Sunday, March 28, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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".
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Then why does Taye Diggs always seem either happy or angry throughout the whole movie? He's smiling because he triumphed, or when he is challenged is clearly enjoying the challenge. He's also yelling and screaming, angry and showing it when things do not go his way.
If you ask me, someone ELSE wasn't taking his Prozium.
Book16: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl
My earliest memory of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is a two-parter: 1) checking out the book every week straight for about a month and a half in the 4th grade, and 2) sitting on the toilet for something like forty minutes just reading the book, page after page. Why didn't I get off the pot when I was done and go read in my room or in the kitchen or on the couch or something? I do not know, but that memory alone solidies the book as nostalgic goodness since it combined two of my most favorite activities at such a young age. Who knew that I'd grow up to be the boy that I already was?
For people who did not get to experience a wonderfully book-filled childhood, Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" revolves around a little lad named Charlie Bucket. Charlie Bucket lives an extremely impoverished life with his parents and all his grandparents in a little cottage on the outskirts of town. In his life, there is only one thing Charlie craves: chocolate. Unfortunately, due to being crazy poor, Charlie's chocolate consumption is regulated to a single candy bar a year, given to him on his birthday. But Charlie's luck is about to change. The wildly reclusive (and with good reason) king of candy, Mr. Willy Wonka, is coming out of hiding and opening his chocolate factory for ONE DAY and ONE DAY ALONE to five children who find a golden ticket in a Wonka candy bar. Charlie happens to be one of the these children. He, along with four other children and their parents, step into the world of Willy Wonka, and their lives are forever changed.
It's a different experience reading a children's classic years later as a grown adult. Back then in the 4th grade, I loved the book for its innocent fun: the childish, crazy language, the crazy events and characters, and all the crazy candy ideas Willy Wonka conjured up. It was all crazy, but it all seemed so innocent and fantastical. Now, all my jadedness (however much that may be) and cynicism skew my after thoughts of the story a tad. The after thoughts don't seem to adulterate my childish enjoyment of the book, but they do arise.
One thing I found myself pondering about were Wonka's inventions and ideas for candy. As a child, it was all just fantastic candy, but as an adult, with all the advances in science and technology, I find myself wondering about the plausibility of some of these candies either now or in the near future. For example, Wonka invented a stick of gum that tasted like a three course meal. Now, he took it a step further by making it feel as though you were eating the actual meal rather than tasting it, but wouldn't it be somewhat plausible to create a stick of gum that, at different times, tasted like three different flavors? I feel like with some sort of time release mixed with some chemicals or drugs, this could actually happen. Or what about Wonka's square candies that look round? They're basically sugar cubes with faces painted on them that focus on people as they move around the room. Can't we just paint pictures on them (as the Oompa-Loompas do) so that the eyes follow you around the room like those portraits of Jesus? Or insert some sort of advanced nanotechnology and detects movements in the room and shifts the pictures accordingly? There's also some easy ones like marshmallow pillows and lickable wallpaper for nursery rooms, but doesn't this stuff seem possible? I guess it would all be impractical to make, considering how much some of this science and technology would cost, but it seems possible, doesn't it? Or am I just being as crazy as Willy Wonka?
The other subject I found myself thinking about heavily is the man himself, Mr. Willy Wonka. As a child, he just seemed like a crazy old grandpa or inventor or something that wanted to give kids their ultimate dream, but now, he seems like a little more than that. For one thing, he seems to take all of the accidents that occur too well in stride. Yes, he did warn each of the victims in the most serious of tones, but he seems to shrug the after effects too easily. It isn't just a matter of him knowing that no serious harm would come to the victims. Most of them are permanently, physically scarred for life at the end of novel, yet he just comes up with excuses and basically gets that dirt off his shoulder. Whether they win or not, I would think there would be lawsuits involved somewhere. The other part about him that got me was how he basically...
...used the tour as his own sick version of "Survivor" (yes, "Survivor" came after "Chocolate Factory", and of course the concept of "survival of the fittest" has been around since the dawn of time). As they travel through the factory's odd rooms and stations, the children are picked off one by one, falling due to their own childish disobedience. As I stated, yes, Wonka warned them, but I can't help but feel that he only did so to cover himself legally, and actually WANTED the harm to befall the children. After all, how else would they be weeded out? He was probably secretly cheering to himself every time someone was eliminated. The Oompa-Loompas certainly were.
As strangely sadistic as Willy Wonka might have seemed in my adult eyes, in the end, and probably for Roald Dahl's intentions, he's just an old man who wants to make wishes come true (no Michael Jackson comments please). Beyond that, Wonka wants his legacy to continue on in the best way possible. He believes in the innocence and heartfelt truth of the young who don't sully that innocence with business proposals and profits and gains and competition and other factors of the "adult" world. And despite whatever my adult self might think up, when push comes to shove, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" should be read the same way.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney is a story about a character living in New York City during the mid-1980s. His wife, who he “rescued” from Nowhere, Middle America, has left him after her career as a model takes off in Paris; he works as a fact checker for a prestigious magazine when he’d rather be writing fiction; and he lives a life of cocaine and other drugs with his wild, partying friend, Tad.
What jumped out to me most was the point of view used to narrate the book. I don’t know what the POV is called, but the story is narrated as if you are the main character (i.e. “You are not the kind of guy who would…”). For some people, this might make them feel more connected to the story, and therefore become more invested since it’s them living the fictional life, not some character. It didn’t work that way with me. In fact, it actually bothered me some. It might be my lack of imagination or my lack of empathy, but I couldn’t connect and see myself as this character. I also didn’t like the fact that I felt like the book was telling me how I felt or what I did as if I had no control, a result of the POV used. It might be a little insane, but I wasn’t digging it. After a while, I just blurred out “you” in my mind, and replaced it with “he”, so that the story wasn’t about me; it was about some character who’s name I don’t know.
As far as I’ve been told or could read about “Bright Lights”, it seems to be a book touted in a similar light to that of “The Catcher in the Rye”. It’s somewhat of a coming-of-age story (the main character is in his twenties, but probably less mature than that) starring a main character that experiences a series of crazy events while living (Holden going back to his parents’ house) in New York City. In that respect, yeah, I can see the similarities. Both Holden and the main character are dealing with bad times in their lives, and cope with that in their own way, which isn’t necessarily helpful. The differences came in the “redemption” aspects of the characters. I haven’t read “Catcher” in a while (being deployed, I didn’t have a chance to read it when Salinger died), so I might be wrong, but with Holden, I didn’t really feel like he learned a lesson or came to some realization about the problems in his life that would help him grow and mature as a person. By the end of “Bright Lights”, I thought the main character was starting to grow past the pains and problems of his life. He tried to find release in drugs, in revenge, and he literally ran away from a problem, but by the end, you felt like there was hope from him (trying not to spoil too much). And who doesn’t appreciate that? Most of us are suckers for hope and redemption and (potentially) happy endings, and “Bright Lights” gives just enough of that at the end for you to believe in.
All in all, “Bright Lights, Big City” is a pretty good book. Excluding my distaste for the “you” POV, McInerney does a great job of expressing the mood of the protagonist without blatantly stating it out right, and telling an interesting story in which the protagonist grows and changes. I know that Michael J. Fox starred in an adaptation of the film that seemed to do alright (I’ve never seen it), but if given the proper director and the right starring actor (isn’t that true for all movies??), this story could be made into a great (remade) movie.
For some reason, while I was reading the book, I kept hearing Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World". Hm. Cant explain it.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I'll be honest: with how little I am in touch with distinguished "classics" of any kind, the only thoughts I previously had regarding "Love in the Time of Cholera" was that it was the random book Sara wrote her name and number in for Jonathan to find if they were to ever meet again in the motion picture Serendipity. As such, I developed an association for the book; mainly, that it represented that once-in-a-lifetime spark of pure love that both parties would chase despite being (arguably) content with where life had led them without it. Of course, prior to reading the damn thing, I had no idea what the book was about, but I think my original association came pretty close.
"Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is about love during the days that cholera was rampant. The setting is a town in Columbia during the late 1800s/early 1900s, and revolves around two main characters, Florentino Ariza (a man) and Fermina Daza (a woman). Due to influences both in and out of their control, the two young lovers cannot be together and go their own separate ways. Florentino, being the hopelessly in love romantic he is, accepts the realities of their situation but resolves to prepare for a time when he can again attempt to woo back his first love, and he finally gets his chance fifty years later.
For me, the book was a roller coaster of "I cant put it down" and "I cant wait to get to my mark so I can put this down and do something else". Generally speaking, I more often enjoy stories told through dialogue or from a first person narrative. I just find the way people talk to one another or listening to a person tell their side of a story through their own words more interesting than a third person narrative, and as you can guess, "Cholera" was mostly all third person narrative. Now, as I said, there were portions of the narrative where I could not put the book down. Marquez's story telling is so descriptive that it's incredibly easy to visualize the setting, the mood, and the characters within my head, as if I was watching it on screen or as if I was there myself. It makes me wonder if 1) that's actually what a Columbian town might have looked like during the late 1800s/early 1900s, and 2) how Marquez could describe it so well since "Cholera" was published sometime during the mid-1980s (assuming that his descriptions of the time and place are accurate). The other edge of that sword, though, is that during portions of the novel, scenes and pages and pages seemed to drag due to the heavy weight of all that narration. It felt like every single minute detail had to be stated, and at times, I didn't care for all of that.
Now, the main point of the story is unrelenting love, and in that, I felt like the story was both romanticized and somewhat realistic at the same time. It was romanticized in how sure Florentino was of his "love at first sight" that he spent fifty years waiting for another chance to express his love, but at the same time it was realistic in how both Florentino and Fermina went on living the rest of their lives, dealing with their love lost in his/her own way. Florentino, becoming a "player" of sorts, trying to suppress or replace his longing for Fermina by sleeping with a host of other women (I think six hundred sixty two was the finally tally?). In the mean time, Fermina marries a man who she could get by in life with, both realizing that they were not in love and they were not happy persay, but they could survive well enough in each other's company, and perhaps from that, love would come to be. The reality is that I'm sure there are a number of those out there who often wonder if they "settled" (though I hate to term it in so few words), and perhaps there was a greater love out there for them, but the circumstances of life did not permit them to find it and/or embrace it. At the same time, that same "what if" questioning is romantic in itself, of course taken with a grain of salt (I'm not trying to condone divorces or home wrecking here..).
All in all, "Love in the Time of Cholera" is a diligently told story of (true) love, a genre I can say I am not overly familiar with (at least not without a certain level of cheesiness). But the book won a Nobel Prize, for God's sakes; and who am I to argue with that?
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Today, parents are bombarded with a million television programs aimed at their younger children at home. You have your Blue’s Clues, your Dora the Explorer, your Wiggles, and a host of other educational shows, but back in 1969, none of that existed. Those days, there were few children’s programs that attempted to teach the very young, and it wasn’t until Sesame Street that millions around the world realized that you could effectively use television to teach pre-school children valuable knowledge with the help of a little green frog and a very big bird.
Michael Davis’ “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street” is exactly what it says. The book chronicles the ins and outs of the show’s entire history, from the very beginning where the original question of “Could television be used to educate children” was asked and lit that first fire needed to bring Sesame Street into existence, all the way to the hype of Tickle-Me-Elmo during the Christmas season of 1996 and today, where Sesame Street is no longer a mere show, but an educational and media institution.
What I appreciate most about “Street Gang” are the rich background stories of all the people involved behind the Muppets, the scenes, and the very creation and idea of the show. I know all about Cookie Monster and Big Bird and Grover and Elmo and I know who Jim Henson is (thanks mostly to The Muppets and Fraggle Rock), but I had no clue and gave no second thought to the others behind Sesame Street. There is Joan Ganz Cooney, the small time producer who, without which, this show would never have aired; Joe Raposo, the musician and composer and genius behind a number of those catchy tunes that with us as children; Carroll Spinney, Frank Oz, and Kevin Clash, who brought Big Bird and Cookie Monster and Elmo to life the a way that no other puppeteers could; and Jon Stone, the head writer and producer, who was the mind and soul behind the program for so many years. In this book, Michael Davis is able to tell all of their stories, where they came from, how the show biz bug bit each one of them, and how they each traveled the road that eventually brought them all together at just the right time. Sesame Street was truly a team effort. Without any one of those people or the dozens of others involved with the show over the years, Sesame Street would be undoubtedly different from what it is today, and in fact, may have never been brought to fruition.
Last November, Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary. Though the show was booked for one hundred thirty shows for its first season, the cast and creators behind Sesame Street never could have imagined that the incredibly noble yet seemingly impossible task that they all sacrificed for would last beyond that first season, let alone another forty. Growing past the age of five, I had written Sesame Street off as nothing more than a kids’ show, but now, thanks to “Street Gang”, I see the err of my viewpoint. Sesame Street is a historical achievement, one where the wants of the children (enjoyable television) and the wants of the parents (an education for their kids) were so joyously and successfully joined.
And yes, this review was brought you by the letter ‘M’ and by the number 4.
Friday, January 29, 2010
we hook up. we meet in bars and clubs. we dress cool and smooth and suave and walk with bravado. we throw lines and spit game at the cute girl in the short dress who we definitely want to bang, but we're not sure if we'd bring her home to mom. we're not even thinking about a girl we want to bring home to mom. we talk like two sentences ago.
in the only profession that demands a man be a gentleman in addition to his position, i find myself hard pressed to find uncommitted examples. we are arrogant and brash and outlandish and vulgar. we have faux class.
we make the times, and are victims of it. i am as guilty as my kinsmen in this. today is the day of unrestricted personal opinions and of pushing the limit.
perhaps the present has always been like this, and those that have come before us were just as vulgar, but are now protected by history and the past.
it does not matter if we think ourselves great men today. it matters if others think us to be great men fifty years from now.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Book12: "White Noise" by Don Delillo
Disclaimer: The following is a poorly written review with an absolute disregard for research, insight, professionalism, and just plain old good manners. Reading the review is likely to fill readers with the incessant need to bitch and moan like an juvenile snob. I take no responsibility for causing such actions, or any responsibilty for this review in general.
“White Noise” by Don Delillo came as another recommendation for a friend, but only came as that; no expectations of greatness or prestige other than the cover telling me it is one of Penguin Books’ great books of the 20th century. As stated, no research was done prior to reading. I jumped in head first.
The story centers on Jack Gladney, a professor at a Midwestern college who teaches and is the the department head of Hitler studies. Jack is around 50 years of age, has been divorced five times from four different women, and is currently married to Babette, a slightly overweight cheery middle aged house wife who has brought two of her own children from previous marriages to match Jack. Together the couple and their four children/step-children live in the outskirts of a town called Iron City. Jack has a preoccupation with death, and his strong fear of it becomes the focal point of his life after his town has a brush with a potentially lethal chemical cloud.
The book is divided into three “acts”, if you will: Waves and Radiation, The Airborne Toxic Event, and Dylarama. The first act is somewhat disjointed. The chapters arent told as a continuous narrative story, but instead separate events involving the characters, serving as a background of sorts for the characters, introducing who they are. The second act introduces what I consider the “start” of the story; the city is exposed to a black chemical cloud that infects those exposed with a chemical called Nyodene D. The final act, and the meatiest of them all, narrates the aftermath of the exposure, and how it affected the lives of Jack Gladney and his family.
To be honest, I was pretty lost for something like the first two hundred pages of the book. I, more or less, struggled through the first fifty pages of the book, and could not keep myself awake to read THREE pages without falling asleep (after working thirteen hour work days, six days out of the week). It probably had a lot to do with the fact the first part of the book, as I said, did not have a continuously flowing story, but was a series of episodes (in the form of chapters) providing background information on the characters. Call me a juvenile reader, but in order to get hooked to a literary story, I need a story I can immerse myself in; a plot I can attach myself to. Obviously, in the later parts and chapters, a story emerges and I’m able to finish the book, but even then, I am still not one hundred percent there. A couple main themes jumped out to me, but I don’t think I fully grasped those ideas, though I will try to put them into words.
The first of the themes that seemed to jump out was the oddity of the culture. Firstly, Jack is the department head for Hitler studies, which was created because Jack suggested it to the school’s dean. I understand that there might be classes dedicated solely to the study of Hitler, but an entire department? And from the book, it seemed like it wasn’t an outrageous or eccentric thing. The classes were well attended; as a professor, Jack was highly respected by the students and staff. They even hold a conference to be attended by Hitler scholars from around the world. It’s as if the Department of Hitler Studies is legitimized just because Professor Gladney proposed it, and that was more than enough for others around the world to give it credibility. The same thing can be seen in Jack’s colleague, Murray, who was formerly a sports writer from New York City, but came to the school to teach pop culture, particularly the studies of Elvis Presley. The Pop Culture Department had already been established, but Murray achieves respect for himself as a professor and for his subject with the help of Jack, who pops into one of Murray’s classes for a scholarly debate/discussion. And the students/faculty accept it! I realize it’s a fictional story therefore anything can basically happen, but it’s just shocking to see trivial things like pop culture and Elvis held in the same regard as applied mathematics or English literature. Don’t get me wrong; I freaking love pop culture, but I still consider it fluff compared to more intellectual topics. Though, in today’s world, with things like TMZ.com and Twitter and other magazines and websites dedicated to gossip and pop culture and the celebrities who inhabit those worlds, maybe Delillo wasn’t that far off when he wrote the book during the mid-1980s. Perhaps in other ten or twenty years, students WILL be able to get a bachelor’s in pop culture, etc.
Another theme that seems to drift through the book is man’s relationship with technology. Technology is seen here and there through the book, but every time it is, those passages jumped out to me as if Delillo was trying to get his point across to me. There’s a seen where Jack checks his bank account balance at an ATM, and by the way Jack narrates the transaction and the feelings that wave over him as a result, it seems almost like the ATM is a living person. Jack gets some sort of validation or acceptance of himself from the machine. Murray has a similar “relationship” with television. It fits Murray’s character since he is a pop culture professor, but he’s mesmerized by television that makes it seem like he idolizes the thing. It’s like a supreme being, feeding him knowledge and information, and Murray is entranced by this. Between these two characters, I think Delillo was trying to say something about our emotional and psychological relationship with technology.
The final, and probably most important, theme that I pulled from the book was that of death. As I stated, Jack is fearfully obsessed with death, as is his wife, Babette. They have serious conversations about how they prefer to die before the other, because they couldn’t live on. Death comes to a head for Jack after an encounter with the black chemical cloud, and it makes death a greater focus in his mind than before. It’s difficult to write about the ideas without giving too much of the plot away, but in a later chapter, Jack and Murray have a candid discussion about death, and how man deals with it and the results of it. During the talk, Jack basically throws out all the romantic and optimistic notions of death and instead approaches the subject with a cynical and literal point of view.
Overall, the book seemed like a jumble of a number of different themes and ideas that Delillo was trying to push out to the reader, and in the end, it left me a bit fuzzy and muddled. It’s the same way I felt reading dialogue between the characters, who always seemed to conversate in a disjointed, tangential way, as if they weren’t having a conversation with each other, but rather talking with themselves and only speaking in statements rather than responses. And maybe that was the point of the book and it’s title, “White Noise”. All these individual thoughts and fears and actions we have are just white noise that fill our own lives, but ultimately they lead to the same point: that we all are going to die.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Book11: "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami
“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami is a first-person narrative centering on the life and experiences of Toru Watanabe. Watanabe is an eighteen year old freshman from Kobe who lives in a boy’s dormitory while attending college in Tokyo in 1969. He lives a normal, ordinary life with few friends, but the few that he has lead him through a number of growing pains. These include Naoko, the former girlfriend of Watanabe’s best friend who committed suicide right before they graduated high school, Midori, a spunky, outgoing girl from Watanabe’s drama class, and Nagasawa, an intelligent, self-centered ladies man who shares Watanabe’s fondness for American novels.
I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before this book, which was sent to me by a friend who was a fan. Despite my ignorance of Murakami’s works, “optimistic curiosity” was my initial reaction before I even turned one page, due to the fact that the author is Japanese and the main characters are Japanese students. Having lived a number of my formative years in Japan, I have a deep fondness for the country, the people, and the culture, a fondness that reaches deep enough for me to consider Japan (Yokosuka) my hometown. Reading “Norwegian Wood” re-woke all those nostalgic feelings I have for Japan. Between the detailed descriptions of the landscape and cities (some areas I’ve been to; i.e. Shinjuku), the food (GOD, I miss the food), and little tidbits of the culture/way of life (the morning calisthenics on the radio/television, the street soda machines that sell liquor, the various rail systems), I felt as though I was living that life once again. Even the dialogue and manners of speech of the characters were dead on (duh, no surprise), which ranged from quiet politeness to exaggerated, almost cartoon-like exclamations, but all of which were always spoken in proper (non-slang) English.
Murakami’s writing style overall was very surprising to me. Granted, I’ve never read a “modern” novel by a Japanese writer, and it has been years since I’ve read any Japanese literary works (mangas not included), but I was surprised by Murakami’s writing voice. I’m not sure I can label it “Western” or “American”, but I thought it had some similarities to other writers like Vonnegut or Salinger. Every scene was described in great detail. The story telling was aggressive, but it maintained a quiet, nearly unaffected outlook that defines the protagonist/narrator, Watanabe.
Watanabe’s personality was what I enjoyed most about the novel. Lately, I had been thinking that there are so few stories (at least in my limited reading experience) that centered on ordinary, mediocre people. I find that stories are on interesting characters, those with personality flaws or who have lived through some extraordinary experience, which makes perfect sense. Who wants to read stories about typical people? But that’s exactly who Watanabe is. Throughout the book, he constantly described himself as “normal” and “ordinary”, and the way he moved through his life and reacted to others around him maintained those self-prescribed descriptions.* It was the other supporting characters who added those interesting quirks to the story. The personalities of the other characters range from quiet and depressed to outgoing and vibrant to determined and self-confident. Despite their differences, they all feel a personal connection to the ordinary and normal Watanabe, a connection that they say they do not share with others. And it’s these relationships and interactions between Watanabe and his small group of friends that provide the movement and interest in the story.
This being my first outing with Murakami, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story. Of course I attribute some of that enjoyment to the nostalgia I felt from reading stories of Japanese life, but most of my enjoyment came from Murakami’s writing. His ability to move the story along through the normalcy and plainness of life was inspiring and captivating to the point that I could hardly put the book down and seemed to fly through pages at a time. “Norwegian Wood” just gained Murakami another devoted fan to add to the throngs he already has.
* After a few chapters in, I began thinking that Watanabe reminded me somewhat of a less abrassive Holden Caufield, which was pretty funny because a few chapters after that, Midori, when first meeting Watanabe, commented that he had an interesting way to speaking and asked if he was trying to be like that guy from “Catcher in the Rye”.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
I always find it a difficult situation when a friend suggests something for me to enjoy because they so thoroughly enjoyed it themselves. It pressures me want to like it in exactly the same way they do, though that is highly improbable. That is the case I find myself in with Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five". It was on my to-read list due to Vonnegut's acclaim alone, but my good buddy sent it to me as a care package. In the book, he wrote, "Enjoy this masterpiece." Masterpiece. That is a lot of pressure.
The meat of "Slaughterhouse-Five" follows the eventful life of an American soldier named Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim is captured during World War II and ends up surviving the Dresden bombings and later goes on to become an optometrist, marry a fat woman named Valencia, survives a plane crash, and is kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians. And somewhere in all of this, he has become unstuck in time. As such, he unexpectedly moves through each of these events in his life at random, giving the story a non-linear chronology.
While it may seem that this would make the story confusing and convoluted, it actually worked really well. Every scene feels like a small window of Billy's life. You are not listening to a biography of man, but rather listening to the man tell you his stories (but it's a third person narrative). He tells you what parts he wants whenever he feels like they need to be said, with no regard for a consistent time line. It's an ironic twist because Vonnegut actually has characters in the story who live on that idea: the alien Tralfamadorians. As it's explained, the Tralfamadorians are aliens who can see in the fourth dimension. This ability causes some misunderstandings between Billy and his captors, but the Tralfamadorians explain their view to Billy. As humans, our lives seem to be a series of choices, a cause and the following effect, and at the end of life, a person ceases to exist. For Tralfamadorians, because they can see in the fourth dimension and therefore see all moments at exactly the same time, there is essentially no choice in life; everything is predestined. Everything has already happened, has always happened that way, and will always happen that way. Therefore beings do not cease to exist to the Tralfamadorians; they are still alive because they continue to exist in other moments, the moments we consider the past. As we follow Billy through his jumps to different points of his life, we see that the narrator references this logic more and more since Billy has already seen what comes next (i.e. Edgar Derby's death, Billy's own death). This logic also seems to be the backbone of Vonnegut's most famous phrase, "So it goes."
"So it goes" is a phrase used heavily throughout the book, always following any discussion or any sort of mentioning of death (or rather, the end of life). It's a bit like "That's what she said" (I realize "Slaughterhouse-Five" pre-dates "The Office (US)" by something like forty years) in that the statement provides a bit of humor to the text. However, while "TWSS" offers an obvious, semi-toilet humor to "The Office", "So it goes" is a more subtle and dark humor for "Slaughterhouse". Death is heavily mentioned in "Slaughterhouse", but instead of being the typically morbid, solemn, melancholy affair it is in real life, Vonnegut gives it a tongue-in-cheek quality by following every mention of death with "So it goes." It's difficult to explain, but it's like someone shrugging both shoulders with a smirk and saying, "Oh well! That's that!" It's a tone used throughout the novel, even without mention of death or Vonnegut's phrase.
I'm wary to apply the "masterpiece" designation of the book, but it is incredibly well-written (call that an understatement if you like). Though I have trouble explaining the dark yet humorous tone of the book, it's what I enjoyed most. It smacks of a small hint of Shakespeare; tragedies laced with ironic humor. It's a different kind of subtle humor that I don't think I see much of anymore. But alas.
...So it goes. (I had to say it.)