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".

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Gun Kata is a Bad Mutha-shutyomouth

The thing I don't get about "Equilibrium" is Taye Diggs. Prozium is supposed to suppress ALL feelings; happiness, anger, sadness, etc. Preston was capable of feelings, but they only started truly surfacing when he stopped taking his doses (by the way, I think Christian Bale was perfect for this role seeing as how all he had to feel was first nothing, then anger/rage. Keanu Reeves would have been perfect...but only in the first half, that robot). So everyone, including Clerics, were supposedly suppressing ALL emotion by Prozium injections.

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.

I Smell Sex and Candy Here..

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

There We'll Find Our Hearts, Our Souls, Our Dreams (WE WANT THE STREETS!)

Book15: "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jay McInerney

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

At Last, My Love Has Come Along...

Book14: "Love in the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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

Can You Tell Me How To Get, How To Get To..

Book13: "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" by Michael Davis

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.