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Straight on ‘Till Morning…Nah, I’ll Sleep In

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I finished this book in perhaps the most appropriate way possible. As I crammed breakfast down my throat and gulped coffee, in preparation for another day at work. Even more appropriately, I read this in my childhood home, in the same bedroom that I once took flight from to that wonderful Neverland. Naturally, mine looked quite different from the one depicted in Peter Pan, but it’s essentially the same place.

I was a bit worried as I read this book. In the opening passages, I found myself favoring Mr. Darling, the father of Wendy, John, and Michael. He is a total kill joy, pitiful and a bit neurotic. But he needed order. He demanded discipline, and something about that felt right. These damn kids need to calm down, with their flying about the room and running amok. Mr. Darling spoke straight to the fledgling adult in me.

When the kids find Neverland, it only became worse for me. A far cry from when I read this as a child, Captain Hook, that evil figure right up there amongst the scariest literary monsters of my youth, had suddenly become a massively flawed hero. “You really should poison Peter Pan, Hook!” I thought. “Because you’re right. His boyish cockiness is extremely off putting, and the little bastard needs to be put in his place!” So there’s that, but also, Captain Hook’s obsessive contemplation of his impending death. Constantly he waits for the ticking of the clock to wind down, for the crocodile to approach and finish him off. I wish for the days when I was Peter Pan and thoughts like that, despite being as young as I am, weren’t so relatable.

But the last few passages of this book really hit home for me. It wrecked me in the way all children’s books should wreck adults. I imagine J. M. Barrie writing the end of Peter Pan with delight, knowing that perhaps the children listening to the their parents reading wouldn’t quite get why their loving ma or pa seemed so effected. As Wendy grows older, she forgets how to fly. “I’m ever so much more than twenty,” she tells Peter when he comes to whisk her away again. These types of adventures are done for Wendy, as they are for most adults who read this book. But Peter moves right along to Wendy’s daughter. It is time for her adventure, for youth doesn’t know how to stop. When we get older, we get to see it “wasted on the young.” Of course, it isn’t actually wasted on the young. That’s what youth is actually about. I feel you may have a difficult time discovering a book, as an adult, that demonstrates this idea so well as Peter Pan.

“I’m youth, I’m Joy!” Peter answered at a Venture. “I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.” How could anyone but the young spend their Youth so wisely?

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Rosemary’s Baby

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It is Halloween time, and as usual, I have taken the month of October to scare the hell out of myself with my reading choices. First up was Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. This will be among my shortest reviews, and for good reason.

Simply put, if you like atmospheric, slow burners, read this book! I know, you have already seen Roman Polanski’s adaptation, and it was horrifying. I agree! But the book makes you soak in the same bizarre world of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s new Gothic style apartment building. Knowing what ending was coming for Rosemary’s troubled pregnancy had no effect on the chills this book constantly gave me. Each stomach turning reveal that painstakingly uncovers the horrifying truth will cause a shiver to rack the spine of even the most stoic readers.

Really, the movie is an excellent adaptation. It was a rare case in which I would say, they are both equally entertaining and worth reading/watching. I do wish that I had not seen the movie before I had read the book, as it took a bit of the shock out of the ending. But what a shock! Totally worth reading. Go find a copy, and get spooked!

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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

 Vonnegut Blog 2

I am a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan. I honestly believe that he was the greatest American satirist. I think that his zany, on-the-nose, lack of subtleness was perfect for what he was trying to say with each of his books. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater has to be among  his most blunt works, and I loved every last page of, which is sad, because there were only 190 of them.

Within 20 pages, I realized this was not a typical book of Vonnegut’s. No spaceships. No Aliens. A relatively easy to follow timeline. By page 50, I realized that the reason he may have decided to forego his usual abstract motifs was due to the message at the core of the story. I get the sense that he felt while writing this, that there was little time to bullshit about the message on this one: American greed.

Eliot Rosewater, the central character, was born into wealth. More importantly, he is a veteran of the Second World War, and due to the horrors he was forced to witness, and in some cases, take part in, he becomes a raging alcoholic, but more interestingly, becomes an outrageously generous man. He establishes the Rosewater Foundation in Rosewater Indiana, which essentially consists of an office that he sits in for hours next to a telephone. If any of the needy citizens of Rosewater need help, wether it be financial, emotional, or otherwise, they know that Eliot Rosewater is a simple phone call away. (He also has a separate line to take phone calls for the Rosewater volunteer firefighters.) Essentially, Eliot has set up a socialist experiment in the heart of capitalist America.

With this premise, Vonnegut goes on a satirical rampage, creating an exposé of capitalism’s pitfalls. The entire book hinges on Eliot’s senator father, and his pampered ex-wife trying to convince him that he iss mentally unstable and to that he needs to seek help in order to retain his family inheritance…because he is too generous toward people that serve absolutely no use.

Filled with the laugh out loud irony that fans of Slaughterhouse Five are certainly familiar with, this book is a fast fun read. Also included are some classic Vonnegutisms like: Samaritrophia: Hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself.  Kurt Vonnegut is probably rolling over in his grave over rampant Samaritrophia in our country nearly 50 years after the publication of God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. Either that, or he is laughing his ass off to keep from crying.

Vonnegut Blog

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Slouching Toward Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Full disclosure, I really can’t stand the west coast. More particularly, I don’t like California. Even more particularly, I hate Los Angeles. With that said, it was hard for me to commit to reading this prominent collection of essays. The last thing I wanted to do was read someones “insider” thoughts on the good life in LA. I don’t think my eyes could roll far enough into the back of my head at the mere notion. Luckily, Joan Didion gives us much more than this.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem is, above all else, brutal. The descriptions of people, places, and events in this book are clear, realistic paintings, yet the prose is sparse, I would even go as far to say Hemingwayesque (ironic though it may be). The stories are straightforward relays of every west coast, Hollywood trope so that the reader can pick up something not so clearcut, the emotions. And Didion likes her emotions dark, bleak.

I think the most telling line comes in an essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” near the end of the collection. Didion records a conversation between two men. One of the men is describing how he lives near a neighborhood where, “they got one square mile with 135 millionaires.” The man he is talking to simply responds that a square mile with 135 millionaires is simply, putrescence, to which the first man responds, “So give me putrescent.”

This little dialogue reveals a major theme echoed throughout the pages of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The majority of the characters in these stories have managed to accept an image that looks great, even enviable. But it’s simply a shell, and what is beneath is putrid, or even nonexistent, there’s nothing left of them besides the shell. And every person or subculture is subject to this harsh critique. Even Didion herself, who’s style suggest an intense emotional distance. (she describes, without the bat of a shocked eyelash, a hippie’s infant almost chewing through an electrical wire while the parents trip on acid in the next room.) This style helps the essays, but instills no desire, in at least this reader, to meet Joan Didion through any means besides her writing.

In many ways, this collection feels like a bit of an antiquity. For example, Didion has a harsh critique of the movie industry here entitled “I Can’t get that Monster out of my Head.” She absolutely eviscerates several directors and movies they had recently released, including Stanley Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove. (She hated the movie which is sheer blasphemy) The essay was written in 1964. I have to wonder what shift in opinion may have occurred for Didion had she written this essay ten years later, in the midst of one of Hollywood’s golden ages. It’s small details like this that makes Slouching feel slightly dated. The main messages though, the real human messages at the heart of this collection, are still dead-on. Given Didion’s penchant for muckraking the human soul, this relevancy is slightly unnerving.

Joan Didion

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Pale Fire

Pale Fire Cover

I have climbed one of the several peaks of literature snobbery, in the form of Pale Fire. One of my favorite things to do, especially when reading books like this (meaning, a literature student’s simultaneous wet dream and nightmare) is to go to Good Reads to read, specifically, the one-star reviews. Pale Fire is one of several books that ushered postmodernism into American Literature, and as such, proves to be rather divisive among readers, and has its fair share of naysayers.

The first one-star review, written by Blake Simpson (I know we are unfamiliar with this book critic, I haven’t read him in The Times. But hell! Today, who isn’t a critic?) says “The poem is mediocre, the commentary absurd. Kinbote is about one of the worst characters I have ever read. (Interesting considering the reviewers claim of loving Nabokov’s other masterpiece, Lolita) His tone is pretentious, and most of his notes rambling and pointless.” While I think it is a third-rate method for writing a book review, I think this misled reader’s review is a good jumping off point for my own review.

To begin, Pale Fire” is actually a poem written by the fictitious poet John Shade. The poem is, in and of itself, decent, not amazing, but worth the read. In the context of Pale Fire, the novel, this poem is interesting, but (very) arguably, has little to do with the actual plot of the novel. The novel Pale Fire, consists of a foreword, the poem by John Shade, and an extensive line-by-line commentary on the poem. The foreword and the commentary are written by Dr. Charles Kinbote, a friend of the poet, John Shade, who, I will say again, wrote “Pale Fire”, the poem. Within the beautifully written foreword and commentary lies a novel with some classic novel elements. Kings, princes, love, murder, the works. Yes, a novel of political intrigue somehow comes out of a man’s commentary on a poem. It is as convoluted as it sounds, and really, that is all that I want to say about the plot of Pale Fire. More important to me, is the deserved reputation it has among literary critics, and how it heralded the forthcoming postmodern themes just starting to appear in literature around the time of its publication (1962).

The reviewer I quoted above said that he found the poem mediocre. I agree. That being said, if the poem has much to do with someone’s opinion on this novel, I have to guess that they probably missed the point. Blake Simpson really reveals how much he didn’t get the point of the book when he says that he thought the commentary was absurd and that Kinbote is one of the worst characters he has read.

It is established, pretty early on in the foreword by Kinbote, that the reader is dealing with a very unreliable narrator. By the end of the book, I felt that I had encountered one of the most unreliable narrators in all of literature. Of course he is absurd! Of course it is pretentious of him to turn a commentary on a 1000 line poem into a 200 plus page diatribe! Mostly about himself!

All of this is really immaterial. The truth is, Pale Fire is a novel that takes a unique to talk about how we, the readers, try to place our own meaning on a work of art. Or worse, it is about the indecent way in which we try to claim that our interpretation of a work must be precisely what the author intended. How many times have any of us taken a work, whatever the medium may have been, and made assumptions about what the author was trying to say? Of course, in the writing of this review, I have done just that. Some would say that it is impossible to do in our postmodern age. To an extent, I agree. It also is about how, often, a writer has no way to control a reader’s interpretations of their work. I think though, that it is important for a reader (or listener, or casual viewer) to be able to decipher the difference between personal conjecture, personal interpretation, and what an artist might have been trying to communicate with a line of poetry (or stroke of a brush, or riff on a guitar).

Besides the literary criticism subtext that can be read in this book (what I consider, personally of course, the most important element of Pale Fire) there are a few things that I would like to comment on. First, this is involved reading. Be prepared to use multiple bookmarks, and if you’re like me, and you hate dog-earing pages, just forget about it, it’s going to happen. Have a dictionary handy as well. Also, in the context of this book, I don’t use the term art lightly. This book is a work of art. It may be the literary equivalent of Picasso, but it’s still engaging and beautiful in its own way. If you can manage to take a step back and worry less about why, and more about how, you may really learn to love this book. I certainly did.

Nabokov Pic

 

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

As I turned, or rather, limped, into the last ten pages of this exhausting book, a guy that happened to be standing nearby said, “Oh, nice! How is it?” I looked up and realized that he was asking me about the book. “I like it, really funny.” I’m not big on talking when I’m trying to read. The guy is a coworker of mine. He says, “Do you think I could borrow it when you finish. I really want to read it.” He was ecstatic when I told him, sure, why not? Before he walked away he added, “Hunter is one of my heroes.” As he was leaving I thought, shit, that’s terrifying.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, like I said, exhausting. I don’t mean this is any derogatory sense. It sure as hell isn’t slow. At times, I was laughing my ass off while in complete disbelief. The back cover of the book has a passage, now immortalized in the Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp movie adaptation, where Hunter S. Thompson reads off a grocery list of drugs that makes the reader’s head spin. Seriously, how the hell did they take all of this shit and not die before writing one of the handbooks for the American counterculture? And then from there, Hunter and his “attorney” just snowball. And then they snowball. And then when you think one of them has to die or go to jail, or maybe they just burn out or run out of drugs, something outrageous happens again!

Though Thompson didn’t coin the term “gonzo journalism,” there simply is no other writer that comes to mind first when the term is used. This is gonzo journalism in its purest sense. This is not some pansy, Tom Wolfe, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test sideline observations. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an account of psychedelic drug use, by a psychedelic drug user, on psychedelic drugs. DRUGS! If you’re going to read this book, you better get used to the idea that there is going to be A LOT OF DAMN DRUGS! If that’s your bag, then great. Have fun.

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The thing though, is that Thompson was coming late to the party, something that he himself points out towards the end of the book. The idea of expanding one’s mind through the use of psychoactive drugs and all that Timothy Leary shit was starting to go out of style, as were the drugs themselves. And that is where the true beauty of the gonzo style comes into play here. Hunter Thompson was not trying to flout his expanding, drug-addled mind. He was trying to scare the shit out of us. Or me at least. I laughed a lot while he vomited in shoes and threatened hotel maids, but believe me, it was a laugh of disbelief.

A great deal of people like to disregard the subtitle of the book: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Savage indeed. Like I said, you want drug fueled anecdotes, you’re going to get them, but there is something within the pages of this book that begs for a deeper look. There really is an edge to this book that is deeper than dudes dropping acid in Vegas. It is really a great tradition in american literature, dating back to Gatsby, and further. It isn’t the firm grasp on the American Dream, its the finger tips just fluttering past whatever that enigma is that we have been searching for, for the past 238 years. In 1971, this is what that looked like: “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” (Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)