History is Art! Take That, Sculpting! Part III

Sometimes a Math? Bernard Bailyn is a man with an amazing career as a scholar, professor and author and, at 92 years old, is still active in these fields. I first encountered his work in a class on the American Revolution my senior year of college. He is the author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, a Pulitzer Prize winning work that I once wrote a mediocre paper about. My assignment was to compare it to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. I remember liking Fischer’s book better and even went as far as saying it was a more effective and stronger interpretation of the American Revolution.

Looking back, I feel Bailyn’s work was stronger. I think that I just found it dry and a little too challenging. It now sticks out in my memory as one of the first really challenging texts that really made me think critically about an important time in our nation’s history. But man was it dry.

Andy, we’ve had a long talk and decided your paper was pretty okay I guess.

Thankfully, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History was very readable. May was a broad topic for my challenge, Nonfiction/History. There are a good deal of important Nonfiction books I could have read, but when I saw Bernard Bailyn had a new book, about History as an Art no less, my nostalgia for college kicked in and I had to pick it up.

Before we get into the ever-long debate of what makes art, art, and how History fits in to that subject, let me give a quick summary of each of the nine essays.

 

  1. Considering the Slave Trade: History and Memory: This essay was written about the Du Bois Trans-Atlantic Databse held in Williamsburg, VA in 1998.  Bailyn examines the impact that amassing such a large amount of information, statistics and numbers related to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has in terms of a historical narrative. He concludes that new information can be gleaned from such a collection and that even though it may tear at our hearts, putting such a dark chapter of human history in perspective makes our understanding both stronger and more enlightened.
  2. Context in History: Bailyn’s second essay touches on a topic that my professors always touched on; that is, how to keep history in context. Meaning that we may think of parts of history or historical figures with all of our current knowledge, but men and women of the past did not have our wealth of historical context. This can manifest itself in various ways, such as concluding a general was stupid and a poor tactician for a tactical blunder. Keeping history in context means that we now know that his tactics did not work because, of course, the army suffered a defeat, but placing oneself in the context of the day, historians must ask: did the plan make sense then? Can we call the founding fathers racist for not abolishing slavery in the constitution, or did it make more sense for in the context of the day for a fledgling nation made up of states to not drive a rift between itself? Myabe the answer is yes, but without contextualizing, the historian loses a stronger conclusion. Bailyn notes of the difficulties of context on our conscience, “to try an explain [the reasons] seems to be an attempt to excuse them.” A wonderful essay on the difficulties of weighing the historian’s conscience with truly analyzing history, the book gets its name from Bailyn’s description of History as “never a science, sometimes an art, essentially a craft…”
  3. Three Trends in Modern History: Bailyn examines, as the title suggests, three trends in history that are shaping the direction the discipline is heading. They are Quantitative History, or how access to more data widens our perception of history, Spatial Relationships, or how modern historians can share data and ideas faster than ever, and a developing focus on the private lives of historical subjects, both large figures and the general populations of any period in history, and how the small things, attitudes, fears, expectations and the like, shaped their lives and, in turn, history.
  4. History in Creative Imagination: Bailyn breaks this down very simply in the second paragraph, “What is creativity in history?” The essay mainly focuses on creative ways in which historians are now researching and writing about history. Bailyn uses this to discuss a few historians in particular and the ways in which they have injected history with imagination, one way in particular being the treatment of History like writing a piece of fiction, which I found very interesting. But for all his insight, I feel that Bailyn’s examples really don’t highlight the ways in which history can be creative. He basically boils it down those who have the imagination to put History in context and those who just find the facts.
  5. The Losers: This is a well written, very interesting discussion of those who stayed loyal to the British Crown during and after the American Revolutionary War. Bailyn again attempts to contextualize these men and women. He notes that it is easy, looking back as do from the ‘winners’ perspective, to look down on the Loyalists as misguided and even stupid for supporting the British. In context, however, their reasons are not so black and white and must be examined as those who lived during the war would have done. One of the better essays in the collection, Bailyn is at his finest when writing on the subject of the American Revolutionary War.
  6. Thomas Hutchinson in Context: Much like the last essay, Bailyn examines one of the most notorious Loyalists of the American Revolution; Thomas Hutchinson. An interesting topic, but a slow moving piece that lacks resolution.
  7. Enlgand’s Cultural Provinces: A fascinating look at the parallels between Scotland and the United States as they grew under, and in the USA’s case, away from British rule. Bailyn mostly examines just how the colonists in the Americas came to revolution and how Scotland, so similar to the USA, did not.
  8. Peopling the Peripheries: This was a very engaging essay, but pretty straightforward. Bailyn, on the occasion of Australia’s Bicentennial, discusses the history and historiography by comparing and contrasting it with history and historiography in the Americas.
  9. The Search for Perfection: The last essay in the collection is not as interesting as the others, but still well done. A tribute and discussion surrounding the late Isaiah Berlin and his influence over his students at Harvard, how he looked at America’s early colonization and the impact it has had on the modern world, particularly in the Middle East.

 

 

There remain two big questions here: one, does Bailyn make a case for History as an Art. And two: was this book worth reading?

Before we can answer question number one, we must figure out, what is art? The simplest answer I can give is that Art imitates life. But then the voices of my friends who are prone to philosophical over-arguing pop into my head and start a debate that I really don’t want to have in real life, let alone in my head. The definition of art is not that simple, I know, and I often find myself watching or listening to something that makes me think, “my god this is terrible, this isn’t art.”

Well guess what? It usually is.

The problem is that a case can be made for pretty much anything being art.

“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, my favorite piece of fiction debated art. By Rabo Karabekian, Kurt Vonnegut’s main character in his novel Bluebeard.

But Andy! I hear you scream, that’s not true. What about Math? Math isn’t an art!

What If I write 2 +4=6. Was that art? What if I write it in rainbow colors and frame it? What If I make it a speech bubble coming from George Bush’s mouth (either Bush, take your pick). Is it still just Math? Is it art at all?

My point here is that Art really is a debate. And, in my opinion, anything that becomes debated art becomes art.

Bernard Bailyn’s collection isn’t called Always an Art for a reason. He is smart enough to know that, as a discipline, History is not inherently an art. But sometimes, it can be. Not only does Bailyn’s second and fourth essays debate this well, but the book itself is an illustration of this. In well written, well collected prose, Bailyn demonstrates that this book itself is an art.

More than that, his two essays clearly demonstrate that sometimes, historians need a wide berth of imagination to truly understand the past. Contextualizing history is not far off from what I do as an actor, especially in a historical piece. As an actor examining a play, I examine the given circumstances of my character; that is their station, family status, likes, dislikes, all as written by the playwright. Historians must examine the given circumstances as dictated by the past. The Historian must put themselves in the past, in the shoes of the subject they are examining, stripping themselves of our current knowledge and luxuries to truly grasp what they are studying. Contextualizing history, giving it a narrative that flows and makes it interesting to read and learn is when History is an art.

If you’re looking for some interesting non-fiction and especially if you are interested in the American Revolution or Colonial History, you should read Sometimes an Art. It’s the kind of book that, if it sounds like something you’ll like, you’ll like it. Few historians are as good as Bernard Bailyn and I definitely recommend this book. It’s a quick read, broken up into nine parts and only 260 pages.

It’s always nice to know that I’m not the only person who felt that sometimes, late at night with a pile of books on my desk and my fifth cup of tea in me, scrambling to put the finishing touches on another paper, History was an art.

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Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle posing with Bailyn’s work.

 

Unrelated Book Thought: I am, unfortunately, missing Mumford and Sons again while they tour in the States, but I do know many people who are going to see them. I haven’t had a chance to listen to their new album, but, like all bands that put out new music that sounds different than their last, I cannot understand other people’s opinions of it. Old fans think it’s too different, while those who aren’t fans think that they’ve lost the sound that made them different. They claim the band sounds the same as every other popular band.

Have fun seeing them without me, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.

This is a long and tiresome topic for me and so I’ll leave it at this: if you only like a band because of one thing (ie. The banjo/ folksy sound in Mumford and Sons’ case) then you don’t really like the band. A band is more than a style or one instrument. I like my favorite bands because of their style, sound, the song composition, lyrics, their energy, their passion and more. It is okay to be critical and to dislike an album that a band puts out- but giving up on a band just because they changed something is, in my opinion, a silly thing.

My rule with bands is this: If I don’t like an album, I still get the next one. If they put out two in a row I don’t like, then I usually don’t get the next album without listening to a few songs first.

 

Next Time, on The Whale and the Petunias: I force myself to think about a fictional character’s muscles much more than I’m comfortable with while reading the recent hit Divergent. Is the book deserving of the recent attention it’s getting, or is it some sort of weird fluke, like Twilight was? Seriously,  I’ve been forced to think about young, fictional, male muscles way too over the past month.

History is Art! Take that, Sculpting! Part II

I’ll Hold My Breath for you, Mr. Crichton: When I was younger, maybe 13 or 14, I read a book called Prey, by Michael Crichton. It was terrifying and wonderful, and my mind was blown when I learned that the author of the book was the man responsible for Jurassic Park. I quickly picked up Crichton’s Dinosaur epic and was enthralled. It still, to this day, sticks in my mind as a book that, while different from the movie that ultimately came from it, was a book that I liked just as much as the movie and vice versa. I can’t think of a movie I liked more than the book (at least a movie based on a novel, not something like a Star Wars book).

In retrospect, the second and third Jurassic Park are pretty good, but nowhere near the first movie. They are, however, still movies that feel like a Jurassic Park movie.

Oh, the majesty. They’re just so… so beautiful…

I have not yet seen Jurassic World, its release date being this past weekend, but from the trailers and hype surrounding it, the fourth movie does not feel like a Jurassic Park movie. Watch the trailer for Jurassic World and then watch a trailer for San Andreas. They feel like the same movie just packaged differently. Please, don’t let the nostalgia get to you; Jurassic World already feels like it’s going to be a disappointment. I’m sure the effects will be amazing, but it’s the story that seems off. Jurassic Park wasn’t just a survive-the-horrors/disaster-porn sort of movie; we came to love the dinosaurs that eventually attacked the human characters. They captured our imagination and the human characters had a real connection to them. In a movie like San Andreas or Twister, the disasters that fall are less enchanting and more terrible, horrifying things. We don’t need to love an earthquake, we need to fear it. But in something like Jurassic Park, the love that grows in the first part of the movie fosters the fear from the second part. In Jurassic World, it seems like they’ve turned the dinosaurs into killing machines. We need not love them or be amazed by them, just fear them.

Who knows, maybe they’ll build up the first part of the movie as the park being a wonderful, enchanting place, but it feels more like it will come off as poorly written foreshadowing; ‘Oh wow, look at all the Pterodactyl! I hope a large number of them doesn’t somehow escape and terrorize the populace of the park, strangely picking someone up for no reason and dropping them in water, leaving them to drown. Dying is scary! So are Dinosaurs!’

It’s a numbers game to me. The first one was so good because it was a small group of people trying to survive a situation that pit them against a few dangerous foes.  The second one had more people and more faceless foes and it wasn’t as good. The third returned to the formula, the problem was that it felt a little phoned in.  I always hated scenes in movies that were just needless destruction and killing. It’s the difference between twenty random people dying at the hands of something dangerous and then the movie forgetting about them and the same scene playing, only with our main characters to connect to that scene in some way. Think needless deaths in any sort of Day After Tomorrow movie versus the scenes in The Avengers where NYC is under attack. Every scene where people’s lives are threatened connect to our main characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do hope Jurassic World is good, I’m just expecting to be let down. But please, let me be wrong.

 

Books In the News: If you haven’t heard, E.L. James is writing a new 50 shades of Grey novel from the point of view of the male…um, protagonist? Sex guy? I don’t know what to call him.

This is a bad thing. But I’m conflicted because it’s a book that will sell well so it is something that will help keep my store in business.

So… thanks E.L. James?

Actually, I’d rather she just didn’t write the damn thing. Really, it’s not going to be good.

I’d rather wait with the Jurassic park raptors, thanks.

We receive books in advance of their release date all the time. We get the books in a box with the release date labeled and just keep them safely tucked away, putting them out on their release date. Publishers label the boxes and sometimes let us know on an invoice when the book is being released, asking us not to put it out ahead of time.

When it comes to books coming our way before their release, I have never before seen a contract sent to us regarding not putting the book out early. We received such a contract for Grey. It was intense. We had to sign this contract that said we would not put any copies out  for sale early, give any away early, and keep it in a locked, secure room before its release date. We don’t even have the damn book yet! There must be something going on with the rights to the book now being owned by a movie studio wanting to keep their property safe.

But damn.

 

 

Adventures in Retail: I very much dislike when people make a fuss about the price of an item and then tell me, “You know, [Other Store] has [item] for [very cheap].” This happens every now and then with the price of books and Amazon. I don’t have the patience to explain to people why Amazon sells books for so cheap, but that’s a different issue. When it really bothers me is for gift-like items, such as candles, scarves and cards.

We are a bookstore, but have a wide selection of gift items like the ones previously mentioned; selling these items helps keep us in business. A quick look around the store tells you that they fit a certain style and clientele. One would think a quick glance around the store would key anyone in to the fact that we are not a convenience store.

So please, don’t complain that we don’t sell 99¢ cards or, as one woman informed in a huff while buying a candle, “You know they sell candles at Michaels for $10.” That is very clearly not the type of store we are.

Here, buy this. That can’t cost more than $10 I swear.

You don’t have to buy the candle. Don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by buying a candle, as if you were forced to do it. If you’re buying it as a last minute gift, maybe you should have thought ahead and made some time to go to Michaels? I hate feeling like I need to apologize for selling someone something.

That’s like apologizing for speaking too loud on stage in the middle of a play because I interrupted an audience member’s nap.

 

Check in for Part III next!

History is Art! Take that, Sculpting! Part I.

In College, I double majored in Theatre and History. At a glance, these two disciplines feel very different; one very expressive, emotionally driven that makes use of the body as a tool, and another that aims to discover why the world is the way it is, why people were and are by studying facts and evidence. But college is, in my opinion, breaking down things you thought you understood about the disciplines you study and leaving them broken. This allows the student to piece together just why Theatre is Theatre or History is History without having to glue everything back together. There is not solid answer; as we learn, the definition changes. Theatre and History are not so different. Theatre is really a bit of everything in some way shape or form; as an actor I must know the history of not only the piece I’m performing but the period the piece is set in. I play therapist and analyze my character, and if my character is a scientist then I better damn well learn the field he is an expert in. The same would be expected if he was a mathematician or Alligator Farmer.

Alas, poor Yorick, the Battle of Yorktown was fought on October 19, 1781! Look alive man, this is important!

 

The biggest difference, I think, is that Theatre is, without question, a form of art. History differs in this respect as it is not usually considered art. But can it be? The image of a scholar pouring over letters and maps, piecing together events and opinions does not inspire artistically the same way an image of Picasso furiously sketching and painting his next work does. But can’t History be an art? My senior thesis class in college looked at historical films, everything from Saving Private Ryan to Enemy at the Gates, to see if they were viable forms of history. We looked at art as an effective way to teach history, what about history as an effective way to express art? And does that make it art?

Bernard Bailyn, in his new book Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays Concerning Hisotry aims to answer these questions. While all nine essays in the collection are not specifically about History as an art, they are all not only interesting but, in some way, contribute to the discussion. The question that then remains is: what is Bernard Bailyn’s verdict? Should we throw History in with Art, Music, Acting, Dancing, Juggling, Magic Tricks, Sketching naked dudes and ladies, and Writing novels?

Is History Art?

Bernard Bailyn Da Vinci Fosse Olivier.

Bernard Bailyn, 92 years old, Takes on 50 Shades Of Grey: We’ve now sold 238 copies of 50 Shades of Grey. In comparison, we’ve sold two copies of Sometimes an Art. I don’t think we’ve sold more copies of the first three books I’ve read for this challenge combined than we have 50 Shades of Grey.

The Vorrh vs 50 Shades of Grey, an update:

Well, the Vorrh has sold 3 copies since its release. While it has not overtaken 5o Shades, it is catching up! Slowly but surely….

 

Books in Social Media:

Someone posted this quiz on Facebook the other day. Go ahead and take the quiz, it will only take a moment.

Here are some thoughts I had while taking the quiz.

-Who’s going to pick ‘an office’ as a place to spend their summer?

-I love adjusting!

-What the hell is a barong?

-Deciding between shells help pick a book. Wonderful. I should use that more often when recommending books at the store.

-I can see it now. “I’m looking for something really great to read, what do you recommend?” “I have one question: Shells, or Starfish. Oh, Starfish? War and Peace.”

Oh, this starfish? Maybe you’d like a book with more pictures.

I’m unsure as to whether or not this quiz was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek or not, but either way, I’m calling it a failure. To be fair to buzzfeed, they did publish an article with some interesting and well-thought Summer road trip books.

I would only add my perennial summer favorite, Pete the Cat and His Friend The Lorax in Mexico: An Exegesis, but otherwise there are some interesting picks on the list.

 

Check in for Part II!

Does a Cyclops make a book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part III

If you missed them, check out Part I and Part II!

Now, on with the review!

Mirkwood Schmirkwood: A few days a week, publishers send the store a box of uncorrected proofs, advance reader copies of books, for us to read before they are published. I’ve found a few great books through these ARCs, including Gary Corby’s Marathon Games. In January, I opened a box of books and pulled out something interesting; The Vorrh. The title alone caught my eye at first and I flipped it over for a quick plot summary.

I smiled large and announced to my co-workers, “Oh this has Andy written all over it.” A quick summary from the back promised a mythical forest in colonial Africa filled with demons and angels, a Cyclops raised by robots, and the blending of fiction and real historical figures.

Fantasy, a little bit of science fiction and a dash of historical fiction- just the way I like my books. You can keep your stories of a husband losing his job and confronting who he is and what kind of man he wants to be, I’ll take the Cyclops, thank you very much.

The author’s bio also caught my eye. “B. Catling is a poet, sculptor, painter, and performance artist.” That was interesting. Catling is obviously an artist fueled by creativity; I anticipated a wide breath of imagination and passion in this work.

Well, The Vorrh certainly has that, but it felt more like an art exhibition than a complete novel. Did I like the book? Yes. But I didn’t love it.

Let’s discuss the plot before moving on. The book opens with four lengthy quotes, an important part of any book worth reading and pondering. They act almost like acknowledgements in a work of non-fiction; a bridge not only into what the work will explore, but a glimpse into where the author drew both inspiration and what the author feels is most important to frame the work. Catling quotes Zen in the Art of Archery, German Ethnologist Leo Frobenius’ Paideuma, Heart of Darkness and Rudyard Kipling’s Gertrude’s Prayer.

We then open with a “naked and shriveled” Frenchman in a hotel bathroom. Great. My favorite. The man is revealed to be Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and poet. He then dies.

So! Off to an exciting start.

I realized something very quickly when I began the novel:

It was going to take 100 or so pages to really get into. This is a result in the novel focusing more on character than plot. In fact, the book lacks a traditional plot; each character plays out their own story, with almost all keeping The Vorrh, the dense magical forest, as a center of their story. Books like this always take a while to immerse the reader because they rely on character development but  take a long time to introduce and develop each character.

This is not a bad thing, but it can be a bit tedious. Imagine a story that is centered more on plot than characters; something like The Empire Strikes Back. We are introduced to many characters through the story, but we see how each relates to the plot set out before us; that is, we are not introduced to Yoda at the beginning of his story, but rather in the midst of a plot involving Luke. We as an audience must identify with Yoda’s character quickly and are allowed to do so because he plays a direct part in the action currently going on. Catling’s novel does just the opposite because, well, there really is no action at hand. There are events, but not an over-arching conflict that each character is introduced to, so we don’t have to immediately connect with a character.

In the first chapter, Catling writes in first person. This is reserved for one specific character, a renegade British soldier named Peter Williams, but this doesn’t follow through the whole book.

Joining Williams in the forest is a native man who led a rebellion against the army Williams served, Tsungali. Also in the forest is William Maclish, leader of the slave workforce of the forest, the Orm. Part of his success he owes to Doctor Hoffman, who, in a strange scene, offers Maclish’s miscarried baby to the Orm, gaining their trust for Maclish.

There is also the mysterious Sidrus, a Voldemort-like man who holds some sort of incredible powers, but also wants Williams to cross the forest safely.

On the outskirts of the forest lies the fictional city German mercantilist city of Essenwald (the words for ‘eat’ and ‘forest’ combined in German). In it, we have: Ishmael, a Cyclops who lives in a large, abandoned house and is raised by robots, Ghertrude Tulp, a rich young woman who discovers Ishmael, Sigmund Mutter, caretaker of the mysterious house, Cyrena Lohr, a blind woman who finds her fate intertwined with Ghertrude and Ishmael.

Catling uses two real people from the time period, Raymond Roussel, a real life French writer and explorer and Eadweard Muybridge, a real life English photographer.

Eadweard Muybridge and Raymond Roussel.

The plot of the novel moves in different places; we follow Peter Williams as he attempts to transverse the Vorrh using his bow, once his priestess wife, as a guide. He is pursued by Tsungali, hellbent on stopping Williams, and by Sidrus, hellbent on stopping Tsungali.

Meanwhile, in Essenwald, Ghertrude discovers Ishmael the cyclops one day after breaking into the house where he is kept. She boards off the robots who raised him in the basement and becomes his teacher. But Ishmael wants more, and a mardi-gras style festival allows him the chance to get out, in disguise, where he changes Cyrena’s life in a dramatic way. They have their share of dealings with the Doctor and Maclish, who, deep in the forest, face a slave revolt.

Catling also turns to a bit of historical fiction, using the aforementioned Raymond Roussel and his expedition into the forest. He leaves his assistant, Charlotte, behind and enters the forest with a local guide. When Roussel is separated from his guide, he finds the forest takes more than it gives.

Then there is Muybridge. Catling weaves fact and fiction into the photographer’s life as he quests for a life devoid of other humans but full of perfect photography.

To go into more detail about each plot would end in me giving you a play by play of each chapter, which is something I’m not going to do. The Vorrh is one of those books where a good deal happens but it’s not all connected or entirely clear what everything means. There is a little bit of everything in the book; there is some action, some adventure, romance, history, class struggle, science, fantasy, religious allegory, horror, and a bit of comedy. Catling is adept at bringing these elements together, and it is part of what makes the book interesting, it’s just that the novel doesn’t do any of this really well. I felt immersed in the book, but not connected to it.

Catling’s characters all seem particularly cold and distant. I found the only character I liked was Williams, but his story was sparse and a bit slow moving for me to really connect. In fact, connection is something that The Vorrh severely lacked for me; the book has so many plots that intertwine, but there is no sense of an overarching through-line between the characters. The themes and imagery run through everyone’s story, but I really missed some sort of large climax that touched on every character.  Even the characters have a hard time connecting to each other. Each one comes across as sort of an ugly portrait of themselves.

This ugliness is frustrating because Catling can certainly immerse the reader in the picture he creates. He is a great writer who colors his landscapes and characters in so much depth, but the plot does not share this depth. My only complaint about Catling’s writing is that it tends to be unnecessarily graphic and crass sometimes. I’m not a squeamish person when reading, violence doesn’t bother me, but there was one scene that was so graphic in its violence it left me feeling uncomfortable. What’s worse is that I finished this scene riding the subway to work and had to leave the train as I closed the book on the violence passage. I needed to keep reading to reset my brain a little bit, but I instead went into work with this feeling washing over me. It was a strange first half hour at the store.

There was no other time when the violence got to out of hand for me, but I did feel that sometimes Catling was being a bit too graphic for the shock value. The best example is a scene that takes place in a bar. Sidrus has come trying to find the assassin on Williams’ trail.  In the midst of the action of this scene, Catling stops to enter the mind of a sleeping dog. The passage is awkward, and I quote it to show this, “The tension in the stuffy room was congested with human silence and the twitching of the dog’s dream. Sweet pushing inside her pushing pumping the bitch clasped hard by me pushing over and over again…its smell twisted backwards my cock facing out she the other side of me now tail to tail pumping…uncontrollable reflex air fuck bending bending fucking…” and so on. This dream goes on and on and while I must say that Catling captures what a dog’s brain must surely be like, the dream advances the plot in no way and is a jarring interruption. It feels placed there for shock value; as if Catling just wanted to find a reason to write ‘cock’ and ‘fuck’. Perhaps it fits into the theme of nature’s dominance the book has, but if this scene were not in the book, we would not lose anything. We then move on from the dog after that, its psyche never explored again. What was the point of that?

What do you dream of, oh Noodle?

I found myself asking that question a few times while reading and it led me to a frustrating conclusion. Nothing in this book is an accident; there is a definite structure to the way Catling wrote the book. Each choice I had a problem with was deliberate. This may be his first book, but Catling comes from a background as an artist, and it is clear that he put a good deal of thought into how he wanted to book to be constructed. What frustrates me is that although I recognize this, but it does not make the book better for me.

That’s the funny thing about art; some people find a real connection to a piece of art that others don’t. Much in the same way a record can be a friend’s favorite but just seem okay to you. It’s the same way I feel about Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It’s not that I don’t like it and it is a great album, it just doesn’t touch me in any way. I just think it’s a solid album. I feel a deep connection to Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but some people can’t really connect to it.

I can see that Catling put a good deal of effort into constructing all elements of this novel in a certain way, it’s just not something that pleased me artistically. I enjoyed the book and I am glad I read it, but I most likely won’t pick it up again. It was good, but not a favorite of mine.

I found that after reading it, I just couldn’t place my finger on what Catling was trying to say. There was a definite theme of Man vs. Nature, a one sided bout in Catling’s book that he used to drive home the point that no one, especially humans can conquer nature; nature is constantly conquering the characters in this book and they are powerless to stop it. There was also some sort of religious symbolism I couldn’t quite grasp. In the novel, it is said that Adam, the first man, lives deep in the Vorrh and that creatures called the Erstwhile are actually angels. I felt these plot points were added in to flesh out the world a bit more but failed in doing so. It seemed more like the angels were dangerous and that Adam was bigfoot; does this make religion also no contender for nature? Does Catling mean the two manipulate each other? Again, it was lost to me.

It wasn’t the sort of book I found fun to ruminate upon after I finished as well. Unlike Murakami’s work, which also leaves the reader with the same sense of loose ends, The Vorrh was too muddled for me to take anything from.

My version did not come with an introduction, but I did find the book’s introduction, written by Alan Moore, who says of the book “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy and ranking among the best pieces every written in that genre…” I highly, highly disagree with this. We’re fifteen years into this century, forget that fact that I don’t think this is that epic of a work, we haven’t had one landmark piece of fantasy? I know a few writers who would disagree with that. I also don’t feel it is among the best pieces ever written in the genre. It isn’t even a truly fantasy; it bridges a few different genres. I feel that it certainly doesn’t hold up to Tolkien or Pratchett or even the world J.K. Rowling created.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT LITERARY GENRE I FIT INTO!! I’M SO MAD I THINK I’LL EAT A GREEK HERO.

And yet, even with all of this, I must say I do recommend the book if it sounds like something you’ll like. If any of the characters or plot elements I discussed intrigue you in any way, pick it up. It’s not one I’ll recommend to just anyone, but The Vorrh  is the kind of book that has the potential to make a large impact on the right person. Somewhere, sometime, this book will be someone’s favorite book. For me, it’s just a novel. It reads like Heart of Darkness with a hefty dose of strange and wonderful characters.

And so, in the end, where does The Vorrh fall? Science Fiction or Fantasy? It’s really both. I don’t think there is enough of either genre in the story to tilt the scales. There is the highly imaginative setting of the forest and the creatures within, but there is also a good deal of technology. Ishmael the Cyclops may make it seem like fantasy, but he is one of many characters and doesn’t stand out enough to make it pure Fantasy. I don’t think it has to be either, and that’s where the strength of the novel lies. Maybe The Vorrh is the perfect book for the ever ambiguous Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelf in bookstores all over the world.

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Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle contemplating the mysteries of The Vorrh.

Unrelated book thought of the week: Spring is finally here after a harsh…well, February, really.  One thing I love about living in New York City is that I can finally experience four seasons. I grew up in Central New York, a place that doesn’t seem like the weather would be too bad. But where I grew up, winter lasts through April and May doesn’t really offer much spring. I have memories of going away for Spring Break in April with snow on the ground and returning to the same. I remember snow on Mother’s day a few times. And Fall is much the same; we get Fall in October then November is winter.

Spring, you are a welcome sight.

In New York City, however, spring comes in April and Fall lasts so much longer. Sure the summers are hotter and the whole damn city smells like garbage, but I love having a Spring and a Fall, not 90 degree weather that falls away into 30 degree weather.

It’s amazing what a few degrees of Longitude can do for you. I love having four seasons.

Next time on the Whale and the Petunias: I take a trip back to college and examine and old favorite author from my days as a History Major: Bernard Bailyn and his new work Nine Essays Concerning History. You heard me everyone, back to college! Time to drink Scotch while everyone else is drinking crappy beer and some sort of blue alcohol, blast Fall Out Boy in my apartment and make everyone listen to it, walk through campus at 3 in the morning to print out papers, and seriously what the hell was that blue stuff everyone was drinking!!!?

Does a Cyclops make a Book Science Fiction or Fantasy? Part I.

Before I begin, let me pay tribute to a favorite web show of mine.

IT’S FANTASY/SCI-FI MOOOOOOOOOOOOOONTH!!

This is a shout out to the Fantasy themed month on ‘Continue,’ a weekly web show on YouTube where three funny guys play an older video game for about a little while and then discuss whether they’d continue playing or game over. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/user/ContinueShow

There. Now!

In most bookstores, you’ll find the Science Fiction and fantasy section thrown together under Science Fiction, something that has always been strange to me. I remember going to big bookstores looking for Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett books and finding them under Science Fiction, a category that quite literally means Fiction that uses Science as a means of telling the story. Or, as our friendly Wikipedia puts it:

Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life.

It’s okay. We’ll figure out this literary mystery together. Not Literary Mystery, that’s a different genre for a different month. Oh man this is confusing.

Well. That doesn’t sound much like Terry Pratchett to me. Or Neil Gaiman. Certainly Douglas Adams, another author I found in that section. But what about Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians? Sometimes I’ve seen his books, a trilogy that riffs Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, filed away under Science Fiction. It’s become a blanket term, much like ‘Indie’ has become a blanket term in music for any band with a certain sound, regardless of whether or not the music is produced independently or not on a major label. At my store all of these authors are on the same shelf which we’ve labeled Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. Even though we make the distinction that the shelf is for all three genres, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien sit side by side. (Metaphorically I mean. We still file authors alphabetically at the store. We are civilized, you know)

Even on this blog,I’ve set this month aside for Sci-Fi/Fantasy! Why! Why must these genres be bonded at the spine?

It’s because they offer a type of fiction that guarantees strange occurrences and fantastic worlds. Sure, there are quite a few books on the fiction shelf that offer the same thing; Master and Margarita  features a talking cat, A Christmas Carol is filled with talking ghosts, and David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas is found on many store’s fiction shelf. But the Science fiction/Fantasy genre offers more than that.

I personally like the guarantee of such things, but I lean towards the fantasy more than Science fiction.  I love a fantastic world with fantastic characters, especially stories based in mythology or strange creatures. Douglas Adams and some of Vonnegut’s sci-fi is about as far into that genre as I’ll go. I don’t have much interest in space and aliens on other planets, unless it is humorous.

When I picked up an Advanced Reader copy of The Vorrh, by poet, sculptor and performance artist B. Catling, I couldn’t resist, but I also couldn’t figure out where it fit in. The back of the book promised the book’s namesake was “a vast-perhaps endless-forest” in the heart of Africa. With characters such as “A Cyclops raised by robots.” Was it science fiction? Or did this vast Africa forest promise a modern mercantilism fueled Tolkien-like world for these characters to exist?

B. Catling

The Vorrh vs. 50 Shades of Grey: As of this month, we’ve sold 236 copies of 50 Shades of Grey. We have sold 0 copies of the Vorrh, mostly because it has not been released yet. Come May 5, we’ll see how it fares against the titan of literature that is 50 Shades of Grey. Well… titan of something. Literature is a bit too generous.

My guess? We’ll sell 237 copies in one day. Or 1. It’s a loose approximation.

Worst Literature related Social-Media Article of the month: April Fool’s day on Facebook is always a head-to-palm depression-inducing roller coaster ride. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same; every other person posts a ridiculous, clearly fake article that makes outrageous claims without bothering to check the date.

Not that it’s a common thing for Facebook users to check the source of the article they post; I’ve seen many people post an article from a clearly satirical website in a fit of incredulous rage, completely unaware of the source, but still. It’s April 1st! I don’t think Steven Spielberg is set to direct the My Little Pony movie. (Okay, I made that one up. Maybe I should’ve written that article?)

The most interesting article for me was the one floating around that claimed J.K. Rowling had admitted “Harry was a figment of Ron’s imagination.”

People fell for it like crazy! The article was clever and gave me a good chuckle, but it was clearly satirical.

What you may not know is that this is not new territory, dear internet. If you’re not familiar, this postulating of a crazy theory exists with all sorts of literature, television and movies on the internet. These fan theories are far too abundant.

I’m working on a theory that proves Pokemon is a retelling of Oliver Twist.

They pop up everywhere with all forms of art and media. Spongebob and his friends in Bikini Bottom are the product of nuclear testing? Ash Ketchum dies in the first episode and the entire series of Pokemon is his coma dream? Sully and Mike from Monsters Inc are Stalin and Hitler that suffered mutations as a result of nuclear bombs? Yup, it’s all there. That’s the sort of thing that exists. People make this stuff up all the time and purport it as being true. The internet gets a bit obsessive about this as people make newer, more ridiculous theories. But they are often debunked and usually just in good fun. There was a famous one that involved a haunted copy of the Legend of Zelda: the Majoras Mask referred to as ‘Ben Drowned.’ It’s not hard to make one, believe me.  In fact, I made up one of those examples.

Let me give this a shot:

Monsters Inc is actually our world, post-WWII and post atomic bomb attacks. Everyone was horribly mutated due to radiation, but those that survived knew enough to end the war and rebuild as best they could. Without electricity or nuclear power and without the resources to harvest sun, wind or water energy, top scientists (who survived due to their knowledge of the devastating effects of radiation) discover how to harness children’s screams using the power to travel to infinite dimensions via doors.

            Our heroes are actually two of history’s worst people: Sully is Joseph Stalin and Mike is Adolf Hitler. With the effects of radiation, no one can tell who anyone used to be. Mike and Sully don’t even know each other’s true identity. They have both sworn to be better people, but they are still hungry for power, lusting after the position of top scarer.

            The abominable snowman is actually FDR, set in self-isolation for not being able to stop nuclear war from descending upon the world. Randall is Joseph Goebbels, still as terrible as ever. It’s a story about secret redemption; that when the world falls apart, when nihilists get what they want, they can change. It’s a message to us all: even those that wish the world would burn can see the value in rebuilding.

Hey kids, we’re dispossessed dictators! Give us a hug!

Okay it’s not perfect, but it’s just the sort of thing people on the internet love to do. We like to stare into the abyss and find constellations. Actually, that’s backwards. They like to stare at the constellations, pretty clear in what they are but with room for imagination and personal connections, and find the abyss, the nothingness with no substance that is certainly impressive.

Also, Harry is imaginary. He’s a character from fiction. So the article was half right.

(Part II on Wednesday!)

Can a Trip to Ireland Help Me Love a 101 Year Old Book?

James Joyce.

It’s been 101 years since the first publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners and I am most likely somewhere around the billionth person to have something to say about it. Be that as it may I am still going to say something, as this entry is all about Fiction written before 1950 and I picked Dubliners to read and review.

Most of the stuff I read is fiction, and most of the fiction I read has been published after 1950, so I picked publications from before the halfway mark of the 20th century to get outside my comfort zone.

I actually picked up Dubliners before I conceived of this new form of blogging and the reason was simple: I was taking a trip to Ireland with my fiancée’s family. We were there for two weeks; one week we spent touring around the beautiful country and another we spent in Dublin. I figured, where was a better place to read Dubliners than in Dublin?

What is left to say about Joyce’s work of short stories that hasn’t already been said? Can I possibly contribute anything to the overall conversation about this work that hasn’t been said and said far better?

I have to be honest, nothing, really. But I didn’t read Dubliners to study it or to find something in it that hasn’t been found, so why I won’t I try to write that. No, I’m here to reflect upon my experience reading the book fresh from a trip to the city that inspired it and to ask the question, for a lover of more modern fiction, does Dubliners still hold up?

Read on to find out.

The River Liffey screams, “Read our feckin’ literature!”

Dubliners vs. 50 Shades of Grey: My bookstore has been around since 2009 on New York City’s Upper West Side.

In our time there, we have sold 236 copies of 50 Shades of Grey.

I bought the ‘Modern Library’ version of Dubliners, published by Random House, which has sold 6 copies. We’ve carried four different versions of the book, and the total amount of Dubliners we’ve sold is 60, with the ‘Vintage’ edition, published by Knopf, being the clear favorite with 45 copies sold.

So all in all, we’ve sold 176 more copies of 50 Shades of Grey than we have Dubliners. And 230 more copies than the version I read. I was one of those 6, by the way.

And no, I was not one of those 236.

45 copies is no match for E.L. James’…uh… masterpiece? Um.

Worst Literature related Click-Bait article of the week: A recent Buzzfeed article lists the best Harry Potter themed wedding ideas, including gaudy Hogwarts House-themed high heels, exiting the ceremony through an arc of wands (where the hell do you get 150 wands for guests?) and exchanging vows over a Goblet of Fire.

I’m getting married in August; maybe I should have suggested more literature themed things to do for our wedding. Here’s a list I’ve put together that I think I’ll suggest to my fiancée tonight:

-Do the ceremony in a Slaughterhouse.

– Have the officiant speak entirely in small caps.

– Instead of suits, the groomsmen and I will wear bathrobes and carry towels with us.

– Have a band lead by a talking fruit bat wearing sunglasses.

-Before getting married, do everything I can to turn myself into a slightly bland-mid 30’s young man with a love for jazz and classical music, swimming, and cats. But I often lose the cat I love. It happens.

– Invite guests who only used to be/still are warped variations of gods, fairy tales and mythological creatures.

– Ask my groomsmen to toast me in a highly poetic, slightly political style, using hyper-researched bizarre facts that somehow lead me to the inside of a pack of cigarettes.

– Anyone who wants to get married must be crazy, and it is a rule crazy people can’t get married! But I must try to prove that I’m not crazy so I can get married, even though the desire to get married means I’m crazy and so therefore can’t get married. But If I don’t want to get married then I can’t get married but at least I’m sane? Ah!

I’ll run these by her, see what she says.

(Trying to guess which authors I’m referencing? The official Whale and the Petunias Wedding Literature Game answers can be found at the end of this post! Good luck!)

Harry seems unamused.

 Book in the Movies: With the Oscars not far behind us, I feel it is worth mentioning a few Oscar-nominated movies that you may not have known were books.

Movies nominated for BEST PICTURE:

‘The Imitation Game’ was based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges

‘The Theory of Everything’ was based on Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking by Jane Wilde Hawking

‘American Sniper’ was based on the book by the same name by Chris Kyle

Movies with an actress nominated for BEST ACTRESS

‘Gone Girl’ was based on the book by the same name by Gillian Flynn (Rosamund Pike nominated)

‘Wild’ was based on the book by the same name by Cheryl Strayed

Even ‘Big Hero 6’, which won for best animated film, is based on the Marvel Comic Book series of the same name.

Also nominated was ‘Inherent Vice’ (for Adapted Screenplay) which is based on a Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name.

If you loved any of those movies, I recommend picking up the book they were based on.

Julianne Moore was nominated and won for ‘Still Alice’. She has yet to return my phone calls.

Book/Author news: Extremely sad news recently, as Terry Pratchett, world renown fantasy author of more than 50 books passed away. Pratchett was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s in 2007 and had fought a battle with it ever since, continuing to publish even to this year.

There is so much to be said about Terry Pratchett and I am not the only person who was a great lover of his writing. I’ve already written a little piece when I looked at Snuff in an earlier blog post. What I want to briefly discuss is Terry Pratchett and death.

And Death.

One of my favorite characters in Pratchett’s novels is Death, a Grim Reaper personification who speaks in SMALL CAPS, that exists in the Discworld Universe. Death makes a cameo in almost every single Terry Pratchett book, even Good Omens, a book he wrote with Neil Gaiman.

Pratchett created a character that offered some hilarious situations and fascinating tales. But Death is somber and intelligent, interested in humans and how they work. Pratchett’s Death is strong; he’s final. From his books, we get a glimpse of just what Pratchett thought about death. Here are a few quotes from both the character and a few others on the subject of death, dying and living:

PEOPLE CAN”T SEE ME, THEY SIMPLY WON’T ALLOW THEMSELVES TO DO IT. UNTIL IT’S TIME, OF COURSE. WIZARDS CAN SEE ME, AND CATS. BUT YOUR AVERAGE HUMAN…NO, NEVER. He blew a smoke ring at the sky, and added, STRANGE, BUT TRUE.

THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES.

Death isn’t cruel – merely terribly, terribly good at his job.

I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES. I TURN UP ONLY ONCE.

There are no delusions for the dead. Dying is like waking up after a really good party, when you have one or two seconds of innocent freedom before you recollect all the things you did last night which seemed so logical and hilarious at the time, and then you remember the really amazing thing you did with a lampshade and two balloons, which had them in stitches, and now you realize you’re going to have to look a lot of people in the eye today and you’re sober now and so are they but you can both remember.

Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?

“Pardon me for living, I’m sure.”
NO ONE GETS PARDONED FOR LIVING.

People’s whole lives do pass in front of their eyes before they die. The process is called ‘living’

Terry Pratchett regarded Death with a dark sense of humor, but he didn’t so much laugh at death as he did create a character with which to give death more humanity. He made death something not to be afraid of; not to laugh at but to try and understand. He did for death what Douglas Adams proceeded to do for aliens and space; he made us laugh at it but also realize that it is not something to be scared of. Pratchett asked the question, ‘What if Death is just as confused by humanity as humanity is confused by Death?’

Humans have always been afraid of death because it is the ultimate unknown. We have a long history of trying to appease death, to cheat it or to control it. Much the way Douglas Adams made us laugh at Aliens and Space instead of thinking of them as the great unknown or beings that come to Earth to destroy it, Pratchett gave us a view of death that made us laugh, made us think and made us sympathetic. Death has a definite growth through the Discworld books, as he grows more interested in Humanity.

The humor all lies in the way Death is constantly perplexed by humans. Terry Pratchett was the master of parallels. There was so much in the Discworld that had a counterpart in our world, and the way Pratchett played with that always made for a great deal of humor and a little bit of enlightenment. He uses Death in the same way”: just as humans always tried to control, appease, and avoid Death, so too does Death do the same with humans.

Terry Pratchett knew how final Death was, how unavoidable. But he used that as a shared experience for us all. He looked at it with a dark sense of humor but with humor nonetheless. With his character of Death he urged us not to be afraid, but to accept and to think critically about the ways in which we treat Death. He made us laugh with the ways Death treated humans but also never let us forget that death is both inevitable and final, no matter how much we think on it or laugh with it.

And of course, his final tweets, his final bit or written word to the world, was a conversation with Death. I leave you with one final quote from Death from Pratchett’s twitter account:

at last, sir terry, we must walk together.

He will be missed immensely.

Farewell, Sir Terry.

Retail gripe of the week: Let’s talk about asking for items purchased to be gift-wrapped.

Some stores, like mine, offer complimentary gift-wrapping upon purchase. This is wonderful for both customer and store, as we provide a service that makes people want to shop with us for their gift-related needs, and you, the customer, are able to take advantage of a convenience in buying gifts.

But.

Let’s discuss some things that I wish customers would think about when asking for gift-wrapping at my store.

-Asses the store you are in when it comes to your gift wrapping needs. Some stores wrap things no matter what, others are small gift-centered stores that gift-wrap after almost every purchase.

Some, like mine, are Book Stores that sometimes employ 25-Year old men. There is no gift-wrapping training we are given, there is no crash course, simply the skills said 25-Year old man comes to the store with. If you want what you buy to look super-cute and beautifully wrapped, know this: while I will always try to do the best I can, just use your critical thinking skills when it comes to where you are and who is wrapping. Maybe the 25 year old man isn’t going to give you perfection. Maybe if it doesn’t look cute enough or perfect enough, you’d be better off wrapping it yourself.

-Please don’t make faces or criticize while I’m wrapping. You know what that is? It’s just mean.

While a coworker was wrapping something for a woman once she exclaimed, ‘I didn’t think there was anyone in the world worse than I was at wrapping, but you are!’ She then proceeded to try to help, which, of course, was not helpful. Do you think that makes us want to wrap something for you more? Or try harder?

-You don’t need to ask me to take the price tag off, it’s the first thing I do. Half the time, people ask me this when I’m halfway done wrapping.

-If you want the associate to wrap something, let them wrap. Too many times, people ask me to wrap something and then halfway through, take over and just start doing it themselves. Let go of being a control freak, please, and let us do it. If you’re worried about the quality of the wrapping, refer to point #1.

-When buying an item you want to give as a gift, ask yourself: Would I wrap this in wrapping paper? If the answer is no, why ask us to do the same? As I’ve said, some stores are gift stores and are prepared for all your wrapping needs. My store has gift bags, we’ve got ribbon and tissue paper and wrapping paper. Far too often, people buy something that is shaped awkwardly or will not look good in wrapping paper, no matter who is wrapping, then ask for it to be wrapped. Coffee Mug? Gonna look weird. Stuffed Rabbit? Yup, not gonna look good. 2 foot by 1 foot Calender? I need to use eighty sheets of wrapping paper! If I suggest a gift bag with a nice tissue paper arrangement instead, please don’t look at me like I’ve suggested I want to eat your children.

-Please don’t be an ultra-perfectionist about wrapping things for a baby. I want it to look nice just as you do, but it’s a damn baby. They don’t know the difference if the corner isn’t folded in all the way or the top of the stuffed toy is poking out of the tissue paper.

-Don’t hover over the wrapper’s shoulder. That makes us worse at wrapping.

-And last, please don’t complain about the lack of selection in wrapping paper. We’re a bookstore, we’re going for plain and simple, looks nice on anything style paper.

There, now we can all exist happily in our wrapping services and needs. Thank you.

I did It! (I didn’t do it.)

Agus anois , Dubliners: When I told people I was reading Dubliners, their response usually amounted to something like this. “Oh yeah, stream of consciousness!”

Steam of what?

How did I miss this on the quiz!? Seriously! I never admitted I had no idea what it was, but I never learned this term. And if I did, I surely have forgotten.

Steam of Consciousness is a term used by William James in his text Principles of Psychology. In the literary world, it is a way of writing where characters feelings and thoughts are uninterrupted by dialogue or description. Along with Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf were early proponents of this style.

Oooooooooooh that’s how I missed it. I know nothing of psychology. And, I’ve never read anything from these authors. Unless you count reading the first page of Finnegan’s Wake. (And I don’t). So was I missing something huge? I began to worry that missing this key component of Joyce’s writing would hinder my reading.

Well, long story short, it didn’t. But the question remains: did I, a lover of modern fiction like Dubliners?

Yes.

      

It’s not my new favorite book and I didn’t absolutely love it. It’s not something I’ll reread year after year and frankly, I think having just visiting the city the book is about helped as well.

Dubliners is a collection of short stories written between 1905 and 1914 by Joyce mostly outside of Dublin. According to the book’s introduction, “Joyce lived in voluntary exile from Ireland, although Irish life continued to provide the raw material for his writing…Joyce and [his wife] Nora moved to Zurich, and at the end of World War I they settled in Paris…” It is interesting and slightly dismaying that Joyce wrote most of the story elsewhere: for something so tied to a particular place and for a man so celebrated in Ireland, it seems wrong that he wasn’t living right next to the Liffey, toiling away on his draft day by day. Dubliners feels like that favorite album from your favorite band that also happens to be the album that they fought about most, only speaking to each other through their agents and forcing the producer to work three weeks straight because no one wanted to be in the studio together to record. It somehow feels wrong to have such a strong connection to something that wasn’t created the way you would think.

But that’s okay, because Dubliners is certainly a strong portrait not only of the city but of the people and of the country, despite Joyce’s rocky relationship with the emerald Isle.

According to John Banville’s introduction of the book, Joyce initially intended Dubliners “to be his revenge upon a city and a people he considered to have betrayed him in a multiplicity of ways.” How could this be? For a text that is so tied to a city and a country’s identity, how can it be that it was intended as a slight? That deep down, Joyce was angry with his first home? It can’t, is the short answer, for Joyce really did want the book to be a portrait of his home, both good and bad. Banville catches this as well, writing “The fact is that in Dubliners he was as anxious to present as complete and accurate a portrait of his native city as he would be again… in Ulysses”. So Joyce didn’t hate Dublin and the stories here really do present the city and its people well, but why has it remained a classic for so long?

OH GOD JAMES JOYCE LOOKED AT A MEDUSA AND TURNED TO STONE oh wait. No, that’s just the dedicated statue to the author in Dublin. Sorry everyone- sorry! My mistake. No Medusas. Sorry. Sorry.

What made Dubliners stand out to me wasn’t that it was written in stream of consciousness technique, but that it seemed very ahead of its time. Most, if not all of the stories lack any resolution, often leaving the reader to complete the picture themselves. For example, the story ‘Eveline’ ends with at the very moment a young girl makes a tough choice regarding her suitor. Another story, ‘The Boarding House’, ends much the same way, ending with “Then she remembered what she had been waiting for”; a sentence that feels more like a bridge to something else than an ending. ‘Counterparts’ seems to end with rising action, as we’ve followed a man’s day at work when Joyce takes us to his home and broken relationship with his son in last few paragraphs. Even the final story, ‘The Dead’ ends in a more contemplative mood than falling action of a climax.

Leaving the reader with no resolution is hardly a new technique these days, and while I did admire the way Joyce constructed his stories, I’m sure I was nowhere near as blown away as those who first read Dubliners.

Not that my modern bias could keep this from making these stories imprint themselves on me. I studied Theatre and History in school so believe me when I say that I am fully qualified to pretend I am in a different time period, but I know shouldn’t set myself in such a differ place when reading fiction for pleasure. I’m not studying Joyce for a role or researching Dublin at the turn of the century; if anything, both disciplines taught me assessing something critically should be done with my own eye, modern bias or not.

So all in all, even though I loved this aspect of the book, I wasn’t blown away by the fact that these stories had no resolution. How could I? I can think of many television shows with a final episode that left us to paint the rest of the picture (Frasier, Futurama, Scrubs, Seinfeld to name a few) and a few movies as well (the most recent in my mind being Inception). But even though this didn’t elevate these stories to the realm of unforgettable for me, it did make them stand out. I enjoyed that they had little to no resolution, that Joyce left the fate of his characters in my hands after the final sentence. And as much as this is done in many forms of print and media, Joyce was employing this technique in a time when others weren’t.

Illustration of Joyce and Dublin by Chip Zdarsky from slate.com. Notice how Joyce’s eyes are so uninterrupted by extra descriptors that they blend in with the background.

As much as Joyce was using both this and the stream of consciousness technique, I don’t think he was doing it for the sake of doing it. Joyce paints a wonderful literary picture of Dublin in a time of much uneasiness for the Irish people. With the famine only fifty years behind, a blight so terrible it killed almost as many as it forced to leave the country in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere, and the rumblings of a revolution only a few years away, the people of Dublin had little time for interruptions of emotion nad resolutions in their lives. Joyce captures something I could see in the people of Ireland; a sense of immense pride in who they are and where they come from, but a great question mark at who they will be.

For so much of Ireland’s history, the people of the Isle held on to a strong national identity with no real knowledge of the future. The civil war that followed the Revolution of 1921 is proof of this, as the people knew what they wanted but could not agree on where the country should go after the Revolution Succeeded. Let me note, of course, that this is not a bad trait and I of course do not mean to infer that no one in the country of Ireland has any plans for their future. To be fair, often the people of Ireland had little to no options as to where they could go; they were fighting so hard to stay in the present that they never gave a thought to what the future could hold.

The characters in Joyce’s novel strongly embody this feeling. They know much about themselves, who they are and how they feel about the world around them (these thoughts and feelings being expressed without interruption from dialogue or description, remember) but lack a resolution when it comes to where they are going. Joyce, despite his time away from Ireland in the early twentieth century, had this same feeling in his blood. He carried this with him and recognized it. He recognized that it was part of not only being Irish, but being a Dubliner.  The short stories in Dubliners are so strongly tied to the city and its people because Joyce was, no matter where he was.

Maybe that’s why Dubliners had succeeded as such a classic all these years. Perhaps not as famous as Ulyssess  and not as infamous as Finnegan’s Wake (‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’ being the first line of that text, mind you) but still a strong work on its own, Dubliners captures the true essence of Dublin and the people that call the city home. Not only that, but it captures the feeling of the whole country. It doesn’t do this with a grand, sweeping narrative or a hero’s journey through the lands; it accomplishes this with the often multi-layered and frustrating lives of the people of the city.

Believe me when I tell you, having experienced Ireland, it would be so easy to capture the country in a grand narrative. There is so much history and so many beautiful things across the country that a writer of Joyce’s skill could easily write the seminal national text of Ireland using the Isle in its entirety. But much like Ireland, there is so much more than what you see in front of you. I liked Dubliners because it felt like a piece of history as well as a work of art. It was more special for me because I started reading it in Dublin; because I finished it fresh from a trip to Dublin. I felt like I was experiencing an extreme fast-forward of Joyce’s stories and that I, too, was another piece of the story left unresolved. The stories in Dubliners don’t need a resolution because the characters, much like the real people of the city in that time, had no time to worry so far ahead or to expect a resolution. That was something I could really see and that I really loved.

I did like Dubliners much more than I thought I would. It was a bit slow for me personally, not because the book is paced badly but because I prefer a story that moves very quickly and throws many surprises my way, but Dubliners was a great change of pace. It was another piece of my trip to Ireland that I’ll always remember and I certainly am glad I read it. It is a great group of short stories that really gives the reader a clear picture of Dublin in the early 1900s. As for me, seeing Dublin in the early 2010’s, I’ll remain a small part of the unresolved story of a wonderful city in an amazing country.

I AM A NOODLE NOM NOM

Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle posing with the book.

 

Unrelated book thought: March Madness is upon us! I always love the Tournament and despite my bracket getting nice and busted when Iowa State lost, there have been a good amount of great games. I am a Syracuse fan, having grown up in Central New York, and without them in the tournament things aren’t as much fun, but I do love a good College Basketball game. The end of March Madness also marks a sports void for me. I’m a big Football (both college and pro) and College Basketball fan and don’t care for Baseball or Hockey. I like NBA highlights but never really watch a game; maybe the fourth quarter of the finals now and then, but not much else.

I’m soaking up the basketball while I can because after April, it’s a sports drought until the end of August when College Football starts up. I’ll watch the first round of the NFL draft for fun, but until then I can’t wait until the football rains come.

Yup, that’s me.

The Official Whale and the Petunias Wedding Literature Game Answers!:

  1. Kurt Vonnegut
  2. Terry Pratchett
  3. Douglas Adams
  4. Christopher Moore
  5. Haruki Murakami
  6. Neil Gaiman
  7. Tom Robbins
  8. Joseph Heller

How many did you get right?  If you got all 8, you’ll receive an official “Whale and the Petunias Button! (Button not included.)©”

Next time, on The Whale and the Petunias: I take a look at B. Catling’s The Vorrh, which you might not have heard of because it hasn’t been published yet. Can I time travel? Only Sci-Fi/Fantasy Month knows!

The Whale and the Petunias presents: THE YEAR IN BOOKS

After much thought, I’ve decided to begin a new form of blogging here on The Whale and the Petunias. Instead of taking you through the books I’ve read every month, I’ve decided to offer myself a challenge and let you, the reader, reap the benefits. I present, THE YEAR IN BOOKS. Each month, I will read a different genre of book and review it here on the blog, with a few extra thoughts and bits of fun in every post. There will be more than just a monthly post, of course. Sometimes two or three books a month, depending on what I’ve been reading that I’d like to share, and even a few extras beyond that. But! As it stands, my year looks like this.

THE YEAR IN BOOKS:

March: Fiction (Pre-1950) [Dubliners]

April: Fantasy/Sci-Fi [The Vorrh]

May: History/Nonfiction

June: Young Adult

July: NYC

August: Poetry

September: Science

October: Mystery

November: Fiction (post-1950)

December: Mind & Body

January: Religion

February: Memoir

If you have any requests, ideas of books I should read in a certain genre, or even suggestions or ideas for other genres to squeeze in between months for some more content, let me know here in the comments!

My review of Dubliners is coming very soon!

Hi it's me Andy hellooooo!

I contemplate a new beginning by the coast. Disregard the ‘STOP’ portion of things, as I am doing the opposite, I am starting. Hm. Maybe this wasn’t such a good picture to use? Oh well, I’ve typed this much now. Might as well go forward with things, shall I? Alright, so, yes, here is me in Ireland by the coast, ready to bring you lots of new book related content!

Andy Reads Books- April 2013

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)

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/18/Player_Piano.png

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)

https://i1.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/91JyTAb5zVL._SL1500_.jpg

Um. Yeah.

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.

Cheers.

Andy Reads Books- March, 2013

From what country do I favor my authors to be? I’ve always read a mixture of American and British fiction. British fiction is wonderfully different from American fiction. My guess is I could tell you the nationality of an author based on the reading the book. Say, if you blindfolded me…and I ate the book? Damn.Wait.

Well, anyway, here is the breakdown of the nationalities of the authors I read this year.

American- 14

British- 8

Australian- 1

Scottish- 1

The authors I read were predominantly American, which is not surprising. I enjoy that I had one Australian and Scottish author in there as well. So far, I believe It’s a 1-1 tie of British and American authors (Tolkien and Moore). All that is about to change. In March, I made it to five books and a 3-2 ration of American to British authors. Here they are.

1. Snuff (image from wikipedia)

As soon as we got this book at the bookstore, I bought it. My love of Terry Pratchett goes back to Good Omens, a book Pratchett authored with another favorite of mine, Neil Gaiman. After reading Good Omens, I decided to give Mr. Pratchett a chance. I jumped in to Thud! and was thoroughly confused.

Terry Pratchett’s novels take place in a world of his own invention, the Discworld. Discworld is a large, flat world that sits atop the back of Four Elephants who, in turn, sit atop the back of The Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle who flies through space.

Pratchett’s novels often mirror our own world (the Discworld is a parallel universe to our own) and it’s great fun when it all clicks. I always describe Pratchett like the Lord of the Rings mashed together with Monty Python. The Discworld takes place in what is essentially late nineteenth-century England. I didn’t know that when I picked up Thud, and for a while I imagined it was modern day England.Once I realized what was going on, I caught on fast .

All likes of magical creatures exist in Pratchett’s world, some a bit more old-school fairy tale based than the post-Tolkien world much contemporary fantasy exists in. For example, pixies, gargoyles, werewolves and vampires all exist. Some Tolkien-esque creatures grace the pages as well, including Dwarves and Trolls. Snuff focuses on a much maligned race in Pratchett’s cannon: Goblins.

In the same way the locations and races of the Discworld mirror our own, so do Pratchett’s themes. He has previously played with technology, conflict in the middle east, culture shock, and in Snuff he explores inequality. The Goblin race is treated very poorly, much like Untouchables in Indian culture or slaves in the age of Mercantilism.

The main character is my favorite from Pratchett’s works, Commander Sam Vimes. Vimes is essentially the Police Chief of Ank-Morpork, the Discworld equivalent to London. He is a no nonsense type of man who started at the bottom and clawed his way to the top. In this novel, Vimes is forced to go on vacation. While in the country, Vimes learns the people of the village are using Goblin slave labor to manufacture cigars and then smuggle them into Ank-Morpork. Vimes is disgusted with the treatment Goblins receive and aims to straighten the mess out.

I enjoyed Snuff, although not as much as previous Pratchett works. His recent books have lost a bit of their old humor and taken on more of a serious tone. His previous book, Unseen Academicals, dealt with the same themes of inequality and progressive thinking in an otherwise old-fashioned society. Pratchett is as wonderful as ever, and I look forward to reading his new book, Raising Steam. 

That will come sooner than later for me because one perk of working at a Bookstore is getting free uncorrected proofs of books. And what did Andy receive?

ImageImage

2. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. (image from MHBbooks.com)

Kurt Vonnegut is my other favorite author (aside from Chris Moore, remember?) and I picked this up at the bookstore and read through it fairly quick. It contains Vonnegut’s last interview before his death in 2007 along with a few other conversations, the best addition being the interview he and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) gave for Playboy in 1992.

The book itself was worth a read, considering that it was only 166 pages, but it was only a compilation of interviews. Reading what Vonnegut has to say about his career and how he frames it was insightful. Vonnegut was in the German city of Dresden when it was firebombed during WWII, and his  most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is a semi-autobiographical-but-still-fiction-with-aliens account of his time in the city as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut’s feelings on the bombing and time it took for him to write in full regarding the incident are a great representative of the Historiography of Dresden. Because the city was bombed by the Allies it was, for a period of time, looked over. As time passed, the bombing of a city with little to no military significance and a death toll comprised mainly of citizens became a point of contention, and many wondered if it was a war crime. Vonnegut kept silent about Dresden for a while, his fiction touching on other topics instead. Finally, almost fifteen years after his first novel, Vonnegut wrote about his experience. His novel reflects the anti-war, not-everything-America-did-was-perfect attitude that came about years later.

I love the interview he did with Heller. The two were good friends and the interview reads like they got together for cocktails by the pool to talk. They are both rather tongue-in-cheek the entire time and my favorite part comes about halfway through when Heller mentions that he is writing a sequel to Catch-22, the book that would later become Closing Time. He says to Kurt right then and there that he is going to write him in as a character in his book. Vonnegut pretty much just says, ‘Okay, cool!’ and that’s that. And it happened. Heller wrote a small character who had survived the bombing of Dresden, a man named Vonnegut. So there you go. BFFs.

I conclude this passage with this picture of Mr. Vonnegut that looks like a selfie.

Kurt-Vonnegut-in-1983

Brilliant.

3. Villa Incognito (image from wikipedia)

When my girlfriend and I started dating, she told me frequently that I needed to read the book Still Life With Woodpecker. Eventually, I did. I absolutely loved it and subsequently fell in love with the novels of Tom Robbins.

I’ve never read anyone who can make metaphors like Robbins. Before this, I had read Woodpecker and Skinny Legs and All. I decided to give this one a shot because, like Moore’s Coyote Blue,  one of the characters is a god. Specifically Tanuki from Japanese lore.

If you need a refresher, a Tanuki is a raccoon dog.

In Japanese Mythology, Tanuki floated down from the heavens using his scrotum as a parachute.

Also, Mario wears a Tanuki suit.

Robbins’ novel is about three American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. At war’s end, instead of coming home, they escaped to the jungle and lived in secret, hiding from the government for almost forty years. A great-great granddaughter of Tanuki is the female protagonist and fiance of one of the hiding American soldiers.

The book explores themes of patriotism and mysticism and begs the question, where is home? Where do we come from? Where do we belong?

As I read more Robbins later in the summer, I found Villa didn’t live up to some of his other works, but it is his most recent and most definitely worth a read. It is full of wonderful characters, a nice dose of mythology, exotic landscapes, and Robbins’ poetic language.

4. Sacre Bleu (image from nitlitebookreviews.com)

Until later this year when the sequel to Fool; The Serpent of Venice, comes out, this is Christopher Moore’s most recent work. Hopefully I can catch Mr. Moore when his book tour comes through the city.

Now, Moore’s books have, in my opinion, very clever, absurd, and inspired plots. Sacre Bleu is no exception. Our hero is Lucien, baker/painter living in late nineteenth century France. He grew up in the thick of the Impressionist movement in France. His father, also a painter and baker, was inspired by his artist friends. He died when Lucien was young, leaving Lucien to take over the Bakery and the unfulfilled dreams of a painter.

The action of the story begins with Vincent Van Gogh who, in a twist on reality, is shot (Van Gogh’s death is in the history books as a suicide) by a broken, twisted little man. The news of Van Gogh’s ‘suicide’ reaches Lucien and his best friend, painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. We soon learn that the twisted little man who killed Van Gogh is known as the ‘Colorman’. He and his friend Bleu, a muse who inhabits the bodies (mostly women) of those who inspire painters. Once they are inspired, the painter uses the blue Aquamarine color the Colorman sells them. The color, on canvas, is infused with the love and inspiration of the painter. This is used to make more blue paint and keep Bleu and the Colorman living eternally. Lucien and Henri discover they are both victims of this viscious cycle, but when Bleu falls in love with Lucien, things get complicated.

The book features many real Impressionist painters as characters, and again, Moore’s careful and detailed research makes the book that much better. I have the hardcover version of the book, which features blue text and full color paintings. When Moore refers to a particular piece, it appears in full, glorious color for reference. My favorite is Monet’s ‘St. Lazare Train Station’

I was dismayed to learn that the paperback version of the book is in black and white. How the hell can you read a book that constantly references paintings that all feature the color blue when the paintings included are in black and white!? That’s like telling someone all about your trip to China then showing them postcards. It’s almost the same, but not exactly what you were going for.

This story is a rich and humorous as Christopher Moore’s best works. My recommendation: get a hardcover copy. It is well worth it.

And of course, some quotes.

“…being of noble birth myself, if I were to discriminate on the accident of birth I’d have to eschew the company of you horseshit commoners, and then who would I drink with?”

“He shrugged eloquently, his Oops, I accidentally frightened the maid with my penis and shot the one-eared Dutch painter, couldn’t be helped shrug.”

“Better than a bear on a bicycle eating a nun.”

“She is too beautiful, I think, to not be inherently evil.”

5. Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics (image from wikipedia)

This is not the cover of the version I have, but these books seem to be under everyone’s radar. This was, hands down, the funniest book I read last year. It is the fifth book in a series by British author Gideon Defoe.

The main character of the book is the Pirate Captain and, along with his crew of other pirates, he sails the seas to do Piratey things. The other pirates are known by descriptors, such as the Pirate with the Scarf or the Pirate who loved kittens and sunsets, or the Pirate in green. The Pirate Captain is not the brightest bulb in the box, but he is admired by his crew. The book begins with the Pirates in Geneva, Switzerland, with the Pirate Captain attempting to get a loan. When he finds he cannot (he tells the banker that he lives no life, that he’s ‘Never tasted the salty air on your tongue and waved heartily at a mermaid!’), he and the rest of the pirates find they are in need of money. They are saved by a chance meeting with Lord Byron, Percy Shelly and Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelly). Byron is just as big a blowhard as the Pirate Captain and the two get along famously. The Pirate crew are hired by the romantic Writers to give them an adventure which they travel to England to accomplish.

The book is like one big Monty Python sketch. Defoe keeps you laughing the whole way through. Whether it be the pirate crew’s lack of intelligence, love of ham, the Captain’s crazy antics, or the comedic straight man the Pirate with the Scarf, there are plenty of reasons to pick this book up. I would often read on the Subway and find myself laughing hysterically out loud. Defoe uses plenty of recall in his humor as well, as the Pirates often do the same things over and over. At the beginning of each book, for example, they are always discussing if something is better than something else. The Pirate captain inevitably waltzes in, says something that makes no sense to anyone but him, and goes about his business.

If you want a quick, hilarious read, then pick this book up. It is so,so,so worth it.

Phew. Done. More for next month, including more Pirates! YAR.

Andy Reads Books- February 2013

Back with more books! This month is full of more Moore, so I hope you’re ready.

If I hadn’t mentioned before (I’m positive I haven’t, I’m just being coy. Is it working?) I work in a bookstore. I really love my job. But business isn’t like it used to be. It breaks my heart a little to see books go by the wayside. Despite that, often times customers come in and lift me up a bit. It  warms my heart to see how many people still love a good book. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why someone would want an E-reader or that some people just don’t like books. I just smile when someone tells me they’re reading and that they’re looking forward to their next book.  Since I started at the bookstore and get a nice discount on books, I typically have at least 3 books that I’m reading at one time. I always try to read before bed. It’s something I’ve done since I was in high school. Even earlier most likely. I remember many nights staying up late reading Animorphs in elementary school.

Some of my first late night reading sessions were spent on these fine books…

I suppose I was doomed from the start to a love of Absurdist Fiction. I can’t place the blame entirely on Animorphs though, as I always loved tv and movies that had a bit of magical realism.

Well. Before I get into more books, I thought I’d give you a preview of what’s to come in my Blog posts.

Coming soon to this blog:

Andy Looks At Snow- January 2014

Andy Reads Menus- December 2013

Andy Plays Nintendo 64- December 1997-November 2013

Andy Beats A Robot At Chess, Take That!- June 2035

Now. Onto the books!

Come February I was working on a production of Much Ado About Nothing. As I read and collected my quotes, my castmates often asked why I kept writing in a little book as I read. I think they thought I was pretty weird. But I think they thought that I thought they thought I was a bit weird and tried to hide it. Thanks, friends!

1. Island of the Sequined Love Nun (image from goodreads.com)

We start off with a little Love Nun. This is low on my list of favorite Chris Moore books, which means I still love it quite a bit. Being low on my list of favorite Moore Books is like being low on my list of favorite Scotch. When I gave this a second read however, I found I enjoyed it much more. Our hero is Tucker Case, a handsome Pilot and an enthusiast of both women and drink (who isn’t?) He works for a cosmetics company, akin to Mary Kay, and after a night of too much partying, crashes a plane while having sex.

Yes, you read that right.

So Tuck, out of a job and strapped for cash, accepts an offer to pilot for a Doctor/Missionary in Micronesia. After a perilous journey, Tuck makes it to the island, only to be haunted by the ghost of an American WWII pilot the natives of the island revere as their God. Tuck soon learns that the Missionary Doctor and his attractive wife exploit the native Cargo Cult to harvest organs from the Native people. Oh, and there is a talking fruit bat named Roberto who wears sunglasses.

(This isn’t Roberto, just a hilarious picture of a fruit bat I found) [image from kachingle.com]

The plot of this particular Moore book is a bit complicated. The plot is like moving through a jungle; sometimes there is a clearing with an adorable fruit bat, sometimes it’s tough to navigate exactly what is going on. Like most Moore books, though, the characters are so charming tha they take a machete to the jungle plot. I particularly love Vinny, the ghost who haunts Tuck. He calls everyone a ‘fuckin mook.’ There is a clear villain in the character of the Doctor and his Wife and Tuck makes for a great, albeit reluctant, hero. I’m pleased that I found it so much more enjoyable on the second read.

Here are a few quotes I particularly liked:

“Why had he opened himself up to a future of failure, when he had been failing just fine already?”

“The bat had indeed changed from rhinestone glasses to aviators, but once you accept a talking bat, the leap to a takling bat with an eyewear wardrobe is a short one.”

“Go away. I’m tired and you’re insane.”

2. Fool. (image from chrismoore.com)

This adaptation of King Lear is one of my favorite books. Moore does a fantastic job spinning Shakespeare’s Tragedy on its head and making it very comical.

Our hero is Pocket: King Lear’s fool. After Lear’s daughter Cordelia snubs him, the old man revokes her fortune and gives it to her older sisters. They, in turn, divide the kingdom in half and kick Lear from place to place. He travels all over England and Scotland, Pocket at his side. Along the way, we discover bits of Pocket’s past. We learn that he was abandoned at a convent and raised by nuns. We also learn of his love for Cordelia- and even though she has gone off and married the French Prince Jeff (a ‘poofter’, Pocket remarks), Pocket remains convinced of his love for her.

Along the way, Moore takes bits and pieces from many different Shakespeare plays- including the Witches from Macbeth and a traveling band of actors who have… “been rehearsing a classic from antiquity, Green Eggs and Hamlet, the story of a young prince of Denmark who goes mad, drowns his girlfriend, and in his remorse, forces spoiled breakfast on all whom he meets.” Here is a selection:

“Green eggs, or not green eggs? That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to eat them in a box, with a fox-”

Pocket is haunted by a ghost who speaks in couplets, which annoys him to no end, and is followed faithfully by his apprentice Drool. All the characters from Lear are in the book- Edgar, the Duke of Albany, even Old Man! Like a good Shakespearean comedy, it even has a happy ending.

This book is well worth a read, even if you have no interest in Christopher Moore. Anyone who is a fan of Shakespeare should pick it up. Moore deftly uses the language and it reads somewhere between Shakespeare and a Monty Python sketch. Pocket is by far one of the most enjoyable protagonists of any book I’ve read. Like a true, great Moore hero, he is wisecracking, believes in love, has a great deal of sex, and is unfaltering in his quest to get what he wants, even in his darkest hour. Storm or no storm. If there is one book I cannot recommend enough, it is Fool. It was also great fun to reread while working on Shakespeare.

So many quotes I love, but here are a few.

“I’m relatively certain that (the prince of) France and Burgundy are buggering each other and would never let a princess come between them- although I’ll wager they’d borrow her wardrobe were it not guarded.”

“…that is the story of how St. Rufus of Pipewrench was licked to death by marmots.”

“Can’t a bloke find a straightforward prose apparition?”

” ‘But listen to the children of the night- what music they make.’ ‘Sounds like a moose trying to shit a family of hedgehogs.’ ”

3. Fluke- Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings (image from bookreporter.com)

This was the very first Christopher Moore book I read. Previous to this, my dad had lent me his copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I absolutely loved it. I’m fairly certain someone lent this to my dad who, in turn, decided if I loved Douglas Adams so much that I should give Mr. Moore a read.

The first part of this book is relatively normal in plot; Nathan Quinn is a marine biologist who has devoted his whole life to studying why the Humpback whale sings. He lives in Hawaii on the island of Maui and spends his time researching. One day, out on the water with his new assistant Amy, he sees a whale Fluke, or throw its tail into the air before it dives. As Nathan snaps a picture, he notices the words ‘Bite Me’ written on the tail.

Before Nate can get the film developed, his lab is destroyed and any evidence of the strange whale is lost. As Nathan searches harder and harder, Part I of the book ends with him swallowed by a whale.

As I made it to this point in the book, I was thoroughly enjoying it. It was a bit weird but the characters were fun and I wanted to find out what was with that whale. I had no idea what was in store for Part II. It would prove to be a great indicator of just how absurd and creative Christopher Moore could be.

After Nate gets swallowed by the Whale, he wakes up to meet the Whaley boys, Aliens who are basically humanoid Whales of different varieties (humpback, orca, dolphin, blue), piloting the Whale. He learns that a small percentage of whales are actually Submarines that pick up people lost at sea and bring them to the underwater city known as the Goo. There, Nate finds Amy again and finds out she was not only raised in the Goo, but is Amelia Earhart’s daughter.  He soon learns that the Goo is alive. Alive and basically God. In the end, Nate does solve the mystery of why whales sing.

Christopher Moore lived in Hawaii for a while it is evident that it inspired him when writing this book. He did quite a bit of research on Whales for the book and the details of Nate’s whale studies are very specific, which makes for a great read. When the little details make sense not only to the reader but to the characters, the book is enriched. This is one of the more sci-fiction style books Moore has written as opposed to his usual blend of absurdism or mythology, but he pulls it off well. Fluke was a very enjoyable reread as well.

Quotes!

“Confessions made over whiskey and campfires were privileged communication. Loyalty.”

“Shoes off in the whale! And don’t try to make a break for the anus.”

“Respectfully sir, you’re a fucking squirrel.”

 

As we move into March on my next blog, we move into more than just Christopher Moore books. That was February, however, and I was quite happy to reread his work.

An Added Bonus!

For anyone who has read Lamb, (check my last post for more info on that) I offer this:

The song “Iscariot’ by Walk the Moon is very interesting if you think of it from Biff’s point of view, it makes for a very interesting interpretation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8ba1CT4GoA