Sunday, September 14, 2014

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck - book review

Rating: 5/5

Brothers mostly fight out competition for their parents' love. They're forbidden from harming one another, but sometimes it's really, really hard to respect that rule, especially when the sibling is acting all pure and disinterested and you know, you just know, that's it's all an act and they're doing it just to barb you.

This is a retelling of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. It draws its strength by making the father an actual father, replacing the mother figure by a wise, bookish Chinese man, and making the original mother a psychopath and sexual manipulator. It takes a monster to reveal the characters' penchant for violence. There's a father monster one generation above,  intent on sending his sons to war to assuage his ego as a military expert. Since he's the father of the father, one might posit that we're delving into the Greek myth of Chronos who eats his own children. Then there's the other monster, a psychopathic mother who abandons her children. Monsters do their job by reminding us how necessary it is to remain human and allow compassion and openness to guide us.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson - book review

Read 29/03/2014
Rating: 3/5

A dying reverend's story, addressed to his young son, touching on different aspects of the life he lead in the rural town of Gilead. Having a heart condition, he knows his life won’t last very much longer and that his son will grow up with only early childhood memories of his father, so he sets about putting his life and thoughts to the page to provide the continuity that the son will most probably later require.

A lot happened in and around Gilead, and the reverend’s story is one that spans three generations of reverends, with their similarities and inevitable discords.

The reverend’s depiction of his life is tedious at first. It comes off as a lot of humblebrag, congratulating himself on the steadfastly pious life he has led, the few minor indulgences he allowed himself (basically books) and the ease with which he accepted God’s will in the hardships endured. He gives thanks for meeting a good woman late in life and having a son.

Then, gradually, a character sneaks his way into the story and steals the narrative, forcing the reverend to confront the areas of darkness in Gilead’s and his own past, that he hadn’t intended to. Jack Ames Boughton, his namesake, the prodigal son of a fellow preacher friend, who comes back to Gilead at his father’s request, yet whose true intentions remain veiled. The reverend, though he won’t admit it outright, fears that Jack is there to take his place when he departs, to woo his widow and install himself in his house. In order to credibly warn his son against the man that he believes Jack Boughton to be, he has to delve into Jack’s past, inextricably linked to his own, and which exposes areas of his life that he initially had not intended to expose.

The reverend’s story is touching because it is flawed, because his language is repetitive and often self-indulgent. For instance, he often flatly states “that is a remarkable thing” about just about anything. Or, “this planet is deserving of all the attention that one can give it”, which could arguably be said about just about any planet. Sometimes, the modesty is infuriating: he’ll affirm something, then add that he doesn't quite understand it, though he clearly does, as when he quotes “things that don't exist in relation to other things cannot be said to exist at all”. He repeatedly lauds existence as a remarkable thing, but what is he comparing it to, inexistence?

The gloves come off though, so to speak, when he realizes that his wife feels a growing sympathy for Jack Boughton. We writes, “It is one of the best traits of good people that they love where they pity. And this is truer of women than of men.” His business with Jack is far from finished, however, and Jack’s developing story compels him to inspect his own life with a more probing eye, revealing truths more profound because they are more painful, but for whom he can ultimately only be thankful for, being the reverend that he is.

I found it quite challenging to get into the mind of this reverend who seldom if ever left his small town, who remains steadfastly attached to his faith and his tranquil and (mostly) unexciting life, but I’m glad I did. The reverend’s life, with all its myriad renunciations, is made all the more engaging for the beauty he sees in the world.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Player One, by Douglas Coupand - book review

Rating: 4/5

I read this book in French, which is dumb because it was written in English originally, but I found it in a bookstore and couldn't resist, so here we are. A lot of terms had me shaking my head in confusion, before realizing that the terms had no translation. New words don’t spread virally in French culture like they do in English-language cultures around the globe. For instance, there’s no French translation for “MILF” (the translator used “maman sexy”, which is poor and guts the expression of its acronym funniness). New words aside, the translation has a good rhythm to it and doesn’t bog down the dialogues like many English-French translations do.

The setting is an airport bar, where as fate would have it a mixed bag of people find themselves for various reasons: an autistic young woman, an ex-preacher, an alcoholic barman. As fate would further have it, some catastrophe hits, it's not properly explained and doesn't need to be, suffice to notice that oil prices have skyrocketed, media broadcasts have stopped, there are toxic chemicals blowing outside and the people inside the bar can't leave. Eventually they are joined by a religious nut and a scared teen.

Oh, and one of the characters is Player One, who is inside the bar's video game. He's a pompous ass, but he's cool.

Conversations flow between the motley group, touching on the state of the world, obviously, since it's ending or seems to be, and eventually sink down into their personal histories as the setting favors the end-of-world cathartic confessions. There is such a variation in the characters' outlook and constitution that it becomes apparent that only a catastrophe forcing people into this space and threatening their very being will overcome cultural and ideological barricades, creating odd yet touching bonds, like a contained nuclear explosion revealing other states of the matter at its core.

I really enjoyed the paradoxical converging of the different mindsets and found the characters believable and engaging.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland - book review

Read 02/02/2014

Rating: 5/5

A novel in journal form about a group of Microsoft employees who leave the company to found a Silicon valley startup.

Douglas Coupland is what I think of as a zeitgeist writer. He captures the spirit of the times we live in by setting his novels in those places that history will look back upon as trend-setting, avant-garde cultures. Silicon Valley in the 1990’s is a prime candidate, if not the clear winner. Though it hasn’t lost any of its luster, Silicon Valley doesn’t hold the same power over mediatic senses now as it did then, simply because it’s now been around for a while.

Reading about the 1990’s nerd culture is a nostalgic trip. If you were there at the time, and happened to find yourself in a field not too distant from technology and (here’s a 90’s term for you) multimedia, you find yourself nodding your head frequently while reading this, sometimes laughing out loud.

The characters are a hodge-podge of geekism from the era. There’s a bodybuilder geek (two of them, actually), a suave marketing geek, a recovering anorexic, an ageing previous-generation IBM software guy, a hermit-like visionary, a geek mother, a closeted gay geek, a Canadian rough-and-tumble geek, and of course the narrator, a run-of-the-mill generic geek whose importance in the story is to be relatable, therefore not too extremely geeky.

These characters find themselves living together in the Valley and forging their group into an extended family, discovering themselves and the world outside of Microsoft communally. The narrator is the quintessential flaneur in that he seems to be the kind of person who everybody confess themselves to, and as such becomes the eyes and ears of the reader as the author does a far-ranging show and tell of life in the 1990’s, tech and  corporate culture, Seattle, San Fransisco and the Silicon Valley, Las Vegas, technology, relationships, mass media, gender, etc. It slides and hops from one thing to the next, through brief anecdotes and heavy interpretation from the narrator or another character delivering analysis in thoughtful a partes.

The result is a lightly-toned, yet intricately weaved, information-heavy traversal of an economically ebullient period of history. It’s about technology, but it’s mostly about people and how they relate to it, how they tie it in with their past and their sociological makeup. The characters come to life fast and believably, and their diversity makes their commonality even more appreciable.

Often touching, always (alarmingly) smart.

Oh and, without giving anything away, I add that the ending blew me away. Nerds are people, too.

Friday, January 24, 2014

All My Sons, by Arthur Miller - book review

My rating : 4/5
Riveting drama from a master playwright.
This is a play about loyalty, about belonging, about morality and ethics. The complexity of the bonds between two families the Kellers and the Deevers is exposed when Annie, the Deevers' daughter, comes to spend the weekend with the Kellers. She was previously attached to Larry, a son that the Kellers lost in the war and can't mourn because they refuse to acknowledge his death. However, Chris, Larry's brother, has formed an attachment with Annie and intends to propose to her that weekend, thus forcing his mother to accept that Larry won't be coming back. 
It seems that postponed grief is the only thing keeping Annie and Chris apart, until a deeper, darker secret surfaces, brought to light by Annie's own brother, coming from the prison where their father is wasting away, paying the price for a crime that implicated the elder Keller, Joe.
The relationship between the Kellers and the Deevers was never that of equals. Though they were neighbors and the children grew up together, Joe Keller was Steve Deever's boss. Something happened during the war, a decision was made, Steve went to jail and Joe didn't. The proximity of the neighborhood came undone, as the neighbors reminiscences attest to. Mother Keeler insists on seeing the children as hers, and her wish to see them escape the sins of the parents is predictably vain.
Reading this play is like watching a bomb explode in slow motion, watching the collisions happen with years' delay, spraying human bits away from the explosions' center.

Here's the great foreshadowing:

Ann: You’re the only one I know who loves his parents. 
Chris: I know. It went out of style, didn’t it?
Ann: (with a sudden touch of sadness) It’s all right. It’s a good thing. (She looks about) You know? It’s lovely here. The air is sweet.

 Any play implicating multiple generations, of course, will hinge on heritage and innocence lost. Parents show their children how to be adults in the end by demonstrating the opposite of what they always taught them to respect in moral terms. This is eloquently voiced by their neighbor Jim:
[...], he’ll come back. We all come back, Kate. These private little revolutions always die. The compromise is always made. In a peculiar way. Frank is right… every man does have a star. The star of one’s honesty. And you spend your life groping for it, but once it’s out it never lights again. I don’t think he went very far. He probably just wanted to be alone to watch his star go out.

From a historical perspective, the play is imbued with an attachment to the codes of the period that strongly speak to post-war sentiment. It's doubtful that the same characters would attach the same importance to family honor and loyalty to one's country and laws today, but it doesn't take anything away from the play's power.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

On Writing, by Stephen King’s - book review

Read 15/01/2014

My rating: 4/5

This book is a collection of things. First, it’s a biography, recounting his early years with the theme of the burgeoning writer. Having read quite a few of his novels, I was surprised and delighted to find hints and indications, every few pages, of the experiences that translated into the novel ideas that I recognized from his lengthy and prolific production. For instance, he mentions getting locked in a closet, I think of Carrie. He mentions being worried of losing a limb to industrial machinery in a mill, I think of Night Shift. And so on.

He takes us up to the period of his twenties, then to his getting his first novel published (Carrie), and the book shifts to describing his writing process. I suppose that, to grant any authority to the “writer’s toolbox” that he proposes and recommends that the fledgling writer should build, one would have to first admire his work. However, even without being a fan of the horror genre that he molded and developed, you’d have to acknowledge the beauty of the way he presents his craft, touching only lightly on literary theory and insisting instead on a few core concepts that are required to deliver effective storytelling.

Whether or not one wishes to write fiction, this read is very compelling. It’s Stephen King, he makes you suspend disbelief with disarming (alarming ?) ease, he takes you into his study, sits you down by his side and chats away in a friendly voice about what it is he’s doing.

And then, suddenly, he is broken by a brutal car accident, his leg smashed, his lung collapsed. Stephen King-ish, is it not ? It serves a definite, practical purpose though, because after suffering the accident, he can’t write for a while. Getting back to it, rebuilding the writing habit and describing it in the last part of this book, is a way of putting into practice the process he proposed earlier in it, by placing himself once again in the position of the novice.

I like that writers such as King still think of writing as a craft. I fear that the day will come when writing will be governed by some all-pervasive theory, when writers will no longer be craftsmen but rather architects, and readers will appreciate the conceptual acrobatics of the novel and ignore its gritty foundations. That’s why I also like that a writer such as Stephen King wrote this book. While reading it, I felt like he was reassuring me, that all the shock and excitement I felt when reading so many other of his books was no accident, that a lot of work went into building those dark universes that appeared so effortlessly haunting, and that so many more universes remain to be discovered and developed.