Hiatus over. Back to books.
I find myself in wild swings of reading this year. Last year, I read at least three books per month. This year, I find myself finishing one book one month and five the next month. Ah well, such is 2014.
But! Back to 2013. What a range of books last April brought me! I had just finished re-reading and finding my favorite quotes in all of the Christopher Moore I had, and so I decided to do the same with my favorite deceased author, Kurt Vonnegut. I love Kurt Vonnegut so much that I have his ‘self-portrait’ tattooed on my right shoulder, my first tattoo, done in 2008. http://tattoolit.com/post/64217618788/when-i-first-read-kurt-vonnegut-i-was-amazed-at I also read more Pirates! Books, my first Ian Flemming, and possibly the strangest but most interesting book I’ve ever read. Let’s get started, shall we?
1. Casino Royale (image from amazon.com) To be honest, ever since my brother, my cousin and I played Goldeneye 64 I’ve been a fan of James Bond. We watched many of the movies, including one memorable occasion where the three of us watched Live and Let Die in Thessaloniki, Greece. As much as I enjoy the movies, however, I had never read a James Bond book. I decided on a whim to give one a shot, and ordered the first in the series.
I of course couldn’t help but compare the novel to the movie. I usually dislike reading a book after seeing a movie adaptation because I find the movie’s visual style pervades my imagination and shapes the picture of the book. Happily for me, Flemming’s novel escaped this curse. The tone of the book was incredibly different than the movie. I found the book moved at a steady pace with a steady climax; more intellectual than action packed. Bond sees his fair share of the fist and firearm, but he uses his brain far more often.
Daniel Craig’s Bond is human in that he can be hurt, both emotionally and physically, and so is Flemming’s Bond; but the novel also offers us a man that is not only calm, cool and collected, but also obsessive and sometimes too quick to make up his mind. In the book, James Bond doesn’t go around shooting people or jumping off pipes to chase down criminals. Instead, he methodically checks his hotel room each night to make sure no one has tripped his traps, he methodically plays cards, he uses his money to get what he wants. Sure, Bond gets in his fair share of scrapes and physical altercations, but James Bond is a spy more than an action hero and that was what was so enthralling about the novel. Flemming constantly keeps us in Bond’s head, and the reader feels like they are trying to thwart Bond’s enemies along with him. There’s even a love story that keeps us interested. And, may I add, a damn good drink recipe, the Vesper.
“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” –Casino Royale, Chapter 7
I found the book to be well worth the read and very well written. Flemming brings a character to life that we, the reader, can both admire and relate to. He creates high stakes. Bond is such a guarded character, it makes everything he holds close to him that much more important to lose.
2. The Pirates! In An Adventure With The Scientists!
Ah yes, back for more Pirates. Spoiler warning: we’re getting a double dose here. We start with my second experience in Gideon Defoe’s hilarious books and the first in the series. Here, the Pirate Captain and his loyal band of pirates, named after a distinguishing feature (Pirate with the Scarf, Albino Pirate, Pirate who loves kittens and Sunsets), meet up with Charles Darwin. After a bad tip from his arch-nemesis, Black Bellamy, the Pirate Captain accidentally sinks Darwin’s ship, mistaking it for an English bank ship. Feeling bad, The Pirate Captain agrees to take Darwin and his ‘man-panzee’ (who is really just a very smart chimp) back to England. Hilarity of course follows as Defoe brings another dose of irreverent humor, non sequitor, engaging characters and fun with history. I can’t recommend these books enough, they always left me wanting more and, luckily for me, this book came with another one in the back….
3. The Pirates! In an Adventure With Ahab
Each of these two books is only 100 pages and they exist back to back in the same volume of nautical themed hilarity. In this particular Pirate Tale, The Pirate Captain gets the crew in trouble by spending too much on a new ship. Beguiled by a ship salesman named Cutlass Liz, the Pirate Captain sets off to find the White Whale, collect the reward for its capture, and save the crew’s shiny new ship. Along the way, he makes a rival in Captain Ahab and the two chase Moby Dick all over the world, including the casinos of nineteenth century Las Vegas.
Again, Defoe uses a good deal of off-the wall humor and his intentional use of anachronism makes the book even funnier. What I love about these books is that Defoe writes them as if nothing is off limits. It would not be surprising to me to open the pages of his next book and find out that the Pirate Captain somehow found a spaceship and is on the moon. Hell, one member of his crew is probably the Pirate From Mars or the Pirate Who Earned His Astrophysics Degree. These Pirate books are like a Monty Python sketch, an episode of the Simpsons, and a Terry Pratchett novel all rolled into one. I can only hope that Gideon Defoe is currently writing another.
4. Player Piano (image from wikipedia)
As I wrote earlier, my quest to finish tracking all my favorite quotes from my favorite living author, Christopher Moore, came to a close last March. I then decided I would do the same for my favorite departed author, Kurt Vonnegut.
With Mr. Vonnegut’s works, I decided to read them in the order they were written. The way I see it, Vonnegut’s works partially circle around Slaughterhouse-Five. Given the historiographical circumstances surrounding the plot of the book, namely the firebombing of Dresden, it sometimes seems like Vonnegut spent a long time avoiding writing about Dresden. In the beginning of the novel he says just as much.
But! More on that later!
Kurt Vonnegut’s early stories mainly focused on the frightening rate at which technology grew. Many of these themes are still relevant today, although the type of technology from these seems a bit antiquated now, much the same way the ‘futuristic’ devices the Jetsons used seem like a madman’s dream from six decades ago. Seriously, food pills?
In Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, the theme of man vs. technology runs rampant. Paul Proteus, high-level engineer in Ilium, NY (sort of a fake Schenectady, supposedly in the same approximate location) finds his life thrown into chaos as he doubts the do-everything machines that he helps care for. He is a powerful high-up at a faux General Electric whose father was an even more powerful man. Paul lives in his father’s shadow and the ever constant pressure to keep the all-knowing machines running smoothly from everyone around him, including his boss, his friends, and his wife, Anita, who seems to have married him for his status more than anything else.
In Paul’s life, after a fictional third world war, Machines replaced people in the workforce. With everyone gone and no one to labor, men like Paul’s father invented Machines to take care of things. After the war ended and soldiers returned home they found their jobs taken by machines. Now, one can either keep the machines running like Paul, or find work in whatever way they can. This creates a large wealth gap exemplified by a division in the town. Paul’s side of town is for the rich, across the river is for the poor. When Paul’s old friend Finnerty comes to town, he must come to grips with his ever growing distrust of the way things work. Like a Player Piano, all manual skills are replaced by machines; and what could be worse than taking the soul of of music? Paul slowly realizes that a workforce made of machines is damaging, but before he can truly take one side, his wife leaves him and an ever-growing anti-machine resistance kidnaps him and uses him for their own plans.
A good deal of Vonnegut’s early work, mostly his short stories, dealt with the same themes Player Piano deals with; namely the unknown dangers of technology. Like most science fiction from that time, much of the story centers around machines damaging human lives. Unlike some of his other stories dealing with this theme, Vonnegut’s machines don’t physically damage people, but their mere existence causes them harm. Most of the workforce that made up the country in Player Piano is relegated to slum-like living conditions. Paul is painfully and blissfully unaware that people must live this sort of life, a fact more clearly demonstrated by his attempts to buy a farm and live technology free. The fact that he has the luxury to attempt to live a life some cannot choose to avoid separates him from the people he is kept away from, literally by a river that cuts through town.
This theme is hammered home more by a side story involving a Shah who visits America. As the Shah is shown America’s most impressive technological feats by the government, his language barrier prevents him from understanding what the machines do. The only thing he feels he has a good grasp on is that the other workers, those who have nothing to do with the machines and still get by doing whatever work is left to them, are slaves.
Looking back on these the themes of stories such as Player Piano, it is fun to pair our modern technology with the kind of technology that runs these worlds. Technology has moved faster and faster in the last ten years and it is funny to think that our modern Ipads and cell phones are essentially our version of these technologies. I don’t mean that in the sense that they are dangerous, more that they are our modern conveniences that are high-tech and created to benefit our lives. The funny part is then the idea of Ipads or cell phones or blue-tooth rising up and physically damaging the human race.
Vonnegut’s first novel remains more timeless than other similar stories of the time period because the idea that machines can just as easily damage human society is not an idea that has lost its value. As a protagonist, Paul is pulled in both directions of people advocating machines and people attempting to destroy them. He never truly makes up his mind as to what side he is on and is instead used by people close to him on both sides for their own gains. Paul’s plight is a familiar one. Technology is overwhelming at times, and it is hard to decide where one should place one’s attention. Today, we are constantly pulled in all sides from competing technology and, like Paul, sometimes those who advocate both for and those use us for their own gains.
As far as Vonnegut novels go, it’s not his strongest work. I did find that re-reading Player Piano was well worth it, as Vonnegut’s themes are still relevant today. If you haven’t read Vonnegut yet, don’t start with this. But! If you have read his work, I recommend picking this one up.
And, as always, I leave you with some of my favorite quotes:
“In short, Paul missed what made his father aggressive and great: the capacity to really give a damn.”
“Paul reflected that the big trouble, really, was finding something to believe in.”
“Things don’t stay the way they are… it’s too entertaining to try to change them.”
5. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. (image from Amazon)
Oh no, no, you read that right. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack.
What a peculiar journey this book was. It was apparently Mark Leyner’s first novel in fourteen years, and with he he makes a statement. It’s a tough one to describe, as is Mr. Leyner. A New York Times review published in 2012 says of the novelist, “Leyner’s greatest literary fear would seem to be that his reader might look away, so he crowds his pages with everything a rubbernecker could want: a twisted carnage of ideas and cultural objects high and low, as if your smartest professor in college were receiving tabloid transmissions through a filling in his tooth. Leyner wants to capture your gaze, or die trying.”
Okay, let’s try to describe the plot of this novel.
it begins with the creation of the universe. Not by any conventional God or gods, these are Mark Leyner gods. Gods like Fast-Cooking Ali, La Felina and Bosco Hifikepunye. These gods claim ownership of seemingly inane things, such as chicken tenders or the female behind (I guess that’s no so inane, it is an important thing).
In a very basic sense, the story follows Ike, who, in the course of his day, argues with his daughter’s boyfriend, has a tongue sandwich and then gets shot. Simple day, I suppose, but the novel is such much more than that. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is not only the novel, but an epic being told infinitely in the novel. Ike’s tale is recited and retold, exaggerated and riffed upon by bards holding cans of orange soda, rendered blind, of course. Ike has become a sort of Odysseus or likened hero, and the bards who recite do so in various ways that emulate Ike. They bang rings against their orange soda cans to signify the way Ike taps his foot. The Epic has become like a religious epic, but, Leyner lets us know that it is also under constant threat and revision by the god XOXOXO, so we can’t trust anything that is written.
The book is fun and different, it is certainly unlike anything else I’ve ever read.
The novel becomes a chaotic sort of modern day Iliad or Aeneid, playing with the way these stories were passed down orally. Leyner weaves both the the story of what The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is about with what the story surrounding the Nutsack is. We are offered a strange timeline of the events of Ike’s day that are told and retold over and over again. It is a constant mix of pop-culture references mixed with Homer mixed with a reality TV show. It is most definitely weird, that’s the only way I can describe it, but it is also slightly genius in a way. Once you catch on the what Leyner is doing, the novel takes on a new life. It was slightly repetitive at times and didn’t really offer that solid story that makes a piece of fiction so great, but if you’re looking for something out of the box and wildly different, give The Sugar Frosted Nutsack a shot.
There. This took too long to piece together and was too much of a hiatus. Hopefully, the next entry will come more quickly.