Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present

Formosan Odyssey: Taiwan Past and Present
By John Ross

I must admit that I'm a little embarrassed that this book has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for almost five years. I rarely get books about Taiwan and I love reading them when I have them. So what gives? Why did it remain so long on the shelf? Part of me didn't think I needed to read a travelogue about Taiwan after having been here for four years. The other half of me was just feeling guilty about damaging the book. Here's the story:

A friend lent this book to me way back when my (currently) adult dog was still a teething puppy. I left the book on a table a little too low to the ground and Milo (my dog) got to it. The corners of the books became a bit of a chew toy for my dog and some damage was done. I had put off reading it because I had other books to read but I then put off reading it because I figured that when I finished the book I would be forced to give it back, revealing my dog's crime. Five years on, the damage doesn't look that bad and I felt a reverse pang of guilt seeing the book on my shelf. So I finally cracked it.

Well, anyway...

I wish someone had handed this book to me at the airport when I landed in Taiwan in 2002. It would have helped immensely. John Ross' book is a fun romp through Taiwan both past and present (and when I say present, I mean turn-of-the-millenium... his assessment of Chen Shui-Bian looks a little odd now considering the 2004 election, assassination attempt and post-presidential scandals). It's written in a very laid-back style that endears the reader to the writer even when he seems to be doing the most mundane things. The fact that Ross is a Kiwi (an under-represented English speaking nation in Taiwan I might add) added to my enjoyment of this book if only that he takes a few unnecessary but highly amusing jabs at Australians. He also seems to like beer as much as I do.

Along with beer, Ross seems to be a big fan of Taiwanese history and offers up some pretty interesting bits from yesteryear: George MacKay, the tooth-pulling Canadian missionary in Danshui, absolutely riveting stories of aboriginal head-hunters (there are pictures!) and harrowing tales of British POWs in Japanese-run work camps during the Second World War. For anyone remotely interested in Taiwanese history but uninterested in reading the typical, highly politicized books on the market, Formosan Odyssey is a really fun start.

I really enjoyed the way Ross ties critical points in Chinese history with Taiwan. From the voyages of Zheng He (the actual Sinbad the Sailor), the rule of Koxinga to the way in which he explains to a layman why there is such friction between China and Taiwan. Again, none of this stuff should be cited in any academic work, but it offers a working knowledge for those interested in Taiwanese history.

Interspersed among his histories, Ross details his own travels around the island in the days and months following the 921 earthquake. Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny for anyone who has spent any amount of time in Taiwan. I imagined while reading his musings about Taiwan that virtually anyone who has spent two years in Taiwan could have written much the same stories. The fact is, nobody has. However, there are superb blogs that provide the same sorts of material online (with the added bonus of daily updates). My favorites are The View From Taiwan and David on Formosa.

Ross' personal stories about living, working and traveling in Taiwan are not terribly unique, but the way he presents them exudes a sense of camaraderie with the writer, especially among those who have done the same. We've all been there, done that, had that done to us. It's funny cause it's true. It's hard not to like Ross in the same way that it is hard not to like Bill Bryson.

There are some weak spots in this book. The middle chapters which deal with religion in Taiwan bogged the work down somewhat, although that may be my own bias. I have little tolerance for religion, especially those that promise salvation via the wallet, which is a major problem I have with Taiwanese folk religions. For all the beauty and curios that religion offers, there is ten times more blatant embezzlement done in the name of the gods. I found Ross' tolerant tone a little unnerving through this part.

While this tolerant tone irked me in this particular section of the book, I must note that Ross' forbearance is otherwise refreshing. While I do believe that any English-speaking foreigner in Taiwan could write a very similar book, I doubt they could write it as even-handedly as Ross. Foreigners in Taiwan are often one of two sorts: Overly apologetic (the you-just-don't-understand-Chinese-culture crowd) or spitefully venomous (the ethnocentric my-way-is-better crowd). There are varying degrees of both, but it takes a special writer to find that middle ground (I know I couldn't... I'm spitefully venomous). Perhaps it's a Kiwi trait. The only other person I know that would be able to write a fair and balanced (and not in the Fox News sense of "fair and balanced") book about Taiwan is also a Kiwi. Go figure.

It's unfortunate that Formosan Odyssey is currently out-of-print. If I had my way, which I never do, I would make this a required reading for anyone planning on staying in Taiwan for more than a year. It really gives you a flavor of what is to come your way (without really spoiling the surprise) and offers a lot of insights into the culture, the people and their history. There is something to be gained for everyone, from fans of politics, sociology and anthropology to those planning to study martial arts or simply to travel around the island. Even Taiwanese might find it an interesting account of how visitors see their nation.

Great book. Milo is sorry about the corners.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fifth Business

Fifth Business
By Robertson Davies

Fun fact: One of my high school English teachers had a nervous breakdown.

Actually Ms. Sturgess had two nervous breakdowns over the course of two years and she was my teacher both years.

Before you jump to conclusions, I was not the cause of these mental breakdowns. I was a pretty quiet high school student and I liked English class so I was hardly the sort of student that causes emotional and psychological duress among the faculty. I was more likely to be forgotten in a classroom than cause shenanigans. But suffer breakdowns she did, much to my academic disadvantage.

OK, I'm not trying to belittle Ms. Sturgess' psychological suffering. I am sure she suffered far more tragically during those few years (and beyond, perhaps, I have no idea) than I did. I have been blessed in the fact that I am (currently) mentally and emotionally stable. I have no real understanding of what sort of suffering is endured by those who experience a breakdown. I hope I never do. I didn't have bad feelings toward Ms. Sturgess, but she was my teacher for such a short time that I also didn't have particularly strong feelings for her either. As an adult I have looked back on her class and felt terrible for her. Whatever it may have been that caused such pain, I hope she overcame it. But at the time I was a kid and a breakdown seemed pretty unreal to me.

Back to the point. Regardless of Ms. Sturgess' mental health, I did suffer academically.

My high school English career started well enough. My grade 9 teacher was great. He had enough zeal to instill a love for reading and writing among a motley crew of slackers and burnouts. I don't envy teaching North american high school kids, especially the younger variety. It's really hard to make them care. I remember reading Twelfth Night and To Kill a Mockingbird, both stock standards of the Halton Board of Education at the time and both among my favorite books. By the time I started grade 10 I was really stoked about English, a testament to my grade 9 teacher. In grade 10 I was assigned Ms. Sturgess.

I don't remember much about the actual breakdown. She didn't break down dramatically in front of my class (or any class that I'm aware of) but she started to miss classes regularly by the third week of the semester. But week four or five (that's almost half the semester) we still had not been issued a novel. Eventually we were assigned a permanent temporary teacher whose name I have forgotten and no clear reason for Ms. Sturgess' absence was given. Rumors abounded, but the only clear reason was that she had had some sort of "episode." The sub was in a bit of a no-win situation taking over a class of students who had gotten used to the idea of not doing any real work in class. I'm sure she did her best, but I do not remember a single moment from that year's English class aside from Romeo and Juliet, which I hated at the time.

So I was really looking forward to grade 11 English and getting back on track with reading and writing. When September rolled around once again and I was assigned Ms. Sturgess, I was cautiously optimistic. Maybe a year's convalescence had helped and she was better prepared to deal with the rigors of teaching English. I was wrong. She never even showed up on the first day and we were assigned another permanent substitute for the semester. Try as they may, when a student knows a teacher is a substitute, it is never quite the same. The class was a dud from the get go.

I should have raised a stink but at the time I wasn't the sort of student that rocked the boat. I assumed you got the cards that were deal you and you made due. I suppose I could have transfered to another class with a more able teacher, but it just didn't occur to me.

So my stalled high school English career didn't really get off the ground until grade 12, which, I'm sorry to say, is a couple of years too late. My writing ability was in a sorry state (some might wonder whether it has ever truly recovered) and my depth of reading was pretty shallow. If it weren't for a series of extraordinary history teachers and one extremely excellent English teacher in my final year (Thank you Mr. Manzl and Mr. Switzer, wherever you two may be) I'm not entirely sure what would have become of me. That's not melodrama, that's the plain truth.

So what's this got to do with anything? Well, due to my two lost years of English, I'm probably the only student in the entire Halton School Board that didn't read Fifth Business. This Robertson Davies classic was used as an example of great Canadian literature and was virtually mandatory reading for high school kids in the 1990s. Not sure whether it remains part of the curriculum or not.

I'm actually glad I didn't get get around to reading this book until now. I don't think I would have liked this book in high school. Too slow, too thoughtful, too Canadian. I was all about the shock in high school. Give me All Quiet on the Western Front or Brave New World or something equally disturbing. A novel like Fifth Business would have seemed too plain, too close to home to enjoy.

Twenty years on, Fifth Business was a great book. I liked that my life is exactly half of Dunstan Ramsay's so that I could share in his reminiscence of his childhood, empathize in his musings on early middle age and read with interest his reflections on aging. It was a nice mix of remembrance and experience.

More importantly, I got the impression that this is not a great example of CanLit for young Canadians. It is much to conservative in nature for modern Canadian students (although there is something to be said about the conservative nature of Canadians, especially those of Robertson Davies generation). This book would have been out of touch in my day. It would seem positively archaic today. While I really did like this book as a stunning portrait of a Canada that ceases to be, I do hope that they have changed the curriculum and have found a new, better example of Canadian fiction for students to read.

As for Ms. Sturgess, I hope that she has recovered, found a modicum of happiness and has gone on to life to a ripe old age.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby
By Douglas Coupland

I don't even like Douglas Coupland!

I find he tries way too hard to the the hip, millennial author missing from the Canadian literary scene with his odd little novels about vapid Gen Xers finding their purpose in life. Yet somehow I have managed to read even of his fourteen novels to date. That's half of his entire fiction bibliography. How in the hell has this happened? How have I managed to read so much from an author I like so little? Well, I have a theory. Stick around and shake your head in wonder (or shake it in disbelief, either way, stick around)...

If I was to compare Canadian literature to Canadian pop music it would go something like this:

The heavyweights of Canadian literature (Canlit) are akin to the heavyweights of Canadian pop: The Tragically Hip (Mordecai Richler), Neil Young (Robertson Davies), The Guess Who (Farley Mowat), Joni Mitchell (Margaret Atwood), Leonard Cohen (Leonard Cohen). They are the artists who, love them or hate them, have transcended their work and have become icons unto themselves (well, in Canada, at least).

Then there is a much larger group artists who, although quite good, have yet to achieve the status of true legend. Sloan (Carol Shields), Blue Rodeo (Elizabeth Hay), Loverboy (Guy Vanderhaege). It's all over the map, but there's a lot of good in there. You see where I'm going with this, right?

There is also a nice little group of alternative/experimental artists that populate the fringe. Music artists in this genre include Jane Siberry, The Headstones, The Inbreds and such. Great performers if you are into those sorts of eccentricities. For me, this is equivalent to everything published by House of Anansi Press.

And then there is Douglas Coupland. Too mainstream to fall in with the eccentrics, Been around too long to fall in with the not-quite-legends and simply too crappy to rub noses with the legends. Ladies and gentlemen, Douglas Coupland is the literary equivalent of Rush!

Hear me out.

Nobody in Canada likes Rush. Not immediately, anyway. Rush is too strange, too difficult to listen to. The complicated rhythms. The odd time signatures. The pseudo-intellectual lyrics. The high-pitched wail of Geddy Lee. Rush is the bane of every kid in the backseat of a car who has no control over the radio station. A few bars into Subdivisions and your ears are bleeding and you wish you'd hurry up and get to the dentist already! Anything is better than another go round of that chorus!

As any Canadian knows, Rush is always on the radio. Due to CanCon regulations (does CanCon still exist?) 30% of all product on Canadian television and radio must be Canadian in origin (Canadian Content). In the late 70s and early 80s (when there was still precious few Canadian acts worth listening to) that meant a lot of Neil Young. A lot of The Guess Who and a lot of Rush. They really were the only three bands. They got a lot of airplay.

But Rush never fit the mold of, well, anything. And you hated them for it. They weren't quite metal, not quite rock and definitely not cool. You could never get away with wearing a Rush T-shirt to school, no matter how many skulls it has on it. But they were always on the radio, so somebody out there must like them, right? Who knows. Eventually, after years of repeatedly listening to Tom Sawyer and Limelight via Canadian media outlets, most citizens make their peace with Rush and accept them as part of the cultural landscape, but never quite accept them as canon. Our relationship with Rush has been a rocky one to say the least.

As for those people who love Rush, well, that's a different blogpost altogether.

The comparison to Rush, for me, explains the mysterious appeal of Douglas Coupland. He does not fit the mold of Canadian writer. What's a Canadian writer, you ask? Well, you can find examples of the sorts of books they write here and here. It's refreshing that Coupland wants to be different and he should be encouraged to break the cultural death grip other Canadian writers have placed on fiction in Canada. It's just that his quirky, gimmicky nonsense gets really old, really quick. Nobody actually likes Douglas Coupland, he's just always there. and just being there in canada is often enough to maintain a career.

I always got the impression that Coupland was a great fan of Tom Robbins and imagines himself to be a Northern interpretation of his style. If so, he does it with a lot less flare and imagination. Coupland continues to create drab, uninteresting characters living out impossibly outrageous plots. I mean Girlfriend in a Coma? Jeez! What a club-you-over-the-head metaphor for environmental degradation. Yeesh!

Anyway, Eleanor Rigby is just more of the same bullshit Coupland has been publishing for going on two decades. Fine. Good for you Mr. Coupland. I support your right to publish this stuff and wish you the best of luck and no ill will. The same feelings I have toward Geddy and the boys. I'll even buy you a beer next time I'm in Vancouver as well. We'll sit down and compare notes on Canadian literature and beyond. I imagine, if nothing else, you have a lot of interesting stories. Maybe then you can explain how you have duped me into reading half your novels.

Here's to the end of CanCon!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


By Ian McEwan

I broke a cardinal rule.

I'm a fairly disciplined individual who likes to live by a certain set of rules, most of them self-imposed (I have no idea why I seem to function better via self-discipline, but I do). I have self-imposed rules is virtually every facet of my life. It helps me stay organized. It helps me stay focused and it keeps me out of a lot of trouble I would otherwise find myself in (read: no alcohol on weekdays).

I have rules for reading. Some of them cardinal. One of my cardinal rules is that I must read every day. This is a rule I have not broken in over three years. Most days I read in the vicinity of 50-100 pages depending on how interesting the book is, font size and time. I also never leave a book unfinished, no matter how bad it is. Oddly enough, because of these rules I tend to read books quicker if they are bad. I can't set them aside or put them down, so I blast through trash as quickly as I do gems.

Another cardinal rule is that I never, ever read a book if I have already seen the movie. Like I wrote in a previous blog, I don't often go to movies, but I have seen a few along the way. I generally avoid novel adaptations figuring that I might one day like to read the book. Plus, I think that movies and novels should be mutually exclusive. Just cause a segment of the population doesn't want to take the time to read a story we should have to pander to them by making good books into sub-par movies.

But I digress.

I've seen Atonement. I can't for the life of me remember having seen it, but I have. I know I saw it because it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars a few years back and it was one of those years where I decided to watch all the nominees (before they went to ten nominees and I completely lost interest). I remember because that was the year of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, two movies I actually liked a lot and I watched them back to back. A rarity.

Despite the fact that the novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2001, I wouldn't have even bothered to pick Atonement up if I weren't so desperate. But I've been reduced to Douglas Coupland and Crime and Punishment on my bookshelf, neither of which are all that enticing. Breaking a cardinal rule and reading Atonement seemed like a better alternative to either of my other options and I figured the book would give me some insight into the characters that appeared in the movie (once I remembered the plot).

Well, it didn't really matter. Even at the end of the book I could not recall a single scene from the movie and the plot was completely unfamiliar (I don't watch movies drunk and I'm not prone to blackouts, so I'm at a loss for how this happened). In a way, I lucked out. I got a first-time read out of Atonement, and it turns out that it's a pretty decent read... if a bit plodding.

The first half of the novel center around Briony, a foolish young girl who fancies herself a writer of fairy tales and has her head firmly entrenched in her own fantasy world Through a series of tragic misunderstandings and misinterpretations, Briony mistakenly vilifies her older sister's (Cecilia) lover (Robbie) for a crime he did not commit, sending him to prison and social disgrace.

the second half of the novel fast-forwards a few years into the early days of World War II and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Briony reappears as a slightly older, slightly less foolish girl who works in London as a nurse. Robbie has spent time in prison and Cecilia has broken all ties with her family over the false accusation. Over time, Briony has realized the severity of her deception and has developed an overwhelming desire to set things straight and clear Robbie's name. At this point it's best to stop. I will not spoil the end. The plot is thin but what McEwan lacks in events he more than makes up for in emotional and psychological deconstruction.

McEwan explores the depths of some pretty intense human emotions, especially love, hate, guilt, shame, redemption and, well, atonement. It offers a wonderful introspection on the relationship between truth and fiction, love and hate as well as war and peace. McEwan balances between these dichotomies with a deft hand. It's a book deserving of the accolades it has received and a tour de force for the author. a must read for anyone who enjoys books that explore the depths of human emotions and the complexities of familial relationships.

I was truly surprised by this book and glad I broke a rule to read it. I figured it was the sort of book that would instantly hate but it turns out it is a very readable book. Perhaps I should break more of my rules.

Recommended. (Just don't see the movie. It's entirely forgettable).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold

Geez, Louise, who's got a bottle of bourbon and a straight razor?

If you haven't read The Lovely Bones yet then, like me, you obviously live either on or under a rock.

The Lovely Bones is the ultra bleak story of a family (The Salmons) that slowly unravels and disintegrates in the wake of the murder of their oldest daughter. Concerning the murder of (or from their perspective, the disappearance) the Salmons are given a frustrating lack of details (and body) in the weeks and months and years following the tragedy and each of the family members attempts to cope with the tragedy in their own, often misguided ways. It's an interesting study on the long-term effects of an unsolved crime on a family. Forewarned: Anyone looking for a cathartic end to this story will be sorely disappointed.

What makes this novel especially refreshing is that it is told from the narrative perspective of the murdered girl (Susie). Susie follows the heart-wrenching ordeals of her family and friends (and those of her murderer) from her place in heaven. This makes The Lovely Bones essentially the only example of a first person omniscient narrative that I have ever read (or remember reading). The Lovely Bones is a well crafted novel that never once slips into the easy rut of predictability. What I appreciated most was the characterization of heaven. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill Christian heaven and it refrained from the notion of judgment and everlasting peace. Thank you, Ms. Sebold. After some of the stinkers I've read recently, I needed a novel like this just now.

But since I'm late to the Lovely Bones party and everyone has already read this or seen the movie, I thought I would try and catalog some of my other favorite ultra-bleak novels. I don't make a rule of reading depressing literature, but I have made my way through a few torturous tomes in my time. Lets start with the most obvious:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I don't think there was a single moment in this book where the reader feels like any of the characters have a snowball's chance in hell. This book is hopelessness in its purest form.

The Little Matchstick Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

OK, it's not a novel but it's perhaps the bleakest of all fairy tales. I recall that even the mention of this story when I was a kid would trigger tears and sleepless nights. Of course, The Brady Bunch also scared me as a kid, so take that for what it's worth.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Who would have thought that a book about life in a Soviet Gulag would be so bleak? I remember that besides being totally soul-destroying, this book made me insatiably hungry.

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

A novel from the perspective of a soldier who has lost his arms, legs and face in battle. Nothing says bleak like the ruminations of an organic stump kept alive by machines with no way to communicate with the world outside his mind.

1984 by George Orwell


Any additions? A bleak book I should read?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Endymion Spring

Endymion Spring
By Matthew Skelton

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead. Not that it should matter, this book sucks. Just so you know where I stand on this one right away.

My wife hates to go to the movies with me. Not that I go to a lot of movies. I find sitting through two hours of Hollywood drivel to be only slightly less annoying than 7 a.m. road work on a Saturday. Therefore I mostly stay away. But from time to time I get suckered in and I am forced to remind myself and my wife why bringing me to a theater is a bad idea.

I can usually keep my cool through Act One. The novelty of the theater and the hope that somehow this movie will be better than all the others tends to keep me behaved, but somewhere around the 25 minute mark I begin to squirm. It's usually around this time that I lean over to my wife and let her know exactly how the movie will end (I know, I'm worse than Hitler).

From there things get worse. I will start anticipating insipid dialog before the actors can act it. At first it's only a whisper to my right (or left, whichever side my wife is sitting), but it gradually gets loud enough for people sitting around me to hear. Luckily, I live in Taiwan where few, if any, movie-goers have the audacity to tell me to shut up. They're all too busy answering their cell phones to do that, anyway.

After an unnecessary bathroom break and a quick stroll around the lobby I'll usually meander back into the theater for the final act and, lo and behold, I was right about the end, much to my wife's chagrin and embarrassment. As the credits roll I'm usually heard yelling "Crap!" at the screen and on more than one occasion I've tried to rally my wife to ask for our money back.

I'm not proud of this behavior. I just have little patience for stupid. And, aside from Taiwanese television and British tabloid newspapers, Hollywood movies the most flagrantly vacuous examples of pop culture there are. Formulaic codswallop from start to finish. I simply don't understand why people still shell out their hard-earned cash for crap. And when it happens to me, I lose my shit.

Thankfully, I didn't buy Endymion Spring. Nor is it the sort of book I would ever normally pick up and read. I generally avoid young adult fiction. But my accessibility to good books fluctuates quite a bit and I often have to read stuff I would dream of reading if I had access to unlimited books (This is actually the argument that has me very seriously considering the purchase of a Kindle or E-Reader. I don't know how much longer I can manage these dry spells).

Endymion Spring is a Hollywood movie in print form. Mindless, predictable formulaic drivel. What makes it worse is that I can't lean over and pester my wife about its inanity. I'm stuck with it. I'm stuck in a movie theater watching a Jennifer Aniston rom-com all alone, and all the doors are locked.

Endymion Spring chronicles an annoying brother and sister tandem (Blake and Duck) who find what seems to be a magical book in one of the Oxford University Libraries. The parallel story involves Endymion Spring, apprentice to Johann Gutenberg and his discovery of the same book a half millennium prior. The story jumps from past to present, hinting at the involvement of Faust and revolving around a but of professors who seem to fetishize books, often to the point of creepiness.

Seems everyone wants this book, even though it is never explained what this book can or even might be capable of doing. For all it's supposed powers, the reader is only graced with a few silly riddles from within and not even the baddie at the end explains what, exactly she plans to DO with this book once she has possession of it. Does it entitle the owner to fame and fortune? Does it preclude the end of times? Does it cook a mean paella? I mean, would it have killed Skelton to give the reader an idea of the power of this most-magical-of-all books? He simply reiterates how supremely wonderful this book is and how it chooses who is allowed to read it and attacks those not deemed worthy.

Which then begs the question, if the book chooses its own readers and attacks all the others, it doesn't seem to need Blake's help does it? Seems like the book has things about covered, what with its ability to attack. It's got a bit of a leg up on all the other inanimate books in the library that can't defend themselves against vandals and theives. Furthermore, it seems to me if you aren't the chosen reader, you simply aren't cracking that spine no matter what you do. Hell, only Blake can read what's in the book, rending the book useless to everyone else, lest Blake decides to share which, being Harry Potter, he doesn't. But, naturally, the baddies never see it that way. They figure yelling at a kid will definitely get him to do their bidding, no further questions. A plan brilliant in its simplicity, no?

Anyway, Skelton sets up all his characters and you can pretty much map out the remainder of the book by page 50. Everyone knows exactly who the baddie is right off the bat. And of course Blake is an unlikely hero with an intelligent yet spunky sister named Duck (cause she wears a raincoat, get it?). Some of the sub-plots (the seemingly insurmountable martial problems of Blake and Duck's parents, the involvement of Jolyon and Psalamanzer) are wrapped up so quickly and sloppily I wonder whether Skelton even had a writing plan. There are no surprising reveals or dramatic turns. It's just so darned straight forward and cliche. It's so cliche that toward the end when the baddie is explaining their treachery to Blake. Rather than simply finishing the job, she actually says things like "Foolish boy," and "You didn't think you could outsmart me, did you?" Seriously. She actually says these things!

The worst part is that Skelton actually leaves an open ending suggesting that I might be interested in a sequel, should the first print run sell well. Of course, it had just enough Harry Potter-esque fantasy in it to have made the New York Times Bestseller List, meaning that if a sequel just might see the light of day. Which means there are alot of people out there that liked this book. Shudder.

I know, I know... whatever gets kids to read is fine, right? OK, sure I can buy that and I wouldn't chastise anyone for reading or even liking this book. But is it too much to ask for YA writers to stray away from the Rowling Paradigm for a while and try to write something new and interesting? Another one of these and I'm liable to lose my shit, Hollywood movie style.

And that won't be pretty.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Where Men Win Glory

Where Men Win Glory
By Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer has always had an innate ability to dive headlong into a topic and deliver a nuanced look into subjects that are poorly understood by the general public. Mountain-climbing. Mormon fundamentalism. Survivalism. Like him or hate him, Krakauer brings the details. All of them. Where Men Win Glory is no exception.

So it seemed logical that Krakauer would tackle (no pun intended) the story of Pat Tillman, the former strong safety for the Arizona Cardinals who walked away from his multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist in the American Army following America's invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. A vast majority of us would have a hard time understanding the logic behind that decision. Krakauer does his best to explain it while setting up his broader narrative for its collision course with tragedy.

Like in his prior books, Krakauer weaves a broad history of the narrative setting around a focused microcosm in an all encompassing storyline that leaves readers literally swimming in facts and quotes about complicated people in complicated situations.

Krakauer pushes beyond the stereotypes of the football player-turned-Army Ranger and exposes a far more subtle account of Pat Tillman, the man rather than Pat Tillman the manufactured legend. A man that was far more than the sum of his parts. Like he did with Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, Krakauer digs deeper into Tillman's personality to reveal an atypical American jock, a far cry from the theatrical beer-swilling, date-raping Gridiron stereotype. Tillman was a thoughtful, moralistic and complicated character and I thought Krakauer handled him deftly. Krakauer presents Tillman and his family as sympathetic (albeit flawed) people with strong familial bonds. But he is careful to honor Tillman's legacy without mythologizing him. By the end of the novel, the reader really feels as if they know Pat Tillman and understand him, regardless of politics or religion. While some might be put off by his heavy-handed approach, I think it was necessary to understand the full extent of who Pat Tillman was and why he did what he did. It helps understand the tragedy that unfolded in 2004.

Pat Tillman fell in battle during an ambush in on the Afghan-Pakistan border region. He was shot in the head and died instantly. He was a true American patriot cut down by Taliban forces. He was a man who turned away from riches to serve his country and make the ultimate sacrifice. An unbelievable tragedy.

Unbelievable, of course, because it never actually happened. As most already know, Tillman's death was a result of "friendly fire" (a term I am very uncomfortable with. What fire is ever friendly?) and the events immediately following his death were shrouded in mystery and inconsistencies.

It's not an issue of "friendly fire" so much. Casualties by friendly fire are common. Much more common than most are lead to believe. It happens. Often. It's called the fog of war and no technology has ever been produced to alleviate this problem. The issue was: why did the Army cover up the true cause of death for so long? Especially when it was obvious almost immediately after Tillman's death that it was fratricide. This becomes the crux of the second half of the book.

As backdrop, Krakauer spends a large portion of this book chronicling the way in which Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the American invasion of Afghanistan via terrorist activity (culminating in the attacks of September 11th). He wanted to lure the Americans into an unwinnable quagmire where America would be somehow exposed. From their, Krakauer details the manner in which the Bush government steered American opinion toward war in Iraq and, once there, how they continued to massage and spin the truth in order to maintain the popularity of the war on the home front.

There is an excellent side story detailing the saga of Jessica Lynch, the soldier taken captive in Iraq in the first days of the war. What was fed to the public ("She went down fighting to the death") compared to the truth ("She was on a maintenance team, her vehicle was involved in a serious accident, she suffered serious injuries, was transported by Iraqis to an Iraqi hospital where she received compassionate care and never once discharged her gun) is startlingly unscrupulous. It's ironic that Pat Tillman was one of the 1000 Rangers deployed in the Jessica Lynch "rescue mission."

So it comes as no surprise that Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan was used and abused in the same manner. When Tillman died in 2004, Bush was up for re-election and a series of embarrassing setbacks was promising to do real harm to his chances at a second term. The Tillman cover-up was done in order to dilute the negative publicity generated by the disaster unfolding in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. Lauding the sacrifice of Pat Tillman, easily America's most famous soldier, became a political toy to lessen the damage of other stories. Death by "friendly fire" simply didn't fit the hero narrative.

Once Krakauer begins to unravel the complicated web of lies, deceits and half-truths told by the army and the Bush Administration is becomes hard to stomach. Literally. There were moments during the latter half of this book where I felt physically ill about the way in which someone's legacy could be so misrepresented and trodden on so completely.

Where Men Win Glory is a difficult book to finish. It's sickening look as the way in which out leaders use and abuse us in order to maintain power and further their own agendas. The fact that Tillman's death was used as propaganda to muscle through a particularly difficult news cycle. If you weren't disenchanted with your leaders before reading this, you most certainly will be when you finish.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Long Way Down

A Long Way Down
By: Nick Hornby

I recall reading once that Margaret Atwood loved Mordecai Richler's new novel. She enjoyed it every time he published it. I have struggled to find the source of this quote (therefore the paraphrasing) and I'm not sure if she really said it, but even if I imagined it, it holds a good dollop of truth about Richler, and so many others.

While I love Mordecai Richler, I find myself agreeing with this (alleged) quote. It is a more concise way of verbalizing my theory on Diminishing Returns in Literature. I nicked the idea from the original Law of Diminishing Returns, the economic law that is, and I understand how the economic theory works, basically. My theory is only marginally akin to its economic brethren due to my complete lack of interest in economic theory, so please bear with me.

Essentially, my law of diminishing returns states that an artist (in whatever oeuvre) creates something that awes and inspires his or her audience. It could be their first piece or their fifty-first piece, it doesn't matter. if it is the audience's first exposure to said art, it typically impresses. The audience is then compelled to explore more of the artist's body of work and, while still impressed, each successive piece experienced by the audience impresses slightly less until such time that the audience comes to the realization that the artist will never again give the them the same feeling they got from the first piece they saw.

Another way of explaining it would be to compare it to heroin or cocaine (although having never tried either of these narcotics, I'm working from hearsay). Users frequently say that their very first hit of heroin or cocaine is better than any feeling they have ever experienced and that addiction stems from their eternal pursuit of that same "first time" feeling, which they never get again. While I'm not a junkie, I do understand this concept.

It happens in music (Radiohead), film (The Coen Brothers) and television (The Simpsons). A radiohead virgin listening to any Radiohead album (pick one, any one, really) will immediately love it to bits. They will then like each subsequent album they hear significantly less, not because they are worse, but because they are all essentially the same. My first exposure to Radiohead was The Bends and it has remained my favorite. But this blog is about books and the most obvious literary example I can think of for my diminishing returns theory is Tom Robbins.

The first Tom Robbins novel I ever read was Jitterbug Perfume and I can honestly say that it is one of a small number of books that changed my life. I can't say exactly how, but upon finishing that book I felt like I had come through something and was somehow different, more whole, more in touch. Perhaps imperceptibly, but changed nonetheless. I have two friends who say they had the same experience after finishing Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, respectively. It doesn't matter which Tom Robbins book you read, it just has to be the first one. That will forever be: The One. All others will fail to attain the same status.

I have read virtually everything Robbins has written and each subsequent novel has impressed me less and less. It's not that I read the best one first, it's that they are all essentially the same and, therefore, aren't equipped to hit me as hard as the first one ever did. They aren't bad, they're just not Jitterbug Perfume.

The same can be said of Richard Russo. I read Empire Falls first and each successive novel impressed me less because they were structurally the same. And as much as it pains me to say it, Margaret Atwood (if she did indeed say it) is right about Mordecai Richler. I read Barney's Version first and went backwards from there. Each novel seemed like a variation on Barney. I suspect those that read the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Joshua Then and Now would say the same about Barney's Version. Other authors that fall into this category include Irving Welsh, Ben Elton, Leon Uris and Douglas Adams (sorry).

Well, add Nick Hornby to this list. I loved High Fidelity when I first read it about a decade ago. That book spoke to me, a certifiable music snob, like very few others could. Fever Pitch was pretty good too. Although I don't share Hornby's obsession with English football, I do understand obsession (mine is hockey). About a Boy was fine, How to Be Good was forgettable (in fact I picked up How to Be Good about a month ago and it took me 40 pages to realize I had already read it) and A Long Way Down was painful.

OK, it wasn't painful as such, but it was just sort of the same as all his others. I have nothing against Nick Hornby. He's literary elite, a rock star among writers with nothing to prove. He's found a formula that works for him and he has to tell his stories the best way he can and I respect him for that. Having never written a novel, who am I to say that he's fallen into a rut. It's just that I can't imagine picking up another Hornby book only to fall into another world filled with Hornby's hipper than hip characters.

One might argue that the literary law of diminishing returns is too critical. Perhaps we should just take solace in knowing what you will get from some authors. A literary comfort zone so to speak. But I know what I'm going to get from Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth but they never fail to amaze me, book after book after book...

Aw, hell. Perhaps I'm simply as jaded as a Nick Hornby character. I think its time to read some non-fiction. Wash the palette clean.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I Am Ozzy

I Am Ozzy
By Ozzy Osbourne

I like to follow-up light reading with something a little deeper, more intellectual. That's why I picked up Ozzy's (auto)biography as a follow up to Milan Kundera.

I keed!

Anyway, I think I've hit critical mass for rock n' roll biographies about rockers who have no business still being alive (Keith Richards, Anthony Keidis and now Ozzy). Unless something really interesting falls into my lap, this is probably the last chronicle of drug and alcohol abuse I will read this year. I need to branch out, you know. Spread the proverbial wings. Maybe read Charlie Parker's biography.

Anyway, Ozzy.

I can't figure this book out. One the one hand, it's hilarious. Ozzy is a lot of things: madman, alcoholic, rock legend, television icon, lover of animals, walking dead. His stories are, literally awesome. Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of rock and roll history is familiar with at least a half dozen of his stories and he seems to be a natural story teller (through his ghost writer, of course). He's so self-deprecating it's endearing. You can't help but love the guy. He's the lovable loser from school. The guy that always seemed to end up spilling water on his own pants right before an assembly, forcing him to endure endless ridicule about pissing himself but takes it in stride. There's simply nothing to dislike about Ozzy. He's the original reality celebrity (long before The Osbournes, I might add) and despite all the stories, he always comes across as one of the coolest people on the planet.

On the other hand, the book reads like a hangover the day after the mother of all benders (in this case, 40 years). But didn't I already know all this? Did I have to read the book to come to this cup of black coffee and greasy food?

This all raises the question: Was there any need for this book? Ozzy professes that he wants to set the record straight about his life. But who's going to read this book? Ozzy fans, that's who. People like me who think the first four Black Sabbath albums are the pinnacle of rock and roll (I'm listening to Volume 4 as I write this. Snowblind to be specific... sublime). People like me who actually freak out when they play Crazy Train at sporting events ("Dude! Ozzy! Let's buy more beer!). People like me who think Supernaut just might be the greatest heavy metal song ever recorded (do not even think of retorting with Iron Man... You will lose all credibility). These are the sorts of people that are going to read this book. People who already know the score.

For example, I sincerely doubt that my mother, who I know reads this blog (Hi Mom!), would ever, in a million years, think to herself: "You know? I simply don't know enough about that guy Fozzy Ossburn. Maybe I should pick that book up and brush up on my knowledge of classic heavy metal." No sir. I can absolutely guarantee this book is not falling into the hands of non-Ozzheads.

Furthermore, this book is essentially a rehashing of all the classic Ozzy tales: The formation of Black Sabbath from the wreckage of Earth, the recording of Paranoid. Tony Iommi's finger deformity. Ozzy getting fired for being a drunken fuck-up. Marriage to Sharon. Solo career. Biting head off live bat. Biting head of live dove. Touring with Motley Crue. Suicide Solution trial. Near death experiences. The Osbournes. Drunken debauchery involving women, guns, mountains of drugs, eyebrow shaving and, like all rock and roll biographies, repeated rehab stints. No new ground covered, here.

Don't get me wrong, the stories are great. Ozzy is a fine story-teller. But we've all heard them a million and one times! Anyone who is even a casual fan of Ozzy Osbourne is familiar with the bat story and the dove story and most people know the straight dope on it as well. And even if you didn't, I'm sure The Osbournes reality show cleared a lot of things up. There's no real reason, at this late date, to set the record straight. As memoirs go, this one wasn't especially enlightening. But then again, what secrets could Ozzy possibly have? His entire career was an open book.

All that being said, I like Ozzy. I can't say a bad word about him. He comes across as one of the most genuine people in the world in print, on record and on television. Sure, he's got a boatload of problems both physical and psychological, but who doesn't? If you are a fan, go ahead and pick it up. It's a quick read and it's fun. In fact, open up a bottle or four of Hennesy while you do. I bet it would make it that much better. But if you don't like him or have no idea who he is, forget it.

It will just give you a hangover without the benefit of the Hennessy.

And nobody wants that.

P.S. I can't believe that Ozzy passed up the opportunity to title his memoirs Diary of a Madman. I mean, come ON! That shit writes itself!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
By Milan Kundera

This novel is far too difficult to write about. It is a book with seven very loosely related narrative strands that, as the title suggests, center on the themes of laughter and forgetting. It's a damned good book. Far too good to have me hack away at the keyboard trying to dissect it for you.

See, I write my blogs on the same day I finish my books, so I'm not your best source for literary criticism. I'm really all about specific feeling of a reading. That's why I write what I write so quickly following the read. I don't want to get too far into my next book without chronicling what may have been on my mind during the previous book. If you're looking for literary criticism on the web, go to Publisher's Weekly.

Anyway, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a very textured narrative. Of course it is. It was written by Milan Kundera. It would be the acme of arrogance to assume that I can deconstruct (or even retell) a novel such as this in a forum such as this. I am simply not equipped, either chronologically or academically, to deal with this sort of book but I can say this: I thought it was The best book I've ever read by Milan Kundera. Immeasurably better than The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's much more personal, more human, more evocative. It strikes a deeper chord within and resonates. It echoes off of every fiber of your being an forces you to remember what you thought you had forgotten. It's a novel that could shatter your soul, or stitch it back together, depending on who you are, where you are and what you had for lunch. If there were a pop music equivalent it would be Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth. If it were a film it would be Donnie Darko. The Book of Laugher and Forgetting is a gift. One that is well left alone by the likes of me.

But there did exist a single sentence from this novel that struck me particularly hard and I wanted to share it with fellow bloggers and blog readers and lurkers alike. It a startling premonition of a world that Kundera had yet to behold in 1979.
One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.
Welcome to the blogosphere! Is anyone listening? Does anyone understand?