Sunday, January 28, 2007

Minority Report

by Philip K. Dick
from Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

I liked "Minority Report" the movie. It continues to stand as one my favorite Tom Cruise movies, not least of all because it was created in those magical pre-Scientology and Oprah couch-jumping days. The sleek, futuristic sophistication of Steven Spielberg’s production, combined with the adequate tortured-father, hunted-lawman acting of Tom Cruise, and the exceptional screen writing all worked to make what I thought was a suspenseful, entertaining, and thoughtful movie. There are worse things to spend summer movie money on after all, "X-Men 3: The Last Stand" comes immediately to mind. In any case, "The Minority Report" was one of the reasons why I decided to buy the Selected Stories in the first place. I say this all as preface to my review of Philip K. Dick's "Minority Report" because I wish to concede, even before I begin, that it's possible that my opinion of the short story is negatively effected by how much I liked the movie.

I didn't like "Minority Report" the short story. The phrase "Based on a story by Philip K. Dick" is vast overstatement. Yes, there is a suspense plot involving pre-cognitives who predict future crimes; yes, the main characters' names are all the same; and yes, the story is set in the future. That, my friends, is where the similarities end. Instead of the young, capable though troubled Anderton that Cruise plays, the Anderton in the story is old, paranoid, virtually clueless, and finally smug. He doesn't have a missing son, an illegal drug problem, or an ex-wife. The only problem he does have is that he's old. The Anderton of the story isn't motivated by a desire to find his son's kidnapper but rather by the paranoid need to protect his job. He isn't tortured, he's middle-aged, which does have its own problems, sure, but not enough to justify his often frank idiocy.

Among the other many differences which I found particularly disturbing is that the procogs are actual mentally-challenged vegetables. They have no personalities nor do they even receive the reverent respect displayed in the movie. In fact, they are derisively referred to as "monkeys". When Witwer expresses his surprise at the precogs' deformity, Anderton instantly replies, "Deformed and retarded...The talent absorbs everything; the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area. But what do we care? We get their prophecies." And here's a sampling of the way the precogs are treated: "The dwarfed, hunched-over figure had sat buried in its wiring and relays for fifteen years...'Jerry', however, remained in the aimless chaos of idiocy; the burgeoning faculty had absorbed the totality of his personality." Poor dude. Don't they have human rights organizations in the future?

Strangely enough, out of all the stories set in the future in Selected Stories, "Minority Report" seems to have aged the worst. The precrime reports are kept on paper cards and recorded on cassette tapes, which don't jibe very well with phones that come with aud and vid lines and ID cards that include brain-wave patterns. Nor did it play very well in my mind as I pictured the moving, wall-sized video screens and the hard, incriminating red balls so sleekly dished out in the movie. Tapes and paper cards? Surely Dick could have done better than that. We'll be lucky if readers ten years from now even know what those are.

Harmony's Way, pt. 1

by Lora Leigh
pgs. 1-199

I am very much aware that I complained incessantly about Leigh's Megan's Mark only less than a month ago. In my defense though, I feel the need to point out that I did say, in spite of my many complaints with Leigh's writing, especially with that of her female characters, I planned to read the next Breed novel, thus, I am merely being true to my word. And I am happy to report that I'm more than half the way through this book and I haven't a single complaint. Alright, that's not entirely true but my complaints are considerably less than they were when I was reading Megan's Mark. But let's start with the good.

Lance is a likeable character - of course most of the alpha males in the Breed Series are. Lance, however, isn't so alpha and bossy that he's an obvious exaggeration of himself. In a word, Lance is perfect, which does have its own problems but I was talking about the good. The biggest surprise of them all is that I actually like Harmony, the heroine. Of all the female characters Leigh has recently written into existence, Harmony's situation gives her the most reason for the characteristic bitchiness that is thankfully absent. The fact that she's rational, understanding, and smart enough to know the difference between being stubborn and stupidity could be attributed to the cold rationality that is surely a requirement to becoming an assassin dangerous enough to claim the moniker "Death". For all her notorious skill at killing molesters and murderers with her knife, she also knows her own heart, even when confused. She may not like what her heart tells her but she doesn't inexplicably lash out at those trying to help her either.

And now for the bad. Lance is beginning to seem a little too perfect. Where are this man's flaws? As far as I can tell, he has none. He's accepting, understanding, honest, loving, protective, silent when he has to be, and forceful when it's called for. Perhaps it's unfair to call that a troubling aspect of the book. Maybe it's only another surprise to find a character so well-balanced in a Breed book. He isn't mocking, inscrutable, or arrogant without explanation. He's simply a generally nice guy. And since I've decided to save my comments on Harmony's brother Jonas for a later date, that, ladies and gentlemen, is my only complaint with Harmony's Way. I know, I'm as suprised as you are. I was beginning to think it was time to begin to migrate away from the Breed Series. It appears as if that time may a little way off yet.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Where They Love Americans...for a Living

by Sean Flynn
from The Best American Travel Writing

If I have ever read a candid article on prostitution written by a man whose agenda isn't either to justify a man's right/need to pay for sex or to fervently pronounce his solidarity with the feminist stance that prostitution always equals exploitation, it was a long, long time ago - if ever. Sean Flynn's article was refreshingly different in that, while he is often sneeringly superior, he is also realistic, informed, and frankly funny, especially when he's poking fun at the "particular class of whoremonger" who convinces himself that the women with whom he pays to have sex actually like him.

But, as Flynn points out, fantasy islands like the Philippines, Thailand, and Costa Rica - the top three destinations for adult vacationing - are popular just because, on these tropical islands where the women are “passionate and easy,” you don’t simply pay for sex. You buy, as one enthusiastic vacationer called it, the “GFE” - i.e. “girlfriend experience”. GFE, of course, referring to the beautiful and sexy girlfriend who hangs on your every word, keeps her opinions to herself, and enthusiastically performs every sexual act for as long as you want it whenever you want it - all for an established fee naturally. In Costa Rica, you don’t pay for the sex, you pay for the fantasy.

The problem however, is not the fantasy but the fact that so many of the men who frequent these places mistake the fantasy for reality. Inexplicably, they fail to realize, or refuse to realize, that prostitutes, especially the really great ones or the really expensive ones, are Oscar-worthy actresses whose job is dependent upon their ability to convince you that you’re the smartest, largest, and sexiest man she’s ever met, irregardless of your beer belly, your receding and graying hair, or your repulsive personality. That’s her job and - trust me, Flynn, or the experts who’ve studied it - most of them don't even like it.

Philosophically, I have no problem with prostitution when it is between CONSENTING ADULTS. I am, however, a firm believer that a woman has the right to do with her body whatever the hell she wants with it. If she wants to sell it for sex, hey - you do you. If a man wants to pay for it, hey - you do you. Unfortunately, things are infinitely more complicated than that, especially when you begin to believe the lies you’ve paid to have whispered in your ear.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The New Yorker, Dec. 11, 2006

Yes, you read that correctly - I have only just read the Dec. 11 issue of The New Yorker. On occassion, especially when I'm traveling, I get horribly behind in reading my New Yorkers. I have issues from 2005 that I haven't read yet - and yes, I do plan to read them, and no, I'm not throwing them out, I don't care what you say. I'll admit that when they're a month or more old, the articles aren't as relevent to the times as they were the week they were printed but that just makes the reading all that more interesting. There is an untold superior and smug pleasure in reading news-based articles with the informed eye of hindsight.

The Al Sharpton snapshot "Fifty Shots" in Talk of the Town transports me back to week an unarmed black man was shot 50 times and killed on the eve of his wedding. And although I may have predicted it, I'm able to look back with a month and half worth of hindsight with the knowledge that one week was all that unjustified over-kill recieved in the national news.

And then there's the David Denby review of "Blood Diamond" and "Deja Vu" that makes me regret not having shown either of those movies enough attention. Well, that's not particularly true of "Deja Vu", which, as Denby informs us, "makes beautiful pictures out of carnage." Intended complement though it may be, it is the very reason why I decided to pass on "Deja Vu" - carnage should never be beautiful, mindless action movie or no. The fact that this is the very case that "Blood Diamond" makes is the reason why I wonder if I can still find this film playing in a theatre. Having enjoyed - if that's the proper way to describe a movie that "breaks your heart" - "Hotel Rwanda" and "The Constant Gardener", movies "set against the background of civil wars, ethnic conflict, and Western meddling and exploitation", Denby has convinced me as all the other rave reviews weren't able to that "Blood Diamond" was worthy of my $9.00. Ah well, another benefit to reading an old movie review - I'm just in time for the DVD.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Upon the Dull Earth

by Philip K. Dick
from Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

Something else I don't usually read: science fiction - at least not on a regular basis. I try to get in at least one sci-fi book a year but even that's often too difficult to do. I'm impatient and often bored, I've found, with talking, furry aliens from other worlds, disgusting creatures, space travel, robots, and all other manner of fantastic technologies. And I've had the misfortune of reading sci-fi authors whose only point, it seems, is to write about cool aliens and fast space jets. But I refused to give up and last year I finally decided to stop dicking around (pun intended) and bought The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, mainly because I'd seen most of the movies based on his short stories and liked them well-enough to wonder and hope that the stories would be better, as is often the case, than the movies they had inspired.

There isn't a movie based on the short story "Upon a Dull Earth" but if there was it would have definitely been a horror flic. This is the creepiest, most disturbing in a send-shivers-down-your-spine kind of way story that I've read in a long while. Jonathan Letham hits the nail on the head when he says that it "reads like a Shirley Jackson outtake." It would be easy to say that "Upon a Dull Earth" is a lesson in being careful what you ask for. In this case, the main character Rick only wants to marry his girlfriend Silvia, have some kids, and grow old with her. Silvia however dies prematurely and when he tries to get her back, he and her both bite off quite a bit more than they can chew. It sounds a bit like Stephen King's "Pet Cemetery" but it's much more subtle than that. Silvia comes back - a lot of her comes back - but she doesn't eat or kill anyone. She's just there and it is creepy.

But to simply qualify this as a "be careful what you ask for" story would be an injustice. In the process, Dick reinvents heaven, angels, humans, God and the "dull earth" between. I'm half-way through The Selected Stories... and I have already decided that Dick has written the best sci-fi I've ever read. I have only just discovered that that's because, although, like other writers of the genre, Dick writes of the future, technology and otherworldly creatures, they are all second fiddle to the men and women who populate his stories. The stories are not about the science, they're about the man. Those are the kind of stories, sci-fi or no, that I would read any day of any year.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

All Souls' Rising, pt. 2

by Madison Smart Bell
pgs. 56-119

I knew it, I knew it before I even started reading All Souls' Rising that I would have to suffer through some horrible, violent images, the type of images I generally avoid if only because they leave me with a disgusted and disappointed view of humanity. But brutality is just as much a part of life and its beauty, and it's salubrious, I think, to remind myself of that every once in a while. Though it isn't the reason why I chose to read All Souls' Rising, it is certainly serving as that reminder whether I like it or not.

The meat of the story, in fact, begins with the live crucifixion of female slave for killing her illegitimate baby. Three sentences into the first chapter, Bell writes, "There had been some bleeding from the punctures and the runnels of blood along her inner forearms had hardened and cracked in the dry heat, from which the doctor concluded that she must have been there for several hours at the least." Alright, I thought when I read that line, I knew that was coming. It was a fully expected blow to the imaginary senses and as much as anyone could take an image like that in stride, I did.

What I didn't expect was the long, excruciating scene in which Claudine Arnaud, mistress of a plantation, drunk, drugged, jealous and crazed, cuts out a slave girl's growing fetus and then proceeds to violently cut her neck. The girl's only crime, it should be said, was to accidentally spill a tray of coffee but the spill was merely an excuse for Claudine to punish the girl for having sex, most likely unwillingly, with Mr. Arnaud. Unfortunately, no detail is left out in this horrifying scene. Try this on for size: "The blade furrowed through a whitish layer of fat; there was no blood, oddly, until the viscera slithered and slapped down tangling over Claudine's feet, and then she bled."

But in his way, Bell illustrates a point that many writers before have tackled. Claudine, sold as she was to her husband - albeit in a much more civilized way - purchased for nothing more than as a breeding mare, forced to leave her home, family, and friends, and openly despised and mocked when she fails at her one task to produce and heir, she is little more than a slave herself. It is a sympathetic view of such a despicable character but it is, I think, a real one as well. It's not hard to understand that the reason Claudine hates Mouche the slave girl so much, isn't that she has sex with her husband and is pregnant with the child she herself can never produce. It is that Mouche, fresh off the boat from Africa, isn't broken in who she is or in her belief that she belongs to no one else but herself. "The voice [Mouche's singing] came out of her essential African self, and Claudine recognized that after all she was still untouched in her identity; it was infuriating."

Such is just another vulnerability of slavery: to be subject and held accountable for someone else's unhappiness, fears, anger, and disappointments. And through it all, All Souls' Rising reads like a dream, a horrible dream but a smooth, irresistible dream nonetheless. I can't put it down.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Iraqi Constitution

fromThe Best American NonRequired Reading

Reading a constitution, any country's constitution, is informative and beneficial to our understanding of the world and the way other countries view governance, law, and citizenship. In the world we live in today, that understanding is becoming more and more vital to our everyday lives. Reading a constitution, any country's constitution I would imagine, is also much like reading a contract. Given that that's what it is - a contract - it's not surprising that it reads like one. By the same token, much in the same way that I find reading a new software contract too long, dry, and unworthy of my time despite how informative and beneficial to my life and understanding it may be, I also find myself wishing to run through the dry, contractual language of the Iraqi constitution so I can simply skip the bottom of the page where I click "Accept."

That's not to say that all of it was uninteresting reading. The Preamble was telling and, in parts, in it's own way, poetic. It also included one the longest run-on sentences I've ever seen in my life. This sentence was composed of nineteen lines of approximately fourteen words to each line. I'm too lazy to do the math - you do it - but I know enough to know that's a lot of words for one sentence and if anyone is supposed to get any since of that it certainly isn't I.

I also thought it interesting that the second line of the constitution reads, "We have honored the sons of Adam." Yeah, yeah I know that it's supposed to be a democratic Islamic state but what about Eve? I thought it took two to make a son and as far as I know Adam didn't reproduce asexually. And what about the daughters of Adam - and Eve - ? Article 14 reads: "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, creed, belief or opinion, or economic and social status." Yet, Article 2 reads: No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." I don't much about the Islamic religion but I know enough about the treatment of women in Islamic countries to hope that the two articles don’t already contend with each other.

The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie

by Alain De Botton
from The Best American Travel Writing 2006

In "The Discreet Charm of the Zurich Bourgeoisie" De Botton is attempting to argue that boring is beautiful. "[F]ew places in the Western World have been quite as deeply unfashionable as the city of Zurich," De Botton writes. Why is this? Because Zurich is just plain old ordinary. The streets are clean, the neighborhoods are safe, and the people are unfailingly polite. Why should the anti-social, the dangerous, the consciously different and the purposefully exotic have the market on interesting? Why isn't ordinary just as beautiful, just as worthy of interest?

I don't know, I think they both have their merits. I understand how the mind can tire of monotony and routine. I also understand how monotony and routine could make our lives easier and longer. And I also think, that if we dig deep enough, if we look closely and honestly, there is something worthy of review and interest in any walk of life, even the happy suburban kind. I have always disagreed with Tolstoy's proposition that all happy families are the same and therefore unworthy of a writer's critical mind and time. No one person's happiness is the same, just as no one person is the same. To assume so, is to ignore half of life and half of the people who live it, if not more. I don't have statistics to back me up but I believe that there are just as many happy people in the world as there are unhappy.

Perhaps this is just me standing up for my people. Yes, I am a generally happy person and proud of it. Why shouldn't the story of my life and the city in which people like me would choose to live like Zurich deserve a story or interest beyond boredom? After all, we happy people will live longer than the curmudgeons and I have the statistics to prove it.

After the Fall

by Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis
from The Best American Travel Writing

There were some amazing lines in this piece. Morgan: "The night that lay upon this massive, malfunctioning, astonishing city was vast, starless, as warm and secret as an embryo." Tom: "We walked through a near-noon heat so overwhelming it had a sort of oceanic weight." The city these two vivid sentences are describing is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and our two adventurers are there to observe the 30th anniversary of the day South Vietnam formally surrendered to the North Vietnamese army.

Besides being educational and my learning that the communist Republic of Vietnam is just as crazy as that of North Korea, "After the Fall" was also, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, surprisingly funny. Why some the funniest moments in TBATW should involve bowel movements I don't know. I'm not sure it that says something about the editors of TBATW or about me. What I do know is that I found Bissell's description of his debilitating diarrhea laugh out loud hilarious. "My stomach burbled out some many-syllabled sound that was loud enough for Morgan to hear, my eyes filled with stunned tears, and I began walking toward the bathroom around the mausoleum's corner...'Is it your stomach?' 'Right now it's my whole body.'"

And of course, as Bissell and Meis somewhat haplessly interview government dissidents, they are promptly followed and watched by government agents - a development that they don't find at all discouraging and, in fact, take some pleasure - and Meis, along with their photographer, are eventually taken in for questioning, then kicked out of the country on the grounds that they didn't enter on journalist visas. Meanwhile, Bissell experiences shock-induced recovery from his fever and wanders the streets of Vietnam alone. Well, not technically alone since he's being followed. "I...decided that if I indeed I had a tail, then this tail of mine was going to get a fucking workout. He would walk around Hanoi's Lake of the Returned Sword again and again and again." Eventually tiring of the game, the tail approaches Bissell and wishes him a quick and safe journey out of the country.

I admit that though it was obvious that Bissell and Meis were both alive and well enough to write this piece, I was scared for them much of the time. I have no idea how seasoned, well-traveled writers such as these two managed to seem so clueless and lost but they did. But then that was the charm of "After the Fall." As for Vietnam and the impression it left on me, I'll quote Bissell and say that it is either "beautiful or insane." Of course, what country isn't, if isn't both at the same time?

Saturday, January 13, 2007


DEC/JAN 2007 Issue

Strange though it may seem, I have only just started researching and reading book review magazines. I'm not in a place in which I could explain why that is, especially given what I'm doing now and that, second only to reading books myself, my favorite pastime is reading about people's opinions on other reading. In any case, I decided to start my overdue research with "The New York Review of Books." Who could argue that what's written between the pages of the NYBR is anything but great writing? Certainly not I. What I could argue is that, much in the same way that "New Yorker" articles have a tendency to run on too long, those in the NYRB also tend to stay way past their welcome. I appreciate great writing as much as the next person - what kind of obsessive reader would I be if I didn't - but I also think that if there is a word limit imposed upon the critics who write for the NYRB, it is much too high. However, I shall persevere, even if it does take me a month to finish a biweekly magazine.

And then just two weeks ago, I came across a wonderful magazine called "BookForum." It looked more colorful and definitely thinner than NYRB so I decided, what the heck, couldn't hurt right? As it turns out, I was right and I have found a new favorite magazine. For one, the articles are only one, maybe two pages long. I sound like one of the horrible readers who have the attention span of a fly don't I? I'm not really. I simply appreciate clear and concise writing. But besides concise pieces, "BookForum" also features some great writing. In this issue there were pieces written by Andrea Walker, a member of the editorial staff for the "New Yorker", Francine Prose, author of How to Read Like a Writer, and Rob Spillman, editor of the much-esteemed "Tin House" literary magazine.

Reading "BookForum" was not just enjoyable - though it was that, and reason enough for why I finished it in one day, unheard of for me - but it was also educational. So this, I thought as I reading, is how a criticism should look, how it should sound. So this is to what I should aspire. The difference between reading the NYRB and "BookForum" is the difference between listening to a lecture and having a conversation. The former can be educational, no doubt, but the latter is more engaging. I felt engaged as a reader as I breezed from one article to another in BookForum and it is the same feeling that I would like my readers to have.

It seems this will be a year of education and improvement for me. But I suppose, if we're lucky, that's what every day of every year should be.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Valley of Silence

by Nora Roberts
Book 3 of the Circle Trilogy

It's never a good idea to stay up late reading a book when you've just started a new job. You run the risk of waking up late the next morning with horrible black bags under your eyes, hair sticking up at odd angles, and the title of a book creased into your cheek. It was worth it though. It's safe to say that Valley of Silence was the best book of the trilogy.

Cian and Moira's story was a much more compelling read than the other two; the love story more moving; the danger more urgent. It still suffered from the problems of the other two books: i.e. too much dialogue and not enough action. There were more conversations on why Moira and Cian couldn't be together than was needed. But because the love story between Cian and Moira was so great, those problems were less annoying than in the other two. I enjoyed reading of their struggle to love each other, knowing that it could go nowhere and would end in pain. I also enjoyed reading a story in which the characters were emotionally honest with each other and with themselves. Those are the type of characters, the kind of people, I can respect.

I also respect, Roberts' willingness to show the gray area that lies between good and evil. Roberts, as so few popular authors do, has the courage and the wits to show that what we would call evil can have sympathetic facets. "Evil" can love, it can know pain, it can know fear, it can feel the need for family. I appreciate Roberts including the sincere affection between Lilith, the Vampire Queen, and Lora, her companion.

What I didn't appreciate, however, was the detail that Lilith sleeps with the five year-old vampire "son" Davy. I didn't see the point in including such a nasty detail. In particular I could have done without this sentence: "In the moonlight he [Davy] saw the battlefield, and the beauty of it made him shake as he did when his mother let him put himself into her and ride as if she were a pony."

I had to read that sentence at least twice over to make sure I'd read it right. When I was sure I had, I wished I hadn't. I mean really Nora, was that necessary? I can handle uncomfortable plot lines but that little detail just wasn't needed. I'd gathered that Lilith and Davy were "lovers" already, I didn't need it thrown in my face. And it just seemed incongruous with the style of the rest of the story. In many ways, this trilogy is a way for Roberts to push the envelope but I think she pushed it a little too far with Davy's storyline.

In any case, I suppose I should also add that the conclusion of the book, and the trilogy was satisfactory but predictable. But then what popular romance story isn't predictable? They all mostly end one way, happily ever after, which is why I read them when I just want to feel good. After all, I saw the resolution to Cian and Moira's love story coming a mile away. But it was great romance reading nonetheless and one I'll return to again. I wish the other books had been as good as this one, I wish this trilogy had been as good as the Three Sisters Island Trilogy or the Key Trilogy, and I wish there was time enough to stay up reading all night and still get a good night's sleep. On a completely unrelated topic Cian says, "But the hours mattered, every minute of them." Damn right they do. Now, I'm off to get some sleep.

Dance of the Gods, pt. 2

by Nora Roberts
pgs. 125-316 (End)
Book 2 of the Circle Trilogy

Still a lot of talk...Yadda, yadda, yadda. Blah, blah, blah. I don't have a problem with dialogue at all. What I do have a problem with is with dialogue that is repeated over and over again for - I don't know - space? How many conversations must the members of the circle have about how they need to stick together and tell each other everything? It was a concept I grasped quite well in the first book; why do the characters need to be reminded of it every other page? Why do I have to read about it every other page?

And Blair's repetitive inner dialogues grew, well, monotonous. I appreciate getting a glimpse into a character's head. It's one of the things that makes Roberts' characters come alive and something at which she usually excels. I can't figure out exactly what happened here. It could be that, because Roberts had to spread the action out over three books, there was less action in each and more dialogue than was needed or wanted. Yet, that argument becomes difficult to make when one considers that this isn't Roberts' first trilogy. She's done several, most of which are much more compelling reads than the Circle Trilogy thus far.

It's interesting too that, despite all the dialogue - inner and otherwise - I didn't understand the characters all that well at the end of the day. As characters in a book, I liked Blair and Larkin perfectly well. As people I could imagine actually existing, they fell fairly flat. And, I said it before, Blair is simply too much of an Eve Dallas rip-off for me to really appreciate her as a separate character. There were some differences, i.e. Blair doesn't mind doing typical girly things; Eve doesn't even have an idea what that is. But those differences weren't substantial enough to make me feel as if wasn't reading the story of a poor and uninteresting descendent of Eve.

Despite all of that, I do look forward to reading Valley of Silence. I can't wait to read Cian and Moira's story. It is my sincere hope that it turns out to be worth mostly uninteresting reading I've had to put up with so far.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Collapse, pt. 1

by Jared Diamond
pgs. 1-156

I'm trying really hard to get through this book - I really am. The premise - a study of collapsed societies and the factors that led to their downfall - is right up my alley. And, though it was slow going in the beginning, I loved Guns, Germs, and Steel. Granted, there were some parts that I thought were eye-crossingly boring, especially that parts in which Diamond discusses the pollinization and fertilization process of plants. It was enlightening but it wasn't the most exciting reading I've ever done. And anyway those parts were few and far in between. So I made the mistake of assuming that just because I enjoyed one Diamond book, I would enjoy another. Thus far, that just isn't so.

I keep pushing myself to make it to just one more chapter, hoping that the next one will be better than the last. I can't say it isn't interesting reading; like I said, the premise is right up my alley. I absolutely love reading about the history and collapse of Easter Island and the Pitcairn Islands. What I don't care to read about, in detail, is the scientific methods archeologists used to come to their conclusions. I don't need a two page explanation on how dendrochronology (tree ring dating) works. A short, simple, one-paragraph summary would work just fine for me. Anything longer and my eyes begin to roll into the back of my head with boredom.

There's a lot of method detail in this book which leads me to wonder if this book is really meant for a layman reader like me. I think it is, but I also think that, by including the scientific methods and terminology, Diamond is attempting to attract the experts and scientists as well. So then maybe I shouldn't feel bad about skipping the methodology parts. Then again, maybe I feel guilty because I'm not too long out of college and Collapse reads so much like a text book, I feel as if I'll be quizzed on the parts I skip. Of Collapse, "BusinessWeek" wrote, "It's [also] the deal of the year - the equivalent of a year's college course by an engaging, brilliant professor, all for the price of a book." Now it all makes sense, so that's the reason why I'm determined to finish this book - if I don't, I'll have failed my first history course. Because at this moment "BusinessWeek" and I disagree on whether Diamond is an "engaging" professor, I'll just do what I've always done with a long class and a boring professor: buckle down, stick it out, and pray for the end.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Innocents

by Gipi
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading

I'm indifferent about this graphic story. It's not bad but it isn't particularly moving either, though I think it tries to be. My largest problem is I didn't connect at all with any of these characters. I didn't understand the little boy. Just how old is he anyway? Why does he look like he's twelve and act as if he's five? And what's up with the uncle? Does he even like his nephew? Are the insulting comments simple joking around or am I supposed to take him seriously? I thought the point of graphics was to illustrate and answer some of these questions but guess I was wrong. If the uncle is joking, he definitely isn't showing it in any of the graphic frames.

And what I am supposed to feel for Valerio the friend? Should I empathize with him? It certainly would have made the graphic story more interesting if I had. Yet, how can I, when the reason for his anger and fear is never clearly explained? Given that the uncle is telling this story to his nephew, it's understandable that he didn't explain the gory details, but couldn't he have given them to me, the reader, in a thought bubble or something? As far as I can tell, Valerio is just a scared boy who went to prison for attacking abusive police and came out a psychopathic man. That's a bad deal but I don't really care.

Nor did I care for the art. It was a tad too bleak and full of angles for me. Perhaps, it works to fit the dour story but it didn't work to appeal to my eye. I found myself speeding through the frames to get to the end, rather than studying them for hidden, revealing secrets. If "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" is the reason why I should read more comics, then "The Innocents" is the reason why I wouldn't.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Insurgent's Tale

by Tom Downey
from The Best American Nonrequired Reading

In the beginning, I thought this was a fictional piece. No one, I assumed, could tell an actual Iraqi insurgent's story in such detail without making it up. Apparently, I was wrong. "The Insurgent's Tale" is the actual life story of an actual Jihadist. Needless to say, it was engrossing reading. It's always enlightening, I think, to hear the story of someone from the "other" side tell their story honestly. It helps to remember that the people fighting on the other side of the war in Iraq are just as human as the warriors that hail from America. It helps to remember that Jihadists are more than the evil, robotic suicide bombers that the Bush regime would have you to believe. In the words of Downey, ""To hear a polite and thoughtful man talk casually about his friends in Al Qaeda is to have the whole enterprise reduced to a more fragile, human scale."

"The Insurgent's Tale" does just that. It reminds us that the "War on Terrorism" is "not a mythic struggle between our supermen and their ghosts." It serves as a perfect juxtaposition to Military Blog excerpt by Zachary Scott-Singley (unreviewed by me) included earlier in the compilation. Yet, it also confuses me, or rather, it doesn't enlighten me as much as I would like to be enlightened. It shows me how a Jihadist is born - in this case, through anger inspired by a video showing Muslims being slaughtered in Afghanistan - but it doesn't really take me inside the insurgent's heart, which is where I really want to be. It doesn't tell me how Khalid, the insurgent, feels living peacefully among Londoners who trust him more than they do their own children one month, and fighting those same Londoner's children in Iraq the next. Is there ever a conflict of emotions; is there ever a moment of hesitation, of self-doubt? What is his actual stance on the American forces in Iraq? Does he have a position, or does he simply go where he's needed, questions un-asked?

I don't assume I know the answers to any of these questions but it would have been nice to see those questions answered in "The Insurgent's Tale." Again, my problem seems to be that I simply want this piece to be longer than what it was. Maybe if it was as long as this war is turning out to be, I'd be satisfied. Maybe.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The New Yorker, Winter Fiction Issue

The Nobel Lecture
by Orhan Pamuk;
The Bible
by Marguerite Duras;
On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan

When I can, I try really hard to read my New Yorkers from cover to cover. It is a rare occasion when that happens. The fiction section gets me every time. Most of the time, I just don't get New Yorker fiction. It just never goes anywhere. At the end of a typical New Yorker piece I always feel as if I've wasted ten minutes of my time reading great writing that has absolutely no point. And it is great writing - that's undeniable. But what I want is a story. I get bored with reading great writing just for the sake of great writing. I read because I love a great story just as much as I love great writing - maybe more.

But occasionally, I try. I do try. I started with Orhan Pamuk's 2006 Nobel lecture "My Father's Suitcase." It was an amazing contemplation on the writing life; on how writers are shaped by their country and culture, and how they shape the world around them with their words. There are some wonderfully crafted sentences that clearly express the reason why he was the deserving recipient of last year's Nobel Prize for Literature. A sentence like, "A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is," will have me thinking for hours. That sentence is just one of many that will get written on an index card for further contemplation.

The one thing that troubled me about Pamuk's piece was that it made me question why it seems that great writers are always unhappy, depressed, and/or addictive. At the end of a beautiful paragraph on why he writes - why we all write - Pamuk says, "I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy." Is tortured unhappiness a job requirement? I understand that great writing can come from angst and pain but does that disqualify me, the chronically content and generally well-adjusted, from writing the kind of literature that will win me a Nobel Prize? I sincerely hope not.

"The Bible" and "On Chesil Beach" was typical New Yorker fiction fare, i.e. a supermodel all-dressed up with nowhere to go. "The Bible" I found bearable simply because it had a short running time of two pages. "On Chesil Beach" on the other hand, was too long with a running time of nine whole pages and ends right at the moment when things are starting to get interesting. Whatever my problems with Chabon's Thrilling Tales, Chabon and I certainly agree that the now-popular in-the-moment revelatory fiction "pieces" are an annoying turn-off for readers like myself. Maybe it's an acquired taste but it's one that I will gladly do without.