Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Fifteen (and 15B): Pastoralia by George Saunders

...and Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley

The mind, as the saying goes, is a complex place. We have trouble keeping our own thoughts under control let alone knowing what others may be thinking. Even in our most rational moments our mind takes in a wealth of sensory information, makes sense of it, categorizes it, and then makes decisions as to where to focus. From there we get decision making followed by the input of more information.

A challenge for any good writer is to get inside the mind of a character and keep the character's individual voice unique. George Saunders excels at this challenge, bringing the reader into a dizzying swirl of thoughts from a variety of people. From a bullied child to a middle-aged barber living with his mother, Saunders focuses on thoughts in his novella and short story collection, Pastoralia. Infuse this with humor and a kind-spirited sarcasm and you have an outstanding collection of work.

Saunders' opening novella, "Pastoralia," is set in a cave, or better said, a replica of a cave. The narrator is part of the caveman exhibit which is part of a larger theme park which includes the Russian Peasant Farm, Wise Mountain Hermit, Sheep May Safely Graze, and the occasional feature of frontier pioneers caught in a flood. The male narrator and his female co-part have their separate living areas, but keep in touch with their families and supervisors through fax machines. Their real life dilemmas stand starkly against their "role playing," and whiffs of Sartre's idea of role-playing are strong in this piece. Saunders casts a sarcastic eye at our efforts to preserve an ideal which never existed, especially in the midst of own efforts at daily life. The fact that the theme park is struggling and cutting exhibits throughout the story shows us the crumbling edifice of our created ideals.

But the greatest strength in this and the other stories is his entry into the mind. No where is this seen better than in "The End of FIRPO in the World." Firpo is the derogatory nickname given by a stepfather to Cody, his bullied son who is going to end the time of "Firpo" through what he sees as a brilliantly executed revenge against some neighbors who bully him. In a speeding eight pages Saunders gives us the range of Cody's thoughts which bounce from his mother to past humiliation, to future triumphs, and even a place as a scientist in a floating science lab. That Saunders does this without losing the reader is a testament to his writing style.

While all the stories are strong, the other standout is "The Barber's Unhappiness" in which most of the action revolves around the barber's thoughts. His unhappiness is usually self-created when his elaborate plans for the future unravel into unhappiness and he has yet to physically move. This is a person entirely capable of ruining a good opportunity simply by convincing himself that it will go wrong. Of course, we see a person lacking self-esteem, and although Saunders likes to get us laughing at the barber's thinking, it will be hard for any reader to not recognize themselves in the story. Fortunately, in the end Saunders leaves us with the possibility of hope. It is this final trait that saves all these stories from smug, bitter sarcasm. Saunders likes people and he sees the possibility of hope. Which of us could use less of that?

Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley
I will not spend long on this one, but let it be said that Mosley is not a writer to miss. Outside of my obsession with Sherlock Holmes I'm not much of a mystery reader, but Mosley is the exception. In addition to fast paced writing and story lines, you get a great view of race relations in the 1950s in Los Angeles. Mosley gives us an insight into why African Americans may choose to work "outside the system" to resolve issues both legal and illegal. He sometimes breaks from this genre in books like Futureland, a collection of science fiction stories which is great (and I never read science fiction) and The Man in the Basement, a book which would make my list of essential reads -- a philosophical exploration into humanity.

Reading Challenges

The last few weeks have been easy. I've noticed that my "required" reading is now anxiousness for my reading time -- the reading keeps me balanced as it puts me another world, challenges my thinking, and brings me simple pleasures. Saunders was a welcome presence to return to and I ended up reading way ahead of my mental schedule. In fact, I already finished half of the book I was planning for next week. As for Mosley, well, that is my bedtime book. I take a long time to knock off a book since I may read in bed just once or twice a week at most. I pick books I can quickly jump back into and have chosen another work by Mosley to have sitting next to the bed.

Next Up

Direct Red: A Surgeon's Story by Gabriel Weston. I would not have normally picked this up, but I'm really enjoying it so far. It is a nonfiction account about a doctor's entrance into the surgical world. This is my first "free" book in exchange for reviewing it on Blogcritics, although I have a couple of others already lined up (and the new Bruce Hornsby CD -- I'm branching out).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Fourteen: Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to do About It by Robert Glennon

There are no shortage of crisis situations facing our world, yet nothing seems so elemental as water. It is such an integral part of our daily existence that it can be hard to understand how deep our dependence on water really is. That we need to drink water is understandable, but that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef will make you look at that quarter pounder a bit differently.

Of course, concern about water is as ancient as life itself. In the United States water disputes have influenced settlements and governance, as any good Western movie will show you. More recently we've dealt with acid rain, but with the plethora of water bottles showing up on store shelves, do we really have a water crisis?

Robert Glennon's well laid out argument first establishes that there is a crisis and then offers suggestions on how to address it. The argument that there is a water crisis is becoming easier to make, in no small part thanks to Glennon's ongoing work in this area. Major media outlets are also now pointing out that the concern for water is not just an issue for other parts of the world, but the United States as well.

Glennon's strengths in this book are many. First, he lays out the arguments by telling stories and backing them up with facts. We not only see numbers, but more importantly we see the people impacted by the numbers. Glennon understands that this is not simply an environmental issue, but a human issue. Plus, he is not interested in browbeating naysayers into submission; he clearly wants to attract people to his way of thinking. While he does not suffer fools kindly, he assumes the reader is an intelligent person with an interest in understanding the issue at hand.

Second, Glennon is well organized in his presentation, something many people passionate about a subject forget to consider. He breaks the book into three sections ("The Crisis," "Real and Surreal Solutions," and "A New Approach") and he keeps them separate. When presenting the information he lets the data speak for itself, sometimes showing his hand toward the end, at other times leaving the reader to their own conclusions.

Third, Glennon knows that rational people can disagree. He refuses to demonize those he may disagree with, instead looking at their arguments and refuting as he sees fit. Several times throughout the book he acknowledges that there is no easy solution to a problem and that two opposing views both carry valid arguments. In other words, this is a scientist who understands in reality we do not have all the answers. He also does not expect everyone to adopt an extreme point of view and shows himself as a passionate, if not radical, water enthusiast. Toward the end of the book he notes his mother-in-law takes "navy showers" (get wet, turn the water off and soap up, and turn the water back on to rinse) -- he prefers the more wasteful but also more pleasant full shower treatment.

Finally, one of Glennon's surprising strengths is his sense of humor. While he never loses sight of the seriousness of his topic, he can rarely resist a good laugh; as a reader it is surprising to find yourself laughing at a "heavy" book. When discussing the race for a more powerful show head (with costs hitting $6,000) he cannot resist noting that Kohler, although their ad features a product with seven heads of water, "none...get the female catalog model's hair wet" (40).

His ideas for solving the water crisis are intentionally wide ranging. Sure, he wants you to turn of the water when brushing your teeth, but he also wants to talk about pricing models, buying water rights, using government incentives, and stimulating alternative waste technologies, just to mention a few. In other words, we cannot solve the water crisis by simply taking shorter showers, but it is a start. Glennon offers input to Congress and local and state governments, and offers a website for the reader to get water-saving tips (

As his subtitle implies, this is a book about the water crisis in the U.S., not the world. To see him apply this thinking to worldwide issues in water would be equally helpful, but this book is simply not that place. Instead, we get a well reasoned presentation of an issue with clear and reasonable ideas on how to address the problems, all with a well written and humorous style, which make this a must read.

Reading Challenges

This book took a bit more time than most, but it was so well written I did not find it too hard to get motivated for. I was, not surprisingly, a bit tired some nights so any reading can be tough, but nothing too bad.

Next Up

George Saunders' "Pastoralia," a novella and some stories. Saunders is another reader for the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series at Hope College this year. He is a MacArthur (genius grant) recipient so of course I have high hopes!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Thirteen: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Note: My reviews of recent works are appearing at first. My review for this book was featured on the front of the books section!! Please visit there and feel free to comment as well (they'll think I'm important).

If ever there was a good reason for eternal copyright laws this book may be it. Seth Grahame-Smith, free from such legal restrictions, takes much of Austen's masterwork, reproduces it, throws in some clumsily inserted sections with zombies, and gets a best seller. Seriously folks, we can do better!

While I am an unabashed fan of Austen, I'm also an unabashed fan of humor so the combination of zombies and Elizabeth Bennet sounds like a recipe for (some strange) success. But what this reminds us of is a Saturday Night Live skit someone decided to make into a movie -- a short dose is fine, but the extended version is predictable, repetitive, and boring. Indeed, the best humor is still Austen's work, and Grahame-Smith would have done better by replacing more of her work with his so he would suffer less by comparison.

His major fault is not being daring enough. He takes too few liberties with the plot or characters themselves, instead resigning himself to interrupt a walk in the countryside with the killing of a few zombies, and then back to Austen again. While he makes the Bennet sisters martial arts experts, he does too little with this twist. The strongest part of his work is his rewriting of the Charlotte/Mr. Collins episode, and while I'll avoid giving away the plot, suffice it to say that it differs greatly from Austen. This section could serve as a model for what he could do with other characters, but for some reason he hesitate. Grahame-Smith needs not be afraid of changing the plot since he has already decided to enter zombies in the picture.

But without a doubt the most frustrating aspect of the book is that too often he takes Austen's work verbatim, and then throws in one line about zombies. It rarely flows and only makes the reader wish he would jump into his plot or leave us to Austen. At other times his attempts at humor fall a bit short, such as his comment that Miss Darcy draws nude pictures of the male form. Again, do something with that angle or leave the single line out.

In short, this book does not go far enough in building off of Austen's plot to create a whole new book. Good advice for any writer -- be not afraid!

Reading Challenges

I thought this would be a tough week to get reading in, but an enjoyable book. Reverse that. Had the book finished by Thursday because I was in a hurry to get through the pain. I knocked off about half this book in one evening and can recommend it as an easy read (since I cannot recommend it as a good read).

Next Up

Going the non-fiction route with Robert Glennon's "Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What to Do About It." I'm on a committee creating a symposium on water this fall -- Glennon is someone we want to get in sometime during the semester even though he cannot come during our actual symposium.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book Twelve: The Annotated Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single reader in search of a pleasurable read need only turn to Ms. Austen. Such was the experience again when returning to a book I have read several times, yet find more interesting each time. There is little new to be said about Austen's work in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular. What is it about her work that has won her regard since this novel was published and which continues unabated today? If we are to judge by the movies made of the stories it is primarily the great romantic intrigue which is central to all her novels. But with the notable exception of A&Es long version of the novel (with Colin Firth creating the Mr. Darcy and my wife and daughter wishing they were Elizabeth Bennet), many of them miss what makes reading Austen so enjoyable.

First, there is her well-known wit. Excuse my play on the opening line with my opening line, but most readers are familiar with the famous opening. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." At the outset we get Austen's biting sense of humor and a preview of what is to come. There are few novelists who can encapsulate so much in a single line and carry off her humor in the midst of a "serious" novel. Austen is not a comic writer, but in the realist mode she knows that life does have humor and that some people are more humorous than others. The father, Mr. Bennet, is someone I would love to have an hour to talk with someday. He has quick insight into others, throws caustic lines at others in the cloak of humor, and enjoys nothing more than listening to a ridiculous person. He does not take himself seriously either, even noting that his guilt over Lydia's behavior will pass from him as well.

Which leads us into a second attraction of Austen -- her realist portrayal of characters. The entire novel is based on the misguided perceptions of the two central characters. "Pride" and "prejudice" are hardly two ways to induce people to like your central characters, but Austen pulls it off. She does so because she knows the best people fail to be the people they want to be at times, and for Austen that is acceptable. Darcy and Elizabeth both stumble several times throughout the book, but Austen forgives them, the reader forgives them, and ultimately they forgive each other (and true love reigns!). Her realistic portrayals extend to most other characters except for the younger sisters and Mr. Collins, although in many ways they simply serve as foils. Even the mother is shown to have something other than loudness when toward the end we see her intimidated by Lady Catherine de Bourgh and subdued by Darcy.

Of course, there are far more that two reasons to read Austen, but I will not suffer the reader any longer (hey, great Austen type language there!). If you have avoided Austen so far, please resist no longer. Yes, everyone reads her and loves her, but hey, sometimes the majority is right.

A quick note on this annotated version. As I "feared" it did slow me down, but David Shapard has put together a very comprehensive and interesting edition. The text is on the left and his annotations on the right -- at times they are quick definitions or explanations, and at times they are literary criticism. I agree with much of his reading of the novel and found many of his explanations most helpful. If you are a fan of this book this is an excellent edition to seek out. The only downside were several printing errors which left some sentences on the bottom of the page blank -- so keep you other edition handy in case you cannot guess what you are missing.

Reading Challenges

An unexpectedly tough week. I was on vacation from my usual job, but had something at church one night, a meeting another night, and worst of all, a garage sale to prepare for. I did so much physical labor during the day (which is not much in my world) that I was exhausted at night. Fortunately, the book provided a welcome respite from the day's concerns.

I will admit to thinking how nice a week off from reading would be -- or at least a week when I was not thinking about finishing. This is hard work and I have to be intentional, but once I sit down with the book I'm quite happy. I've never been a big tv viewer, but that is nearly nonexistent now (same goes for movies). But I've now completed three months without a serious threat to success, so I will continue forward.

Next Up

Elizabeth Bennet battles zombies. This will be interesting.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Book Eleven: American Woman by Susan Choi

This is the type of book I typically avoid, but before I had a chance to run I was drawn in by this engrossing account of one fugitive trying to help three more people continue their evasion of the police. I was not far into the book (okay, chapter two) when I realized I was in a fictional account of the Patty Hearst story. For those younger than myself, Hearst is the grandaughter of media giant William Randolph Hearst (see: Kane, Citizen) who was kidnapped by the unknown SLA in 1974, then became devoted to their cause and turned to robbing banks. All but three of the SLA were killed in a shootout and Hearst was arrested about a year later.

But Choi avoids some simple fictionalized version of an already bizarre event (this is a time when the idea of truth being stranger than fiction is clearly true). Instead, the "American Woman" is Jenny Shimada, a Japanese-American who is in hiding because of her interest in bomb making, which has put her boyfriend in jail. Shimada has been avoiding exposure by living in a small town doing renovation work for an older woman. Now she is recruited to help these three and we quickly see that all "radicals" are not cut from the same cloth. While she likes to blow up buildings, she does so when no one is in them and she makes sure they belong to the government. The SLA members have kidnapped an heiress and are as interested in armed warfare as they are about their principles, which seem stretched at best.

Choi does not judge any of her characters and all are especially well drawn. Shimada is a complex person who seems to have it all figured out one minute, and is completely lost the next. In other words, she is a real person (and yes, she too is based on a real person). Pauline, the Patty Hearst of the story, is interesting not because she is supposed to by Hearst, but because we see how someone taken out of their element and thrown into the extreme opposite responds. She goes from pampered college student to bound, blindfolded, and gagged in closet for days. Her relationship with two of her captors is abusive and dependent, yet she is also drawn to Jenny. What she is not drawn to is her past life -- at one point her and Jenny drive by her old house, but she has no desire to return. That part of her life is gone.

Which raises the question of what happens when we do disappear. When they are captured (oops, late spoiler alert for those who did not guess it) they refer to Pauline's year of hiding as "the lost year." But who lost the year? Pauline certainly did not. This plays out as a modern version of if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? Choi is playing with the idea of how our lives are and are not dependent on others involved with us, others viewing us, and others we pass by in life. While it seems obvious that losing track of others does not mean they have lost themselves, we often make that assumption -- "they fell off the face of the earth." As Choi is showing, life continues even when the circumstances change. Jenny and Pauline disappear for different reasons, their circumstances both change, and they themselves change, but that does not equate with being lost. But it does raises questions about how we define ourselves when those around us who do define us are gone. What makes make Jenny who she is and which is the "real" Pauline.

Choi's prose is full and worth a slow read. The book is cinematic in its layout and she paints clear pictures everywhere she goes. The last section of the book loses some of the hold after the tension has disappeared, but it adds another interesting note to the story in comparing how fame impacts what should be similar situations for two people.

Finally, we can return to Choi's title and spend time defining the two words of the title -- American and woman. In what ways is a Japanese-American raised in Japan for many years and an acknowledged bomber of American government properties an American? As the story unfolds the ideas of "woman" are also explored with a range of options considered. In other words, Choi leaves us a lot to think about.

Reading Challenges

Another tough week to get all the reading in, but mainly because I was taking my time with the book. At 369 pages it is not a short book, but it should be easy to know off in a few nights. I just enjoyed the prose enough to move at a leisurly pace. This is a book I kept wanting to return to so I made time whenever I could.

Next Up

Oh wonderous joy, I'm returning to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I've read this book so many times that I remember it better than I should, but Austen's prose is so incredible I just love returning to it. Two twists on this one. First, I'm reading a fully annotated version which should slow me down tremendously, and second, the week after I'm reading the zombie version of Pride and Prejudice -- clearly I'm an Austen fan who her works can handle zombie versions.