Friday, December 21, 2012

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into CollaboratorsCognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shirky opens up an intellectual space for his book with several crucial, almost obvious, yet often overlooked claims:

1. the current generation of young people are the first generation watching *less* TV than the previous generation
2. this extra time or cognitive surplus is often dedicated to production rather than pure consumption
3. participatory culture is a call back to the traditional past

From this crafted space he soundly argues that we should stop listening to those people lamenting the rise of the amateur--look at all the crap on Youtube, all the stupid indulgent writing on blogs, the quippy ill-formed sentences on FB and Twitter. And on this point I agree. Historically we have always been nervous about any new technology which allows mere commoners, and especially illiterate youth, to produce content.

Let the crap flood the bandwidth because the young producers are learning about design (see Ze Frank's "I know me some ugly myspace" contest/video commentary) and many other frameworks historically cordoned off for official producers of media content. This is a no-brainer for good teachers--for people to learn they must be given opportunities to practice, fail, make crap. Secondly, let it flow because one out of 100,000 (or whatever) of these productions and social connectors will be amazing, a game-changer. He sites many examples such as Ushahidi (used to track ethnic violence in Kenya) or the chromosome project and many more. My oldest son told me about Ouya, a video game platform, which allows users to create their own video games starting with the open source platform. Withing a few days my son went from a video game consumer to a producer.

To me his most important argument is that when we focus on technology we focus too much on the amazing technology itself rather than how these new technologies connect and create community. Shirkey convincingly argues that if you allow for intrinsic motivation, which he defines as an environment that allows for and promotes autonomy and competency, they will come--thousands upon thousands of users willing to dedicate time to creating and building the community.

Overall Shirkey has a more optimistic view of all this--while I agree with his overall analysis, the cynic in me says that most, if not all of these self-generating communities, will be co-opted by capitalism, purchased, converted to hierarchies and rule-based organizations. I hope I'm wrong. But I absolutely disagree with Shirkey's crystal clear distinction between consumption and production.

At one point he says that all TV watching is less creative and generous than any sort of blogging because bloggers, of course, produce something and TV watchers simply absorb. He seems to discount the many theoretical models which have illustrated active consumption such as Reader Response Theory and many others coming out of Cultural Studies.

While some TV watching may be mindless so is some blogging; watching TV, for example, can be active and engaging without an auxiliary website for fans to argue and produce their own episodes. A good old family discussion, well-placed pause to discuss a show, and the move to connect the current show to a book on the shelf demonstrate as much intrinsic motivation, autonomy and competency as any new fangled social media group. Surely it is small but these discussions can spread like viruses through simpler means--a conversation at work or school the next day. So, yes, Shirkey offers an important push back to the critiques of amateur online culture, but there's no need to overstate or discount slower old-school means of engaging the media.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Can a detective novel work with a female lead?

outrageoutrage by Arnaldur Indridason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's fine book but a bit of a disappointment for me. The plot didn't quite work as the red herring was never plausible for me, even for a second. And, of course, there was no Erlendur. I feel some guilt (am I a sexist?) in not fully embracing the female lead detective Elinborg, but then the detective genre is so tied to the lonely dysfunctional male detective. And while I liked getting to know Elinborg and enjoyed the parallels between the plot and her struggle to understand her teenage son who never says a word to them but writes about all sorts of personal things on his blog, I couldn't get over not having Erlendur.

I hope Indridason has a few more Erlendur books in him. This novel certainly sets us up for that (possibly) as Erlendur is on leave but then seems to have gone missing in the East Fjords, on the land I assume dealing with the demons of his past, namely his brother's death. And I hope if he writes more books with Elinborg that he pushes himself to more fully realize her as a complicated and uniquely female character.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

A self-indulgent conceit I grew to love

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While quickly ordering books from the same seller on hoping to get a good deal and save on shipping, I accidentally ordered this book thinking it was another in Fossum's inspector Sejer series. So, initially, I was disappointed, envisioning another heartless experience as when I inadvertently picked up Arnaldur Indridason's *Operation Napaleon* hoping/praying it was another of his Erlendur detective series. It wasn't and after reading 20 pages, I discarded with a bad taste in my mouth, unsure how the amazing writer of Erlendur could write such mind-numbing action drivel.

But...*Broken*, though not immediately, won me over. I got caught up in the sad lonely life of Alvar, a man who has coasted into his 40s, remaining unconnected and above it all until a heroin-addicted young woman, Lyndis, seeks him out and eventually turns his life upside down. Alvar is never comfortable with what most would consider life, poignantly saying at one point "This world will never be a familiar place; everyday I have to navigate it as a beginner." And that captures Alvar exactly--a 40 year old virgin, to quote the irresistible movie title, but more importantly a 40 year old newborn tensing at ever new noise and bright light.

I must come clean now; I'm leading you on because thus far I've failed to mention a key piece of information--certainly most of you learned, especially my literary, friends will dismiss this book as self-indulgent. One articulate Goodreads reviewer lashes out against Fossum's invention, "The book’s concept, that a character is harassing the author to write about him and must face the story she presents to him, is definitely a bit indulgent. It feels like something she wrote while stuck on another project, something that probably should never have been published." Yes, that's right the main character, Alvar, has been quickened because he jumped the line in the author's mind and begged her to write about him. And, yes, it's a self-indulgent authorial exploration of what it means to write and I was absolutely and completely ready to, pun-intended, write it off. But, alas, just as the author, the one in the story that is, can't dismiss Alvar, I couldn't dismiss Fossum's neurotic self-examination.

I became fascinated with Alvar's attempts to be a "decent person" and yet not be completely controlled by Lyndis the young seemingly frail heroin addict. Alvar may be the most inept character I've ever experienced, but still I took up his struggles body and soul. And while I intellectually understand why many will find Fossum's author/character conceit indulgent, for me this heightened my compassion for both Alvar and his creator. Worried that Alvar is going to be tested by the author, he asks about his future and she replies,

"Alvar, my're worse than a child. And I know that you're in a tricky place right now. It's as if you're half finished. You're dangling, literally, in thin air. But if it's any comfort, Alvar, I'm dangling too. I'm halfway through my story...I'm struggling to sustain my faith in my own project. Doubt creeps up on me like an invisible gas...Have I found the right words?"

Grown if you must...but for me, I can only feel compassion for Alvar the pathetic and his nearly as pathetic creator and author. Maybe because it seems to me we are all pathetic and weak. Or maybe because I'm simply pathetic. Who knows. What I do know is that when Alvar contemplates suicide and the author dissuades him, recounting her own failed attempt, the author/character conceit melted. She tries to convince Alvar,detailing each step in her own attempt, that it's much harder to kill yourself than you think--and I, most pathetically, wept.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Absurdly human drunk Indians

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally got around to finishing this. Started it like 6 or 7 yrs ago after having watched Smoke Signals which was loosely based on these stories and was written by the same author, Alexie.

I'd like to say that I was completely riveted by each story because I so so much loved Smoke Signals. Instead I can say that several stories were wonderfully written: "The only traffic signal on the reservation doesn't flash red anymore (probably my favorite) which is a meditation on reservation heroes, basketball, alcohol, and dreams; "This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona" where we get the broad strokes of the Smoke Signal plot; "Jesus Christ's half-brother is alive and well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" which is philosophical and surprising; Family portrait which gets at the constant distortion of language and history.

I can also say that the overall impact of the book is unique, irreverent, fanciful yet stone-cold serious, playful yet philosophical AND my sense is when I wasn't riveted it was about me, about my inability to close my eyes and embrace the wispy lunacy that Alexie is boring into. Here's some stone-cold serious lunacy, an irreverently counterintuitive passage from "The only traffic signal...":

"It's hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don't wonder if it's half-filled or half empty. They just hope it's a good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass Murder, loss language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins" (49).

And that's the essence of the book and Smoke Signals. Alexie faces the pain and suffering of the Indian, completely embraces AND rejects the truth and stereotype of the drunk broken Indian, yet comes out laughing and fancydancing and storytelling. Alexie embraces the meaninglessness, the absurdity of it all, instead of trying to explain it or rectify it.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

A Spot of BotherA Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

George, the aging main character, is in a spot of bother--very aptly titled as his life is fairly privileged and seemingly going well, but that's exactly why I'm attracted to his suffering. Suffering is not explainable; it's not an equation as some would like it to be. Instead suffering can arise out of beauty when contrasted with life, can hit us the hardest when our lives are supposed to be good, can utterly bring us to our knees as the injustices of the world pull us down.

Haddon does not shy away from the dark forces of suffering. Early on from George's point of view we get this:

"He fell violently ill. Sweat was pouring from beneath his hair and from the backs of his hands.
He was going to die...
With blinding clarity he realized that everyone was folicking ina summer meadow surrounded by a dark impenetrable forest, waiting for that grim day on which they were dragged into the dark beyond the trees and individually butchered.
How in God's name had he not noticed this before? And how did others not notice it? How did they saunter through their days unaware of this indigestible fact? And how, once the truth dawned, was it possible to forget?" (66).

Ah, a suffering I can understand. While some, maybe many as witnessed in several of the Goodreads reviews I read, will see this as mere whining--buck up!, we have it good! etc!--I believe they utterly miss the point. The point is that we are all here to suffer because our existence is unsparingly brief, fraught with aching loneliness even when loved ones surround, riddled with unknowns and risk and pain and contradictions.

I understand that to survive we create fictions which soften this truth; but nevertheless it is the truth. And, thus, I embraced Haddon's honest exploration through George's near spiral into complete insanity. George cannot handle the pain and works gloriously to avoid it. Something about this honest journey of out-of-proportion suffering brings me peace. Maybe this is my fiction of choice to distance myself for a moment, counterintuitively, from my own suffering and pain.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More than a critique of men: A meditation on the soul

American AppetitesAmerican Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

American Appetities is about, not surprisingly, many appetites--good food, sex, power, position. Ian and Glynnis, the central family in the narrative, hold a prime social position as they hold big parties and serve up Glynnis's amazing food. But one phone call from Sigrid, a former friend, really just an aqcuaintaince, changes everything. Ian rushes to help Sigrid, an innocent gesture of kindness on the surface, yet a gesture which ripples through to the very end of the narrative.

From one angle the novel seems to be a critique of men, as Bianca, the main character's (Ian) daughter, insists "you men who run the world, you stick cover up for one another's crimes" while they wait for her mother to regain consciousness after an accident precipitated by the revelation of Sigrid in Ian's life. And many of the men, we come to find out, in the high brow university/Institute crowd are having affairs. Most devastating in the last chapters, Sigrid Hunt a social climber, the woman who Glynnis thought Ian was having an affair with, has become tamed, accepted into her role as server of food, of wetting powerful men's appetites.

Yet it's more than simply a gender critique. Glynnis's anger at Ian's possible infedelities bring to light her own various infedelities. The book is also a meditation on the meaning of the soul. This theme comes earlier before any action in the plot during a conversation at dinner. Here it is philosophical: if you have a soul then it is "something other than you, since you have it" and later "At least, if one is neither a soul nor possesses a soul... one can't lose his soul." Much later Ian, now on trial for murder, counters Spinoza's notion that the first endeavor of the mind is to affirm the existence of the body: "come off it friend, The body is all that's there."

During the first 100 or so pages Oates creates characters who have, while troubled, souls, substance, meaning. But as the story continues not only do the men's souls--their friendships, their positions--crumble into wisps of light fabric, so do the women's, so does the narrative. One might, as one reviewer stated, begin to feel disconnected from the characters, but one might also view this as Oate's unveiling: there is nothing more than appetites and body, at least in these peoples' lives.

The last scene is about food with friends, but friends Ian knows he will not see again, a scene where the background character of Sigrid comes full circle to take up a position in society, to not feel offended, serving another piece of kiwi pie, eerily ending on a simple mundane question, "Won't you all have just a little more?"

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Friday, July 27, 2012

A good quick read with some problems

The Water's EdgeThe Water's Edge by Karin Fossum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good read but not my favorite of Fossum's. While an interesting exploration of the nature of pedophilia, often the dialog between Sejer and Skarre, the central detectives of the series, feels forced, created merely to further the philosophical debate about pedophilia. For example,

"Why are they mainly men?" Skarre wondered.
"Well...I'm not expert but women are much better at initmacy and emotions than men. What we are dealing with here are men who are not in touch with their own feelings...They try to solve the problem by developing paraphilia. Paraphila means 'to love something else'."

Really? The definition of paraphilia was necessary??

With too many lectures between the two detectives, I actually got much more caught up in the Reinhardt and Kristine, a couple of side characters who happen to find the body of the dead boy. Here we get the rich textured lives of a couple who are unable to communicate. Neither is wholly evil, in my reading, but both are flawed and these flaws are accentuated as they react in opposing ways to the discovery of the body--Kristine brilliantly recalls various details to the detective, but then wants to move on while Reinhardt becomes obsessed about the case, taking pictures the child's body with his cell phone at the scene and then reading every story in the newspapers.

Overall if you are looking for a good quick read (just over 200 pages) this book will work well for most detective fans. But don't expect the brilliance of The Indian Bride.

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Magic with consequences and talking cats--what more could one ask for?

Plain KatePlain Kate by Erin Bow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A dark fairy tale set in medieval times, Plain Kate is a competent and independent girl in the tradition of strong heroines in fantasy novels like Coraline or in historical fiction like Beetle (Midwife's apprentice). The magic in the novel is much more appealing than the standard Harry Potter type where anything goes: as Linay, the witch, explains he can help her escape persecution, but then she must give him her shadow. The key difference in this world is that magic comes at a cost and therefore doesn't exist somewhere high in the sky unattached to human desire and pain. Magic here is about choices with consequences.

And we get a talking cat, again very similar to Gaiman's black cat in Coraline--both cats are persnickety and blunt and, importantly, still cats instead of simply a human with fur. A great example: when Kate announces that the Roamers, those who gave her safe passage, have turned on her and are going to kill her, the cat, Taggle, responds, “Who? What? And would you please stop that muskrat!” Taggle certainly cares about Kate, but is still ultimately a fierce carnivorous cat.

A wonderful quest story which satisfyingly ends with heartache and surprises.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

A book on the darker arts of writing

The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, ArtThe Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More literary and less personal than I thought it would be and she does focus a lot on white male authors (Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner etc--though quite a lot on Virginia Wolf) as one goodreads reviewer points out; still a solid read about writing with a different angle than one usually gets (see Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird or Stephen Kings On writing). I found many compelling passages: "One is born not to suffer but to negotiate with suffering, to choose or invent forms to accommodate it" (67) or "writing, for me, is primarily remembering" (140).

This is not, though, a book for those wanting a pick-me-up, a motivational tract with inspirational quotations about writing (except for the predictable "Write your heart out." In fact many of the histories and tidbits are bound to chase a would-be writer away as when she cites Virginia Wolfe who declares that she lived in despair while writing and only found her books tolerable once she had forgotten what she had meant to write.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

The miraculous (and finally redemptive) life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar MintThe Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There were times when I did not want to finish this novel--not because it dragged, but rather because I couldn't bear any more suffering on the part of its main character named, of course, Edgar Mint.

Edgar's head is run over by a mail truck, he spends months in hospital, and when he finally gets out he is terrorized by Nelson Norman at the Fort Apache William Sherman school for Indians. And this terror is not cutesy as the name, Nelson Norman, would suggest: it is, rather, the literal shit-eating, hot wire, sadistic version. There are some emotional reprieves for the reader as Edgar makes some meaning of his misfortunes by typing everything out on his Hermes Jubilee typewriter and makes one friend, Cecil, who always sucks on dum-dum suckers and comes from an Indian heritage which still knows about the land and arrows and hunting.

Udall's craft is certainly reminiscent of John Irving--the sweeping grand structure, the curious characters (e.g. Barry the doctor who "saves" Edgar bizarrely comes in and out of Edgar's life and Art, a wheelchair-ridden old man and fellow patient, who cherishes each letter Edgar sends him until they meet again), and the journey of a boy into manhood reminded me of both The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Yet the redemption in the last few chapters broke me open completely, surpassing anything I'd felt for John Irving character.

Maybe this blissful redemption is connected to my older years, my own yearning for redemption from and because of the painful events in life or maybe Udall simply takes the reader further into the depths of anguish before offering some redemption or perhaps, more simply, the beautiful redemption caught me off guard. Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, finishing the last few pages of this novel is singed in my memory. And it wasn't only the emotional redemption, but also a rational and insightful redemption as Edgar reflects on his relationship with God, he says they are at a "stand still": "I will keep my sins to myself. I have learned to accept them as my own, and there is some small comfort in that" (419).

I can't imagine much better from a character, for that matter.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

When the Devil Holds the CandleWhen the Devil Holds the Candle by Karin Fossum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm close to 4 stars, certainly 3.5. I assume some (which was confirmed in my friend Lynn's review) will be bothered that it isn't really a mystery--you know who dunnit right from the beginning. And I agree it's more of a psychological thriller but it seems other mysteries (including other Fossum novels) reveal the murderer from the beginning. To me it's simply a variation on the mystery.

I found the psychological exploration of Irma Funder (what a name) to be intriguing. We get a first-person narrative from her and then the traditional 3rd person narration focalized back and forth between Sejer and Skarre, the two detectives, AND two other teenage hoodlums as it were, Andreas and Zipp. I like that Fossum is willing to go deep with Funder, especially at the beginning of the novel, where we get key scenes from her childhood. I would, though--here agreeing with Lynn--like to have had more of this depth later in the novel.

Still, I enjoy the quirky references (a bunch to Blade Runner, a favorite film of Andreas, which takes on symbolic meaning) and the surprising themes: existential angst which settles over several of the characters and how to determine sanity (which again alludes obliquely to Blade Runner).

All and an all...a Goodread.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lips Touch

Lips Touch: Three TimesLips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed all three of these thematically intertwined stories. Not the type of book I would usually pick up, but it was recommended by my teenage cousin who I'd asked to guide me in my reading of children/teen fantasy. Overall the stories are incredibly inventive, fraught with desire, sensuality, and forbidden love. And each has some literal significant reiteration of lips touching. The only big unfortunate--the illustrations which to me seemed unneeded and overwrought.

The first, "Goblin Fruit," is the story of a young girl, Kizzy, who wants so badly to be loved she falls for the aptly named Jack Husk. Reminiscent of Twighlight, though darker and better written, Kizzy is enraptured by these new attentions. In the end she understands that she is in trouble, "A goblin had her soul on the end of his fishing line...She knew. But now in the fugue of wanting, of almost having...her hip still warm from Jack Husk's head, the knowing was as insubstantial as words written on water." Invoking the collection's title, Kizzy's first kiss was possibly her last though also "delicious."

The second, "Spicy little curses," tells of a beautiful young woman whose voice is cursed as a young baby to kill all who hear it. James Dorsey, a soldier, pursues the young Anamique wishing she would speak to him, convinced that the curse isn't real. The curse eventually comes to fruition yet there is the possibility for redemption. A good story though not as compelling as the other two for me--still we do get wonderfully sinister lines like, "It was the only lullaby she would ever sing, and it was sung in Hell." Badadump.

The last, "Hatchling," my clear favorite, is a complex fable-like tale about the symbiotic relationship between the soulless Druj and few chosen humans. Mab, a female human imprisoned by the Queen of the Druj as a sort of pet, escapes with the help of a seemingly sympathetic outlander Druj named Mihai. But slowly we learn that Mihai is working on his own plane, his own realm of existence, in an attempt to bring "life" back to the Druj. Certainly an engaging narrative. But there's more: it is also a rumination on the classic themes of understanding the soul.

The Druj can wear the bodies of animals and humans for a period of time. In one scene the Queen and her companion wear the bodies of Mab and a young man in order to have sex, but "they would never feel what it was that made two strangers cling to each other, more intimate in fear and sorrow than a Druj could ever be, even aping the act of love." We come to learn that Mihai has been hatching over and over again, "each time, his humanity deepened." And here the fabulous story speaks truth about the reality of the human condition.

After finishing the book in the morning, I went for a hike that afternoon. Hiking up the trail the archetypal images of the story floated through me. I do not believe in a pre-existence, as the Mormons do, or in the Hindu notion of reincarnation, but as I hiked I felt a deep connection to something in the past. As Mihai describes each hatching clears the mist a bit so that he can see his true human, "souled" nature. I breathed in the air, looked up at the sun-glittered leaves, sensing a wisp of how those who came before me would have experienced this world--the familiarity of the gurgling stream, the ability to spot food or protection or danger with ease; most importantly the wholeness of existing in the land with no distinction between city and the wild or simulation. I do not see this oneness, this Hathra (the wholeness of the soul), as a salvation from our fractured modern identities. Instead I simply sense (or maybe only sensed for a moment) the remnants of past lives lived out differently than mine, yet animated with my same biological materials.

What Mihai remembers most of his past human life, mostly still lost in the mist, is a kiss--Lips Touched again. But it is a semblance of, a partial remembering, the type accessed by closing the eyes, turning the head slightly to the side and upwards while trying to remember an image from a dream OR like looking up at the leaves in an attempt to imagine the path of one's own ancestors, one's blood and body formed over thousands of years.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

He who fears the wolf

He Who Fears the WolfHe Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to love everything I read of Fossum's (also read Indian Bride and Black Seconds). In this novel we have a murder, a bankrobbery, and a kidnapping. Yet the criminals are as dysfunctional as those you hear about in the news making fun of criminal stupidity: "Today a man robbed a bank and after getting away got lost only to stop and ask for directions from a....cop." Yet these criminals are also broken people, sympathtic, who reach out to others in the most unexpected ways.

As expected this novel has all the good stuff--the lonely brooding detective, the familiar twists, interesting side characters I just referred to--but also Fossum also offers compellingly reflective passages about what it means to do this work.

For example Skarre, who works under Sejer the head detective, asks after interrogating a teen, "What will it do to me as a person, to be constantly asking innocent people: Where were you yesterday? When did you get home?" A poignant line of thinking I'd never considered.

Or this passage where we get inside the experience of the dog handlers on the final chase for the criminals, "All five men had guns. The hard weight of their belts was both comforting and frightening. The assignment was an exciting one...this was what they had pictured when they joined the police force...All three [dog handlers] were mature men...They loved the peace of the woods, the not knowing, the work with the dogs. The sound of panting dogs, of twigs breaking, of rustling leaves, the buzzing of thousands of insects. All their sense were on alert...Studying the dogs, the way their tails moved, whether they were wagging briskly or were suddenly lowered, stopping altogether." What a beautiful passage which takes us inward for a moment before pursing the objective and plot line.

All in all a great read.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

A book with hiking adventures AND emotional depth

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I couldn't help compare this PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) travelogue with Bill Bryson's *A Walk in the Woods* about hiking the AT (Appalachian Trail), a hilarious description of long-distancing hiking near the other coast. While there are many similarities, these narratives do not really fit into the same genre. Bryson's is a true travelogue, taking every opportunity to ramp up the humor, avoiding most opportunities to serious self-reflect; Strayed's is a true memoir, unabashedly exploring her identity and sexuality. But it was well-paced, moving easily back and forth from travelogue (both hilarious and nerve-wracking trail adventures) to poignant scenes from her past as when she and her brother put down her mother's horse a year or so after their mother's death.

And amazingly she does all this without the narrative feeling forced or overwrought. Even when I like a memoir, there are generally several places where it seem overdone--and I only remember one spot near the end where I questioned a passage about her mother and the river. It was a bit too nifty, too crafted, but easily forgiven. Strayed ends strongly for me in the last paragraph where she simply states after she had reflected on what she had learned through the years about those who she hiked with, "It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn't have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true."

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ishiguro's *Never letting go* which never quite took hold

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**Spoilers--kind of**

About 50 pages in: It's not terrible so far but I'm struggling...found myself starting two other books including *Hull Zero* by Greg Bear. Maybe I came into Ishiguro with unfair expectations, wanting a book equal to Remains of the Day.......

Well, I made it back to this, skimmed a bit through the middle section, then started reading more carefully about page 200. I can see the beauty in what Ishiguro is trying to do--the first-person narrated by Kathy, a plodding, revisiting kind of narrative where she often goes on tangents and then reorients us back ("The reason I bring this up is because....") to the point. And I do love the accumulative effect of the subtle themes, which oh so slowly accrete until finally there is something solid.

Yet the narrative style felt painfully, molasses-like at times, slow. Many times I thought I'd just skip to the last few chapters or even just call it quits. If I hadn't been on break, and instead in the midst of a busy semester, this book would have been left in a pile somewhere unread. But with time in my favor I did finish it out and the last few chapters were quite compelling as they wrapped together the many themes and plot lines throughout the book--much of this work was to finally, if the reader had any doubts, put to rest all of the rumors these poor children had fabricated, hoping there might be a way out from under their duty.

And here, in the last pages, the book finally feels like a traditional SF dystopia--the questions of what and who has a soul, the adults who have spent their lives working on behalf of these children only to further deceive them, the harrowing inescapability of cruelty for self-preservation. Poignantly in the last pages we see that the "careful hopes" of these "poor creatures" are akin to the very carefully constructed hopes we all have. As Tommy voices after confronting the truth, "It's a shame Kath, because we've loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can't stay together forever" (242). That's the hard cold truth, the truth the plodding narrator can't re-examine or re-explain, the truth none of us can be shielded from.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Hull Zero Three: A disorienting start, but satisfying conclusion

Hull Zero ThreeHull Zero Three by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't think I was going to like this book--the first 80 pages or so are basically impenetrable. At first the author writes in a style which causes us to experience the disorientation first-hand: "A jerk and an awful sound, like water rushing or blood spurting. Everything's dark and muddled. A little redness creeps into my vision. I'm surrounded by thick liquid..." And this beginning passage is an easy one compared to later when we get complicated and incomplete descriptions of the ship, jumping in anti-gravity rooms filled with human/machine cleaners, body parts, and indescribable stuff.

But as the main character, The Teacher, learns about his birth and purpose, the book picks up and I started to be invested. Deeply layered and embedded themes concerning innocence, language, the usefulness of knowledge, and guilt begin to coalesce. And the plot itself ain't too bad as it unfolds a detailed plan filled with complicated loops and twists to send a ship out to start human life in another star system. This I appreciate because my guess is our first attempts, whenever they might come, to seek out other worlds will be much messier than the usually slick SF space travel gimmicks we get: Star Trek's warp speed, Ursula K. Le Guin's and Orson Scott Card's ansible (instantaneous communication with earth), etc. Instead, my guess, is that Greg Bear has it about right as far as tone--dark, death, cyborgian ambiguity, messy, unpredictable.

My only *big* qualm is that Bear falls for the god/spiritual trope (something silvery) near the end as a plot device. It's not discussed much, but does explain a pivotal plot turn. Too bad as I think he could have simply continued to use the complexity of human motivation and identity to bring us home.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Not quite enough Character: The Windup Girl by Paolo Baciagalupi

I really wanted to like this book, but it never quite worked for me. Started it once, then reread the first 70 pages or so in order to give it another go. Yet... I did find the Windup girl, an android which reminded me of Rachel from *Do androids dream of electric sheep*, an engaging and sympathetic character. But just when the novel started to explore the ambiguities and paradoxes of android life, the plot moves away from her and instead gives us like 150 pages of political futuristic intrigue and revolution. I simply didn't care about the outcome or the characters...and the characters I did care about--Windup and Hock Seng (a Chinese man who lost his fortune living covertly in Thailand), get lost in all the political calorie stuff. It IS an amazing world that Bacigalupi creates but even in a fascinating dystopic Thailand where the US has lost its power, characters (yes CHARACTERS) still matter most.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Prisoner of ZionPrisoner of Zion by Scott Carrier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I purchased this book for full price (a rare thing for me) right after hearing Scott Carrier read from the book at our faculty convention. He is an interesting character, hard to define into a neat category--and so is this book.

Even if I hadn't heard him speak, I would have known this was going to be a good read just 14 pages in, during the 3rd section called Momosphere, where he says "I used to resist the church. I spoke out against it whenever...I had a chance. But one day a question entered my head--'What if, with the wave of a hand, I could wipe out all of Mormon history...would I do it?' It took me five seconds to realize I would never do it. I'd miss their stories for their mythic value. I'd miss the temple, even though I can't go inside...My identity, the person I have become, is a non-Mormon, an outsider other. If the Mormons were gone then who would I be?"

This passage identifies what I respect in Carrier and seek in others: someone whose life experiences have made them less (not more) likely to sweep aside some culture or belief system which is irritating, wrong, even unjust and discriminatory. To me this is to recognize our interconnections and that meaning is never solid, a modernized object, but rather rhizomatic, tenuous, and corrupted by sin.

Carrier jumps back and forth from stories about Utah and Mormons to that of Islam in the Middle East--interesting parallels if uneven and stretched at times. But then he brings the two strands of fundamentalism together in the last and best section (the one he read from at our convention): "Najibullah in America." It is the story of young boy he meets in Afghanistan, who translates for him and helps Carrier get his stories. Several years later, now at UVU as a professor, Carrier gets Naji to come to Utah, to live amidst another kind of fundamentalism.

The last section might be called the education of Naji AND of Scott Carrier as he helps Naji navigate life in America and to write in a new language with new rules of engagement. But it's also about Carrier's learning as he "settles" for a time as a teacher, at first hating it and then growing to like it even though he is still surrounded by young idealistic and naive Mormons. But the convention is too much for him ultimately--he said in his reading that he is leaving UVU, and the comforts of a salary and health insurance, for the Middle East. I'm both fascinated and bewildered by a person like Carrier who lives on the fringes. Ultimately happy for his voice.

A voice that ends on a somewhat, for Carrier, optimistic note. He argues that there is something going on with his students, having seen the financial crisis and murky motivations for war, who "now come more willing to listen to [his] point of view because they can see they're fucked." A mini-enlightenment in Orem, Utah? Maybe. Still, he admits to the complex forces in a uniquely Carrier-like way: "It's fucking hard to be compassionate, to see our enemy as no different than ourselves."

And here we circle back: Who indeed would Carrier be without the Mormons? Who would Christian Westerners be without Islam? Even who would we be without Al-Queda? Compassion is certainly absolutely fucking hard.

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The Folk KeeperThe Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book took me a bit to get into. 86 pages I emailed my young friend who had recommended it:

"But I must quickly ask for help with The Folk Keeper. I’m 86 pages in and…not that engaged. So what am I not seeing? What do you see? I do see the that Billingsley has worked hard to create a believable setting in that time period. And I do see the evolving tensions and parallels between Corrina and Finnian. And I enjoy the little surprises like her desire to eat raw fish. Overall I like the idea of the young strong girl passing as a boy. Still, I find myself, as I have done with other fantasy novels, lacking emotional engagement amidst all the fantasy tropes—magical powers, details of historical setting, rituals etc."

But then the next time I read, one-page later in fact, I found what I was hoping for and wrote back to my friend:

"I just found the poetry in The Folk Keeper. Reading in the quiet, everyone asleep (well not Seth as he sleeps little at night) and finally got in groove while reading about her and the sea, 'I was born in reverse, exploded from one medium into another, from air into liquid, from dawn into darkness; (87) And then when she gets angry at Finian for going out to sea without her, we get this wonderful image: 'I wanted to pluck the plug from that basin and watch him drain into the center of the world' (96). Very nice.

It reminded me a bit of M.C. Higgins the Great by Virginia Hamilton--do you know the novel? A great book which I always have to remind students to read slowly and not be bothered by the lack of traditional plot. Guess I have to take some of my own advice with the Folk keeper."

A lyrical, patient, beautiful book. And a reminder of the importance of patient reading in quiet places.

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Friday, March 30, 2012

So caught up in the narrative I was: Remains of the day


I finished it while camping at Capitol Reef National park, the full lit stars above while sitting next to the fire. The ending (even though I knew it was coming as I've seen the movie) absolutely floored me emotionally. Maybe because I always feel a bit vulnerable when camping and this was heightened with our recent family struggles. Yet even without all of that it's quite a resounding finish.

The structure of the novel intrigues me. It's like a section of a symphony which tumbles along, no big surprises, no major key shifts until the very end. And the ending, of course, is not much in of itself, but in the context of the plodding, careful exposition of Mr Stevens, it bursts forth, trumpets sounding as Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens stand waiting for the bus.

All that history--WWII, the meaning of dignity, and his working relationship with Miss Kenton--and then finally the release, the truth as Mr. Stevens uncharacteristically prods her to reveal her emotional state: "one is rather mystified as to the cause of your unhappiness" to which she eventually replies "I're asking whether or not I love my husband." Of course he demures, "Really, Mrs Benn, I would hardly presume...." But she insists on answering, "Yes I do love my husband. I didn't at first...When I left Darlington Hall all those years ago, I never realized I was really...leaving. I believe I thought of it as a simply another ruse, Mr. Stevens, to annoy you."

And even at this point Ishiguro languidly reveals what the reader knows, hopes is coming--just hints, unacknowledged. Then finally we get "For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens." Of course he maintains his dignity, "You really mustn't let any more foolish ideas come between yourself and the happiness you deserve." At that point I'm both frustrated and yet filled with admiration for his character--it seems he was wrong years ago but right at this point to let it go, to let her go.

Reading their exchange at the bus stop felt, for me, like experiencing the high point of Beethoven's 9th symphony, all the themes coming together, my chest heaving as if my emotions were going to spill on to the floor. I even had to stop for a bit to take a breath, so caught up in the narrative I was. Warmed my hands on the fire, then walked around a bit, even started a Barbara Kingsolver novel, wanting to save the last few pages of Mr Stevens' life. But then I couldn't put it off. And what a reward as he ironically and finally finally admits to a stranger on the bench, "I find I do not have a great deal more left to give" and later, "As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him...I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really--one has to ask oneself--what dignity is there in that?"

The dignity theme comes full circle and I hurt for old Mr. Stevens--damn the missed opportunities. Admittedly I'm not quite sure what to do with the last couple of pages where we get the title of the novel as he takes the advice of the stranger on the bench that the "evening is the best part of the day" to which Mr. Stevens accepts and decides to stop looking back, to not dwell in the regrets but rather to "adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day."

As a reader I'm fine with this turn, with this insight, but I struggle with how Mr. Stevens applies this insight by recommitting himself to Mr Farraday, the American "lord," by practicing his "bantering skills." I wanted more from Mr. Stevens. Not for him to go after Miss Kenton, but something more. Maybe to at least admit his love for her. Though maybe he has done that through his actions. Or maybe to simply leave the clothing of the butler for the remains of his days. Possibly I expect too much.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Another excellent book from Robert Cormier you may have missed

Classic Cormier--a psychological thriller which reminds me a bit of his better-known *I am the cheese* A dark tale focusing on several boys with terminal illnesses who have volunteered (at least we think) their waning bodies and minds to medicine so as to benefit others. Barney, the main character, is different though. He's not sick and the experiments he is undergoing are on his mind, his memory. A touching relationship springs up between him and Mazzo's (a grumpy bedridden case) twin sister who visits daily, trying--it seems--to keep tabs on Mazzo.

Cormier always seems to get that dark, though not ugly or merely evil, tone just right, creating sympathetic main characters and intriguing side characters like Mazzo, Allie Roon and Billy the Kidney--even their names are intriguing. The Bumblebee does fly and it is beautifully human.