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.