Sunday, March 28, 2010

O'er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave

Book23: "1776" by David McCullough

Disclaimer: This review was written in a USO in Kuwait during my redeployment back to the US from Afghanistan. It may not be a good one.

"1776" by David McCullough is a historical book written about the year 1776 during the American Revolution. The book focuses on the military aspects of the revolution during that year, the battles at Dorchester Heights, Long Island, and Trenton, as well as the military chain of command for both the Continental and British Army. McCullough does delve a little bit into politics of the American Revolution, but those areas are mostly left in the background (i.e. Continental Congress, Declaration of Independence).

The best thing about the book is that McCullough delivers the history as a story. Most Americans know about the history and the situations of the American Revolution (hopefully), and therefore, it could have been very easy to bore someone who doesn't have a vast interest in history with the material, but McCullough doesn't fall into that trap. I didn't find the "story telling" dry at all as I have experienced with other historical books; he was able to keep the book moving through each event and battle without dragging it down with uninteresting facts. Another reason I thought the book moved well was because of the inclusion of the personal histories of the men in charge of each military. People familiar with the American Revolution (or just America in general) know about George Washington, and some may even be familiar with General Cornwallis of the British. McCullough does place emphasis on Washington, but the entire book does not revolve around Washington. The reader is given a significant dose of the other commanders who were heavily involved including General Howe, Nathanael Green, Henry Knox, and others. McCullough provides the reader with a history for each man, allowing the reader to see where each came from and how he arrived at his station, so that we may better understand their motivations and rationale as they moved through the war.

Another positive aspect of the book is that I didn't think it was biased towards either side. I always think of the quote, "History is written by the winners," but I think McCullough fairly portrayed both sides of the war. He didn't cast Washington as a better and more competent field general than Howe; in fact, he recalled a number of times when Washington's indecisiveness cost the Continental Army. McCullough showed where the American forces were brilliant, where they were lucky, and where they were terrible examples of human beings, and he did the same for the British/Hessian army (i.e. both sides ransacked towns that they inhabited). The only time I felt biased while reading the book was when McCullough painted the American army as the rough, ragged, grass roots under dog army in comparison to the more refined and well-trained British army. It's not a fault of McCullough; the American army really was the heavy under dog when compared to the British army, who was the greatest military force (Army and Navy) during that time. I just think that (maybe because OF the American Revolution) Americans are biased towards liking the under dogs. We always seem to cheer for the guy who wasn't given everything, but perseveres against the odds because of his craftiness, his will power, and/or his luck. Maybe it's inherent in our patriotism because our nation was founded under that pretense.

While I do enjoy history, particularly military history, I do not read a lot of history books because I find most of the writing bland and dull. In "1776" (and possibly his other books?), David McCullough is able to break that mold and take the history and the facts and present it so that the book reads less like history and more like a good story, making the book a great read.

Friday, March 19, 2010

All You Need Is Love (Baad daadaa daadaa!)

Book22: "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel

To be honest, “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel took me for a spin. It came as a recommendation from a friend, who said it would make me think, but that it was also an easy read. I registered the latter statement; I moved through and followed the story with ease because much of it was plot driven story telling. I don’t think I was listening to his former statement, however, as I am still left pondering about what conclusions I’ve drawn from the book.

In its most simple form, “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel is the story of a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel (aka “Pi”) and his Royal Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Pi hails from Pondicherry, India where his family owns and runs the local zoo. Due to economical and political changes in India, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo, sell most of the animals to other zoos around the world, and relocate his family in Canada. They set off on a Japanese oiler with a number of the animals in tow and are met with disaster. Due to unexplained reasons, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself the lone human survivor. His only company is Richard Parker (they were joined by an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, but nature takes its course and the other animals are eaten). For 227 days, Pi battles the odds of his trans-Pacific voyage, sharing a life boat with limited supplies and tools with a Bengal tiger.

That’s the easy part.

The book is actually divided into three sections. The first section is an adult Pi reminiscing about his childhood. He recounts how he was named after a French swimming pool, the name calling he encountered in grade school and how he overcame it, and how he decided that he wanted to practice Hinduism, Christianity (Catholicism), and Muslim all at the same time. The second section is the story of how Pi survived the sinking, the Pacific Ocean, and living with Richard Parker. The third section focuses on two Japanese men, representatives of the Maritime Department in the Japanese Ministry of Transport investigating the sinking of the Japanese oiler, who visit Pi once he washes on shore and asks for the facts of his survival. The second section makes up the bulk of the novel, but all parts are equally important in delivering Yann Martel’s point.

I don’t think I’ve completely grasped the point. It feels a bit like the first time I wrapped my head around “The Matrix” (at the tender age of 14), or when I found the answer to “Who is Keyser Soze” after watching “The Usual Suspects”. It’s difficult, but I’ll try to sound it out (more for myself than you, the reader).

The part of Section 1 that piqued my interest was when Pi joined and began practicing three religions all at one time. In each case, he’s attracted to the loving nature of the religion introduced to him by a kind patriarch of the religion. In all three religions, he finds peace in their holy texts and their ritualistic praying. The three religious men discover that Pi is practicing the other two religions and they confront Pi together in order to have him choose one. When faced with the ultimatum, Pi disengages the religious men by saying, “I just want to love God.” I concluded two thoughts from these events. The first is that all three religions preach love; love of God, love of man, and love of self (I guess The Beatles were right?). None of the religious men delve into the restrictions of or the violent events resulting from his religion. They preach that their religions are about love. The second thing I noted was part of what attracted Pi to each religion: the stories. This is where all the religions seem to sprout from; stories, scriptures, readings, texts - whatever you want to call them - that tell the “history” of God/gods. Each religion tells a different story with different endings and different deities/God/gods/prophets, but they are all still stories, and it’s up to a person to believe in and put faith into one set of these stories (the religion), or none at all. I think this is what Yann Martel might have been getting at, and it becomes evident in Section 3 of the novel.

Pi, resting in a Mexican hospital after washing up on shore, tells the story of his survival to the two Japanese men. They do not believe him and demand the true story. Pi retells his story, this time replacing the animals (the zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger) with humans instead (a young sailor, his mother, a vicious cook, and himself). The men realize the similarities in the stories and that they must take Pi’s word for it in either case since neither can be confirmed as true. Pi asks them, since they have to take his word and it makes no factual difference which they believe, which story they think is better. Both agree the story with the animals is better and Pi responds, “And so it goes with God.”

Based on the writing alone, “Life of Pi” is a great read. Yann Martel is an excellent story teller who gripped me with descriptions of desperation and fear and the rise and fall of faith in self and God when faced with surviving against the worst odds (take it from my experience; the middle of nowhere Ocean is a daunting, fearsome, and beautiful landscape), but the concluding point about story telling took it to another level for me. As I said, I don’t think I fully grasp Martel’s point, but the fact that I don’t and I’m still racking my brain thinking about it made a good novel great for me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I'm Only a Man, Looking For a Dream...

Book21: "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud

In 1923, at the tender age of 19, Roy Hobbs just may be the best player in baseball. Hobbs just struck out Walter "The Whammer" Wambold, the league's FORMER best, in three pitches, and is now on his way to try out for the (cursed) Cubs.

Unfortunately, due to mitigating circumstances, Hobbs never arrives for his try out.

It takes another sixteen years for Hobbs to show up to the big show, but he does show up, on the door steps New York Knights. The Knights boast the current best player in baseball, Bump Bailey, but thanks to poor team morale and ownership, they also boast a sorry record. All of that is about to change though, when Hobbs proves to be a monster on the field driven by the goal of breaking every major league record and the natural ability to do so.

Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" is lauded as the best novel written about baseball, and though I am not well-versed in novels written about baseball, I can see why critics say so. For his first book, Malamud's story telling is fantastic. He doesn't waste a word or paragraph; the story always moves forward without lagging. The characters are believable and Malamud spends no more time than is necessary to show you the heart of each character. Best of all, the characters are human. You can't peg any one character as the good guy or the bad guy; you can't pigeonhole them into a cliche or stereotype. Every character is motivated by his or her own reasons, same as we all are.

At the center of all of it, of course, is Roy Hobbs, The Natural. Hobbs plays the part of the great sports hero. He catches every ball that comes his way; he hits every ball out of the park no matter what the pitcher throws at him. Just like the great sports men in real life (Jordan, Ali, Tiger, etc.), Hobbs was put on this Earth to play the game; his game. He has that focus, that non-stop competitive drive, that singular hunger for greatness that is the sole purpose of his being. But also like those great sports me in real life, Hobbs is still human. He can't hit a game-winning homer to fulfill a dying boy's wish on a whim. He resents the fans and the press when they turn on him and he isn't afraid to show it. He gambles and chases a pretty skirt. Despite all the great and seemingly miraculous feats he accomplishes on the field, Roy Hobbs is still only a man; and the great joy of the novel is watching Hobbs, who should be more than mere mortal, be nothing more than that.

Before I knew about the book, I knew there was the movie, equally respected and revered as possibly the best sports movie ever made. All I knew about the movie, other than the fact that it was about baseball, was that it starred the immaculate Robert Redford, and for that, I must see it as soon as I redeploy home. Not necessarily because it stars Robert Redford, but because I'm interested to see if Redford can pull off a convincing Roy Hobbs as Bernard Malamud had created him. For me, Redford embodies that perfect greatness, that legendary sports hero who is a Hercules of a man (which is a funny metaphor since Hercules had his own fair share of "human" problems and fallacies), but that is not Roy Hobbs. Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" isn't the story of the great sports hero of legend; it's the story of the human man behind the legend.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

He Opens His Mouth, But the Words Wont Come Out

Book20: "On Writing" by Stephen King

It seems like the number one question fans and the aspiring always ask writers (novelists, lyricists, etc.) is how they achieved their success. Not their success as in their fame and/or fortune, but their creative success; the work that brought them that fame and fortune. It's a fair question. I think lots of people are looking for that million dollar idea that will give them this gift, but as I read more responses from the writers, it doesn't seem like there is any one answer.

I've never attended a writing workshop, but I imagine "On Writing" by Stephen King is what one might be like if the author wasn't limited by time constraints and got to say everything he/she wanted to say to the participants. "On Writing" is essentially two things: King's semi-autobiography, and the tips and tricks King suggests for writing.

In the first half of the book, King recounts memories he had growing up: how his mother raised him and his brother after their dad skipped out when he was a toddler; how he first fell in love with reading and writing by discovering "trashy" horror and sci-fi magazines; how he would constantly get in trouble in grade school for things he wrote while developing his talent; how he met his wife and how they started a family; and how he got his first break in the publishing business. It's a great way for him to start off the book. King feeds you the origin story of how he became the successful writer he is now, and introduces you to the people and the experiences that served as inspiration for his books (i.e. cleaning a girl's locker room as a janitor led to "Carrie"; working in an old mill led to "The Graveyard Shift"). While it doesn't point you to the one defining moment where King "made it", it does offer a view of the road he took to get there.

The second half is King's tips and tricks and habits for successful writing (READING AND WRITING...A LOT). He goes over what he thinks every aspiring writer needs to consider when they approach their craft (READING AND WRITING...A LOT). He offers suggestions like removing yourself from distractions when you write, setting a goal for writing (i.e. 1000 words every day) and having the discipline to achieve that goal no matter the writer's block you face, what to consider when editing and revising drafts, and READING AND WRITING...A LOT. King offers a lot more tips and examples, but that's more detail than necessary for this review. One thing that definitely caught my attention is King's suggestion of using Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" as a foundation for good writing habits. I cant argue with that. It's been a while since I peeked into my copy of Strunk & White, but it wouldn't hurt to take a second, post-grad look at it once I return from deployment...just for curiosity's sake.

I remember reading an interview or article about Rivers Cuomo and his infamous notebook of songs. Cuomo was asked how he wrote his catchy, hit songs, and answered with something along the lines of he studied a bunch of popular songs (I think Nirvana was one of the artists he studied), found similarities in their song structure, and with that discovery/analysis, crafted a sort of "formula" (not sure if that's the actual word he used) that he followed to write well over eight hundred songs. This probably spurred a lot of aspiring musicians to try to discover this formula themselves so that they could get a record deal and what not, but that's not how it works. All these successful writers didn't follow the same formula or read the same "How-To" book. They each followed their own path to their success, and no two paths are the same.

I don't think King tried to answer the question of how to achieve success with "On Writing". It's not intended to be a manual on how YOU can achieve literary success. It's just the story of how Stephen King achieved HIS literary success.

Monday, March 8, 2010

He Doesnt Look a Thing Like Jesus, But He Talks Like a Gentleman

Book19: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce

I dont know what drove me to pick this book up. I think I was probably watching something like "Finding Forrester" and saw Jamal reading it or something and thought "Hey, that might be worth a look." However, just as Jamal is probably an infinitely better writer, student, and basketball player than I am, he probably understood the intricacies of this book much better than I.

"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce is the story of a boy named Stephen Dedalus, growing up in Ireland during the late 1800s. The story follows Stephen as he attends catholic school as a young lad, and then into high school where he begins growing into a man and into his religious faith, and finally into college when Stephen begins analyzing all that's he's known and read and begins thinking his own thoughts and coming to his own conclusions about life and religion and faith.

From what I read on Wikipedia, "Portrait" is a semi-autobiographical story of Joyce himself. The struggles that Stephen encounters, predominantly the rigors and standards of Irish citizenship and the weight and play that the Roman Catholic religion has on the Irish people, were presumably the same or similar encounters Joyce had to face growing up. Knowing that there is some truth in the accounts of the story, to me, gives it more weight and substance. The fact that it was real makes it legitimate and important. However, despite all that, I still had a very tough time enjoying the story and, at times, understanding the story.

The biggest problem I had with the book deals mainly with the middle portion of the book. This is when Stephen is in high school and is coming to grips with his Catholic faith and what part religion plays in his life. Early on, he lived the life of sin, but after a vigorous speech from one of the Fathers or Brothers, he's inspired to be completely devout in order to turn his life around. My main quarrel with this area is the heavy preaching used. I am a Catholic, but I'm pretty picky about the priest I listen to. I do not subscribe at all to the heavy, burdening guilt of Catholicism or to the whole vengeful wrath of God or the terrors of Hell and Satan, and that's predominantly what this area involves. Granted, you have to take it with a grain of salt considering the times, but I was heavily turned off by all this preaching of Hell and fires and repenting and what not. It's not that I disagree or am trying to be naive about my religion; I just believe that there are more positive ways to preach this word. Call me a fan of "positive reinforcement" over "negative reinforcement".

The other gripe I had with "Portrait" was the narrating style and language used. I'm not blaming Joyce or anything and, again, considering when and where it was written, I should take it with a grain of salt, but I was honestly confused and had to re-read a number of passages. Joyce uses a third person narrative, but he's not very specific when he's talking about characters. Joyce uses a lot of pronouns which becomes confusing since he introduces, say, three male characters at one time and uses "he" over and over without indicating outright which "he" he is referring to. The second part to this is obviously the language. Call me slow or thick skulled or literarily obtuse, but I was missing a lot of it. Of course it's the language of the culture and the times, but between the Latin and manner of speech, as I said before, I had to re-read more than a couple of passages to decipher the message.

All in all, it was probably just me and lack of understanding or perhaps willingness to do so, but "Portrait" was a terrible experience. I basically had to drag myself through it, enjoyed or at least was at peace with so few sections of the book, and just had dreadful time. My struggle is a bit disappointing considering that the book is ranked the third greatest novel of the 20th century by Modern Library and of course I want to be blown away by such a highly ranked novel, but what can I say? I am what I am and I like what I like.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

You May Say That I'm a Dreamer, But I'm Not the Only One

Book18: "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" by Michael Chabon

My first experience with Michael Chabon was the magnificent work, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". I had never heard of Chabon, and instead picked up the suggested word as a comic book fan who revels in the behind-the-scenes of making comics and its storied history. It easily became a favorite, and is widely considered Chabon's "magnum opus". Having never heard of Chabon before "Kavalier", I was surprised to learn it was, in fact, his third novel. Possessed by the incredible quality of "Kavalier", I found myself wondering about his first book, which served as his thesis in grad school, and the vehicle between hist status as an amateur student-writer and praised professional. And now, I've finally come to the beginning.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is a story about the summer after college graduation for Art Bechstein. It's that odd time between the fairy tale of youth without responsibility and stepping into the real world and the person you will be for nearly the rest of your life. It was meant to be an easy going time, a lazy time, but it quickly turns into a summer of loss and gain and learning for Art. By August, Art is changed by the questions he had never tried to answer, thoughts and discussions he's avoided, and people he had shielded himself from.

In terms of writing, Chabon accomplishes what he continues to accomplish in his later work: a balance between detailed narrative and interesting dialogue. I'm typically a fan of character dialogue; it can tell you more about a character personally, and if done well, helps you empathize with those characters more easily and wholly than a narrative. It makes the characters seem less fictional. With Chabon, I think he actually is able to achieve this equally through both narrative and dialogue. His narratives are so telling; Chabon picks exactly the right details to tell you about a person, he tells just the right story, the right fictional anecdote, that you feel as though you know exactly who this person is without having to hear his/her entire life history. When you read the dialogue and speech of the characters, it reinforces these personalities, these likes and dislikes and quirks, and makes the characters real. You don't feel like you're reading a work of fiction, that you're reading invented characters. Chabon's story telling makes every character seem like a real person, someone you might meet out in the street, at work, or at school.

Perhaps it's Chabon's gift for characterization that makes Art Bechstein and his story worthy of standing beside characters like Tom Sawyer and Holden Caufield, and novels like "On the Road" and "Catcher in the Rye" (as some literary critics have put it). After reading "Bright Lights, Big City", I touched on the similarities and differences in character I saw between Holden Caufield and the Unnamed Protagonist of "Bright Lights". Holden had a way of thinking and speaking, but he seemed cynical of the "real" world and unable to grow and adapt or prepare himself for it. Unnamed Protagonist was similar in his quirks of thought and speech, but he was on a road of redemption; having tasted and experienced the lower levels of "Hell", he realized and strove for personal growth. Art Bechstein is faced with this "coming of age" point in his life, but he neither refuses it like Holden or embraces it (at the end) like Unnamed Protagonist. He kind of just lives it. He has no agenda, no plans for this life. Art just seems to react and live through the moments and the people who enter his world, and I think it's that quality that makes him easy to relate to, and easy to believe. The strings attached from story teller and story are not easily visible, therefore, "Mysteries" feels like a story you might have seen before, in yourself or in someone you know.

In that sense, the pieces seem to fit. Chabon wrote "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" as he was graduating from grad school. Even though the events and characters are fictional, since Chabon was in a similar time in his life, he was able to wonderfully narrate the emotions and thoughts of that time in Art Bechstein's life. The last few pages seem a bit cliche and rehearsed, with Art recounting the memories of that summer in the way that still-young people look back and reminisce about even younger times from which they grew. But it's fitting. There is no one better to tell the nostalgia of so-called glory days of youth than a youth himself.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

They're Not Gonna Get Us

Book17: "The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury

I have a hard time trying to figure out how I feel about short stories. I tried to liken the situation to whether or not I'm a television episode person or if I'm a movie person. A few of my friends can clearly classify themselves one or the other, but I can't do it. Do I prefer a long narrative/story...or would I rather have a shorter, smaller glimpse? I don't think I can classify myself as preferring one or the other, and I guess I'm the same way when it comes to short stories. I feel like some longer stories just sort of drag on and get specific on areas I don't care about; and some short stories don't make good use of the short "time" they're given, and thus just don't tell a good story altogether. I think perhaps more than any other art form, the written story is one where the audience can clearly say whether the words are wasted or not.

"The Illustrated Man" by Ray Bradbury is a collection of eighteen stories Bradbury wrote and published during the late 1940s and early 1950s. As with other Bradbury works, most of the stories involve a dystopian future and space travel and aliens. Stories about dystopian futures are totally boss, but the big focus on space travel and aliens kind of put me off. Of course, I have to take into consideration when the stories were written, but I still felt like the material was sorely outdated. Bradbury's final frontier is obviously space, a universe where Pluto is still a planet (see how outdated all this is?!?), and there is much mention of martians and rockets and "rocket men". Those words alone made the material feel dated.

As I said, there are eighteen different short stories collected in this book, and they all have varying ranges of quality. They all examine the human condition and affects there on due to the science fiction (whether it be space flight or time machines or martians or whatever), but some stories definitely do a better job of examination through narration. My favorite of the stories actually involved time travel, and perhaps that's due to the times. I already mentioned how space felt like an outdated final frontier, and I guess for my age and generation, time travel seems like a more modern final frontier. Regardless of the science fiction, the best stories were the ones that actually ended very morbid and bleak. These were the stories where the humans were pushed to their worst, and lived the dark consequences of their actions. It's a bit depressing, but I guess that's what made those stories a better read.

All in all, "The Illustrated Man" is a decent collection of Bradbury tales. The only other Bradbury work I've read is "Fahrenheit 451", and in comparison, I thought that book was much better than any of the other short stories I read. Perhaps Bradbury's work suits me better as a "movie" instead of a "tv show".