Monday, January 31, 2011

The Road finished; for the love of God please let me read something funny

The Road --2007 publication
I checked The Road out of the library on last Wednesday. I finished it today (Monday) - which has got to be a record for me. One thing I can say about The Road - the story definitely pulls you forward. There are no chapters, no clean endings to the trials and perils that the characters face, just breaks between moments. It kept me reading.

But that same quality meant I could not put it down last night, until it got very late into the evening, which meant I had to sit up and watch a few minutes of Ocean's Eleven on TV to clear my mind for a while before sleeping. Because this story is an absolute nightmare.

If it were not on my reading list, I don't know if I would ever willingly read it. I believe it is the bleakest story I've ever read. And that's considering that I really enjoyed watching No Country for Old Men (adapted from another one of Cormac McCarthy's books).

The story is about two nameless characters, a man and his son, in a post-apocalyptic world. The event that caused the apocalypse is never fully described, but the boy was born soon after it occurred. Now he is older and he and his father - alone, because the mother committed suicide - are travelling south through America to try and find someplace warmer. On the road they have to scavenge for food in abandoned stores and houses because all wildlife and virtually all plant life has been killed off by the unnamed event. They also have to avoid roaming bands of marauders who have turned to cannibalism in order to survive. Meanwhile, the man tries to preserve his son's innocence and goodness.

The story is quite moving, and it's easy to see that it has earned its rave reviews. McCarthy demonstrates the tremendous emotion the man has for his son, and also reveals the boy's growing doubts about whether or not they really are "the good guys," as his father tells him. It also has a mythological quality - they are on a quest facing terrible hardships and monsters. They succeed because of luck, grace, and good guesses.

However, I also felt that the boy suffered the misfortune of being born to parents who were inadequate in many ways. Obviously the mother's failure is clear in her inability to stay alive for her child. The father has a survivalist's mindset (on the night that the unnamed event occurs, he immediately fills up the tub with water, knowing that it will be needed). This same mindset causes him to be distrustful of any other survivors, and to worry after the survival of his son so myopically that he endangers his son's essential goodness even as he tries to preserve it.

Of course, to say that one's parents are inadequately prepared to handle the apocalypse might be judging them a bit too harshly.

So overall, it was a well-written story. According to a little research after finishing it, the book has also been acclaimed by environmentalists as a strong argument for their cause - which is clearly an appropriate interpretation. It has obvious value. But it was also haunting to read. After reading several pages while stopping for lunch at Whole Foods, I then finished my shopping giving my fellow patrons suspicious looks - would you eat people if you were in this situation? How about you? There are some easy jokes I could make here, but it didn't feel like "ha ha, people who buy high-quality groceries are hilarious" - it felt like my world view had been seriously tainted. I would have cast the same suspicious looks at the salt of the earth types at the Wal Mart ("ha ha, people who shop at Wal Mart are funny" yeah, shut up. Seriously, this book is a waking nightmare).

Which leads me to the next selection, because it is time for my brain to be cleansed. Next up is Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, from the Discworld series. It will be a while before I get started because I still have a few non-list books from the library to finish up. Honestly, if I'd known The Road would be this bleak and also this fast, I would have just checked out Wyrd Sisters during the same visit.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Brave New World started and finished; The Road started

Normally I post when I start a new book from the list, but things didn't work out like that this time.

I blame the iPhone.

I just got one, and I was extremely distracted by the downloading and utilization of apps. I mean, it's basically a toy that makes phone calls. I know it has several practical applications, but mostly I've used it to play. Not only are there plenty of apps that are fun to use, there are also games that are made specifically for the iPhone, like Angry Birds and Slayer Pinball Rocks. I highly recommend that pinball game, by the way. One review of it basically said get over your fear of satanism and buy this game. I have no fear of satanism (well, not Slayer's brand of it anyway), and so I did. Excellent pinball game. So much fun to play. My high score is 11,561,810.

Brave New WorldSo all these little distractions have kept me from blogging. But not from reading. So without ever taking the time to blog about it, I started Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. And then I finished it, because the book is really short.

Of course if you know anything about Brave New World, you know that it's only appropriate that I was distracted from blogging it by entertainment. Brave New World is a dystopian novel that supposes that the government may seek to control us by providing us with a wealth of entertainment and no desire to ever do anything but work and be entertained. In other words, no time for thought, no time for civil unrest, no time to wonder if things might not be quite right. Likewise, everyone under this particular government is bred from test tubes and raised being conditioned to love being the class that they are assigned prior to birth, and to love the job that is decided upon for them. No one is meant to be unhappy with who they are, what they do, and where life has placed him. It's all by the design of government, a government that has turned Henry Ford into a god-like person. It's an assembly line world, where everything and also everyone is generated on an assembly line.

Of course, not everyone comes out quite right, and a few characters aren't quite happy with the way they live - even though their conditioning is so strong that it makes them reluctant to act on their unhappiness. Enter the character John, a "savage" from a reservation (in other words, a free man that was born naturally and without the restrictions of the government), and the discontented characters begin to break down.

Things go kind of crazy at that point. John is unrealistically chaste, and is fully ashamed at himself for even entertaining the idea of participating in the modern society that he witnesses off of the reservation. He tortures himself as penance. He eventually goes crazy - quoting Shakespeare all along (the title of the book is from The Tempest).

My first reaction to this story is that it's interesting to read a dystopian tale that is not Orwellian. I don't think I'd previously considered that most dystopian tales are basically built upon the foundation of Orwell's work, in which a menacing government forces a helpless public to live miserable lives through force and violence. Brave New World flips that idea upside down with the idea that you might better control a population with the promise of happiness - provide lots of sports and entertainment, teach them to have sex frequently and with multiple partners without denying anyone, and indoctrinate them that if you ever begin to worry about something, you should take drugs - provided by the government. It's a fascinating idea.

The introduction of John causes things to break down. He's repeatedly referred to as "the Savage," which is clearly meant as an ironic statement regarding how he is more civilized than the "civilized" society. But John's growing insanity made me feel like the author treated John as a convenient proxy, and indeed considered him savage - not a representation of the ideals of the intellectual author. He seems too connected to stereotypes of the quaintness and ignorance of tribal people. John's self-abuse and the rituals of manhood from his village - which involve whipping a boy until he bleeds, a ritual that John longs to be tested by - also demonstrate a bizarre theme of the novel: that if life doesn't present you with some pain then you must quite literally create it, or else you can't be a whole person.

Also, I pity any high school English teacher who, upon assigning this as required reading, has to deal with the snarkiness of high school students who decide to use this story as evidence that Shakespeare will apparently cause you to go crazy. Obviously that's not the point of adding Shakespeare to the story, but I know how those kids can be. Conversely, it made me want to go find a good rendition of The Tempest to watch.

Overall it was entertaining, and by stepping out of the typical Orwellian model, I found it a bit more thought provoking than I might otherwise. It's definitely a good read if you like your dystopia a bit on the weird side.


My next book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The Road is a bleak story about a man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. My early prediction - it's not likely to end happy.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hiatus yields varying results; Return of the Dapper Men saves the day

Happy New Year!

My last post was about all the comic book anthologies that I was eagerly awaiting from the library. They arrived, although I'm not sure how I feel about the anthology title, The Best American Comics. They may have been better named "The Best Independent American Comics."

Or "A Collection of Independent Comics", because I think that "best" might be pushing it.

Perhaps "So Fringe that they Mostly Seem Dumb."

Or how about "What Have R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware Been Up to this Year?" Because seriously, every single book, each year, features each of these artists.

I became convinced to go check these out because Neil Gaiman edited the 2010 edition, which the library does not have. I went to look at the edition that he edited at a bookstore, and found it much more interesting than the previous 4 editions.

When checking all of these books out, I also checked out one anthology that was not a part of this series: The Year's Best Graphic Novels, Comics, & Manga. This anthology came out one year only, in 2005, and featured some truly entertaining stuff, including Scott Pilgrim. The 2010 edition of the Best American series of anthologies was the first to feature Scott Pilgrim - and thanks guest editor Neil Gaiman for that, but what a pity that this series only paid attention to that excellent book after the movie was released. The Year's Best anthology featured a few more comics I really like (specifically Fables, and an honorable mention to Courtney Crumrin although it was not excerpted in the book) and gave me a few ideas for some new stuff to check out. It's too bad that this anthology only came out that one year.


Return of the Dapper MenSeeking out the edition that Neil Gaiman edited did pay off in one major way - while looking for it at the local Barnes and Noble, I found a graphic novel that outshone all the rest - Return of the Dapper Men by Jim McCann, illustrated by Janet Lee. I was drawn to it originally because of the steampunk imagery, and figured it might be fun to page through while wasting a little time in the bookstore. My first surprise was that Tim Gunn wrote the introduction to this book - yes, that Tim Gunn. I felt as if the book couldn't surprise me more after the revelation that Tim Gunn likes comics.

I was wrong. It's a gorgeous book.

So to cut to the chase, I got a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas and went back and bought that book. No regrets.

The book actually has a trailer - watch the video to get a taste of it.