30 July 2009

52. The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

This was a fascinating book to read and is probably the best writing I have ever read concerning the Vietnam War. Yes, the subject matter is the war, and therefore it can be quite disturbing at times, but that is not what the guts of this book is about.

This is written to inform the reader about how the war affected the author and his friends. What were they thinking? What were they feeling? Why did they react the way they did in given situations? What were the reasons for the soldiers having problems in life afterward?

It gets into the head of the soldier in a way I have never experienced. It shows how the defense mechanisms in a man's mind that are used for survival can be seen as making them hard, uncaring, and without feeling. The people who are not in the same position could never understand what happened in that war. They could not feel the depth of fear and confusion and how life becomes a moment to moment survival on a physical, psychological and emotional level.

Writing this blog is difficult. I can't describe the writing without giving examples of why I liked it so much. I don't want to give examples because it will detract from the future readers experience. That is a good word for it. I did not READ this book. I EXPERIENCED this book.

It is an amazing book. I loved it. I recommend it to all.
Mike, it will be in the mail soon. It is definitely worth the time to read.

26 July 2009

51. Chernobyl

Chernobyl - Frederik Pohl

This novel took a real world event and fictionalized it. Is fictionalized a word?
I have read a lot about what happened at Chernobyl. This book kept the facts straight for the most part. Things like the dates, the timeline, the causes, the reactions, all seemed to be on par with what actually happened in those days that grabbed the worlds attention.

That was all key to the story, but it was not the story. This book was about the people. Granted, they were fictional people, but what they were doing was actually done by real living breathing human beings.
The main characters in this book are the deputy director of the power plant and his family, an engineer who works with the water systems in the plant and his family, a few power plant operators, a fireman, an army private, and the Government of the USSR.
We follow all these characters as the disaster unfolds. Some turn out to be heroes. Some end up being chumps. Some live. Some die. We get to know their families, their motivations for doing what they do, and their shortcomings. They end up seeming like they could be real people.

Aftasia Smin was one of my favorite characters. She was an 86 year old woman, born in 1900. She was a hero of the first world war. She was a wounded combat veteran, and a generally feisty old lady with power and respect even all those years later. She told stories of the Stalin days a few times. On one occasion there was a side trip she took some relatives on to the Babi Yar site in Kiev. This is a location where the Nazis murdered 100,000 Ukrainian Jews (and others) during WWII. There was a lengthy speech given by her that explained the history of the place. This has nothing to do with the Chernobyl story, but I am glad it was there. It seems that Babi Yar gets overlooked when looking at atrocities around the globe. This brought it to my attention again, and then I can blog about it and bring it to yours. It happened.

While reading this book I constantly thought of Elena Filitova and the documentary films she has made in the restricted zone. She has visited the Chernobyl power plant, the town of Pripyat. Visit this website for more info. Thanks for sending it to me so many years ago Mike. http://www.kiddofspeed.com/ Make sure you check out the link called Elena Revisits Chernobyl and watch the Ghost Town video.

The Chernobyl power plant, reactor number 4.The town of Pripyat, Ukraine. It has been abandoned since 1986.

22 July 2009

50. A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

I, your Humble Somnambulist, viddied this keeno in the sinny many years ago, my brothers. :-)

I remember Alex and his buddies being a bunch of gang bangers, getting in trouble, and that Alex was forced to watch movies to correct his problem. I do not remember all the details of that film. I do remember it making an impression on me, probably because of the ultra-violence. I am pretty sure we did not see much of that stuff in those days.

I never read the book. I had picked it up a few times, read a few lines, said to myself, "oh yeah, the weird slang language." I then put it back on the shelf. I have been carrying this book around for probably two decades. This time I picked it up, read a few lines, and understood it. I realized the slang (Nadsat or teenagers language) was using anglicized words from the Russian language. Well, isn't that interesting. I learned enough Russian to hold basic conversations since we adopted our daughters from Ukraine. While reading this book I got it. I knew that Moloko was milk, klooch is key, britva is razor, chelloveck is a person, devotchka is a girl, etc etc etc. Burgess used this throughout the book. Just about every line written uses some for of Russian language in the English text.

I even understood when Burgess was taking Russian words and altering them to use as slang. Like "horrorshow" meaning "good" in the Nadsat language. The Russian word for good is Harasho (with a guttural sounding H), but it made sense to say horrorshow and twist it back tho the Russian word for good.

Is this why I liked this book so much? Could it be that I was able to just let the words flow through me like Sandy said? Could it be that I felt a secret connection that others don't have because I knew these words in their native tongue. I know, that is not reality, but my mind had that fantasy thought. You would not have to know Russian to enjoy this book and knowing it did not reveal any secret truths that are unobservable to the non-Russian reader.

I did see some themes in this book that I did not expect.

The anti-big government sentiment was blatant throughout. The book begins in a world where teens run rampant at night committing senseless acts of violence. There is no real explanation as to how the world got this way, but there are allusions to it. Mom and Dad had to let Alex sleep all day because he had a hangover after being out all night committing crimes and abusing drugs. Why did they have to let him stay home rather than get to school? Because there is a law, made by the government, that says all people must work (except children, those carrying children, and the ill). There was no choice. They had to leave for work or break the law. That left Alex on his own, along with all the other children who were out of control.
Then the government sends Alex to jail and to fix the problem of the bad kids and crime they will "cure" the criminal. This government program is what Alex participates in. He is forced to watch all manner of evil and nastiness on film while under the influence of some drug that helps him relearn morals. Well, this program gets Alex into a huge mess and he ends up trying to kill himself.
The government even decided to clean up the street gang problem by making gang-bangers into policemen. That's just great. Now the gangs officially ran the streets with real authority and power, which they abused religiously because they were criminals anyway.
The common theme as far as government was concerned was that they were too involved in peoples lives. They were trying to fix so much and control so much that the people had given up all their liberties. The people were no longer free. The government programs all had unforeseen and unexpected consequences. These developments then required further intervention by the government to correct the problems it created. It snowballed until the people were all oppressed and dependant upon the government for life itself.
I have a die hard belief that the bigger the government is the more it is going to make mistakes. the more mistakes it makes means it will try to regulate stuff so it won't happen again. All the while these laws and regulations and programs restrict my ability to be free. My liberty, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, gets taken away, bit by bit, with every new Government program. I could relate to Alex's world!

The other theme I noticed concerned free will. God gave all men free will. The ability to choose in any situation. The ability to make a distinction between right and wrong and to make a decision as to which path to follow. This government program that Alex took part in took away his ability to choose. it took away his free will. The prison Chaplain and F. Alexander both made comments on this. Alex was no longer a man, a human being. He was a thing. Just like a toy programmed to do whatever the buyer wanted. He could not make a decision for himself.

Hey, I just realized, this was actually a government program to control and regulate morality. Yes, Alex may have been bad. They corrected it. It worked, at Alex's expense. So, what if the government decided it was immoral to vote against the ruling party, or so many other situations? Hmmm.

Anyway, if Alex no longer had free will and could not make choices he would actually be a defenseless robot. Not a thing. Not the human being made int he image of God. No longer able to choose to love or to hate. He defaulted to love in order to avoid pain and sickness. He did not choose...and therefore would never really love anything or anyone again.

There are probably other things that I am missing. Those two themes jumped out at me and said "blog about that!"

So, here is Alex, self proclaimed rapist, thug, murderer, and generally all around evil shithead ... and I feel bad for him. I want him to win. I want him to get his "soul" back and be able to choose to do violence. That makes this book outstanding.

18 July 2009

17 July 2009

48. The Sound and The Fury

The Sound and The Fury - William Faulkner

This is supposed to be one of the greatest American novels. Faulkner is supposed to be one of the greatest American authors. So, what was I missing?

I absolutely hated this book for the first 100 pages or so. Each day I would read some and say to myself that I would tolerate it for one more day. Eventually it just got really interesting and I wanted to read more. It was a shame that I had to hate it at first.

Thee are four chapters. The first narrated by Benjy. I almost quit. It was all over the place. Then narrated by Quentin. It got better, but the guy had some pretty serious head problems. It was still full of randomness, but the story started taking shape. Then reading the part narrated by Jason, I really liked the book. From there on out it was very good.

My observations and comments:
Mom was an idiot.

Caddy was wild, but not evil. OK, maybe the incest was pretty bad, but it is forgivable.

Caddy and Quentin's daughter, also Quentin, was wild and a very bad child. Probably because Jason was a lousy father figure and grandmother was too self absorbed to care.

Jason was a bitter bitter young fellow who deserved to get his ass whipped.

Luster, you mean little boy!

I don't think I will be reading any more Faulkner for quite some time. It took a lot of effort just to understand the plot and the relationships of the people in the story.
I will say this one is OK. The beginning stunk. The last half was pretty darned good. Average that out and it is just OK for me.

11 July 2009

47. Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale

Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale - Holly Black

This book was written by the author of Spiderwick Chronicles. I thought the cover was nice looking and the blurbs were interesting. "Welcome to the realm of very scary faeries!" "Debauchery, despair, deceit, and grisly death--what more could you ask for from a fairy tale?...A luscious treat for fans of urban fantasy and romantic horror." That was enough for me to give it a shot.

The story is about a 16 year old girl named Kaye who lives with her mother. Mom is the lead singer for numerous failed rock and roll bands and big on freedom. Stuff happens and Kaye and her mom must move back to New Jersey to live with Grandma. This was Kaye's childhood home. As a child she had many "imaginary" friends who were faeries.

The faeries are real. Kaye herself finds out she is not human and is in fact a pixie. She was planted in the human world in disguise as an infant. The faerie world has three factions. A "good" group, a "bad" group, and a group that are allied with no one. The unallied group is always in servitude to one group or the other. Every seven years a ritual is performed to enslave the "free" faeries...and that is what this story is about.

The faeries in this book are not like tinker bell. They don't flutter around sprinkling dust on people and picking flowers. They are mean, vindictive and downright cruel.

I didn't hate the book. I can't say I loved it either. The story was interesting, but it seemed way too simplified. This could have been much better had the author drew it out, brought in more characters in depth, and not been in such a rush to get from one thing to the next. It read just fine, but I kept waiting for the detail that would draw me into the story deeper.

The book is young adult fiction. Maybe that explains the simplification of the story. I don't like it though. All those Harry Potter books, Aragon, and countless others that teens love are not simple. This could have been better, even for a young adult.

09 July 2009

46. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Alexander SolzhenitsynОдин день Ивана Денисовича

This has become one of my favorite books. It was a fascinating story and very well written. I understood and empathized with the characters. I could feel the frustrations and sadness within their souls. It made me want to reach out to them, despite their being fictional characters from a half century ago. Silly me.

The story is set in a Soviet prison camp (Gulag) in the 1950's. Ivan Denisovich Shukov is serving a 10 year sentence for being a German spy, which is a confession made to avoid his own execution. There are many men serving the same types of sentences.

This story is set in the Stalin era. The abuses of the Soviet people at that time were numerous. For one, the Ukrainian Holodomyr of the 1930's, is something I have learned quite a bit about.

This book is quite dramatic and is a testament to the abuses and repression perpetrated on the Soviet people by Stalin. This being the case, it is amazing that it was ever published within the Soviet Union. Why did that occur? Kruschev was in power at the time. He personally approved the publication of this story because he wanted to show the evils of the Stalin regime. He wanted the people to back his new government leaders (the politburo, etc). So, Kruschev allowed this story to be published in "Novy Mir" (New World), a Soviet literary magazine known to be progressive. The book includes a forward written by the editor of Novy Mir that warns the readers of the political volatility and the nature of what they were about to read. To us Americans, the story would be no big deal. To the Soviets, this type of story was unheard of.

The entire story takes place in one average day Ivan Denisovich spends in a prison camp somewhere in Siberia. This day is exactly like any other. There is nothing special on this day. That is what is so moving about the story. This exact same thing happens every day for ten years. There is nothing special. Just doing time and trying to survive each day as best you can.

The last few paragraphs of this book summed up the simplicity that takes over life when one is just trying to survive. I would imagine this is what it would be like to hope you can keep hope alive within your life.

"Shukov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent his squad to the settlement; he'd swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he'd earned favor from Tsezar that evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.
A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
The three extra days were for leap years."

Almost a HAPPY day? That is how far down the hole these men are. I felt sorrow for their daily plight and I truly felt like rejoicing at the smallest of "victories" during Ivan's day.

Read it!

06 July 2009

45. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is a creative writing teacher who lives in England. He has written children's books and television screenplays. This book is not a children's book, though young adults would understand and enjoy it. Mr. Haddon worked with autistic individuals when he was a young man.

This book is about a 15 year old boy named Christopher Boone. It is written in a first person perspective as though Christopher is the one doing the story telling. What is interesting is that Christopher is autistic. What type of autism is never mentioned, but the books summary assumes it to be Asperger syndrome, high-functioning autism, or savant syndrome.

Christopher finds his neighbor's dog has been killed with a pitch fork. He decides to solve the crime like his hero Sherlock Holmes would do. He begins and investigation into the crime and finds out much more than he ever bargained for.

Seeing this story told from the perspective of someone with autism was very interesting. The thought process and the explanations as to why Christopher was making the decisions he made explained a lot to me as to how autism affects people.

I enjoyed this story and I especially liked the insight into the mind of an autistic individual. My wife will be reading this book now. She was intrigued by some of what I read to her. Our son has been diagnosed with a possible mild for of Aspergers...and I saw flashes of him in Christopher's behavior. Some of it was dead on accurate as to what our son would say or do in a given situation.

I liked the touch Haddon chose to use concerning numbering the chapters. Christopher likes prime numbers more than cardinal numbers. He chose to number the chapters using only prime numbers, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 all the way up to chapter 233. It was a nice touch. Christopher even devoted part of the book to explaining why he chose to do this and how to find prime numbers.

I recommend this book to anyone who knows someone with any form of autism. It opened my eyes to quite a bit. Maybe it stirred a little empathy because the problem autism creates becomes more understandable after reading this book.

Reading this reminded me of 8th or 9th grade English class. Mr. Mag read "Charlie" (AKA, Flowers For Algernon) in class. He read it like he thought Charlie would speak. It made a huge impression on me at the time. I never looked at retarded people the same. After reading this book, I think it could have that same kind of lasting impression.

02 July 2009

Age Of Reason

Age Of Reason - Jean-Paul Sartre

I read the first two chapters of this book and set it aside. I will finish it some other time and blog about it then. The book was just too depressing. I will have to be in the right mood to read it and not just plod my way through the words.

01 July 2009

44. Naked

Naked by David Sedaris

This is a collection of 17 short stories written by a very funny guy. The stories all are autobiographical. All are about things the author has done, experienced while growing up, his relationships with other people, his adventures, his feelings and his quite hilarious view of all those things.

I truly enjoyed reading these stories. Some I could picture the scenes perfectly.

"A Plague of Tics" was about his OCD and his neurosis' while growing from a small child to a young adult. His mother's way of dealing with things like licking light switches and rolling his eyes back in his head were very funny.

"True Detective" related his mother's and sister's obsession with 1970's detective TV shows with how he was going to solve petty crimes around the house. Problem: real life crept in.

"Planet of the Apes", "The Incomplete Quad", "C O G" and "Something For Everyone" were all stories where the author was traveling after graduating college. Much like Kerouac and Mewshaw, he had troubles along with his conquests in each of these stories.

I loved "Get Your Ya-Ya's Out" and "Ashes".

I read this book because I found it at a yard sale for a quarter. I knew the author's name because I have another David Sedaris novel, "Me Talk Pretty One Day", on my list of books to purchase (found it at Goodwill this past week).

I like the author's humor. It is blunt and raw, but not crude or mean. It comes across in a way that relays how people really are. Not always loving relationships between siblings, but they still love each other.

I think my favorite story was "Cyclops". Dad keeps telling the kids these nightmare scenarios where people lose a foot or are blinded while doing everyday chores. This happens so often during Sedaris' formative years that he is scared to do many things. He never drives a car. He moved to Chicago and New York because they had superior public transportation and he would not need to use a lawn mower. I can picture the stories he was told. I can also picture the father's reaction when many years later he is asked about them and has no recollection of ever telling the story. The story was probably made up and told to teach some little life lesson...one that Sedaris took a little too serious.

It is funny and made me laugh out loud a number of times. I am definitely smiling inside just thinking about the stories.