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.