Monday, October 27, 2008

The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison

1970; 160 pages. Genre : Modern Literature. Awards : Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993; The Bluest Eye was selected for Oprah's book club in 2000. Overall Rating : B.

   .11-year-old Pecola Breedlove has been taught that she is ugly. Rejected by both parents; abused by white folks and black, and by friends and strangers; her fervent wish is for God to give her blue eyes so she can be beautiful.

.What's To Like...
    The book is a masterful effort, which is all the more surprising since this is Toni Morrison's debut novel. The formatting is unique - each chapter starts with a happy little "See Dick and Jane" snippet, which stands in stark contrast to the bleakness in Pecola's daily world.
    The overlying theme of the book is people and circumstances allying to make a person believe that he/she is ugly. Being black in Pecola's world (Lorain, Ohio in 1941) is not beautiful, and if you were born that way, it was ingrained in you to marry someone mulatto, or at least lighter-complexioned than you. Frizzy hair and/or a wide nose was ugly, and your beauty was defined by how much you conformed to the standard of the white world. The brainwashing process started at an early age for girls - when they were given a white-skinned doll to play with.
Be Forwarned...
This is a coarse, gritty book, devoid of hope and without a happy ending. There is child-abuse, pedophilia, and rape. The only "shades" of character in the various people in the book is in the degree of hatefulness and uncaring they have. I have to question whether life for anyone, even for a black child in the 1940's, was as bad as Morrison paints it. I certainly hope not.

    .An Excerpt that sets the tone...Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs - all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. "Here," they said, "this is beautiful, and if you are on this day 'worthy' you may have it.".

On The Matter of Censorship...
    A while back, a high school teacher in Bakersfield, California assigned The Bluest Eye to be read by a 12th-grade student. The topics apparently shocked the kid, who showed the book to his parents, and a brouhaha ensued. You can read details about it here.
    Now, I am completely against book-banning, which was what the parents sought. However, I question the judgment of the teacher here in making it required reading for a teenage kid. Is parental-rape is suitable subject at that age? I for one would have found this book shocking and revolting when I was 17, and I would have resented any teacher telling me to read it. In the end, the school district voided the assignment, but refused to remove The Bluest Eye from the school library's shelves. It's nice to see that every once in a while, the authorities get it right.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Wheel of Darkness - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2007; 385 pages. Genre : Thriller. Overall Rating : B..

    Someone has stolen the Agozyen {"Darkness"} from a remote Tibetian lamasary. NBD, except that it has the power - indeed it has the destiny - to annihilate mankind from the face of the earth so that the world can begin anew. That's a bummer for us humans.

   .FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and his ward, Constance Greene, need to track down the thief and recover the purloined power object. They end up on a luxury liner, where things go amok when they realize that the "darkness" has already been unleashed.
What's To Like...
    The plot is action-packed and fast-paced. There are several unexpected twists, including the "Hero vs. Ultimate Evil" confrontation. The plot is a bit formulaic (a bunch of terrified people trapped in a confined space, with a monster rampaging about), but it is convincingly done. There is even some Holmesian logic involved, as Pendergast has to somehow quickly and deductively narrow the suspect-list down from the 2700 passengers on board.

    .The negatives are few and mere trifles. There's a certain bumblingness (I doubt that's a real word) about the monks. The monster isn't all that scary. Then there's a small incident that piques one of my literary peeves. To wit...
Just once I'd like to see...
    The commander of the ship, Commodore Cutter, is a real butthead. That's fine. A "Caine Mutiny" situation develops, and he is subsequently relieved of his leadership role. Later on, for reasons I won't give due to spoiler concerns, it is expedient that the crew again avail themselves of his services. They find him sulking in his quarters, and with gritted teeth, offer him his job back.

   .Alas, Commodore Cutter has no redeeming qualities. He spurns the offer, leaving the crew to a seemingly hopeless fate. My peeve is this - how come 99% of the characters in Action/Thriller/Alt-History stories have to be either black or white? Just once I'd like to see some "grayness". It would've been nice here to see Commodore Cutter accept their offer and contribute to the resolving of the issue, albeit without stealing the spotlight from our intrepid hero. If nothing else, it would've added a bit of complexity to him.

   .But I digress. The Wheel of Darkness is a worthwhile thriller; keeping me on the edge of my seat and turning the pages as the situation became more and more dire. This was my second Preston & Child book {"Relic" was the first} , and it is obvious that they make a good team for writing contemporary novels in this genre. I'm sure I'll be reading more of the series.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Playing For Pizza - John Grisham

306 pages; 2007. Genre : Fiction. Awards : #1 New York Times Bestseller. Overall Rating : C..

    Rick Dockery is a bench-warming 3rd-string quarterback on the Cleveland Browns, until Fate and injuries-to-others deal him a disastrous performance in a playoff game. He is figuratively run out of town, and ends up playing the next season for the Parma Panthers in an Italian Football League. There he learns some of life's lessons about loyalty, friendship, and dedication, and also gains an appreciation for the culture of a foreign country.

What's To Like...
    It's an easy, pleasant read. It screams to be made into one of those Sunday night Hallmark Special made-for-TV movies. It's got a smidgen of romance for female readers, and lots of football for male readers.
Replaying for Reheated Pizza...
    Although the book has a logical climax (the league's Super Bowl), Grisham leaves a number of important loose ends dangling. I presume this is deliberate, and that we'll be seeing a sequel to this in a year or two.

   .Reading this book, I couldn't help but think that Grisham wanted to vacation in Italy, and decided to charge it to the publishers as "research". His descriptions of Italian churches, countryside, and cities all sound like they were taken from a tourbook. If you're a Grisham fan (and I'm not), you'll probably find P4P a disappointment. There are no legal themes, no complexities, and no deviations from a predictable plot. It is safe to say this made it to #1 on the NYT bestselling list by virtue of the author's name.
    Nevertheless, this is a decent book if you're looking for some "Hallmark movie" relaxation, so we'll give it a "C". But you can be sure that the next book I read will have killing and mayhem in it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Galileo - Bertolt Brecht

1966; 150 pages {8-41 : Introduction; 42-129 is the play itself; 133-150 : "Writing The Truth - Five Difficulties", an essay by Bertolt Brecht}. Genre : Dramatic Play. Overall Rating : C+ (the play rates a "B"; the rest rates a "D").

   .The book's plot centers around Galileo's invention (or more accurately, his plagiarism) of the telescope, and the impact this had on himself and on various institutions.

What's To Like...
    Brecht gives a very even-handed presentation of Galileo-the-scientist, and Science-the profession. Being a chemist, it was interesting to me to see these two topics in such a light. In the play, there are a wide variety of responses to the introduction of the telescope.

    .For Galileo, it starts out as simply a money-maker. He is told about the Dutch already producing small telescopes, and he duplicates the design and sells it to the city of Venice as if it were his own idea. Later, he uses it to observe the moon and planets, and discovers that Aristotle was wrong - the earth revolves around the sun; not vice versa.

   .The city officials are only concerned with its marketabiity. It is seen as an amusement at best, or else a device for Peeping Toms. The government sees it as a military breakthrough - they will now be able to spot enemy fleets hours before those fleets see them. The church couldn't care one way or the other, unless it contradicts Scripture, and their interpretation thereof. The latter of course leads to a sharp conflict between the Astronomer and Rome.

What's Not To Like...
    In a word, the Introduction, written by one Eric Bentley, sucks. Here's his first sentence :

    "Brecht was all wrong about the seventeenth centruy in general and about Galileo Galilei in particular."
    Wow! That really makes you want to read the book, eh? Bentley then spends 40 more boring pages, using Miltonesque verbiage, telling you why he's miffed at Brecht. In the end, it boils down to this : Brecht's Galileo isn't noble enough for Bentley. This one is a plagiarist, naive, and when it comes to facing the Inquisition's "methods", quite the coward.

    .Sorry, Eric. In Galileo, Brecht is exploring the inevitable tension between dogmatism and the search for truth. It's not meant to be historically accurate, any more than, say, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Get over it.
    Oh, and the epilogic essay by Brecht is boring too.
A word or two about Bertolt Brecht...
    Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Germany and was a lifelong Marxist and outspoken anti-Fascist. The latter appellation became hazardous to his health as Hitler came to power in the 1930's. So he chose to emigrate, but Hitler kept invading countries, necessitating multiple moves by Brecht. He went from Germany to Denmark, then to Sweden, then to Finland, and then to the USA. Here, as a self-proclaimed Marxist, he ended up being a target of the House of Un-American Activities. So his final move was (back) to East Germany. All because of his beliefs. Which is quite sad. Freedom-of-thought is ever the bane of dogma.
    But I digress. I enjoyed Galileo, and even read it twice. Partly to better grasp the themes of the book, and partly cuz it was only 80 pages long. If you believe the Pope is infallible, or that Seeking After Truth is as noble an endeavor as you can have (and I fall into that latter category), then this book will challenge your beliefs.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

1989, 355 pages. Genre : Comedic fantasy. Awards : #69 on the BBC's "Big Read" List. Overall Rating : A.

    .In the city of Ankh-Morpork, a secret society of bumblers figure out how to summon a big, nasty-tempered, fire-breathing dragon. As it turns out, that was the easy part. Much more difficult is how to get rid of the beast once you're done with it. This is a job for Captain Vimes and his Night Watch guards, who unfortunately have the mentality of the Keystone Kops.

What's To Like...
    This is part of Pratchett's Discworld series, which is in the same genre as Piers Anthony books, save that, whereas the latter's works feature lots and lots of puns; the former chooses to use lots and lots of groan-inducing metaphors. One quick example (from page 55) :

    "He was a small, bandy-legged man, with a certain resemblance to a chimpanzee who never got invited to tea parties."

   .The plot is good and there are lots of likable characters. The writing is witty and had me laughing out loud. Pratchett's books are a spoof of fantasy novels in general, with each book then also lampooning various smaller topics. Guards! Guards! takes a laugh at things like Secret Societies, Dog-Breeding (here it's Dragon-Breeding), and how to properly build your own dungeon. The book's an easy read, but I found myself going slowly anyway, just to soak up the pervasive humor.

An Introduction to Discworld...
    Discworld is your typical fantasy universe (trolls, dwarves, dragons, wizards, etc.). The world is flat and shaped like a disk. The disk is held up by four cosmic elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a great turtle. There are (so far) 36 novels in the Discworld series, and although a lot of characters do go and grow from one novel to the next, you don't need to start with Book #1 to enjoy the series. For instance, Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld book, but was personally my first Pratchett encounter, and the storyline flowed just fine.

What is the "Big Read" List?
    In 2003, the BBC conducted a survey to determine the 200 most-popular books in the UK. Guards! Guards! came in at #69. Terry Pratchett had 5 books in the top 100, and 15 books in the top 200. You can find the complete list here. FYI, #1 was Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. No real surprise there. #2 was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That's quite a swing from LOTR.
    To close, Terry Pratchett and Discworld were a pleasant discovery for me, and Guards! Guards! was a very nice "light" read. After the darkness of The Bell Jar, it was just what I needed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

1971; 200 pages (216 if you include the biographical note). Genre : Autobiographical fiction. (Is that an oxymoron?) Overall Rating : A-

  ..The Bell Jar was originally published in early 1963, and is Plath's only novel. It is a thinly-veiled autobiography of her summer internship at Mademoiselle Magazine in 1952, followed by her mental collapse when she returns home.
What's To Like...
This is a beautifully-written novel, which is a rare treat. We have lots of great story-tellers nowadays (Dan Brown, James Patterson, Steve Berry, etc.); but frankly, they're not good writers. Plath paints stunning images, even when describing mundane things. A couple examples :
"He had a big, wide, white toothpaste-ad smile." Kewlness. Or :
"It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction - every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller, and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour."
    The 200 pages are divided into 20 chapters, and they almost all are exactly 10 pages long. One wonders if Ms. Plath also suffered from OCD.
So what was Sylvia Plath's problem?
    Some think she was manic-depressive, but I doubt it. She had no "up" periods. Those who think she was clinically depressed are on the right track. Here's a glimpse (from page 2 of TBJ) into her world, describing her summer in NYC :

."I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."
    In the whole book, I never found Plath to "feel" anything. At one point, she remarks that she hadn't felt happy since she was nine. She supposes she'll fall in love and get married someday, but you can tell she's never going to feel "love". She enters into her first sexual encounter the same way she approaches electro-shock therapy : "Let's get this over with." Indeed, those five words might sum up her entire outlook on life.
    Sadly, although I felt like I grasped Plath's mental issues, I can't think of a solution for them. The electro-shock therapy seemed to help, but subsequent events prove this either was an illusion, or was temporary. While "playing the game" of getting well, she discusses various methods for killing oneself with her similarly-afflicted friend, Joan. And when Joan hangs herself in the woods, you still don't get the impression that Plath "feels" anything.
    To close, The Bell Jar is a fantastic read, but it is broodingly dark and sad, without an uplifting paragraph anywhere in it. It gave me a great deal of insight into the world of depression, but I still can't say I understand it, nor would I know how to talk someone who's depressed out of suicide. The world was too soon deprived on Sylvia Plath's literary excellence, and 45 years later, we still don't have any answers for her plight. In February 1963, one month after The Bell Jar was first published, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas, and stuck her head into the deepest part of her oven.