Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Straight and Fast: Looking For Alaska

Yes, it's been a while, but I have a damned good excuse. Adam and I moved to New York, so things have been a bit psychotic (in the best way, of course). After the move was done and my beloved book collection was unpacked and stowed safely back on its shelves, I picked up this weighty meal: Looking for Alaska, by John Green. I was waiting to read this one for probably about a year now, after having bought it in Roanoke last summer, when it was mentioned by a Hollins Creative Writing professor. All I knew going in was that it was a YA book that successfully dealt with the tricky topic of suicide. Needless to say, I wasn't quick to pick it up during a rough spot in my life...so I skillfully decided to read it directly after moving to New York City and being totally and completely by myself.

Ok, so I'm not brilliant. Deal.

Anyway, aside from being a total bummer at parts (obviously), this book was absolutely stunning. The kids in the book-- all high-schoolers at an Alabama boarding school-- are foul-mouthed, literary and hilarious, a combination that is completely unique in my experience. The main character, a skinny, self-conscious teen who they call "Pudge," is obsessed with people's last words. It's a symbolic, but very believable motif that is cunningly threaded throughout the book. It is about youth, books, death, survival, and some well-organized pranks.

One man's last words--Simon Bolivar--are particularly highlighted. "Damn it," he said, "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" The book asks, what is the labyrinth? Is it life? Death? Suffering? It is a mammoth of a book, and the fact that it was written for teens is a testament to the growing respect children's literature is receiving from the world.

Here is a tidbit, from the end of the book, for your reading pleasure. It is my most favorite part. Enjoy.
When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.
Tastiness: Food for thought.
Special Sauce: Heady, philosophical questions right next to teenage debauchery.
Recommend? It's a modern classic.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Fourth Bear: Out of the Nursery and Into the Fire

OK, so despite the fact that it's been a month since my last blog (I feel like I should be saying 20 'Hail Shakespeare's'), I actually have been reading incessantly like the little paper-consuming wiggler that I am. But being that I am also a little state-moving and graduate-course-finishing wiggler, the blog, alas, is the first to suffer from neglect.

One of the little finger-licking delights that I've just put away is the next installment in Jasper Fford's Nursery Crime series, The Fourth Bear. If you've never heard of him before, Jasper Fford is a Welsh author who deals out literary crack in the form of crime novels involving literary humor that only goofy gonzos like me will appreciate. I lapped up his first series--starring literary detective Thursday Next--so fast that the silverware and the tablecloth went down with it. I *heart* Jasper Fford. And yes, I am a dork.

Although I must say I don't unabashedly adore the Nursery Crime series as much as the Thursday Next series, there's no way that I wouldn't give it a positive review. No matter how you slice him, Fford is a culinary genius. But although the jokes are somewhat limited to beanstalks and people living in shoes (as opposed to the comparable high-brow humor of the other series), Fford still manages to be clever and wacky enough to keep me knife-and-forking it.

What can I say about the storyline for this book...Goldilocks is there, a bunch of bears, a lot of explosions, an alien or two and a couple really huge cucumbers. No, really.

Oh, and a homicidal Gingerbreadman. How could I forget.

Tastiness: Like a bunch of blackbirds in a pie...or a peck of pickled peppers...
Special Sauce: Oh Jasper, you clever lad.
Recommend? Yes!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret: The 4 B's, Blood, Bibles, Bubbies and Boobs

My copy of this book is so old that I couldn't find a picture of it on Google Images. Anyway, I thought this one was more appropriate. I always saw Margaret as a brunette, not a blonde, anyway. I did think she had better taste than that Bill Cosby sweater, though. Euugh.

Let me amend that statement. My sister's copy of this book is that old. I never actually read it until now. Perhaps this is a testament to my ungirlish childhood. While other girls were dressing Barbie's and doing Princess Dress-Ups, I was building Lego pirate ships and cracking the passcode to Leisure Suit Larry 3 on my neighbors IBM computer.

Anyway, I never got around to reading the oft-banned preteen classic Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, and it has weighed on my soul for years. A testament to the unending chutzpah of Judy Blume--who went on to write freely about teenage sexuality, masturbation, divorce and racism--this book was one of the first to faithfully and unreservedly broach the subjects on every 12 year old girl's mind: 1) When will I get my period? 2) What will it feel like? and 3) Where are my boobs???

And if the menstrual extravaganza wasn't enough for you, Blume decides to pull out all the stops and talk about religion, too. Awesomely enough, Margaret has interfaith parents (Jewish dad and Christian mom). The downside of this, however, is that because the Mom's parents pretty much disowned her for marrying a Jew, Margaret is brought up without much religion in her life. Where her friends are either this or that, Margaret feels that she is "nothing," despite her parent's hope that she will "choose for herself when she's old enough."

This really hit home for me, and made me think about how my husband and I (he's the Christian one, and I'm Jewish) will handle this with our kids. What a great book, huh? So thought-provoking.

Anyhow, Margaret spends a lot of time experiencing different relgions; she goes to synagogue with her Jewish Bubbie, she attends church services with a friend, and even *almost* experiences confession in a Catholic church. At the end of it all, though, Margaret (who speaks to God on a daily basis, through her own inner conversation) asks Him: "I couldn't hear you in the temple, and I couldn't hear you in the church. Why do I only feel you when I'm alone?"

After being harassed by her grandparents (on both sides) to adopt one or the other religion, Margaret comes to the conclusion that she can't make a decision about her faith this way, and simply goes back to speaking to God herself, in her own way. This pervasive message, promoting a personal relationship with God over an involvement in organized religion, is probably part and parcel to why this book remains in the list of top 100 banned books. Conversely, it's also the reason that this book is now on my list of top awesome books, coz dang, Blume's got balls.

Meanwhile, I've gotta go and do my daily boob-expanding exercises...
We must, we must, we must increase our bust!

Tastiness: Italian Wedding or Matzo Ball? How about both?
Special Sauce: Serious Moxie. You go girl.
Recommend? For every girl (and boy!)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Timequake: It's All About Farting Around

When I was in middle school and high school, I simply adored Kurt Vonnegut. I read at least half a dozen of his works, probably multiple times. This list included Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night and others. I ate them up like apple sauce.

Now, at 26 years old, I think I was either a brilliant child or a deranged one.

Missing my old flame, I returned to Vonnegut's deliciously morose literary arms with his final novel length piece, Timequake. It's been so many years since I heard his voice, I really didn't know what to expect. Could we love now, as we loved then?

Now, at the end of the affair, I feel a deep sense of nostalgia, amongst other things. Timequake had to be the most nonsensical, bizarre, cynical, hilarious, beautiful and sad thing I have ever read. It's like ten thousand symphonies that, through an overabundance of dissonant insanity, achieve something more lovely than harmony. It is a million voices shouting and one person standing silent. It is impossible to describe.

Vonnegut himself is the voice of the tale, leading us through an amalgamated world of the real and the fictitious and and the sub-fictitious (who are the fictitious creations of fictitious characters) and the sorta both until we really don't know who's who or what's what or where we left our hat. Vonnegut, in his 70's at the time, tours his own life in moments, from paragraph to paragraph, some of them real, some not.

Which is which? Does it matter?

There is the little matter of a plotline where the universe decides to shrink and make everyone live the past 10 years over again (from 1991 to 2001) exactly as they did the first time, like programmed robots. The funny thing is, once free will kicks in, there's utter chaos. People have spent so long just going through their predetermined actions that they are clueless and frightened when confronted with freedom and choice.

Listen: Vonnegut's alter-ego/hero-figure Kilgore Trout (the long-out-of-print science fiction writer) says something to each person after the "timequake" ends, in order to break them out of their spell of fear.

This is it: "You were sick, but now you're well, and there's work to do."

This is a beautiful thing.

Vonnegut says something else later. He says to a pregnant woman who writes him a letter, asking if it's right to bring a child into such a terrible world as this. He says:
"What made being alive almost worthwhile for me was the saints I met, people behaving unselfishly and capably. They turned up in the most unexpected places. Perhaps you, dear reader, are or can become a saint for her sweet child to meet. I believe in original sin. I also believe in original virtue. Look around!"
Ting-a-ling, Mr. Vonnegut. I'll miss you terribly when you're gone.

ETA: You left us on April 11, 2007. How strange that it was so soon after I wrote this post, so soon after I rediscovered my love and respect for you. Now you're gone, and I was right, I miss you terribly. R.I.P, 1922-2007.

Tastiness: Bittersweet, like dark chocolate.
Special Sauce: Vonnegut is incomparable. Wit, satire, a high-level of raunch, the works.
Recommend? Like I recommend breathing.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Childhood's End: Out of the Mouths of Babes...World Annihilation. Aww!

Picture this: It's 1952, and you're Arthur C. Clarke, the Science Fiction writer. You're an f-ing genius. But you're also like, totally cool about it, which makes you even more awesome.

Pretty much everything's a mess at home. The US and Korea are bombing and killing the heck out of each other, people are getting nuke-happy with the newfangled hydrogen bomb, and worst of all, Guiding Light just began its harrowing journey to become the longest running waste of time ever to drain the collective intellect of American society. Sucks. Totally.

Now, if you were a normal 1950s lad, you'd probably be depressed about all this and drown your sorrows in a chocolate milkshake or a slice of Wonder Bread or something. But you're not normal, you're Arthur C. Clarke. Instead, you write a book called Childhood's End and scare the leftover bejezus out of everybody. Whatever. You don't care. They deserve it. You're an f-ing genius.

People found Childhood's End scary mostly because of how possible it seemed (and still does). We're shown a vision of the future not so different from our own, where just when we're on the verge on discovering something useful about outer space, a whole fleet of giant spaceships come gliding down on top of every major city on the planet (Clarke was the first one to do this, keep in mind...*ahem*IndependenceDay) and broadcasts a message in perfect English to every radio transmitter on Earth (*ahem*Hitchiker'sGuidetoTheGalaxy) to say "Be cool, my babies" and proceed to fix, throughout a generation, all the awful crap that humans have done to the world.

War? Gone.
Poverty? Fini.
Crime? Pretty much non-existent.
Cold toilet seats in the morning? Still around, but hey, you can't have it all.

Anyway, after a while things get really good and everyone's happy. 20 hour work weeks, self-driving cars, free higher education, the works. Naturally, people become boring. They watch an average of 3 hours a day watching television (unimaginable in 1952, but sadly the reality of today) and generally no one comes up with anything new and awesome to add to society (salad shooters have gone the way of the dodo).

But hey! No biggie right? Things are way cool. But somehow, there are those who get the feeling of forboding...like something bad is about to happen...

Could they be right?

If you want to know, keep reading.* If you want to find out for yourself, stop now.

Tastiness: Clever and surprising, like those peppers in Chinese take-out that make your mouth on fire.
Special Sauce: The master of SF shall not be questioned.
Recommend? The aliens told me to.

* All the children under 10 years old in the world suddenly become highly evolved, super-intelligent zombie beings that all get together and look all weird and freaky until all the older people die or kill themselves in a fit of laziness and then the super-intelligent zombie kids decide they're kinda hungry and eat the world before going off into the universe to join some god-mind thing and party. The end.

** Okay look, I don't understand it completely either. Read it for yourself.