Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Read my review of A Dog about Town, to which this book is a sequel if you want to find out more about the characters and the overarching storyline. I enjoyed the first book a lot. This one was just okay. The plot was a little sloppy at points. But it was still an enjoyable read.
I have been trying to come up with alliterative ways to describe Randolph, a murder-solving black Labrador. All I could come up with is:
Murder-solving Mutt (although he is not technically a mutt)
Sunday, June 22, 2008
The first of these, City of Glass, opens with Quinn, a part-time writer who gets a call for Paul Auster (that's the author's name!), a private eye, begging him to take a case. Eventually, Quinn takes the case despite the case of mistaken identity. His client, Peter Stillman, who gives a long speech that sounds something like the word salad of a schizophrenic, hires Quinn to track down his father, who has just been released from prison and who Stillman thinks is going to try to kill him. The crime for which he was convicted? Locking Peter in a room for nine years as a child in an attempt to discover in isolation man's natural language, the language of God, which will reverse the curse of the Tower of Babel and present the key to understanding all. Here is a passage from City of Glass, where Stillman's father is speaking to Quinn:
"My work is very simple. I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. The brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. You have only to open your eyes to see it. The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk heap. It suits my purpose admirably. I find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. Each day I g o out with my bag and collect objects that seem worthy of investigation. My samples now number in the hundreds--from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid."
"What do you do with these things?"
"I give them names."
If there is an overarching theme to The New York Trilogy, it is the insufficiency of words to describe the world. Stillman's father combs the streets looking for broken things because he claims that our language is insufficient to describe what happens to an object when it is destroyed beyond use; is an umbrella with no cloth between the spokes still an umbrella? I do not know if Auster is aware of this, but there are cultures all around the world who think in exactly this manner. When this sort of thinking is applied to the detective novel, we come to understand that there is no way for a detective to find what he is looking for if he hasn't the words to describe it. All three of the protagonists in this book are following someone, and they all keep copious notes, but in the end, what good comes from writing it down? Truth remains elusive.
The second and third novellas play like a variation on a theme. Ghosts follows a man named Blue hired by a man named White to watch a man named Black--and all the peripheral characters on down the line are named after colors. This is a wink from Auster, a clue that we are not reading fact but fiction, and that he can create as he sees fit. The suggestion here is that a detective's work is as much to create as it is to discover. In a complicated bit of self-reflexivity, we begin to wonder who is watching whom--and for that matter, who is who. But Ghosts, for the most part, treads too nearly to the same ground as City of Glass while lacking the human connection that Quinn provides.
Much better is the final novella, The Locked Room, a name that mystery enthusiasts will immediately recognize as a type of book or story in which the detective must figure out how a crime was perpetrated in a room that usually would be impossible to enter. But again Auster subverts our expectations; the novella does not begin with a locked room but ends with it; it does not ask how one gets in to the locked room but how to get another man out. (And of course, it must be noted that by ending in a locked room, we have come full circle from the mad experiments of Stillman's father in City of Glass).
In the room is a man named Fanshawe, a brilliant man who disappears and burdens his wife with the task of contacting his childhood friend, the narrator, to read his unpublished novels and judge whether or not they are worthy of publication. The books become a minor hit among critics, but the presence of Fanshawe in the narrator's life begins to complicate his new marriage to Fanshawe's wife. Under the guise of writing a biography, the narrator sets out to find Fanshawe and perhaps take him out of the equation permanently.
Like all the protagonists of The New York Trilogy, he becomes obsessed to the point where the search is all that he can focus on, and it brings him near the brink of destruction. In Auster's world, the detective is forever being forced into a double-bind: by the very nature of knowledge he cannot find what he is looking for, but he cannot simply quit the search. Like Stillman's father picking garbage off of New York streets, we are forced to wonder if you can call a detective who has no ability to detect a detective at all.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
It's a well-executed piece of near-fantasy that reminded me of the better portions of Mitchell's previous book, Cloud Atlas. But the unfortunate thing is that this episode, some twenty or thirty pages into the novel, was the high point of Black Swan Green for me, which never deigns to slip into that sort of is-it-real-or-is-it-not mysticism for the rest of its length.
It isn't that Black Swan Green is bereft of ideas; in fact, episode-by-episode Mitchell's inventiveness is frequently on display. It's impossible not to love scenes like the one in which Jason is inducted into his classmates' secret fraternity, the Spooks, by running across six backyards without getting caught, or the penultimate episode in which Jason works up the sac to crush a bully's calculator in a shop vise. But in spite of the conceit--which follows Jason for almost exactly one year--there is little cohesion to tie these episodes together. True life is messy, of course, and not at all focused, but Mitchell's richly symbolist writing works best when it's complimented by a strong sense of structure, like in Cloud Atlas. Mitchell attempts to give the novel the illusion of a plot arc by mapping Jason's experience onto the slow unraveling of his parents' marriage, but it is this facet of the book that is least interesting, the most lacking in pathos and insight.
Instead, Black Swan Green can't overcome how scattershot it is; the most interesting threads drop from the novel without warning. Some, like the introduction of a local band of gypsies, come so late in the novel that they seem shoe-horned in and lose whatever impact they might have had. The worst offender is the appearance of Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, and elderly foreigner who beings to tutor Jason after reading the poetry he's pseudonymously published in the church gazette. De Crommelynck is one of the most interesting characters from Cloud Atlas, and her presence here suggests the kind of big-picture orchestration that Cloud Atlas promised as a Mitchell hallmark. But two chapters into de Crommelynck's appearance, Jason comes to be tutored only to find her packed up and gone, deported. She's barely mentioned for the rest of the novel--so much for the epiphany, eh?
By contrast, Black Swan Green is at its best in chapters like "The Bridle Path," which follows Jason on a spur-of-the-moment journey down an old decrepit bridle path to find the legendary secret tunnel on the other side in the Malvern Hills, only to be beset on all sides by the agents of cruelty and lust. The result is Homeric in tone, as one suspects Mitchell desired of the novel as a whole, but Mitchell seems to forget that at the heart of The Odyssey is a sense of physical movement. Black Swan Green is too static, too unfocused to really succeed.
I know Brent loved this book, and I liked it too, but I thought I'd go for the dissenting voice in this case. I will say that it hasn't dampened my interest in reading Mitchell's earlier work, Ghostwritten and number9dream.
Titus doesn't do a whole lot but eat and poop, so the burden of being the main character in Titus Groan falls to Steerpike, an ambitious young man whose career in the castle begins in the kitchen, but through a calculated scheme of flattery and manipulation increases his standing with the Earl and his family.
I have seen the Gormenghast trilogy mentioned in various sources to be a more deserving compliment to the Harry Potter books; supposedly laden with the same fantastic charms but with more literary merit. This isn't far off; though there is no magic in the world of Gormenghast, the whimsically named characters--like Flay, Swelter, and Dr. Prunesquallor--and the inventiveness of the castle--which, to name one example, contains a room filled floor to ceiling with the painted roots of a giant tree--are certainly Rowlingesque.
But while Peake seems to have an easier time using language to build his world than Rowling, Titus Groan lacks some of the affability of the Potter series. Of the ensemble cast, only two characters attract any real interest or exhibit any likeability--the well-employed Steerpike, and the criminally underused Fuschia, daughter of the Earl. Perhaps this aspect of the series improves in the next book, in which Titus will be older--but I have not yet decided if I'm going to get that far.
McCourt offers very little in way of advice for the new teacher, I'm afraid, and instead maps McCourt's own struggles with teaching in a way that suggests that even after decades of teaching McCourt still hasn't got it quite down pat. In parts, the book reads like a litany of failures. Most interesting to me is that McCourt's classroom seems to be the exact opposite of the way we've been advised to teach in training--there is very little structure or planning, full of spontaneous stories about McCourt's childhood in Ireland and off-the-cuff lessons. At one point, McCourt has his students bring in recipes from home and read them like poetry--a task which gets the students engaged, it seems, but McCourt never seems to be able to explain what exactly the point of such an exercise is.
I worry that in the New York City of today, with its Regents exams and No Child Left Behind, the breezy, play-it-by-ear style of McCourt's classroom may be an irrelevant fossil, but it's nice to know that whatever struggles I might have in the next year, I'm not the first, not by a long shot.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
As with most of Sedaris's books, Flames covers a wide variety of topics, with essays that deal with various periods in Sedaris's life. It would be stupid for me to try and pick a favorite, but I really enjoyed "In the Waiting Room," in which Sedaris explains why it can be a problem to know so little French that you are reduced to saying yes in response to everything. The phrase Sedaris uses actually translates to, "I am in agreement." Due to his excessive use of this phrase, he finds himself in his underwear in a waiting room that slowly begins to fill with other people, all fully dressed of course.
Each essay is somewhere around fifteen pages in length with a few exceptions, chief among these is the final essay, "The Smoking Section," which was a little over eighty pages. Comprised of journal entries, this essay follows Sedaris all the way to Tokyo on his quest to quit smoking. At the same time that he is trying to break this 30-year habit, Sedaris is attempting to learn Japanese. In true Sedaris fashion, he does not allow his apparent inability to learn Japanese to stop him from pointing out all the English errors that are made by those around him and on local signage. I couldn't stop laughing at all the language-based snafus. One of my favorites was a label Sedaris found on pre-packaged sandwiches in a supermarket close to his apartment. "We have sandwiches which you can enjoy different tastes. So you can find your favorite one from our sandwiches. We hope you can choose the best one for yourself."
I have read everything by Sedaris except for Barrel Fever, which I started last night. His humor has a darkness to it that really appeals to me. One of the blurbs on the back of Flames describes Sedaris as a writer who is "revising our ideas about what's funny." This description is right on the money.
My thoughts on Sedaris's Naked and Barrel Fever
Thursday, June 12, 2008
They take place in small-town southern Utah at the end of the 1800's. Tom, the Great Brain, uses his cleverness to outwit and swindle most of the other kids in town, and many of the adults. Sometimes Tom's plans have disastrous results, and the consequences that follow are very real. It handles the realism of life in the old west very well, and from a child’s perspective.
It did really annoy me to see this series compared to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer so much. I even read one review that said, “I wouldn’t touch those Wilder books with a ten foot pole, but I could certainly relate to Tom Dennis Fitzgerald.” Lame.
From another review: WARNNING: PEOPLE CUSS (SWEAR) IN THIS BOOK 3-5 TIMES.
A Girl Becomes A Comma Like That was well written and convincing. Glatt created honest and three dimensional women and put them in situations that aren’t at a safe enough distance from anyone’s lives.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
One of my friends does not read unless it’s required for something. Insane, I know. When she recommended a book that she’d read on her own time I figured that the author must really be amazing. After finishing The Lovely Bones, I’d have to say that I was right and that Sebold does indeed meet Amazing Author criteria.
The novel opens with our naive fourteen-year-old main character Susie Salmon being raped and murdered by a neighbor, a strange man who builds doll houses for a living. From the grave, we follow Susie up to Heaven. In the novel, Heaven is of the What Dreams May Come variety, where you create your own surroundings. People who desire similar things share your Heaven with you, and this is how you make friends in the afterlife. (There was also not a single mention of God anywhere, which bothered me a bit, even though this Heaven is obviously not Biblically based.) Heaven also offers intake counselors to help you get situated and a view of Earth so that you can check in on your loved ones. The majority of the book, Susie is watching what’s happening to her family and friends while their lives move on without her.
Back on Earth there is the lonely Ruth, the girl Susie’s soul brushed past after dying, who takes up an interest in the paranormal. Ray, the boy who gave Susie her first kiss and left her love notes. Susie’s sister. The escapist mother, the devoted father, the brother too young to understand. It’s hard not to get attached to the characters and root for them or argue with them the same way Susie does from her perch up above. During certain parts of the book, Susie wills herself down to Earth to comfort or help the people that she loves which sometimes only does the opposite and hurts them. The most haunting thing about the book (no pun intended) is that Susie is also watching her killer in his attempts to cover his tracks and trying to understand what made him who he is. While this is more a book about the human experience and coping than it is any kind of thriller, some of the passages about Mr. Harvey gave me chills.
The Lovely Bones is beautiful and simple and emotionally charged. I’m interested to read Sebold’s memoir Lucky. As Sebold is a survivor of rape, it was interesting to me that she chose to write about a young girl who did not survive and still allowed that character a voice.
Monday, June 9, 2008
It didn't take long for Edgecombe and those that worked for him to realize that Coffey was unlike any other inmate they had encountered. He had certain powers that couldn't be explained and hardly believed. What was even harder for them was justifying Coffey's special abilities and calm demeanor with the heinous acts for which he was convicted.
It is obvious that he is working through some deep, dark issues. Sitting in the atrium at the retirement home, Edgecombe lays bare his past, "What I didn't realize was how many doors the act of writing unlocks, as if my Dad's old fountain pen wasn't really a pen at all, but some strange variety of skeleton key." Along with people from his past, Edgecombe is also dealing with the present. Brad Dolan, a particularly conniving and nasty orderly at the home, seems to have it in for Edgecombe.
The story jumps back and forth from the retirement home to the Green Mile, with excellent pacing. King takes time to develop interesting characters in both eras. These characters wrestle with the complex issues of death, love, justice, and religion. King strikes again.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Wednesday, June 4th
Another day in Frankfort. The weather is quite hot, so I've retired to the indoors. I've decided to post on Dracula, ironic since the Fifty Books Project has been dead this weeks. But oh, never mind. I'm sure it will pick up at any time, and at any rate, this review will help.
Thursday, June 5th
I've decided to writ a bit more today. Dracula is, of course, the narrative of the most famous vampire of all time. It is told in the form of journal entires from its five principle characters: Dr. Seward, Professor Van Helsing, Lucy Westerna, Mina Harker, Jonathan Harker, and assorted news articles describing events for which the party was not present. I was rather surprised to find how little I knew of the actual Dracula story. I would like to write more, but I fear my time is growing short; the battery light is blinking.
Saturday, June 7th
Completing this review has taken on a strange urgency, although I hardly know what to say. I will try to record my reactions as faithfully as possible so that those reading this in the future will not think me insane. The story is surprisingly dark and creepy, particularly for the first half. The second half gets bogged down for a bit in some procedural crime drama involving shipping lanes and weather patterns, but rebounds nicely for a somewhat anticlimatic but fitting ending. Notable themes in the book include Victorian fears of female sexuality, a study in gender roles, modernity vs. superstition, and, of course, good vs. evil. I read this on the recommendation of Lady Elizabeth, whose gentle spirit embodies all that is good about her gender. She spoke to me in a voice like a song while in the kitchen preparing my meal, suggesting, not vulgarly, that I peruse this volume. And that is enough for now.
Sunday, June 8th
I fear some strange madness has come over me. I cannot eat or sleep, and my skin is as pale as alabaster. Oh, Lord, save me from this dread curse, this twisting of my soul, do not let me turn, not now!
My illness has passed. Turns out it was a bad bit of beet.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
An earthquake splits the earth under Dorothy, and she, her kitten Heureka, her cousin Zeb, and a horse named Jim fall into a city of glass. They are joined by the Wizard of Oz and nine piglets, and must wander through dangerous lands trying to find their way home.
First the meet the Mangaboos, who try to kill them by closing them in a black cave, but the friends escape by traveling through the cave and into the Valley of Voe. After escaping the invisible bears by rubbing their feet with a plant which allows them to walk on the water, they meet a man from the surface of the earth. He made holes, and one day he made a hole so large that when he looked down into it he fell onto this spot beneath the Earth's surface.
When they leave this man, who is making rustles for women's dresses to keep himself amused, they reach the wooden land of the gargoyles. They have a fight with the gargoyles made of wood. Even their wings are wooden, and hinged to their backs. However, they can't stand to hear noise. They talk to each other without speech and hearing noise makes them collapse. However, they are captured in the end and make their escape by stealing the wings of the gargoyles and strapping them to Jim the horse, who flies away with all of them in the wagon.
Continuing on their journey, the group had to travel through a cavern filled with Draonettes. They are baby dragons and their mother has tied their tails to the back of the cave so that they cannot eat Dorothy and her friends. But they say, "We will eat you in a wink if you come to close". The band of anxious travelers feel they must get through the cave quickly in order to avoid the Dragon mother, but when the reach the back of the cave, their is no exit. Of course, Dorothy just waits for Ozma to look into her magic picture to see that Dorothy is in trouble, and whoosh, the friends are all standing at the gates of Oz.
Then we are told the history of Oz and meet all the old friends who live there. Jim meets the Saw Horse, Cowardly Lion, and the Tiger with a conscience. Soon they have a parade and a picnic to celebrate the arrival of Oz and Dorothy. At the picnic, Zeb wrestles with a Munchkin and Jim races the Saw Horse.
When they get back to the palace, it seems that one of the little piglets is lost. Heureka is put on trial for eating the little white pig. If she is found guilty, Heureka will be put to death nine times. However, the piglet is found in a vase where he was hidding from the hungry kitten.
The kitten is shunned for her attempt at murder and begs Dorothy to let her leave Oz. Dorothy looks in the magic picture and sees her aunt and uncle in mourning over her death, and so they all go home.
This book is cute and funny, but not hilarious. Not a lot happens, and most of it is description or recaps of previous Oz books.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
This is a collection of children's stories. It is one of my favorite children's books, both because of the gorgeous writing that begs to be read aloud, and for its illustrations, done by Barry Moser.
One of the best things about this book, is the way all the stories tie in so well with the real world. As a child, I thought the explanations of how things began were plausible.
My favorite stories:
How the Camel got his Hump:
The camel didn't want to work, and when he was asked he only said, "Humph". Until a Dijin gives him a hump and sentences him to work three times harder than all the other animals.
The Elephant's Child:
The Elephant's Child was filled with 'satiable curiosity about the crocodile, but no one will tell him what the crocodile has for dinner. So, he journeys down to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees to see for himself.
How the first letter was written:
Taffy and her father go fishing, and Taffy's daddy breaks his spear. So, when Taffy meets a Stranger-man, (who was a Tewara) she sends him after he daddy's great black handled-spear, and causing a mild catastrophe for the tribe of Tegumai. (And for the stranger-man who is sat upon by the Neolithic ladies in a long line of six.)
The Butterfly that Stamped:
Mr. Butterfly is trying to make his wife listen to him and tells her that he is to be feared, as with one stamp he could make all of Suleiman-bin-Daoud's palace disappear. When Suleiman hears this, he calls the Dijins to make his place disappear when the butterfly stamps, and they both teach their wives a lesson.
Monday, June 2, 2008
Last year, several of us got together and sort of unofficially agreed that Kurt Vonnegut was overrated. We had a few drinks, watched the 1987 movie adaptation of Harrison Bergenon, and nodded our heads knowingly as one criticism after another was leveled at the late author. I joined in, partly because of peer pressure and partly because the Pepsi bubbles were going straight to my head. I stumbled out of Carlton's house, head crazy with brief paragraphs and absurd non-sequitirs, and began Slaughterhouse-Five.
I read S5 when I was in high school and remember enjoying it on at least a "this is a really strange book" sort of level. Beyond that, Vonnegut's story of Billy Pilgrim, a man unstuck in time, didn't resonate much with me. Billy's abduction by Tralfamadorians seemed like a golly-gee plot device that didn't mean much, and the whole thing left me in a bit of a muddle. I'm glad I gave it another shot.
The plot can be summarized in a short paragraph: Billy Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians, aliens from another galaxy, while fighting in World War II, just before the bombing of Dresden. The story is told through a series of anecdotal paragraphs, tied together by Vonnegut's authorial voice. The narrative, like Billy himself, jumps around in time, and manages to contrast the brutality of war with the beauty and absurdity of life, a high achievement for a book with a full-page line drawing of a pair of breasts, but it succeeds.
There's really nothing I can say in a review like this that will describe how this book affected me. It packed an emotional punch like nothing else I've read this year, and, even though I'm still not entirely sold on Vonnegut, this book is beautiful.
Slaughterhouse-Five is infinitely quotable, but I want to end this review with my favorite excerpt from the book, where a Tralfamadorian is describing to Billy how Tralfamadorian books work. It's a fantastic encapsulation of both the book's style and message:
"There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you're right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all together, not one after another. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that beautiful, surprising, and deep. There is no beginning, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."
And so it goes.