Saturday, February 27, 2010

(Book #8) Jack London - Call of the Wild

Another week, another book, another write-up. Before I get to the actual content of this week's reading, there are a few semi-related points to address. The first being that Jack London's 'Call of the Wild', was not the book I started reading this week. The original book was a philosophy/design book that I actually had to put down after the first day. This was not due to lack of interest in the topic, but because of the inability to fully comprehend, process and retain what I was reading while my head continuously pounded from headaches. Riding the train is my peak reading time and I didn't want to waste it just staring blankly. I turned to my iPhone for material. Yes, there's an app for that too: a nifty little purchase called 'Classics' which has digital versions of a number of classic literary novels, complete with finger-flicking, page-turning action! Personally, I like the fact that I can carry around volumes of classic literature in my pocket and can read it anywhere or anytime I have a few minutes, without having to lug around a cumbersome wad of paper. But while the convenience of the content is great, it still feels somewhat sterile in the medium. This is why I don't think the Kindle or digital content in general will ever overtake tactile books, at least not anytime soon. The sensory elements that go with reading a book, the dusty old paper, the weight in your hands, the anticipation of the end slowly creeping up are all part of the experience, and people generally don't want to lose that.

That being said, I chose 'Call of the Wild' because I wanted a relatively easy read this week and realized that while I had read this book way back in 7th grade, I recalled the class being split into two groups, those that read the unabridged version and those that read an abridged version. I was in the latter group and felt like it was high time I read the full version (A side note: abridged versions of literature are abominations! I state this not out of some sort of latent inferiority complex precipitated by middle school English, but from a respect for the art of writing. An abridged novel, while hitting the plot points, might lack the flare or colorful descriptions and flow of the original that make the it noteworthy to begin with. They are bastardized versions that censor content and encourage ignorance in our youth. If your child is asked to read an abridged novel, I encourage you to raise hell).

Since it had been so long since reading this story the first time, I didn't exactly remember all that much about it. I knew it was about a sled dog during the Gold Rush in the Alaska Territory in the 1800's, and that the dog eventually went wild. I had completely forgotten that the story was entirely from the perspective of the dog, Buck, and that there were many metaphors and allegorical implications of the narrative. With the anthropomorphism of the dog, London applies human attributes and emotional qualities to facilitate the transformation from the civilized to the feral. From the perspective of the dog, all that matters is the actions surrounding the dog itself, the humans of the story come in and out of the dog's life and we seldom get a glimpse of their actions or the dramas surrounding them. In this sense it is strictly about the animals. When the story opens and Buck is stolen from his initial life of comfort and relative simplicity, the reader is implicitly aware of how the story is going to end. From the title itself, the Wild is posed as an inevitability, we know that it is coming and the Call, even when not identified as such, is an omnipresent theme looming in the natural environment.

The transformation is systematic and complete, beginning with the personality and emotions of Buck. He is thrust into the harshness of a new world and is forced to come to grips with his new surroundings or succumb to their severities. It is through the often violent encounters with humans, other dogs and the frigid North itself that we witness the change from a domesticated dog to a wild animal. Again, the phases of transition between these two states is allegorical of changes in man as well. Through London's projections we can compare these stages of being to any story where an alteration of the character is a central theme. Once more, London has tapped into the primal aspect of animals to adapt, although with any change there are always consequences to heeding the Call.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

(Book #7) Salman Rushdie - Grimus

Before the season premiere of Lost a couple of weeks ago, I barely could recall the name Salman Rushdie. It was upon our second viewing of the episode that Jess spotted one of his books in the hands of a character. A sidebar: If you don't watch Lost, you should. But if you don't know anything about Lost, just know that books are one of the fascinating layers of the show adding another dimension to the story and characters. The books that appear often hint at the mysteries of the island and events that unfold before the viewer each week. Tackling all the books shown, mentioned or referenced in the show would be a yearlong undertaking in and of itself, so I become selective. I went to the library in search of the book, 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories', which I had seen the evening prior. They didn't have that particular book, but I found myself looking at some of Rushdie's other works anyway. In skimming the generic back-cover descriptions, I found one that sounded very much like the premise of a certain show that takes place on a certain mysterious island. This is how I came to read Rushdie's novel 'Grimus'.

'Grimus' introduces us to the main character of Flapping Eagle, an Indian (for lack of a better, word because I cannot use the term Native American as "America" doesn't exist in the reality we are shown) who chooses to become an immortal and the events that that choice led to. This is not to say that the story is about immortality, because at a certain point the character finds himself in a place, an island, of which the inhabitants are ALL immortal. Immortality acts as the medium in which the events on the island occur. I concede that this statement must be a bit confusing, but the story itself was intentionally confusing. We follow along with Flapping Eagle's uncertainty at what is happening around him and are forced into questioning a whole myriad of things that seem commonplace within the story. Everything seems a little bit off, and we are led to believe that the answers to all of this lie with Grimus, a mysterious entity that remains unseen for the majority of the book. The drive for the story then becomes the pursuit of answers and the pursuit of Grimus.

Much like Lost, the reader has to do a lot of wandering and questioning before finally getting to the payoff, two chapters which effectively unravel the mysteries and resolve the question of "Why are we here on this island?" The similarities in themes of obsession, attraction, choices and yes, multiple dimensions are not merely plot points. They are devices used to emphasize the evolution or devolution of characters and the essence of their being in a cyclical world. These are universal themes and something addressed in nearly all stories.

Even if it turns out that this book doesn't hold the secrets of Lost (though admittedly there were many similarities) Rushdie still crafted a compelling story soaked in philosophy, science and dark humanity. As this was only his first novel, written in 1975, I can expect that his further writings are even more compelling. Perhaps I may even get to another one of them sometime this year.

Until next week…

Saturday, February 13, 2010

(Book #6) Cormac McCarthy - The Road

'The Road', by Cormac McCarthy, has been on my reading list for a while now, probably since winning the Pulitzer Prize a few years back. It intrigued me that a tale of a post-apocalyptic world would be hailed as an award-winning piece of literature, as it seems like a genre that is often formulaic and overused. Now, I have never read anything by McCarthy before, so I don't exactly have his other works to compare this one to, and perhaps that’s OK. I was a little surprised by the writing style itself, which I am told is usual McCarthy (but please correct me if I am wrong!), which was very simple and almost overly careful in the writing, leant to the story itself, a tale of a man and his young son struggling for survival in a desolate world.

The book really focused on the story of the journey of these two nameless characters through their world, and left much of the context left up to the imagination. What happened to this world was never outright explained, but simply implied. We are left to imagine possible explanations for much of what is happening, but again we can infer quite a lot from what little there is there as well as projecting onto the characters from what we as a reader know of human nature.

The title 'The Road' are two words that follow you through the entire book, and they present every page or two and carry with them the weight of the story. The Road is the journey that we are following but the destination, if there is one, is not clear. It is the hope of the characters, that somewhere down the line will be rest without paranoia, but it is also the source of the fear itself. When I finished the book, I couldn't help comparing it to Frodo and Sam stumbling through Mordor in 'The Lord of the Rings', only those characters had a very defined destination and goal, whereas these characters are living only for their own survival through the expanse of desolation.

This story is as bleak as the world in which it takes place, but through the subtleties of metaphor and because of our deep seeded hope, we are compelled to keep turning the pages. For me, it wasn't until the last few pages when the ideas, themes and tropes all fell into place and tied the story up beautifully, if beauty can indeed be found in such a story.

I would like to note that this was quite the remove from the post-apocalytic world of The Stand that I read earlier. In that book, everything is explained in excruciating detail, what the characters are thinking and the history and story of everything that is encountered, whereas this book was very focused on the characters and their deep personal plight and struggle just living day to day. How does a family survive when there is literally almost nothing left and how do you keep your humanity in that struggle?

In December the movie adaptation of this book came out, and after reading this, I can't honestly say that I have much interest in seeing it. This is not to say that the story was not worth reading, it very much was, but the subtlety in the story is less about the events that occur and more about the moments of human nature that are shared between the father and his son. A lot of that might be extremely difficult to capture potently in a film without adding a lot of unnecessary filler. But perhaps someday I'll have a watch just to compare in detail.

Until next week…

52 In 52 : The Blog

After a few weeks of posting my write-ups to my primary blog, it became quite clear to me that the content of that site, my artwork, was being drowned out and lost between the words of my writing. While they are not entirely unrelated, I don't want to overrun what is essentially an art blog with large amounts of text. This is not to say that writing should not happen there, but the format of this project itself almost demands that it be a seperate entity.

Thus, a new site is born: Project 52 In 52

Welcome! For those unfamiliar with the task at hand, it should be fairly obvious that my goal is to read 52 books in a year. I chose to do this, perhaps foolishly, as my new year's Resolution for 2010. This had been an idea that was kicking around in my head for some time, and once January 1st rolled around, I simply verbalized it, and it was so. Much like my own interests, I wanted my readings to be a cross section of a multitude of topics, genres and length.

Despite people's initial reaction and sophisticated suggestions (Dr Seuss, Dick and Jane, etc), I have been keeping on track with an average of a book a week, give or take a few days, and have been writing about them to boot.

My write ups have been mostly a response to the ideas and themes within the book, but not outwardly giving away the plot for those who may want to read it. Also I have been touching on the process of reading and how it relates to the project as a whole. At this point I will stop writing about the writing and let the words speak for themselves...

Monday, February 8, 2010

(Book #5) Ken Kesey - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Last Thursday a friend emailed to tell me that he had just seen this great older movie and he suggested that I see it as soon as possible. Perhaps it was merely coincidence or maybe there was just something in the ether connecting our thoughts, but when I got that email the very novel that movie was based on was packed in with my camping gear to start reading over the weekend. A strange twist that certainly solidified that 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' was exactly what I was supposed to be reading this week. Now, before I actually start in on the actual content of the book, I just want to touch on how I have noticed certain themes acting as a string between the books that I am choosing (or are choosing me as the case may be). A particular topic or theme from one book is sometimes mentioned in the next book, which has some other idea that is touched on in a third book and so on. In school, I often found that in reading several different texts in tandem or in parallel would often draw similar notions and complement each other even though they were of completely different classes. I am finding the same thing happening now, and I am left to wonder if these sweeping thoughts are being applied to all of these different writings coincidentally? Am I touching some deep seeded string of content that is universally being addressed in any writing? Or maybe I am merely that string applying my own personal spin on of these readings. I'm thinking that it could be all of them to a degree, but beyond all that it was certainly strange to have someone suggest the very story I was about to read.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, written by Ken Kesey in the 1960's, is a fictional peek inside a ward at a mental institution. It's a story about what happens when a chaotic force, a wild new patient named McMurphy, challenges the order, discipline and unbalance of power that the domineering Head Nurse Ratched holds over the institution. Most people know that this story was a movie starring Jack Nicholson and had a colorful cast of supporting characters as the other patients on the ward, and as a whole the stories were pretty similar. What I was not aware of was that the book was written entirely from the perspective of "The Chief", the enormous Native American character silently in the background of most of the story. This was actually a great way to remove myself from what I remembered of the movie and get a completely different perspective on the actions.

It was also great to get a more in depth reading of the power struggles that happened between the characters, as they were fleshed out a bit more. The interpretation of those struggles by the Chief reflected the view of the reader. Someone that is outside, but empathetic towards the actions that are happening. As the reader, we envision the actions that are happening and can't help but wonder how our own personal reactions to these very extreme and dichotomous individuals would be.

The book overall was really well written and was surprisingly easy to follow even when the pages digressed into hallucinatory visions or casually slipped into back story. While it was good that the story was coherent in that it followed through on the inner workings of one character, I almost wonder how different it would have been if it jumped around between the different patients and the different mental perspectives. I suppose trying to get into the mindset of one particular kind of psychosis would be difficult enough let alone several different ones. It also grounded the story in a way and gave the reader a relatively fixed perspective whose interaction with the other characters progressed as the story went on. The change in one character reflected a change in all of the characters, and I am forced to wonder if perhaps the reader is meant to change as well.