Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Everyone I talked to who had read The Pearl disliked it. Even the normally mild-mannered Christopher called it "dreck" in recent review of Of Mice and Men. So, is The Pearl really the nadir of Steinbeck's bibliography?

I haven't read nearly everything of Steinbeck's, but out of his popular works (Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Pearl), the latter is easily the weakest. I wouldn't classify it as dreck, but it has some serious problems. Complete spoilers follow.

The plot concerns a poor pearl diver named Kino whose child is stung by a scorpion. While diving for a pearl big enough to pay the doctor to treat his son, he finds "the pearl of the world," a perfect pearl bigger than an egg. What initially seems like good fortune turns dark, as the villagers turn against him and try to steal the pearl, the doctor poisons the child to extract more money from Kino, and the pearl merchants attempt to rip him off by convincing him that such a large pearl is nothing more than a novelty. Kino decides to journey to the city, a couple weeks' journey, but soon after leaving, he is pursued by several men intent on killing him and taking the pearl. The chase ends in the death of Kino's baby, and he throws the pearl into the ocean, blaming it for the ruin of his life.

The biggest problem with The Pearl is the the plot doesn't progress logically. Within a day, the villagers have gone from marching to the doctor's house with Kino to demand care for his son to attempting to kill him and steal his pearl. Kino is initially a sympathetic character, but as the pearl begins to corrupt even him, he becomes less so, hitting his wife and risking the life of his family to get what he believes the pearl is worth. The book is also muddled because the actual message of the fable is unclear. Is the message that Kino was too greedy, that the townspeople were fickle, that wealth corrupts, or that pearls are evil? Is it a thinly veiled parable for the benefits of socialism (of which Steinbeck was a proponent)? Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of individual betterment? It's hard to tell, and although this ambiguity is probably why the book is assigned reading in most high schools, it's not particularly complex or satisfying.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Vengeance is mine; I will repay - Romans 12:19

And so begins Anna Karenina, common nominee for best novel ever written and second of Tolstoy's two major works. I read War and peace last year, and, compared to its 1400 pages, Anna Karenina seemed like a relatively small undertaking. However, it turns out that Anna's relative lack of bulk is deceiving. I found it slightly more difficult to read than War and Peace, although, surprisingly, there were a lot of common themes.

The basic plot of Anna Karenina sounds more like an episode of The Young and the Restless than the plot of one of the greatest novels ever written. Anna Karenina, the titular character, has an affair with Vronsky, a dashing, young, womanizing soldier, and the book explores her narrative alongside that of Levin, a wealthy young man searching for God. Alongside these two plots develop dozens of side characters, families, and friends. There's also a fairly involved political subplot expressing Tolstoy's derision toward many of the attitudes of the day.

Of course, in a book with this scope, any attempt to summarize the plot is going to be underwhelming. The most interesting parts of the book are those that aren't written in stone. Tolstoy steadfastly resists speechifying about the morality of his characters, choosing instead to intimately detail their thoughts so that we, the readers, can see how their reactions come about and draw our own conclusions of their morality. Even the ominous epigram (Romans 12:19) that begins the book is open to interpretation in light of the book's development. The novel itself can be read as a political treatise, a satire, a love story, a romantic tragedy, historical fiction, a mystical/religious novel, or all of the above.

Tolstoy writes the best character interactions I've read anywhere. When his characters speak, whether it's Levin and Stepan discussing politics and religion, or Vronksy and Anna having an arguement, every word and action rings exactly true. The scenes of Anna and her husband trying to function normally after her infidelity is revealed were among the most wrenching passages I've read in any book. Also worth noting is an early use of the modernist technique of stream-of-conciousness during Anna's breakdown in the penultimate section of the book.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I was under the impression that my mom read this book to us when we were little kids, but after reading it I am certain that that was not the case. It would have scarred our little animal-loving minds for life. My brother and sister and I were into anything that anthropomorphized animals. Disney was at the top of our list.

I don't know this for sure, but I would guess that London did not intend this to be a work of young adult fiction. The Call of the Wild is infused with a gritty realism -- dogs tearing the throats out of other dogs and even humans, men beating dogs to death, people not bathing...need I go on? I imagine that over time his works fell into the young adult category because his stories appealed to the young, especially boys. I, for one, was obsessed with White Fang, another London novel, when I was little. Here again, I am not for sure that I ever actually read it.

The Call of the Wild is the story of Buck, a mix between a St. Bernard and a Scotch shepherd dog. During the height of the Klondike gold rush, Buck is taken away from his home in sunny California by an unscrupulous man who worked for Buck's owners. This man ships Buck up to Seattle, where he is bought by two French-Canadian men who run mail through the Yukon. This brings me to my main criticism of this work. London is horrible at vernacular. Take this bit of dialogue, "'Nevaire such a dog as dat Buck!' he cried. 'No, nevaire! Heem worth one t'ousan' dollair, by Gar! Eh? Wot you say, Perrault?'" This gets really annoying quite fast. And London is not even consistent, at times Francois can pronounce the "th" sounds and at other times he cannot, such as when "these" is rendered "t'ees".

Buck moves from owner to owner, as he treks back and forth across the Yukon and other northern territories. As you can pick up from the title, the story is basically the education, or perhaps the re-education, of Buck in the ways of his ancestors. However, this book could also be read as a hero story.

I picked up this edition at a used book store in New Orleans (it's not the one pictured at the top of this post). It came with B√Ętard, a story that was meant to be a companion piece to The Call of the Wild. This short story was unbelievably dark and gruesome, further solidifying my belief that London never intended his work to be read solely by kids. What was weird and annoying about this edition was that it had the most patronizing endnotes in the world. There was only ninteen of them and there was no rhyme or reason to what got an endnote. At one point London used the phrase "Alpine proportions" and there was an endnote to explained that this was London's way of saying that there was a lot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,

Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,

But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,

Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith

He had to cross.
- Milton's Paradise Lost, Book II

The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. He got the name for the trilogy from Paradise Lost, and supposedly the three books are influenced by Milton's classic work. I can't comment on that aspect since I have not read Paradise Lost. However, quite often this book put me in mind of The Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

The story picks up right where The Subtle Knife left us, in cliffhanger fashion. Lyra has been kidnapped and Will is trying to find her. For the most part it closely follows Lyra and her friend Will, two tweens on a multifaceted quest that changes drastically throughout the course of the book.

The plot of this book is much more complex than that of the first two. However, while the story is complex, it is also very clear. Not only does Pullman write clearly, but he also writes well. For example:
"She took a deep shuddering breath. She pressed her hands and legs against the rough planks of the platform, and having a minute ago nearly gone mad with fear, she was now suffused with a deep, slow ecstasy at being one with her body and the earth and everything that was matter."
As with the first two books, Pullman does an excellent job with battle scenes.

Although Pullman is a somewhat vociferous atheist, this trilogy focuses heavily on religious themes such as God, hell, and the afterlife. Granted, he has his own unique take on these themes. Also, Pullman often makes biblical allusions with his choice of words, and in a few instances he uses specific biblical characters, like when we find out that Metatron, an angel, is Enoch from Genesis.

I had some questions while reading the first two books -- things that appeared to be minor plot holes -- but Pullman was able to clear those up in this final book. More importantly, Pullman managed to end the series well.

I loved all three of these books. They were well-written, incredibly original stories.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

This is the stragest piece of fiction literature I've read in a long time. If you have ever read anything by Murakami, you will know what I mean when I tell you it's a bit too quirky for me to summarize without the novel sounding as though it's too far fetched to be enjoyable. If you're in the other camp and haven't read anything by him, I strongly recommend you check him out.

The narrator is a mediocre, nameless man living in Japan as a co-owner of an advertising company that he started originally as a translating service with his alcoholic best friend. At the opening of the novel, the narrator is dealing with a recent divorce to a woman we know little about except that she kept detailed records of her sex life. He begins a relationship with a call girl who has "the most bewitching, perfectly formed ears." When her ears are covered, she's a plain looking woman with no intrigue. When her ears are uncovered, she's more or less an insta-sex goddess with psychic abilities. It only gets weirder from here.

The narrator is contacted by a man working for dying government leader because of a picture he used in an ad that contains the physical manifestation of a mythological sheep. The narrator did not take the picture himself. It was sent to him by an old friend he calls the Rat who has more or less disappeared. The narrator is given an ultimatum: Find the sheep or else. This prompts him and his lady friend to run all over Japan on a wild sheep chase. I don't want to go into anything that happens after this because I don't want to spoil it for you.

Other notes:
-For a novel translated into English from Japanese, the language flows very well. I would have thought that this was written in English to begin with if I had not noticed the note at the beginning of the book saying otherwise.
-Murakami doesn't seem to like giving his characters names. Only two characters are given names that aren't simply descriptions like "my girlfriend" or "the Strange Man." Those characters are J, the bar owner, and their friend Rat, which are both nicknames rather than given names. I found this a little odd.
-The book opens with a little story about a woman the narrator had a casual sexual relationship with during his college years that seems to have no relation to the rest of the text and that this was never tied in bothered me.
-If you visit the author's website, there's a section that tells you what he ate, drank, and listened to while he was writing various different books, and I found that interesting. He also has a play list that includes all the songs referenced to in his novels. For a Japanese man, he includes a lot of American music from the sixties and seventies in his writing.
-This book is a part of a trilogy that for some reason has four books instead of three. As Nathan noted in his review of Pinball, some of the books in the trilogy are now out of print in the US.
-Sometimes I think Murakami is trying to be weird on purpose. (Think Tom Robbins.) It's one thing to have an unusual plot (refreshing) but when you throw in things like a gigantic whale penis and a possessed, homeless man in a sheep outfit, one has to wonder.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Nine Stories by JD Salinger

I love love love these stories. I expected to like them--after all, Catcher in the Rye is one of the world's best books--but I don't think I expected them to be as memorable as they are. Though, I suppose, if you produce as little as Salinger, you really ought to make the best of what you publish, right?

What impresses me about Salinger is that, while these prose in these stories isn't necessarily my favorite--especially because Salinger is keen on using judgement words like "memorable" and "unprettiness," which sort of ruin for me the experience of discovering things about characters and situations organically--but the dialogue and the realness of characters' interaction is so true and well-wrought that each story becomes very convincing. Too many authors deprive their characters of personality by making their characters say things that could be uttered by the average man, but the dialogue of Salinger's characters shapes and defines them because it's so fresh and not dumbed down. Here's an exchange between Seymour Glass and a small girl in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish":

Sibyl released her foot. "Did you read 'Little Black Sambo'?" she asked.

"It's very funny that you should ask me that," he said. "It so happens I just finished reading it last night." He reached down and took back Sybil's hand. "What did you think of it?" he asked her.

"Did the tigers run all around that tree?"

"I thought they'd never stop. I never saw so many tigers."

"There were only six," Sybil said.

"Only six!" said the young man. "Do you call that only?"

"Do you like wax?" Sybil asked.

"Do I like what?" asked the young man.


"Very much. Do you?"

Sybil nodded. "Do you like olives?" she asked.

"Olives--yes. Olives and wax. I never go anyplace without 'em."

To me, this sounds like many conversations I've had with small children. There's an element of absurdity to it that you think would be easy to capture, but I suspect if you or I tried it we wouldn't come nearly as close as Salinger at making it sound natural.

I did have one reservation, which was that Salinger seems fixated on two types of characters: the precocious child and the witty, cynical 20-30something. After finishing the collection, however, I decided that this was not necessarily the limits of Salinger's abilities, but that these stories really do work with a few central themes in common, whereas I had been expecting sort of a hodgepodge, unconnected collection. I think somewhere in these nine stories Salinger is suggesting that precociousness in a child--like Sibyl, or Esme in "For Esme--with Love and Squalor," or the Comanches in "The Laughing Man"--becomes in young adulthood a sort of unsatisfied and restless cleverness that manifests itself in depression and ennui. Most particularly it can be seen in the first-person narratives of "For Esme--with Love and Squalor," in which the narrator is a disillusioned soldier who is always cracking jokes, and "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," about a young art student who pretends to be an accomplished Parisian artist in order to work at a correspondence art school with an older Japanese couple. Of course, in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," these qualities combined with what seems to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder form a recipe for suicide. The narrator of "Blue Period" (De Daumier-Smith is his psuedonym; his real one is never given, though surely he overlaps somewhat with Salinger himself) uses his mendacity as a guard against his own disillusionment and cynicism, and he struggles through his corrections to his students' work--which is mediocre at best--until he stumbles across the paintings of a nun which are, to him, an unexpected and fleeting moment of sheer beauty. It is almost as if Salinger's young characters, marked by their cleverness but never their happiness, are constantly seeking the sense of wonder that they grew out of in childhood.

This idea comes across particularly strong in my favorite story of the nine, "The Laughing Man," about a boyscout leader who is constantly telling his troop a serialized story about the title character, an absurd amalgmation of crime noir, Bond novels, and comic books who "subsists on eagles' blood and rice." It is told through the eyes of one of the scouts, who doesn't understand completely what is at hand when the scoutmaster's girlfriend keeps showing up and then, suddenly, doesn't--but when the scoutmaster pulls over the troop bus and tells the final chapter of "The Laughing Man," brutally killing off the boys' beloved hero, we know what has happened: his heart has been broken.

The last story, "Teddy," brings the theme of precociousness to a strange extreme. The titular character is a young boy aboard a ship returning to America from Britain where, we learn very gradually (Salinger is a master of delayed exposition), he has been undergoing psychological "tests." As he bickers with his parents and scribbles in his diary, he seems just another gifted little boy until he reveals something to a passenger coincidentally familiar with the boy's "tests"--in former lives he has sought to obtain Nirvana but a spiritual stumble has caused him to be reincarnated once again as Teddy, to try one more time. He has an acute awareness of his spiritual life and could tell you, if you wished, the exact date and circumstances of your death. This is strange territory for Salinger, but the story's power and effectiveness is undeniable.

Of course, these themes surface again in Catcher in the Rye, and I feel that having read them gives me a fresher understanding of that book, especially the relationship between Holden and his precocious little sister, Phoebe. How much more potent is Holden's preoccupation with the vulgarities scratched on the walls of Phoebe's school when the possibility that Phoebe will grow into someone like Holden emerges? Something to think about.

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

"'Lord, is it then true... that thou and Tash are one?' The Lion growled so that the earth shook and said, 'It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites.

For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?' I said, 'Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.'

But I said also, 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.' 'Beloved,' said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'"--Emeth, the Calormene, describing his encounter with Aslan"

I had such a difficult time with this concept when I was a child that I let it overshadow the entire story. However, I missed a really great story with a lot of truth in it. I am really glad I reread it. I don't have too much to say, except that it was good. I still don't agree with the quote, but i don't have too.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This "book" is only sixty pages, and yet it took me a week to read. I'm just trying to give this thing away to Carlton.

But anyhow, Of Mice and Men is one of John Steinbeck's short novels--a list that includes some really fantastic works like Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, and some dreck like The Red Pony and The Pearl that are the reason no one who ever went to high school likes John Steinbeck. I'd say that Of Mice and Men falls pretty squarely in the middle of those, lacking the detail and flavor of the former two but not making me want to kill myself like the latter. Part of the reason is that Steinbeck meant it to double as a novel and a play--that is to say, it is written with a heavy concentration on dialogue and interaction over description. The result, I'm sad to say, is that it tends to be a little dry.

But the plot is pretty neat (spoilers): two migrant workers, the cunning, cynical George and the hulking man-child Lennie, find work as "bindle stiffs" (this is something to do with hay, or something) in a migrant worker community. Their plan is to make enough money to buy a little plot of land where Lennie can tend rabbits and George can do a little farming, and it seems as if their plan is close to fruition when the old one-handed ranch hand Candy agrees to pitch in with his considerable savings. But, you know what they say, the best laid plans of something or other. Lennie, who has the strength of an elephant but the mind of a six-year old, accidentally murders the boss' wife while trying to stroke her hair, and, well, everything goes to hell after that. The final scene, in which George shoots Lennie from behind to spare him an awful death at the hands of a lynch mob, is one of great resonance and power even if I'm not sure I completely buy George's actions.

In any case, I don't recommend this book, if just for the fact that Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are so much better. Read those, and then save this one for the days when you need to catch up in the Fifty Books Project.

Coachella by Shelia Ortiz-Taylor

'Against his will he has plunged into mystery, somehow held captive in that temporal zone between the question and the answer. But if you could ask him what shape life ought to take, he would tell you this: that life should be like a map on which one could chart one's clear course. And those of others. Life should have a legend by which one could calculate distance, speed, points of intersection. Somewhere on the map it should say: YOU ARE HERE. By traveling at a certain speed, for a certain length of time, one should be able to estimate one's approximate time of arrival and probable outcome.' Shelia Ortiz-Taylor

"Ortiz-Taylor writes novels that help to illuminate the Mexican-American lesbian experience." -Tina Gianoulis

Need I say more? Doubtful, but I want to make sure you have a full picture.


  • Casa Diva, (seemingly its own character) a spa house for gay men that is over-run with AIDS.

  • Marina Lomas, Victim of her abusive husband and recently turned lesbian.

  • Yolanda Ramirez, local phlebotomist and lesbian.

  • Crescencio, a man in love with with a dying, married woman.

  • Ella Townsend, the dying, married, before mentioned woman.

  • Mr. Townsend, Ella's abusive husband.

  • A few other Indians, Mexicans, and Gays. (Not that I am grouping them all together, but the author seemed the think those were the superior beings on earth.)

The women of Coachella all believe they need extensive plastic surgery on the regular basis. This is not an idea put in their heads by their abusive husbands, but in fact a sad truth that they themselves can see as their boobs sag, bellies pooch, and faces age. However, all of their surgeries require extended hospital stays where they are eventually given blood transfusions.

All the Gay men living at the Casa Diva, most notably the owner, are getting nagging colds that refuse to go away and soon turn into pneumonia.

The phlebotomist, Yolanda, is seeing a surprising increase in the number of people with low white blood cell counts. She realizes that this is an indication of AIDS.

Yolanda thinks that AIDS may be a virus, and it may be carried in the blood. The blood bank might be contaminated. She takes her research to the doctor, after a brief discussion, they decide that they are more like business men than doctors. They hide the fact of the tainted blood so that they don't loose money on it.

Marina comes to town with her baby girl as she tries to escape her abusive husband, David. She starts working at the Casa Diva and meets Yolanda. The two women soon become lovers and move in together. When they hear that David is coming after Marina, they hide out with a friend. Yolanda's father, Crescencio stays at their trailer and shoots David to death.

That night there is an announcement on the News. Everyone is made aware of the tainted blood, but most of them will die anyway. We are not too sad, since Davis has been killed, Ella escaped her abusive husband by dying of AIDS herself, and all the good people of Coachella know that Yolanda was really the one who made the important discovery.

General Conclusions :

  • All straight men abuse women because their scarred emotions don't know any other way of asking for love.

  • Women understand women better, and men understand men better, so you should not attempt to have a romantic relationship with the opposite sex.

  • Mexican culture is far superior to American. If all the Mexican natives would throw off American bondage and be gay they would live much happier lives, but still die of AIDS.

  • If you are a lesbian, your books will get published without the content even being scanned.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was about ten, and felt that they really were very grown up books. It was surprising to go back and see how simple this book is. It was also great to see that while the reading level hasn't advanced with me, the story is still charming and the allegory still stirring.

The story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy is pretty straightforward, but I think that is as it should be with children's tales. Children don't catch twists the same way adults do, and an interesting story doesn't mean complicated.

Well, the book is still most excellent. Lewis is a great writer. He does a good job going from his in depth writings for adults to his beautiful stories for children without losing any truth. He still gives you the same sense of wonder at the power and awesomeness of God whether you are a child or all grown up.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

"That was another mystery: it sometimes seemed to him that venial sins—impatience, an unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity—cut off from grace more completely than the worst sins of all. Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone: now in his corruption he had learnt."

The Power and the Glory is a look at Catholicism from the prospective of a Catholic. Greene's whisky priest is a bad man. He has not obeyed the laws of God, but he still has the power to absolve others from their sin. His compassion compels him to hear the confessions of the spiritually abandoned Mexico, and forces him into a life of hiding and fear.

The 'bad guys' are the police who seek to kill the whisky priest, but they are really no different than he is. They are officials who break the law, yet are fighting to eliminate all religion on the basis that this will give the children of Mexico a better life than their ancestors.

The difference between the two is what their purpose. The whisky priest is an instrument of God, but still cannot escape his own sin. The officials are sincerely striving to do right, unfortunately it is all in their own eyes.

In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

i am never without it(anywhere i go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear

no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)
i want no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life
which grows higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Rose and Maggie May were left to grow up on their own after their mother died and their father became withdrawn and eventually remarried. With no one to introduce them into the world of adulthood, each sister makes her own way with the recourses life has given to her.

Rose is smart, in the traditional sense of the word. She is a lawyer, has a great job and apartment. What she lacks is beauty, fashion, grace, and any form of self love. She wants to be beautiful like Maggie, but is also very snotty and bossy about Maggie’s lack of responsibility.

Maggie is beautiful and resourceful, but she is learning that using her body to advance in the world rarely gets you anywhere you want to be. Her dyslexia put her behind is school and makes holding a job difficult. She wishes she was smart like Rose, which eventually leads to her betrayal of their somewhat rocky sisterly bond.

One small thing that makes the story more realistic and relatable is that Rose and Maggie have different memories of their childhood. They were impacted differently by things they went through together and they have their own memories that the other sister doesn’t share.

Most of the things I have mentioned are complete incidentals. Rose and Maggie have a typical sister relationship. They hurt each other a lot, and they don’t start trusting each other again just because they are sisters. The great thing is that each sister eventually sees what she is lacking and becomes a balanced adult. The change brings them back together and gives them the will to reinvest in each other.

In Her Shoes is well written, with interesting in depth characters and real life struggles. The resolution is great without being over the top. I would recommend it as an airplane or chilling out book.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

For that visit to Oxbridge and the luncheon and the dinner had started a swarm of questions. Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What affect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?-a thousand questions at once suggested themselves. But one needed answers, not questions...

In 1929, Woolf was asked to give lectures on the topic of "women and fiction" at both Girton and Newnham colleges. Later she expanded those two lectures into this book. A Room of One's Own is a unique blend of writing styles. It is essentially a book about writing, however, it is not about the art of writing. It is about what it takes for women to become writers. Even more interesting, the thoughts of Woolf are filtered through the words of a character she created. The book follows this young, nameless woman as she attempts to find out why so few women are writers.

Woolf comes to a simple conclusion: women must have a fixed income and a room of their own in order to be successful writers. She acknowledges that there have been female writers that did not have these accommodations, such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. But she views them as exceptions, not the rule. This book was not at all what I expected, but I actually found it very interesting.

Friday, March 14, 2008

50 Books Appearance Changes

Hey guys,

I made some changes to the 50B blog today. Primarily I expanded the content area, but I also tweaked some of the colors. What does everyone think, and what changes do you suggest?

Also, if Carlton can make a version of his header image that's about 800 pixels long, we can use it for the header of the blog. Let me know.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling

Or, In Defense of JK Rowling's Fifth Harry Potter Book, with Spoilers

I am aware that Order of the Phoenix is the least appreciated of all the Harry Potter books--Carlton in particular thought it was quite the slog--and I am aware why. The book has numerous flaws, including its interminable first half that eschews Hogwarts for the setting of Twelve Grimmaud Place, the bloodlessness of the feuds between the three principal characters, Harry's incessant emoing, and, in my opinion the most damning, the rather minor presence of Voldemort and the relative inconsequentiality of the object for which the ultimate showedown occurs. However, I do not feel, as Carlton and Brent do, that this is easily the worst book of the seven; in fact, I feel as if it is quite a bit better than the first two and about as good as the third. Let's not forget that this isn't exactly an enduring literary classic--huge flaws come with the territory. The question is, does the book work in spite of them, and I believe that it does. Accordingly, this entry will be about what I like about Order of the Phoenix and will avoid any further discussion of its oft-detailed failures.

The Ministry of Magic: In my opinion, the best plot element outside of the Tri-Wizard Tournament is the fact that, in this book, Cornelius Fudge and the Ministry of Magic wage a huge public relations war on Harry and the notion of Voldemort having returned. These two plot elements share a common trait in that they serve to really expand the reader's understanding of the world in which Harry lives--the former in an international sense, and the latter a domestic one--and, it seems to me, the chief appeal of the Harry Potter series is the complexity and texture of Rowling's fictional universe. We were given a small insight into the dysfunction of the Wizarding world in the previous two books--and, if you recall, my solution to this problem was to look to the Muggle world for political solutions--but here we really get the full picture of what the consequences of political corruption and negligence are in the Wizarding world. The book begins with Harry defending himself by his Patronus charm from Dementors near his home in Little Whinging, followed by a hearing at the Ministry of Magic to determine whether or not his use of magic broke Wizard law. It threatens to be a show trial until Dumbledore shows up to defend Harry, and ultimately Harry wins the day, though narrowly. But the Ministry does all in its power for the next 700 pp. to convince the Wizarding world that everything is A-OK, from keeping a tight stranglehold on the principle Wizard newspaper, The Daily Prophet, to installing apparatchik Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. Her job is to be the Ministry's man inside Hogwarts, and as Fudge feels ever more threatened, she assumes more and more autonomy at the school until it is completely under her control.

What I love about this plot element is that, despite being in a children's fantasy book, the Ministry's malfeasance reflects real-world political and cultural conflict more accurately than most thrillers. Historically speaking, the fight against evil is checked not just by evil itself but also by political corruption, bureaucratic inertia, and petty egotism. Cornelius Fudge looks uncannily like the Neville Chamberlains and the Vidkun Quislings of the world, and I'm sure that's no coincidence.

Furthermore, this kick-starts a chain of events that leaves Harry completely without authority figures: When things at Hogwarts go to Hell, Dumbledore goes on the lam from prosecution, Hagrid is suspended and kicked out by Umbridge, Sirius is incommunicado, and McGonagall is in the hospital ward. What this creates is a dynamic heretofore unseen in the Harry Potter novels--as much as he's been complaining about being on his own throughout Order of the Phoenix, Harry is finally and utterly on his own. Through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there is the suggestion that Harry has never really been that close to danger because he has the Hogwarts staff to back him up should anything go awry, but Cedric Diggory's death at the end of the book puts that notion completely to rest. Here, worst has come to worst; all of Harry's guardians are gone and Voldemort must be stopped from obtaining whatever is in the Department of Mysteries. But this is what Harry has been training for, gathering school mates in Dumbeldore's Army, and ultimately it is what Harry must do to grow as a character. When you think about it, it's very Hamlet-like--though, as we find out in the end, it very well may mean his own destruction, Harry finds the solution to his bitterness and ennui through action.

Characters: Another thing I liked about Order of the Phoenix was two of its central characters, one new and one old: Umbridge and Sirius.

I think we can all be honest with ourselves and say that originality in creating characters is not, at least through the series' first half, Rowling's strong suit. Harry, Ron and Hermione all play to certain archetypes that defy real characterization--Harry as the Byronic hero, Ron as his stumbling sidekick, and Hermione as, yes, the brainy schoolgirl. Yawn. Voldemort, as iconic as he is, is not really a man of complex character, and some of the minor characters--I'm looking at you, Lupin--are flat as boards. But I think in Dolores Umbridge, Rowling has really created a unique villain, someone who puts more chills in me than Voldemort ever could. Whereas Voldemort cashes in on all of those images we typically associate with fantastic evil--dark clothes, snakes, etc.--Umbridge inverts them, presenting a figure whose evil lurks behind kitty cat plates, pink dresses, and an almost robotlike unflappability. Her transformation from Ministry plant to High Inquisitor to the usurpation of the office of Headmaster is pitch-perfect; she is the epitome of the phrase, "the banality of evil." I do have some questions about her motivation--it's clear why Percy is such a Ministry toady, but what's in it, exactly, for Umbridge? But I don't think that those questions undermine her efficacy as a character, in fact, the mysteriousness of it all makes her all the more frightening.

As for Sirius, well, here's a character I initially thought didn't have a lot going for him--the bad-character-is-actually-a-good-character bait and switch of The Prisoner of Azkaban was a little too pat for my tastes, and I always sort of questioned how Sirius and Harry could form such a bond in so short of time. But I find that Order of the Phoenix does a lot to answer that question for me; after all, here is a boy clearly starved for guardian figures in the absence of his parents and a man who has been in the world's most horrendous prison for years for supposedly killing his Harry's parents, his best friends. Harry is his chance to be redeemed as well as the last living artifact of James and Lily's existence; it is no wonder that they gravitate to each other so strongly. What I like about Sirius in this book--that I don't think the other two books in which he is a presence really exhibit--is his conflictedness as a character, and the way his love for Harry often comes to conflict with his and Harry's safety. There is the real suggestion that the wisest decisions--like letting Harry leave for Hogwarts instead of staying at Twelve Grimmaud Place--are exceedingly difficult for Sirius; the way in which he follows Harry to the train platform as a dog (only to be recognized by Lucius Malfoy) is very un-Dumbledorelike in its foolishness. Rowling wisely avoids the trap set by other authority figures in this book--who, until this book, have been depicted as largely without flaws--and makes Sirius into a real figure, whose love for Harry may be his biggest shortcoming. When Sirius gives his life for Harry, it is all the more powerful because Rowling has worked so hard at making him a convincing character.

As a corollary, I also like the way that Rowling makes her regular characters a little more complex in this book. Dumbledore, who until now has been a little grating in his perfect wisdom, is shown to be an imperfect character by the way he has failed to tell Harry of the prophecy told about him until it was too late. Cho Chang, who might have been any old bimbo in The Goblet of Fire, is really fleshed out as Rowling shows her complicated feelings concerning Harry and the death of Cedric. Ron, who can usually be trusted to fuck up anything, is really given a reprieve by becoming a star Quidditch keeper, but moreso than that his early struggles as a poor player move his character beyond the realm of comedic relief, where bumbling sidekicks never feel bad about their bumbling. And then there's Neville Longbottom, whose development from goofy sidenote to important figure is really to Rowling's credit. All in all, I would go so far to say that this is Rowling's best book, character-wise, with one exception--Hagrid, who is always making Harry's life unnecessarily complicated with hare-brained schemes but no one calls him out for it.

So, there it is. Only two subcategories but I think they're strong. I don't have much to say about the style in this book, except that, apart from the lack of any really eye-catching scenes like the opening to The Goblet of Fire, is as good as its predecessor and decidedly above the Dan Brown minimum acceptable level.

Post-Script: Okay, so I said I wouldn't dwell on the book's flaws, but I had to mention this: Whatever happened to the watch that Hermione used to turn back time in The Goblet of Fire? We couldn't have used that to, oh, I don't know, save Sirius from an untimely death? What the fuck, Hermione.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Autobiography of George Muller by George Muller

"Our goal is to show the World and the Church that even in these last evil days, God is ready to help, comfort, and answers the prayers of those who trust in Him." George Muller

While this is an Autobiography, it is very specific to the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. The entire book, with the exception of the introduction is diary excerpts, which doesn't lend itself to interesting reading.

It is written like a diary and very matter of fact, Muller believed firmly in God and held to his beliefs no matter how difficult.Muller gives several speeches where he imparts wisdom, giving his advice and Scriptural insight on such things as time management, sleeping habits, effective Christian living, God's calling, and stewardship.

Muller had a unique calling from God, and he recognized this. He never tried to push this on other people, but did show them God's demand to trust Him. He was incredibly considerate, often turning down money or services if he felt they would be a burden to those providing them.Muller had a very specific purpose for the orphanages he started, and never deviated from that purpose. One great aspect of Muller was his love for the children, calling them "Dear Orphans", and spending many nights in prayer for their souls. He was very conscience of the need for more children to have care and that they have Godly caretakers.

Muller never moved forward without lots of prayer, and not without confirmation that God wanted him to care for more orphans. God typically provided for their needs on the daily basis, however during the building of the first orphanage, they were never without, and within two year God brought them 9,285 pounds for the new orphanage. One of the orphans gave six pence of his own.

I thought the book was an interesting character study, but not interesting to read. It seems like a good book to have school children read.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I was sitting in Reagan National Airport, on the phone with Brent, talking about this book. I told him that I didn't really like it. It wasn't all that bad, but it was kind of boring and simple. At that point I was a little under 100 pages into The Alchemist. I took a break from reading, got some coffee, boarded my plane, and settled into the well-worn, faux-leather seat. In no time we were in the air. I am not all that sure if the book actually got better, or if some combination of the recycled air, the perfume of the woman beside me, and the high altitude made me less discerning. But I kind of started to like it...or at least not dislike it so much.

The book follows Santiago, a shepherd boy who has a dream about treasure at the pyramids in Egypt. At the behest of a crazy gypsy woman and a king, the boy sets out on a quest for this treasure -- something Coelho refers to as the boy's "Personal Legend" (he does it just like that...capitalizing both words). It didn't take me very long to realize that this book was meant to be personally uplifting and motivating. A strong undercurrent of positive realism flows through the book. I told Brent that it was like The Secret in novelized form. (Admittedly, I have not read The Secret, but I think I have the gist of what it is all about.) The book was rife with quasi-religious statements. These sentiments fell somewhere between spirituality and religion, for example, "The camel driver understood what the boy was saying. He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things." or "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure." or "The world is only the visible aspect of God."

The basic storyline of the book was exceedingly simple and there wasn't much character development. As I was reading it, I couldn't help thinking of Aesop's Fables, Candide, Vision Quest... The Alchemist bears many similarities to these works. The second half of the book was appreciably better than the first, and it had a strong ending.

This is the book that put Coelho, a Brazilian novelist, on the international map. It was originally published in 1988, and was translated into English in the early 1990s, at which point it enjoyed quite a lot of buzz. President Clinton was photographed reading the book. Julia Roberts said that she absolutely loved The Alchemist. Laurence Fishburne negotiated the rights to produce a movie of Coelho's little book. But based on my personal experience, I wouldn't recommend reading this book unless you were 30,000 feet in the air.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles is a series of loosely connected stories about man's attempts to colonize Mars in the shadow of a pending nuclear war. It's not the easiest book in the world to review, like most collections of short stories, but it manages to feel cohesive despite its episodic nature. The stories are tied together by vignettes that are often a page or less. While researching this book, I found that the interstitials were influenced by the similar ones in The Grapes of Wrath, which I thought was interesting.

Most of the stories in the collection were written for outside publications initially, but they are tied together by their chronology, some of their characters, and the themes of the book. Several of them are thinly veiled attacks on colonialism, as the humans come to Mars and completely (and intentionally) destroy Martian civilization. The other theme is man's insignificance in the universe, and most of the stories touch on both of these, pointing out the foolishness of decimating other cultures when the conquering one will eventually die out itself.

The characters in these stories are diverse. There are a couple groups of astronauts, a man who wants to start the first hot dog stand on the moon, a Martian woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and, in perhaps the books most famous section, There Shall Come Soft Rains, an automated house that keeps running, completely unaware that it's occupants have been dead for a year. There's an interesting connection to Bradbury's other famous work, Fahrenheit 451, because the house in the story is very similar to the one occupied by the main character of F451.

Most of these stories have a pitch black sense of humor to them, particularly the second expedition to Mars. The astronauts arrive and can't figure out why no one seems surprised or excited to see them. They're finally taken to a large hall where the inhabitants are thrilled that they're there, but the group quickly realizes the inhabitants are insane, and the astronauts themselves are interrogated, declared incurably crazy, and euthanized. Somehow, this story is played for laughs until the denouement which is, really, kind of disturbing.

I guess at this point I'd characterize myself as a fan of Bradbury, and anyone who liked F451 or his other short stories collections would be well-advised to read this as well.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

I don't think that I'm revealing any spoilers by saying that at the end of the final full novel in the Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit dies. After all, it's right there in the title when you think about it, and furthermore, where else could a series meant to span a man's entire life end? If Rabbit doesn't die, the work is not complete.

But on another level, Rabbit must die because as his lover Ruth calls him in one of the novels, he is Mr. Death. For fifty-odd years Rabbit has lived a charm life while those who come into contact with him seem to drop like flies. There is his newborn child in Rabbit, Run (and the baby that Ruth supposedly aborts), the runaway girl Jill in Rabbit Redux. In Rabbit is Rich we get the news that the enigmatic black troublemaker Skeeter has been shot and Rabbit's parents have passed away; in this final novel we find that his wife Janice's mother has died and so has Janice's friend Peggy, whom Rabbit fucks when Janice leaves him in Rabbit Redux, and even some of Rabbit's friends have begun to die. Rabbit has always been preoccupied with death*, but he has always been one step ahead of it, leaving it for those in his wake.

In the first of this novel's thre parts, Rabbit saves his grandaughter Judy from drowning in a sailing accident, but has a heart attack in the process, and from that moment on is marked by death--so long Rabbit has slipped away from death, but to save his grandaughter he must face it head on. When, in the hospital, his daughter-in-law Pru remarks to his son Nelson that he is in an awfully good mood for having had a heart attack, Nelson says, "I had that baby sister, you know... who drowned... Maybe he was happy to save this one." And that is exactly it--it is as if Rabbit has been given a second chance to save his daughter but he must sacrifice himself in the process. Death must take someone, and to this point Rabbit has chosen the other over himself.

It is sad to see that despite this newfound goodness in Rabbit, the problems of life continue to dog him--chief among them is Nelson's coke addiction and resultant embezzlement of thousands of dollars from the family's Toyota dealership. In typical Rabbit fashion--that is to say, overpowered by his sexual organs--Rabbit makes a huge mistake that threatens to cripple his family. It would be nice to say that he has developed the courage to face the music, but the end of Rabbit's saga mirrors its beginning: Just as Rabbit, Run opens with an impromptu basketball game and an opportunistic flight from responsbility, so Rabbit hightails it down to Florida to escape his troubles, where he and Janice have a summer condo. His second and final heart attack occurs on the basketball court, where he is playing HORSE with a young black kid. It is the only place he has ever felt comfortable, himself; it is where he is not Harry but Rabbit, his secret and true self. And that, though he dies flawed and unredeemed, is some comfort.

*To show how striking Updike can be when writing about death, I've reproduced a passage from Rabbit, Run where Rabbit has a dream concerning the death of his newborn daughter which has always been moving to me. To read it view the full post:

During this stolen doze he has a vivid dream. He is alone on a large sporting field, or vacant lot, litered with small pebbles. In the sky two perfect discs, identical in size but one a dense white and the other slightly transparent, move toward each other slowly. At the moment they touch he feels frightened and a voice like over a loudspeaker at a track meet announces, "The cowslip swallows up the elder." The downward gliding of the top one continues steadily until the other, though the stronger, is totally eclipsed, and just one circle is before his eyes, pale and pure. He understands: "the cowslip" is the moon, and "the elder" the sun, and that what he has witnessed is the explanation of death: lovely life eclipsed by lovely death. Intensely relieved and excited, he realizes he must go forth from this field and found a new religion. There is a feeling of the discs, and the the echo of the voice, bending over him importunately, and he opens his eyes.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I enjoyed the Great Gatsby as much as the next gal, and I find Fitzgerald's personal life, especially his marraige to Zelda, particularly fascinating. This Side of Paradise, however, was thorougly disappointing from start to finish. First of all, the book is rather disjointed as it was written over a long period of time. The first half of the book, "The Romantic Egotist" was written in a hurry on its own before Fitzgerald went to war. He seemed to think he would not survive WWI and wanted to leave his mark before he went. The book was rejected and Fitzgerald lived, never actually leaving his training base in Alabama as the war ended before he was shipped over seas. The rest of the book was written after his return. It's a jumble of prose, letters, and then play format... but I didn't want to read stage directions, I wanted to continue reading a normal novel.

The main character, Amory Blaine, is a narcisistic little prep school punk that is forever posing and rubbing his sophistication in the faces of his peers, none of which particularly seem to care for him. This may be in part because of his histrionic mother dragging him around the country in his early years before her nervous breakdown, which lead Blaine to have to live with family for several years before being sent of to St. Regis prep school. From there, he goes on to college, continues his snobbery, goes to war, continues his snobbery, becomes engaged to a debutante, continues his snobbery, is rejected and becomes miserable when he realizes he is ultimately alone... you get the picture.

What I did enjoy about the novel was that it was autobiographical fiction, and I was able to find quite a few parallels to the author's life. Fitzgerald wrote,“I don't want to talk about myself because I'll admit I did that somewhat in this book. In fact, to write it took three months; to conceive it -- three minutes; to collect the data in it -- all my life." Here are a few of the parallels:
-Both went to Princeton and struggled academically. Both flunked out their Junior year and had to repeat it.
-Both spent part of their early childhood years in Minnesota, Blaine in Minneapolois and Fitzgerald in St. Paul.
-Both wrote for Princeton's Triangle Club, a musical theater group.
-Both were failed football stars and didn't last long on Princeton's team.
-Both were under the tutelage of Catholic priests and struggled with "uncrystallized" faith.
-Both worked in advertising though their passion was writing so that they could make enough income to win over significant others who were use to rather extravagent lifestyles.
-and so on and so forth.

I don't recommend this book. If a young man can see the devil after the first 100 pages of being obnoxious to the reader and still not change his ways after having his wits scared out of him, I don't want to have to read about him being obnoxious anymore.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Persuasion by Jane Austen

This is the first Jane Austen book that I have read. I was not intentionally avoiding Austen's writing...just never had the urge to read anything by her. At the end of last year, I compiled a list of books that I probably should have read by this point in my life, as well as authors that I should probably be familiar with. Austen made the second list.

In some ways Persuasion reminded me of Anna Karenina. Both Tolstoy and Austen were writing about the societies in which they lived. Granted, Austen takes a comedic approach, skewering the "sensibilities" of the British upperclass. Like Anna Karenina, Persuasion is full of characters (albeit not as many principles as AK) with complex family relations and convoluted romantic situations.

The main character, and one of the few consistently likable characters throughout the novel, is Anne Elliot. Her father and older sister are the epitome of obnoxious, elitist socialites; and are rarely depicted in any way other than despicable. It would be impossible to adequately describe the various characters that inhabit the pages of Persuasion without this review pushing the lengths of common sense (i.e. Christopher's Goblet of Fire review).

Short summary:
Anne is largely surrounded by vacuous people, many of whom are vying for beneficial marriages. Anne is not. She almost married a young man many years back, but backed out at the last minute at the behest of a close friend. But this man, Captain Wentworth, reappears and stirs up her otherwise stolid life.

I often had a little trouble keeping some of the characters straight. Some were not fleshed out as much as others, so when they reappeared after being absent for many pages, I had a little trouble remembering who they were. It didn't help that there were at least three characters named Charles. I thought this was an odd thing for Austen to do. I wonder if it was Austen's way of subtly conveying the air of confusion that surround these people and their relationships.

I liked the book well enough to read something else by Austen.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald

The Drowning Pool is a hard-boiled murder mystery set in California during the 1940s, but at the opening we think the mystery is one of much less gravity than that. Maude Slocum pays a visit to our smart mouthed private detective Lew Archer because someone has sent her a menacing letter, threatening to expose her affair to her husband. The problem with Mrs. Slocum is that she won't assist the slueth by giving him any helpful information about her life or tips on who she think that it may be. Just the next day, her mother-in-law is found dead, which is when things start to get serious.

While the answer does not expose itself right away to Archer, the characters do. Mr. Slocum, though married, is a homosexual. He doesn't have a job that turns out enough money to support his family even though he's well educated and equipped to do it, so he lives in his mother's house with his family and lives off his mother's money, a monthly 300 dollar allowance. He's an actor at a local theater company, and his affair is with the man who wrote the play he's performing in. His daughter's adoration of him borderlines an Electra complex. His daughter's love interest, Reavis, is a freshly fired driver for the family, a compulsive liar, and has his hands in all kind of trouble. His wife shouldn't be trying to hide the affair from her husband because he already knows about the affair and she's lying to the detective she hired for the job. Everyone has a motive, everyone could have done it, and no one has all the information.

I thought I had the murder figured out three or four different times during the course of the book and never even came close. I wasn't quite satisfied with the ending, but everything that lead up to it was a hell of a ride. There was also a passage that seemed like a dream sequence towards the end that wasn't one. It seemed completely out of place for one thing, and the events that unfurled during all of this seemed improbable to me. Maybe that's a plot problem or maybe that's just a Brooke lacking imagination problem. I don't know.

This was made into a movie where Paul Newman plays Lew Archer.