Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Suck It, Pat

I am an unapologetic huge Harry Potter fan. As I stated earlier in my long-winded, unoriginal and mostly masturbatory post about why I like fantasy novels, Rowling's universe is incredibly easy to lose yourself in, fully realized without being so microdetailed that you spend pages learning about the shades of color in the particular rolling hills the characters are traveling in, and close enough to our own that with very little imagination one can get caught up in being upset that he or she was never sent a letter inviting them to attend Hogwarts (not that I have ever felt that way). And, like many Potter fans i would imagine, I was wholly satisfied by the series' conclusion, while still mourning the loss of the chance for further exploits by the characters I so loved.

Enter Beedle the Bard. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows absolutely and definitively ended the series, and I would have been more upset than not to learn that Rowling intended to change that (either by continuing or filling in missing time, a la Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow series, which seems wholly unnecessary to me). However, it is not unreasonable for Rowling, despite being fantastically wealthy beyond her wildest dreams, might want to continue to write, and might want to continue to dwell in the universe she so ably created, rather than switching to, say, Historical Fiction or Food Memoirs or something. For those of you who made it through Deathly Hallows, the title of this project (i hestitate to call it a novel, and its barely short stories) will be recognizable as the ficitional book that is a major plot point for Harry and his friends, bequeathed to Hermoine by Dumbledore. The book in its RL (that's real-life for those non-dorks out there) incarnation is five wizarding fables, none particularly groundbreaking or unrecongizeable. While they don't have exact Muggle parallels (its not like "The story of Cinderella except shes a Witch" or "The Magical Tortoise and the Even More Magical Hare") Rowling abley apes the Brothers Grimm/Aesop/etc. form and ideas of looking past the surface, rewarding kindness, punishing greed and cruelty etc. The fact that these stories were used to teach these values to wizard children instead of muggles doesn't change the more or less interchangeable content. The stories are short and mostly forgettable, though fun all the same.

The real genius of this book, and I say this with the largeish caveat that if you either a) hate b) ignore or c) have been living under a rock with your entire family for some sort of rock-living memoir since 1997 and thus have never heard of the Harry Potter series, this book is not for you. You will get no more enjoyment out of it then reading 5 random fairytales, and possibly less so as you struggle over the silliness of words like "Muggle" and names like "Babbity Rabbity". But for those who are loyal to Rowling and Potter, the book is absolutely worth it for the commentary and notes that are included after each story, written by one Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Dumbledore's commentary doesn't add to the stories themselves so much, as provide backstory, mythology, and in-jokes about the wizarding world. In the way that The Simarillion informs The Lord of the Rings, the commentary here deepens the HarryPotterverse in an extremely satsifying and often tongue-in-cheek way. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll love this book. If not, you don't want it. Either way, it took me 25 minutes to read.

The Unbearable Grimness of Comedy

Steve Martin's writing has always had a darker hue to it than his performances -- much more Spanish Prisoner than The Jerk. I have yet to read his most recent novel, but Shopgirl, while less melancholy than the film version, hints at a more brooding element to the amusingly intellectual, routinely bizarre and sweet persona Martin has shown over the years. Even so, it's striking how dour the tone of Born Standing Up is -- striking, but pretty understandable.

At the heart of the book is Martin's strained relationship with his father, a frustrated man who seemed to take out his lot in life on his increasingly successful son. It's not harped on throughout, but the book is framed by Martin's memories of his father's coldness (and one-time brutality) to him as a child and his tearful, regret-tinged mending of fences in the years leading up to his father's death. Frank about the emotional stuntedness of his young life, Martin doesn't beg us to excuse him on account of his upbringing; instead, he frankly lays out an unemotional saga of his rearkably serious intentions as a young comedian, discussing the stylistic challenges and medium-questioning tactics of his act. It's interesting stuff, particularly now that we take Martin's stand-up for granted, looking at how he turned his guns on comedy as a form at a time when this wasn't generally being done. You can see echoes of Martin's hyperkinetic take on a Vegas comedian in Norm McDonald's hoary Bob Sagat roast and Zach Galifianakis's many angry variations on comedy gone wrong (Nathaniel Buckner, his outbursts at audience members, etc.) -- he's generating in these pages the first wave of postmodern standup.

It's an interesting book -- not a profound or mindblowing one, not fall-down funny, but quietly insightful and self-aware, absent the name-dropping mania of other showbiz chronicles but with a real sense of shape and emotional journey to it.

This concludes my attempt to completely occupy the front page of this blog, and I regret only that I came up one book short of my "push every other contributer out of sight" goal. If I read fast enough on the plane back from vacation, I may yet see my goal of a unified frontpage!

In the land of the blind, YOU WILL NEVER GUESS WHAT HAPPENS

OK, so finally I read a book for this project that I really disliked. I'll say that's the upside: in the past, if a book gets on my nerves, I'll walk away from it (particularly now that I'm not reading for school). I read enough manuscripts that I'm compelled to read that I'm really not looking for books that don't appeal to me, so my instinct is, once a book irritates me, I'm pretty well done with it, absent outside pressures. Here, I pushed through to the finish, and it's better for me and does more justice to the book, and so on and so forth.

And to its credit, Blindness picks up near the end -- there are a few lovely moments in the piece where our core group of heroes stand up for each other and help each other out, and its finish is gratifying in a way that makes me somewhat re-evaluate my crankiness with the rest of the book -- it is, if nothing else, incredibly effective at conjuring up a sense of claustrophobia and discomfort, which would seem to be its aim.

But. But! I have to say, on the whole, the novel was pretty disappointing. Saramago writes in a freewheeling, sentences-that-last-forever, no-quotation-marks style that's memorable, but that's the only style he employs. It's frustrating -- the unspooling language is the same before a wave of blindness breaks out and our protagonists find themselves quarrantined in a mental asylum as it is in the heat of their trials there, so it doesn't really inform us as to the world or conditions these people find themselves in. (My understanding is that this is a Saramago style generally, not just in this book, which is fine, but it's overbearing and, to me, doesn't really pay off.)

That aside, I found the voice of the novel grating in the extreme. It's written in an omniscient voice, narrated by some outside observer with an ostensibly objective point of view, but along the way routinely stops to pontificate on the larger social implications of what's happening. "You see, in this behavior I've just described we can see that all humanity believes that etc. etc." This is tremendously irritating to me -- again, my preference is for authors like Saunders, who load their writing with unreliable, opinionated narrators whose bloviating must be taken with a mound of salt, but it seems to me that as an author, you no longer get to invent a story and outline how the story illuminates the human condition. It's something that I remember bothering me tremendously when I read Ishmael in high school (which book, for those of you that haven't read it, consists mostly of a gorilla telling the author how human society evolved and what our problem is, and it's all written in this annoyingly Socratic dialogue that has a lot of the author saying "Oh, gee, I never thought of that, you're so right," which after the invention of Modernism should really be put out to pasture) and it still bothers me now. Modern readers understand the artifice of storytelling, so it comes across as really patronizing to pretend that we don't get that authors are inventing the things we're reading.

Well, anyhow. I read Blindness. I'm sure others like (or even love!) it, but it is the inverse of my cup of tea, so there you have it.

The Meal Hunter

So after a few months of looking for Kitchen Confidential at a string of libraries, I finally sucked it up and just dove into Bourdain through his second book, A Cook's Tour. Written in the wake of KC's wild success (and the foundation for a show Bourdain loathed making for the much-hated Food Network), it's an account of Bourdain parlaying that book's sales into convincing his publisher to pay for a trip around the globe, hunting for the Perfect Meal.

It's a notion that Bourdain knows from the get-go is ridiculous (and closes the book by saying so explicitly), but hey, given the chance, who wouldn't grab that brass ring? He treks to Portugal for a pig-butchering party that goes on for days, visits the hometown of the bulk of his kitchen's chefs, swings through Tokyo for a predictably dazzling array of foodie experiences, and ultimately spends the bulk of his writing exploring his travels in Vietnam.

That's where the book is at its best -- sure, French Laundry is great and perfect, and we know that if we've read anybody's articles about French Laundry, but Bourdain takes his trip to Vietnam to explore their cuisine (exploding in variety, freshness, and flavor) and to take on America's history there. On top of the usual, expected hating on Ugly Americanism, he writes compellingly, stunningly, of being faced with the aftereffects of our adventure in Vietnam. His rage is palpable -- at Kissinger ("Once you've been to Cambodia, you'll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands"), at our vicious napaalming of the countryside, at our ignorance, destruction, and arrogance. Most of all, at himself -- in some moments, arrested by the appearance of a man charred head-to-toe, he falls into spells of intense self-loathing at the facile, self-indulgent nature of his journey. And that's what makes Bourdain so worth reading -- as much as he's a braggart and a Tough Guy, he spares no hint of his uglier sides, and is ready and willing to cut himself off at the knees when (as is occasionally the case) he deserves it. It's solid writing, making clear that for Bourdain, both his kitchen skills and a superb ear for language laid the foundation for his celebrity -- underscoring just a little bit more why he might so loathe the stable of non-writer non-chefs currently running the network that made this book possible.

Goats and Gappers

I like George Saunders. A lot. I think I've talked about this here before, but his short stories are a near-constant source of delight to me. His style is pretty easy to hook into: wildly unreliable narrators, usually using a precisely-sculpted illiterate voice, following whatever selfish, defensive desires they have to their logical (or insane) conclusions. If you have a chance, it's worth checking out the two stories that hooked me on him: Adams (which story is why I subscribed to the New Yorker) and CommComm (which is what made me go out and hunt down Saunders's books).

Anyhow, he wrote a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, which I picked up this break. It's pretty great -- illustrated by Lane Smith (of Stinky Cheese Man and other oddball classics), it's a great look at how well his style translates to kid's lit. (It was actually in the Young Adult section of the library, and is a little more of a youth's novella. C'mon, guys, let me count it!) The simple, unadorned language of Saunders' villains translates well to a book that kids can grasp and adults can enjoy, and the warped, glaringly flawed syllogisms that most of Saunders' dialogue is built on work beautifully in this medium.

At the end of the day, it's just a great yarn -- who among us hasn't, at some primal level, thought about prickly orange screaming balls that cover our goats and cause them to tip over and not give up any milk? Who among us hasn't hired strong men to carry our houses further away from the Gappers until we live in the swamp? Who among us hasn't had to paint all our food white? And who among us hasn't longed for a slim book that ends by explaining why Frip's fences constantly scream?

Anyhow, point is: Saunders for kids, while almost identical to Saunders for adults, is pretty grand, in the Sidways Stories from Wayside School tradition of things. Worth a detour if you've exhausted his fiction and essay collections!

Marlowe signed his name Merlin sometimes? SWEET!

I'm a huge fan of Bill Bryson -- he's a tremendously curious cat who likes to use his book's ostensible subjects (retracing a teenage Eurotrip as an adult; wandering the Appalachian trail; recounting his childhood in the 1950s) as a jumping-off point for any and all fascinations he tumbles into along the way. As such, the news about a year ago that he'd written a book on Shakespeare came as a welcome surprise which i promptly ignored until this Christmas.

It's about what you'd expect from Bryson -- unsentimental but fond, tracing the genius of Shakespeare's work while wandering through what we know of his life. And, in his usual style, Bryson eventually turns the book somewhat away from Shakespeare, spending a good deal of his time looking instead at Shakespeare scholaship, and generally ridiculing it for its wild, hopeful speculation and factual error. The general formula is: This is what we know about Shakespeare. The experts hypothesize this, for these reasons. This is why that hypothesis is an olympic stretch of the imagination. Let's move on.

Instead of spending his time expanding the few facts about Shakespeare into wild theories about trips to Italy or teenage years spent on a ship (both of which Bryson politely shoots down as fairly unlikely), Bryson spends a fair deal of time looking at Shakespeare's world and culture -- the earnings, social customs, and legal arrangements of Elizabethan and Jacobean periods -- and uses that to give us a sense of what Shakespeare was surrounded by. It's much more sturdy than the assumption that his Italian plays stemmed from a hypothetical trip to Italy (during which he would, apparently, not have noticed canals in Venice or that Florence is landlocked) and, frankly, much more interesting reading.

It's fun stuff, informative if slight (as Bryson points out, what we actually know about Shakespeare is remarkably limited, so there's no reason for it to be much longer than it is, given his aims), and saves a tremendously fun smackdown against the Oxfordians (and other Shakespeare-wasn't-Shakespeare types, who surprisingly count Orson Welles and Derek Jacobi among their ranks) for its final chapter. It's a nice note to close on: we may know very little about Shakespeare, but at least we and our scholarly brethren have some grounding in reality.

Dreams are nothing more than wishes

Ok, so since Watchmen and Maus have made appearances here, it's time to break out Sandman, whose tenth and final volume I just finished. (I know, I know, there are other books that have come out, but for the main narrative cycle, this is it.)

I always feel a little funny discussing graphic novels, mostly because I'm not steeped in the traditions and conventions of the form -- I read a big Batman treasury from the 50s when I was a kid and found it at the library, along with a massive Buck Rogers collection from the 30s, but by and large, I didn't grow up reading comics. So when I talk about how great Alan Moore's books are, how Sandman blew me away, how interesting Frank Miller's stuff is, I do so coming from a place of near-total ignorance of how they've changed and influenced the medium. But, you know, I know what I like, and I loved me some Sandman.

Josh told me early on that while comics knowledge is going to deepen and enrich the experience of reading, say, Watchmen, Sandman leans a lot more on mythic and classical lore. It's true -- anyone with a profound love of Norse mythology is going to love seeing Loki the Trickster God in all his glory, and the series draws on a plethora of myths and deity structures, all couched in the universe of the Endless. And as Gaiman unfolds who Morpheus (Dream) is and slowly introduces us to his family (Desire, Despair, Delerium, Death, Destruction and Destiny), the piece becomes a really beautiful meditation on change (for reasons not worth going into here). What's really beautiful, though, is Gaiman's penchant for winding his way through historical events and eras, insinuating Dream and his siblings in human events while painting those events as something like sideshows to the deeper, more profound drama taking place among the Endless, the subordinate gods, and a handful of mortals lucky enough to live hundreds upon hundreds of years.

It's a fully realized universe, and tremendously wonderful to explore it. I'll be rereading it -- this, by nature of its length, has a sprawl and a scope to it that Watchmen lacks (it, in turn, lacks some of Watchmen's sheer formal brilliance) and suggests a richness that's there for the rereading. Next up: manga? A comic about a mail order ninja?

Cyclopean Scapes, Shoggoths, and Me

Hello friends.

I love heavy metal.  I love it.  I lurrrve it.  Hit me with some dropped D, nay, nay, dropped C nastiness and watch the grin spread across my face.  I begin to thrash and jiggle in merriment, my bowels loosened by subatomic bass rumblings, my hair burnt by the sheer ferocity of the aural gorescape.

Heavy metal bands love H.P. Lovecraft.  Lyrically, thematically, sonically, the influences are all there.  It warms the cockles of my blackened heart to think of my favorite thrashers cozying up for some quality time in front of the hell fire whilst sipping blood-wine and eating sacrificial goat-meat.  I decided to follow suit and try some Lovecraft, beginning with At the Mountains of Madness.

Bad choice.

I will read more Lovecraft.  I will probably even re-read this one.  But damn!  For the uninitiated, this novella was more like a novHELLa.  The narrator is a scientist who is trying to recount his horrifying adventures in a vast snow-city.  Which involves...CAVE DRAWINGS!  ARCHITECTURE!  MUTANT PENGUINS!  Actually... mutant penguins are pretty sweet (as GWAR has taught us all.)  But the

I think the problem is this.  At the Mountains... is really more of a Sci-Fi story than horror.  Every detail is taken into account as pure scientific fact, and is described in an academic, rather than visceral manner.  Every time tension was being built up, the narrator cut into his own story to provide historical and scientific background that left me cold.

I will read more Lovecraft, but now I have to cleanse with a screening of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer along with a good dose of High on Fire.

Happy New Year mofo's!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West OR The One Where they Scalp and Rob all the Indians only to be Scalped and Robbed by Cormac McCarthy

I took Zeke's advice and read Blood Meridian. Holy sweet Jesus, this was one of the best books I've ever read! I cannot describe to you to what measure Cormac McCarthy has mastered the English language. Every single simile (and there are thousands) is like manna from heaven. (By the way, I realize that I just used a simile to describe his similes.... doesn't compare)
On top of it just being awesome, this is, most likely, the bloodiest, non-holocaust related book I've ever read. It features mass-scalpings, and mass-raping of the scalped, mass sodomy, mass mid-sodomy scalping, and one particularly bloody instance of a tree festooned with bloody infant caracasses.
I also had the pleasure of listening to this book as a book on tape. Allow me to regale you with a tale:
As I listened to this book, I kept thinking: "This book is amazing, the prose is incredible, but I'm having a bit of trouble keeping up with the plot!" And I was! People would die and then reappear, characters that I had just met were instantly assassinated only to reappear later on...

...It was then that I realized that I had been listening to the book on shuffle...

And by "it was then" I mean "five hours later."
That being said..... 10/10

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Or "More like The TIME Thief! Yeah! High Five! ...Anyone?"

USA Today thinks that Markus Zusak's The Book Thief deserves a place on the shelf next to Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. Time Magazine compared it to Slaughterhouse Five. I believe both of these associations to be true...if you really hate Anne Frank and Kurt Vonnegut.

I can't remember the last time I was so disappointed by a book. OK, to be fair, it wasn't nearly as bad as this review is going to make it seem. Compared to all the crap that's out there, it's really pretty decent. But reading the pages of accolades that this book has received (which are conveniently located at the very beginning of this book), and then reading The Book Thief, I found myself wondering "Did the New York Times and I read the same book?"

The basic story is about a little girl (Liesel Meminger) who steals a book from her brother's gravesite. She has a foster family, a crush on the neighbor boy, and (later) a Jew named Max hiding in her basement. The story is narrated by Death, which, although initially interesting, accomplished nothing.

Now I'm going to play the Finish The Sentence game.

The Book Thief
...200 pages too long.
...embarrassingly under-researched (the whole thing feels like it's set during a movie of the World War II rather than the actual war)
...full of the kind of effortful language that I imagine Markus Zusak writing, and then smiling a smug little smile at his capacity for profound and poetic metaphor.
...repetitive and ultimately kind of boring.
...mistitled, because Liesel really doesn't steal that many books. Two at most, and that's using a pretty liberal definition of "stealing."

Maybe I'm just cranky. Or completely missing the point. I would really be interested in talking to someone who loved this book, because I fail to understand what all the hooplah is about.

Final Review: 4/10

Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law

Happy Holidaze, fellow readers!

During these cozy yuletide latke evenings it brings me endless pleasure to curl up with a cozy tome to read before the flickering menorah candles.  And who better to supply this holiday cheer than the black magick spewing, heroin and cocaine snorting, blue robe wearing "Wickedest Man in the World" Aleister Crowley?

It is wild to read a "drug book" published in 1922, especially one as open-minded as this.  The narrative is driven by three people:  Lord Pendragon, his wife "Unlimited" Lou, and the mysterious King Lamus.  Lord Pendragon and Lou get all coked up, then decide to do lots of heroin, and then go completely bonkers when they run out of joy powders.

So, they retreat to an estate where they do Satanic rituals and shoot at each other and sell their bodies for more heroin.

Then---King Lamus!  He steps in and teaches them how to find their own true will in the mystical magical land of Thelema.  All live happily ever after!

This book rocked.  Drugs!  Incantations!  '20s slang!  Genius mountain climbing toddlers!  It's all in there.  Plus, a tasty introduction to the world of Crowley and his Book of Thelema.  I can't wait to celebrate the New Year, knowing that I can always be saved from my debauch by the powers of Black Magick!  Holla!

And remember kids!  Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.  Smooches!

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Good War is Hard to Find ~ Dave Griffith

My friend wrote this book. He's the head of the creative writing program at Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, which is where I worked this summer. His name is Dave. Dave and I have consumed beers together, played Balderdash, engaged in competitive billiards (while consuming aforementioned beers). And now I have read his novel. 

It's a meditation on violence, touching on subjects ranging from Abu Ghraib to Hiroshima, Flannery O'Connor to Pulp Fiction, custom made electric chairs to what exactly a Rusty Trombone is (it involves a toilet seat). All the while, he weaves in stories from his own life: scaring children with his old black neighbor on Halloween, encountering a series of butchered hogs split down the center and displayed on a front lawn, dressing up like Captain Kirk and drunkenly posing for his own Abu Ghraib polaroid. And throughout each story, memory, and historical happening, Dave attempts to figure out why we are the way we are. How America's view of violence has come to be what it is. 

I'm very proud to say that my friend has written a thoughtful, humbling, quiet, provoking novel. It's pretty awesome to have talented friends. Thanks Dave! I can't wait to beat you in pool again!

Who Watches The Watchmen??

Watchmen is about a league of costumed superheroes attempting to save a world so broken that perhaps it doesn't deserve saving. 

Well, actually, I take that back. It's not about superheroes. It's about people, regular people, who think that by wearing leather masks and capes, that they are somehow elevated to the level of a superhero, and somehow endowed with the powers that come with such a title. It's about a group of people who give themselves the freedom to reinterpret the law as they see fit, to reign down justice wherever they deem necessary. It's about a handful of men and women who choose themselves to watch over the rest of the world. But, who watches the Watchmen?

This is such a very sweet graphic novel. (I almost wrote navel, but I didn't mean it. Please don't be mad at me.) I loved it. I loved this book so much. Ah! It's so good. It's basically a big pot of stew containing everything that I find interesting, titillating, fascinating, sexy(!). It's about superheroes, villains, the end of the world, flying orbs, nuclear winter, mars, scantily clad cartoon ladies, utopia, prison breaks, pirates, blue man group (minus the group), teleportation, and more superheroes.

I'm not going to try to synopsis-ize the actual plotline. Too much. Too dense. There are stories woven through stories. Comics within comics. Generations of costumed heroes. Journal entries. Timelines. 

This is a big beautiful book with pictures. I like big beautiful things, and I like pictures. I liked Watchmen. 

And Reggie, I didn't cry. Not even once. Not for a hot second.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sweet, Sweet Fantasy, Baby.

Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)

Oh, when you walk by every night
Talking sweet and looking fine
I get kinda hectic inside
Mmm, baby I'm so into you
Darling, if you only knew
All the things that flow through my mind

(But it's just a) sweet, sweet fantasy, baby
When I close my eyes
You come and you take me
(On and on and on)
So deep in my daydreams
But it's just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby

(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)

Images of rapture
Creep into me slowly
As you're going to my head
And my heart beats faster
When you take me over
Time and time and time again

(But it's just a) sweet, sweet fantasy, baby
When I close my eyes
You come and you take me
(On and on and on)
So deep in my daydreams
But it's just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby

(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)
(Shoe do do do do do do do)
(Shoe do do do do do do yeah)

(It's just a) sweet, sweet fantasy, baby
When I close my eyes
You come and you take me
(On and on and on)
So deep in my daydreams
But it's just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby

I'm in heaven
With my boyfriend
My lovely boyfriend
There's no beginning
And there is no end
Feels like I'm dreaming
But I'm not sleeping

(It's just a) sweet, sweet fantasy, baby
When I close my eyes
You come and you take me
(On and on and on)
So deep in my daydreams
But it's just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Or "Why My Dad Would Have Written This Review Himself If He Were Asian, And Why I Wouldn't Be Giving Him Shit For It If I Were Asian."*

This book is one of those change-the-way-you-think-about-the-world kinds of books. And not just in the "Oh wow I've never thought of that" kind of way; it's more like the "Holy shit now that I know this about the world I want to move to Washington DC and become a policy maker so that I can change the systems and institutions of our country to better suit the actualities of our society" kind of way.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines of a wide range of successful people, from The Beatles to Bill Gates, and in doing so, he debunks the very American notion of the self-made man. In Outliers we see how our culture, our birth date, the precise set of circumstances we were presented with, our socioeconomic status, and even the particulars of our language affect our success.

When I started this book on strong recommendation from my dad, I was afraid that it was going to be depressing. It seemed to me that, if we're not self-made, then everything is random and therefore we have no control over our own success. My experience was completely the opposite. Deconstructing what makes individuals who they are was exciting and empowering. (I particularly loved the linguistic bits, and I am eager to read more about it in a more specific context.)

Lastly, Gladwell is not a scientist. He's not approaching this topic from one particular scientific slant or bias. As a result, we get to see this topic explored from the standpoint cultural anthropology, biology, linguistics, sociology, and history, so no matter your particular interest as a reader, there's something in there for you. And, as a writer and not-scientist, he weaves a hell of a yarn through what could be very dry information.

Do it. Read it. The topics laid out in Outliers are things that we never think about that we definitely should be thinking about, whether you agree with Gladwell's approach or not. Above all else, Outliers was, for me, a great introduction to some topics and ideas that I wasn't familiar with before, and I am eager to investigate further. Plus, the chapter about plane crashes will BLOW YOUR MIND.

Final Rating: 9/10

*It's because he wouldn't be so damn lazy, and I would have some respect for his authority.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy OR why you're not cool enough to cauterize your bulletholes with the red-hot tip of a revolver.

The picture is going to be bigger than my review. All I can say is that this is an amazing western. I had never really read a western before and don't even like horses and I thought it was incredible. PLUS it's part of a trilogy and I'm really excited for the next two! Well done, Cormac. 9.5/10

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Great book.

Read it.

Julie is reading it and will write a review on it when she's finished, on
account that she is a gooder writer than I am.


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men ~ David Foster Wallace

This book was incredible. And horrible. And heartbreaking. And sadistic. Crammed with words and sentences and footnotes and descriptions and-
Well, sadistic in the fact that some of the stories feel so inaccessible, and spiral on for so long, that your breathing pattern actually starts to change, and your brain starts to ache and rattle inside your skull, and all you can do is rub your temples vigorously and hope that the next page is the last page, and that a new story will suddenly emerge and rescue you from the ocean of footnotes that has somehow managed to expand and engulf the actual text, has somehow managed to become the actual text.
Q, Q.
Not that that's a bad thing. It's not. Or maybe it is. And so but then what isn't?1 I think it was all part of the experience. Do you want another one? We could get one more and then call it a night.
Don't get me wrong. This book is beautiful. Astoundingly beautiful. There's the thirty-page monologue where a father describes in such grotesque detail the ways in which he hates his son, how the creature sucked on his mother's nipples until raw, manipulated the mother with tantrums and tears, stole the mother's love from the father and never gave it back. There's the story of a girl who merges souls and energies with her rapist in order to save her life. How she never stopped looking into his eyes, stroking the back of his head. How he never stopped crying, or stabbing his knife into the gravel beside her.
It's evident that David Foster Wallace {pounds fist twice on heart, and then looks towards sky (i.e. heaven)} is a genius. Was a genius2 . I don't know. He's the smartest fiction writer I've ever read, and his words and sentences are the smartest words and sentences I've ever read. It was an experience. Through and through. Was it the experience that David Foster Wallace expected me to have? Quite possibly. But one never really knows, now does one now does one now does one.
Are you sure you don't want to get another one?
1. Right?
2. David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 novel "Infinite Jest," was found dead Friday night at his home in Claremont, according to the Claremont Police Department. He was 46. He had hung himself. His wife had found him.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Or "It's Not You, It's Me"

I mean it when I say that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was a great book. I really do. It’s fresh, energetic, full of achingly beautiful characters, and written so seamlessly you’d think it was the transcript of an interview. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, for God’s sake. So I mean it. Honestly.

But at the same time that my brain agrees with and supports the accolades all over the front and back cover of this book, I never really got emotionally sucked in. I’ve been brainstorming about why is, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. Oscar Wao contains a TON of Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, which led me to either look the words up, guess what they meant, or skip ahead and just keep going. The use of Spanish in the book is brilliant and wonderful, but since I couldn’t just read straight through it I found myself chopping up Junot Diaz’s smooth, conversational narration with frequent trips to Google translator. (On a positive note, now I know about 600 Spanish words for "vagina.")

2. Oscar Wao contains a TON of references to Sci-Fi/Fantasy things. As someone who doesn't have a lot of experience with the genre, I also didn’t fully understand these.

If Oscar Wao is the kind of book that you connect with, you’ll really connect with it. Even if not, it’s a very worthy read, for no other reason than to check out Junot Diaz. This is his debut novel, and if it’s any indication of things to come, the literary world is in for quite a treat.

Final Rating: 7/10

I've got cancer. Give me some ginseng and stick some needles in my meridians to free up my qi.

Are you disillusioned with the medical care you've been receiving? Do you feel like your doctor doesn't spend enough time listening to you and herds you through the office like cattle? Do you feel like all they want to do is throw prescription medications at you, treating the symptoms but not the cause?

If so, are you turning to alternative forms of medical care? Instead of prescription medications, do you turn to herbal supplements; instead of physical therapy, surgery, and/or anti-inflammatory meds, do you turn to acupuncture, homeopathy, or chiropractic?

If so, this book is for you (but not for the reasons you might think.)

Because of the public's disillusionment with modern medical care, and because of the suspicion that surrounds "Big Pharma", more and more people are turning to alternative medicine, which promises drug- and surgery-free options, lower costs, and more personal attention from the provider. Sounds great, doesn't it?

There's a catch, however. Almost none of the therapies work, and some can be harmful and/or may cause the patient to postpone legitimate medical treatment, worsening the intitial problem. Despite testimonials and anecdotes from satisfied customers, rigorous medical trials show that almost all alternative medical therapies or medications have no more than a placebo effect.

This book is important for the scientist and lay person alike. The author goes into detail what constitutes a valid medical trial, what the placebo effect is and how it is proposed to work, and then reviews much of the current research in several areas of alternative medicine. It is an eye-opener, but alas, alt med will continue to grow. Lack of FDA regulation (anyone can put anything in a bottle and label it as a supplement without having to demonstrate efficacy), great marketing, and a willing and unsuspecting public will guarantee their future success.

Arm yourself with the knowledge to make informed medical choices for yourself and your family. Read this book.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

Or "A Series of Inconsequential Events"

For months I’ve been hearing all this hype about the new book by the always enjoyable Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars). So my love of young adult fiction plus my need to read a gazillion books led me to this one.

The Willoughbys is…endearing. It’s a funny, light-hearted tribute to/spoof of that great genre of Old-Fashioned Young Adult Orphan Fiction – but with one major (I’m assuming unintentional) difference. What makes all those Heidi, Pollyanna, Oliver Twist-types so appealing is the inevitable “change of heart” that a major character has as a result of his encounter with our winsome orphaned hero. But you have to have a heart in order to have a change of heart, and this is where Lowry fails. There is zero character development, no lessons are learned, nothing at the end of the book is any different than at the beginning of the book, other than the fact that now the four orphaned Willoughby siblings live in a different house.

It definitely has its good moments: a boy who believes he is fluent in German but actually just speaks English in a thick German accent, a charming Glossary and Bibliography in the back of the book, twin brothers named Barnaby A and Barnaby B whose parents resent them for being “redundant.” But if you’re looking for some quirky, “old-fashioned” young adult fiction, skip this one and go straight to Lemony Snicket. His Series of Unfortunate Events books have very much the same feel as The Willoughbys but with a much more well-rounded execution.

Final Rating: 3/10

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson


Let's get the bad stuff out of the way right now. James L. Swanson is not a superior writer. He is overzealous in his use of heavy-handed theater metaphors, the dash, and the word "ersatz." The entire book is over-written to the point of being melodramatic. One of my favorite sentences:

"Death hovered near, impatient to claim the president and escort him on the voyage to that dark and distant shore that had beckoned Lincoln so often in his dreams."

See what I mean? Ridiculous.

OK. The bad stuff is over. Now let's never talk about it again. Because really, when it comes down to it, this isn't the kind of book that you read for the writing. You read it for the content. And, oh boy, does it ever deliver.

James L. Swanson's account of Lincoln's assassination and the subsequent manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators is PERFECT. Step aside, Julie's Top Ten, and make some room for Manhunt. It is fascinating, impeccably researched, and a total page turner. Plus, once you finish, you'll have all kinds of fun facts to bring up at cocktail parties.

I realize that I am betraying the true depths of my nerdiness here, but I seriously cannot gush about this one enough.

Final Rating: 10/10

Thursday, December 11, 2008

WAY MORE confessions of a Shopaholic

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

So you know all those novels that are so popular nowadays? The ones that focus around the life of a single young socialite who has no job and no money but still manages to spend that non-existent money on clothes and drinks and clothes and plane tickets to exotic locales all while looking for Mr. Right but not ignoring the opportunity to spice things up with Mr. Right-Now?

I like to think of this book as the chance to check in on that same socialite in her late forties. She's still single, she still has no job and no money, but all those cosmopolitans and white-wine spritzers have taken their toll and, in all honesty, have become more of a trusted companion rather than something to toss back at the Palms. On top of all that, her looks have taken a serious turn and she's developed a deep-seeded love of the Christian God. The antics we so loved in Shopaholic et. al now seem desperate and, frankly, downright sad and Mr. Right has transformed from the tall, handsome man, clad in his Italian suit and matching sportscar to a middle-aged rapist with a penchant for the young....

All in all, this is actually a pretty fantastic book. It's an interesting look into the life of a middle-aged woman who is universally plain. Really beautifully written and, at times, truly heartbreaking. Don't let the dime-store title fool you, give it a read. 7/10

Curiouser And

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, was a bit of a literary phenomenon when it came out a few years ago, and its been on my too read list (at the behest of my well-read parents) for most of that time, but I only just got around to it. Curious Incident is told from the perspective of 15 year old Christopher Boone, who, after discovering the corpse of his neighbor's recently deceased dog, Wellington, sets about to solve the murder mystery. The catch, and this is quite the catch, is that Christopher is austistic. He is excellent at maths, science, and problem solving, but (like many ausitic kids) does not like to be touched, doesn't process or read emotion the way most people do, and is prone to very specific needs--he dislikes yellow and brown things, he loves timetables and dislikes deviating from them, he doesn't like crowds, etc. As Christopher explores the mystery, using his own unique skills and running into some huge unique roadblocks, it ends up revealing a much bigger mystery that is much more important to him. If you haven't read it, I won't spoil it here.

The main draw of this book, both when it came out and upon reading it, is the chance to get inside the head of a unique narrator. Like the oft-discussed Black Swan Green, Haddon's novel is told entirely from its teenager narrator's perspective, and the book lives or dies depending on the success of that particular element. Obviously Christopher Boone is very different from the other child-narrators on this blog, and while Haddon does provide some great insight into how the thought process of a high-functioning austic teen might work, its hard to know exactly how much he nails it. I have some limited experience with autism and autistic kids, but part of what is so fascinating and frustrating about autism is that their minds do seem to function so differently than ours, and no amount of research could yield a product that is 100% accurate, or so it seems to this particular skeptic. The book has a lot going for it, as a quick, quirky read (and I must shout out to a post-modern trick I do love, that of including tables and diagrams and charts amongst the narrative. Please see Special Topics in Calamity Physics for this as well) but it never felt more than that, not even given the fact that the day I started it I was assigned as a sub to be the one-on-one aid for two autistic kids. However, if you have read both Black Swan Green and the much beloved by some (but, sorry, inferior to me) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and enjoyed the perspective and heartstring tugging, this is probably another book for you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wonder Boys

What a joy!

This book was sooooo much fun.  I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long time--I will certainly dive into the Chaboniverse in lieu of this awesomely fun novel.

I don't want to spoil this pleasure for you by giving away plot, so just take my word for it.  Trust fall into this book, and you'll make a new friend.

And then we can take a road trip to Pittsburgh and stay at Andy's and have screwball adventures of our own.  See you in Squirrel Hill--just look for my butt-print.

The Road

The Road.  It was good.  You've probably read it.  So here's my suggestion.

Pick up Blood Meridian instead, along with Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack.  Go find a desolate field and burn one.  Put on the music, open the book, and revel in the scorched earth sweetness.

The Road was great...but you've read it already, right?


Classic Comix

I plowed through this one in NYC.  A classic for sure and an fascinating look at the lives of Holocaust survivors as elderly, angry, and dysfunctional humans.  Or mice.

The holocaust portions of the comic were amazing, but I was hit on a more visceral level by the discord of the "present day" scenes.  The Spiegelman's are fucked up, yo.  As well they should be.  The Holocaust has taken its toll on the family--a wound that has festered for an entire generation finally drains onto the pages of this book.

My favorite sequence (in terms of sheer power, not enjoyment) is a mini-comic called Prisoner on the Hell Planet.  It describes in ghastly detail the effects of a mother's suicide on her son.  In a book filled with terrifying sights, nothing freaked me more than a suicidal mother tucking her son in one final time.  Shudder.

I get the sense that I really have to read Maus II to fully grasp this work.  Maybe later.  This first episode was gripping, and an interesting predecessor to the more complex comic melancholy of Chris Ware.  Long live Comix!


Bright Lights, Big Zekey

So.  I picked this book up at my Grandma's house a few days after she died.  I flew home from NYC where I was happily (albeit briefly) living the dream:  3 weeks big pay to live in a hotel and understudy a show in Times Square.  I spent most of my time getting lost and high in Central Park, revisiting old friends, seeing/avoiding relatives, and drinking bourbon in bed.

Everyday I would wander from Broadway and 77th down to 42nd, passing giant theatres advertising Shrek, Mamma Mia, Gypsy!  My theatre was jammed in between the overstuffed (and soon to close) Young Frankenstein and the glowering jowls of Frank Langella, starring in A Man For All Seasons.  I loved taking the walk to Times Square.  I passed Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, various stars of 30 Rock, and tuxedoed men on the way to fancy dances.  Everyday I was breathing in the dream of Broadway--this mecca of theatre was now my workplace; Stage Door, not Will Call, thank you very much.  Dreamy neon dream.  Mmmmm.

Halloween morning I awoke in Brooklyn to the message of my Grandma's death.  My Grandma gave me theatre--I do what I do chiefly because of this marvelous woman, this tiny wonder, this matriarch of matriarchs.  And she's gone.

I buy some coffee.  I buy some booze.  I take a jog through Central Park.  I start drinking.  I put corpse paint and blue-lattice work on my face, put on my best seer-sucker suit, and take on the East Village.  I take a breath, get on a plane, and head upstate to bury my Grandma.  

Mourn, eat, clean, repeat.

I raided my Grandma's shelves for books during the days, then drank and vaporized into the evening.  I returned to NYC, in a mournful and stoned stupor, and hopped on the Subway, headed back to 42nd and my gleaming dreamy Broadway.  And with shaking hands and dilated pupils, I began Bright Lights, Big City.  A perfect book for my subterranean solitary shiva, a pocket sized tome that would be by my side from Gun Hill Road to the Cloisters to Coney Island to the Green Room under Times Square.

So, next time you're living a dreamy mournful life of privilege in NYC, fueled by booze and drugs and dancing and crying, you know what book to open up and bleed into.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Cat's Cradle ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Call me Andy. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me Andrew.

This is a book about the end of the world.

I'd like to share with you a passage from Chapter 36, entitled "Meow":

     During my trip to Ilium and to points beyond - a two-week expedition bridging Christmas - I let a poor poet named Sherman Krebbs have my New York City apartment free. My second wife had left me on the grounds that I was too pessimistic for an optimist to live with.
     Krebbs was a bearded man, a platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes. He was no close friend of mine. I had met him at a cocktail party where he presented himself as National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War. He begged for shelter, not necessarily bomb proof, and it happened that I had some.
     When I returned to my apartment, still twanging with the puzzling spiritual implications of the unclaimed stone angel in Ilium, I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars' worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.
     He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

     I have a kitchen.
     But it is not a complete kitchen.
     I will not be truly gay
     Until I have a 

     There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: "No, no, no, said Chicken-licken."
     There was a sign hung around my dead cat's neck. It said, "Meow."

And so it goes...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008



Monday, December 1, 2008

Black Swan Green ~ David Mitchell

What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful book.

I just finished Black Swan Green mere moments ago, and am feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the flood of thirteen-year-old memories that has just been unleashed in my head: first kisses, school dances, what it's like to have the house all to yourself for a day and a night, the awkwardness of shaving your upper-lip hair for the first time. And even though I didn't grow up in England, nor have I attended the county goose fair or taken an "ace" crap in the woods, I felt such a unique connection with this stammering, creative, lonely narrator. He sent me back to my own childhood in a way that I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed.

I don't think I need to write too much more about this book, as it's already been reviewed by Julie M. Ritchey, and critically acclaimed as one of his ten favorites by Mr. Josh Lesser. But, I'd just like to reaffirm the praise by giving some of my own: yes yes yes yes yes. Please do yourself a favor and add this to your queue list.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

So after months and months of having people recommend this book to me over and over again, I decided that now would be as good a time as any to finally give in and read it since we've got this whole 50-book thing going on, and let me tell you, I definitely see where these people are coming from...
But I'm gonna have to say meh...
Chalk it up to over-hype, blame it on the fact that I just read a Salman Rushdie book about a rather similar subject (although I'm sure someone smarter than I would inform me that these subjects are not at all similar), but this book simply did not appeal to me for several reasons:
1. The main character does something so horrible in the first 50 pages that I seriously wanted nothing but bad things to happen to him for the rest of the book. Not to spoil anything...
2. Cliche runs rampant in the book and the author actually spends part of the book almost excusing why his book is so cliche. Get an imagination, Khaled!
3. I feel like it vastly oversimplifies the whole Afghanistan/Taliban/Pakistan situation. Again I don't know much about the issue at hand, but I feel like this was a book written for Americans if that makes any sense.

I will say, the story is touching, as would be any story about friendship, loss, sadness, love, etc. But it is pretty unoriginal. It's touching the way certain commercials are touching, he just knew which buttons to push. But it is separated from books like Extremely loud and Incredibly Close because it's pretty unoriginal in its touchingness. The story is good, but I just feel like you could get the same story told better by somebody else.

Basically, this is a New York Times best seller. Enjoyable plot (although you want the main character to drp dead) but not a lot of substance as literature. 5/10

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Here we go! Zeke's "Top 10 Books"

Hiya Gang!

Sorry it's taken me a little while to begin posting on this badass blog.  I see that everyone has plopped down a nice list of favorites to start off the year.  So here is my current list of favorites (in no particular order; that would be playing favorites.)

1.  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

2.  Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

3.  It by Stephen King

4.  Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

5.  The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

6.  The Watchmen by Alan Moore

7.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

8.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

9.  Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

10.  The Island of the Skog, by Stephen Kellogg

Rock on happy readers, I'll be back with more postings soon!

After The Quake

More Murakami!

I don't know why, but I get immensely more pleasure out of reading short stories than I typically do from a novel. Probably it has something to do with a withered attention span, but there's also something to be said about the foundational differences in form. George Saunders has spoken about this when explaining why he's not written a novel (coming closest with his novella The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil) -- a novel requires the author and reader to cope with exposition and narrative development that might be less than captivating in and of itself in order to reach its end and tell a larger, more sprawling tale. Short stories, by comparison, are not unlike jokes in that they are necessarily pared-down, precisely-worded prose pieces who say precisely what they need or want to say and then get out. Late in After the Quake, Murakami focuses one of the book's more beautiful stories on Junpei, a writer of short stories whose simple desires and relative contentment mirrors his limitations as a writer -- he has no patience or stamina to work on a novel, being much more suited to churning through a rigorous weeklong process as he obsessively pummels out short stories. That sounds about right.

In any event, this is all an overly wordy preamble to say that I really loved After the Quake. While, as a collection of linked short stories (linked by the resonance of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake, viewed at a distance throughout), it lacks something of the narrative sprawl and immensity of Kafka on the Shore, here Murakami's fascinations and meditations are clearer for their brevity and concision: we see the same dreamlike awakening of adolescent sexuality, the same uncomfortable overtones of incestuous lust, a willingness to blast free of the quiet, simple world of realism (most dynamically in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," with a dreamworld whose significance outstrips that of the real world.

The bulk of the pieces act as character studies -- "Thailand"'s Satsuki, brooding furiously over an ex-husband and her decision not to have his child; Junpei's passive acceptance of his circumstances at the expense of his happiness, bland businessman Yoshiya's acceptance of his potentially divine ancestry, and on and on. They're nuanced, surprising and intimately crafted -- no note rings false, even when (as in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo") we're seeing character revealed in how a mild-mannered loan collections agent copes with the arrival of a giant frog urging him to wage war with Worm, who plans to cause an earthquake in Tokyo.

Murakami has a gift for the long form, but it's nice and refreshing to catch small pieces like this, whose simplicity highlights his skills and the deep, moving soulfulness that lies beneath them. There will be much more Murakami as this year moves along...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Better Off

It's a happy coincidence that I picked up my roommate's copy of Better Off, Eric Brende's account of a year without (much) technology, just after finishing More Information Than You Require, which early on in listing Hodgman's related titles claims that he has written a book entitled My Stunt Memoir Year: The True Story of a Man Who Spent 365 Days Writing a Memoir To See What Would Happen (It Made Him Fat and Rich!)

It's a format that is by now (in the wake of the I've-yet-to-read-'em Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, among others) pretty familiar: author has certain beliefs or curiosities, decides to indulge them via a Wacky Scheme that will take about a year, chronicles the effort and walks away with new and deepened understanding of what he thought he knew going in. And presumably lands a big publishing deal about 40 pages after the narrative ends.

It's easy to be a little skeptical of such works, particularly something like Better Off, which approaches its niche ideology (an aversion to modern technology) from a fairly full-fledged, idealistic place. Brende, at the piece's start, is at MIT for grad school and deeply suspicious as to whether or not technology assists its users -- he recounts his father's free time disappearing when he gets a word processor to help speed his writing work, discusses the ways in which he is driven to work 60 hour weeks to support a car that he needs in order to get to the job at which he has to work 60 hours a week in order to pay for the car that etc. etc.

The hook comes when Brende hits upon the idea of joining a Menonite community. Having poked around at the idea (and being disappointed that most Amish communities allow their members to "lease" cars instead of "owning" them, and in various other ways obey the letter of their restrictions while still using modern technology), Brende finds a sect that refuses to use any piece of equipment containing a motor. And for the next year, he lives among them, renting farmland and growing crops, raising barns and caring for livestock, attending Menonite services, bartering his goods in town, etc.

It's primarily interesting as a document of this society -- Brende is ardently opposed to most "helpful" technology, so it's not surprising to see him documenting the many ways in which he finds he has more free time when he's simply plowing a field so that he can feed himself and his wife. Instead, it's interesting to see him get a sense for the nuance of humor among the Menonites, to track the diverse origin points of members of the community, and to observe the ways in which they have found simple ways to remain largely autonomous.

As the book progresses, it gets somewhat less interesting -- when his wife gets pregnant, much of the book focuses on their experiences in childbirth and planning for a family, and as the narrative grows more personal and less sociological, it's less unique and frankly less compelling. But there's some interesting writing and thought here, a glimpse at a community whose firm adherence to a withdrawl from modern society and technology looks incredibly tempting in many ways.

More Information Than You Require

When I heard that John Hodgman's next book was to be a follow-up to his extremely successful (and bizarrely brilliant) The Areas of My Expertise, I was apprehensive -- hilarious and unique as Areas had been, its role as an Almanac of False Knowledge seemed limiting. Surely a follow-up book built on the same model, with similar "compendium of knowledge" structures, couldn't have the same spark of particularity that its predecessor had.

That being said, flipping through the first thirty pages of the book in Borders had me laughing out loud (something I'm not overly wont to do) and so I bought it. Or rather, pressured a friend into buying it and loaning it to me. Whatever. Point is: it's superb stuff. Its highs are as high as that of Areas: the Presidential factoids inform us that Rutherford B. Hayes had the nicknames "His Illegitimacy," "Rutherfraud B. Hayes," "Frauderfraud Bogus Hayes," "His Excellency, Fakey Votethief" and "El Stealo," and that Martin Van Buren ("Brueny Van Economic Crisis," "Fancy Van Ascot, the Little Magician") had a hook for a hand. The list of mole-men names, while as eventually drudging as the list of hobo names in Areas, is specialized and -- for the first hundred or so -- funny. He teaches you how to win in poker ("Sure Thing #2" in betting, just after Roulette) by indimidating your competition: "My cards are going to set your cards on fire and then put out the fire with piss." "My cards are going to drown your cards in a rain barrel the same way I murdered your children. (Even if you're not in the hand, this sends a message that you are a REAL card plaer, and maybe even a child murderer.)" And so on; it's all very good stuff, and Hodgman throws so much oddball humor out there that he basically has to score a hit every few pages.

What's rewarding, though, is watching Hodgman stretch his voice. Some of these pieces appeared elsewhere before being folded into this work ("700 Mole Men Names" is listed as being previously published under the title "700 Hobo Names"), and a piece on his newfound minor celebrity that has been adapted from its appearance on This American Life is simultaneously outrageously implausible and really quite poignant. Perhaps the best example of this balance between madcap goofiness and personal voice comes at the tail end of Hodgman's passionate, ardent explanation as to the plausibility of UFOs and the existence of life on other planets. The piece closes with an encounter Hodgman holds up as a potential alien encounter, with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) abandoning him on vacation in Mexico. While she's announced her intention to return, Hodgman is wholeheartedly convinced that he's lost her forever, and is joined while waiting nervously for her outside their hotel by a group of young men from a stag party who ultimately take shifts staying with him and cheering him up while he waits for her to come back. When she does, everybody's spirits lift, and Hodgman's closing words are heartwarming more than anything else: "Even now, a decade and a half later, when she is out of my sight, I never stop looking for her. And even though, you must admit, the likelihood is that while she was away she was kidnapped and replaced by an alien clone, I still love her."

If this tempered, dementedly sweet Hodgman is who we have writing the forthcoming third volume, That is All, I think we have much to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie

I chose to read "Shalimar the Clown" for two reasons:
1. I have never read ANYTHING by Salman Rushdie and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
2. My roommate, Kevin Reich said it was his favorite book of all time and I wanted to get a little more insight into exactly what makes Kevin tick.

In brief, Shalimar the Clown is the story of the title character, his wife, her lover, and their daughter. It takes place is the 60s and follows the characters all the way up until the mid nineties. We learn at the very beginning of the book that Shalimar has murdered a famous ambassador and the rest of the book is the explanation of why and how. The book is divided into several sections (not really chapters...) that focus specifically on one of the main characters and their particular story. The action of the story takes us all the way from the holocaust to the India/Pakistan conflict to the Rodney King race riots in Los Angeles and is really pretty damn brilliant.


The book does not get off to a very strong start in my opinion. Because the story deals so much with the conflict between the Indian army and the Pak-supported insurgents and also takes place almost entirely in the Kashmir region of India, Rushdie includes a LOT of exposition in the opening chapters, exposition which I ended up feeling was a little unnecessary to the story, including about 15 pages about "The Feast of 30 Courses Minimum" and another five about "The Feast of 60 Courses Maximum." Perhaps interesting to somebody, but not to me...

Unnecessary exposition aside, this is an amazing book. Rushdie is a brilliant writer and every sentence is a gem. This book took me a long time to read, but I believe that's the way this book should be read. The story (love, betrayal, war, overeating, tight-rope walking etc.) is an old one but Rushdie tells it in a way that makes me feel like I'm reading it for the first time.

The other great thing about this book is that it really has a little of everything: history, murder, mystery, action, love, magical realism, folk tales, EVERYTHING! I definitely recommend this to anyone who is a little ahead in the book count and wants to take some time to stp and smell the terrorism.

Overall 9 out of 10, get through those first 75 pages and you shall be richly rewarded.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, Ed. D.

Or "Hug It Out, Bitch."

I was recently hired to work as a teacher's assistant at a Montessori pre-school. The school operates on a combination of Montessori and Adlerian philosophies, the latter of which I knew nothing about. To learn a bit about it, and to save dozens of tiny children from complete psychological destruction in my incapable hands, I borrowed Positive Discipline from the Parent/Teacher Resources shelf at the school.

If any of you teach youngsters, this is an awesome resource. It teaches a style of discipline that empowers rather than belittles, and ultimately minimizes the negative long term problems associated with a punishment-centric method of discipline. She heavily emphasizes the true meaning of the word 'discipline' as being "to instruct and understand" (think 'disciple'), as opposed to the "punish and enforce" meaning that the word has gathered along the way. This particular edition is geared towards younger kids, but Nelsen has published other Positive Discipline books specifically for teenagers, single parent households, etc.

I'll leave you with this nugget of etymological goodness: the word educate comes from the Latin educare, meaning "to draw forth."

And, in case you were wondering, it's the best job ever.

Rating: As a resource for a parent or teacher, 8/10. As a pleasure read, not so much.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Or Julie Ritchey Presents "The Year of Magical Reading Thanksgiving Special!"

Sarah Vowell is back, and this time she's taking on the Puritans. In typical Sarah Vowell fashion, this version of events includes just as many pop culture references as it does source texts (including The Brady Bunch, The Godfather trilogy, Louis Armstrong, Happy Days, Nancy Drew, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Scooby-Doo, to name a few...a very few). And while normally I find this technique both charming and informative, this time around it wore a little thin. Maybe it's because I know significantly less about Puritan history than I do about presidential assassinations (the subject of Assassination Vacation), but I couldn't help but feel that this account of John Winthrop's "City On A Hill" is suffering from suburban sprawl.

Vowell leaps from year to year, from theme to theme, from person to person in a way that I found very hard to keep up with. Overall, while I got a very clear sense of the general climate and ideals of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as well as Vowell's opinions of it, I don't feel that I could discuss the subject with any kind of authority, much less how our Puritan founders continue to shape our current political, moral, and social structure. As it was, that rambly, non-sequitur style that I usually love about Vowell's writing just got in the way of what she was trying to say, in a classic case of style superceding substance.

If you're a die-hard Sarah Vowell fan, The Wordy Shipmates is definitely a worthy read, but it doesn't quite live up to her previous books. If you're new to Sarah Vowell, I'd go with Assassination Vacation or The Partly-Cloudy Patriot instead.

The Final Verdict: 5/10

P.S. For a taste of Vowell without the commitment of an entire book, click here to read one of my all-time favorite essays. You can also hear her read her essays as a frequent contributer to This American Life, or hear her as angsty teen superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This isn't a book post! Don't throw rocks at me!

Some updates, friends!

1. Everybody is an admin . Which means that we can all invite people and change the layout and all kinds of fun things if the mood strikes. We all have to be nice to each other, though, because with this power we can also edit each other's posts or revoke each other's admin privileges willy nilly. So don't piss me off, or I'll change your most recent post to a rave review of "Confessions of a Shopaholic."

2. Andy Lampl's roommate, the lovely Zeke Sulkes, is playing with us now too! So hi, Zeke!

3. I'd just like to take this opportunity to (a) fulfill the never two without three rule and (b) say that I'm having a whole lot of fun with this fifty books business. Like, a whole whole whole lot. So thanks for being fun reading buddies!


Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Crying of Lot 49

Holding a distinguished place in my personal graveyard of great books I've started but never finished is Thomas Pynchon's opus, Gravity's Rainbow. Since I can't hang with Pat's 48-Hardy-Boys-and-then-Infinite Jest strategy for this year, I couldn't see trying to tackle the big Pynchon's again, but wanted to explore the author that is namechecked by so many authors and friends I respect. And so we land on the much easier to manage Crying of Lot 49.

Pynchon is as wonderful as advertised, absurd and inventive and laugh out loud funny. The book is strewn with references, in-jokes, original songs, and even a Jacobean play (which was especially delightful for me, as Pynchon nails the form while mocking it perfectly). The book follows one Oedipa Maas (husband: Mucho--one thing Pynchon is widely known and loved/mocked for is his ability to come up with outlandish character names, the aforementioned two plus out standouts from this book including but not limited to Dr. Hilarius, Mike Fallopian, and Genghis Cohen. Seriously, those are actual characters' actual names) who is named executor of late her ex-lover/multi-millionaire's will, and is drawn into a seemingly never ending and widespread conspiracy dating back to the 1500's. The plot is important but not paramount to the book (the other discursions being as much fun or more so) but to give it away would be to ruin at least some of the power of the book, so I'll leave it at saying that the book draws heavily into question truth and reality and how one judge's their own. The only thing lacking was the book (and this may be in part because of my expectation of the epic from Pynchon) constantly felt like it was about to tip into something much larger and sprawling, and yet clocked in at a slim and perhaps underexplored 152 pages. But for any lover of the absurd, this is definitely worth the read. I hope there is more Pynchon in my future.

Rickenbacker - an autobiography

While in Indiana a couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through my wife's grandfather's library. A fundamentalist Baptist, his library mainly consists of Bibles, Bible Study guides, books written by Jerry Falwell, apocalyptic prophesies, and lists of groups of people who will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire (I am, no doubt, on said list along with Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, Negros, and Democrats).

Buried within Jesus' atheneum was this book. I love non-fiction, so this stood out as a worthy read. One of the most decorated pilots of all time, pioneer race car driver, early commercial aviation leader among many other roles, this WWI hero led an exciting and adventure-filled life. He was a studly man.

Anyway, if you like bios, this is a worthy read. I give it 7 MRU's out of 10.

Bottomless Belly Button ~ Dash Shaw

This is a beautiful, sprawling graphic novel that spans a weekend in the lives of a highly dysfunctional family on the cusp of divorce. 

Now, I'm not sure if graphic novels are allowed in this site, but allow me to make my case:
1) It was in the Notable Fiction section of Barnes & Noble.
2) It's 720 pages long.
3) It certainly feels like a novel, reads like a novel, and hits you emotionally like a novel.

Is that enough? If everyone is in uproar, then we can count this as a 1/2 book. Okay? Okay.

Bottomless Belly Button is wonderful. It's about the Loony Family. The matriarch and patriarch of the family, an elderly couple with forty years of marriage under their belts, have suddenly decided to get a divorce, and their children and grandchildren have no idea why. What follows are the sad misadventures of a family on the brink of unwanted change. Secret passageways containing secret letters, burning semen with candles, a chair falling from the sky. It's surreal and so identifiably close to real life, page after page after page. 

There's even a little animated trailer. You should watch it:

For anyone who likes cartoons, Wes Anderson, puzzles, and mildly heart-wrenching stories, this may be for you.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union ~ Michael Chabon

So, for my first (and horribly delayed) reading endeavor, I present you with: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. The novel is set in the fictional District of Sitka, which is a safe haven in Alaska created for Jews after the post-Holocaust collapse of Israel. In this fictional land, cellphones are called Shoyfers, handguns are called Sholems, and when a yid starts to cry, he brings a tissue to his face and "blows a great tekiah on his shofar of a nose." I think these things are funny, because I'm Jewish. The rest of you may not...

So, that's the basic groundwork of this novel. Layered into that groundwork is a beautiful, complex, colorful detective story about a lonely police officer (who's afraid of the dark and can't stop drinking), who finds a murdered man in his hotel building who may or may not be the messiah. What spins from that is a lovely tale of chess, strings, donuts, conspiracies, red cows, Alaskan Jews, and sadness. 

I really liked it. If any of the above intrigues you, even a little bit, I think you might like it, too.