Sunday, September 30, 2012

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

For this review, I had seriously considered just writing “Read 1984 instead” and leaving it at that.  But, the advise from my thesis supervisor came back to me – he says to never judge a work against you want to it be, but rather, judge it for what it is.  Never one to ignore good advise when I hear it (okay, well I try not to), I decided that giving Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World short-shrift wouldn’t be fair.  So, here we go.

Brave New World is firmly in the camp of utopian/dystopian fiction.  This society seems to have pulled its start date from the time of Ford and the birth of the modern consumer culture.  We’re introduced to the society literally where it begins – in the hatchery.  Science has progressed to such a level that children can be created, grown and birthed from test tubes; their castes and skill levels are pre-determined before birth, and the children are socialized using a whole host of psychological methods to acclimatize them to their station in life.  As grown ups, the people of this society are encouraged to consume as much as possible, and to enjoy as many sexual partners as they like.  The only thing that is off limits for the people is non-conformity.  Those who will not fit themselves into the expected model of society are considered detrimental to the whole, and exiled.  

All that this sounds really engaging.  And, on the surface, as a fan of utopian fictions, it was.  But there were certain choices Huxley made that ruined the whole thing for me.  First, he doesn’t explain much about the society beyond what I relayed above.  How did humanity get to this point?  and when did Fordism take over?  More than that, Huxley eludes to some components of daily life without really explaining them – for example, what exactly is a Pregnancy Substitute, and why is it required of the women in the society? 

Beyond the oversights in developing his setting, Huxley makes (in my opinion) a serious over-sight with the plot.  In most utopian/dystopian fictions, the main character (who is generally a dissenter in order to future the story’s development and action) comes from within the society itself.  This gives the reader someone to sympathize with; someone to root for; and a more effective lens on the short comings of the society.  In the case of Brave New World, the character who casts back criticism on this new society is an outsider – someone who’s mother is from the society but, due to chance and accident, was raised outside of it, only to return as an adult.  What the reader then gets is the occasional assessment of how this outsider (none to cleverly named Jim the Savage) sees this utopian society, and two rather long discourses about end about the human condition in relation to God, individuality, and society.  Not gonna lie, I fell asleep while reading the last two chapters.

But, maybe worse that these oversights, is that Huxley’s story (for me, at least), is not a dystopian fiction.  If, tomorrow, I was told “feel free to shop as much as you want, have sex with whom ever you want without social repercussions, and don’t worry about being judged for not wanting children” my response would be “I want to go to there.”  This ‘brave new world’ that Huxley crafted sounds amazing – not at all like the Districts, or the Republic of Gilead, or Oceania.  And, worse, it didn’t even seem that bad to the two dissenters we meet in the story – these two people were judged as not being conformist enough, and willingly (and almost gladly) accepted their exile to another country.  Even the non-conformists seemed to have found the society based on Fordism to be a good one!   

In the end, Brave New World just didn’t do it for me.  I feel sorry for the friends I had in high school that had to read Huxley rather than Orwell.  For a utopian/dystopian fiction, Huxley misses the mark by a mile.  And yet, I know this book has been well received and widely read, so I wonder what it was that I missed in my reading of it.  I think I’m going to have to put this one on the shelf for a while, and come back to it in a few years to see if it improves with time.  So, final verdict?  Read 1984 instead. 

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka, by Roald Dahl

Okay, so after a downer like We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was feeling the need for a literary pick-me-up.  Last weekend, while sick, I watched the Tim Burton version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and decided the time was ripe for a re-reading of the classic Roald Dahl tale.  

I say re-reading, but the fact is, I had this book read to me when I was about five years old.  All I remember from that reading was my mother forgetting to censor the line where Wonka instructs an Oompa Loompa to ‘burp you ass, burp!’  I was immediately smitten with the book.  Not only was the main character extolling the virtues of being rude in a way my parents were trying to teach me not to be, he was swearing while doing it.  I found it charming.  So, when my Dad joined Columbia House Video Club (oh yeah, I’m totally dating myself here, but remember VHS kids?!) one of the first flicks he bought was the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Needless to say, I watched that tape over and over again, and it replaced my memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book in favour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the movie.

Of course, when you love something so much at such a formative age, it’s bound to skew your impressions of certain things in adulthood.  For example, I could never understand how Sammy Davis Jr related to the candy man, because the candy man in my world is a tall white British dude – this is, and seems destined to remain, a serious gap in my adult knowledge.  More importantly, the movie skewed my memory of the book.  While the movie holds closely to Dahl’s tale (and, in fact, Burton’s flick is even more accurate), there’s still no escaping Wilder’s brown bowler, purple velvet morning coat, and green inexpressible.  While reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was unable to disassociate the visual and aural memories of the flick from the book.  However, the book stood up to my memory of the movies, so it was fabulous.

Now, my copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains the second Charlie/Wonka story, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  This second story is a far cry from the first.  To start off with, it’s simply not believable.  I know how silly that notion sounds – the first story is about a magical chocolate factory run by a group of imaginary creatures.  But still, it’s more believable to me that a glass box that can travel to space, aliens, age-reversal pills, a River Styx-like existential crisis, and aging pills.  Oh, and don’t forget the President of the United States plays a key roll in this one.   

More than just the plot, it’s also the quality of writing that drops off in the second story.  The first story is rich and textured with vocabulary and aural play, while the second tries to riff off the first, but falls short in every attempt.  While the first one slipped this colour in almost effortlessly, it seems as if Dahl had to try and shoe-horn it into this one.  Moreover, the first story is clearly a morality tale (about greed, hubris, and manners) – the second story also tries to be a morality tale, but it’s done in a ham-fisted kind of way.  The first story might get kids under the radar, but the second story seems designed to bash them over the head with messages about restraint and sharing.  Blarg.

So, final verdict?  Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  However, watch the movies.  I can’t say enough for the visual texture of the Wilder version, and the sensibilities of the Burton version.  Needless to say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a big part of my childhood, and it’s a part that I still like to go back to when I can.  In that context, I’d encourage everyone to try and capture their youthful spirit with this book.  

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We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

My process for writing these reviews is remarkably consistent; generally, within a chapter or two, I’ve thought of some analogy or bon mot to open with, and then I craft my thoughts on the book as I read it, usually coming up with three or four points to touch on in my observations.  With my latest read, I had the opening conceived of before I even left the book store, and I had contingencies for how to alter it if I like the book or if I didn’t.  A couple chapters into the book I had revised my strategy to comment on what I thought would be the major aspect of my review.  But, by the end of my reading, all I could think to say is that we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.

First, a word about the book itself.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband, Franklin.  Eva is using these letters to record her impressions of the life she and Franklin shared from right before they became parents, until the time of their estrangement.  While Eva is the founder of a travel-guide dynasty, Franklin works as a location scout for commercials; they live a comfortable life that seems perfect.  The impetuous for the beginning of Eva’s story is their debate on if and when to have children.  Finally, they take the plunge and Eva gets pregnant, giving birth to Kevin.  From the beginning, Eva perceives that there’s something wrong with Kevin; from birth he seems malicious, he can’t stand to be around his mother, he drives away baby sitters, and he seems heartbroken to be living in a world that he can’t see any purpose in.  Eva’s story continues from Kevin’s birth to the family’s move to the suburbs of New York, Kevin’s entry into school, the birth of Celia (their second child), and Kevin’s high school years.  Throughout, Eva is uncomfortable around Kevin, no matter how hard she tries to be a good mother.  In her letters to Franklin, Eva documents her interactions with her son and her impressions of him as a person.

Of course, none of this sounds remotely engaging… but Eva isn’t telling her story in a linear fashion.  We know, from almost the jump, what makes Eva’s story so engaging.  And it’s this – Kevin, during his sophomore year of high school, perpetrated a school shooting, killing several classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker.  He was sentenced to prison, and Eva still visits him, but Franklin and Celia seem to have dropped out of his life entirely.

All of this has the making for a dynamic and enthralling read.  But, when I first picked up the book, I felt cheated.  Eva’s letters to Franklin sound, for lack of a better term, pretentious – the sentence structure is complicated, the vocabulary is over-blown, and the evidence she’s presenting for her relationship with her son seems to be over the top.  It seemed ridiculous to assign malicious motives to an infant, and so the account of Kevin’s early years didn’t ring true.  However, once I got used to the style of writing, and Kevin grew up and his shortcomings didn’t seem so preposterous, the book began to improve in readability.  By the end, I was enthralled with Eva’s account and story telling.  If this was because it became clearer and clearer just what Kevin was capable of, or if it was just a case of reader acclimatization, by the end of this book I was hooked on it.

Other than the writing style, what captured me about this book was the sorrow that flows from every page.  It’s everywhere.  Eva is Armenian by decent, and does what she can to instill the surface qualities of her culture on her children (by that, I mean by giving them her last name and cooking Armenian food, but not engaging in the religion – surface qualities).  Part of this cultural legacy that she gives to her children is a shared memory of the Armenian genocide – the story is never hidden from the kids, and in fact, is used quite often to justify her parenting decisions.  Besides this massive instance of sorrow, Eva’s story is peppered with smaller morsels of sadness.  Kevin came to age in the mid- and late-1990s, an era peppered with stories of schools shootings (trust me, I’m only a year or two behind Kevin, I remember this time well).  Throughout the reading of this book, knowing the end game of Kevin’s actions, these additional stories, touted by Eva to Franklin as a reminder that their son is not unique or special in any kind of positive way, are like emotional body blows that are relentless.

The result of the constant inclusion of sorrow from each page isn’t what one might think; it doesn’t inure you to the reality of Kevin’s actions in the end.  If anything, it highlights and compounds them.  The references to the Armenian genocide, contrasted with multiple instances of school shootings left me with the same impression – no matter the scale, malicious death is devastating.  Be it teenagers sitting in class, or a cultural movement to eliminate the ‘other,’ the result is the same – sadness and the need for those left behind to pick up the pieces.  One doesn’t become immune to this sadness, if anything, Kevin’s actions compound it, and make it more shocking.

The fact is, though we know where Kevin ends up following his actions, we don’t know the full extent of them until the very end, and we don’t ever really know why he did what he did.  The why of it all is the one thing that everyone wants to get to the bottom of, but that even Eva isn’t fully able to answer.  Much like any act of malicious violence, there is no good reason and no reasonable justification to be had.  Throughout my reading of the book, I thought the why of it was obvious enough – Kevin is a sociopath.  He has no emotion, no conscious, and no elemental connection to those around him.  Strangely enough, Eva (and Shriver) never uses that term; she never tries to excuse or justify Kevin’s actions with a label, she simply lets them stand to be examined by their own merit.  Maybe labeling Kevin a sociopath would have been Monday-morning quarterbacking, giving Eva something to hide behind as an excuse for Kevin’s actions, and a pass on her own, I don’t know, but I still think the description is apt.

I realize that this is a long review, and trust me when I say I could go on and on about this book.  When I first picked it up, I didn’t think it was much good and I had to force myself to keep reading.  However, about a third of the way into it, I was sold.  So, final verdict?  This isn’t a book for everyone.  The vocabulary and prose can be dense and if you’re not someone who enjoys that kind of thing, I imagine it will serve as a road block to the rest of the book.  But, if you can get past that and really get into the story, I think its well worth the read.  I imagine this is a book I’ll be reading again in the future, and what better recommendation for its merits could I make?  

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Masterpieces of Murder, by Agatha Christie

I can rarely pass up the opportunity to browse through books that are just sitting around.  When I was out visiting my dad a few weekends ago, he had to take a phone call, so I took the opportunity to peruse through the leather-bound books he keeps on display in his living room.  Besides all the Homer, Dickens, and Plato, there are some more readable books in his collection, and I gravitated towards the Agatha Christies.  Having read Murder on the Orient Express, but little else of Christie’s, I wanted to see if she was just as good of a teller of tales when you don’t know who the killer was.  This experiment manifested itself with a collection of her books in a single volume – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, and Death on the Nile.  The genius of the publisher in choosing these particular stories didn’t become clear until I had finished the entire volume.  And here’s why…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic ‘who-done-it’ tale.  The main character, James Sheppard, the town’s doctor, is called in to help a family discover who it was that killed their patriarch.  Assisted by Hercule Poirot, Sheppard is introduced to all the characters in the play, observes their motives, and does a thorough examination of the crime scene.  Fitting all the puzzle pieces together, we finally learn who the killer is in the last pages of the last chapter.  The reveal is exactly how you might expect it to go down – the intrepid investigator (Poirot) calls all the suspects together after dinner in the drawing room, and makes certain shocking revelations. Am I going to tell you who done it?  Of course not!  That’s half the fun!  I will say, however, that because the reveal only happens in the last pages, it is quite a slog getting through this one.

However, this lagging method of story telling is not repeated in And Then There Were None.  I was actually familiar with this story, though I didn’t know it until a certain poem was used in the tale – this is what is often referred to as ‘the Ten Little Indians’ story.  I first became familiar with it through the John Cussack movie Identity (which is an awesome flick, btw).  This story takes a different approach from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – in it, all the characters are invited to an island retreat by a mysterious stranger… then they start dropping dead.  The mystery for the reader is in not only trying to figure out how the guests are all connected, but also who the murderer is.  We get some clues from the poem itself, but the entire thing isn’t quite revealed until the epilogue.  Lots of twists and turns, and lots of fun!

The next part of this compellation, Witness for the Prosecution, is a complete departure from the first two in this volume.  It’s a short story about a man following the trail of evidence for his client in en effort to get him out of a murder conviction.  While it is fun, and there’s a great ‘gotchha!’ reveal at the end, I don’t have much of an impression of this one.  I was suffering from a book hangover from And Then There Were None, so don’t think I fully appreciated the nuances of this read.  (For those who need a definition, a book hangover is when you’re still immersed in the world and doings of your last books, and are unable to get you mind wrapped around you new book.)

Finally, we come to one of Christie’s flagship tales, Death on the Nile.  This is another Hercule Poirot tale, but one in which the investigator plays a major role.  The story is split into two – the introductions to all the characters take place in Europe, where we meet the main plot movers of Lynette, Simon and Jacqueline.  Simon and Jacqueline are engaged until Simon meets Lynette, falls in love, throws over Jacqueline, and marries Lynette.  This drives Jacqueline a little crazy, and she follows the newlyweds around Europe and into Egypt on their honeymoon as part of a ploy to make them regret screwing her over.  We’re also introduced to several characters that have close connection with Lynette, and other who have no connections…  I was starting to think that this would be like Murder on the Orient Express, where everyone was connected somehow, and it was Poirot’s job to figure out how to reveal a murderer.  But, that wasn’t the case.

The actual murder on the Nile doesn’t happen until well past the half-way mark of the book, and with such a large cast of characters, I wasn’t sure who was going to bite it until the deed was done (though I had my suspicions).  Since the victim isn’t clear until well into the plot, the culprits are hard to guess at.  But, the final reveal (after Poirot sloughs away all the extra chaff of the side-mysteries that have been unfolding on the boat), is well worth the read.  I think I liked Orient better, but this one was a wicked read too.

So, presented in my volume of Christie tales were four stories, all with different plot structures and dénouements.  What this compellation did was show the versatility of Christie as an author, and the range of her skills.  It also shows how influential she was on the modern literary mystery-scape.  It can’t be ignored that many of the devises she used show up in mystery stories by current authors, in contemporary movies, and on our TV screens regularly.  Christie not only left us a large collection of literary works, but she was also a major contributor to our cultural zeitgeist.

Final verdict?  Read Christie.  She’s a great writer, and an important part of our shared experiences.  While some of her stories are stronger than others, they all have something to add to a reader’s personal experience.  I fully advocate that Agatha Christie become one of your go-to mystery writers.  

(** While I’m sure it would be hard to find/order, for clarity’s sake, my volume of Christie stories is called Masterpieces of Murder, by Agatha Christie, and was published by the International Collectors Library from Garden City, New York in 1977.)

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Author review on J.K. Rowling

So this is a post that I’ve thinking about writing (and writting about writting) for some time.  With J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy coming out this month, I wanted to write up an author’s review on her first (massive) contribution to literature before she begins her next chapter.  (Word play!)  I’ve said it more than once - J.K. Rowling is one of the cleverest women out there, and I’ll tell you why that’s my impression of her….

By now, we all know the story of J.K. Rowling.  Unceremoniously dumped by the father of her children, Rowling was living in a precarious financial position.  In order to make ends meet (and I suspect, recover some confidence), she started writing about a boy whom she had been thinking of for some time – Harry Potter.  The rest, as they say, is history.  The first three HP books were released in the UK to some acclaim, but it wasn’t until the third that the series started getting traction in North America (at least, that’s my impression of the situation).  However, once they broke on this side of the Atlantic, the HP series quickly became a global phenomenon and Rowling became filthy stinking rich.

A word on the books themselves.  The Harry Potter series, for those of you living under a rock, is a set of seven books that trace the school years of Harry Potter.  Harry’s parents were killed when he was just a baby, and he was sent to live with his mother’s sister and her family.  Turns out, Harry’s parents were killed by a wizard who was looking to become ruler of the magical society which exists just below the surface of our own society.  The books cover various adventures of Harry and his friends, but they all contribute to the larger story of the return of this evil magician, and Harry’s fight to stop him.  

Now, when you read that without the context of the books, it sounds silly.  But it isn’t.  This is the first piece of evidence I have to support the fact that Rowling is a wily genius.  She has taken a thoroughly ridiculous concept, one which adults could easily laugh off, and turned it into some of the best written plots, most thoroughly developed settings, and highly engaging characters that the literary tradition has seen in generations.  And she’s consistent.  Book one is just as engaging and just as high-quality as book seven.  

This arc of quality has a lot to do with my second point of why this woman’s smarts should be studies by book-scientists.  Before she started writing book one, she (claims) she knew where book seven was going to end.  Genius!  Over seven books, there are at least 3,000 (maybe 4k) pages of plot development that have to happen.  The fact that she planned out how she was going to get from page 1 to page 3,500, how she was going to develop her characters, how she was going to create her world, shows just how brilliant this woman is.  Want an example of how horribly wrong things can go when you don’t plan out your end game?  Twilight.  ‘Nough said.

This arc of quality also allows for the reader to grow up with Harry.  Let me explain that statement.  In book one, we’re introduced to Harry at age 10.  His concerns are that of a 10 year-old; does he look silly with this hair cut, will he make friends at his new school, the world will cease to exist if he doesn’t pitch in and help?  (Okay, that last one might sound a little dramatic, but all kids seem to think they play a huge part in history – that fact that Harry actually does in his world isn’t the point here.)  In the next book, Rowling ratchets things up a notch – those concerns are still there, but now Harry is playing with a bit more fire, and things are starting to get a bit darker.  Cut to book seven where beloved characters are dropping dead left and right.  The genius of Rowling is that she’s written books that grow-up and mature, much like her readers.  By the end of the series, at 17, Harry is on the cusp of becoming a man, and has to make choices that really do result in a level of maturity that takes him into full-blown adulthood.

Next piece of evidence: the movies.  No shit.  The books made Rowling a household name – the movies made her rich like Midas; everything HP touched turned to gold.  Opening box offices for the HP movies always won at least the first weekend, and consistently won the first few.  The flicks played in theaters for months, then were released VOD or on DVD.  By a twist of fait (which Rowling obviously had nothing to do with), the movies were also released throughout the introduction of Blu-Ray, so Warner Bros (and Rowling) were able to double-dip on the video sales.  Undoubtedly though, Rowling’s ability to sell the movie right and maintain the level of control over the material she did proves her wily-ness.

How do I know she had a high level of control in brining her books to the silver screen?  Well now, that brings me to my next piece of evidence: the title of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The seventh and final book of the series builds on the discovery in the sixth book of the existence of the horcruxes created by the evil wizard to ensure his immortality (again, see point one – it’s more amazing than it sounds).  By all rights, the seventh book should have been titled HP and the Deathly Horcruxes: Shit’s about to get real, people!  But, she didn’t go there.  Instead, she chose to name the book for a new sub-plot story line that was introduced.  Why?  I think it’s because she knew that a two hour movie was never going to do justice to the type of ending her books needed to see on film.  By naming the book after an easily droppable plot point (and, I think the screen-play writers could have easily glossed over it in favour of the big finish that the over-arching story has), she ensured that there was no way in hell her characters were going to get short-shrift from Hollywood.  And it worked.  Warner Bros decided to split the final movie in two, and the edit job makes it clear they should be watched back-to-back without so much as a bathroom break in between.  J.K. Rowling, in an effort to protect her characters (since this last book was written after the movies had gone into production), named the book in such a way that guaranteed Warner Bros couldn’t cheep out on the film franchises’ ending.  Genius!

And, speaking of franchises… This broad knows how to ride a gravy train.  The books would probably have set her and her children up financially for life.  The movies are going to make sure that her kids and their kids get to go to really good schools and live in really nice houses for ever and ever.  The tie-in books, board games, and amusement park are enough to ensure that in six or seven generations, the Rowling decedents will still have enough money to cover up a ‘suspicious death’ (Kennedy-style).  Yes, she created a whole host of indelible characters, plot-lines and imaginary worlds, and yes, she deserves to get whatever she can out of that, but at a certain point, you have to ask: when is enough enough?  (I will take this opportunity to caution Rowling – please don’t head into George Lucas territory.  No one wants to see Harry Potter and the Crystal Scull, or in 30 years, the re-release of the HP movies “now in 3-D, with special effects!”  Know when to say no, I beg you.)

Finally, the last point in my litany of examples that prove Rowling is the smartest and wiliest author the world has ever know – The Casual Vacancy.  This woman could have sat back and rested on her laurels for life.  There was no reason she ever needed to put pen to paper again.  She could have ridden the HP train into the grave, and I don’t think anyone would have asked if that was the best of ideas.  But, Rowling has decided to try her hand at writing once more.  She fully acknowledged when this book deal was announced that it might not live up to her HP reputation, and that it would be a complete departure from what the world knows of her.  And she did it anyway.  If you think The Casual Vacancy isn’t going to rock the number one spot on all the best seller lists from now until Christmas, you’re out of your mind.  And, the funny thing is, Rowling can drop a literary duce on those pages, and she’s still going to make a killing, because everyone loves Harry Potter so damned much, we’re all waiting with baited breath for her next literary efforts.  Again, I call genius on this chick.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my evidence for why we need to consider J.K. Rowling to be the most brilliant of authors.  From humble beginnings, Rowling has managed to create an empire and a future for herself from thin air – one might almost say, what she did was magic.  (Again, word play!)

Update: Check out my review on The Casual Vacancy here!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chapter’s Indigo List of 50 Books that Changed Our Lives

I clearly feel no need to finish something before I start something new, so I’m adding yet another reading challenge to my list(s)….

This is the Chapter’s Indigo List of 50 Books that Will Change Your Life:

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel, by Kurt Vonnegut
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
A Brief History of Time: And Other Essays, by Stephen Hawking
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in The West, by Cormac Mccarthy
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
The Trial, by Franz Kafka
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel, by Milan Kundera
The Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Dubliners, by James Joyce
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Golden Bowl, by Henry James
Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond
Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion
On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
My Best Stories, by Alice Munro
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje
Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth
Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: A Novel, by Haruki Murakami

Challenge….. ACCEPTED!

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Monday, September 3, 2012

Horns, by Joe Hill

Hooking a reader is alllll about the first chapter of a book.  I realized this, and developed a new appreciation for that fact while reading Horns, by Joe Hill.  Hill’s opening chapter is only two (short) paragraphs.  In it, his protagonist wakes up after a hard night of drinking to discover he has horns growing from his forehead.  He promptly pees on himself.  Because, wouldn’t you?

Horns is the story of Ig (short for Ignatius), who, one year after the brutal murder of the love of his life, is unable to get his act together.  Unfortunately, Ig is the prime suspect in the case, and has never been cleared.  In a small town, that means a lot.  On the morning Ig wakes up to his horns, he starts on a path to closure.  The horns, while at first shocking, prove to be useful – when he’s around, people confess things to Ig and, when Ig touches them, he can see their thoughts.  All of this adds up to the tools to solve a murder.  I won’t give away much more of the plot; I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.

There are several interesting dynamics to this book that I want to touch on though.

The first is the imagery of the horns.  They are everywhere, and not just the kind you see on Ig’s forehead.  Ig’s father and brother are musicians who specialize the in the trumpet (or, a horn).  Ig wanted so bad to be part of this tradition as a kid, but asthma kept it from him.  The other way this imagery comes into play is the cuckold’s horns.  The reader is never quite sure (until the very end) who is cuckolding who, and how serious each case is.

The second aspect of Horns that I really enjoyed was the play on Ig’s name.  It’s so close to the term ‘Id’ that the links can’t be ignored.  According to Sigmund Freud (who developed the Id-Ego-Super Ego theory), the Id “knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality.” “It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality … We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations.... It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle…”  This perfectly describes Ig following the appearance of his horns.  He is in chaos himself, he takes pleasure in bringing chaos to those around him, and he develops his own morality structure.  And he does all this while being perfectly rational, and with a sense of humour.  Hats off to the author for this dynamic.

Finally, coming from this link to the Id, and Ig’s own action, this book raised a lot of questions about what is good and what is evil.  On the surface, Ig is a demon, if not a devil.  But he’s only trying to find peace in his own life.  Often times, he pulls people back from the brink, or pushes them over it when they deserve it.  Ig is operating within a morality structure of his own making, but it’s one of a survivor, and I couldn’t really begrudge him that.  While from the outside Ig might appear evil, in fact I think he’s probably one of the purest goods in the book – there are multiple characters with whom he interacts that would better wear the black hats of a bad guy than Ig.  This left me asking myself, am I rooting for the Devil to win?  And I guess I was.  It’s an interesting dynamic that Hill played with, and one I commend him for.

So, final verdict?  I totally recommend you read this book.  I’ll be going out looking for Hill’s first novel (this is only his second), and I’m adding him to my list of authors to look for during my strolls through Chapters.  I can’t speak highly enough of the characters, plot and writing style to do this books justice, so I think you should all go out and discover it for yourselves!  

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Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift

**Spoiler Warning!  I’m not holding back on plot details – you’ve had 300 years to read this sucker.  And at least one episode of Wishbone.  You’ve been warned.**

I’m always amazed to read ‘classical’ literature and to learn that it’s not what I was expecting, even though I had heard about the story a million times.  That was the case with my last read, Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift.  I think it’s fair to say that we have all, at one time or another, heard of Gulliver and his adventures.  However, how much do you really know about them?

A brief overview of the plot: Lemuel Gulliver is a ship’s surgeon who sets out to sea only to be shipwrecked.  As the sole survivor, he wakes up on an island inhabited be people that stand no higher than six inches or so.  Gulliver spends several months as a giant amongst the population.  Gulliver’s next stop is to a land where he stands no more than six inches tall to the other inhabitants.  Next, he visits a place where the capital city is a floating island and where all the male inhabitants are philosophers of one stripe or another (it’s a population that literally lives with its head in the clouds, whether they live on the floating island or on the ground).  The last of Gulliver’s destinations is an island where horses are the top species and human serve them. 

Now, for all these adventures, I was only really aware of the first!  I was a little surprised when Gulliver was leaving Lilliput in the first quarter of the book!  Regardless, I got over the confusion, and enjoyed the rest of Gulliver’s travels.  Swift, being a master satirist (just check out A Modest Proposal for one of the best written pieces of satire in Western literature), used his protagonist’s travels to comment on his own world and the realities he observed therein.

The dichotomy between Lilliput and Brobdingnag (where Gulliver is a giant vs. where he lives amongst giants) is obvious.  To go from one extreme to another is shocking for Gulliver and the reader.  In the first instance, Gulliver helps to protect the Liliputians and does them many great favours because of his size; however, in Brobdingnag he’s seen as only good for entertaining the king and his court.  It’s a subtle comment on the people of his own time, if you ask me (more on that below).

In Gulliver’s next stop, there is also a dichotomy, but one that is less obvious.  In this case, the comparison is between England and Laputa.  In the city-states of Laputa, and on the floating island, the men are all engaged in deep thought, so much so that they employ servants to bash them about the head and face to get their attention when someone is speaking to them.  They are ruminating on a great number of things – how to improve agriculture, how to cure illnesses, or how to strengthen the government.  For all these thoughts, however, the practice fails.  The comparison between Gulliver’s own land and Laputa is evident; the philosophers of Laputa spend so much time in thought, that they pay almost no attention to anything else, be it the execution of their plans, or their wives.  It’s a damning comment on the state of affairs in England, as perceived by Swift.

Gulliver’s final stop, in Houyhnhnms, is perhaps the most biting of all his satirical comments.  In this land, the horses are the top species, and they are served by human-like creatures, the Yahoos.  Yahoos are best described to the modern reader as feral humans; they have all the characteristics of humans, but there is an animal quality to them.  Compared against the noble horse, the Yahoos seem to be filthy and mean creatures, and not deserving of sympathy.  Gulliver, living amongst the horses because he was able to learn their language, quickly disengages from these human-like creatures, going so far as to wear their skins as hides, much like he would any other leather.

The running commonality through all these voyages is Swift’s observations on the flaws of his own people in early 18th century England.  Whether he’s drawing a stark comparison between these new lands and his own, or aligning them to one another, it’s clear that Swift finds very little to commend his own society.  And, as with most satirists, he does it with a deft hand – you have to know what you’re looking for to see it.

This thought raised an interesting question for me.  When this book was first published in 1726, the reading audience was far less savvy that we are today.  This was an era when the common people were able to afford to purchase luxury items (such as fictional literature), thanks to the serialization of stories and the growth of the middle class; the Empire was starting to flourish and stories were getting back to the mother-country about the explorations that were being undertaken for king and country; and the concept of the ‘other’ was taking hold in the minds of the populace – that is, the understanding of something like them, but wholly different, appearing to alter their world view.  All this led me to ask – how many people thought Swift’s work was the true account of a world traveler?  In an age before TV and the internet, the only way to explore the world was through travel literature.  With one satirical piece among so many sincere publications, I’m willing to bet Swift fooled more than a few.  And I’m sure he’s still smiling about that.

So, final verdict?  Read it.  It’s a piece of the Western literary tradition, and a substantial piece of the zeitgeist.  You might, like me, have been wholly ignorant of the true scope of the story, so I highly recommend you get yourself up to speed.  There are passages which wax and wane on the morality of the era, and some of the satire is probably lost if you aren’t up on the 18th century British social-political scene, so I think it’s fair to say that this is one book where an abridged version might be the best bet for the majority of readers.  However, I do strongly urge you all to check it out.

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The Museum of Civilization, Gatineau

Okay, so this is an odd review.  It’s not really a book review, but as I spent so much time reading while visiting the Museum of Civilization this weekend, it only seemed appropriate to write up some notes on the exhibits I went to see.  Living in the same city as the Museum means that I’m already familiar with the permenant exhibits (I am a history nerd, after all), so I rarely get over to Gatineau unless there is an interesting special/travelling exhibit.  That was the case this weekend when my Dad and I went to check out three of the four special exhibits: Dieu(x)/God(s), A Queen and Her Country, and Designed for a Queen.

 Dieu(x)/God(s) is a comparative exhibit about the world’s major religions.  This is a travelling exhibit with stops planned for Belgium and Quebec City.  With special attention paid to deities (including modern ‘gods’ such as Mao and Elvis), the life cycle, places of worship, the afterlife, and communication with the divine, the exhibit presents an even-handed overview of the world of faith.  The atmosphere is exactly how you would expect it to be – the lights are dim, and there is a constant refrain of religious sounds playing in the background (which is calming at first, but irritating after about 20 minutes).  

I did have some problems with the entire affair.  The first was presented up-front, just as you come through the door.  The creators of the exhibit clearly and plainly state that they are leaving all historical context out of their displays.  Okay, I get it – religion is a hot-topic issue and a museum display could go horribly wrong very quickly.  However, without a historical context, I feel robbed.  There is something to be said for stressing the historical links between the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths; there is a need to acknowledge that all religions borrow from that which came before; and not mentioning (at least) the historical impact of regional on societies around the world (be it violent or peaceful) is a cop-out. 

This lack of history is also seen in the artifacts that are put on display.  Few of them are older than 100 years, and most have been created within the last 50.  I suppose this plays into the creators’ intention to leave the history out of it, but given that the Museums could pull some amazing pieces from its own collection, I’m at a loss to understand why so little effort was made to get some older examples of artifacts.  

Finally, I have a problem that I’ve had with the Museum before – the exhibit was poorly laid out.  You walk into the main exhibit right into a circular display on deities.  Off that display are multiple rooms, but there is no clear indication of the path you should follow.  The result is that you backtrack on yourself past empty hallways between the rooms with nothing to keep your attention.  Wow, that reads like a comment on faith and religion itself – was that what the exhibit was going for?  If so, they should know that atheists/agnostics aren’t gonna like it.  PS. I didn’t like it.

Luckily, the final portion of the exhibit speaks to the commonalities between all religions – they have it set up so you exit through the gift shop.  That right there is a perfect commentary on religion.

While Dieu(x)/God(s) has been the major special exhibit at the Museum this summer, the other big draw (for me, at least), was the special attention being paid to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  British history nerd that I am, I was thrilled.  The special exhibit A Queen and Her Country is a charming little collection of items that celebrate the links between Canada and the Queen – specifically her coronation, her royal tours, and her role as head of state.  The pieces on display are the common souvenir kitsch that is produced for royal fans (plates, mugs, match boxes), with some additional pieces of more weight (like a dress she wore at Rideau Hall, and gifts made to her by her Canadian subjects).  

The centerpiece of the entire display, however, is a 12 minute film showing clips of her visits to Canada.  Earlier shots are black and white and without sound, but quickly they turn into a young Elizabeth extolling the virtues of being on Canadian soil in French, her commenting on her pride in being ‘Canadian,’ and her participation in major pieces of Canadian history (such as the Montreal Olympics, the Meech Lake talks, and the signing of the Constitution).  For a fan of the monarchy, it’s a lovely exhibit, and my only complaint is that it was too small!

Finally, the last exhibit I wanted to see was Designed for a Queen, at the Canadian Postal Museum.  The CPM is conveniently located in the Museum of Civilization, because I don’t think it could support itself.  As a kid, this was my least favorite portion of the Museum of Civ, mainly because I that I had to get through it; and once that I was done, I would be into nirvana – the Children’s Museum, which is nothing but brightly coloured interactive fun… I digress – back to stamps!  

The Designed for a Queen exhibit was even more disappointing that the God(s) exhibit.  On-line, Designed for a Queen was pimped as a philiatial celebration of the Queen from the nations of the Commonwealth.  What it was was five panels of stamps that were spaced rather far apart.  For a queen that used to represent an Empire that spread across the globe, I think the Museum could have done more to gather a larger collection.  It was fun seeing stamps issued by the Falklands, the British Indian Ocean Territories, and the British Antarctic Region, but there were few stamps from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa – these are nations with long histories with the Queen, and I refuse to believe they have never issued celebratory stamps.  Be it from a lack of space, or just a miss-conceived display, Designed for a Queen left much to be desired.

Well, that was my day at the Museum!  History nerd that I am, I always feel recharged after something like that, and I fully enjoyed it.  It’s been so long since I was over there, that it has me thinking I should go back and brows through the permanent exhibits to.  It’s a lesson to all of us not to ignore the opportunities we have in our own back yard just because we aren’t tourists.  Take advantage of what you have in your own home towns and explore!