Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Stranger - Albert Camus

1946; American translation by Matthew Ward - 1989. 123 pages. Awards : Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Genre : Classic Lit. Overall Rating : B..

    There is a plot, but really The Stranger (better translated as "The Outsider") is a philosophy/character study, where the events serve merely as background. The spotlight here is on Absurdism, and you're welcome to read the Wikipedia article on that here.

   .The central character is Meursault (his first name is never given) and his approach to life can be seen in a couple of quotations :

" nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings..." (pg. 65)

"My mind was always on what's coming next, today or tomorrow." (pg. 100)
    .In a way, Meursault reminded me of Homer Simpson, albeit without any comedy. "To be or not to.... oooh, look! Doughnuts!" He must have been a handsome devil, because he certainly didn't have a romantic bone in his body. When his GF Maria asks him if he loves her, he says :
"I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad." (pg. 35).
     Well d'uh!, Meursault. Shortly thereafter, Maria asks if he wants to marry her (she's a slow learner), and he replies, "I said it didn't make any difference and that we could if she wanted to." (pg. 41). Yeah, we have a real Romeo here.

What is Absurdism?
    The central theme of this philosophy is that the world is absurd. Not as in Three Stooges absurdity, but in the sense that it is an indifferent, uncaring universe. There is no such thing as karma; good things happen to bad people, and vice versa.
    If this is so, Camus offers three reactions; two of which he regards as unsatisfactory. First, you can commit suicide ("life isn't worth living if there isn't any meaning to it"). Second you can embrace a theological rationalization ("if there is no God, I guess I'll have to invent one to bring meaning to life").

   .The third alternative, adapted by Meursault and the only one advocated by Camus, is to be indifferent to the events in life. Thus, Meursault has little or no reaction to his mother dying, and likewise little or no reaction to his boss's proposal of a key promotion involving the desirable perk of moving to Paris. These are no more important than the sun beating down on his head, or him eating something because he's hungry. Alas for Meursault, this means he is equally indifferent to killing a man, which results in his trial, conviction (he is an absurdly incompetent defendant), and sentence to death via guillotine.

   .At the end, Meursault becomes aware of his impending demise, and in the last couple pages, breaks out of his indifference. Personally, I would've liked the narrative to continue right up to the point where the blade is about to fall, but I suppose Camus knows better than I when to end a story. This is a very interesting book, but only when you're in the mood for philosophical musing, not an event-packed storyline.
What is Existentialism?
    Absurdism is an offshoot of Existentialism, and The Stranger is frequently said to (also) be an existential story. Everything I know about Existentialism comes from reading Waiting For Godot and Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead, and the philosophical outlook in those two plays is markedly different. Beyond that, Existentialism is a vaguely-defined entity that no two people seem to agree on ("Progressive Music" is like that, too), so we'll have to wait until I re-read (or someone else reads) WFG or R&GAD for a lively discussion of that.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Return of Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

1953; 176 pages. Later renamed "Ring For Jeeves". Genre : British, light humour. Overall Rating : B.
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific British writer, best-known for his "Jeeves" series. Jeeves is a butler, somewhat in the style of "Benson", if you remember that TV show. Wodehouse is known for his satirical wit, and his stories usually have gobs of threads going on, which somehow all get resolved by the end of the book.
In The Return of Jeeves, the 9th earl of Towcester (pronounced 'Toaster') has fallen upon hard times, having money only for a few servants, one of which is Jeeves. He's trying to sell the family mansion, and is moonlighting as a bookie. Alas, the bookmaking falls victim to someone winning on long odds, forcing the earl to welsh on his paying-off. He flees to the mansion, where an ex-flame shows up to buy the estate. So does the irate bettor, who is secretly in love with the ex, which ticks off the earl's current betrothed, whose father wants to horsewhip the earl, but finds he has to borrow the earl's horsewhip to do so. Meanwhile, the earl's sister and brother-in-law show up; the latter of which has the marvelous talent of saying the worst thing at the worst time. Confused? Don't be. It's all quite easy to follow in the book.
What's To Like...
The humor is great yet somewhat subtle. Jeeves is wont to quote Shakespeare and other classical authors. The threads described above just keep getting more tangled, and it is a marvel to see how they all get tied up in the last couple chapters.
There's only about 4 settings in the book, which would make this ideal to stage as a play. The story is mostly wordplay, so this isn't a book to read if you're a-thirsting for action-packed thrills.
"England and America are two countries, separated by the same language." {George Bernard Shaw}
One of the real joys of reading The Return of Jeeves is that it's written in "British", not American. There were a slew of words and phrases that just aren't used on this side of the pond. Some examples :
"bally", as in 'a bally palace if I ever saw one'.
"brass up", as in 'you mean he can't brass up?'.
"S.P.", as in 'the chaps have a big S.P. job on for the Derby'.
"scrag", as in 'Set on him, you mean? Scrag him?'.
"napper", as in 'swat Mrs. Spottsworth on the napper with a blackjack?'.
"by Clarkson", as in 'a vague, unidentified figure in a moustache by Clarkson'.
P.G. Wodehouse was despised by the British "upper crust" because he portayed them as bumbling boobs. But authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have acknowledged his influence on their writing style. So if Discworld or HHGTTG are your kind of humor, and you find the King's English a bally fine thing, you might give Jeeves a try.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Brimstone - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2004; 726 pages. Genre : Mystery-Thriller. Overall Rating : B.

   .A charred body is found in a house on Long Island. It appears to be a case of SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion). None of the surroundings are burnt - just the victim, but he appears to have been fried from the inside out. Oh, and there's the small matter of a cloven hoof branded into the floorboard.

   .After a second murder under similar circumstances, FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and detective Vincent D'Agosta work to find a connection and a motive, and to see whether this is the work of natural or supernatural forces.

What's To Like...
Preston & Child have the thriller motif down pat; this is another good effort by them. There's lots of action, no slow spots, a bunch of threads to follow, and a couple red herrings to keep you on your toes.
.Pendergast and D'Agosta are a knock-off of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson. Indeed, Brimstone reminds me of The Hound of The Baskervilles, with maybe a dash of "Wild Wild West" thrown in.

What's meh...
    At 720 pages, this could've been downsized a bit. And the characters seem a bit two-dimensional, although maybe that's just because I read this immediately after The Grapes Of Wrath. Finally, there was one short burst of preachiness in it - aimed at the Fundamentalists. And while I pretty much agree with the sermonette, it nevertheless seemed out-of-place and uncalled for in a mystery novel.

Bottom Line...
    Brimstone is the fifth book in Preston & Child's Pendergast series. I've read #1, #5, and #8. Although they follow the same formula, there is still enough variance in the plots to where they don't become stale. And despite being the first book in a "trilogy within a series", this is a stand-alone story. I like that. It's much less aggravating than some series, such as Robert Jordan's The Dragon Reborn, where you work your way through a thousand pages, only to discover that nothing gets resolved. We'll give Brimstone a solid "B", and recommend it especially to Arthur Conan Doyle fans.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

1939; 581 pages. Genre : American Literature. Awards : 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Novels. John Steinbeck received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Overall Rating : A.
    Steinbeck's masterpiece, which chronicles the journey of a family of sharecroppers who, having been forced off their Oklahoma farm, travel Route 66 t0 California, in search of the Promised Land.

What's To Like...
    What can I say? The book is worthy of the accolades that have been heaped upon it. Steinbeck demonstrates his storytelling skills in the chapters dealing with the Joad family; then demonstrates his writing skills in the intermezzo chapters that step away from the narrative and give you a more direct relating of what was going on in America during the Dust Bowl era.
    I especially liked the attention Steinbeck gives to minor characters. Like the cook and waitress (Al and Mae) at a nondescript truck stop in Chapter 15. Any other author would've just given them cursory attention, but Steinbeck makes them come alive. Indeed, the character development throughout TGOW is superb. These aren't two-dimensional people; they change and evolve throughout the book. Pa may lead the clan at the beginning, but by the end, it's Ma who is holding the remnants of the family together.

What's Not To Like...
    If you're president of a bank or own a thousand-acre farm in California, you probably won't like this book. Indeed, such people raised a furor when TGOW was first published. It was banned in some places, and burned in others. Which is of course ironic, since it is well known that public interest in a book is directly proportional to the number of times it is requested to be banned.
    Also, you can tell after 50 pages or so, that this is not a sunshine-and-puppy-dogs, happy-ending book. Finally, at 581 total pages, this is not a book to start on Sunday night, when you have a book report due on Monday morning.

What makes The Grapes of Wrath something special?
    In 2009, it will be 70 years since TGOW was first published. It isn't showing its age at all. The poor and the displaced are still with us, and are still getting shafted by the rich and the powerful. And those who help the have-nots will receive their share of the oppression.
    Casy the Preacher in the story gets labeled a Socialist and/or a Communist (and loses his life) merely for trying to organize the farm workers. Steinbeck got called the same things in real life in the 40's. Curiously, in the 60's, it was the left who called him a turncoat because he was sympathetic to the war effort in Vietnam.

   .In truth, Steinbeck was a populist. He supported the powerless, and whatever it took to enable them to live decent and happy lives. The personal cost was enormous. Besides being slandered and labeled a Commie, the FBI kept tabs on him for years.

   .In the end, things haven't changed much in 70 years. If you stand up for the little people, you must be prepared for the inevitable smear campaign. You will be called a Socialist, an elitist, an Al-Qaeda operative, a Muslim, an Arab, and a collaborator with revolutionaries. Just ask our president-elect.
    To close, this is a great book. It spotlights the plight of the have-nots, provokes thought, encourages activism, and oh-by-the-way is a literary masterpiece. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm a Stranger Here Myself - Bill Bryson

1999; 288 pages. Genre : Comedic Narrative. Overall Rating : B-.

    Bill Bryson returns to the USA after spending 20 years in England. He buys a house in rustic, Newhartesque New Hampshire, and shortly thereafter, a journalist friend talks him into writing a weekly article for a British magazine called Night & Day; loosely themed around readjusting to American life. IASHM is a collection of 70 of those articles.

What's To Like...
    It has the typical Bryson dry, self-deprecating humor. Since they are weekly articles, all 70 chapters are essentially the same length - about 4 pages each. The topics vary widely, so if one doesn't float your boat, be of good cheer, you'll shortly be reading about something completely different.

    .It is obvious that Bryson reads a lot, and oftentimes that spawns the weekly topic. You will learn things like the origin of Drive-In Theaters, and that computer hackers successfully breached the Pentagon's security systems 161,000 times in 1996. He's possibly the only person I know that can write four pages about cup-holders (in the car and on the PC) and keep you interested. To appreciate that, try putting out four witty pages on that subject yourself.
What's meh...
    While you'll catch yourself laughing out loud at times while reading IASHM, this is an easy book to put down. The problem isn't Bryson; it's the format. Being limited to four pages means none of the articles have any depth. One of the chapters deals with inherently good- and lousy-sounding words.

     Kewl beans and something I'd really enjoy, but just as soon as the chapter got rolling, it was done.
.The other format problem is the weekly deadline. It must be difficult to be newsworthily witty once a week, every week, for several years. What do you do when your Muse takes a couple weeks vacation? Some of the topics seem to suffer in this manner.
Uncle John, you have competition...
    It took me a lot longer to get through IASHM than I anticipated. After reading a half-dozen chapters in one sitting, they all start to blur together. I think it would be better to use this book as a Bathroom Reader. We'll give it a B-, and recommend that this not be your introduction to Bryson.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whiskey Sour - J.A. Konrath

2004; 289 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Overall Rating : B-

    .A serial killer is abducting young women, playing Operation on their torsos, and dumping their naked bodies butt-cheek-upwards into local 7-11 dumpsters. Police Lieutenant Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels tries to find the common link, and catch the self-dubbed Gingerbread Man before all of Chicago goes into a panic.

What's To Like...
    If you like James Patterson's "Alex Cross" detective novels (that's before he went all sucky with his "Maximum Ride" stuff), you'll like J.A. Konrath. The killings are tastefully lurid (which is probably an oxymoron), and Konrath also mixes in a bit of punnish humor. Jack Daniels is non-stereotypically middle-aged and average-looking.

    An example of the Whiskey Sour wit :

"He may be disfigured or disabled. He might have severe acne scars, or scoliosis."
"That's a curvature of the spine," Dailey added.
"Is that a hunch?" I asked.
"Just an educated guess."
I thought about explaining the joke to them, but it would be wasted.

On the other hand...
    There are several places where you just go, "Am I expected to believe that?" For instance, our protagonist's police car is broken into, and a bag of candy is left on the seat. Suspicious? Nah. Daniels' partner tears into the bag without any hesitation and falls for the old razor-blade-in-the-candy-bar trick.

   .Then there's the "lucky break" itself. Interviews of the victims' family and friends get the usual response : "So-and-so was just the sweetest person around. We can't think of anyone who would want to kill her." Yet when the connecting link is finally found, it's something that even a remote acquaintance would recall and instantly think of as a motive for murder.

Then there's the clichés...
    The books is riddled with them. Some, such as the two clueless FBI agents with their computer-generated profiling, are obviously deliberate. Ditto for the doughnut-loving partner of Daniels, who IMHO is ripe for killing or severe-hospitalization is some sequel.

    .But the not-so-deliberate clichés can be annoying. The oh-so-confident psychopath decides to also include our heroine on his hit-list. Gee, that's worked what - zero percent of the time - in the past? This naturally results in our heroine being pulled off the case. Which of course never stops any cop from staying involved one bit. Then there's the poor schluck who goes out on an arranged date with Daniels. Yeah, that's a ironclad guarantee for bodily harm by the jealous stalker.
    Finally, there's Daniels herself. She's a burnt-out, workaholic, insomniac whose marriage was ruined by her devotion to the job, and who drinks way too much. Sometimes I think that is de rigeur for fictional detectives .
A little bit about J.A. Konrath...
    Konrath's website is at His bio claims he wrote nine novels and received more than 500 rejections for them before #10 (Whiskey Sour) was finally accepted/published. He has done 612 book-signings in 28 states, and has sent 7,000 letters to libraries touting his books. I'd say he paid his dues.
    If you visit his website, you'll be able to read the first seven chapters of most of the books in his Jack Daniels series (5 of them, I think). Except for Whiskey Sour itself, whch you can download in its entirety as a pdf file. Gotta love that.

    .In conclusion, this was a bit of enjoyable light reading. It doesn't strive to be anything more than an entertaining story, and to that end, it succeeds. We'll give it a B- and hope that the sequels have a few more twists and a few less stereotypes.