Friday, December 30, 2011

White Fang

White Fang - Jack London
Following the learning, growth, and adaptations of a wolf, White Fang tells of the resilience of animals as they try to find balance between nature and nurture. From the very beginning of a newborn puppy testing the limits of the physical world to the point where White Fang becomes a father himself, the novel tells of the learning process of an animal throughout his life. When White Fang first joins humans, whom the narrator dubs “gods” because of their power and ability to dominate the world around them, he immediately becomes an outcast. Picked on by the rest of the puppies, White Fang learns the limits of the laws of the gods so he can bend the rules without breaking them, and he learns how to establish his role in relation to the pack. Eventually, White Fang becomes the dog of a new, evil god who tortures White Fang out of all his training. White Fang reverts to “the call of the Wild,” relying on a killer instinct rather than a desire to prove loyalty to a god. Just when his situation seems hopeless, White Fang is rescued by a new god, who shows him love and kindness. Under this new ruler, White Fang re-learns the laws of the gods, how to show loyalty, and how to care.
I was not thrilled by White Fang. The story starts off with a tangent that eventually leads into the story of White Fang (tangents in general tend to frustrate me. According to my Kindle, I was almost 30% of the way through the book before White Fang was introduced, although it did move faster once that happened), and the way the story focuses on White Fang felt almost childish at times. I could picture it playing out as an animated movie, with White Fang voiced by some famous actor. As a result, I felt this book would be appropriate for kids – and an excellent lesson in vocabulary for them – because it focuses so much on White Fang. The omniscient narrator describes what White Fang feels without reasoning through it because he is only an animal and does not have the means to draw conclusions. The narrator talks about everything from the difference between a reproving bite and an attempt to kill, to the thrill of the hunt and the desire for meat. There were times when, being an animal lover, I felt strongly connected to and pulled in by what White Fang was doing. I felt anguished when White Fang was being tortured, truly despondent when the nice god went away, and satisfied at the fairy tale ending. Spoiler alert – it does have a happy ending. It doesn’t follow the entire life of the animal the way Marley and Me does.

The main thing I didn’t like about White Fang was how the narrator placed humans as gods. I still find myself reflecting constantly about Ishmael and how the desire to dominate leads to the destruction of the world, and by placing humans as gods in control of everything, White Fang reinforces the idea that humans are meant to dominate the world. Furthermore, the narrator talks about how white-skinned gods have more power than the dark-skinned god that provides the first home for White Fang. Yes, this book was written a long time ago, but that is not an excuse and it should not be read without acknowledging the racism. One redeeming factor I liked about the book was that the god who comes in to save White Fang from his horrible circumstances shows how those in power have the responsibility to protect those weaker than them, which in this case means humans should not torture animals.
Given my personal views and opinions, it was hard for me to read the lessons of the book in just the context of an animal growing up and adapting to different life circumstances. I felt the book would have made for a great discussion because there were so many lessons in there about human relationships in general, and too many prejudiced and stereotyped ideas for my taste. However, the novel mostly redeemed itself by the end. Overall, it comes out as an OK book.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dear Exile

Dear Exile (I can’t remember the names of the authors) is a compilation of letters between two friends “separated for one year by an ocean.” One went off with her new husband to be a Peace Corps teacher in Kenya, and the other struggled through the post-college-but-still-pre-adult stage of life in New York City.

I found the book very relatable. The Peace Corps side of the story felt exactly like what I am going through – struggling to move from strange to familiar in a new village, learning how to make local foods by way of local traditions, making mistakes with language, and trying to do something at school. Her water problems were probably a bit worse than mine because her water constantly made her sick, and she was also living with her husband, so there was somebody there to blunt the impact of the Peace Corps experience, but otherwise, it felt familiar. Similarly, the letters from the friend in New York were just as relatable for anyone living anything remotely resembling a regular life in the States. Embarking on the journey of adulthood, she needed her own apartment, she was just beginning a new job in the city, and she muddled through the endearing and heartbreaking relationships of a tattered family and always finding Mr. Not-so-right on the search for Mr. Right

I don’t have much more to say about the book. It is a quick and engaging read because it is a compilation of letters; it’s the guilty pleasure of reading somebody else’s mail.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City is a tale of the enchantment of the World’s Fair hosted by Chicago at the end of the 19th century. Amidst a quickly industrializing world, Chicago is out to prove itself to the rest of the United States of America by hosting a fair that can top all previous records of attendance and revenue. This goal is extrapolated to a national level as the US tries to put itself on the same level as European countries and cities. The fair is constructed in an unbelievable timeline, resulting in a new (or rather old) influence on architecture in the US and all sorts of innovations, from Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat to the Ferris Wheel, now a central part of all fairs across the States. However, just past the enthralling World’s Fair lies a charming man responsible the modern definition of a psychopath. This story tells the true story of how the World’s Fair was built in Chicago, and how one particularly suspect character took great advantage of the flurry of motion.

Larson’s work is very well researched and filled with quotes, excerpts from newspapers and letters, and interesting statistics about cost. However, sometimes his writing comes off more as a report and less as a novel. The book is known for its description of the architecture of Chicago and the fair, and it is chock full of architectural descriptions. I felt some of that could have been left out because I don’t remember the difference between the types of column, and without any background in architecture, it was hard to visualize some of his descriptions, so I found myself caught up in details. Larson also has a tendency to end sections, paragraphs, or chapters in the book with a sentence like “Later, he would realize that this was important,” or “Much would be made of this observation in the future.” Sometimes he would tell you why in the next sentence, and sometimes he didn’t address it until 250 pages later. It felt like a simple, overused method to hook the reader. The other thing that annoyed me about the book is that Larson assumes a base level of knowledge that I don’t think everybody has. He continually mentions specific locations in Chicago by giving the intersection in street names, and I don’t understand the necessity of the street names in the rest of the book. Also, he mentions three kids – Alice, Nellie, and Howard – who were so well-known that everybody in the US knew them by first name only. He doesn’t come back to tell us why until the end of the book. His methods of trying to keep the reader hooked left me a little frustrated – I felt the story could have been more straightforward and just as compelling without so many interruptions, assumptions, and details.

Overall, the book was surprisingly interesting. I even found myself as frustrated about landscape architecture as one of the architects in the book. The story of the madman is sparsely interwoven until the end of the book, but makes for interesting little tidbit reads. While I can see how it relates to the World’s Fair, I would also be interested to read a book solely about him because his story encompasses much more both before and after the World’s Fair in Chicago. The Devil in the White City is a fairly compelling read, surprisingly interesting, and reads like a novel because some of the facts are so unbelievable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Famished Road

The Famished Road – Ben Okri
The Famished Road tells the story of a spirit child who chooses to remain in the human world. Normally, spirit children live only a short while before returning to their idyllic spirit world, but Azaro chooses to remain in his African village life. He must fight to remain in his life, for all his spirit companions are constantly trying to lure, persuade, and trick him into returning to the spirit world, and there are several occasions where they almost succeed, but with the help of his parents, herbalists, witches, and others, he is always called back to Earth. While Azaro wanders the roads of his village and the spirit world, his parents endure the daily struggles of poverty and trying to raise a family in a world of broken dreams and false promises from corrupt politicians. The Famished Road is an epic novel of struggling through everyday life.
The beauty of The Famished Road comes through in every page and in every sentence. Okri’s language is poetic, and he evokes vivid imagery by crossing the senses, so that the reader feels the color green and tastes the sorrow of the villagers. His descriptions are vivid, which is needed to describe the world of the spirits and the spirits in the world. One of my favorite passages, near the end of the book, describes why the people in the spirit world are endlessly building a road that meets with destruction as much as it does progress
“There are many ways to be dead…the prophet’s people are the dead. Heaven means different things to different people. They wanted to live, to be more alive. They wanted to know the essence of pain, they wanted to suffer, to feel, to love, to hate, to be greater than hate, and to be imperfect in order to always have something to strive towards, which is beauty. They wanted also to know wonder and to live miracles. Death is too perfect.”
Okri’s words are lyrical, and the imagery vibrant, but because of that, I tried to find symbolism in every sentence, and I frequently had to remind myself to step back and read the book and not analyze the meaning behind every word. Also, I had a hard time following the book because the storyline was not always clear, and the book does not always obviously move towards a theme or lesson or climax. Particularly in the beginning of the novel, the spirit world mixes strongly with the real world and it is hard to tell what is really happening. There were times when the story moved quickly because it was so compelling, and times when I got completely lost because I couldn’t make sense of everything. Do you need to read this book? Probably not, but if you’re up to it (it’s 500 pages), it’s beautifully written and has some parts that really shine.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Books since November 2011

Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut

Hocus Pocus tells the story of how the narrator came to be imprisoned in the library where he is composing the novel. After graduating from West Point, he joined the war effort in Vietnam (might have been Korea, I can’t remember at this point). Upon his return to the States, he took a job teaching science at a public college to students who hadn’t been accepted anywhere else for various reasons. Across the lake from the college stood a state prison, and after he lost his job at the college, the narrator (I would tell you his name, but I can’t remember it exactly either – it’s relevant to the story, so rather than get it wrong, I’ll just leave it out) accepts a teaching position at the prison. After a mass prison break, he is then accused of providing information to the inmates (describing the lakes and trees outside) which made the escape possible, so he is now an inmate at the prison. The population of the prison expanded so much that it took over the college, which stopped was no longer a college after the prison break made it too dangerous.

This is my new favorite Vonnegut book – Timequake has been pushed into second place. The satire is noticeably subtle, and sometimes blatantly obvious. Brilliantly written, highly recommended.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

I’ll be honest here…I don’t think my book-lover status qualifies me to summarize and comment on Tolstoy. As far as I can tell, Anna Karenina is a long story set in Russia. It reminds me of both Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind because it follows many characters who are all somehow related. The uniting theme behind all these characters seems to be how they deal with guilt – how their moral misbehavior influences their thoughts, actions, and relationships and whether they use their experiences to improve themselves or just ignore anything and everything that doesn’t please them. That’s the best I can give you.

Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carrol

The follow-up to Alice in Wonderland. I liked Through the Looking Glass better, but I still couldn’t tell you the point of the book.

River Town – Peter Hessler

A Peace Corps novel from a Volunteer in China in the mid-90s, only a year or two after China reopened its borders to the world after the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. The author studied literature and wrote articles for newspapers, so sometimes the book gets a little dry, but he generally has excellent descriptions. He taught English at a teacher training school, and interspersed with his writing are excerpts from student papers. This enhances the story because you have the US perspective from the author experiencing China post-communism, and comments from the students that show the emerging Chinese youth perspective balancing parental demands, political propaganda, and personal desires.

I also liked this book from the Peace Corps perspective. I feel like I can relate to his story – there is the initial awkwardness, the growing comfort, what it’s like to have people visit from the States, and adjusting to a new, slower lifestyle. In terms of PCV books I’ve read, this one gets second place. I still highly recommend The Ponds of Kalambayi.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently has been hired to solve a murder. He believes in a holistic approach to the problem, so instead of just solving the murder, he figures out how everything about the case – even the parts that seem innocent, inconsequential, and not at all related – are connected.

Fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide everywhere will love this book. Beyond the first 3 chapters (40 pages or so) it is a quick read. The beginning introduces various characters and scenarios that don’t make a reappearance until later in the book, so it’s hard to keep track of what is going on and what information is important. Well-written, intriguing, moves fast, and plenty of satire. It’s like Douglas Adams with a hint of Vonnegut – if you like one or the other, you will probably like this book.

Ishmael – Daniel Quinn

 Yes, I read Ishmael again. That makes it the second time I’ve read it this year, the third time I’ve read it total. If you take this book seriously – which you should – it’s one of those books that sticks with you. Ishmael talks about the mythology that guides cultural development; how the stories we learn and act out impact our relationships and the world. It begins with an ad in the paper – a teacher is seeking a pupil with an earnest desire to change the world. The classrooms and lessons aren’t quite conventional, but you find yourself following along with the narrator asking the same questions, struggling with the same answers, and having the same Aha! revelations. Very highly recommended book, especially for those with an earnest desire to change the world.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is the story of a journey. After having a recurring dream, the main character, Santiago, leaves his life as a shepherd to follow the omens that will lead him to his Personal Legend (I think that is the terminology from the book). Santiago sells his flock to leave Spain and cross the sea into Africa in search of the pyramids of Egypt. His journey stalls, but as long as he continues to listen to his heart, he can see the omens that lead him to the next step.

I felt The Alchemist was a good follow-up to Ishmael if you consider the spiritual aspect of Ishmael. It’s one of those books that sometimes you feel embarrassed about advocating because it’s a cheesy story that makes you believe in your own dreams and destiny, but I love those stories that emphasize the importance of living life. I heard a song the other day that had a line “everybody dies, but not everybody lives,” and The Alchemist is about living your life – facing the challenges and taking the risks to find what makes you happy and fulfilled.