Thursday, September 27, 2012

Luka and the Fire of Life

Luka and the Fire of Life: A NovelLuka and the Fire of Life: A Novel by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of children's literature but I enjoyed Luka and the Fire of Life, from the master of magical realism Salman Rushdie. Luka's story is interesting and serves as a great introduction to many of the techniques of adult literature: irony, simile, puns, allegory, all are packed into this novel along with a few rewards for adults as well. Among these rewards was a nod to Orwell in relation to a metaphoric dichotomy between the extremes of freedom of speech in the Insultana and her "Over-the-topers" (Otters), and the bland grey landscape inhabited by the rats of the collectivist Rat's Respectorate.

Rushdie ensures that this is a novel that is most contemporary and accessible for modern children in framing the whole adventure in the form of a video game, and it is sweet to imagine some auto-biographical background to the story of Luka and his father Rashid - this was after all written as a birthday present to Rushdie's son Milan.

Luka and the Fire of Life would make a wonderful gift to any child of perhaps six or seven.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

At Swim-Two-Brids

At Swim-Two-BirdsAt Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two-thirds of the way through this book I started to hate it. I nearly put it down, and then found myself loving it. To be frank this book is a bit of a mindfuck. It possesses genius which impels me to go back and explore it again, but that will be awhile because I found it somewhat exhausting.

I enjoyed 'The Third Policeman' and from it should have expected a challenging read from At Swim-Two-Birds, but this is by far more rich and intricate than O'Brien's second book. It is also much less enjoyable on first read for me.

Two stars or even one would be my review if it were for the numbing effect I feel after finishing this book, but again there is so much genius sprinkled through-out it that I am sure I will be raising it much higher on my re-read. Suffused with poetic genius, do not attempt At Swim-Two-Birds expecting a light read.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh how I love this book. Wilde is able to make a scene come to life like no other writer of his day, a power uniquely suitable to the written word. As a playwright, this is his only novel, and what a novel. This is a book that is indeed "poisonous", a direct challenge to our morality. Witty, sharp, disturbing... This is a book that engages, makes one ask questions about previously unquestioned ethical principles. It remains as scandalous today as the day it was released to a shocked England. I cannot imagine a time when The Picture of Dorian Gray loses it's power to simultaneously hypnotize us with florescence while repelling us in the protagonists compelling fall (or was it a rise?) into narcissism.

Oscar Wilde's most famous quote is that "all art is quite useless", and I think this quote should be given some thought before one begins.

What is meant by useless? Useless as in didactic literature? No, that won't do because some of the canon is infused with what once gave instruction and now gives pleasure.

What is meant by art? From a man considered to be an immoral hedonistic dandy, one might imagine that to Oscar Wilde life was art. Perhaps this gives some understanding of his death-bed conversion. What a depressing thought though, because this is a work that makes no apologies, a work that flows as if called from the muse of old, a work that dominates the imagination like nothing else.

Dive in to this masterwork, because anything less than a plunge may give one cold feet.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as Candle in the Dark

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an introduction to clear, rational, scientific thinking, The Demon-Haunted World succeeds. As an exploration of one man's passion for the scientific search for understanding, only Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show on Earth is comparable. Clearly presented here is a staple of rational inquiry; 'Occam's Razor', a theory of parsimony that can be applied to critical thinking in general, showing that the scientific method has application beyond laboratory use.

Sagan fascinates with his exploration of the roots of "Ufology", which he presents as a case of the hyperactive minds of our species infused with Cold War paranoia. The famous astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson once remarked humorously on the logical leap made by a hypothetical observer of mysterious aerial phenomenon. He pointed out that this observer first must admit that he has almost no understanding of said phenomenon, and promptly proceeds based upon ignorance that it must be alien technology. "Hey, this is beyond my comprehension and I have no idea what this is, ergo alien spacecraft!" The influence of Hollywood cannot be said to be absent in this blatant violation of Occam's Razor.

I feel the overused and often arrogant cliche, namely that "this book should be a part of the education of every child" is going just a bit too far. I will take a step back and say that this is a book that I would insist my children would read. Critical thinking is a tool that is not stressed with the vigor that it's historical effectiveness demands, and Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is as good a light introduction as I have read.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Animal Farm

Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's extremely difficult to find anything original to say about Orwell, so I won't make the attempt. The strong allegory of Animal Farm might tend to make one forget that this novella works marvelously as a "fairy tale". The power of Animal Farm lies in the vertiginous juxtaposition between the child's tale and the tale of dystopian totalitarianism. I have read that some find the story to be very funny, but I can find only very dark humor in the story rising to a crescendo of uncanny dread as I turn the last pages.

The animals think they are human. The men think they are gods.

Powerful, disturbing, and above all a vitally important literary landmark that summarizes the psychology of the Red Revolution with a succinctness that is hard to fathom surpassing, Animal Farm is genius from the socially conscious master George Orwell. Not to be missed.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leo Tolstoy said that Russians don't write novels, at least not in the European sense of the term, and then sought to create the Russian form. A master craftsman who reworked Anna Karenina several times in the course its composition, Tolstoy's impact with Anna Karenina is much more than aristocratic romance.

Anna Karenina is a study in contrast, two books in one. A tragedy and a comedy mirroring one another. Some of the most powerful feelings are evoked by this amazing epic. There seems to me to be something very ancient about the story of Mrs. Karenina. Tolstoy explicitly denied that this was a morality tale, but it is impossible to suppress the feeling that the unique Christianity Tolstoy evinced was not a very large factor in guiding his hand. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin crudely dropped the Christianity, and praised the novel for the comic half in which Konstantin Levin shows redemption through a proto-socialist work ethic.

I found the story of Anna to be less interesting than the story of Levin. The romance between Kitty and Levin is delicate and strained which tended to make Anna seem all the more unhinged (and at times flat-out obnoxious) by the power of Eros. The highest emotional point in this book, however, is the relationship between Anna and her son. I felt the struggle she was under, the feeling of being torn between duty and passion, and Anna became elevated to near-mythic status.

Tolstoy is the master of emotional realism, creating characters that are more real, and have feelings that are more real than reality. As far as technical craftsmanship is concerned, Anna Karenina is a lesson in the form of the realist novel.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pixies and the Art of Genius

Manta Ray - Pixies
The quintessential Pixies song, if there can be such a thing(hint: there can't be). It begins with Frank, letting you know who is in charge. Kim is second with the thumping metronomic bass. By the third line, you know this will not be handed to you: "trek across the space". It will be fun, something to do with alien abduction paranoia presumably.

Oo-Oo Oo-Oo Yeah!

At 17 seconds, some neurotic sounding humming, which leads to a ripping guitar in the middle of the second stanza.

He has no memory,
Of flyers in the night!

We are now in the presence of general insanity, and if that isn't to your tastes, now would be a good time to quit.

They went away!

Who went away? Who Frank, who? Where did they come from? Where are they going to? I need to know, I need to know, I need to know!!! Make them come back, sir. I would like to meet them please. Or maybe I don't. I just don't know anymore Mr. Francis, or is it Mr. Black? So many unanswered questions.

Police they say,
My mother too,
A fish from ocean blue,
above my head at night.

As always, with Pixies we are left with more questions than answers, and this my friend is one sign that the art we are enjoying is a masterwork. Either that or we are enjoying an LSD trip. Go split the difference. Pixies are neither overly nor overtly complex. This is a good sign. Here we are dealing with a simple expression of delusional thinking, a very good sign indeed.

Certifiably genius.