Monday, April 28, 2008

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

In Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell lets you tag along with her as she traipses across the United States, experiencing the various places connected with the assassination of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. There is really nothing to connect these three murders, except for the fact that Robert Todd Linlcon was in close proximity to all three men when they were killed -- prompting Vowell to saddle him with nicknames, such as Jinxy McDeath and Robert "tod" Lincoln. (Tod is the German word for death.) I guess maybe the reason that Vowell chose to group these three murders together is that they were the first three presidential assassinations, but I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that I love Sarah Vowell's writing. She is like a historically minded David Sedaris.

I read Manhunt a couple of years ago, so a lot of the interesting, relatively-unknown facts that Vowell presented about Lincoln's assassination were not new to me. However, the section about James Garfield was full of stuff that I had never heard. Really interesting stuff. For instance, Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, was most likely criminally insane. To start with, he claimed that God told him to kill the president. His trial was like a circus, with Guiteau repeatedly interrupting everyone from the prosecutor, to the judge, to his own attorney. At one point he stated, "No one wants to shoot or hang me save a few cranks, who are so ignorant they can hardly read or write. High-toned people are saying, 'Well, if the Lord did it, let it go.'" You gotta admit, it's a strong defense.

Four days before his execution, Guiteau wrote a bizarre little play, in which God Almighty damns to hell those who sided against Guiteau. When God asks President Arthur why he did not pardon Guiteau, Arthur says that he thought that a pardon would cost him the presidential nomination in 1884. God's response: "No excuse, you ingrate! Go to hell. Heat up Mr. Devil!" Guiteau was also part of Oneida, some weird, religious, free love commune in upstate New York for a number of years -- now simply known for its dinnerware. Nearly everything about Guiteau was humorously bizarre. As Vowell says, "Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History."

Assassination Vacation is equal parts travelogue and history lesson. Vowell has a good grasp on American history, and an equally strong grasp on humor. She provides a unique perspective on a wide variety of events, as she invites you to accompany her on these trips that she takes with accommodating friends and family members. A great book.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling (pt. 1)

Note: In the interest of readability, and avoiding spoilers before Brent has read it, I have broken my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into several parts--just like the film adaptation. The first is a general post-mortem review of the entire Harry Potter Series.

When the seventh and final Harry Potter book appeared in July of last year, it became officially time for the cultural establishments of our world to look at the series as a whole and begin to discuss its place in the scope of world literature. That Harry Potter has made zealots of both his supporters and detractors is no secret; the images of Potterites young and old decked in glasses and orange-and-maroon Gryffindor scarves are fresh in our minds, balanced on the other side by the now less-frequent news reports of suburban parents challenging the books’ inclusion in their children’s school libraries. (Let’s not forget, Harry opens “a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into Hell.”)

But there are Harry-haters more respectable than Jack Chick, and none has more literary gravitas than Harold Bloom, the famous Yale critic who might be the world’s most well-read man. In an article that leads with Bloom’s disgust over the National Book Foundation’s presentation of an award to Stephen King, he targets Harry Potter as a particularly nefarious cog in the war machine that’s been sent to obliterate the literary awareness of the Western world: “I suffered a great deal in the process [of reading it],” he writes. “The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible.” One shivers at the image of poor septuagenarian Bloom forcing himself choke down another page of such drivel, while his collection of Romantic busts look on with horror. Lining up with Bloom on the anti-Harry side are prominent literary figures like A.S. Byatt, and a gaggle of literary and social critics.

Of course, Bloom is describing only his reaction to the first book, which underwhelmed me as well, and when he states that the Harry Potter books are unlikely to introduce kids to better-written children’s novels, he’s probably correct. The idea that Harry Potter is a net social good because it gets kids reading is not only a well-meaning falsehood, it’s a red herring of Hagrid-like proportions. Even if it were true, it would do little to help us judge the books on an aesthetic level—not to mention the fact that our children’s literacy is a burden meant for us, not Rowling.

On the other side of the divide are folks like that bete noir of Bloom’s, Stephen King, whose defense of the Potter books borders on adulation. I have unfairly singled out this one of King’s commendations as patently ridiculous: “Talent is never static, it's always growing or dying, and the short form on Rowling is this: She was far better than R.L. Stine (an adequate but flavorless writer) when she started, but by the time she penned the final line of Deathly Hallows (''All was well.''), she had become one of the finer stylists in her native country — not as good as Ian McEwan or Ruth Rendell (at least not yet), but easily the peer of Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis.”

King might have chosen two names at random. While I happen to agree with King on sentiment—Rowling has become a much better writer, something which I believe began with the fourth book—this affirmation is nonsensical. Amis’ Money, a book which I love, is composed of an inspired satirical style that combines the beautiful with the crude. I found it quite affecting. But of course, that’s what Amis meant to do—he is a writer in control of his prose, and can use it to create emotion, pace, and meaning. Can we say any of these things of Rowling?

That Rowling has learned to get out of her own way by the seventh book is a testament to her growth as an author, but if we are serious we must admit that in the entirety of the series great stylistic moments are hard to come by. The image of Hogwarts is strong in our minds, but I can find no passages in which Rowling’s style is up to her extensive imagination; if our mental picture of Hogwarts is vivid it is because of what it is and not the way it is described (and is attributable, I think, in no small part to the films). The dialogue, while frequently clever when it comes to cracking jokes, stumbles mightily in moments of great intensity or meaning, except perhaps for some of the more intimate moments between Dumbledore and Harry. Even the line which King holds in such high regard as the exemplar of the series’ growth—Mrs. Weasley’s battle-cry of “NOT MY DAUGHTER, BITCH!”—seems guilty of the lazy trick of resorting to unexpected profanity. Cue the “ooooohs” from the soundtrack.

But even in the places of the final book where Rowling’s prose remains clumsy or wooden, I am seldom bothered by it anymore. Rowling isn’t Amis, but so what? Why do we need her to be? Is it necessary for the Harry Potter books to be a great work of literature for us to appreciate them?

If we look at them only as literature, I suppose. This may seem a strange thing to say—after all, literature is what they are, right?—but the truth is that by any serious metric, the reality about Rowling’s magnum opus is closer to the conceptions of Bloom and Byatt than that of King. The prose, while much improved, never quite reaches anything worthy of being called “good,” and the plot is frequently contrived to the point of absurdity. Too often the best ideas and characters are mired in a mish-mash of half-baked concepts, confusing plot points, and clich├ęs.

But I maintain that the best way of viewing the Harry Potter series is not a simply literature, but as a cultural event. The books are a big part of it, of course—the biggest—but so are the films, the video games, the action figures, the fan fiction, all of that. We live in a world that perceives itself to be so embattled in the “culture wars” and lacking truly shared cultural icons that the emergence of Harry into the pantheon that includes Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Luke Skywalker is welcome as proof that pop culture remains well and alive in my generation. I mention those examples because they are ones I believe exist in our cultural consciousness not merely as envisioned by their creators but through the eyes of hundreds or thousands of creative minds. Of course, gentlemen named Disney, Siegel and Shuster, and Lucas own the lion’s share of the way those figures and their respective universes are perceived, but their pull on our imaginations is so strong that we have been reinventing them for decades.

There was long speculation that Rowling might kill Harry off at the end of the series; this idea was spurred on by the thought that by doing so Rowling could protect him from other writers—who are cast in this scenario in quite a predatory light—who might wish to continue his story by their own hand. But Rowling went in the opposite direction, ending Harry’s journey—and, as King writes, “if you think that's a spoiler at this late date, you were never much of a Potter fan to begin with”—with the simple sentence “All was well,” assuring not only Harry’s survival but his health and happiness. I do not know if Rowling has considered that this might leave Harry open to such literary poachers, but it is my hope that she considered the possibility and considered it good. Certainly such a move leaves the characters open to be perverted and diluted—I’m sure Harry Potter: The Animated Series isn’t too far off—but I think it also will help Harry to remain a living, vibrant character. Of course, I have no statistical evidence on the popularity of Superman to back myself up, but I feel as if having Harry alive is on its face the best thing for his legacy. This way, he belongs to us all now.

With all due respect to Dr. Bloom and Mr. King, I hold with the middle road walked by Christopher Hitchens, a man not known for his moderateness: “It is given to few authors to create a world apart, and to populate it as well as illustrate it in the mind. As one who actually did once go to boarding school by steam train, at 8, I enjoyed reading aloud to children and coming across Diagon Alley and Grimmauld Place, and also shuddering at the memory of the sarcastic schoolmasters (and Privet Drives) I have known.” I can think of no better description of the Potter series’ strengths: its endless and captivating inventiveness, and the way that it plays to our deeply held desire to find reflected in our literature the familiar and the mysterious both.

And if there’s really a culture war going on, put me squarely on King’s side against the Blooms and Byatts of this world. It’s a post-modern world now, the era of the lowbrow, no matter how tightly Bloom holds the keys to the canon.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Pop Quiz!
1. ha-ha
a.) favored retort of Nelson Muntz
b.) sunken fence faced with brick
c.) tree root that resurfaces far away from the tree

2. blains
a.) pumpkins
b.) twigs suitable for starting a fire
c.) swellings, sores, or blisters

3. besom
a.) broom
b.) bosom
c.) paraffin produced by a particular subspecies of bees

4. buckram
a.) kind of coarse linen or cloth stiffened with gum or paste
b.) short grain
c.) male sheep

5. corn
a.) wheat
b.) corn
c.) barley

6. flitch
a.) counterpart to Aberclombie
b.) side of bacon
c.) another name for a thrush

7. dishabille
a.) dishwater
b.) weeds that thrive in rocky soil
c.) careless dress

8. duodecimo
a.) referring to animals with eyes on the sides of their heads
b.) a small printed book
c.) 20

9. loggerhead
a.) lumberjack
b.) goat
c.) endangered sea turtle

10. sit-ye-down
a.) great Native American warrior
b.) archaic basketball trash talk
c.) the great tit

11. pizzle
a.) Snoop's way of expressing 3.14
b.) a penis
c.) the central post of a tent

12. milt
a.) semen of a male fish
b.) turtle excrement
c.) common name for males born in the 30s

Answers:
1b, 2c, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6b, 7c, 8b, 9c, 10c, 11b, 12a


You shouldn't feel bad if you didn't know the definitions to most of these words. Many of them were part of the personal vernacular of Mr Gilbert White, an 18th century English curate in the little town of Selborne. The ones that are not of his devising are incredibly arcane.

Besides being a curate, White was something of a naturalist. Among the many aspects of nature that he observed and recorded was a turtle, that he named Timothy. His notes about the animals and plants that he studied survive to this day, housed in various institutions. With Timothy, Klinkenborg turns the tables on White and other naturalists, letting a turtle expound on man and nature. Klinkenborg tells the story of Mr White and the village of Selborne through the eyes of Timothy, using the terminology of White. The result is oddly poetic, akin to reading the King James Bible. You may not understand every word, but the overall meaning sinks in.

I really struggled with the first forty-or-so pages of Timothy. After finishing the book, I went back and looked at the beginning, and came to the conclusion that it was no different from the rest of the book. The vocabulary and Klinkenborg's style (a lot of short, abrupt sentences...fragments really) just took some getting used to.

Here is a brief excerpt that is indicative of both Klinkenborg's writing style and Timothy's ruminations:

Humans repose in the distinctness of their being. Family of god. Upright stature. Bipedal stride. Pride of reason. Pompion head. They hold themselves apart from the works of creation as much as they can. Except for sporting and poaching. Breeding and rearing of barnyard animals. Coaxing wheat and barley and turnips out of the ground...
...Are there to be no swifts in the skies of Mr Gilbert White's heaven? No house-martins building under the thatched eaves of that celestial city? No tortoises in the gardens there? And what if instinct -- so little known to humans, but a pure flame in swifts -- is a surer guide than reason to his god?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Flashlight and camera skitter across ceiling and floor in loose harmony, stabbing into small rooms, alcoves, or spaces reminiscent of closets, though no shirts hang there. Still, no matter how far Navidson proceeds down this particular passageway, his light never comes close to touching the punctuation point promised by the converging perspective lines, sliding on and on and on, spawning one space after another, a constant stream of corners and walls, all of them unreadable and perfectly smooth.

Finally Navidson stops in front of an entrance much larger than the rest. It arcs high above his head and yawns into an undisturbed blackness. His flashlight finds the floor but no walls and, for the first time, no ceiling.

Only now do we begin to see how big Navidson's house really is.

Here is my attempt at explaining what happens in House of Leaves, moving from the outermost onion-skin of reality to the innermost:

1.) A down-and-out pleb named Johnny Truant who works at a tattoo parlor is invited by his friend Lude to the apartment of an old blind man named Zampano who has recently died. Johnny finds in Zampano's apartment a tattered, deranged-looking manuscript for

2.) House of Leaves, an academic study that Zampano has been writing about

3.) The Navidson Record, a fictional (even within the framework of Johnny Truant's reality) documentary film about a famous photographer named Will Navidson who buys a new house with his family in Virginia. The events of this film form the core of Danielewski's novel: While doing some idle measurements, Navidson discovers that his house is three quarters of an inch longer on the inside than the outside. After a couple weeks of inviting people over to investigate this strange issue, one morning Navidson and his wife wake up to find a door that wasn't there before.

This door leads, not to the outside of the house as it should, but into a dark phantom hallway. What the fuck. Investigating against the wishes of his wife, Navidson discovers that this hallway leads into a large room, which in turn leads into a larger room--so large he cannot explore it by flashlight. Further explorations reveal further spaces, each larger, and each inconstant--spaces shrink and grow, doors move, etc. Eventually Navidson hires a team of explorers to investigate, but their journey--which takes over a week--causes them to approach madness. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Navidson is at the bottom of a long spiral staircase--which took the exploration team days to descend, but which has taken Navidson only hours--and by radio he instructs his friend at the top of the stairs to drop quarters down the shaft to see how long they take to fall. Suddenly the staircase begins to stretch, and Navidson is abandoned at the bottom. Fifty minutes later the quarter finally hits--which, according to the math, suggests a depth greater than the circumference of the earth at the equator.

In the meanwhile, we get two sets of footnotes: one is Truant interjecting his story as he compiles the manuscript into a typed copy; it recounts his slow descent into fear and madness as Zampano's book begins to take a toll on him psychologically. The others are meticulously compiled academic footnotes. Many are references to fictional books, but some border on the absurd: for instance, during a chapter in which Zampano discusses photography, there is a footnote that says, "also see," and then lists hundreds upon hundreds of photographers--probably every photographer you've ever heard of and eight hundred more. On top of this, Danielewski plays liberally with the format of the book, making great use of oddly oriented text, large black and white spaces, color coding, and concrete prose.

What's the deal, here? Steven Poole has called House of Leaves "a satire of academic criticism," which seems accurate. The ridiculous footnoting is compounded by long discursive and digressive passages on the nature of things like photography and the concept of echo, or the story of Jacob and Esau or the Minotaur. These discourses usually go nowhere and end up coming off as unfailingly dry.

But at the heart of House of Leaves is a genuinely terrifying tale. The story of Navidson, lost in the strange, mythical labyrinth of his own house is as psychologically terrifying as anything I can think of in horror films. The academic criticism bits tend to suck the air out of the entire narrative, overanalyzing everything but illuminating very little. Of course, to that you might say, "Well, that is the point--House of Leaves satirizes academic criticism by showing its power to crush art and make it impotent." If that is the case, it often does quite well, but is this a worthwhile goal? Is a book that pokes fun at academic criticism as worthwhile as a book that is truly horrifying, as the Navidson sections of this book are? Would it have been stronger without Zampano's overly analytical musings?

And then, of course, there's Johnny's story. Zampano's book seems to take a real physical and psychological toll on Johnny, who begins to feel as if he is being shadowed by a horrible monster. If Zampano's book is meant to show the way in which criticism destroys art, what are we to make of the way it still has such a palpable effect on Johnny--or, for that matter, the way that it has an effect on us when Zampano is removed from the immediate picture?

Ultimately, House of Leaves is a book that delights in leaving more questions than answers, a puzzle instead of a solution. I think that Danielewski would be pleased that I was having trouble pinning the book down, because it is a book that purposefully avoids being pinned down, and in that case it's quite successful.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming

Last year my friend and fellow history grad student wrote a paper about James Bond. I think it was for a class that dealt with British Empire, but I'm not sure. She read On Her Majesty's Secret Service because it was the only book in which Bond was married, From Russia with Love because it dealt with the Middle East, and Live and Let Die because it focused on Harlem and Jamaica. She concluded that beyond the obvious chauvinism, these books often had an undercurrent of xenophobia and homophobia...and even ophidiophobia. Actually, that last one may have been from her paper on Indiana Jones. Apparently she has a thing for adventurous men.

Last year I read Casino Royale, the first of the Bond series, and completely agreed with Maribeth about Bond's chauvinistic tendencies. Casino Royale was alright, nothing great. Live and Let Die, the second of the series, was much better in plot and style, and the chauvinism was not so abrasive. However, it appears that Fleming simply traded in one ism for another. Bond is not overtly racist in the book, but some of the descriptions and subtleties of language make it easy to level the charge at Fleming. At best, he was woefully ignorant about issues of race.

Let me try to quickly summarize the plot...
The British government suspects that someone has found the treasure of Bloody Morgan, a 17th Century pirate whose actions were sanctioned by the Crown because he mostly attached Spanish ships off the coast of Jamaica. A few months before Bond became involved, gold coins started turning up in Harlem. M tells Bond that they are fairly certain a mysterious Mr Big is involved with the smuggling of these coins. Bond is assigned to work with the CIA and the FBI on the case, beginning in Harlem and ending in Jamaica. His goal is to find and recover the treasure, which Britain sees as rightly theirs.

The way that Fleming depicts Harlem is amusing. It's as if he believed the black community to be completely monolithic. They all are under the thumb of Mr Big. Everyone does his bidding, above all else. And the reason for this: they think he is the zombie of Baron Samedi the Chief of the Legion of the Dead, according to Jamaican island lore. The incredibly misguided assumption is that most blacks who live in Harlem are from Jamaica, or at least believe in its spiritual practices. Of course, neither were true. Fleming's descriptions often evoke exoticism and notions of otherness. He refers to "the secret voodoo language" known only by these people and the "sixth sense of fish, of birds, of negroes." Issues such as these fall squarely into the "uninformed" category. But some of Fleming's other statements cannot be judged so lightly. Describing a bar in Harlem, he writes, "It was hot and the air was thick with smoke and the sweet, feral smell of two hundred negro bodies." Fleming likes to put the word "sweet" in unsavory situations. In Casino Royale, he wrote, "And now [Bond] knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape." At a later point in Live and Let Die, Fleming refers to some black villains as "clumsy black apes."

Besides what are very likely some of Fleming's personal shortcomings showing through in his work, his writing is fairly good. It improved dramatically from Casino Royale. And the Bond of the books is a much more interesting character than the Bond of the big screen. He has doubts, fears, pains, and experiences heartbreak. He is not simply some flippant cad. One passage that I thought was particularly good was the thoughts of Bond as he flew in a small plane to Jamaica. He was realizing just how fragile life is, how much his existence hinges on others. Bond thinks,

You are linked to the ground mechanic's careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, as you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There's nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother's womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they'll even let you get to Jamaica tonight.

Despite some of its problems, Live and Let Die can be appreciated for its action and suspense. Fleming does a great job with both.

_______________________________

As a sidenote, this book is leaps and bounds better than the movie (surprise, surprise). Live and Let Die was the first Bond movie starring Roger Moore, who ushered in the stupid, campy era of Bond. The movie fluctuates between laughably bad and just plain bad. There are only two good things about it: Jane Seymour and the Paul McCartney & Wings song. Best Bond song ever.

Lost Boy by Thomas Wolfe

Lost Boy is a novella by Thomas Wolfe about his brother Grover, who died at age 11 while visiting the World's Fair in St. Louis when Wolfe was four. Each of the book's four sections is told from the view of a different member of Grover's family.

It is dull, dull, dull, dull, dull.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

"Ruth remembered drowning. 'That's impossible,' Aunt Amanda said. 'It must have been a dream.' But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better."

WARNING: Very long summary follows

Amanda grew up protecting her little sister Mattie, the parental favorite. Mattie married Carl when she was 17, and Amanda went off to nursing school without ever forgiving her sister of breaking their sisterly bond. Soon after the wedding, Mattie and Carl find themselves in an unhappy marriage that neither of them expected. Carl's remedy is to run from the situation, so he enlists in the Army, leaving his new wife and baby daughter alone.

Off nursing during WWI, Amanda meets Clement, and falls in love. She doesn't find out about his wife and three children until after their one night stand. When Amanda finds out that she is pregnant, she goes home to Mattie and there she lives with her sister and niece until little Imogene is born.

The sisters plan to tell everyone that a young homeless girl came to them in the middle of the night with labor pains, claiming that she is from a neighboring village and asking them to keep the baby, as she is unwed. This plan falls through when Mattie holds the little girl close and tells her that she will be her mother. Amanda is insane with jealousy, knowing that her daughter will never call her mother, she takes the baby and tries to leave.

However, Amanda and Mattie live on a island, and she has to cross the ice to get to land. Once she is out on the ice, Ruth, Mattie's 3 year old daughter, starts to follow her aunt. Mattie is awakened, and goes out after the others to get them back in the house, but when she picks up Ruth the ice can not hold their combined weight and they both fall through the ice. Amanda is able to save Ruth, but Mattie is drowned. Amanda then takes Imogene to a friend who recently had a stillborn daughter, claiming the previously arranged story.

Amanda raises Ruth as her own. Carl returns from the war, lives with them for about 10 years, during which he finds out that Imogene was Clement's daughter, and mistakenly assumes that his wife had an affair with Clement and died in childbirth. He goes to kill Clement, and thinks better of it, eventually accepting that his wife did not love him and becoming a sailor. He does not re-enter the book.

After Carl is gone, Ruth meets Imogene. They become fast friends, from middle school on up, until Clement's son Arthur becomes interested in Imogene. Amanda feels that she must stop this romance at all costs and begins spying on Imogene, who is at this point working in Clement's house as his wife's secretary. Amanda soon sees Clement trying to seduce her and goes to talk to him. They go out in the boat, he goes for a swim, and she leaves him. She doesn't mean for him to drown, but his body is found, more than a month later.

Amanda then tells Ruth about Imogene, who she is, why she can't marry Arthur, and what happened on that fatal night, when they both lost the ones they loved most. Amanda and Ruth write a letter to give to Imogene from Arthur, saying that he is in love with someone else. When Imogene sees the letter, she asks him if he loves another woman, and he answers, "Yes". He does in fact love Ruth, unbeknownst to either of them.

Ruth and Imogene plan to move to Chicago together, but Amanda throws herself down the stairs and breaks several bones to keep Ruth with her.

Imogene moves to Chicago, where she meets and marries another guy. They have a child and visit Ruth often as she continues to live on the Farm and to care for Amanda, while getting repeated offers of marriage from Arthur.

The writing was all right, but the plot was unnecessarily complex and the characters didn't have anything compelling about them. I didn't care if any of them died and the story would have been better if it were 100 pages long, instead of the 350 pages it took Schwarz to unravel her tale. Also, I don't think Oprah has actually read Anna Karenina.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Then about the meridian of that day we come upon the judge on his rock there in that wilderness by his single self. Aye and there was no rock, just the one. Irving said he'd brung it with him. I said that it was a merestone for to mark him out of nothing at all. He had with him that selfsame rifle you see with him now, all mounted in german silver and the name that he'd give it set with silver wire under the checkpiece in latin: Et in Arcadia ego. A reference to the lethal in it.

Et in Arcadia ego:
"And I am even in Arcadia." That is to say that I, Death, am present everywhere--even in utopia.

I have read three of his books now (this one, The Road, and No Country for Old Men) and I can say with assurance that no one, horror writer or otherwise, writes books as terrifying as Cormac McCarthy. The Road was a post-apocalytpic tale of of a man and his son set out in a barren wasteland, No Country a tale of violence strewn across the Texas-Mexico border in 1980. Blood Meridian is much like that--even set in the same place--but 130 years ago. The plot is simple to describe: An unnamed teenager called "the kid" heads out West and joins up with a group of scalphunters under John Joel Glanton. Glanton and his associates are historical figures, and McCarthy uses as his principle source a book called My Confession by Samuel Chamberlain, a firsthand account of the travails of the Glanton gang.

Chamberlain's book describes the principle villain of Blood Meridian, Judge Holden--usually just called "the judge"--this way:

The second in command [. . .] was a man of gigantic size called ‘Judge’ Holden of Texas. [. . .] He stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women. [. . .] Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblano of the ball. He was ‘plum centre’ with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. (Chamberlain 271-72)


McCarthy's judge is that and more; he is a mysterious cipher devoted to violence and destruction. He is extremely intelligent, forever sketching and taking notes of local flora and fauna in his notebook, but wherever he goes, children end up disappearing and are found later assaulted and mutilated. The quote I opened the post with is his creation myth, in a way; it describes how the Glanton gang came upon him out in the desert one day, sitting on a rock--the only rock--just waiting for them. As they are out of gunpowder, he leads them on a multi-day trek to gather guano and sulfur from the mouth of a volcano to make some just in time to massacre a pursuant band of Indians.

Noted critic Harold Bloom called the judge "the most frightening figure in all of American literature." Is that true? It might well be. Blood Meridian didn't quite terrify me in the way that The Road did with its undending bleakness and its refusal to offer any glimmer of hope, but the judge very well might be the most terrifying character that I can think of. He is the unstoppable force, hyper-intelligent, hyper-amoral, and assuredly immortal; when he and the kid butt horns there can be no doubt that the conflict will end in the judge's favor. Let's say that in rereading The Road, I wouldn't be surprise to find the seven-foot hairless likeness of the judge staggering through that terrible wilderness.

As to which is better, this or The Road, I have not decided. I think that The Road will stay with me longer because of its sheer terror, but it may be that Blood Meridian is the deeper, more complete book. To call it, as some have, a "Gnostic" novel, is to barely scratch its complex commentary on the intersections of knowledge, humanity, and destruction, while The Road--and to a much more extreme extent, No Country--seem content to look upon their respective horrors more as observers than commentators.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

In 2005, for the twentieth anniversary of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel Watchmen, Tom Shone wrote an article written for Slate entitled, "Did the comic book really need to grow up?" "Reading Watchmen today," he writes, "is a distinctly underwhelming experience. Its fans would say that's appropriate: The world's first anti-heroic comic book is supposed to be, well, anti-heroic. The mode is pyrrhic, deflationary, its tone deadpan, spent." This is a kind of loop-around argument that is impossible to defend against; it raises the opposition's point and then dismisses it summarily without comment. It is, in essence, a roundabout way of saying, "So what?"

So what? What is it about Watchmen that makes it so special? What makes it one of Time's 100 Greatest Books of the 20th century, and the only graphic novel on the list? Shone's article does a fair job of encapsualting the plot, but I'll try my own hand at it here: In the universe of Watchmen, it is 1985 and tensions with Russia are at a fever pitch. Nixon, having assassinated Woodward and Bernstein, is in his sixth term and Americans deal with the daily threat of nuclear annihilation--the hand at "five minutes to midnight," as a newspaper headline reads. The main cast of characters exist on this backdrop as the second generation of "masked adventurers"--superpower-less vigilantes modeled after now unpopular comic books--deals with middle age and the specter of personal failure. Vigilantism has been outlawed for some years. When the book opens, a famous "mask" has been thrown from a window and killed, and Rorschach--the only hero to have not given up in the wake of the 1977 Keene Act--believes that the act is part of a murderous rampage against their kind. His investigation, in which he collides with his old allies and enemies, leads to a conspiracy much more sinister (and in grand comic tradition, contrived) than any had anticipated. "Such is the inverted central conceit of the book," Shone writes, "in which superheroes are far too busy defending themselves from the world to contemplate saving it."

So what? Well, isn't it refreshing to see a comic book where the characters are actually, you know, characters? The plot of Watchmen borders on sheer nonsense at time--especially the end, which is as silly and indulgent as anything in the old comics Shone thinks don't "need to grow up"--but at it's heart it's about character. One of Moore's chief concerns, I think, is mapping the world of superheroes onto our own. Instead of living in comic book world, where every hero acts out of his commitment to justice, what would happen if being a superhero were possible in our world? Of course, no one's motivation would be the same--some, like Rorschach, would be drawn to such a profession because of their obsessiveness and pathology. Others, like Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl, would do it because they idolized the first generation of heroes; many, like Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Spectre, would be born into it. Watchmen is a world where superheroes have petty jealousies and difficult relationships; they're not Charles Atlas cookie-cutters in blue spandex. Furthermore, Moore's graphic novel is crammed full of more symbols and meta-narratives than a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Ultimately, the answer to the question "Why did the comic book need to grow up?" is the same as the reason we all must grow up--it isn't a choice. All genres must be constantly rethought, reenvisioned, and retooled to remain vibrant and alive. I recall my professor once making what seemed to me a very fatuous rhetorical question--"Why are some of the earliest known works of literature the best?" He was referring to the epics of Homer, of course, but if you ask me, I have difficulty appreciating the epics without later writers who took those conventions and turned them on their head, from Vergil to Petronius to Milton. You might as well ask Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry why the Western had to grow up. Growing up is what we do as human beings, and in this postmodern world of ours there is no low art anymore. The comic book had to grow up, because otherwise the world would move on without it.

Shone writes, "One gets the feeling that Moore wanted to make us feel guilty for enjoying this—to take in the episode as one would a guilty pleasure. 'See apathy! Everybody escapin' into comic books and TV! Makes me sick,' shouts a news vendor, peddling comics while the streets around him run red with blood." He suggests that this is "self-hatred tricked out as superiority," and suggests it is--ironically, given the title of his article--an "old adolescent standby." But in taking the vendor's word as gospel he misses the complexity of the dialogue completely. The vendor's words are meant for us, surely, but they're also meant for the characters of the novel, who have literally "escaped into comic books," chastizing them for the hubris that is required for a person to put on a pair of tights and fight crime. And though it's meant for us, too, it doesn't seem like Moore--whose entire life is wrapped up in comic books and graphic novels--to insult his reader in such a way. But it could as well be a sign that Moore knew that Watchmen would symbolize a changing of the guard in his business; interviews show that he certainly has that sort of ego. But what Moore is doing here is not presenting an escape at all; by injecting a long-lacking realism into the comic book genre, he is taking the escape and turning it into a loop so that we end up where we begin. If the world of comic book heroes looks scarily like our own at times, where do we turn for comfort?

When Shone calls it "a comic book that wants to let the air out of your tires," he is precisely right. If, like Shone does, you go into it looking for that sense of wonder and escapism that we associate with comic books, you will surely be underwhelmed, as he is, and you too may say "so what?" But this comic book isn't about those things; it's about failure, loneliness, regret, death, and unstoppable tragedy. I don't want to give away too many plot points, but if you look at the page reprinted with Shone's article--with the extended white space, marked "Comics, grown up"--you will understand that Watchmen is not a book where the heroes, validated at last, swoop in at the last second to avert disaster. In their world, like ours, that sort of thing simply doesn't happen.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

One of these days, I'm going to pull myself together for a while and think--try to determine what character of a woman I am; for, candidly, I don't know. By all the codes which I am acquainted with, I am a devilishly wicked specimen of the sex. But some way I can't convince myself that I am. I must think about it.

The above quote was spoken by Edna Pontellier, the central character in The Awakening. The title alludes to the change that Mrs. Pontellier is undergoing. The novel begins on Grand Isle off the coast of Louisiana. While there during the summer months, she is followed around by a young man named Robert. She enjoys his company and the attention that he heaps on her. But when she finds out that he is leaving for Mexico, perhaps never to return, she realizes that she is in love with him.

Robert leaves. The summer comes to an end. And Edna returns to New Orleans with her husband and children. But a fundamental change has taken place within Edna--an awakening, if you will. She begins to feel circumscribed by society's expectations of her, and she starts to ignore those expectations. While her husband is in New York on business, she goes to the racetrack in the company of a single man, known to be a cad; and she moves out of her house into a much smaller house a short ways down the street. She can afford this house on her modest family inheritance. Things are further complicated when Robert returns from Mexico, unsure of his feelings toward Edna.

It is important to note that this book is really more than its plot. Chopin deals with issues at the core of America society. For this reason, the book was understandably controversial when it was first published in 1899. It is often described as feminist literature, however, it is much more than that. Chopin speaks to larger topics such as art, marriage, and social mores. For instance, after moving out, Edna really becomes serious about her painting, finding that she has the time and peace of mind to do so. This creates an interesting connection with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

This edition also included some of Chopin's short stories, some no longer than two pages. "Beyond the Bayou" was my favorite of these. Others were a little ham fisted, such as "Desiree's Baby" and "The Locket."

I have a feeling this will be one of those books that sticks with me and gives me something to think about for the next couple of weeks...months...years...lifetimes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger


Not too long ago Carlton posted a great review of Franny and Zooey here.

The two main characters in this book are both self indulgent and heartbreaking. Franny is on a spiritual quest that would be more appropriate for a man ready to leave his family, take up religious fasting, and sit under a tree awaiting enlightenment than for a college student from a troubled family of freaks out of New York who has become disillusioned with the people handling her education. Zooey is on a quest to set his younger sister straight but he likes the sound of his own voice too much to do any good. The only person Franny wants to talk to about anything is her brother Seymour that has committed suicide years before our story takes place. The narrator of this little book is Buddy, their other brother who lives between the academic world and his secluded telephone-free house in the woods. Everyone seems to think Franny's situation would smooth over if she could talk to Buddy but there's no way for the family to get into contact with him. We meet him, however, through a lengthy letter that he had written Zooey years before lecturing him about this and that...

It seems that all the Glass children are preachy after their years of being child stars on the radio show It's A Wild Child, where they gave advice and insight to the people called in. For instance, Buddy told the listeners once that , "a man should be able to lie at the bottom of a hill with his throat cut, slowly bleeding to death, and if a pretty girl or an old woman should pass by with a beautiful jug balanced perfectly on the top of her head, he should be able to raise himself up on one arm and see the jug safely over the hill." These people and their conversations are absolutely impossible. I like reading them, but if I had to sit in a room and actually listen to one I think I would become frustrated with all of the Glass family pretty quickly. I prefer Holden's gang.

As Carlton pointed out, there isn't a lot that actually happens: a conversation in a restaurant, a girl faints, a man takes a bath and reads a letter, a man bickers with his mother, he shaves, he talks to his sister who is breaking down on their family's couch, and the brother calls the sister from a private line in the house and pretends to be another one of her brothers. That's it. During the course of reading it, though, I came up with all kinds of other ideas: Franny was pregnant, Franny had a sordid affair with the professor she's raging about, ect. I think those would have been far too easy explanations so I ditched them.

After the book was over I was relieved. Not that I was at the end of it, but that it closed the way that it did, with the fat lady.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by John Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes

I didn't know how long I had been up there one that hill--one minute or a lifetime. I felt a hand on my shoulder gently shaking me. It was old man Chest, who had come for me. He told me that I had been in the vision pit four days and four nights and that it was time to come down. He would give me something to eat and water to drink and then I was to tell him everything that had hapopened to me during my hanblechia. He would interpret my visions for me. He told me that the vision pit had changed me in a way that I would not be able to understand at that time. He told me also that I was no longer a boy, that I was a man now. I was Lame Deer.

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions is a book written in the 1960's by Lakota (Sioux) medicine man John Lame Deer with the help of Richard Erdoes, a white author. It is part primer and part polemic, with much of its 300 pages devoted to explaining to the reader the intricacies of the Lakota culture, with special attention to the spiritual and cultural role of the medicine man. In the above passage, Lame Deer describes his hanblechia, a "vision quest" ceremony that involves staying in a "vision pit"--a sort of ramshackle sweat lodge made in the earth, or a sensory deprivation chamber--until the vision appears to you. In Lame Deer's case, his vision portends that he is to study as a medicine man, a job which is equal parts doctor, priest, and social worker in the Lakota community. Others have visions that cause them to turn into a heyoka, a sort of Lakota version of a clown who must do everything backwards, an "upside-down, backward-forward, yes-and-no man, a contrary-wise." Basically, for a heyoka, every day is opposite day. But his role in the society isn't just humorous, it's spiritual as well, and Lame Deer avers that the "clown has more power than the atom bomb. This power could blow the dome off of the Capital."

But also the book is a screed against the culture of the wasicun, a Lakota word meaning "fat-taker," applied to the descendents of colonialists and referred to in opposition of Lakota culture. Some of the more interesting sections of Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions are the ones like the chapter "Sitting on Top of Teddy Roosevelt's Head," in which Lame Deer and Erdoes take a visit to Mt. Rushmore, a colossal monument to wasicun culture in the middle of Lakota holy ground. In these sections Lame Deer spares no punches for American culture, lambasting its love of money and lack of spirituality, and the way that it has marginalized and depressed Native American culture. It's hard to deny the power and rightness of these sections--the history of the ruling American establishment in regards to Native Americans is one of few proud moments. But while Seeker of Visions has no difficulty diagnosing the depth and degree of the problem, it offers few solutions for the survival of traditional Lakota society in the modern world.

Flint by Louis L'Amour

Complete this SAT analogy. Hardy Boys Casefiles were to Carlton Farmer as Louis L'Amour books were to ____________. Duh...my grandpa, stupid. Test-taking must not be your thing. Much like myself with Franklin W. Dixon's masterpieces (I realize that it is a nom de plume and that the man doesn't really exist) my Grandpa read pretty nearly every single Louis L'Amour book. I had not read one, so I decided that I should give them a try.

I have no clue where Flint fits within the body of L'Amour's work. I doubt it really matters. It is a somewhat typical Western. Most of the characters are archetypal. Jim Flint is the lone cowboy who decides to help out a women homesteader who is being vexed by big cattlemen (men who drive cattle, not half-human, half-bovine monstrosities). This sounds kind of simple and straightforward, but throughout the novel, L'Amour lets you in on some back story, which makes things much more interesting. Jim Flint is really James T. Kettleman, an extremely wealthy New York businessman. Before that he was a boxer. Before that he was an orphan, who was salvaged by a gunfighter named Flint, who was eventually shot down in a saloon, right in front of the boy.

So why did Kettleman the financier decide to come out west to New Mexico? He was told by a doctor in New York that he had cancer and was going to die soon. He new of a secret hideout that Flint the gunfighter used. He thought that it would make a good place to die. Those that he tangles with -- from the unscrupulous cattlemen to his murderous wife who comes from New York in search of him -- quickly find out that a man who has readied himself for death has nothing to lose.

Good book. And good call, Pa-paw.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on `explaining away' for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through5 things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through' first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through' all things is the same as not to see.

The Abolition of Man is not a novel. It's a collection of three essays that were derived from a series lectures Lewis presented. The book is only about 130 pages long (and the pages are fairly liberally margined), but it's full of content. To anyone used to reading Lewis' lighter theological works such as Mere Christianity or his fiction, the density of the text will probably come as a surprise. After all, it's not everyone who desires to read a hundred page dissertation on relative morality.

However, to reduce the book to another argument on relative-vs-absolute truth is to do it a disservice. Lewis looks at the problem from many angles and agrees that, while truth must be interpreted, there must exist a base truth, which he calls the Tao, from which other truth is derived. Interestingly when one considers Lewis' extensive apologetic work, Abolition is not a particularly Christian text at all, and Lewis mentions his personal beliefs only once, addressing what he assumes will be a common objection to his ideas.

Overall, the density of the book makes it hard to recommend to casual Lewis fans, but the whole thing is available online here, if anyone is interested.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Things I've Learned from Women Who've Dumped Me, edited by Ben Karlin

Even after a lifetime of learning experiences, you will never understand the first thing about women. Do not delude yourself about this. Guys who claim to understand everything about women are like Kansas school boards that claim to understand everything about the creation of the world--interesting from a sociological perspective maybe, but still, totally full of shit.
- from "Things More Majestic and Terrible Than You Could Ever Imagine" by Todd Hanson

If guys are never going to understand women, then why read a book such as this--written by guys about women. Well, if there is any truth to the adage that you learn from your mistakes, it stands to reason that you may be able to learn something from the mistakes of others. And this book is essentially a litany of mistakes made by usually well-intentioned men during the course of their relationships.

An important distinction should be made here: this is by no means a self-help book. It is in no way a serious book about relationships. Books like that are full of crap (see italicized opening paragraph). So what makes this book different? Well, contributors to this anthology include, Nick Hornby, Stephen Colbert, Bob Odenkirk, Patton Oswalt, Andy Richter, A. J. Jacobs, Will Forte...are you detecting a pattern here?

The themes of many of these essays are completely anathema to the themes of books that offer relationship advice. Such as Andy Selsberg's "A Grudge Can Be Art," in which he discovers that holding a grudge for years and years may very well be the best way to deal with some failed relationships. Some of the essays simply allow you to commiserate with their authors, such as Will Forte's "Beware of Math Tutors Who Ride Motorcycles," in which a college-aged Forte loses his girlfriend to a (you guessed it) motorcycle-riding math tutor, during finals week no less. You can't help but feel for the guy as he describes trying to stay up all night cramming for a history exam, constantly getting up to check the street to see if the tutor's motorcycle has returned to its spot. (In a cruel twist, the tutor lived right across the street from Will.) In "I Still Like Jessica," Rodney Rothman, a former head writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and Undeclared, finds out that the first girl to dump him doesn't even remember going out with him, much less kissing him. Talk about soul-crushing.

While most of these essays are of the standard humorous memoir style (think David Sedaris or Paul Feig) others are transcripts from phone conversations, reprintings of love letters with commentary, lists of mistakes made, and side-by-side comparisons of relationships. One of my favorites was "You Can Encapsulate Feelings of Regret, Panic, and Desperation in a Two-and-a-Half-Minute Pop Song" by Adam Schlesinger. Schlesinger is the bassist for Fountains of Wayne. In this essay, he breaks down "Baby I've Changed," a song he wrote for the Fountains of Wayne album Out of State Plates. The lyrics to the song are on one page, while the adjacent page contains detailed footnotes that provide definitions and further insight into the song's lyrics. One of my favorites:
"And I won't tell you that your hair looks gray8...
...8. When in a relationship, it is important to phrase physical observations about your partner in a positive manner. Instead of pointing out that some of her hair is gray, for example, our protagonist could have complimented her on the fact that most of her hair is not gray."

Bottom line: the book is funny. The contributors are professional comedians and humorists, many of them accomplished comedic writers. Read this book for a good laugh, and who knows...you just might learn something while you're at it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spreading Fires by John Knowles

I picked this up at a used bookstore, having no clue what it was about. I read A Separate Peace last year, and really liked it, so I thought I would give Knowles another go. As with A Separate Peace, the dialogue and the character development are nearly impeccable. Knowles has a uncanny ability to describe the inner thoughts of his characters, laying bare their motives and personal demons. As a result his characters ring true to life. They are flawed and not always likable, and therefore all the more human and relatable.

The story is really quite simple. Brendan Lucas, a young American Foreign Service officer, takes a house in the South of France for the summer. Neville came with the house. A cook, butler, and basically a catch-all servant, Neville seems to feel a sense of ownership -- at times bordering on covetousness -- when it comes to the house. Brendan has visitors for the summer. His sister, his friend -- to whom his sister is engaged -- his mother, and his future sister-in-law are all at the house together. Everyone begins to notice that Neville's behavior is getting weirder and weirder, but they are not for sure what to do about it. But while Neville is undoubtedly a little off, he is keenly aware of the deep-seated, dark personal secrets of those he is serving. Everything comes to a climactic end as the summer comes to a close.

There is a palpable sense of tension throughout this entire novel, and Knowles does a good job of maintaining this suspense right up until the end of the story.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Tigers exist, lifeboats exist, oceans exist. Because the three have never come together in your narrow, limited experience, you refuse to believe that they might.

My brother gave me this book two Christmases ago. I was really excited about reading it from the git-go, but for some reason it took me this long to actually get around to it. Boy, am I glad that I did. This is the best novel that I have read so far this year.

The story is told from the perspective of the main character, Piscine Molitor Patel. After being saddled with the nickname Pissing Patel early in his schooling, he started referring to himself as Pi Patel, which caught on. His father runs a zoo in the Indian town of Pondicherry, which made for an interesting childhood for Pi and his older brother Ravi. In 1976, Mr. Patel decided that there was too much political turmoil in India and decided to move his wife and boys to Canada. Halfway across the Pacific, during a storm in the middle of the night, the ship sinks. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with some of the zoo animals, including a 450 pound Bengal tiger.

As Martel recounts Pi's aimless floating in the Pacific Ocean, he touches on diverse subjects, such as religion, philosophy, and biology. Ultimately, this book is about the art of telling a story. Martel was able to make a completely implausible story believable. His excellent writing skills enabled him to take a story that could easily have been boring in someone else's hands and make it simply enthralling.

Read Brent's review of Life of Pi.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling

Now, I suppose this will be a little bit longer than the review I posted a few days ago, but honestly, I don't have a whole lot I want to say about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Of course, I really do have a lot to say about it, but I think I'll save most of my thoughts for the post-mortem on the whole series.

I am pleased to report that The Half-Blood Prince is, as Brent would agree, easily the second best of the first six after The Goblet of Fire. Somewhere between the third and fourth book Rowling took a writing class or something, and since then the books have taken such an uptick in quality that I would call the last three particularly above my expectations (while the first two and maybe three decidedly below them). Furthermore, HP6 lacks many of the structural and pacing qualities that made Order of the Phoenix so unpopular. If there is anything to be said against HP6 that doesn't go for the series as a whole, it's that until the very end there it lacks a sense of direction and eventfulness that the other books have in spades. In both HP4 and HP5 there is the sense of inexorable forward progress, that the events of each book are leading toward a showdown at book's end--The Triwizard Tournament finals in the former, the mystery of the prophecy and Harry's worsening dreams in the latter. In HP6, there is ultimately an important scuffle between the Death Eaters and the Order, but it sort of comes out of nowhere. It's almost as if HP6 is a stop-gap book, between the fifth and seventh books which are more important plotwise (disregarding that one big thing at the end which I will not discuss).

Celebrity is a big theme in the Harry Potter books, and the fifth and sixth books form an interesting dual commentary--in the fifth, Harry is an outcast, ridiculed by the Ministry of Magic and reviled by his classmates; in the sixth his popularity has reached a fever pitch. The new teacher this year is Horace Slughorn, a Slytherin who wants to "collect" Harry as a member of the "Slug Club," comprised of all the best and brightest at Hogwarts. This is clever for several reasons, I think--for one, Slughorn is the first Slytherin who likes Harry and isn't evil; it's a great opportunity for Rowling to show that Slytherin doesn't completely produce Death Eater types and retain Slytherin's reputation for elitism and entitlement. Meanwhile, the vicissitude of Harry's popularity--persona non grata one day, schoolwide stud the next--is a sharp commentary on the nature of fame in the Muggle world.

Anyhow, I think I'll save most of my other thoughts for book seven.

The Southpaw by Mark Harris

Spoilers.

The Southpaw is a book about a lefthanded pitcher from Perkinsville, New York who can throw a mean screwball. When we are first introduced to the narrator, he's still a "green" small town boy who divides his time between hero worshipping the great immortals of the game and working two jobs, which are pitching on a local team and working at the gas station. He's in love with the girl next door, a bookworm named Holly who lives with her professor uncle and turns Henry down proposal after proposal. Shortly into the book the team that he has been following for years, the Mammoths, ask him into their camp and he leaves his widower father to go train at Aqua Clara. He works his way up, learning to make sure his discipline matches his ego, and by the end of the book we find homeslice starring in the World Series with a record of 26 to 4. He accomplishes anything that any baseball player could want for in their entire career in only his first professional season.


The novel is set up so that as you go along you find out that the narrator is supposedly writing the book himself, and Holly is always correcting him and telling him to fix this or that. The narrator is fairly simple minded and so maybe this explains why the book itself is so poorly written and all the characters speak the same way that he does... This is especially irritating when it comes to Holly's dialogue, because it seems strange that a nerdy girl who spends her time reading canonical poetry would speak like an uneducated hick. It's rare that I don't enjoy a book but it was difficult to make it through The Southpaw and there's no way that I would finish it if I didn't have to talk about it in class.


One positive thing I will say is that this is not one of those typical baseball stories where the writer glorifies the sport to the point where you'd think understanding it is like unlocking the code to the rosetta stone of American culture. As the book progresses, Henry gets to know the men he looked up to for years before having a place on the team himself, and none of them are anything like he thought they were. His idol, Sad Sam, is a womanizer and an alcoholic who has put on too much weight from the booze and has to run around the field every day for weeks in a plastic shirt so he can shape up while everyone else has their normal practice. Henry isn't a hero anywhere but the field, and can't be drafted for the military because when there's any kind of fighting or violence near him he goes into what he calls his coward crouch, has extreme fits of anxiety, and becomes sick. In the end, Henry becomes fed up with the coach and his fellow players, tells them off so badly that none of his friends will stand behind him, and flicks off an entire stadium. He had accomplished all his dreams and none of them where what he thought they would be.

The last thing worth mentioning is that it's interesting to see how Henry handles the racism that's surrounding him. While he is white, the first friend that he makes on the team is an African-American second baseman named Perry. Henry wants to do things like go out to breakfast with Perry their first day and take Perry to a hotel party when they are both signed on the team and when Perry is unable to do these things because of Jim Crow laws, Henry would find ways to show his loyalty to Perry the best he could without alienating himself from the rest of the players. There's one scene were Henry goes off at the hotel owner who houses the team in Aqua Clara because he refuses to let Perry stay there, which leaves Perry to stay in the camp barracks with the newbies who have yet to be signed and their fight makes the newspapers.
This is the first of four books about Henry Wiggins. You can be sure I won't bother reading the rest.

Here's a sample:

"The hit and run is 1 of the prettiest plays you will ever see. The runner on first will break for second. The second baseman on the other teams goes over to cover. The righthanded hitter hits behind the runner, right through the slot where the baseman was. Only he ain't there no more. It is the kind of a play where if you miss the sign things is fouled up, but good. If the batter don't hit, the runner will get throwed out at second, or if the runner don't run the baseman will stay where he was and gobble up the ball and turn it into a double play for sure."