Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten 2009

The year is over, the votes are in! Here, for your perusal, are the ten best books that I read in 2009, explained for you in easy-to-read, under-140 character Twitter style:

1.) A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul -- This bk abt Indians in Trinidad traces the story of 1 man from birth 2 death, struggling to escape his father’s accidental death and his domineering in-laws. Hefty.

9.) Silence by Shusaku Endo -- Endo’s bk of Christian missionaries in Japan is incredibly bleak, but not w/o glimmers of hope. Scorcese to direct.

8.) Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake -- 2nd bk in trilogy outpaces the 1st in sheer weirdness. Kind of like a cracked-out, sadistic Harry Potter w/ no magic but w/ maneating owls.

7.) Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury -- Sets the bar for creepy circus stories v. high. Bradbury’s contrast of the giddiness of youth and anxiety of age is incredible.

6.) Ubik by Philip K. Dick -- Ubik keeps you from deteriorating backward in time, in handy spray can form. Some space intrigue, frozen talking corpses. Standard PKD.

5.) The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton -- Boy meets girl, girl is fiancee’s cousin and not liked by high society. Boy lives sadly in loveless marriage. Gossip Girl?!

4.) Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier -- Girls meets boy, is overshadowed by the greatness of boy’s dead ex, lives in giant castle. Things are not as they seem. Oh shit!

3.) Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction by JD Salinger -- More overshadowing dead folks. B. Glass wants you 2 kno that his bro was totally the shit. So why can’t he show up to his own wedding?

2.) Voss by Patrick White -- Boy meets girl, but they don’t fall in love until he journeys into the Australian outback. Boy and girl develop creepy psychic bond.

1.) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark-- Ms. Brodie controls her pupils like Calvinist God. Under 200 pp, but Spark doesn't waste words. V. small, but powerful.


Honorable Mentions:

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene


Dishonorable mentions:

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Ludmila's Broken English by DBC Pierre
The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates



Congratulations to everyone for reading so many books this year! Wherever you are, raise a glass this New Year's Eve for Fifty Books 2010: 2 Fifty 2 Books.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Complete Plays of Sophocles

OEDIPUS: Good son of Aegeus, gentle son,
only to the gods is it given not to age or die.
All else disrupts through all disposing time.
Earth ebbs in strength, the body ebbs in power.
Faith dies and faithlessness is born.
No constant friendship breathes
between man and man, or city and a city,
Soon or late, the sweet will sour,
the sour will sweet to love again.
Does fair weather hold between this Thebes and you?
Then one day shall ever teeming time
hatch nights on teeming days,
Wherein this pledge, this harmony, this hour
will break upon a spear,
slashed down for a useless word.

--
Oedipus at Colonus


Though he lived well into his nineties, writing and producing plays from his twenties, only seven of Sophocles' 123 plays remain to us, a fact which seems appropriately tragic. In his time, Sophocles was regarded as the greatest that Greek tragedy had to offer, a dramatic Homer, and he won the first prize given to the best dramatist at the Athenian Dionysia twenty times. It is left to us to wonder whether the Greeks of Sophocles' time saw what we see in his plays--a persistent timelessness and depth of spirit--and whether it existed to the same degree in the 116 plays we have never seen.

Each of these seven is great in its own right: Ajax is the story of a warrior driven mad by jealousy, and mocked by the indifferent gods. Philoctetes is about a man who was abandoned by Odysseus on a desert en route to the Trojan War because his terrible snakebite made him irritating, but now Odysseus and Achilles' son Neoptolemus must return and convince Philoctetes to give them his bow, which never misses, so that they might use it to defeat the Trojans. The Woman of Trachis is about Deianeira, Heracles' wife, who struggles to love her husband in the face of his infidelity. Then there is Sophocles' take on Elektra, which to me is the least interesting of the seven, especially when placed next to Aeschylus' and Euripides' versions.

But the best plays here are the Oedipus plays, one of which I wrote about already (although Roche's translation improves on it significantly). It can't be said that Oedipus the King can't be understood without reading the other two in the "trilogy," because they were written at vastly different points of Sophocles' life and were never truly meant to create a unified whole, but I think they're vastly more interesting when read together

In Antigone, the first written, I think that you can see Sophocles' youth in Antigone's headstrongness and willingness to martyr herself. Antigone's brothers (Oedipus' sons) killed each other on the field of battle, one fighting for Thebes and the other against it, and her uncle Creon, the king, refuses to let the latter be buried properly. Knowing that it means she will be punished by death, Antigone buries him anyway, and commits suicide before Creon, having been enlightened by the prophet Teiresias, can come to pardon her.

On the other hand, Oedipus at Colonus was clearly written by a man reflecting upon his own age and mortality; it was one of the last plays that Sophocles wrote. It takes place between the events of Oedipus the King and Antigone, when Oedipus, having blinded himself, wanders with Antigone into the Athenian suburb of Colonus where they are welcomed by Theseus, the King. A prophecy has just told that whoever has Oedipus' favor will win the war for Thebes, and so King Creon and Oedipus' rebel son Polyneices have come to make amends, but Oedipus is too dignified to accede to their demands and for Theseus' warmth and kindness, Oedipus basically ensures Athens' dominance over Thebes in the decades to come.

Oedipus at Colonus is a pleasant reminder that Greek tragedy really isn't as rigid as Aristotle thought it should be, and that happy endings did exist. At the end of their lives, there is something appropriate about the way that Sophocles allows Oedipus--synonymous, for us and for Aristotle, with the spirit of tragedy--to be buried in dignity and love, and to be able to show the justice of a king in his final acts. Oedipus' words to Theseus, which I've copied above, affirm the inconstancy of the world, its chaos, entropy, and inevitable change, but without corrupting their basic truth, Oedipus is able to defy them as much as any human being is able. And though Sophocles could not have known this, the fact that Oedipus' story has survived for 2,500 years as an essential parable of downfall and redemption must temper his words as well.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show by Joy S. Kasson

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is a study of the creation of celebrity and popular memory. The life of William F. Cody is at the center of this study. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his Wild West show enthralled people the world over. Joy S. Kasson makes the case that Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was instrumental in creating popular memory about the American West, and ultimately shaping the American national identity.

In 1869, Edward Zane Carroll Judson, writing under the name Ned Buntline, published the first part of his serial novel Buffalo Bill, The King of the Border Men in the New York Weekly. Judson was a writer of dime-novels, a type of publication known for its clichéd characters and “good guy vs. bad guy” plots. Some of these novels were turned into plays. This created a public persona for William Cody that he would not have otherwise had.

American was still divided in the postbellum environment from which Buffalo Bill’s Wild West emerged. The West was a new place where boundaries between the North and South did not exist in the same way that they did in the East. In 1883, when Cody created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, the western part of the United States was a place that many people had not experienced first hand. The Wild West show gave them a chance to experience the West in a safe and entertaining way. Audience members who had never seen a real Indian before got to see them, charging around the arena in their headdresses and war paint. Among other things, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West fulfilled the public’s desire for the exotic.

Buffalo Bill could be described as the first, world-wide celebrity. He sold himself and his show to the world, and the world bought both. Kasson equates him with General Philip Sheridan, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Wayne. According to Kasson, “The success of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a triumph of good luck, good management, and good timing.”

Using a wide variety of sources, Kasson tells an interesting story of the intersection between history and entertainment, frontiersman and showman.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all the 50 Bookers. Thanks for participating and making 2009 the most successful year so far for this little project.

Just a reminder to get any books you're planning on reviewing, plus your year-end best-ofs, before the first of the year. In January we'll be changing the color scheme and jumping into 2010 with some new members, some old members, etc.

Thanks again!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.

I am not sure that the dead of winter was the right time to read Dandelion Wine, as obsessed as it is with the magic of the summertime. The hero of the story is Douglas Spaulding, a twelve-year old boy in Green Town, Illinois (the same town in which Bradbury's much better Something Wicked This Way Comes takes place), who on the first day of summer, 1928, realizes for the first time that he is alive. This realization gives Douglas a new lease on life, and he begins to become aware of the significance of summer's mandatory rituals: the new pair of sneakers, the bottling of dandelion wine (which, honestly, sounds gross), etc., etc. The narrative jumps from Douglas to the other denizens of Green Town, but Douglas' hyper-awareness makes him the fulcrum around which the novel turns.

Though Bradbury is characteristically poignant here, his enthusiasm gauge is stuck squarely at eleven. Sometimes the "aw-shucks factor" is overwhelming:

"The reason why grownups and kids fight is because they belong to separate races. Look at them, different rom us. Look at us, different from them. Separate races, and 'never the twain shall meet.' Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tom!"

"Doug, you hit it, you hit it! That's right! That's exactly why we don't get along with Mom or Dad. Trouble, trouble, from sunrise to supper! Boy, you're a genius!"


Oh boy, Davey! There's something slightly disingenuous about this, I think, and it's true for a lot of books about children. Children may be innocent, but it's not because they lack vices; it's because they don't know any better. In fact, children are typically vapid, selfish, cruel and prone to anger. Bradbury wants us to believe, as many do, that children occupy a purer state, but I'm not sure I buy into that, even in 1928. Not to mention my inherent distrust of the saccharine and overenthusiastic.

But Bradbury successfully tempers these tendencies with a grim streak: As in the beginning of the summer, Douglas realizes that he is truly alive, he later realizes that he, too, must die. This realization is brought on by the death of several elderly folks in Green Town, as well as the re-appearance of a serial strangler known as The Lonely One. At the book's climax, Douglas takes ill and nearly dies, saved finally by a traveling junkman with vials of exotic air. At his happiest, Bradbury is an above average prose stylist, but I think it's these darkest moments where he truly excels. When Douglas is lying prone in his bed, on death's door, Bradbury writes:

Inside redness, inside blindness, Douglas lay listening to the dim piston of his heart and the muddy ebb and flow of the blood in his arms and legs.

His lips were heavy and wouild not move. His thoughts were heavy and barely ticked like seed pellets falling in an hourglass slow one by falling one. Tick.


To Bradbury's credit, he seems to take death seriously but not morbidly; that Douglas' excitement at merely being alive and his awareness of death can coincide is the book's message and its triumph.

Call for 2010

I know it's relatively early, but I thought I'd go ahead and say this: If you are a reader of this blog (and I know we have readers outside the handful of contributors), I'd like to open up to you the possibility of joining us in 2010. We love doing this, and we plan on doing it for a while, and we'd love to have others join us as well.

If you're interested, leave a comment below or e-mail me at christopherchilton@unc.edu.

EDIT: Bumped!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Franny and Zooey / Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction - J. D. Salinger Mega-Post

In spite of Chris's insistence that I read more Salinger than just Catcher in the Rye, I have to admit that the deciding factor in reading Salinger's oeuvre this year had more to do with time management than peer pressure. Now, having read everything Salinger wrote that's still in print--thought Nine Stories is due for a re-read--I wish I'd read it a lot sooner. Like, the day after I finished Catcher. The reason, as you know if you've read Salinger's lesser known novels, is that the four slim volumes and nine short stories that make up Salinger's bibliography are connected. Read together, they paint a panoramic picture of one unique family, the Glasses, and their various psychoses and musings.

The Glasses are made up of the parents, Les and Bessie, and their seven children, Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker, Zooey, and Franny. The stories focus primarily on the children, especially Franny, Zooey, Buddy, and--though he rarely appears in-person--Seymour, whose monk-like demeanor and inexplicable suicide make him an ever-present figure in the minds of his siblings. In addition to being related, the Glass children also share another bond: all seven of them appeared as panelists on a quiz show called It's a Wise Child, where callers would quiz the abnormally bright children about whatever was on their mind.

Franny and Zooey, the first chronologically of the books I'm reviewing here, is split into two sections of unequal length. Section one, Zooey, follows Zooey Glass as she arrives home from school and meets up for lunch with her beau, Lane. Zooey continually subverts Lane's conversation--he wants to talk about a philosophy paper he wrote for class--to talk about a book she's reading called The Way of the Pilgrim. The Way of the Pilgrim (a real book, incidentally) centers around a monk traveling on foot over Russia, repeating the Jesus Prayer--Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner--and teaching it to others in an effort to get closer to God. The second half takes place at the Glass's house, were Zooey antagonizes his mother before going into the living room to antagonize Franny who, by the way, passed out in the bathroom at the end of her date for less-than-obvious reasons.

Franny and Zooey is tough to break down. There isn't much plot and there isn't an easily extractible message. Zooey thinks Franny's obsession with the Jesus Prayer is silly and possibly dangerous, and she, naturally, disagrees. The second book is composed primarily of two arguments, one between Franny and Zooey, and one between Zooey and his mother, and they both reveal essentially the same facet of Zooey. That is, he's selfish, sometimes cruel, insecure, and that, underneath that, he values his family, illustrated in both arguments, first subtly by a few conciliatory words toward his mother and secondly more overtly by calling Zooey pretending to be Buddy, who is second only to Seymour in the esteem of his siblings, and eviscerating himself in the guise of his brother.

Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenter is the second Glass story I read, and it's probably my favorite. Although it seems like a John Grisham novel plot-wise in comparison to Franny and Zooey, it's pretty spare as well. It follows Buddy, narrating in first-person, as he attends the event that would be Seymour's wedding if Seymour had shown up. As it happens, he doesn't and Buddy unwittingly ends up in the car with the bride's family, including her sister, who's livid, and a deaf-mute uncle, who's one of the best minor characters in all of Salinger. They drive around town, trying to figure out what to do, until Buddy finally, perhaps unwisely, suggests that they go to the apartment that he shares with Buddy while not away with the military. They arrive to find the apartment empty, and the day passes by until everyone is gone but the deaf-mute uncle, happy and thankful just to be out and about.

Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters is essential in the Glass chronology primarily because it sets up Seymour's honeymoon suicide in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, but it also seems to me that the old uncle is one of the most important symbols in the Glass series. He's portrayed throughout the story as existing on the fringes, clear on the general ideas of what's going on but fuzzy on the details. He's also constantly, relentlessly happy, always smiling and even extending a silent camaraderie to Buddy--notably, the only non-Glass shown to have a positive relationship to a Glass. Perhaps Salinger is drawing a contrast here, placing the uncle as a counterpoint to the Glasses, whose grasp on the details is impeccable but who can't seem to see the bigger picture. Franny, Zooey, and Buddy are all fixated on something: Franny on himself and his family, Buddy on Seymour, Zooey on the Jesus Prayer, but they all see things in microscopic vision, and are all, for the most part miserable.

Seymour seems to be the odd exception to this rule, which leads neatly into Seymour: An Introduction. Seymour: An Introduction probably has the least plot of any book I've ever read. In fact, saying it has a plot at all is a bit of a stretch. It's narrated by Buddy, but rather than following a linear timeline, Buddy moves from anecdote to philosophical theory to personal reminiscences, all in an ultimately vain attempt to understand the inscrutable Seymour. Seymour, who memorized Sappho, who never got mad, who loved everyone, who seemed like a Zen master to his siblings. Seymour, who killed himself in his hotel room on his honeymoon. Seymour is presented as a unified person, the one Glass where all the pieces fit, and yet, when it all comes down to it, he's as much a cipher as the narcissistic but caring Zooey or the kind but condescending Franny.

In Seymour: An Introduction, Buddy talks about the only non-Glass book Salinger ever published, Catcher in the Rye, claiming to have written it himself, so many critics have understandably picked Buddy as Salinger's avatar. I, on the other hand, tend toward Seymour the inscrutable. Salinger, the student of human nature who doesn't like people. One of the most famous authors alive who hasn't published anything since Vietnam ended. What could be more interesting, more tempting to spill ink on? Perhaps when Salinger finally dies, the works he's said to have color-coded and prepared for publication will be made available. Maybe we'll finally know why Seymour killed himself, why Salinger stopped publishing, and if the Jesus Prayer worked. But maybe we won't, and that's OK. Everyone should read Salinger anyway.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

After breaking his leg on a 20,000-foot peak in the Peru during a blizzard, Joe Simpson was given up for dead. Without food or water or a tent, he spent six days crawling off the mountain and back to camp. How did he do it?

As the skipper of a sunken yacht slipped over the side of his life raft into the Atlantic night, his four horrified crew members heard him calmly explain, "I'm going to get the car." Then they listened to his screams as he was eaten alive by sharks.

This book is pretty BAMF. You can tell just by looking at the cover - it has two subtitles in addition to the main one - "True Stories of Miraculous Endurance and Sudden Death" and "Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why." Too much much bad-ass-mother-fuckery for just one subtitle. If the two subtitles don't suck you in, the hook on the inside cover, excerpted above, certainly will. This book reminded me of paging through my grandmother's old Readers Digest magazines, looking for the story every month that featured lightning strikes or killer crocodiles. I used to eat those stories up. An entire book of those stories, compiled into one nifty volume for the pleasure of my vicarious excitement? Man eaten alive by sharks? Sign me up.

No matter that Laurence Gonzales writes like a high school newspaper reporter - replete with cursing, exclamation points, and useless adjectives like "stupid" to describe harrowing situations - the stories he tells make up for it. Mostly. There's the story of Joe Simpson described above, whose climbing partner actually cuts his belay rope and lets him fall off a mountain to save himself. And Simpson survived. There's the story of Steven Callahan, who set out to cross the Atlantic in his boat and was struck by a whale just a few days out. He spent 65 days adrift crossing the Atlantic on a life raft, catching fish and drinking 1/2 a pint of water per day until he ran into a Caribbean island on the other side. He lived too. And finally, there's the story of Gonzales' own father, who was shot down over German territory in 1944, survived having every limb broken and his nose cut off, and then survived being a POW for several months until liberation, losing over 50 pounds in the process. There are also stories about the people that didn't survive - people like the poor guy above, deluded by a sodium overload in his brain (caused by drinking seawater) into thinking he was back at the dock when he was really in the middle of the Atlantic.

Okay, Gonzales also has this rather annoying habit of inserting stories about himself into every other paragraph. Dude's done some crazy stuff. He flights plane acrobatics; he's been to Ranger school; he dives, he climbs, and he once sensed a major jet crash was imminent and got off the plane, Final Destination-style. I think he wrote this book partly as a vehicle to talk about the stuff he's already done and partly to have an excuse to do more stuff like go to Mountain Survival School and interview extreme alpinists.

The thesis of "Deep Survival" is that some people have it in them to survive and some do not. The question is largely mental, but can be affected by experience and emotional stability too. The book is broken into two parts: How Accidents Happen (systemic failures; accidents exist as a key part of any system and there is nothing to do to stop them - but you can make sure you are not involved when they happen) and Survival. The second half was definitely more engaging and interesting to me. It had all the stories I had been waiting for when I first read that glorious teaser on the inside book cover.

I'm really into disasters and survival stories, so I was willing to overlook this book's obvious flaws. If you are easily angered by overzealous writing, don't read this one.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Another book where I couldn't find a worthy passage to put up here. That said, I have much different feelings about the first installment of the "Millennium Trilogy" than I do the Twilight books. In fact, I owe a debt of gratitude to Larsson for getting the taste of soft-core-vampire-pornography out of my mouth. I'd write the guy a letter to thank him, but he went and died before this book (and its two sequels) were ever published. I had no idea that Larsson was dead going into it, and I'm sure that his death played a part in the popularity of the novel, but it stands on its own as a crime procedural.

The story is pretty complex. The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is an investigative journalist who earns his living exposing the seedy underbelly of the Swedish stock market. (I found it interesting to know that Swedish people can, indeed, be seedy and that they do, indeed, have a stock market. I'll no longer look at Sweden as a large country filled with more realistic versions of that muppet chef.) Blomkvist finds himself convicted for libel after printing an exposé that went after Erin Wennerstrom, a Swedish industrialist with a reputation for dishonest business tactics. After taking a sabbatical from his financial magazine, Millennium, he is contacted by Henrik Venger, another captain of industry who wants Blomkvist to investigate a family mystery. Blomkvist is asked to find out anything he can about a 40-year-old missing persons case in which Venger's niece, Harriet, went missing and was never heard from again. From here, the story focuses on Blomkvist's inquiry into the matter, interviewing family members and other present on the day of Harriet Venger's disappearance. We're also introduced to Lisbeth Salander, a waify twenty-something computer hacker with a knack for gathering information and a serious problem with authority. The two investigators eventually find themselves victims of threats and physical attacks while they begin to unravel the twisted, murderous secrets of the much-revered Venger family.

The conclusion of the mystery is essentially satisfying, and I enjoyed reading the book. I wouldn't say its anything special, but if you like mysteries, thrillers, or books about corporate intrigue then you should definitely pick this up. I'm not dying to read either of the sequels but I probably would if given the chance. Blomkvist and Salander are both interesting, vibrant characters and I could stand another thousand or so pages of them.

Highlights: Seeing the way Salander's mind works and watching her get what she wants in the most brutal ways possible.
Lowlights: So many Swedish names... Half the time I didnt know if I was reading about a suspect or an Ikea wall unit.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bears: A Brief History by Bernd Brunner


"...according to the Tlingit, 'people must always speak carefully of them, since bears (no matter how far away) have the power to hear human speech. Even though a person murmurs a few careless words, the bear will take revenge.'"

This book was awesome. Not because it was particularly well written (it wasn't; it read more like an 11th grader's term paper) or because it was educational (it wasn't; I'm pretty sure a good 70% of the tidbits in this book were refuted observations by centuries dead scientists or various indigenous tribes). No, it was awesome because it was about BEARS. And bears are the best.

The book has several recurring themes, most notably that lots of ancient people thought bears were related to people (either through magic or evolutionarily) and that people don't really understand bears, I guess. Like I said, the author gave so much clearly erroneous information and sprinkled in so few actual facts about bears that after awhile I pretty much assumed everything was made up. Brunner even concludes one story with, "Like most stories that sound too good to be true, however, this account is pure invention."

But in the end I still loved this book, because it also had passages like this:

Waxing truly euphoric, he (some dumb 19th century "science author") even rhapsodized that a bear, out of principle, will touch nothing that is dead and likewise harms no innocent beings. 'He is known to have approached young girls hunting for strawberries and stolen the fruit right from their baskets, and then went on his way - we can almost dare to say - laughing,' he wrote. 'At the very least, he was surely laughing in his heart.'

Now that is awesome. I fault Brunner for not believing that, in fact, the bear was laughing in his heart, because as you and I know, he surely was. Although, to be perfectly honest, that particular bear (unlike most bears) sounded kinda like a dick (I mean, who steals strawberries from innocent little girls) and someone should have called him out for it. However, Brunner also included a picture of a bear and a little girl picking strawberries, so I let this one slide.

There were other fun stories, too, like the Roman who would stage fights between a thousand bears at once (can you imagine all those bears!?) and the guy who trained his bear to sit down and position itself so that the guy could sit on its knee like an easy chair. (For those of you who haven't gotten me a Christmas present yet, you can add "bear that will let Billy sit on it like an easy chair" to the list.)

I definitely recommend this book to everyone who likes awesome things. More because it's short, has pictures and is about BEARS than for any actual merit, but whatever, BEARS are awesome.

p.s.
You might want to think twice before you disagree with me. I'd hate for you to murmur something that would make the BEARS take revenge.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards

"What was it?" I asked.

She fingered the corners of her mouth, speaking while she contorted her lips. I hope I understood her, for maybe it was one of the last lucid things she might ever say. Or maybe I hope I didn't understand her because it was hard to think these were her last clear thoughts. "I learned my hopes for how my life was going to turn out were not going to be."

I waited a few moments. She didn't say any more. "What does that mean, Mother?"

"The trust was supposed to be deep," she said. "The smiles were supposed to last forever."

In the above passage, Elizabeth Edwards reflects on the secrets within her own parents "perfect" marriage. Edwards watched as her mothers' suspicions of infidelity on her father's part tore her mother up for years. That experience prompted Elizabeth to ask her new husband for one thing on their wedding day: never cheat. Leave me, she said, and I'll be all right. But do not become unfaithful; do not lie. The passage above leads into one of the chapters of Elizabeth Edwards' life that wasn't covered in her excellent memoir, Saving Graces - the news of her husband John Edwards' affair.

This will be a short post for a short book. Elizabeth Edwards' follow up is autobiographical only in that certain stories provide a background for the advice she imparts to readers. This book would probably be a great comfort to someone facing a loss or the infidelity of a spouse, but Edwards also speaks generally to any adversity. Just for the record, Elizabeth lost her son when he was 16, was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, found out her husband had carried on an affair with another woman in 2006, and then learned that her cancer was back, and terminal, in 2007. The poor woman knows adversity.

If Saving Graces was Edwards' memoir, this could probably be called an inspirational self-help book. The focus is less on Edwards' own life and more about how people deal with adversity in general. I finished it in a day (full disclosure: I had to sit in a waiting room all day or this book probably would have been dragged out longer). While I didn't care for it I'm sure someone will get a lot out of it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Increasingly Repulsive Garbage by Stephanie Meyer

This review is going to have spoilers. I'm sorry. But you shouldn't be.

I don't have a passage for my review of the four books of the Twilight "saga" because I couldn't find a single piece of writing that stood out in a good way. Let's get that straight right off the bat. There's nothing about Stephanie Meyer's writing in these books that indicates to me that she's particularly talented. Nothing at all. She can string words together as well as any English major, to be sure, but the popularity of these books doesn't come from the prose.

Let me take a step back. I just had to laugh at myself out loud, sitting at the keyboard because of how pissed off I was by these books. I'm pretty exhausted and I wanted to write this review in the morning. Upon finishing the fourth book, though, I was so happy to be done with the series and angry at what I'd just read that I wanted to write this all down before I forgot anything.

I read the Twilight books to try and understand why they were so explosively popular. After the first one, I thought I understood*. They read like Goosebumps. It's like popcorn. I read the entire series in six days, though admittedly after book 2 I was so dead set on being done with these awful %$&*ing characters that I wasn't stopping until I was completely finished. You don't need to think while reading them. I understand the concept of escapism. Really, I do. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books as much as the next guy. That's why I said I understood the popularity of the series... With an asterisk. I understand why your average 12 year old could enjoy these books. I do. Vampires and werewolves and dumb shit like that, kids eat that crap up. I know I did (Again, Goosebumps).

What I do not understand, is how any self-respecting adult could read these books and not walk away hating all of the main characters, the author, and all the themes of the series. I'm gonna focus on women here because its pretty clear men are not the target audience. My sister and lots of my female friends love these books. Before reading them, I would kid them about because I'd heard how bad the writing was and how over-the-top romantic it was. But even then, I can understand the appeal of some brainless gumball romance novel, much in the same way that I enjoy watching Die Hard for the 437th time whenever it comes on FX. After reading the books, though, I realize that these books aren't just brainless gumball romance. They're misogynistic, pedophilic, and really... Just ugly.

All I read on the internet these days is this 'TEAM EDWARD" or "TEAM JACOB" nonsense. Are you girls kidding me? Hmmm... Lets see: "Team Breaks-Into-Your-Home-At-Night-And-Watches-You-Sleep-And-Blatantly-Stalks-You" or Team Forces-Himself-Upon-You-Sexually-And-Then-Develops-An-Infatuation-With-Your-Infant-Daughter?" WTF. The main character, the woman the audience is supposed to identify with, is completely useless in every way you could possibly imagine. She depends ENTIRELY on her man to not only keep her safe and alive, but emotionally stable as well. Once he leaves, she falls to pieces. She's so distraught at her beau's absence that she takes to suicidal behavior because it makes her imagine his voice. Seriously. But don't worry... She gets better! As soon as another man swoops in to save her again. The only other (human) female characters are: 1) Tw0-timing "friend" who turns on Bella for popularity's sake and, naturally, to get herself a boy 2) Another friend who is left completely undeveloped until she finds a boyfriend to play against 3) Bella's mother who is an airhead who clearly cares more for her new husband than she does her daughter. I also really enjoyed the part where Jacob grabs Bella, grabs her by the hair and forces himself upon her while she struggles and fights herself off (to no avail, because she's oh-so-weak) and then when Jacob later tells Bella's father about the incident, he applauds him. It's okay though, because like 200 pages later Bella realizes she really wanted it the whole time. This is what we want young girls reading. Right.

Everyone knows about the whole abstinence allegory. It should be noted that Bella only becomes a strong(er) character after she fills herself up with Edward's... venom.

The whole pedophilia angle is almost so mindbogglingly sick that I can't believe I haven't seen anyone talk about it. First let's start with the less obvious case. In what way is it okay for Edward (like 90 years old) to be going after Bella (17)? In what universe do people read this story and go, "Ohhhh that's normal, he looks like he's 17!" How does that make sense? Just because he's not a wrinkled old pervert doesn't mean he's not an old pervert. A 30 year old man and a 16 year old girl are essentially on the same level of sexual maturity. Would a relationship between the two get any less disgusting if he suddenly aged 60 years but looked exactly the same? Hell no!

The more blatant example comes from the werewolves and their imprinting. It's no big deal when a full grown man falls in love with a toddler (or later, an infant still covered in afterbirth) because, hey, he doesn't have any sexual feelings for her. That's Meyer's explanation. And I bet there are fans out there who would defend it. Guess that. That's still twisted. Think about that relationship and its nature. Exactly when does that paternal love become sexual love? It's a gradient, and at one point on that gradient things are going to inevitably be disgusting. Go read Lolita and then come back and tell me H.H. doesn't talk exactly the same way about his little nymphettes in exactly the same way that Quil and Jacob talk about theirs.

I won't go too much into how shitty of a writer Meyer is. Even the people who somehow like these books seem to agree that she's not much of a wordsmith. But there were a few technical things that really pissed me off:
1) When you're trying to make allusions to other great literary romances, be subtle about it. Don't spend pages and pages spelling it out to the reader that this character = Romeo and this character = Juliet and this character = Paris.
2) When you inevitably DO decide to make the dumbest decision possible with your main character (Making Bella a vampire), come up with something more interesting to propel the plot than suddenly introducing a bunch of X-Men like characters with lame super powers.
3) If you're going with suspense, maybe don't name the last chapter of the final book (listed clearly in the Table of Contents) "The Happily Ever After"

I could go on but I think you catch my drift. These books are disturbing and send all the wrong messages to exactly the audiences that are consuming it at the fastest rate. It's really a shame.

Lowlights: Knowing how many people have read this trash and not picked up on how instantly unpleasant it is.
Highlights: I liked Seth. That's it. This book has like 100 characters and I liked one.

PS - All this being said, there's no way I won't be paying my $11 for tickets to the film version of Breaking Dawn just to see Cedric Diggory give his Keanu-Reeves-Acting-Academy co-star a Cesarean with his teeth.

PPS - After this, if I don't finish with 54 books I'm going to feel like I cheated myself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen


The news was delivered by my mother, across the kitchen table as my dad leaned against a nearby counter, fiddling with his hands and looking tired. "Your father and I are separating," she informed me, with the same flat, businesslike tone I'd so often heard her use with students as she critiqued their work. "I'm sure you'll agree this is the best thing for all of us."
Hearing this, I wasn't sure what I felt. Not relief, not crushing disappointment, and again, it wasn't a surprise. What struck me, as we sat there, the three of us, in that room, was how little I felt. Small, like a child. Which was the weirdest thing. Like it took this huge moment for a sudden wave of childhood to wash over me, long overdue.

As a holdover from high school, I have a weird loyalty to Sarah Dessen. North Carolina has more than a few bestselling authors to its credit, but Dessen has been my favorite since a friend passed me a copy of "Someone Like You" in history class junior year. I've seen her speak at my favorite local bookshop in Raleigh, Quail Ridge Books. I've seen her speak at the Bulls Head in Chapel Hill. It was only my limited writing ability (and limited interest in creative writing) that kept me from taking her creative writing course at UNC. My love of Sarah Dessen is well-enough known that an my high school boyfriend's mom, who managed Quail Ridge, used to save the proof copies they received for me long after her son and I had broken up.

The last few Sarah Dessen books have been disappointing for me. I was beginning to think I had perhaps outgrown her as a writer. I probably have; all of Dessen's main characters are in high school, or have just graduated. The summer before college is one of her favorite motifs. Maybe I had been away from that point in life too long to appreciate a book written from the point of view of a high school girl.

That being said, I loved "Along for the Ride." This was the Sarah Dessen that I remembered. For some reason the story was more engaging and the characters were more likable than in the last few novels. The story begins when Auden, a perfectionist who spent her high school years studying rather than socializing, moves to the beach to live with her dad, stepmom and baby sister for the summer. Auden leaves her perfectionist professor mother at home, and in doing so opens herself up a world she has never allowed herself to see - a normal teenage summer.

In between her new job managing the accounting at her stepmother's store and helping out with the baby at home, Auden internalizes her father's selfish behavior towards his wife and baby, and blames herself for their resulting separation. But there is another, happier side to the summer: a boy. There is always a boy, isn't there? Auden meets Eli, manager of the local bicycle shop, who is battling his own demons after the death of a friend. The two, who both suffer from insomnia, set out on a nighttime quest to allow Auden the experiences she has missed in her cloistered upbringing: bowling, going to a dance club, food fights, etc. Along the way, predictably (but not disappointingly) they fall for one another.

I don't know what about this particular novel made it so much better in my opinion than the last few by this author, but I did get some insight from a video she posted on Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Along-Ride-Sarah-Dessen/dp/0670011940. A new mom herself, Dessen hadn't planned on writing another novel so soon after her baby's birth but said this novel mostly wrote itself. She was happy while writing it and it didn't feel like work at all - so maybe that explains the difference.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris


That was how Detective Andy Bellefleur's old Buick came to sit in the parking lot at Merlotte's all night and into the next day. The Buick had certainly been empty when Andy had gotten out to enter the bar, he would later swear. He'd also testify that he'd had been so preoccupied by his internal turmoil that he forgot to lock his car.
At some point between eight o'clock, when Andy had arrived at Merlotte's, and ten the next morning, when I arrived to help open the bar, Andy's car acquired a new passenger.
This one would cause considerable embarrassment for the policeman.
This one was dead.

So after reading the first Sookie Stackhouse book and reviewing it on here, I'm pretty sure I decided never to read another one. Well, as explanation for the existance of this post, I can only offer the excuse that these Sookie Stackhouse books have the same compelling pull as that hipster guy thats no good for you. You get some time away, and you start to build the book (or the guy) up in your mind. You start to think maybe it (he) wasn't all bad. You two had some good times together, whether it was laughing at author Charlaine Harris's stilted colloquialisms (book) or trying not to laugh during his dramatic poetry readings (guy). So maybe you give it another try. Maybe you call up the hipster dude, or you pick up Living Dead in Dallas at Costco (on sale!). Both represent a moment of weakness.

I don't know how the hipster dude storyline ends, because I made that up. But I did read Living Dead in Dallas, and I can even more emphatically state that I will never read another Sookie Stackhouse novel again. Or at least until the (deeply awesome television show) TrueBlood comes back on and I decide I'll give the books another try because how bad can they be? Thats another thing that gets me about these books. TrueBlood is awesome - engaging plotlines, likeable characters, witty dialogue, sexy sex. The books the show is based on lack all of that. By the end of LDID I was ready to kill Sookie myself, nevermind a bunch of vampires. Charlaine Harris writes awkward dialogue and even more awkward sex scenes (of which there were more, and more explicit in LDID than in the previous book, so thats a warning).

The book's gratuitous use of sex tended to distract from its otherwise general awfulness, so I can't completely bash it. If Harris could write a titillating erotic scene, she might be able to switch genres, but the stuff in this book falls squarely in the realm of soft-core. Like a Harlequin but trying too hard to stay classy, which in turn is just sad; no "throbbing member" here but close enough.

The book is set just a bit after the last one ends, when Sookie is called to Dallas as part of her agreement with Eric and the vampires of Shreveport. She has been rented out to use her telepathy to find information for a nest of vampires in Dallas. When she finds out that a missing vampire has been kidnapped by a local anti-vampire cult, and she is expected to sneak into the cult to gather information on his predicament, Sookie finds herself in all sorts of trouble with the vampire-haters. The plot is predictable and tired. Actually, I think the TrueBlood writers did a great job adapting it for the screen; I think their screenplay of this book would be infinitely more readable.

There are several lessons to be found in my experience. 1) Do not read this book. 2) Do not buy this book for a friend (even if she, like, tOtAlLy lOvEs vAmPiRe bOyZ!) 3) When you see this book at Costco, know that there's a good reason it's half off cover price.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I think today’s irony ends up saying: "How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean."

---


The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level person will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire's flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It's not desiring the fall; it's terror of the flame yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You'd have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

I read Infinite Jest mostly because it was a big, long literary novel I'd never read. At the time, I knew nothing about David Foster Wallace at all. His death last year didn't impact me at all. In my mind, I think I'd linked him together with authors like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, great authors who write substantial books that nevertheless tend to eschew genuine emotional impact and human characters for satire, impeccably-structured prose, and witty bon mots just dripping with irony and self-awareness. I'm a fan of this style of writing (Underworld is one of my favorite books of all time), but undertaking a novel the size of Infinite Jest, 100pp of which are taken up with just endnotes, was intimidating.

Now that I've actually finished it, my perspective is different. Infinite Jest isn't really much like Pynchon or DeLillo at all. In spite of its postmodern trappings--the extensive footnotes not being the least of which--IJ isn't a particularly difficult read. The length is intimidating, but it's a truly human book. It is at turns hilarious, heartbreaking, psychologically penetrating. Now, in retrospect, I feel a sense of loss at DFW's death.

The plot is all over the place, winding, taking detours in weird, unexpected places, combining ultra-realistic setpieces with vaguely sci-fi trappings. The time is the near future, where years are named after products, i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, and North America has become a unified entity known as O.N.A.N., at least, the sections of North America that weren't made uninhabitable by massive toxic waste dumps in the midwest. The principles of the cast are pretty numerous, but the bulk of the narrative revolves around the following:

- Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy living and breathing the sport at the prestigious Enfield Tennis Academy, athletically-skilled, socially awkward, and confused by his father's inexplicable suicide.

- Don Gately, a hulking, former small-time burglar now working at Ennet House Drug and Recovery House (sic), who barely remembers certain drug-fueled episodes from his past and is ultra-sensitive to be such a big, nearly-indestructible guy.

- Madame Psychosis, a former rado talk show host, now possibly deformed and always wearing a veil, who's time at Ennet House began after a suicide attempt of unknown motivation

- Les Assassins des Fauteuils Roulants (The Wheelchair Assassins) - A Quebecois seperatist faction made up of, obviously enough, assassins who are incapacitated.

- Various other drug addicts, cross-dressers, tennis students, Incandenza family members, Enfield staff, etc. Honestly, the cast is large, although it expands and contracts somewhat depending on how you identify some of the more ambiguous characters.

The actual storylines are more divergent than the cast of characters. The unifying object in the narrative is The Entertainment, possibly the eponymous Infinite Jest, a video so fulfilling that anyone who watches it once becomes a drooling moron who only wants to see it again. It serves as a metaphor for the whole novel, which, as you might guess, focuses at least partially on addiction in all of its various forms. Drugs, sex, power, entertainment, athletic pursuits, etc. There are so many weird intersections of the various characters that I won't even attempt to explain them all here, but I will say that nothing comes together the way you'd expect and--fair warning--there's a fairly large coningent of internet critics who absolutely hate Infinite Jest because of its ending, which I won't spoil, but which you should know does not exactly tie up the loose ends.

To be honest, I don't even know how to begin to deconstruct IJ thematically or even narratively, which is probably obvious from this review. Addiction is a major theme, but to say that it's what the book is about is doing it a grave disservice. It could be read as a political or social satire, a high-comedy, a tragedy in the Greek mold, a commentary of sorts on society and the lengths to which it will go to entertain itself. I'd like to postulate though that while all these interpretations (and many, many more) hold water, I don't see how you could read IJ without getting the feeling that all this stuff is peripheral to the characters, the people and their relationships. Wallace himself said “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being, [Good writing should help readers to] become less alone inside.” It is on this count that I think IJ succeeds most brilliantly. In spite of any conflicted feelings I may have about the narrative itself, the characters are so richly drawn, so completely and unironically human, that I couldn't help but get wrapped up in them.

This is an uncharacteristically personal ending to one of my reviews, but Infinite Jest did something for me that maybe no piece of fiction has ever done to me before: It made me feel like I was a better person for having read it, and it accomplished Wallace's stated goal: it made me feel less alone. It's just too bad it couldn't do the same for Wallace himself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Another Brief Roundup




Happy Thanksgiving! This holiday season, I'm thankful for fluffy bestsellers that can be read in snippets and don't require much brainpower. Lets start with my favorite broad, Chelsea Handler. Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea has been out for a bit, but I just recently picked it up for the first time. And can I just say that when I grow up, I want to be nothing like Ms. Handler. However, I do want her for a best friend. We could have slumber parties replete with vodka popsicles and manicures. We could lounge about while I listen, chin in hand, eyes dazzled, to Chelsea describe her latest hookup-gone-awry. I'd guffaw loudly, possibly spitting out my alcoholic beverage, but it would be okay; my bestie Chelsea would understand. She'd be my kids' Crazy Aunt Chelsea! We're probably the same size and she's kinda famous so I could borrow her designer outfits! She's always dragging friends around the world with her on book tours - I'm in, Chelsea! Give me a call! This book is a funny hyperbolic memoir of sorts. Word to the wise: it's kind of awkward to read on the Metro unless you're into laughing out loud, then stopping short to sketchily side-eye your seat mates in case they were looking at you first. Because you were laughing out loud like a crazy person. Chelsea details some funny hookups, trips, and even an arrest in this volume. It is a quick read, and quite hilarious - read it.

Recently, I also read Pat Conroy's much-anticipated new book, South of Broad. The plot developed painfully slowly, in signature Conroy style, with all the action crammed into the second half of the novel. If you don't have the patience for pages of Low Country description, or you don't like South Carolina, this book is not for you. This was only the second Conroy I have read; I loved Lords of Discipline but can never seem to get past the first few chapters of The Prince of Tides (which many of my friends claim is his best book by far). I may have to go back and give it another try. South of Broad is about a group of friends, and the book's plot focuses on both their senior year in 1969 and also on a period twenty years later, when they all come together to rescue one of their own who is dying alone from AIDS. With murders and murderers and a plot that follows the friends from Charleston to San Francisco and back, the book is pretty good. Honestly, my favorite part of the novel was towards the end, when Hurricane Hugo decimates Charleston, bringing the friends together and healing old rifts. I remember Hugo a teeny bit (we were evacuated from a beach vacation in NC for it), and I never realized how much damage the hurricane caused the old city. Charleston is just as prominent a character in Conroy's book as any of the people in it, so the hurricane's destruction is especially poignant.

I also just finished the new Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol. Another quick read, but after The Da Vinci Code (which I gobbled up, haters) this one left something to be desired. I don't think the "twist" was as compelling or written as believably as in The Da Vinci Code. I also thought the ending relied on a rather tired literary construct - the idea that everything you seek, you have already. Spoiler alert: the Ancient Wisdom referenced in book (several characters are hunting for it) turns out to be contained in the Bible. It speaks to man's ability to bend nature and reality to his will. When I got to the end of the book and found out that the goal all along was actually a Bible, I gotta say I felt a little let down. For this reason, I couldn't decide if Brown was throwing a bone to the critics of Da Vinci Code who protested that the book was vehemently anti-Christian, or if he was espousing a broader multi-religion world view (technically, Brown explains that the Ancient Wisdom is in every religious text world-wide - a kind of archetype. I live in the Washington DC area, so it was neat to read the novel and learn about landmarks and monuments in my town, especially their Masonic ties. I sit right next to a former president (is that the term?) of the DC-area Masons, and whenever RG saw me reading the book, he always asked what Masonic rituals were being described, but never commented on whether the book was true to life or not. Brown certainly took long enough between books to have researched and fact-checked diligently in anticipation of this novel's release so maybe parts of the book are based on fact.

Black Culture and Black Consciousness by Lawrence Levine

Black Culture and Black Consciousness is a study of black folk culture from slavery to emancipation. In it, Lawrence Levine attacks the idea that blacks in 19th century America were devoid of culture. He argues that despite the lack of a common language or a common place of origin, blacks were able to create a culture of their own, even while suffering under the oppressive hand of slavery. Levine shows the ways in which this black culture was created and sustained, not only during the period when blacks were enslaved, but also after they were freed and began to face different challenges.

In 1977, Levine was writing about blacks in a way that few other historians were. Historians had long written about what whites thought of blacks. And, while some historians had given voice to the educated or elite members of black society, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, none had attempted to write about blacks from a lower-class, black perspective. There are reasons for this beyond the deleterious effects of racism. The blacks of the 19th century simply did not leave behind many written records. While there are very few sources written by blacks, there is no shortage of sources written by whites about blacks. Plantation owners often wrote about their slaves, although often nothing more than a general description in a list of their property.

In early 20th century, folklorists who had been documenting white folktales turned their attention to black folktales. Their intent was to show the “otherness” of blacks, to highlight the difference between whites and blacks. Levine describes how these folklorists would unnecessarily accentuate the differences between white and black vernacular. For instance, they would use wite instead of “white,” or wuz would be used for “was.” According to Levine, these misspellings were not necessarily a conscious effort to portray blacks as illiterate. They simply reflected the way that these observers felt about blacks.

The study of folk culture demands the use of certain types of sources. In order to discuss trickster tales, call-and-response songs, gospel music, jokes, proverbs, and the oral tradition that allowed these forms of communication to survive, Levine had to use sources that were complex and difficult to work with. They cannot necessarily be taken at face value, but must be mined for hidden meaning.

While showing that blacks had a culture of their own despite their being enslaved, Levine’s book describes two other significant aspects of black culture: its dependence on an oral tradition and its adaptability. Levine correctly places importance on the oral tradition in black culture, finding that most elements of black culture of the 19th century relied heavily on this tradition. Since the majority of blacks during this time were illiterate, most could only communicate verbally. For this reason, call-and-response songs, jokes, and trickster tales took on added meaning. While 19th century whites sang songs and told jokes and stories, they did not occupy the same level of importance as they did in black culture. Elements that were merely peripheral in white culture were essential to the emergence of a unified black culture during the 19th century, and the subsequent survival of that culture.

Levine under represents an essential part of black culture that followed it from the 19th century through the present: black religious sermons. Although he does discuss the role of black preachers, it is very limited. Levine misses the opportunity to place these preachers and their sermons into the overarching theme of Black Culture and Black Consciousness. These sermons are not only an example of black culture’s reliance on an oral tradition, but also are an example of the adaptability of the culture. Levine could have shown how black sermons changed with the times, in the same way that he detailed the changes that black songs underwent. Black preachers and their sermons played a vital role in the Civil Rights movement that took place in the decade prior to the publication of this book.

With Black Culture and Black Consciousness, Levine dispels the idea that blacks were deprived of their culture, that they emerged from slavery without any sort of group identity.

The West as America edited by William H. Truettner

The West as America is a collaborative project, a collection of essays on the American West. More specifically, the contributors to this collection analyze images, both popular and obscure, in an attempt to reshape the way in which westward expansion in America has been perceived.

The mid to late 19th century was a period of westward expansion in the America. It was also a time when America was reshaping its identity. Up to this time it had been largely perceived as a frontier nation, an area characterized by vast tracts of wilderness and open land. This availability of land is what attracted settlers to the New World in the 1600s. Two hundred years later, and most of America remained wilderness, but this was about to change. The idea of progress began to be used to define America. Tangible changes were taking place to the landscape, but this idea of progress was also something that was meticulously cultivated on many levels.

The idea of the West was something that had to be sold. According William H. Truettner, who is a senior curator at the National Museum of American Art and the editor of this book, guidebook writers played a large role in this selling of the West. Other writers contributed to this process of marketing the West, such as biographers, newspaper contributors, and government officials. In a guide published in 1857, the author poses the question, “If we boast of our own works of improvement in the West have we not on hand a thousand proofs to sustain us?” He then proceeds to list some of these proofs. This idea of progress becomes part of the definition of America during the 19th century.

The contributors to this collection challenge their readers to look past the composition and color of paintings and pictures, and find the deeper historical meaning in pieces of art. Elizabeth Broun, the Director of the National Museum of American Art, argues that 19th century artists portrayed westward expansion as the manifest destiny of America. The beauty of the West—its landscapes and animals—were regularly depicted by artists, but other aspects of frontier life were not as commonly used. The hardships of frontier life, the bleakness of the winters, and the almost complete destruction of Native American cultures, and severely underrepresented in the painting and pictures of the American West.

An image can be interpreted in a number of different ways, and it is one of the jobs of the historian to make sure that images do not present an inaccurate representation of the past. As William H. Truettner states that the point of this collection of essays was “to dispel traditional ideas about images of the West, to place them in a new context designed to question past interpretations.” Images can be extremely powerful tools for learning, but the proper interpretation is paramount to a correct understanding of the past.

Monday, November 23, 2009

PopMatters Seeks Reviewers

Pop Matters, a pretty decent cultural review site, is seeking book bloggers and reviewers. They are looking for non-fiction reviewers in particularly, so I probably wouldn't find my niche here, but I thought that I might pass it a long to the rest of you.

Link: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/submissions/call-books

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

I find that suspense is a thing difficult to find done well. All too often suspense, whether it be on books, in film, or worst of all on television, seems formulaic and hollow. In how many episodes of Monk or CSI are you able to guess the killer within the episode's first fifteen minutes? If you assumed that House's patients all had a rare parasite, wouldn't you be right, like, ninety percent of the time? Are you ever really shocked or surprised?

All of which makes Rebecca all the more awesome--it actually has its "holy shit" moments, including one that takes everything you thought about the novel and flips it on its head. Everything you thought you knew about Rebecca, after its first two acts, turns out to be wrong, and yet everything leading up to the reveal makes perfect sense--like The Sixth Sense. You know, where Bruce Willis turns out to be a man. I might be thinking of The Crying Game, come to think of it. And then, Rebecca flips everything again, and then a third time. None of these big reveals are expected, and yet all of them make perfect sense.

The story begins with an young, unnamed girl working as a companion--a sort of half-friend half-secretary--for an older American woman in Monte Carlo, where they meet Maxim de Winter, a handsome aristocrat who has recently lost his wife in a drowning accident. Maxim and the girl fall quickly in love, and are as quickly married, and the girl becomes the mistress of Maxim's famous family mansion, Manderley. But she finds that, as she feared, she is unprepared to preside over such a household, and finds that she cannot fill the shoes of Maxim's late wife.

The wife, of course, is Rebecca--a brilliant touch, of course, refusing to even give the girl the title of her own book. There was no one like Rebecca: accomplished, independent, in control, and beautiful--"the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life"--one character remarks. The girl, by contrast, is kind-hearted but meek and eternally out of place; she resides not at Manderley but in her own mind. She is constantly imagining would-be encounters or the unheard conversations of others, in all of which she is compared unfavorably to Rebecca. Of course, she has justification, particularly from Mrs. Danvers, the chief house servant who was devoted to Rebecca and, despite her outward deference, the girl suspects of plotting against her out of fealty to her former mistress. Even Maxim's senile grandmother seems to want Rebecca back, driving the girl to abject misery:

He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. She was in the hosue s till, as Mrs Danvers had said; she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung... Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs de Winter. I had no business here at all. I had come blundering like a poor fool on ground that was preserved. "Where is Rebecca?" Maxim's grandmother had cried. "I want Rebecca. What have you done with Rebecca?"


If the girl struggling with the expectations of Rebecca's legacy comprised the entire book, it would have been good, an excellent character study or psychological novel. But I'm happy to say it's actually much better than that.

In many ways, Rebecca is something of a potboiler--or perhaps that's too negative? It has a pulp quality, a sensationalism that made it a bestseller when it was published in 1938. It's plot-heavy, and teasing larger thematic observations from it isn't fruitless, but neither is it the best way to appreciate it. But it's surprisingly intense and suspenseful, and well-plotted. There is a reason that most bestsellers are quickly forgotten--they suck--but Rebecca is still fairly popular, and deservedly so.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez

Sloth is an original graphic novel by Gilbert Hernandez, one of the Hernandez Brothers behind Love and Rockets, possibly the longest running and most influential indie comic going. I haven't been able to track down a collection of L&R yet, but wanted to sample some of the Hernandez's work.

Sloth is short, easily the shortest book I've read this year, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in sheer bizarreness. The story follows three Hispanic teens, Miguel, Lita, and Romeo. When the story opens, Miguel has just awoken from a year long coma and is trying to restart his life. The coma itself is a mystery, mostly because no medical reason for it can be found. To all appearances, Miguel willed himself into the coma out of boredom and a general malaise. He returns to Lita, his girlfriend who may or may not have developed an attraction to Romeo during his year MIA. He also can't help but notice that trying to move at any speed besides "slow" causes his joints to burn.

To this point, the story is quirky but not exactly surreal. The strangeness starts when the three go to an orchard where a mysterious goatman is said to reside, coming out only at night. According to legend, the goatman offers those who see it a chance to change places. If they agree, they become the goatman and have to find someone to switch with.

The story only gets stranger from there, as the three encounter the goatman, Miguel finds that he may or may not be able to fly, and a major and completely unexpected twist at the 2/3rds point when (spoiler) Miguel actually becomes Lita in some alternate universe featuring all the same characters (except Miguel) in drastically different roles.

As far as conclusions, that's tough. The primary theme seems to be identity, but the specific applications Hernandez is making are unclear, as is the narrative arc. Is the implication that one of the three switched places with the goatman changing the fabric of reality? Is it all a dream inside of a still comatose teen's head? By the end of the story, all three teens have switched identities and willed themselves into comas, although not simultaneously. There's something beautifully tragic about the dreamworlds of the protgaonists, if that's what they are: the worlds aren't perfect, but they are realities where things happen, where there are rockstars, goatmen, and adventures.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

The story of Oedipus is well-worn: Boy meets girl. Boy saves girl's city from riddle-obsessed monster. Boy discovers that he's actually girl's son, and that he killed his own dad years ago without knowing but it's too late because they've already boned. It's almost cliche.

To be more specific, Oedipus is the king of Thebes, a position he inherited when, wandering from his home in Corinth, he encountered the Sphinx, who was eating any Theban who could not answer his riddle. Oedipus answered it, and saved the city, and now has married its queen Jocasta, the former king being recently murdered. A plague has struck the city, and the oracle of Apollo says that it will only pass when the former king's murderer is put to justice. With the help of the prophet Teiresias, Oedipus discovers that he is the murderer, recalling a fight in which he killed an unknown man years ago, and that he is really Jocasta's son, expelled from Thebes as an infant because of a prophecy that said he would do exactly what he ends up doing.

But it is, of course, the essential work of ancient Greek tragedy. It is the most oft-used example Aristotle gives when he outlines tragedy for us in the Poetics, suggesting that shows remarkable purity of genre. All the elements are there: a hero is neither a great man nor a villain, but the bearer of a fatal flaw that eventually leads to his downfall. There is a startling revelation (peripeteia), a sudden reversal of fortune (anagnorisis), and an ending so bleak and ruinous that you might call it a catastrophe (catastrophe).

Of course, it is also the basis for Freud's theory of the Oedipal complex, making it one of the most essential texts in the development of Freudian criticism and literary criticism as a whole. In this way, its relevance spans a vast stretch of time, and it is an excellent illustration of the way that we regard literature differently than our predecessors.

Unlike The Odyssey, I find Oedipus the King wanting for emotional heft to complement its academic fecundity. All tragedies are meant to act as funhouse mirrors in which we see ourselves, but Oedipus' basic humanity is less apparent to me than Odysseus', whose longing for his home and his wife is truly affecting. One issue may be the translation, which I feel is a little banal. See the way that this translator, Benard Knox, renders Oedipus' opening address to the priests who are gathered in supplication to the gods:

My sons! Newest generation of this ancient city of Thebes! Why are you here? Why are you seated there at the altar, with these branches of supplication? The city is filled with the smoke of burning incense, with hymns to the healing god, with laments for the dead.


Contrast Sir George Young:

Children, you modern brood of Cadmus old,
What mean you, sitting in your sessions here,
High-coronalled with votive olive-boughs,
While the whole city teems with incense-smoke,
And paean hymns, and sounds of woe the while?


Knox's translation, besides committing the terrible sin of being in prose, is awfully clumsy and plain, isn't it? Not only that, but you get the impression a lot of the syntax is lost here--see how Oedipus' statement about the incnese is subordinated in Young's translation, suggesting that Oedipus is asking about that as well as the priests' presence, and in Knox's it is presented as a flat statement unconnected to anything. Stupid.

But whatever. One benefit of Oedipus is that it's literally one-tenth the size of The Odyssey, so in my class we can really pick it apart and deconstruct it. I wish it were made of better stuff, but what can you do?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley

I read Little Scarlet after reading This Year You Write Your Novel. Thought it might give the book some context to see what sort of fiction Mosley turns out. After finishing Little Scarlett, I think he produces work I'd probably enjoy. On the other hand, I had some issues with this book, although they're mostly my fault.

I didn't realize when I bought Little Scarlet that it was book 6 in the Easy Rawlins series, for one thing. With a lot of mystery or crime novels, chronology isn't particularly important, but Little Scarlet picks up immediately following a huge race riot and told me virtually nothing about Rawlins himself. It wasn't until I was nearly 1/3rd of the way through that I realized it was set in the 60's, which made Rawlin's extreme racial sensitivity and (well-rendered) impotent rage more understandable, as well as explaining why most of the white characters in the book exhibit behavior that would be considered inappropriate publicly now, but which, in the 60's, was hardly uncommon.

The story itself is a pretty hard-boiled detective story, as Rawlins investigates the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Little Scarlet, a young girl murdered during the riot. The twists are there, and the character of Rawlins seems like an interesting one. Ultimately though, it was hard for me to get a good read on Mosley from this book. His themes of racial identity are well-integrated into the plot, and the characters are strong. It's just a case of too little information, a situation I'll try to remedy soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I Like It Better When You're Funny by Charles Grodin

If you've ever wanted to spend several hours listening to Charles Grodin, of The Heartbreak Kid, Beethoven and MSNBC fame, share anecdotes about various people--mostly unnamed--that he's worked with throughout his 30-odd years in show business, this is the book for you. Of course, if you read I Like It Better When You're Funny and find that it isn't exactly the book on Charles Grodin you want to read, you can always pick up one of his other four memoirs. Just for comparison's sake, Grodin's various memoirs combined are approximately the size of Lord of the Rings. Spy, author, philosopher, and all-around awesome guy Graham Greene got only a two volume set.

I don't know why I picked this up, but I'm sort of glad I did. Grodin is approximately as grouchy as you might expect, and is alternately self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. Once you've read ILYBWYF, you'll come to understand that Grodin's instincts are always correct, but that he sometimes goes against them and makes embarrassing mistakes. You'll also learn that he has a great deal of respect for pretty much everyone he's ever worked with, and that most of them loved him too, and found him much nicer and easier to work with than expected. If you don't really know who Charles Grodin is, big deal. Once you finish this book, you'll know more.

You wanted it, you got it.

If you look to the right, just under the 50 Bookers 2009 list, you'll see that 50B now has a search box. Use it wisely.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Box by Richard Matheson

This is a collection of short stories. They are rather cerebral in cerebral. Most could be described as psychological dramas. For example, in "Button, Button" a man and his wife are given a button mounted on a box (think Deal or No Deal) and told that if they push it they we be given a large sum of money if they push it, but also that somewhere in the world, someone that they don't know will die. Matheson originally published this story in Playboy in 1970. It was used as a storyline for an episode of The Twilight Zone (1985) and has been made into a recently-released feature-length movie. Another essay involves on a psychic who is with a man who exploits her abilities, making people pay them for what she knows.

Many of the essays involve technology in some way, often highlighting the darker side of innovations. They put me in mind of some of the work of Philip K. Dick.

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

I'll be completely honest, I had no clue that Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's until I saw the movie Capote. I have intended to read In Cold Blood for a while now, so when I saw this book in a little coffee shop/bookstore combo in Chattanooga, I picked it up.

I love the way Capote frames this story. It is told from the perspective of Paul Varjak, a struggling writer living in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The book is made up of Paul's recollections of his encounters with Holly Golightly, a woman who lives in the same brownstone that Paul does on the Upper East Side of New York City. I forget where I heard it, but the best description I have heard of Holly Golightly is "a grown-up Lolita." She is sexual but innocent, coy but boisterous. She is described in the book as a "bad little good girl adrift in New York."

After reading and enjoying the book, I watch the movie, which I hadn't seen in a long time. Oh god, it was dumb. It took a story replete with complex emotions and human desires and reduced it to a kitschy love story. Lost in Translation bears more resemblance to Capote's book than the Hepburn/Peppard movie does. This is a great story, and the version that I bought came with a few other short stories that were good as well.

Robinson by Muriel Spark

If you ask me how I remember the island, what it was like to be stranded there by misadventure for nearly three months, I would answer that it was a time and landscape of the mind if I did not have the visible signs to summon its materiality: my journal, the cat, the newspaper cuttings, the curiosity of my friends; and my sisters--how they always look at me, I think, as one returned from the dead.


There is no more appropriate island on which to be shipwrecked, I suppos, than one named Robinson. There was Robinson Crusoe, for one, and the Swiss Family Robinson, who weren't actually named Robinson (come on, they were Swiss) but instead were meant to be a Swiss version of Crusoe, and I guess a family version too. Muriel Spark's Robinson cuts through all that nomenclature and presents himself only as "Robinson," and calls the island on which he lives the same. Like the streamlining and concision of all of Spark's novels, here's the island-dwelling icon whittled to his essence.

Robinson lives all alone on his island with his young helper Miguel, and is not exactly pleased when a plane crashes on it. The only survivors are Jimmie Waterford, a Scandinavian (not his real name) who happens to be Robinson's cousin, an oily, disagreeable New Age huckster named Tom Wells, and the protagonist, a young woman named January Marlow. As put out as Robinson is, his guests are even more put out to discover that the next boat out doesn't arrive at Robinson for another three months.

During their time on the island, Robinson cares well for the three survivors, if with a characteristically annoyed detachment. January begins to manifest feelings toward Jimmie, and as it turns out nobody likes Tom Wells. Spark juggles this dynamic for half the book, before suddenly, strangely, Robinson disappears, though his torn, bloody clothes have been left behind en route to a man-sized volcanic fissure in the island's surface. What follows is a tense standoff between the three survivors, while January tries to figure out who the murderer is and if she might be next. It wouldn't be in Spark's style to have this tension descend into violence, but the island is riddled with secret tunnels and provides a good setting for a pretty rousing, if low-key, mystery-adventure tale.

In many ways, Robinson struck me as a "beach read"--fraught with suspense, but light and mildly forgettable. Of course, the writing is a thousand times better than your average Patricia Cornwell book ("the mustard field staring at me with a yellow eye, the blue and green lake seeing in me a hard turquoise stone") and, as in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark does marvelous work making her characters seem full and alive in a minimum of brush strokes.