Thursday, February 28, 2008

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Okay, so I am one of the few people in America, perhaps the world, who hasn't read this book. I think it is normal high school fair, but then I didn't go to a normal high school. At my school, if we wanted to read poetry, we read Genesis. If we wanted to read history, we read Genesis. If wanted to read about science...well you get the idea.

Orwell said that he never wrote anything good that was not about politics. He also said, "Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole." Animal Farm was written as a political indictment of the Soviet Union. In the preface to this edition, Russell Baker points out that given the political climate of the time, Orwell had trouble getting this book published. In fact, it was not published until 1945 after the end of World War II. Criticizing the Soviet Union in the early 40s was nearly heretical. After all, the Red Army had just beat back Hitler and his "invincible" army. But Orwell cautioned that the political system that was evolving in the USSR was not really socialism, but a "hierarchical society, in which the rulers would have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class."

This is precisely the type of society that Orwell depicts in Animal Farm. The animals revolt against the farmer who has oppressed them for years. They set up a farm where all animals are equal and they work for the betterment of themselves, not for the prosperity of some despotic ruler. The pigs, who are clearly the smartest animals on the farm lead the rebellion and are instrumental in setting up their utopian farm. Two pigs fall into leadership roles: Snowball and Napoleon. Eventually Napoleon runs Snowball off the farm, and it is not long before Napoleon and his cronies are running the farm in the same fashion that Farmer Jones did.

I really enjoyed this book, especially having recently read Finding George Orwell in Burma. As usual, I saved both the preface and introduction until after I had finished the book, and was a little disappointed to find out that neither of them was written by Orwell. In the preface, Russell Baker alludes on more than one occasion to a preface to Animal Farm written by George Orwell. I wonder why they didn't include that in this edition. It would no doubt have been interesting. While the preface was interesting and worth reading, I found the introduction by C. M. Woodhouse to be rather stuffy and pretentious.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

I picked up this book because the description on the cover made me think of the YA fiction books I was fond of and the movie Practical Magic, which is still one of my favorites.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Bascom, North Carolina, where every family has something particular to its members. The Waverley women, the story's main characters, have a knack for having intuitive, almost psychic, abilities. The Clark women can use their sexual prowess to make nearly anything they want happen. The Hopkins men are only meant to fall in love with older women. Everyone more or less knows what role they will fall into and regardless of newcomers in town regarding these things as superstitions, the locals all have one another's places figured out as well.

The story opens with Syndey Waverely, the younger of the two Waverley sisters fleeing home to Bascom with her daughter Bay to get away from a dangerous man that abused her and kept her under lock and key, only allowing her to leave the house three times a week to take Bay to the park. She's returning to a place she never wanted to be, the same place that her older sister Claire never wanted to leave. Claire at 34 years old is beautiful but on her way to becoming a spinster with no friends or romatic possibilities, a stick in the mud, and a caterer who uses the herbs in her garden to make her famous dishes both delicious and magical. She also has an apple tree in her back yard with apples that will reveal the biggest moment of your life to you if you eat one of them. Her stable, monotonous world is turned inside out when her sister returns home and Tyler, the art professor, moves in next door, daring her to fall in love with him when she's resisted becoming close to others for so long.

This story is loaded with small town gossips, drama that carries over from high school that people should have forgotten years ago, snobbery, and quirky characters. My favorite is James, a lonely old gay grocer whose long time partner leaves him, causing James to move in with a widow named Evenelle that is forever weirding people out because she is always getting the sudden urge to give people specific things, knowing they'll need a mango splitter or a box of Strawberry poptarts for reasons that remain unknown to her but become clear to the doubtful person the gift is given to shortly afterwards.
I couldn't put it down because I had to know if Claire would get the stick out of her arse and take a chance, if Syndey had really escaped this time, why Evanelle had given her strange gifts, to find out who Henry Hopkins' older woman would be. I felt a little disappointed at the end because it seemed to wrap up a little bit too easily. I decided to give Allen a break though, as it's her first novel.
I thought it was a charming book, but it probably will never be any kind of award winner. It was a nice break from the CJ and Literary Criticism textbooks I've been reading, though, that's for sure. The writer lives in Asheville, North Carolina and is working on her next book now, which I am already excited about.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I like a good detective story and that is exactly what Doyle delivers in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is nothing like the bespectacled man I remember from Wishbone Classics as a child. He's actually a rather seedy character with an addiction to cocaine and an aversion to law enforcement officers who is described as being "bohemian". In order to do his detective work, he's often breaking just as many laws as the people he's trying to track down. The narrator is Holmes' friend Dr. Watson, an amiable family man who spends his free time helping the detective and sometimes chronicaling their mishaps. (I would like to point out here that prior to writing, Doyle was a doctor.) Watson seems to be a foil for Holmes more than anything else, as he's portrayed as being more stable over all. It's Watson that does the gun toting when things get serious, though-- the only weapon that we see Holmes use at all is a whip. One last character note about our daring detective is that he seems to be another Victorian asexual male hero. The only woman he's interested in at all is Irene Adler-- the one person to ever outsmart him in a case invovling the King of Prussia.

The stories are rather neatly tied together with a neat beginning, middle, and end... the kind of formulaic writing we learn to abide by in our early schooling. The beginnings of each short story are the only really painful things to read, however. You are introduced to Holmes' new client who is in need of his help because their fiance has vanished into thin air, someone is blackmailing them with a photograph, ect. Then Holmes uses his keen observational skills to point out things about the client that only a psychic could know-- for instance, he can tell a woman is a typist because of wear on a certain part of her sleeves. Every time Watson is just shocked at Holmes' attention to detail while I was just yawning.

These stories reminded me quite a bit of Poe's detective fiction, for example "The Murders at Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter". I found Doyle's writing to be more interesting and over all superior by far. Doyle gave the reader a better chance at figuring out the story's quirk along with Holmes, though in some cases, such as "A Case of Identity", he gave a little bit too much away from the start. As today's detective fiction is filled with too many technological gadgets and CSI nonsense, Poe is the only thing I know to compare with this.

I wouldn't recommend the whole book, but I'd at least check out one or two to see what Doyle has to offer. You can do this without buying the book if you go to the website, which also has a lot of other classic works that are past the copywrite date now.

Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

I've been a bad blogger... and an even worse English major. With midterms distracting me, I haven't wanted to do any extra reading which is a strange phenomenon that doesn't happen much.

Whale Rider is a book that's probably fourth or fifth grade reading level that my World Literature professor decided we needed to read for class, for some reason. Though it's narrated by a young adult male in a motorcycle gang called the Head Hunters, it's a fluffly feel-good story that centers around his young niece Kahu and her relationship with whales. The setting is New Zealand, and all of the characters are members of the Maori tribe. Their ancestors had the ability to communicate with whales, and in the present day we find the tribe questioning their connection to nature. The climax of the story deals with suicidal whales beaching themselves, and the tribe trying to save the whales while getting back their sacred ties with the animals. If the animal dies, they believe the tribe will die as well, so all of their members are rounded up and taken to shore.

The main character, Rawiri, is the grandson of the Maori's leader, Koro. Koro has a great disdain for his great-grandchild because he wanted a boy instead of a white dress wearing, pigtailed, giggling girl. The majority of the book's minor conflicts are repetitive scenes where Kahu tries to gain Koro's approval, but cannot. In the end, though, it's only the eight year old girl that can talk to the whales and urge them into the ocean, saving the day and her people.

Obviously, I would not recommend this book to any of you, but if you know an elementary aged girl that's into books about girl power and that sort of thing, it wouldn't hurt to give it to them.

Strange New Land by Peter H. Wood

Peter Wood is a recently retired professor from Duke University. I met him at the beginning of this year. He was nice and surprisingly easy to talk to. I told him a little bit about 50 Books Project (in blatant disregard for the first rule of 50 Books Project). The next day he gave me a copy of this book as well as a copy of his newest book.

Wood makes some intriguing assertions about colonial America. Here are a few of them:
- Blacks were significantly present in the Americas mere years after Columbus's expedition.
- Originally slavery in America was not based on race.
- Specific state laws were passed in order to make race the controlling factor in slavery.

My favorite chapter was 'Building a Culture', in which Wood shows the ways that blacks, although oppressed, created a unique culture of their own, which had a dramatic impact on overall American society. Some of the vulgate languages that developed in these slave cultures made a lasting mark on American English. Wood also details the effects that blacks had on music and religion (namely Protestant Christianity) during the colonial period of our nation's history. I thought this sentence was amusing, "Europeans, startled by the extent of African drumming and fearful that this skill sometimes provided a secret means of communication, outlawed the use of drums by slaves in various colonies."

It is difficult to write interesting works of history. Often works such as this are informative, but require slogging through less than stellar writing to get the information. Wood's book does not suffer from this all too common problem. Wood has a way of teasing out interesting stories in the history that he writes, and he has a good writing style. For being an academic work of history, this book was fairly easy to read.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Clear Springs by Bobbie Ann Mason

An actual dialogue between myself and a friend:

Me: Holy crap, this book is boring.

Her: I like it. Doesn't it remind you of your childhood? You know, lightning bugs and milking cows and stuff?

Me: My childhood didn't have a damn thing to do with cows, thank you.

That pretty much sums up what I think about this book. Bobbie Ann Mason is a well-known author of "grit lit" from Kentucky whose work takes a very unadorned approach toward the minutiae of daily life. This is her memoir which recounts her time growing up in rural Clear Springs, Kentucky, through her career as a writer and academic and spends a lot of time detailing the personal lineage and history of her parents. It is well-written in a sort of unassuming way, and certain parts of it are interesting, but as a whole it is rather dull and I'm not sure why I should care, nor am I sure why exactly, out of the thousands upon thousands of novels and memoirs written by Southern authors, I should have to read this one.

That is all.

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

The Big Over Easy delivered what I was expecting from the terrible Basket Case, namely a Discworld-like parody of the detective genre. Rather than parodying the genre by attempting to make a run of the mill muder case comical, TBOE (as it will henceforth be known) satirizes classic noir literature by setting the case in a fictional world where literary characters live lives that are both similar and dissimilar to their famous fictional ones.

The synopsis of TBOE is as follows: Jack Spratt (who still eats no fat) is head of the struggling Nursury Crime Division of the Reading Police Department. The NCD is struggling because, in Reading, departments must not only solve cases but also solve them in such a way that they'll make good reading in the various detective periodicals. Enter Mary Mary, the repetitively-monikered writer assigned to the NCD to record Spratt's cases. As soon as she is assigned to the division, Humpty Dumpty dies under suspicious circumstances, and the rest of the book follows Spratt as he works his way through the labyrinthine plot against Humpty.

There was a lot to like about TBOE. It was clever, and several bits made me laugh out loud, especially the bits at the beginning of each chapter from various fictional papers, with headlines such as "Identical Twin Plot Device Outlawed" and "Butler Did Do it Shocker!" The characters have habit fitting with their famed situations (Humpty Dumpty enjoys sitting on walls), and also attributes that are intentionally ludicrous (Humpty was also quite a ladies man, and had an affair with Rapunzel). The plot itself was clever and satirized the twisting narrative of much pulp noir very well, and Jack Spratt was a very likable character.

On the other hand, the writing was sometimes a little sloppy, probably because this is a rewrite of Fforde's first unpublished novel, and the exact setup of the literary universe is a little confusing. What is Prometheus doing in the same story as the three little pigs, for instance? it's also explained that the nursery characters don't really what they are, and, although Jack is aware that his cases are based on nursery rhyme, he seems unaware that he and Mary Mary are also part of that world.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this book and found it pretty funny and a quick read. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes Discworld or Douglas Adams, although the concensus seems to be that it's Forde's weakest book. I guess we'll see. I'm planning on reading The Eyre Affair later this year.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Father Brown: The Essential Tales by G. K. Chesterton

Last summer I read The Man Who Was Thursday, and loved it. It was probably the best thing I read that year. It was also my introduction to Chesterton. Supposedly, many people know of Chesterton because of his Father Brown stories. I had never heard of these stories until I read Jonathan Lethem's introduction to Thursday. So when I recently spotted this on a shelf in the bookstore, I snatched it up and ran out. I went back and paid for it a few days later. Damn this conscience of mine.

I always find it hard to review collections of short stories. For one thing, I started this at the very first of the year, reading a story or two in between other books that I read. As a result, some of the stories are a bit fuzzy to me. But some I remember quite vividly, such as 'The Secret Garden', 'The Sins of Prince Saradine' (which reminded me of portions of Thursday), 'The Head of Caesar', and 'The Man in the Passage'. While the stories in this collection were all mostly good, these few were a cut above the rest.

Chesterton's mysteries are not of the two-minute variety. The reader is not intended to solve the mystery on their own, although often the facts are all right there in plain view. As with Thursday, the writing is excellent. Sometimes I would write down passages that jumped out at me, often I would not. Here is one that I noted: "The mind of the little priest was always a rabbit-warren of wild thoughts that jumped too quickly for him to catch them." Another that caught my eye: "I could see the librarian's great legs wavering under him like the shadows of stems in a pool; and I could not banish from my own brain the fancy that the trees all around us were filling softly in the silence with devils instead of birds."

Interestingly enough, Father Brown is really not the main character in any of these stories. In fact, in many of them, he doesn't even show up until over halfway through. Father Brown is normally seen through the eyes of others, and even then, Chesterton does not provide extensive details of his appearance. He is short, has a round face, wears glasses, and of course dresses in the attire of a Catholic priest, but that's about all Chesterton gives by way of description. This is intentional. For, it is not the look of the priest that is important, but his knowledge of the human condition. After all, who better to look into the hearts of men than a priest, to whom men routinely bare their souls?

So far, Chesterton is batting 1.000

Monday, February 18, 2008

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Emma Larkin is a pseudonym used by an American journalist based in Bangkok. She was born and raised in Asia, studied the Burmese language in London, and writes extensively about Burma (present-day Myanmar). She cannot use her real name for fear that the Burmese government would bar her from entering the country.

Larkin titled her book brilliantly. In the year that she spent in Burma she found Orwell in two ways, she made interesting discoveries about the writer's life in colonial Burma and she also discovered that Orwell's writings were alarmingly applicable to the country of Burma. She points out that some people say that Orwell wrote the history of Burma in three volumes: Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The book, which is equal parts travelogue, biography, and political exposé, is organized into five main sections: Mandalay, The Delta, Rangoon, Moulmein, and Katha. These are all places where Orwell spent time. Most of them appear in his writings, for example, Burmese Days is set in Katha. Larkin pulls from these writings, dropping quotes throughout the book. At times it is difficult to distinguish the portentous words of Orwell from the political rhetoric of the oppressive Burmese (Myanmarian?) government. I am sure this was intentional.

Finding George Orwell in Burma was extremely interesting. The people and places that Larkin visits are described in vivid detail, and the conversations that she had are enlightening and often humorous. Larkin managed to be informative and entertaining throughout the book.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Interview with Richard Adams

A few 50 Bookers read Watership Down relatively recently. It happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. Here is an interview with the author, Richard Adams, done for the 1980s radio show Book Beat. The interviewer and host of Book Beat was Don Swaim.
(Click to stream, or right-click and select "Save File As")

More interviews with numerous authors are available at:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

"I kissed her and saw that her eyes were shut. I kissed both her shut eyes. I thought she was probably a little crazy. It was all right if she was. I did not care what I was getting into. This was better than going every evening to the house for officers where the girls climbed all over you and put your cap on backwards as a sign of affection between their trips upstairs with other officers."

A Farewell to Arms seems to follow Hemingway's typical format for both novels and short stories. All the essential components are present with his stoical and somewhat autobiographical man along with an unreasonable woman struggling to satisfy these same unemotional demands.

Many critics feel that it lacks the emotional punch of its predecessor, Hello to Legs, but I think it was actually better, possibly because arms are easier to relate to than legs. Have you ever known anyone without arms? How about without legs? I rest my case.

Parts of the book do strain credibility. For example, it's hard to believe that a nurse with all four appendages intact would fall for a double-amputee, but when we learn later in the book about (SPOILER) her lack of a pelvis, it explains both her attraction and Hemingway's description of her as "an amorphous blob, beautiful and fragile, a vision of boneless beauty." Hemingway's prose, by the way, is as brief as always, with all of the sentences in the second half being three words long or shorter.

But seriously folks, Hemingway is far too caught up with emotionless undeveloped characters, drinking, women, sex, war, and Americans living in foreign countries. I did think his minimalist style was creative and unique and the frequent dialog told the story well. Obviously Hemingway was obsessed with his own experiences, and although he wrote them simplistically, his attempts to unveil his emotional pain paints a beautiful picture. His story is sad, bitter, and depressing, but it is a story he tells with sincerity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

"The first rule of Fight Club is, you don't talk about Fight Club."

Fight Club
was better than any other Palahniuk book I've read by a long shot. It was his first published book, and while all the elements that annoy me about his writing are in evidence here, none of them had yet become so irritating that they put me off the book entirely. Tyler provides the random "isn't this interesting" factoids, some of which provide the obligatory gross-out bits. The rest of the stomach-turning is provided by unnecessarily explicit descriptions of violence and mutilation, but they're not as overwhelming as in Invisible Monsters.

The main thing Fight Club has that no other Palahniuk book does is a story that's actually interesting and a twist ending that actually makes sense. For the uninitiated, the nameless narrator is dissatisfied with his life. Fortunately for him, his apartment explodes, all his possessions are destroyed, and he meets Tyler Durden, his polar opposite. Tyler is the Superego to Narrator's id, and together, they start a nationwide movement built around Fight Clubs, a way for men to beat the piss out of each other and reclaim their masculinity by purging themselves of all earthly possessions. From this noble goal, the Fight Clubs turn into a nationwide terrorist organization, and, in one of the best known twists in all modern literature (thanks to the David Fincher film, which is better than this book), we learn that, tah-dah, Tyler is the narrator. Your mind has just been blown.

Fight Club has some actual characters and an interesting plot, but Palahniuk just isn't a very good writer and his stream-of-conciousness prose and heavy-handed (but ultimately pointless) commentary drag Fight Club down. If you're forced to read Palahniuk, read this book. If you're not, read something else. The first rule of Fight Club is "Watch the movie instead."

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

This was on the "Employee Recommended" shelf at the bookstore I frequent. The same person who vouched for this book had, along with a whole host of others, recommended The Man Who Was Thursday. I thought that it might be worth giving a chance. From Molly's brief description, it sounded like a taut mystery set in early-20th-Century London.

The book opens on a destitute couple. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting have been slowly selling off their furniture and other belongings to remain just above financial ruin. They belong to the serving class, and had run a boarding house for many years, but recently had fallen on bad times. A young police officer, Chandler, checks up on them and helps them out when he can. He is the son of one of Bunting's old friends.

As things seem to be coming to their worst, a lodger arrives, a peculiar man, who wants to rent two rooms and pays quite a lot for both. It is at the same time that horrible murders start taking place in London. Gruesome murders, in which only women are targeted, by a man known as The Avenger. It is not long before Mrs. Bunting begins to suspect their lodger of being The Avenger, but does not know what to do. After all, turning him in would mean certain financial ruin for her and her husband yet again. The casual visits from young Chandler become fraught with tension. And Mrs. Bunting becomes more and more posessive of the lodger, insisting that she be the only one that attend to his needs.

This really was not a murder mystery, as I expected it to be. From the beginning, it is pretty clear who the murderer is. The Lodger is a psychological thriller. With the evidence that The Avenger is in her house becoming clearer and clearer, Mrs. Bunting spirals into a state of near hysteria, trying to keep it together and keep her secret may just be too much for her. A well-written, interesting, quick read.

The Shack by William P. Young

Tell me all your thoughts on God?

Cause I would really like to meet her.

And ask her why we're who we are.

Tell me all your thoughts on God,

Cause I am on my way to see her.


The Shack by William P. Young Is about a father who loses his youngest child to the hands of a sexual predator. Angry with God as to why He would allow such things to happen the innocent, Mack questions his faith and God’s ability to love and want good things for his people. About a year after his daughter’s death Mack receives an invitation from “Papa” (His wife’s personal name for God) to visit with Him in the place where the last traces of his daughter were found, the shack. After confirming that the invitation hadn’t come from anyone he knew, Mack sets off into the cold winter day to meet the jerk he calls God.

When Mack gets to the shack it’s cold, empty, and still have the remnants of a blood stain from his daughters clothes. This is the end of the line for Mack and he loses it, screaming the typical “I hate yous” and “why did you let this happens” Mack storms out of the shack in frustration and sadness. Then the inevitable happens, in this isolated cold winter place of the soul a Disney like spring appears in a matter of seconds. The shack has now miraculously transformed into a cozy rustic cabin, and out of it comes, bursting forth a big black woman who calls herself, “Papa.” It’s God Himself in the form of a black woman to buck all traditional senses of the long white haired gent that seems so prevalent in our imaginings of Him. Along with Papa is an Asian woman of undetermined nationality, and a Jewish guy that looks suspiciously like a carpenter.

Yes, Mack gets a weekend retreat with the Trinity. In between nauseatingly perfectly crafted scenes where they laugh at things that don’t seem to be amusing, or eat food that comes from unknown corners of the world, there really are some in-depth discussions going on. A lot of them were way beyond my scope of understanding, and some of them seemed way out there in left field, but perhaps worth taking a second look at. Of course the first in-depth discussion is about Mack’s daughter, who Papa is, “especially fond of.” There was a particular brief scene that gripped when, when Mack brings his daughter up, and “Papa” begins to cry with sadness. I thought, it’d be interesting to know if God truly does weep with us when we’re sad….

The conversations continue as to the nature of freedom, the Trinity, and the judgment of God. They were all very interesting conversations, somewhat mind bending, and it was about three in the morning when I finished this book. It wasn’t exceptional writing, but I think a lot of his theories and ideas were unusual and possibly in the right circumstances, revolutionary. I think my favorite idea present in the books is that people are fractals, our lives seem to be in random patterns and happens but in the end it creates a something that fits together and makes sense, perfectly. I can only hope this true.

Magical Thinkingby Augusten Burroughs

This book by Augusten Burroughs is a collection of factual (and I use that word lightly) short stories. The first story: Commercial Break, reflects on Burroughs desire for stardom via a Tang commercial, at the tender young age of seven. I think this story was meant to set the background for the rest of this book. In this first story we are introduced to his strange exceedingly unhappy family, his flair for drama, fetish for neatness, and his desperate desire to be loved.

Burroughs continues on into his adult years. He tells a cautionary tale of a twelve-thousand dollar house keeper from hell, and of his amazing ability to alienate even the most persistent of telemarketers. We can also learn finer points of gender re-assignment, and of course amazing powers of magical thinking.

Some of his stories seem to be reflections of David Sedaris’s work. In The Vanderbilt Genes, Burroughs mulls over the possibility that he was taken at an early age from a life of comfort and luxury. Sedaris wonders along the similar lines, although imagining himself a prince stole from faraway lands. In the story The Rat/Thing Burroughs discuss his annihilation of a Rat/Thing, “This technically wasn’t a rat/thing. It was more specifically, a small white mouse.” In hopes of poisoning it, he hoses this offending rodent with a can of Raid, that does nothing but sear its cornea’s and cause it to go into a blind panic. Eventually Burroughs does mange to dispose of it, but all the while I was thinking, what the name of that essay where Sedaris drowns a mouse in a bucket, while talking to complete strangers?

While some of these stories were amusing there seemed to me to be subtle reoccurrences of loneliness and insecurity. In certain stories I’d come across something and I’d think, ‘this is funny so why am I not laughing?’ Because there’s an element of sadness in them, something that seems to be amusing but in reality it hits too close to a real problem to be really amusing.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

I talked to Brent a couple of days ago regarding this book. Because apparently neither of us had anything better to do in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday. It told him that I didn't really agree with with his assessment of the book. We argued for a while, and then I hung up in a huff. It was very Hannity and Colmes.

Unlike Brent, I felt that Martin really gave the reader an inside look at his comedic process. The time that he spent at Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland was an essential part of his comedic growth. It was while working in the cheap little magic shop at Disneyland that he first learned how to banter with an audience. The Bird Cage Theatre at Knott's gave him his first opportunity to perform consistently on a stage in front of any audience. These early experiences were seminal to the act that Martin created and honed in the years to come. He details his time as an opener for acts such as Sonny and Cher and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and he describes the lonely years spent on the road as a not-quite-famous headliner.

At one point, Martin cogently describes a watershed moment in his comedic thinking. "These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if I created tension and never released it? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh."

Not only does Martin provide insights into his comedic thought processes, but he lets the reader in just a little on his personal life. Romantic trysts, long-term girlfriends, etc. He does remain rather mum about some aspects of his personal life, but this seems understandable.

Brent and I are on the same page when it comes to some of Martin's more recent films. If he wants to make the case that he stopped doing standup because he felt that his act was stale, that it was no longer original, then how does Martin justify making dreck like, Bringing Down the House, The Pink Panther, and Cheaper by the Dozen? Mr. Martin, if you're reading this, I loved Shopgirl, both the book and the film.

Born Standing Up was interesting and insightful. While it wasn't riotously funny, Martin's writing was clever. Quite often I found myself laughing out loud at his witty turns of phrase. And whenever Martin would quote from his act, it was always funny. Ultimately, I really enjoyed this book.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

Carlton recommended and loaned me this book. I enjoyed it for the most part. I do not yet know how to link my post with previous bloggers reviews of the same book, but I think that this book was reviewed last year. The book was actually quite different from what I expected. The cover proclaims “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, but the book doesn’t spend much time with such issues. In the sections where the topic “evidence for belief” arises, the reader is usually presented with extensive quotes or paraphrases of C. S. Lewis.

Ultimately, Francis Collins intended this book to be an apologetic, not for belief in the Christian God, but for his belief that the Christian God used evolution to create the universe. I think he makes a good case for his belief, and considering that he is trying to unite two groups that have long been militantly opposed (Creationists and atheistic evolutionists) I can see the wisdom in the subtle misdirection of the title.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I also remember a story I know I've told elsewhere but that over and over helps me get a grip: thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

Such is the wisdom of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, a book on writing. It is a very good book; through a strange little quirk of fate it a much more widely read book than any of Lamott's novels, which is an irony I'm sure not lost on her.

I had to read this for my creative writing class, and, while it's fairly short on how to write--style and grammar and plot and shit like that--it is heavy on inspirational material, on why you ought to write and how to make yourself do it and how to get in the right frame of mind for a writer. If you are a writer, chances are it will make you want to write; if you are not a writer you will probably be confused by how little concrete information it offers. But that's not really what it's about. It's really more like a book written by someone enamored with books, who really loves writing and wants to share exactly what writing does for her. People with the same enamoration will relate, and Lamott's prose is simple, fluid, and at times hugely funny.

If you want to write, I recommend it--it took me only a couple of hours to read and it really rejuvenated my desire to write. I leave you with Lamott's advice on writing about your ex-spouse:

Make yourself the first wife or girlfriend, not the third wife, and do not include his offensive children, especially the red-haired twins. If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forward.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

"Sure, that's what I mean," Doc Daneeka said. "A little grease is what makes this world go round. One hand washes the other. Know what I mean? You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

Yossarian knew what he meant.

"That's not what I meant," Doc Daneeka said, as Yossarian began scratching his back. "I'm talking about co-operation. Favours. You do a favour for me, I'll do one for you. Get it?"

"Do one for me," Yossarian requested.

"Not a chance," Doc Daneeka answered.

Catch-22 is like no book I've ever read and I doubt like any book I'll ever read, and that includes the sequel, Closing Time. It has a certain kind of manic logic that props itself up, a logic that is both its form and its subject matter, that mirrors the absurdity of life and yet is something else entirely. It is sometimes hilarious and sometimes horrible and often both. I must say I am in awe of it.

The hero of Catch-22 is Yossarian, an army bombardier on the island of Pianosa. Yossarian is terrified of dying, and being a bombardier is not a good profession to have if you have a terrible fear of dying. Compounding his problems is the fact that his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart, keeps raising the number of required missions before Yossarian can be sent home. But, of course, any sane person does have a fear of dying, and that's Yossarian's problem: If he were insane--and he goes to great lengths to prove that he is--he could be grounded and not made to fly any more missions. But if he has to ask to be grounded, and if he does, it's proof of his sanity, and so he won't be grounded. That's a hell of a catch, and in fact, the army has a name for it: Catch-22. It's the perfect example of that "manic logic" on which this novel thrives.

The book is populated with a colorful cast of B-characters, including:

-Major ------ DeCoverly, whose countenance is so frightening no one has asked him his first name. When Yossarian moves the "bomb line" on a map of Bologna so it will seem as if American forces have already triumphed and the squadron won't have to bomb the city, DeCoverly is sent to procure apartments for the enlisted men and "disappears."

-Major Major Major Major, whose name is a particularly unfunny joke perpetrated by his father and whose rank is a joke perpetrated by the military computer.

-Clevinger, who disappears in the middle of a cloud.

-Doc Daneeka, who has Yossarian put his name on flight records so he can get his flight time. When a plane that lists Doc Daneeka on its flight register flies into a mountainside, all the officers refuse to acknowledge Doc Daneeka because he's dead. His wife remarries and moves to Lansing.

-Milo Minderbinder, who volunteers for the position of mess officer. Through a number of capitalist ventures, Milo parlays the position into a national syndicate that dominates world trade. Even the Germans contract with Milo to bomb his own airfield, but he gets out of a court martial by explaining how capitalism is part of the American spirit.

The whole thing is told in a broken order that doubles back on itself over again, which is difficult to read but, ultimately, that makes sense in a novel where causality and reason are such fickle things. To add to the confusion, Heller often switches between scenes without breaking paragraph as a stylistic tool. This is a novel that requires close reading, but is also very, very rewarding. In particular, it has a dark sense of absurd humor that I think many people on this blog would find satisfying. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Art Garfunkel: A Reading Machine

I was talking about the 50 Books Project, as I am wont to do, one morning over breakfast with Dr. Peter Wood, one of the professors helping to develop the museum exhibit on which I am working. A couple of days later he sent me an article from the New Yorker about Art Garfunkel's book list. You can check out what he has read, as well as his favorites -- of which Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one -- at his official website.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye is one of my favorite books. So I figured I should probably try out some other works by Salinger. This book is split into two unequal parts. The first, entitled 'Franny' takes place mainly in a restaurant. Franny, whose name we find out later is Francis Glass, has come to visit her boyfriend, Lane, at the college he attends. Franny and Lane bicker over things of a trivial nature throughout dinner. He is somewhat pompous. She is somewhat annoyed at his pomposity. Franny seems to be slightly ill -- not touching her food, looking unusually pale, etc. She begins to describe this book that she is reading. It is about a man that is on a spiritual journey, which essentially entails repeating over and over some variation of, "Jesus, have mercy on me." Franny appears to be rather enamored with this man and his religious quest. The section ends with her fainting dead away in the restaurant and coming to on a couch, staring at the ceiling.

In the much-longer section, 'Zooey', we find out that Franny is the youngest member of the Glass children. The second youngest: Zachary, commonly referred to as Zooey. We find out more about Franny in this section than in the first. Her age. Her feeling about school. Her family life. Both Franny and Zooey feel that their eldest brothers had a detrimental effect on them. They were funnel fed all sort of esoteric knowledge as young kids, leading to their regularly appearing on the radio show, It's a Wise Child. This section take place in the span of a couple of hours at the Glass house. Zooey, a fairly accomplished 25-year-old actor living at home, is getting ready to meet someone for lunch. Franny is lying on the couch, apparently have some sort of spiritual nervous breakdown.

Franny and Zooey has very little plot, but rather driven by its true-to-life dialogue. Salinger's writing is clear, insightful, and organic. I really liked the sentence, "Zooey suddenly, sharply, turned around, without taking his foot off the window seat, and picked up, snatched up, a match folder that was on his mother's writing table."

There is a section where Zooey is talking about possibly going to France for a movie. "But I'd hate like hell to leave New York. If you must know, I hate any kind of so-called creative type who gets on any kind of ship. I don't give a goddam what his reasons are. I was born here. I went to school here. I've been run over here--twice, and on the same damn street. I have no business acting in Europe, for God's sake."

While I like what I have read of Salinger so far, I find it intriguing that he was so good at tapping into 20-something angst. After all he was in his forties when he wrote these stories.

I have been thinking about the ending of this book for quite a while now, and I don't think I am any closer to really grasping it. I have, however, come to the conclusion that my liking the book is not predicated on my fully understanding the ending.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I couldn't put this book down but I don't know that I like it, either. The characters and their circumstances were so alien to me that I had to know more. I suppose that's because Things Fall Apart is set in Nigeria during the 1880s and the characters are all apart of the Ibo culture. I found the anthropological type tidbits more interesting than the story line itself. While this is a work of fiction, of course, this book is arguably the most wide read dipiction of African life that has been written by an African instead of someone looking in from the outside.

Spoilers, kind of.

When the book opens, the reader is introduced to Okonkwo and his family, which consists of three wives and their children. Okonkwo was born to one of the biggest failures in his village and ended up winning his own fame first through wrestling, and then through hard work and the accumulation of yams, which was both one of the village's main dietary staples and a way to show status. Unfortunately, Okonkwo's determination is as much a flaw as it is a strength. The plot follows him as he struggles with his masculinity, upholding his reputation, incurring the wrath of the clan accidentallys, exhile, and a return to a village completely changed by Christian missionaries.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the subplot of Okonkwo's favorite child, Enzima, the girl with the spirit of a boy. Enzima is believed to be an ogbanje child, a child who is locked into a cycle where they are born, die shortly after, and are reincarnated to torture their parents with the loss of a child again and again. Enzima's mother, Ekwifi, has gone through the loss of many a child at this point and Enzima is her only surviving child. Even though Enzima is ten at the opening of the book, her frequent bouts of illness have her mother convinced the daughter she loves and spoils so much is an evil trickster out to break her heart again. Even though she is Okonkwo's favorite as well and is the only one that can calm him when his temper flares, she shares her secrets and with her mother. There are endearing scenes were Ekwifi hides Enzima so that she can eat eggs (which are their greatest delicacy) without being caught and reprimanded, ect.

The second and third sections of the book were primarily about what happened to the Ibo group when they were introduced to the white missionaries, and then the self serving District Commissioner and his government. While I believe in God, I think it's important to point out that even the most loving and well intentioned missionaries introducing monotheism to a group like this could be considered an extremely destructive act in some ways given that theheir culture was built around polytheism with a hierarchy of gods, polygamy, and agriculture. The first missionary, Mr. Brown, has a man willing to learn about their culture and compromise. The second missionary was full of wrath and heavy handed, expecting complete assimilation to his ways and beliefs immediatley. The thing that got me the most about him was that he kicked some of Mr. Brown's flock out of the church because they couldn't yet grasp the concept of the Trinity. I think that's a hard enough concept to wrap one's head around without a language barrier between you and the person doing the explaining, but for two men speaking different languages, interpreter or not, I'm sure that would be almost impossible.

I wasn't pleased with the ending, but at the same time I don't know how Okonkwo's story could have ended any other way.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Dog about Town by J. F. Englert

This book was the epitome of an impulse buy for me. I went to the bookstore to buy the new translation of War and Peace, but opted for a Tolstoy short story when I realized that the new War and Peace was not yet in paperback. As I was walking to the front to checkout, the cover of this book caught my eye. It was such a vivid and realistic painting of a dog in a smoking jacket, that it made me smile. These words appeared underneath the title, "Meet Randolph. A dog like any other dog -- but with a nose for murder..." I picked it up at once.

A Dog about Town is narrated by Randolph, a black lab who lives with his owner, Harry, on the Upper West Side. Randolph realizes that he is much more sentient than other animals that he meets. He doesn't know why this is, and while he may have found it intriguing at some point, he has long since stopped worrying about the origins of his advanced mental faculties. He does not talk, walk on his hind legs, or wear clothes (despite what the cover art may suggest). He does, however, read. The Times, The Post, and various magazines left out on the coffee table are all part of his diet. However, he has a particular affinity for Dante Alighieri. He alludes to, and quotes from Dante's Divine Comedy quite often. The title of one chapter is "A Diversion into Dante". While this is inherently funny, it does not lack insight. Afterall, in dog years, Randolph is somewhere in his mid-fifties.

The book opens with Harry returning from a seance at which someone died. Actually, not just someone, but the well-known writer, Lyell Overton Minskoff-Hardy. The circumstances of Overton's demise hint ever so slightly at foul play. As Harry is absentmindedly relaying details from the evening, Randolph starts to see some connections between Overton's death and the disappearance of Imogen, his first master, and girlfriend of Harry. Using his keen sense of smell, which he describes as being 100,000 times more acute than that of a man, Randolph sets about trying to solve not only the mystery of Overton's death, but of the disappearance of Imogen. Since he is "just a dog," solving this mystery entails leading Harry toward clues and steering his thinking in the right direction. This is where Englert gets especially creative.

For a murder mystery about a dog, the writing was surprisingly good. Englert has meaningful insights about life. Here is a passage where one of Harry's friends is talking about unrequited love:
I was in love. I'm still in love. Where Iris is concerned I can't see too clearly. A note of hers about a radiator leak could end with affectionately yours and I would spin for weeks, imagining a romantic breakthrough. If she forgot to punctuate, I would see something in that. It was hope that got me here. Hope that she would cross the street one day and say that she was mine. Hope that she was keeping an eye on me for all those years. But as time went on, I began to accept that she was indifferent.

Much of the book is predicated on the notion that Randolph's nose is better than Vincent Donofrio's Law & Order character. For example, "My olfactories were overwhelmed by the sharp odor of anxiety, confusion and the subtle, creeping scent of imagined guilt." I have no idea if dogs can smell "imagined guilt". To be honest, I don't really care. It worked for the purposes of the book. Another reason that A Dog about Town worked for me is that despite his detecting skills, Randolph never lost his innate canine qualities -- sleeping twelve hours a day, peeing on the sidewalk, rolling around in filth, etc.

I started reading this book on a plane to New York, and as coincidence would have it, the hotel that I stayed at was right in the midst of the area in which this book was set. I would come home from eating somewhere on Amsterdam Avenue and read about Randolph and Harry walking right past the place I just was. So that was kind of weird.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Golden Compass closely followed Lyra Belacqua. I don't think there were any chapters in which she did not appear, if there were, they were few and far between. The Subtle Knife, the second book in the trilogy, does not follow suit. It opens with a fairly lengthy chapter about a young boy named Will Parry, whose mother has some serious cognitive disabilities that require him to look after her. His father, although alive, is not in the picture. It is not clear what happened to him. Will gets an elderly neighbor to watch his mom for a few days, because he "has something to do". Upon returning to his empty house, he is attacked by to men, one of whom he unwittingly kills. As he is on the run, he notices a cat acting weird and then leaping forward and simply disappearing. He approached the area where the cat was, and realizes something is not right. He steps forward, through a "window" into another world.

At the end of The Golden Compass, Lord Asriel -- whom Lyra discovers is her father -- has opened up a "bridge" between worlds. The idea is that there are many worlds that inhabit the same space -- Earth. While there are similarities among these worlds, they have major differences as well.

Will and Lyra meet in a world that is strange to the both of them, in a town called Cittagaze, a town that appears to be inhabited solely by children. It turns out that the adults have fled the town because of specters that suck the souls out of adults, but pass right over children. Lyra starts to notice some connectivity between her world, this one, and Will's. Her daemon, Pantalaimon, is comparable to what Will would describe as his soul or conscience. The elusive dust, which played such a big part in the first book, closely resembles original sin. Lyra comes to the realization that she must help Will find his father, an arctic explorer who inexplicably disappeared with his group a few years back.

The subtle knife turns out to be a implement that allows one to cut windows into other worlds. However, it chooses its owner in a rather gruesome way. The knife chooses Will, and along with Lyra they set out to find his father. My question is, if there are countless "worlds" on Earth, what controls what world one cuts into? This is never really explained, as Will and Lyra seem to stay within three or four worlds throughout the book.

Compared to the first book, this one is complex. There are many more characters, and the plot is much more complicated. Everyone always says that the Harry Potter series gets more grown-up with each book. This may be true, but the His Dark Materials trilogy easily trumps the Rowling series in this aspect. Will spends the better part of the book bleeding profusely. People die left and right, including principle characters. There is a noticeable degree of sexual tension between Lyra and Will. And it becomes apparent about halfway through the book that many of the main characters are attempting to wage a war against God himself -- referred to as The Authority. It is not clear which side of this battle Will and Lyra will fall on, but I suspect that they will join those fighting The Authority. I find this concept interesting, and rather crazy for a children's novel. I have heard that the next book, The Amber Spyglass is even darker, weirder, and more complex. I am really curious whether Pullman can finished this series in an effective and satisfying way.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The New Testament in Modern English translated by J. B. Phillips

Greetings my fellow book-bloggers! Today is the day I cease being the guy with zero books…we are actually going to celebrate here at my house later this evening.

I confess to having had some feelings that verged on resentment to Carlton’s totally unfounded claim that the Casefiles are in some way “light” reading. It is entirely out of spite that I have decided to scupper my plan to read the thrilling and often baffling adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy. There’s always next year.

J.B. Phillips spent 14 years working on what eventually became an entire translation on the New Testament in Modern English. He began translating the epistle of Colossians as a way to pass the time spent in the London underground stations during World War II air raids. As a young Anglican pastor working with young people he sensed the need for a version of scripture that was more accessible and relevant to their lives. The effect that his early work had on his youth group, combined with some encouraging words on the translations from C. S. Lewis spurred Phillips to complete his translation in 1958.

I really enjoy reading Phillips’ version. I tell people that his goal was to make scripture read as if it had been written in our time, to people like ourselves. However, he works to achieve this without sacrificing a strong adherence to what the original language text actually reads. I feel that he managed to get the mixture of modern language and literal interpretation just about right. A good translation to pick up if you are bored with the version of scripture you normally use or if you haven’t read the New Testament in awhile.