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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
fiction/literatue, (c)1930, 288pp
rating: ***

Despite being an english major, I never read any Faulkner as a college student or as a high school student. I've been trying to expand my literary horizons now that it doesn't feel like such a task to read "the classics", so I pulled As I Laying Dying off of my book shelf and gave it a read. I purchased it during my senior year of high school to read in preparation for the AP English exam. I never even cracked the cover. Now, 10 years later, I have finished it.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of a country family making a pilgrammage to the big city to bury Addie Bundren, husband to Anse Bundren and five children - Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. Each chapter is told in Faulkner's signature stream-of-consciousness style by a different narrator. The chapters are labeled with the narrator's name and the reader is immediately plunged into whatever internal monologue the character has at that particular time. The trip to Jefferson to bury Addie Bundren is part tragedy and part farce. While the plot of As I Lay Dying is extremely simple - a woman dies and the family goes to bury her - the themes of the novel are not. Issues of greed, the tragedy of motherhood, illegitimate children, mental disease and rape are all covered through the lens of each character's internal monologue.

I can't say I loved this book. I recognize the skill involved in writing that, and I recognize that Faulkner is an extremely influential writer. The first part of the book was very slow going while I was waiting for Addie to die so that the family could get moving. The stream-of-consciousness narrative vacillates between being really effective story telling and being really difficult to properly figure out. At one point, I had to read a general description of the course of events just so that I could be watching for them in all of the different narratives.

Grendel by John Gardner

Grendel by John Gardner
fiction/literature, (c)1971, 175pp
rating: *****

Grendel is a retelling of the "Beowulf" myth from the point of view of Grendel. It's pretty important to have read "Beowulf" before reading this book or you will be hopelessly lost. The majority of this book deals with life at Hrothgar's hall prior to the appearance of Beowulf. We are introduced to Grendel immediately who tells us all about his life and what he has observed. He has observed the settling of this area by the nomadic bands and the building up of Hrothgar's empire. He is entranced by Hrothgar's "Shaper", a harpist and storyteller, though the storyteller's words cause Grendel auguish because he knows what the Shaper says is untrue but he is so entranced by his words that part of him believes. After an encounter with a dragon, he begins his marauding on Hrothgar's hall until the inevitable meeting with Beowulf.

Apparently this book is widely used in high school classes, though I never had to read it. I read up a little bit about the style of the book so that I would appreciate it more. There are 12 chapter and each of the twelve chapters corresonds to one of the zodiac signs, starting with the first chapter and an encounter with a Ram. Each chapter also deals with different ideas of philosophy, including using philosopher's own words. Grendel himself goes through several different phases in thinking about the meaning of life. There are also meditations about propoganda (through the role of the Shaper), the role of religion on society, and the meaning of war.

Throughout the book, Gardner plays with different literary styles as well. Most of the book is told through stream-of-consciousness of Grendel. However, he shifts to a lyrical style (which echoes the original text) and screenplay style (very Beckett-esque).

I started reading this a long time ago and I couldn't get all the way through it. However, this time it really captivated me and made me think. And sometimes it's nice to read a book you really have to think about.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out by Natsuo Kirino
fiction/mystery, (c) 2005, 400pp
rating: ****

I ran across this book when I was looking for more things to read when I ran out of literature when I was working in London. I didn't buy it then because of the sticker price (high exchange rate is a killer on books particularly), but I tucked the idea of this book away. Finally, this year, I decided to read it.

Out tells the story of four friends/colleagues that work the night shift at a company that makes packaged bento box meals. Each one of them has their own reasons for working the night shift, and each one has severe problems at home. Matsuo's family members orbit around each other without ever caring or interacting with each other. Kumiko is mired in debt and has spending problems. Yoshie is stuck caring for her ungrateful children and her aging mother in law and Yayoi's husband gambles and cheats on her. In a fit of rage one night, Yayoi strangles her husband with his own belt and calls her friends to help her figure out what to do. In this way, all four of them are pulled into the more criminal underbelly of this Tokoyo suburb.

Kirino won the Grand Prix award in Japan for this novel and it is well deserved. Though it is filed under the "mystery" section in Barnes and Nobles, it's not really a mystery. We find out exactly what the crime is and how it happens in the first thirty pages or so. The beauty of this book is watching everything unfold and seeing how Masako particularly manages her situation. Kirino has done a good job making all of the characters extremely realistic and this makes the reader invest in them. She also includes a young loan shark, a Brazilian immigrant and a casino owner as supporting characters and does an excellent job fleshing them out as well. The fact that all of these ladies work the night shift and so live in an inverse of everyone around them adds an additional darkness to this novel that makes it even moodier.

The other nice thing about this book is that it doesn't fetishize japanese culture (likely because it is a crime novel written by a Japanese woman). Many works of fiction and movies made by western writers fall prey to orientalism (read the essay if you haven't!). They either play up the young, hip, edgy teenagers or the rigidity of the culture. This book depicts a different side of Japanese culture and life and is refreshing to read.

I only had two quibbles with this book. Quibble #1 - it is quite long, and while most of it is a page turner, it definitely dragged just a little in the last quarter of the book. Quibble #2: The ending is a little ... odd, and somewhat disturbing. To say more than that would give it away. Overall, I highly recommend it.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
fiction, (c) 2003, 326pp
rating: *****

People have been telling me to read this book for years, and I sort of put it off because it seemed to angsty. Recently though, I've been trying to read the books that "everyone" has read and talks about so that I might be able to converse about them intelligently. (In the last couple of years, I've read The Corrections, The Time Traveler's Wife and The DaVinci Code for this same reason). The Lovely Bones is the most recent in this string of novels.

For people living under a rock, The Lovely Bones is Alice Sebold's first novel. It is about a young girls named Susie Salmon who is brutally raped and murdered. She goes to heaven and watches over her family and friends as they attempt to cope with her death and move on with their lives. Through her eyes, we see how her death changes her friends, family and even total strangers. In heaven, Susie herself also gets a chance to grow and change as she learns to cope with her own death.

The Lovely Bones could easily get maudlin and depressing. It could easily have become the literary equivalent to a Lifetime Television Movie about "dealing with death". However, Sebold is very careful to avoid those kind of cliches and instead presents a fresh and interesting look at this subject. While this book is cerainly not an "upper", there is a definite element of hope and the reader feels less badly for Susie and more so for her family members who are forced to go out without her. In a way, Sebold makes death - even violent death - feel almost mundane for those that are dying and presents it as part of the normal cycle of life. There are lots of great characters in this book, from Susie's alcoholic grandmother to her childhood acquaintance Ruth who grows up believes that she can see ghosts and spirits. The writing is evocative and detailed without being tedious. This book was never dull and I finished it under two days. I highly recommend it - turns out all those who recommended it to me were entirely correct.
Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost
nonfiction/travel, (c) 2006, 256pp
rating: ***

A couple of years ago, I read (and loved) The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost about his time living on Kiribati, an atoll in the South Pacific. I found it extremely funny and engaging and was looking forward to reading this new book.

Getting Stoned With Savages finds Troost back in the South Pacific, first on the islands of Vanuatu, and then on the islands of Fiji. Troost describes life in Porto Vila, the main city on the main island of Vanuatu. He spends an inordinate time talking about the joys of kava, a hallucinogenic drug that is taken regularly by the men and women of the South Pacific. He goes in search of real live cannibals and gives us a little bit of history about the islands. The end of the book talks about having a baby in the South Pacific and the joys and struggles with that.

Overall, this book lacked the magic of the first one. Troost himself seems to understand that, and explains it in the last chapter. An atoll is the great equalizer - while he and his wife were looked at strangely in Kiribati, eventually they were accepted by the locals and were subject to the same whims of nature and the supply chain as everyone else. In Vanuatu and Fiji, Troost lived the life of an expatriate. I got the sense that he really had to go looking to find things worth writing about. His life in Vanuatu was not unlike the time I've spent in places like Nairobi. Sure, there are the trials and tribulations of a third world country (and yes, I am glad my data collection in Kenya ended prior to the civil unrest there), but there are also bars and malls that cater specifically to expats.

So, while this book wasn't bad, it's not as good as the first one.

4 books so far this year

Book #4
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
nonfiction; 1988/1998; 197 pp.
date finished: 1/21/08

Did you know that Stephen Hawking hasn't updated his speaking-computer in 20 years because he identifies with that voice? True story. Other than that, universe = yay. It was also quite interesting to read a popular science book where the author isn't afraid to talk about his belief in a higher power AND relate it to science. I tend to believe everyone should lean atheist in common conversation, but I found this very different and thought-provoking. Plus, Stephen Hawking is funny and witty and has an amazingly easy-to-understand way of explaning really complicated stuff.

Grade: A

Book #3
I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight by Margaret Cho
nonfiction; 2005; 237 pp.
date finished: 1/20/08

I read a lot of these essays when she originally wrote them on her blog. I loved them on the blog, but I feel like they're not valuable enough to have been made into a book. Margaret, I love you to DEATH, but you're preaching to the choir.

Grade: B-

Book #2
A Month of Sundays: Searching for the Spirit & My Sister by Julie Mars
nonfiction; 2005; 208 pp.
date finished: 1/14/08

This memoir covers a woman's spiritual quest after caring for her dying sister. The sister, as she's dying, rediscovers her long-lost Catholocism out of a fear that she'll be going to hell. The surviving sister and author, Julie Mars, is tortured by her sister's fears as she's anti-religion herself. But after her sister dies, Julie decides to attend a difference house of worship every week for 31 weeks: a month of Sundays. Each week, she learns something new about herself, her sister, her grief or her own beliefs. I got very engrossed by this toward the end and was very moved by it.

Grade: A-

Book #1
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
nonfiction; 1998; 368 pp.
date finished: 1/7/08

Am I the last person to ever read this book? (Well, not really, because Jason's reading it now?) But I loved this and couldn't put it down. I kept flipping back to the memorial page in the front of the book every time a new character was introduced to see if they'd make it or not. I feel like Jon Krakuer must have faced a lot of awful feelings just for having survived, but there was a lot to think about. I actually found myself wishing this were longer.

Grade: B+

x-posted to my own journal

3 Novels by Andre Norton

I would normally not review three books in one post, but they are all by the same author and while they are unrelated, they all have a similar plot line. I've been reading Freedom at Midnight which is an excellent (though quite heavy) book about India's independence from the British Empire and have been alternating bits of that with escapist fluff. It's been a pretty good balance.

The Gate of the Cat by Andre Norton
fiction/fantasy, (c)1988, 212pp
rating: ***

The majority of fantasy novels have a quest as the basic plot, and this book is no different. The Gate of the Cat is a single novel that takes place in Norton's "Witch World". This book follows Kelsie, an American woman living in Scotland who blunders through a gate in the Scottish highlands while protecting a wild cat. Once in Witch World, she becomes an integral part in the fight between light and dark. She embarks on a quest with a person of the opposite sex (another convention in fantasy books which Norton is fond of).

I thought this book was alright. I think my enjoyment might have been more if I had read the other Witch World novels. The writing is not fantastic, but absorbing enough. A lot of the themes are quite derivative, even for a fantasy novel. Some of the sentences are constructed in such a way as I had to read them multiple times. She is clearly a fan of this kind of word smithing as I found the same thing in all three novels. I like the fact that her female characters are always very strong, self-sufficient and there is no hint of rape (I hate the way that rape is often a main component in fantasy novels).

Mirror of Destiny by Andre Norton
fiction/fantasy, (c)1996, 400pp
rating: ****

Another quest with a man and a woman, this time with a hint of romance! This one follows Twilla, an apprentice healer who is stolen from her home and taken to a land over the mountains where she is to be raffled off into marriage. In this land, men who are unmarried often wander off into a forest never to be seen again. When Twilla arrives in this land, she is befriended by the song of the King who has been blinded after a visit to the forest. Together, they strike off into the forest to discover its secrets.

I liked this one better than Gate of the Cat because there was no context I was missing, and the story was more original. Certainly there were elements of the usual fantasy crap, but there were some new things that I hadn't seen before. Again, the writing was okay - absorbing, but not outstanding.

Hands of Lyr by Andre Norton
fiction/fantasy, (c)1995, 385pp
rating: ****

And a third quest with a man and a woman, also with a hint of romance! Nosh is the last preistess of Lyr and she is charged with reuniting a powerful idol. Kryn, a displaced heir, is her unwilling companion as they wander over the landscape, just barely escaping danger at every turn. Of the three books, this one was the best. The plot was the most original, though some of the side branches of the plot weren't well developed. Stand alone books are somewhat rare in the fantasy genre, and I think it's because writers find it hard to contain an entire story about an entire world in a single book. Norton might have been better off making this a duology and better fleshing out the characters and the struggle.

Birth of a Nation

by Aaron Mcgruder (Author), Reginald Hudlin (Author), Kyle Baker (Illustrator)
Fiction/Graphic Novel

As explained in the foreword, the idea for this story originally started as a screenplay. About five minutes later, the authors all shared raucous laughter at the concept of Hollywood actually producing such radical material. Hudlin, who grew up in East St. Louis, worked with Mcgruder (otherwise known from the Boondocks comic strip) and Baker to create this instead.

The plot stems from truth-based voter disenfranchisement in the 2000 election (placing Florida in Illinois), when citizens were refused at the ballot box for being on a list of convicted felons. That the list was generated by the voting machine corporation which also made major campaign contributions to victorious Republicans was one thing - that many of the refused were black, and most had never even jaywalked, was entirely another.

So in the novel, citizens who couldn't even get their garbage picked up or have a baby at their local hospital give up on America. Literally, led by straight-arrow ("clean and articulate" comes to mind) Fred Fredericks, they secede.

The resulting independent nation of Blackland is all things at once: cheap shots about who's going to be on their currency, the typical yet very serious evolution of local gangs into the military, the very original plan for financial and energy independence - it's here, along with a lot of foul language, some movie-tastic action and sex, and a surprising conclusion. This would be a great film! I felt at times that the drawings were almost a storyboard, and that there could be so much more between the witty dialogue and the sudden cuts.

Maybe, one day. I have a dream.

amazon link

In Search of King Solomon's Mines

By Tahir Shah
Non-fiction (I suspect a tad embellished)
Travel writing

Disclaimer: sophiawestern recommended this to me. We'll try to keep from turning into a closed shop around here.

I like travel writing. I love Bill Bryson (feel free to disagree - it's a personal-shared-experience thing). So "comic" plus "travel tales" should be a good match.

At first I felt like Shah was trying too hard, setting a lot of the journey up from a place of essentially no real goal - he's travelling around Ethiopia, not saving the planet, here - mostly because I've suffered this year from a subscription to Outside magazine, the most self-indulgent "I'll raft to Antartica while having sex and learning penguin calls if you'll only just payyy meee!" source of travel journalism. They paid Jon Krakauer, otherwise a good writer, for the first article about Into the Wild naïf Chris McCandless, if that's any indication...well, anyway, let's just say I'm kind of tired of Dudes With Lots of Money Just Doing It for the Butt-Pat.

Shah isn't that careless traveler, he's not there to ransack culture. He soon settles into what is really the core of the book, a relationship with a hapless taxi driver, translator, and extremely Christian (he carries a Bible around for the entirety of these journeys that, from the pictures, must weigh ca. 15 lbs.) Ethiopian guide named Samson. The book jacket touts these interactions, plus one with another necessary Land Rover driver as madly humorous, hilarious hijinks.

I didn't find it at all that way. While he's obviously a privileged outsider, and behaves so at points, Shah makes an effort to understand and really explore on both the geographical and human levels. He also describes everything wonderfully, quickly wiping those famine-and-uncivilized stereotypes from the picture. There's a reason for each action. For the plot synopsis just go here. Otherwise I recommend a read of the book!

Miss Remarkable and Her Career

This is a graphic novel, or fancy comic book, by Swedish artist Joanna Rubin Dranger. I literally just finished it (I mean, it took like 15 minutes, how accomplished am I?!**), and it was AMAZING.

I couldn't help smiling through most of the pages. The main character fluctuates between the call of internal and external professional ambitions and a range of corresponding influences and uncertainties with side notes, exhaustive details, and hilarious expressiveness. This is definitely not your average woman, or is it? Either way you're not going to think it's a boring or clichéd journey.

I give it five stars *****. If you can find a copy and enjoy it quickly at your local store (mine's from the library), or just buy it and leave it around for your friends, you should.

**mini-joke so read the book to get it already :)