Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

What is jealousy? Jealousy is to say, what you have got is mine, it is mine, it is mine? Not quite. It is to say, I hate you because you have got what I have not got and desire. I want to be me, myself, but in your position, with your opportunities, your looks, your abilities, your spiritual good.

Chris, like any of us, would have been astonished if he had known that Rowland, through jealousy, had thought with some tormented satisfaction of Chris dying in his sleep.

I remember someone once said of Spoon's Britt Daniel that once a song has been recorded, he takes out every track that isn't necessary, and then takes out one more. I kind of feel the same way about Muriel Spark, whose books are notable for their brevity and sparseness. The Finishing School was Spark's last book before her death, and it's so caustic, and so spare, that it gives the impression of being a long-winded joke.

The Finishing School is a chronicle of jealousy: Rowland Mahler runs a third-rate school with his wife, Nina, in Lausanne, Switzerland (though it moves every year that the Mahlers might escape the debt they rack up in each city). Their prize pupil is a 17-year old named Chris Wiley, who is composing a novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. It's very good, but the novel that Rowland is writing is not, and his envy of Chris' talent nearly drives him insane.

Eventually, Rowland escapes to a monastery in order to flee his destructive feelings, but is beckoned back to the school by Chris, who thrives off of Rowland's jealousy and can't finish his novel without it. In a neat bit of parallelism, Chris' book is about jealousy as well: The jealousy of Queen Mary's husband Lord Darnley toward her favorite courtier, David Rizzio, which leads to Rizzio's murder. That Rowland's relationship with Chris may also lead to murder is strongly suggested, but there is also a strange sexual element to Rowland's obsession, leading Nina and the other students to question Rowland's sexuality. This is not a particularly subtle element of the story, and Spark makes it less so by noting in the epilogue that a newly divorced Rowland marries Chris in a same-sex affirmation ceremony.

Spark's books tend to be about the relationship between the author and the character, and The Finishing School is no different. Rowland suggests in his creative writing class that a good author allows his characters, like real people, to surprise him, which Chris refutes with an idea cribbed almost verbatim from Nabokov: "Nobody in my book so far could cross the road unless I make them do it." And yet, Chris is writing a historical novel, and purposely distorting historical fact, consciously engineering actions and interactions that Mary, Darnley, and Rizzio could not, or would not have perpetrated. In contrast, Rowland cannot seem to control even his present; his attempts to convince Chris to give up his novel are fruitless and transparent. His writer's block mirrors his inability to affect real people, including himself.

Of course, Spark cribs from Nabokov because she's playing the same game that Nabokov loved to play: pointing out that all this business about control and agency is nonsense; it is the author who is pulling the strings. Spark is God, and no one could cross the road unless she makes them do it.

From the school setting to the underlying theme, The Finishing School reads like an update on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. At its worst, it could be a parody of that novel. The Finishing School is infinitely less satisfying than Jean Brodie partly because it seems redundant, and partly because Rowland is infinitely less interesting. Brodie is a sham and a fraud, but she is adored by her students who fail to see through her. Rowland is pathetic, and blatantly so; his neurosis over Chris' novel is clear to everyone he interacts with. For this reason, Spark's satire at times seems unnecessarily cruel.

In this case, Spark's trademarks seem to work against her. She dismisses her characters summarily and disdainfully, but we never have a chance to sympathize with them, or even invest emotionally or intellectually in their success or failure. A big, fat book like War and Peace or Infinite Jest seems to justify its existence by its sheer presence; The Finishing School is so slight, and so redundant, that it makes one wonder why Spark bothered writing it at all.

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco

Let us for­get for a mo­ment that some of these false tales pro­duced pos­itive ef­fects, while oth­ers pro­duced hor­ror and shame. All cre­at­ed some­thing, for bet­ter or worse. Noth­ing in their suc­cess is in­ex­pli­ca­ble. What rep­re­sents a prob­lem is rather the way they man­aged to re­place oth­er tales that to­day we con­sid­er true. Some years ago, in an es­say of mine on fakes and coun­ter­feits, I con­clud­ed that al­though in­stru­ments, whether em­pir­ical or con­jec­tural, ex­ist to prove that some ob­ject is false, ev­ery de­ci­sion in the mat­ter pre­sup­pos­es the ex­is­tence of an orig­inal, au­then­tic and true, to which the fake is com­pared. The tru­ly gen­uine prob­lem thus does not con­sist of prov­ing some­thing false but in prov­ing that the au­then­tic ob­ject is au­then­tic.

Serendipities is a collection of essays by Umberto Eco chronicling the attempts of linguists and historians to trace language back to its original form, the mother tongue or linguistic matrix that forms the basis for all modern language and grammar. In tracing it back, he also touches extensively on the topics of religion, natural instinct, conspiracies, and various historical events that either prove or illustrated the points he's trying to make.

In all honesty, this was a pretty nerdy book. I really enjoyed it, but unless you have a vested interest in linguistics, it's probably not going to be too appealing. Eco does write in a very accessible style, even when talking about complex, unfamiliar concepts, so if you want to dip your toes in this might be a good place to start. if you just want to read some Eco though, I'd suggest picking up The Name of the Rose.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Nice Work by David Lodge

He steps onto the bathroom scales. Ten stone two ounces. Quite enough for a man only five feet five and a half inches tall. Some say – Vic has overheard them saying it – that he tries to compensate for his short stature by aggressive manner. Well, let them.

She was born, and christened, Roberta Anne Penrose, in Melbourne, Australia, nearly thirty-three years ago, but left that country at five . . . growing up in a pleasant unostentatious house with a view of the sea.

What do you get when you put a self-made man and a trendy feminist teacher into a bag and shake? Nice Work. In this his thirteenth book, David Lodge, offers a bumpy and surprisingly funny comedy in which Vic Wilcox, the director of an engineering firm (with little regard for academics) and Robyn Penrose and leftist scholar collide in a government “shadow” program designed to foster mutual understanding between the “town and gown.” Lodge cleverly reveals both the foibles and fascinations of the factory and the ivory tower all in less than three hundred pages.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

J. D. Salinger Dies

“'Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

The literary world lost a great icon today. J. D. Salinger, author of Catcher in Rye and Nine Stories, died of natural causes today at the age of 91. You can read about him and his life here, or read our reviews of his work here.

R.I.P. Mr. Salinger.

Foe by J. M. Coetzee

'But if you cannot rid yourself of your doubts, I have something to say that may be of comfort. Let us confront bur worst fear, which is that we have all of us been called into the world from a different order (which we have now forgotten) by a conjurer unknown to us, as you say I have conjured up your daughter and her companion (I have not). Then I ask nevertheless: Have we thereby lost our freedom? Are you, for one, any less mistress of your life? Do we of necessity become puppets in a story whose end is invisible to us, and towards which we are marched like condemned felons?'

After 4 years of intense reading, having completed over 200 books ranging from Stephen King to James Joyce, it's finally happened. When I closed the covers on Foe, I realized that I just didn't get it. Not in the vague sense that I read Faulkner and feel like I'm only picking up the tip of the iceberg, but more in the "this book might as well have been in another language" sense.

Foe is built around a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, as seen through the eyes of the narrator Susan Barton, a young woman who is marooned on Crusoe's island after mutineers set her adrift. Alone with only Crusoe and his tongueless, African manservant Friday, she explicates on his life, surprised by the mundanity of it. A year after her arrival, they are rescued. Crusoe dies of homesickness on the way back to England, and Susan, along with the speechless Friday, seeks out an author, a Daniel Foe, to write down her story and make a successful novel of it.

Upon hearing her tale, Foe feels it isn't exciting enough and asks her permission to add extra episodes--a cannibal attack, romantic entanglements between Susan and Crusoe, etc.--but Susan refuses, wanting to tell her story truly or not at all.

Now, to this point I was following along, but then the story takes some strange twists. First, a young girl shows up, claiming to be Susan's lost daughter, the one for whom she was searching when she was cast away, and another woman whose exact role I couldn't pinpoint. This leads to discussions with Foe about the nature of truth and writing, and to a bizarre epilogue that further set in my mind that I'd missed something important along the way. There's also a subplot--important based on the space it's given--regarding Friday: how he lost his tongue, attempts to communicate with him, etc., and it relates in some ways to the discussions Foe and Susan have near the end of the novel. One of them is excerpted above, and concerns the nature of reality, the inability of humans to comprehend whether their actions are predestined, and a short bit about the Inferno.

Here, in summation, is what I got from Foe: the themes revolving around communication, specifically writing; the actual prose in the novel was a little dry, but well-crafted; and I really didn't get it. So there you have it.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Having had to encounter single-handed during his period of eclipse many physical dangers, he was well aware of the most dangerous element common to them all: of the crushing, paralysing sense of human littleness, which is what really defeats a human struggling with natural forces, alone, far from the eyes of his fellows.

Jim is a man living by a code of honor. His life goal is to put himself at risk in order to save another human being. Many critics believe Jim is a Messiah-like figure in this complex narrative that addresses the human struggle to do right or live honorably in a dishonorable society that does not value self-sacrifice.

Jim's main trouble is that in a very real sense he has fallen from grace, yet he is the one man struggling to live a moral live in spite of his failings. Moving away from a perceived condemning society, Jim finds himself on an island, hailed as a lord.

The general idea of the book is that the meaning of life, Jim's life in particular, is beyond human explanation.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

She thought sometimes that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life--the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless t o fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post-chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep roads, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring forth happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills?

Critic James Wood writes, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him." Wood argues that modern realist begins here, with the author of Madame Bovary, with its carefully chosen detail and the way that observation is refracted through the lens of its characters. Flaubert famously searched for le bon mot, the perfect word, perfectly arranged. Knowing all this, I was nerdily excited to read Madame Bovary.

And, of course, Wood isn't wrong; what Flaubert does in many places is exceptional. Emma, the titular Madame Bovary, is fully realized and expressive. The writing is meticulously mannered, and Flaubert manages to say very much with a very limited arsenal of literary tools.

But for all this, I had a lot of trouble caring about Madame Bovary. I am not one who needs a thrilling, action-packed book, but I couldn't help but feeling that the plot here was exceptionally dull. The focus is on Emma Bovary, the wife of a mediocre doctor living in a rural French town called Yonville-D'Abbaye. Emma loves romantic fiction, and quickly realizes that her marriage simply can't live up to the whirlwind, exciting Parisian romances of her favorite books. She seeks release in two separate affairs, one with a dashing rake named Rodolphe and another with a mild-mannered clerk named Leon. These unfold in the manner that affairs do, with secret meetings, banal lies, and the like, and the entire time we are aware that neither of these feel quiet about Emma the way that they do about her. Perhaps I am just weary of adultery stories--after all, Bovary was roundly criticized as glorifying adultery when it came out, so it was then sort of unique--but my attention flagged. The final chapters of the book stand out as an exception, in which the extravagant bills that Emma has stockpiled in service of her affairs come to a head, and the prospect of financial ruin drives her to desperate acts.

Perhaps also I am just not the right audience. Bovary has been praised for capturing perfectly the manners and attitudes of the French bourgeois, which I suppose it does--I have nothing by way of comparison--but I admit that, try as I might, I cannot make myself care about the manners and attitudes of the French bourgeois.

So let me address one aspect I did find interesting: How are we meant to see Emma? Emma is certainly tragic in that she is undone by her own flaws; her fatuous attachment to romance is what leads her to expense, which leads to her downfall. For example, when Leon suggests that they might be happier in a smaller, less expensive hotel, Emma objects, unable to fathom anything short of the sort of opulence she reads about. Uncharitable audiences might find her character repulsive. I admit that this is my first reaction, as well--her disaffection is understandable, but her husband Charles is at his heart a good man and she treats him cruelly. Yet, there were no options available for a rural doctor's wife to escape her situation in nineteenth-century France, and many have seen Emma as a proto-feminist heroine.

Flaubert once famously remarked, "Je suis Madame Bovary!"--I am Madame Bovary! Reflecting on this, I recalled something I had said to Brent about Catcher in the Rye: That perhaps those who rejected the book because of Holden's character flaws were being willfully ignorant of the same tendencies in themselves. Who of us has not felt like Emma, imagined ourselves in a favorite book, or imagined a scene in our lives that more resembled a movie? Emma's defining characteristic is an aspect of ourselves writ large, and for this I think we ought to show the same empathy that Flaubert does.

Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

It looked at Ransom in silence and at last began to smile... It was not furtive, nor ashamed, it had nothing of the conspirator in it. It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence.

is the second book in C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy. The trilogy begins with Out of the Silent Planet, which both Carlton and I read, and ends with That Hideous Strength.

Peralandra is ostensibly a direct sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, but, although there are several references to the first book, it could easily stand alone. It follows Ransom, the protagonist of Planet on his voyage to Peralandra--or, in English, Venus. He is drawn there by Maledil, the trilogy's version of God, although he isn't so much a version as a perception--that is, Maledil and the Christian God are one and the same. Anyway, he arrives on the planet, which is mostly made up of water and floating islands, and meets a woman, the only one who lives there. She is in search of the King, who, Ransom eventually divines, is her male counterpart. She is without any sort of avarice or rebellion at all. She has so little conception of sin or wrongdoing that when Weston, Ransom's enemy in Planet, arrives--possessed by an evil spirit and ready to do psychological battle--Ransom cannot even communicate to her the danger. As she starts spending time with Weston, the main plot kicks in, and Lewis plays out his version of the Garden on Eden.

Initially, I wasn't sure what I thought of the book. It started off very slowly, especially for Lewis, but around the 1/3 mark (which, honestly, this book is not too long anyway) it really picked up. Once Weston arrives, the book turns into a philosophical thriller of sorts--there are fistfights and chases nestled alongside long arguments on the nature of good, what it means to be wise or obedient, and lots of other religious topics that some people might find dull but I loved.

The strangest part of Perelandra to me was how intense parts of it were. In the final third of the book, Ransom finds himself trapped in a pitch dark cave, unable to see or keep his mind from imagining that the veritable zombie Weston may be coming for him. It's nail-bitingly good, although my description doesn't do it any sort of justice:

Slowly, shakily, with unnatural and inhuman movements a human form, scarlet in the firelight, crawled out on to the floor of the cave. It was the Un-man, of course: dragging its broken leg and with its lower jaw sagging open like that of a corpse, it raised itself to a standing position. And then, close behind it, something else came up out of the hole. First came what looked like branches of trees, and then seven or eight spots of light, irregularly grouped like a constellation. Then a tubular mass which reflected the red glow as if it were polished. His heart gave a great leap as the branches suddenly resolved themselves into long wiry feelers and the dotted lights became the many eyes of a shell-helmeted head and the mass that followed it was revealed as a large roughly cylindrical body. Horrible things followed - angular, many jointed legs, and presently, when he thought the whole body was in sight, a second body came following it and after that a third.

It hard to know just what to say about Perelandra from a recommendation standpoint. Even for as big a Lewis fan as I am, I found it rough going at first. However, it was ultimately as rewarding as anything of his I've read. I'd recommend it with the asterisks that maybe it should be the first book of his you pick up. And that'll do it for this review.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Magic Seeds by V.S. Naipaul

You were on the outside because you wanted to be. You’ve always preferred to hide. It’s the colonial psychosis, the caste psychosis. You inherited it from your father.

In the Magic Seeds V.S. Naipaul continues the saga of Willie Chandran which he began in Half a Life. Willie is born into an (almost) post-colonial world into which he finds a brilliant array of options but none that are quite suitable. In the final portion of Half a Life we find Willie living in Africa with his Portuguese girlfriend only to experience further alienation as the colony is plunged into Civil War.

Magic Seeds opens with Willie dreaming about having returned from Africa to Berlin where he is living with his sister. His actual life, clambering through the jungles of India in the company of guerilla fighters, is becoming unbearable and Willie longs to return to Europe which, in time, he does. But not before he stumbles through miles of jungles being forced to sort his way through a phantasmagoric world of psychopaths and abecedarians.

The Magic Seeds was certainly not V.S. Naipaul’s finest work and pales in comparison to his better work like In a Free State. Nevertheless, few writers can portray the tangled mass of humanity and confusion of the postmodern and post-colonial era with such conviction as V.S. Naipaul.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Since Jim just wrote a very good and mostly spoiler free review of Under the Dome a week or so ago, I'm going to refer you to his review for the normal things like a plot summary. Most of this review is going to be taken up with my thoughts on the themes brought out in the story, there will be spoilers.

Under the Dome is, I believe, King's longest single novel, beating out The Stand by just a few pages, and it was solid. Fast-moving, exciting, even a little touching at times. If you've read King before, the things you love and hate about his writing are all here: heroic children, religious overtones, lots of folksy dialectical dialog, a large cast of idiosyncratic characters, a psychic child or two, and people getting killed in awful ways. It's a good book, but the most interesting things occur below the surface.


After all human efforts fail to raise or destroy the dome, it's discovered that the force that created it is--drum roll--not of this world. That might not not be so strange on its face, since King has explored extraterrestrial life before, but in this case, the creatures wreaking the havoc don't appear to be extraterrestrial so much as supernatural. The antagonists--vague eyeless, leathery creatures--have more in common with Lovecraft's elder gods than with aliens or with the concept of an Old Testamental Abrahamic God, as King seems to indicate in his other novels. The creatures as described in terms of children massacring an anthill, incapable of feeling guilt or sorrow for what they do. Their ways are inexplicable and unexplained: the dome itself, in the end, appears to have been nothing more than some deistic prank, a giant lens placed over a town full of ants. It's interesting that King never attempts to answer the questions that would seem to be the thematic core of the work, except to say that there are no answers. Sometimes, the book leans toward God working in mysterious ways, but ultimately it goes a step further: the alien children, in this universe, are God, and nothing we do can induce guilt. We can only hope for pity.

As a result, I thought the story was a little bit of a downer. It's not really humanistic--nearly everyone in Chester's Mill is dead by the end of the book, and those that are saved are saved mostly by sheer luck, nor is it optimistic about any sort of supernatural intervention. The only ones who care about us are us, and there's nothing we can really do.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

Soccernomics will go down in history as the first book I ever read from start to finish on my Kindle. It was great, I got most of my reading done on the metro and anticipate reading many more books this year as a result.

Anyway, I had mixed feelings about this book. Sometimes I liked it, sometimes it drove me nuts. It's sort of a combination between Moneyball by Michael Lewis (an in depth look at the way new statistics are changing baseball), How Soccer Explains the World, and a Malcolm Gladwell book. However, comparing this book to those awesome books is way too high a compliment. It is merely in their genre.

The authors use complicated statistical analysis to answer some of soccer's unanswered questions and dispel some of its myths. For example, it goes into how good England actually is and how good it should be, why and how European clubs aren't run as well as they could be, which country has the best soccer fans, and which country is best suited for future success (spoiler: its us, Japan and Iraq). On one hand, they didn't get too bogged down in a lot of statistics mumbo jumbo (and warned you to skip ahead two paragraphs when they did), which I appreciated, but on the other sometimes it seemed like they were full of shit. I will be the first to admit I don't know a whole lot about statistics, but some stuff seemed totally bogus. For instance, they set out to determine which country in Europe had the best soccer fans (Norway). They did this by determining which country plays the most soccer, which watches the most on tv, and which actually goes to the stadium most. Ok, cool, I'm with you so far. But then it breaks down, because while they had enough data for the playing category, they didn't for watching and attending. They eliminated Iceland and Scotland just because they didn't have the numbers. So it felt kind of half-assed to me. In another section they're trying to determine if English fans are really that loyal and devoted and crazy and such. In their pursuit, they decided that the true measure of a devoted fan was actually going to the games, and if you didn't you were somewhat less than. Well, not only did I agree with that intellectually, it chapped my ass personally. I feel like there are several readers of this blog who are in the top ten percent of Carolina fans, yet you could count their trips to the Dean Dome in the last two years on one hand (not you, Jim, you're just a slacker). Just because you can't actually get there doesn't mean you're not a zealot. They even mention this later in the chapter, when they say the two biggest factors in whether you actually go to the game are age and income. There are several other minor inconsistencies throughout that take a little bit away.

Still, there were some parts that were interesting and it wasn't totally bad, but the parts that irked me stood out more than the parts that fascinated me.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

What is left to say about Romeo and Juliet? Re-reading this one wasn't quite the experience that King Lear was, for many reasons. For one, Lear is just better. Secondly, would anyone deny that Romeo and Juliet is near-ubiquitous in our culture? I mean, how many bad sitcoms have a scene where a high schooler moons vicariously over their crush under the pretense of being cast in Romeo and Juliet together? It is nearly impossible to read this play with fresh eyes.

(Of course, Lear gets a point taken away for not having as many dick jokes. Seriously, if you go by this editor's gloss, just about every word in Shakespearean English is a euphemism for either a penis or a vagina.)

So, I find myself without having much to say. The most interesting question that came to my mind is this--do Romeo and Juliet really love each other? That sounds ridiculous on its face, but my reading of the play in college--at the height of my cynicism--was that Romeo's love for Juliet was of the same stripe as his love for Rosaline, for whom he pines in the first act. This would be appropriate in the sense that in most classical tragedies the final catastrophe is the result of one's own actions, and as such we might be encouraged to see Romeo's infatuation with Juliet as childish, or foolish, and ultimately destructive.

But several things make me change my mind, including the realization that valuing Romeo's feelings over Juliet's is probably a form of mild sexism. Though Romeo appears moody, fickle, and kind of a douchebag, Juliet never seems to be anything but calm, and never lets her passion for Romeo bring out the same kind of lamentation and breast-beating that he indulges in (leading the Friar to call him womanly, and certainly suggesting swapped gender roles).

But also, the tone of Romeo's love is different. His love for Rosaline is expressed in oxymoron, typical of Petrarchan love sonnets:

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

For Petrarch, the ideal was courtly love, which by its nature is external to marriage and can never be realized. The agony that arises is to be expected, and makes love a largely joyless thing, which Romeo expresses when he says, "This love feel I, that feel no love in this." And yet, his love for Juliet is neither unrequited nor agonizing:

O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard,
Being in night, all this is but a dream,
Too flattering sweet to be substantial.

Is it Juliet? Or is it merely the fact that, unlike Rosaline, Juliet returns his feelings?

Finally, I am convinced by something the editor, Mario DiGangi, says in his introduction:

The most elevated dramatic genre, tragedy traditionally dealt with the fall of great men--"great" because both aristocratic and historically important. Romeo and Juliet are neither... As such an Elizabethan audience might have felt skeptical about the value of a tragedy centered on their lives and loves... In order to find Romeo and Juliet figures worthy of tragic treatment, then, Shakespeare's audience would have to find value in their love.

The implication being, of course, that love is a kind of substitute for greatness, that true love can make a man or woman great. Furthermore, for Romeo and Juliet this occurs not only without the sort of social admiration that aristocracy and history might import, but despite its opposite, the social revilement that their union causes when Juliet reveals her intention to her parents. Contrary to my younger, cynical self, I think there's something sweet and wonderful about that.

The question remains, then--is Romeo correct when he says on his wedding day, "But come what sorrow can, / It cannot counteract the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight"? If their love is what we hope that it is--true, pure, and deeply felt--is the short time which they have it worth their demise? And would it be true for you or me?

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow.

I'm not much of a sci-fi reader. As a general rule, if something is filed under fantasy/science fiction and it's not called Lord of the Rings, I steer clear. Even many classics of the genre, such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash have left me completely cold. So I was a little hesitant to read A Scanner Darkly--a science fiction classic to be sure, but still. Science fiction. After finishing it, I think I can safely say that not only is it worth the read, it's one of the most devastating books I've ever read, in any genre.

The protagonist of A Scanner Darkly is Robert Arcter, an undercover drug cop who has spent the last several years of his life living like an addict, among a variety of other junkies, some of whom are amusing, some of whom are scary, and some of whom are just insane. Of course, keeping up his cover mean s indulging himself in drugs, particularly Substance D, an organic compound that has the unfortunate side effect of splitting users, after extended usage, in two, effectively severing the connection between their right and left brains and leaving them as crazed husks.

I don't want to talk to much about the plot, since watching it unfold gives the novel a lot of its power, but I would like to focus on a couple aspects I really appreciated. First, this isn't some dour navel-gazing narrative. In spite of the devastation, the characters have some absolutely hilarious interactions:
Arctor said, "I drove by the Maylar Microdot Corporation Building."
"You're shitting me."
"And," Arctor said, "they were taking an inventory. But one of the employees evidently had tracked the inventory outdoors on the heel of his shoe. So they were all outside there in the Maylar Microdot Corporation parking lot with a pair of tweezers and lots and lots of little magnifying glasses. And a little paper bag."
"Any reward?" Luckman said, yawning and beating with his palms on his flat, hard gut.
"They had a reward they were offering," Arctor said. "But they lost that, too. It was a little tiny penny."
Luckman said, "You see very many events of this nature as you're driving along?"
"Only in Orange County," Arctor said.
"How large is the Maylar Microdot Corporation building?"
"About an inch high," Arctor said.
"How much would you estimate it weighs?"
"Including the employees?"
Fred sent the tape spinning ahead at fast wind. When an hour had passed, according to the meter, he halted it momentarily.
"--about ten pounds," Arctor was saying.

The other thing is, and I already touched on this, A Scanner Darkly is absolutely heartbreaking. In possibly the most effective afterword ever written, Dick dedicates the book to his friends and family who've been destroyed by drugs, listing their names and afflictions like a wartime death roster. He includes himself in this list. The quote that opens this review sums it up better than 1,000 more words would do. Ignore the science fiction label--A Scanner Darkly is about people, not spaceships.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chasing Waves by Amy Waeschle

That's right. I'm back. Like your new year's resolutions, I'll go strong for the first few months of the year, slow down in March, and by June you'll have forgotten all about me and your bowflex. Make your bets now, folks.

Chasing Waves by Amy Waeschle is a travelogue about surfing. A surfelogue. When she was still a middle school science teacher, Amy's future husband taught her to surf in Mexico, and within a few years she had quit her job and was pursuing a career as a freelance writer, mostly to support the habit, she says.

Most chapters are standard descriptions of standard surf trips (to Fiji, Hawaii, Costa Rica, etc.), but I've never read better descriptions of learning to surf, finding your place in a hostile lineup, or the thrill of suddenly finding that you've improved. The standouts are stories of van camping in Vancouver and the pacific northwest, and scavenging for surf while stationed in Sicily for three years.

These are the "bro!" stories that you tell over a beer or around a fire after surfing, and any added insight she tries to give is unnecessary and seems like an afterthought. Read this if you want to know what surfing is like without going surfing, OR buy me a beer and build me a fire and we'll talk bro stories.

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

In an unfamiliar region it is always necessary for the stranger to begin at once to construct the familiar, with a photograph perhaps, or a row of books if they are all that he has brought with him from the past. Querry had no photographs and no books except his diary. The first morning when he was awakened at six by the sound of prayers from the chapel next door, he felt the panic of complete abandonment. He lay on his back listening to the pious chant, and if there had been some magic power in his signet ring, he would have twisted it and asked whatever djinn answered him to be transferred again to that place which for want of a better name he called his home. But magic, if such a thing existed at all, was more likely to lie in the rhythmical and magical chant next door. It reminded him, like the smell of medicine, of an illness from which he had long recovered. He blamed himself for not realizing that the area of leprosy was also the area of this other sickness. He had expected doctors and nurses; he had forgotten that he would find priests and nuns.

A Burnt-Out Case shares certain superficial similarities with Greene's The Heart of the Matter; both are concerned with British men living in Africa, suffering from the kind of alienation that Greene's exotic settings typically symbolize. To my mind it is also a sort of mirror image of another of his books, Brighton Rock. While that one is concerned chiefly with the conundrum of the special propensity for evil that religious men exhibit, A Burnt-Out Case is about the capability of non-religious men for acts of good.

Querry is searching--note the uncharacteristic appropriateness of his name--for an escape. Once a famous architect of churches, he has lost the ability to love, to feel, or to suffer, and before these has long ago lost his faith. He comes to Africa to run from even himself, and ends up in a leper colony run by priests. He wishes to be of use, but eventually is pressed into designing a new hospital for the order. Soon, his presence in the leper colony is discovered by an enterprising reporter, and Querry, contrary to his wishes and his own self-image, is being hailed in Europe as a sort of living saint.

Querry insists that he cannot be a saint; saints suffer, saints love, and above all saints believe in God. He, on the other hand, is a "burnt-out case"--like those lepers who must lose limbs and become horribly mutilated before the disease will run its course and disappear. Despite all his protests to the contrary, it becomes clear that Querry, for whatever his past transgressions in Europe, has a good heart. The question then is, if Querry does not claim God, can God claim Querry? The Superior of the order opines in a sermon:

"But Yezu [Jesus] is not just a holy man. Yezu is God and God made the world. When you make a song you are in the song, when you bake bread you are in the bread, when you make a baby you are in the baby, and because Yezu made you, he is in you. When you love, it is Yezu who loves, when you are merciful it is Yezu who is merciful. But when you hate or envy it is not Yezu, for everything that Yezu made is good. Bad things are not tehre--they are nothing. Hate means no love. Envy means no justice. They are just empty spaces, where Yezu ought to be."

This puts into my mind Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is--
Christ--for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the feature of men's faces.

The essential thrust of A Burnt-Out Case is that Querry desperately wants to run from himself but, as the saying goes, wherever he goes, there he is. Querry considers himself lost and faithless, but God follows even when He is not wanted because God is in Querry. As Hopkins puts it, he "[a]cts in God's eye what in God's eye he is."

And this is precisely why I love reading Greene so much--though his books are dark and the people in them generally miserable (as it seems Greene himself was) they are built around affirmations like this one, that good and God cannot be rubbed out, erased, or run away from.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

"Your haughty religious people would have held their heads up to see me as I am to-night, and preached of flames and vengeance," cried the girl. "Oh, dear lady, why aren't those who claim to be God's own folks as gentle and as kind to us poor wretches as you, who, having youth, and beauty, and all that they have lost, might be a little proud instead of so much humbler?"

Perhaps Dickens' second-best-known story, Oliver Twist tells the story of the eponymous orphan and his various trials and tribulations living with thieves and vagabonds on the streets of Victorian England. Included in this less-than-distinguished company are some literature's most notorious baddies--Fagin, the wicked ringleader; the Artful Dodger, the charming-but-debauched child; Bill Skies, violent killer; and Nancy, the good-hearted vagabond quoted in my excerpt above.

The basic plot of Oliver Twist seems to me to be something most people have absorbed by some sort of cultural osmosis, but here it is, in abbreviated form: a) Oliver's mother dies during his birth, b)he is placed in an orphanage under the care of a careless woman and a corrupt beadle, c) he escapes and is taken under the wing of Fagin who d) turns out to be worse than the Beadle. This being Dickens, there is a happy ending and several unlikely coincidences, but that doesn't impair Twist--it's a good story whether you already know it or not.

Until I got near the end, I wasn't sure I would have much to say about it besides summarizing the plot, but once Nancy determines to help Oliver, risking her own life to share with Oliver's benefactors secrets she could be killed for disclosing, a theme emerges which repaints the whole story in richer colors. Nancy puts her life on the line to save Oliver, an innocent who she still sees as redeemable. She does not, however, extend the same courtesy to herself. Here, she shares with Rose, a friend of Oliver, how she feels about her condition:

"When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are," replied the girl steadily, "give away your hearts, love will carry you all length -- even such as you, who have home, friends, other admirers, everything to fill them. When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady -- pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left, and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride, into a new means of violence and suffering."

It's a heartbreaking moment, and forces reflection on the other characters throughout the work. Even Bill Sikes, the most vile person in a novel full of them, has his chance for partial redemption. No one, Dickens seems to say, is truly beyond hope, but that doesn't mean everyone will have a happy ending.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

There was a tremendous hollow clang from behind him, followed by the boom of a secondary explosion, followed by the blast of heat that struck him from heels to nape. It shoved him on his way like a warm hand. Then all thoughts blew away and there was nothing but the body's brute need to survive.

Dale Barbara ran for his life.

Under the Dome
is the story of a small town in Maine (go figure, King fans) called Chester's Mill. Chester's Mill operates like any other small town: You've got your hospital, your police force, your school, your local government, etc. There's small-town gossip and romance and politics and strife. But everythinglez changes when one day a transparent, impervious, indestructible barrier encloses the exact borders of Chester's Mill. Completely cut off from the rest of civilization, the town is forced to fend for itself. In the chaos that follows Dome Day, local government becomes supreme government and human nature takes over. It's only days, not weeks or months, before blood is shed in order to protect that new government and its demagogic leader, Jim Rennie.

I really enjoyed Under the Dome. It's pretty much standard Stephen King fare but I certainly don't consider that to be a bad thing. I like King a lot... In most aspects. The guy is brilliant at coming up with fantastic, interesting premises. His endings... I don't love so much. You can always count on King to bail himself out of an intricate, compelling plot with some kind of harebrained supernatural twist. In some of his books it works, in some it doesn't. I think, in the case of Under the Dome, the ending fit the book.

Under the Dome has a humongous cast of characters. As a result, the town of Chester's Mill (population: 2,000) really comes to life and by the end of the book you feel like you've been there. One of my favorite things about King's writing is his characterization. His characters are always very fleshed out and behave realistically. With King, you can always count on intelligent characters to behave like intelligent people. King's characters always find themselves in extraordinary circumstances but they always react to those circumstances in ways that I feel I can relate to. I also love King's antagonists. Under the Dome did not disappoint in this category. Jim Rennie Senior and Junior were expertly crafted. Both evil but in different ways.

All in all, I recommend Under the Dome to anyone who isn't put off by a 1,100 page novel. I can attest that it reads more like its 500 pages or so. The story is a bit derivative, we've all read novels about how people devolve into animals if you separate them from society and turn them against each other. But we've never heard Stephen King tell that story and I'm glad I finally got to. King understands how to write an exciting story, its as simple as that. The guy writes like a novel a month, so it might be easy for this one to disappear in the fold (being in Africa, I have no idea if this book has been hyped at all). If you're a Stephen King fan, make sure not to pass this one up.

Highlights: The Chef is one of my all-time favorite characters
Lowlights: I was hoping for just a little bit more from the ending

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The past--the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.

Surely I'm not the only one who, upon seeing the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, didn't realize it was based on a short story at all, let alone one by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like most Americans, The Great Gatsby is the only thing I've actually read by him. A shame, really, since he's a fantastic writer, certainly one of the most economical prose stylists of all time, and Benjamin Button is a great example.

I haven't seen the movie, but I can only imagine that half of it is made up whole cloth. The novel--novella, really--is under 100 pages and has nary a wasted word. It hardly could, since it covers Benjamin's entire life from cradle to grave, although not necessarily in that order. During this time, he falls in love, carouses about town, goes to war twice, attends college, and manages to alienate his entire family, although SPOILER he wins some of them back over.

Rather than being the serious drama I expected, Benjamin Button is surprisingly light-hearted until its final third where it takes an inevitably darker turn. The story seems to turn the old adage "If only I'd known then what I know now" on its head. Benjamin Button is given a priceless gift--youth with wisdom--but, of course, he doesn't use it wisely.

Monday, January 11, 2010

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

It's a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, "Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn't love me. He just couldn't deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me." Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll--then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

I love this passage, for several reasons. First of all, there's the sheer brutality of it--nothing like Love to give a swift, cynical kick in the crotch. Secondly, Smith lets a key phrase slip in unnoticed through the verbal detritus: "This unlovable century." White Teeth was published in 2000, as that unlovable century came to a close, and packed tightly within her choice of words is a sense of hope that the next century will in some sense be worthy of our love, and by extension the people in it. How odd to think, then, that White Teeth, as concerned as it is with the origins of domestic terror movements, was published a year before September 11th--perhaps the surest sign that modern times had not yet reached the nadir of their lovability.

And thirdly, there is something afoot here that I don't even think Smith realizes, that her words are betrayed by how much she loves the characters in this book--often to a grating extent--and how much control she exhibits over their lives. White Teeth begs to be loved, and its most significant asset--and its most significant drawback--is that the author has crafted it as an object of love, that Smith smothers it with her love, and though she endows it with great vitality and passion, that may be the reason that she cannot see its flaws. Simply speaking, White Teeth might have been improved with a step backward and a pair of pruning shears.

It is the story of an "unlovable century." It spans roughly four generations in two English families: The Joneses and the Iqbals. Of the former, we begin with white Archie who marries a younger Jamaican girl named Clara; together they have a daughter named Irie. But we also go back in time to hear the story of Clara's mother and grandmother, the Bowdens. Of the Iqbals there is Samad, Archie's best friend, war buddy, and devout Muslim, as well as his wife Alsana and twins Magid and Millat. On top of that, the story is peopled with minor and semi-minor characters, some of whom are interesting, many of whom are not. There is also a subplot which becomes more significant in the book's latter act in which a scientist, known to these families through a number of contrivances too exhausting to explain here, strives to create a mouse with tailor-made genes that predict the exact date which he will die: FutureMouse.

As a turn-of-the-century investigation into racial and religious strife, White Teeth is unparalleled. Samad struggles to be a devout Muslim, and yet cheats on his wife. This conflict between piety and worldliness is played out in the life of this twins: Magid, who goes to India and becomes a secular scholar, and Millat, who stays in England and dabbles with Islamic extremism. This is, in my mind, the most interesting and significant plot thread in the book, so I won't go into detail about the others, which all have the same basic thrust: the Sophie's choice of the immigrant, who must lose what defines him or risk becoming alien.

And yet, if White Teeth is meant to be the quintessential turn-of-the-century book, perhaps it is appropriate that it is deeply flawed. First of all, it's incessantly tongue-in-cheek and not nearly as funny as it thinks that it is:

It is better to marry than to burn, says Corinthians I, chapter seven, verse nine.

Good advice. Of course, Corinthians also informs us that we should not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain--so, go figure.

Yawn. I will add to that that the Islamic extremist group in this book is called KEVIN. ("We acknowledge we have an acronym problem." Yawn.) And for every fascinating turn of phrase:

Then every nerve in his body would be alive... Then his head would open out like a deckchair... Tonight, after just more than enough [morphine], Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and the world was a polished marble egg.

...Smith puts her foot in it:

The morphine had sharpened his mind to a knife edge and cut it open.

Yes, because knives are so frequently cut open.

But more than that, White Teeth is simply too cumbersome. It's a respectable 450 pp., but it's so crammed full of characters and story lines that it becomes exhausting. If Smith can't keep her attention, why should we? The tragedy is that for every interesting character or plotline, like Samad's struggle with his piety, there is a fatuous clunker like the story of Irie and Millat's friend Josh, who takes up with an extreme animal rights group. Smith means this to parallel Millat's venture into Islamic extremism--and it does, a bit too neatly--but it detracts from Millat's story by its vapidity. I understand what Smith wants to do, but I wonder if she had to sacrifice focus and clarity to do it.

Lastly, as I said, White Teeth is too much a labor of love. It is easy to see that Smith agonized over the creation of this novel, but she put too much of herself in it. Let me give you an example, from a section in which Samad is pondering the reputation of his ancestor:

The story still clung, like a gigantic misquote, to the Iqbal reputation, as solid and seemingly irremovable as the misconception that Hamlet ever said he knew Yorick "well."

Here is a character who is deeply suspicious of England, and disparaging of the English influence on his family. And yet, he's pondering Shakespeare? These words don't belong to Samad, of course, they belong to Smith, but that's the point: They should belong to Samad and they don't. The best metaphors adhere to their element; they match the mindset of the character. In this way they belong to both the character and the author, and to neither. White Teeth is criss-crossed by authorial trespassing, by Smith commandeering her characters' voices, like a mother who only wants best for her children but won't let them speak for themselves. If you're uncharitable, you might even call it a form of egotism.

And despite that, Smith's great passion for this novel is enough to make it enjoyable to read. As for the novel of the next, more lovable century, well--she's got time.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Having never heard of this book let alone Robert Heinlein (sorry my science fictiony meter must be running low, and I was concentrating on being born in the 60's and couldn't yet read), I had many assumptions about what the title meant before I read it:

- The moon was a hooker and the Earth her pimp.
- The moon was inhabited with an Amazon group of women who took over the Earth.
- And then Amazon women flew on a Wonder Woman spaceship and took over the galaxy, after killing all the men.

So, obviously, I really hadn't a clue what this book would be about, but now that I've read it the title makes perfect sense. It was ingenious really (the book did win a Hugo after all), as was obviously its famous author, Robert Heinlein, a man so good at writing science fiction in the 60's, they named a Mars crater after him - no unnamed craters on the Moon I guess . That would've made more sense because....

Set in 2075, a former penal colony on the Moon (Luna) rebels against its masters on Earth. Having been transplanted, and some were even born there, on the Moon for so long now, this population of people have evolved almost into their own species (think Galapagos Islands) having there own novel ideas regarding marriage and family customs, some have their own dialects, and because of less gravity, they age slower and move their bodies differently than humans on Earth. Tired of being treated as second class citizens, a revolution takes hold.

Four unlikely cast of characters move this cause forward - a computer technician who can't figure out how he got dragged into this, a Marilyn Monroe type female anarchist who kisses instead of shaking hands, an elderly academic who probably wore tweed until his elbows wore through, and then there's Mike, a self-aware supercomputer who reaches his blinkety-blink orgasm by bombing things.

Will Luna be set free? Who will die in the process, because someone always dies if it wins a Hugo Award right?

It says in the book jacket - A great political novel and a great survey of the human prospect. I agree. This is a very forward thinking book, and it was written almost 50 years ago during the tumultuous 60's. A time when young people were battling against the hypocrisy of war, in academia, in government, and any authority that told them what to do. That spills over onto the pages here. But, Heinlein takes his time telling his story, and even though it's a mouthful, it still goes down smooth enough without too many rough edges.

Worth reading at least once. And I'm not even a Republican. (Oops, tea-bagger)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Starvation's not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn't seen the victims? Older people who can't work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It's always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one.

Not a whole lot to say about The Hunger Games. A friend recommended it to me after I told her how much I loved McCarthy's The Road. The two could not be further apart, aside from the post-apocalyptic settings, I suppose. The Hunger Games is actually young-adult fiction, which is pretty apparent as soon as you start the book.

The plot is a mish-mash of 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Lottery, and The Most Dangerous Game. You've got your dystopian wasteland where the world has been essentially destroyed by an unexplained phenomena. You've got your "Big Brother"-esque government running the show (in the Rockies, of all places). Finally, you've got your 12 districts where survivors work to provide themselves with essential natural resources. The main character, Katniss, is sixteen years old and lives in District 12 with her mother and young sister. She is the head of the household, taking care of her sister and doing all the hunting for the family. We join Kat in District 12 a few days before the Reaping ceremony. Every year, 2 children between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected to represent their district in The Hunger Games. The 24 Tributes (2 from each district) will then fight until only one remains alive. The Victor will return home to a life of wealth and comfort while twenty three other families mourn their loss. When Kat's younger sister, Prim, is selected as a "Tribute," Kat steps up to take her place in what can only be described as a very predictable act of love and courage.

Just like you'd expect the story to play out, the good guys win and they even manage to stick it in the eye of the shadowy Peacekeepers and break the rules a little bit. Apparently this is the first book of a three book series, and the ending leaves a lot to be desired. The denouement of the actual Hunger Games was really anticlimactic and overall I didn't much care for the book. That said it's YA fiction and you could read it in one afternoon, so really no harm no foul.

I should mention that I did really enjoy the main character. And after reading Twilight its good to see that there are still books out there with young female protagonists that aren't completely obnoxious and weak. Crappy teen lit is going to make a feminist of me, yet.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The First American by H.W. Brands

"It is owing to their ignorance of the nature of pleasure and pain that the ancient heathens believed the idle fable of their Elysium, that state of uninterrupted ease and happiness. The thing is entirely possible in nature! Are not the pleasures of the spring made such by the disagreeableness of the winter? Is not the pleasure of fair weather owing to the unpleasantness of foul? Certainly. Were it then always spring, were the fields always green and flourishing, and the weather constantly serene and fair, the pleasure would pall and die upon our hands; it would cease to be pleasure to us, when it is not ushered in by uneasiness." - Benjamin Franklin

Wow. It's been a long time since I've read something this intensely. I devoured this book. I feel kind of bad because a friend lent it to me (I believe without having read it) in practically brand new condition and it now looks like it's been read about 20 times. Really though I guess wear-and-tear is the inexorable indicator of an excellent, intelligently written paperback.

I really don't need to say anything about the narrative of Franklin's life. We all know who Benjamin Franklin was and what he did, for the most part. Brands simply elaborates on the anecdotes you've heard about Poor Richard catching electricity in a jar and proclaiming that the only certainties of life are "death and taxes." And he does it quite well. As much as I love non-fiction, I find it rarely has the "can't put this down" factor of good fiction. That was not the case with The First American. Even though this biography is essentially just a well-written history textbook, I couldn't stop reading it once I had started (Same way I felt about A People's History of the United States, actually).

Granted, Brands is very, very pro-Franklin. This isn't a tell-all biography that promises you tales of "the Benjamin Franklin you DIDN'T learn about in high school." It elides modern accusations of Franklin's epicurean lifestyle and focuses more on the works of the man than the man himself. Sitting here and reflecting back on the book, it's hard to give a general description of the type of man that Franklin was. I don't view this as a failure of the biographer to capture the essence of his subject, but rather it stems from the fact that Franklin was a man molded by his constantly changing surroundings (Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, and everywhere in between). His thoughts on religion wander from atheist to deist to Presbyterian. As a slave owner, his position on human bondage drifts from active participation, to politically pragmatic countenance, and finally onto outspoken criticism of slavery as a pernicious institution that must be abolished. Franklin lived to be 84 years old and he never once stopped thinking analytically. As a result, he never became dogmatic or obdurate in his beliefs, be they political, religious, or philosophical. Brands portrays Franklin in the most effective way possible, by highlighting important periods and events in Franklin's life and explaining how they shaped his thoughts and actions.

Ben Franklin, at least as I've seen him through Brands' lens, was a true humanist. He believed that as a people we are capable of all things great and virtuous. He gave more than a half century of his life to serving his neighbors in one capacity or another. He worked to allow them the freedoms that they needed to achieve their boundless potential. Obviously, the man wasn't perfect. He had his flaws just like the rest of us. But Franklin's personal weaknesses pale in comparison to his impact on the social, scientific, and political arenas of the 18th century. If I got nothing else from this bio, it was that Benjamin Franklin was a great man who led a life truly worthy of remembrance.

If you enjoy American or European history, biographies of those truly great, or just non-fiction of superb quality, check out The First American. You won't regret having read it. Though after learning about a life as full and repercussive as Franklin's, you might be left feeling like you need to get off your ass and go out and do something worth remembering.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stuart Little by E.B. White

“My name is Margalo,” said the bird in a musical voice. “I come from fields once tall with wheat, from pastures deep in fern and thistle; I come from vales of meadow-sweet, and I love to whistle.”

Stuart Little is a very sweet short children's book. I have always enjoyed Stuart's various adventures, but reading about him this time I was struck with how much Stuart acts like a child. He is innocently brave, whimsical and easily put off of things that don't turned out the way he had planned. I am glad he has Margalo to find. I think it will keep him going for years to come.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne

Friday, July 27 – My friend Lefty called up to say he was back from his vacation in Nice. (I’ll be lucky if we go to Modesto for ours.) I invited him over but cautioned him that if word got out I had a pink bedroom, I would be forced to tell Millie Filbert (who he’s had a crush on for years) why he’s called Lefty even though he is right-handed.

In case you haven’t heard, Lefty’s erect member takes a sudden and dramatic turn to the east about midway up the shaft. Although this worries him a lot, he’s never been able to bring it up (so to speak) with his parents.

“It would kill them to know I even get hard-ons,” Lefty says. He worries this abnormality will lead to targeting errors when he gets older. “What if I shove it up the wrong hole?” Lefty’s grasp of the female anatomy is somewhat tenuous; he imagines there are orifices galore down there.

You'll notice that the cover of this book promises it to be "the funniest book you'll read all year!" Lies. Well, I hope so anyway because this book was not that good. Or funny. Okay the above part is kind of funny. But the book's plot is so ridiculous and strange that it's hard to appreciate the humorous parts.

Nick Twisp is a 14 year old who falls in love with a girl named Sheeni over the summer. Nick's parents, who are divorced, are assholes. They have got to be some of the worst parents ever that don't actually abuse or neglect their kid. He switches from living with his mom halfway through the book to living with his dad - after learning that is mom is pregnant by her dead trucker boyfriend and that she plans to marry her new police officer boyfriend who hates Nick. Nick's dad, conveniently, has just taken a job with a publication based in Sheeni's home town. His mom is reluctant to let him go at first, but after a series of misadventures (Nick convinces Lefty to fake-commit suicide and disappear for a few weeks; then he steals a car and camper, drives them into downtown Berkley CA and somehow manages to set the whole contraption on fire, burning down half the downtown area) she acquiesces.

In Ukiah, Nick arrives to find that Sheeni has been sent away to boarding school (at her own behest) and decides to try and sabotage her experience so her parents will make her come home. He also manages to enrage his father and be charged with several crimes (arson stemming from the Berkeley fire, among other charges incurred while living in Ukiah) - necessitating that he disappear for a while. By this time, Sheeni has been removed from school and sent back home. Knowing that Nick contributed to her removal, she vows never to see him again.

The story gets really strange in the last third of the book, where Nick, on the run from the law, decides to move back to Ukiah but to squat in a neighbor's house and pretend to be a girl named Carlotta who attends the high school directly alongside Nick's former peers. The book ends shortly after Sheeni reveals that she's known it was Nick all along and found his devotion attractive, and after Nick becomes the surprise owner of millions of dollars. In the end, Nick is willing to cross dress for the rest of high school if it means living in the same town as Sheeni.

This book felt like it was trying too hard sometimes. I know a lot of people that really love it, but for me the jokes fell flat, the story sucked and the book took forever to read. It was, however made into a movie with Michael Cera so I would be interested to hear others' takes on that. It comes out at the end of February.

Top 10 of 2009 - Brent

Top 10 of 2009

I don't have much of an intro, but 2009 was a good year for reading. No trouble reaching 50 and I discovered a couple authors I loved, in addition to a couple to avoid. And who knows, maybe next year, I'll review them all too. So, without further fanfare:

10. Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman
I read quite a few comics this year, the majority of which were written by Alan Moore. Miracleman isn't actually the best--that would be Watchmen--but it functions as a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, a religious treatise, and a meditation on humanity. Plus, head-smashing.
Alternate title: What If God Were One of Us?

9. The Counterlife by Philip Roth
My second-longest review of the year belonged to one of the most perplexing books I read. The Counterlife tells four parallel stories of the same man in different circumstances, ties them together in the most pretentious way imaginable, and somehow makes it work.
Alternate Title: Paperback Writer

8. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian is a cold, uninviting piece of literature. Dense with allegory, symbolism, and description, it was a tough read that tripped me up on my reviews simply because I didn't know what to say about it. The Old West will never look the same again.
Alternate Title: I Like Westerns

7. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
John Updike's reputation as a master prose stylist is well-justified by this, his most famous novel. Following perhaps the least sympathetic protagonist I read about this year, Updike manages to make the story of a misanthropic, washed-up small-town boy resonant and heartbreaking.
Alternate Title: Jack and Diane Redux

6. Libra by Don DeLillo
Digging into the psyche of Lee Harvey Oswald and the men in orbit around him, DeLillo turns one of America's villains into a pawn of forces beyond his control.
Alternate Title: Sympathy for the Devil

5. Kilbrack by Jamie O'Neill
Maybe the most enjoyable read of the year, Kilbrack's amnesiac author protagonist tours the tiny town of Kilbrack in search of his past, armed with only a memoir and some sort of mental disorder. Along the way he meets colorful characters and learns some lessons. But mostly, it's hilarious.
Alternate Title: That laughing version of Jingle Bells

4. Ulysses by James Joyce
Ulysses lives up to its reputation: dense, complicated, sometimes boring, but Joyce kept my interest with his writing and wordplay. I even enjoyed The Oxen of the Sun. Also notable: one of the best twists of all time in one of the most beautiful pieces of prose ever written.
Alternate Title: Baby, What a Big Surprise

3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Nothing I read this year gave me same visceral thrill as the first section of The Sound and the Fury, where Benjy narrates without regard for time or place, for nearly 100 pages. A perfect example of how brilliant writing can carry even the most complex conceits.
Alternate Title: I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow

2. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter by J. D. Salinger
Blurbing Raise High without the other Salingers I read this year seems strange. Just know that if you haven't read any Salinger besides Catcher in the Rye, you're missing out. Learn about Seymour, the real man without a country.
Alternate Title: I Guess I Just Wasn't Made for These Times

1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I wrote plenty about this when I reviewed it, but this was one of the most hilarious, brilliant, touching books I've ever read. Don't let its size intimidate you. It's not a difficult read, and you'll like it, even you don't do drugs or like tennis.

Honorable Mentions:
The Woman in White - The gothic mystery novel, perfected.
Watchmen - The graphic novel, perfected.

Neuromancer - Lots of ideas, terrible writing, and what plot?
Go Ask Alice - Drugs will make you stupid.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

"If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter"

Preveous review of Heart of the Matter.

Since there is already a fantastic review of this book, and I don't have anything substantial to add, I will leave this one in Christoper's capable hands.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Top Ten of 2009

EdCan't believe 2009 is over. I spent the entire calendar year in Cameroon and I have about 5 months of service left before I get back stateside. I'm obviously very excited to get home but I've really loved my time here in Babadjou and especially the reading time that it has afforded me. I certainly read more in 2009 than in any other year of my life and I truly hope that this is a trend I can continue for the rest of my life. I've discovered that I genuinely love the written word and I want to take this opportunity thank Chris for inviting me to participate in the project this past year. I hope to be involved for years to come. I've got some really exciting books lined up for the first part of 2010 and I can't wait.

10. Ball Four by Jim Bouton -If you're a fan of baseball or team sports in general, you need to check out this book. It was essentially the first exposé of locker room culture. Hilarious and poignant.

9. Burned Alive by Souda - Gut-wrenchingly shocking and moving story of a woman who survived an attempted honor killing in the West Bank.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - Smart, witty fictional memoir of a transsexual but its really just about coming of age and dealing with one's family.

7. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn - Zinn's is a history that needed to be told. Just keep in mind that while most history books are biased in favor of the status quo, this one is just biased against it. Really enjoyed it and I learned a lot. Everyone should read this when they're ready.

6. A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle - Thanks so much for sending this Nate. All you need to know about this story is that the protagonist, Henry Smart, is as charming to the reader as he is to every other character in the book.

5. Empire Falls by Richard Russo - Recommended to me by my highly intelligent friend Seb. Straightforward story about a man dealing with the difficulties of every day life amidst the backdrop of a failing manufacturing town. There's a miniseries out there with Ed Harris that I need to see.

4. The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (1, 2, 3) - Probably shouldn't list a whole series as one article, but I really think that anyone who likes fantasy should check this out. I do not consider myself a fantasy fan. I've read Harry Potter and Twilight (the former: enjoyable, the latter: garbage) but I only truly follow two series: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Ice and Fire remains my favorite, more for sentimental reasons than anything, but the unrivaled scope and intricacy of the Malazan books means that if you have EVER enjoyed a fantasy book in your life, you owe it to yourself to read Gardens of the Moon. I mean that. Pick it up. Do it as a personal favor to me. And you will have NO IDEA whats going on for like 450 pages of each book but somehow everything always comes together and SHIT GOES GONZO and all kinds of badass, awesome things happen.

3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami -To put it simply, Murakami is a genius and this book is as hypnotically entertaining as it frustrating.

2. Moby Dick; or The Whale by Herman Melville - Glad I finally read this. Melville's use of allegory is what makes the book, not the surface tale of Ahab v. White Whale. Again at the risk of sounding sexist, I think this is a book written for men and I think men are more likely to enjoy it.

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov - I can't say enough about this book (which is ironic since it only warranted a mini-review, apparently). It's funny that when I originally discussed this book in comparison to Middlesex, I said I preferred Middlesex. In hindsight, though, I'm certain this was the better book. Just knowing that the gorgeous prose of this novel wasn't even originally in English blows my mind every time I think about it. Never before have I come across a book where the writing the and subject material were so starkly different and so perfectly harmonized. Everyone should read this book, regardless of your tastes. It's transcendant.

Honorable Mentions

Best Book about FDR Haunting Air Force One:
Air Force One is Haunted by Robert Serling

Worst Shit I Read All Year: (Tie!)
The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot by Junichirō Tanizaki
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer