Example:

October 11, 2009 at 5:15 pm (books, education, philosophy)

In my last post I talked about literary theories and how sometimes it seems like literary criticism has little practical use. Here’s a perfect example of academics producing academia for other academics for the purpose of furthering academia. This quote comes from an essay by Seamus Deane entitled “Imperialism/Nationalism” in the book Critical Terms for Literary Study.

Culture is, indeed, an amorphous term, especially when it is routinely and with every appearance of benignity locked in with its comparably ill-defined cousin “tradition” in the ideological cell of nationalism. The subsequent isolation is deceptively pure for it breeds all sorts of promiscuous fantasies that are as formless as the natal pairing might lead us to expect. The consequence is that such enclosed and hermetic national formations actually become caricatures of the unawakened communal consciousness they replace.

Ummm…wha?

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Michael Chabon

August 17, 2009 at 7:11 am (authors, books, Writing)

I just began reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It’s the third Chabon book I’ve read (Gentlemen of the Road and Final Solution were the others), and thus far it has not disappointed. If you haven’t read anything by this master writer, grab a dictionary and settle in as soon as you possibly can. He’s brilliant.

Surprisingly brilliant. If you look at his work analytically, from the bird’s eye view, there is much to condemn it. His sentences are way – way! – too long. He fits more aside phrases in one sentence than most authors do in an entire book. He is overly descriptive – which accounts for the long, rambling sentences – and uses vocabulary that is far above even the average, well-read person. Some of the words he uses I’ve never even seen before, and occasionally I wonder if he’s just made them up. His paragraphs are also excessively lengthy, and from chapter to chapter he skips around in time like a man whose time-machine dial is malfunctioning.

And yet…. every word is so carefully chosen, so perfect, that I am continually blown away by the art of it. It’s like reading a famous painting; The Last Supper put down in black ink. No author makes me despair so quickly of ever being a successful novelist while at the same time demonstrating to me exactly what I want to do.

I can’t wait to read more.

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“20,000 Leagues” cont.

August 13, 2009 at 7:26 am (authors, books)

One more quick thing about 20,000 Leagues. I mentioned yesterday how Verne occasionally – ok, OFTEN! – spent lots of time analyzing the sea life that he encountered. He also went into quite a bit of detail on other scientific topics, like how the Nautilus was powered. My guess is that this fixation with all things scientific has a lot to do with the time period in which he is writing. The book was published in 1870, a time when science and technology was really flourishing. It must have seemed to those living then that anything was suddenly possible, including undersea travel and visits to the moon (which Verne writes about in From the Earth to the Moon). I wonder if his readers, far from being bored by his excessive scientific detail, were enthralled by it; captivated by the power of man and by possibilities that were no longer far-fetched.

This understanding makes his lists and explanations, if not more interesting, at least understandable. By the way, Verne was fairly prophetic in some of his “imaginations.” Subs do ride out storms beneath the waves, the pole can be crossed beneath the ice cap (though it is the North Pole, not the South), and some space travel happened in very close concert to his descriptions.

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“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne

August 12, 2009 at 12:21 pm (authors, books)

Last night I finished the reading for the book club I’m in. The novel of choice this time was Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I must say that the read was a challenge in many ways.

The first difficulty was in acquiring the “right” copy of the book. Unbeknownst to me, there are actually many translations of the undersea adventure, some of them very poor. Often times, the most circulated copies are not the best ones; they eliminate some of the story, translate some words incorrectly, and distort the scientific content to the point that Verne appears ignorant. After getting some advice from a friend and reading up on the book a bit, I settled on the Signet Classic version, translated by Mendor T. Brunetti.

The next challenge was the actual content of the book. I dove into my reading with visions of the 1950’s Disney movie – not seen since childhood – flashing through my mind. Said movie was definitely a modern recreation of the story line, heavily streamlined. The novel is really a series of mini-adventures set within a rather distant overarching plot. The plot – as is typical of some other classics I’ve read – is not in the style that most of us are accustomed to: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action. Rather than this mountain top structure – if you picture it like a graph – 20,000 Leagues is more like a wave pool. There is a clear introduction and conclusion, with lots of little ups and downs in-between. Depending on your perspective this can be riveting in its variety, nostalgic in the “I’m reading a classic” sense, or downright boring.

I’d put myself in the middle category. When Verne’s characters find themselves in the midst of a dangerous situation, the reading was really quite compelling. Will they escape the arctic ice? Will the giant squids drag them all to their deaths? How will Aronnax and his friends escape the Nautilus? But few of the adventure lasted more than a few chapters, and suddenly, the adventure was over and the ship moved off to new waters. A bit anti-climactic for my taste.

But classic.

My largest complaint with the book is the excessive amount of time spent classifying the marine life encountered by the travelers. Yes, I know the main character was a scientist who did that sort of thing for a living. I understand that his servant, Conseil, finds no greater pleasure than in reciting the genus and species of every living thing he sees. But really, do we need 30 pages of these descriptions? I must admit that about halfway through the book, I stopped reading these frequent paragraphs that added nothing to the story and were filled with creatures whose names I couldn’t even pronounce.

“Please, Monsieur Verne, could be get back to the story?”

I’d like to look at the scientific aspect of the book – historically and prophetically – a bit as well. But that will have to be saved for tomorrow’s post.

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“I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson

August 3, 2009 at 12:07 pm (authors, books, characters, Writing)

Wow. It’s not often anymore that a book really captures me. Not often that one keeps me up past my “bedtime” and then grabs me again early the next morning before I roll out to face the day.

“I Am Legend” did the trick. I read the whole thing – 170 pages in my version – in less than 24 hours and loved both the brilliance of the plot and the scattered, slightly insane cantor of the author’s style. At points Matheson races through the narrative in stuttering, piecemeal thoughts, conveying perfectly the terror and madness of the post-apocalyptic world he’s created. At other times he slows to a descriptive, “day-in-the-life” pace, even when describing the protagonist’s attempts at self-preservation by driving stakes through the hearts of comatose vampires (the book, by the way, is much different than the recent movie).

His characterization is really limited to Robert Neville, the lone survivor of a viral plague, but the story doesn’t suffer for its narrow focus. Neville is thoroughly engaging, believable, and dynamic. I found myself both pitying his pain and  despising his weakness – as if I would fair a nightly freak show much better – and in the end, desperately wishing his troubled heart would find relief.

I am not a fan of horror. I hate slashers and plot lines that are intended only to inflict the maximum amount of gore and evil on the reader. “I Am Legend,” despite its classification, doesn’t fit this bill. It’s a well written, engaging book that just happens to have vampires and death and lots of blood. I give it a 4.5 out of 5.

NOTE: Ironically, the title of the book is carried over to the recent movie, but key plot points – points that make the title meaningful and relevant – are not. Either the movie makers didn’t get the original intent of the title – which I doubt – or they meant to alter its meaning by their variations to Matheson’s origional story. Or, maybe they just thought the title was cool.

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“Knowing the Will of God” by Bruce Waltke

July 25, 2009 at 1:45 pm (authors, books)

Over vacation I finished the book Knowing the Will of God by Bruce Waltke. Actually, the book cover says, “Bruce Waltke with Jerry MacGregor” which immediately sends a scowl of derision to my face. With Jerry MacGregor? My understanding is that this often means Jerry MacGregor did the actual writing. The editing. The word-smithing. Of course I don’t know exactly how their specific collaboration worked, but as a writer and a reader I hate these subtitled authors; I want to know who’s work I’m studying and who put the hard labor into crafting the book I’m spending so much time digesting. Walke is the Biblical scholar; MacGregor is just an editor.

Perhaps due to this co-authorship, Knowing the Will of God was a good example of solid ideas housed in sub-par writing. The train of thought wandered on many occasions, there were several “typos,” and nothing particularly engaging in the style. That said, it did help me to clarify my understanding of the very difficult – and often misunderstood – concept of God’s will. Though Waltke (or MacGregor?) was a bit dogmatic on some points that remain up for some debate with me (ex. towards the end of the book he says, “God does not intervene in response to seeking His will in a perplexing situation.”) he does justifiably demystify the process and ground it in a more practical, Biblical approach to wise decision making.

Still, I wish he’d have written the book by himself:-)

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Caribbean

July 3, 2009 at 11:59 am (authors, books)

After months of slow, though pleasant, plodding, last night I finally finished James A. Michener’s 806 page Caribbean. Michener is a bit of an enigma to me. Whenever I think to describe his writing style, the words that come to mind are less than flattering. His dialogue is forced and often clearly unrealistic. His style fairly mundane and without flair. His books generally without a central plot. And yet…

Somehow he’s brilliant. I’ve read three of his other novels – Chesapeake, Poland, and Alaska – and though each one could be described as above I have enjoyed them all. When reading a Michener, you have to take away the expectations you bring to a typical novel. Most works of fiction – at least the good ones – focus on a cast of dynamic characters interacting with a central story-line. For Michener, the protagonist is a geographical location. In the case of Caribbean, this “character” was made up of the many islands sprinkled throughout the Caribbean Sea. His central plot is really the grand and overwhelming narrative of this place and its development through the centuries. With that as his overarching backdrop, he then draws the reader into families whose lineage stretches though the history of the land, intermingling with the lines of other families in a tangled web of realistic pseudo-history. When finished with one of these books, you feel as though you’ve been reading a very interesting history textbook; you’re not quite sure why you enjoyed it, but you did.

I do have one complain about this latest read, however. The first two-thirds of the book were filled with pirates, slaves, rebellions, and exploration. Thoroughly enjoyable. When the book closed on modern times, however, his subjects became more mundane and the characters all began to blend together. Too often the new characters introduced during this time were young, attractive, thoughtfully self-reflective, and very intelligent. Cookie cutters of one another. I needed to get a bit more into the head of the normal islanders; the farmers and workers and soldiers.

All in all, I give Caribbean a 3.5 stars (out of five). If you’re thinking about trying one of his epics on for size, I suggest Chesapeake. It’s my favorite so far.

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