Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: Terry Pratchett's "Nation"

"One is nothing. Two is a nation."

Here's a list of some stories about islands: The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe,Lord of the Flies, Swiss Family Robinson,The End, in A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Prisoner and the entire six seasons of Lost. What they have in common, to one degree or another, is that each uses isolation and transposition to create a new society. This new society is then held up as a contrast or reflection of modern society. (Or 18th century society, or quasi-suburban gothic, or whatever the case may be) I'm currently reading Visual Thinking by Rudolph Arnheim for my multimedia comprehensive exam; Arnheim's main idea is that we need to realize how an object's context and surroundings influence what we think about it. Moving people out of their context into a new environment lets us understand that context and the people.

But I'm not here to talk about Arnheim. (Thankfully.) I'm here to talk about Nation. The book centers on two young teenage characters, Mau and Daphne. Mau is a tribesman of the island people known as Nation, and when the book starts, he is undergoing a tribal ritual to become a man. Daphne is the daughter of a Victorian-era British lord, en route on the ship The Sweet Judy to visit her father in the colonies. A giant tidal wave kills everyone in Mau's village before the ritual is complete, and shipwrecks Daphne alone on the island with him. They go through the stages of learning to communicate, and Hijinx Ensue. Other nearby survivors arrive at the island: a trauma-stressed mother with a newborn child, an elderly priest, and an expectant mother, for starters. After restructuring the age-old human experiences of child birth and milking a wild sow, more people arrive, a society forms, and the story moves towards its climax: a battle with the only surviving nearby tribe, the cannibalistic Raiders, now led by a charismatic European who also happens to be the Sweet Judy's former First Mate.

The story's themes are more wide-ranging than mere plot summary can suggest. Both Mau and Daphne cope with survival in the face of their respective restrictive moral codes; Mau, in particular, deals with being haunted by the voice of his grandfathers and challenging Death for the remaining members of his shrinking nation. There is also a heavy postcolonial element to the story. Pratchett writes Nation under a 19th century setting, the height of British colonial power. As such, he can play the two societies against each other; Daphne rejects her colonial background and devaluation of the island people, and Mau has to come to terms with the validity of his people's ways in the presence of superior European technology. Daphne's father (and consequently Daphne) is also heavily influenced by the Royal Society, and the book ultimately moves towards a conclusion reconciling faith and religion with the logical positivism of modern science.

Terry Pratchett is probably best known as the writer of the Discworld series, a comedy-fantasy series that uses parody to examine everything from religion to the post office to Santa Claus. He's such a great comedy writer that some people (okay, me) forget that he's a great writer, period, and Nation shows him at the height of his game. The book isn't without some humor, but it's hardly a comedy, either; it opens with the death of hundreds of people, after all. It's a book about ideas, and Pratchett isn't afraid to come out and say so. I think what I liked most about the book is that Pratchett explores all of these different social issues without making the book seem overly preachy; every element is carefully balanced to show multiple sides of an issue, and the social commentary is balanced well with the actual events. I don't feel that this description is entirely doing it justice, so let me just conclude with this: on a day when I was absolutely dead tired, to the point where I was literally falling asleep in mid-conversation, I stayed up all night working my way through 450 pages, just to see how everything would end.

So it's good. Read it.

Later Days.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday Random Quotation

"And I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
--"The Night Before Christmas"

Later Days.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Music Musing: A (Brief?) Return to Proper Blogging Form

On my last post, I quoted at length a method of reading. Essentially, you read until whatever you're reading strikes some sort of a chord with you, and then you go off on a tangent, pursuing whatever line of thought the reading material at hand prompted. I don't actually read like that. When your reading is directed toward a 14 000 page comp exam, you don't time to stop and think about the roses. Although to be fair, I didn't read like that before the comp either. My reading habits tend to pretty linear: you go sentence by sentence, page by page, and the story accumulates around you. My exception is dialogue; I like to think I have an ear for story dialogue. I certainly have a preference for it, since if a work of fiction is getting too descripty for my tastes, I often jump ahead to the next big speech. It does mean that I miss the fine details sometimes (I remember having to go back with Neal Stephenson's Anathem the first time around to find where, exactly, the climax happened, because I pretty much missed it), but it works for me. Honestly, I think I never would have finished Lord of the Rings otherwise.
So the tangential method not how I read books. It is, however, how I listen to music. I'll hear a tune, or a few lines, and my mind will instantly drift off to other things I associate with it: where I listened to that song previously, people I associate with a set of lyrics, other songs that remind me of it, etc. And by the time the drifting is finished, so is the song, and I'm always mildly surprised when I "come to" and something new is playing. The same holds for live performances--not that I've been to many, but of the, uh, one, I've been to, it unfolded in much the same manner. (And to go off on a tangent here, the tangential is also how I listen in general; I learned a long, long time ago that if I'm not taking detailed notes during a lecture, I'm not going to actually learn a damn thing.)

But with most music, I think it makes sense that it's never what I'm focusing on. I listen to it when I'm heading out to the store, or biking to the university, or out for a run. In other words, it's what I do when I'm in transit. And just like the journey is rarely the point of the transition movement, what I'm doing on the transition is rarely the main focus either. So I tend to drift. (I also tend to burst into song, when the mood strikes me, and I manage to convince myself that no one can hear me. Which is rarely the case, especially when I'm on my bike. You know how some people driving forget that other people can see them? Well, when I'm biking, I forget that other people can hear me. Can hear me singing loudly. Oops.)

Normally, this isn't a problem. If you miss a song, you can just go back and hear it again. It started to become a bigger deal when I started with my "books on tape" series. (The proper term, I think, is "audio book"; there's no actual tape, and there hasn't been for quite some time. But "books on tape" sounds better to me.) I thought that the half-hour or so a day I spent in transit could be better spent listening to something edifying. The edification started with Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. It was actually a few days before I realized that not only was I developing a very scattered notion of the plot, I was getting some weird de ja vu as well. After some manual examinations of my playlist, I realized that I had not only put the book on my Ipod three times, which meant that I was getting each chapter three times, I had also set it on shuffle, so I was getting them in a random order. And it took me a few days to notice this. The tangential listening method had been so ingrained that I could have been listening to Metallica lyrics. As long as a prim, middle-aged British woman was reading them out, I'd never had known the difference. From this wonderful experience, I devised a few rules for later book on tape listening:
1. Pick books read by British people. Northanger Abbey experience to the contrary, people with accents that differ minimally from the norm are easier to pay attention to than people with no discernible accent or thick accents.
2. Pick books that are anthologies. Generally, the longer the work, the harder it is to stay focused. A book of short stories is perfect, especially if the length of the story corresponds roughly to the length of your travels. This rule led me to G. K. Chesterton's Club of Queer Trades (which is in the public domain, and can thus be found easily online).
3. Pick books read by their authors, or famous people. The latter makes the book easier to pay attention to, and the former actually might add a dimension. I've heard the argument that listening to a book rather than reading it adds another level of interference between you and the author's "intentions." But if the author is actually reading the book to you, then he or she knows exactly where to place each emphasis and pause, which may actually add to the "authenticity" of the work. (Sorry for the quotation marks, but after a lit theory comp, I can't let either term pass by blithely anymore.)
These three rules led me to Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic, a book of short stories all read by Neil Gaiman. He has a great voice and storyteller ability, which helps a lot. In fact, I imagine there is a direct correlation between the level of the author's resemblance to a story teller as opposed to writer and the level of quality of an audio version of their work. But I'll muse on that some other time.
Later Days.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Quotation

"Don't be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust."
Yeah, I'm still milking If on a winter's night a traveler. And though the above is not the way I read at all, it is the way I listen to music. More on that another time.
Later Days.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: "If on a winter's night a traveler" by Italo Calvino

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." --If on a winter's night a traveler

In a book of short stories (I'm going to guess Cosmicomics), Calvino presents a sort of readerly version of Sophie's Choice. The narrator of the story travels to the beach, and, once there, finds himself torn between two different, seemingly exclusive choices: he can either read the truly captivating novel he brought, or flirt with the attractive sun-tanning woman that is smiling invitingly at him. He chooses the former, and flips through a few enticing pages, before a gust of wind blows the book into the woman's path. A short enticing conversation ensues. The narrator considers putting the book away, but the woman seems to see someone she recognizes, and darts off. Mentally shrugging, the narrator returns to his book--but look! The woman is back! Things go back and forth in this manner, and both the conversation and the book's plot progress, to the point where, in the woman's bedroom, the reader-narrator must choose between two different climaxes. (Sorry, but if you think Calvino didn't intend the pun, then you're fooling yourself.) Torn, the narrator finally decides to---well, you'll have to read it yourself to find out.

The story, in other words, is about the conflict between the pleasure of reading and other pleasures. It's a theme that must have lingered with Calvino, as If on a winter's night a traveler enlarges on it, and, in fact, encompasses largely every conceivable factor of reading. The plot is both inconsequential and essential; it's inconsequential in that if you take it seriously, then you're going to get a lot of the reading, but essential because it traces the patterns and ideas Calvino wants to explore. The idea of the book is that it is written in second person, addressed to the reader who just bought Calvino's new book. However, upon reading the first chapter, you (the reader) discover that the first chapter is all that's there; due to a printing error, it's just the first chapter, over and over. In fact, a trip to the bookseller confirms that it's not Calvino's book at all, but Tazio Bazakbal's Outside the town of Malbork. The plot thickens.

Another customer, Ludmilla, has the exact same problem. You meet with her, and both agree that you'd like to read Bazakbal's novel instead. The bookseller gives you his book--but it turns out to be the first chapter from another book as well. And so you and Ludmilla embark on a search for the complete book, but find only one unfinished beginning after the other, and you start to wonder whether you're more interested in the reading, or in Ludmilla. (Apparently, "you" are a heterosexual male. Depending on what gender/sexuality you conceived yourself as being before this, "you" may now be surprised.) This sets up the pattern of the book: a chapter on the latest attempt to find the next chapters for the missing books, alternating with a chapter that starts a new story.

The entire book could be seen as one continuous novel, broken up by several short stories, but such an interpretation misses the point. The novel is about reading, about every facet of reading. In the search for the real books, "you" come across booksellers, writers, plagiarists, university reading groups, literary professors, librarians, book publishers, object artists, and government censorship officials--each with their own ideas on what a book is for. The beginning chapters, on the other hand, look at more varied situations: a spy looking for his contact, a man granted the power to erase the universe, a professor with a phobia for telephones. Since they are allegedly first chapters, each story is unfinished, but the manner in which they are unfinished, how they are left off and what they tell up until that point, conveys what Calvino wants to say about reading.

Exactly what that something he wants to is---um, I'm not entirely sure. Ironically, I don't think it can be entirely put into words. And I'm not sure it's the sort of thing that can be answered. Instead, he raises questions: what kind of a reader does a writer want for his books? What is a perfect reader? What does it mean to read? How does a reader want a story to end? Why does a reader want a story to end? (Further irony: this book would not have been at all out of place on the reader-response section of my literary theory comp. And if it had been there, I might have read more books on that list.) Calvino's characters bring up 1001 Arabian Nights more than once in the book, just to make sure the connection is 100% clear: stories are made up of other stories, and to say one ends is to say another is beginning.

It's also a very masculine look at reading. Wayne Booth is a literary theorist who generally gets the credit for articulating the difference between the implied author and the author; the implied author is the notion of the author you get from reading a book, and is distinct from the actual author, and often from the narrator as well. In a similar manner, the implied reader is the audience the implied author seems to be telling his or her story to. And in this case, Calvino is assuming a male "you"--or creating an implied reader that is male. Indeed, like the short story I mentioned, the pursuit of women and the pursuit of reading are put in conflict and in parallel. Ludmilla is both the perfect woman and the perfect reader. If the implied reader of the story was female, then the purpose of the novel would have to change considerably. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Wolfe claims that a woman writer writing firmly in a woman's tradition will produce a work that would be vastly different from anything a male writer has done; does a female reader read differently than a male?

Another significant factor of the book, and one that may determine whether it's worth your while, is that it is--as you could probably guess from the description thus far--very meta, and self-referential. After all, it does start off with a description of the reader initializing the process of reading it. A book about reading would most likely be very aware of how it is to be read, and Calvino addresses this awareness in several different ways. In the chapter from the point of view of the author, for example, the author wonders if he fell in love with the perfect reader and wrote her into her book, how would he keep the protagonist of the book from taking her from him, the author? Why, he would send the protagonist on a global goosechase, forever chasing down copies of books that have only the first chapter written. And if this sounds familiar... well, how could you write an overview about the experience of reading without including a sense of deja vu?

If this sort of thing sounds tiresome and trite, then this probably isn't the book for you. If it sounds overly confusing, then blame it on my own descriptive powers, and give it a chance. For my money, this book is brilliant. Calvino intertwines his themes so deftly and perfectly that when you (or "you") finally see the connections he's laid down, it's a moment of revelatory brilliance. At the same time, it's not perfect. In a previous book review, I alluded to my fondness for Calvino's Invisible Cities. If on a winter's night a traveler doesn't quite stack up to it, in terms of sheer enjoyment.

I think the problem is the plot I alluded to earlier; the subject matter of either books doesn't really lend itself to a proper, conventional plot; it's more ephemeral than that. In Invisible Cities, Calvino barely bothers to make an attempt; Marco Polo and Kubla Kahn are just there, just talking. If on a a winter's night a traveler attempts and parodies a traditional plot because that's part of the point, part of the experience of reading. It ties into the overall study of reading, and is essential from that perspective, but in accepting that necessary realism, it just doesn't, for me at least, reach the same level of sublimity.

But calling something "not as good Invisible Cities" is sort of like the opposite of damning with faint praise. (Praising with exuberant damnation? No, that's not it...) It's an excellent book, and one I look forward to re-reading for years to come.

Later Days.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Quotation

"The Koran is the holy book about whose compositional process we know the most. There were at least two mediations between the whole and the book: Mohammed listened to the word of Allah and dictated, in his turn, to his scribes. Once--the biographers of the prohet tell us--while dictating to the scribe Adbullah, Mohammed left a sentence half finished. The scribe, instinctively, suggested the conclusion. Absently, the Prophet accepted the divine word what Adbdullah had said. This scandalized the scribe, who abandoned the Prophet and lost his faith.
"He was wrong. The organization of the sentence, finally, was a responsibility that lay with him; he was the one had to deal with the internal coherence of the written language, with grammar and syntax, to channel into it the fluidity of a thought that expands outside all language before it becomes a word, and of a word particularly fluid like that of the prophet. The scribe's collaboration was necessary to Allah, once he had decided to express himself in a written text. Mohammed knew this and allowed the scribe the privilege of concluding sentences; but Abdullah was unaware of the powers vested in him. He lost his faith in Allah because he lacked faith in writing, and himself as an agent of writing.
"If an infidel were allowed to excogitate variants on the legend of the Prophet, I would venture this one: Abdullah loses faith because in writing under dictation he makes a mistake and Mohammed, though he notices it, decides not to correct it, finding the mistaken form preferable. In this case, too, Abdullah would be wrong to be scandalized. It is on the page, not before, that the word, even that of the prophetic raptus, becomes definitive, that is to say, becomes writing. It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the nonwritten becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen. Otherwise, what is outside of us should not insist on communicating through the word, spoken or written: let it send its messages by other paths."
--Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Later Days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Back in Sask

The problem with an ongoing blog is that there is only so many times you can do the introduction for a subject. I've talked about the airplane flights before: here, here, and here. So you can assume the usual rigmarole here. I came, I flew, I conquered. Only without the conquering. Elements of note:
1. A Shout-Out to the friend who gave me a ride to the airport. She probably doesn't read the blog, but she still deserves some recognition. (And I guess I also should deliver a shout-out to my dad, for driving 1 and half hours to the city, and picking me up at an airport, at midnight, in -30 Saskatchewan weather. That also deserves recognition.)

2. In total, I spent about ten hours at the airport. That was fun.

3. This trip's reading was mostly recreational, as compared to the comp reading I've been doing of late. At the same time, it was a very high-level literate reading: Itano Calvino's "if on a winter's night a traveler" and Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum." I didn't finish either, but expect a full review for both. Preview: they're awesome.

4. Someone recommended the A&W veggie burger to me a while back, and during my 2 hour lay-over in Calgary, I ordered one. It took some time to prepare, mostly because the people working there didn't know where they kept the veggie patties, but it was worth it. It has a nice, portobello mushroom flavor to it. (Which is a nice change from the "sawdust with grease" flavor some restaurants seem to prefer).

5. The Westjet plane I flew on didn't have any TVs, as it was the newest one in the fleet and hadn't been fitted for them yet. This lack was disappointing, since after my US trip, I was looking forward to the superior Canadian product. On the other hand, to make up for the lack, one of the flight attendants gave a parodied rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." And he pretty much rocked it.

6. I was going to start jogging again today. And yes, I said jogging, not running. After you take a month-long hiatus, you no longer have the right to call it running. And to extend the humiliation, I don't think I'm going to be starting up again today; -30 weather is not good for someone still recovering from the Mother of All Colds.

That's all for now. Hopefully, there will be some new exciting thing to discuss after today's flu shot.

Later Days.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cleveland Steamer

There's an episode of "South Park" in which the characters discover that episodes of "Family Guy" are written by manatees randomly assembling brightly coloured balls with subjects on them--an aquatic Mad libs, in other words. This criticism is fairly justified. Since the show returned from its cancellation, the episodes have become increasingly random and nonsensical. The humor comes equally from the random aside gags as from the episodes themselves, and there really isn't a through plot--just a sort of gross lurching from event to event.

And yet I watch it. There's a few reasons for this: I like to see how far the TV medium can go and be allowed to go in terms of cartoons and network television. I like the 15 second comedy "burst," in small doses, at least. And sometimes, to be honest, I like mindless comedy where you can turn off your brain for half an hour. So I like "Family Guy." I even like the second show MacFarlane put together, "American Dad"--it DOESN'T use the random comedy bits, so at least it feels like it has an ongoing plot.

And then there's the third show by the main creators, the Family Guy spin-off, "The Cleveland Show," which took possibly the most boring character from Family Guy and gave him his own series. Honestly, I think the only mandate MacFarlane was given by Fox executives was "Could you do the same show as Family Guy, but with a black lead to play to our other demographic?" To be fair, the show does flush out the Cleveland Brown character somewhat--it pretty much had to, or the show would be 22 minutes of him repeating his one previous catch-phrase, "That's nasty." And while the show occasionally pushed the bounds of good taste even further than its predecessors, it was okay.

Enter Thanksgiving episode.

Here, in broad strokes, is the plot for the show. Cleveland's parents come down for Thanksgiving. Cleveland is surprised and dismayed to find out his dad came at all, since the man is a philandering dead-beat who is dismissive and abusive towards his family. Within a few minutes of his appearance, he threatens Cleveland physically and comes after him with a broken bottle. And yes, that is an offensive, caricatured stereotype, but hold tight, because we haven't gotten to the really offensive bit yet. The other guest for dinner is "Auntie Mama," the aunt of Cleveland's wife. Auntie Mama is an obese woman with frequent flatulence problems (because nothing says cutting edge humor like a fart joke) who constantly tells everyone how outrageous she is. She flirts openly with Cleveland's father (Freight Train), and the two plan to go upstairs and have sex right during Thanksgiving dinner. Which makes for a fairly awkward meal downstairs.
The catch is that Cleveland discovers that Auntie Mama is really a man, who, as he explains it, dressed up as a woman thirty years ago to give Cleveland's wife a maternal figure after her parents' divorce. Cleveland tries to stop his father from making his rendezvous, but figures the man will get what's coming to him when Auntie Mama disrobes. Instead, the two are gone for 40 minutes, and when they return, exchange crude innuendos in which stuffing a turkey figures prominently. Cleveland's response is to vomit for a full minute over the entire Thanksgiving dinner. Later, when he tells his father what really happened, Freight Train's response is the same projectile puking.
There is a lot here that, where one of a mind to do so, one could take offense with. But I want to focus on one particular aspect: the homophobic undertones that are never quite brought into the forefront. Let's start with the puking reaction. Note that Cleveland is not nauseated by his father having sex while the rest of the family, including his mother, gather downstairs, knowing exactly what is going on. Nor, due to other comments throughout the show's history, does he have a problem with anal sex. Or homosexuality in general: the show started with him asking two female characters to make out in front of him as a going away present. But when it's two guys--well that's just icky gross, how could you not throw up?
It could be argued that this is just Cleveland and Freight Train's characters, and they are homophobic rather than the show itself putting forward a negative message. But there's two things that keep me from believing that. First, the show makes it pretty clear that Freight Train is a bad person, and the sex is a form of narrative punishment. Now, it's swell that a show produced in 2009 frowns on cheating on your spouse while you're in the same house and child abuse. But to portray male homosexuality as a punishment, as something negative, seems not to be the best way to go about it. And that brings up the third point: the portrayal of Auntie Mama. Auntie Mama seduces Freight Train, and has sex with him without revealing her true identity--and the implication here is that THIS IS WHAT "THESE" PEOPLE DO. In other words, from the evidence presented in this episode, homosexual males dress up as women and seduce straight men as SOP. That, in case my stance here hasn't been made clear, is bullshit. I won't go so far as to say that the writers deliberately meant to present anything that could be interpreted as homophobic. But I do think it's there, and presenting it in an unconscious manner doesn't excuse the problem--it just suggests that it runs deeper than meets the eye.
Again, there's counterarguments to be made. First, that when a show attempts to take on tough issues, I shouldn't reject it because the result doesn't fit within my standards of morality. Sorry, no, that doesn't work for me. I'm a fan of Dexter, so I'm no stranger to watching shows that depict alternate morality structures. I'm a fan of South Park, and I've sat through the "Million Little Fibres" episode, so I can stand pointless grossness and general disgusting premises. And I'm a fan of "Boondocks," so I KNOW there are better, more intelligent, and frankly, funnier ways that black issues (and homosexuality in black culture,for that matter) can be dealt with in the cartoon medium. I reject this show because it's not dealing with the issues it presents at all--it just presents the case in an insidious manner, and tries to hide it behind fart jokes and vomit takes.
The other argument is that I'm taking all of this too seriously, that it's just a cartoon show. Like I said earlier, it's time to turn the brain off. The problem with this argument is that the human brain doesn't have an off-switch. The argument that "entertainment is just entertainment" is a derivative of the argument of "art for art's sake." The latter tried to elevate "high" art above social issues, and the former tries to shove entertainment below them. The "art for art's sake" argument was eventually discredited when people realized that it itself was a social position. And the "entertainment is just entertainment" should not be allowed on the same grounds. When I was in high school, the boys in my class would repeat Seinfield catch-phrases ad nauseum to show off our social cache. And my Facebook page is usually littered with grad students quoting Arrested Development and the Simpsons. And some of those are mine, because, dammit, they're funny. But to pretend for a moment that these shows haven't had any influence on their viewers is ridiculous. According to the these guys, this episode was watched by 6.3 million viewers. That's a lot of brains out there being told that if they misbehave, they run the risk of being turned gay. Because that's how that works.

So to sum up, for next week, and every future week after that, the number of viewers for the Cleveland Show will have 6.3 million viewers minus one, because I'm not going to be watching it. Frankly, I've got better things to do with my time.

Later Days.