Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cannonball Read #27: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


I chose to pick up Never Let Me Go because Pajiba recently featured the trailer of the movie that is based on the Kazuo Ishiguro book, and all the comments were about how the book was completely heart-breaking at the end. Well, that intrigued me, and I guess I was in the mood to get my heart broken in a literary way.

Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H., a young woman who begins by looking back at her childhood in Hailsham, a boarding school in England. The first part of the book talks about her relationships with her schoolmates, particularly between her mercurial (I really actually thought she was just manipulative) best friend, Ruth, and Tommy. There are many indications early on that Kathy's world might not be the same world that we live in because she tells us, in oblique ways, how the students in Hailsham are unique and special, and how their lives are basically mapped out from them since the beginning.

The Hailsham's students' purpose in life is not exactly a big mystery, though I hesitate to reveal it here because it might take the fun out of figuring it out. What was most interesting, to me, was how Kathy's narration made everything seem so matter-of-fact – so nonchalant – that the reality they live in really do not seem all that unlikely.

My favorite parts of the book were concerning the little fights that Kathy and Ruth had. It reminded me so much of my time in an all-girl school - times that I thought I had successfully blocked out but all came back to me while reading. It was just really interesting to see these childish, petty feelings be put into words (and even in rational terms!) when I felt like back then, for me, it was just all emotional "Me Me Me" feelings.

The later parts of the book deal with the reunion between the three friends many years after they have moved on from Hailsham, and how the mysteries from their childhoods were answered. Kathy H. maintains her tone of nonchalance throughout the book, which was quite disorienting to me, but I did appreciate it. I believe the ending did not affect me as badly as I anticipated because of the following reasons:

1) Kathy did not seem to be too torn up about it (she just accepted it!), and I was identifying with her for most of the book.
2) I had really high expectations for this "heart-breaking" ending, and because I saw it coming, it did not devastate me as much I thought.

All in all, it was actually a really good book. Though the writing was done in the voice of a young girl (Kathy narrated in a very natural way) I kept on reading because I just wanted to know what happened to the characters in the end. I think I will go back to it in a couple months just to see if my perception of it has changed because it seems like the type of book in which what you get from it can be different each time you reread it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

GOOOAAALLL!!!



I'm sneaking to the Goals blog at nytimes.com during work.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cannonball Read #26: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman


I know that Anansi Boys is somewhat connected to American Gods in terms of mythology, but I think that's about where the similarities end. Though there are some familiar faces, I was still able to come to this with a clean slate of mind.

Fat Charlie Nancy has spent most of his adult life avoiding his father because he is constantly embarrassed by him. But when his father passes away abruptly, Fat Charlie has to return home for the funeral. There, he finds out from an old family friend that his father was Anansi, the spider-god or a god of mischief, and that he has a brother, Spider. Spider is charismatic and lucky and handsome; but he is also trouble. Fat Charlie invites Spider into his life, but then promptly wishes him out. However, Spider cannot seem to take no for an answer – he has probably never had anyone refuse him anything. So Fat Charlie decides to appeal to the other gods, gods who hated his father for his history of trickery, to help make his brother go away. Personally, I did not think Fat Charlie seem particularly smart.

That's basically the first third of the book. One of my favorite things about reading Gaiman is that I never know the twists he's going to take, and then he surprises me even more when he makes it all fit organically into a she-bang ending. All the threads of an event go off in multiple directions, yet they somehow end up in a climatic finale that does not feel forced. Anansi Boys – and now that I think about it, American Gods did this too – really makes me wonder how large a role Gaiman wants fate to play in his stories. In American Gods, it was implied at the end that the Gods had planned for the whole entire thing to go down (I'm being vague on purpose here). But in Anansi Boys, it's not quite so clear whether if Anansi had any idea about the shenanigans his sons would get into after his death. I liked that the gods were not quite so all-powerful this time around, and that there were other minor players that actually propelled the story forward.

Anyway, I really shouldn't compare this to American Gods since it's so different. One thing that I've really started to appreciate about Gaiman is that he really lets his readers draw their own inferences. He doesn't try to emotionally manipulate us - which is nice. However, the downside of it is that Gaiman's writing can seem a little bit cold at times. I sincerely think he's good, and I have a great time reading his books (I've read more Gaiman during the Cannonball Read than any other authors.) But I can't seem to muster up as much passion for it as when I think about any of Steinbeck's books – who incidentally, does occasionally try to manipulate his readers, so I guess that tells you how much I know what I want or like to read.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cannonball Read #25: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace


The cover of this book really put me off. I know we are not supposed to judge by the cover, but it was equally creepy and hilarious. Plus, I don't like scary-looking children (I actually keep the book face-down so that I didn't have to look at that white-eyed kid.)

I guess it's in that way that cover is a brilliant indicator of this book. I've never read anything by David Foster Wallace, so I didn't know what to expect (scary children who get angry?) - but the collection of "essays and arguments" really went the range of laugh-out-loud-in-the-subway funny to downright depressing. And they were all creepy because Wallace put to words my thoughts about people that I would never have realized could be voiced if it weren't for him.

My two favorite essays were "getting away from already pretty much being away from it all" and the title essay. In GAFAPMBAFIA, Wallace is writing an account of the Illinois State Fair for Harper's magazine in New York. He regularly veers from shock/awe at the lifestyles that rural Illinoisans lead (Wallace decides during the farm stock judging - where cows, horses, pigs are showed off and prodded - that one can probably get a PhD in just cows based on how much was discussed during the proceedings) to just unadulterated appreciation (he was a very big fan of the Prairie State Cloggers Competition. A quote: "This is far and away the funnest, most emotionally intense thing at the Fair. Run, don't walk, to your nearest clogging venue.") Wallace grew up in Illinois but I guess he repressed a lot of the Midwestern likes/dislikes/general daily habits, because being at the State Fair had him analyzing them like a sociologist who was just let out of solitary confinement. Wallace was also accompanied by a childhood friend he named Native Companion who seemed to scoff at all his high-falutin' East Coast theories.

One of my favorite scenes comes after Native Companion was tossed and spun in a crazy ride called The Zipper, and the carnies kept staring as her dress went up over her head and making lewd comments. Native Companion came off the ride completely exhilarated ("That was fucking great. Joo see that? Son bitch spun that car sixteen times, joo see it?") and Wallace kept asking her if she minded that the carnies hung her upside down just to see up her dress, or that they were basically oogling her the entire time. He wonders if it's regional difference whereby Midwesterns appreciate fun but on the East Coast, the "politico-sexual indignation is the fun." He continues to expound on it despite her request for him to "buy me some porkskins, you dipshit."

Honestly, there's just so much going on in that entire essay. I used to live in Illinois for two years when I was a kid, but it was not rural or hicksville, so I definitely escaped some of that agro-raising/Nascar-worshipping (Wallace remarked that everyone except him in the spectator stands of Nascar event carried their own ear muffs) culture. Also, my sense of irony was really not honed at 12 years old so who knows. But I definitely recognized some of aspects that he brought up, like how everyone seems to wear shirts with slogans as if it were a badge of honor, even if the slogan was absolute crap ("WARNING: I GO FROM 0 TO HORNEY IN 2.5 BEERS" - Wallace tells the shirt vendor that HORNEY is spelled wrong.) I also absolutely remember that sense in which certain environments/activities are, as Wallace described, not racist but "aggressively white."

Anyway, GAFAPMBAFIA really had me giggling but what really impressed me was the title essay. It takes up about a third of the entire book, and Wallace is on yet another fish-out-of-water trip. This time, he's getting paid to write about his time spent in a luxury cruise liner that goes from Florida to the Caribbean. Wallace is definitely the odd one out at the ship (his East Coast sensitivities and all) and most of the essay is focused on how he is troubled and constantly bombarded by the fact that the cruise's staff were willing to fulfill his every whim. Another thing that disturbed him was how all of the cruise's brochures, announcements and constant organized fun on the ship was like parent telling a child, "You will have fun whether you like it or not."

What interested me the most were his ruminations on how the staff must really feel about constantly having the Professional Smile and trying to give the guests over-the-top-notch service. Wallace states it pretty early on when he tried to take his own duffel bag from a pile of luggage to bring to his room, and was stopped by a porter requesting to carry it for him. He said that it was not necessary, and dismisses the porter's zealousness, "high-pitched protests and his agonized expression as mere servile courtesy." However, Wallace later finds out that the porter was chewed out because a guest was seen carrying his own duffel bag, and it was such an assault to the cruise's "Guests must be pampered!!!" theme that an officer later came to his room to assure him that "ragged-necked Lebanese heads were even at that moment rolling down various corridors in piacular recompense for my having had to carry my own bag." Wallace ended it saying it was his fault and asking the officer to promise not to fire anyone. Wallace wrote, "...the whole incident was incredibly frazzling and angst-fraught and filled almost a whole Mead notebook and is here recounted in only its barest psychoskeletal outline."

I mentioned earlier that there were very depressing parts to this book, and so far I've only recounted the funny ones. I'm not sure if there is anything specific that I can remember, but it's definitely Wallace's voice that depresses me (which I guess makes no sense since I said he is funny.) He's extremely neurotic and sensitive, which is what puts him in these funny situations (There's a really funny story about how he was convinced that the cruise has people following him because every time he leaves his room and comes back, it's been cleaned by the maid, but he never catches the maid) But there were times when he was describing the cruise and its guests, and I was nodding along thinking, "Exactly!" and then feeling bad because I thought, "If I was on the cruise ship, would I really wanna be caught up with how ironic/hypocritical/funny everything is, or would I wanna enjoy myself?" I don't think it helps that I know he killed himself and it depressed me that I agreed – nay, identified with him.

Anyway, if you're going to read one story out of the collection, read "Supposedly Fun Thing." I myself skipped the giant thesis on television and on Michael Joyce's tennistry. I got 20 pages into the TV essay, realized that there were 20 pages more, and just flipped to the next story. I did enjoy the first story about Wallace being a tennis idiot-savant as a teen. All in all, I was really impressed by him and his writing style; I even appreciated all the footnotes he had. He made me want to explore more great, stylized writing just to see if I can develop a style of my own.

Cannonball Read #24: The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr


I picked up The Angel of Darkness after several people said that it was a worthy follow-up to my earlier Caleb Carr book, The Alienist. And I have to agree - in some ways, it certainly is. The Bad Guy (or should I say, Bad Person?) is definitely more interesting than the serial killer in The Alienist, and because she is a woman, there is a lot of talk about the feminine mind/psyche.

This time, the investigation is over the missing young daughter of a Spanish diplomat (Historically, Carr puts this right before the the Spanish-American War), Ana Linares. The husband does not want the wife the pursue the case because he is worried it might inflame the already-tense relations between the Spaniards and the Americans. So the wife goes to Sarah Howard, who has opened her own private detective firm for women, and asks her for her help.

Naturally, she recruits all her old pals for help. There's Dr. Kreizler (The Alienist!), John Moore (the journalist who's kind of a petulant child in this book), Marcus and Lucius (the Jewish detective-brothers who are a great help in the forensics department), Stevie Taggert (the young boy that Dr. Kreizler rescued from a life in jail, and Cyrus Montrose (servant of Dr. Kreizler, friend to all, good pianist player.)

What sets this second book apart from the first is that we know pretty early on who kidnapped Ana Linares. Libby Hatch, a woman who is described by John Moore as him not knowing whether if she wanted to "kill me or fuck me," appears to be a caring hospital nurse and kind mother, but the group suspects her of kidnapping and murdering young children. She is confronted near the beginning, yet the group cannot figure out where she has hidden the child. Once they figured out that this was probably not her first foray into infanticide, they decided to look into her past to see whether if she has had missteps before, and then bring her to justice for her past crimes. The last half of the book takes place in upstate New York, which is where Hatch was from before New York.

If this sounds like a very roundabout way to get to baby Ana Linares, then you would have an inkling as to how I felt reading this 600-plus page book. Yes, the villain this time is much more interesting, but there were parts that I felt Carr was trying to drag out. The book seemed to follow the same format (in terms of the detectives investigating the case) as The Alienist, and because I could sense the similarities, it frustrated me.

I should also add that though the first book was narrated by John Moore (petulant boy-man-journalist), this one was seen in the point of view of Stevie Taggert, which I felt was much more interesting. He is very close with Dr. Kreizler and is able to offer some insights on Kreizler, who is a bit of an enigma. Stevie is also able to talk frankly with Sarah, and observe the childish, easy rapport between everyone in the group.

As I said earlier, since the villain is a woman, there is a lot of discussion about females roles in American society. It's interesting to see how all the main characters react to some of the psychological theories (and this is where Carr just seems to reuse his script, in my opinion.) Dr. Kreizler would "humph," and say something about how none of his colleagues have anything extensive written about it; Sarah would say something insightful and then brandish her derringer just to show how she's such an avant-garde female; John Moore rolls his eyes and says things like "But a woman would never do that!!"; and Marcus and Lucius are always at the side arguing over some forensic detail.

Meanwhile, I read this all and think, "This 1800s female stereotype doesn't really apply anymore, and for that I am so glad for myself." I'm still not sure whether if the stereotypes are a fault of Carr's or just him trying to show that era's myopia about women. Obviously, the latter since Libby Hatch is the villain, thus proving the stereotypes wrong - but all of that (over-)explanation can really be taxing to this modern female.


PS. Why does Carr allow his publishers to choose such dreadful, unappealing book covers? I can go with the black-and-white and the non-sequitur Man Standing Ominously By The Carriage image - but does it have to be so fuzzy and grainy?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Things to Make Fun Of: Getting a job that you like

I haven't been near this thing in a long time, at least not to talk about my life (Look! Still reviewing books!... sorta). A part of me have been avoiding the blog because there was just too much to talk about – and as much as I don't talk about specifics in my life, those events took up too much space in my head that it was difficult for me to ignore it while they happened. So here they are:

1) I got offered a full-time job. Taking it made me feel like I sold out. I took it. I don't want to talk about it.
2) The boyfriend and I broke up. I'm good now. I don't want to talk about it.

That's it. Only two things, though still big life changes for me. Otherwise, I've just been seeing my friends a lot, working a lot and trying to sneak in a book during my free time.

Anyway, here's the real reason I came back to this thing: an article in this past weekend's New York Times Magazine about the millenials. For those not in the know, millenials are the generation born between 1982 and 2002 – my generation. I know I usually reserve writing about articles for my news blog (PLUG PLUG) but since I only have non-journalistic things to say about it, I figured I would keep it here.

So the Times opens the article with this giant picture:

Which made me smile since those paste-on tattoos look very familiar to me.

The article, by Judith Warner, sums up the mentality of today's latest and not-so-greatest graduates: "[Today's] graduates are turning down job offers in high numbers – essentially opting to move back home with their parents if the work offered doesn't match their self-assessed market value."

It goes on to quote a bunch of (old) professors and sociologists to show how narcissistic and overconfident we are because we think that we deserve a job that provides us with an easy-to-manage 40-hour work week and self-fulfillment. And then Warner rounds out the article by saying that our egos and optimism actually seem to buffer us from falling hard – that it is actually a blessing to have such a over-adjusted sense of self-worth because we are able to adapt to adversity (she threw out Columbine and 9/11 as place markers.)

As I said before, I just sold out to a full-time job (comes with health benefits, yo!) that sucks my soul – so naturally, I raised my eyebrows at this. It's tempting to say I work more than 40 hours a week or I don't think I'm entitled to my dream job, but I'll work for it, and I definitely wanted to mentally shout Stop talking about me like I don't read your magazine, Old People!

But what really struck me as weird was the tone that Warner had, or that she employed using her quotes from professionals, throughout the article. There was a sense of indignation at us millenials (sarcastic/unhappy font should be employed with this word) for daring to dream about the future we have, and actually wanting to work towards that dream future. Here's a quote from Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a Clark University pyschology professor: "Almost universally they want to find a job that's not just a job but an expression of their identity, a form of self-fulfillment."

Huh, no kidding. Wouldn't you, Mr. Baby Bloomer? Say you yearn to become an actor, and the two jobs offered to you are the full-time cubicle job and a flexible job as a server. Wouldn't it make sense, in terms of your ("how dare you") dream, to turn down the more-than-40-hour job that will not allow you time off for auditions?

I understand that there is a difference in our mentalities: the Boomers might have felt obligated to sign away the next 40 years of their lives chained to the first job they are offered, and we don't. But if they could have, if it was feasible, I know they would have rather – wait for it – follow their dreams. Who wouldn't? Reality may get in the way of it, but I wish they wouldn't judge us just because we choose to delay reality with a more extensive job search.

Of course, it's another thing entirely if graduates march into the workplace and expect the job that they would have in 30 years immediately – instead of starting as an editorial assistant, they want the managing editor's job. We call those kids over-privileged rich assholes* (they're usually rich, hence their inflated sense of self-worth.) The biggest problem with this article is that Warner seems to be lumping the Dreamers, who are definitely willing to slog it as long as it's in the right field, with these Rich Assholes. And to come to the same conclusion about two very different people (more adapted to adversity, yada yada yada) gets me defensive about my fellow millenials.

The truth is that most of the dreamers are not willing to sell out so soon after college. They want to fail spectacularly before succumbing to the nine-to-five succubus. Once they've realized that the dream is not going to happen, they will haul ass to the nearest boring employer, or go to grad school in an unrelated field. Maybe in thirty years, they snort at the concept of having a fulfilling job like Prof. Arnett did, but really be left with a dull ache in their hearts. As for the Rich Assholes, what the hell have they got to lose?

Absolutely nothing.

And believe me, today's employers are not losing anything either if there is a lack of petulant teenagers seated in the nearest cubicle.


*Sorry, Rich Non-Asshole People, for lumping you together in the Asshole category. I will gladly accept any donations as a symbol of my humble apology.