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29Feb/08Off

Book Review: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies

Note: This is Book 9 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I suspect that Lord of the Flies by William Golding hardly needs much of an introduction to anyone reading this. It's the story of a group of young boys (some barely out of diapers, some into their teens) who are stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island following a plane wreck. The kids establish a society that reveals the tension between savage tribalism and civilized governance inherent in most of the societies put together by grown-ups, too. Things go from care-free dilly-dallying and monkey butlers (just one at first, but he trained others) to horrifying and deadly warfare in a surprisingly short period of time. Also, they kill a couple of pigs, one literal and one figurative.

Speaking of which, the allegory in this book is anything if not heavy handed in most places. Yes, you see boys' society mirrors our own. The conch shell represents law and order. The Beast represents the unknown, external, and mostly manufactured threats that bind men together. And at several points the "good guys" are trying to literally hold on to the flame of civilization while the savages try to put it out.

Don't get me wrong --I enjoyed the book and got a lot out of it. I'm just noting that it's a good choice for challenging younger readers, too, since a lot of Lord of the Flies features easy to follow, textbook examples of literary devices like symbolism, allusion, and foreshadowwing. Plus it's got a bunch of kids stabbing each other with spears and smashing each other's brains out, and what youngster doesn't go in for that kind of thing these days?

I also really liked Golding's prose in places. It's usually to the point, sharp, and elegant. But when he chose to, he could also linger over details and structure so that you really got a sense of place. I'm thinking of one passage in particular of nightfall on the island shortly after the boys arrive. It sets a mellow, peaceful tone very nicely and then later contrasts it with Ralph's frenzied flight through the same jungle as he runs for his life.

About my only complaint with the book was that outside of the few major characters like Ralph, Piggy, and Jack, the boys started to kind of blend together for me. Which one was Simon again? Roger? Sam? Eric? Apart from seeing how they were subject to a few key (and unfortunate) plot events, I kept losing track of these, but it's a minor complaint really.

Others doing the 52-in-52 challenge this week:

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27Feb/08Off

Week 213: Snow, Punching, and Tooth

I tell ya, the weather is really getting to us here. We've had a few weeks of pretty much unbearably cold weather, replete with snow if Mother Nature is feeling fancy, else just HUGE SHEETS OF FROZEN WATER FALLING OUT OF THE SKY. The result has been an awful lot of time spent indoors for all of us, and a nonsignificant amount of that time has been spent looking forlornly out the window at the ice covered back yard and playground.

Some of this cabin fever has been translating into hyperactivity for Sam, while she seems to be distilling the rest of it into good old fashioned assault. Twice Geralyn has gone to pick up Sam from preschool to learn that she had to sit in "the thinking chair" which should really more realistically be called the "Oh my God, would you... just go sit over there chair." Both times it was for punching another kid. When I found out and asked Sam to explain herself, her reasoning once was that another girl had deigned to touch her stuff. Which is, in fact, NOT her stuff. The other time Sam claimed it was because someone had hit her friend Michael first. This act of vengeance amused me, because I've met Michael he is a BIG chunk of kid. He could probably kick MY ass, so I doubt he even felt the offending blow much less needed some skinny girl fighting his battles. Still, if Samantha must fight, I hope it continues to be in the name of some kind of inside-out chivalry. Like so much else about kids, it's sweet in an exasperating kind of way.

As far as Mandy goes, I do have a milestone to report. I was downstairs the other day while Geralyn was upstairs with Mandy changing her diaper. I could hear their mostly one-sided conversation through the baby monitor, and looked up from my book when I heard Geralyn exclaim, "HEY! You got a toot! A toot!" She then went on for several minutes, singing "My baby's got a toot! My baby's got a toot!"

This puzzled me, because demure as Mandy is, tooting is not an uncommon item to be found in her bag of tricks. Come to find out when they came down the stairs, though, that the imperfect audio from the baby monitor had deceived me, and all the hoopla and chanting was about a tooth, not the other thing. And indeed, a long overdue incisor was erupting from her upper gums, with its neighbor only slightly behind it.

The cute thing is that if you now ask Mandy to show you her tooth, she opens up her mouth, presses the pad of her thumb against her tooth, and then flicks the thumb at you. The fact that this is an extremely rude gesture in some cultures just makes it all the more cute in a "hey, that baby just flipped me off" kind of way.

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22Feb/08Off

Book Review: The Road

The Road

Note: This is Book 8 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is one of those books that once you finish it, you toss it down and say "Okay, gonna kill myself now!" It is also riveting, engaging, and beautifully written, so it's worth it.

The hook is pretty simple: A man and his son (both unnamed for the duration of the book) are following a road West in the wake of some world searing apocalypse (also unnamed and tantalizingly undiscussed). Things are bleak. Really bleak, with the land bereft of nearly all plant and animal life. Besides the occasional scavenger like the Man and the Boy who fend off starvation by hunting for hidden caches of food left over from the past, gangs of cannibalistic marauders hunt their fellow men and women as one of the last sources of food. Giant firestorms also occasionally flash through the landscape, but in general it's always cold and dark and hopeless. But the Man and the Boy plod on, weighed down by constant misery and fear because it's all they can do.

Really, if the only thing McCarthy was aiming to do with this book is to create a tone of fear, hopelessness, and misery, then he succeeded better than anyone I've ever seen. You feel REALLY bad for these two travelers, and you feel their despair. They're constantly in danger, be it either from cannibals, starvation, or freezing to death. So on one level it's a straight up and powerful adventure (or, if you prefer, horror) story.

But McCarthy manages to do more than just that. He also builds in messages about blind perseverance and survival, and how those traits take form for better or worse depending on whether they're tempered by other traits, like mercy or trust. The Man is bent on survival, and is thus reluctant to help or even associate the scant few other travelers they meet. He sees them as a threat and a drain on their meager stores when they're already faced with almost certain starvation. He is, in short, instinctively slogging along path to survival that takes him straight through cruelty. The Boy, on the other hand, still retains some of his innocence and the basic human need to comfort, help, and band together with others no matter the personal cost. Yet he is subservient to the Man and unable to act on these drives. Taken together, it's a great examination of the competing human drives to both alienate and include others as a means of survival. I won't tell you which wins out (or if, in fact, both fail), because the resolution of this conflict is probably the most powerful moment in an already moving novel. You should read it for yourself.

It's also worth noting how much I like McCarthy's prose. I can see how some people may get annoyed with him given the liberties he takes with basics like punctuation and sentence structure, but on the whole I thought that the prose was lyrical, elegant, flowing, and very much a part of the whole experience. While it's generally pared down and minimal (the book is well under 300 pages), it didn't bother me as much as say Hemmingway. It just flowed better, and in this case seemed right since this was (on the surface, anyway) a small story about two people fighting to survive in a bleak and largely featureless and barren world.

So, it's not an upbeat book by any stretch but I liked it. Quite a bit.

Others doing the 52-in-52 challenge this week:

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20Feb/08Off

Week 212: Buh, Eats, and Ass Trow Nots

Mandy has continued to rapidly develop, as though she's in crunch time against some deadline that only she knows about. She's not only walking, but saying a few words. She's pretty consistent about declaring that she sees a baby, a ball, a book, a boy, a doll, or that she has just fallen down. The problem, though, is that her word for all these things --"buh!"-- is pretty much the same. If she points at a book with a baby boy holding a ball on the cover, we really have no idea what she's talking about.

Another way she's deviated from her sister, though, is that Mandy has become a picky eater. When Sam was about a year old, she was eating just about everything, including all those vegetables and beans we were putting on her tray. Mandy, on the other hand, seems to adhere to the axiom of "If it's not noodles, it's crap." We went out to eat at a restaurant with one of those giant salad bars the other night, and Ger loaded up Mandy's plate with all kinds of stuff --cottage cheese, peas, carrots, red beans, beets, soybeans, broccoli, ham cubes, egg whites, fruit salad, and more. And yet Mandy bellowed in protest if she wasn't able to ram her hand elbow deep into Geralyn's bowl of pasta.

On the Sam front, things are going well. At over 4 years old she seems capable of running her own inner dialogs, which she only occasionally lets us in on. This leads to some pretty delayed reactions (such as when she answers questions we asked half an hour ago), as well as just sublimely bizarre ideas. For example, last weekend we took her to the downtown Science Center and bought tickets to the planetarium show. Which, by the way, was LAME. Personally, I seem to remember the planetarium involving more lasers, Pink Floyd, and coat pockets bulging with smuggled beer cans, but apparently this one was more traditional, with just blinking lights that we told formed the outline of a dog or some guy with a bow. WHICH THEY DO NOT, no matter how many times my 10th grade Science teacher or some bored sounding dude running the Planetarium controls tells me they do.

Anyway, after the show we went into the exhibit area that was all about space and space travel. This included some displays about astronauts and their lives aboard space stations and shuttles. There was also this giant puzzle made of out two foot by two foot by two foot padded cubes. After viewing some of the space station exhibits Sam ran over to these blocks and started hefting them around, trying to build some kind of wall.

"Why are you building a wall, Sam?" I asked.

"THE ASTRONAUTS ARE COMING!" She pronounced it as three words, "Ass trow nots," which made me chuckle.

"The ...astronauts?"

"THEY'RE COMING! QUICK! MOVE THAT BLOCK!"

I did as she commanded. "What does the wall have to do with astronauts?"

"WE HAVE TO STOP THEM! THEY WILL COME AND DESTROY OUR LIVING ROOMS AND OUR BEDROOMS AND OUR BATHROOMS!" The wall was two levels high now, but Sam still unsatisfied with it.

"What? Why would they do that?"

"THE ASTRONAUTS HATE HOUSES! THEY HATE THEM SO MUCH. QUICK!"

So we finished our wall, and Sam declared that the bathrooms of the world were now safe from the ass trow nots. And you know what? They are. They ARE.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
15Feb/08Off

Book Review: Soon I will be Invincible

Soon I will be invincible

Note: This is book 7 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I have to admit, I enjoyed this book by Austin Grossman. Yes, it's about superheroes, mostly about two of them in particular (one of whom is actually a supervillain) who take turns narrating intertwining stories. One is the self-proclaimed Dr. Impossible, who is your basic super magalomaniacal genius bent on world domination. The second is Fatale, a cyborg who's a rookie at the whole superhero business. The book basically follows the stories of these two characters, which run parallel to each other as the newly escaped Dr. Impossible enacts another bid for conquest and Fatale joins a legendary group of superheroes in the wake of its own personal tragedy.

To be honest, based on the cover and word of mouth, I expected more outright satire of the superhero genre than I got out of this book. There IS satire, don't get me wrong, but it's mixed in with an actual attempt to tell a story and flesh out characters while adhering to the tenants of the whole superhero thing --with a satirical edge. I particularly loved it when Dr. Impossible mentioned how one the charges that sent him to jail after his first attempt at world domination was for breaking zoning violations when he built his sinister underground lair. Actually most of the Dr. Impossible chapters are rife with subtle parody as the mad super genius carries on the kind of inner monologue that you always thought must be there when he's not bellowing "WHO DARES OPPOSE ME?" or "INSOLENT FOOLS!" at every caped crusader that walks in on him. It's pretty funny in a "what would a supervillain's life really be like?" kind of way and I was kind of rooting for the guy all along. He had a much harder time of it than you might think.

Fatale and the New Champion chapters, on the other hand, are written with more of a straight face and a lot less of the tongue-in-cheek, wink-wink kind of tone. Instead we get to see her wrestle with what it's like to be a newcomer to an established family of legendary heroes as they try to recapture Dr. Impossible (for the 12th time). Amusingly, Fatale seems to be taking the whole confrontation with our resident supervillain a lot more personally than he is taking her, since she broods and agonizes over their supposed animus while Dr. Impossible barely acknowledges her existence. This is most evident at the climax of the book when he pauses in his narrative to merely say "Then that cyborg chick punched me for some reason."

All in all, the story isn't that fantastic, even for a novel born of the superhero comic books scene. It's just standard take over the world kind of stuff. Neither are the supporting cast of characters particularly engaging, especially if you're halfway familiar with the comic culture touchstones upon which most of them are based. You've got your Batman-esque character, your Superman-like character, your Wolverine type, your Dr. Strange knockoff, and a few others. But still, I enjoyed it for the ride and the gentle mocking of the genre.

And perhaps best of all, at just under 300 pages Austin has the sense not to let it outstay its welcome and get bloated into something it has no business being. It's fun and easy to read, and it often offers amusing insights and parody of the whole scene that the author obviously loves.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

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12Feb/08Off

Week 211: Demands, Scabs, and Shadows

I've mentioned before that Mandy has had a really mild personality for a baby. She started sleeping through the night as soon as we brought her home from the hospital, she's never been more attention seeking than seems necessary for a baby bent on survival and the occasional game of peek-a-boo, and she hasn't upset easily in general.

Until recently, anyway. In the last couple of weeks, Mandy seems to have learned that if she starts to ululate loudly, we will actually GIVE her things. I think of this as a kind of original sin and can easily imagine the moment at which Adam and Eve realize that hey this apple thing is pretty good and if they scream and point a lot that some inexplicably powerful being will give them things --THINGS THEY WANT NOW. And so it has begun, and fortunately for Mandy we can't just kick her out of the house and guard the front door with a giant flaming sword. For one, I can't find a giant flaming sword.

But who knows? Maybe it's teething. The kid still doesn't have a tooth in her head, and they've got to arrive sometime. In the meantime she screams and we give her things, like tortilla chips, which he gnaws and gums with a slightly pissed off look on her face. Maybe teeth will make it all better. She is walking really well, though, and I feel confident I can call it walking. Or at least a controlled wobbling that can carry her the length and width of any given room. One of her favorite things at the moment is walking into people, which can bet quite jarring if you're trying to watch The Daily Show and she comes at you from your blind spot.

Sam is also walking fine, but being 4 years old this probably isn't really noteworthy. She seems to be focusing all her recent mental might into asking questions about everything she sees and hears. Every time we use a colloquialism like "hold your horses" or "in for a penny, in for a pound" she stops the conversation in its tracks (even if she wasn't really part of it to begin with) and asks what THAT means. She has also recently demanded of me impromptu dissertations on what causes shadows and why we grow scabs over scrapes.

The scab thing we seemed to grasp when I explained that it was like growing a band-aid to keep the wound clean, but she just couldn't seem to grok shadows. And you know what? It's kind of IS hard to explain once your audience asks you to move beyond the declarative statement that "things block the light and cause shadows." I think she was trying to over think it, but a few demonstrations with a flashlight and index card seemed to help her out and now she promises to field this one when Mandy asks in a couple of years.

Filed under: Parenting 1 Comment
8Feb/08Off

Book Review: A Clockwork Orange

Note: This is book 6 of 52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Most of you familiar with American film and popular culture will know A Clockwork Orange from Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film of the same name. I've never seen that film, mainly because it always looked like the kind of violent squirmfest that makes me curl my knees up to my chest and shriek like a little girl. Reading the book by Anthony Burgess has only affirmed that opinion, but it has also convinced me that the book and, in all likelihood, the movie are pretty good works of art.

The basic gist is this: Alex and his thuggish friends are young ruffians in some kind of near-future (at the time, anyway) England. The corrupting influence of deviant music, aimlessness, socialism, and Ringo Starr's hairdo have finally driven the nation's youth into a lawless frenzy. Alex and his mates engage in all kinds of mayhem --and all glibness aside I'm talking about really horrible stuff like savage assault, robbery, breaking and entering, raping children, and murder. Burgess doesn't shy away from harsh descriptions of what he calls this "ultraviolence," and the perpetrators seem all the more wicked for how much they seem to enjoy it and how hapless their victims seem. By and by, though, Alex is caught and sent to jail, where he becomes a candidate for a new program that will "cure" him of his violent ways by forcing him to watch acts of ultraviolence and pairing this experience with a negative stimulus until he is overwhelmed by nausea at even the thought of misbehavior.

The central theme of the book seems to be that it's worse to be robbed of the choice to do evil than it is to do evil in the first place. Alex is considered subhuman once he's incapable of wrongdoing, and transforms quickly from a villain to a victim --or so the author would like us to think. Problem is, after seeing all the horrible things the book's antihero did in the first part of the book, I've got no pity for him. Even the traumatic and crippling experience he goes through at the hands of the state psychologists is better than he deserves. Burgess, who seems to have more of a penchant for anarchism than I, seems to be saying that a person who CAN'T choose evil is more of an abomination than one who CAN and DOES. But I can certainly tell you which I'd rather meet in a dark alley. Where social mores and laws fail, I say let's give this kind of souped up super psychology a chance if it means fewer hoodlums trying to crack my head open.

Of course, it would be unfair to Burges not to acknowledge his point about the slippery slope that this kind of thing could lead us down --if this kind of tool can be used to curb ultraviolence, it could also be used to curb ANY dissenting act or opinion. If we strapped people in a chair and reprogrammed their brains every time they led a protest or published a screed against the government, that would certainly mean the end of freedom and democracy and warm puppy noses. But that's a far cry from taking the knife out of some psychopath's hand and making sure he can't pick it up again to stab me in my precious internal organs.

Still, even though I disagree with the author's main points, it's a very well written book and the thought experiment was worth running. My only substantial complaint was that Burgess created a unique dialect for Alex and his band of young thugs, and since the book is narrated by Alex from the first person perspective, this made-up slang gets laid on really heavy. It was often to the point where I could barely tell what was being said since I had no idea that "chelloveck" or "grahzny" or "malenky" meant "person," "dirty," and "little bit" without a translator. Still, given that each generation and each group within a generation often has their own dialect, it did make the characters seem authentic (not to mention alien) and Burgess didn't have to rely on slang from his own period that would have quickly become outdated. It was, as Alex would say, real horrorshow.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

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6Feb/08Off

Week 210: Just Pictures

Too burned out, too busy, too tired. But I didn't want to totally skip this week, so here's some pictures.

Sam played in the snow, made some snow angels, did some sledding, and has become a shutterbug with her new camera. Mandy tried too, but mostly she's just delighted in her new thing, which is spitting.

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1Feb/08Off

Book Review: Quicksilver

Quicksilver

Note: This is book 5 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge

I think it's official: I hate Neil Stephenson. I hated his so called cyberpunk classic Snow Crash --a fact that sets me apart from most of the nerdegalian-- and I really hated Quicksilver.

Quicksilver is kind of hard to classify, if you in fact insist on classifying it. It's kind of historical fiction in that it's set in the 17th and 18th century and follows the rise of empiricism and science. It features real people from that period, like Isaac Newton, Gotfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Robert Hook, King Louis XIV, and others. But the "fiction" part of "historical fiction" comes into play because the main characters --an aspiring natural philosopher (read: scientist) named Daniel Waterhouse, a former concubine turned finance tycoon named Eliza, and a charming vagabond named Jack Shaftoe-- never really existed and were fabricated for the sake of the book, which traces the activities of these three main characters as they live through the era.

The main problem I have with Quicksilver was that it was largely plotless. I kept waiting for something to happen or some plot to coalesce out of the noise, but it didn't. The characters are really just there to give Stephenson an excuse to carry on about the development of science as a discipline, the ephemeral nature of money, and pirates --sometimes all three in the same passage. There's no narrative, just a seemingly endless burbling of scenes --the damn thing is nearly 1,000 pages long, and I READ the paper version of this one. I actually kind of liked the some of the parts with struggling scientist Daniel Waterhouse the best, because the history of science interests me, but even these moments of engagement were covered up by obscure details and diversions that were like overgrown plants in a sprawling garden.

In fact, the whole book is bloated with details about experiments, geneologies, dissertations on stock markets, battles, family histories, and other verbal flotsam that it made it downright hard to read the book and impossible to enjoy. I get the impression that Stephenson gorged himself on research for the book, and then decided to use it all --every last syllable-- no matter what hellacious effect it has on the narrative or the goal of actually telling an interesting story. Quicksilver may be more entertaining than a high school textbook on the same topics, but only marginally.

And the thing is that it's only the first THIRD of a trilogy, plus a tie-in to Stpehnons's book Cryptonomicon. What's worse is that I went ahead and picked up the other books in hardback, though I did so at a thrift store and only set myself back a total of like three bucks. I think I'm just gonna eat that cost and not even think about picking them up, given how much I disliked Quicksilver. Life is too short.

Others doing the 52-in-52 this week:

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