It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the a...moreIt was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.
Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman continuously defied my expectations. Before reading, I had no preconceived notions about it, other than that it was an influence on the TV show LOST, but from its beginning pages, I hypothesized it to be a short, clever novel about murder. That's the only thing I got right about this book. When I thought it was a tale of an obsessive friendship, it became a philosophical examination of death. Then it became a trip down Alice's rabbit hole. Then it became a farcical look at science. Then it made several left turns and U-turns and roundabouts that I'll let the reader discover for herself.
This book feels vastly important, mostly because it's really old. It was written in 1940. That's a long time before David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, which has a similar hysterical-realistic aesthetic. It's a long time before Paul Auster infused his The New York Trilogy with a healthy dose of O'Brien's metafiction. That's even before Borges' Ficciones or Beckett's Waiting for Godot made their marks on postmodernism. And being so old, The Third Policeman feels remarkably modern in every sense other than its usage of old Britishisms like using "stone" as a unit of measure.
I know this is a short review, but I don't know what else to say. It's hard to talk about this book without giving anything away and I think it should come as a complete surprise to the reader. It's an important book which I don't think has received its just deserts. Read it.(less)
Read Lonesome Dove the book. Transport yourself to Lonesome Dove the town. Taste the dry dust and sand of its streets. Meet its inhabitants. Respect A...more
Read Lonesome Dove the book. Transport yourself to Lonesome Dove the town. Taste the dry dust and sand of its streets. Meet its inhabitants. Respect Augustus McCrae and Captain Call, legends of the Texas Rangers. Shake the callused hand of cowboys with cowboy names, such as Dishwater Boggett, Deets and Lippy. See them dismount from their horses and walk bowlegged to the saloon for their evening respite of drinking, gambling, and whoring. Smell the dried sweat on every man's collar and the reek of whiskey on his breath.
Read while sitting astride the arm of your couch, holding invisible reigns in front of you. Counteract the couch's lateral lope with a slight shift of your hips. Quit the town of Lonesome Dove with a legion of longhorn cattle and accompany the cowboys on a drive to Montana, a distance of more than two thousand miles. Ford rivers with icy mountain water up to your waist. Try to suppress the fear of water moccasins. Check your boots every morning for rattlesnakes. Keep one eye on the horizon at all times. There's no predicting the comings and goings of Indians. During thunderstorms, keep your legs clenched to your saddle; a thunderclap at the right moment can send your horse into a frenzy and you onto your ass. Stay away from the cattle when the lightning is on their horns. Watch out for the Texas bull.
Spend every minute of your days with cattle, horses and their riders. Hear stories from each of the riders. Learn which fears you share; speculate upon the peculiarities of women. Get to know them like brothers and then when they are killed by bullets, snakebites, bears, rivers, Indians, sickness, et cetera, weep over their bodies. Dig their graves in the dry dust of Texas or the grassy plains of Kansas. Remember them.(less)
If you know me, it's not a secret that I am in love with Shirley Jackson. I named my cat after the protagonist of her masterpiece, We Have Always Live...moreIf you know me, it's not a secret that I am in love with Shirley Jackson. I named my cat after the protagonist of her masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Mary Katherine, or Merricat for short. I could spend hours gushing over the genius of that book, but I cannot for the life of me articulate a review for it. But when I read The Haunting of Hill House for the first time a few years ago, it didn't steal my heart the way Shirley is usually able to do. It was an okay but not great 3-star read.
It's very rare that I reread a 3-star book and amend it to 5-stars, but apparently I didn't read this correctly the first time. I must have been a dolt on my first read, because this book is great.
It's a typical haunted house story. Dr. Montague, a respectable professor with an interest in the paranormal, requests the presence of three companions for a stay in the notorious Hill House—a Victorian monstrosity with a history of violence and despair and bumps in the night. Primary among Montague's guests is our heroine (or antiheroine?) Eleanor Vance, a thirty-two year old, socially inept woman looking to finally make some choice in her life which has thus far been chosen for her.
Hill House is insane. It is despicable and has an unquenchable desire to consume. And it seems to have a specific desire to consume our Eleanor.
Like all of Jackson's works, the heroine exists in a gray area. Mary Katherine Blackwood of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a delightful and charming girl, but there is most definitely a darkness that resides in her. You are unsure of her motives, her past, and her capability for good or evil. And so it is with Eleanor Vance, a surprisingly complex character. Much of her personality lies between the lines and without a close reading of the work, you may miss her subtleties.
Like I always say when I finish a Shirley Jackson book: I need to read every word she's ever written right now.(less)
A few days ago I was reading this at the gym while on the elliptical, sweating copiously, and a girl yelled at me from across the room "how do you eve...moreA few days ago I was reading this at the gym while on the elliptical, sweating copiously, and a girl yelled at me from across the room "how do you even keep your place in that book?", to which I responded, "I use three bookmarks: one for where I'm actually reading in the text, one in the place where it explains the chronology of the book, and one in the endnotes." Her method was to buy two copies of the book and keep one open to the main body of the text and one open to the footnotes. Anyway, when one brings up Infinite Jest, this is surely the conversation that ensues: not of the book itself, but one's practical experience of reading the book.
"Man, those endnotes were really killer. I swear, my thumb muscles are ginormous now from all the flipping back and forth."
"It took me four attempts to actually finish Infinite Jest."
"It takes me like ten minutes to read a single page, those letters are so small."
"That book's like five thousand pages long."
But from here on out, I want to avoid talk of people's reactions to the structure and physicality of the book. The important questions are not "how long does it take to read?" or "are the endnotes really necessary?" Instead, let's talk about the characters, the plot, and the world Wallace created in this diarrhetic-genius book of his.
Wallace is a master world builder. In the near-dystopian near future, the United States, Mexico and Canada have joined to form the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Much of New England is a nuclear wasteland, forcibly ceded to Canada and known as the Great Concavity or Great Convexity, depending on which side of the border you reside. There are various separatist groups who do not support this interdependence treaty, chief among them Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), a group of legless, wheelchair-bound Quebecois assassins hellbent on acquiring a superweapon that'll really show the Americans who's boss. I won't share how all of these assassins became wheelchair-bound; that's a delight you'll have to read for yourself. Oh, and instead of referring to years as 2007, 2008, etc., each year is sponsored by a product, e.g. The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.
The weapon at the center of this novel, around which everything revolves, is the master copy of a film titled Infinite Jest, directed by one James Orin Incandenza. This film, referred to variously as The Entertainment or the samizdat is fatal in that its viewers become so invested in it that they lose all desire to eat, sleep, remain continent. The Entertainment becomes their world. (Social commentary, anyone?)
The filmmaker in question was the patriarch of the Incandenza family, one of the most endearingly messed-up families in all of literature. James was a renaissance man of sorts, dabbling successfully in art house films, optic science, the creation of tennis academies for gifted youngsters, etc. Unfortunately, he committed suicide in a very gruesome way, leaving behind three sons, Orin the professional football punter and ladykiller, Hal the extremely talented and intelligent but emotionally stunted tennis star, and Mario the profoundly physically defective but incredibly lovable protege of his father's filmic aspirations, and a tall, beautiful, agoraphobic wife, Avril, who gives and gives of herself to her family, yet has some dark not-so-secrets (as does almost everyone in this novel).
The characters are what makes this novel worthwhile. There are no secondary characters in this novel, in the sense that each gets a full quirk-infested and heartbreaking treatment from Wallace. Even the most minor of characters receives a moving and thoughtful backstory. Extant from the Incandenza family, the best character is Don Gately, a recovering Demerol-addict with a humongous head. While he's not as essential to the plot as some others, his story is one that is somehow essential to the book; without the descriptions of his monstrous addiction, his drudgery as the live-in Staff at Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic), and the terrible things this mostly gentle beast is capable of, Infinite Jest would feel incomplete.
The book is hilarious. It's also deeply, deeply saddening. Wallace is a master of dark comedy and he employs it to great effect; without the humor, the things reported in Infinite Jest would be unbearably grievous. In Wallace's own words, "Wittgenstein believe that the most serious and profound problems and questions and issues could be discussed only in the form of jokes. In U.S. lit there's a tradition called black humor, which is a very kind of sardonic, sad type of humor. There are forms of humor that offer escapes from pain and there are forms of humor that transfigure pain."
It's not all so complex or grandiose or silly, either, though. Some of the best moments in Infinite Jest are when one of Wallace's characters gives a simple, yet profound take on love or devotion or heartbreak. Take for instance Hal's intense desire for something to give himself to: "It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly." (p. 900) It's moments like this where all of Wallace's characteristic complicated syntax is stripped away and what's left is a deep understanding of the human condition.
Many parts of Infinite Jest are boring. Anyone who tells you they enjoyed every word is lying. For instance, do the reader really need the manufacturing and historical details of every prescription medication mentioned (and there are a lot of them)? Why provide thirty pages of description of the Boston AA program when five pages would have done just as well? But it's okay to say that some of it is boring, I think Wallace would agree with that statement. In his extremely popular This Is Water, Wallace highlights that much of adult life is trudging through the boring, aggravating doldrums of a life that simply isn't always exciting and happy. In Infinite Jest, he's provided the full experience of life, even the not-fun parts, which non-intuitively make it an even richer reading experience.
And but so the real question in a review is: Is the reading of this book really worth it? Well, you've already seen that I gave it five-stars, so the preliminary answer is "yes". But this is not the type of book I'd ever hand to someone and say "Read this. Now." The flowchart above shows the elegant complexity of the novel. Check out a larger version at the link provided. The book's super long, it's super difficult, and if you don't put every fiber of your being into understanding the plot, you won't be able to connect the loose strands of story into a cohesive whole. It's like the Bible in many ways. Everyone knows it's a great book, but how many have actually read it? And like the Bible, if you read Infinite Jest, it will have been worth your time.(less)
This is a perfect storm of heartbreaking literature. It's what you get when you throw an average (albeit unusually clever) girl into the most terrible...moreThis is a perfect storm of heartbreaking literature. It's what you get when you throw an average (albeit unusually clever) girl into the most terrible circumstances this bloody world has seen in recent history.
It's a very unusual document in the field of Holocaust literature. For one thing, there are no gas ovens or train cars crammed with bodies. There's very little suspense and it's filled with quiet moments of happiness. Whereas most Holocaust memoirs are permeated by death, Anne Frank's diary documents the budding of a precious life. Our heroine experiences her first kiss, her sexuality awakens, she looks forward to things this world will teach her. It's an oddly optimistic tale of one of the darkest periods of history.
Anne was a very perceptive young woman and it is our fortune that she was a great writer, even at thirteen years old. She realized that the Annex in which she and her family lived was a small bubble surrounded by death: "I see the eight of us in the Annex as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. . . . [They loom] before us like an impenetrable wall, trying to crush us, but not yet able to. I can only cry out and implore, “Oh ring, ring, open wide and let us out!”
Of course, Anne died. She and her family were carted off and everyone but her father was killed or died from disease in concentration camps. But all of that is extrinsic to this diary. What we are left with is a perfectly intimate record of youth—so perfect that it is hard to believe it is a real diary written by a real girl—which is enriched, both in spite of and in virtue of, its historical context.(less)
How old is the novel? Can you identify the first novel? I've heard lots of people say Don Quixote is the first. It was written in the early seventeent...moreHow old is the novel? Can you identify the first novel? I've heard lots of people say Don Quixote is the first. It was written in the early seventeenth century. The most commonly cited first novel is The Tale of Genji, dated to the late tenth, early eleventh century. If you google the words "oldest novel", Genji is the top result.
I don't understand how this and other ancient Greek novels were overlooked, though. Heliodorus's work, alternatively known as Aithiopika, An Ethiopian Story, etc. is a 250+ page novel about two lovers cast about the Egyptian, Persian and Ethiopian countrysides, continuously falling in and out of captivity, always in danger of being sacrificed to a heathen god or killed in battle or sold into slavery. It is a novel by any common definition. And it predates Genji by about 700 years. The truly oldest novel known to the modern world, Chariton's Callirhoe, was written in the first century of the common era, almost a thousand years before Genji. I'm sure Genji is a fine piece of writing, but COME ON, PEOPLE!
As for the book itself... it's an incredibly fun adventure story, filled with swashbuckling and horse riding and wrestling matches. It's basically the authentic The Princess Bride.
Another thing that makes it really interesting and fun is that it's a book of stories within stories within stories. Often, a character will start a story only to meet a character within his story who would like to tell a story of his own, within which, of course, lies another story. This is known as subsequent layers (a fact taught to me by the all-knowing Wikipedia.) It can get confusing, but it's all riveting stuff. And all the stories are relevant to the main plot, unlike many of the digressive stories of Don Quixote or the essays within Les Misérables.
And I must mention that William Shakespeare was apparently a fan. He references Aithiopika in Twelfth Night when he writes:
Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death, Kill what I love?
Aithiopika feels very Shakespearean, in fact. It has the gravity of Shakespeare's tragedies without itself being a tragedy. Its intricate and complex plot recalls those of the bard.
Obviously, highly recommended. It's not easy to find, however. I figured it would be readily available on the interwebs in ebook format, but all I could find were badly scanned PDFs. I would recommend getting Collected Ancient Greek Novels, which will give you several ancient gems, including the aforementioned oldest extant novel.(less)
The secret to a top-notch reading experience is to forget everything you know about Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson sets it all up as a mystery:...moreDelightful.
The secret to a top-notch reading experience is to forget everything you know about Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson sets it all up as a mystery: there's a dastardly man named Hyde running around, trampling young girls, murdering members of parliament, et cetera. The reader sees the story through the eyes of the affable but rather dull lawyer Mr. Utterson, friend of Dr. Jekyll, who finds himself irresistibly drawn to the mystery of Hyde.
Anyway, Stevenson sets it up perfectly and he lands it perfectly. And he does it in a small number of pages, which is something to be admired.(less)
Here we have a lad of seventeen, a greenhorn deckhand, who works his way up through the ranks with his determination, grit, and a dash of book learnin...moreHere we have a lad of seventeen, a greenhorn deckhand, who works his way up through the ranks with his determination, grit, and a dash of book learnin': poor, seasick Hornblower, who barely manages to escape with his life from the duel he himself orchestrated, knowing his own inability and lack of experience in combat! Here we have Mr. Midshipman Hornblower of the HMS Indefatigable, unaware of the dangers of a leaky ship with a cargo hold full of dry rice! Here we have the pertinacious, the temerarious, the au courant, the �über-prescient Horatio f___ing Hornblower!, foiling mutinous plots, fighting baddies on sea and on land, farting in the general direction of the French, Spanish, et cetera, and basically drop kicking evil in the face!
Sometimes I forget that reading can be so fun. I spend a lot of my reading time struggling through dense prose, trying to understand philosophical jargon or, in the case of my recent Ulysses failure, trying to understand anything at all. Which is good. It's valuable. But holy cow monkeys do I enjoy hearing about Horatio Hornblower's adventures on the high sea! (less)
...is how I would start this review if I wasn't feeling very creative at the moment. Which I'm not.
I remember picking t...moreWhat's it going to be then, eh?
...is how I would start this review if I wasn't feeling very creative at the moment. Which I'm not.
I remember picking this book up as a teenager, sometime after reading Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, reading a page and promptly putting it back on the bookshelf. The narrator, Alex, speaks in a hybrid language called Nadsat that combines Cockney and Russian. As a teenager, I had neither the patience nor the gumption to translate this into something intelligible. Now having read it, I regret waiting so long.
A Clockwork Orange is one of the few books I've read that's completely won me over with its first-person, vernacular (not to mention unreliable) narration. It wins a place next to The Catcher in the Rye. And while I usually try to downplay the fact that I listen to audiobooks, I'm convinced that this is much better read aloud than it is eye-read. For one thing, it's hard for me to conjure up that wonderful Cockney accent that is inseparable from Alex. But when this is read aloud, all the confusion of Nadsat disappears; when someone is speaking, everything fall into context and makes sense.
What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?
As for the book itself... its themes are very troubling to me (as they are undoubtedly supposed to be.) Burgess uses this book to passionately defend the right to free will for all of humanity, which of course I agree with. But then again... he chooses the psychopathic and sadistic Alex as his hero/antihero and I am still perplexed if someone like Alex should retain that free will. It's not as cut and dry for me as it is for Burgess. Whereas I tend to be utilitarian, he is much more idealistic.
The image of a clockwork orange, "an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into a mechanism", is one that will stick with me.(less)
Need I really explain to you why I gave Calvin & Hobbes a five-star rating? If you grew up during the eighties and nineties or were sentient durin...moreNeed I really explain to you why I gave Calvin & Hobbes a five-star rating? If you grew up during the eighties and nineties or were sentient during that time period, or if you are sentient now and have access to the Internet or if you have ever had a friend who knows what good stuff is, then you know that Calvin & Hobbes is a wonderful, beautiful, hilarious, perfect thing.
I grew up on this. In the early nineties, I woke up every morning and stomped to the front door to retrieve the newspaper and spend some quality time with the comics section while eating my Lucky Charms or Count Chocula (the closest thing to Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs I could lay my hands upon). I delighted in the exploits of Calvin and his pet tiger, Hobbes, who was obviously a real and ferocious but lovable beast, but appeared as a stuffed animal to Calvin's parents, peers and superiors.
When I opened my front door after walking home from the bus stop, I always wished I would be greeted with a tiger attack.
When I got a snow day off from school, I strove for the creative and technical brilliance of Calvin's snow sculptures.
Like Calvin and Hobbes, all of my games and sports eventually morphed transmogrified into Calvinball.
Spaceman Spiff was my favorite astronaut hero.
What's interested me in my rereading of the complete collection of Calvin & Hobbes is that it's not written for kids. I mean, it is. It's completely appropriate for children. But there is so much depth and subtlety to the comic that I missed as a kid. Spaceman Spiff was my favorite as a young reader, but what I find appreciating even more as an adult is the culture criticism and commentary. There's a lot of focus on the media and the environment. It speaks for itself:
But my absolute favorite part of reading through the canon of Calvin & Hobbes is trying to figure this precocious kid out. The most obvious characterization for him would be that he is a sweet but mischievous kid with an imaginary best friend. But there's a darker element to Calvin and his tiger. At times, the strip makes you wonder: is there something wrong with Calvin? Should he be receiving some intense therapy?
There is one particular story arc that felt very unsettling to me. Calvin begins receiving letters from an unknown writer; they come marked with a skull and crossbones and they must be decoded.
And what happens, of course, is that the letters are actually coming from Calvin's own house! Which means that Hobbes wrote and sent them! Which, if you recall, is impossible, because Hobbes is an imaginary tiger! And Calvin honestly does not remember writing and sending these messages to himself, which means that he probably has a serious case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (a.k.a. multiple personalities).
So the question becomes: what sort of tragedy has Calvin suffered that has fractured his personality thusly? It's a troubling question, for me, at least.
One final word of praise for Mr. Watterson. He knew when to quit. After ten years of writing about a funny kid and his imaginary tiger, he was able to realize that he was running out of steam. As much as I hate to admit it, the last year of Calvin & Hobbes displayed a downward spiral in creativity and cleverness. Like so many others find themselves unable to do, Watterson retired his strip before it soured. And another congrats to him for not licensing his images to be plastered all over lunchboxes and t-shirts and bastardized in endless movie adaptations. (Yes, this means that if you have a sticker on your Chevy of Calvin pissing on a Ford logo, you are in breach of copyright; also, don't be stupid.)
Calvin will always be my favorite megalomaniacal and possibly schizophrenia-plagued child.(less)
"The most profound statement about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: 'At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?' And the an...more"The most profound statement about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: 'At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?' And the answer: 'Where was man?'"
This has been one of the richest reading experiences of my life. Sophie's Choice is an ambitious book - it tells at least three stories, all interwoven so that you get a bit of each at the appropriate time and to greatest effect. It's philosophical - it's about the depths of evil, it's about love and death, it's about sex, great literature, sanity, etc. It's intensely sad, but not melodramatically. It's a Holocaust book, but better than Schindler's List or Elie Weisel, because Styron doesn't ask how man could be so evil or how God could let it happen. Because Styron knows that God was not there. And neither was man.(less)