Saturday, October 29, 2011

Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated
By Jonathan Safran Foer

Apologies. Not much time to write this one. I did my best.Add Video

Jonathan Safran Foer sure knows how to write a book. Or at least, he knows how to write two thirds of a book. Everything is Illuminated was like reading the literary equivalent of a M. Night Shyamalan movie. An absolutely spectacular setup with no possibility of a competent follow through.

Foer's debut novel is, if nothing else, ambitious. Foer lays out several story arcs within the novel, Each seem to inch closer and closer together as the story progresses, dragging the reader deeper into each story as they make their way toward ultimate illumination. Set in Ukraine, the arcs are an interesting exploration of humanity, love and heart-breaking tragedy. Each story is infused with a riveting blend of both dark humor and compassion for the characters involved.

The most interesting of all the story arches involves the correspondence letters from Alex, a young Ukrainian working for his father who is hired by Foer to act as translator when Foer visits in search of a long lost family secret. Alex, his grandfather and his grandfather's seeing-eye bitch accompany Jonathan on his travels to Trahimbrod, the village where his grandfather escaped Nazi atrocities.

As the arc progresses, the histories of Jonathan, Alex and his grandfather slowly begin to collapse upon themselves and the outcome is both inevitable and tragic. It is at this point where Foer should have stopped writing.

After what seems like the logical resolution to the entire novel comes a rambling chunk of experimental writing that, to me, served no particular purpose to the narrative whatsoever. What starts out so promising, devolves into a miasma of literary pettifogging. By the end of the novel I was rather unsure of what, exactly, i was supposed to take away from the novel aside from a furrowed brow and a distinct feeling of stupidity.

It's a shame, really. Until the moment the plot falls apart, I was ready to hail Foer as an emergent voice in the literary world (OK, I was ready to be yet another blogger/critic ready to voice such an opinion. I would not have been the vanguard in that respect, I admit). What could have been a novel every bit as relevant as Cloud Atlas or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Instead it gets piled on high with other novels that could have/should have been better.

Maybe I just didn't get it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie

There a hilarious bit in an old episode of the Simpsons where Homer wakes up suddenly and turns to Marge and says:

"Marge! I think I hate Ted Koppel!"

It happens without any context and adds nothing to the story-line of that particular episode, but I couldn't stop thinking about that particular snippet while reading The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, except in my head I kept repeating:

"Marge! I think I hate Neil Gaiman!"

It turns out that every book I have ever read that has merited praise from Neil Gaiman has turned out to be a real dud. This book has a big, splashy blurb from Gaiman right on the cover, so it should have been a tip-off, but I wasn't really paying attention when I picked it up, so... my bad.

What really galls me about Gaiman (aside from the fact that his novels are atrociously over-rated) is that he uses his cache as an eccentric writer to promote extraordinarily mediocre work by other authors. Gaiman seems to have gained his reputation from Sandman and has spend the last 20 years spending his karma like a expense-account. It's sad. His endorsement of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian ("I have no doubt that in a year or so it'll be winning awards and being banned.") is simply baffling. I can't imagine why this book would win any awards or garner enough attention from anyone to be deemed worth banning. But what do I know?

As far as I can tell, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part Time Indian is a pretty straightforward underdog story about a native kid named Arnold Spirit who grows up on a hopeless reservation in Washington State to two hopeless parents in a community of hopeless friends. His future doesn't seem to be very bright until he is suspended on his very first day of high school. His teacher encourages Arnold to leave the reservation and go to school in a nearby "white" town. What follows are the expected trials and tribulations of a poor, "non-white" outsider trying to fit into the richer, "white" society. What could have been a really nifty little book about indigenous issues from the perspective of a teenage boy turns into a morass of extraneous sub-plots without any clear resolutions.

In fact, this book fails in spectacular fashion. As I mentioned in my review of Henry's Sisters way back when, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian suffers from Too Many Issue Syndrome. Alexie addresses a myriad of issues in this book including: alcoholism, drunk driving, eating disorders, teenage violence, family violence, racial inequality in education, gender inequality in the community, deep-seeded community racism, native on native racism, and a host of other issues relating to natives as well as the failed reservation system.

When I say tat Alexie addresses these issues, that's exactly what I mean. He mentions them, often in passing, in a matter-of-fact tone and offers less than nothing in terms of resolution for any of them. Sub plot mysteriously appear and disappear, often on the same page. Penelope's bulimia is presented and then categorically forgotten. Most of the characters are mere cardboard caricatures of real people. Arnold's parents are two-dimensional stereotypes who are left under-characterized but the reader is expected to empathize with them at various points throughout the book.

In such an extreme case of Too Many Issue Syndrome, I would hardly expect the author to resolve all the issues raised, but it would be nice if he were to get around to resolving at least one. If not one, perhaps he could resolve the narrative. Provide closure to the story? No such luck. Which begs the question: What is the point of this book? What was I supposed to take away from this reading? What is Alexie trying to say to his reader? There is nothing to indicate that they have moved from point A to Point B in the story. The book was akin to watching the first half of an especially bad after-school special before the cable goes out.

I suppose the Diary of a Wimpy Kid drawings that parallel the story are supposed to lend a certain cutsy-edginess to the book (hmmmm...). "Look, it's not one of those typically stuffy, morally straight Young Adult novels we have all grown up to hate. It's got drawing along the way to illustrate the finer points." Sorry. It wasn't clever when Jeff Kinney did it and copying the idea verbatim reeks of Percy Jackson vs. Harry Potter.

Of course, I'm not really one to talk on this issue. I simply don't understand the existence of YA fiction. Marketing books specifically at the teen demographic seems counter-intuitive. When I was a teen my friends and I could smell out anything that was being geared toward the "youth market" and I would have avoided it like the plague, opting for more adult choices in music, literature and movies. Who wants to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when you can just read Dracula or watch Blade. Seriously, real teenagers don't read YA fiction.

Furthermore, YA fiction is completely devoid of creativity. As I mentioned earlier in relation to Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, YA fiction writers all seem to sit around and wait for someone to write a successful book, then they all bump on the bandwagon and write virtual copy-cat narratives, just changing names, settings and the species of the cute little pet.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I'm going to stick with adult books. I suppose anything that gets people to read is great, and I'm certainly trying not to be judgmental but I suspect that the vast majority of YA fiction is bought and read by adults suffering from arrested development and deluded school librarians who honestly believe that teens go in for this sort of rubbish.

Oh, and Neil Gaiman.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

My Life as an Experiment

My Life as an Experiment: One Man's Humble Quest to Improve Himself
By A.J. Jacobs

If you are looking for someone to blame for the existence of this blog, look no further than A.J. Jacobs.

I don't know Mr. Jacobs. Never met him. But he is indeed responsible for this blog (in sort of a roundabout way). For those who've never heard of A.J. Jacobs, he is a writer and radical self-experimenter. He takes it upon himself to subject himself (and his family) to all sorts of odd social experiments from uni-tasking to reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica to living his life exclusively by the rules and codes of the Bible. Then he writes about it in a funny, self-deprecating style that is both endearing and hilarious.

A.J. Jacobs is a strange guy. I suspect we'd probably get along.

Back in the fall of 2007 I was visiting my family in Canada and I happened to pick up A.J. Jacobs (then) most recent work, My Year of Living Biblically. The premise of the book was for Jacobs to spend an entire year of his life trying to adhere to each and every rule found in the Bible.

I know that these sorts of books aren't for everyone (my wife rolled her eyes at most of Jacobs' antics throughout the book) but I tend to eat this stuff up! I love a good challenge and, while sitting in the middle of a mall reading My Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was going to challenge myself as well. Nothing too radical, mind you. I'm not a writer for Esquire and therefore had to keep my insanity within the realms of my own social and professional boundaries. But I simply had to do something! Something sustained that would require constant effort.

I decided to use reading as my starting point. I had always been a voracious reader, but I could be sporadic and undisciplined going weeks or even months between books. Furthermore, since I had moved to Asia, my reading had trailed off due to a lack of good books available to me. I concluded that these were not good excuses and got on with formulating some rules for My Year of Reading, which seemed quite difficult at the time, but looking back, were actually quite pedestrian. Here are the rules I concocted for my first year of reading:

1. Must read at least 1 page per day.
2. Must start a new book on the same day I finished the previous book.
3. Must finish everything I start.
4. Only read one book at a time.
5. Read everything and anything that comes into your hands.
6. Carry the book everywhere you go (except into water or while running)

Pretty simple rules, really. I mean... one page!?!? I truly under-estimated myself.

In January 1st 2008, I picked up a copy of The Story of Ralph (a forgettable book, to say the least) and set off on a reading journey that has stretched beyond the intended year to the present day. The only problem was that they were simply too easy. I decided to revise the rules to include 25 per day and eliminate the read everything and anything rule since I found that I could afford to be a little discriminating.

By the beginning of this year (2011) the rules look like this:

1. Must read at least 50 page per day.
2. Must start a new book on the same day I finished the previous book.
3. Must finish everything I start.
4. Only read one book at a time.
5. Carry the book everywhere you go (except into water or while running)
6. Blog about each and every book.

No radical changes, but it has made it a bit more challenging. Long drives, extended visits from friends and family and busy sections of work have all threatened the rules on a few occasions but as it stands to, October 21st, 2011, I have never broken the rules.

Anyway, reading My Life as an Experiment reminded me how I got to this point and how I am eternally grateful to A.J. Jacobs for establishing a discipline to my reading I would never have otherwise endeavored to accomplish.

Oh, right... the book. My Life as an Experiment is A.J. Jacobs at his finest. The book documents ten different experiments he conducts on himself including radical honesty (no lying), radical rationality, living his life as a beautiful woman and asking What Would George Washington Do? (WWGWD?). It's a good, quick, quirky read and full of ideas for making your own life, if not better, then certainly more interesting. Check it out.

But more importantly: Thank you A.J. Jacobs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Consider the Lobster

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays
By David Foster Wallace

I like sports. I like almost everything about sports. I like the human drama, the potential for greatness (or tragedy) the story-lines and the athleticism. I like taking about sports, speculating about sports and listening to others talk about sports. And while I have my favorites (hockey, baseball and, these days, rugby) I've been known to sit down and enjoy virtually any sport on television. I'm not too discriminating. I like sports.

But there is one thing about sports I hate. I hate the media insistence on speaking with these athletes after a win or a loss. It'll go something like this:

Booth Announcer: Let's go down to Bob Sportscaster who's outside the locker room with Chet Superstar.

Bob Sportscaster: Thank you Booth. Chet, you guys put a win up on the board tonight. What was the team's strategy going into tonight's game.

Chet Superstar: Well Bob, we were just out there trying to make something happen, give it 110% and just play our game. We got a couple of lucky bounces that went our way and you've got to hand it to the boys in the locker room, we never gave up out there and we are just happy to come out of here with the win tonight.

You don't say.

There is nothing more pointless than listening to a professional athlete spew off a string of exhausted cliches. And sportscasters make entire careers out of sticking microphones in athlete's faces. Families eat, houses are bought, retirements are planned based on these useless and tedious repetitions. There is something repulsive about this idea.

I've always wondered whether there is a group of sports fans out there, slightly slow on the uptake, who are sitting in their armchairs thinking to themselves: "I wonder how Albert Pujols felt when he hit that game winning home run. I can't wait for the post-game interview. Maybe he was only giving 98% at the time."


In Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace tackles this phenomenon deftly in an essay entitled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart. Wallace reviews Austin's own book Beyond Center Court which Wallace characterizes as being "breathtakingly insipid." He peels back the layers of vapid text in an attempt to get to the root of the issue, namely that athletes seem to be extremely boring people, almost to the point of emotionless.

But whereas I see and understand the inanity of speaking to athletes about their professions, Wallace takes in a step further and opines that an athlete's emotionless demeanor in the face of massive public scrutiny and their seemingly uninspired quotes are a quality in itself. Athletes develop an ability to not think. To shut down and concentrate on the task at hand and not get distracted by the very real pressure of performing in from of million. They can actively not think.

But I digress.

What Wallace does, that I could never, ever do, is present a clear and thorough examination of a subject, far beyond that of your typical writer. Like any truly great writer, he sees things and thinks of things that others simply don't see or think about. He approaches subjects from angles other writers are simply unaware of. Whether it is the adult video industry (Big Red Son), the dictionary wars (Authority and American Usage), the darker side of right wing talk radio (Host) or whether lobsters really do feel pain when they are boiled alive (Consider the Lobster), Wallace brings a distinct brand of nuance, insight and comedy that is a refreshing break from most other writers.

The centerpiece of this collection is a masterful account of Wallace's time spent covering the John McCain campaign for Rolling Stone during the 2000 Republican primaries (Up, Simba). Rather than your typical political piece (It doesn't seem like Wallace ever talked to McCain directly), he chronicles the daily grind of the tech staff, the interns, the assistants. He exhaustively documents the travel, the badly catered meals, the endless boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts all wrapped in a package of co-ax cables and opportunities to smoke. All of this over the backdrop of the Chris Duren Affair, a rather conveniently placed episode that occurred during the South Carolina primary.

His essay is akin to eavesdropping on the servants, cooks and the jesters at a king's court. We learn that even the lowest, unpaid intern has a very real investment in the campaign and everyone from McCain down to the boom mike operators for his town hall meetings (THM) understand the implications of each potential political move during the campaign. It is a very real assessment on leadership and what it means to lead.

And this is why Consider the Lobster is not for everyone. Wallace's brand of humor and insight might strike readers as beside the point, overly academic or even obtuse. But Wallace is an unapologetic observer of people and doesn't seem inclined to give his subjects a free pass, so to speak. There are no softballs here. No ally-oops or empty-net goals. Consider the Lobster is every bit as insightful as Tom Brady's post-game interview is not.

Monday, October 17, 2011


By Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk reminds me of Lou Reed. I'll get to that toward the end of this entry but I wanted to put that out there right away as sort of a teaser, an enticement of what might be to come. But this entry is a little difficult to unpack, so allow me to take it slowly. I'll get there, but first, let's talk about Engrish...

Living in Asia offers local English speakers (both Grammar-Nazis and otherwise) a wonderful opportunity to witness the ongoing linguistic farce that is "English in Asia." We are able to revel daily in absurd linguistic usage, nonsensical syntax, obtuse grammatical structures and just plain gibberish. We are literally surrounded by what is colloquially known as "Engrish," in Japan or "Chinglish" in Taiwan. Perhaps you've heard of this phenomenon.

If you haven't, allow me to explain. In Asia, there is an overwhelming eagerness to use English language (English somehow denotes a product, business, event, landmark, etc... as international and therefore gains a certain amount of import amongst locals though doing next-to-nothing to attract actual English speakers). Therefore, in order to capitalize from it's reputation as an international language, English is splashed across everything. But what it actually says never seems to be of much significance.

I could document thousands of examples of bad English usage in Taiwan (for instance) but I will suffice with just the one to prove my point. This on a sign:

No Occupation While Stabilizing

I have no idea what they intended to say. Examples such as this are hilarious and garner furrowed brows and giggles from me and my wife as we try to discern exactly what it was they were trying to convey. It's as if they simply ran the Chinese through Google Translate and assumed that it works flawlessly. They spelled all the words right, at least.

Anyway, single sentences are amusing, but longer translations (such as museum displays, landmark explanations, park rules and regulations, pamphlets etc...) can get tiresome. Trying to read broken English over an extended period of time is not only difficult but also frustrating. When I encounter large swaths of bad English I rarely get through a few lines before developing a headache and giving up. Nobody wants to read reams of bad English. It's not worth the effort

Did you hear that, Chuck Palahniuk?

Pygmy is Chuck Palahniuk's 10th novel. I had read two of his novels (Fight Club and Choke) previous to Pygmy, so I can vouch for Palahniuk's ability as a writer.

Pygmy is told from the perspective of a 13-year old operative (Operative 67, aka Pygmy) from a fictional nation that seems to be an amalgam of North Korea, China, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, except perhaps more brutal. He is sent as an exchange student to mid-Western America to complete some sort of political sabotage known as Operation Havoc. Each chapter is a single dispatch from the Operative presumably back to his homeland via methods unknown. Pygmy chronicles the operative's life in small town America and his barely concealed scorn for the American way of life (along with much violence... after all, this is Chuck Palahniuk). Despite this book being touted as a comedy, hilarity does not ensue.

What does ensue is 241 pages of sheer, unadulterated literary torture. Since Pygmy's native tongue is not English, Palahniuk thought it would be hysterical to write the entire book in broken English. An entire book of headache-inducing sentence structures, inappropriate word choices and frustrating grammar patterns. If Pygmy's English got progressively better as the novel wore on, this gimmick would have been mildly excusable, but it didn't. Not even a little. Despite being one of the brightest students in his country's school curriculum, Pygmy seems to have zero ability to pick up English once immersed.

Not that he couldn't. He has a vast vocabulary and at one point in the novel he, along with the other exchange operatives, excel at a school spelling bee, spelling such abstruse words as pheochromocytoma and oocephalus. One would infer from such an intellect that picking up on the subtleties of English grammar would be a breeze. Not so.

And it's not like this gimmick couldn't have been done well. If I had an accent to play with in my head such as Russian or Highland Scottish or Bantu, perhaps I would have been able to wrap my head around this gimmicky bit of writing, but alas when you create a fictitious nation, a fictitious accent is difficult to image. I'm left with straight-ahead brutalized English. I simply refuse to delve farther into this book simply because I don't want to translate this inanity into Standard Written English. What's the point? You won't read it.

Which brings me back to why Chuck Palahniuk reminds me of Lou Reed.

Back in the early 1970s Lou Reed recorded an album called Transformer. It is one of the most influential pop records of that decade. You might remember his song "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" from that album, although the entire work is worth a listen. Transformer was the album that launched Lou Reed's solo career post-Velvet Underground and placed him in the envious position of rock god.

Which, of course was exactly what Lou Reed didn't want to be. Lou Reed is, was, and will always be an artist first, celebrity never. The fame that Transformer brought him was neither sought after nor desired. Reed actively disliked all the attention he received following Transformer.

Although this story has never been confirmed or disconfirmed, rumor has it that his next album, Metal Machine Music, was released specifically to scare his peripheral fans away so that he could quit being a rock celebrity and get on with making his own brand of music. Reed allegedly recorded the album to drive fans away. One thing is for certain, Metal Machine Music is perhaps the worse album ever made and reduced Lou Reed to a laughingstock.

I get the impression that this is exactly the same strategy being implemented by Palahniuk with Pygmy. Palahniuk's previous work has rendered him a colossal reputation in the literary world. He is (along with Neil Gaiman and Tom Robbins) the closest thing to rock stars that exist in the literary world. Perhaps a certain amount of Harper Lee is extant within Palahniuk. so much so that he felt compelled to write this drivel in order to drive off his peripheral fans.

At least I hope that's why he wrote this. The alternative, that he wrote this in earnest and without irony, is far more disconcerting.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Snow Crash

Snow Crash
By Neal Stephenson

Whoa boy, here we go... Some spoilers.

I was inclined to write unfavorably about this novel until, about halfway through reading it, I noticed that it was published in 1992. See, that's the thing with science fiction. The date of publication can actually sway the reader's opinion of the book convincingly. Had this book been written even five years later and I'd be writing a cynical post about all the nonsense espoused by Stephenson. As it so happens, I can't trash this book and I'll tell you why.

Snow Crash takes place in a not-too-distant future of instant gratification and hyper-sensitivity toward personal freedoms. It is a world where the Mafia is a legal enterprise, hyper-inflation has rendered America impotent, the government has become a parody of politically correct mind games while other nations and religions act as corporate entities within its borders. It all feels like a mix of Blade Runner, The Matrix and Idiocracy but without the androids, spoon-bending and Brawndo. A hopeless, soulless dystopia that provides some very dis-spiriting end results based on our current trajectories.

The reader is introduced to a cast of improbable characters: Hiro Protagonist, a katana-wielding super-hacker turned pizza delivery guy, Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) a spunky 15-year old skateboarding Kourier working for the Mafia, and Raven, a freakishly large Aleutian harpoonist turned nuclear threat bent on revenge against America for their attack on the Alaskan islands at the end of World War Two. In Snow Crash we watch as these characters and a host of others prance around reality and something called the Metaverse (a 3D computer world that is eerily similar to the internet, although far more interactive) seemingly at will. Since the police force has been rendered entirely impotent and personal freedoms are a premium and any sort of freedom can be purchased (racist? Come live in New South Africa!), there exists virtually no laws to speak of and thus the characters face very few consequences for their often violent and destructive actions.

And then there's Snow Crash. Snow Crash is at once an extremely dangerous computer virus that can actually physically harm hackers inside the Metaverse and a highly addictive drug in reality. It is the product of one Bob L. Rife who, through an elaborate plan involving an aircraft carrier, ancient Sumerian tablets and an army of Asian refugees is bent on converting America to his own brand of Pentecostal insanity. The rationale for this requires an elaborate descent into Sumerian mythology that reminded me of the Da Vinci Code in its scope. Stephenson suggests that the Sumerian language is some sort of basic operating system hardwired into the human brain. By tapping into the basic functions of the brain via the sumerian language, Rife can control the world.

Confused yet? OK, good.

So what makes this novel so good? Well it was published way back in 1992. Ah 1992! When over-sized sweaters and bike shorts ruled the fashion world. Flat-tops were all the rage and Vanilla Ice had yet to become the ironic icon of a generation and Microsoft launched Windows 3.1. Also in 1992, Delphi became the first commercial enterprise to offer Internet access to its subscribers. While this was certainly a major moment in the history of the internet, it certainly didn't mean we were all online. Not yet anyway.

So when Stephenson published Snow Crash in 1992 with its mention of the Metaverse there was an element of fantasy to the entire idea (at least there would have been from this 12th grader had I read the book then). Stephenson talks of people having homes and offices in the Metaverse and rendering avatars and requiring greater access and tighter security. All sound familiar?

(In fact, Stephenson has often been credited with coining the phrase "avatar" although he downplays this notion in the afterword of the book).

Wait, there's more. Hiro Protagonist uses two programs within the Metaverse, the Librarian and Earth. It takes very little imagination to link these ideas with our understanding of Wikipedia and Google Earth. What's more, Stephenson talks of the financial collapse of the American system and the hyper-inflation that followed. While this certainly has not happened, it is a grim reminder of issues that plague the American Government and the Federal Reserve today.

While I imagine that Stephenson had to stretch the bounds of archaeology to do so, his idea that language is a program and religion is a virus are intriguing, although far-fetched. According to Stephenson the sumerian goddess Asherah created a virus to infect humanity. The virus was stopped by Enki through some form of linguistic inoculation (the disappearance of the Sumerian language) and the need for acquired languages (thus the Tower of Babel). At times, this portion of the book reads like Chariots of the Gods and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes in a few places.

As with any action flick, Snow Crash ends with the requisite car chase, boss fight, explosion sequence that failed to leave me with any real closure, but that's not really the point of a science fiction novel, is it. I liked Snow Crash if for no other reason than its creative impact on our current world. While parts of this novel descended into the patently absurd, there was enough real, honest-to-goodness sci-fi excellence to balance it out. As the friend that brought this book to my attention said:

"I will remember parts of this book until the day I die."

Saturday, October 8, 2011


By Jeffery Eugenides

I feel like my reading as of late has been a little incestuous. Middlesex is the second book in four that takes place in part or entirely in Greece (the other being Captain Corelli's Mandolin) and it is the second book in a row that features incest as a predominant theme in the narrative. Hell, it's the second novel in a row that has a character with the name Stark. If you have just discovered this blog recently, I assure you this is completely coincidental, but perhaps apt given the subject matter of Jeffery Eugenides' Pulitzer Prize winning novel about hermaphrodism.

Middlesex is perhaps the only novel in the history of novels were the protagonist is not a person so much as a gene. A recessive gene. The novel follows the gene from a small Greek village in Turkey in the early twentieth century through to Detroit the middle of the 1970s via three generations of a Greek-turned-American family with a history of incestuous relations. These tragically rendered relationships allow for the recessive gene for hermaphrodism, which has lain dormant within the family for a few centuries, to manifest itself in the third generation via a little girl named Calliope.

At once, the novel follows the traditional pace and style of a Salman Rushdie novel. Tracing a family lineage back a couple of generations in order to get a strong feel for the family and where the protagonist comes from. By the time Calliope makes her entrance into the narrative, the reader is more than familiar with her/his entire family. I always like this sort of novel. I feel like part of the family by the end and it gives Calliope a richer texture than she would have in a less epic style.

Jeffery Eugenides does a stellar job with this material and has written an achingly beautiful and often hilarious story about transformations. He not only tackles the obvious transgender focus but also secondary transformations: familial, social, economic, historical and philosophical that occur within Calliope's family, her surroundings and in America in general. All sorts of other incidental transformations make Middlesex a compelling read, worthy of the recognition it has received. He is true to his themes without bashing the reader's head in with his message. What I especially liked was Eugenides' handling of gender issues. He raises all sorts of questions concerning the traditional notion of gender without resorting to bullshit social science definitions and theories or political rhetoric. He treats his characters with a measure of humanism and empathy that few, if any, writers would be able to muster with such difficult subject matter.

I have not read The Virgin Suicides but it has been on my radar for years. From what I understand it is a pretty superb book in its own right. If so, Jeffery Eugenides has firmly established himself as one of the best writers working in America today and Middlesex is a novel that is not afraid to stretch the bounds and discuss issues that are often seen as uncomfortable or taboo. He gets to the core of his characters without mincing words, a rare talent this day in age.

Middlesex is not for the conservative at heart. People wit rigid ideas of social values and gender divisions should shy away unless that are open to some very different ideas. It's a shame, though. They'd be missing out on one hell of a great book.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Ice and Fire

A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song of Fire and Ice
By George R.R. Martin

(Some spoilers. Nothing major)

This is the first book I read on my new Kindle (or any sort of e-reader, for that matter). Got it for my birthday a few weeks back and I have not been disappointed. There was an adjustment period, but by the middle of the book I hardly noticed the difference from a real book. I guess this ushers in a whole new era of reading for me and given my proximity to English books, I can honestly say I'm stoked about the prospect of reading whatever. I. want.

Now, onto George R.R. Martin's genre-arching, mega-selling, multi-billion dollar ultra-hit fantasy series A Game of Thrones.

I have to admit I was more than a little hesitant to pick this book up as I have had terrible luck with the fantasy genre over my reading career. Actually, that's a really nice way of saying that I flat-out detest fantasy as a genre. I think Id rather read Harlequin romances before fantasy if that gives you an indication of my loathing for the genre.

And don't tell me I haven't tried. Fantasy freaks are always telling me I haven't read this yet, or that yet. Save it. Your favorite genre sucks. I tried Tolkien. Lord of the Rings is one of the only books I have ever started and not finished (I got about 250 pages in before Tom Bombadil made me throw this bloviated heap of trash out the window). I have tried on a couple of occasions to plow my way through one of the Shannara books by Terry Brooks (I think it was The Elfstones of Shannara or the Firepits of Shannara or the Teacups of Shannara. I forget). I have (grudgingly) read the first three books in the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, two books by Neil Gaiman, all the Harry Potters and one of the Dark Tower books by Stephen King, so don't tell me I haven't sampled a cross-section. The only thing I learned in all that reading is that I did not enjoy a single page of any of the books mentioned above (except Harry Potter, I admit).

I always find fantasy novels get bogged down in contrived verbal nonsense. Long-winded introductions where titles and land-holdings and prior achievements are bandied about. Honor, courtesy and gallantry slow the plot down to a snail's pace. If there is one thing I can't stand it's entertainment that doesn't get on with the plot (this is why I hate musicals). It's always an Elvish Lord pledging his unyielding allegiance to the Dwarfish Baron over six and a half pages with talk of dragons and enchantments and defending the Keep.


Give me science fiction any day of the week.

I think my dislike for the fantasy genre stems from my passion for real medieval history. Fantasy is a weird, bastardized version of a very misunderstood and completely fascinating period in Western history and I find that the genre does much harm in most people's understanding of Europe and the Middle East during the era of knights and castles and chivalry.

Which gets me to George R.R. Martin.

By no stretch of the imagination am I suggesting that Martin remains loyal to medieval history. He has, after all, created his own world a la Middle Earth (or Shannara) populated by feuding families and the hint of mystical creatures. But his focus (at least in book one) on the political wrangling of the Seven Kingdoms and the eventual disintegration of the alliance in the wake of King Robert's death ring true to the brutal game of succession that existed in medieval Europe. I was reminded on more that one occasion of the centuries-long battle between the Carolingians and Merovingians in early Medieval France and many of the events in the book mirror real events in the early history of England when it was still divided into the kingdoms of Essex, Wessex and the like (Winterfell is quite obviously Scotland) as well as China and the Asian Steppe. That's cool.

While there were moments in the book where Martin lapsed into the tired cliches of a fantasy writer, he mostly maintains the plot and delivers literally dozens of compelling characters (none of which his is shy about killing off) and enough political intrigue to make Julian Assange blush. While he hints at the notion of dragons and giants, it would seem that the world of the Seven Kingdoms is rooted in reality (mostly) and there, mercifully, exists no magic in this world.

And that's how Martin was able to sucker this fantasy-hating reader in. By resisting the urge to fill the pages with wizards and warlocks and ballrogs and trolls, Martin was forced to conceive of a story based on the strength of his characters rather than the cleverness of his creatures. While I have not fallen for the series like others readers seem to have, I am looking forward to reading the second book in the series, although not right away. Think I'll start in on the HBO series tonight.

Oh, and there seem to be zombies in this book, which scores major points with this guy.

Other reviews from A Song of Ice and Fire:

A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords
A Feast for Crows