Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Teaser Tuesdays!

 

I'm jumping on another blogging bandwagon hosted by Should be Reading, which looks promising. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
--Grab your current read
--Open to a random page
--share two “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
Be sure NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (Make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
--Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser from Willa Cather's My Antonia:

"I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence -- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper" (94).

My earlier ambivalence towards the novel has slightly subsided but I am still waiting for Cather to deliver something in the narrative that is profoundly meaningful or memorable. It pains me to say this, but considering the 'American classic" status of My Antonia, I'm not particularly convinced as of yet since the story is relatively dull. I still have about 150 pages left so hopefully  Cather can redeem herself as the narrative progresses. 



Monday, 30 May 2011

It's Monday! What are you Reading?


I'm conforming to social protocol amongst the reader's blogging community hosted by Sheila at Book Journey so let's see how this goes. I managed to read three books last week, which is pretty darn impressive considering my inherent laziness: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem,  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find (and other stories). Solaris was a little disappointing and I am now curious to watch both film versions by Tarkovsky and Soderbergh to see how each director interpreted the novel since in my mind, much of the narrative seems impossible to film effectively. Thankfully, Burgess' novel redeemed an otherwise rocky start to the reading week and is now quite possibly the best novel that I have read all year. O'Connors work was enjoyable for the most part despite being slightly underwhelming as a whole. I recently started with Willa Cather's My Antonia, which continues my foray into early American literature focusing on rural communities such as the deep south in O'Connor's stories and now the prairie state of Nebraska with Cather's novel. My initial impression so far is lukewarm at best and I am hoping that the novel picks up with some interesting story developments. Even though Cather is able to paint a vivid picturesque portrait of the prairies, endless poetic descriptions of the physical environment tends to get tiresome after a while.

I'd also like to take the opportunity to indulge in a little self-flagellation and congratulate myself for reading 32 novels so far this year with 27 of them read since the beginning of April. Woot! Woot! Not bad for someone who never took an avid interest in literature until now. My goal is to read 75 books this year and I am looking for recommendations from you kind folks for my Literature Frenzy Challenge so feel free to suggest me some good stuff to read in the comment section. Just for fun, here is my top 5 books read in 2011 so far:
  1. The End of the Affair
  2. A Clockwork Orange
  3. A Scanner Darkly
  4. The Stars My Destination
  5. Of Mice and Men
That's all for now, toodles!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

"The Books I Should Have Read by Now" Challenge!

I've decided to participate in my first reading blogger challenge hosted by Gabriel at Gabriel Reads starting on June, 1. As a bibliophile, my shelves are overflowing with books and turning my room into a hazardous obstacle course. Well, this is just the incentive I need to actually get around to reading the books I own instead of going out and buying more. Furthermore, I will be able to determine whether or not these books are worthy of shelf-status or should be donated. Here is a tentative list:
  1. Fool by Christopher Moore 
  2. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove by Christopher Moore 
  3. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
  4. Satanic Verses by Salman Rusdie 
  5. How to be Good by Nick Hornby 
  6. Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
  9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  10. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne
  11. I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb
  12. Little Green Men by Christopher Buckley
  13. All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland 
  14. Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay
  15. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  16. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  17. The Frog King by Adam Davies
  18. Middlesex by Jefferey Eugenides
  19. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  20. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  21. Choke by Chuck Palahniuk
  22. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  23. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  24. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  25. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres 

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O'Connor


"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." 

It is difficult to see clearly from the semi-distorted cover but there is a man wearing a farmer's hat, his hands raised up to the sky in an odd gesture and the sun shining down as he stands by a river in a rural countryside. His physical features are obscured but his shadow takes the shape of a devil and the valise laying the ground by his feet also gives off an ominous shadow. This illustrated cover design by Lauren Elder from the Women's Press edition effectively reflects the essence of many of the stories contained within the collection by Flannery O'Connor which all take place in the rural south of the United States where the precarious nature of good and evil are in contention. There is is equal opportunity to obtain righteousness or fall into perpetual sin. As a result, many of these stories are religious parables or attempt to explore various underlying Christian doctrines. Many of the characters atempt to obtain grace or redemption in predominantly conservative southern states undergoing profound social, political and economic transformations. Thus, it is easier to fall into sin as they struggle to adjust to a radical new way of life as the older southern values begin to disintegrate.

As with many short-story collections that I have come across, not all of the stories are consistent in quality; some ranging from decent to excellent with a few underwhelming ones in between such as "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and "The Artificial Nigger" but I would not classify any of the stories as atrocious in any particular fashion. There is usually at least some element of each story that is engaging or admirable. The best stories include "A Good Man is Hard to Find", "Good Country People" , "The Displaced Person" and "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" which all display O'connor in top literary form: her hauntingly poetic and ironic writing style where she is able to create a compelling sense of time and place in the deep south; the concern with the macabre, the disillusionment of religion, false facades, racial bigotry, xenophobia and feminism. 

Some readers may find the blatant racism offensive especially towards African-Americans but one must place O'connor's writing within its historical context. For instance, in "The Displaced Person", the female plantation owner hires black labour and is prone to making racist comments about them: "The Judge had said always hire you a half-witted nigger because they don't have sense enough to stop working" (230). There are plenty of other racist remarks made throughout these stories where the N-bomb is casually dropped such as the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find  who says, "Little niggers in the country don't have things like we do" (12). I don't know if Flannery O'Connor was a white supremacist but she was a southern belle writing at a particular time in American history where blacks lacked basic civil rights and were commonly referred to as niggers. There is no denying that O'Connor has made a valuable contribution to American literature with many of these stories worthy of praise for their literary craft and authentically rare southern perspective but other than the title story, I would be hard-pressed to read any of them again unless for an American literature course.



Read from May 10 to 27, 2011

Friday, 27 May 2011

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess


"What's it going to be then, eh?" 

O, my brothers, I  viddy that A Clockwork Orange is a real horror-show! Having seen the wonderful Kubrick film adaptation a few years ago and finally getting around to reading the actual novel now, I have to give the upper-edge to the latter. Despite the controversial history of both works, the novel still managed to exceed my expectations in every conceivable way and is easily one of the best pieces of literature that I have ever read. Burgess is a master of linguistics and many languages; plenty of scholarly attention devoted to his unique style of writing and for good reason. The implementation of a "nadsat" language used by the protagonist and first-person narrator Alex is fascinating in its vernacular; allowing Burgess to creatively play around with diction and syntax. Perhaps a little confusing at first but it is easy enough to pick up as the novel progresses.

Free will and morality are the key themes and even though Burgess is didactic in his approach, the social, political and religious ideologies remain powerful in their convictions. Despite blurring the lines between a futuristic dystopia and contemporary society (although Kubrick's version leans more towards the former), I would be hard-pressed to label the novel strictly as science fiction. An aesthetic tour-de-force that is at times both disturbing and funny, Burgess effectively uses irony in a humorous way but also as a narrative strategy to express the inherent contradictions of Alex's actions and the novel's thematic concerns. Burgess poses an important question that the novel will attempt to explore: "Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?" By the end, the answer is made vividly clear as Burgess stresses the importance of free will and provides a cautionary tale of the dire consequences when a totalitarian state is capable of taking it away.

The most surprising aspect of the novel is that there resides an emotionally resonant coming-of-age story at the core of the story, further reflecting Burgess' uncanny writing abilities to generate empathy towards such a vile protagonist. Alex is malicious as much as he is witty and alluring. His transformation from a violent rebellious youth  to a guinea pig of government experimentation to cure him of his wicked ways is terrifying in its potential implications. On the one hand, the crime rate will drop exponentially as prisoners under special rehabilitation treatment but when they are released they will cease to be human; nothing more than a mechanical drone without a shred of free will: A clockwork orange. Entertaining as much as it is thought-provoking, this novel has lost none of its power or social relevance.



Read from May 24 to 26, 2011

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem


"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is."

There are moments of scattered brilliance and profound philosophical insight on the nature of mankind (the above quote being a prime example) found in Lem's Solaris, but the large implementation of dense scientific discourse is considerably tedious; undermining the fluidity of the story where many sections are a slog to read through. Lem's style of prose is more befitting of a scientific dissertation full of theories, hypotheses, experiments and analysis rather than an exciting piece of science fiction, since the actual narrative leaves much to be desired. 

I accept Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as consisting of “cognitive estrangement” based around a “novum” (in this case, the planet Solaris) that focuses on the exploration of ideas based within cognitive logic and thus, the novel definitely falls into this genre category. The problem is that the objective scientific perspective greatly overshadows the story substance. Similar to many alien-contact narratives, the novel focuses on the “other” as a reflection of what it means to be human and the flawed human perception to understand an incomprehensible entity: "Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilization without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed" (157).  Kris Kelvin is a psychologist and arrives on the planet of Solaris to continue research on the enigmatic massive ocean that makes up its entire surface and seems to produce a hallucinatory effect on the scientists living at the research station: a phenomena later referred to as “phi-creatures” – apparitions that emulate human physiology and are linked to repressed memories. Dreams, nightmares and the precarious nature of reality are brought to the forefront as Kelvin learns to accept and confront the demons of his past embodied in the sudden appearance of a dead female lover named Rheya. His crumbling psyche and relationship with Rheya is the most intriguing aspect of the novel for me as he deals with the guilt over her death, seeking atonement for his past sins. Unfortunately, Lem’s insistence to provide a history of the ocean’s discovery and extensive analysis regarding its biological structure with plenty of technical terminology concerning “mimoids”, “symmetriads”, “extensors”, “assymmetriads” along with an assortment of other bio-mathematical explanations ends up detracting from the narrative as well as the development of empathetic characters; they end up being portrayed as uninteresting caricatures, mere vessels for Lem to wax his scientific and philosophical ideas. 

Lem is clearly an erudite and sophisticated writer and the postulation of God as  anthropomorphic and “imperfect” is an intriguing hypothesis. The discovery of an omniscient being in the form of a planetary ocean that is a living organism, possessing a conscience will and remains indifferent to human contact is a fascinating concept; an accurate analogy concerning the existence of a possible God who is beyond human comprehension. Solaris is worth reading for its ideas but I just wish more emphasis was placed on the actual narrative.


Read from May 22 to 24, 2011

Monday, 23 May 2011

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller


"Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop. Can't you understand that? There's no spite in it any more. I'm just what I am, that's all."

Sorry, but this write-up will be less of a literary review and more of a rambling personal reflection. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the author completely eschews with subtlety and is adamant to emphasize the failure of the American Dream. Nonetheless, the didacticism of the narrative does not mitigate Miller’s social, political and economic ideologies or the play’s core emotional resonance for that matter. The evil of capitalism and the blind pursuit of financial success as a meaningless endeavor capable of destroying lives are made abundantly clear.

Having read the play at this particular stage in my life was a real wake-up call. The play managed to reflect my own anxieties and failures in life regarding my current deplorable financial situation and bleak future. Sure, I have made many mistakes in the past but it is embarrassing and downright pathetic that at the age of 25 I am still working for minimum wage. This job has chipped away at my soul for seven years and left me empty without any hope to continue living. Similar to Willy Loman, I was deceived into thinking that working hard would allow the opportunity to move up in this business where I could establish a name for myself and earn respect from my employers. Wrong. They could not care less about me regardless of the dedication and the large amount of years put in working my tail off for them. I’m just another name on the peon payroll, a ghost that allows the cog in the machine to continue functioning. The familiar idiom of "keeping up with the Joneses" has never been an issue although recently I have become more self-conscious of my predicament. Most people I know around my age are well on their way to building a prosperous future for themselves, which largely stems from having an actual career that pays salary. They drive their own car and have a place of their own instead of living in their parent's basement. They have the luxury of purchasing whatever their heart desires. They can take vacations and travel the world. Many of them are even getting married or involved in a serious relationship. I understand that a large portion of my misery is a result of failing to graduate from college and similar to Biff, I’ve become a disappointment to my parents for not amounting to anything other than an incompetent deadbeat. Every work shift is struggle to refrain myself from committing suicide and that is usually a sign that it is time to find a new profession. I'd love to finally quit and tell my boss to go to hell but I’m stuck in a catch-22 situation. Without the proper education credentials, I am doomed to work other monotonous, perfunctory and degrading jobs that will not be any different. 


I am faced with two options: I could take the Willy Loman route and commit suicide for being a failure in life by making the mistake of conforming to the hypocrisies of the capitalist system. Or, I could be like Biff and find the strength to reject capitalism; try to do something positive with my life and find happiness despite the lack of a steady income. The latter sounds mighty appealing but I'm not sure if the wandering bohemian lifestyle is for me. Maybe it is about time I grew up and actually applied myself instead of being scared to move forward. Quitting my shitty job and finding a way to finish college would probably be a positive step in the right direction but then again, would such actions not be paradoxical, eventually leading me to become another working drone of the system? Ugh, I don't even know what the hell I am talking about anymore.


Read from May 20 to 22, 2011 

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler


 "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts."

As far as detective fiction goes, the influence of Raymond Chandler on the genre is unprecedented. Philip Marlowe remains the iconic and quintessential hard-boiled detective who was first introduced to the world in The Big Sleep (1939) and the rest is history. I have yet to view the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart in the title role (get off my back, I plan on rectifying this misdemeanor soon!) but this is perfect casting in my mind. Who else could play the suave, jaded, rebellious, clever, wise-cracking tough-guy better than Bogey? No one.

Although the actual mystery in the novel is not particularly exciting and ultimately rendered inconsequential by the end, one must consider that Chandler is laying the groundwork for the genre conventions of 1930s American detective fiction: the cynical detective investigating the seedy underbelly of the rich upper class in Los Angeles involving dying millionaires, blackmail, murder, espionage, gambling, kidnapping, pornography rackets, political corruption and of course, sexy femme-fatales. I can only imagine that the subject material must have been innovative and controversial at the time. For me, Chandler's rip-roaring hard-edged style of 1930's vernacular and the always compelling Marlowe remain the most memorable elements. I found the story more enjoyable by detaching myself from the 21st century and trying to view the novel within the historical context of the novel since Chandler's irreverent crass writing and penchant for misogyny is inadvertently hilarious. Here are a few examples:

"I don't mind your showing me your legs. They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don't mind if you don't like my manners. They're pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights" (19). 

"She had the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess" (28).

"The giggles stopped dead, but she didn't mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boy friends got around to slapping her sooner or later. I could understand how they might" (66).

"Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night" (154).

Entertaining for the most part and worth reading for its literary genre influence but not a novel that left any sort of indelible impression on me. People who are bigger fans of mystery, detective fiction and film-noir are bound to get more out of it than I did.


Read from May 18 to 20, 2011


Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick


"God Promises Eternal Life. We Can Deliver It."

Come on now, isn't that cover freakin' awesome? I have made it my personal mission to own all of these spectacular vintage editions of my favorite Philip K. Dick's novels since my current bookshelf feels naked without them, but I digress. Let's get down to brass tacks here -- to label this novel as bizarre or otherworldly would be an understatement. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is science fiction in gonzo and psychedelic overdrive but without the unpleasant after-effects. Yes, you’re head might still be spinning after reading this novel but after the intense bafflement subsides, a profound sensation of awe and fascination should arise. The novel is far from perfect and is often messy in narrative structure without a completely satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, it contains such an onslaught of mesmerizing ideas along with an elaborate philosophical and religious discourse that is difficult to fully absorb upon a first reading. I am confident that my admiration for this novel will only improve with subsequent and closer readings. If the science fiction is a genre basted on estrangement that offers an exploration of ideas based within cognitive logic, then Philip K. Dick adheres to this concept but does so in such an aggressively energetic way that it seems he cannot write fast enough to express everything he intends to get across in the novel. Infusing a dazzling and intense literary style elevates his work into the stratosphere of great literature.

After reading several of his novels, it is clear that he focuses on similar themes but he takes a different approach each time around; the major ones being the precarious nature of reality, capitalism, drugs and religion. The difference between Three Stigmata and the other of his works that I have read is that this one focuses more overtly and intensely on religion; that is, spirituality, ontology, gnosticism and the existence of God -- all with an intrinsic connection to the perception of reality which, is of course highly influenced by drugs and the competing corporations supplying the addictive hallucinogens. The connection between a drug induced hallucination and a spiritual awakening is an intriguing observation that PKD makes: “We lose our fleshly bodies, our corporeality, as they say. And put on imperishable bodies instead, for a time anyhow: Or forever, if you believe as some do that it’s outside time and space that it’s eternal” (41). This euphoric sensation is transitory since the drug eventually wears off but the novel then introduces its clever premise: What if a drug existed where the individual was able to permanently retain this feeling of religious re-birth, exhilaration, freedom and purpose by living within a new reality of their mind? Of course, the effects of such a drug brings into the whole question of reality and what exactly constitutes absolute truth. The bottom line is, human perception is inadequate; there being a fine line between so-called “reality” and illusion. Dick creatively explores this conundrum wrapped around a mind-boggling story that does not always make sense but part of the fun is attempting to figure out just what exactly is going on in the novel. In fact, new readers would benefit greatly for not possessing any further knowledge of the plot since it contains plenty of surprising twists and revelations. Whether or not Dick was consciously aware of creating narrative ambiguity and uncertainty to reinforce his thematic concerns is difficult to say with any assurance. Nonetheless, the erratic style and convoluted plot structure does fit within the context of the novel. I would be hard-pressed  to recommend Three Stigmata to newcomers of Philip K. Dick and it is bound to be more enjoyable and appreciated if one is already familiar with some of his other works.  


Read from May 15 to 17, 2011

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty

 
It's such a wonderfully rare feeling to pick up a book and from the very first page you are instantly hooked. William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration is one of these books for me where I just could not put it down and ended up finishing in one sitting. I've always been a fan of brevity, and Blatty accomplishes so much within only 130 pages: a well-written and devastating story with such vividly memorable characters, focusing on mental illness wrapped around religious parable and anti-war sentiments with perhaps even a touch of allegory sprinkled in for good measure.

Blatty prose is subtle, distilled and simple in its structure, which to a certain degree, reminded me Hemingway's style of writing. His characters are not used as didactic mouth pieces. He skillfully sets up philosophical debates that battle each other out within the context of the story amonst the different characters; namely, between Cutshaw and Colonel Kane. Blatty has a natural ear for dialogue and much of the novel consists of sharp dialogue between the characters but it never comes across as contrived or ostentatious; that is, it does aid in driving the story forward but contains its own unique rhythms and intricacies to flesh out the characters that never feels forced. While the novel does deal explicitly at times about the existence of God and can be very serious at times, there is also a lot of humor to be found especially in the witty dialogue. I particularly enjoyed the allusions to Hamlet's madness as a way to potentially explain the roots of mental illness: "Cause acting nutty is a safety valve, a way to let off steam; a way to get rid of your fucking aggressions and all of your guilts and your fears...(75). I couldn't agree more with this statement. A great and absorbing read that I am bound to revisit in the future. Thanks for the recommendation, D. 


Read on May 13, 2011 

To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon



Dammit Sturgeon, why do you have to wrack my brain and render me ineffable with your relentless command of language, compassion for humanity and perplexing stories? A novel pulsating with subtle complexities and introspective ideas, it demands to be read multiple times in order to fully absorb its true essence with clarity (I'm still not sure what to make of it as a whole). To Marry Medusa completely subverts the alien-invasion story conventions and is not your typical science fiction: it presents a perplexing and unique vision of humanity written with literary flair preceding the new-wave; offering a challenging and often disturbing speculative possibility of mankind's potential to achieve transcendence.


Read from May 10 to 13, 2011

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

 
"A guy needs somebody - to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an' he gets sick."

"Maybe everybody in the whole damn world's scared of each other."

Steinbeck is quickly becoming one my favorite authors and a large part of that has to do with his very intimate, honest and simple, yet thematically rich stories filled with such memorable characters. There is a reason George and Lennie are iconic American literary figures. By "simple" I do not mean to say his writing is prosaic. Steinbeck does not strive for pretentious stylistic flourishes a la Faulkner but rather employs economic prose with a keen insight into the human condition that is accessible in its brevity without sacrificing articulation or pathos. It's embarrassing to admit that I never actually read Of Mice and Men until now. For some reason, it was not a part of my high-school curriculum and nor did I ever possess any desire to seek it out at any particular time. Oh, what a poor fool I am for having neglected reading this masterpiece for so long! I realize that this novel has been studied and analyzed to death so I'll be brief: An eloquently sincere story of friendship, the burdens of the lower rural working class, the fallibility of the American Dream full of sadness, loneliness and despair but containing such rich humility that is deeply moving beyond almost everything I have ever read -- and that ending...wow. Heartbreaking.


Read on May 10, 2011 

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck


"It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second." 

Authors tend to be chroniclers of their time but only the great literary works are able to reach out to a wide audience for each subsequent generation without losing any of its core authenticity despite the so-called "dated" subject matter. John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is one such novel and despite the setting being 1930's Americana, the themes of universal human experience still remain emotionally powerful. There is something about stories that revolve around flawed ordinary people who are just trying to find happiness and survive in this cruel world, that deeply resonates with me. Consisting of vignettes surrounding a bunch of different characters of the lower and middle-class with various racial backgrounds all living in a small coastal town, there is no complex overarching plot but rather a simple and authentic portrayal of American life where the mundane ultimately transcends into the magical. It is rare to come across a novel that is not bogged down by plot contrivances but rather focuses on intimate observations and establishing verisimilitude to creating a tangible sense of place that feels like home. 

The way Steinback is able to create a vivid setting and memorable characters with such poignancy and poetic beauty is a joy to behold. This novel reminds me of films by Mike Leigh who often utilizes a similar aesthetic of constructing stories where the plot comes second to the characters of lower/middle class Londoners as they experience everyday life and their relationships with others. Whether these people are burdened by the past or their current lives are full of despair or loneliness, they attempt to achieve atonement or some semblance of happiness but there is not always a happy ending where all the problems are resolved. The vicissitudes of life rarely ever unfold like a carefully constructed arch-plot story. Instead, Cannery Row establishes an ardent sense of immediacy. Life goes on. 



Read from May 06 to 07, 2011

Ubik by Philip K. Dick


Ubik is one of those rare astonishing science fiction novels filled to the brim with such perplexing and fascinating ideas but is actually supported by the author's literary flair and authoritative story telling abilities. How the hell does this guy continually come up with such mind-altering and visionary stories? My guess is drugs, lots and lots of drugs. Or maybe he's a genius. Nonetheless, anyone who happens to be ambivalent towards the genre should certainly check out Ubik which is bound to eradicate any preconceived notions that science fiction is nothing more than poorly written space operas lacking any substance. I would also suggest that this would be a far more enjoyable first read without having any prior notions of the premise; there are far too many surprising twists and turns. Besides, this is Philip K. Dick we are talking about here: a literary madman capable of writing some of the most bizarre, fascinating, entertaining and thought-provoking stories.

The novel can be approached simply as a wickedly entertaining and darkly humorous pre-cyberpunk extravaganza but of course, there is much more going on below the surface: a religious parable, a philosophical an epistemological exploration of human nature and consciousness along with the elusive nature of reality. After finishing this novel, I kept thinking to myself: Why do we read and what is the point of reading fiction? It seems like a frivolous and transitory exercise most of the time; you pick up a book and maybe it lingers with you for a while after you finish it but then it is usually forgotten. You invest precious time and energy into a literary work to what purpose? Perhaps the acquisition of knowledge, to gain insight, to reflect on one's humanity or maybe just to be entertained. But then again, what does it mean to be entertained by fiction? I don't have the answers but personally, reading great fiction such as Ubik is capable of leaving and indelible impression by offering a unique perspective of life that makes me question the very essence of my being; a type of cathartic experience that confirms and/or radically undermines the very fabric of my existence. Literature rarely has that effect on me but this is one powerful novel that rocked my world. 


Read from April 27 to 28, 2011

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick


What would it be like to wake up one day and simply not exist in the world? No doubt, disorienting and scary. You might as well be dead since there are no records of your identity in the government database and everyone that you previously knew in your life has no recollection of ever knowing you. Does the premise sound familiar? It should if you are are familiar with Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" in which this novel builds upon a similar premise but imagine if George Bailey was fond of acid and went through a bad trip. Our hapless protagonist Jason Taverner is a famous TV celebrity who finds himself in this incomprehensible predicament. One minute he is a world-wide phenomenon and the next he is an absolute nobody. Instead of the warm and benevolent Bedford Falls, there is an oppressive dystopian American society recovering from the second Civil War and increased security has been implemented by the pols (police authorities) and nats (National security) to maintain order where proper identification is constantly monitored by various checkpoints. Students of universities have been deemed a threat for their free-thinking rebellious ways and thus, confined to forced labor camps. Jason is now a criminal in the eye of the state for being an illegal alien and must now seek to recover his former identity and figure out just what the hell is going on.

I just know that there is a great novel buried somewhere in this convoluted and baffling work by the always fascinating science fiction master Philip K. Dick but it will require on my part, a much closer-reading. Where Flow my Tears lacks in structural coherence, the novel makes up ten fold in its captivating ideas based on cognitive logic along with social political and philosophical musings of the highest caliber.  For instance, "Grief is awareness that you will have to be alone, and there is nothing beyond that because being alone is the ultimate final destiny of each individual living creature. That's what death is, the great loneliness" (111). Beautiful and insightful prose such as this passage just serves to increase my admiration for Philip K. Dick as a writer but on further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that these particular lines serve a greater purpose within the context of the novel. Death as a metaphor and aspects of loneliness certainly does serve as a pervasive theme; characters who are somnambulists in a tyrannical society struggling for genuine human connections or plagued with the superficiality of celebrity life.

Unfortunately, this novel is severely uneven in its story structure unlike Ubik and Scanner Darkly which flow much more consistently. Dick is also prone to implementing absurd digressions and introducing undeveloped subplots especially considering the dramatic change in focalization during the latter half of the novel. Still, this is certainly worth a read for PKD fans but newcomers should probably avoid this one until they are more familiar with his style.


Read from May 01 to 02, 2011 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark


"Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing."

Clever. That is the one word that I would use to best describe the writing of Muriel Spark. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wickedly clever little novel that took me by a complete surprise and marks my first exposure to Muriel Spark, an author who up until now, remained unknown to me. I never would have thought a story revolving around a female Scottish teacher and her students during the 1930's would interest me at all but Spark really captured my attention with her irreverent style and dark humor. She is unconventional when it comes to narrative form, undermining the reader's expectation at every turn. For instance, the big revelation, which would usually occur at the climax of a novel, is presented here to the reader at the very beginning. Next, she weaves together the past, present and future simultaneously; presenting an intricate narrative that walks a fine line between satire and seriousness. The way she plays around with time, memory and perspective is ingenious, providing the narrative with a rich complexity. However, she isn't a experimental prose stylist in the modernist sense; on the contrary, her writing is crisp, direct and razor sharp. Muriel Spark reminds me of a female version of Evelyn Waugh without the haughtiness, racism or blatant misogyny.

Spark's witty and economical prose is a pure joy to read. She has a great ear for dialogue and her writing is entertaining as much as it intellectually stimulating. She uses irony with such deft precision, evoking a caustic sense of humor that is funny as much as it is unexpectedly poignant. A strong social commentary also lingers in the background but the feminist and anti-establishment leanings are not heavy handed; rather, the social, political and religious commentary is subtly layered which makes story more powerful and emotionally resonant. Miss Jean Brodie is a fascinating and vivid character that is not easy to forget. She is both mesmerizing and terrifying to behold. The novel was even adapted into a film starring a young Maggie Smith that I really need to watch soon.



Read on April 24, 2011

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

I think my expectations were set a little too high. Considering The Great Gatsby's  iconic status as the quintessential 'American Novel' I expected something a little more, oh, I don't know...profound? Dazzling? Life changing? Instead, it left me feeling rather ambivalent. Everyone seems to be in unanimous agreement that Fitzgerald has written one of, if not, the greatest novel of the 20th century but on a personal level, it never fully registered with me. He certainly possesses a highly polished writing style that oozes sophistication and I can sort of understand why this novel has endured such notoriety for so long since it is full of rich complexity concerning class, gender and heavy on symbolism that critics seem to love for its exegesis.

The novel seems to be highly critical of the American class system and the fallacy of the "American dream" but is Fitzgerald condemning the upper class or does he feel shunned by it because he wishes to be a member of the elite? I don't know. His depiction of American society during the turbulent 1920's is vibrant with a cast of colorful characters, especially the mysterious Gatsby who represents the emergence of this new class--the self-made man, the who now stands in opposition to the aristocracy of inherited wealth. I am still uncertain as to what Fitzgerald truly intended to accomplish here and it will require several more readings to fully understand the core of this novel.



Read from April 24 to 25, 2011

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway

 
“I’m not brave any more darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.”

Perhaps upon further reflection my rating will go up but as it stands right now, this novel was utterly disappointing in every conceivable way. Hemingway's sluggish narrative often put me to sleep. Nor did the flat characters and dull story improve matters. Here's my question: Is the author's detached, stoic and sparse writing style deliberate and if so, what purpose does it serve? I'm not exactly sure but it seems to be me that Hemingway wanted to strip down language to its bare essentials; revealing very little emotion to show humanity in its rawest form, an experimentation in minimalism. He succeeds admirably but this does not make for an enjoyable reading experience, at least not for me.

I really think Hemingway could have benefited with a better editing job. The novel is way longer than it needs to be and if one were to take out all of the pointless scenes and tedious passages that amount to nothing substantial, this might have actually turned out to be a half-decent or I daresay, an even great novel. The dialogue is probably one of the more striking aspects of the novel: fast-paced, pithy and terse but far too self-aware, making it difficult to take the characters and story seriously.

Hemingway served in WWI and the trauma he encountered on the battlefield haunted him for his entire life. War and masculinity are two subjects that he will return to over and over again throughout his literary career. A Farewell to Arms feels very Hemingwayesque in that regard. The story revolves around a solider who volunteers to join the army when war breaks out and while overseas he falls in love with a nurse. Their relationship can be described as anything but passionate and Hemingway does such a poor job with these characters, they never come across as fully realized--just vapid empty shells, stilted and lifeless. His treatment of women is also offensive, even by today's standards. Was he being intentionally misogynistic or does he just fail at writing convincing female characters who are overly submissive to the point of parody? I don't know.

This seems to be one of those love it or hate it kind of novels with no middle ground. It's clear which side of the fence I sit on. Nevertheless, I'm not going to give up on Hemingway just yet and have enjoyed a few of his short stories so there is still a chance he can redeem himself in my eyes.


Read from April 22 to 23, 2011

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

“A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired but then time is your misfortune.”

Ummmm...huh? Wait, did I miss something here? Yeah, pretty sure I did. 

I  have no reservations whatsoever in admitting my ineptitude of failing to understand what Faulkner was attempting too achieve with The Sound and the Fury. To be considered a masterpiece of American literature and one of the best novels of the 20th century is preposterous. Perhaps I will find the courage to read the novel again somewhere along the road and finally be able to see what everyone finds so great but until then, Faulkner is anathema to me.

This novel now officially ranks as the most difficult, frustrating, and painful reading experience of my life. It's not as if the entire novel is completely impenetrable, it's simply that Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness is so excessive and nauseating that it threw me constantly into perpetual fits of rage. I cursed his name, threw the book across the room, stomped on it until my legs started to ache. Reading Quentin's monologue was pure mental torture. I might as well have been reading Arabic. At one point I was even attempted to go outside and burn the novel until it nothing but ashes remained. By some miracle, I was able to resist this temptation and carry on, hoping that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, I was still left in darkness, perplexed and irate. Faulkner nearly turned me into a Nazi, that's how much I detested this novel.



Read from April 19th to April 20th, 2011 

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester



Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
And death's my destination.

This is one bad-ass and mesmerizing science-fiction novel with a no-holds barred attitude that is irreverently entertaining as much as it is thought-provoking. At this current junction it is difficult to offer any sort of constructive literary criticism other than insubstantial assertions such as "amazing", "mind-blowing", "holy shit man this novel rocked my socks off!", "wow, just wow" and the like. Nevertheless, I might as well try and get some thoughts down even though they are haphazard.

I still can't believe this novel was written in 1956 since it contains some fairly risque subject matter including sexuality, intense violence and profanity that Bester gets away with that surely must have been controversial for its time. I'm still trying to sort out my mishmash of jumbled thoughts but suffice it to say, very few novels have floored me like this one. It's exhilarating from start to finish but it also leaves plenty to think about and raises interesting questions about human evolution and morality. The whole concept of teleportation referred to as "jaunting" is pretty damn cool and the way Bester plays with time is brilliant. There were so many unexpected surprises and even when I thought I knew where the story was heading, Bester pulls a fast one and the narrative shifts rapidly in unpredictably exciting ways. Oh yes, Gully Folly is definitely one of the most memorable characters I have ever come across; a fascinating anti-hero if there ever was one.

What separates this novel from the majority of others that I have read in the genre is that Bester can actually knows how to write a damn good story with delectable prose with plenty of intriguing subtext and scientific/philosophical thematic concerns. I much prefer a well-told and meaningful story with interesting characters and ideas rather than something with great ideas but does not have engaging writing to back it up. Bester is able to simultaneously balance both elements with adept skill and creative imagination. A sci-fi classic.


Read from April 16 to 18, 2011

More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon



More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon is an innovative and bizarre piece of science fiction from the 1960's that takes on a similar narrative structure to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury; that is, the story is often dense, focusing on intermittent character perspectives that is perplexing because of psychological displacement. For instance, Lone is a man-child and bears an uncanny resemblance to Benjy Compton by possessing an unstable inner consciousness. Far from an easy read, it is difficult to fully grasp all of the subtle complexities but this one of those literary works that is bound to be more satisfying on subsequent readings. Sturgeon layers a plethora of ideas and subtext that can be easily overlooked.

The novel is often full of sadness, despair, loneliness and is at times very twisted but somehow Sturgeon is able to convey such passion and beauty with his writing. The story about a group of freaks and outcasts who are brought together by destiny to introduce humanity to the next stage of evolution could easily have fallen into camp. However, despite their flawed personalities, Sturgeon manages to create empathetic characters through intimately portraying the inner consciousness of these unique individuals. The formation of the human gestalt is a fascinating concept that Sturgeon explores in such a creative way as the group begins to come together and realize their potential.
 
The question, "What does it mean to be Human?" comes up often in Science-Fiction but Sturgeon takes this concept to a whole new level. He seems to suggest that human beings are an evolutionary dead end even though consciousness sets us apart from other species. The human gestalt as the next step in human evolution carries both dystopian and utopian possibilities depending on one's perspective. I'm still trying to wrack my brain over this novel but suffice it to say, it was certainly unlike anything I have ever read before and look forward to reading it again.


Read from April 06 to 07, 2011

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick


"How'd you like to gaze at a beer can throughout eternity? It might not be so bad. There'd be nothing to fear." 

From the very first sentence I just knew that A Scanner Darkly would turn out to be something special. Dick's writing style may not always be the most consistent; in terms of narrative structure, his stories can be frustratingly erratic and do not always make sense -- it consistently feels as if he is writing under the influence of hallucinogens and is attempting to furiously get down everything in his head before losing a train of the thought. He is a man with a wild imagination and fascinating ideas that tends to overshadow the quality of writing. However, with this novel he is at the top of his game. The convoluted narrative is surprisingly structured in a meticulous way that flows cohesively, the quality of writing embraces the new-wave aestheticism of experimental sensibility that subverts the conventions of pulp science-fiction. Thus, not only is it an exceptional piece of science-fiction but should also be revered beyond its genre classification as a distinguished piece of great literature.

Philip K. Dick struggled with drugs for a large part of his life and many of his close friends died through rampant drug abuse. Thus, this novel is incredibly personal for him and remains his most emotionally resonant. Forget Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting or Hubert Selby Jr.'s Requiem for a Dream, Dick has written what is quite possibly the most original, peculiar, entertaining and intellectually captivating anti-drug novel of the 1960's or quite possibly, ever. Mesmerizing in its creativity, this is a powerful story teeming with a plethora of ideas concerning social, political, cultural, philosophical and religious ideologies of an American dystopian society (or perhaps one that is all too familiar) that is struggling to control the aggressive drug trade.The vast population is falling victim to psychological derangement caused by the highly addictive and lethal Substance-D as it floods the streets of California and causes a wide-spread pandemic. The D.E.A. is powerless to stop the flow of drug-trafficking but with the introduction of "scrambler suits" (a fascinating technologically advanced body suit), agents can be better protected as they go undercover to infiltrate the main drug smuggling circles. A Scanner Darkly cleverly explores the role of subjectivity and the concept of self-identity. The protagonist, Bob Archer, is a member of the D.E.A. and assigned by his superiors to investigate none other than himself who also happens to be addicted to Substance-D. Furthermore, mental illness, reality, illusion, the fragility of human consciousness and gnosticism are examined within the narrative context of drug abuse.
  
A noteworthy aspect of the novel is PKD's ability to effectively portray the flustered mind of someone undergoing a drug-induced hallucination along with writing convincing and witty dialogue, which is a large part of the narrative. The effective way characters play off each other through drug-induced banter is funny as much as it intricately designed to shape this cognitively estranged dystopian world (as opposed to just resorting to info-dump and endless descriptions)  as well as emphasizing the underlying social commentary. Even though the novel maintains a certain level of comedy there is also a pervasive sadness to it all. One could even enjoy this novel strictly on an entertaining level as a science fiction neo-noir detective thriller but I think it is a much more rewarding experience to peel the layers and focus on the thematic structural framework. A sci-fi masterpiece that demands to be read and cherished.


Read April 11, 2011