Thursday, March 31, 2016

April Book Club - Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

For April, the Nonfiction Book Club will be reading the book Me Talk Pretty One Day, a collection of essays by David Sedaris.

This is a smashing series of irreverent pieces, poking fun at nearly every imaginable topic. David Sedaris describes his travels from New York to North Carolina to Illinois, eventually finding a place in France where he studied the French language under the tutelage of a sadistic instructor. Sedaris displays an expert knowledge of an astonishing range of topics, such as

Applied Sciences:
“To this day, I prefer to believe that inside every television there lives a community of versatile, thumb-size actors trained to portray everything from a thoughtful newscaster to the wife of a millionaire stranded on a desert island. Fickle gnomes control the weather, and an air conditioner is powered by a team of squirrels, their cheeks packed with ice cubes.”

Modern Art:
“When the notice arrived that my work had been accepted, I foolishly phoned my friends with the news. Their proposals to set fire to the grand staircase or sculpt the governor’s head out of human feces had all been rejected. This officially confirmed their outsider status and made me an enemy of the avant-garde.”

Drug Addiction:
“Thinking I must have dropped a grain or two, I vacuumed the entire apartment with a straw up my nose, sucking up dead skin cells, Comet residue, and pulverized cat litter. Anything that traveled on the bottom of a shoe went up my nose.”

Writing Workshops:
“Thinking that a clever assignment might help loosen them up, I instructed my students to write a letter to their mothers in prison. They were free to determine both the crime and the sentence, and references to cellmates were strongly encouraged. The group set to work with genuine purpose and enthusiasm, and I felt proud of myself, until the quietest member of the class handed in her paper, whispering that both her father and her uncle were currently serving time on federal racketeering charges.”

Public Sanitation:
“I seriously considered lifting this turd out of the toilet and tossing it out the window. It honestly crossed my mind, but John lived on the ground floor and a dozen people were seated at a picnic table ten feet away.”

“Mine is a look of intense concentration, the face of a man who’s forever trying to recall an old locker combination…you’ll notice that my nostrils are prominent and oddly expressive, like a second, smaller set of eyes assigned to keep watch over the lower half of my face.”

Career Changes:
“It’s somewhat surprising that I’m a serious contender for the title of world heavyweight champion, not because I’m slow or weak but because I’m a relative newcomer to the sport. I’d been just another Yale medical student and had never really thought of fighting until I got shut out of an endotracheal intubation seminar and signed up for a boxing class instead. The teacher recognized my extraordinary talent, lined up a few regional matches, and one thing led to another.”

Legal Liability:
“What can you say about the family who is suing the railroad after their drunk son was killed walking on the tracks? Trains don’t normally sneak up on people. Unless they’ve derailed, you pretty much know where to find them.”

The World Wide Web:
“I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Building Vocabulary:
"I found no listing for those who fear they know too many masochists. Neither did I find an entry for those who fear the terrible truth that their self-worth is based entirely on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Because I can't seem to find it anywhere, I'm guaranteed that such a word actually exists. It will undoubtedly pop up in some future puzzle."

"Every day we're told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it's always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos were born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it's startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are, 'We're number two!'"

If you are intrigued by these words of wisdom, I thoroughly encourage you to read Me Talk Pretty One Day and come to the Marx Room on Wednesday, April 27th at 7 p.m. The book is located at 814 S447m in the stacks. Interlibrary loan requests can be made if necessary.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Book Review - The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

I have just finished reading The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. It is the first "thriller" she has written, although she has written several books under the name Amy Silver. It is a contemporary novel, taking place in England and with a timeline of several months.

The novel is a bit hard to follow at times, because of its shifting perspective. It begins in July 2013, from the point of view of Rachel Watson, a divorcee who is struggling with alcoholism. Rachel narrates in the present tense, but often changes to the past tense to relate prior incidents in her life: something that happened last night, last week, or several years ago when she was still married. While Rachel is the main character, we also see events from the eyes of two other women, Anna and Megan. Anna is the current wife of Tom, Rachel's ex-husband; Megan is an artist who is married to a man named Scott.

Still, the novel flows very well. Rachel exists in a cloudy world of depression and rejection, living with her friend Cathy and trying to forget her marriage with Tom. Unemployed, barren, and unable to remember episodes of her life when she was too drunk to form memories properly, Rachel takes the train to and from London every day in order to keep up the pretense that she is still working, so that Cathy does not kick her out. From the window of the train, she often sees Tom and Anna living happily in their home, in Witney; wanting to distract herself, Rachel begins to watch another married couple every day from the train, whom she simply calls "Jason and Jess." Then one day a woman named Megan goes missing, and Rachel recognizes the picture in the paper as that of "Jess," the woman Rachel kept noticing from the train.

What follows is a tense murder mystery in which the detective is not really a detective at all. Rachel is unreliable, she does not trust her own judgment (and no one else trusts it, either). She knows that she was around the neighborhood in Witney where Megan lived, on the night that Megan went missing, because Rachel went to see Tom and Anna in one of her drunken half-conscious episodes, and so Rachel believes that she might have been involved in whatever happened to Megan. It is a mystery, and Rachel must negotiate her own foggy memories at the very scene of the crime as she struggles to solve the crime. Her motive is to clear her own name, and perhaps a morbid fascination with Megan - to see whether her "Jess" was able to keep up a healthy marriage with her husband "Jason," or if this woman was unfaithful to her husband, just as Tom had been unfaithful to Rachel.

The novel seamlessly blends together many different themes, such as reality versus perception, family, guilt, deception, and a person's alienation from society. Much of the novel takes place on the commuter train, where Rachel watches the world through a window. She loves being on the train, it is her only escape from the two places that do not want her: the apartment in Ashbury where Cathy is reluctantly supporting her, and the office in London where Rachel showed up drunk and lost her job. The train represents a sort of limbo for her, a drug (much like her drinking) that enables her to forget that her life has plunged downhill.

The Girl on the Train is an exceedingly well-written suspense novel that made me feel physically ill. At times Hawkins describes Rachel's train of thought as she tries to remember the previous night's scenes of mayhem, and I feel as though I am pushing through thick clouds of smoke that obscure half of my own thoughts, leaving only trace impressions of guilt and confusion as my sole knowledge of what I have done. The entire novel resembles a nightmare, and, sadly, it loses its effect when the nightmare comes to an end. Like Lehane's Mystic River, this novel winds up with an explanation for its crime that is simply not very interesting in itself. It derives its power from the turmoil created by Rachel's amnesia and the lies that the characters tell each other; once the truth is revealed, I am left wondering if there is anything to be learned from this whole ordeal. Also like Mystic River, the novel is bitterly pessimistic, with hardly a likeable character except perhaps a psychiatrist whose personality and role in the story are underdeveloped.

I could not help but notice this novel, since it was on the NYT bestseller list for months. The novel obviously takes place in England; yet, there is really is very little sense of setting (in that way it resembles Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which also begins with a scene on a train). I think it could take place just about anywhere with little loss of clarity, and perhaps that is part of the novel's wide appeal.

The movie is scheduled to be released in October 2016, directed by Tate Taylor (who directed "The Help"). I expect it will be a success.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review - All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

I have just read the new novel All the Birds in the Sky. It is Anders's second novel, after Choir Boy, though this is the first work of hers I have read. It is by wrenching turns an epic story, an escapist fantasy, a romance, a mystery, an examination of our relationship with nature, and a damning portrayal of human intelligence.

The novel begins with two children, Patricia and Laurence. Both of them have a strange experience, at the age of six: Patricia has a conversation with several birds, who ask her the question, "Is a tree red?" Laurence builds his own two-second time machine, and meets a group of science geeks who consider this a sort of rite-of-passage. Then Patricia and Laurence meet, at the age of thirteen, and begin a life-long exploration of each other's talents, thus providing a microcosm of a much larger conflict, the worldwide conflict between magic and technology.

The first third of the novel, that of their middle-school years, is an overly sentimental and unnecessarily violent look at the stupidity of adults. Patricia and Laurence are both social outcasts, they are mistreated by their parents and by their teachers, and they are stalked by a man named Theodolphus Rose for reasons that are never made clear. In order to escape the world's cruelty, Patricia turns to magic and Laurence to technology, and we of course ponder the question, "Can they learn to understand each other?"

What is the difference between magic and technology? Simple: the knowledge of how it works. To Patricia, magic is just another kind of technology, as long as she is willing to listen to what the different living things of the world are saying in their own languages.

Put simply, it is a novel that depicts the war between machines and nature, and shows how both scientists and witches try to solve the earth's problems, only to find that they get in each other's way. The problem with the novel is that it is never "simple." It is overly complex and confusing, in spite of its short length. I see it as a failed escapist novel, one that depicts the world as aimless and cruel while the author attempts to find a meaning to life that is never clearly defined or felt. The question "Is a tree red?" is repeated several times in the novel, and appears to act as a plot device, but it is a dead-end sort of plot device, like Alex DeLarge's frequent playing of Beethoven recordings in A Clockwork Orange. Late in the novel, when the world is (quite literally) falling apart, Laurence says to Patricia, "Remember when we were kids? And we used to wonder how grown-ups got to be such assholes?" And he answers himself, "Now we know," referring to all the stupid acts of destruction that the two of them, along with other people whom they trusted, have recently brought to pass. The novel is about a war, but it depicts the war in the most predictable ways possible. The book uses complexity as a substitute for depth; no matter how many magic tricks and trans-dimensional devices people can invent, those methods ring hollow when the characters cannot decide what they actually care about.

The title All the Birds in the Sky could be seen as a symbol for all the different living things in the world that human beings will never have the time to understand. Yes, we yearn to know what this world really is made of, what we really need to do with our lives - but this novel does not hold still long enough to hear itself think. In spite of its experimental nature, the story consists of a number of cliches: the evil assassin disguised as a middle-school teacher, the parents sending their kid to military school, the cool hangout where people drink mystical puke-provoking potions, the novel suddenly wrapping itself up with a completely unnecessary battle scene that kills off half the characters. The most drawn-out cliche (also the most amusing) was the sex scene. What is it with contemporary authors describing the two characters' naked bodies for pages on end? Does she really think we do not know what a human body looks like? Yes, it is a scene of two people who have known each other for years, and suddenly they make love for the first time, but let's face it, this has already happened millions of times in literature!

In her acknowledgments, Anders actually wrote, "I really hope you guys enjoyed this book. If you didn't, or if there was stuff that didn't make sense to you or seemed too random, just e-mail me and I'll come to your house and act the whole thing out for you. Maybe with origami finger puppets." To me, this statement betrays either a general lack of interest in her own work, or a lame desire to sound modest. In my opinion, Anders either is not optimistic enough to write a convincing escapist novel (in which case she should have written a tragedy instead), or she could not decide what aspect of this world the characters were trying to escape from in the first place. Like Ready Player One, All the Birds in the Sky is a mishmash of science-fiction and fantasy, attempting to reconcile the two genres without identifying what it actually is about those two genres that makes them so endearing.