Sunday, November 30, 2008

Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In my efforts this past week to catch-up on posting the books I've read since this summer, here's another one I read back in September for my Book Group.

I've always been more of a fan of sci-fi than fantasy, although I recall reading fantasy fiction earlier than I started reading sci-fi. Maybe it was the silliness of the old Conan the Barbarian books I was reading when I was twelve, or maybe it was the sci-fi aspects of the original Star Wars trilogy in the late '70s/early '80s, or maybe it was the simple fact that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a hard act to follow and remains THE gold standard by which all fantasy must be judged -- whatever the reason, I've always had more of an attraction to science fiction than fantasy.

So when I finally got around to reading Book I of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, it was so refreshing to finally be in the presence of a fantasy world that can rival Middle Earth or the Galactic Empire! With brilliant pacing and compelling characters, not the least of which is the mysterious Lord Asriel, Pullman creates a struggle between Good/Evil that is as familiar as it is fantastical, and therein lies the attraction with fantasy fiction (at least for me): Tolkien's background in languages and medieval literature helped him fashion a world wherein we can hear echoes of Beowulf, King Arthur, Dante Alighieri, Macbeth, and even The Faerie Queen. I won't call it a "parallel universe," but "good" fantasy establishes resonance between the world of fantasy and our world, most often through echoes of our world's mythology. Tolkien does this. C.S. Lewis does this in his Narnia. And Pullman taps into that quality effectively with his Gobblers, scholars, daemons, and Dust. Regardless of whether one wants to argue the Christianity or atheism of his message (an argument that I find tiresome here), Lyra's world has just enough of a resemblance to ours to make this an excellent piece of fantasy writing.

Yet, I have not seen the film and have no intentions of doing so.

Enjoy the approaching holidays, dear reader!


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Dan Beachy-Quick, A Whaler's Dictionary

This is a pretty interesting book -- certainly if you're a fan of Moby-Dick, but especially if you want to see one reader's approach to exploring a single work of literature.

What Beachy-Quick creates here is less a "dictionary" proper and more an alphabetical listing and explanation of themes, major concepts, terms, and connections derived from having read closely the Melville novel for more than ten years. As he points out in "Apology," "I meant not to exhaust Moby-Dick of meaning, but to exhaust myself of of the meaning I found in it." Consequently, each chapter is a brief meditation on any number of significant aspects of the novel that helped inform his reading of the text, whether they be reflections on a theme ("Fear," "Hunger"), or an odd thread he follows throughout the novel ("Profit" vs. "Prophet"), or even the resonance of an allusion Ishmael drops but fails to develop ("Jawbone"). Reading A Whaler's Dictionary is like reading one reader's ongoing notebook reflections of a text, or watching that reader organize and reflect upon the marginal annotations s/he's made over multiple readings.

This book is a strangely compelling look at how a reader thinks about the text he is reading.

Read A Whaler's Dictionary because you enjoyed Moby-Dick, or read it because you want to see how a reader tries to make sense of a text's complexity. But do check it out!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

I'm in the process of catching up on some of the things I read earlier this year but never got around to posting, and here's a work I read for my Book Group back in September.

The Moonstone holds the distinction of being "the first detective novel," but right there I have to qualify that distinction. While it may be the first detective novel, it is hardly the first detective story -- that title must go to any number of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, most notably "The Purloined Letter." And while it may be the first detective novel, it is hardly the first novel to make use of what would soon become the crime-solving detective stock character -- that had been done almost two decades earlier with Inspector Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House. So while my qualification does little to diminish The Moonstone's status as "the first detective novel," it does place Collins's work within the larger context of his contemporaries.

At its center, The Moonstone is the story of the titular diamond's disappearance following the eighteenth-birthday celebration of Rachel Verinder, and the efforts to recover the stolen artifact, reconstruct the circumstances of the theft, and identify the culprit. Told through multiple points of view, the novel not only presents a fascinating study in problem solving, but established many of the basic tropes of detective fiction that continue to hold true even today. Although Collins was a contemporary of Dickens (and even published this novel serially in Dickens's All The Year Round), its style is much more accessable than that of Dickens.

I enjoyed The Moonstone, as I'm sure you will.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This was a re-read for me, and the most recent selection for my Book Group.

The Screwtape Letters is a brilliantly subversive little book written in the old epistolary novel form. It consists of a series of letters written from a veteran demon, Screwtape, to his apprentice demon nephew, Wormwood, concerning advice on how best to subvert mankind. Throughout the letters you learn that Wormwood has a "patient" he must prompt daily toward sin, and Screwtape's advice reveals the nature of how and why we sin by giving us the demon's point-of-view: which human states of mind are most vulnerable to sinful thoughts, how best to stir within the human mind doubt in God (or, whom Screwtape calls "the Enemy"), and how to subtly nudge thought and behavior toward that which is most conducive to sin.

Lewis (as Christian a writer as they come, if you're familiar with his other works) makes the character of Screwtape profound, yet hilarious -- check out the conversational ways in which the uncle chides the nephew for faulty logic or poor writing. Most of the letters can be categorized, in one way or another, as comments on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Seven Deadly Sins, and other such biblical lists of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But what makes it enjoyable for me is the simple ring of truth to all he says, even when commenting on the little things in Life. For example, Screwtape offers the following observation to Wormwood:

"When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy ... and, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her."

(If you've been married for almost twenty years, you definitely see the truth in that.)

The Screwtape Letters is fun stuff. Enjoy!

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Diving into a Philip K. Dick novel is always a fun experience, especially when one has spent much of the year in foggy Victorian England. Dick's sci-fi universe is filled with paranoid protagonists, alternate realities, and government conspiracies galore!

It's 1988, and Jason Taverner is a celebrity TV entertainer who, after a near-fatal confrontation with a jilted protege, finds himself in a dingy apartment, alone. He has cash, he has clothes ... but he has no identity, and all attempts to make contact with anyone who might know him prove fruitless. Taverner's dystopian world is one of ubiquitous and omniscient police and forced-labor camps for those who cannot be identified, so all of his efforts center around locating someone, anyone who can help him regain (or achieve) identity, all the while with Police General Felix Buckman hot on his tail.

Aside from exploring such themes as the search for identity, the nature of celebrity, the measure and value of cognitive intelligence, the need for genetic enhancement, and even the legalities of certain acts we deem criminal, this novel has the distinction of being the subject of one of the later monologues in Richard Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life, where one of the novel's final chapters is paralleled to the Book of Acts from the New Testament (for those who are interested, here's the King James Version).

When I finish obligatory readings, I love to immerse myself in the universe of Philip K. Dick for some pure escapism. Flow My Tears does not disappoint! Check it out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Thomas Pynchon Novel in 2009

Several weeks ago, there were some rumblings on the Pynchon-L list with rumors of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon, due out next year. According to author Steven Moore, who spoke to someone close to the Pynchon camp, "The rep told me it's around 400 pages, and is a kind of noir detective story set in the 1960s, with lots of psychedelia as background. How groovy is that!" That's all we know so far ... and the fact that it is due in August, 2009. That's great news, considering Against The Day just came out a few years ago! In the meantime, I've been sniffing around this website lately, which showcases images of first editions of Pynchon's works. I, too, gotta say: How groovy is that!

Here is what one blogger wrote today:

Publisher Penguin's catalog reveals details about the upcoming book by Thomas Pynchon. As previously reported, it will be a detective novel hitting shelves next summer; the news is the title, "Inherent Vice." And details about the plot:

It's been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It's the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that "love" is another of those words going around at the moment, like "trip" or "groovy," except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . .

You might say I'm a little too much of a fan of "The Crying of Lot 49"-- I got only puzzled stares when I showed up at a Halloween party dressed as Oedipa Mass. But when I hear Pynchon, psychedelic sixties and billionaire land developer, I can't help but think Pierce Inverarity. Could this world overlap with the world of "The Crying ofLot 49"? Or will it be a bizarre sixties Southern California of its own?

Thanks to tireless litblogger Scott Esposito for finding the Pynchonentry in the the PDF catalog.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Having watched all the presidential debates, heard all the sound bites, and seen the various and sundry interviews prior to his election win, I figured it's high time I read the writings of President-elect Barack Obama. I decided to begin with The Audacity of Hope, since it seems to be the most relevant to his immediate obligations once he takes office in January (his previous book, Dreams From My Father, appears more autobiographical in nature, with a focus on his formative years).

The Audacity of Hope is a series of reflections on a wide variety of subjects, from areas of politics to the concerns of race and faith to Obama's concluding notions of family. The book offers a snapshot of Obama's first years as a U.S. Senator while showcasing many of his positions on such topics as educational reform, foreign policy, gay rights, etc. But what makes this book such an enjoyable read -- aside from Obama's stylistic skill -- is the way in which he seasons each chapter with a liberal dose of personal anecdote. You witness him as a loving father and husband; you chuckle as he relates his campaign misadventures (some of the funniest sections recount his campaign vs. Alan Keyes); you marvel at his command of political history (especially that of Colonial-era America, not to mention the eras of Lincoln and Kennedy); and you admire his ability to present issues as volatile as abortion with balance and moderation. In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, Obama made a name for himself as a candidate who does not get easily rattled in difficult situations; reading this book, you recognize that this ability to remain calm and level-headed is genuinely part of his nature.

Although there were moments in this book when Obama seemed to get a bit didactic -- often times his diatribes on what "should" be done or what he "believes in" sounded like endless campaign rhetoric -- his overall message was clear, consistent, fair, and balanced. Barack Obama writes the way he speaks ... with confidence, with optimism, with clarity of vision.

A good read that I highly recommend!


Truth be told, it feels like a long time since I've posted anything here, even though I've been reading constantly since the start of the school year. Much of my time has been spent re-reading things for school -- The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Macbeth, Hamlet, and various YA novels, not to mention Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood for my fall Newberry seminar -- but as the holidays approach I hope to be able to catch you up here on other things I've read ... for FUN no less! LOL