This is the best Vonnegut I’ve read so far. American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is awaiting trial on war crimes. A traitor to the American people, C...moreThis is the best Vonnegut I’ve read so far. American Nazi Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is awaiting trial on war crimes. A traitor to the American people, Campbell is responsible for the deliberate spread of damaging propaganda throughout Germany and its occupied territories during World War II. He is an evil, dangerous man who is undoubtedly guilty of high treason.
Or is he?
As the account of Campbell’s life in Germany unfolds, much is revealed about his motives, the benign sequence of events leading to his becoming a member of the Nazi Party, and the identity of the actual organization from which he draws his paycheck: United States intelligence. So as it turns out, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is a spy! He is an American hero, wrongly accused and undoubtedly deserving of complete exoneration.
Or is he?
The distinction here between villain and hero is a line that is wonderfully blurred by Vonnegut, who delivers his story with perfunctory prose and offers up one surprising twist after another until the novel’s depressing conclusion. Interestingly, Vonnegut introduces this story with a quote that comes to define Campbell and the ultimate “moral” of Mother Night perfectly:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
As an aside, I’ve heard a lot of reviewers refer to Campbell as a double agent. Although I’m not exactly sure what qualifies for “double agency,” I do think it involves being a secret member of the secret organization you are trying to secretly infiltrate...so you can learn their secrets. So having cleared that up, I think it’s more likely that Campbell is just a plain old mole.(less)
When I read excerpts of Don Quixote in high school, which I think must be a requisite for any Spanish language class taken by anybody ever, I was asto...moreWhen I read excerpts of Don Quixote in high school, which I think must be a requisite for any Spanish language class taken by anybody ever, I was astounded that something so seemingly banal could be as wildly popular and possess such longevity as this book is and does. At the time, I did not find Don Quixote to be anything more than a bumbling fool chasing imaginary villains and falling into easily avoidable situations, and the forced hilarity that would ensue seemed to be of the same kind I recognized in farcical skits performed by eegits like The Three Stooges.
But I suspected there was something more to Don Quixote than what my 14 year-old impressions were telling me, and I’m glad I finally read this book in its entirety. Having done so, I’ve discovered that Don Quixote is not a bumbling idiot—far from it, in fact. He is highly intelligent, highly perceptive and observant, and most surprisingly, and in spite of his delusions of being a knight errant, he is actually also highly self-aware. The combination of these traits makes him one of the most interesting characters in literature, and if it weren’t for his fallibility in misinterpreting reality (to put it nicely), the brilliance of Don Quixote would be elevated to unapproachable levels.
Putting the characters aside, though, I have to say that the storytelling here is simply superb. When reading an English translation, I never know whether credit for this ought to be awarded to the author or to the translator (or to both!), but nonetheless this is the kind of writing that just pulls a reader along effortlessly. Each episodic adventure rolls seamlessly into the next and even while the subject of many of these adventures covers similar ground—a maiden who has been dishonored by her man is one such theme, for example—it never seems recycled.
Don Quixote is actually comprised of two volumes written about a decade apart. Historically speaking, there was an erroneous book published in between Cervantes’s own two works under the pretense of being the “real” volume two of the tale of Don Quixote, but was attributed to an unidentified author with the pseudonym Avellaneda. It is likely that this fake version lit a match under Cervantes, and what I love about this little piece of history is that when Cervantes actually completes his authentic second volume, it is riddled with allusions to Avellaneda’s deceptive book, and these allusions become so ingrained in the text that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. At one point Don Quixote meets someone who claims to know him, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the claimant has actually met Avellaneda’s Don Quixote, and the real Don Quixote is horrified that someone should have the audacity, not just to impersonate him, but to do such a horrible job impersonating him, that he goes to great lengths (and yes, we’re talking about the character here) to prove to anyone and everyone that he is the real Don Quixote. He even changes his itinerary to avoid a city that the fake Don Quixote purportedly goes to, just to make it clear that Avellaneda is a lying whore and cannot be trusted. Metafictional stuff like that can be pretty entertaining in its own right, but the fact that it was implemented in a book written over four hundred years ago just makes it all the more mind blowing, or at least it does to me.
All in all, I had a hard time letting go of DQ when I finished this book. It turns out I really fell for the guy.(less)
This book has immediately become one of my favorites. Manderley stands out like a main character in this novel with sights, sounds, and smells so rich...moreThis book has immediately become one of my favorites. Manderley stands out like a main character in this novel with sights, sounds, and smells so richly described. The unnamed narrator often finds herself daydreaming, imagining hypothetical situations playing themselves out in her head, which is really intriguing. But mostly, it is the crafting of suspense throughout the story that is most impressive—it was as though I were hanging on every word until the very last sentence. A masterful novel in so many ways.
And maybe tonight I’ll dream of going to Manderley again.(less)
The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.
It is statistically improbable that I will read a book as good...moreThe world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.
It is statistically improbable that I will read a book as good as this one anytime soon. Although I’ll admit it starts off slowly, I found that the depths of this novel are revealed as the protagonist’s life unfolds. Something of a bildungsroman, Cutting for Stone focuses on a pair of twin boys who are born and raised in an African missionary hospital. Their story combines elements of Indian and Ethiopian language and culture, third world medicine, sexual awakening, political revolution, foreign travel, and of course, and easily my favorite, emotional and complex family drama. Written in a style of prose that allows one to forget the author is even there, Verghese really captures what it means to be human—that the frailty of life isn’t distinct from the strength of the spirit, but that one complements the other. ShivaMarion’s story is about as moving as it gets, and I’ve got a few tear stains on my Kindle to prove it.(less)
This is just a pithy review on the Harry Potter series as a whole. It is not an in-depth analysis of the work in general, nor is it a review on any on...moreThis is just a pithy review on the Harry Potter series as a whole. It is not an in-depth analysis of the work in general, nor is it a review on any one particular installment.
Harry Potter is a work of art. I got made fun of once¹ when I was out to dinner with some friends, because while we were discussing these books I made the mistake of referring to them as “literature.” I felt like I had to defend that assertion because, although the definition of literature is pretty broad, it seems like it should really only apply to works with some definable qualitative value or literary merit. In this case, my friends were wrong—Rowling explores themes and concepts in this series that I think are valuable to children and young adults who look to her characters for qualities they seek to emulate, and I believe her works will have lasting impact on this and future generations.
I’ve heard it said before that everything you need to know you’ve learned in kindergarten. Well, that might be somewhat of an oversimplification, but I do think children or young adults who grow into this series, seeing Harry and his friends mature as they themselves mature, can glean some pretty important life lessons from it. They are impressionable human beings who are learning about themselves and are starting to make the choices that reflect the kinds of people they want to be.
So what does Harry Potter teach them? Well, here is a bullet list of what it has taught me. And if you’re good, I’ll think about turning this into a PowerPoint presentation. Or maybe not.
• The quality of your character is not a reflection of where you come from or who your parents are; rather, it is a reflection of the choices you make, so make them wisely.
• The way you treat other people, especially those less fortunate than you, reveals your true colors more quickly and more completely than almost anything else you do.
• It is a good thing to have dreams and ambitions, but that alone is not enough. You cannot expect success without effort.
• It is far less important what your abilities are than what you actually do with them. Your abilities alone do not define you.
• Nobody likes to fail, but to refuse an attempt at success on the grounds that you’re afraid to fail is failure in itself.
Growing up is about figuring out who you are and coming to terms with your strengths and weaknesses, and it is about deciding how to utilize the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses in order to become a better person. It’s a lifelong struggle, but it starts early, and I think Harry Potter offers the tools to help achieve that. It can help young people find their way, and maybe that’s an oversimplification for a seven-volume series of novels, but that’s what I got out of it, and that’s why I will recommend this to my kids as they start to become ready for some life lessons of their own.
¹This is misleading; I’ve been made fun of countless, countless times.(less)
A disturbingly comedic (or comically disturbing?) satire of the inevitability of war, the age old fate vs. free will argument, and the gross desensiti...moreA disturbingly comedic (or comically disturbing?) satire of the inevitability of war, the age old fate vs. free will argument, and the gross desensitization of death, Slaughterhouse-Five analyzes the effects of the Bombing of Dresden on World War II veteran Billy Pilgrim. Told in a nonlinear narrative that is common for Vonnegut, this novel employs the rare literary device I like to call “Twilight Zone–ish extraterrestrialism,” which serves to highlight both the absurdity of free will as well as Pilgrim’s sense of temporal confusion resulting from his experiences with war. So it goes.(less)
The first reason is Lady Macbeth. Man, that girl has got it goin’ on. Have you ever found yourself in the runn...moreThere are two reasons to love this play.
The first reason is Lady Macbeth. Man, that girl has got it goin’ on. Have you ever found yourself in the running for, say, a new position that’s opened up at your company, a position for which you—along with one of your equally worthy colleagues, perhaps—might qualify? You may not have given much thought to your professional advancement before, but now that this promotion has been dangled before you, it has ignited a spark of ambitious desire. Imagine the possibilities! And it is just within your grasp...if only there were a way to edge out the competition. Maybe you could sabotage a project he’s working on. Or you could discredit him by rumoring of his incompetence. Better yet, you could off him in the parking garage. But each of these strategies requires a certain level of gumption to execute, a level not everyone possesses. This is where it pays to be married to Lady Macbeth. All she would need is a mere mention of this potential uptick in your career path and she’s off and running, drafting the schematics, telling you where to stand (just outside the stairwell, across from his car, within easy reach of the tire iron lying in the corner that can be used while he’s distractedly sifting through his keys). Why doesn’t she do it herself, you ask? Well, why should she? It’s not her job. Her job is to support you, to boost your confidence, to supply that additional gumption. You’re the one who has to do the dirty work.
Lady Macbeth is an amazing character. I’ve seen reviews on here that criticize her for being the morally reprehensible of the two protagonists, planting ideas in her husband’s head that he would not have otherwise formed, encouraging him toward evil deeds that he would not have otherwise committed. I disagree. She may have made a mistake helping to plan Duncan’s murder, but if anything Lady Macbeth is the one with her moral faculties still intact—she exhibits a profound sense of remorse at the end of the play that Macbeth recognizes as nothing short of an ailment for which to seek a cure. While Macbeth is off slaughtering anyone who might threaten his regal standing, his wife is at home rubbing the fuck out of her hands until the blisters explode and she suffocates in a pool of her own pus.
The second reason to love this play is the eloquence of the language. There are passages in this play that describe human emotion so briefly yet so profoundly it triggers goosebumps. These are some of my favorites:
On expressing one’s grief: What, man! ne’er pull your hat upon your brows; Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
On not having enough gumption: Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way: thou wouldst be great; Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it.
On contemplating ambition’s worth: Nought’s had, all’s spent, Where our desire is got without content: ’Tis safer to be that which we destroy Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.
On being past the point of no return: All causes shall give way: I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
On the futility of life: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
On the finality of death: There’s nothing serious in mortality: All is but toys: renown and grace is dead; The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees Is left this vault to brag of.
I said in the comments section of my Hamlet review that I was preferring Hamlet to Macbeth. While I think I prefer the character of Hamlet to that of Macbeth, I no longer stand by that statement in terms of the play itself. Macbeth really is a masterpiece.(less)
I don’t know what to say about Hamlet. I could go on about how it is a story of madness and revenge. I c...more“Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.”
I don’t know what to say about Hamlet. I could go on about how it is a story of madness and revenge. I could talk about the bonds of family loyalty, the sacrifices of love, the breaches of trust and their deleterious effects on the psyche. But this is old news—Hamlet has been around for over four hundred years. What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said?
When my wife saw I was reading Shakespeare, her snippy comment went something like, “What are you reading that for? Don’t you you have enough drama in your life?” Which, thanks Cristina, and yes I suppose I do, but what of it? Drama can be so much freaking fun. There is a reason it sells, a reason there are countless dramatic television shows on the air, countless box office films released each year rehashing the same old dramatic plotlines (some to great effect; others, not so much). And there is a reason people are still reading Shakespeare centuries upon centuries after his death: they are fun, they are witty, they are ever so dramatic.
Hamlet is no exception. With plot elements involving fratricide, lethal potions, mistaken identity, forgery of correspondence, espionage and treachery, along with a solid dose of hanging out with the ghosts of dead relatives, one could imagine I’m reviewing an episode of General Hospital. But what is Hamlet if not a soap opera for the Elizabethans? It is an epically tragic train wreck crammed into five tiny acts.
What makes this piece of drama so timeless, though, is that its action is served in such perfect complement by its depiction of character. We all know what Prince Hamlet is going to do before he does it. Hamlet himself, even while doubting his abilities and struggling with his resolve, knows how it’s going to all play out. Why else would he be so cruel to Ophelia? And yet it is this internal turmoil that fuels our interest in the action. It might seem like an ordinary train wreck at its surface, but upon deeper inspection it is a train wreck in whose conductors and engineers we have a vested interest.
So, witty discourse meets fast-paced drama meets penetrating character introspection? It almost makes me wonder what would have become of Luke and Laura had William Shakespeare been in charge of the script.(less)
Franzen’s writing is impeccable. Not only does his understanding of complex, familial relationships fascinate me, but his ability to capture these cha...moreFranzen’s writing is impeccable. Not only does his understanding of complex, familial relationships fascinate me, but his ability to capture these characters—all five of them, I might add—with such depth...I think that is what really drew me in as a reader. I mean, these are people who are so flawed emotionally and so utterly selfish inherently, and yet each of them has this capacity for loving one another even while recognizing their inability to stand each other for more than five minutes at a time: in a sense they are more human than most humans. And Franzen knows how to write a sentence, my God. All this book did was remind me why I love to read.
Honestly, I try to give five stars sparingly, but this one I fully endorse. I think what makes it better than Freedom is that I walked away from this with a knot in my stomach (I really felt something here!). Seven year-old Chip being left alone at the dinner table until it was late enough for him to fall asleep on his placemat bothered me. Juxtapose that with the tenderness Chip shows his dad toward the end of the novel, and you start to wonder whether this man was ever really the emotionally unavailable tyrant that you thought he was. Either way, this just serves as a huge reminder for me to appreciate the way things are now while my kids are still young, because it’s probably not always going to be this simple.(less)
This is the second time I’ve read this book, the first being in high school. As it turns out, I remembered hardly anything about the story save for so...moreThis is the second time I’ve read this book, the first being in high school. As it turns out, I remembered hardly anything about the story save for some burning bed curtains and an attic bound lunatic. What I enjoyed most, though, was Brontë’s exceptional skill at communicating human feeling by way of metaphor. Taking an example, Jane explains her tormented feelings of leaving Mr. Rochester as being struck with a barbed arrow:
Oh, that fear of his self-abandonment—far worse than my abandonment—how it goaded me! It was a barbed arrow-head in my breast; it tore me when I tried to extract it; it sickened me when remembrance thrust it farther in.
The entire novel is filled with this brilliant imagery. Brontë is a master of language and it is amazing how one can relate to these described emotions nearly two hundred years later. Although I do find it mildly ridiculous that Jane just happens to chance upon her long lost relatives in the woods, overall I really really enjoyed this book. Again.(less)
At the Museum of Science in Boston, there is an exhibit just outside the doors of the Planetarium that demonstrates—through a series of adjacent panel...moreAt the Museum of Science in Boston, there is an exhibit just outside the doors of the Planetarium that demonstrates—through a series of adjacent panels—the scale of the Earth in relation to the universe at large. The first panel shows the Earth’s location in the Solar System (as a microscopic dot, mind you), which is followed by a second panel showing the Solar System’s location in the Milky Way (also microscopic). The third panel is of the galaxy’s location in its Supercluster or whateverthefuck it’s called, and so forth and so on, concluding with a final panel depicting the entire observable universe. Reading Cloud Atlas is like zooming out from a point on the Earth to the edge of the universe and then back in again, as represented by those aforementioned panels. Do we need a visual aid?
This novel, of course, has little to do with the cosmos, but the analogy is fitting for describing the vastness of its scope. It is a hugely ambitious novel connecting characters through space and time, from Adam Ewing’s mid-nineteenth century voyage from the Chatham Islands to Sonmi~451’s ascent to sentience at an indeterminate period in Korea’s future, and several places in between. The novel then goes even further into the future, so far in fact that it becomes indistinguishable from the past, and like the reverse zoom in the video above, the novel collapses back in on itself, ending exactly where it began.
“Yay, Old Uns’ Smart mastered sicks, miles, seeds an’ made miracles ord’nary, but it din’t master one thing, nay, a hunger in the hearts o’ humans, yay, a hunger for more.”
Cloud Atlas is about human slavery and captivity as it exists in all its forms, at all points in time. Throughout history, humans have enslaved each other on the basis of skin color and racial background, religious beliefs and cultural or ethnic differences. The weak have been enslaved to the strong, the old to the young, and the poor to the well-to-do. This novel goes a step further by exploring the concept of knowledge and how it relates to the socioeconomic hierarchy of the future. Knowledge is all that separates us from savagery, and yet it is our most transient asset. I am probably making this book sound like a course in sociology, though it is anything but. Cloud Atlas is a brilliantly constructed novel delineating the cyclicality of human civilization and it is written by someone who has immediately become one of my favorite authors. In fact, David Mitchell’s only flaw is that he is indecisive. Unable to choose among the various genres of fiction available, he ends up...writing them all! Cloud Atlas is historical fiction, it is a dark comedy, it is a crime thriller, it is science fiction, it is a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
The middle chapter, while the most difficult to read, is easily my favorite. In Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, humanity’s perpetual quest for domination provides the very spark needed to create and sustain civilization. However, this quest is a double-edged sword that becomes its own downfall, since domination is a self-defeating goal, and it is this downfall that ultimately causes civilization to collapse. But despite its bleak forecasts, Cloud Atlas inspires a glimmer of hope for our future, for as insignificant as one person may be, as much as one fathoms his life to have no impact greater than that of a single drop in a limitless ocean, the question is posed: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
Ah, my first DBR. And possibly my last, as this could be a complete shit show. Approaching a review of Moby-Dick in a stat...more“Where the White Whale, yo?”
Ah, my first DBR. And possibly my last, as this could be a complete shit show. Approaching a review of Moby-Dick in a state of sobriety just wasn’t cutting it, though. So let’s raise our glasses to Option B, yeah?
I fucking love this book. It took me eight hundred years to read it, but it was so, so worth it. Melville’s writing is impeccable. The parallels he draws, even when he’s seemingly pulling them out of his ass, which I swear to God he’s doing, because who can find this many parallels to draw when talking about a whale, are just perfect. He can compare any and every aspect of the whale—did you know this whole book is about a whale?—to the human condition. And he does so in a way that is humorous and poetic. It is pretty remarkable, I tell you.
So here’s the thing: I had zero interest in whales before starting this book. But holy hell if I haven’t been googling the crap out of them lately. I mean, it’s the mark of a superior writer (isn’t it?) to command one’s attention—not just to hold it but to carry it forth hither and thither—for seven hundred pages of a book about a whale. It’s impressive, really, when you think about it. And yet, this book suffers a severe level of under-appreciation on TEH GOODREADS. It has an average rating of 3.33, which is extraordinarily dismal by this website’s standards (and with almost a quarter million ratings so far, it is unlikely to migrate much from that figure). So in an attempt to understand what it is people hate about this book, I filtered the community reviews to show 1-star results, and here is what I’ve discovered:
• This book would have been great, admits Anulka, if it weren’t for that darn tootin’ whale interfering with the story.
• The language is too much for Gil Michelini, who believes words have their place (after all we are not heathens!), but they simply do not belong in this novel.
• Marlan’s complaint is that there is too great a lack of story here, so much so that it feels crammed in. It’s like trying to squeeze a cookie into a breadbox.
• Still others have been befuddled by this novel’s ability to hoodwink its readers into thinking they like it (when in fact they don’t), a bizarre phenomenon Esther Hansen can personally attest to.
• Finally, Keya offers a sobering perspective, which is that people are only reading this book to read it, meaning that if they weren’t reading it, then it would simply be a book not being read. Truly, Yogi Berra couldn’t have put it better himself.
But Keya does bring up an interesting point here: why doesn’t Ahab just “get over it” and live his life? I mean, should that be so hard? In some sense, the White Whale is nothing more than a stand-in for everything that has gone wrong in Ahab’s life. He mounts this campaign against the stand-in but isn’t that sort of disingenuous? After all, it’s not the whale that’s responsible for his miserable life. Ahab claims to be an instrument of fate, but fate in this case seems nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Oh, fuck, my fingers hurt from the backspace.
Look, here’s the bottom line. I was afraid this book would be long and boring. And now I wonder how many people hesitate reading it because of its bad rap. Well I’m here to tell you, Potential Reader, this book might be long but it is by no means boring. (Therefore, it is long and exciting? TWSS?) I implore you to ignore the negative reviews! Melville has a talent for flowing, humorous prose, and there is so much of it here to enjoy.
Experiencing Mrs. Dalloway is like being a piece of luggage on an airport conveyor belt, traversing lazily through a crowd of passengers, over and aro...moreExperiencing Mrs. Dalloway is like being a piece of luggage on an airport conveyor belt, traversing lazily through a crowd of passengers, over and around and back again, but with the added bonus of being able to read people’s thoughts as they pass; this one checking his flight schedule, that one arguing with his wife, the one over there struggling with her cart, bumping into those arguing and checking. For the most part, the ride is smooth as Woolf transitions from one consciousness to another. But at times, I find myself falling off the conveyor belt. Whether this is a result of my own inabilities or whether Woolf’s dreamy style leads me naturally astray into my own wanderings, I do not know. But I do know that the effort to get back onto her belt are handsomely rewarded.
In short, this novel contains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen in print e-ink (welcome to the 21st century, Mrs D). But although quoting long passages in a Goodreads review is not usually my modus operandi, I feel I must do so here just to demonstrate my point. Have you ever had your mind so preoccupied with “stuff” that sometimes a passing comment triggers a strange feeling of not quite right–ness, a feeling which stems from the ability of your subconscious to somehow absorb the comment even while the conscious part of your brain has not yet had time to process it? This happens to me all the time, and that nagging feeling persists until I find time to reflect on what has caused it. Here Woolf captures the moment perfectly:
But—but—why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy? As a person who has dropped some grain of pearl or diamond into the grass and parts the tall blades very carefully, this way and that, and searches here and there vainly, and at last spies it there at the roots, so she went through one thing and another; no, it was not Sally Seton saying that Richard would never be in the Cabinet because he had a second-class brain (it came back to her); no, she did not mind that; nor was it to do with Elizabeth either and Doris Kilman; those were facts. It was a feeling, some unpleasant feeling, earlier in the day perhaps; something that Peter had said, combined with some depression of her own, in her bedroom, taking off her hat; and what Richard had said had added to it, but what had he said? There were his roses. Her parties! That was it! Her parties! Both of them criticised her very unfairly, laughed at her very unjustly, for her parties. That was it! That was it!
Besides shedding light on my own strange neurosis, I think this passage also reveals something interesting about Clarissa Dalloway. Why do Peter’s comments about her being the perfect hostess bother her so much? Mrs. Dalloway often claims to be fortunate to have married a man who allows her to be independent, and to be grateful to have avoided a catastrophic marriage to one who would have stifled her. But to me, these are just rationalizations for her decision to marry someone with whom she does not share the kind of intimacy that she might have otherwise had. In a way, her parties have taken the place of that intimacy, though it is an intimacy on her terms—she is able to enjoy the company of her high society friends while still keeping them at a comfortable enough distance to shield them from learning too much about her. When Peter gently mocks her parties, it annoys her because it invariably results in her having to reconcile the sacrifices she has made in exchange for her current lifestyle.
Another noteworthy aspect of Woolf’s writing is her acute description of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD was not formally recognized until the 1970s, and even though documentation of symptoms was common in the 1940s when World War II veterans were being treated for “mental disturbances,” the fact that Woolf delves into this subject as early as 1925 is pretty profound. Back then, shell shock meant that you were suffering from a form of “exhaustion,” as if veterans of the Great War were no worse off than Britney Spears after a few too many nights out. In this regard, Septimus is a truly tragic character, a victim of a time and place without the resources to help him. His mental anguish seems also to mirror the sufferings of the unrelated Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, despite crossing paths in only the most abstract of ways, Clarissa and Septimus have quite a bit in common. They both struggle to balance their private lives against the need for social inclusion, they both internalize their emotions at the expense of personal relationships, and they both end up having to make difficult choices (albeit with drastically different outcomes) about their respective futures.
It’s true. Mrs. Dalloway offers remarkable insight into its characters and is certainly worth the effort. My only question is: does this conveyor belt stop here, or will it take me To the Lighthouse?
[September 2012 Update] A recording of me reading this review can be found here.(less)
Alright, it’s high time I review this hermaphroditic little masterpiece.
Being a pseudo-biochemist (pseudo in the sense that I only pretend to be a bio...moreAlright, it’s high time I review this hermaphroditic little masterpiece.
Being a pseudo-biochemist (pseudo in the sense that I only pretend to be a biochemist, whereas in reality I write scientific development reports and other documents that no one will ever read but which I’ve convinced myself are just as fulfilling as doing real science), I find the premise of this novel to be incredibly interesting.
5α-Reductase deficiency is an autosomal recessive disorder; autosomal meaning that the gene coding for 5α-Reductase is not located on a sex chromosome (X or Y), and recessive meaning that one would need two copies of a mutated form of the gene in order to express the disease trait. Since we as a biological species inherit one copy of every gene from each of our parents, it would not be enough to have only one mutated form of this gene because a single “good” copy is all that’s required for proper function. Because of this, the proper-functioning gene is considered to be completely dominant over the mutated form in terms of phenotypic expression.
Here is a Punnett square showing basic concepts of Mendelian genetics:
Each form of the gene is called an allele: “B” represents the dominant allele, or the healthy gene form; “b” represents the recessive allele.
If both parents are phenotypically “normal,” the only way they would be able to have any offspring with this disease is if they were both carriers, meaning they each have one dominant and one recessive allele. In this way, they are said to be heterozygous for this trait, the genotype of which is represented as “Bb.” For any child they conceive, there would exist a 25% chance of that child inheriting two recessive alleles. This is referred to as being homozygous recessive, the genotype of which is represented as “bb.” Only homozygous recessive children will express the disease.
Since the protagonist of this novel has unluckily inherited both recessive alleles, one from each of his parents, he ends up with the disorder. So what is this disorder, exactly? The 5α-Reductase gene codes for an enzyme which converts testosterone into a potent sex steroid called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which plays a fundamental role in the formation of the male sex organs. Since disease subjects do not have the ability to convert testosterone into DHT, they end up with too much testosterone and not enough DHT, which in some cases leads to the formation of ambiguous genitalia.
These ambiguous genitalia form one of the many, but probably the most interesting, subjects of the novel. The author begins by tracing the history of these recessive alleles back through the family lineage before elegantly leading us to the budding of the protagonist’s crocus: his ambiguous little penis stub (yes, you should click there; and yes, you should see that movie). Perhaps not surprisingly, the historical tracing reveals some ancestral inbreeding, as well. And since the protagonist is still genotypically male (even though he doesn’t know it and neither do his parents or anybody else), the real fun begins when he enters puberty.
When I met with my book club to talk about this fantastic novel, a few pronoun choices were used for describing the protagonist: he, she, he-she-it, etc. But all joking aside, the protagonist is male. He is male by genotypic definition (he has two healthy sex chromosomes, one of which is a Y), and he sexually identifies himself as male which is consistent with other real-life sufferers of 5α-Reductase deficiency.(less)
There don’t appear to be enough reviews of Infinite Jest on Goodreads so I thought I’d go ahead and write another one.
Anyway, I kind of hated this boo...moreThere don’t appear to be enough reviews of Infinite Jest on Goodreads so I thought I’d go ahead and write another one.
Anyway, I kind of hated this book. I hated that its characters are essentially parodies of themselves which limited my ability to connect with them on any meaningful level. I hated the lack of linguistic nuance with which most of the characters speak, particularly given that the predominant speech pattern here is rife with superfluous clauses and multiple possessives, a pattern not normally attributable to prepubescent teens, especially. I hated the long, meandering passages that go nowhere and refuse to be ostensibly related to anything or be placed in any sort of clear context, much like this review. In fact, often times reading this book was like trying to follow a conversation wherein all the participants have attention deficit disorder. Infinite Jest is a book that needs like some major dose of Ritalin® stat.
But except so in spite of all that, Infinite Jest was still able to pretty much blow me away. Set in the over-commercialized, not-too-distant future, Infinite Jest is primarily about anhedonia and the psychological pathway that leads from it to its secondary effects: loneliness, depression, social detachment, obsession with whatever’s available to fill the void, and finally to addiction and dependency. There’s a passage in IJ about a M*A*S*H addict (yeah, you heard that right) who becomes slowly but increasingly reliant on his M*A*S*H episodes to displace the anhedonia from which he suffers until the point at which the M*A*S*H episodes actually become the sole focal point of his day rather than its mere highlight, and eventually his need to see M*A*S*H supplants all his other basic needs to the extent that his entire survival practically hinges upon his capacity to sit down and watch M*A*S*H. Along with the rest of the narrative, this passage is written with an underlying sense of humor that rounds off its depressing edge and makes the whole thing almost life-affirming.
What I loved about the M*A*S*H story is twofold. First, it serves as a junction box for the theme of addiction and its relation, not just to drug and alcohol dependency in Infinite Jest, but also to the characters’ reactions to James Incandeza’s lethal Entertainment. And second, it provides some understanding into my own addictive nature, specifically with this fucking website. Goodreads is like crack for an Extrovert, and while I’m not equating that type of addiction to one with drugs or alcohol, the reason I want to hug David Foster Wallace as much as I do is that he is generous with his inclusion criteria. He doesn’t say, “No, you’re not as bad off as the rest of us because you only chug NyQuil® occasionally when you’re in a rut.” He says, instead, “Yes, you can somewhat relate to where we’re coming from because you can identify with this one minor trait of dependency, so please come and join us!” And so but in the interest of avoiding the inevitable fate to which that M*A*S*H guy ultimately succumbs, I’m going to just log off Goodreads for a couple of weeks.