Category Archives: Books

Three mo’ down, only 16 left – time travel, demons, gunfights and belated returns

It’s been a while. Long time no blog. I’d love to say that various interesting things have been keeping me from telling strangers about the mundanities that make up my life, however, that’s not the case. I’ve had blogs before and they’ve never really lasted but I told myself that I’d stick it out with this one and you can’t say I ain’t trying. Well maybe you could say that but at least I’m sporadically trying. Aaaanyway, I’m here now and that’s what matters.

A few pop culture related discoveries have occurred over the past month and a bit. I’ve fallen in love with several TV shows, most of them comedies. Community. Man, what can I say about that one. I’d need to utilise caps lock to fully express my love for this unapologetic ode to popular culture but that’d be an aesthetic nightmare, not to mention annoying. I’ve started watching the television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, the first season of which is called Game of Thrones. Not more than two days ago, I decided to check out Parks and Recreation, another NBC comedy series. I’ve already caught up with every episode of Community and now I’ve got to wait until September for season 3 so I needed something to fill the gap left by my newly beloved. P&R is proving to be a worthy successor so far and I hear it only gets funnier. Woody Allen is another new fixation of mine. I watched Annie Hall and immediately had to see more of his stuff. I’ve seen three of his other films since, Manhattan taking the cake. I’m going to have to do write-ups about all of these things at some point so stay tuned.

The focus of this post, would you believe, was originally going to be on the last three books I’ve read. I guess I’ve still got some time to save face so here goes. First up: Slaughterhouse-Five. This one totally floored me. Cliche alert! – this is the kind of book that can alter one’s perception of life and death. It’s subject matter is naturally depressing, anchored by the main character’s experience in a POW camp in Dresden, Germany prior to the infamous fire bombing that devastated the city during WW2. There are plenty of books out there that aim to enduce empathy in readers by using doomed, historic stories as bait. That might sound callous of me, but honestly, I feel that I have read and seen enough stories of human kindness set against the backdrop of World War 2 (ahem, I’m looking at you Markus Zusak) to understand the strength of the human spirit during times of crisis. What makes Slaughterhouse-Five so refreshing is that the World War 2 segments of the story are mere fragments of a much greater whole. It really is a batshit-insane book. I won’t spoil too much but in an attempt to nail a genre on Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, I’ll label it a darkly humourous science fiction book with historic elements. It left me feeling optimistic about life itself, a little less afraid of death and excited about the future. Yeah, I’m starting to gush but I really think that this is the most I’ve ever taken away from a book. That really is the highest praise I can give.

I retuned to the world of fantasy after my journey through space and time with Kurt Vonnegut. The Name of the Wind is the debut novel by young American author, Patrick Rothfuss. He admits it’s essentially a culmination of much of his pop-culture fixations. It’s almost as long as one of George R.R. Martin’s tomes but it kept me engaged throughout nonetheless. I felt like there may not have been enough resolution at the story’s end but I guess that’s what the sequel’s (titled The Wise Man’s Fear) for. It’s what is known as a ‘bildungsroman’. According to Wiktionary, this term is German for ‘novel of education’ or ‘novel of formation’. In essence, it refers to a story that traces a character’s growth from childhood to maturity. The Name of the Wind shares some things in common with the Harry Potter franchise. It’s central character is part of an esoteric group that practices magic at a special university and is constantly haunted by the loss of his family to an elusive and evil foe. OK, that makes it sound like a complete rip-off but there really is a lot more to it. It contains much more mature themes for one, and the way in which the story is told is familiar yet refreshing. Put simply, this is a fun fantasy experience.

Most recently, I finished reading Red Harvest by one of the pioneers of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett. It was published in 1929 and it tells the story of the nameless Continental-Op, a detective hired to investigate a murder in the small American town of Personville (affectionately referred to by the locals as ‘Poisonville’). Once he solves this crime, Elihu Wilsson, the de-facto king of Poisonville and father of the murder victim, hires the Op to sort out the escalating gang wars between men he himself hired to take care of a labor dispute. The Continental Op accepts however, justice for Elihu Wilsson is the last thing he has on his mind. What makes this book interesting is that it’s based on the author’s real life experiences as an operative for the Continental Detective Agency based in San Francisco. It comes across as formulaic at times but this is mostly due to the fact that it’s form has been imitated so often since it’s publication. It just goes to show how influential Red Harvest really was. Just don’t expect too much substance.

Well, it’s good to be back. See y’all later. I’ll try and come back a bit sooner this time!

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Twenty two becomes nineteen and I muse on The Bell Jar

Well, three more books have bitten the dust and my tally for the year has risen to a hefty six. Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, was insightful and fun but, ultimately, not very substantial. The Hunger Games was a nice page-turner but it left many loose ends waiting to be resolved. I guess I’ll have to get around to reading the sequels someday but they’re certainly not at the top of my to-read list.

By far the best of the three books I’ve recently read was the late poet, Sylvia Plath’s only work of prose, The Bell Jar which is in the form of a novel. It is said to be semi-autobiographical which makes it an unsettling read as Plath committed suicide no more than a month after the book’s publication. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating look at clinical depression.

Nineteen year old, Esther Greenwood is an aspiring poet who recieves an internship working for a women’s magazine in New York. Her time at the magazine introduces her to many women of her age. These women are unlike Esther in that they seem to have a pre-determined path laid out before them that they are content with. By the end of her tenure working for the magazine, Esther gains a new, disheartening perspective on everyday life and once she returns to her home in Massachusetts, her lack of a future career path brings on feelings of inadequacy and a deep depression begins to consume her.

Sylvia Plath at work

I was expecting The Bell Jar to be well written as Sylvia Plath was a very highly acclaimed poet but some of the figurative language in this book really exceeded my expectations. The metaphor at the heart of the book slowly reveals itself over the course of the story and it is so simple yet so profound. I suppose that when I began reading this book, I thought that the dark subject matter would make it a slow and drawn out experience. On the contrary, The Bell Jar proved to me that a book about depression can still immerse you in it’s world no matter how far removed from the subject matter you are. Esther’s life at various asylums is one of deceptive banality; with dull routine threatening to give way to a bout of shock treatment any day. I think that it’s this mysterious quality that compelled me to read this book so voraciously.

Sylvia Plath commited suicide by way of carbon-monoxide poisoning in February, 1963. She left two children motherless and a husband a widower. The Bell Jar was a final cry from her soul. It is harrowing and somewhat prophetic but even if Plath had lived to this day and conquered her depression, this book would be no less important. If you have ever known anyone who has suffered from depression at any point in time, then The Bell Jar will give you an idea of how it felt to be in the skin of that person in their darkest hour.

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TOOT TOOT! I have a list of my favourite pop culture road trips and I’m not afraid to use it

Here is me performing an affirmative hand gesture

Since yesterday, I have legally been able to drive a car on my own. It’s a great feeling. The driving test itself was pretty nerve-wracking: every mistake I made, however small, seemed like an instant fail to me. Then thirty minutes later, the instructor was all like, ‘OK, I’m passing you today,’ as if he plans to test me again some time in the future and fail me.

Yeah, so I feel liberated and all that. Blahdi blah blah. I was planning on writing a blog post if I managed to get my license;  however, not just a simple ‘soap-box’ rant. In order to awaken the adventurous beast that lies dormant somewhere within me, I’m going to compile a list of my favourite road-trips in pop culture history. A couple of my choices are so obvious that I give you permission to laugh derisively to yourself.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Dean and Sal

An absolute classic written by one of the pioneers of the ‘beat’ movement, Kerouac’s book is the kind that awakens a teenager from an apathetic slumber by blowing several loud saxophone notes in his/her ear. It’s an almost entirely autobiographical account of several years of his life; with alternate names used to avoid accusations of libel. Kerouac is Sal Paradise, a young beatnik living in New York City, itching to go and discover America after meeting a friend of his pal (Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg) called Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). Throughout the story, Paradise and Moriarty form a lifelong bond born from their adventures on the road. They wind up everywhere from San Francisco to Mexico City. There are many quirky characters that they meet along their way, each influencing the pair (particularly Sal) in one way or another. These include Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), a sage-like drug addict, and The Ghost of the Susquehanna (as Sal dubs him), an old hobo whom Paradise meets while hitching his way west. Sal Paradise and particularly Dean Moriarty have become cult icons. Dean is anti-authority and anti-establishment. Sal is in awe of his seemingly pure freedom. Dean’s laidback lifestyle, however, comes at a cost as you’ll find out upon reading the book.

On the Road is my first choice for this list (although it’s really in no particular order) because I think that the ideal cultural depiction of a road-trip is one in which the ultimate destination itself is not necessarily just a city but an existential awakening. Sal’s journey in On the Road teaches him a great deal about himself. Jack Kerouac managed to successfully capture the essence of what we know as a ‘road-trip’. 

Dumb and Dumber

Lloyd and Harry

OK so it’s pretty ridiculous going from one of the foundations of modern literature to this. I’ve had a special place in my heart for this movie since I was really young. It’s immature, cringe-worthy and totally hilarious.

Lloyd (Jim Carrey in his best role) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) are two lower-class dimwits struggling to make ends meet. When Lloyd witnesses a beautiful woman drop a briefcase at the airport he convinces Harry to set out on the road with him to track down his new object of affection. What follows is a series of increasingly embarassing and very funny scenarios as the two make their way to snowy Aspen (‘Where the beer flows like wine, where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano’) and the woman of Lloyd’s dreams.

Lloyd and Harry’s journey in Dumb and Dumber doesn’t really teach them that much (they’re dumb after all), but they do learn that a friendship as strong as their own can never really fade. Any two people that still like each other after one drives them both halfway across the country in the wrong direction, are pretty much destined to be friends forever.

This Is Not the Way Home – The Cruel Sea

This song by the whiskey-soaked blues-rock band from Sydney doesn’t tell a detailed story but it manages to capture the experience of a young male’s Australian road trip pretty damn well. Everything from barren landscapes and bullet-ravaged road signs to downing six packs of beer and throwing up in a men’s restroom. The drums gallop along aimlessly while the guitars weave in and out of the song like snakes by the roadside. Whenever I listen to it, I can almost feel the sun ruthlessly beating down on my neck and that alone would have earned this song a spot on my list. It’s a killer blues-romp as well so that doesn’t hurt either.

Bart, his friends and a creepy hitchhiker

Bart on the Road (The Simpsons)

This is by no means one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons, but I think the concept of four ten year olds concocting an alibi that involves a ‘grammar rodeo’ in Canada and hitting the road after one of them gets a fake ID is pretty memorable.

This is Bart’s episode through and through. My favourite moment (off-topic alert) is when Bart reads the title of a pamphlet outloud in class: ‘Go to Work With Your Parents Day?’ Suddenly, Principal Skinner answers him over the PA: ‘Yes, Go to Work With Your Parents Day.’ Gets me every time.

The actual road trip portion of this episode is naturally far-fetched but some aspects of it ring true; namely the dynamic between Bart, Milhouse, Nelson and Martin. They argue over their destination (Martin suggests a tour of the Bridges of Madison County) and the little things (Milhouse insists that they stop to buy a cup upon discovering that their car has a cup-holder). It’s actually a pretty accurate depiction of how a car full of young folks would behave.

Like many road-trips, Bart’s does not end like he’d hoped. Shit goes wrong pretty regularly but he winds up safely at home (via Hong Kong) by the time the credits roll.

I’m sure there are many more great examples I could have crammed into this list but the ones I’ve chosen are those that make up the image of a ‘road-trip’ in my mind. I’ve never really seen cars as an object of pleasure; more a simple means of transport. All I wanna do is get where I wanna go without having a back-seat driver every time I get behind the wheel. Now that I can do that, it’s just a matter of figuring out where I’d like to go…

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The twenty five book challenge of twenty eleven

Reading has always been an ‘on and off’ thing over the course of my life. I’ve never stopped loving it, but sometimes it just seems that the thought of it likes to escape to the back of my mind. During the latter half of last year I started reading pretty solidly again after about a six month period devoid of booky wonder. I haven’t let up since. In an effort to keep this momentum going strong, I’ve set myself a goal: I’m going to read twenty five books this year. Or, at least try really hard to.

There’s only one rule: I’m not going to include graphic novels in my list despite the fact that I’m currently working my way through The Walking Dead. I tend to breeze through them so it would feel like cheating to me.

So far I’ve only made my way through a measly three books. They were:

  • A Game of Thrones – by George R. R. Martin
  • The Girl Who Played With Fire – by Stieg Larsson
  • The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three – by Stephen King

I’d like to write quick reviews for some books every now and then, if I feel like sounding off about anything in particular. Right now I’m reading Keith Richards’ auto-biography, the imaginatively titled, Life. It’s proving to be a good read so far. Keith’s writing is a bit haphazard at times but he makes up for it with some truly humourous tidbits. My favourite one of these is his insight into the almost subconcious aspect of songwriting.

‘You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on. You might be getting shot at, and you’ll still be “Oh! That’s the bridge!”‘

Reading two books at a time has never really worked for me, but if I’m going to have any chance of finishing twenty five books in the space of a year with a third of that year nearly gone and only three books down the hatch, I may have to. I just hope it doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of certain books. This dangerous experiment is going to come sooner rather than later, as I’m planning on starting the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Yep, hoppin’ on that bandwagon. Nevertheless, I’ve heard some very good things about the series so I’m going to give it a shot.

…and so the journey continues. Wish me luck.

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