Sunday, April 20, 2008

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"
by Junot Diaz

About a week after I finished this book, it was picked as the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. What can I say, my wife knows how to pick 'em.

I had read an interview with the author, Junot Diaz, in an issue of Boldtype (an online book newsletter) and was interested in his first novel and first new work in nine years, but I can't honestly say that I would have gotten around to it had it not been gifted to me (by my wife, of the aforementioned paragraph...).

Anywho, the book sells itself (by sell, I mean, it says on the inside flap) as a story about an overweight nerdy Dominican kid who longs to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien - cool - and is convinced there is a fuku (special type of Dominican curse) on his family. It is and, well, it isn't what the inside flap says.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao weaves in an out of four different narrators, different time periods, is filled with footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic (and a lot of mentions of the sexual exploits of its former leader, Trujillo, and his posse, who seem like a bunch of old school gangsters), and, all in all, is a fairly tedious book to read. Not that it wasn't enjoyable, but there were moments with promise that did not come to fruition.

I must say that I was expecting something different, something far more fantastic (i.e. out there, fanciful) because the inside flap did mention Tolkien and I love Tolkien - he's mentioned only a few times. And the idea of a curse on the family was great, but it took too long to get to and the journey to the curse was a lot of wading through muddy waters with no meaning, so that, when all was said and done, you had little more than you started with, which was a cool opening quote and a bad-ass narrator.

Perhaps if I hadn't read the inside cover, I might have been more satisfied by the oodles of comic book references and the snappy dialogue, not to mention the narration.

So, the narration.

Diaz is a great writer, you can tell, and his style is certainly original. Reading this book, it's easy to get lost in the prose and imagine that you're sitting with Junot Diaz (or whoever's narrating the story) in a coffee shop, and he's smoking a cigarrette and telling you about the fuku of this family, about the fuku Oscar tried to stop. He curses, slangs, and rolls his way along, and you feel like you're right there, not in the story, but in the coffee shop, with Junot Diaz.

That's the books biggest fault and most lauded champion. It's the (dare I say) fuku of the book, what makes it good also makes it bad. We all bring our own history to a book we read, or any art, and we see through that prism. Maybe my prism's slanted, and because I wasn't expecting what I got, I was disappointed. I'm not doing a great job of selling the book, so I will say this: the writing was amazing, and reading Oscar Wao is worth it for the sheer tenacity of the language, the raw power Diaz writes with. It's definitely not a waste of time, all fuku's aside.

And the cover's pretty cool.

Faster Than You Think
"The Kite Runner"
by Kaled Hosseini

I was hesitant about picking this book up, I think probably because the issues in it seemed "important" and usually those books are the hardest to read. Basically, I was worried "The Kite Runner" would drag. And it did, for like a second.

Then it didn't drag. It ran, it ran fast, so, so uncompromisingly fast.

"The Kite Runner" was simply outstanding. I don't know what to say other than that. I loved the book, and it was incontrovertibly hard to put down. It moved with such force and broached diffucult issues with such ease.

Hosseini is a wonderful writer, his use of metaphor and irony add wonderfully to the story. I felt like I was reading an "important" book, but with much more interest.

There's not much I can say about the book that won't give it away, so I'll give broad strokes. "The Kite Runner" is about the unspoken bonds of brotherhood, the changes of a nation in turmoil, and the guilt and redemption gained at the hands of unspeakeable forces. I'm leaving a lot open because I don't want to risk giving anything away. I'll just say again, this book was very moving, I highly enjoyed it.

Stories are supposed to move you, inspire you, teach you, and you're lucky when one does all three. "The Kite Runner" did that and more. Skip the movie, read the book.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

We Suck, and We're Selfish
by Derrick Jensen

Derrick Jensen has some deep-seated aggressions, and he's made some very interesting correlations between his personal history to the history nations and civilizations have in general.

Civilization is bad. The destruction civilization leaves in its wake is so monumental it is disturbing at a root level, a level we as humans, we as the perpetrators of this violence, have an obligation to stop. Civilization kills everything, all life on earth, without giving anything back, and for this reason, Jensen says, civilization has to be ended.

He's right, on many levels, and these make his book very disturbing and topical. First off, a sustainable way of life is not possible with civilization. Too many resources are taken from the land to keep us going, and, well, it makes sense that since most of us (myself included) have jobs that don't contribute to giving back to the land, that at some point the land will stop giving to us. But even with the efforts of individuals towards sustainability (my wife and I included), we as individuals, Jensen says, will make little difference to the earth. It is more what corporations and governments do, the over-fishing, over-logging, over-industrialization for economic gain that is doing the real harm.

Jensen writes that anyone who buys into civilization is insane, because it is exponentially more harmful to the land and humans the longer it lasts. He equates this violence with personal violence, and says that if we would stop personal violence, why not stop cultural violence, why stand by idly and watch it happen. The phrase he uses most is, "What will it take before you fight back?"

Well, what will it take?

Jensen makes many more points than outlined above, and has a particularly chilling chapter on oil that is as unsettling as it is realistic (by which I mean very), but I have no interest to elaborate here. These are the points that stuck with me, so they are the ones I mention.

Take out the dams, fell cell phone towers, take down civilization and its infrastructure and force people to live with the land like they once did, Jensen says. Yes, this is a valid point to hear in the culture of today, what with global warming and all the destruction still being done to our planet, but I must venture to say that there is little hope for this succeeding. More than likely, as has happened in the past, our culture will reach its breaking point (perhaps even it already has reached it) and homeostasis will begin to take effect. Grand scale things have been done, and nothing can be done to reverse them now. We as humans will live with our mistakes and continue to live with them. Our children will pay for our mistakes the same we do for the mistakes of our ancestors.

Jensen's answer, to fight violence with violence, is unsettling and unrealistic, I feel. As much as I see his point, I can't help but think of Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote in Man Without a Country that the what happens in the world is inevitable at this point regardless of what we do, we have to live with it (of course, he said it much more eloquently). I think Jensen actually said it pretty well too. After he purports we take down civilization by comparing its violence to the sexual and physical violence his father imparted on him (not sure there's a connection other than literary here), he defends taking a plane, despite the damage it does to the environment (not to mention the fact that his book is a complete waste of paper, with at least fifty blank pages throughout). He writes: "The truth is that had I not flown, the airplane would still have killed those wasps, and the industry would still have destroyed those fields. Sure I would have cost the airline money, and United's gross income for the year would have been $400 less than $38 billion..." So he's advocating the downfall of something he uses yet abdicating himself from any guilt in the meantime.

I have little patience for hypocrites like this. Despite the fact that many of his arguments are presented in the form of conversations with various people of through email, he does make good points, but it's not a radical change I'm up for making. I'm fine being insane, thank you, and I'll do what I can to personally make changes to help and respect the environment, because I certainly do) and even do what I can to keep corporations from doing more harm.

I'm not sure whether to recommend this book or not. So, if you're interested, look for the book with thick pages written by an environmental activist who chides logging companies for deforestation yet takes no steps to lessen the impact of his redundant 500 page non-fiction rant against civilization.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

If Lothlorien Were Full of Redwoods
"The Wild Trees"
by Richard Preston

The idea is that nearly half of this earth's life lives in the forest canopy. No one really knows because there isn't a set number on the species that inhabit this earth, but the forest canopy is "earth's secret ocean."

Redwoods are the giants of this earth, cousins to sequoias, and tower over the coast in northern California and the southern tip of Oregon. They amaze the crap out of me (literally! not really), and the amount of life in the canopies is amazing.

They're also vanishing, or have already vanished in large numbers because of logging, and care must be taken to keep these giant trees (some could be dated back to the Parthenon) from altogether being a glimpse into the past.

As I read this book I pictured dinosaurs walking through fields of tall redwoods, the brontosaurus grazing on the leaves at the bottom of the canopies (redwoods can get up to 37 stories tall - the tallest redwood is 379.1 feet, named Hyperion) and moving through vast oceans of giant things. It's a great escape.

Though that's not necessarily what "The Wild Trees" is about, entirely. The book mainly focuses on the people involved with discovering (meaning they measure the trees and study the life in them - redwoods are full of lichens (plant and fungi in symbiotic relationships) and epiphytes (plants that grow out of other plants)) the giant redwoods still on this planet. In this book we meet Steve Sillet, Marie Antoine, and Micheal Taylor (along with the author), among others, whose life quest is the study and discovery of a world many of us just gaze at and think, "wow."

It really is amazing stuff, and redwoods are amazing trees, and trees are amazing beings. It is all very fantastic to me, and for some reason opens the door to imaginations and daydreams about a time lost to us at present. The world is very old indeed.

This book was great. Not only does it highlight a fascinating living thing, the story is compelling, and it enlightens one to the state our world is in now and the mighty endurance of life on earth. Us humans are but a speck on the map compared to the ancient redwood forests. And something tells me they'll be here long after we're gone. Wow.