Friday, January 29, 2010

A Generation of Players, Not Suitors

boy does not meet girl. that's not what i see anyway. people dont meet by happenstance. they are not total strangers across a crowded room or on a bus or walking down the street, innocent and sincere. the boy does not muster up the goofy yet endearing courage to introduce himself POLITELY to a girl to ask her on a date. there is no naivety in the courtship. there IS no courtship.

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

Hip Hop, Marmalade, Spic and Span..... wait, what?

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 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

I Was Alone, This Bird Had Flown...

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

When He Traveled Time, For The Future of Mankind

Book10: "Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

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.)