Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cannonball Read #4: First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

The first book I ever read from Ian McEwan was Atonement, and I remember nothing about it except that there was a pervasive feeling of frustration during my reading of that. I don't remember details, or plot points, or even character names – but I just left that book feeling... unsatisfied. I felt like there should have been more (keep in mind that I remember nothing about that book so more what? I cannot say) and that I have somehow been deceived and cheated from having a good time.

With First Love, Last Rites, that feeling came quicker, and with much more severity. It's a collection of short stories which, by the the second, I felt so repulsed with that it turned me off to the rest of it. After that, I couldn't help but feel like there was an underlying current of misogyny in McEwan's words. If I have to pinpoint a theme between all these different short stories, it would be that McEwan has written them from the point of view of men who are misunderstood in their public lives, and whose inner monologue are presented to the readers as an explanation for their awful behavior. I think McEwan is trying to get us to sympathize with these male characters with his beautiful language and sentence structure, and even with the horrific circumstances. Maybe in 1975, when this was first published (I think it's his first collection ever, and he was in his twenties) that might have been what people told themselves when they read. "Because he's so fucked up... right, right, I get it." I don't know. Reading it now, I just kept thinking, "Seriously? No sympathetic female characters whatsoever??"

The other problem is that because these are short stories, McEwan doesn't really get ten chapters to get into his character's psychosis and get us to understand his actions. And a lot of their doings/thinkings have severe consequences, and then... the story just ends! I think, "Wait... that's it?" and I just feel angry. I don't feel sympathy for his lonely/fucked-up/repressed/immature main characters – there wasn't time for me to truly understand them. All I'm left with is thinking that they are a bunch of psychopaths and McEwan is a fucking misogynist, and fuck his beautiful words and sentence structure.

I'll give you an example: the first story (why would this be his first story?? To show how controversial he is?? How ironic he can be??) opens with a young girl crying in a bathroom and a young male, the narrator, looking in the mirror, pleased with himself. We're not sure what's going on, but the narrator draws us in by telling us how he has an older friend who constantly challenges him about his youth by showing off some thing that "grown-ups" do. Like smoke cigarettes, or steal, or drink whiskey. Then one day, the older friend mentioned sex, and of course the young narrator had to feign knowledge of it, like he's actually experienced it somewhere. So he goes home with a taste of it in his mind and an urge in his loins, and look – he has to babysit his little sister. Oh, can you see where this story is going? The end result, which is actually mentioned in the beginning, is that his first foray into sex has made him a sexual adventurer, someone who others look up to in sexual prowess. Maybe McEwan was trying to say, "Oh hahaha, these boys are fucked up, but boys will be boys, and look – now, he is a man" in a mocking voice to show how truly misguided youths can be, and I might take him at his word.... except all the other stories are similar, in terms of women being subjugated, mistreated or just terrible human beings in general and so they probably deserved it.

Here's another one: A man studies his great-grandfather's diaries, and his wife is jealous of that because he spends hours and hours poring through the contents and no longer pays attention to her. The man wishes she would stop nagging and shut up, the wife breaks a precious family heirloom in a fit of anger (it came with those incredibly captivating journals from his great-grandfather) and then storms out of the house. The man – MIRACULOUSLY AND WHAT GREAT TIMING! – finds a solution that could potentially make a person disappear. So he tricks his wife into such a situation. And she disappears.

Bam! the story ends! (By the way, I did not the spoil any of these stories because I am leaving out so much of the terrible, horrific details.) No explanation, no fall out, or anything. I FUCKING HATE THESE CHARACTERS.

The only story in which a women is presented in a neutral light is still insulting. This short story is where McEwan takes the title of his entire collection, and it's about a young couple whose relationship changes as the season changes. The girl doesn't die or cry in the end; she isn't sexually or emotionally abusive; and she isn't a shrewd or a minx. What she is, however, is nothing. McEwan barely fleshes out her character, and if so, it is only done in the point of view of the boyfriend and even her boyfriend did not really understand her. There also didn't seem to be any real intimacy or affection between both characters, unless if you count their excessive fucking during the summer season. She was just an object in which McEwan used for a metaphor as their changing relationship in the boy's eyes. All I could think after that story ended was, "Well, at least she wasn't raped or made to disappear." But "at least" really is not good enough, especially in the midst of its sister (or i guess I should say brother) stories.

Honestly, I picked up this book at random (my criteria was 1. an author's name I recognized and 2. a paperback) so I really was not expecting much out of it. After the third story, I honestly wanted to just throw the book down and write "I HATE THIS CRAP!" over and over again. But I thought, "Let's stick it out. After all, he can't have become a famous writer off of just these kind of stories." I kept hoping that a strong/favorable female character would appear, and maybe be wrongfully killed/murdered/raped/abused. That absolutely did not happen.

I am not going to touch anything by McEwan for a long time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My computer has no virus, I do not have swine flu, and no one called me dirty names today. Phew

Two weeks ago, my uncle asked me what I wanted for my birthday. Keeping the Cannonball Read in mind, I said, "A book!" Well, being as awesome as they are, guess what he and his girlfriend got me?


Yes! I am now a very proud owner of a Kindle! I was so excited when I saw the Amazon box because I was like, "OMG IS THIS WHAT I THINK IT IS!!" (By the way, that's Ralph Ellison on the power save page. Which is funny because The Invisible Man completely frustrated me in high school. It's ok – I still love it!)

I mean, two weeks ago, I'm sure I said something along the lines (to friends) about how I like books better because it's tactile and personal like newspapers and blah blah blah, but now that I have this, I am so excited about it!

I really did have a lovely birthday today, especially since I was kinda expecting a shit storm to descend upon me. It's tradition for me to have the worst absolute luck on my birthday. Serious, ever since my 6th birthday when my mom threw a party for me and all my ballet friends were invited and then some adult there called me a little pig because I was pigging out on cake, and then other people caught on to that and thought it was pretty funny, and being a 6-year-old, I was naturally upset about it. Didn't want another birthday party for a very long time.

On my 16th birthday, I got a computer virus on my home computer that I shared with my mother. A porn virus! Yea, that was awkward. Not what you think – a friend's AIM profile was hacked and had a link with the requisite "This is AWESOME!" So I clicked. Palm/Face. The funniest thing was when the technician guy came and he just looked at me and said, "Porn sites are very bad for computers." I felt so embarrassed that I couldn't even explain how those pesky popups with blow jobs and penetration got on our computer.

Everything else bad that happened is too personal to go into great detail, but trust me – my birthdays are bad luck. My yearly ritual is to go about my daily routine and then get home and sit in bed and hope nothing happens.

But yes, this year's was nice, and not just because of the Kindle. I suspect the past couple weeks of terribleness (I had a shitty, shitty month in terms of everything in my life) might have cancelled out the Birthday Bad Luck. There needs to be a balance somewhere, right? I'm superstitious like that.

I had the day off from work (I usually get Tuesdays off) and I went to Crunch on a guest pass with my friend, Jana. That was an eye-opener. I hate gyms because I feel like a hamster on the treadmill and I don't like looking at myself in the mirror for long periods of time. However, since it was my first time working out in a long time, it was actually kinda nice to get sweaty and play pretend-healthy. The best part of the gym was the showers in the locked rooms! Yea, it does not take much to impress me apparently. I was just in awe that they had shampoo, conditioner and body wash, and you are standing on nice black tiles and the hot water was actually hot and cold water came out when you turned the dial, and you get to use lots of towels when you get out. It kinda reminded me of being in public pools as a kid and I just liked that so much.

Then Jana and I went to lunch at a low-key restaurant down the street, The Smile, and I had the creamiest, butternutty butternut squash soup. My sandwich – a baguette with black forest ham, gruyere and grain mustard – was pretty sweet too, but the soup was definitely a highlight. After, I wandered around the city looking for a gift for my uncle's girlfriend because it's her birthday on Friday. Then I finished a book that I've kinda been sloughing through (review should be up in a couple days).

For dinner, my uncle and his girlfriend brought me and my friend, Marissa, to the Gramercy Tavern. It was pretty fancypants and I was definitely under-dressed so I felt a little out-of-place. I relaxed after a couple sips of wine and good conversation with awesome company. The food was so delicious and unexpected too. My uncle had venison and he said it was delicious. That dish came with potato pancakes! I tried a flat iron steak for the first time tonight, and flat iron is basically the meat behind a cow's shoulder. It was braised and accompanied with slices of sirloin steak, all served with a drizzle of burnt milk (what is burnt milk? I'm not sure – Google can help you here – but it was pretty tasty.) The flat iron was the best part of the dish though. It was like happiness in my mouth.

Finally, walking home from the train, I spoke to the boyfriend (He's out of town) and he told me that he got me a subscription to New York Magazine! My jaw dropped and I am so excited for my first issue! He used to get a bulk subscription and NYMag was included and I would be allowed to steal it because he initially thought it was a girly magazine (I think they were fashion week covers or the design issue when he started receiving them.) He likes it now though (Phew, I guess i don't have to break up with him then. Totally kidding.)

So yea, that gift was unexpected and completely useful and a perfect fit for me. The boyfriend always finds the best ways to surprise me. He had asked me for my address yesterday and I thought he was going to send flowers or something (I complained last week that he needs to give me flowers) but he got me something much, much better.

Good day!

Ok, one more photo of the Kindle!

And here's one of Max lazing on the empty Kindle box. Max is our fiesty house cat. Do you know that blogger demands that you spell-check the word fiesty?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Please help me because apparently, I don't know how to use the library.

I got my library card last Tuesday and was really excited to start using it. I haven't been to a library for pleasure since – gah! – middle school and I remember all I read then were Stephen King books. So I was hoping to revisit that feeling of being in a nice comforting corner with a book that I am halfway through.

But this new library is so huge! I was just so overwhelmed by the shelves and shelves of books, and why was everything in hard cover? I hate hard cover books! The books I read need to be slim and easy to carry around because I only read on the subway!

So I just walked up and down the fiction aisle and looked at different titles and authors, but I just couldn't pick anything because I had the same feeling as when I walk around Blockbuster trying to figure out what to rent. I'm not a picky reader but I think my years of not-reading-for-pleasure made me want a book that I will really enjoy.

In the end, I just went to the computer and typed in Neil Gaiman and tried to find a Neil Gaiman book (Coraline – my review is below this post). Then I grabbed The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud because it was on the "Recommended Books" shelf. And for my third book, I just picked at random for an author's name I recognized and got First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan.

Really not the satisfying library lounge that I was anticipating, but I'm not sure how I should go about my book choosing in the future. So I think I will just go to the library with a specific book in mind and just search it in the system (and hopefully it will not be hard cover.) Any recommendations? My favorite books are East of Eden (my life and love). I know Steinbeck well), The Lovely Bones, and The Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (I worship this series.) I don't like chick lit because there's enough girlish drama among my friends so I don't need to read about it too; and I really enjoy great writing and great characters. To me, plot is sometimes secondary. I will also give just about anything a try.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cannonball Read #3: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline was my first Neil Gaiman book ever (Thanks for recommending it, Rebecca!) and it was not like I imagined. I didn't watch the movie, just the trailer, so I wasn't spoilered by much. My synopsis is gonna basically be like how the preview set up: Coraline is very bored with the world she lives in. Her parents seem like regular parents; her neighbors like old farts; and there aren't interesting places to explore around her house. One day, she discovers a little door in the drawing room (I'm gonna assume that's like British for home office or something) that leads to a different parallel world. It's similar to her old life, yet there are some peculiar modifications. The most disconcerting difference (to Coraline) is that all the people in this world had dark, shiny buttons for eyes instead of... well, eyes.

I'm not sure what else to say about the plot because I don't want to give everything away and it was quite short (My copy is 162 pages with big-ish print.) What stood out to me about Coraline was how mature she was about her seriously bizarre situation. I don't remember how old she's supposed to be (was it mentioned in the book?) but I assumed around 10, and there was a part where she went on a speech (it was long, considering how short most of the dialogue/descriptions were) that basically boiled down to her realization that being brave does not exclude being scared. In fact, doing something even though you are scared is what makes the action brave. That little speech was really my favorite part of the book.

As I said before, I've never read anything by Gaiman so this was really an en eye-opener. I don't know what I was expecting but I was really surprised by how sparse, yet detailed, his language is. His diction and sentence structure was really carefully chosen because he conveyed a lot without writing a great amount. It's strange because I consider reading fiction to be something I have to slough through – it's a enjoyable slough though. And I admire people who can write long detailed descriptions that make me want to read them, not skim through it. But even more than that, I aspire to write concisely about things that aren't necessarily full of facts (comes with my journalism degree/dreams.) So Gaiman's style was just such a pleasure to read. I look forward to checking out other stuff from him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I didn't break my uncle's baby

I babysat last week for my cousin, B. Most of my friends know that it's probably not wise to have children around me (I'm not a fan), but my uncle thought it was a good idea because his daughter actually recognizes me. So on Wednesday night, I was left alone with a 6-month old baby.

Now, keep in mind that I haven't babysat since middle school, and even then, those kids were in grade school. I was a little nervous and asked B's mommy for tips in case she started wailing. But I really didn't have to worry because she was just a lovely baby all night. We surfed the Internet together for takeout and then I let her watch a couple movie trailers on Pajiba (nothing centipede-related, of course) because she was fascinated by the colors and sounds. Then when my sushi came, we watched episodes of Bored to Death together until she fell asleep.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cannonball Read #2: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

This is another book I picked up off my roommate's shelf. She has a lot of non-fiction books that are devoted to the troubles of children with special needs. Since she is a speech therapist, it is a subject that interests her and that she is able to relate to.

Anyway, I was trying to avoid a non-fiction book because of my first book, and the cover of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time intrigued me. So even though it is quite a popular book (I googled it after I was done reading it), I basically went into it cold, not knowing what to expect. It took a little while for me to get used to the voice of the protagonist, Christopher, because his sentences were so stilted and choppy; and the connections he was making seemed kinda... random.

The book is fashioned as being written by Christopher, and it begins with him finding a dead dog in his neighbor's lawn. Christopher is sad for the dog, so he decides that he wants to solve the mystery of its murder and write it into a book because he loves Sherlock Holmes novels.

It's a simple enough concept, and I went into it expecting some kinda murder/mystery tied with a coming-of-age story. I don't think that's what it was. Wellington's murder (that's the dog's name) allowed Christopher to better explore the world for himself, instead of constantly being looked after by teachers and his father. And the fact that he was writing everything down really made it interesting, because as a reader, I kept thinking to myself, "He has already experienced that, and is re-experiencing it as he consciously puts the words to the page." To me, that meant that Christopher is more aware of the gravity of his situations than he is letting on.

I'm not sure exactly when it clicked in my head that Christopher was a "special needs kid" (I know it's before he talked about being a "special needs kid.") It might explain the weird random anecdotes in the book (like when he went on and on about math puzzles - I didn't like that) but the trouble is that since the book is written from his point of view, a lot of what he says may seem random, but they actually have an emotion behind them. I think...

I don't know. I'm really confused about this book. I really wanted to like it because I thought the writing was quite clever (and very faithful to the character) and the plot was jaw-dropping (I literally was trying to figure out the mystery along with Christopher) but some of Christopher's interjections about maps or science or math really lost me. And it also frustrated me that he never dwelt on emotional scenes, even though I know that by doing so, the author would be betraying the character.

I finished it last week and attempted to re-read it, but I think I need to give myself sometime before I give it another go. Honestly, this was one book that I just "didn't get" and I'm kinda bummed about it.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cannonball Read #1: Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen

I picked up Sweet and Low from my roommate's bookshelf because it had an interesting cover, and I think I recognized the author's name, Rich Cohen. The cover and the back is illustrated like a comic book with each panel showing a highlight from Cohen's story. The "comic strip" – if read from left to right, up to down – seems a little disjointed, weaving personal family history in between general factoid-y facts, and it ends with a cartoon character Rich Cohen with a talk bubble that says, "To be disinherited is to be set free!"

The inside of the book very much reflects the spirit of the comic-cover in the sense that readers will not only get the family history behind Sweet N' Low, a substitute sweetener that can be found in just about any dine, but also a good knowledge of post-war Brooklyn, the history of sugar and saccharin, sugar's eventual usurper, and lots of politics. Cohen has taken a personal family history and tacked on facts, facts, facts. Though it complemented his narrative, the real interest (for me) lies in the family tension and the reasons for Cohen's mother's disinheritance from the Sweet N' Low fortune.

In the beginning, there was Ben Eisenstadt. Grandfather Ben (to Cohen) had The Eureka Moment while pouring sugar out of those canisters atop diner tables, and then followed that idea through by building a machine that stuffed sugar into little packets. After that idea was stolen by a company (he didn't get his plans patented), Ben came up with a sugar substitute by combining saccharin and cyclamate, stuffed it in a pink-colored package (because pink stood out) and sold them to diabetics at first, then later to people who just don't want to get fat. Sweet N' Low became a huge hit, and it created a market for something that people didn't know they wanted until they had the options.

Ben was married to Betty – who seems to have the most depressing childhood ever because Cohen tells us readers that she came away from it believing that love is finite and is never unconditional – and they had four children: Marvin (Uncle Marvelous who later ran Sweet N'Low's factory), Ira, Gladys, and Ellen - who is Cohen's mother. Throughout the book, Ellen seems to be portrayed as the black sheep of the family: as the daughter that moved from Brooklyn to Illinois, the daughter that had absolutely nothing to do with the factory or the business, the daughter that left her "real family" to be with her husband. Of course, this was also written by his son (who dedicated the book to her) and she was disinherited from Ben and Betty's wills.

I felt like Ben and Betty's problems with Ellen was the driving force in the story. After all, if Ellen had gotten a nice inheritance, Cohen would not be writing the book right now. Why she was included so little in Ben's will compared to her brothers and sister (who got property and the company, and hence, the fortune of the company), no one will ever know and Cohen does not really speculate. The real drama happens when Betty left Ellen absolutely nothing (not even a necklace) and the words on the will seemed to have an intent to hurt. The readers could guess that it's because Ellen had introduced Ben to the cardiologist who operated on him, and Ben eventually died (the family blamed the doctor, as well as Ellen); Cohen allowed speculations of his aunt Gladys manipulating her mother's will by whatever sort of coercion (Gladys oversaw her mother's medication and then the woman – Cohen made sure to let us know that he thought she was batshit insane – installed a fucking camera to her mother's bedroom just so she could watch her); and maybe it was because Ellen was a girl and the youngest, and to Betty, love was finite and love was never, ever without conditions.

I realized that I have written a lot, but I really only covered half of the book. The middle of the books dealt with the embezzlement scandal in Sweet N' Low and the indictments of two key employees, and also how closely connected the company was to Alfonse D'Amato (former senator of New York who is like a lightning rod for scandals) and the mafia. That was interesting, but I think I could have gotten those from reading loads of old newspaper clips and court documents. Cohen just helped us put all the pieces together in one place, and then tried to connect them with some family story or other.

I wish there had been more Gladys-Ellen-Betty drama included because I felt like nothing was really answered. Cohen had interviewed his Aunt Gladys for the Sweet N' Low history, but her voice seemed absent during the Ellen-got-disinherited-because-of-crazy-Gladys part of the book. Instead, he got the dialogue from depositions to highlight the hypocrisy and insanity of his aunt, yet he didn't ask her during their interview, "Hey Aunt Gladys, why did you say that about your sister if it wasn't true?"

But then again, writing your own family's history is difficult, and it may be even harder when everyone is so at odds with each other. While reading this book, I kept picturing my mother's family (they had an inheritance problem too, though it's really not at all similar to the Eisenstadt's) and I remembered that knowing all the back-and-forth between the family members did not answer any of my questions (this happened in my childhood.) If anything, it made me more confused about her family, about our place in her family, and what it meant for the future (Weddings? Funerals?) . So honestly, I have to give SERIOUS props to Rich Cohen for going to estranged family members who don't like his mother and interviewing them, and then coming out with such a well-written, humorous (he's very dry, like when he tried to illustrate Gladys' hold of reality by telling the readers that she always believed that OJ did not do it), and relatable book.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cannonballing like whooooaaa

I had a terrible day today (though my Halloween was good - will have my costume pictures up soon!) but when I got home, I remembered that November 1st is the beginning of the Super-Awesome-Amazing-Godtopulicious Cannonball Read, and I am now a little bit cheerier. I haven't finished a book yet, but I am currently three quarter of the way through one, so hopefully, after a couple more subway rides since that's where I do most of my reading, I should have a post up soon.

I've been thinking about what I want to read. If anything, the Cannonball Read will get me to read all the books that I say that I would if I could. I could, I could, and I should! Last week, I re-watched Stardust with a friend, and I realized that I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman. So perhaps I can start with Stardust...

Anyway, here's a list I've came up with:
1) Stardust by Neil Gaiman (right, you know that now.)
2) The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
3) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson
4) The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (yea, yea I know - shoot me.)
5) The Assassin's Gate by George Packer
6) Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
7) A History of Love by Nicole Krauss (If I'm reading the husband, I gotta be reading the wife too.)
8) The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
9) Whatever else that I can find on my roommate's bookshelves.

This first book I am reading is from my roommate, and it's a non-fiction book. Looking above at my (really short) list, it may seem like I don't discriminate between fiction and non-fiction. However, I am usually more of a fiction reader. I only started on non-fiction in my free time (college books don't count! coz all the knowledge has left my brain) because I really like reading war books, so that turned me on to that kind of writing.

Speaking of war, I was in one yesterday. No, actually, I was at a party yesterday and I met a man who used to be a war correspondent for ABC News! He worked in various war-torn regions in Africa, and he speaks French, Italian and Farsi. I was pretty buzzed when I met him so I must have came off a bit fan-girl-ish and gushy. I just kept asking him questions about his career and the various wars that he's been in, and what he does now, and if he wishes to get back into it. I also remember telling him that I think anyone who is a war journalist must be a little bit crazy, which I meant as a compliment, but now that I'm thinking about it, he might not have taken it that way. I don't know.

Anyway, going back to Cannonball Read, I really should try to read more classic fiction. I feel like all I read in college was philosophical papers and newspaper articles. Granted, they were my area of study, but I do miss reading fiction. I used to say that only grown-ups read fiction, "which suuuccckkkss." I don't know if this means that I am getting more grown-up (shoot me, please.)

Point of this post: Cannonball Read makes me smile.

Update: I just got inspired by a fellow Pajiban's Cannonball Read blog. Alli has covers of the books that she is reading and books that she has finished on her sidebar, and I really wanted that too! So I went to Book Gadget, took a much longer time than I will admit to set it up (Seriously, it's embarrassing especially since I consider myself to be pretty savvy with the Internetz), and now I have it! Look!