Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Four Mini-Reviews because I'm Lazy

Well... Not all lazy. I've been so busy with various Peace Corps duties that I haven't had time to get on here and review after each book I've finished. So now I'm so far removed from most of these books that I couldn't give them all the reviews they deserve, but here are a few thoughts

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone
I don't know that I really enjoyed Dog Soldiers as a whole. I certainly enjoyed the writing style: very gritty and matter-of-fact about its violence and depravity. I found the story to be disjointed, however, and I can't say that I totally understood the motivation of many of the main characters. I might recommend it though, as its narrative structure is enough to keep you interested and it tells the Vietnam tale from a POV you might not have come across before. Also, Dog Soldiers reminded me a little of Apocalypse Now with the sophomoric, combat-engendered philosophies preached by various characters.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
I really enjoyed Life of Pi. It's one of those books that everyone you know has read and probably recommended to you one time or another. Definitely pick it up if you have a chance. It tells the story of an Indian boy trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a full grown bengal tiger. It touches on religion, the human spirit, and the will to survive. I also like how the ending (without any spoilers) raises the question of whether or not the entire novel was allegorical or literal. Definitely check it out, it's a quick read and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Lolita by Vladamir Nabakov
Perhaps more than any of the other three books I'll review here, I wish I'd written about Lolita while it was still fresh in my mind so I could have given it a full write-up. I'm sure you already know the tale so I won't go into it at all. This is easily one of the most beautiful works of literature I've ever come across. The juxtaposition of Humbert Humbert's monstrous depravity and the flowery, artful prose could not have been more powerful. Unless you've read it already its hard to explain. But Humberts narration is so perfectly constructed and witty that you actually find yourself empathizing with an admitted pedophile. Do yourself a favor and read Lolita.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Definitely my favorite of the four books reviewed here, Middlesex took me completely by surprise. About 5 different Peace Corps volunteers recommended this book to me before I finally got my hands on it and now I understand why. The story of a pseudohermaphrodite named Cal, Middlesex traces the mutated gene back two generations to Cal's grandparents' village in Turkey. This tale of incest, mutation, sex, drugs, and war would be interesting by itself, but what pushes Middlesex over the top is one of the most entertaining narrators I've ever encountered. Cal is everything a narrator should be: witty, self-deprecating, ironic... You name it. Middlesex won the Pulitzer for Fiction in... I want to say 2003, and it was well deserved. If you only get to read one of these four books, pick up Middlesex.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Host by Stephanie Meyer

I knew it would begin with the end, and the end would look like death to these eyes. I had been warned. Not these eyes. My eyes. Mine. This was me now. The language I found myself using was odd, but it made sense. Choppy, boxy, blind, and linear. Impossibly crippled in comparison to many I'd used, yet still it managed to find fluidity and expression. Sometimes beauty. My language now. My native tongue. With the truest instinct of my kind, I'd bound myself securely into the body's center of thought, twined myself inescapably into its every breath and reflex until it was no longer a separate entity. It was me. Not the body, my body.

And so begins Stephanie Meyer's first book for adults. Slow to start, and no great work of literature (though better written than the Twilight books, which I loved but which were clearly written at an eighth-grade level) but an arresting story nevertheless. Imagine that aliens invaded Earth, mostly good and kind but paternalistic in that they think they can run things a lot better than slow, violent humans. So they invade our bodies, tiny centipede creatures called "souls" that burrow into human brains and mostly eradicate the human mind that was there. This is the world that Melanie Stryder, her partner Jared and her brother Jamie live in. They are constantly on the run until the day Melanie is caught and a soul named Wanderer is put in her body.

Melanie, however, refuses to fade away, coexisting with Wanderer and eventually leading her to abandon her fellow alien souls and set off to find Jared and Jamie. They are living in an underground cell with other human rebels, and are not very welcoming to the alien life form that wanders into their protected home. While Wanderer/Melanie manages to convince a few, Jared and Jamie included, that Melanie is still around and Wanderer is on their side, on the whole the splinter cell of human survivors does not welcome the alien in their midst. Soon enough, she wears them down into grudging acceptance and proceeds to make life much easier for all - assisting with raids on the aliens' hospitals and stores - due to her eyes, which give her away as a body inhabited by an alien soul. Eventually, the inevitable happens (inevitable if you read Stephanie Meyer books) - interspecies romance. Of course one of the humans, Ian, falls for the soul Wanderer, while at the same time Melanie, and her body, love Jared. At the book's end, Wanderer finds that she loves Melanie too much to continue to control her body and arranges to give her the body back and die. Ian's love for the soul is too great, and the fondness of the rest of the colony for her too admiring, to let that happen. Instead Wanderer is separated from Melanie and put into another body, one who's human was eradicated by a previous soul - just a body. Ian and Wanderer and Melanie and Jared can all love and hang out and coexist. Yay!

The Host was definitely an interesting book. Though it started off slow, by the middle I had a hard time putting it down. A strange love story to be sure, but with the kind of universal themes - undying love, what makes us human, self-sacrifice, acceptance - that allow you to suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the story. I can't imagine what it would be like to be Wanderer, in love with Ian, but who's body, Melanie's, only responds to Jared. Pretty freaky stuff. Meyer released this book in the middle of the Twilight series, intending it to be an adult book. However, I didn't really see much to suggest that it was written for any different audience than Twilight. Still no sex scenes, no language, as could probably be suspected from a conservative (and I think Mormon?) author like Meyer (the entire Twilight series could be loosely read as an extended petition for abstinence until marriage). It really isn't written on a higher or more "literary" level. But it was an enjoyable summer read, and it certainly grabbed me in the same way the Twilight books had done. Oh and one thing that bothered me: Wanderer's name was shortened and humanized to Wanda, which I hated. It just did not seem to fit the character described in the book, and it grated on me every time I read the word- which was a lot.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Harry Potter 6 & 7

Why Are You Worrying About You-Know-Who?
You SHOULD Be Worrying About
the Constipation Sensation That's Gripping the Nation!

A few weeks ago, I reread Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, ahead of the movie being released in mid-July. I mostly read it because the movie trailers were seriously confusing me. They featured all sorts of special effects depicting screaming girls and apparent terrorist attacks in the Muggle world, along with a host of other things I did not remember being in the book. I figured either a) the director took a lot more liberties with this movie than other directors had with the previous five or b) I was seriously forgetting some major plot points.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince follows Harry through his sixth year at Hogwarts, a year in which the Wizarding world is fighting Voldemort, the evil wizard who has been "back" from the dead for over a year but who is finally out in the open, causing harm and trying to lure followers to his fold. Harry et. al. return to Hogwarts where Professor Snape is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and is suspected by Harry of helping Draco with a plan for Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Also, Ron gets an irritating girlfriend in the character of Lavender Brown (a pitiable girl that I imagine is one of those terribly vacuous high school twats with poor self-image that can't...quiiite...make it into the In-Crowd). Why he chooses to spend the better part of the year making out with her and not Hermione is beyond me, but it does provide an interesting dynamic since Ron and Hermione aren't speaking all year. In the end, Harry discovers that Voldemort has spliced his soul into 7 pieces, hiding each one in an artifact. After returning from a mission to find one, Harry and Dumbledore are confronted by Death Eaters in the school and, spoiler alert, Dumbledore dies at the hands of Severus Snape. Oh and Harry dates Ginny Weasley (yay!) but then breaks up with her for some "terribly noble reason" (her words) - that he has to save the world from Voldemort and can't have any attachments until that's through.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows picks up during the summer following, and focuses on the journey of Harry, Hermione and the now-single-and-ready-to-mingle (too many dashes?) Ron as they search first for Horcruxes and later for the Deathly Hallows, three symbols of Death's conquerability. I'm skipping a l0t, but a huge battle at the book's end finishes Voldemort, but not without many Wizarding lives lost - including Fred Weasley. Sad face :(

Both books were excellent the first time around, though I was probably a bit hurried reading them (book 6 came out right after I returned from abroad and I remember reading it aloud to my friend Caitlin on a road trip - she only agreed to drive the day after its midnight release if I read aloud in the car while she drove; book 7 I read between calls at my brand-new post-college job, which was kind of the suck.)

It was nice to get to take some time now and really savor the books. I'm really glad I did so ahead of the movie's release too - I had forgotten a ton, like Katie Bell's being cursed and flying into the air screaming, and the Muggle attacks that begin during Voldemort's rise to power. J.K. Rowling is one of the greats, and I really hope she gives fiction-writing another go, maybe with a new series to savor. Though, if I were her, I'd be paralyzed by the possibility of inadequacy and just stop.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Our Endangered Values by Jimmy Carter

A couple of weeks ago I signed onto Facebook and saw that one of my friends had voted in some poll as to who was the worst president in recent history. My friend had cast his voted for George W. Bush. Now my friend grew up in the same conservative Christian circles that I did, but much like myself, finds himself somewhere outside these circles. The first comment came from an unbelievably opinionated and obnoxious person--who we both know: "Are you kidding me Josh? What about the peanut farmer from Georgia?" Josh unsuccessfully tried to brush this off with a bit of a joke. Twenty comments later people are referring to Carter as a "disaster," and some crazy man who inexplicably capitalizes the first letter of every word is ranting about Obama and the end of the United States as we know it. These are Christian people...I suppose. Carter is a Christian. How is it that these people could harbor such negative feelings toward arguably the most active ex-President? Well, as luck would have it, this book offers at least a partial answer to this question.

The first thing to note about this book is its overtly Christian perspective. As he has for most of his life, Carter speaks candidly about his religious beliefs in this book. He does not shy away from the fact that he is a Christian (a Baptist, to be more precise) or that Christian values inform much of his thinking. You would think this would appeal to Christians.

Our Endangered Values addresses the rise of fundamentalism and the threat that it poses to our values. That's right, Facebook wackjobs: you are the insidious threat to our nation! Ex-President Carter and I say so, so it has to be true. Carter is a good person to address this, since his personal life was directly affected by it. In the book he talks about how in 1979, fundamentalists essentially took control of the Southern Baptist Convention. Their "with us or against us" approach drove many thinking people away, while at the same time it bolstered their prominence on the political scene. Their intransigence no doubt informed the definition of fundamentalism that Carter uses in this book. "Fundamentalists tend to make their self-definition increasingly narrow and restricted, to isolate themselves, to demagogue emotional issues, and to view change, cooperation, negotiation, and other efforts to resolve differences as signs of weakness."

This book begins in the late 1970s, with the rise of such religious zealots as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and Jerry Fallwell. But Carter levels criticism at those who were in positions of power at the time when this book was written (2006). He criticizes Bush II on issues such a "faith-based" initiatives, torture, his economic policies, and the war in Iraq. His criticisms rest on sound Christian and American principles, such as the Separation of Church and State (I can capitalize first letters too), Christ-like love, and the redistribution of wealth that runs like a current through the New Testament. However, Values does not devolve into some Olbermann-esque screed against Bush, or a listing of his blunders. Far from it, Carter is composed and cool in his criticisms. (But does he set them to a sweet Coldplay song?)

While not its intent or purpose, this book provides a two-fold answer for why fundamentalist Christians dislike President Carter so much. Firstly, they are as he describes them: openly hostile toward negotiation, alternative ideas, and entire groups of people (I am paraphrasing). Secondly, he calls them out on it. Why would a Christian support the invasion of Iraqi? How could a Christian possibly be okay with torture? Should not Christians be good stewards of the planet? But fundamentalist are not about self-reflection. They are not about loving others. They are about attacking those who do not believe exactly like they do. So it doesn't matter that Jimmy Carter worked to reduce the need for abortions, what mattered was that he did not attack the judiciary for the decision in Roe v. Wade. The religious right loves attacking the Judiciary. Separation of church and state be damned! And while were at it, let's get rid of the separation of the powers of government as well. It doesn't matter that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. To these religious ideologues, Carter is a total sellout, a lukewarm Christian that will ultimately be spewed out of God's mouth.

It is comforting to know that amongst all the Christian wackos out there, Christians like President Carter exist. Principled people who use their lives to effect positive change on the world are much preferred to people who wake up every morning, pull on their waxy costume of Christianity, plaster a televangelist smile over their cesspool of hatred, and start shouting.

The Private Faith of Jimmy on American Public Media
"Just War -- or a Just War?" by Jimmy Carter
Interview about this book with Mother Jones

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Boo Communism. Hooray beer!

Short and to the point. Orwell does a very good job at cutting apart Soviet style Communism while sticking to his plot and not deviating from the story to make his point. The thing I found most interesting about Animal Farm is that even though it was written as a criticism of Communism decades ago, it was still eerily relevant today (or at least a few years ago). Every time they said "If you do/don't do X, Jones will come back. You don't want Jones to come back, do you?" I heard "If you don't let us illegally wiretap your phones/If you vote for the Democrats/etc the terrorists win. You don't want the terrorists to win, do you?" Every time they talked about an impending attack from one of the neighboring farms, I felt like I was reading about Saddam's WMDs. The sheep shouting "four legs good, two legs bad" or whatever reminded me of the way political discourse degenerates into a contest to see who can shout the loudest. Also, the fact that the animals started with a long list of ideals and whittled it down to one short sentence seemed similar to the way politicians take nuanced, complex issues and turn them into a bumper sticker policy. So, take from that what you will. Animal farm = still relevant.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Why The Time Traveler's Wife? Why not The Time Traveler? Or better yet, why not The Time Traveler and His Wife? After all, it's the dashing librarian and accidental time traveler Henry who is the real focus of this novel, not his perpetually abandoned wife, Clare, or at the very least they should share top billing. Is the author, Audrey Niffenegger, trying to emphasize Clare's experience as the Other in this novel, the one left behind, the one who has to deal with the constant abandonment and frustration? That perhaps would have made a more interesting novel. Such are the things that perplexed me about The Time Traveler's Wife.

My friend Rachel Bethany bought this book for me at the Strand, hoping that I would love it as much as she did; I'm sad to say that I didn't much care for it. But, in deference, let's start with what the book does well: It's amazingly well-plotted. The plot centers around Henry DeTamble, who has the unique ability to travel through time, but not the ability to control when he goes or to when. As a result, he is constantly appearing in strange places and times, stark naked. He is married--at some point--to Clare Abshire, a beautiful redhead who is--or will become--an artist. But the nature of their relationship is unusual; she meets him for the first time when she is a child and he appears in the meadow outside her family's home, thirty years old and nude. He meets her for the first time when they are the same age; she jumps for joy because she has been waiting for years to meet him in her own timeline, and yet he has no idea who she is.

There's a sort of fascinating circuity here: Clearly Henry and Clare are meant to be together, but what is the force that drives them together? He appears that first day in the meadow because has a deep connection to Clare, but without that first appearance--and those thereafter--that connection would never have been formed. It's an interesting question that Niffenegger does disappointingly little to develop.

Yet, everything has been thought ought with the utmost care and precision; the overlapping timelines must have taken an extraordinary effort to map out. Nothing seems to be out of place; the novel is refreshingly clear of the little nonsense paradoxes that seem to creep into bad science fiction. Even more impressively, Niffenegger finds a way to arrange these time traveling episodes so that they have some semblance of true chronology, and yet still manages to ratchet the tension up considerably in the novel's closing chapters.

Now for the bad: I could not have cared any less about what happened to these characters, who were absolutely obnoxious. Niffenegger tries to impose some sort of troubled past on Henry through his mother's death in a car accident and his father's ensuing alcoholism, but Henry hardly seems to have any character flaws for it. He is an accomplished fighter and thief, but develops these traits only as a necessity due to his time traveling; otherwise he's just a dashing librarian. Clare is worse, little more than a cipher, with the personality of a sock.

Niffenegger substitutes taste for character. Over the 500+ pages of the novel, we're told what kind of music the characters listen to, what kind of art they enjoy, and what kind of fucking dinner they eat. Everything is so tasteful and cultured, it's hard to shake the impression that Niffenegger is, in some sense, projecting her own awesome tastes onto her characters, begging that we be impressed. Even when Henry and Clare differ, it's obnoxious:

How can Clare listen to Cheap Trick? Why does she like the Eagles? I'll never know, because she gets all defensive when I ask her. How can it be that the woman I love doesn't want to listen to Musique du Garrot et de la Farraille?

Barf. Here's another scene where we open on Clare:

I'm sitting by myself at a tiny table in the front window of Cafe Pregolisi, a venerable little rat hole with excellent coffee. I'm supposed to be working on a paper on Alice in Wonderland for the History of the Grotesque class I'm taking this summer; instead I'm daydreaming, staring idly at the natives, who are bustling and hustling in the early evening of Halsted Street.

Double barf. Henry and Clare teach a lesson to a couple "baby punks":

Henry sits down at the kitchen table, and Bobby sits down across from him. "Okay," says Henry. "You have to go back to the sixties, right? You start with the Velvet Underground, in New York. And then, right over here in Detroit, you've got the MC5, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. And then back in New York, there were the New York Dolls, and the Heartbreakers--"

"Tom Petty?" says Jodie. "We've heard of him."

"Um, no, this was a totally different band," says Henry. "Most of them died in the eighties."

"Plane crash?" asks Bobby.

"Heroin," Henry corrects. "Anyway, there was Television, and Richard Hell and the Voidods, and Patti Smith."

"Talking Heads," I add.

"Huh. I dunno. Would you really consider them punk?"

A plane crash? Seriously, Bobby? Here are Henry and Clare at dinner:

Kimy gets up and clears our salad plates and brings in a bowl of green beans and a steaming plate of "Roast Duck with Raspberry Pink Peppercorn Sauce." It's heavenly. I realize where Henry learned to cook. "What do you think?" Kimy demands. "It's delicious, Kimy," says Mr. DeTamble, and I echo his praise. "Maybe cut down on the sugar?" Henry asks. "Yeah, I think so, too," says Kimy. "It's really tender though," Henry says, and Kimy grins.

It goes on like this, inanely. After 500 pages, I knew what magazines Henry reads, and what concerts Clare goes to, and what they like to eat for dessert, and I knew that Clare's family lives in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Why Frank Lloyd Wright? Why not?

In her review, Amanda complained that the novel is bogged down by unnecessarily pornographic material:

They just bother me when they aren't needed for the story to move forward, when they're in there for shock value. It feels completely unrealistic, for instance, for a new mother to lay on her bed, sigh, and say, "My cunt hurts." Who really says that? No one I've ever met, at least.

Usually I'm unsympathetic to complaints that a novel is too graphic, but I think Amanda has it exactly right, or at least part of it exactly right: Somewhere in here is a 200-page novel filled out with nonsense. These scenes aren't just unnecessarily graphic, they're unnecessary. Why does Niffenegger devote ten pages to Clare and Henry discuss how much more sex they have than other couples, and how great it is? To make the rest of us feel bad? Or just to make us think, hey, these two, they're cool, I wish I could be like them. Niffenegger certainly seems to want to.

And the tragedy is that, somewhere between Richard Hell and the Roast Duck with the Pink Peppercorn Sauce, is a story with tremendous symbolic power that speaks to the nature of fate, of time, and of love. I think that maybe if Niffenegger had spent more time thinking about those things, and less about how to convince us Henry and Clare are awesome, it might have been an infinitely better book.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies

I was wholly in love with my life: two healthy children, a brilliant, tall (my father is tall and my mother when describing someone she approves of mentions if he or she is tall) professor husband who was carefully placing the evidence of our happy family all over the bathroom walls so everyone could see. When I came back, there in the main upstairs bathroom, was a love letter to our family, and to me. Frame after frame of generations of us, our people, and the little ones we made. It was security and peace, and everything I had always wanted.

Josiah left me and the boys a month later for a new member of the faculty. A female professor in his department hired to teach eighteenth-century English literature.

I read a review of this book in a magazine a few months ago and promptly put myself on the waiting list for it at the library, because it sounded like just the sort of book I like to read every once in a while, a book whose story is sad and unique but with themes that are universal enough that you can kind of insert yourself into the story and just cry it out. Actually, this is the same reason I read Jodie Picoult books and watch Grey's Anatomy. Anyway, fast-forward a few months to when I actually get to pick up and read the book, which by now has gotten more press and is being sold in Starbucks across the US. I get the book (in the midst of LSAT studying, when I really shouldn't be reading anything not written by Princeton Review or Kaplan) and read it cover to cover in 36 hours. It's gripping.

Isabel is an actress, a real person who's been on a few tiny movies and TV shows. She writes that she's never done a book before but that people tell her she writes good emails so she decides to write a memoir of the breakup of her "perfect" marriage. The book starts with Josiah and Isabel's love story: meet at a wedding, love at first sight, marriage, 2 sons and living in small-town Ohio within five years. Josiah is a poetry professor. Isabel drops hints about his attitudes towards marriage and her and their family even as she is describing the genesis of their relationship. Josiah left his first wife while she was pregnant. Josiah tends to brood. Josiah fights dirty, throwing searingly cruel comments at his wife. Isabel, by contrast, seems sunnier. She's not above admitting her own faults - contributing to the demise of her marriage by harping on her husband for instance. But the reader gets the idea that these are two very different and incompatible people who maybe shouldn't have been together to begin with.

As Josiah becomes infatuated with the other woman, Sylvia, and finally tells Isabel he is leaving her, Isabel becomes desperate to save her marriage. This is the saddest part of the book, as a formerly confident woman essentially grovels to her husband, begging him over and over not to leave her. And yet, you completely understand why. Isabel writes her story in such a way that you feel for her - not pity or scorn or "she's better off without him." This book does a great job of making you, the reader, forget for moments at a time that you are not the one in the failing marriage, desperate and scared and so, so sad.

Again, I seem to use this disclaimer a lot: probably more of a chick book. I'll try to work in some more universal reading material soon.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Most comic characters are generally unknowing. Genuinely comic characters don't know how funny they are. Somebody who comes out and thinks that he's incredibly important, but he's not...well, that's very funny.
- Jonathan Franzen, bigthink.com

About a year ago, while walking down Bourbon Street with one of my coworkers, I pointed out this hot dog vendor who judged solely on his actions at that moment could only be described as crazy. Jane said that the main character in A Confederacy of Dunces was a hot dog vendor. From her two- or three-sentence description of the book, it sounded interesting and bizarre.

The main character of Dunces is Ignatius J. Reilly, the epitome of the anti-hero. He is grotesquely overweight, obnoxiously loud, extremely slothful, and not all that surprisingly celibate. Ignatius lives with his mother, who he treats horribly, in New Orleans. He spends most of his days watching TV, writing his "masterpiece" in his room, or catching the latest release at the local movie theater. Although he watches plenty of TV and a large number of movies, he describes most of it as pure dreck, hurling insults and vile oaths at the screen--silver or otherwise. His language and his code of conduct harken back to an earlier era. He longs for a monarchy, hoping that a king would impose some order and discipline an the uncouth world that surrounds him.

The characters that Toole surrounded Reilly with are nearly as interesting as the rotund curmudgeon. All of their stories connect in the over-the-top reality that is the French Quarter, when Ignatius' mother forces him to get a job. People often compare the character of Ignatius J. Reilly to that of Don Quixote, and with good reason. Both characters are essentially imbeciles; they long for the social mores of years gone by, and their tales are rambling yarns that are more about characters and experiences then some overarching plot.

Dunces is the most enjoyable book that I have read in a long while. The characters, dialogue, and storyline were brilliantly hilarious.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I fully expected to enjoy this book, especially after reading Christopher's positive review of it a while back. But for the most part, I did not enjoy reading Catch-22. Every time I put it down, I had to force myself to pick it back up. It has been a couple of weeks since I finished this book, and in that time I have been unable to figure out what I disliked about it. "Dislike" may actually be a little strong. I just was rather uninterested in Catch-22. I was told by a number of people that the book got better toward the end. That, and the fact that I don't like not finishing a book once I have started it, kept me reading til the end.

I think my problems may have been with Heller's writing style. I found his style a little clunky and difficult to read easily, but not in a this-guy-is-a-genius way, like Nabokov or Dostoevsky. I don't want to paint too negative of a picture here. Catch-22 definitely had its absurdly comical moments. I laughed out loud at some of the dialogue.

While there are a large number of integral characters in the book, the story really focuses on Captain Yossarian, an American bombardier stationed someone in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. The very basic plot of the book is that Yossarian wants to go home. Every time he gets close to his quota of missions, Colonel Cathcart raises the number of missions his men must fly. Yossarian tries to get himself grounded in increasingly crazier ways. Through Yossarian and the litany of supporting characters, Heller satirizes the military and war, highlighting the general absurdity of both.

As I was told, the last 50 or so pages did manage to improve on what came before them. The ending recast earlier parts and brought some of the more disparate pieces of the story together in sharper focus.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save Us!" and I'll look down, and whisper, "No" - Roschach

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned? - Dr. Manhattan

I read Watchmen just in time. I finished it about a week before the movie came out. I wanted to read it first partially because I wanted to be able to compare the book and the movie, but, more importantly, it's a little embarrassing to be the last comic book fan who hasn't read Watchmen.

With all the hype surrounding Watchmen—only graphic novel in Time Magazine's 100 Best List, widely acclaimed as the best graphic novel of all time, praised and damned for helping bring about the darkening of comic books in general—I had my doubts that it would live it up to its reputation. After all, The Dark Knight Returns, another, similarly acclaimed graphic novel, was a huge disappointment when I finally read it. But, after putting it off for so long (and rambling about it for nearly as long) I've reached a conclusion: Watchmen deserves the praise.

It follows the lives of several “superheroes,” regular Joes and Janes who have no superpowers but want to help make the world a better place, at least ostensibly. In reality, they all have their own reasons, complex, human reasons that don't often show up in the pages of mainstream comics. The only truly super-powered being is Dr. Manhattan, a being with literally godlike powers, able to do everything from the standard flying and making things explode to creating entire universes out of nothing.

To me, the most interesting character in the book was Dr. Manhattan. A soft-spoken, humanitarian scientist who receives his powers through the Silver Age standby of gamma radiation, his progression throughout the book is an interesting case. When the extent of his powers is discovered, the government sends him to Vietnam as a soldier and also uses him as the ultimate failsafe against a steadily more aggressive Russia. Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, grows more and more disconnected from the human race, gradually dissolving all ties except to the woman he loves. When he loses her, he completely severs all connections to earth and moves to the moon, preferring the solace and the undemanding company of the rocks and stars to that of humans, who think themselves something special but who, to Dr. Manhattan, are no more interesting or unique than anything else in the universe. It's a deconstruction not only of the omnipotent superhero (of whom Superman is the prime example), but also of the idea of God. Why would a being whose powers allow him ultimate freedom of action choose to spend his time interacting with a populace who largely don't appreciate him and see him only as a means to an end?

Every character in the book, from the borderline-sociopath Rorschach to the twisted humanitarian Ozymandias, could be given an extensive treatment, but I'm not going to do that. If' you haven't read Watchmen, check it out.

The Buffalo Creek Disaster by Gerald Stern

The money can help us live an easier life, free from some of our problems, but it can never put our minds completely at ease, because nothing but death can stop our minds from going back to that morning.

The Buffalo Creek Disaster is about a flood that killed hundreds of people and wiped out several towns in West Virginia in the early 70s and the lawsuit that followed. The flood was basically caused by a coal company's dangerous and reckless construction of a dam that broke and rushed down on a bunch of unsuspecting people.

Written by the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, the book mainly goes through the approach to litigation and settlement blow by blow. I could see how it wouldn't be quite as interesting for a non law student, but Stern does a good job of explaining everything in lay man's terms. What's really interesting about this book is how different it is from A Civil Action. In that one, the battle is waged with money and delay and procedure. In this one, the merits of the case rule. Of course, Stern might have just left some of the nastiness out in favor of brevity, but I think another big difference is the judge; in A Civil Action the judge was blatantly hostile to the plaintiffs, while in The Buffalo Creek Disaster he was much more impartial.

Overall it was a pretty decent book.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Summer of '49 by David Halberstam

One night McDermott came back to the hotel about 4 a.m. and, to his consternation, ran into the manager. "Are you drunk again, McDermott?" Stengel asked. McDermott, fearing that this was the end, nodded that indeed he was. "Me too," said Stengel. "Good-night, Maurice."

This was a fantastic book. The vast majority of it was anecdotes; stories about the players, the writers, the owners, the fans really gave you a sense of the personalities of the time and the culture of the game. Through the endless stories, which often were pretty amusing, Halbsertam tells the story of an amazing pennant race. A few things struck me as interesting:

  • The players did not mess around on or off the field. It was not at all uncommon for them to stay out drinking and chasing women until the wee hours (see the opening quote) and then go play the next day and play well. Some of them couldn't play well unless they had gotten plastered the night before.

  • The relationship between the players and the sportswriters was vastly different then than it is now. The writers all knew about how boorish the players were and a lot of times partied with them, but they didn't write embarrassing things about them. What happened on the field was the important thing and they let the players be with their off field stuff. In some ways I think that's the way it should be. Sure, if someone takes steroids or tips pitches, that's something that should be exposed. But if some guy is just an ass or cheats on his wife or something, why is it so important to disillusion every 8 year old who worships him and thinks he's an example of everything that a good person is supposed to be? I'm just saying. They also didn't freak out about impartiality the way they do now. Today if you got a meal from a team you'd be in some serious trouble, but back then the teams always fed and transported the writers and probably did more than that. No one worried about it.

  • Apparently the Yankees have always had owners who were total asshats.

  • It's also crazy to think about these guys taking two or four years off right in the middle of their prime to go fight World War frickin II.
Overall a very good book, especially if you were a baseball fan growing up. It definitely filled me with a sweet nostalgia for the pure, uncomplicated love I had for the game, back when I had to run down to the end of the driveway every morning to get the paper to find out the score, when all the Braves' games were on TBS, when guys like glavine, maddux and smoltz were larger than life, when there was nothing else to worry about over the summer than baseball.

"You know what, Mama," he said to her. "They're playing for real money now. Some of those old boys" - he motioned toward the television set - "are making on hundred thousand dollars a year." "Ellis!" she said, as if catching him once again in some terrible exaggeration. "No, it's true, Mama," he said. "And what's more, in just a few years they'll all be making a million dollars." "Ellis!" she said, as if afraid some higher authority would strike him down for such a blasphemous idea. "A million dollars," he said. "All we played for, Mama, was love."