Sunday, July 25, 2010

Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids

Anyone who's read my blog for any stretch of time knows that one of my guilty pleasures in reading is a good sci-fi novel (that, and noir fiction, are my biggest guilty pleasures!). Sawyer's Hominids is a Hugo Award winner and Part One of the "Neanderthal Parallax," a trilogy that envisions a parallel universe in which Neanderthals became the dominant species on Earth.

Ponter Boddit is a Neanderthal physicist who, with the help of his partner Adikor, accidentally breaks into a parallel universe: ours. He fortunately befriends a small group of human physicists who work furiously to first communicate with him, then help him fight off his first bout of disease from human contact, and finally reconnect with his Neanderthal world. In alternating chapters we see Adikor as he is mistakenly accused of murdering Ponter (since Ponter's disappearance cannot be explained any other way in their world), and how he fights to establish his innocence within their legal system while also trying to reconnect with Ponter.

The pacing of this story is excellent thanks to Sawyer's use of alternating chapters to tell the parallel narratives, and (as good science fiction always does) it offers a certain amount of social commentary. Sawyer does this in two ways, by (a) providing a character from outside our world who comments on our way of life, and (b) providing a glimpse of how our world could have turned out under different circumstances, with less-than-satisfying results. Many science-fiction authors choose to use one narrative method or the other, but here Sawyer deftly juxtaposes the two, making for a gripping story that also has a lot to say.

If you are looking for some good sci-fi, look for further. Check out Hominids!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

I read this on the recommendation of a fellow A.P. English teacher who likened it to a modern-day version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. I remember enjoying Anderson back in college, so I figured I'd give this book a whirl. It did NOT disappoint!

Strout's book is a collection of basically thirteen short stories, all pertaining to various residents of the small town of Crosby, Maine and all connected somehow by the titular character. Olive is a retired middle-school mathematics teacher, a big woman who loves her Dunkin' Donuts and speaking her mind plainly, and throughout the collection of stories we see Olive and a cast of others going about the activities of life: attending weddings and funerals, working unfulfilling jobs, engaging with soul mates, fretting over in-laws, fending regrets. Olive is the unifying element within each story, since most of the stories focus on other characters or families ... but by book's end you get a poignant portrait of this woman as she -- like all of us -- attempts to make sense of this thing called Life.

Olive Kitteridge is in beautifully written prose, yet I cannot help but wonder if a high school kid will really "get" what makes these characters work. In much the same way I tried to teach Dickens's A Christmas Carol a few years ago and learned, by the end, that the reason why I was the only one with tears in his eyes was because I, unlike the average seventeen-year-old, had actually lived life long enough to have regrets -- in this way, I doubt my students will really understand what makes these characters work. Nevertheless, each story is an outstanding exercise in characterization, so it's definitely worth a try.

Enjoy reading Olive Kitteridge!

Friday, July 23, 2010

David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Imagine what it must feel like to have your last wish granted: to be reincarnated into, say, a horse. And as your body metamorphoses into this majestic beast, you realize the error of your choice as you lose forever that last glimmer of recognition of your humanness.

Better yet: What if God were an entity whose favorite activity is rereading Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein? Or what if "God" were, in reality, a population of dim-witted creatures and, upon our death, we learn that we are a population of Super Computers designed by them to provide answers to the cosmic questions ... but we don't know what they're asking, and they can't fathom what we're saying to them.

These are just some of the fascinating scenarios Eagleman puts forth in this thin volume of tales. Drawing from a divergent collection of disciplines like molecular biology, neuroscience, chemistry, mathematics -- and viewed through the prisms of theology, literature, and philosophical speculation -- Eagleman's Forty Tales offers the reader, in forty two- to three-page "tales," an entertaining and thought-provoking glimpse of what may await us in the Hereafter.

I enjoyed this!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Zev Chafets, Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame

For anyone who enjoys baseball, you know that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York is the ultimate shrine to the nation's pastime (other than Fenway Park, of course ... but that's another story).

Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball -- its origins, its memorabilia, its timelessness. It's a small, quiet town in the middle of upstate New York, surrounded by mountains and gorgeous greenery, and its folksy homes and Main Street seem frozen as an Eisenhower-era Mayberry photo. This book rubs the gilded edges and soft focus off of all that, revealing the politics and manipulation that go into an MLB player getting his name and record immortalized on a gold plaque. The owners, the players, the media, and even the civic leaders of the town itself are exposed for their contributions to this grand manipulation.

Chafets has a candid, easy-to-read journalistic style. Bringing this along on our trip to Cooperstown Dreams Park this summer, I found the book a pleasant read that went down smoothly. Some of the material I was familiar with already from having seen the Ken Burns documentary Baseball (1994), but Cooperstown Confidential is enjoyable for anyone who digs the sport and isn't afraid to see his or her baseball "heroes" with some egg on their face, warts and all.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

David Grann, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

In 1925, British Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, along with his son and his son's best friend, led an expedition into the Amazon jungle in search of what Fawcett called the "City of Z," an ancient lost city once thought to be in the depths of Brazil. Despite being hailed as one of the leading explorers of the Amazon jungle, Fawcett and his party were never heard from again. In this book, which was expanded from a 2005 article in The New Yorker, journalist David Grann recounts his attempts to trace the Fawcett party's expedition into the wilderness in the hopes of learning (a) whatever happened to them, and (b) did they ever find the city they sought.

This is an outstanding piece of non-fiction that will keep you riveted throughout the reading. Not only does Grann keep the narrative of the expedition itself well-paced, but he gives the reader of solid sense of what Fawcett was like, flaws and all. His accounts of some of Fawcett's earlier expeditions are as amusing as they are gripping, especially when less-than-capable explorers were faced with the harsh conditions of the jungle and the demands that Fawcett put on anyone willing to join his party. Additionally, Grann's descriptions of the Amazon jungle -- its geography, its animals and insects, its various tribes (both friendly and deadly ones) -- make for a fascinating glimpse into a tropical world that is indeed a false Paradise.

Strongly recommended if you are looking for some good non-fiction!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Samuel Beckett, Endgame

For years, I've taught Beckett's Waiting for Godot in my A.P. English class and I've used it in my "Literature of Hell" class at the Newberry Library. I find Beckett stark yet hysterical. Before the school year ended in May, my friend and I went to see a performance of Endgame at the Steppenwolf. So in prepapration for the performance I read the play.

In typical Beckett fashion, it's impossible to summarize a "plot" here. Instead, in Endgame you are faced with four characters who embody the fears, enslavement, bombast, and futility of all that is Twentieth-Century Mankind. Hamm is a blind, regal character who sits atop his "throne" on a stack of skids; he cannot move or see. Clov is his manservant/slave who engages Hamm in most of the play's dialogue; he cannot stop moving, and much of his "action" involves looking at/for things. Nell and Nagg are the elderly parents of Hamm, both passive and relinguished to ashcans that take stage prominance. Nothing really "happens" in the play, and the dialogue presents us with conversations, monologues, bickerings, a story-within-a-story, and various other moments that collectively take up 90 minutes or so of stage time.

But isn't that much like what modern existence is like? Beckett creates four characters, each of whom are metaphors for the problems and frustrations and fears that come with modernity. And there is a post-apocalyptic starkness to what they see outside those windows, lending a sheltered futility to all conversations in which they engage. And, like Godot, Endgame concludes in a moment of crisis, a moment of choice, a moment of pause ...

How will it be resolved? WILL resolution come? Beckett asks us ... but doesn't answer.

Endgame is hardly a beach read and Beckett is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But if you enjoy dark comedy, check out this play.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I remember first reading this way back in college (when I was twenty-one). I remember finding the whole experience of this story extremely unsettling -- and for good reason: its distinctively nightmarish quality. Upon re-reading it today I was pleasantly surprised, and no less unsettled, by its timelessness.

We all know the story. Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach. The family (consisting of mother, father, and younger sister) is thrown into turmoil because Gregor, the primary breadwinner, cannot go to work. Everyone in the family struggles with how to cope with this revolting "thing" that was once a functioning member of the family. Shock, grief, resentment -- all the stages of coping with the transformation lead to the story's inevitable conclusion, yet the family endures.

Now in my forties, I find this tale even more unsettling in its depiction of a family coping with the disability of one of its family members. From the start, Gregor's physical condition deteriorates in various ways. Of course, the obvious theme of a person coping with the demands of a job, family, and financial distress infuses the story with its distinct modernity. And in many ways, is this story not really a metaphor ... for alcoholism?

The Metamorphosis is definitely a great story to read when you're an adolescent (I plan to add it to my A.P. curriculum this fall). But it's even more harrowing when you read it twenty-five years later!

Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz, Kafka

In addition to reading The Metamorphosis, I also snagged a copy of Mairowitz's comic "biography" of Franz Kafka, brilliantly illustrated by none other than Robert Crumb! I say "biography" because, in addition to providing a wonderfully insightful account of the author life and Jewish background, it also contains sizeable excerpts from Kafa's major and minor works, passages from his diaries, interpretations of his works in light of their historical significance, and even comments on Kafka and the "Kafkaesque" within pop culture. So, in truth, it's much more than a biography.

Yet the great attraction here (for me, at least) is the artwork of Crumb, himself the perfect artist to illustrate the absurdity, the angst, the alienation, the carnality, the subversion, and the twisted grotesque Vision of Kafka's tales! In typical counter-culture hallucinatory Crumb style, the manic pen moves in insane crosshatch shading as Crumb captures the grime of Kafka's Prague ghetto, or the climactic moments of In The Penal Colony, or finally the tubercular dissolution of the author himself. Even now in his mid-sixties, Crumb's artwork continues to dazzle!

This is a great educational resource for anyone interested in the life and fiction of Franz Kafka, or for anyone who just digs terrific graphics. Check it out.