Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Changed Man
"The Metamorphosis"
by Franz Kafka

I've never read Kafka, and until a week ago, I'd only heard of him.

After I started reading The Metamorphosis, I tried explaining the story to Aubrey. A man wakes up transformed into a dung beetle, no explanation is given, and he must face his boss and his family. His family (especially his father) are revolted and force him into his room, where his sister sneaks food to him while he longs to "get better" and have a normal life again while continuing to transform and becoming accustomed to, even liking, his new form. That was a third of the way through the book. Aubrey quoted a line from Annie Hall in which Shelley Duvall remarks that sex with Woody Allen's character is a "very Kafkaesque experience". The smile left her face and she said the book sounded depressing, to which I hesitated.

"It's not, it's a metaphor for isolation and loneliness," I retorted. But that didn't help, and after further reflection, it makes it sound even more depressing. It's not though, oddly enough.

Kafkaesque is a term for surreal, illogical situations. It can also be accompanied by a sense of impending danger. Gregor Samsa, the metamorphosized, ill-fated protagonist, accepts his fate, tries to live accordingly, and dies a lonely death totally ostracized from his family. But it's a lot more surreal, funny, and playful than that. Really. I think it's that the tone is upbeat. Gregor is hopeful, he still has dreams, and his situation is funny.

I really enjoyed this book. It's short but filled with colorful characters and situations, so if you've got a couple hours and want to read something that will really blow your mind, try this. Kafka is a great writer. Interesting, also, is the type of writer he was. He felt compelled to write, and once that was established, he said that it consumed him, transformed him, made him think of nothing else, much like Gregor Samsa (Samsa = Kafka) the longer he was a dung beetle. He liked to watch his characters die a spectacular but bittersweet death, much the way he envisioned he would go, mourned into oblivion. It's fascinating, really.

I'm a big fan of surrealism, and The Metamorphosis was definitely surreal. On that note then, I must recommend this book. But, if you don't have time, even though that's no excuse (because it's a scant 60 pages), there's an interesting interpretation here.

Yep, Snap Judgments
by Malcolm Gladwell

My desire to read The Tipping Point came from a few seconds I spent perusing Blink in a book store a few years ago. It was an amazing book, with fantastic insight and knowledge into fads, ideas, and their cause and effect on culture.

Just now getting to the book that ultimately inspired me to read The Tipping Point seems a little backwards, ironic but chronologically correct, I suppose, but it just happened that way. A snap judgment on a book about snap judgments. Hmmm, ponder that a moment.

Blink, besides those first impressions left on me in the book store some years ago (notably Gladwell's discussion of the impulses of improv groups and the idea that one of the most important rules of successful improv is that of accepting suggestions) did not bode well for the book as a whole. Rather, it left me a little disappointed, wanting and hoping for more. I shall explain, but quickly.

The idea of Blink is that, given expertise on a judgment, faith in ability, and thoughtful approach, trusting your snap judgments can prove to be a very powerful tool in decision making. Indeed, the power of the mind, the unconscious mind in particular, is fascinating. Intuition rarely leads us astray, and often when we abandon our first notion in lieu of a more thought-out approach, we get it wrong. Gladwell does a great job of presenting these and other ideas through several interesting stories, anecdotes, and psychological and sociological studies. What he fails to do is follow that up with any real insight of his own. The book ultimately turned out to be chapter after chapter of how people could make snap decisions, could tell so much from such a small sliver of time (what he calls "thin-slicing"), but did not follow that up with any insight as to how the every day person might do that.

And the reason he can't is because it's, well, common sense. I hesitate to say that he wrote a book that could have been an article, with it's conclusion and theme leaning towards "trust yourself" or "follow your instincts". But I must: an article would have been sufficient.

The fact that I read not just this book, but Gladwell's other book too, based on a judgment I made very quickly from only a few pages, attests to the power of instincts. Yet somehow I don't feel that I needed a book to tell me that and give me examples of it. I want enlightenment.

And I want it now.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My Book To-Do List

I love lists, I've found. I love crossing things off, I love surrendering my memory to a piece of paper.

So, I'm going to put up a list of books I'd like to read. I think I'll do it by year, then I'll be able to assess it at the end of the year and see how close I actually came to getting through my list. Keeping a list of books I'd like to read also has other, less serious, implications. I get excited about what's coming up. My imagination reacts to what it doesn't know, and sometimes, I like thinking about what a book has to offer more than the actual book itself. In this way I believe I'll be able to look at my list and daydream for hours on end about the books I will read.

A few rules:
1. The books are in no particular order, so I can read whichever I feel like, whenever I feel like.
2. The list is a goal, however, and it is limited. There are so many books I'd like to read, these are just the ones I'd like to get through this year.
3. There is no penalty for not finishing all the books, but if I do, I think I'll buy myself a pizza, like the BookIt club used to.
4. This list is all about fun, if it becomes a burden, I'll delete it, or just abandon it and it will stay on the right of this web page.

That's it. This post is more for me than for anyone else. So I'm sorry you had to read this if you came across this blog or if you're subscribed to it on email. (I'm especially sorry to Aubs, who has to live with me and put up with this kind of thing full time.)

I'm afraid I will be neurotically reading forever.

Pretty Gritty Things
"All The Pretty Horses"
by Cormac McCarthy

Two or three years ago, I walked into Dutton's, a bookstore on Magnolia in Burbank, CA, and was informed that all the books in the store, including used copies, were 50% off the marked price. They were closing and consolidating to a main shop a few miles away. Though I was sad to see such a great bookstore close, I went hog wild. I left with more books than I needed, and I found myself making lists of books I wanted and returning repeatedly over the next few weeks to check their library and satisfy my literary hunger for a lot cheaper than I was accustomed to.

Chief on my list were the novels of Ernest Hemingway, any classics, and books I'd always wanted to read but never had a chance. I picked up All The Pretty Horses on a whim. Maybe I liked the cover... I can't remember. But reading it these past couple of weeks has completely validated my $3.50 purchase. In hindsight, I'd pay full price.

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant writer. He nails his characters down to a T, and creates such stunning and rich portraits that you can feel the dust clog your nostrils as the riders in his stories cross the plains of Texas into the dry country of Mexico and beyond. You taste the dried blood. You feel their pain, their hunger, their longing, their out of placeness. With a Cormac McCarthy novel, you feel everything.

This novel follows a young Texas rancher named John Grady Cole. Cole's grandfather passed away and his ranch the only thing left of his possesions. His mother, heir to the ranch, is set on selling it. So he runs away to Mexico with his friend Rawlins. They happen upon an oasis, a sprawling ranch amid the arid landscape, and become ranch hands. Cole meets and falls in love with the ranch owner's daughter, Alejandra, and he and Rawlins begin to "break" wild horses. The scenes Cole speaks to horses are some of the most tender and amazing in the novel.

Cole and Rawlins end up in a dangerous Mexican jail for helping a kid named Jimmy Blevins get his horse back after a lightning storm, and both nearly die in knife fights. They are released from prison, and Cole tries to win back Alejandra but finds out that she made a promise to her grandmother that she would never see him again if she paid the jail to release Cole and his friend.

Heartbroken, alone, and desperate, Cole goes back to Texas, where nothing is left for him. He rounds up the horses he lost and takes them with him, leaving everywhere for nowhere, not sure where to call home, not sure if his heart is in anything at all.

Amid so many striking, poignant scenes in the novel is the setting. It's not the old west, it's the 1950's. Cole is the last in a long line of Texas ranchers, he's a dying breed, and when he and Rawlins run away, they do so on their horses, riding along roads and cars going much faster than them. These two worlds coexist subtextually, but the subtleness comes through, and adds a haunting dimension to the novel.

One last note, John Grady Cole is only 16, yet he's a strong character. He's a man. He knows right from wrong and he won't budge from his morals for anything or anyone, not even if he's facing death. I'd be friends with him. I admire him. I guess that's part of the power of this story. It's a time gone past and yet here still today. Today it's tough to meet a twenty-something that's an adult, much less a man. So I like John Grady Cole.

I highly recommend this novel, but beware, the prose is hypnotic and engrossing. The tale is as captivating as anything you'll read, but it might haunt you, just a little bit. The subtext of this novel lasts far longer, far more subconsciously, than should be rightly admitted.