Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

I really liked this novel. Quite a lot. In fact, I would have given it 5 of 5 stars if a. I wasn't trying to be more discerning with my rating system, reserving 5's for only those novels I consider all-time favorites b. if the third and final portion of the book hadn't dragged on a bit too long. That is my only real criticism of the book, that that third part of the book is a bit too long... because the rest is pure gold.

Some people seem dissuaded by this book because it is highly regarded as the ultimate postmodern novel. And it is, really. If you have any experience with postmodern theory then there are about 10-20 different paper topics one could make from this book alone. Believe me, I did one of them in a single frenzied Sunday afternoon sitting at an IHOP during finals. It was about Hitler as a simulacrum. And I got an A, because as I said, this is rich postmodern reading, and White Noise is great fodder for any professor who loves himself a good postmodern analysis. Just mention "the most photographed barn in America" and you'll get any postmodern theorist worked up into a frenzy.

But even if you could not give less of a crap about postmodernism (and I'm sure there are plenty of you out there), this is still a great novel. Because at the crux of this novel are two themes we can all identify with: the meaning of and dissipation of the nuclear family and the fear of death. And it's put together in this witty (if sometimes hard to access) package that is genuinely a pleasure to read.

This particular version that I read was the 25th anniversary edition with an introduction by Richard Powers. Normally, I regard most introductions as either boring rehashings of plot points I want to experience for myself or monotonous statements of the most obvious, but I actually liked this introduction. It was a nice precursor to some of the novels themes and even if some of the points he makes are a bit obvious, they're useful. It sets up the novel well.

This is my third DeLillo novel, and I can see why it is regarded as his very best, even if personally I liked Libra just a bit more. DeLillo is a writer whose sense of irony and well-placed word play makes his writing seem alive and vibrant, pulsating and electric, even where the plot seemingly lags. His characters are composites of people who are so distinctly absurd that you know they probably do exist somewhere, absurdity aside. I would readily recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary literature, and especially to students of literary theory.

That's the mark of this book's quality: you can read it for theory or you can read it for pleasure, and either reading would be equally enriching.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Book Review: Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life by Theodor Adorno

I read this book for my class on Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. We slogged through it 10-15 aphorisms at a time for about 12 weeks, and in the end I have to say it was really rewarding. I think it would be a formidable text if we hadn't broken it down. For each section, pairs from the class presented on an aphorism or two and related it back to other sections from earlier in the book or to other Frankfurt School readings from the course. From an academic standpoint, it was a really rich text in that it encompassed so many of Adorno's ideas into clever little bits. One joke I liked to make is that Adorno speaks in a way that lends itself to the facebook status.

But I fell a few weeks behind and so had to read a big chunk of the book in a more traditional format and it was still rewarding that way as well. Adorno isn't concerned with offering solutions: only pointing out how the world is broken. "There is no right life in a wrong world." And so he is concerned with pointing out how the world is wrong, how life is damaged. It sounds depressing and this book can be pessimistic even at its best moments, but there is something hopeful in the care he takes in examining the world so closely. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone recommended in Frankfurt School theory or social theory in general.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Ten Songs On A Thought: Ten Songs To Combat Postmodern Malaise

Okay, so postmodern malaise may be an exaggeration, but as someone who has been reading postmodern literature and theory for months at this point, recognizing the state that all people find themselves in whether they like it or not (a society controlled by the culture industry, surrounded by brands, the constant onslaught of technology, never lacking for inputs and signifiers, the constant fear of a world illuminated by news and maps and science and the internet, the web of a world now illuminated, etc). And it seems to me like an ever-growing number of songs reflect this frenzied discontent one feels with a world full of impulses and signs. So I decided to make one of my mixes about it.

For those who don't know, each week (theoretically. Really, it's whenever I get the impulse) I choose a topic and write down the first ten songs that come to mind on that topic in no particular order. Then you do the same. Easy enough, right? I give you:


1. The Age of Adz - Sufjan Stevens listen
2. One Hit - The Knife listen
3. The Mall and Misery - Broken Bells listen
4. Ready To Start - Arcade Fire listen
5. Apres Moi - Regina Spektor listen
6. Sleepyhead - Passion Pit listen
7. Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again - The Books listen
8. No Ability - Dovekins listen
9. We've Got Everything - Modest Mouse listen
10. Symptom Finger - The Faint listen


Okay, so once or twice a year, I make a big to-do and say I'm going to return to regular blogging. Will this one stick? I don't know, 50/50 shot. But I am trying to concentrate on something BESIDES grad schooling. Do you have any idea how hard that is? Very.

I like to imagine grad school is like giving birth to a child. The pregnancy is that waiting period where you're spending all this money sending off applications, trying to convince people somehow, someway, that you are NOT an idiot and that they should not only accept you, but give you money to boot. And you wait, and wait, and the impatience baby in your tummy grows and grows and knots and knots until one day you get your first rejection, and then another (it's always the acceptances that come late) and then you finally get accepted and you think: okay, I'm going to begin this journey.

So you move to the school (you "have your baby") and it robs every piece of your life you once held dear...your relationships, your hobbies, your free time, your sleep, your temper, your patience, your sanity. It's all in service to this thing you are undertaking and you know you're going to be doing it for years and years to come. And you're happy, because it's what you've always wanted, but suddenly you're in this place where getting an A is all well and good, but probably not good enough, because you need to publish and go to conferences and be mentored by the right names and network and all that if you want to eventually have a job when all these old guys in these old departments start kicking the bucket about right when you graduate...and if you get a B, well, you may as well go home.

And yet, I'm so happy, because I feel forward momentum. It's masochistic, really, it's outright torture, the things that people are willing to go to get to a point where they think they'll be happy. And the real kicker is, while you're doing all this, at least in my field, you're reading all this Neo-Marxist theory that tells you "every desire you've ever had has been fabricated for you in advance" and you think, well, okay, there is a system, and I have to play into it or not. And it all becomes very very exhausting, Foucault telling you your government controls you through Biopower, Benjamin telling you you're manipulated by the phantasmagoria of the commodity fetish, Horkheimer and Adorno telling you you're a pawn within the Culture Industry, Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy saying there is only hope in a world where your singularity is subjugated to a plurality. It's exhausting and you frankly feel like you need a nap and yet, when you get a break, you can't help but read more and more into it.

So you can understand why I've fallen a bit behind on the blogs. But I'll change it soon, fingers crossed...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: Laugher In The Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

I read this book very quickly over a couple days. I picked it up on impulse, having always wanted to read another book by Nabokov and having been intrigued by the synopsis.

Oddly enough, one of the most interesting parts of this book was the introduction by John Banville, which chronicled the novels place within Nabokov's career and it's possible relation to Nabokov's later works, including Lolita. More specifically, it highlights the way that the parasitic relationship in this novel may have been a precursor to the relationship investigated in Lolita, only in this novel, Margot is a cunning (if not very smart) and vile active participant in Albert Albinus' demise.

Unrelated sidenote: Albert Albinus? Humbert Humbert? Axel Rex? I'll gladly take any comments related to the meaning behind Nabokov's obsession with mirroring names.

I didn't like this novel as much as Lolita, but only because it DID read to me a bit like just that: a precursor to a greater idea. In this novel, Nabokov seems to be toying with the idea of female power and of male justification for reprehensible behavior, themes that will be investigated to much greater effect later and which might not have been so deeply developed were it not for novels like this one.

Albert Albinus is at least slightly sympathetic. One can see the wheels turning within him and warning him that the decisions he's making are destructive and loathsome. One can see his moment's hesitation in considering a proper route of action. His conscience is visible. The drama and tragedy comes in his continued failure to obey these impulses, particularly in the face of Margot's calculating seducation and continued moral decline. Her and Axel Rex make for some truly perilous villains, and it is obvious from the start that a man like Albinus will not be able to stand up to the terror they will impose upon him.

The strength in this book comes from the quality of Nabokov's prose, which anyone who has had the pleasure of reading a Nabokov novel is familiar with. I look forward to reading other Nabokov novels, as this one has really whetted my appetite for more. It might be a good place to start if one is interested in reading beyond Lolita.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Human Stain On Nature: BP's Gulf Oil Spill

Anyone who has ever denied the need for better human stewardship of our world no longer has any room to talk. Few things have infuriated me more in recent years than the slow and inadequate response to BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. To not have the mechanisms in place to stop something like this immediately is a demonstration of the gross irresponsibility humans have displayed in taking care of the world we live in.

The Gulf of Mexico may take YEARS (if ever) to fully recover from this kind of damage. Don't believe me? Here's an article). Not to mention the devastating effects that something like this has on the already fragile wildlife in the area. Oh, and did I mention that the economies of the already weakened gulf cities are experiencing a negative effect as well? I don't need to, these are things that anybody who has turned on the news knows full well.

This is a disaster. Plain and simple.

So I guess my frustration comes here: WHAT IS TAKING SO LONG? BP has spent so much time trying to shirk responsibility for this disaster, regardless of their "acceptance" of the financial costs. Someone has to take the blame, BP. It's you! A quicker response to this problem (let alone a far more comprehensive contingency plan already set in place for such disasters) may have stopped this a lot sooner.

I do not claim to be an environmental expert, and my knowledge of economics and corporate law is encompassed entirely in a liberal arts degree. I'm not an expert, but I am a citizen of this United States who is frustrated by my inability to do ANYTHING whatsoever to stop this disaster from growing while the powers that be sit idly by.

We cannot continue to live in a world so obsessed with our right to resources that we continue to abuse the natural world we live in. And that's the truth.

Oh, and in case you haven't seen it, THIS is what an oil flow looks like:

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

It's been a few months now since I've finished this book, and I simply hadn't had the chance until now to sit down and give it a proper review. I suppose this is a benefit to the book because, upon reflecting on it, I now see more clearly what I enjoyed about it.

I think what I enjoyed most was Joe Kavalier. I had read Chabon before, and I was frustrated with his ability to create an interesting character and make me bored of hearing about them. I never got bored of Joe. If anything, I always felt like the narration was hiding something about Joe, some key to understanding his motivations that went well beyond the basics of missing his family and loving art. It's never revealed, but the depth of his emotions is implied, leaving the reader an opportunity to analyze his motivations through the prism of any combination of Joe's personal history, revealed throughout the arc of the narrative.

I'm glad I gave Chabon a second chance. Reading "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" first left a bitter taste in my mouth that Chabon doesn't deserve...I couldn't have been convinced before that he was capable of a book like this, and now I'm a convert, intent on reading another of his works soon. I really enjoyed how this book deigned to span the expanses of time, place, and historicity that make other favorite books of mine (Middlesex, Everything Is Illuminated) so engaging. Chabon has a gift for diction and syntax that makes his work beautiful to read.

My criticisms of the book are mainly the following two points. One: I'm still not convinced of Chabon's ability to write an effective female character. I didn't always believe in Rosa's motivations or emotions, she seemed limited by the male viewpoint. I realize that it might be hard for someone so adept at creating intriguing men to understand the differences necessary for female thought, but Chabon should be able to shoulder that burden with the same tact and attention to detail that he gives to creating a historical landscape for his works. Your women have to be real, not comic book caricatures of what you think a female ought to be like.

The second was the comic book referencing. Chabon's intention may have been to color the story with a deep well of knowledge that contributes to realism. He very likely did a tremendous amount of research for this book and this is commendable. But you know what? I don't want to see that research, at least not directly. His obsession with showing off his comic book knowledge and excessive use of comic book reference seems a lot like hammering in superfluous garbage for the sake of looking cool. You like comic books, you know a lot about them, we get it. We don't need you to tell us again because all that is doing is distracting from the charming and beautiful story you already have in front of you.

I can't think of many people who wouldn't enjoy this book, and I would be inclined to recommend it to anyone. My only advice is to stick it out after it slows down 100 pages in. It'll be worth it.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

This is one of the finest books I've read in many years. Not just for the genre, not just for a young adult novel, not just for the subject matter. This is one of the finest books I've read in many years, period.

I was immediately drawn in by the story and I found the narrative choices original without being trite. Approaching the book from such a perspective allowed the narrator to guide the story in a way that tapped a deep emotional well within me and shaded the poignancy of the accounted moments with an acute awareness of the historical reality of WWII.

Liesel is written with a delicate sensitivity for the emotions of little girls. She is thoughtful and fragile but simultaneously stubborn and hardened and her persona is an accurate reflection of the precociousness necessary for a little girl like her to survive in such a harsh world. She is an admirable heroine and a strong role model, notable for her courage despite having lived a life such as hers.

Further, each character within Liesel's story is assigned their own unique traits and demeanors, which should be the case in any story, but is often difficult for some authors to do. While some characters could have easily been stereotyped sidekicks or stereotyped strict parents or any one of the cliches often found in these sort of stories, they have been developed into rich explanations of human character and the delicate threads that hold relationships together. They are reflections of Liesel as much as Liesel is a reflection of each of them, and the story comes alive in the moments in which these relationships are investigated.

The book also manages to approach the story of the Holocaust without resorting to the same old stories, the same old sorry tales that have been written and rewritten time and time again. This is a different story, and it feels like a different story when you read it, but still manages to communicate the importance of remembering these atrocities in the scope of human history.

But most importantly, this book is engaging. Even at 500+ pages, I read it in mere days because I was so excited to find out what happened next. Liesel reminds us of the power of words, the power of books to transport us outside of our own world and into someone else's, and Liesel's is a world that everyone ought to visit.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Ten Songs On A Thought: Songs For Motivation To Finish Something You Started

I really like blogging. Genuinely, I do. But when I forget to do it, when I forget to be frequent or thoughtful and I temporarily abandon my blog, it makes me feel guilty, like I'm letting my...three? readers down by not posting and I have to post extra to make up for it. But I get overwhelmed by the thought of extra, and I never do it. It generally takes a stranger commenting on the blog content (thanks Twitter user @slowdanse!) to get me back in gear. And since I was really digging these ten song sets, I thought what better theme than...

For those who don't know, each week I choose a topic and write down the first ten songs that come to mind on that topic in no particular order. Then you do the same. Easy enough, right? I give you:


1. The Middle - Jimmy Eat World
2. Pass This On - The Knife
3. Daniel - Bat For Lashes
4. Alpha Beta Gaga - AIR
5. Come On! Feel The Illinoise! - Sufjan Stevens
6. 2 + 2 = 5 - Radiohead
7. Young Folks - Peter, Bjorn and John
8. Straight Street - The Fiery Furnaces
9. John The Revelator - Depeche Mode
10. The Island - The Decemberists

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Book Review: Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

I am a huge fan of Chuck Klosterman's non-fiction work, so I met the prospect of his fiction with a sort of hopeful apprehension. I wasn't necessarily expecting it to be as good as his other work simply because fiction was not his primary mode of writing up to this point. I am pleased to report that Klosterman met and then exceeded my expectations.

Downtown Owl is not the novel I expected it to be. I don't know what I expected it to be, but it wasn't what was delivered to me. I think I half expected a sort of pretentious love story wrought with allusions to some protagonist's vast musical knowledge and intense desire to get out of small town rural America. I love Chuck Klosterman, but any Chuck Klosterman fan would also know exactly why I might get this idea.

What I got instead was an illuminating investigation of small town life. Sure, there were allusions to pop culture artifacts of the time (it is set in 1983) and a few turns of phrase that sounded like the Klosterman I'm used to reading, but on the whole, the development of the three main characters' story archs not only helped to move the story along but helped to imbue the novel with an acute awareness of humanity and the human experience.

This is why, to me, the novel was so good. Any novel that can deftly handle the human experience will be good, but a novel that manages to handle three separate experiences in equally touching and sympathetic ways shows an advanced understanding of what makes people tick, what makes them get up in the morning and feel that they have some degree of purpose, even if to the outside eye, they may be floundering.

Some might argue that the story doesn't necessarily "go" anywhere for much of the novel, and this is true, to a degree. It isn't evident precisely what the novel is leading up to, what sort of climactic moment will emerge. And when this moment does emerge, it's with a deftly handled mix of clarity and confusion that is incredibly compelling. But the development of these characters, the slow realizations about their motives and their pasts (particularly in the case of the character Horace, I found) is reason enough to propel the story forward.

As a reader, I felt privileged to crawl inside the minds of these characters, and the outside elements of plot and location only helped to inform this experience. For that I must give Klosterman my highest accolades, and site this novel as one of the many reasons I have believed in his capabilities as an author since I first read him a few years ago. Highly recommended.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!

Friday, January 01, 2010

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This book so could have garnered my highest praises had it stuck to the intentions of its core story. The plot at the center of this book is a moving story that illuminates the grief and sorrow of the American experience following the 9/11 attacks by telling the story of young Oskar Schell, an eccentric young boy whose attempts to remain close to his father (who died in one of the towers) take him on a mission to uncover his fathers secrets.

Oskar is incredibly endearing, if not always entirely believable as a character. It's not so much that Foer does not succeed in making Oskar seem true to age so much as the fact that very few kids, no matter how weird, would possess so great a multitude of eccentricities as Oskar does. I loved his eccentricities, and accepted them without regard for realism, but it's been my experience that most kids are not so overwrought by weirdness that they can barely function, and even the ones who are that weird stick to one or two types of weirdness and not all of them at once.

But as I said, this was of little issue to me because Oskar was so delighful, and the process of his story and journey to discover what he was searching for to fill the void left by the loss of his father is moving and revealing. Had the book focused almost entirely on this story, I likely would have given it my highest rating and recommended it to everyone I know.

But the book did not focus on just this story. Instead, Foer engages in the highest form of artistic self-service and pretentiousness in the form of meandering stream of consciousness style diary entries and letters focusing on Oskar's grandparents. The grandmother spends years typing nothing onto a typewriter, the grandfather never speaks but instead tattoos "yes" and "no" on his fingers. It's all a little ridiculous, and I even have a high tolerance for artistic pretentiousness.

Trust me, these are not spoilers, just the most basic explanations of a multitude of pompous characteristics Foer imbues these side characters with in an attempt to be artistic and abstract. And for many books, it might work, I might have liked it even. But I just didn't with this one. I found that when those chapters stepped in to interrupt Oskar's story, that I didn't want to read them, or that I wanted to get through them as quickly as possible so I could get back to Oskar. I don't think any author wants to write something where people feel the urge to skip half of your chapters.

These side stories aren't 100% faulty. I do enjoy the parallels made between the experience of the bombing of Dresden with the 9/11 attacks, and the few places where this side story overlaps with Oskar's own are interesting. I suppose, in summation, that I wanted to like this book more because it had so much potential to be great. I just wish that all of the pretentious additions had been toned down, edited only for the most vital information, and that Oskar Schell's story would have had the book it deserves.

This review was reposted and expanded from my review at Good Reads. Oh, you love reading and reviewing books, too? Join! We can be friends!