May 28, 2009

Book 23: On the Road

On the Road
Jack Kerouac

With this book comes an absolutely overwhelming amount of expectations and weight- this is a contender for the Great American Novel and is certainly the foremost testament of a particular generation. The Beat generation defined by this novel is listless and lost, though with a drug-induced air of weight and self-importance that manifests itself in a restless spiritual manifestation represented by an ever-earnest "Yes!". As the subject, so the novel, whose writing is rich and vibrant but always incredibly aware of itself and pretentious in its lack of pretension. The book begins in earnest with its narrator, Sal, enthralled by Dean, a mysterious newcomer to his New York City social scene. Sal is overly fawning and describes Dean in exquisite detail while relegating his other friends to cursory descriptions or name only, leaving the reader to attempt to sort out their personalities as they're all bundled together into a mob of disaffected twentysomethings. Kerouac offers almost nothing in the way of explicit description, which is usually desirable, but the ramblings of his friends make so little sense that a little context would be greatly appreciated. Much of the novel is mired in existential ponderings that quickly give way to unwarranted whirlwind worship of Dean that is at odds with both common sense and the general narrative.

Perhaps I found this book less than wonderful because of my hearty dislike for Sal, who is content to sit alone and brood upon his position in life while complaining that he is an outsider. He worships free-wheeling and careless Dean while taking a realistic look at his life and motivations and concluding that Dean is headed for self-destruction. Sal then proceeds to follow Dean's footsteps exactly and allows himself to get trangled in Dean's complicated web time and again. While the portrait of this essentially "beat" character is a powerful evocation of the Beat Generation and its furious path across America, it itself succumbs to the same pitfalls and failures that plague Dean; this failure of the narrative seems un-ironic, as the book is entirely earnest throughout. While Kerouac's prose is often moving and evocative, particularly when he is describing the effect jazz musicians have on Sal's life and outlook and when he is hitchhiking on his first cross-country journey, it often gets lost in its own grandiosity and a rush to explain everything poetically right this second. While this is a good manifestation of the kind of rush one can get from amphetamines and mirrors the experiences of the drug-using characters of the novel, it becomes tiresome to the reader as pointless ramblings give way to two-sentence plot elements that are far more interesting but far too short and disconnected from the fabric of the book.

The book, like its characters, seems to lack motivation. The best parts of the narrative are those that have consistent plotting and which move the characters. Sal's first trip out West is a beautiful testament to the power and unlimited possibility of the open road and an open future. Readers fly across the country with Sal before he succumbs to the listlessness of Dean's life in Denver. After this point, it is hard to have any sympathy for any of the characters and the reader becomes detached, hoping for some appropriate self-reflection or sensical plot elements where instead there is shameless hero worship and endless cruising around cities looking for "kicks" but without any incidents of interest. The book is, ultimately, a product of the kinds of characters it follows, who are largely unsympathetic and ridiculously immature. There are passages within to stir the soul, and readers who stick to part one will find a glorious description of life without cares on the open road, a kind of optimism that brilliantly showcases the pride and problems that come with outcast status in a largely conforming society. After that, however, the book becomes bogged down by its own sense of importance and becomes somewhat difficult to read and follow. On the Road rightly deserves its place as a generation-defining manifesto, echoing in each chaotic beat the kind of character it defines and follows, but this relentless energy knows no boundaries and lacks a kind of binding sense and dissolves into a kind of hopeless rave that could come stright from the mouth of Dean.

Grade: C+

May 20, 2009

Book 22: Great Irish Short Stories

Great Irish Short Stories
Edited by Evan Bates

Even since visiting the lovely Emeral Isle last May, I haven't read as much Irish literature as I'd like; Finnegans Wake doesn't even begin to count, belonging instead to a class of delusional self-grandeur that I fear is international. Regardless, I was pleased at the way these stories took me back to places I had seen and give the reader a good general sense of the Irish people and the kinds of stories they might tell. The collection is varied and, though the majority of its stories originate from a twenty-year period, includes pieces from throughout the history of Irish literature and concerning many different subjects. Irish tradition revolves around a lot of mythology, and the collection duly includes "The Only Son of Aoife", Lady Gregory's easily readable simplification of a story from The Táin, and the less-accessible "Death of Fergus", more obtuse in its style but heartily mythological and appropriately weighty nonetheless. The collection also pays due attention to British customs and influence on Irish culture, with Maria Edgeworth's "The Limerick Gloves" centering on events in England regarding an Irishman and showing a hint of the beginnings of the mystery genre, with its central conflict explained entirely in the story's closing pages. "Green Tea" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu similarly owes its structure, that of an obscure narrator presenting his mentor's correspondence, to the prevailing trends of the time, but its focus on spirituality gives it a somewhat distinct Irish air.

Many of the stories delightfully bring the Emerald Isle to vivid life, especially in their unapologetic rendering of local dialects and inherently Irish customs and insights. Willam Carleton's "The Donagh; or, The Horse-Stealers" is a brilliant example of a darkly humorous folk story, belonging distinctly to local Irish culture while maintaining a broader scope. Similarly Irish in concern is George Moore's fabulous "Home Sickness", which re-imagines the immigrant narrative and establishes an interesting perspective on those who came to America seeking fortune and their relationship to the pastoral simplicity of their homeland. The story is subtle and perhaps the collection's best, both conventionally and as a representative of something inherently concerning what it means to be Irish. Far less serious but equally excellent is "Lisheen Races, Second-Hand", which is a romp that tackles a particularly unfortunate day when an Irishman attempts to impress a good old boy from Oxford, who is duly horrified at the crude habits of the islanders and who receives his share of bad luck on the road to the races. James Joyce does make an appearance, in "The Dead", a selection from Dubliners; while it is well-written and interesting throughout it doesn't seem to have a point and describes an isolated incident that has no real bearing on, well, on anything other than describing itself. Such is modernism.

Overall, this particular volume of Great Irish Short Stories provides a good look at the variety of Irish literature while still providing stories that preserve a common Irishness about them. That they do this is various ways is a tribute to the selective powers of the book's editor, Evan Bates, and his keen perspective. A story that can stand proudly on its own, like "The Weaver's Grave" by Seumas O'Kelly, which is a darkly funny tale of two old hats attempting to find a specific and obscure grave location in a decaying cemetary for an undefined aristocracy, finds a greater sense of purpose in a collection such as this, where it becomes representative of a kind of stubbornness and folk mythology commonly attributed to the Irish people, both by outsiders and by themselves. By and large, the stories in this collection each reveal a distinct facet of Irish culture whether by intent or accident. The early stories easily show their English influence, particularly in plot structure, while the later stories gradually become more concerned with a kind of Irishness and national pride, just as the country moves toward partial independence (all but one of the stories was written before 1922). The collection could have been more chronologically inclusive and it's true that many of the stories are merely average, but taken together they provide an interesting tapestry of the island and its literary heritage.

Grade: A-

May 15, 2009

Book 21: Oil!

Upton Sinclair

Having read The Jungle, I knew to expect a Socialist romp in this book, which I actually picked up on the author's reputation and out of a desire to learn a bit more about the era of Teapot Dome, about which I know admittedly little. This book, much like The Jungle, does an excellent job laying out its setting, in this case mainly the California oil fields. And, much to Sinclair's credit, even suspecting readers may find it hard to detect the Socialist philosophy early on in the book; though there are pink hints throughout, Oil! only becomes overbearingly political as it goes along and readers can immerse themselves in the plot for whole stretches. The plot itself is interesting even if it stretches the bounds of credibility quite thin, with its main character an oil magnate's son (the effeminately named Bunny) who- surprise!- becomes a convert to the workers' cause while enjoying the trappings of a privileged bourgeois life. I was quite shocked to find the book centered so fully and sympathetically on Dad, the magnate in question, and his lively young son; though Sinclair makes it clear that he trades widely in sarcasm, it is odd to be aware of the author while reading passages that extol the kind of exploitative virtues the book will (much) later openly denounce. Surprisingly, however, the focus on the exploiter rather than exploited suits Sinclair's expository motives quite well- the reader is led to sympathize with the tricks and underhanded deals until realizing gradually, with Bunny, what this kind of business does to the oil workers involved. Dad himself is not an evil man, which makes him easier to sympathize with: early on he makes concessions to his workers during a strike, but he comes to realize that there are bigger syndicates than his who would like to see him shut out of the oil field(s) and he begins to understand that he must play the game to survive.

This subtlety and nuance is the most happily surprising discovery in this muckraking book, which does seethe at time with Sinclair's trademarked Socialist rage. Oil!, however, creates a fuller and rounder portrait of big business and the oil industry, making the inevitable Socialist tirades that close the book seem much more sympathetic than if viewed only through the lens of the working class- Sinclair is able to successfully portray Capitalism as a wicked scheme by showing how good, honest business men become trapped in a system that forces them to buy, say, a presidency if they want to survive (I'm looking at you, Warren G. Harding). Oil! is, however, narrowly focused on the promotion of Socialism and Sinclair suffers for it a bit. While Dad and, to a lesser extent, many members of the supporting cast are portrayed with some nuance and skill, they still suffer from stereotypical behavior, motivations, interests, and speech. Most egregious are the most sympathetic characters in the book, the good pinks and reds whom we want to win the day. It is not hard to be easily and perpetually annoyed by Bunny's society-seeking sister or his odious suitor Eunice Hoyt, but Bunny himself is equally annoying by being such a pushover. He constantly flits from one ideal to the next: he starts as a content oil heir and is immediately swayed to strikers' point of view during the formation of unions and ends up a pinball bounced between his completely terrifying idolization of hard-core Communist Paul and moderate, but fierce, Socialist Rachael. Worse still, Sinclair revels in Bunny's lack of conviction and calls attention to the fact that he can't decide whether the Revolution should come through democracy or violent revolution.

This not only makes the book's viewpoint character perpetually frustrating, it clouds Sinclair's goal a bit and, unless he was intending to leave readers suspended between Communism and Socialism, he shockingly fails to make a coherent ideological point, except perhaps that Capitalism is rotten and needs to be overthrown. Even this point seems cloudy, however, and because Bunny's ideals are so flimsy the reader is likely to be annoyed by Sinclair's sudden and furious outporing of political rhetoric in the closing stages of the book. Everything, both in the plot and outside of it, falls apart drastically in the book's final two or three chapters, and readers realize that the characters are often flat stereotypes and that Sinclair is busily pounding away with the (pink) Obvious Hammer. Upton Sinclair lands many excellent punches against a capitalist system throughout Oil!, and has chosen his topic wisely and in a timely manner (the book was published just after Harding's death), portraying a national scandal thorugh the eyes of the perpetrators while eyeing, however awkwardly, the plight of the workers caught in a stranglehold. The book is, at heart, an interesting look at the oil industry in the days just before and during the Teapot Dome scandal, thinly disguised here, and Sinclair has a firm grip on his subject matter. Oil! is executed adequately and would be to the benefit of readers interested in the era or the kind of big time capitalism represented by its protagonists and it is a valuable historical document if not the best-executed novel.

Grade: B

May 8, 2009

Book 20: The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University
Kevin Roose

While I generally despise the memoir as a literary form, I was immediately intrigued when I read about this project on a blog that I read. Kevin Roose, a fairly normative student at Brown, decided to spend a semester studying "abroad" at Jerry Falwell's playground, ultra-conservative Liberty University. While you expect the book to contain heavy doses of thick cynicism (and it does have its moments), it actually gives Liberty University quite a fair shake and is, if anything, a bit lenient. Roose is an exceptional writer for someone who is basically my age, and his voice is clear, distinct, and reasonable throughout. Roose tackles his subject admirably, using a well-proportioned mix of information, anecdote, and dialogue seasoned with properly placed humor and seriousness to create an enjoyable and easily readable account of his time in a foreign land. What is most striking about Roose's prose is how easily and immediately any college student can relate to his experiences, especially students from a similar intellectual background. I suppose some of my ease with the prose is due to my familiarity with a collegiate lifestyle, but Roose does an excellent job describing the first-day jitters and their amplification given his need to concoct some careful lies about his past and motivations.

His stories throughout are well-chosen and, though they feel a bit repetitive towards the end of the book, each serves to illuminate another (often unexpected) facet of life at one of the country's most strongly evangelical outposts. Though these stories are always revealing, often in the most charitable of ways, the fact that each one so strongly serves a central purpose takes away from the central narrative a bit and makes the book seem like a series of points; Roose's occasional use of bullets makes The Unlikely Disciple seem at times too academic for its lighthearted, narrative-based tone and incident-based structure. There are also interactions that come off as incredibly awkward, and while Roose calls attention to the fact that he may have asked too many awkward questions to quite fit in at Liberty, this attention merely frames much of the dialogue to make it seem less genuine than I'm sure it actually was. A point where Roose excells, though, is when he's on his own trying to sift out his actual thoughts and beliefs from the religious overload he experiences constantly. The Unlikely Disciple brings disciplined, fair thought processes to a lot of controversial events and ideas and though, as a gay person, it hurts when Roose begins ignoring the gay slurs that occur daily around him, the fact that he himself is the first to call himself out is reassuring and helps provide a more complete perspective on his experience. Roose seems genuine and earnest, two particularly necessary qualities for this monumental task of investigative journalism, and while he does a lot of moralizing he never seems heavy-handed.

Kevin Roose is an incredibly even-handed thinker and he provides one of the best reasoned and written books about the often inflammatory topic of extreme evangelism in American life, which he appears to approach with an open mind and a willingness to experience the Liberty way of life as genuinely as possible without sacrificing his own closely held ideals and beliefs. It's particularly honest of him to admit that, though his views of evangelicals have shifted radically in some respects (they are certainly not as cookie-cutter and brainless as we madcap liberals would like to think), his political viewpoints have stood pat. He allows himself to become immersed in the experience but retains an honestly open mind in a world where conformity is required on all sides. While this book won't singlehandedly bridge the rift between conservative evangelicals and their despised liberal enemies, The Unlikely Disciple is an intriguing look into a world that is perhaps more foreign to the typical Ivy League student than the secular worlds of Western Europe. Those curious about the other side of the aisle, no matter which side they come from, should enjoy this book, provided they approach Roose's study with as open a mind as he admirably does.

Grade: A

May 5, 2009

Book 19: Life After God

Life After God
Douglas Coupland

This book varies a bit from Coupland's other books, or at least the ones I have read so far, first in that it's a collection of short stories rather than a novel and second because its focus is less on capturing the fundamental qualities of a generation and more on exploring the philosophical trends of modern thought. The collection itself feels like a connected and coherent exploration of the state of moral thought in individuals who do not place their faith in religion or a higher order, and while each of the stories stands on its own they make much more sense when placed among the others. The opening story, "Little Creatures," sets the tone of the collection, seeming at first a simple story but subtly morphing into something much more profound. Coupland creates individual characters and situations but gives them universal implications, creating his desired effect of tracking issues of life and death and the replacement faith that comes in the wake of religion.

From start to finish, his stories begin with a common ambition and largely deliver, each focusing on a different niche of belief and the ephemeral things often defined by faith. Each story is narrated by a different first person narrator, giving them an easy familiarity and, often, a confessional quality. Though none of the stories are too heavy on plot, occasionally making them too philosophically heavy-handed, the characters and their situations are always interesting and just normal enough to allow the reader to empathize and get to the philosophical heart of the narrative. Life After God is a strange reading experience, with the quick-moving prose striking deep and packing a punch in pretty much every word, easily read in just a couple of sittings but philosophically overbearing at times. The book asks you to read it quickly but requires some meditation to achieve its desired effects. When afforded some room and thought, the stories become deeply moving and the collection feels inherently sad. Even when its final story ends on a ray of hope, there is a hint of sadness lingering from stories such as "Little Creatures" and especially "The Wrong Sun," which collects several nuclear memories and relives the final moments of several characters caught in a nuclear holocaust. It's terrifying and the book's most unique and standalone story; strange that the odd one out and perhaps the least overtly philosophical story is the one that remains after Life After God. Overall, the book is a moving exploration on various themes of faith and philosophy, one that deserves a lot of meditation and careful thought. Coupland has his fingers firmly on the pulse of modern thought and brings them to life through many different first-person lenses, creating a moving and thought-provoking collection of desolation and, strangely, hope.

Grade: A-

May 1, 2009

Book 18: Sweet Thursday

Sweet Thursday
John Steinbeck

We return again to Monterey and to a much changed post-war Cannery Row, as well as to many of its most pivotal characters. Steinbeck has written a sequel that at once benefits immediately from familiarity with its predecessor and which doesn't owe too much of its own strength on previous events. Sweet Thursday is an excellent book that takes the wonderfully full landscape presented in Cannery Row and illuminates the lives of its characters instead. The Row is as virbrant and as colorful as ever, but this book concentrates more on the inhabitants of the area than its collective consciousness. It is also less didactic and focuses much more on a cohesive plot than Cannery Row, feeling more like a complete novel and less like a (loosely) connected short story collection. This is also a vivid depiction of a worldview and a way of life, but this novel captures its electric atmosphere through a thorough examination of the bonds of love in many different forms.

Steinbeck also wisely connects and severs this book's action from expectations imposed by readers of Cannery Row; though most of the main characters are holdovers, many pivotal people are replacements for old characters or entirely new creations; additionally, bit players from the previous book are more fully fleshed out and brought to the fore. While it is sad to see Lee Chong and Dora disappear from the Row, this transition mimics real life and their replacements are just as bombastic, fitting perfectly into the plot of Sweet Thursday while making life on the Row a little less idyllic and a little more believable than it was before. The writing is continuously excellent, with believable dialogue and just enough self-named "hooptedoodle", evocative prose sections that are insightful without being too weighty for the lighthearted nature of the book as a whole. Steinbeck writes with ease and the humor in Sweet Thursday seldom feels forced, nor is there a doubt that the actions and dialogue are genuine. Steinbeck is not only able to tap into a world he so brilliantly evoked in Cannery Row, but he is able to craft a more traditional narrative in this setting that is true to its characters and which resonates. He returns to his themes of love and compassion and creates a hilarious and captivating story around them without seeming superficial. Sweet Thursday is an excellent combination of seriously literature and fun, and is a fun and quick look into the lives of the inhabitants of Cannery Row.

Grade: A