Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)

AKA the devil’s great American novel. Ethan Hawley is crucified by his family on Good Friday for not giving them a car and a holiday vacation. The man’s morals die (if he ever had any) and Ethan resurrects on Easter Sunday as a manipulative and conniving contender. After turning his boss in for illegal entry, Ethan helps his best friend die of alcoholism in return for property and small town success.

At the beginning of the novel, Ethan is a happy go-lucky guy who makes jokes and plays around with words. In the end, he's tired and his family is quarrelsome. I can see why Steinbeck is considered a great author; I just wish I could get through his books with a little pleasure in the reading process ... I don’t feel for Ethan. I don’t want him to win and I don’t want him to get off with a quick and easy suicide. I guess Steinbeck’s message is that all men are self-serving at their core, and can become ruthless in a war-like situation like the American economic system.

Click here to find out more about The Winter of Our Discontent.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book Challenge

There are a lot of bloggers out there who give themselves various book challenges to follow. Some people set out to read X number of banned books, and X number of classics, or X number of best sellers within a certain time period. Books for Breakfast, for example, accomplished her goal of reading 150 books within a single year. (Pretty amazing, I must say!)

My personal challenge goes first to the question, why do people save books? Some people surround themselves with "good" books as a reminder or a message to others that they are well read. Visual types arrange their books according to color and use them as accessories within the home. I've been saving my books as a memento of the story, but now with this blog, I can remember more with the post than I can from the actual book itself. It's time to move them out and let the chi flow free.

My book challenge for this year is to read as much as I possibly can and not spend one single penny on books. This is good because it's 1) green; 2) saves money; and 3) builds karma since I'm sharing and trading and making my city apartment a little more dust free.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scars on the Soul (1972)

For those of you observant readers out there who might remember Children of the Alley in this spot, I just can't do it. I don't have the patience. I need something quick and easy about the idle and aimless. It's summer after all.

Published in 1972, Scars on the Soulhas been called an "experimental" novel. The author Francoise Sagan speaks as her characters' creator and includes the reader in her decision-making process. The story of Sebastian and Eleanor, a brother and sister team who take on lovers to cover expenses, runs along side the author's rantings about her personal attempts to satisfy a public that doesn't understand her. Clever construction, but a little exhausting since most of Sagan's commentary comes across as bitter and unintelligible. Not exactly the mindless novel I'd hoped it would be.

Click on the link to find out more about this book.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Special Thanks!

Special thanks to Maya and Jason for giving my blog a new look. Maya designed the cat logo and Jason used it as inspiration to make everything else look super-licious. I promise now to live up to my image. More stories to come, and many closer to home. Jason can be reached at Vacant Lot Design. Maya is still a kid and lives in Egypt so leave any comments for her here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2000)

I'm finding it difficult to summarize this little book because it’s packed with so much material in such a quiet and unassuming way. Dai Sijie pays homage to the various methods of story telling. He respects the novel, tales told in the dark, ancient song singing, and the more modern methods of role playing and film. He explores dreams, memory, and the power of imagination. He bases his story Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstressaround Chairman Mao’s re-education program and the secret education three Chinese youths receive through the words of major Western authors.

Your assumption going in to this book may be that a Western education is eye opening and always enlightening, but are the characters better off as a result of having attained it? Collaboration and unity of the group lead to a desire for ownership and possession. Theft, lust, and betrayal ensue. Is this a part of growing up or a Western snake in the garden? Would things have been different if the Bible had been accessible and the temple open? What does the final auto-da-fe tell us? Is it a valid indictment or a reactionary ban of ideas?

There’s a lot to reflect upon when this novel is finished, and many more layers to consider in reading groups and literature classes. The movie should be a beautiful one, but only if it’s done quietly and without direct explanation.
(cover jacket designed by Gabriele Wilson).

Click on the link to find out more about this book.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Dharma Bums (1958)

What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? There are sites online that break down each character’s approach to Buddhism and sites that tell you who the characters are in real life. And there are many sites that analzye every single word and sentence in the book as if it’s poetry or haiku (and some of it is). But for me now, reading The Dharma Bumsin 2008, 50 years after its original publication date, what strikes me most is how mainstream the ideas are. People hike mountains, join groups that hike mountains and shop at REI and HTO and many other places devoted to hiking mountains. We eat brown bread, yogurt and Chinese food and use chop sticks all of the time. Many of us practice eastern religions and meditate. I tried to find a review online that would explain to me why the book was considered controversial back in 1958 but gave up and adopted Jack Kerouac’s quote: "I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't make any difference." (He wrote in all caps but I'm not feeling that aggressive today.)

This book is about experience. Jack Kerouac's style of writing is very descriptive. When Smith comes down off Matterhorn, his senses have been elevated. He holds onto this different state of existence. He recognizes he's being re-cultured when he returns to civilitization, and then, there he is; it’s a part of him again as it’s always been, and he moves on. Read The Dharma Bums for the experience and then move on.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Miramar (1967)

Not an easy read for the ride but I stuck with it. Naguib Mahfouz tells this story from four different perspectives, each one representing a different political position and social class in Egypt. I was ready to give it up after the first section, but became mildly interested when I realized in the second, that each person portrayed is quite different from how the author originally draws them.

If Zohra, the Miramar pension’s serving girl, is the personification of Egypt as critical analysis suggests, each of the men who interact with her are the various influences that affect her. The aging reporter Amer Wagdi wants to protect and take care of her. He cares deeply for Zohra's happiness and her well being but his days are numbered. Hosni Allam, a younger man, has wealth but no education. He wants to rape and abuse Zohra for his own pleasure and satisfaction but is continually rejected by her. Mansour Bahy, the quiet intellect is suddenly driven mad by his need to defend her. And Sarhan El-Beheiry, an opportunist, takes advantage of Zohra, first seducing her and then leaving her with guilt but no real sense of remorse. Throughout it all, Zohra, whose direct point-of-view is never heard, survives, broken yet strong, and vows to continue her quest for independence and education.

In closing this post, I recommend you go to the National Public Radio Web site, to learn more about Umm Kulthum, the revered singer, described there as "a powerful symbol of Arab nationalism." It is she who manages to unite all of Mahfouz's characters one evening as the single voice of Egypt.

Click here to find out more about the book: Miramar.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Moderato Cantabile (1958)

Another quick read while the rest of you are spending your gas money. I've wanted to read Marguerite Duras for some time now. "Moderato Cantabile" is about a French woman and her affair of some sort with a non-working laborer type. Duras' use of language evokes such sensitivity of movement, touch and quiet communication, not only between lovers but between mother and child, and through cafe onlookers who are in a way party to the indiscretion and its demise.

This short novel is worth a second read, and probably a third, especially if you understand music and can better detect how Duras develops, increases, slows down and pulses through the story using a repetition of number and the color red. A beautiful way to spend the morning commute.

To find on amazon: Moderato Cantabile

The Giver (1993)

I'm opening my blog with a book post to say this one's as good as any harry potter novel in about 600 fewer pages. Lois Lowry's "The Giver" is a kid's book my 10-year old niece suggested I read and I really enjoyed it. I started reading during my morning commute, actually read a few pages under my desk during the day, and finished it up on the train ride home.

The story is about a 12-year old boy who discovers that love, memories, colors and freedom of activity are more important than a conflict-free utopian existence. Jonas saves a child named Gabriel and as a result recovers humanity. The book introduces familiar sci fi themes to kids and illustrates courage and commitment to self. For some reason The Giver ended up a banned book list (?). The only objection I had was to the method and environment used to transfer memories. Definitely worth a few hours out of your day and more interesting than the Express in the morning.

To find on amazon: The Giver Publisher