There Are Places I Remember…

I have to admit that I’ve strayed from the classics lately.  My reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Metamorphosis are on their way but since finishing them, I have derailed a bit.  I’m nearly finished with World War Z (and loving every word!) and have also read the latest from author Neil Gaiman, you know… the reigning king of science fiction.  His work is typically dark and loaded with symbolism, not to mention supremely well-written and somehow, I managed to get my hands on his latest novel, a lovely little read called The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

TOATEOTL coverLike most of his fiction, TOATEOTL is part sci-fi, part fantasy, part fairy tale.  Steeped in myth and mystery, it will transport you to that precocious time in life when you were too smart to be called a child yet too naive and inexperienced to be deemed a young adult.  Told through the eyes of a 7 year-old who is depicted like a real kid, not a tiny adult or an unrealistically innocent dunce, as children are often portrayed in books, Gaiman hooks you on page one with this clever, nostalgic, naive, yet never-too-simple narrator.  Like real children, he’s a kid who at times, shows deep maturity and at others, childish innocence.

It is set in Sussex, England and begins with the narrator as an adult, returning to his hometown to attend a funeral.  While there, he wanders back through his old neighborhood and eventually visits an old farm on which his childhood friend, an extraordinary girl called Lettie Hempstock, lived with her mom and grandmother.  What he remembers is a story so remarkably strange and exciting but also dark and frightening, it’s a wonder how he ever forgot it.  I will say no more because as wonderful as this story is, a very big part of its charm lies in discovering it, page by page.

I breezed through its 180 pages within three days, hardly able to put it down.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a delight to read, making you remember what it felt like when you were old enough to know certain things about the world but still young enough to believe in endless possibilities, when every corner of the earth held more mystery and wonder than your imagination could keep up with.

~Nikki

Slip Inside The Eye Of Your Mind

Brothers KaramazovThe second novel I’ve read as part of my Classic Literature Challenge is The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous last novel.  Russian literature is fairly new to me (I’ve only ever read one other, The Idiot, also by Dostoevsky) but because of its considerable influence on authors around the globe (Christopher Hitchens, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, to name a few), I felt I owed it to myself as a lover of literature to give it a try.  And while certainly not quick or altogether easy, it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

The book begins with the scoundrel Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a man of loose morals who has four sons between three different women, two of whom he married.  Both wives eventually died, leaving Pavlovitch to raise the boys they gave him, a task he passed off to relatives while he indulged in women and booze.  Little time is spent on their upbringing or on Pavlovitch’s misadventures.  The real story begins when the boys reach adulthood.  Dostoevsky tells every brother’s tale in turns, giving each their fair amount of time in the spotlight.  The oldest, Dmitri, enters into a doomed love triangle with his father and a disreputable woman whom one is never sure if she loves either father or son or is merely manipulating them both.  The middle son, Ivan, is a man of conviction and good sense and happens to fall in love with Dmitri’s ex-fiancee, the woman Dmitri scorned in favor of his father’s mistress.  And the youngest Karamazov, Alexey, is a kind, albeit naïve young man intent on entering the monastery.  Few who know him fail to love him, even Ivan, who is every bit as firm an atheist as Alexey is a true believer.  These two engage in long and interesting philosophical debates about their opposing views and while they add little to the book’s plot, they make for a provocative and entertaining read.  Fyodor Pavlovitch also has one illegitimate son, Smerdyakov, whose sad tale is told in detail and which plays a valuable role in the larger narrative.

With each of these men’s stories and that of a rather large subplot revolving around a young neighborhood boy, the son of a man Dmitri publicly shamed, who suddenly falls ill and seeks redemption in his final days from family and friends through Alexey, Dostoevsky paints a vivid picture of Russian life in the 19th century.  He explores themes and issues ranging from family to religion to social norms, even dipping a toe into political issues of the day.  His prose is easy enough to follow with the one exception being the interchangeable names of characters.  For example, Alexey is as often called Alyosha, Dmitri also goes by Mitya or Mitka, his mistress Agrafena is also called Grushenka or Grusha, and so on.  Almost every character has an alias or two that are used interchangeably and without explanation.  I admit it took some getting used to.  Otherwise, I had no trouble following the narrative.

Typical of 19th century Russian literature, The Brothers Karamazov is long-winded, sometimes exhaustingly so.  But it is also deeply philosophical, with a grand central theme suggesting that even our most minor actions can heavily influence the lives of others, and because of that, we are all responsible for one another.  I gave it 4 stars on goodreads because, though it is unnecessarily long and wordy, it is also extremely thought-provoking, dramatic and stirring.  If you’re looking for something to challenge your ideals and really make you think about what’s in the minds of others as well as your own, I recommend it.

~Nikki

My Head’s Stuck On Repeat

TAAM bookThe Average American Male by Chad Kultgen has been hailed as a brutally honest insight into the typical male mind.  As a woman, of course this caught my attention.  A book written by a man that shows what men are really thinking?  Seemed worth a read to me.  So when I saw it on the bargain rack at my local B&N, I picked it up.  Several hours of reading later, what I gained from Kultgen’s supposedly honest depiction of the average man is an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I happened to be born female because if most men really do think this way, it must be mind-numbingly boring to be a man.

Having been a woman my whole life, there is no way for me to know with any degree of certainty whether this novel truly does do men justice but it seemed to me an exaggeration for shock value.  I know men think about sex A LOT and probably more than most women but according to this book, it’s damn near ALL they think about.  And not just simple thoughts like, “Whoa, she’s hot” or “I’d like to fuck her” but bizarre details like, “I wonder what her asshole looks like.”  Really?  Never in my life have I wondered what someone’s asshole looks like.  Not even my own.  The twenty-something male protagonist of this story directs his perverse thoughts at EVERY. SINGLE. WOMAN. he meets.  During a chance encounter with a mentally handicapped woman, he privately wonders if she even knows how to suck cock.  In fact, he wonders this about every female he comes across, even the mother of his girlfriend.  I didn’t actually count, but I’d bet the phrase “suck my cock” (or a variation of it) probably showed up 375 times in this less than 200 page book.  The same can be said of the term “blow my load.”  These things didn’t offend or repulse me so much as they quickly bored me to death.  If it weren’t for the book’s short length, I doubt I would have been able to finish it.

Because – here’s the other thing about this novel that made it hard to get through – NOTHING happens.  Every chapter begins with the narrator going out somewhere, coming across any number of women and having the same two or three thoughts.  After chapter 3 or 4, reading about this guy’s curiosity over every woman’s ability to suck a dick or willingness to take it in the ass got really old.  By the end of the story, the only thing that had changed was that the unnamed main character had switched out one girlfriend for another.  Though he claimed to have no interest in marriage or parenthood, he proposes to his girlfriend on the book’s last page because he comes to the realization that all women are essentially the same.  They’ll all want a wedding and babies eventually.  They’ll all get fat.  They’ll all stop sucking his cock after a few months or  maybe years.  They’ll all lose interest in sex.  So, why not marry the one he’s with now since he knows he’ll never find a woman capable of fulfilling his sexual needs over the long-term?  And this is the only shred of honesty, of true insight that The Average American Male has to offer.  On its very last page.

Whether it’s a true look into the male psyche or not, I can’t recommend this book to anyone.  Maybe Kultgen’s lead character is a satirical exaggeration.  Maybe it’s meant to be funny.  Maybe I just didn’t get it.  This may very well be the case.  I think this book was a best-seller and has since spawned a sequel, The Average American Marriage.  (Needless to say, I won’t bother with that one.)  The Average American Male even has a youtube video that is quite popular as well, so it seems something here went over my head.  Like, wayyyy over my head because I didn’t find a word of this book entertaining or intriguing in the least.  None of the characters were developed enough to make me feel anything and there was literally no plot.  The vast majority of the time, I was bored and had to force myself to get through it.  So, for now, it’s back to the classics for me.

~Nikki

Imagine All The People Sharing All The World

New-York-12

One of my co-workers recently visited NYC for the first time.  A born and raised Midwesterner, she remarked that while she enjoyed visiting The Big Apple, she much preferred the slower, more comfortable (and affordable) Midwest pace.  The comment struck a chord with me because I happened to have just read a particular passage from author Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine regarding metropolitan life and its effects on the individual.

Imagine is an excellent read about how creativity works, more particularly, what works and what doesn’t (and why) as far as making people creatively productive and efficient.  (Expect a full review soon.)  This creativity doesn’t refer only to artistic types but to every single person and it can be expressed in painting or writing or creating music or it can lead to innovative ideas, scientific discoveries or useful inventions.  Sometimes it means old ideas applied in new ways, giving rise to new and exciting uses for things we already have.  And according to Lehrer, people who live in densely packed cities tend to have more creatively productive lives than those who live in more sparsely populated communities.

Put simply, urban life produces more creative people.  Cities, as it turns out, are more than just masses of buildings with high rents and tiny spaces.  They are typically populated by people from all walks of life who are forced, because of the lack of open space, to interact with each other pretty much daily.  They are a kind of dance during which any given person will interact with a number of new people everyday.  Apartments and shops and restaurants fill every block which means that different kinds of people are out on the street for different reasons at various times throughout the day.  The end result is that each resident is exposed to a much wider range of people in their day-to-day lives.  This kind of diversity leads to the expansion of each city-dweller’s base of knowledge which promotes new ideas (or old ideas being applied in new ways).

This concept has been studied by physicists and mathematicians who have uncovered a pattern so uniform, they’ve even applied an equation to it.  And it hasn’t failed once.  They’ve measured every socioeconomic variable from per capita income to the productions of patents and each variable scales to an exponent of 1.15.  The exponent is greater than 1, which means that a person living in a city of 1 million should make 15% more money and come up with 15% more patents than someone living in a city of 500,000.  The correlations between the size of the city in which one lives to that individual’s own creative output is linear.  The bigger the city, the more productive its residents.  And because each person is more creatively productive and more and different people are forced to interact with one another almost daily, the city itself becomes an inexhaustible source of ideas.  People challenge and inspire each other and the greater the diversity of the people, the greater the diversity of their ideas and innovations.

Sometimes these forced interactions are unpleasant or uncomfortable.  Anyone who’s been to NYC can tell you that New Yorkers aren’t known for being balls of inspired sunshine.  But even the unpleasant exchanges produce higher rates of productivity because they break up our thought processes.  It’s the same reason behind the notion that if you get stuck on a concept or find yourself in the midst of some kind of mental block, you should get up and go for a walk or do 20 push-ups or just step outside for some fresh air.  The concept being that you need to disrupt your train of thought.  People who live in densely packed cities are constantly disrupted by collisions, pleasant or otherwise, with others.  It’s unavoidable.  And it leads to the disruption of our thoughts which very often leads to new, more creative ones.

Life in the big city certainly comes at a cost, though, and some, like my above-mentioned co-worker, don’t find it worth it.  The cost of everything from your monthly rent to the price of a gallon of milk is significantly higher.  There are more crowds everywhere you go, limited space in restaurants and venues, higher crime rates, more competition for jobs and schools, etc.  And the big city lifestyle simply doesn’t appeal to a great many people.  And yet many people do move to bigger cities everyday and likely for the reasons explained above.  They want to meet new people, make more money and generally create more and new opportunities for themselves.  According to the proven equations outlined in Lehrer’s Imagine, those people will generate more creative output over the course of their lives.

So my question for you, dear reader, is this: which is more important to you, a more creatively productive life or a more comfortable lifestyle?

~Nikki

Absolute Power Corrupts, Absolutely

Animal FarmThe nature of man is a tricky thing – much more complex and fickle than we often like to think.  Throughout our evolution, humans have tried a number of societal and governmental structures, some with great success and others with tremendous failures.  Some have led to near-miracles while others came to disastrous results.  Some succeed in certain cultures and communities but fail in others.  The one constant that has proven true in every society, in every group of people and at nearly every turn is that no man is immune to greed or corruption.

Animal Farm is George Orwell’s simplistic tale of corruption in a communistic community.  Rather than be ruled by the human dictator who owns the farm, the animals who work it pull together to overthrow him and ban him from the farm.  They agree on a system built around equality, around shared work for shared rewards.  Without one specified leader, they agree to live and work side-by-side, none anymore powerful or wealthy than the rest.  And so it goes for a short while.  But soon a couple of the smarter animals (pigs, of course) notice that things could work more smoothly and with greater benefit to the farm with a few changes.  Each pig presents his plan to the group and lets them reach a consensus.  Majority rules.  Harmony is achieved but short-lived.  Before long, one of the pigs realizes he can manipulate the more gullible animals by villainizing the pig who opposes him.  Once his opponent is banned from the farm, he becomes a kind of dictator, all the while changing his rhetoric to suit his own selfish agenda.  Many of the animals cannot read and are easily fooled.  It bears a remarkable resemblance to the structure of North Korea’s current government and the propaganda spewed upon its poor citizens.  I think this book was written for a Young Adult audience, which makes for a somewhat simplified narrative, but its lesson loses none of its poignancy or relevance.

With any political piece, it’s easy for the narrative to become preachy.  A writer has to be careful to let the point make itself in the unfolding of the story, something Orwell did with grace.  At no point while reading Animal Farm (or his more complex political novel, the iconic 1984) did I feel he was forcing his personal views upon me.  I’ve read that he was an advocate for socialism; in his life, he warned of the dangerous potentialtumblr_mgu6ej8ENw1qc6j5yo1_400 outcomes of both communism and capitalism.  No doubt, anyone who’s paid even the smallest attention to the goings-on of the world within the last 50 years would agree that communism simply doesn’t work.  It has always amazed me how the most basic definition of communism sounds perfectly fair and idealistic and yet, there has never been a society capable of maintaining it without corruption.  This speaks more to the nature of humanity than it does to the philosophy itself but that hardly matters.  For all practical matters, communism with regards to the human race has by and large been a failure.  Orwell gracefully lays out the causes for that in this book.  And one could argue that many of capitalism’s negative effects (an excessively uneven distribution of wealth leading to the disappearance of the middle-class via the expansive gap between the rich and poor, the working class being forced to work more and harder for less reward, and greed corrupting the free market, to name a few) as described in Orwell’s 1984 have recently come to fruition.

Regardless of his political views, any reader with even a slightly open mind will find meaning in Orwell’s work.  His storytelling isn’t pushy.  It isn’t preachy or obvious.  He was a master of language who artfully crafted stories that depict the corruptible nature of man.  Ultimately, the take-away message from both 1984 and Animal Farm isn’t that one societal structure is good or bad, but that any and all forms must answer to the people they govern through some form of regulation or system of checks and balances.  Orwell warns that any governing body is only as honest as the people who make it up.  I think we can all agree with that.

~Nikki

Classic Literature Challenge

classicsI’ve been inspired.  Which isn’t exactly a rarity where reading is concerned.  I recently read about a reading challenge on a fellow blogger and lover of literature’s website and have decided to embark on one of my very own, though I am scaling it down a bit only because there isn’t enough time in one person’s life to read ALL the things.

Here’s the scoop: my challenge is to make a list of 10 classics, not necessarily American classics – just any book generally considered a classic in literature.  The source of my inspiration allows for books you’ve previously read but I am limiting myself to ones I’ve never gotten to and some I’ve even dreaded reading but feel I owe it to myself as a literature enthusiast to read.  (It is a challenge, after all.)  As soon as I’m finished with the book I’m currently reading (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, if you must know), I will embark on reading every title on this list, hopefully with no more than a week or two devoted to each selection.

So, here’s my list:

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot

Wow.  Looking at it now, I realize there is only one book by a female author on it.  (George Eliot is the pen name of female British author Mary Ann Evans.)  Before you judge me, allow me to say it’s only because I’ve already read every book by Jane Austen, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, The House of Mirth and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which are, collectively, the most popular and famous classics by women.  I guess it’s time I give the men their fair shake.

For anyone else up to the challenge, make your list and share it in the comments.  And get ready… in a few weeks, the games will begin!

~Nikki

The Curse That Followed Me My Whole Life Through

Oscar WaoIt seems that books (and movies, for that matter) that have received countless critical accolades and perhaps an award or two don’t live up to the hype given them.  At least, not in my opinion.  This certainly isn’t always true but it happens often enough to be deemed a trend.  Such was my experience with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008.  First and foremost, I want to say that I liked the book and I do recommend it for any reader who may be interested.  That being said, it didn’t move me.

Diaz’s novel is a chronicle of the life of overweight, geeky sci-fi nerd Oscar de Leon, the son of a Dominican immigrant born in New York, raised in New Jersey but who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere.  Oscar defies two very different stereotypes: 1) that sexually frustrated nerds obsessed with LotR and Dungeons and Dragons are white boys and 2) that Dominican men are suave machismos capable of charming the panties off of any girl, no matter how beautiful.  Oscar is fat, awkward, uses a vocabulary so rich, his peers hardly understand him and seems to be followed by something called the fuku, a sort of Dominican curse initially struck unto his grandfather that followed his mother all the way to America and adhered itself to Oscar’s sad life.

But this story isn’t Oscar’s alone.  It’s also a chronicle of his familial history.  It tells his grandfather’s tale, a particularly tragic story of how he came to obtain this curse in an effort to save his wife and children from the wicked Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.  Oscar’s mother’s story is also told in great length along with a shorter section devoted to his sister, Lola.  His grandfather’s, mother’s and sister’s stories are all told in as much (if not more) detail as his own and, in my opinion, are more interesting.  Oscar’s family history kept my attention but his story lost me a little, in particular in the book’s final section, wherein Oscar meets his violent and untimely end.  The title forewarns his fate; his life certainly is brief.  It’s the wondrous part that didn’t hold up.  I found Oscar’s tale uninspired and after all his family experienced and overcame, his choices seemed undeserving.  Perhaps that is the point, though – that the middle class American children of immigrants don’t live up to the dreams of their parents and grandparents who’ve overcome impossible obstacles to give them more.

Diaz interjects each chapter with lengthy footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies and various Spanish phrases (I continuously had to stop to look up English translations – I knew I should have taken Spanish in high school!), proving that he shares his title character’s love of sci-fi/fantasy literature.  He also switches narratives; most of the book is told by a narrator who’s hardly a side character, Oscar’s college roommate and his sister’s on-and-off-again boyfriend, Yunior.  Lola tells her own story and both Oscar’s grandfather’s and mother’s tales seem to be narrated by an unknown omniscient narrator (though I think it’s still Yunior, it’s never explained how he knows these intimate details of their lives).  It’s a novel about identity, masculinity, family and the hardships overcome by the ancestors of American children who may or may not squander the opportunities that were so hard-won by their parents and grandparents.  It’s well-written and evenly paced and overall, I did like it.  But its conclusion felt a little anti-climactic for my taste.

~Nikki