Friday, March 17, 2006

The Power of Oops
"The Accidental" by Ali Smith

I heard of Ali Smith's new novel, The Accidental, from a newspaper article about the finalists for the Man Booker prize that labeled the book as "experimental". The last experimental novel I read was House of Leaves, and I loved that, so, no cover needed, I checked it out. The story is simple, and a bit misleading. A woman named Amber enters a house without explanation and touches the lives of the four family members occupying it (as a summer getaway) in completely distinct and absolute ways. Eve thinks she's a student her husband is sleeping with and Michael, her husband, thinks she's a friend of Eve's. She wriggles her way into the family, and, due to increasingly blunt honesty, pushes herself out. Yet in the process she completely changes each and every one of the characters.

Smith is a complete wordsmith and her novel isn't so much circular as it is enclosed. The structure is delicate and precise, which agrees with me immensely because I like precise art, art that I can decipher. There are three parts to the novel: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Each has four chapters. The first three begin and end in the middle of a sentence, seemingly disjointed but with purpose, the fourth begins in the middle of a sentence and ends with a period. And a final chapter offers brief, if tangential, perspective. Starting and ending the chapters in the middle of a sentence blends the stories together, makes them seamless, and provides a great metaphor for the overlapping nature of truth as it appears to different people in the same situation. The only word I can think to describe the novel fully is vertiginous. The novel folds in on itself constantly but also is delicately structured so that the beginning and end revolve around neat little poems in the middle.

Satisfyingly, the novel examines the nature of truth, and, with four chapters in each section offering differing perspectives of the days of each of the characters, ultimately asks more questions than it answers. But that's the point, that's the beauty of the novel. At one point, the son, Magnus, who is completely enamored with Amber (he thinks she is an angel sent to save him, and later a teacher, of sorts), and fancies himself as "Hologram Boy" and "Electrostatic Man", alter-ego's he's created in the wake of his teen angst, gets frustrated when Amber questions his assertion that a man named Leibniz invented the equals sign. His proof is that he read it in a textbook or a teacher told him and so it must be true. She asks if anyone checks the teachers, asks if it can possibly be untrue, and makes Magnus question his own knowledge. Later Magnus finds that it wasn't Leibniz that invented the equals sign, it was a man named Robert Recorde.

And so is illustrated the unifying theme of the book: truth. A truth that changes, that has many right answers, that has many different perspectives. A truth that in Ali Smith's book asks many more questions than it answers. truth I can swallow.

The cover's intriguing, and even better after reading the novel.

Columbus, You're Sorta Wrong
The World Is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman

Few discoveries lately have had more weight than Thomas Friedman's shocking discovery blared out as the title of his book. THE WORLD IS FLAT! Both a fantastic guide to the past, and a guidepost for the future, The World Is Flat is a book that should be required reading for anyone hoping for success in the future. The world isn't actually flat, but what Friedman lays out is an argument for the flattening power of globalization. More jobs are outsourced now than ever before, but, contrary to popular opinion, this is better for everyone. Americans and other countries. Most of the jobs outsourced are basic jobs, so the challenge to Americans, to keep jobs, is to find a specialization, to innovate and expand their skill sets. Highlighted are the damaging effects of poor education, minimal stress on the importance of math and science to our youth, and the poor job of the government (and Bush rhetoric) that turned 9/11 into a date of fear rather than one of hope and moving forward. Globalization can be a good thing for everyone. The technology at our fingertips makes everything so much easier, and it's only going to get better, with so many minds from an eclectic mix of places collaborating for the greater good. It's certainly an exciting time to be alive and in the middle of the technological age (especially if you're a techno-gadget gotta have every little thing from Best Buy guy, or gal), but the responsibility lies with us to stay on top of the market, to stress and fund a better education for our youth, or we may find America lapping up the seconds of more ambitious countries like China and India.

The sailboat falling off the side of the world, on the cover, is quite funny, and even if you don't read the book, you can still laugh at the cover.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

He says he will never die
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

This is the first book I've read by Cormac McCarthy, not the last. One of my favorite novels of the past few years. Dense language, thick plot, all action, minimal dialogue. The novel is a multi-layered, nuanced study of both the savagery of the Wild West and human nature itself. The novel is very mythical, not since The Natural have I read anything so engrossed with sheer power. It centers around "the kid" - a never named, tough runaway who listens to no one but himself. The kid enters into a decades long struggle with life and death and everything in between, mediated and finally mitigated by Judge Holden, one of the most well wrought characters in modern literature. I liked this book so much I started it over as soon as I finished. Every single word in this book is necessary, the violence is so thick, the mood so perfect, the massacres so real, you can practically wring the blood out of it.

And, the cover's cool.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

See the cat? See the cradle?
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

A hilarious romp. At once cataclysmic, refreshing, sexy, and scathing, this dynamic novel about the end of the world and the search for meaning and ice-nine features a new religion created by a guy that just wanted to see if he could create a new religion (Bokonon and the "Books of Bokonon".) Hero Jonah, as he is named only once, a great reference to "Moby Dick" (thanks Aubrey), seeks out the children of Dr. Felix Hoenniker, creator of the atomic bomb, in search for the elusive ice-nine and material for a book, ends up on the island of San Lorenzo, of which he becomes the President, briefly, falls in love and touches feet with Mona Aamons Monzano, and survives the end of the world. Witty and irreverent, Cat's Cradle is truly for the ages. Published in 1963, relevant today.

Kurt Vonnegut is the modern day Mark Twain.
Oh, and the cover's nice. I like the contrasting lines.