keeping 'Shipwrecked Heart' for himself, she decided to kill him. And what little she remembered of the song, she sang at his funeral. Touching."

I'm having a little trouble reading prestigious books so far this year. I picked up Basket Case at Goodwill for 69 cents mostly because it was in good shape and because I'd often heard Hiaasen compared to Dave Barry, one of my favorite humorists. I went into this book expecting something like a Terry Pratchett book with mystery instead of magic. Instead, I ended up with a halfway decent murder mystery that had no distinguishing characteristics.

There is, however, an easy way to determine if you'll find Basket Case more entertaining than I did. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Do I find the band name “Jimmy and the Slut Puppies” even faintly amusing?

  2. Does the idea of a man being bludgeoned nearly to death with a frozen lizard make me smile?

  3. Is the ability to solve a mystery within the first two chapters a quality I look for in my whodunits?

If you answered “no” to all three of these questions, Basket Case might not be the book for you. I'd give a summary, but really, if you've ever read a mystery novel, you could probably outline it yourself, especially since most of it is contained in the excerpt at the top of this review. Overly formulaic and underly amusing, Basket Case will hopefully be the worst book I read this year.

Oh, and here's a list of things I'm officially tired of now: Random namedropping, especially of bands; incredibly unlikely romances between obviously incompatible and cardboard characters; witty banter that's not funny; ancient obituary writers who won't die; and that's all.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Captain and His Enemy by Graham Greene

"'He loves her, boy. Can't you understand that - he loves her?' But of course I couldn't understand."

Jim was 12 years old when he was taken from his unhappy boarding school and brought to live with the Captain and Lizza. Although he means a lot to his new found mother and father, he feels no affinity towards them. He does not regret his lack of care for his providers, but it does cause him to consider both his relationship to them and their relationship to one another.

The first half of the book sets up many mysteries and introduces an array of characters, all of whom are connected in an unexplained way. Since the story is told by Jim, things become clearer as he finds out about his own past and the past of those he lives with; however, the plot is only a framework, which drives the heavily conceptual novel.

Jim’s main concern through-out the book is brought about by his observations of his adoptive parents’ strange relationship. While his each of parents is sure of the other’s love, neither one is willing to display their love openly. He is indebted to them, and yet he feels nothing toward them. They owe him and each other nothing, yet their love is strong and oddly unspoken. This contrasts heavily with his own short relationships where the word ‘love’ is often thrown about. As Jim sees it, there is no reasonable explanation for why they might love each other.

The end of the book takes a strange turn, which thankfully develops the characters much further, but I cannot delve into that as I promised not to spoil anything.

This was enjoyable as well and quick and easy to read. The book is mysterious but some of the mystery is cheaply manufactured by leaving out information, making it almost impossible for the reader to figure out what’s coming next. Despite a few misgivings, I think the strong thematic content of the book makes it well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Born Standing Up: A Memoir by Steve Martin

I've been psyched about this year's 50 Books Project ever since Carlton and I decided to see who could read the most books authored by comedians. Next in line for me: Too Jew For You: The Rob Schneider Story.

I read this book in two sittings at Books-A-Million, which should provide some amount of insight into the substance therein: mainly that there isn't much. The book is by Steve Martin, so I wasn't expecting the autobiography of Ghandi or anything, but what I was expecting was a well-written delving into the mechanics of stand-up. I've seen Seinfeld's documentary, Comedian, and I was expecting something more along those lines, insight into the trials and tribulations of an upcoming performer.

In actuality, the book is divided into two unequal sections, the first and larger half detailing Martin's beginnings at Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland, with only small portions talking about his actual standup. The shortest sections of the book covers his meteoric rise to superstardom in the early 80s and it's the only section that consistently lets us into Martin's head.

The last section tells us how Martin abandoned standup (Answer: abruptly and completely) and why (He felt he'd peaked and had nothing new to offer). However, the book doesn't explain why Martin thought that doing The Pink Panther was a more artistically viable option than singing “King Tut” a few more times.

The memoir is very well-written and contains some interesting and funny bits, but I found it a little underwhelming. If you're interested in the inner workings of comedy, watch Comedian. If you're interested in Martin, watch The Three Amigos and listen to Wild and Crazy Guy. If you're interested in the rise of a supercomedian during the 70s and 80s, you'll probably enjoy it, but except for a few poignant moments near the end, it's nothing more than light reading.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

I had to read Anna Karenina for a class on Russian History. Despite the fact that it was assigned to me, and that it is just shy of 900 pages, I really enjoyed the book. I was told by my professor that I should check out some of Tolstoy’s short stories. This was 2003, and I am just now getting around to taking his advice.

The Kreutzer Sonata, named after a piece by Beethoven, begins with the narrator – we never get his name – remembering a train ride that he took not that long ago. A little ways into the trip he became involved in a conversation about men and women, marriage, and love. A number of people were contributing to the lively discussion until an old man, who had kept to himself up to this point, injected himself into the conversation. He asserted that love, as those party to this conversation were defining it, simply did not exist. This brought a rise out of many of the people there. Someone responded that the fact that marriages existed proved that there was such a thing as love. To which the man responded, “[People] enter into marriage without seeing in it anything except copulation, and it usually ends in either infidelity or violence. Infidelity is easier to put up with.” “Yes, there’s no doubt that married life has its critical episodes,” someone responded. The man brought silence with his reply, “Pozdnyshev’s the name. I’m the fellow who had one of those critical episodes you were talking about. So critical was it, in fact, that I ended up murdering my wife.” The narrator of our story later seeks out Pozdnyshev and begins talking with him. The old man opens up and tells his story, which essentially occupies the rest of the novella.

As he did in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy does a good job of creating characters to which the reader can relate. The situations that he puts them in are situations that could essentially happen this day.

The picture that he paints of married life is extremely bleak. The Kreutzer Sonata is really an indictment of marriage, with Tolstoy arguing that most marriages are simply a sham. I found it interesting that Tolstoy drew on his own experiences with marriage when writing this book, much to the shock and dismay of his wife. The Kreutzer Sonata was a quick read and was very interesting.

Pilgermann by Russell Hoban

Pilgermann here. I call myself Pilgermann, it's a convenience. What my name was when I was walking around in the shape of a man I don't know, I simply can't remember. What I am now is waves and particles, I don't need to walk around, I just go.

is the story of a wandering Jew on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the late 11th Century. His name isn't Pilgermann, but that's the name that his ghost--or consciousness, or whatever it is that's narrating this novel from beyond the grave--adopts for himself, because his real one is lost to time. What he narrates is the story of his life, beginning with his castration by a Christian mob in his hometown, following with a vision he has of Christ, who tells him to go to Jerusalem. He never actually makes it there, but instead is captured by pirates and ends up in Antioch where he befriends a local Muslim and is eventually killed in a Frankish crusade.

The first half of the book takes its cues from Bosch and Vermeer paintings: European landscapes ravaged by death, haunted by strange and ghastly figures. He is followed by those whose deaths are connected to him: The headless tax-collector who both sicced the mob of Christians on him and saved his life by stopping them short and the highwayman who murdered him (and whom Pilgermann kills), a man named Konrad and his lover Bodwild, who is a sow, and, oh, why not, a bear. There's also the personification of death as Bruder Pfortner, for whom killing is a sexual experience, and the vision of Pilgermann's own death as a child which grows into a man by the novel's end.

The second half is much better; it follows Pilgermann and his new friend, Bembel Redzuk, as they conceive of a massive tiled court they call "Hidden Lion" (see cover), which they erect to study the point at which "stillness becomes movement" and "movement becomes consciousness." If you can't tell, Pilgermann is a book mostly of ideas and not plot; for every page of action there are probably ten pages of Pilgermann's complex thoughts on the nature of religion and death. Some are quite beautiful and profound--for example, I like the way that Pilgermann never gets to Jerusalem, but finds solace in the words of a traveling group of child pilgrims who say, in the face of their own death, "Jerusalem is wherever we will be when we get to the end"--but much is dense, obtuse, and not quite worth the effort it takes to decipher. It is a book full of references from all three of the Abrahamic religions, and one of its chief themes is their interaction. That the Muslim world comes off much better than the Christian (and even the Jewish) is no surprise; Hoban's depiction of the Frankish crusaders as being socially underdeveloped in relation to their Turkish counterpoints is historically accurate.

I picked up this book because Hoban penned one of my favorite novels, Riddley Walker, a post-apocalyptic novel written completely in the strange pidgin English of the future. I'm sad to say that Pilgermann isn't nearly as enjoyable, though serious religious scholars may find it interesting. As disappointed as I am, I still may read another of his books, Turtle Diary, about a pair of strangers who come together to free a couple of sea turtles from the zoo. This guy seriously never writes the same book twice.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling

Here is a collection of random thoughts concerning JK Rowling's second Harry Potter novel:

Style: The writing in The Chamber of Secrets is light years ahead of The Sorcerer's Stone, regrettably still light years behind the rest of modern literature. All the complaints I had still, for the most part, hold true, especially the thing about how when people shout Rowling renders it in all caps. Lord, that bugs me. But hey, I know, people are tired of hearing this--"I don't read Harry Potter for the prose," they say, and besides, at least it's not "Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery." But moreover, I find that the two Potter books I've read lack something in particular that the films capture quite nicely: a sense of atmosphere. Half the thrill of the Harry Potter films is the long shots of Hogwarts overlooking the moor, or those labyrinthine, half-lit set pieces and chaotic, whimsical shots of Diagon Alley and the Ministry of Magic. I mean, isn't that grandeur what really makes fantasy films so fun? The plot to Lord of the Rings is really kind of stupid, but, my God, Minis Tirith and Helm's Deep look freaking awesome when you put them in a movie. The Potter books, however, are shockingly thin on description and exposition. Much of this, I'm sure, comes from my over-familiarity with the films in relation to the books, but throughout Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets I found myself really missing the way the films draw you in to the Hogwarts world.

Plot (warning, contains spoilers): Okay, so a riveting plot is what you really want in a Harry Potter book. But Rowling doesn't exactly overwhelm there, either: All that stuff with Dobby the House Elf? Useless, and ultimately, nonsensical. Exactly when does a de facto slave find the time to go to London and harass a young wizard in the Muggle world? And why, exactly, does he give two shits? And how does he know where Harry lives? And then there's the way the Basilisk freezes people, but can't seem to look them straight in the eye--one time it's spotted in a reflection, another time in a camera, and another in a mirror--what kind of incompetent creature is this, really? This is an awfully contrived plot point, one which I suspect Rowling uses in order to stave off the reality of death at Hogwarts--which, I think, doesn't occur until Cedric Diggery's death in the fourth book. All that's part of the way the books get progressively darker and more mature, which I like, but holy crap the implementation of it is goofy. Oh, and being saved by the phoenix' tears: Come on. Worst deux ex machina device ever. Also: Basilisks and spiders are natural enemies. WTF.

Racism: I don't want you to think that I didn't like this book, in fact, I did--most of the time. One of the things I like best about the book is the idea that the wizard world is pervaded by its own peculiar brand of racism: against Muggles and, worse, "mudbloods." The purist ideals of Lucius Malfoy reflect similar ideas that still exist in our own world, and shaped much of modern history up until the second half of the 20th century (when I think that the Civil Rights Movement didn't happen until the 1950's and 60's, it blows my mind). And of course, it makes a lot of sense that wizards and witches, with their own peculiar abilities, would be susceptible to a sense of entitlement and superiority over Muggles. While much of the way Rowling depicts Wizard-Muggle relations rings fairly false, the struggle with anti-Mugglism is especially effective.

Harry and Voldemort: "We're the same, you and I," says the supervillain to the superhero just as the superhero finally has him on the ropes, making one last psychological attempt at seducing the superhero to join a life of evil. There's a reason this trope is so cliched: One of the things we fear most is seeing ourselves in our enemies. Interpersonal struggles become mental ones; we fight to overcome not only external demons but internal ones. Rowling's explanation for Harry Potter being a parselmouth (another idea I rather liked) and for almost being placed in Slytherin is severely disappointing: A piece of Voldemort's soul was planted in Harry during their confrontation in the crib. Wouldn't it be much better if those things were a part of Harry's natural psyche? (Don't the later books show his father carrying a little bit of a cruel streak?) The element of unsurety still lurks--there is always the possibility that Harry, with all his promise and power, will follow Tom Riddle's path--but this offhand explanation makes it all seem awfully artificial. I do, however, like Dumbledore's explanation to Harry about why he was not put in Slytherin: Because he begged not to be, and it is choice--not necessarily our internal dispositions--that matter in evaluating our character.

Bonus complaint: Why does Hogwarts have one house that clearly produces nothing but evil? Is this necessary? Do they have one at Eton?

Bonus bonus complaint: Why doesn't Harry do something about the dickish way that Dobby rules Russia?

All right, thanks everyone for letting me spoil your fun. Check back in a week or two and I'll ruin the third book for you.