Saturday, August 30, 2008


August: Osage County is Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which debuted in 2007. It is typically billed as a dark comedy or tragicomedy. It deals with the reunion of a family in rural Oklahoma after the death of its patriarch. During this time, skeletons come out of closets, and drama ensues.

The play features 13 characters, and most of them get a substantial amount of attention from the author. Balancing all these characters is something Letts does particularly well, and this is especially highlighted when there are two and three conversations going on simultaneously.

Very few of these characters are the least bit sympathetic. Most of them spend most of their time hashing out their problems in nasty, unpleasant ways. Letts seems to be under the impression that the way to go here is to create as many irreconcilable issues as he can and then not resolve any of them. Some people may think that makes good drama; others will rightly ask, “so what?” and “what’s the point?”.

August: Osage County certainly has its moments, but it’s never particularly innovative or impressive. I, for one, am hard-pressed to understand just what about the play was Pulitzer-worthy.


Friday, August 22, 2008

SNOW CRASH by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash is a cyberpunk science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, originally published in 1992. It involves virtual reality and computer science, religion (particularly ancient Mesopotamian religions, Sumerian in particular), linguistics, and philosophy.

Stephenson writes in the present tense, a technique that is typically annoying and inferior, but which Stephenson pulls off reasonably well. This is not to say, however, that Snow Crash would not have been better served by being written in the standard past tense. It's close.

The world Stephenson has created is vivid and interesting. Society has degenerated into anarcho-capitalism; virtually every aspect of government has been relegated to the private sector. Elements of Stephenson's Metaverse are present in today's internet. Stephenson holds the reader's interest with his colorful characters, including his main character, the sword-wielding hacker Hiro Protagonist. 

A cast of interesting people doing interesting things is, ultimately, enough to carry the book, which is good, because Stephenson's take on philosophy, religion and linguistics falls flat. Stephenson obviously did a lot of research, which he presents as page after page of lecture from the Librarian character. He's gotten some things fundamentally wrong, however, most notably the development of early Christianity. And his concept of a real-life virus as code is downright silly.

Ultimately, Snow Crash is seriously flawed, but well worth reading. 


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is Cormac McCarthy's novel about a man and his son trying to make their way through post-apocalyptic America. In 2007, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was featured on Oprah Winfrey's Book Club.

The story, plain and simple, deals with the man and the boy and their quest to reach the coast while avoiding bandits, scavengers, and cannibals. The interplay between the man and the boy is well done, although McCarthy allows the story to fall into a somewhat tedious repeating pattern of starve/find a stockpile/starve/find a stockpile. The end of the novel is somewhat predictable and perhaps not as poignant as McCarthy intended (or as some critics have claimed).

McCarthy uses vivid, sometimes ponderous language that works more often than not, and this is what makes the novel so memorable. The Road is short and spare, but McCarthy still manages to immerse the reader in his dark, cold, horror-filled world. He's also able to create a degree of suspense. McCarthy (in the voice of the man) often falls into something akin to stream-of-consciousness, and this works less frequently. Sentence fragments abound, jarringly.

The Road is so postapocalyptic that no quotation marks or narrative commas have survived. McCarthy also leaves out apostrophes from most contractions that occur in narrative (he does use them in dialogue), but uses them in less frequently-occurring contractions (like "he'd"). This inconsistency helps McCarthy's style come off as pretentious. How is it, exactly, that these literary types like McCarthy get away with disregarding the rules of punctuation and syntax so egregiously? It's pretentious any way you slice it.

Ultimately, The Road is more than the sum of its parts, and that, I suppose, is one of the things that makes good writing. Yes, it's pretentious, but it's also vivid and memorable.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

KIM by Rudyard Kipling

Kim is Rudyard Kipling’s novel about a white orphan, Kimball O’Hara, in India. It was first published in 1901, and is often considered to be Kipling’s best novel. In the novel, Kim befriends a Tibetan Lama and becomes his disciple. Later, the British force him to attend a British school. Afterward, he rejoins the Lama, and becomes involved in political intrigue between Britain and Russia.

Kim is noteworthy for Kipling’s lush depictions of India, its people, its culture, and its religions. In spite of everything that goes on in this novel, there’s no real plot – it’s just Kim’s wanderings around India. And this is the vehicle Kipling uses to celebrate India. This is well and good, but it isn’t all that interesting. The story loses quite a lot of steam after Kim gets into British custody. Perhaps the story holds more allure for those of us who have not been to India (I have, several times).

Ultimately, this is about as good a portrayal of India as you can find in a novel. That is what this book should be read for, not its story.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

HUMAN SMOKE by Nicholson Baker

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization is Nicholson Baker’s history of the lead-up to World War II and the United States’ involvement in it. Rather than provide a continuous, blow-by-blow account of things, Baker uses hundreds of brief news items, averaging perhaps half a page in length. These range from 1892 to the end of 1941 (the vast majority of the book deals with the thirties and forties). As Baker recounts a wide assortment of events, he has several questions in mind. As he states in the afterword (p. 473): “Was [World War II] a ‘good war’? Did waging it help anyone who needed help?” Ultimately, Baker challenges World War II as the exemplar of just war.

Baker’s prose is engaging. He quotes whenever possible, and doesn’t editorialize much. The brevity of his entries keeps the book moving at a fast pace. Baker draws heavily from newspapers, diaries, memoirs and public statements, and ties each news item to a specific date. This helps keep the material honest.

A lot of what Baker focuses on reveals another side of World War II, one many Americans aren’t familiar with. Baker works to show that World War II did quite a lot more harm than it did good. Nevertheless, he at no time sympathizes with the Nazis – he accurately portrays how terrible they could be. Baker explores the warmongering side of Roosevelt and Churchill as well as Hitler. There is a side of the U.S. and Britain that he is keen to show, and some of the things these nations did might amount to shocking revelations for many people. World War II was brought about, to a great degree, by that great confluence of warmongers:

-The United States sold arms to Germany and Japan in the 1930s.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with a great many other Americans and citizens of the world, was blatantly anti-Semitic.
-Before the Holocaust, Germany spent years trying to ship the Jews out. Nobody, including the United States, would take them. While this does not mitigate the horrors the Nazis perpetrated, it is alarming that by and large the rest of the world didn’t care what happened to the Jews. Certainly this helped cultivate the environment for the Holocaust.
-The British blockaded continental Europe, and would not allow food shipments through, even food intended for starving citizens of occupied France. Herbert Hoover, the much-reviled, erstwhile president, fought tooth and nail for the food shipments.
-For years, Roosevelt taunted and provoked Japan, hoping to lure them into striking first, so that he could bring the United States into the war without reneging on his campaign promises to keep the country out of war.
-Bombing, a major war strategy for both sides, was notoriously imprecise. An unbelievably small percentage of bombs hit their intended targets. Additionally, both Germany and Britain deliberately, purposely and repeatedly bombed civilian targets.

Human Smoke is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, and to those who believe World War II was a just war, or that it was fought according to the criteria of just war by any nation.


Monday, August 4, 2008

THE JUNGLE BOOKS by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) are collections of children's stories and related poems by Rudyard Kipling, the Briton who was born in and loved India, and who wrote these stories while living in Vermont. The stories are written as fables, and teach some moral lessons. They are probably Kipling's best-known works.

Many of the stories in both volumes feature Mowgli, the child raised by wolves who becomes master of the jungle (the first three stories in The Jungle Book are very obviously the inspiration for the 1967 animated Disney film). Most of the other stories are also set in India, although "The White Seal" in The Jungle Book and "Quiquern" (which is about Inuits) in The Second Jungle Book are exceptions. In nearly all instances, Kipling anthropomorphizes the animals; they speak, and are always prominent characters.

Kipling does a good job of writing in the fable style, although he doesn't always keep things moving at a good pace, and so some stories are more engaging than others.

There is a subtle racism throughout both volumes. Kipling was a staunch imperialist (he wrote the poem "The White Man's Burden" – this phrase has been used by imperialists since to justify imperialism as noble), and when humans feature in these stories, English whites are often presented as culturally and intellectually superior to the native Indians. This racism is still relevant, as it indicates a popular attitude of the day.

Ultimately, the Jungle Books are well worth reading. They have, perhaps deservedly so, achieved a prominent place in the pantheon of children's literature.