Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps no fictional character has been as diluted by their own popularity as Sherlock Holmes. Fictional detectives of all stripes--OCD Monk, Shawn Spencer from Psych, Lieutenant Columbo, Hercule Pirot--crib from Holmes's bag of tricks. Even the deerstalker cap and pipe, rarely mentioned in the stories themselves, have become iconic, indicating mystery when they appear in silhouette on the spine of a book.

With that in mind, why even read The Hound of the Baskervilles? Not only is it a story about Sherlock Holmes, familiar to everyone from your grandmother to your niece, it may be the defining story. The title at least has passed into popular parlance, just like the name of its protagonist. That's why those reading it for the first time might be a little surprised at what they find.

Holmes, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is no do-gooder saint. He's an egotistical, arrogant, cocaine-abusing, opium-smoking, lying misanthrope, far from the good-hearted detectives built ostensibly in his mold. He treats his partner and only friend, Dr. Watson, with a mixture of condescension and concern, has no problem with breaking the law to solve his cases, and, really, just doesn't think of the children. However, it's not in spite of his flaws but because of them that Holmes is such an enjoyable creation. He is completely without superstition and without the slightest doubt in his abilities.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of only four Sherlock Holmes novels written by Doyle. Holmes is called into the case by a doctor drawn into a strange case. Charles Baskerville, wealthy landowner, is found dead without a mark on his body, thought to have been felled by a giant black Hell hound who haunts the family. Holmes takes the case, but, unable to go himself, he sends Watson to investigate and report back. Hound stands out from the short stories because Holmes himself is absent from large parts the novel, and the reader is given unfiltered information from Watson's letters back to Holmes. The end of the story, where Holmes captures the criminal and explains his methods is satisfying on a visceral level. Almost nothing is left unanswered, and the plotlines fit like a puzzle. It just works.

That, ultimately, is why reading Sherlock Holmes is still worthwhile. In spite of the doppelgangers, Holmes himself still stands alone, an idiosyncratic literary creation that is often imitated but never duplicated. This year sees the release of two movies based on Sherlock Holmes, one a comedy and one a complete reinvention, starring a gay, karate-kid Sherlock, but for those interested in Sherlock Holmes, the original stories are the place to start.

Bonus: Word Cloud!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Voss by Patrick White

Judd looked up, out of the distance.

"Voss? No. He was never God, though he liked to think that he was. Sometimes, when he forgot, he was a man."

In the mid-19th Century a German named Johann Ulrich Voss sets out to cross the entirety of Australia, at that time even more sparsely populated than it is now, filling in the map that lay blank between the coastal fringes. Voss is brilliant and peculiar; as his beloved, Laura Trevelyan says, Australia is his by "right of vision." But the same force that drives him into Australia blinds him to the reality of his own nature, and he arrogantly leads his troop into their oblivion.

Laura is the niece of Voss' chief investor, and when they meet, they are instantly revulsed by each other, and it isn't until Voss has already set out that he realizes those characteristics that repelled them from each other--their intelligence, emotional coldness, and headstrongness--are the things which they have in common, and immediately writes a letter of proposal. Though they are never truly married, Voss and Laura form a kind of psychic bond: while he wastes away traveling further into the desert, she too, takes mysteriously ill.

Voss was written in 1957, but it could have been written in the time period when it is set. White's prose has a Jamesian richness to it that is betrayed only a strangely abstract sense of description. The book it reminds me most of is Heart of Darkness, another book about traveling into the unknown and frightening heart of a country. As Voss' party ventures futher into the interior, they begin to literally fall apart. The aboriginal guides they take with them ultimately, in a particularly Conrad-like way, revert to tribality. At one point Voss sends back with one aborigine man named Dugald a letter asking Laura's uncle for her hand in marriage, with some notes from the expedition. Dugald, however, discovers another tribe in the bush and begins to feel pulled back toward his ancestral way of life:

With great dignity and some sadness, Dugald broke the remaining seals, and shook out the papers until the black writing was exposed. There were some who were disappointed to see but the pictures of fern roots. A warrior hit the paper with his spear. People were growing impatient and annoyed, as they waited for the old man to tell.

These papers contained the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, explained the traveller, by inspiration: the sad thoughts, the bad, the thoughts that were too heavy, or in any way hurtful. These came out through the white man's writing-stick, down upon paper, and were sent away.

Away, away, the crowd began to menace and call.

The old man folded the papers. With the solemnity of one who has interrupted a mystery, he tore them into little pieces.

How they fluttered.

The women were screaming, and escaping from the white man's bad thoughts.

Some of the men were laughing.

Only Dugald was sad and still, as the pieces of paper fluttered round him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.

Then the men took their weapons, and the women their dillybags, and children, and they all trooped away to the north, where at that season of the year there was much wild life and a plentiful supply of yams. The old man went with them, of course, because they were his people, and they were going in that direction. They went walking through the good grass, and the present absorbed them utterly.

I love that passage, though I fear it's a little bit racist. How heartbreaking it is to know that Voss' proposal will never arrive.

Voss is, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me. It seems to a bit hard to find in A bmerica, which is a shame because White was one of Australia's premier writers and a Nobel laureate as well. I recommend it, if you can get your hands on it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

"Tomorrow," I told my mum, "we meet Mr. Dickens."

She stopped sweeping and thought. "That's a white man's name." She shook her head and spat out the door. "No. You heard wrong, Matilda. Pop Eye is the last white man. There is no other."

"Mr. Watts says there is."

I had heard Mr. Watts speak. I had heard him say he would always be honest with us kids. If he said we were to meet Mr. Dickens, then I felt sure that we would. I was looking forward to seeing another white man. It never occurred to me to ask where this Mr. Dickens had been hiding himself. But then I had no reason to doubt Mr. Watts' word.

My mum must have reconsidered overnight, because next morning when I ran off to school she called me back.

"This Mr. Dickens, Matilda--if you get the chance, why don't you ask him to fix the generator."

Mr. Watts is the only white man left on the island of Bougainville in the South Pacific when the civil war begins, and with the teachers having fled he assumes the role as sole instructor for the children of the island. Resources being what they are in Bougainville (somewhere along the lines of the New York City school system), Mr. Watts has very little to offer, except one thing: he reads to the children aloud every day from an old battered copy of Great Expectations.

But that is enough for young Matilda, the narrator, who is captivated by the story of Pip and his rags-to-riches story. There is something exotic in it--the strangeness of the British culture, the immensity of Victorian London--but also something familiar. The way that Pip grows up in the Marshes without a father reminds her of her own situation, her own father far away in Australia as long as she can remember. As life becomes more chaotic on the island, and the population is caught between the native rebel "rambos" and the "redskins," Great Expectations provides something for Matilda to hold onto amidst the madness of war.

One day Matilda, following the local tradition of writing the names of relatives in the sand (as some sort of prayer? I'm not totally clear), writes PIP on the beach. Not only does this anger her mother, who is pious and highly suspicious of Mr. Watts' lessons on Great Expectations, but it ultimately brings about great tragedy when a redskin soldier sees the name on the beach and demands to have Pip brought forward, thinking it the name of a hiding rebel. With the book caught in a house burnt down by the redskins, Mr. Watts has no choice but to admit to being Pip. Then, as the islanders wait for the redskins to return for what will certainly be the last days of their community, Mr. Watts gathers those who remain on the beach and begins to tell a story that is one part Great Expectations, one part the story of his own life, and one part the tales and folk wisdom of the island. In this way Great Expectations is transformed not just for another culture, but for a specific and singular time and place. Tragedy remains un-averted, but Mr. Watts' lasting legacy is the creation of a communal space that exists beyond physical borders, where the spirit of the community lives on after its destruction.

I bought Mister Pip on the recommendation of, a pretty good book review site which had it as one of the highest recommended books in its index. It's not as good as all that, but it's pretty good. I sat next to a goofy high school sophomore on a plane who read it for class and said he liked it quite a bit; then he asked me if I had "heard of a book called To Kill a Mockingbird." I therefore give this book the Goofy Teenager stamp of approval.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Everyman by Philip Roth

'The pitiful middle-aged wife, embittered by rejection, consumed by rotten jealousy! Raging! Repugnant! Oh, I hate you for that more than anything. Go away, leave this house. I can't bear the sight of you with that satyr-on-his-good-behavior look on your face! You'll get no absolution from me--never! I will not be trifled with any longer! Go, please! Leave me alone!'"

Lest you think for a moment that I've mistyped the author's name, the preceding excerpt was indeed written by Philip Roth, not Tom Wolfe (pause for nervous book-nerd laughter). Everyman is the second book I've read by Roth, and, in addition to not being particularly compelling in general, it suffered especially following the very interesting The Counterlife.

Everyman, in spite of its inclusive title, is the story of one very specific man, the son of a Jewish jeweler from Newark. The protagonist, never given a name and heretofore referred to as Philip, has an generous and loving older brother whom he resents for his sterling health, a string of jilted wives and lovers, each one sacrificed upon the altar of youth and sexual desire, a daughter who is forgiving to a fault, and a laundry list of medical conditions and hospital visits that take up the bulk of Everyman's already slim 180 pages.

Roth is aging, and, since many of his protagonists are doppelgangers of himself, his avatars are aging as well. Roth's preoccupation with death and the capital-E End are the centerpieces of the work, the themes completely overpowering any overarching storyline. Instead, the story starts at Philip's funeral and then jumps back to his childhood, recounting a series of vignettes interspersed with the aforementioned hospital visits. The interesting thing about these glimpses into the past is that most of them don't do much to round out the character of Philip. In a book so tightly-focused, I expected a character study, some deep insight into the everyman of the story, but instead, Roth's chosen episodes don't do much more than illustrate Philip's selfish attitude and his willingness to betray and injure anyone or anything that would prevent his carnal pleasures.

In the closing pages, Philip calls friends he's known, each one sicker than the last, and talks to them about their lives, but he never achieves any sort of profundity. On the subject of religion, Roth deigns to say nothing more than that it is childish. Friends are disposable, there to talk to if situations grow too bleak, but can be used as stepping stones with no remorse. Women are challenges, puzzles that become nothing but yesterday's static image when completed. Philip regrets that he can no longer sleep with 25-year-old girls and that he will never match his brother's success. The lives he's wrecked, the things he's sacrificed, not a thought for them. That's the problem with Roth's everyman: He doesn't want to die, but, seeing his life in panorama, it's hard for me to care. Not all stories need a likable protagonist; everything is not a tale of redemption, but with Everyman, I can't help but wonder what Roth was shooting for. His themes are writ large: DEATH, OLD AGE, SICKNESS, but the themes are ends in themselves, and are barely explored in the narrative itself, which essentially concludes that death is to be avoided and old age sucks. Philip himself is nothing special either. His character fails to illustrate anything unique. In that sense, he is the everyman promised in the title. At the same time, he fails as a prototype because he's either a strawman made up of a repulsive stew of attributes no average man would exhibit, or a terrible person whose death doesn't seem terribly tragic to anyone but him.

In the end, when Philip goes in for his final operation, we are told:

He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without knowing it. Just as he'd feared from the start.

As a nihilist tract, Everyman succeeds admirably. As a piece of literature, I confess, the message eludes me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger

Also reviewed by Brooke and Carlton.

Salinger continues to amaze me with just how much he can do with so little. The 200-odd pages of Franny and Zooey contain less plot than I think any book I've ever read: Franny meets her boyfriend and they eat at a restaurant, where she collapses. The next day, she is recuperating at home where her mother convinces her brother, Zooey, to have a conversation with her. That's it. And yet Salinger is able to give forty- and fifty-page conversations the unmistakeable patina of reality that writers work for decades to capture.

I think what impresses me most is that the characters are not ordinary--Franny and Zooey are members of the Glass Family (elsewhere investigated by Salinger in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and the underrated "Down at the Dinghy"), and as children were noted intellectuals who appeared on a radio program called "It's a Wise Child." As I've noted before, a lot of Salinger's work has a common theme running through it: the tendency of precocious children to grow into neurotic and unstable adults. Franny's collapse is brought on by an obsession with the "Jesus Prayer," a ritualistic prayer meant to be repeated over and over until the heart and mind are in communion with the lips. Zooey is brilliant and physically attractive, as well as a successful actor, but is emotionally distant and has difficulty communicating genuinely with his family.

Salinger's opus is really something to be hold, and though his literary output is small I think that each of his three books that I've read really deepens my understanding of the others--even Catcher in the Rye, itself not about any member of the Glass family, is supposedly written by one of the Glass brothers, Buddy (as well as several of Salinger's non-Glass stories). I think that much of that is probably revisionism, but it neatly supplies a physical thread that excuses the thematic simialrity of all of Salinger's work: when we view Holden Caulfield, who is incapable of dealing fully with the death of his older brother Allie, as the creation of Buddy Glass, brother of a suicide, we begin to understand the depth of Buddy's grief, which is only glanced at otherwise. I can't say that Franny and Zooey is my favorite of Salinger's stuff--in fact I think it suffers severely upon comparison to Catcher and Nine Stories--but I love it for the way it enhances my understanding of those books, and in turn is enhanced by them.

Note: My copy of this book was once owned by Michael Peterson, a wealthy North Carolina man infamously convicted of killing his wife five or six years ago. I left that in a bar and had to borrow another copy from Nathan. Maybe the book is cursed?

The Counterlife by Philip Roth

Standing singly at the Wall, some rapidly swaying and rhythmically bobbing as they recited their prayers, others motionless but for the lightning flutter of their mouths, were seventeen of the world’s twelve million Jewish communing with the King of the Universe. To me it looked as though they were communing solely with the stones in whose crevices pigeons were roosting some twenty feet above their heads. I thought (as I am predisposed to think), “If there is a God who plays a role in our world, I will eat every hat in this town”

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but be gripped by the sight of this rock-worship, exemplifying as it did to me the most awesomely retarded aspect of the human mind. Rock is just right, I thought: what on earth could be less responsive? Even the cloud drifting by overhead. . . appeared less indifferent to our encompassed and uncertain existence. I think that I would have felt less detached from seventeen Jews who openly admitted that they were talking to rock than from these seventeen who imagined themselves telexing the Creator directly; had I known for sure it was rock and rock alone that they knew they were addressing, I might even have joined in.

While reading The Counterlife, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace's overview of John Updike's career where he says, as Chris mentions in his review of Updike's The Centaur, that all of Updike's protagonists are just portraits of himself. While that may or may not be true (I haven't read any Updike yet, so I can't say), I think that criticism applies more fully to Philip Roth.

Anyone who is even passingly familiar with Roth's body of work knows that Nathan Zuckerman is Roth's avatar in his fictional universe. Roth has Portnoy's Complaint, Zuckerman, Carnovsky. Both make their living on Jewishness, dissecting and dwelling on it while at the same tie denying its effects on their lives. Both have trouble with marriage and family, both are obsessed with sex—it is fitting that The Counterlife showcases Roth and Zuckerman in equal measures.

Roth doesn't show up in person, as in some of hi other works. Rather, the author becomes a character through proxy as a result of the books semi-biographical content and its metafictional structure. Split up into five connected but non-sequential sections, The Counterlife is a literary puzzle disguised as a realistic novel, an experimental cipher with no ultimate solution. Roth himself becomes a character because, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that the author is the only character who truly exists. Characters die in one section and are resurrected in the next. In “Basel”, Henry Zuckerman, Nathan's younger brother, dies during a heart operation. In “Gloucestershire”, it's Nathan who's dead. In “Christendom”, Nathan is healthy and free; “Judea” and “Aloft” are the only two sections which seem to be chronologically connected, “Judea” ending with Nathan leaving Israel after visiting Henry who, now alive after dying in “Basel”, has become a radical Zionist, and ending with Nathan caught up in the middle of a hijacking.

If all this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but only until the conceit becomes clear. When read as standalone variations of the same basic plot, the search for a “Counterlife”, an alternate path, the structure makes sense. How else to have the same characters make different decisions? It is impossible that Zuckerman (both Henry and Nathan) die and live, but the strength of fiction is that nothing is truly impossible, that if a decision leads to arrest on a jet, well, we can start over again, back in England, no worse for wear.

Roth's Jewish fixation takes center stage, exhibiting both as Henry's radical Zionism and Nathan's response to it in “Judea/Aloft”, as Nathan's previously untapped wells of racial sensitivity in “Christendom”, and in the idea that Nathan (and Roth himself) still feels a deep-seated compulsion to defend his Jewishness, to stay in touch with a deep Zionist urge that Roth indicates lies at the bottom of all Jewish conflict. The Counterlife sometimes seems like a Roth apologia, his explanation for why a secular Jew who considers religion childish would spend his writing career sifting through through the strata some Semetic identity he can believe in.

No conclusion could hope to be completely satisfying, but then, what conclusions does The Counterlife actually draw? Roth uses the multiple narrative structure as a way to pull the ground out from under the reader, never letting us know what is real and what is not. While reading, I decided “Gloucestershire” had the best chance of being true, since it didn't seem invalidated in other parts of the work. Knowing now, however, that Nathan has appeared in later novels by Roth (and also that Zuckerman himself may be a construction of another fictional author of Roth's, forming a Russian doll writer's bloc), it seems most likely that nothing in the book is true at all. On the other hand, Roth takes great pains, both in the narrative itself and in interviews discussing the work, to point out that The Counterlife is only a story, regardless of the parallels to his own life, and in a story, anything can be true. In a sense, The Counterlife forces us to do that same thing its inhabitants do: to make a choice, any choice, even if we aren't sure it's the right one.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Centaur by John Updike

As my father and I strode along the pavement that divided the school side lawn from Hummel's alley, a little whirlwind sprang up before us and led us along. Leaves long dead and brittle as old butterfly wings, an aqua candy wrapper, flecks and dust and seed-sized snips of gutter chaff all hurried in a rustling revolution to our eyes; a distinctly circular invisible presence outlined itself on the walk. It danced from one margin of grass to another and sighed its senseless word; my instinct was to halt but my father kept striding. His pants flapped, something sucked my ankles. I closed my eyes. When I looked behind us, the whirlwind was nowhere to be seen.

In the school we parted. A student, I was held by regulations to this side of the wire-reinforced doors. He pushed through and walked down the long hall, his head held high, his hair fluffed from the removal of his blue knit cap, his heels pounding the varnished boards. Smaller and smaller he grew along their perspective; at the far door he became a shadow, a moth, impaled on the light he pressed against. The door yielded; he disappeared. With a grip of sweat, terror seized me.

John Updike passed away a month ago; though I could try I do not think I would be able to make a better encomium than any of the hundreds that have already been published. Slate published a slew of them, including what I thought was a pretty incoherent one by John Irving, and a tangential one by Christopher Hitchens. The best are a series of shorter obituaries that Slate published together; among my favorites is editor Anne Fadiman's, whose piece ends simply, "Can it really be that John Updike will never write another sentence?" Should one of my favorite authors die tomorrow, I might lament that they will never write a book, but true to Fadiman's sentiment, it's Updike's sentences that seem to leave the deepest hollow: miniature masterpieces like Rabbit Angstrom moving along the street like a shark, or dreaming of his own immortality, or Peter Caldwell watching his father disappear, shrinking to a "moth... impaled on the light he pressed against."

In his obituary on Slate, Steely Dan founder Donald Fagen notes David Foster Wallace's protest that Updike's characters are all veiled portraits of himself, ""incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous," and chauvinistic. But The Centaur ought to put that notion to rest, because its protagonist, George Caldwell, is defined by a selflessness that is almost nauseating. Caldwell is modeled after Chiron, the centaur and great teacher of myth who was accidentally hit by a poisoned arrow. Plagued by the wound, he begged Zeus to die, and that by doing so he might redeem the sin of Prometheus, who had long ago stolen fire from the gods. Frequently in the narrative Updike switches from Caldwell to Chiron without warning, at one point depicting him as a modern-day schoolteacher and the next an ancient demigod.

In fact, everyone in the book has a mythological counterpart: Peter, George's son, is Prometheus, who is deeply embarrassed by his father's selflessness, though he doesn't realize the depth and sincerity of his father's sacrifice. A drunk is Dionysius, the principal is Zeus--and so on and so on, all cross-indexed in the back.

A classicist might have fun trying to identify the second identity of each character, but I think that the book ultimately suffers by this gimmick, which would have been less muddled without the mythological veneer Updike imposes on it. As in the Rabbit Angstrom novels, Updike dots The Centaur with moments of unparalleled prose, but here I am left wondering to what they all add up. The novelty of this kind of modernism was really exhausted with Joyce; here, where he would imbue the myth with heart and pathos, Updike too often creates a distraction from the novel.

Of course, much is required from greatness and Updike's less successful books are still better than most, and when the guessing-game is ignored, a pithy and powerful book remains: The plot is thin, following Caldwell and his son over a stretch of three days where they are prevented from returning home by car trouble and snow. Caldwell would do anything for Peter, but it is unclear what there is to be done, and Peter is increasingly resentful of what he sees as his father's weak nature. Caldwell is Chiron, who wants nothing more to give himself for others, and by extension is also a commentary on the nature of Christ.

At any rate, perhaps it would be fitting to say that Caldwell has as much of Updike, who gave of himself in scores and scores of books, in him as Rabbit Angstrom, whose selfishness and audacity are secondary only to his humanity.

Also: This is the 600th post on this blog! Hooray!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Case is a ruined hacker whose skills are once again needed! Along with his ragtag band of partners, including a ninja-girl with blades in her fingernails, a psychopath who can cause hallucinations, an entire space station worth of Rastafarians, and a crazy former general, Case ventures deep into the cyberspace Sprawl to take on a rouge AI before it's too late!


- Neuromancer is probably more famous for the accuracy of its predictions as it is its actual plot. According to the wiki, the terms “cyberspace”, “ice” (in connection with computerized safeguards), and “the matrix” were all either invented or popularized in its pages. Further, it predicted to a large extent what the web wouldn't be for another two decades. Strip away the virtual reality trappings of Gibson's cyberspace, and it's a place similar to the modern-day internet. Concepts of social networking, Second Life, hacking, and even the Wild West-style anarchy that is 4chan can be found.

- The near-future world Gibson created is compelling, much more so than the characters he creates to inhabit it (more on that later). Virtually everyone has physical enhancements, ranging from computerized hearts to hologram projectors. Things are relentlessly dark, and, although not much time is spent on it, the populace appears to spend most of its free time trying to escape the real world--in clubs, in the Sprawl, and out of their heads on all sorts of substances.

- The writing itself is good, if sometimes a bit florid. Gibson has a gift for description, and uses it well, especially when setting scenes early on in the novel.


- For the most part, the characters are flat. Case himself is defined sparely with his hacking history and reliance of drugs. Molly is a ninja with blades in her fingers, and, although she isn't overly developed either, she's given the only really introspective scene in the novel, where, through a headset from miles away, she tells Cash about the death of her lover at the hands of the Yakuza.

- On the subject of characters, I'm still confused about what Case's function within the group was. (MILD SPOILERS) He's said to be an accomplished hacker, one of the best, but we never see him do anything particularly impressive. His greatest triumph, breaking through the “ice” surrounding Wintermute, is accomplished by a) commanding an AI construct of a dead hacker to get him to the ice (which, in the Sprawl, exists in some sort of virtually physical space), and b) running a program he purchased from some other hackers. Considering the money his employer spends to add him to the team, it seems like they could have outsourced his job to a trained monkey and gotten similar results.

- The plot is strange. I have no problem with complex plots, but while Neuromancer is positively stuffed with ideas, excising a few of the weaker ones, such as the aforementioned Rastafarian space station, would have tightened the narrative considerably. The first half , while the team is being assembled and the world is being explored, is the most involving. Once the mission gets underway, though, it begins to fragment, finally climaxing with a sort-of twist that seems to come out of the blue.

- The (SPOILER!) sex scene is kind of strangely explicit, both considering the tone of the book as a whole and the aspects the scene itself focuses on.

Ultimately, my main complaint with Neuromancer is that it never really pulled me in, or, rather, it pulled me in and then lost me as the characters and world took second place to a plot that was less interesting than they were. If the whole story had focused on Molly, I would have gotten more out of it.

Between my middling feelings toward Neuromancer and my seeming inability to finish Snow Crash, I doubt cyberpunk will ever be my favorite genre. My summary is too cursory, but on the other hand, aside from going into extreme detail about the plot, I don't know what else to say about it. I'm glad I read it, and I am going to finish Snow Crash (which, in spite of sometimes falling into cool-for-the-sake-of-it territory has stronger characters), but I don't think I'll be buying shuriken anytime soon.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kilbrack by Jamie O'Neill

Killbrack is the story of O'Leary Montageu, a badly-scarred, delusional amnesiac who travels to the small Irish town of Kilbrack. He makes the visit with the intention of writing an autobiography of Nancy Valentine, a mysterious author whose self-published memoirs have become the controlling factor of his life. Upon arriving, he discovers that town, its inhabitants and Nancy Valentine herself may not be what he expected.

I looked through this book after I finished it to find a good excerpt for the top of this review, but after a little searching, I realized that the humor and O'Neill's breezy but elegant style don't really lend themselves to short excerpts. The entire book is a cohesive whole, ensemble cast story that's part black comedy, part coming-of-age, part meta-fiction. It's very funny but never in a beat-you-over the head sort of way. O'Neill describes both everyday foibles and O'Leary's delusions with equal skill. The mysteries (Who is Nancy Valentine? Who is O'Leary?) are well-woven into the narrative, but if the book has a weakness, it's that the plot isn't as interesting as the characters and the prose, and, when the book begins winding down and tying up its plotlines, it loses some steam.

Still, it's a quick, literary read, funny and thought-provoking, and it's got a really classy-looking cover. What else can you ask for?

Edit: Upon looking for further information about this book and its author, it looks like Kilbrack is out of print. Too bad.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tweak by Nic Sheff

I'd been sober exactly eighteen months on April 1st, just two days ago. I'd made so much progress. My life was suddenly working, you know? I had a steady job at a rehab in Malibu. I'd gotten back all these things I'd lost - car, apartment, my relationship with my family. It'd seemed like, after countless rehabs and sober livings, I had finally beaten my drug problem. And yet there I was, standing on Haight Street, drunk on Stoli and stoned on Ambien, which I'd stolen from the med room at that rehab.

Honestly, I was as surprised by my own actions as anyone else.

"Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines" is author Nic Sheff's memoirs of his last two relapses into drug abuse. Nic is the son of David Sheff, the "Beautiful Boy" in the title of the elder Sheff's own memoir. When I reviewed that book, I mentioned that I planned on reading Nic's version of the events. I'm glad I did, but I'm happy that I waited a few weeks, rather than read the two books as the companion volumes that so many critics are making them out to be.

Tweak starts with the first of Nic's most recent relapses. Nic doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on the whys of each relapse episode. He doesn't really get very introspective until the end of the book, when a dual diagnosis (mental illness and addiction) rehab center helps him get to the root of the psychological basis for his addictions. For most of the book, Nic just details the horrors of his present, and even the relative bleakness of his year of sobriety in between his two latest relapses.

One thing I found interesting was Nic's pervasive feelings of worthlessness and his need to use others for his own self-validation. He particularly falls into this with his relationships. Each of Nic's relapses coincides with a relationship. In the first, he meets up with and dates old friend and recovering addict Lauren only after his relapse, causing her to relapse as well. The two spend a drug fueled month holed up in her parents' home why they are away, alternately shooting up mixtures of meth and heroin or having sex. It takes getting away from Lauren for Nic to achieve sobriety after that month, only after stealing from parents' and friends' homes and dealing meth with a street kid named Gack for money. Although Nic and Lauren profess to love one another, Nic notes that he has never spent time with Lauren sober. This relationship and relapse seem minor compared with the second Nic details.

While sober, Nic is consumed by feelings of depression, mania, and worthlessness. He writes about considering going back to Lauren, reasoning, "I know she had problems, but at least I had a girlfriend. So far I haven't met anyone that I could possibly have a relationship with. That is a big thing for me. I've always felt sort of worthless if I didn't have a girlfriend."

Throughout the book, Nic writes about episodes of his life from when he was younger, or from other relapses. He describes letting gay men have sex with him for money to buy drugs, and stealing cancer medication and needles from his girlfriend's mom's house to get high. He describes his "unconventional" childhood, being toted around with his single dad to movie previews, parties and around San Francisco. He describes being a little boy and running into his dad's bedroom one morning to find a naked woman in bed too. This was the late 1980s in San Francisco and precocious Nic's first worry is that his dad will catch AIDs. It is only after his dad shows him with a condom and a banana how he is protecting himself that Nic feels better. Nic writes that, "My dad used to tell that story to his friends like it was really funny and cool," subtly digging at his unsheltered upbringing.

The second half of Tweak is dominated by Nic's latest relapse, spurred in part by his relationship with Zelda, the love of his life. Zelda ("Z" from Beautiful Boy) is 15 years older than Nic, divorced and Hollywood royalty. Nic feels validated just by being with her and their friends, a group of writers, actors and other Hollywood elite. He is so defined by these relationships that at his last rehab, he is put on a "no name-dropping" contract so he can no longer use his connections to brag. Zelda is pretty damaged, the product of many failed relationships and a drug addicted mother who committed suicide by hanging herself.

Nic and Zelda become completely codependent on one another and the book becomes a twisted drug-addled love story towards the end. They find themselves getting engaged while high one night, selling their possessions for drug money, and fighting constantly while strung out and psychotic from meth, Suboxone, heroin, coke, crack, benzos (it's a product of my sheltered upbringing that I don't even know what those are...Nic doesn't elaborate), and various other prescription drugs. Nic finally bottoms out when he gets stuck in a psychotic break in his own mother's garage while trying to break into her house and steal a computer. His parents offer him a last chance: rehab or they press charges and he goes to jail.

Nic reluctantly chooses rehab, and in the process learns more about his underlying need for validation, his connections between sex and self-validation, his underlying diagnosis of bipolar disorder and his tendencies towards codependent relationships. He writes in Tweak's final chapters that he is finally listening to his feelings and beginning to grieve for the time he has lost and the experiences he has put himself through. The book ends on a hopeful note, despite his parents' reluctance to fully believe in his sobriety, having been through rehab so often with him.

Nic's story was more critical of his parents and upbringing than I would have thought going into it. He describes his ruined relationship with stepmother Karen and his dislike of his stepfather Todd, who he doesn't feel treats his mom well. He describes his dad as his best friend and hero in one breath and denounces his over exposed childhood in another. He writes that the long distance dual-custody arrangement put him directly in the middle of his parents' bickering and that they constantly subjected him to their tirades against one another. At the same time, he recognizes that what he has put his parents through during his relapses far surpasses any anger he feels towards them.

This was a very graphic book, typical of the addiction and recovery memoirs I've read, both YA and adult (Go Ask Alice, Smack, Million Little Pieces). Nic spares no detail in describing his drug-fueled marathon sex with Lauren and Zelda; an orgy he participated in as a sex worker; a festering wound from a dirty needle that abscessed and nearly caused him to lose his arm; the struggle to find a vein that hasn't collapsed in the middle of his relapses. It's definitely an interesting and quick read. I'm glad I read it, because David Sheff presents himself as a bit of a martyr in "Beautiful Boy." Tweak allows us to see the struggle on the other side. I'm not excusing anything Nic does (he doesn't ask readers to), but it is interesting to read about the influences Nic was exposed to growing up.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

ok, so it's been a month or so since i read this book, so this review is going to be pretty weak, but i'll do my best anyway.

i had read gladwell's other books (the tipping point and blink) and loved them and this was no different. they are all simply fascinating. i sometimes wonder whether i should have been a psych major or minor or something because the field really intrigues me. but anyway, some of my favorite parts of the book were the sections about education and about southern chivalry. i found it very interesting that, according to gladwell, the biggest difference between poorer and wealthier schools was the amount of information the kids retained over the summer. i realized that the summer reading programs that i had growing up played a big part in my current love for reading and tried to convey that to chris, telling him that he should make his students have a summer reading program, but he just laughed at me...

i also thought the chapter on backwoods family feuds in rural areas of southern states and the manifestations in our city slicker lives was very interesting. i can't really remember much about it, though, so i guess y'all will just have to go read it for yourselves. you can skip the last chapter, though, it's kinda pointless.

one of the major premises of the book is that the most successful people (like rockefeller and bill gates) were not only very talented, but more importantly in the right place at the right time. at first this might seem a little depressing, because most of us probably won't be in that perfect confluence of events that leads to superstardom. on the other hand, and the way i tend to look at it, this theory kind of gives the rest of us an excuse. you can still be very successful without being ridiculous like some of the people in this book, but if you ascribe to this theory you have an excuse if you're not ridiculous. so next time someone says, "wow, so and so invented the flying car/perfect popcorn cooking microwave by the time he/she was 24. what the hell had you accomplished at 24?" just be like, "shit, if i had lived next to the flooberdom mine when i was 20 then i might have invented flying cars, too..." (and if you're wondering, the answer is yes, i do believe the key to flying cars is a yet undiscovered substance called flooberdom).

but yeah, i give this book an 8 out of 10. very quick read, very interesting

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

There is no golden afternoon next to the cliff. When the sun went over it at about two o'clock a whispering shade came to the beach. The sycamores rustled in the afternoon breeze. Little water snakes slipped down to the rocks and then gently entered the water and swam along through the pool, their heads held up like little periscopes and a tiny wake spreading behind them. A big trout jumped in the pool. The gnats and mosquitoes which avoid the sun came out and buzzed over the water. All of the sun bugs, the flies, the dragonflies, the wasps, the hornets, went home. And as the shadow came to the beach, as the first quail began to call, Mack and the boys awakened. The smell of the chicken stew was heartbreaking. Hazel had picked a fresh bay leaf from a tree by the river and he had dropped it in. The carrots were in now. Coffee in its own can was simmering on its own rock, far enough from the flame so that it did not boil too hard. Mack awakened, started up, stretched, staggered to the pool, washed his face with cupped hands, hacked, spat, washed his mouth, broke wind, tightened his belt, scratched his legs, combed his wet hair with his fingers, drank from the jug, belched and sat down by the fire. "By God that smells good," he said.
I should've read this in high school, back when living out that scene was my daydream and greatest aspiration. That outdoor beatnik lifestyle, the zen-like indifference to materialism, poverty and public image, that's what I got from Cannery Row. This is a street (like, for real) in Monterey, California lined with sardine canneries and, by Steinbeck's telling, a very respectable whorehouse, Lee Chong's grocery, and a marine biology lab, populated by a close-knit community of starving artists, care-free bums, and assorted destitute but kind-hearted individuals.

Much of the book is based on Steinbeck's own experience in Monterey, and I know that at least one character, Doc, the marine biologist, is based on a close friend of his. Doc, a man after my own heart, has a passion for beer, octopi, Gregorian chanting, and women, and is a well-loved and well-known figure in the small neighborhood. Mack and the boys are a kindly gang of bums whose MO is to obtain and imbibe whiskey, or anything they can get. Mack is brilliant, and through his shrewd dealings they manage to get a house (The Palace Flophouse and Grill), and spend most of the novel trying to do something nice to repay Doc for all of his kindness. But most of their good intentions go awry for the same reasons that they became bums in the first place: inability or disinterest in worrying over anything other than pleasure and friendship.

The novel is really a collection of short stories centered around Cannery Row, telling the individual dramas and comedies of its residents. Doc and Mack and the boys are the most recurring and pivotal characters, and really the only drawn-out plotline. Just the stories on their own are wonderful for their humor and the quirks and tics of each resident. Collected, they're all a testament to the vibrance and ingenuity that thrives in a place familiar with poverty. The closest the book comes to philosophizing is Doc's revelation that Mack and the boys are better off than most:
Doc said, "Look at them. There are your true philosophers, I think," he went on, "that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that ever will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else." This speech so dried out Doc's throat that he drained his beer glass. He waved two fingers in the air and smiled. "There's nothing like that first taste of beer," he said.
I don't think that could ever not be relevant. It fit in the 1940's, and it fits now. It was kind of a shock to go from John Updike's overwhelmingly complex, strikingly human Rabbit to Steinbeck's whimsical Doc and Mack, who are mostly simple and straightforward, sort of fleshed out personality traits and desires. I've been reading that Steinbeck's other works are much more serious, and not nearly as lighthearted, so I'm glad to have stared with this one. I found absolutely nothing to dislike about this book. It might not be a symbol-ridden, broad-reaching metaphor for the human condition, but it's beautifully nostalgic and simple, and makes me wish I lived in Monterey.

John Updike worked for The New Yorker at 25 and was a successful author by 27. John Steinbeck was first a chemist, an apprentice painter, hod-carrier (had to Wikipedia that one), estate caretaker, Big Sur surveyor, and itinerant fruit picker. Keep hope alive!

EDIT: I forgot to mention how much I love paperbacks that were printed before I was born. This one is about eight months older than me.

The 2009 Tournament of Books

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year again. Spring is just around the corner, Bradford pear trees are blossoming all throughout North Carolina, filling the air with that ungodly, rotting fish stink, and The Morning News is holding their 5th annual, March Madness-style Tournament of books.
Past winners have been pretty damn fine books: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Accidental by Ali Smith, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and, last year's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (did you like that accent mark?). I haven't read that last one, but I know Chris has.

This year's contenders look to be top notch, I was hoping to read White Tiger, 2666 and Unaccostomed Earth anyway. Even if you don't read the books, which, I promise you, I won't, it's fun to follow, if you're a nerd. And if you're posting on or reading this blog, then that you are. And they have a peanut gallery type comments section after each review that I'm pretty sure was inspired by our own here at Fifty Books Project.

So, this years book list has been released, and Powell's is selling all of them for 30% off each.

My primary motivation in posting this now is that Jean Claude Van Damm is driving me batshit crazy.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

It all started with Twilight. This summer I went on a business trip to Salt Lake City. While I was there, the last book in Stephanie Meyers' Twilight series was released at midnight. After seeing countless girls and women (no dudes) waiting in line hours before the release, I walked into the Barnes and Noble and casually edged by the vampire book table. Yes, every Barnes and Noble or Borders worth their salt has a vampire table now. I wasn't really keen on being seen actually looking at a book on the cheesily decorated vampire table...nevermind buying one then.

It took a few more months (and some friends' testimonials) to actually buy Twilight. Which I read in a night. I finished the series in 5 days. In order to do this, I read in public. I read at work. I read on the Metro. I removed the covers from the books so people wouldn't realize I was reading the newest tween phenomenon. I loved those books. And I covertly began recommending the book to my friends. Well, the ones who wouldn't make fun of me.

So when I heard about this series, the "Southern Vampire" books or the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels, I was more open-minded. I checked one out at the library. I was well-pleased by its glittery cover. My esteem for it was bolstered by the fact that a new HBO series, TrueBlood, was based on it. And while it didn't quite live up to Twilight, it was pretty good. Not literary masterpiece good (by far), but entertaining.

Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress living in Northern Louisiana, a few years after vampires, now a nationally recognized minority group, have "come out of the coffin." Sookie is a sweet girl but doesn't have much luck with the menfolk because she can read their minds. However, most people in town don't really believe she has a special power. The just think she's kind of crazy. Sookie meets a vampire for the first time when one named Bill walks into her bar one night. Typical romance novel ensues for a bit - he senses she's different, she saves his life, he saves hers, they start to date, have descriptive-but-not-graphic sex scenes. Their relationship unfolds along the backdrop of a string of unsolved murders in town. Additionally, it turns out that some other vampires, ones that aren't trying to "mainstream" into human society like Bill, get a whiff of Sookie's gift. Bill and Sookie find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery and protect Sookie from some vampires that really, really vant to suck her blood (haha).

This book was great for what I wanted right now - something light and fun after the dryer book I just finished. I wouldn't recommend it to any of you guys, it's definitely a chick book. I don't even know if I'd recommend it to all Twilight fans. Twilight had a little something extra going on, kind of a darkly gothic vibe. This book, even given its subject matter, was strictly romance and mystery. No undertones. And for all you haters out there (Mr. Chilton), I fully recognize that this book is no literary treasure. Some lines were awkwardly red-neck, and Bill and Sookie's relationship was a little too earnest at times for the lighthearted spirit of the rest of the book. Overall, this book probably falls somewhere in between The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada in the great literary scheme of things.

I'm totally going to read the other 8 books in these series. And blog about them. But not right away. Next, I need to read something just a touch more edifying. And then, when I'm ready, I'll return to Sookie and Bill.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

As a shark nudges silent creases of water ahead of it, the green fender makes ripples of air that break against the back of Rabbit's knees. The faster he walks the harder these ripples break. Behind his ear a childishly twanging voice pipes, "I beg your pardon. Are you Harry Angstrom?"
With a falling sensation of telling a lie Rabbit turns and half-whispers, "Yes."
I don't even know where to begin. Chris swore this book was amazing, and it delivered. It was a little eerie, too, that I picked this up just one day before John Updike died. Now I can say that I truly appreciate the greatness that we've lost.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is 26, married with one child and another on the way, and living in the suburbs of a small city in Pennsylvania. Rabbit was a regional basketball star in high school, something that he clings to as validation of his self now that he sells vegetable peelers to housewives. He also has one of the best names ever, and earned himself a place on my list ("Nathan's Favorite Names of Northeastern American Literature 2009"). Harry's frustration with his life, small in comparison to his brief fame, is omnipresent throughout the book, and stifling at times. His tendency to flee an uncomfortable, or less than ideal, situation results in darker consequences than I'd expected. This is a person totally absorbed in pursuing his desires completely, however much they change moment by moment. His train of thought flits from love to hate to remembering wondering as a child if pine trees would cushion your fall from a great height. Rabbit seems incapable of empathy, which must be nice, to some degree, to feel guiltless in following your every whim to the letter. But for being so flighty, Rabbit has some moments of surprising clarity.
"I'll tell you," he says. "When I ran from Janice I made an interesting discovery. If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price."
So sad and true, that sometimes to really be true to your self, you'll have to break someone else's heart. Fortunately for the sake of the story, Rabbit doesn't compromise. His heart leads him from his wife and back again several times, never showing much remorse, and justifying his actions with the thinnest excuses (such as "if she had said the right thing right before I left I definitely would have stayed").

What's most amazing is Updike's incredible insight into the human mind. His invented observance of every character's tics and motivations and inner thoughts are so believable as to be chilling, and definitely gripping. Following Rabbit's own inner-workings somehow manages to make such a despicable, thoughtless person seem sympathetic, like he doesn't know any better. And his prose is fuller and richer than I felt after downing a dozen donuts on Saturday. I was nervous writing this review, because there's no hope of me doing Updike and his writing any justice. Without a doubt, read this book.

Has anyone read Rabbit Redux or Rabbit is Rich? I want more Updike.

Moby Dick; or the Whale by Herman Melville

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp--yet all these ran into each other in one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.

So what can a schmuck such as I say about Moby Dick, the great American novel, that hasn't already been said? I really don't suppose much. You know the story, so I shan't split my lungs with blood and thunder with a long summary: A young narrator describes his voyage on the Pequod, a Whaler out of Nantucket. Sperm whales are the target, and the ship's resident monopode, Captain Ahab, has a personal vendetta against the leviathan that mutilated him. The insanity of Ahab's crusade eventually leads to the demise of craft and crew. Moby Dick is one of those stories that everyone knows by the age of 10, it's become a sort of American fairy tale.

What amazed me about Moby Dick was that even though I had foresight of every major plot point, Melville still managed to blow me away through his mastery of the written word. I've read a bunch of classics before and, more often than not, they fail to live up to the hype. For me, Moby Dick lies with Great Expectations as one of the rare examples of a classic that seemed just as good as everyone told me it would be. Choosing the sample passage for this review was a crapshoot. Usually as I read, I mark a passage that strikes me as particularly well-written. By the end, a good book will generally have 4-5 passages I deem noteworthy. My copy* of Moby Dick is so marked up with pen and highlighter that it looks as if I was trying to proofread it. There are so many perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs that I want to commit to memory.

In discussing the story with a friend the other day, it struck me that Moby Dick is very much a man's book. Not in the sense that woman can't comprehend it as well as men can (even though they do have a brain a third the size of ours, its science). It's that this story and its entirely male cast are so infused with the male ethos that I think a Y-chromosome is necessary to experience the story as Melville intended. The unrelenting fury of Ahab's revenge, the limitless energy it delivers him, Ishmael's wanderer's spirit. It's just... maleness. Maybe that's sexist. I've done everything I could to keep this paragraph from being chauvinistic, but I suppose it is what it is. In the great words of Jay-Z, Ladies is pimps, too. But there are reasons why I like Die Hard and my sister likes Sex and the City. We're just built differently, body and mind.

Like I started the review with, there's very little insight I can make into this novel that hasn't already been made. But I'll say this, if you've never read Moby Dick unabridged, do so. It's a daunting book, with a reputation for befuddlement. It really is, I think, the greatest American novel. Melville can wow you with his prose even in describing the migration patterns of the Pequod's quarry.

Highlights: "Oh, many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend." The first page's descriptions of every man's subconscious draw to the sea, Melville's thoughts on paying and being paid. The entire god damn book.
Lowlights: All of the awesome double-entendre inherent in a book about hunting sperm whales.

* I remember now that it's actually a friend's copy, so I hope they doesn't mind the notations.

Addendum - I'm making it a point, henceforth, to include relevant hip-hop lyrics in the rest of my reviews.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Last of Mr. Norris by Christopher Isherwood

I had planned on reading all of Isherwood's The Berlin Stories, which is basically two novels sandwiched together: This, The Last of Mr. Norris, and Goodbye to Berlin, which is the basis of the musical Cabaret. I've never seen Cabaret, but I think the idea is pretty intriguing--a bunch of non-German socialites fritter their time away with trivialities while Berlin succumbs to Nazism.

But I needed a break after The Last of Mr. Norris, so I'm reading (and posting) these as two separate novels. While not really bad, or even unpleasant, I found there just wasn't enough in The Last of Mr. Norris to keep me interested; in fact, I'm not totally sure what to say in this review.

Mr. Norris is Arthur Norris, a seemingly well-to-do Englishman (or American? I think he's English) living in Berlin who makes the acquaintance of Bill Bradshaw, the narrator. Bradshaw falls head-over-heels in bromantic love for Arthur, though I admit I don't get the appeal: Isherwood seems to suggest that Arthur is a genteel and affable rapscallion but really he's kind of obnoxious. He seems to abound in wealth and taste; I think perhaps those traits carry less weight with a modern reader than they did in the mid-century.

Arthur is a secret communist and also a petty sham artist; two roles which often seem in conflict with one another. In the plot's climax, Arthur uses the narrator to unwittingly engineer a scam on a mutual friend and Nazi cabinet member. In a plot twist that is a lot more dull than it ought to be, the scam itself turns out to be a ruse and Arthur turns out to be a spy for the French. Congratulations, Isherwood: you made Nazis boring.

What this means, unfortunately, is that I'm stuck at 49 1/2 on the Times 100 Book List, which counts the books as one. One day soon I'll get over that hump.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

"You're not afraid, are you?" I asked.
"No. Are you?"
"No." Although I was nervous, I was reveling in the beauty of the low hills and the pale dusk. Everything was very still and silent. The long line of cliffs continued above us and we could see no on on the track. Abdul Haq stopped, looked up, and suddenly fired at the ridge. His rifle's muzzle flashed and the sharp explosion echoed around the valley.
"That will frighten them away...all of them -- bandits, villagers, wolves."

Rory Stewart, a Scottish writer, decided to walk across Afghanistan east to west in January 2002, part of a larger journey across Iran, Pakistan, Nepal and India. The country had only recently been invaded by the U.S.-led coalition which toppled the Taliban. When Stewart began his journey, parts of the country were still firmly within the Taliban's grasp. He freely admits that the reason he took the far more difficult journey of Herat to Kabul through the central mountains in winter rather than through the south by way of Kandahar was not because of bravado but because the latter was still Taliban-held.

Stewart learns after deciding on the northern route that he will be taking essentially the same journey as the Afghani warrior and Mughal emperor Babur. He intersperses this travelogue with excerpts from Babur's diaries of his own trip. When Stewart first leaves Herat in the east, he is accompanied by unwanted travel companions, guides foisted upon him by the new government's security team. These men accompany Stewart through the first half of his journey, while he travels from town to town and asks for shelter at night from villagers.

Stewart writes that he had heard of the famous generosity of the Islamic world towards travelers, and expected to be greeted with open arms at each village. He had letters of introduction penned for him by village chieftains to give his hosts at each subsequent town, and yet he still was not welcomed like he thought he would be. Stewart is begrudgingly given shelter and meager food at most villages, with a few exceptions. On more than one occasion he has to beg or remind his reluctant would-be hosts of their duty as good Muslims to feed and house him. Halfway through his journey, Stewart is joined by a large mastiff, whom he names Babur after the Mughal emperor.

Overall this book was good, if a bit dull. I haven't read much travel writing, but somehow I went into this book thinking Stewart would have crazy adventures or at least some insight to share. His knowledge of the region certainly grows as the book unfolds, but Stewart doesn't come to any grand conclusions about the culture he is observing or the West's place in it. I also found it a little off-putting that this wealthy (Stewart lives with his parents on an estate in Scotland when not traveling, and looks rather dandy on the back cover) Western traveler complains about the generosity of his hosts, poor villagers in Afghanistan, a country decimated by years of war and famine. I kept thinking as I read the book that he could have at least brought sufficient food for his journey with him, rather than complain throughout about his hunger and weakness.

This book wasn't a quick read, at least not for me. I had to work to get through it, and I considered putting it aside several times. If not for this blog, I probably wouldn't have finished it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

And there was that day when the enquiring young man came to see Sandy because of her strange book of psychology, "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace," which had brought so many visitors that Sandy clutched the bars of her grille more desperately than ever.

"What were the main influences of your school days, Sister Helena? Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?"

Sandy said: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."

I loved this book, though I never thought I would. I had heard of it years ago, on Time's list of the 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century, and I admit I said at the time "I'll never read that one":

A slender novel but far from flimsy, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie enrolls the reader at Edinburgh's fictional Marcia Blaine School for Girls under the tutelage of one Jean Brodie, a magnetic, unconventional instructor whose favorite pupils—"the Brodie set"—are set apart from the rest of the student body by their superior attitudes and their intellectual awareness. The archly, tartly narrated adventures of these young girls and their eccentric, autocratic leader form a delightful group portrait, and something more: an immortal parable of the temptations of charisma and the dangers of power.

Edwardian girls' schools aren't exactly my thing. But I decided I would read it on the recommendation of James Wood, who had a lot of quite glowing things to say about it. In a discourse on character, he uses the titular character as a paragon of what a character can do who is not fleshed out in the most common sense--not bogged down by a thousand details in an effort to seem "round," which is a trope that Wood disdains.

"In the course of the novel we never leave the school to go home with Miss Brodie," Wood writes. "We never see her in private, offstage. Always, she is the performing teacher, keeping a public face." Instead, we come to know Brodie through her pupils, the "Brodie set," whom she has picked to be her special clique in the school. And yet they provide us with much information--we know, in a roundabout way, that Brodie is in love with the art teacher, one-armed Mr. Lloyd, but he is married and so she is having an affair with the music teacher, Mr. Lowther. We know that there is a great deal of sadness and desperation in this situation and in her, but we only come to realize these things through the filter that is the Brodie girls. When, as young girls, two of them invent the details of a long-ago torrid affair between Brodie and a slain soldier, it becomes as much part of her identity as anything else in the novel.

And yet, it is Brodie who has her hands on the marionettes. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a novel about predetermination. The setting, Scotland, is the epicenter of Calvinism, and it is no coincidence that Brodie is eventually ousted for having fascist sympathies. In one of the most chilling bits, she encourages a girl to leave school and fight for Franco in Spain, where the girl meets her death.

For similar purposes Spark uses a technique that Wood calls "flash-forwards"--though the book is mostly written chronologically, at certain points Spark provides us with information about what happens to the characters. We know early on that the stupidest of them, Mary MacGregor, dies in a fire; we know that Brodie is ousted because of the betrayal of one of her own set. We even know that the traitor is Sandy, who later becomes a nun. Very little mystery is left, as if Spark is telling us that Brodie--as odious as she can be--is essentially successful in determining her girls' path in life, brick by brick, though perhaps in ways she did not anticipate.

Beyond all this, or in the midst of it, is Spark's style, which is economical to the hilt. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie clocks in at a clean 150 pages; not a word is wasted on extraneous description or puffery. Really, everything I've ever read seems like a cluttered mess in comparison. But form, in this case, is function: Perhaps Spark, whose style is so mannered, so well-organized and structured, is asking us if her role as a novelist isn't a little bit like Brodie's role as a teacher, guiding her proteges through every step.

Even still, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has a charming lightness and an slight sense of humor. Jean Brodie is a clown, meant to be laughed at, a series of sayings that become more absurd as they are repeated. How many times and for how many years can you tell people that you are "in your prime" until it becomes demonstrably false? Perhaps we really have free will, perhaps we move along like trains on rails--but what can you do besides smile at it?

Side note: This is the 49th book I've read from the Time list. I am considering going for the whole thing.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Dammit Meagan, why would you post your review first just because I was too lazy to do it within a week of reading the book?

Well, I don't have much to add. This was the most fiction by David Sedaris that I've ever read, and I've gotta say that I prefer his memoir pieces. Most of his short stories are dark humor, and a wee bit twisted. I did really enjoy the reviews of elementary school Christmas plays by critic Thaddeus Bristol, who notes that "in the role of Mary, six-year-old Shannon Burke just barely manages to pass herself off as a virgin."

I think Meagan pointed out that the first story, "Santaland Diaries" (actually an anagram for "a Satan dines in lard") is now a play, but I can't imagine that it works very well. I like all of Sedaris's stories best over the radio, read either by him or someone else just as funny. Luckily most of them are online under NPR's archives, or This American Life's.

There are his non-fiction accounts of working as an elf, getting locked out of the house in the snow with his sisters, having Christmas drinks with his sister's friend who works at the K&W and is also a prostitute, and his visit to the morgue as an adult (just 'cause). The two that stand out are his fascination with the TV-less family in the neighborhood as a kid, and the retelling of the Dutch Christmas tradition. That last one, "Six to Eight Black Men," is one of my favorites of his.
While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly harrier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in the Netherlands. As a child you get to hear this story, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution -- what's not to love about being Dutch?
Then there's the Christmas letter from the wife trying to deal with the arrival of her unknown Vietnamese step daughter, the family that outdoes each other in the spirit of Christmas, giving to the point of multiple organ donation, and a pretty good one about a selfish cow and a turkey and Secret Santa in a barn.

All in all, entertaining, especially if you're already a Sedaris fan. If not, I'd just listen to these, and start off with one of his other books, like Me Talk Pretty One Day.

You can hear "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!," "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," and "Based on a True Story" all in one episode here. You can also listen to "The Monster Mash" (about the trip to the morgue; gruesome, be warned), "The Cow and the Turkey" and "Santaland Diaries." You're welcome for looking up all those links. You'd damn well better use them, especially you, Christopher.

Dragonwings by Laurence Yep

I read about fifty pages of this book waiting for the freaking dragons to show up. When, around page 100, they finally did, it was one dragon in a dream sequence and it didn't breath fire on any villages or gobble up any damsels or anything like that, and didn't appear for the rest of the book. What.

Dragonwings is one of Yep's Golden Mountain series, a collection of books that follow the stories of a loosely related group of Chinese immigrants from the 19th century to modern times. As you would know if you were in my honors English class, "Golden Mountain" is a term that Chinese immigrants of the turn of the century used to denote America, which is either a serious mistake or a metaphor. This story in particular is about Moon Shadow, a young boy who is sent over to San Francisco from China to join his father, whom he has never really known.

His father, Windrider (ugh), confides in his son that he had a dream in which it was revealed to him that he used to be a dragon--in fact, the physician to the king of dragons--and that is why he's so skilled in repairing machines and why he has an insatiable desire to fly, if not in the dragon way than in the way of the Wright Brothers who have recently flown their first airplane.

I think the conflict is interesting enough--Windrider dreams of building a functional airplane, while facing rank prejudice and abject poverty--but the whole novel has an Afterschool Special vibe to it that's very off-putting. Windrider and Moon Shadow are wafer-thin as characters, and spend a lot of time learning Very Special Lessons about the world around them. The prose is blandly undescriptive and spends a lot of time over-explaining cultural phenomena, and as a result reads more like a textbook than a novel. I'm pretty sure that if I were twelve I would have put this book down long before I finished it. Unless, like I did at twenty-two, I read through the entire thing waiting for some more freaking dragons.

Side note: Statistically speaking, Laurence Yep is the second-most famous Asian person with an interjection for a surname, after Bond villain Dr. No.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

I don't know that I could look someone in the eye and exclaim, "Oh, my goodness, I think I see Santa!" or "Can you close your eyes and make a very special Christmas wish!" Everything these elves said had an exclamation point at the end of it!!! It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment...I prefer being frank with children. I'm more likely to say, "You much be exhausted," or "I know a lot of people who would kill for that little waistline of yours."

I am afraid I won't be able to provide the grinding enthusiasm Santa is asking for. I think I'll be a low-key sort of elf.

Holidays on Ice was one of the few Sedaris books I hadn't gotten around to reading yet, so the new 2008 edition seemed like a good excuse to check it out. Well, that and the fact that both Nathan and Genie recommended it as a favorite over dinner on MLK weekend. In fact, I had already heard or read some of these stories before in other collections or on NPR recordings that I sneak-listen to at work when my office mate is away. If my other coworkers ever walk by my glass-fronted office and wonder why I am laughing to myself while presumably checking client emails or the day's financials, well, that's why.

My favorite story in this book was probably the first one, "The Santaland Diaries," excerpted above, wherein Sedaris recounts his early '90s experience of being an elf at the NYC Macy's. I actually read most of this story while sitting at a McDonald's early yesterday morning and every so often I would chuckle to myself. The other patrons would look over warily, and I would show them the cover. Their presumably limited understanding of English was probably what kept them from smiling in recognition of this literary comedy and thumbs-upping me.

In "Santaland," we hear of parents who nudge the nearest elf and whisper, "We would like a traditional Santa. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about." Sedaris-as-elf sends them gleefully to his black coworker Santa Jerome. We hear of parents who, nerves frayed by hours of waiting in line, scream at their exhausted and terrified toddlers to "get on that man's lap and smile or I'll give you something to cry about." And we learn about the people behind the costumes, a disturbing number of whom are painted as sex-crazed lunatics.

Not all the stories in Holidays on Ice are about Sedaris. His take on the annual family Christmas newsletter is funny but too long, and "Christmas Means Giving" is disturbing and a bit weird. My favorites were some of the ones about him: "Santaland," "Jesus Shaves," and "Six to Eight Black Men," an essay that Sedaris reads aloud. Find it on YouTube, it's worth it to hear it in Sedaris's voice.

In the Woods by Tana French

My mind sideslipped and spun. Every step set recognition thrumming in the air around me, like Morse code beating along a frequency just too high to catch. We had run here, scrambling sure-footed down the hillside along the web of faint trails; we had eaten streaky little crab apples from the twisted tree, and when I looked up into the whirl of leaves I almost expected to see us there, clinging to branches like young jungle cats and staring back. At the fringe of one of these tiny clearing (long grass, sun-dapples, clouds of ragwort and Queen’s Anne lace) we had watched as Jonathan and his friends held Sandra down. Somewhere, maybe in the exact spot where I was standing, the wood had shivered and cracked open, and Peter and Jamie had slipped away.

First things first: READ THIS BOOK. I’ve never felt more comfortable recommending a story to anyone who’ll listen to me. Really, no matter what kind of reader you are, I bet you’ll thoroughly enjoy In the Woods by Tana French.

In the Woods is a police procedural novel set in present day Dublin. The protagonist and narrator, Rob Ryan, finds himself investigating the murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin of Knocknaree. Ryan must solve the case without alerting his superiors to his personal connection to the case. 20 years earlier, Ryan and two of his friends went missing in the woods of Knocknaree. A police search eventually turned up the twelve-year-old Ryan, wide-eyed with blood-filled sneakers and mysterious scratches on his person. His two playmates were never recovered. Now Ryan must discover why Katy was found bludgeoned to death on an ancient Druid sacrificial altar just outside the very woods where he lost his friends.

I’ve never been a big crime drama type guy. Law and Order doesn’t really do it or me and I could never get into the hundreds of James Patterson and John Sanford crime thrillers that stock my mom’s bookshelf. And really that’s exactly what In the Woods is, a standard police procedural: Someone commits a crime. The detectives investigate the crime. They find their suspect! But wait, they were all wrong! Dead end. Eureka! A new suspect! Crime solved. I don’t say this to take away from the narrative itself. In fact, Woods has a really interesting plot with some good red-herrings and twists thrown in. But the story itself is far from ground-breaking. One thing about the plot, though, that was particularly well done was the subliminally supernatural tone. Nothing about Katy’s murder or any of the investigation lead you to believe that this is a Stephen King-type story with a monster on the loose. But certain details of Ryan’s friends abduction and his rescue keep that window slightly ajar. As if you wouldn’t be totally shocked if the story ended with some sort of werewolf conspiracy (which it sadly does not).

No, the beauty of In the Woods is all in French’s style. Her dialogue is fresh and realistic. There’s none of the melodramatic, hard-boiled bull-crap you almost expect to get in a crime drama. Or perhaps that’s that fair to say. You get a lot of the stuff you expect in a crime drama. Good cop, bad cop. Commanding officers behind desks questioning tactics and threatening to “take your gun and badge so quickly your head will spin.” Interrogation room scenes with jumpy suspects. The more I think back on it, the more cliché a number of things in the story were. I think the genius is in French’s ability to show you those clichés through the eyes of a player fully aware of those clichés. Ryan and his partners just come across as completely normal people who play the role of ‘television cop” when they find it necessary. Ryan explains his quick rise from uniformed officer to detective as having occurred because “he looked the part.” French’s characters are all too aware of the stereotypes and caricatures of police officers. And unlike the characters of so many other crime novels, they only use them to their advantage. They don’t live them.

I also enjoyed French’s uses of pop-culture references. A lot of times, things like that strike me as annoying for forced. As if the writer is trying too hard to relate to the reader. Maybe other’s will feel that way about French’s writing, but to me it just felt natural. Every random Simpsons or South Park reference felt appropriate. The detectives skipping lunch to play Worms on their computers or getting hammered and playing Cranium succeeded in making these characters seem flesh and blood. The way they talked and interacted after-hours reminded me of my friends.

As I’m sure you’ve already distilled, I loved In the Woods. It’s an exciting story from a new author that I think people are really going to enjoy. The plot/conclusion is nothing mind-blowing but it captures your interest enough for you to enjoy French’s dry sense of humor and smart dialogue. I’m already looking forward to reading French’s next book, whatever that may be.

Highlights: The hint of the supernatural, French’s dialogue, the cultural references

Lowlights: The ending was a little ho-hum, with too many questions left unanswered.