Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thomas Hardy's
Jude the Obscure

The institution of marriage was challenged throughout the Victorian period as well as the traditional roles of women as wives, mother and daughters. The "Woman Question," as it was called, was no less prominent an issue for debate than evolution or industrialism. "Discontent, whether godly or ungodly" as stated in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, "led to [a young woman's] open rebellion." At a time when women were to be valued for their "qualities considered to be especially characteristic of her sex,: tenderness of understanding, unworldliness and innocence, domestic affection, and in various degrees. submissiveness," Thomas Hardy's novel, Jude the Obscure, examines the institution of marriage and emerging modern views of Victorian English society.

Though I have enjoyed most of Thomas Hardy's works, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with the character of Jude who comes across as a whining, gullible and weak man who keeps making the same stupid mistakes over and over again in his life. Much of the grief that he brings upon himself is avoidable by merely using his brain. Jude's circumstances are partly the fault of the society in which he lives, however he, himself is responsible for much of how events in his life unfold because basically, Jude has a defeatest attitude and attracts negativity.

From Sparknotes:
Jude the Obscure focuses on the life of a country stonemason, Jude, and his love for his cousin Sue, a schoolteacher. From the beginning Jude knows that marriage is an ill-fated venture in his family, and he believes that his love for Sue curses him doubly, because they are both members of a cursed clan. While love could be identified as a central theme in the novel, it is the institution of marriage that is the work's central focus. Jude and Sue are unhappily married to other people, and then drawn by an inevitable bond that pulls them together. Their relationship is beset by tragedy, not only because of the family curse but also by society's reluctance to accept their marriage as legitimate.

The horrifying murder-suicide of Jude's children is no doubt the climax of the book's action, and the other events of the novel rise in a crescendo to meet that one act. From there, Jude and Sue feel they have no recourse but to return to their previous, unhappy marriages and die within the confinement created by their youthful errors. They are drawn into an endless cycle of self-erected oppression and cannot break free. In a society unwilling to accept their rejection of convention, they are ostracized. Jude's son senses wrongdoing in his own conception and acts in a way that he thinks will help his parents and his siblings. The children are the victims of society's unwillingness to accept Jude and Sue as man and wife, and Sue's own feelings of shame from her divorce.

Jude's initial failure to attend the university becomes less important as the novel progresses, but his obsession with Christminster remains. Christminster is the site of Jude's first encounters with Sue, the tragedy that dominates the book, and Jude's final moments and death. It acts upon Jude, Sue, and their family as a representation of the unattainable and dangerous things to which Jude aspires.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

David Sedaris'
Dress Your Family in
Corduroy and Denim

This book is even funnier than Me Talk Pretty One Day. In Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Demin, David Sedaris has given us 27 deliriously twisted tales which include hilarious childhood dramas imbued with melancholy; the gulf of misunderstanding that exists between people of different nations or even members of the same family; and the division between one's best hopes and most common deeds. The family characters from Me Talk Pretty One Day are all here, as well as the unique world they inhabit, peppered generously with bits of comedy. 'The Rooster' is back, and gets married in one of the funniest weddings ever described. David attends a slumber party and gets the upper hand in a unique version of strip poker. 'Rubber or plastic?' The strangest questions can tear people apart. A skinny guy from Spain, wearing a bishop's hat and accompanied by six to eight men, invades your house and pretends to kick you. Is this any way to spend Christmas? Sedaris's descriptive writing never fails to disappoint me. Read it and weep, while you laugh through your tears.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Anne Tyler's
Back When
We Were Grownups

Rebecca Davitch loves her family, she loves her business and she loves her town but after thirty-three years of being dependable and entertaining she is wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t married Joe Davitch.

When Rebecca met Joe he was exciting, a true grownup whose wife had left him with three small daughters and a business organizing parties in their big, old house. When Joe Davitch entered her life, she was a studious, quiet girl who already had a boyfriend named Will. Joe came into her life and swept her off her feet and into the role of instant stepmother and party host.

Now at Fifty-three years-old, Rebecca looks back over her life. Joe died just six years into their marriage leaving her with the sole control of three stepdaughters and one biological daughter all pining for their father and continual family conflicts and challenges. The house needs continual repair, plaster falls from the ceiling at an alarming rate, Uncle Poppy, Rebecca’s ninety-nine year-old uncle-in-law who lives on the top floor is obsessed with his forthcoming 100th birthday party and Min Foo (aka Minerva) Rebecca and Joe’s daughter is just about to give birth to her third child from her third "exotic" marriage.

Against this backdrop Rebecca starts to wonder what would have happened if she had never met Joe and decides to contact Will, her old boyfriend, with interesting results.

Throughout Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler keeps her brilliant humor as she gives us quirky, slightly offbeat characters surrounded by chaos, trying to make it while sliding downhill all the time. This work is all about the choices we make and the big "What IFS" we all experience in life.

The Collected Tales and Poems
of Edgar Allan Poe

Inside Flap Copy: Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most original writers in the history of American letters, a genius who was tragically misunderstood in his lifetime. He was a seminal figure in the development of science fiction and the detective story, and exerted a great influence on Dostoyevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and Charles Baudelaire, who championed him long before Poe was appreciated in his own country. Baudelaire's enthusiasm brought Poe a wide audience in Europe, and his writing came to have enormous importance for modern French literature. This edition includes his most well-known works--"The Raven," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Annabel Lee," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"--as well as less-familiar stories, poems, and essays.

The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, which also includes humorous pieces ('The Devil in the Belfry' is a hilarious tribute to the father of American literature, Washington Irving), detective fiction (Irving's 1838 story-cycle 'The Money-Diggers' stirs fluidly beneath 'The Gold Bug'), and early examples of what would come to be known as science fiction, brings together most of the author's important work.

I never realized until reading this volume of Poe's works how funny and witty he could be. He is as good of a comedy writer as he is a horror-story writer. In fact, I have come to like his humorous writings more than I like his horror writing.

This collection is a must for Poe fans.
Cristina Garcia's
Dreaming in Cuban

From Library Journal: Garcia's first novel is about Cuba, her native country, and three generations of del Pino women who are seeking spiritual homes for their passionate, often troubled souls. Celia del Pino and her descendants also share clairvoyant and visionary powers that somehow remain undiminished, despite the Cuban revolution and its profound effect upon their lives. This dichotomy suffuses their lives with a potent mixture of superstition, politics, and surrealistic charm that gives the novel an otherworldly atmosphere. Garcia juggles these opposing life forces like a skilled magician accustomed to tossing into the air fiery objects that would explode if they came into contact. Writing experimentally in a variety of forms, she combines narratives, love letters, and monologs to portray the del Pinos as they move back and forth through time. Garcia tells their story with an economy of words and a rich, tropical imagery, setting a brisk but comfortable pace.

This is truly an unforgettable book. I could feel the ocean breezes as I read Garcia's descriptive illustrations of the life of Celia, the grandmother; her daughters, Felicia and Lourdes; and Lourdes' own daughter, Pilar. There is violence, murder, passion, birth and death in this book, but all told as one reviewer put it "in a sort of lyrical mist, so that the reader feels the torpid heat of the Cuban day, the gentle warmth of the sea, and the breezes that stir the palms." While beautifully written, this novel provides a little bit of understanding of this small nation-island.

Monday, July 10, 2006

George Orwell's
Animal Farm

Although Orwell aims his satire at totalitarianism in all of its external appearances — communism, fascism, and capitalism, Animal Farm
owes its structure largely to the events of the Russian Revolution as they unfolded between 1917 and 1944, when Orwell was writing the novella. Much of what happens in the novella symbolically parallels specific developments in the history of Russian communism, and several of the animal characters are based on either real participants in the Russian Revolution or a mixture thereof. Due to the universal relevance of the novella’s themes, once doesn't need to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Marxist Leninism or Russian history in order to appreciate Orwell’s satire of them. However, an acquaintance with certain facts from Russia’s past, however, can be helpful in understand the Orwell's criticism.

Animal Farm, known at the beginning and the end of the novel as the Manor Farm, symbolizes Russia and the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule. But more generally, Animal Farm stands for any human society, be it capitalist, socialist, fascist, or communist. It possesses the internal structure of a nation, with a government (the pigs), a police force or army (the dogs), a working class (the other animals), and state holidays and rituals. Its location amid a number of hostile neighboring farms supports its symbolism as a political entity with diplomatic concerns.

I found the novel to be quite simple, actually which is probably why it has been a required read for high-school students. Themes contained within the novel are easy to identify, such as, the corruption of socialist ideals in the Soviet Union, the societal tendency toward class stratification, the danger of a naïve working class, and the abuse of language as instrumental to the abuse of power.

Animal Farm is filled with songs, poems, and slogans to serve as propaganda, one of the major conduits of social control. By making the working-class animals speak the same words at the same time, the pigs evoke an atmosphere of grandeur and nobility associated with the recited text’s subject matter. The songs also erode the animals’ sense of individuality and keep them focused on the tasks by which they will purportedly achieve freedom.

The last chapter of
Animal Farm brings the novel to its logical, unavoidable, yet chilling conclusion. The pigs wholly consolidate their power and their totalitarian, communist dictatorship completely overwhelms the democratic-socialist ideal of Animal Farm. Napoleon and the other pigs who have taken control have become identical to the human farmers they had overthrown, just as Stalin and the Russian communists eventually became indistinguishable from the aristocrats whom they had replaced and the Western capitalists whom they had denounced.

Cormac McCarthy's
All the Pretty Horses

McCarthy is most probably the greatest writer of Western novels in American history, to such a degree that his novels also transcend the "Western" genre. He may write in the tradition of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, but he is certainly also an heir to America's towering literary geniuses, such as William Faulkner--from whom McCarthy learned his long, flowing sentences--and Ernest Hemingway, whose attitudes of heroic stoicism and quiet romanticism pervade McCarthy's prose.

McCarthy's great epic Border Trilogy--whose first novel, All the Pretty Horses, has become McCarthy's most famous--tells the story of cowboys in the middle of the twentieth century, men who pursue a romantic Western idea that has vanished and turned from history into myth. McCarthy writes about the dark and unseen side of the Western idea: you will read in McCarthy's novels what you will never see in most Western movies, stories about tragedy, cruelty, and blood without a heroic or redemptive ending. The irony of All the Pretty Horses is that it exposes characters desperately trying to inhabit the cowboy myth--to subscribe to the cowboy code of stoicism, understated nobility and great physical skill--in the realities of exploration in a savage and uncivilized land. What emerges is a picture of what the West might really have been, together with a picture of the human spirit under awesome moral pressure.
William Trevor's
The Collected Stories

This 1280-page compilation contain tales from Trevor's seven highly acclaimed short-story collections which tell of life in rural Ireland, as well as four that have never appeared in paperback form in America.

One reviewer sums his works up perfectly: No one weaves a tale as fine as William Trevor. His ability to place the reader into the hearts and souls of his characters is nothing short of remarkable. His stories do not focus on plot but rather on human emotion. They center on ordinary circumstances with extraordinary consequences. From the young schoolgirl with a crush on her teacher, to the betrayed wife, to the obese lonely man longing for love, Trevor covers a wide variety of people who are besieged with despair and striving for purpose.

I didn't read these in any particular order, and it took me a long time to make my way through these 85 stories, but it was definitely worth the time I spent with them. Trevor's prose is simple and clear, yet the detail and variety of characters and plots are brilliantly captured .

Most of these stories deal with Irish and English characters, and many revolve around the realities or possibilities of extramarital affairs. "In Isfahan," one of Trevor's best stories, a married middle-aged man carries on an unintended affair with a young woman he meets while in Iran; in "Lovers of Their Time," another excellent story, a married man carries on a long-term affair with a shop girl by meeting her in a hotel's second-floor public bathroom. Trevor is also quite adept of presenting the romantic yearnings of women. In "The Ballroom of Romance," a country girl's dreams and consequences are highlighted in her trips to the local dance hall; in "Afternoon Dancing," a middle-aged married woman dallies with the idea of an affair with her dance partner after the death of her close friend. Like Chekhov, to whom Trevor is often compared, this writer also has an admirable sense of comedy. "Mulvhill's Memorial" finds an unlikely pornographic set-up within an office; "The Trinity" has a couple booking a vacation to Venice and ending up in Switzerland. Accidents spiral out of control in "The Penthouse Apartment," and in "A Complicated Nature," a man is forced to help his upstairs neighbor when her suitor unexpectedly dies. Another one of the best stories of this collection is "Broken Homes," where an elderly woman suffers the indignities of having her kitchen painted by a team of indifferent youths. Other first-rate stories include "The Smoke Trees of San Pietro," where a boy's sickness propels his mother into an affair, and "Death in Jerusalem" where a mother dies while on vacation.
Switch Bitch
by Roald Dahl

Switch Bitch is a collection of four well-plotted, and often surprising adult tales written by master storyteller, Roald Dahl. I wish Dahl would have written more stories for the adult reader.

One critic writes: "Mr. Dahl's stories are stories to be read. That is, read on a dark night, with a strong drink close at hand, by the light of a single reading lamp.... Then you get the full effect. Yes, these stories are chilling and bizarre and simply wonderful. "

And I have to agree. Roald Dahl could easily be the best ever writer of 'twist in the tale' short stories.

The first story, "The Visitor," introduces us to Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, noted seducer extraordinaire. It's a story-within-a-story that begins as the narrator explains how he came to inherit all 28 volumes of his uncle's memoirs. After inheriting his long-absent uncle's books, the narrator reads through them all and desperately wants them to be published and shared with the world. Unfortunately the books contain many salacious details, including the names of many (married) woman that Oswald slept with and whose husbands would not find such a scandal appealing. I won't spoil it and tell you what happens, but it gets quite complicated (and very amusing). The "saga" continues in the final story, "Bitch".

In "The Great Switcheroo," Vic lusts after Samantha, the wife of his best friend and neighbor Jerry. Samantha is a faithful woman, though, and Vic knows he stands no chance of seducing her. So he concocts a plan that will allow him and Jerry to switch wives for an evening without the women knowing it. Again, I won't give it away but things don't work out quite as Vic has expected.

"The Last Act" is not a nice story, but life isn't always nice and tidy now, is it? When Anna Cooper finds out that her beloved husband Ed has been killed in a car accident, it nearly drives her crazy and she doesn't want to live without him.

Both "The Great Switcheroo" and "The Last Act" illustrate the power of desire that is a double-edged sword, both pleasurable and potentially catastrophic.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Margaret Atwood's

When I read the reviews of this novel, I had to overcome some negativity on my part in my attitude about it because I felt that Atwood had copied an idea from Doris Lessing's Mara and Dann, which is also set in a chaotic future when everything is going to hell.

I am glad, however, that I decided to read Atwood's book. Oryx and Crake is an excellent story of how things could possibly go arwy with cloning and bio-engineering in the future.

Different from her futuristic novel, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is even bleaker. The runaway social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event. Jimmy, apparently the last human being on earth, makes his way back to where he used to work at the RejoovenEsence compound to gather some supplies. The reader is transported backwards toward that cataclysmic event as its full dimensions is gradually revealed.

Jimmy grew up in a world split between corporate compounds (gated communities metastasized into city-states) and pleeblands (unsafe, populous and polluted urban centers). His best friend was "Crake," the name originally his handle in an interactive Net game, Extinctathon. Even Jimmy's mother-who ran off and joined an ecology guerrilla group when Jimmy was an adolescent-respected Crake, already a budding genius.

The two friends first encountered Oryx on the Net; she was the eight-year-old star of a pedophilic film on a site called HottTotts. Oryx's story is a counterpoint to Jimmy and Crake's affluent adolescence. She was sold by her Southeast Asian parents, taken to the city and eventually made into a sex "pixie" in some distant country. Jimmy meets Oryx much later-after college, after Crake gets Jimmy a job with ReJoovenEsence.

Crake is designing the Crakers-a new, multicolored placid race of human beings, smelling vaguely of citron. He's procured Oryx to be his personal assistant. She teaches the Crakers how to cope in the world and goes out on secret missions. The mystery on which this riveting, disturbing tale hinges is how Crake and Oryx and civilization vanished, and how Jimmy-who also calls himself "the Snowman," after that other rare, hunted specimen, the Abominable Snowman-survived. Chesterton once wrote of the "thousand romances that lie secreted in The Origin of Species." Atwood has extracted one of the most hair-raising of them, and one of the most brilliant.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Doris Lessing
The Sweetest Dream

From Publishers Weekly

In lieu of writing volume three of her autobiography ("because of possible hurt to vulnerable people"), the grand dame of English letters delves into the 1960s and beyond, where she left off in her second volume of memoirs, Walking in the Shade. The result is a shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced "earth" mother and her passel of teenage live-ins. Frances Lennox and her two adolescent sons, Andrew and Colin, and their motley friends have taken over the bottom floors of a rambling house in Hampstead, London. The house is owned by Frances's well-heeled German-born ex-mother-in-law, Julia, who tolerates Frances's slovenly presence out of guilt for past neglect and a shared aversion for Julia's son, Johnny Lennox, deadbeat dad and flamboyant, unregenerate Communist. Frances's first love is the theater, but she must support "the kids," and so she works as a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. Over the roiling years that begin with news of President Kennedy's assassination, a mutable assortment of young habituEs gather around Frances's kitchen table, and Comrade Johnny makes cameo appearances, ever espousing Marxist propaganda to the rapt young dropouts. Johnny is a brilliantly galling character, who pushes both Julia and Frances to the brink of despair (and true affection for each other). Lessing clearly relishes the recalcitrant '60s, yet she follows her characters through the women's movement of the '70s and a lengthy final digression in '90s Africa. Lessing's sage, level gaze is everywhere brought to bear, though she occasionally falls into clucking, I-told-you-so hindsight, especially on the subject of the failed Communist dream. While the last section lacks the intimate presence of long-suffering Frances, the novel is weightily molded by Lessing's rich life experience and comes to a momentous conclusion.

While I am a huge fan of Lessing's writing and did my Master's thesis on Lessing, for some reason this novel irritated me. One thing I found particularily annoying was whenever problems arose in the "family" or whenever there were things to discuss, Frances would head for the refrigerator and pull out food and make a huge meal no matter what time it was. It was as if food would "fix" any problem. Or maybe it was the way that Frances "martyred" herself for these punk kids, several of whom were ungrateful shitheads. It is also irritating the way she overuses the term "kids" for the young people she harbors. Most of them aren't "kids", they are hoodlums who take advantage of her. Frances has a martyr complex which leads her to tolerate jerks who turned around and betrayed her in horrendously destructive, cruel, and selfish ways, and I found myself frustrated with Frances for not having thrown them out. Especially the bastard of an ex-husband Johnny who she lets waltz into her house unannounced at any time.Now that I have these things off my chest, I can now go on to the good points about the novel.

Lessing is hard on all the ideologies that are touched upon through the plot: she goes after communists, hippies, feminists, the internationalist development elite, journalists, and even Third World leaders. In other words, there are no simple answers; instead, the questions just get tougher. While there is a lot of humor in this, it is very dense, a kind of reverse history of idealism, showcasing the self-serving egotism that underlies the motives of virtually all the characters. What is amazing is how well it succeeds in bringing these ideas to life through the characters, though I found the second half of the book, much of which takes place in Africa, less strong than the first half.

I don't feel this is Lessing's best work. It was too short of a novel for such complex problems and ideologies she was attempting to examine.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Don DeLillo's

DeLillo’s dense, lyrical, precise novels have come to be considered classics of American postmodern literature. Postmodernism is a wide-ranging and slippery term applied to art, literature, philosophy, history, and numerous other disciplines. It denotes a historical period, beginning roughly around the end of the World War II and continuing until today, as well as a particular set of concerns, affinities, sensibilities, and forms. Generally speaking, postmodern literature is fascinated by the trappings of contemporary bourgeois culture. In particular, DeLillo is preoccupied with the rise of technology, the power of images, and the pervasiveness of the media. Like many postmodernists, DeLillo finds popular culture highly compelling, and celebrities, cult figures, and pop icons appear frequently throughout his novels. In White Noise, the postmodern condition is manifested as a kind of information overload, as the protagonist, Jack Gladney, moves through a world increasingly submerged in marketing imagery and media stimuli.

DeLillo’s novels are also characteristically postmodern in the anxious, skeptical way they treat the question of knowledge. Philosophically, postmodernism contends that real, definitive knowledge is impossible and that truth is forever shifting and relative. Complex and intricately woven, DeLillo’s novels string together a never-ending web of connections that ultimately frustrate any attempt to draw definite conclusions. Throughout White Noise, Jack Gladney, the narrator, constantly connects seemingly random events, dates, and facts in an attempt to form a cohesive understanding of his world. Behind that attempt lies a deep-seated need to find meaning in a media-obsessed age driven by images, appearances, and rampant material consumption.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Margaret Atwood's

In the world of the near future, who will control women's bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now....

Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid's Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.

Atwood both stuns and captivates the reader's attention. This shocking tale explains the consequences of religious extremism gone too far. This book challenges views on traditional religion and makes one realize the importance of freedom of religion.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
by Peter Hedges

Set in Eudora, Iowa ("population 1091 and dwindling") 24-year-old Gilbert Grape has taken upon himself the responsibility of his wacky family after the suicide of his father. Since his father's death, all his enormous mother does it eat. She has grown to the size of a small whale and never leaves the sofa where she sits and eats day after day. The floorboards under where Mama sits are weakening causing Gilbert to install extra support to be built to keep the floor from caving in. It's as if she wants to commit suicide with food and cigarettes. His older sister, Amy, still hasn't gotten over the death of Elvis while his younger sister, is hooked on make-up-boys and Jesus. The main event of the book is the upcoming birthday of Gilbert's retarded younger brother, Arnie who is as sweet as can be one moment and a holy terror the next. His special interest is running away and climbing the town water tower.

Sheila Riley of Smithsonian Inst. Libs writes: "Gilbert is saved by a beautiful and strange girl who startles him into life. That such a creature would take an interest in an apparent loser like Gilbert requires the reader's willing suspension of disbelief; but with such appealingly funny writing, one is only too happy to oblige. Highly recommended for fiction collections." I couldn't agree more. This was a delightful story, with a sort of sad ending, but also heartwarming at the same time. As one reviewer put it, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a novel that will remain long after the pages are closed."

Note: The movie version starring Johnny Depp is just as good as the book, and not only because I am a big Johnny Depp fan. :-)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

David Sedaris's
Me Talk Pretty One Day

In this loosely assembled collection of short stories, David Sedaris tells the tale of his life from adolesence to adulthood. "You Can't Kill the Rooster" hit so close to home, it could have been my own story about me and my brother who is also eleven years younger than I am. Sedaris's parents "worship" their youngest son who calls himself "Rooster." Rooster, who can do no wrong in his parents' eyes, calls his father "motherfucker" in casual conversation and the father doesn't even flinch. I like Rooster's wisdom, however, when things go wrong, his philosophy is "when shit gets you down, just say 'fuck it,' and eat yourself some motherfucking candy."

Another element of the story that was all too real for me was how his parents treat their dogs better than they do their children. I was laughing with tears rolling down my cheeks when I read the part when David's mother grabs a camera and tells him to hit her so as to provoke the Great Dane to "protect" her and then snaps photos of David huddled on the floor as he tries to fend off the huge mutt. It is both a relief and disturbing to know that there is at least one other family in the world like my own.

Every glimpse we get of Sedaris's family and acquaintances delivers laughs and insights. He thwarts his North Carolina speech therapist ("for whom the word pen had two syllables") by cleverly avoiding all words with s sounds, which reveal the lisp she sought to correct. His midget guitar teacher, Mister Mancini, is unaware that Sedaris doesn't share his obsession with breasts, and sings "Light My Fire" all wrong--"as if he were a Webelo scout demanding a match." As a remarkably unqualified teacher at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sedaris had his class watch soap operas and assign "guessays" on what would happen in the next day's episode.

To write more would be to give too much away. I highly recommend reading it for yourself. If we all could laugh at the absurdity in our lives we would not need so much medication and therapy.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chinua Achebe's
Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is set in the 1890s and portrays the clash between Nigeria’s white colonial government and the traditional culture of the indigenous Ibo people. Achebe’s novel shatters the stereotypical European portraits of native Africans. He is careful to portray the complex, advanced social institutions and artistic traditions of Ibo culture prior to its contact with Europeans. Yet he is just as careful not to stereotype the Europeans; he offers varying depictions of the white man, such as the mostly benevolent Mr. Brown, the zealous Reverend Smith, and the ruthlessly calculating District Commissioner.

Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University says it better than I can say: "Achebe is trying not only to inform the outside world about Ibo cultural traditions, but to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering." "He also fiercely resents the stereotype of Africa as an undifferentiated 'primitive' land, the 'heart of darkness,' as [Joseph] Conrad calls it. Throughout the novel he shows how African cultures vary among themselves and how they change over time."

When one culture brings their religion and way of life to another, it sort of melds together and creates a whole new religion using elements of both of the others. With this comes conflict, division, and though some good may come of it, it also brings different kinds of problems to deal with.

Since change occurs in most cultures over time, it is my opinion that Achebe was showing that interference from the outsiders caused the Ibo culture to fall apart. The culture likely would have changed over time, however it most likely would not have fallen apart.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Victor Pelevin's
The Life of Insects

ussian author, Victor Pelevin combines several stories into a single novel, allowing, as one reviewer put it, "a picture to emerge of a society as a whole, not from the top-down as if by some Soviet-style central design, but rather from the bottom-up, where individuals live their own lives, only vaguely aware of others outside of their sphere.
The Life of Insects becomes a commentary on modern Russian society, with various factions each being represented by some variety of insect, beginning with enterprising mosquitoes in a clear reference to the 'New Russians' that emerged at the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Reminiscent of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, humans find themselves morphing into insects, and mysteriously acquiring insect-like instincts while retaining human thoughts and feelings. Comical, yet sad, Pelevin writes with biting satire. Basically, the author is saying that humans are complacent and accept our lives as they are, content to roll our "balls of dung" and fundamentally nothing really changes in society. As reviewer C. Matthew Curtin writes "we are shown very clearly that for whatever struggles might take place at the individual level, circumstances far beyond our control will dictate the manner of our daily lives as we hope to produce another generation of the species before we meet our own ends."

I didn't know whether to be amused or depressed. This work is very imaginative and very real at the same time. The insect-characters are very interesting and representative of the various factions of society. Beetles obsessed with rolling their own dung only to be able to pass on their ball of shit to their offspring. (Which is representative of one generation passing its problems on to the next.) Blood-sucking mosquitoes, moths who struggle against flying into the light, a pregnant female ant, an ant who decides she wants to be a fly . . . I was left a little confused about the characters and their attitudes, which is probably intentional upon the author's part.

The settings are often unclear, which is probably also what the author intended to provide a sense of uncertainty that the characters experience. Insects are always coming and going from insect world to human world. Pelevin is attempting to show how often we let our surroundings define us, thus losing sense of the individual. When our surroundings are forcibly changed for whatever reason, we often lose the sense of who we are, or realize we never really knew who we were all along.

I give this novel four starts. It's a very interesting and meaningful read, even though the idea was obviously borrowed from Kafka, which makes the story not so unique in its creation.