Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cannonball Read #12: The Alienist by Caleb Carr

I'll make this quick - Boyfriend is making dinner and I want food... Also, I am lazy.

Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be 'alienated,' not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were known as alienists.

The Alienist is a thriller set in New York City in the 1800s. It begins with the narrator, John, attending the funeral of his old friend, Theodore Roosevelt. After the funeral, he and a mutual friend, Lazlo Kreizler, reminisce about the times that they've had with Teddy. He then begins to look back on the memory that stands out the most, which is when a serial killer made his first known appearance in 1896.

At that time, John is a police reporter for The New York Times, and he is summoned by Kreizler, an alienist, to a crime scene where a young boy, dressed up as a girl, has been murdered and mutilated. The description is horrifying, and since it was close to the beginning of the book, I did not yet know what I getting into and therefore had no time to mentally prepare myself. The first murder is most deeply engrained in my mind, out of the many others that happen throughout the book.

The police are indifferent to this crime because the young boy is a prostitute for gay men, and also because he is part of an immigrant community. Roosevelt, who is the police commissioner at that time, knows that the case will be swept under the carpet by the corrupt police force – so he decides to give the case to Kreizler and John. At that time, the study of human psychological ailments was not a real science, and any admission of knowledge of mental conditions was considered shameful and scandalous. Roosevelt decided to give the case to Kreizler because he believes in "progress" (mentioned a lot in the book) and it marks a step towards the modern way of profiling a serial killer. There is a lot of talk of the killer's childhood and his environments that has formed his current actions and motives. For example, since a lot of these murders take place near a body of water (on a bridge, or by a reservoir), Kreizler thinks that the killer might have grown up in a religious household, since the murder near the water might signify a sort of emotional baptism.

This book is not deep, nor are there any hidden meanings. But it completely delivers what it advertises, and more. It is fascinating, fast-paced and so scary. My favorite parts of it are the descriptions of old-time New York City. As someone who loves this city, I really don't know the history of it, and it was so interesting to see the Lower East Side painted as such a circus show for prostitutes and decrepit tenements. I loved reading about a part of New York described, and then picturing what it looks like today in comparison.

Cannonball Read #11: Brave New World by Aldlous Huxley

Brave New World is one of those "high school" books. You know what I mean, right? Most Americans read this in high school in their literature class, and as a result, there are typically two camps of responses when you talk about it. The first is "Oh my God, I love it! It's so insane and beautiful etc etc." (For me, East of Eden by John Steinbeck gets this response.) The second is "I remember only hating this in high school." (Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger gets this.)

I never got a chance to read this when I was in school, and I decided to pick it up because I wanted to compare it to 1984 by George Orwell. I read it last summer and I absolutely loved it, though I could not figure out why and Cliff Notes was not much help. But all the book reviews and the Wikipedia entry had always referenced Brave New World, so I thought, "Why not?"

Finishing it, I can only say that I wish I had read it in high school. At least, with all the discussion that the teacher will (try to) generate, I could have some strong opinion about it. Huxley has created a incredible world, and the details of his inventions just blow my mind. However, the world in which the civilized people live in thrives and prides itself on being empty – nothing has meaning. And because of that, I find it hard to empathize with any of the characters. Even the most human character of all, John the Savage, I cannot seem to really care for, because his humanity is really a result of his upbringing, and contrasted against Bernard and Lenina, he is a caricature.

If you haven't read this book (I doubt it), here is the brief summary: The book is set somewhere in the future, and the mass majority of the people are united in the name of "Ford." Things are peaceful and stable because every single human goes through conditioning ever since they are babies. Before the humans are born, they go through some baby engineering process whereby they are awarded qualities according to the castes they belong to: Alphas (the best and brightest... also the tallest), Betas, Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons. The conditioning consists of repeated phrases during the baby's slumber, like "Everyone belongs to everyone else," or "ending is better than mending." Basically, the conditioning gets humans to never want to be alone and dissatisfied with themselves, and always want to serve the main cause ("Ford.")

Midway through the book, John, who is considered a savage because he lives in "uncivilized" pockets of the Earth and believes in ridiculous concepts like family and love, comes into the story. He had pictured the civilized world to be a "Brave New World," and is initially excited about it. But eventually, he realizes that he is the only person there who has any original thought and feeling, and he is disturbed by how inhuman humanity can be.

I understood the main concepts of the book, and I definitely think it is a masterpiece. I'm just not sure if I completely got it, and I wish I had read this in a classroom. With 1984, I was thinking about it for days after I finished it. With this book, I felt that everything that should have happened happened. I did not really see a serious conflict. The civilized people acted as they should have; John the Savage acted repulsed and disturbed, as he should have.

Because the characters in 1984 still had the capacity to make a choice, it was heartbreaking when Winston eventually succumbed to his society's mindset. In Brave New World, the people had no way to realize that they didn't have a choice. It's a terrifying world that Huxley has created, but it's only terrifying to us because we are able see the alternative.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

New post over at my news blog

One of my New Year's resolutions is to try to write on my news blog more. It was denestake before this was denestake, but since I wanted a personal blog, I had to think of a new name (I know, I was mighty creative when I tacked on "on news.")

Anyway, it's pretty shameful how few times I updated it last year, so I think I'm off to a very good start by updating it before the month of January is over. It actually takes a lot of effort to write each post, but I must continue doing this because I want to feel like I haven't given up on journalism. The article I wrote about was featured in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine:

Vigor Quest by Tom Dunkel

These photographs are by Henry Leotwyler.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

There's a reason why this is not a travel blog.

I tried to take pictures in Singapore, but I guess I didn't try hard enough because the only photos I have are of my family and friends. I don't have a single (use-able) shot of Singapore. You're just going to have to take my word that it's an amazing country. I grew up there, so I always feel silly when I take photos that seem tourist-like because it's not like I haven't seen any of those sights before. I only have a couple, but they aren't that great...

Ok, here's one shot I found pretty interesting:

I was riding the bus somewhere and there was a Hindu temple outside. It was a very tall building with colorful Indian deities on its edge staring down at us. You only see part of it here (a blurry part - sorry) but you get the idea. I was pretty wowed by it because it was the most colorful building on the block.

I spent my New Year's Eve with family. One of my aunts works for the television station in Singapore, and she had organized a variety show that counts down to the New Year for the Indian TV channel. We sat in the audience and we clapped and cheered whenever it was required of us.

Here's a shot of the stage before the show started:

The show had lots of awesome dances (though there were also some awful ones too - my high school bhangra team could do better) and two hours passed quickly enough. I pulled little poppers when midnight came and blew on my noisemaker.

I got really excited about this:

TIME OUT SINGAPORE!! Like Time Out New York, only without the Gay Nightlife section!

I'll leave you with this picture:

This is my aunt and uncle. They have been married about 40 years, and they still hold hands wherever they go. It's one thing to see a young couple holding hands (that one thing is nauseating. Sorry, all you hand-holders out there... yes, me included.) It's something else entirely when you see that it's a couple who have been together that long.

Anyway, I noticed them doing it when I was 16, and I always thought it was really sweet and cute of them. When I was 18, I finally made a comment about it to my mom one day. She looked at me like she thought I was kidding. Or stupid. She said, "Your uncle is close to blind. Your aunt holds his hand because he can't see where he is going... not because they are so in love."

That stunned me, and then it cracked me up. Even though what I originally thought had an "awww" factor, I like the true version better. Her wanting to help him, after all their years together, makes it sweeter.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cannonball Read #10: The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud

Cannonballer's note: This is not going to be an easy review to write and I have been putting it off for about two months now. The Emperor's Children is an amazing book. Unfortunately, I had to return it last month (why didn't I renew it? I'm still beating myself over the head with that.) so I will be doing this review by memory, and I will not do it justice.

The tricky thing about The Emperor's Children is that I did not know what I was getting into when I started it. With most books, I feel like I would a general sense of what I am going to get - maybe not in terms of plot, but definitely with what you might take away from it: a good story. Or a bad story. The Emperor's Children completely sucked me in, had me going along with the plot and the characters and all their doings, and after I was done with it, I kept flipping through random pages to reread it, to relive the feelings I got when reading a specific passage. I could not help but be affected by it, by the pervasive sense of entitlement (or lack of) in the characters, and it made me rethink how I really saw myself, and how the way I saw myself affects the world around me.

Messud's story is multilayered, and there is a wealth of interesting and seriously messed-up characters. When I say "messed-up" I really actually mean normal, because all these characters, like people in real life, appear very normal (not weird, not messed-up) outwardly; but if you were to look in their heads and really listen to their inner babble, they are just so self-absorbed and their entire world view is held together by their self view, yet they aren't even aware of them selves. We are all that way, of course. Only Messud is astute and talented enough to properly put it into words, and make it even kind of humorous.

There is Danielle, the most practical of all the characters perhaps because she is from the Mid-West (this is often referenced) who works as a documentary producer and unwillingly develops frivolous shows such as the dangers of liposuction; Julius, gay and half-Vietnamese, who used be New York's it-boy for incisive (and scathing) cultural reviews but is now hiding his face in offices as a temp; and Marina, the beautiful daughter of a celebrated journalist and columnist, Murray Thwaite, who has just moved back in with her parents after the end of a long-term relationship. These three were best friends since they attended Brown together, and now at 30, feel like their futures of been cheated out of the promising potential initially presented on graduation day. The novel's title comes from Marina's manuscript for a book that she has been working on (read: struggling on) for ten years, The Emperor's Children Wears No Clothes, about what the clothes that children wears tell us about the period's cultures and their parents.

Set in New York, the inner dialogue for these characters are surprisingly spot-on for the narcissism and entitlement that can only be bred by those who live in the city (Yes, I arched my eyebrow at myself several times while reading this.) Murray Thwaite, Marina's father, is perhaps the epitome of the lack of self-awareness that comes from having been celebrated by many as an independent, liberal, self-made man with high morals. He is the person most likely as the titular Emperor, as he has built himself up as a man who is ethical and wise, yet his actions contradict the mantra he espouses. As he sits behind his desk preparing to write what he considers to be The Book That He Has Been Preparing To Write His Whole Life, Murray debates whether if How To Live is too grandiose a title. A minute later, he is considering how he should start an affair. Messud doesn't make any judgments in her writing, though the view in which Murray's hypocrisy is shown is often laughable, as is Marina's blatant narcissism and Danielle's holier-than-thou attitude.

The entire story happens during the year of 2001, and mid-way through, two characters appear as the shaker-uppers. Ludovic Seeley, an ambitious, snake-like editor from Australia arrives in New York with his mind set on Revolution (in metaphorical New York terms of course) as he pursues the hand of Marina. The other change agent is Bootie Tubb, Marina's cousin from Watertown, NY, who recently dropped out of college because he believed that college is a farce, just a way to chase passable grades using the least amount of intellectual effort (he's somewhat right). He arrived in New York with the promise of Murray Thwaite as a mentor, and as the months tick by, he is sorely disappointed to find that Murray himself is also a farce.

One of my favorite parts in the book is when Julius is listening to Marina chatter on and on about her life and how her friend's problem has somehow became her problem, and she never once asks about him or his life (they haven't seen each other in ages.) At the end of that, he mused that the difference between him and Marina is that he has to work to feel entitled, to feel good enough. But for Marina, it's such a part of her that she does not even think about that. She is so ensconced in her inflated sense of worthiness, perhaps taking the cue from her father, that she cannot even stop and re-examine her life.

Please, please read this book if you get the chance, especially if you live in a city much like New York. I recognize so many people in it, myself included. It does not paint humans in a particularly flattering light, but by the end of it, I still wanted them all to figure their shit out (for the lack of a better phrase) and be happy.

Cannonball Read #9: The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

To say that this book was a disappointment would be a gross understatement. I read The Lovely Bones several years ago and loved it so much. So it was natural that during the Cannonball Read, I would try to find other stuff of hers to love. Yea, bad idea, because now I'm wondering if The Lovely Bones was just a lucky fluke and I'm afraid to read her memoir, Lucky.

The Almost Moon begins in the same shocking way as The Lovely Bones. “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." This first sentence in the book came from Helen, the main character, who had just suffocated her sick, senile elderly mother. The entire book takes place over the course of two days (or three?) and it follows Helen as she deals with the death of her mother and her hand in it (that is a purposefully morbid pun. Sorry.) In Helen's mind, the murder was not malicious because she felt like she was only trying to end her mother's non-existent existence. If this was done in a hospital with a doctor present, it would be called euthanasia. But since Helen held her hand over her mother's face in her own home (breaking her nose in the process), it's murder.

There are many flashbacks that reveal her relationship with her parents. Her mother was mentally ill - she never left the house, and there were times when she had "spells" and was nearly unfunctionable.. Her father was so in love with her mother and so attentive to her needs. Their neighbor had remarked to Helen, when she was young, that her mother was not the only one crippled by her fear. Her father was also crippled by his need for her mother.

The history of their family was most interesting to me, but even there, the writing is contrived and painful and slow. I found myself having to reread whole chapters because I just could not get myself interested in Helen's motivations, or her next stupid action.

What stupid action? you ask. Well, Sebold has written Helen in such a stupid way that there seems to be no way for us to identify with her. The problem is that she has her main character begin the book by committing what some might think is a heinous act. However, as readers (and fans of Sebold), we are willing to learn more about Helen's thoughts and past and motivations. Instead, Helen does something else that seems completely out-of-character... but what do we know? We barely know this character yet. So let's wait and see... and then Helen does something else that makes no sense whatsoever.

I never got to identify with Helen because Sebold never gave me time to come to terms with each of her (stupid, silly, irrational, rash) actions. By the end of the book, I just felt like I was dealing with some schizophrenia. The ending wasn't even mildly satisfying for all the trouble it took for me to waddle through the painful prose. It was just so badly written; the characterization was... just trying way too hard to shock, I think; and honestly, I just didn't care about anyone in that book by the end of it.