Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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Hypocrites of the Sea

May 14, 2011

There’s nothing I hate more than whaling. It’s painful and disgusting and anti-Marxist and stinky and unnecessary. And yet I seem to be drawn to all sorts of whaling paraphernalia.

It all started with Moby Dick. That book is awesome. I love the first chapters that describe Ishmael’s new romance with Queequeg, cuddling with tattoos in hotel rooms on their first night together. And it only goes up from there. Yes, it’s a slow, tedious climb, but it’s one of those books that you can only really appreciate after you’ve read it the first time. Struggle through those long chapters describing the leviathan’s blow hole and the white of Moby Dick’s skin and you’ll finally realize just how invested and wrapped up in the prose you’ve gotten. Everything around you starts to beg to be described in the detail Melville devotes of the the whale.

Because it’s one of those books that you have more fun thinking about than actually reading, it makes sense that the aftermath of Moby Dick is obsession-inducing.

First, there’s this guy. Matt Kish has devoted the last two years to creating a drawing for every page of Melville’s novel. He uses found paper (which is cool) to explore all sorts of themes from the novel that may get lost in a less thorough analysis. My favorite pieces he does are tribal style ink drawings of The Whale by itself. Like this one:

Check out his blog and the book that he’s releasing soon.

Moby Dick led me to The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare, which I thought would be more about whales and whale behavior but was mostly about the history of whaling in the U.S. and U.K. At first I was disappointed that the book was so violent, rather than the peaceful, slow whale world I envision. But it turns out the history of whaling is really interesting and really relevant.

Take Sarah Vowell’s new history of Hawaiin colonization, Unfamiliar Fishes. Whaling is what led many American sailors to Hawaii as a nice stop-over point to get plate lunch and hookers. Which, along with white missionaries, contributed a whole lot to Polynesian culture as we know it.

Plus, I found out about scrimshaw. To keep sailors entertained, they would distribute whale teeth and some other bones to engrave.

I know, I know. Those teeth belong in the whale’s mouth. It’s really disgusting that humans, with their superior technology, were preying on giant sea cows. But look how cool those are!

Also, some of the most beautiful paintings of the 17th/18th century are horrible displays of whaling bloodshed.

I can’t figure out what it is about whaling that is so interesting and appealing (visually) to me. Perhaps it is the mixture of something so regal and beautiful (the whale itself) with the crude, presumptuous, arrogant sailors and their harpoons. Maybe it’s the same reason I love horror films so much. The things I find most repellent are the things that I want to figure out, conquer.

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Jane Eyre

January 7, 2011

Everyone seems to have read this already, but this was my first time. As a kid I was never into 18th century literature like a lot of other little Mormon girls (i.e. my sister), and then as I got older I felt like I had waited too long and had become too familiar with the story to find it enjoyable. Luckily, reading isn’t always about what’s enjoyable and I felt like correcting this huge gap in my education. And, of course, a lot of 18th century stuff is really really enjoyable. Jane Eyre was one of those don’t-put-it-down-if-you-can-help-it reads for me.

And since everyone knows the plot I want to focus on the religious details in the novel that I found really fascinating. Yes, Jane Eyre is primarily a romance with underpinnings of the importance of independence in a relationship, but underneath it all is a strong religious undertone. And it seemed to me to be a slightly anti-religious undertone. Not that Jane is anti-spirituality, but one of the consequences of being an independent woman is finding your own way within organized religion, too. She’s interested in what is right and moral, she’s even interested in securing her place in Heaven, but she never wants to achieve that through following a certain mode of Christianity. Her salvation is never dependent on rituals and rules she must follow. Instead, she cuts her own path that she then rigidly obeys.

This theme is first introduced in the boarding school segments. Because of their instructor’s unwieldy adherence to Christian rules and rituals, the girls are essentially starved and humiliated. Religion offers a strict guideline that the headmaster cannot deviate from, despite it being, clearly, the wrong approach. Jane never abandons proprietary religious rules completely, but she does examine them from her own perspective and deems whether they are appropriate for her specific situation. I loved this in the scenes with St. John (who is THE WORST! I hate that guy!) when she struggles to hold her own in arguments with such a persuasive guy. Ultimately, she sticks to her guns. Stick to your guns, not to your religion. That’s the most interesting theme of this book, I think.

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The Robber Bride

December 12, 2010

When I first started reading this book, I was very skeptical. It seemed like intelligent chick lit, but chick lit none-the-less. In other words, I felt the men were portrayed as helpless idiots, in need of care, and the women were hopelessly wrapped up in them. In many ways, this remained the characterization until the end of the novel, but I think it’s a much more complicated book than I originally gave it credit for.

Take, for example, my initial hesitation with a very obvious war motif that runs throughout the novel. Tony – the character I was most interested in, and the character I was most disappointed in – is a historian specializing in military studies. She’s also the first woman in the story to encounter the evil Zenia, a manipulative, cunning, beautiful woman who manages to ruin the three main characters’ lives. Instantly, war becomes an overpowering metaphor for the way women treat each other. In other words: men have violent war, and women have the backbiting, gossipy fighting they’ve constantly been relegated to in literature. But, by the end of the novel, that metaphor became much more complex. By the end you’re not sure if Zenia is a fallen comrade or a fallen enemy, but Tony shows a certain respect towards her rival that I find fascinating. Is the war between Zenia and the other women? Is it between women and men? Is it between Zenia and men? I don’t think the novel necessarily clarifies this point, and I appreciated that ambiguity.

I was also interested by the feminist slant that the Roz character tends to follow, while still remaining trapped in her patriarchal ideals. A main theme of the book is that there is an outmoded way of looking at and enacting male/female relationships that a certain generation (WWII war babies) is stuck in, despite the feminist movements of the 70s. Roz, a rich, successful business woman, is still obsessed with taking care of her husband, viewing him as a vulnerable, broken bird despite the fact that he is constantly cheating on her. Many people have interpreted the book as being an indictment against men (something that is not helped by the very poor characterization of the men by Atwood), but I think they are as much victims of a certain prevailing attitude as the women. They have a license to act obscenely. Zenia represents the dark side of this mothering culture, taking advantage of all the horrible things society has to offer.

Anyway, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a better beach read than The Girl Who Played with Fire, which was kind of a disaster. What Stieg Larsson represents as didactic and boring, Atwood renders complicated, even though both novels deal with many of the same themes.

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Housekeeping

January 21, 2010

Mariilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping has been praised by people a lot more intelligent and a lot more important to me. That’s why, since I read the book over a month ago, I haven’t been able to think of anything new to say. I loved the novel. It was one of the best books I read last year, but I don’t feel competent talking about it. Maybe after a couple years of grad school in American Literature I’ll feel better about my critical skills.

But I have had a couple years of grad school in film studies, and this novel felt very cinematic to me. Almost like a Terrence Malick film, in which everything washes over you as though in a dream. Characters and settings are all important and plot devices get lost in the wind. Nature takes over and moves people aside, drowning them under layers of lake water. Days of Heaven works with some of the same themes, the locusts playing the same role as the flood.

What I loved about this book was how much it wandered without being tangential. I don’t know how I got such a pleasant, sleepy feeling while I read when there is a lake full of waterlogged bodies and a caretaker that might leave at any moment. Robinson has a way with prose that seems very Southern and meandering, but by not placing the novel in the South (it takes place in Idaho) there is a sense of danger and immediacy.

What immediately jumped out at me – and seems to have jumped out at every other literature critic – is the strong, self-sufficient female characters that manage to form unconventional but somewhat satisfying bonds with each other. Taking tropes of classic American literature (“My name is Ruth” v. “Call me Ishmael”) and then reformatting them to fit feminine identity without making them “Female,” Robinson creates a novel that is as strong a myth as any in the Canon.

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Revolutionary Road

January 6, 2010

I started Revolutionary Road with the same misgivings I had when reading The Reader. It’s hard to read a book – even one hailed as a modern classic like this one is – when you disliked the movie adaptation so much. And it’s only this combination of readership that I have a problem with. I can read the book and then see and like the movie, like the movie then read the book, and read the book and dislike the movie. I can’t deny that my experience with one narrative form heavily influences how I view the other, but I tend to stay, I think, more objective than most people about adaptations. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to create that distance between seeing a bad movie first and then reading the book. My reading experience is so influenced by the casting, delivery, setting, color, frame, etc. of the movie that it becomes almost an entirely different book.

I became more aware of my bias when reading Revolutionary Road, so I think I was a bit more successful with my processing (which still continues. I only finished the thing yesterday) but I still have no idea how I might have felt about Yates’s novel had I not been so – almost – indoctrinated by the film.

That said, I managed to like the novel. Love it, in fact. DiCaprio and Winslet’s voices echoed in my head during all the pivotal – and frequent – fight scenes, but it was the inner dialogue of these characters that made the book so much more successful. The setting Yates paints is as idyllic and cliche (these days) as the movie presents, but each character is more than the cookie-cutter image they portray. Somehow – and I’ll have to see it again to really analyze this, probably never figuring it out – the movie never captures the real conflict in the Wheeler home.

I have never hated a character in the book more than I hate Frank Wheeler. And while I don’t think Yates intended Wheeler to be the monster he comes across as in 2010 (after all, he based the character on himself), there is certainly a level of disgust in the narrator’s depiction of Frank. Both Frank and April have unrealistic expectations while selling themselves completely short, are obsessed with what society thinks of them while pretending to shun society, and are stuck in gender roles that neither of them can ever live up to. But it’s Frank’s false sense of self-assuredness that ultimately causes everything to crumble. I mean, the dude forced his wife to have his baby (rather than aborting it, like she wanted to) because he has some idea that she wouldn’t be a real woman (or “female” as John Givings calls her) if she didn’t have a natural motherly instinct. THEN…oh my God…then as soon as she decides that she will, indeed, keep the baby – giving up all her dreams as a result – he goes and sleeps with a woman in his office because that cements his proper place as a 1950s Man. Blech.

But Yates has such a detachment from the plot of the story. His bounces from character to character in the suburban neighborhood (mainly focusing on Frank’s perspective), describing all of their actions as a omnipotent narrator, that I don’t think he intends to embody. At the same time, there is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve read since Where the Red Fern Grows where Frank cleans up the bathroom where April, essentially, killed herself. The narrator remains descriptive and detached through it all.

Creepy. The whole novel is creepy, because it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1950s. Yes, some of the images come across as cliche at this point (the unfulfilled housewife ironing in front of the television), but the brilliancy of the novel is how it indicts every reader who thinks they might be above the Wheelers. Aren’t you, then, just heading down the same road that lead them to tragedy?

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Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl

January 3, 2010

Would there be anything better than owning a pet owl? I could replace all my little wall hangings and figurines with the real thing. Me and my owl would be the best of friends. Actually…I might rather own a miniature donkey or a pet orangutan or even just a dog would be nice. But my point is that owning an owl sounds really cool, which is why I read this book.

It’s not that cool. Mostly it’s just a lot of hard work, like taking care of a perma-infant for twenty years. But according to this Stacey person, it’s can be very rewarding work. Her stories of cuddling with her owl, blow drying him after his self-imposed baths, and learning his complex system of communication are fascinating. Most interesting of all were her stories of the biology department at Caltech, a group of people she presents as being as alien to us as the professors who populate Hogwarts School of Magic. In fact, this author has an annoying habit of continuously comparing things to Harry Potter and other popular sources so her audience will really understand her life.

The book is written at about a fourth grade reading level, which isn’t always a bad thing if the prose manages to still be interesting. Here it’s just too simple and repetitive. Even though I was learning a lot about owls and the caring process for a wild animal, I still felt like during the actual reading process I might have been getting dumber.

I should probably give her a break since this is her first, and probably only book. It doesn’t seem like her life has been devoted to literature in any way and there’s nothing wrong with simple prose. Still…it was annoying. I can’t deny that I was annoyed, right? The best part about this book was the subtitle.

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Mr. Hornby’s Reading List

December 31, 2009

Lately, instead of reading on toilet I’ve been playing games on my brand new iTouch or killing our bathroom’s brand new ant infestation, which is why it took me longer to read these last two books in Nick Hornby’s Believer series. Oh, and also because they get pretty repetitive and boring.

Obviously, all of Hornby’s columns are not meant to be read within a week. I can imagine subscribing to the Believer (which I wouldn’t because it’s way too expensive) and being excited each week for the two or three pages of book reviews by someone so clever and goodnatured. But reading them all in a row, you notice how each column in Shakespeare Wrote for Money gets progressively lazier. When he starts writing about “stuff he watched” instead of stuff he read, it becomes obvious how sick of writing for the Believer he really is. And he’s not a great film reviewer (says the girl who writes for filmthreat.com, which has apparently been down for the last three weeks).

I finished the series for the frequent funny jokes and the great book recommendations. I know very little about contemporary fiction, and it’s nice having someone who knows a lot about it sift through to find the good ones. Hornby is a lot more reliable source than Oprah. Here are some of the books I’m most excited about (see my Good Reads account for the complete list):

Death and the Penguin – Andrei Kurkov
What Good are the Arts? – John Carey
A Krestrel for a Knave – Barry Hines
Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement – Rodney Rothman
The Pumpkin Eater – Penelope Mortimer
Skellig – David Almond
Citizen Vince – Jess Walter

Oh, and it was great to read a funny bit by Sarah Vowell, since I’m reading her first book, Radio On, and it’s painfully boring. I liked being reminded of how great she is now.

Also, I wrote this on the toilet.