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

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

When Emptiness Is All You Know

CarrieThere are certain emotions and experiences universal to being human.  Awkwardness and insecurity during adolescence is one of them.  Stephen King seems to channel these feelings effortlessly, putting a level of realism into the descriptions of his teenaged characters that rings so true, it damn near hurts to read.  Such is the case with Carrie, the story of one troubled teenager whose pitiful life culminates in destruction of epic proportions.

Carrie White just happens to be born the daughter of a man and woman so over-zealously, fanatically religious that she is convinced the world is nothing but one temptation of evil after another and her only means of salvation is to spend her energy repressing her basic needs and wants.  Carrie is never informed about menstruation (and she lives in a time (1974) and place (Chamberlain, Maine) where such things aren’t taught in school) because her mother believes as long as her daughter stays pure, she won’t be cursed by God with a monthly period.  So when Carrie does start her period for the first time, she thinks she’s dying and shrieks in terror.  At the time, she happens to be showering in the girls’ locker room after gym and her classmates take the opportunity to viciously taunt and humiliate her by throwing maxi pads and tampons at her, all the while shouting things like “Plug it up!”  They, of course, don’t understand her melodramatic terror and she doesn’t understand one damn thing about the situation.

Carrie also happens to be a born telekinetic, a condition that is later found to be a recessive genetic disorder resulting from a mutation on the X chromosome, incredibly rare and only affecting females.  (Since it’s recessive, two X chromosomes with the mutation are needed for the disorder to be expressed.  A person with one X chromosome with the mutation is a carrier.)  All of this creates a kind of perfect storm of circumstances under which Carrie White becomes a monster – a confused and tortured teen capable of horrific doings.  After becoming the victim of a cruel and degrading prank at her senior prom, Carrie’s limit for humiliation is surpassed and she uses her supernatural ability to wreak havoc on her town.  In particular, she sets a fire to the gymnasium housing her prom that kills over 400 students and faculty members.  She goes on to murder her own mother, set more fires that destroy several of the town’s local businesses along with one of its central churches and eventually takes down the city’s entire electrical grid.

King reveals the aftermath intermittently via excerpts of books written about the tragedy, radio and news broadcasts transmitted during or immediately following it, transcriptions taken from the hearing on the official investigation and memoirs from the one survivor, Carrie’s fellow student and a girl who played an indirect but significant role in it, Susan Snell.  For the most part, these asides add depth to the relatively Stephen Kingsimple story and give great insight into Carrie’s life and background and the consequences of the incident but the sheer volume of them seem a bit much.  It gets to be distracting from the central story.  Or at least, they should interrupt the story less often.  Placing the bulk of them at either the beginning or end of the central story, perhaps, would have been more to my liking.  I found they interrupted too frequently, breaking my train of thought and interest in the narrative.

King may not write for a broad audience but his ability to slowly weave together a story and create characters in extraordinary circumstances but with whom his readers can relate and empathize has given him a large and faithful community of fans.  Pet Sematary still remains my favorite of the handful of Stephen King novels that I’ve read but I enjoyed Carrie and would certainly recommend it.

~Nikki

Eyes On Fire – Nikki’s 2012 Book List (Part 2)

As promised, here’s part two:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – Typically I try to read the book before seeing the movie but occasionally, it happens the other way around, which was the case here.  I saw the flick and thought it was a good idea but too heavy-handed in its execution.  After reading a couple of glowing reviews of the book, I thought I’d give it a look in the hopes that it succeeded where the film failed.  Sadly, I did not find that to be the case.  It’s a dark and sad tale set in the not-so-distant future wherein people who have the available funds can buy rights to clones of themselves.  At any point, if they need a kidney or a lung or any other vital organ, they’ll have a perfect match on hand.  Never Let Me Go tells the story of the doomed clones as they grow up in a boarding school, aware of their inescapable fate and still somehow trying to find some joy in life.  The writing is JaneEyrebeautiful and the story is not without merit but some passages just try too hard to convey the sense of loss that would come through much better without Ishiguro’s forcing it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I don’t know why it took me 30 years to read this but upon doing so, it immediately became a treasured favorite.  Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers a narrative that’s warm and personal without ever being trite and the story itself is as much about a young woman coming into her own and finding a way to assert her own independent spirit over the course of her life as it is a dark and intoxicating love story.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie – Alexie’s greatest skill as a storyteller is to make the stories of utterly ordinary lives feel extraordinarily tragic and simultaneously funny.  This collection of short stories deals with many of today’s pertinent issues – love, marriage, divorce, parenthood, racial conflict, substance/alcohol abuse, 9/11 and the War On Terror.  It isn’t Alexie’s best (for me, that’s still The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven) but it certainly is worth a read.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – I’m not sure what finally got me reading this.  It was different than I expected, more about the emotional aftermath for this poor dead child’s family than the capture of her killer.  The writing itself is good and the characters very real and fully developed but I never got totally sucked in.  There is no plot and at times, the story seems to just spin out in tangents.  For those of who love a good character study, I recommend it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Yes, I read this in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation by Baz Luhrman.  You know I’m a sucker for the classics so I’m sure I would have gotten to it eventually, anyway.  I had no expectations going in, really knew nothing of the story other than it’s set in or around the roaring ’20s.  It centers around a young man fairly new to New York and its high society.  He happens to be neighbors with a man called Gatsby, who is infamously mysterious as well as exceedingly wealthy.  He eventually witnesses Gatsby’s downfall along with the disintegration of the small circle of socialites that he briefly became a part of.  Hailed for capturing the essence of an era, it belongs on everyone’s book list.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – Two brothers find an abandoned crashed plane and in it, a duffel bag full of money.  Over $4 million, it turns out.  Should they disappear with it?  Is it marked or otherwise sought after by the police… drug lords… the FBI?  Such is the premise for A Simple Plan and it sounds promising enough.  Smith develops a fairly good story but the writing – the actual sentence by sentence writing of it isn’t good enough to make it great.  There are a few plot holes, nothing monumental, but made more obvious by the overly descriptive explanation of events surrounding them.  The action and every thought behind it were given too thorough a description, taking any semblance of nuance out of the work.  I hear they made a movie some years ago but I doubt I’ll see it.  Once through this story is enough.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – These 100 pages are a compilation of the very last writings of Mr. Hitchens, all written during the last 18 months of his life between his diagnosis with esophageal cancer and his untimely death.  They contain some of his most personal work and his most poignant.  By turns philosophical and musing, he never lost his ability to write with penetrating intelligence and unmatched grace.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – This was the second book King published and I’d venture to say that at the time of its writing, he hadn’t fully found his voice yet.  Some passages went on far too long while others felt cut short.  Still, it contains a few of those slow-to-reveal moments that King does so well, the kind that creep up on you and make you shiver with delight at the suspenseful, scary images you know are coming but still somehow feel fresh and surprising.  In 1975, King may not have yet mastered his craft but he was already well on his way.

The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant – This novel formed the basis for the film Lawless, easily one of 2012′s best flicks.  The wettest county is Franklin county (Virginia) and during Prohibition, it spawned what would later be called The Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy involving the Bondurant brothers and a deputy called Charley Rakes.  That much (along with some other details) is true.  But much more of the book is fictionalized.  It centers around the Bondurant boys and rightly so; they are the stars of this story and my interest in the details of their lives is what got me to buy the book.  It drags a bit in the beginning but stick with it – it’s worth it.

Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – I enjoyed Outliers so much, I thought I’d go back and read this earlier work by Gladwell that studies the idea of “thin-slicing” – selecting the few most relevant factors from any number of variables in the first few open bookseconds’ reaction to something – and how it affects our decision-making.  Gladwell examines a psychologist who can predict a couple’s chance of divorce with shocking accuracy by listening to them talk for a mere few minutes, a museum curator’s ability to judge the authenticity of a piece of art within moments of gazing upon it and the tennis coach who knows the player will double-fault before he even finishes his serve.  Gladwell also gives some examples of decisions made by those whose instincts lead to disastrous consequences and explains the difference between them.  Each case study is well explained and thought-provoking, exploring the successes and failures of rapid cognition.

50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed – Yes, I read them and no, I did not particularly enjoy them.  The first in the series is by far the best of the three (in the way that the time you broke your finger was a more enjoyable experience than when you fractured your skull) and the best thing I can say for them is that they weren’t quite as awful as I had expected.  The writing itself, while not anything I’d call good, isn’t the worst I’ve read but the characters are lifeless and underdeveloped and there is no story to speak of, just one pitifully contrived set of circumstances after another during which the girl worries she’s not enough for the boy and the boy worries she’s going to leave him and then they argue and make up and have kinky sex, some of which is mildly hot but not nearly enough to justify the time spent reading this schlock.  I read them because I felt guilty about hating all over a series I hadn’t actually read.  So I gave them a shot.  And now I can knowingly say they’re a waste of paper.

Can’t wait to see what literary treasures 2013 will bring.

~Nikki