Saturday, April 24, 2010

(Book #15) Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

I finished Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five late Tuesday night, so I am a little late getting to the write-up. Finding time to write these has been much more difficult than finding time to do the actual reading. Better get down to business…

Overall it was a quick but engaging read revolving around a perspective of a gruesome, but lesser known event in history, the firebombing of Dresden in Germany towards the end of World War 2. The first chapter in the book, which was more of an introduction, presented the reader with the premise. It was told through the eyes of Vonnegut himself as he grappled with the subject and the people involved and the act of writing about it. I was surprised to find that Chapter Two introduced us to a completely new character that we followed for the rest of the book. Clearly he was an amalgam of Vonnegut's personal experiences churned by a plot device, time travel, which leads the reader on a dance before, after and around the crux of the story. Through time travel, we see these poignant and vivid moments of the character's life tied together and juxtaposed throughout the narrative. The reader sees the moments as the character does, not as they occurred but through flash-backs and flash-forwards. The character has preexisting impressions on what is going to happen because he has already lived or seen it, whereas the reader has different but similar impressions, based on what we have gleaned from Vonnegut's first chapter and what we have already read. The true climax of the book comes in the form of a memory, and in fact is the only memory described in the book. Whereas all the life's experiences are offered by means of the time travel, we only receive one truly human moment, the remembering of the massacre at Dresden. It is the knowledge that these events actually occurred in our own history which leaves the reader with a chilling impression which remains even after the book ends. So it goes.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

(Book #13) Shakespeare - Hamlet & (Book #14) Tom Stoppard - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

A Double Feature…

Looking back on my education, the lack of Shakespeare I was required to read surprises me. "Romeo & Juliet" and "The Tempest" were my only forays into the great Bard, and in the last few years I have really wanted to check out more of his work. "Hamlet" has been on my 'list' for some time and it was good to finally get around to reading it (Thank you, Shakespeare iPhone app!). I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could actually understand what was really being said while reading the high English. "Hamlet" is one of the greatest tragedies ever told, and as such has been analyzed, reinterpreted, and reborn by each new generation for centuries. It is a tale of revenge, treachery and madness in which a chain of events is set off by the murder of the King of Denmark. Fatherless and stripped of his birthright, Hamlet teeters on the edge of madness while trying to expose the truth. There is a continual sense of unbalance between the characters that wants to be righted, but for each action there are harsh reactions, which escalate through the tale to its bloody conclusion.

As a follow up to "Hamlet" I read another play, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", by Tom Stoppard, which borrows two peculiar characters from Shakespeare's play and breathes new life into them. This pastiche weaves its way through the original tale, but through the eyes of Hamlet's two bumbling friends. Original dialogue is used to bookend the absurd banter that bounces back and forth between Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. As a counterpoint to the drama of "Hamlet", this play was genuinely funny, while still hinting at the unsettling events that were occurring elsewhere. Beyond the Abbot & Costello-esque bantering back-and-forth, there is a philosophical dialectic over deeper aspects of life. This volleying juxtaposes the unfiltered thoughts with the tragedies that are simultaneously occurring elsewhere. In the end, the result is the same, as it had to be. These parallel accounts address both sides of the same coin, a coin which Stoppard literally had his characters use to ponder the idea of fate. The pairing of these writings back-to-back provided a richer experience of the story as a whole, and almost begs the reader to go back and revisit "Hamlet" anew and with a different perspective.

Friday, April 2, 2010

(Book #12) Dave Eggers - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

I finished the book 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius', by Dave Eggers yesterday and have been trying to think of what to say about it ever since. This could be the result of my mixed read of the material, or it could be because I am not entirely excited to be writing this review on a Friday night. Maybe a little of both, but I will try to remain objective.

This book (as have so many others that I have been reading) started with a 30-40 page introduction. Though I was given reprieve from the author that it was not essential to the story and could essentially be skipped, I was not compelled to break the rules of my little experiment and wound up reading it anyways. This introduction, as well as other pre-supplemental material given before the actual content, gave context to the story and was more lively than expected. The tone was fantastic and I finished this extremely excited to read the rest of the "work". The book, as it was introduced, was more or less a memoir, though some areas were tweaked, exaggerated or altered to benefit the overall path of the characters or maybe just Eggers himself.

Throughout the story, we learn of the "heartbreaking" aspects of his life, particularly the early-ish deaths of his parents and the way this affected his life and the lives around him and which started off the chain of events that unfold throughout the arc of the book. I will say that there were many parts of the book that were incredibly human and captured the pain of not only the moments themselves but the thoughts of Eggers and the realities he faced. These were juxtaposed with other thoughts or activities in his life that were less sweeping and more mundane. All of these events, though, were seen through the same filter, having been processed and worked out on the pages in front of the writer. The fragmented stories, judgments and opinions laid out in the book read to me almost like a journal or blog. For whom was this work to be benefitting? Eggers? The reader? The other people in his life? I had to remind myself that this book was written in the pre-blog, pre 9/11 era (2000), that perhaps putting this raw feed of inner dialogue 'out there' was not so commonplace as it is now.

I know this book was hailed as a fantastic piece of modern literature, that its format and tone perhaps captured the zeitgeist in ways other books of the time may not have, and for that I concede that it was worth reading. I might not go so far as to encourage people to read it, but I wouldn't dissuade them if they were interested. To me, it was a mixed bag. A collection of oft-times pretentious thoughts and anecdotes and streams of consciousness that somehow got pieced together to form a sort-of story. I kept wondering to myself as I read, "Why is this person significant? Why do I care about who I am reading about? Do I even care?" Maybe not, but I cannot deny that Eggers captured a slice of Americana that some of us, myself included, might find hard to resist relating to. In the end, I was unsure of how to respond, and I still am even writing this now. Maybe that was the point, to wonder if this writer was indeed something special or if he was just another asshole coming to grips with his past, like the rest of us.