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.