Saturday, October 31, 2009

Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem

Men and Cartoons is a collection of stories by Jonathan Lethem, who wrote Motherless Brooklyn and Gun with Occasional Music, both of which received positive reviews from this site. The cartoons of the title are not, as the cover art would suggest, the humorous variety that provide connotation to the word "cartoonish," but superhero comics, which appear in various manifestations throughout the nine stories contained here. In that way, Lethem seems to be one of a long string of male postmodern authors intent on deconstructing the comic book, but most of these fall somewhere south of Kavalier and Clay in quality.

The book starts off very strong with a story called "The Vision," which begins with the narrator recalling a friend of his from grade school who never took off his superhero costume, only to discover that in adulthood the boy (having abandoned his altar ego) has moved in next door. The narrator attends the Vision's party, where they play the party game Mafia. It's a pleasantly melancholy investigation of what games and play mean to adults and children, and Men and Cartoons is at its best when its absurdity and strangeness is complemented by these small, disaffected moments. The best of the bunch are "Vivian Relf," about a man and woman who keeping meeting by accident, and "The Glasses," which is nothing but a conversation between two opticians about why a customer's glasses seem to be smudging all the time.

By contrast, the strangest stories in the compilation usually fall flat, such as "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, is Interrupted by a Knock at the Door," or "Super Goat Man," about a superhero who upon his retirement takes up teaching at a small Northeastern college. The gimmicks here are clever, but the disconnect from any real human emotion is simply too strong. No wonder, then, that "The Spray" retains that strangeness but works in quite simple a fashion--it's about a spray that creates an image of anything that you have lost or forgotten, whether it be a stolen television set or an ex-boyfriend. (Also, it's the clearest connection that Lethem makes to Philip K. Dick, whose influence seems to be all over the place.) An excerpt:

I jumped up. "If you spray me I'll spray you," I shouted. The spray hit me as I moved across the room. The wet mist fell behind me , like a parachute collapsing in the spot where I'd been, but enough got on me. An image of Lucinda formed, glowing and salmon-colored.

Lucinda was naked. Her hair was short, like when we were together. Her head lay on my shoulder, her arms were around my neck, and her body was across my front. My shirt and jacket. Her breasts were mashed against me, but I couldn't feel them. Her knee was across my legs. I jumped backward but she came with me, radiant and insubstantial. I turned my head to see her face. her expression was peaceful, but her little salmon-colored eyelids were half-open.

"Ha!" said Addie. "I told you it would work."

All in all, not a bad collection, and worth the ninety minutes it might take to read. I wouldn't read it before Motherless Brooklyn, though.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper

Teacher A: The first book we have to teach for the freshmen is Tears of a Tiger.
Teacher B: Okay, what do we do the second week?

--actual conversation between two teachers at my school

--Hey Rob! Live game, man. You be flyin' with the hoops, man! Swoosh! Ain't nobody better, 'cept maybe me.
--Yo, Andy, my main man! I see you been eatin' bull crap for dinner again! You only
wish you was as good as me! I, Robert Orlando Washington, will be makin' billions of dollars playin' for the N.B.A.! Want me to save you a ticket to one of my games?

--actual opening lines of Tears of a Tiger

Apparently, years ago, when my school first opened, none of the English teacher positions were actually filled by English teachers and so when it came time to choose books to teach someone decided on something called Tears of a Tiger, which may actually be the worst book I have ever read all the way through.

The story is this: Andy Jackson and Rob Washington are best friends and basketball teammates at Hazelwood High. One night, after a win, they go out and celebrate a little too much and Andy, who is driving drunk, crashes into a retaining wall, killing Rob. (From the locker room to the hospital, according to the time-stamp before each chapter, is an hour-and-a-half. Beer bong, anyone?) The rest of the story details Andy's grief, the deterioration of his relationships with his family and friends, and his eventual suicide.

The entire book is written without any sort of action or description, trading off between chapters of confusing, unattributed dialogue, and some sort of epistolary sections cobbled together from letters, homework assignments, and diary entries. Which would be fine, if it made any sense and weren't completely tone-deaf as to the way young people talk, even back, I'm sure, in the mid-90's when it was published.

I also have two much larger, moral issues with the book (Oscar Wilde be damned)--first of all, as if it weren't enough to chronicle Andy's internal struggle, Draper goes to great lengths to describe the kind of social ills that young black students face, like the teacher who predicts that Andy will be fine because "black kids are tough" and the conflict that Andy has with his father about what Andy feels is his dad's toadyism with regards to his white bosses. The book boasts an ensemble cast of Andy's friends and classmates, so we frequently are privy to their racial sensitivities as well, including the character who would get rid of band-aids because they're not the color of his skin, and Andy's little brother, whom he chastises for preferring dolls with blonde hair. Thematically, it's oddly out of place and serves only to minimize Andy's grief by placing it on the same level. Furthermore, Draper's tone-deafness in the way that she airs these greivances had many of my students convinced that the book as a whole was quite racist.

Secondly, and worse, is the treatment that Andy's suicide receives. The event is clumsily foreshadowed multiple times, including an instance in which Andy runs out of the classroom when one of his classmates observed that Lady Macbeth probably deserved her death at her own hands (cue bewildered white and clueless teacher). Yet, when after the act the school counselor recommends that Andy's friends and family write letters to him, not a single one offers any pity or sympathy toward him, but all show some variation on this sort of condescension:

You know what really pisses me off? You! You're a coward and a sellout! You decided to end your life, without saying good-bye to anybody, without asking anyone for help. You deserted your friends and family--the people who love you the most. Suicide is the coward's way out. Brave men face their problems. So what does that make you?

..I hate you for leaving me here. I hate you for making me feel like this. I hate you for making me cry. And I hate you for making me face death again so soon.

Does anyone really think this kind of intimidation is effective in keeping kids from suicide? Andy maintains that no one understands his grief and his guilt, and in the end he's right; no one does. The book is, at the very least, emotionally manipulative, and ultimately comes off as an anti-suicide screed that lacks any sort of insight into what might make a young man kill himself. It is clearly also written by a person that has never considered suicide and has no sympathy for anyone who has.

Worse even still, the book is almost devoid of anything that ought to be taught in English class--there is no figurative language, no deeper meaning, and the characters are paper thin. But I taught the damn thing--where's my Teacher of the Year award, Obama?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I opted not to include any passage with this review because there wasn't a single instance in the book that jumped out at me and made me say "ooooh that's good writing." It's certainly a capably written book, but its not gonna wow you with any literally legerdemain. Also, I don't care HOW long a book is (this one weighs in at 975 pages), you're never allowed to use the word 'lugubriously' twice in the same novel. It's a once per book word. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Anyway, I was less than blown away by The Pillars of the Earth. It's a fun book, don't get me wrong. But after reading that it was ranked in the top 50 of 'America's Favorite Books' I had high hopes. I should have remembered that America also pays $350 million every time Nic Cage stars in a movie by Michael Bay... But I digress.

This is essentially the story of the building of a cathedral. I've read books that used architecture as a backdrop and did so with more success, however (Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead) comes to mind. The romance, passion, and genius of architecture don't come through in POTE. It just gets squeezed in once or twice per chapter and you sort of train your eye to skip over it once you realize how interestingly it's being used. But overall, it's an interesting story that stretches over 50 years. One of the things Follett does very effectively is switching narrators and protagonists. The story's focus shifts seamlessly from character to character and it takes you a while to even realize that the character you've come to think of as the main character has faded into the background.

POTE, when you boil it down, is a constant progression of: 1) The antagonists have created a problem. 2) The problem is solved by the protagonist's clever thinking or God's will. 3) The antagonists start scheming once more. 4) Repeat. It gets a little monotonous and you can really see Follett forcing these conflicts at certain points just so he can solve them 100 pages later (see my complaint about Aliena's character).

My biggest complaint about POTE was the inconsistency of its characters. I could list a dozen examples, but Aliena jumps out at me in particular. Without really spoiling anything, I can tell you that Jack and Aliena fall in love. Jack leaves. Aliena searches all over God's creation to find Jack going on and on about how she can't live without him and how he is the key to her living a full life. They reunite, fall in love, etc. 100 pages later she decides to leave him for no reason whatsoever (a small problem created by the antagonists), completely reversing everything we know about the characters feelings for Jack. But wait... Something happens that solves the problem and everything is happily ever after... For 50 pages before something else goes wrong. It was mildly obnoxious. I wanted to put the book down right there but I only had like 100 pages left.

If this was 300 pages I might recommend it, but I can't in good conscience recommend a 100 page tome that really didn't do anything for me. So read at your own risk.

PS - This is being made into a TV miniseries. I probably wouldn't even watch it but one of the main villains (another character who suffers shows complete inconsistency near the end of the book) is going to be played by Ian McShane. McShane, if you don't know, was probably the coolest character on the coolest TV show ever made, Deadwood. So look for this on your TiVo in 2010.

PPS - Sorry its been a month between reviews. LSAT prep and law school apps have taken precedence, but that's settling down now. I hope to have 55+ books done by Jan 1, 2010.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Brief Roundup

I have actually been reading. Just not blogging. So here goes a (very) brief round up of the past few books.

1) The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

This one is by a favorite author of mine, who writes historical fiction, mostly about the Tudor family. This is her first book in a new series about the Plantagenets, the family that preceded the Tudors on England's throne. It's also about the Wars of the Roses, the decades-long war that took place in England in the late 1400s. The White Queen is Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who marries a king and has two sons that are kidnapped by their dastardly uncle and locked in the Tower of London where they meet their fate of...nobody knows. The mystery of the two missing princes in the Tower of London is England's version of the Anastasia story; no remains of either boy were ever found. This story is mostly about Elizabeth however. Most of Gregory's books are character-driven; they focus on the women of the ruling class in pre-Renaissance England. Overall, better than some of hers I've read but still no The Other Boleyn Girl (a favorite by the same author).

2) In The Woods by Tana French - Jim reviewed this one earlier this year so I'll keep it short. Great book, but I was disappointed not to find out what happened to the two children that went missing from the wood in 1984. I know thats not meant to be the point of the story, but it felt like the point to me. Come on. Two children disappear and the third is found clutching a tree, shoes filled with blood and no memory? I want to know what happened there. The book revolves around a modern-day child murder, which is solved, but the fact tha multiple allusions are made to the earlier case makes it all that much more disappointing not to have an answer. Also, the answers the reader is meant to supply, given the information available to us in the book are that the children disappeared as a result of some large animal with huge eyes that spotted them in the woods one day and came back for them later.

3) The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009 - This is a collection of short stories I've bought every year its been in print - since 2002. Its a terrific little anthology full of short stories, articles, and graphic narratives edited by Dave Eggers and, of late, a group of high school students that participate in a writing work shop in San Francisco. Topics range from a short story about a grandpa to an article about the Jena 6 race riots to a French comic strip and the Best American Craigslist Items and Offers to Barter. Go buy this book, it's terrific. And because it is short stories, you can leave it and come back later as often or as little as you like. Say, like in between a murder mystery and historical fiction.

That's pretty much all I got right now. I think all my posts will be formatted like this from now on.