Friday, December 30, 2005

Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Here's a fun little piece of classic children's literature that will delight any bibliophile!

The Phantom Tollbooth tells of Milo, a young boy whose ennui is getting the best of him until one day he discovers in his room a mysterious box and a small turnpike tollbooth within (some assembly required) with an accompanying map. Because he has nothing better to do, he assembles it and drives his little car thru the booth, whereupon he is transported into the magical kingdom of Wisdom: he passes through the Doldrums until he arrives at Dictionopolis (ruled by Azaz the Unabridged), where he learns that the Princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished by the ruler of Digitopolis (the Mathemagician, who, incidentally, is the brother of Azaz), and the kingdom is in chaos. Milo then sets out, with the help of Tock the Watchdog (i.e., a dog with a clock in its body) and the Humbug on a road trip thru the Forest of Sight, the Valley of Sound, the Mountains of Ignorance, and the Sea of Knowledge (with a brief stop on the Island of Conclusions, which you get to by jumping to Conclusions) to rescue the princesses, and along the way he meets a delightful array of characters, like the Spelling Bee, Aunt Faintly Macabre, Dr. Dischord and his faithful servant, Dynne, the Dodecahedron, and countless others!

"Good" children's literature (like "good" kids' films) is layered, with fun and enchantment for the children while providing something worthwhile for the adults, and Juster maintains an excellent balance between the absurdity of the characters and plot with the puns, wordplay, and tradition of the narrative itself. At its core, this is a road novel with a protagonist who will, along the way, gain an awareness of his identity and likely change his ways; much of the novel will also harken to such works as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and even John Bunyan's Christian allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress. In all, you have here a work that delights in puns and allegory while the protagonist learns that there is "much to see, and hear, and touch" in Life!

Frankly, I had never heard of this book until a colleague spoke of it and gave it to me as a Christmas gift. I read it in one sitting on the first day of our holiday break, and am now happy to spread the gospel of Milo and his wonderous journey!

Do check it out, and tell me what you think!

Don DeLillo, The Body Artist

Talk about haunting!

The protagonist of this short novel is Lauren Hartke, a performance artist in her mid-thirties whose husband has recently committed suicide. The majority of the novel centers around Lauren as she copes with the stages of grief in an empty house, only to discover a mysterious "ageless" man who has apparently been living in the home. She makes various attempts to engage him in conversation, but his responses remain enigmatic and soon you (like Lauren) are wondering if this man is somehow a physical manifestation of . . . what, her husband? his spirit? their communication-challenged relationship? her own grief? her guilt? or her creativity?

The novel never really makes it clear, but one thing is for certain: DeLillo's prose contributes to the enigmatic quality of the work, clearly hovering between a terse, simple style and a not-quite-but-eerily-almost Magic Realism, bringing to mind the deliciously layered prose of Faulkner and Morrison.

This is a novel you can either knock-off during a lunch hour, or spend several days dwelling upon. And that's a good thing. I would recommend you dwell upon this novel a while -- resonances are there . . .

Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

If you're looking for a good non-fiction read that's both fascinating and hilarious, here's your book.

From the start, Roach displays a playfulness and wit when discussing her subject matter, but it never veers into the irreverent. In fact, she is always respectful of the dignity of those who have given their bodies to scientific inquiry and research, and her humor has the tone of when you are at the funeral of a loved one and you're keeping the conversation lighthearted because the circumstances are anything but. Yet, she balances nicely that wit with the probing of a journalist who is, well . . . curious, curous about how our bodies can contribute to science long after we've departed from them.

And that's the part that I found wildly compelling here. Roach explores the various ways in which, when donating one's body to scientific research, that body can be used -- from automotive safety testing (instead of crash-test dummies) to organ harvesting, from military ballistics testing (as targets) to reconstructive surgery practice, from airplane wreckage study to cannibalism, and many more. I expect that you will be as fascinated as I was to learn, for example, how cadavers are preferred over crash-test dummies when testing automobile safety (windshield strength, airbag deployment, restraining belt safety, etc.) because (unlike a C-TD) they help us more accurately learn "how much force a skull or spine or shoulder can withstand" without using live subjects (p. 87), or how authorities use a complex combination of recovered airplane wreckage, seating charts, and descriptions of body remains to determine the cause of an airline disaster.

As a literature teacher, I found this book to have endless connections with works of fiction I've taught over the years, because Roach offers history, statistics, and research on such topics as decapitation (Macbeth), medicinal cannibalism (Moby-Dick), experiments in live burial (Poe's fiction), reanimation (Frankenstein), wacky experiments on the human body over the centuries (Gulliver's Travels), and even a recent eco-sensitive movement within the funeral industry (albeit a small one, out of Sweden) to permit one's remains to be turned to compost and, say, used to enrich the soil of a tree (something which Henry David Thoreau, I believe, would have loved!).

This is an excellent book!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

I'm still in the process of reading the entire Dickens canon in chronological order and, concurrently, teaching the novels at the Newberry Library. I've already completed seminars on The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop; my next seminar (in the Spring of '06) will center on Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit and, from what I gather, these two novels are the redheaded stepchildren of the Dickens canon.

I started Barnaby Rudge several months ago and, with the exception of a few passages, it was rough going. I had to put it aside and read other things, having gotten about 180 pages into it and being unable to focus on one meaningful event or likeable character. I will eventually read it, but for now . . . it's D.O.A.

Martin Chuzzlewit, on the other hand, is an incredibly underrated Dickens novel. While the title seems to me as off-putting as that other off-putting title of 19th-Century fiction, Ethan Frome (which, unless you've read the book, you think it's going to be dreary and boring stuff . . . and nothing could be farther from the truth!), this is considered Dickens's "American" novel, for he had recently made his first voyage to the United States, eager to see for himself this legendary land of democratic values and independent spirit, but he returned to Mother England in disillusionment. Chuzzlewit is, in effect, his scathing response to Americans -- as boorish, gun-toting, dim-witted hypocrites who flaunt their "land of freedom" while justifying slavery and various shows of intolerance. Here in the P.C. twenty-first century, Chuzzlewit might be an appropriate book to revisit, for it offers a glimpse of what Dickens's contemporaries thought of American culture back in 1843 -- and in many ways, sadly, not much has changed.

As a story, it's pretty simple: Old Martin Chuzzlewit is supposedly dying, and various relatives come out of the woodwork to ingratiate themselves to him in the hopes of securing their fortunes. Mr. Seth Pecksniff (hypocrite extraordinaire) and his two daughters, Mercy and Charity, move in the secure the fortune, while young Martin Chuzzlewit is forced, via Pecksniff's manipulations, to leave the premises in disgrace, thereby leading him to journey to America in search of his fortune. In typical Dickensian fashion, sundry subplots ensue, numerous memorable characters are introduced (especially Mrs. Sairie Gamp and her good friend, "Mrs. Harris") and all loose ends are neatly tied-up by novel's end, leaving the "bad" characters punished accordingly and the "good" ones duly rewarded for their virtue. As in his previous novels, money is once again a major element of the narrative, for it helps to distinguish the characters by showing the reader who values money, who schemes for money, and who is virtuous despite a lack of money.

Martin Chuzzlewit demonstrates a maturity of style and narrative control that his previous novels lack. By this time, Dickens had experimented with trying to sustain two separate narratives simultaneously (the Nicholas and Kate Nickleby plotlines come most immediately to mind), but here he seems to do a better job of balancing the plotlines. From what I understand, Dickens was quite proud of this novel and had hoped to be immortalized as the author of Martin Chuzzlewit. Although "Boz" would go on to produce more lasting and universal novels in his upcoming decades, this is not a novel to be ignored. It's quite good, actually.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Truth be told, I'm much more of a Tolkien fan than a Lewis fan when it comes to each writer's respective fantasy fiction. The Lord of the Rings is an incredible literary work, and functions on so many different levels (as fantasy, as quest narrative, as allegory, as a modern retelling of every epic from Beowulf onward ...) and, for all I know, The Chronicles of Narnia may likewise be a work of such depth. If this volume, however, is any indication of what the entire Chronicles is like, I'm probably better off sticking with Tolkien.

As a narrative, the novel pretty much remains in the "children's literature" vein of, say, The Hobbit. Lewis's tale of four children who discover a portal into the snow-ridden secret land of Narnia via a magical armoir, and become embroiled in an epic battle of Good vs. Evil, has a memorable collection of characters, enchanting settings, and a distinctly Christian subtext. For me at least the main turn-off is the style which, because of its quaintly repetitive structure (not to mention a somewhat intrusive narrative consciousness), never really transcends the level of an elaborate children's story.

I'm not suggesting that this novel is necessarily flawed as a result of this. This was no doubt Lewis's design, and there's obviously nothing wrong with exploring Good vs. Evil through a children's story. Part of the problem here is that I've only read this one novel (which is Volume Two of the entire seven-volume Chronicles), so I'm taking the work out of its larger context. Just as The Lord of the Rings begins in the Shire with Bilbo's birthday and, over the course of the narrative, increases in complexity and darkness, so too might The Chronicles. I'd have to read all seven volumes to find out. Unfortunately, reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn't leave me hungering for more; I think I get the idea here.

Has anyone else out there read it? Am I missing something?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Pop culture is a tricky fence to straddle. On the one side you have the "critics," who diminish the importance of pop culture analysis, deeming it an exercise in futility because little worthwhile can come from that which, by its nature, is ephemeral (not to mention "popular"). On the other side you have the analysts themselves, seeking to make sense of (and give relevance to) the slippery miscellania of our Existence.

Enter Klosterman, who straddles that fence nicely in this collection of essays (each of which is separated by an informal blog-like "rant" or observation that offers something of a segue from one essay to the next). Whether he's examining the social significance of The Real World, the influence of internet porn on cultural definitions of beauty, the amorous conquests of The Fonz, the importance of Clint Black lyrics, or why Luke Skywalker is the first cinematic representation of that which would years later become known as Generation X, Klosterman draws from a wide range of topics -- sports, art, film, TV, politics, religion, etc. -- and provides compelling links among all of these to demonstrate that "[i]n and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever 'in and of itself'."

This book isn't for everyone, of course. My guess is that those of us born between, say, 1960 and 1982 (roughly the Gen X'ers or, as my friend Dave calls us, the Electric Company generation) will get the most amusement from Klosterman's observations. Folks who are either older or younger than this will simply not care about his swipes at Billy Joel's Glass Houses or his HBO reveries. Perhaps that's the biggest problem with pop culture analysis: it often fails to engage those who are not part and parcel of that particular "moment" in pop culture. But Klosterman makes valient attempts to bridge that gap, as when he writes the following:

Here is the easiest way to explain the genius of Johnny Cash: Singing from the perspective of a convicted murderer in the song "Folsom Prison Blues," Cash is struck by pangs of regret when he sits in his cell and hears a distant train whistle. This is because people on that train are "probably drinkin' coffee." And this is also why Cash seems completely credible as a felon: He doesn't want freedom or friendship or Jesus or a new lawyer. He wants coffee.

Within the mind of a killer, complex feelings are eerily simple.

This is why killers can shoot men in Reno just to watch them die, and the rest of us usually can't.

This is a humorous and insightful collection.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Eudora Welty, Losing Battles

First off, let me admit that I didn't finish reading this one. I got about a third of the way through it and, tired of waiting for something to happen in the story, I moved on to other things.

The "story" (such as it is) is divided into 6 parts, and involves an extended Mississippi family that gathers to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Granny Vaughn. Along the way, we are treated to a series of typically screwy southerners a la Flannery O'Connor as each one tells story after story about the family and various members of the community, much of which is intended to be amusing. The problem that I had with the novel, however, was that these stories weren't enough: I was waiting for something to actually happen!

Now, I've read two other Welty novels -- Delta Wedding and The Opimist's Daughter -- both of which I thought were good. And while Losing Battles had its moments of intended hilarity, I just wasn't picking up on an actual narrative to make the time I was spending with this book worthwhile. After about 100 pages or so, I felt like I "got" the idea of what the author was trying to achieve and . . . well . . . was ready for more.

One aspect of the novel that I must admit liking, however, was the effect of reading all that southern dialogue over an extended period of time. Somehow, you get a sense of the poetry behind southern dialect, and its cadences remain with you long after you've finished reading for the day -- much like the effects of reading Milton or Joyce or Proust for several hours at a stretch. Welty's command of southern dialogue (and dialect) is admirable, which is likely why my friend Donna (who, incidentally, listened to this novel on audiotape) loved the novel!

From what I understand, the "story" kicks-in in Part Six. But you have to wade through those first five Parts to get to it.

I hope the "story" is worth it . . .

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Top 169 Novels

I'm between books at the moment . . .

Today on the Pynchon-L listserve, a lister posted the "Top 169 Novels" recommended by readers of Thomas Pynchon (it was discussed on the list some time ago). These titles are ranked according to how many people recommended the work, starting with the highest number of votes.

How many have you read?

1. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
2. Ulysses, James Joyce
3. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
4. The Recognitions, William Gaddis
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
6. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
7. JR, William Gaddis
8. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
9. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
10. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
11. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
12. V., Thomas Pynchon
13. Molloy/Malone/Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
14. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
15. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
16. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
18. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
19. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
20. A la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust
21. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
22. Neuromancer, William Gibson
23. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
24. Ada, Vladimir Nabokov
25. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
26. Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
27. Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco
28. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
29. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
30. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
31. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
32. Chimera, John Barth
33. Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey
34. You Bright and Risen Angels, William T. Vollmann
35. Death of Virgil, Hermann Broch
36. Independent People, Halldor Laxness
37. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
38. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
39. If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino
40. Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
41. Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabel
42. A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick
43. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
44. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
45. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
46. The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass
47. Winter's Tale, Mark Helprin
48. The Castle, Franz Kafka
49. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
50. Candide, Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
51. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
52. Auto-da-Fe, Elias Canetti
53. Roadside Picnic, Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky
54. The Red and the Black, Stendhal
55. Count Zero, William Gibson
56. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
57. Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
58. Watt, Samual Beckett
59. Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill
60. The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth
61. Nog, Rudolph Wurlitzer
62. Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
63. A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion
64. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
65. Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin
66. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick
67. Fathers and Sons, Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
68. Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone
69. Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler
70. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
71. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
72. Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow
73. Journey to the West, Anthony Yu
74. Ubik, Philip K. Dick
75. The Bridge Trilogy, William Gibson
76. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
77. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Thomas Wolfe
78. Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
79. Light in August, William Faulkner
80. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
81. The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
82. The Night (Alone), Richard Meltzer
83. The Rabbit stories, John Updike
84. A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov
85. House of Sleeping Beauties, Yasunari Kawabata
86. Underworld, Don DeLillo
87. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
88. The Counterlife, Philip Roth
89. The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Edith Nesbit
90. Always Coming Home, Ursula LeGuin
91. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
92. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
93. Dune, Frank Herbert
94. Dreams of Leaving, Rupert Thompson
95. World's End, T.C. Boyle
96. Wittgenstein's Mistress, David Markson
97. Memories of the Ford Administration, John Updike
98. Carpenter's Gothic, William Gaddis
99. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazney
100. The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
101. Life of Pi, Yann Martel
102. Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Richard Powers
103. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
104. The Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz
105. The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
106. Vurt, Jeff Noon
107. The Glass Bead Game, Herman Hesse
108. Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes
109. Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford
110. Enderby, The Poet, Anthony Burgess
111. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
112. Libra, Don DeLillo
113. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
114. Harlot's Ghost, Norman Mailer
115. Wise Blood (& the complete stories), Flannery O'Connor
116. The Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy
117. Warlock, Oakley Hall
118. The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson
119. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
120. Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth
121. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
122. Beautifull Losers, Leonard Cohen
123. After The Banquet, Yukio Mishima
124. Beloved, Toni Morrison
125. Death On The Installment Plan, Louis Ferdinand-Celine
126. The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brian
127. White Jazz, James Ellroy
128. The Trial, Franz Kafka
129. Frank's World, George Mangles
130. Metamorphosis (& Complete Works), Franz Kafka
131. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
132. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
133. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
134. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
135. Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz
136. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
137. What a Carve Up, Jonathan Coe
138. Revolutions Trilogy, John Banville
139. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
140. Disgrace, J.M. Coatzee
141. Weave World, Clive Barker
142. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury
143. The War at the End of the World, Vargas Llosa
144. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
145. The Gold Bug Variations, Richard Powers
146. The Goodbye Look, Ross MacDonald
147. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
148. The Confidence Man, Herman Melville
149. Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood
150. A Month of Sundays, John Updike
151. Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick
152. Valis Trilogy, Philip K. Dick
153. Locus Solus, Raymond Roussel
154. Time Enough For Love, Robert Heinlein
155. A Frolic of His Own, William Gaddis
156. As Above, So Below, Rudy Rucker
157. Women and Men: a novel, Joseph McElroy
158. A House for Mr. Biswas, V.P. Naipaul
159. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
160. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
161. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
162. Life: A User's Manual, Georges Perec
163. Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
164. Waiting for the End of The World, Madison Smartt Bell
165. The Story of the Vivian Girls (etc.), Henry Darger
166. White Noise, Don Delillo
167. Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
168. Lampiere's Dictionary, Lawrence Norfolk
169. Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Yes, I was one of the Potter geeks hanging out at the local Borders for the Midnight Magic release on 7/16/05, just like the last book . . .

I've been enjoying the Potter books since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone came out in paperback, and our Book Group read it back in the Fall of 1999. And with each successive book, I've had mixed feelings about the series itself as well as the quality of each novel (e.g., in my opinion, Goblet of Fire is a clinker, though some Pot-Heads may disagree).

Nevertheless, I just finished reading Half-Blood Prince and thought it was pretty good. Rowling still draws heavily from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in various ways, and our book group has watched in each book as Rowling borrows again and again. For example, Tolkien has evil entity Sauron, and Rowling has evil entity Lord Voltemort; Frodo has a ring which makes him invisible, and Harry has his Invisibility Cloak; Gandalf and Dumbledore; Ringwraiths and Dementors; Gollum and Dobby; the list goes on. Half-Blood Prince continues the borrowing: notice the similarities between how the Fellowship enters the Mines of Moria, and how Harry searches for the entrance to the Room of Requirement, and later how Harry and Dumbledore seek entrance through a solid wall in "The Cave." I also detected a bit of Tolkien's Dead Marshes when Harry and Dumbledoor see the Inferi (and, of course, fighting off Inferi with fire, like Tolkien's Weathertop episode).

Sidenote: Let me just say that, regardless of the Rowling book, Quiddich chapters bore me to death. But that's beside the point.

I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing of Half-Blood Prince which, like all the Potter books, has a rapid element of crime fiction to it that always engages the reader. Likewise, the "new" magical elements introduced in this book, like Horcruxes, are fun to consider from a religious or philosophical standpoint. Yet I still cannot fathom those who denounce the series for its supposed "occultism" -- au contraire, if nothing else Harry Potter celebrates friendship, loyalty, academic discipline, family ties . . . not to mention those who make the ultimate sacrifice for those they love (you'll know of whom I speak when you read the book).

Sadly, Goblet of Fire hits theaters this November. I hope it's better than the book.

(By the way, I caught this on on 7/29/05 and wonder if Ms. Rowling knew it when she created the "Sorting Hat.")

Friday, June 17, 2005

Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Flat out, one of the best books I've read in a while!

Maguire takes a character that pop culture has deemed Evil Incarnate (based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 novel and, of course, the popular 1939 film) and invests her with a family, an education, an activist sensibility, a libido, and a wit! Drawing more from the Baum novel than from the film -- and those readers who are only familiar with the film will undoubtedly notice some inconsistancies with the Maguire novel . . . so read Baum! -- Wicked traces the birth and education of Elpheba as she encounters a rogue's gallery of Munchinlanders, talking Animals, tictok figures, etc. More importantly, Maguire gives us a fictional world that is likewise plagued with dictatorial political figures, conspiracy and intrigue, terrorism, social activism, and inherent absurdity. And, er . . . flying monkeys.

There are several literary works out there that take an established literary figure and create a "backstory" for him/her. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (which tells the backstory of Bertha Rochester, the madwoman in the attack from Jane Eyre) and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which gives an account of Hamlet from the point-of-view of two of its minor characters) come most immediately to mind. But Maguire makes the world of Oz our world, and there is a stunning relevance here between the Oz on the page and our own post-9/11 existence (even though the novel itself was published almost a decade ago).

And while it's a fun read, it's definitely a book that will leave you with more questions than answers. Consequently, multiple readings make this a rewarding novel to experience -- something which, in my opinion, makes a work of literature valueable.

If you haven't done so already, read Wicked. Read it soon!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

Despite its incredible popularity when it was first serialized (take that, Ms. Rowling!), this is certainly not Dickens for the faint of heart. Ironically, it's the evil dwarf Daniel Quilp, a perfect example of a satanic character (akin to Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), who provides some of the best laughs in the novel (he sure knows how to treat a mother-in-law!). Woeful melodrama aside, however, for the most part this novel is a prolonged meditation on death and moves relentlessly deathward all along.

Lolita-esque Little Nell lives with her Grandfather in his curiosity shop until Quilp takes possession of said shop after it is revealed that the Grandfather's been gambling away the payments. Nell and Grandfather take to the streets of London and the English countryside in an attempt to escape the clutches of Quilp, whose influence has created a freakish network of travelling actors, lawyers, and other assorted Dickensians who may (or may not) lead the pair back to Quilp!

For readers of Shakespeare, this makes an excellent companion-read with King Lear: Little Nell and her Grandfather parallel Lear and Cordelia, both in temperment and sensibility; their journey away from Quilp's oppression (as well as the parade of freaks that follows them throughout their journey) sends them into a wilderness much like Lear's banishment; finally, both works offer variations on the concept of "nothingness" (and its connection to Life), giving both a distinctive (albeit early) Existential quality.

I enjoyed this book although, for those readers expecting the "happy marriages" and bliss that conclude The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby, this is much more . . . um, well . . . solemn.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unbearable, indeed.

I can handle books that are "depressing." In fact, most (if not all) literature is at its essence rooted in tears and pain of some sort, anyway. But this novel beats 'em all.

That's not to suggest, however, that I necessarily disliked the book, or that I wouldn't recommend it. There are passages in Kundera that are beautifully rendered, and much of the philosophical flourishing will give the reader occasion to pause and consider how the notions apply to his/her own life. One of my favorites is early in the novel and, as it turns out, becomes the basis for the novel's themes:

"We can never know what we want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come [...] There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite the word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture [...] If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all."

Some of the book, however, left me feeling unfulfilled, and I sort of wonder if it had to do with the translation (Kundera is a Czech). Nevertheless, a colleague of mine *swears* by Kundera (and highly recommends his novel Immortality), while another friend said the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an excellent complement to the novel (i.e., each taken on its own is okay but, together, they inform each other . . . kinda like Pink Floyd's The Wall).

Either way, I've now read Milan Kundera. So much for that.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

Frankly, I find it amazing that this book isn't more popular. Next to David Copperfield, this is one of my favorite Dickens novels. While Pickwick is just innocent fun and Oliver Twist is dark and foreboding, Nicholas Nickleby has a wide range of tones, from the sinister (during the Dotheboy's Hall chapters) to the amusing (with the Crummles family) to the melodramatic (Smike's scenes) to the psychologically thrilling (Ralph Nickleby's unravelling). Along the way, Dickens offers *just enough* social commentary to make his point without brow-beating the reader. And the characters! What delicious evil in Wackford Squeers and Sir Mulberry Hawk, what hilarity in Mr. John Browdie, and what nobility in Newman Noggs and the title character!

Yet, for all its good points, I'm still disappointed in Dickens's portrayal of female characters. With the exception of Nancy in Oliver Twist, I have yet to encounter a woman in Dickens who isn't, at best, a poorly developed outline of a character. Of course, this is a gripe that most scholars likewise have with his work and, as I continue to read my way through the Dickensian canon, I will hopefully find a female character worthy of praise.

My next Dickens outing: The Old Curiosity Shop.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Last year, I decided I would attempt to read the entire Dickens canon in chronological order, leisurely working my way through all sixteen novels (this is going to take me a few years, obviously). Pickwick (Dickens's first novel) is one that I had read several years ago on a summer lark, but it was wonderful to reread this work and "revisit an old friend," as it were.

The "story" tells of Mr. Pickwick, founder of the Pickwick Club, and his entourage of fellow club members -- Mr. Winkle, Mr. Snodgrass, and Mr. Tupman, as well as that masterpiece of comic creation, Sam Weller -- as they participate in adventures and misadventures in and around the English countryside circa 1837.

In terms of Dickensia, this is where it all began: the quirky characters, the festive inns, the wry social commentary, the linguistic perambulations, and the tidily resolved plot and subplots. But one of the things that I absolutely love about this novel is the unabashed fun Dickens was obviously having as he wrote it! If ever there were a book in which you could imagine the author chuckling to himself because of the hilarity of the dialogue or description he'd just written, it is this one. And while there are many books I would count as the funniest I've read (The Catcher in the Rye, A Confederacy of Dunces, and Catch-22, for example), their humor is ultimately eclipsed by a dark and threatening world vision. The world of Pickwick, however, is one of childish delights; nothing bad will ever really befall any of the characters, and somehow we readers know this. Pickwick is innocent fun amid the inns, coach stands, and gaming fields of 19th Century England, and the reader is momentarily transported to an era in which we can all act foolishly amongst friends, and all will be forgiven over sweetmeats and libations!

In some ways, then, this novel is both typical and atypical of Dickens. On the one hand, this novel has all the charm and warmth of a cozy English hearth -- a mood we tend to associate with Dickensian works (especially around the holidays). On the other, it has an unbridled "happiness" to which Dickens would never return (his next novel, in fact, would be the incredibly dark Oliver Twist). This is another reason I especially like Pickwick: it's a pleasant anomaly within the Dickens canon.

This novel is pure fun. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Deborah Copaken Kogan, Shutterbabe

If you like photography, this book is for you.

If you like writing that captures the intensity of war-torn Afghanistan in 1988, or transports the reader from the decandence of Switzerland to the parkways of France (stopping along the way in Romania and Haiti and Zimbabwe), documenting the zeitgeist of the 1990s "me-decade" all the while, this book is for you.

And if you like a narrator who is ditzy, self-centered, peevish, and whiny . . . well, umm . . . this book is for you.

What I liked about this memoir is the author's travels and descriptions of the cultures she encountered. She even made camera specs sound interesting, which only goes to show that her passion for her career (photojournalism) is infectious. However, I found her annoying, especially when she'd prattle on about the men in her life and the way they made her "feel" as a woman (ugh!). I just wasn't interested, and while I kept expecting (hoping, even) to see a bildungsroman-type self-awareness develop in her voice by memoir's end, it just never happened.

At the end of the book (and I'm not giving anything away here) Kogan includes a two-part Afterword, part one written prior to 9/11 and part two written just after, meant to highlight the "quaint but misguided relic of an ancient, more innocent era" (i.e., the pre-9/11 American mindset). What I find most disturbing is just how "quaint" and "ancient" that one brief moment in American history immediately following the WTC attacks seems today -- that moment when Americans felt (and were perceived as) victimized and received the world's sympathy.

Taken in today's 2005 context, that era too seems like a "misguided relic."

Overall, this book was okay. I wasn't blown away, but it had its moments.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

When The Levee Breaks: The Making of Led Zeppelin IV, by Andy Fyfe

When Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980 due to drummer John Bonham's death, I was but a mere freshman in high school. Nevertheless, my close friends and I continued to worship this band for the duration of our high school years, and to this day it is difficult for me to remember anything between 1980 and 1984 without its having a Led Zeppelin soundtrack.

Reading this book was fun for me because it was like an opportunity to visit with an old friend, in this case Zep's fourth album (officially untitled, but known by several names). Back in high school I did all the requisite fetishisms a true Zeppelin fan was supposed to do with this album: drawn the four runes on your notebook, speculate on the cover and sleeve artwork, and (most importantly) play "Stairway to Heaven" backwards on your turntable to try to pick out the alleged references to Satan (which, now in retrospect, was a pretty silly and pointless activity, though at the time it certainly added to the Zeppelin mystique).

Fyfe's book provides an enjoyable look at all aspects of the making of this album, from recording to cover art to track sequencing to promotion. Additionally, he offers a healthy dose of background information on the formation and development of the band, as well as its volitile relationship with the media and its overall influence on the music industry. While much of the band background and interview material was old stuff for me (a longtime Zeppelin afficionado, quite honestly), the book will appeal to those of you who enjoy Zeppelin's music and would like to learn more about the band itself. Either way, Fife's book is a quick, enjoyable read.

This book is one of several in the "Vinyl Frontier" series, published by the Chicago Review Press.