Winnie the Pooh -
A few nights back my eight-year-old son complained that he had nothing to read.
"Here" , I said, "read this" - and handed him my well-worn, decidedly yellowed copy of Winnie the Pooh (it still says "Deborah and Daddy" in it with my - I don't know - young handwriting.
He looked at me as though I had to be kidding so I opened it up and started reading it to him.
Chapter One is "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin".
Within a few minutes, there was my wii crazy, smart-alec, thoroughly modern boy rolling around on the bed laughing. Oh what fun - to see this masterpiece of a book through fresh eyes. I was watching him, happy for him, and realizing that he hadn't seen the Pooh TV shows, the Disney movies - none of it. So he had no idea what to expect and it was all new and exciting and unexpected.
Well - I read him the one chapter and then he finished off the rest himself. Aside from the bees, his favorite part is when Pooh goes to discover the North Pole and instead finds a pole. Hurray for the classics.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible -
I was looking for something a little more light-hearted, with not quite so much that 'big, critically aclaimed novel' feeling. So I picked up this.
It's a modern day telling of some of the key stories of the Old Testament.
I enjoyed the chapter on Adam and Eve, and also on Cain and Abe,l and on Noah and the Ark. On Noah, "Without his brand of tough love, he [Noah] feared they'd end up eating daisies and making out with dolphins. He was not going to be a sentimental old idiot. He was going to prepare his sons for a life of righteousness and hardship".
Then it just started getting tedious. Not bad, though - sort of mildly amusing.
A Confederacy of Dunces -
A friend recommended this one.
How did this book come to be? A teacher of English in a college wrote this book, then committed suicide at age thrity-two. His mom read it, saw the brilliance of it, and begged and begged for someone to read it until it was published.
This book is this great big crazy romp. It's the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, a smart, well-educated man completely lacking in any sort of common sense or practicality as to how to - well - navigate the world. Ignatius lives at home with his mother, whom he pushes around. Ignatius gets a couple of jobs, but can't keep them. Ignatius has great big ideas - his pronouncements sit on that narrow edge between madman and genius. Ignatius and the world in which we live are equally ridiculous.
Some Ignatius quotes (because Ignatius is just so much fun):
"You must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age. Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieveal. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."
And to a group of ladies belonging to an art guild having an exhibition of their paintings:
"Which one of you did this camelia? Speak up. The water in this bowl looks like motor oil.....You women had better stop giving teas and bruches and settle down to the business of learning how to draw. First, you must learn how to handle a brush. I would suggest that you all get together and paint someone's house for a start....Had you "artists" had a part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, it would have ended up looking like a particularly vulgar train terminal."
Finally, to a professor of history (in red crayon):
"Your total ignoranc eof that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr's honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers.
"Pray for him, you deluded fool, you "anyone for tennis?" golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing, pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron.
"Although your days are numbered, You will not die as a martyr - for you further no holy cause - but as the total ass which you really are. -ZORRO"
The plot is nicely developed, and there are a fair number of interesting characters with whom Ignatius interacts. Quite fantastic.
The Marriage Plot -
Well. I had to read this because Eugenides is supposed to be this so-called "important" modern American author & his other book won the Pulitzer Prize ten years or so ago.
First: A note on that other book that won the Pulitzer- Middlesex. It was weird. Like - okay - so it's a story about a hermaphrodite - fair enough - brave, gutsy of Eugenides to take it on. But there was something creepy (to me) about the descriptions - just a little too much detail. I once read a critique of the way in which most Science Fiction writers write about sex - it was compared to being like reading about what your parents do in bed - you don't really want to know. Parts of Middlesex gave me that same feeing - oooh, yuck,I don't need to know quite so much - couldn't help wondering if it wasn't an unhealthy fascination that Eugenides had. Creepy (in my opinion).
And I had to read The Marriage Plot because purportedly (rumour has it but Eugenides consistenly denies) one of the main characters is modeled on David Foster Wallace (DFW) - of whom I'm a great fan. I was curious. (Perhaps creepily so....)
The Marriage Plot is a more conventional book than Middlesex. It's about three students - Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitch - and the relationships between the three of them (a love triangle).
Well, right away - baam! - there's David Foster Wallace. No doubt in my mind. But - the creepy thing again. If you have this professional jealousy of someone, why not wait until they're dead & then model a character in your book on that person and make that character bloated, sweaty, and impotent? Oh what fun!! (In my opinion, this is what Eugenides did). And so what if it's a miserable, spineless, self-indulgent thing to do....
Here are some quotes from the book to do with the Leonard (modeled, I think, on DFW) character:
"His neck was so fat he couldn't button his shirt collars".
"Leonard's sex drive was much reduced". (There are a few scenes detailing this).
"...his bloated, shaky state".
"...spreading a dollop of Preparation H between his buttocks every morning and night".
"...his big sodden head..."
"....the bison hump...."
" 'He's like Lurch' "
The female character at one point tells Leonard,
"my mother doesn't like you".
Spoiler Alert!!!!! (don't read on if you don't want to know what happens....)
The other character (modeled, perhaps, on Eugenides himself?) ends up in India volunteering for Mother Theresa. He only manages this for a few weeks (perhaps Eugenides recognized that he really wouldn't last long volunteering in the slums on India). Then he returns home, where the girl has divorced his rival, and, in a selfless display, although the Eugenides character is interested in her, he tells her she needs to pursue her career so he won't be proposing marriage. (Oh! How selfless! What a saint!) Blech....
But it was all well-written and fun to read.
The Sense of an Ending -
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker prize.
The ambiguity in that title.... The sense - as in common sense or sensory? And ending - what type of ending? Of a life? Or a relationship? A period of one's life, perhaps?
I began the book thinking that it would be sense as in sensory, and that the ending would be a life ending. This partially may be because saying "The Sense of an Ending" has the same rhythm as saying "The Remains of the Day" - so for whatever reason I assumed a similar theme.
And then, as I progressed through the novel, I decided that Barnes had had fun being deliberately enigmatic, and that he was delighting in including every possilbe interpretation of "the sense of an ending" in his novel.
For the record, I'm a fan of Julian Barnes. I've read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, and , (he's written many more), and loved them both.
I've also a weakness for winners of the Man Booker prize. The selection committee seems, in my opinion, to consistently pick the good ones.
The Sense of an Ending is a short little book. It's about Tony, a relationship Tony had as a young man, and how the aftermath of that relationship caused Tony to rethink his views. Tony's not particularly interesting (what is this with uninteresting characters? the Rana Dasgupta book was also about an uninteresting character....is it about showing how the subtleties of all our (perhaps uninteresting) lives are interesting, and how exploring the subtleties is interesting?) But...back to Tony....
Tony grows up, gets married, has a job, gets divorced - generally has a very nice, pleasant life - and then he's contacted by the girl with whom he had a relationship earlier in his life (when? in his late teens? early twenties?) and learns something.
Barnes has a lovely way of telling a story - clean, elegant, and detailed. Precise and subtle, and lots of detail about the characters.
Steve Jobs -
Oh my gosh! The book looks like a giant iPod! It's white and gleaming and even the font is an Apple font....
Okay - crazy things Steve Jobs did:
In elementary school, put up signs saying "bring your pet to school day" (even though there was no such thing - it worked. The kids brought their pets to school).
In his 20's, refused to shower for (it never specified, but sounded as though it was more than a week) because he believed that with his special diet he didn't smell....
Told a supplier they were a bunch of "F@#$ing Dickless Assholes". The supplier made themselves "Team FDA" jackets
Came back to Apple in '97. Was paid $2.50 for the next two years. Then, when the board insisted they pay him, asked for a jet & lots of retroactive (borderline illegal) stock options.
If he didn't like the board, got rid of them..... (aaaack! you're not supposed to do this - the board's supposed to be in charge - responsible to the shareholders & all that - they're not supposed to be terrified of the CEO.....)
Confession: I love all my Apple stuff - my computer (I guess it's an iMac), my iPhone, before the iPhone my iPod - it's all so beautiful & sleek & easy to use.
This is the story of this brilliant, driven, take no prisoners guy who had this vision & - well - just followed it. No apologies, no compromises, no censoring, no regrets.
It's really well done - Steve himself asked Isaacson to write the book. Isaacson had countless interviews with Jobs, and was given access to others in Steve's life. Steve (it's Steve now. After reading the 600+ page book - yup - Steve) never saw the manuscript - he wanted his children to know what he was like & knew that he wouldn't like everything that was written. (If you're going to have a book written about you, give the author free reign and it will be a better, more honest book).
I liked the insight into the boardrooms of corporate America, I liked all the Steve stories, and now appreciate all my Apple stuff even more. I've been walking around with my iPhone box (yes, the packaging with no phone in it) opening and closing it because I know Steve put a huge amount of thought into it & you can tell. It's beautiful and simple and weighty and easy to open & this perfect little box. I'm guessing they'll be collectors items one day.
Apple's going to go downhill.
After Crime and Punishment I needed a lighthearted book to read. I'd taken this out of the library for my son.
Nicholas - translated from the French - written in the 40's - the adventures of a mischevious school boy. (Goscinny is also one of the authors of the Asterix series).
It's lighthearted and silly. Nicholas and his friends get into different scrapes and seem to have the most fun when they're punching each other's noses (politically incorrect, but fun).
Crime and Punishment -
Finally finished this.
It's an intense book. Really, really intense. Hundreds of pages of the thoughts, rationalizations, ideas, dreams, and fears of a guilty man. The book follows a student - Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov - before, during, and after he commits a murder (the murder is committed near the beginning, so most of the book is his conscience getting to him). It's done so very well - that's the brilliance of it - it's page after page describing the inner workings of this man's mind from day to day - all focused around the crime.
I was following every detail - as Raskolnikov tried to deal with what he had done. A lessor author summarizes and generalizes. Dostoevsky is capable of examining the minutiae - each second of Raskolnikov's life, each thought is made real and is believable. This isn't a fun read. Poor Raskolnikov isn't very happy but it's an intriguing and fascinating book and it feels truthful.
I was feeling a bit - well - like who am I to review Crime and Punishment? So I went on-line in search of other reviews. It was disappointing. Most reviewers wanted to categorize, to pigeonhole, this book and Raskolnikov. I think that's kind of missing the point. To me it was the journey - and yes, the book was written close to 100 years ago, so certain assumptions about human nature, about what is right and wrong will be different. I'd have thought that it would be easy enough to ignore that. And I think that it's Dostoevky's ability to create the journey, to describe each detail that makes this book so good.
October 29, 2011
What are those guy movies/ buddy movies? Die Hard, 48 Hours, the Terminator, Wedding Crashers. This book is one of those - but it's all dressed up nicely with lots of so- called sophisticated talk about wine so that, perhaps, if you're into those type of shows, you can tell yourself you're not watching a movie with gratuitous sex and violence - that really, it's a smart comedy about Pinot Noir.
Miles is a recently divorced writer who hasn't had much success lately. Jack, his best friend, is a charming, successful actor/ sometimes director. These two L.A. residentsare off to sample wines in the Santa Ynez valley of Calfornia for the week before Jack's due to get married.
What happens to Jack and Miles? Well, there's drinking - and sex - and sex - and drinking. Then there's more sex and drinking, some violence, a shooting, a car crash, a gun, some fighting, and finally - more sex and drinking.
The women are typical of the guy - buddy - action flick genre: good-looking and one dimensional and - oh! - right (this being a "smart and sophisticated" comedy) - they know their wines.
So - fun and light-hearted but this odd aftertaste (it's not really a Pinot...more like North American commercially brewed lager).
Well, I know I just said the the Goon Squad was fantastic, but this one's so much better.
On the cover: "Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize"
Do you ever hear a song so perfect, or see a picture so beautiful, that - well - that what? What's the word for that? That's what this book is.
Solo is the story of Ulrich, a resident of Sofia, Hungary. Sofia for most of the twentieth century hasn't been a very pleasant place - communism, fascism, poverty, totalitarianism etc. Ulrich doesn't have a very happy life. He has plenty of disappointments, losses, sadnesses, and failures. And there's no terrible drama for Ulrich - just lots of small dramas that generally don't turn out well.
How much, I wondered when I was about half way through the book, can one write about Ulrich? And at about the halfway point I wondered what the rest of the book could be about. Ulrich's life seemed to be coming to a close; what more could there be? The book was nice enough - but - well - I was thinking (confession: hoping) - why not just end the book?
Then I got to the second half - 'Daydreams'- daydreams? Please, no - I really didn't feel any need to hear about Ulrich's daydreams.
But it was perfect. Beautiful. Dasgupta is able to put it in his book - what is best in the soul of every human - the quiet loneliness, the sweetness, the beauty, the solitude, the imperfect perfection of being human and being alive.
And you have to read the whole thing. This isn't one of those consistent throughout books (the Goon Squad would be one of those). It really is two separate movements (that's how Dasgupta organizes the book - the "First Movement" is Ulrich's life and the "Second Movement" consists of Ulrich's daydreams).
If I rated books, this would get the highest rating.
Here's a quote:
"I lost a friend once myself, and I know how it goes.
"He'll find his way inside you, and you'll carry him onward. Behind your heartbeat, you'll hear another one, faint and out of step. People will say you are speaking his opinions, or your hair has turned like his.
"There are no more facts about him - that part is over. Now is the time for essential things. You'll see visions of him wherever you go. You'll see his eyes so moist, his intention so blinding, you'll think he is more alive than you. You'll look around and wonder if it was you who died.
"Gradually you'll grow older than him, and love him as your son.
"You'll live astride the line separating life from death. You'll become experienced in the wisdom of grief. You won't wait until people die to grieve for them; you'll give them their grief while they are still alive, for then judgement falls away, and there remains only the miracle of being".
A Visit from the Goon Squad -
This one's fantastic.
"It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel". That's the opening sentence - and it just keeps going marvelously. After the last book (the dreadful Costco experiment), I was paying attention to every sentence, right from the beginning, and it was such a pleasure to be treated to wonderful sentence after wonderful sentence. (Good sentences are like hot baths on cold days - instantly relaxing and this feeling of losing yourself to the sensation). Here'sthe second sentece, if you're interested:
"Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall".
We hear more about Sasha, and about people she's loosely & not so loosely connected to, at various times of Sasha's and their lives.
What is the Goon Squad? As described on page 127 (and I'm simply quoting the actual dialog here - there are some descriptions, etc. in the book but here I'm going to skip them):
"Time's a goon, right? Isn't that the expression?"
"I've never heard that. 'Time is a goon'?
"Would you disagree?"
And that's the predominant theme of this book - time - we are given glimpses of the lives of the characters at different times and we see the effect of time: time's a goon.
This is a fun, intelligent, and irreverant read. I loved the imagination shown in the various situations in which the characters find themselves. We are introduced to, among others, a washed-up publicist single mom whose main source of income is providing advice to a genocidal dictator, a wannabe writer who sexually attacks a young movie star, an older man just wandering Venice looking at the art when, really, he should be looking for his lost niece, and a homeless man with a dead fish who visits a former friend in his (the former friend's) glass corner office.
Sasha figures more prominently than any of the other characters, and while I enjoyed her escapades, we last see her happily married to a nice doctor, who we are told isn't like the other doctors. Why do characters that authors like the most always end up married to doctors? (I'm trying to think of other cases of this - I'll come back & edit when I remember....) So that was annoying - that Sasha - clearly Egan's favorite - gets the 'live happily ever' after treatment while the others are more damaged by time.
There's also, what seems to me, an attempt by Egan to emulate the writing of David Foster Wallace (DFW). The writer (in the book - the one who assaults the movie star) confesses to this crime in an article he writes from jail, and it's this article that's done in the style of DFW (and I wonder if this is some sort of slam against DFW.....why?). There are piles of footnotes, lots of reflecting on minutiae, and it's self absorbed and self-decrepating. Well...Egan's not DFW - I find myself completely drawn in by DFW - I get this almost perverse fascination with the details he's mulling over in his mind - but with Egan all the details just become tedious.
But the book, overall, is great. Fantastic. Deserving of the Pulitzer (which it won).