Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 11: Peter and Max- A Fables Novel

For those unfamiliar, Bill Willingham is the author of a series of comic books called Fables, which are based on the idea of characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes crossing over into our world, seeking refuge from the war-torn, cursed, etc. realms of their origin.  Willingham has branched out with this idea, writing novels about these characters as well.  Peter and Max is the story of two brothers, Peter and Max Piper, whose centuries-long enmity comes to a head in our own time and world.

Throughout the novel, Willingham bounces back and forth between the present, human-dominated (called Mundy, short for Mundane) world and the Fabled realm of long ago.  This is highly effective for setting up LOST-esque questions about the characters' personal histories. For example, why these two brothers hate each other so much, or why Peter's wife, Bo Peep (yup, that Bo Peep) is bound to a wheel chair, unable to use the lower half of her body.  Throughout the flashbacks covering the brothers' history, each question or mystery is gradually addressed and answered.  The current, Mundy setting covers Peter's quest to find his brother for what will hopefully be their final confrontation.  While this approach definitely has its perks, I found the disconnects a bit jarring at times.  I found myself having to flip back to previous chapters to refresh my memory regarding small, yet important details. 

Another interesting touch Willingham used was his approach to Max (who turns out to be the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the darkest version of the story).  The Fabled are a race full of characters who live in a moral gray area, which I always find interesting.  I have a thing for characters with questionable motives, or quests for redemption that may or may not be sincere.  However, as the main antagonist, Max is just out and out evil.  He starts off as a selfish, greedy, lazy, spiteful boy, yet you still have a shred of hope for him.  By the end of the book's first quarter, he is driven to full on evil by a combination of loss, trauma, and his own hateful nature.  There's no justifying a single awful thing he does, and even when he tries to do so, his self-serving arguments are just laughable.   Having just come off of Lolita, I did find this a refreshing change on a certain level.  However, I still found myself much more intrigued with the harder-to-pin-down supporting characters, such as a powerful witch of questionable loyalties, or Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf himself, who seems now bound and determined to earn his redemption.

While I dug the story for light, fluffy entertainment, something about it just failed to really grab me.  I guess I would describe the author's overall tone as Gaiman-lite.   Perhaps I would have liked it more if he spent less time describing and mapping out every single character and location in painstaking detail, and more time weaving a more complex narrative, or going a bit deeper with Max's antagonism.  Even when considered as a book for younger readers, I'd have to say that Gaiman's The Graveyard Book packs much more of an ideological and emotional wollop.  But I'm not turning my nose up at this book, either.  It was enjoyable.  I think I was just hoping it would be more.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 10: A Picture of Dorian Gray

Alternate title: Kate writes a book review with a powerful migraine.  Seriously folks, I'm on Day 6 of this sucker (though it was come and go throughout the weekend, to be fair).  Now it's full-on, nonstop pain comparable to a railroad spike through the skull and it's getting to the point where the simplest words are escaping me.  I just had to ask a coworker what it's called when a landlord kicks someone out of their apartment.  I knew it was a word similar to "exhibition" but I couldn't get any further than that.  I'm seriously considering asking my neurologist to give my MRI another look.

So, Dorian Gray.  It didn't move me on a profound level, but I enjoyed it immensely.  Now that I think about it, it's pretty much on par with how I usually feel about most of Wilde's work.  It's full of clever witticisms, about half of which I agree with, and social satire that periodically lightens the horror story's gothic, foreboding tone.

It starts with a benevolent, compassionate painter who has taken on an idolatrous admiration for his latest subject, a stunningly beautiful youth by the name of Dorian Gray.  More than just a pretty face, he also possesses an extremely charming character, being warm, frank, playful, and open-hearted.  The painter reluctantly introduces Gray to an old friend, a cynical dandy with "dangerous ideas," who corrupts the youth over the course of a walk through a garden.  Yes, the biblical reference is hard to ignore.  Afterward, the painter completes Gray's portrait, which is to him, the ultimate labor of love.  As he gazes upon it, Gray is so overwhelmed by his own beauty and muddled with "dangerous ideas" that he declares he would sell his soul to retain such youthful beauty forever.

Soon after, Gray's character changes for the worse.  It comes on gradually, but he becomes increasingly cruel, selfish, petty, remorseless, and hedonistic.  For every sin he commits, and for every year that goes by, his portrait grows not only older, but much uglier as his soul corrupts and degrades.  At the same time, Gray himself retains his spotless, youthful physical beauty, not aging a day over the next twenty years or so.  He is quick to hide the picture away (apparently not realizing that the whole eternal youth thing might be suspicious by itself), but retains a fearful paranoia throughout the story that it will be discovered.  His attitude toward the portrait changes frequently, from disgust to fear to delight to pity to loathing.  It can be confusing at times, but mirrors well the changing attitudes each of us carries toward our own wrongdoings and shortcomings.

What I found particularly interesting is how Wilde assaults and satirizes the very cynicism that many of his admirers seem to appreciate him for.  One character in particular reminded me of Hamlet's Polonius, who is often quoted by people who wish to seem erudite...despite the fact that Polonius is the play's chief idiot.  The cynic who fills Gray's head with "dangerous ideas" is plainly stated to be an egotistical, callow, solipsistic jerkface; yet he says the most delightfully clever things.  Wise, right or true?  No.  But clever and amusing, yes.  In fact, I'm sure many of his sayings are included in a friend of mine's much-referenced book of Oscar Wilde quotes.  I wonder how Wilde would feel about that, when I feel certain this character was meant as a target for much of his vitriol.  Or I could be wrong.  If I've horribly misinterpreted the book, please blame the migraine.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 9: Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

This is me officially starting to get lazy.  I've found in CBR that it usually isn't the reading that holds me up so much as the sweating over how I'm going to approach my review.  Add to that me being burnt out from work and a slew of unfortunate luck, plus needing to memorize 14 lines of iambic pentameter for this weekend, plus having a headache the size of Cleveland from yesterday's Super Bowl related festivities.  And I really, really, want to start on my new book, but don't feel comfortable doing that until the review for the previous book is done and over with.

I also gave up sweating over this one because it is notoriously challenging and often misinterpreted.  In fact, my copy includes an essay by Nabakov pretty much slamming everyone who's ever offered an opinion or interpretation of this book.  Which made me think, "Hell.  No matter what I write about this book, I'm bound to piss someone off."  At which point I promptly stopped worrying.

The first time I heard about this book, a schoolmate in a local coffee house (ain't that always the way?) raved about it as her favorite book of all time.  Her interpretation was, "This man falls in love with a little girl, but he's not the bad guy!  The little girl totally manipulates him, and society punishes him wrongly!  It's like, all about how unfair society is!!!"

Now that I've read the book myself, I'm pretty certain she was dead wrong.  Of course when we read this, we get the sense that he's the victim, that he's treated unfairly, etc.  But that's because the book is told solely from his point of view.  Throughout the book, he wrestles with feelings of guilt, but he almost always manages to assuage them by rationalization or laying the blame elsewhere or playing the victim.  In that sense, Nabakov pulls off an effective satire or parody (head hurts too much to decide which) of your prototypical despicable human being.  Or, putting it this way, throughout the book a thought kept popping into my head: Whether he likes it or not, we have Nabakov to thank for the Colbert Report.

There are of course loads and loads of literary devices he employs throughout the book to fill out the character.  Repeated refrains, running gags, invented words, personality ticks (Turns out Palahniuk owes Nabakov a debt of gratitude as well) so meticulously used that they come to communicate volumes with each turn of phrase.  In many ways, it was as if e.e. cummings had written narrative prose.

There are two passages near the end I found particularly moving.  Where the satiric veneer was rubbed away to reveal a raw, sensitive, tender matter beneath, and they broke my heart.   But since this is also a Pajiba book club selection, I don't want to go spoiling the ending.  Sure, its a classic, and its been around for decades, but I was still pretty peeved when the introduction in my copy gave away pretty much every major plotpoint.  I don't want to be responsible for that happening to anyone else. 

With all of it's richness, and all the possibilities for interpretation, I do think this makes an excellent choice for a book club read.  I was dreading writing a review for it, but I'm actually really looking forward to discussing it with several other people and comparing notes, ideas, favorite passages, etc.  All in all, I'll admit the read was a challenge, but a highly enjoyable one that surprised me in many ways.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 8: Come Closer

Firstly: Many thanks to my wonderful roommate Ameni for lending me this book.  Please do not take anything that follows as a lack of gratitude for your recommendation or a slam on your taste.  This is definitely a well-written book, and I highly respect your taste in horror.  Also, regardless of what follows, please do not feel bad.  I assure you my current state of creepin' heebeejeebees will pass, and I will be right as rain tomorrow.  :-)

That said, I want to start this review with a caveat: this will not be my most well-written review ever.  I've just put the book down.  While I could not bring myself to take a break from reading it, I needed copious amounts of wine to see myself through to the ending.  That is because Sara Gran's Come Closer gives a fictional (yet hella convincing) first person account of the one thing guaranteed to scare me out of my brainpan: demon possession.

Hey, don't laugh!  As I've mentioned elsewhere, ghosts are essentially harmless.  Zombies are slow (unless they're RAGE infected, but I figure you'd get used to having to fight even those suckers off after a while), vampires can be dispatched of with garlic and pointy wood.  Demon possession is another matter.  It starts off subtley enough, its symptoms innocuous or vague enough to be explained away by a plethora of alternative causes.  Once any connections are made to possession, the victim is pretty much screwed.  Much like those obscure, almost-impossible-to-diagnose-yet-gruesomely-deadly diseases that are the reason I don't read science magazines anymore.

And it's not that you've been eaten or beaten or gnawed on or had "boo" whispered in your ear.  Like the weeping angels in the Dr. Who episode "Blink," human-possessing demons rob you of your life and yourself without technically killing you.  Once past the point of "aaaaaand now you're fucked," the victim is forced to share his/her body with an evil entity, watch all the hope and happiness of his/her old life slip irrevocably away, and accept the consequences of unspeakable actions commited by the entity that's decided to stake its claim on him/her.

Not that I actually, you know, believe in any of that stuff.  Of course not.  Heh-heh.  How silly that would be...So what if I'm visiting a new church on Sunday?  An agnostic can go to church if she wants to, right???


Okay, so needless to say, this book scared the crap out of me.  So much so that I skipped the usual 24 hour period I usually give myself to mull a book over before writing about it.  I want any and all thoughts I'm having about this book out of my head now, so I don't have to think about it ever again.  You hear that, scary thoughts???  You're not welcome 'round these parts!  Git!  Scram!  Shoo!  You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!

Sorry.  Back to the book.  I found the first-person aspect refreshing, and deeply moving.  I face->palmed every time she rationalized or laughed off an odd occurance that clearly spelled D-E-M-O-N to the reader.  At the same time, Gran makes these occurances banal and seemingly innocuous to make the reader question all the times they've acted out of character, shrugged off an unexplained noise in their home, spotted things out of the corner of their eye that seemed to vanish as soon as they were noticed.

Gran ratchets up the gut-wrenching factor of her story by adeptly juxtaposing the narrator's genuinely sweet nature, her good intentions and love for her husband, with the awful actions she commits under the demon's influence.  As the story escalates, the narrator's sense of helplessness, that her body and soul are no longer her own, that perhaps nothing can help her, evokes a heartwrenching pathos to accompany the fear.  As readers, we feel her life slip away from her with each chapter.  Near the end, she lists many of the hopes and dreams she once carried that now seem irretrievably lost.

There's probably much more I should say, and what I have said could probably have stood to be much clearer and more coherent.  But as I mentioned before, I'm in coping mode.  I've had wine, and all I want is to get these thoughts out and to not have to revisit them anytime soon.  This is why I like my horror campy.  If you like to be genuinely disturbed, saddened, and haunted by your horror, this book should be right up your alley.   For my part, Come Closer tops the list of Best Books I Never Ever Want To Read Again.  (Really, Ameni--It was a really impressive book and I appreciate you lending it to me!)  Never ever again.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 7: Looking for Alaska

First, I want to extend my thanks to my work buddy Anna for A) recommending this book and B) lending me her copy.  I tend not to read young adult fiction because honestly, it's been a while since I've been a member of the target audience.  Even when I was, I was a bit of an oddnik who spent her time with fellow oddniks, so things designed to appeal to the masses in my age group generally did not appeal to me.  It wasn't any kind of judgement against the genre or the people who dug it, I just didn't feel like I could really relate to the stories being sold.  When Anna lent me John Green's Looking for Alaska, I wasn't entirely convinced that the book would speak to me on the same level it spoke to a friend several years my junior.  I'm still not sure it did.  I can say that I did enjoy it immensely, and became more involved and inspired by the story than I expected to.

Perhaps this is because the narrator is not a typical American teen.  He is exceptionally bright, a little eccentric, and struggles with social awkwardness.  Dissatisfied with being the token friendless nerd at his public high school, he requests to be sent to a boarding school, so he may seek out his "Great Perhaps."  Once there, it is not long before he falls in with a tightly knit circle of exceptionally bright, mildly eccentric teens like himself.

The first half of the book sets up these characters and their relationships in a romanticized, almost sentimental light, but the worldliness and humor of the teens prevents it from becoming cloying.  I was relieved that the author didn't talk down to an audience younger than himself, that he expected his readers to be familiar with his obscure literary/historical/philosophical references (or at least to look them up), and that he treated smoking, swearing, drinking, and teen sex with a respectful dose of non-judgemental realism.

Around the halfway mark, the story takes a sharp, unexpected turn as the students experience a heartbreaking tragedy.  The book about an exceptional group of young friends becomes a tale that examines grief and loss with an emotional honesty and rawness that would give Six Feet Under a run for its money.  As erudite as these kids are, they suddenly realize how green they are emotionally, and they struggle for a frame of reference to help them cope with a wholy unfamiliar form of pain.

In the course of their dealing with this tragedy, the narrator takes wisdom from his friends and from what he has learned through books and his teachers.  He is far from an apple shiner (school pranks are more glorified in this book than the academic structure itself), and he is equipped with a healthy sense of irreverence.  However, his intellectual curiosity, his philosophical leanings, and his ability to apply new knowledge to his day to day life help guide him into an emotional and spiritual maturity that would put scholars and poets twice his age to shame.  Like many characters in the film Wings of Desire, he bears a realistic worldliness infused with the ability to ask the kind of questions that mostly children and angels ask, but forget about as they grow up and/or become assimilated into their surrounding culture.  The narrator balances on a cusp of earthly concerns and desires and otherworldly ideas.  This balance makes the book not just moving, but inspiring as well, for readers of any age.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 6: Jane Eyre

If nothing else, the Cannonball Read is teaching me that the more I care about a book, the harder it is for me to write about it.  In the light of recent personal events, I was having a hard time delving into Jane Eyre's love story without my own romantic baggage weighing my interpretation down.  At the very least, I can still say that I bristle whenever someone compares the Twilight series to Charlotte Bronte's best known novel.  However, I didn't want to spend the review going on and on about how one version of ideal love is better than another, mainly because I don't think Meyers' series deserves so much of my time and energy.  There is one difference I can mark without hesitation, and something I don't think is discussed enough when Jane Eyre is brought up.  Unlike Twilight or most other romantic novels, Jane Eyre is much more than the author's romantic fantasy transcribed onto paper.  In fact, the title's subheading reads, "An Autobiography," not "A Love Story."  While it's tempting to think mainly of the novel's love story (admittedly, it is pretty swoon-worthy), to focus only on that is to give short shrift to a complex and broad-scoped tale.  In many ways, Jane Eyre is Bronte's autobiography.  I wouldn't call it strictly factual, but the heroine's story touches on the variety of struggles, concerns, pet peeves, and wishes of an educated, imaginative, single woman without money in 19th Century England.

In the first few chapters, we focus on Jane's childhood as an orphan living first as a dependent with unsympathetic relatives, then at a religiously affiliated boarding school.  Through Jane's relatives, the Reed family, Bronte makes her first attacks on an unfair social structure of her time, illustrating through her characters that money and a good family line do not necessarily make better individuals.  This may seem pretty elementary to many 21st century readers, but linking money and status with personal worth was a surprisingly common mindset in Bronte's time (even more so than today).  When Jane enters Lowood School, run by the cruel and hypocritical Brocklehurst, Bronte takes the opportunity to condemn those whose faith inspires false piety and heartlessness (Pat Robertson would do well to read those chapters).  On the other side of the coin, Jane learns through a close friend that though some Christians behave monstrously in the name of their faith, it is not worth condemning the faith itself altogether.  A belief in a benevolent, loving, supreme being can inspire serenity, compassion, forgiveness, and courage.  This is the faith that Jane adopts.   Combined with an almost pantheistic belief in Nature, whom she deems a spiritual "Mother," it guides her principles and actions throughout the story.

The narrative flashes forward several years, leading Jane to Mr. Rochester and their well-known love story.  While it is undeniably moving, passionate, and charming (they really do make a wonderful couple), there are elements to their initial courtship that make even the heroine uneasy.  He is secretive, domineering, possessive, and takes a disconcerting pride in being Jane's only loved one in the world.  Loving him as intensely as she does, Jane worries that he is becoming an idol to her, and that she may fall under a sort of passionate bewitchment where her will is no longer quite her own.  When circumstances make it clear to Jane that she can not stay true to both Rochester and herself, she chooses herself.  (You hear that, Ms. Meyers?)  The choice to leave him is excruciating, but she goes.  The heartbreak, combined with the physical hardships she encounters, quite literally almost kills her.

It is only much later, when Jane has developed a life, a will, and loved ones of her own, that she is ready to love romantically again.  When she does marry, it is as an "independent" woman with money to care for herself, and a position that frees her from personal obligation to others.  She has discovered and bonded with distant relatives, creating a loving family life of her own, plus an intimate circle of friends.  (Seriously Ms. Meyers, I hope you're taking notes.)  When she finds love again, she is thus able to approach her partner on a more equal footing with him.  In fact, circumstances make her husband dependent on her for a little while.  This brief period evens the scales between them, making them lifelong equals and peers.  As such, they become best friends "at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company."  This bolsters their romantic relationship, making it richer and more fulfilling for both partners as the marriage progresses. 

This last point may seem like common sense to many readers today.  However, in the 19th century, taking such a stance on romantic love was quite unusual.  Transcending the dichotomy of love and autonomy was a step very much ahead of the author's time.  Throughout the book, Bronte also manages to reconcile reason with passion, Christianity with Paganism, and  scathing social critique with a forgiving idealism.  Though it is often written off as a girly, romantic novel, it is actually a highly fictionalized autobiography, written by an insightful, though lonely, female Transcendentalist.  Through the heroine's life (especially through her romantic involvements) Bronte proposed ideas and confessed truths about individuality in regards to womanhood that had previously been ignored or unconsidered by her culture.  With the widespread popularity of romances like Twilight and reality shows where individuals compete with one another for attention and affection, I'm concerned that such ideas are slipping out of our cultural mindset.  I'm almost tempted to keep a stash of copies of Jane Eyre at the ready.  Anytime a girl or young woman intimates that the Twilight romance is the ideal love story, or gives signs of wrapping up her self-worth in how much (particularly male) attention she gets, or lets her life revolve entirely around an individual or cultural mindset without taking the time to make up her mind for herself first, I'd really, really like to give them a copy of Bronte's novel.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Unexpected Culinary Success Files: Chicken Andouille With Lentils and Tomatoes

Because I'm genuinely thrilled and pleased when a kitchen experiment turns out well:

Chicken Andouille and Lentils with Tomatoes

You will need:
2 tbs olive oil
2 bratwurst-sized links Chicken Andouille sausage, cut into 1/4" slices*
1 shallot, chopped
7 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large can diced tomatoes
2 tightly packed cups of cooked brown or black lentils
Crumbled goat cheese (optional)

*If you can't find Chicken Andouille, the regular kind should be fine. I think keilbasa would work too, but then I'd recommend adding a little crushed red pepper to compensate for the missing bite.

In a soup pot over medium heat, sautee the shallot, garlic, and sliced sausage in olive oil. When the shallots and garlic are tender, but not yet brown, stir in the diced tomatoes. Next, stir in the lentils. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve over rice or on its own in a bowl. If you like, garnish with crumbled goat cheese.  Enjoy!