Thursday, December 31, 2009

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

Art is one of those funny abstract concepts that resist definition. We want art to be something grand, something glorious, something that no one but an artist can create. We want art to be something so simple that it cannot help but be greater than its parts -- brighter than just paint on canvas, words on paper, movements of dancers. Yet we want art to be something bigger than ourselves, something that has touched the divine in humanity and brought pieces of it back to the world on slabs of stone.

And yet, we cannot say what, exactly, makes art art.

Whatever art may be, though, I know it includes The History of Love. This is the kind of book that inspires me to write, to create, to find that spark in me and share it with the world. It is beautiful. It is masterful. But it does not stand apart from those who read it. It is not elusively aloof or ineffable. It touched me deep. And that, more than any definition of style or technique or category, is art.
And at the eleventh hour, I conclude the inaugural year of Alone at the Microphone. No stragglers left over for the new year, none left behind to be filed in the wrong section of Blogger's archive. (Well, except for one. But it has good reason.)

Thank you to all of you who read, follow, share, comment on, enjoy, and support this blog. It's been a project good for my soul. And I'll keep it up so long as I keep reading. But knowing people are out there in several states and countries checking in, wondering what I have to say or what I'm reading... well, that's what really keeps it going.

Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr. May you find at least one book this year that changes your world.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The First Law, by Joe Abercrombie

In the post on The Name of the Wind, I discussed the RPG test for certain stories. And I read this trilogy by Joe Abercrombie just because the commenter Ultrablam wrote, in response to that post:

"Well, you've brushed me off a couple of times about it, presumably because it represents fifty-eight thousand tons of reading in paperback, but if you want fiction that passes the RPG test with flying colors, you've just gotta read The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie."

Now, book recommendations are often like life advice from your great aunt. But Ultrablam, who is writing his own RPG (which you can read about here), knows what he's talking about. So when he said these books passed his own RPG test, I listened.

I'm not in the business of reviewing books here, but these three -- The Blade Itself, When They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings -- are awesome.

Because of how I found out about this trilogy, the RPG test was constantly on my mind when I wasn't reading them. They were too good to think about anything else while reading. But I had to discuss with Ultrablam why he thought these books would ruin the curve for all the other books taking the RPG test. Yes, they were awesome. Especially for the characters, which, well, make an RPG what it is. But the stories themselves would, in my opinion, make for poor games for any group larger than two players, simply because the characters spend so much time apart. The number one rule in my RPG experience is: Never. Split. Up. Not only do bad things happen, but the rest of your gaming crew gets left out of huge chunks of the action.

Turns out Ultrablam's personal RPG test is different than mine. Where I look at whether the story itself could have been born of a group of geeks sitting around a table eating chips and fruit snacks, Ultrablam looks at whether the world of the story -- the geography, the cultures, the populace, the politics -- would be conducive to a good RPG.

In that model, The First Law would make for a kick-ass game.

I'm not revising my model for evaluating certain books for RPG quality. But the theory is under evaluation. Because as a role-player, all I ever have to focus on is the development of characters and interactions within a given world. It's the easy part. But the great GMs of the world (like Ultrablam himself) have to be the Universe. They have to create the world for the characters to move around in. And that lends itself to a whole different style of evaluation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson

Just as Morris Bird III wouldn't take too long to voice his thoughts, neither (for once) will I.

Sometimes it takes a kid to tell us what we already know, but are all too often sure to forget or to ignore. Be brave. Be courageous. Make mistakes. Make big old, crazy, why-the-hell-not mistakes, because they might not be mistakes after all.

And life sure wouldn't be much of a Big Adventure if we didn't take that rebellious step once in a while.

Irish Renaissance, by Richard Fallis

Once again (how does this seem to happen?), I have fallen behind on my book-blogging duties. So for this book, at least, my comments will be cut short. It only becomes a duty when I fall behind and the unwritten posts hanging over my head become a stress. So out with the old, in with the new!

Irish Renaissance marks the end of the Ireland-themed run of books. I'll be reading more, without doubt, but without the feeling of necessity that came with the Mitchell application.
When all the history of Ireland and Irish literature is put aside, when the politics of the authors and the publishers and the theaters is sifted through, what comes through is that the Irish have a simply incredible collective literary consciousness.

And I love its style.

If you talked to me at all during that application process -- perhaps it came through in some of my posts, too -- you heard about how much I was impressed with and moved by Irish lit. Its simplistic-seeming yet incredibly elaborate technique. The concentration of politicization and opinion on the island, and the way it burst forth in words. The way movements created new styles of writing, of expression, of creativity.

So the title of Irish Renaissance is far from presumptuous. The book explores in very great but still comprehensible detail this unique conjunction of time, place, and spirit that has given the world an Irish voice.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Irish Stories & Tales, edited by Devin A. Garrity

The short story really is a beautiful art form. But I've already said so enough on this blog.

Almost each of these stories amazed me for being at the same time remarkably simple and notably complex. You get out of these stories what you bring to them -- and the more you understand the social situations in Ireland at the time of writing, the more import these stories carry.

I wonder, though. What would Mark Twain have written had he been Irish?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

I wrote before that there was going to be a theme to the books I was reading. That theme should be pretty clear. (Ignore the Palahniuk book.) Well, the great big reason was that I had applied for the Mitchell scholarship to Ireland, and I decided I better be damn well prepared if I should get an interview.

I didn't.

And that's ok. It's always somewhat crushing to put so much effort into a single channel, only to have it come to naught. But the Mitchell people sent out the nicest form rejection letter I've ever read, and were very prompt about the whole process -- all of which, as an applicant, is incredibly well appreciated.

The thing is, I don't feel as though the whole application and preparation process came to nothing. I'm still considering one of the graduate programs I discovered. I've read more Irish literature, and more about Irish literature, in the last couple months than I ever had before, and there's some fascinating stuff. So at the very least I've discovered a love of a national literature that I had not yet explored.

Or, it might yet be that this process will change my life in more concrete ways.

It could be that I end up applying for, and being accepted to, this graduate program, and I up and move to Ireland. Or it could be that this literature affects my writing, and even that it affects my life.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the first James Joyce work of any length I've read. It certainly warrants future readings, as I'm certain there are layers only discoverable after the initial once-through. I can understand why Joyce is so often labeled the best or most significant writer in the English language in the twentieth century; but, what makes a writer so good in my book is that he speaks to me.

And Joyce does. I don't dog-ear pages. But I did one in this book. The page with the line: "The end he had been born to serve yet did not see [...] beckoned to him once more and a new adventure was about to be opened to him."

I don't know what I'm doing with my life. Where I'm going. What my purpose is. Nor do I think there is, or should be, only one answer. But maybe some new adventure is about to be opened to me. Or maybe I'm about to open it.

Maybe it will have something to do with Ireland, or with Irish literature. Maybe not. But either way, Portrait is the kind of book I will carry in my soul wherever or however I end up.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk

Welcome to Palahniuk as the first duplicated author on the blog! The first post, about Choke, dealt largely with sex. And, well... there's really no way around having the same focus again this time.

In short, Snuff is the tale of three dudes and a talent wrangler backstage at the set of the biggest gang-bang porn shoot of all time. And a lot of what you get is just about what you might expect from such a plot. Actually, the single most scathing book review I have ever read was about this novel. I'm going to try not to repeat what Ellman says, and only partly because of her extreme distaste of the book.

But I can't avoid it completely, because I had settled on my topic before rereading the review. Ellman makes a point, which she words more eloquently than I would, that the issue with Snuff is not the subject matter -- I actually think that for those not morally against pornography the premise of this book has a good deal of promise, and is certainly uncharted literary territory -- but the way in which Palahniuk handles the topic. The premise could have opened the book to all kinds of questions or examinations of modern sexuality, the role of porn in society, positions (no pun intended*) of men and women, gender studies, interactions between 600 horny men in a single room, humans as animals. It could have... but it didn't.

At least, if it did, Palahniuk buries these examinations beneath crassness and trivia to where no one would want to dig them out. My opinion: his big mistake was writing from the perspective of the three male characters during the film shoot. Mark Twain's flourish of dialect this was not -- and, although I haven't ready Ulysses, from what I gather about it the writing style of Snuff wasn't exactly on a par with James Joyce's stream of consciousness. In-time thoughts from characters can read like a character's mind, and that's ok. But they shouldn't read like they came from the author's mind, and he wrote them down and never edited them again. The almost amateur feel to the prose, and the mental capacities of his three "actors," prohibit any of the good stuff (literarily, not pornographically) from coming forth -- if, in fact, any of the good stuff was conceived** of in the first place.

All that said, apparently I still enjoyed the book enough to finish reading it. And it's certainly an interesting read -- although believe me, it wouldn't be in the top 10,000 books on Amazon had it been a debut novel.

Or by any other author.
*Ok, I lied. It was intended.
**Totally intended.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ireland: A Short History, by Joseph Coohill

I consider myself a fairly well-educated person. And I recognize that in the island of Ireland, there is the Republic of Ireland and there is Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. So when I met a group of Irish people -- that is, from the Republic -- about this time last year, and I wanted to find out where exactly they were from, I thought it reasonable to ask whether their hometown was in north Ireland or south Ireland.

Apparently that's the wrong question to ask a group of Irish people.

I caught the blunt end of a diatribe about the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and how the Republic is certainly NOT to be distinguished as "south Ireland," and so on. In vain I attempted to explain that I simply wondered where, geographically, on the island they were from, and that my cardinal directions were in no way political differentiations.

Eventually I patched things over, but I learned how -- or at least how not -- to ask that one question of a person from the island of Ireland.

I have my reasons for choosing this book to read right now; same goes for many of the likely upcoming books. If those reasons develop into anything, I'll certainly mention something here. But even without said reasons, this book was a good introduction to the major themes of Irish history -- which, as with most good history, granted insight into the psyche of the Irish and Northern Ireland people as a whole. More than many western countries in the last two centuries, Ireland has had to deal not only with war, colonization, religious conflict, and terrorism, but with its very identity. Being Irish does not simply mean being born in Ireland -- true, granted, of any nationality. But the question of Irish identity carries with it heavy questions of religion, of opinions about the English crown, of how one reads the history of this small island.

Many Americans, in my experience, relate to the Irish; whether because of immigrant backgrounds or whether because of Saint Patrick's Day, I can't say. But in general, our level of ignorance about our closest European neighbors (does Iceland really count?) and their incredibly relevant social and political history is fairly shocking, considering how much their history since the founding of the United States has actually affected America. Even just getting an idea of the themes of Irish history would help prevent people like me from loading an innocent-enough question and shooting it off to the wrong Irishman.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

With certain books, isn't it a shame that you can only once read it for the first time?

For me, that once with Everything Is Illuminated was more than three years ago. I remember thinking then that I had experienced one of those moments that can never be duplicated. This would be, I thought then, a book that sticks with me.

And I was right. It stuck. And the moment could not be duplicated -- but really, this re-reading was just as wonderful, if not in the same ways, as the first time I read the book.

Foer's story (or really, three stories) isn't about what happens to the story, although there are some parts where you can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness or the awkwardness. No, the stories are about what happens to the characters, and what happens is just as often internal as otherwise. Maybe none of the characters get where they wanted to go... and maybe none of them really get anywhere. But that's what makes this book so wrenching, and not in a they-shot-Old-Yeller kind of way, and so beautiful.

I'm glad I ordered a hardcover copy. This is one of those books I will read again -- more than I already have -- especially when I need inspiration as a writer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I'm a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson

God, it's nice to know that not all my experiences living in Germany were entirely unique.

I'm not the first person to say this, and probably not the first person to say it like this (so apologies to anyone I'm paraphrasing or unintentionally quoting), but it's true that the best way to notice, to understand, and to appreciate one's homeland is to leave it for a while.

My year abroad cannot pretend to match Bryson's twenty, but we've both had the singular experience of living abroad -- not merely traveling there, or staying for a while, but living there -- and returning home again. And while living abroad was (and will again be?) incomparably valuable to the development of my world view, of my self, of my intellect, and of my excessive collection of ticket stubs, and while I would never trade my time outside the United States for, honestly, anything, there is just something so darn special about home.

Sometimes, it takes leaving to fully realize that fact.

For me, home means ice in my drinks and free refills on my water. It means not having to think through how to say something before opening my mouth. It means people wear deodorant and change their clothes. It means the pillows are a reasonable size, and it means that customer service isn't a luxury, and if it's an inconvenience, well, that's not shown.

But just because home is special doesn't mean it's perfect. Home now also means an extreme lack of usable public transportation. It means having to tip twenty percent because servers make crap wages. It means buying food in bulk, and probably with more preservatives. It means a daily routine always threatens, because each day isn't a linguistic or cultural challenge.

Whoever said you can't ever go home again was wrong. But just like you can't step into the same river twice, home won't be the same when you come back -- because both you and home will be different. Or at least they ought to be, because living abroad and coming home isn't just for personal growth. It also means seeing the best of the world (for me, peanut butter, and for Bryson, garbage disposals) right up against some parts of the world that could, and should, be a whole lot better.

Recognizing that is one thing. Doing something about it... well, that's part of what intercultural and international exchanges -- of ideas, of people, of concepts, of worldviews -- is all about.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

I realize that I have developed an entirely new (to me) method for evaluating the books I read, particularly those with fantasy leanings, although certainly not exclusively. It’s a means of thinking about stories not in terms of whether or not they are good or bad, but in terms of categories that don’t necessarily suggest qualitative values.

My new approach: Would the story make a good RPG?

For the uninitiated, RPG stands for “role-playing game,” and not of the naughty bedroom variety. (I know you went there with it.) But yes, I play RPGs,* and while they involve sitting around a big table with lots of munchables and bags of dice (my bag’s a pretty blue velvety one), they don’t fit all the stereotypes attached to them by those who think RPGs are played in basements by nose-breathers.**

But that’s not the point. I’ve decided that there are two kinds of stories: those that would have been great RPGs, and those that would not.

The best RPG-type stories involve a central core of characters who are each involved in a majority of the action, preferably while together. The characters must bring some unique skills to bear in helpful situations, and ideally, each one must make at least one character-defining decision and/or action. (A lot of stories actually spawn RPGs because they would be so perfect to game out. See: George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and – yes, it’s television, but still – the Buffy series.)

And the non-RPG-type stories? They might involve fewer characters, or focus on one individual. That person might go through all the things that would make for a great RPG, if it weren’t for the fact that a one-person RPG just doesn’t work. Or they just aren’t fitting to the concept of an RPG. Seriously, who would want to play A Separate Peace: The Game?

The Name of the Wind is fun to read, and even though I clearly don’t know what’s to come in the subsequent books, I have to admit to being seized by the story. It’s a good book. But it would be a terrible RPG.

And my admittedly circuitous point here is that there exists no one mold for what makes a good story. Some of the best stories I’ve encountered in the last year and a half have come from my group of Scoobies,*** which is without a doubt why my brain now uses this method of evaluation. And most of the fantasy-type stories I’ve read or watched or role-played in that time have fit the RPG mold.

This one doesn’t fit. And yet, it’s still good. That notion doesn’t surprise me one tiny bit, but hey, it made me take notice.

*And yes, I am a HUGE NERD.
**Actually, we play on the top floor.
***A reduction of “Scooby Gang,” from the popular series of television shows featuring Scooby-Doo; in this case, my fellow RPGers.

Oh, and by the way: Friends should always warn friends that the book being lent is the only published installment in an unfinished trilogy before their friends start to read it. Because now I want to finish the story, and I’m stuck waiting. You know who you are.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, by Patricia C. Wrede

I've raised this point on this blog before, and I undoubtedly will again. But I think that, to a large extent, putting reader ages on books is a mistake.

And mostly, I think it's a mistake when a cap is put on the reading age. A starting age is, if nothing else, a good guideline, both for reading ability and for content. Even if some first-graders are reading at a college level, that doesn't mean they should start going through Stephen King novels or, heck, even John Irving books (let alone steamy Harlequin romances). The good thing, though, is that books aren't controlled in the same way movie theaters are (at least in theory). You don't need photo identification to read a book, and while parental approval might be nice when selecting advanced books, those age suggestions on the cover are just that -- suggestions.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (Dealing with Dragons, Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons) are labeled as young adult books, and I think that's probably a good starting point -- if kids are reading them to themselves. But I see no reason why younger children couldn't enjoy these (and other) books being read aloud to them, because they're just good stories. And even if the vocabulary or the sentence structure were a bit difficult (I don't think it is in these books, but hey, I'm sadly not a little kid anymore), who cares? How else are children going to improve their command of language?

But really, what age labeling of books does is turn away adult readers. Obviously not all of them, or else I wouldn't have read these books and they wouldn't have been recommended to me. But a lot of adults -- to be fair, maybe not so many of the adults who actually read books -- will be turned off, thinking such books to be below them or some such nonsense.

And sadly, often they are right. Perhaps I give young adults more credit than some of them deserve, but I think they can handle plot twists and red herrings and endings that aren't always neat and tidy. A lot of people -- adults both young and normal -- like surprises, like twists, like stories that resemble life just enough to make them real while still allowing for escapism. And too many young adult books don't allow for such flexibility.

The Chronicles are very good stories, and actually involve a fair amount of humor that adults might find funnier than children would, thanks to the juxtaposition of the fantasy realm with more modern-day concepts which are usually put forth by the characters themselves. But the books, like so many "young adult" works, could have benefited from a touch of uncertainty.

I hope you're reading this, all you young-adult-book authors out there...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

B Is For Beer, by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is older than I would have guessed him to be. I believe he's got a lot of words left in him, but I left this book on my shelf far too long without reading it out of some fear that I may not have the chance to read a new Tom Robbins book ever again.
I'm waiting for certain people -- if they haven't already -- to go up in arms about this book. Not because it's about beer, but because the cover proclaims it to be both a children's book and a book for children, and Gracie gets drunk enough to vomit on her sixth birthday, and there's apparently a Beer Fairy that kids might just find exciting enough to try and conjure. Despite Robbins' warnings that beer is not for children, and that the fairy most certainly will not visit other such children, some people won't get that this isn't even actually a children's book (although I can't say I'd be opposed to children reading it, or having it read to them).

But maybe I've misjudged the general, or if not general then at least common, American mindset. I also expected to hear uproar about Barack Obama meeting with people at the White House to discuss their differences over a beer, but apparently if there are people who would construe that to mean that Obama is promoting alcohol as a way to solve problems, then they are fairly quiet about it.

I just think that many Americans still have the same mindsets about alcohol and its consumption that led to Prohibition, and that I believe contribute (among, obviously, many other factors) to other alcohol-related issues. Part of that mindset is that beer, and other drinks, should be kept completely out of the sight and mind of children. Now I don't think we should be supplying our kiddos with booze. But I think they ought to see adults drinking responsibly and behaving responsibly, and to realize that alcohol is not something to hide. And part of that is acknowledging the presence and use of drinks, and even (gasp!) discussing them with children.

Not that Gracie's Uncle Moe goes about that the right way. But he's got the right idea. Beer can be (and usually is) a wonderful thing. And one (or three) ought to be enjoyed responsibly with this little book.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera

I'm going to miss picking up books in Europe. The secondhand stores are great -- thank you for this one, Oxfam of Dublin -- and in non-English-speaking countries, the selections are manageable. It's great to be back, but where do I start when I walk into a bookstore here? (Actually, most of the books I read for a while are likely to be borrowed -- those of you who have been giving me suggestions, care to pass along a copy for a while?)
A dear friend (who I've mentioned here before) recommended -- no, insisted -- that I read this book, and she stressed it more than just about any other book she's ever suggested to me. (And we've discussed a lot of books. Thanks for this one, C!) She writes about it briefly over on her blog, where she notes one of her favorite lines:

"The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered."

This book has a lot of ideas. My friend notes that Kundera's book is "Not a feel good reading, but one that makes you think and reconsider what you thought about coincidence and purpose." Which it definitely does. It would be hard to say that this book has any singular overriding idea -- and she really hits on one of the big ones -- but I'd have to say that it generally deals with "being" (duh), and how being is very much an individual experience. We can exist together, as neighbors, as lovers, as enemies, as pets and owners... but we cannot be together. Really, "we" cannot be. Only "I" can.

Being is something -- a burden, an experience, a journey, whatever -- that we must have alone, as individuals. Only "I" can fully understand "I's" being, and although that being is defined in large part by interactions with others, it's a very personal concept. Others can indeed unveil, uncover, and conquer part of the "I" (or they can try to), and that too is a large part of being -- revealing oneself to others, trying to protect oneself from others, and attempting to uncover the being of others. That's what allows us to exist with other people, and what makes being both light and utterly unbearable.
Really, this is one hell of a book. It's not meant for reading on the beach, and it's not much for a linear plot. But boy, it's good. Just don't let the discussion of Nietzsche in the first couple pages bog you down.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ring Goes Ever On: Proceedings of the Tolkien 2005 Conference, edited by Sarah Wells

This book doesn't count as one I've read. I don't own it. I've never held a copy of it. Hell, I've never seen a copy of it.

But I have read part of it, because I wrote part of it. And I'm putting it on this blog, because I think that's pretty darn cool.

These proceedings were a long time coming. The conference was in August 2005, and the proceedings weren't published until September 2008... although I didn't learn of it until recently.

I expect no one -- not even you diehard Tolkienists -- to buy this book, because frankly, it's expensive, even for a nerd. But feel free to go admire my name (not this name -- let's call it my "nom de milieu universitaire") on the author list or the contents page. (I wrote and presented the paper "Satan and The Silmarillion: John Milton's Angelic Decline in J.R.R. Tolkien's Melkor," so you can find it.)

It's definitely a special privilege to be listed with some of the Tolkien scholars on this list. So if anyone from the Tolkien Society or the Mythopoeic Society should read this, thank you once again for putting on such a great conference. And thank you for including me in the proceedings -- it's an honor I'm not likely to forget.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Bro Code, by Barney Stinson

Dude. This book is not only essential, it is legen...

... wait for it...

... wait for it...

... dary.

That is all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Yes, I finally read Cormac McCarthy. I don't know what took me so long.
What makes us human?

There's a million answers. And almost none of them satisfactory, definitely none of them comprehensive.

The better question might be, what makes you, as an individual, human? When you strip away all these things surrounding you, and not just the pesky things like cars and Nintendo and ethnic cuisine, but the big things like society and higher purpose, when those are eaten away like the grime on an old penny, what is left? What is there that makes us human when most of the things we use to define our humanity are no more?

Like a penny, are we completely pointless without civilization?

I don't know as The Road settles what we are when we have almost nothing left. But despite being absolutely post-apocalyptic in almost the scariest of ways, it gave me hope that there is something more to us than our strength in numbers. Hope that humanity is something intrinsic, something that still exists even when we no longer remember or care about our names, as long as we are willing to hold onto it.

Humanity will exist as long as there is an individual who refuses to let it go.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Other Hand, by Chris Cleave

This book was very well-written -- so well-written, in fact, that the ending could not match the buildup of the characters. I was disappointed with it; but, to be fair, I knew that there was probably no way the ending could satisfy me. Unless it involved some glorious act by Batman. (Seriously. He's in the book.)

But here's what I'm wondering (and this isn't a rhetorical question, a springboard off which I plan to jump into some diatribe or some cultural, philosophical musing; I really want to know what you think): Why must so many of our books, especially those considered "literary" or "good" books, deal with foreign cultures so extensively? Is there some reason that staying domestic (from an American perspective) isn't considered good enough?

Before I get jumped on, let me clarify: I don't think this is, in itself, a bad thing. I don't think that western, natively English-speaking cultures are in any way better, superior to, or richer sources for literature than other places, peoples, and cultures. But nor do I think that they are in any way worse, inferior to, or poorer sources for the same types of literature.

Maybe it's just what I've been reading lately. Look down the blog -- so many of the books involve German, Middle Eastern, Ukrainian settings and characters and themes. Obviously the books are in English (either originally or translated), and many of them involve the collision or blending or some other form of meeting between these cultures and American or English ones. But I feel like this isn't just a falsely perceived trend, nor do I think my observation is a result of my spending a year in Europe.

(And although this article isn't about what authors include in their works, but rather where they come from, I think it's relevant. If Americans aren't good enough for the Nobel Prize, maybe they aren't good enough to be written about, either.)

I said this wasn't my chance to jump into speculations, so I'll leave it to you all -- and I will continue the conversations in the comments section.
UPDATE: I just discovered that this book was released in the United States as Little Bee. Apparently I bought the British release in Germany. Go figure.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The English, by Jeremy Paxman

We all have our ideas about the English*, perhaps more so than about any other foreign people. (Unless you yourself are English. In which case, you still probably have more ideas about the English than about any other foreign people.)

And Paxman does a good job trying to explain the thoughts, attitudes, and history behind those ideas. He doesn't fight to modify or correct the common stereotypes about the English; actually, he writes that "Stereotypes are comforting, save us the trouble of fresh thought," and from time to time he is guilty of avoiding much fresh thought. He will sometimes mention that a particular stereotype derives mainly from a certain social class or region of England, and then fail to give a more accurate picture of the English that utilizes a broader base.

But many stereotypes exist simply because of their accuracy. And Paxman addresses many of these perhaps as well as anyone could, especially because it's impossible to give a solid, graspable definition of a people, and especially considering that the book is under three hundred pages (not including the index). This isn't the most gripping book I've read all month. But if you have an inner anthropologist, or are a bit of an Anglophile, it's worth a look.

*I've learned to be careful in distinguishing between "English" and "British," first because of Tolkien and much more lately because of the many people I've met this year from the Anglo-Celtic Isles. But after reading the way Paxman describes "Britain" as a political invention to encompass several nations and peoples under one title, I hope I never use it wrongly again. (For those of you uncertain about the distinction, "Britain" and "British" refer to the land and people of the island of Great Britain, which includes England, Wales, and Scotland -- and apparently some Northern Irish consider themselves British, too, but I'm not clear on that. Whereas "England" and "English" refer to the country and the people of, well, England, which is just one part of Great Britain, but not of Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand... you get the idea.)

(For those of you who look at this book on Amazon, it looks like they don't sell the paperback directly. And I'll admit it's not worth the hardback price, unless you're really an Anglophile. But for the used price of some of those copies, it's definitely worth it.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

One Big Damn Puzzler, by John Harding

One plenty damn fine book, really. Harding's work is funny in the right places, has great characters, knows its Shakespeare, and while addressing certain implications of modern society (and going a bit overboard near the final chapters) it takes itself just seriously enough. Even though I had to read it in chunks over a few weeks (this was the book I left behind when I read Neverwhere), One Big Damn Puzzler is one of my better secondhand bookshop acquisitions of late.

But I've got a small bone to pick. Harding is a British author (I can't be more specific, as his book bio and my cursory Internet research turned up nothing) whose main character in the book is an American, and the South Pacific island where this character spends most of the book was, shall we say, graced by the American military in the past. And that's all well and good. But if you're going to write about a culture that's not your own, and especially if what you write will be available in said culture, you ought to keep an eye on where you're stepping. That said, here are my first* Tips for British Authors Writing About Americans:
  • Watch your word usage. We don't call them "trousers." We call them "pants." There's a reason we distinguish between "American English" and "British English."
  • Be careful portraying the Americans as a negative foreign influence on an indigenous population. (I'm looking at you, John Harding.) Yes, we've been guilty of that, probably to a terrifying degree. But suggesting that the British simply wanted to build a hotel and leave the natives in peace kind of ignores a certain long imperial history with a few "whoopsie-daisies" of its own.
I'm as much an Anglophile as anyone. But it's amazing what living abroad (in my case, England and Germany) can do for your pride in your own country. The United States of America is definitely not perfect. But at least get us right, people.
*In time, I'm sure there will be more.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Fourth Hand, by John Irving

Where do you draw the line on what constitutes "you"?

Whatever your stance on the metaphysics of soul* and body, you have an innate sense of what is "you" and what is not. I realize that I cannot speak for everyone, but I think most of us would consider trimmed toenails and cut hair as no longer part of one's self; hell, a lot of people don't think of those growths as part of the self even when they're still attached to the body.

*And by "soul" I mean the non-physical essence of a person. Not getting into anything religious here. Even if you believe that a person's soul/mind/essence/whatever is nothing more than electrical energy in the brain, there is a point at which you distinguish between "you" and "not you." And even if you believe your essence to be completely bound in non-corporeal form, you still have a sense of your physical self being "you" -- or at least "yours."

But where do you draw the line? If I cut off my finger instead of my fingernail, I still call it "my finger" and certainly believe it to be mine. But is it still part of me? If a dog bites my finger while it's attached to me, I exclaim, "That dog bit me!" But if he bites it after it's been severed, I shout (probably among other things, like, "Hey, I just cut my finger off!"), "That dog bit my finger!" And are there differences of degree? If I cut off my hand, or my arm, instead of just a finger, does the removed limb contain more of "me"?

I imagine the answer might be different for different people. As for me, I believe that my self isn't wrapped up in my flesh to the degree that I am less myself if I lose a limb, even though there might be less of me. And thinking ahead a long way here, I know that I do not consider my body to be my self any longer once I die -- which is why I'm able to list myself as an organ donor. If someone can use my heart or my liver, great. I won't be using them any more, and they will no longer be part of who I am.

And all these ideas -- really, I promise -- are what make The Fourth Hand so intriguing. According to Irving's acknowledgments, the whole concept of the book came from his wife asking, after watching a news report about a hand transplant, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" The what-if in reality would probably entail a whole lot of lawyers and medical ethicists, which Irving addresses without disturbing the inherent intrigue of his story. But an underlying question to Irving's wife's inquiry is, "At what point is the self separated from the body?"

Really, that point probably comes before the body parts are being attached to other people. But for some of us, maybe not. And the question is interesting enough to open up the storytelling possibilities for someone like Irving to run with.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

The fantasy genre really is the Cinderella (of the first half of her story) in the palace of literary types. The other genres look upon it with disdain, because it's not proper literature. It gets relegated to the back rooms, where it's not the window dressing but at least it gets some work done. Harlequin romance might be below fantasy in this muddled metaphor, the singing mouse of the Disneyfied palace, but at least it doesn't try to take itself seriously. But it's just sad to watch dismal fantasy wipe the floors with its paperback mop, dreaming of the day in its imaginary future when it can become queen of the palace.

Of course, many of those who love fantasy books will defend them with passion bordering on religious devotion. And some fantasy -- without getting too much into what, exactly, defines fantasy -- has risen above its humble prospects, even if such examples are still seldom accepted into any literary canon. The Lord of the Rings is the glimmering standard bearer of these books, and its position at the peak of all fantasy writing is more than justified. More than anything, Tolkien illuminated that the genre is capable of greatness. But if even Tolkien's literary masterpiece is scoffed at by many in the literary world, what treatment do other, admittedly very popular, fantasy works receive?

Because I think the fantasy genre struggles for its hold in the literary world, and craves such a place (even if it won't admit it to itself), its literary reception begs the question: What is good fantasy? Before you laugh at my foolishness and presumptuousness, don't think I'm going to tackle that question fully right here. It's far too big for a blog post, and besides, any answer would just be my opinion. And it's not like I'm the first to ask the question -- so who am I to settle the debate?

But the question came to me while I was reading Neverwhere. That I even had the book was a circumstance of events -- I had maybe ten minutes to catch the first train in a six-hour trip, had left my other book behind, and with little time to use in selecting my replacement option I chose this one, thanks to the author's name. I've read Gaiman before, and if you've been reading for a while you might remember how much I liked his Fragile Things collection. Gaiman is a gifted writer, but more so, I believe, a gifted storyteller.

And I enjoyed Neverwhere. It was a good story. But it wasn't a great story, and I think for the same reason I would say it wasn't great fantasy. A large component of fantasy literature deals with world-creation*, and I thought Neverwhere fell flat in this area. Gaiman took an interesting premise -- that there is a world beneath London where those go who have fallen through the cracks of London Above, and that this world has given much of London Above the now-unrecognized sources of its place names -- and strung together a very episodic quest from one place to the next. But instead of developing much in the way of back-story or even utilizing too much creativity** to create a cohesive world for London Below, Neverwhere feels pieced together. It tries to create a tangent world for London, much like C.S. Lewis did for England in The Chronicles of Narnia, but instead of being believable (remember that whole "suspension of disbelief" thing?) it feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon. Jonathan Strange took our world, added magic, and created a seamless wonder; Neverwhere took our world and told an entertaining story that tried, and didn't do terribly well, to give etymological roots for the London Tube stations.

*By "world" I don't mean "planet." I mean the reality in which the book is set. Even if Tolkien's Middle-earth is intended to be set on the very same Earth as our feet, it doesn't intersect with our reality within the pages of the book, so I say it is a different world. However, I would say that Lewis' Narnia books are based in our world, because the England side of the story is meant to be an England we can relate to. Same goes for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, and for other stories whose fantasic elements occur, in whole or in part, in what we recognize as our own world.

**Knightsbridge is... a bridge. Of night.

I'm not one for the wholesale segregation of books into the categories of "young adult" and "adult." But maybe this book would fit better in the former category. It's not an exemplar of fantasy as high literature, but for all my complaining it really was a fun story, and I can imagine younger readers finding much more delight in it than I did.

UPDATE: This blog is my place to discuss the thoughts I have on the books I read. But after writing the above, I don't feel like I gave the book a fair shake. I don't think it's great fantasy, and there are plenty of books I would recommend before it. But having said that, there are a couple aspects of the book I really could (and did) appreciate.
  • The villains. Croup and Vandemar have their tag-team dialogue down pat. And they own the smart baddy/dumb baddy routine. Their role in the book really is a performance. It's not that I rooted for them over the heroes of the book... it's just that I enjoyed their parts so much more. I wish Gaiman had focused more on the characters, like these two, than on locations -- and if he wanted to focus on locations, he should have developed more places like the hospital basement these two call home.
  • The set-up and the ending. Gaiman does a great job getting Richard Mayhew sucked into the world of London Below. And while I don't think the book could have ended any other way, given what precedes the conclusion, it was done very, very well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

There's this idea that, if a book hopes to attain a certain elevated status, it has to be full of Deeper Significance for the reader. That there must be some Incredible Insight into the human situation, all the better if it's drawn out in Hidden Meanings, Literary Devices, and Extended Metaphors. And finally, that we must be able to Take Something Away from the book when we're done with it.

Screw all that. The best books are ones that you never want to be done with, that are too short despite being a thousand pages long, that you think about all day and open again the first second you have a chance.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell may very well have something to say about the human condition. But I don't care. If it does, it seeped its way into my subconscious, or I will pick it up the second time through (oh, there will be a second time through -- hopefully after I have forgotten enough to be able to rediscover some of the delights of the first time through). This book is a damn fine piece of writing. And that's good enough for me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Postcards from the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

This blog is intended to be, as the sub-header would suggest, a place for me to discuss the ideas, musings, and inner ramblings that come forth when I read a book. And for my experience volunteering with those dealing with mental health and drug addiction issues, among others, I ought to have some unique thoughts that have come from my time with Postcards. And failing any of those, maybe something should come forth on the topic of celebrity-worship in the western world, particularly the United States, especially since such adoration has probably increased in the years since Fisher (a surprisingly adept and nimble writer) wrote this book.

Strangely, nothing. And it's not due to anything lacking in the book. I admit I picked up Postcards on the cheap from an Oxfam in England out of curiosity for Fisher's prose, and because the back of the version I have includes praise from Tom Robbins. And considering those circumstances, it was much, much better than I would have guessed -- insightful, sometimes funny, seldom sardonic but more often witty, with the characters (particularly the main one) a delightful bundle of contradictions and confusions. I enjoyed it greatly. But it also sparked no great inner discourse or diatribe. Does that mean I was feeling particularly un-scholarly, or that this book is no piece of literature? Hardly. It just means that when our paths met, we said hi and shook hands before parting ways. Not every good book can be your dearest friend.

But this blog is also a chance to chronicle, for personal reference more than anything, the books that I've read. So here it is.
Once again, I'm several books behind. I'm going to see how I can do at catching up this week. Any bets?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Love wouldn't be love if it weren't cliche. And neither would love stories, if they weren't either.

Of course, in the end of a good love story, Boy and Girl* get together and live happily ever after. Or there is some brief period of extreme happiness, preserved forever simply because of a romantically tragic occurrence that presumably prevents those involved from the inevitable strife of married bliss.

But the basis of almost all love stories is the same. Vonnegut even charted it. Boy meets Girl, Girl and Boy fall madly in love (sometimes without even realizing it), something bad happens to endanger their together-forever-sort of happiness, but then things take an almost miraculous but somehow inevitable turn for the better, and we draw the curtain on that most meaningful of kisses.

Life, however, seldom seems to happen like that. The bad turns stay bad, and Boy and Girl start new charts with new people. Or things stay good, but not eternally so. If Vonnegut graphed life and not love stories, we would see a sin-graph and not some variation of x-to-the-third.** But it feels like in real-life, all that is possible does not usually happen, and usually it all has to for things to work out in that happily-ever-after sort of way.

But what if the impossible happened?

Maybe the impossible is simply everything possible going right. But if the impossible were something more than that... well, that's what I think The Time Traveler's Wife gives us.

Niffenegger may have written the best love story I've ever read. If there's anything to be lamented, it's that I cannot hope to have what Henry and Clare experience with each other. But if I can ever feel what they feel together... well, then I will be a happy man, indeed.
*This is just heterosexual love. Without spouting off on my beliefs... just know I'm not scorning any other kind of love. But this book happens to deal with this particular kind, and not much with the others.

**And you should be impressed that I remember even this much math. But if I'm wrong, please correct me gently.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Clearing house and catching up

Clearly I've been lagging in posts for longer than I was actually posting. But in the interest of getting back on track, I've basically just listed here (as much for my own personal record as anything) the books I've read during my blogging hiatus, along with short notes. And now, rather than having the need to catch up hanging over me, I hope to take this as a fresh start and begin posting regularly again.

If you want any more particular thoughts on any of these books, definitely ask -- either with an email or in the comment threads.

Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum

Blum's writing style threw me at first. I'm not used to reading novels in the present tense, especially when they are set at definite points in the past. But for a number of reasons, this book gripped me. Half of it is set in Weimar, Germany (which I visited at the end of February with a dear friend, who also loaned me this book) before and during the second World War, and the rest in nineties Minnesota. Being in Germany while reading this book certainly increased, for me, its poignancy. Blum's dual narrative structure is effective, although I thought she often drew connections between the two too close together, rather than trusting the reader's memory or ability to draw the parallels over a greater span of pages. And once I got used to the tense, it gave the book an immediacy that would normally be lost in the past tense. The ending, too, was about as effective as it could have been. Such stories cannot have a happy ending with all the loose ends tied. But that doesn't mean there can be no resolution -- and I was happy with Blum's final pages.

Tolkien and the Great War, by John Garth

Those of you who know me personally know that I'm a Tolkien nut. And when this book first came out a few years ago, I assumed it was a product of someone writing on the coattails (get it?) of the popularity of Peter Jackson's movie trilogy. But I've recently discovered, through a project I'm helping with, that this book is really quite respected in the academic community. So I bought it. And it's good. If you're a fan of Tolkien, or of 20th century British literature, or World War I history, or fantasy literature, it's worth reading. Garth discusses the development of Tolkien's writing in school, while studying at Oxford, and during and immediately after his service time in the British army, framed in the events of and Tolkien's experiences in the Great War. It's very scholarly, very professional, and the first non-fiction book I've enjoyed in a good while.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Until this year in Germany, I was one of those people who had never read Hosseini. To be honest, I just assumed that his extreme popularity probably meant that he wasn't all I expect in an author. And there are points in both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns that I notice the writing, which to me means that no, it's not perfect. But it's pretty damn close. I would love to see Hosseini write a book that's not set in his native Afghanistan, but so far, he's got something that works. In many ways, I think this book was better than his first. He writes his two main female characters with an understanding and insight that I believe most male authors lack -- which I believe is why they so often shy away from female protagonists. But Hosseini pulls off the wonder, and this book has a plot very much worth reading, to boot.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

I wanted to like this book. Its cover (not the one shown here, unfortunately) caught my eye (as much as we say we don't, we really do judge books by their covers), and I liked the characters. I really did. But the writing lacked a certain vibrancy that I expected, and could have been there with these characters (a Ukrainian immigrant, his much-younger immigrant wife, and his two daughters who were largely raised in England). We expect something deep from our literature, something deeply revealing about the human spirit or the human condition, and while I believe Lewycka tried to put it there, it just didn't feel natural.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

Smith's writing captures the quirks and emotions of each of her characters with a maturity I would expect of one almost twice her age, which some of the more interesting characters are. I still prefer her book The Autograph Man, although this one is (I believe) the more popular of the two. It took me a little longer to get into than I would have liked, but once it grabbed me, it did so like the undertow.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Still Alive and Reading

...but apparently not finding the time to post.

What can I say? Life happens sometimes. And germs really do come from Germany.

I'm about three books behind right now, but I hope soon I will make the time to catch up on my posting. If it doesn't happen this week, my thoughts on the books at the bottom of the page might not get written and posted until the week after next, because I have to attend a Fulbright conference in Berlin. (Schade.)

Until then.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Sometimes, you've got to go back to the classics.

One reading for most books is enough, before they are put back on the shelf or on the rollers at the library or on the counter at a secondhand book store. They proffered to the reader what they had to give, the reader accepted the gifts, and both move on with their lives, to new readers and new books.

And then there are, for most of us, the exceptions. The books that cling to us like barbed thistles, hoping to drop their seeds in some fertile ground further along the way. The books that we don't necessarily think about until they prickle us, until they remind us that they latched on when we stepped into them and don't intend to let go anytime soon.

One of my thistles is called Slaughterhouse-Five.

Kurt Vonnegut's little book is one of those few pieces that signify something extraordinary in my life. When I write a book, my goal will be to create a story so well written that it can sit next to Slaughterhouse-Five and feel like a child actor from the local theater meeting Marlon Brando. That's as close as I can hope to come. And it would be an exemplary accomplishment.

Each time I read Vonnegut's little book, it shows me something else. I'm still amazed at how something so simple can be so unbelievably complex. Anyone who thinks novelists write a story and then maybe read it through once or twice needs to read this book a half-dozen times just to understand how carefully crafted it is - how the images play off one another, how the scenes and the descriptions and the characters are mirrored, how much life went into each word and each paragraph.

Each time I read Vonnegut's little book, it reminds me what a damn good story it is, and I remember why I love it.

Kurt may be in heaven now, but Slaughterhouse-Five and his other books aren't. And thank God for that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Exit Ghost, by Philip Roth

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Right now, my generation is on top of the world. We are at that age when everything is still possible. Most of our formal education is now behind us, and we can hope that most of our successes are still ahead of us. We (well, some of us) are finding jobs and making real money, we (well, I hope most of us) are discovering our dreams. We've elected a president of the United States who feels like our president. We are finally adults - involved in real adult-like relationships, being called "ma'am" or "sir" in restaurants, legally drinking alcohol in most countries. And perhaps the best part of all is that no one can take all this away from us.

Man, it's great.

But since we've got all the time in the world - and why not? - there's no rush to grab hold of any of that. We can master Guitar Hero instead of the guitar. We can swing through McDonald's instead of learning to cook. We can relax with an old friend, a new friend, a book, a day in the mountains some other weekend, 'cause even though that party has all the same people that were there last time, it's gonna rock, man, so we've got to go.

Maybe no one can take all this away from us, but something can. We don't think about how time is no longer creeping up on us, but running on padded feet through the undergrowth. It can make all the noise it wants, now, because we won't even hear it.

Remember when spring break was a long vacation, and that month before Christmas lasted ages? Well, it doesn't go so slowly any more. And before we've done anything with the time we have standing atop the world's oyster, we'll be sliding down its slippery shell, our foothold weakened by the gradual loss of our potential. Our bladders will stop working. We will lose our fertility and our virility. We won't remember friend's birthdays, or what we just said on the phone ten minutes ago.

And, man, that won't be so great at all.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

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As I wrote in my last post, in an update of the old book-cover saying, a book shouldn't be avoided just because of its bookstore category. But I'm as guilty of biblio-discrimination as anyone. I wouldn't normally pick up many books from the Mystery/Thriller section, so it's probably a good thing Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was given to me as a Christmas gift, or I likely would never have read it.

And, as mysteries and thrillers go, I think this was a fairly well-written book. It's not about to win any Nobel Prizes for its deceased Swedish author, but the story definitely gripped me, especially about halfway through.

This is the first book I've discussed on here that is still apparently a bestseller. It seems a lot of people like the novel. Which, I would assume, means that a lot of people like the contents of the novel.

And, as far as the story goes, the contents are good. It kept me up far too late at least one night, and got me reading on the bus, where I normally would get motion sickness.

However, rather than focus on the story, I'm going to go off on a tangent.* I think, because I've noticed it in other books written by middle-aged and older men, that many male authors have this tendency to put sex in their books where it's not necessary for the plot, or for the development of the characters. I wrote earlier about some of my views on sex and sexuality, and I stand by those. And I believe that sex and sexuality can, and often should be, major themes in literature, because they are in life.

But the sex in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not necessary. It is largely gratuitous, and when I read it I feel like I'm reading the fantasies of an author who wishes journalists and mystery writers attracted women like rock stars do.

Some of the sex in the book - unfortunately, the criminal acts, for the most part - actually does play a part in developing the characters, particularly Lisbeth Salander, and in moving the plot near the end of the book. But the sexual relationships between Mikael Blomkvist and Erika Berger, and between Blomkvist and Salander, could just as easily not be there. In fact, I feel like the connection between Blomkvist and Salander would have been even stronger had Larsson chosen to keep their relationship platonic - professional, even friendly, and even (and why not?) with some sexual tension, but in the end non-sexual.

Maybe such sex sells books. Maybe the main target audience is middle-aged men who crave such fantasies of stringless sex with longtime friends and copulation with women nearly half their age. Maybe I will have a different take on these scenes when I, too, am middle-aged. But right now, I think they do absolutely nothing for the book.

(Sometimes such gratuitous-seeming sex works. I believe the strange, sometimes comical, sometimes grisly sexual scenes in John Irving's Garp are absolutely necessary. Just to offer one counter-example.)

I haven't often asked explicitly for comments. But I'd like them here. If you've read this book, or others where there are either sex scenes or definite allusions to them which you could argue (whether or not you would argue) are not necessary within the work, I would love to hear your opinions. What's your take on such scenes in books? Gratuitous and unnecessary? Fun, and who gives a damn? Critical in some way I haven't understood? Let me know.

*This might be the first real rant on this blog. As such, I also want to know if I'm being clear. My point makes perfect sense to me. But that usually doesn't mean much.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

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If I had bothered to read the back of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief before opening it, I would have known it was about, among other things, "some fanatical Germans" right around, oh, 1939. Living in Germany, of course I find German history (and literature set in that history) particularly interesting, so although this book was recommended - and loaned - to me by a good English friend in the area without a hint of the contents, I enjoyed it.

But it got me thinking: Is setting a story in Nazi Germany really worth it? Is it really such a ripe time and place for a good tale? Or is it time (without meaning it the least bit insensitively) to get over it, to move on, and come up with something else?

I will never advocate forgetting the past, especially when it so recently contains one of the greatest atrocities against life and liberty and dignity of all time. There are good reasons why the name "Germany" still has so many associations abroad, and I knew before moving overseas that the subject of National Socialism was still a bit touchy here, even if it were more easily discussed than at any time since 1945. Even if they can make a parody of "The Office" with all the employees as ranking Nazis, it's still not a good idea to tell Hitler jokes in the bar, and one ought to be careful how he raises his hand around a group of students. (That was an unfortunate accident.)

In the United States, and presumably elsewhere in the world, too many people think that Germans are all still Nazis, and that they are all blond-haired and blue-eyed (and damn superior about it, too), and that the language is nasty and harsh. Americans, or any other people, leaving their home country to come to Germany should not have to field questions before leaving about why they are going to hang out with Nazis. But they often do. While there might be two world wars to blame for much of that, the way in which Germans-as-Nazis are portrayed in western - particularly cinematic - storytelling hasn't helped the case of understanding Germany as an important member of Europe and the world today, and its people are the ones who catch the effects of these stereotypes. We have so many Sound of Music-type stories, where innocent-enough people escape from the evil Germans (rather than the evil Nazi regime, which is a terribly critical distinction), that these stereotypes often become a large part of our cultural attitude about all Germans.

I say, we have enough of those kinds of stories.

But The Book Thief is not one of those kinds of stories. It differentiates between the Germans who did not support the ideas of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party, and the Germans who did. (And just because someone joined the Party did not mean he supported it - it often meant he had some sense of survival for him and his family.) It tells its readers that, hey, by no means were all the Germans evil. Some were misled. Some were unfortunate. And they can all be grouped together about as well as any other group of people in history - that is to say, not at all.

Perhaps this movement has been going on longer than I realize, and perhaps I just have not read the right books or seen the right films to recognize it. But there seems to be a certain desire in recent years to portray the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s who were not Nazis - in essence, to say that the terms "German" and "Nazi" are anything but synonymous. I see it in The Book Thief. I see it in the recently-released Tom Cruise film Valkyrie. And I've seen it elsewhere.

We need more of those kinds of stories. World War II-era Germany may be overused as a setting, but it had a lot of true stories to tell, of the kind that reveal humanity at its darkest and, therefore, at its strongest. And where there are so many true stories to tell, there are even more fictional ones.

Of course there were atrocities that happened in and because of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century, and those stories must be remembered. But we owe it to our own understanding of history to try to see that country and its people, at that time, in a proper light. Then we will be able to see that country, at this time, in the light it has earned. Accomplishing such an end means pointing out that, just as in every period of human history, there were good people there who did what they could to help other human beings in just about the tightest circumstances imaginable.
In making the links for this post, I see that categorizes The Book Thief as a young adult book, which explains my opinion of the often-simple prose. This book could have been a lot darker, and possibly more complex, had it been intended for an adult audience. But I think any of you could read it and get something out of it. One of the worst disservices you can do yourself is to avoid a book simply because of its categorization.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Burns Night

I will soon be off to celebrate Burns Night for the first time. If you don't have any Robert Burns on your shelf, or haggis in your kitchen, then at least try to read a poem today.*

*January 25th, in case the time stamp doesn't show up the same in more westerly parts of the world.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fragile Things, by Neil Gaiman

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As I've said, I'm not here to review books. But Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman is truly a delightful collection of stories. I recommend this book more than any other such collection I've read in ages.
Last week, when I suggested picking up a collection of short stories, there was more behind my encouragement than the hope of getting pages into your hands that you could read in manageable chunks of time, although that benefit was indeed a major motive. No, what I really wanted (apart from just getting you people to read, dammit!) was for you to discover something simple and incredible about short writings that novels, no matter how wonderful they are, just cannot have.

Short writings, and short stories in particular, are able to capture some essence of humanity. Not in a Sistine Chapel sort of way. More like fireflies in an old mason jar.

Even when the stories encompass the bizarre, the almost other-worldly, they can feel like part of our world - or, at least, like they could be part of it. We might be able to relate to the characters or the situations in a larger piece, but come on, most of us don't lead the sort of lives that are Pulitzer Prize-winning-novel material. It's not that our lives aren't interesting (read: completely messed up, with some chance at resolution or redemption, if we're lucky); it's that our lives aren't, to borrow Gaiman's term, "story-shaped." Neither are our night-dreams. (Although our day-dreams always seem to go that way, don't they?)

But in a short story, the story-shape isn't as big, as unwieldy, as unrealistic as in a novel. Whenever we tell other folks about our day, about missing the bus* or what Finkelman did in the lunch room, or about that crazy time last summer (it's always last summer, isn't it?), we are putting our lives in short story shape. And when we fail, our recollections seem somehow flat, and people wonder why we even bothered to tell the story at all.

In a way, I think the short story might be the most human way to express ourselves. (And the short story need not be fiction at all. Relating to what I said in the last post, I think even a good recipe tells a story. As do poems, good journalism, travel writings, yadda yadda.) And when we read a good short story, we feel alive. We can say to the page in front of us, when we finish reading it, "Hey, now I've got a story for you." And the wonder of it is, I think we really do have such stories.

*Which I did. This entry was originally written and posted in the precisely twenty minutes I had in my apartment on the morning of January 22, between missing one bus and being sure to catch the next. Whoops. I later amended it to, you know, sound better, so this is no longer the rushed original version.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Thrill of Short Writings

Right now I am reading Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wondersby Neil Gaiman, which is turning out to be quite a remarkable collection of short writings -- stories, poems, and so far one true story. I will write a proper post when I'm finished with the book (which shouldn't be long from now, at the pace I'm enjoying it). But, in the meantime, I'm encouraging each and every one of you to do this:

Go get a collection of short writings.*

You have no excuses not to enjoy them. You can get short stories, if fiction is your bag, or short travel adventures, or short poetry, or hell, even a cookbook, especially if it's got more than the recipes and pictures. You can read them out of order, if you're feeling dangerous. Don't have time for a novel, or that thick book on Kit Carson your Aunt Ethel gave you that really does look interesting ("Honest, Aunt Ethel!")? There are five or ten or fifteen minutes somewhere when you can force yourself to sit down and read just one piece. I've done it the last two nights, and I've been tired.

Then give yourself two minutes to think about what you read. Just trust me on this one.

*Preferably by legal means.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

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I used to work in a bookstore, and my fellow employees either loved Chuck Palahniuk’s writing, or they hated it. Choke is the first of his pieces I’ve read, and if it is possible to have two such opinions at once – let’s call them “enjoyed” and “not sure I actually liked what I enjoyed” instead of “loved” and “hated” – then I have them about this book.
I never want to give this blog a rating of any sort, but if I’m going to follow the premise and discuss my thoughts on every book I read, then some of them are just going to be downright crude. And, well, the first book of 2009 will not be given by me to my siblings. Take that as you will, and proceed on your own free will.
Now why is discussing sex (and particularly sexual deviance) so uncomfortable? Why is simply reading about it so uncomfortable? Personally, I have very little problem doing so, and I imagine my tolerance for such readings and discussions is higher than other folks’. But there are passages in this book I wouldn’t read again in front of females I know and whose opinion of me I value, half because of the tent I might pitch and half for the reasons in Choke why my jeans might decide to go camping. (I’ll just say the scenes in Palahniuk’s book aren’t of the romance-story variety your grandma might read to get her ya-yas out. Unless your grandma would belong in this book.) And while I tried to view the sexual conversations and scenes in Choke as an integral part of the story, tried to understand what purpose they served to the rest of the writing, I couldn’t help but think of how many people would be downright uncomfortable reading these passages.

A big part of why my former co-employees didn’t like Palahniuk is that they believed he writes these sorts of scenes – and, indeed, complete stories – just for the shock value. (To be fair, his latest book, Snuff, which was released while I worked in this bookstore, was all written from the perspectives of three men out of several hundred acting in a single pornographic film. The New York Times Book Review slammed this book harder than a professional wrestler who breaks script.) And the shock value is, I now believe, an important tool in Palahniuk’s arsenal.

But I don’t believe that the sexual passages and ideas in this book are there only for the shock value. I won’t pretend to understand Palahniuk’s motives. But what passages like the ones he writes force us, as readers, to do is to face the sexuality that we each possess as reproductive mammals. For very few of us is sex an entirely approachable subject, despite the fact that it’s one of the few things that every single person who reaches puberty on this planet thinks about.

Not all of us think about sex the way that Victor Mancini does in Choke, but that’s because not all of us are sexual addicts to the extent that Victor is. In the context of the book, it makes sense that so many of his thoughts and so many of his actions center around sex, the possibilities of getting it, and how sex (and not, say, murder or theft) is what Jesus would not do. But whether we are repulsed by Victor’s ideas and actions or secretly aroused by them (or – and why not? – both), by reading this book, we confront his sexuality and our own.

I think as humans (especially those of us from the United States), we need to be confronted more often by our own sexuality. Living in Germany, people in Europe and America ask me what the differences are between the two cultures. Of all the differences, the biggest one I can point to is the way we treat violence and sex. In the United States (and elsewhere in the world), we hide sex and sexuality. We ban it from television, we don’t talk openly about it within families and among friends, we put magazines in plastic wrap on the top shelf behind a black barrier. Some of us think abstinence is the only answer for teen pregnancy, and not least of all because that means we don’t have to talk about sex with our teens. And we take our five-year-olds to the theater to watch people get shot and blown up and tortured. In Europe, sexuality walks the streets like all the other citizens. Naked people appear in television commercials. Nudie magazines are sold on street corners – and even the newspapers will show an odd breast on the cover. Teenagers having sex? Yup, it happens, and the funny part is, they educate and talk about it. But you don’t see half the death glorified on screen that we get in the U.S.A.

I don’t believe that sex should become a Huxleyan freedom, where everyone belongs to everyone else and sex is purely recreational. And if someone chooses to remain celibate, well, power to them. But that doesn’t mean one doesn’t have sexuality, or even that one is repressing it. We all have the drive to copulate, and even if we don’t all get it whenever we want it, even if not all of us do want it, our sexuality is always there. Why the hell can’t we talk more openly about it?

Choke does. And even if I didn’t try out the advice Victor gives about getting laid on a Boeing 767 – despite being on a Boeing 767 while reading it – I’m a little more open than I already was to talking and hearing about human sexuality after finishing this book. The sex here has a purpose, and although Palahniuk might take it a bit over the top at times, Victor’s sexual addiction is no more repulsive than an alcohol addiction or a video game addiction. I have to believe all addicts (and who among us isn’t one?) would benefit from a bit more openness with one another.