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.
Like 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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?