Thursday, July 30, 2009

Monsters by Klaus Haapaniemi

I found this book on the clearance cart at Broad Street Books in Middletown, CT. For a mere $1 I bought it and this little gem was mine. It really is a very "sweet" book, like a piece of candy. Colorful, with a hard shell and rounded corners. I was delighted by the fanciful illustrations inside and that is primarily why I bought it.

Monsters is a small collection of illustrations by Finnish illustrator Klaus Haapaniemi. Sprinkled among the illustrations are little blocks of text written by Finnish author Rosa Liksom. According to the back of the book, their illustrations and writing "[channel] the wild beauty of the Scandinavian landscape." Having never experienced the Scandinavian landscape for myself, I can't attest to their success. However, both Haapaniemi and Liksom weave a luscious world of cold and warmth, slick ice and rough sand, populated by fantastic plants and otherworldly creatures.

Overall, I think this is a beautiful little book full of fantastic illustrations. However, I was unimpressed by the main accompanying story by Rosa Liksom. The title story "Monsters" made no sense to me, even when I read it as magical realism. Each paragraph seems like a collection of haphazard descriptions, puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together. Halfway through the story a character named Ilmari appears out of nowhere and the other characters seem to disappear, as though another story has started. I thought the writing was quite beautiful at times, but it seemed to flounder alongside the illustrations, like the author was attempting to "keep up" with Haapaniemi's art. I think the pairing of art + writing might have been more successful with short poems or perhaps a series of very short stories (such as the tiny story at the end, "Tampere").

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Clitoral Truth by Rebecca Chalker

I got a book in the mail yesterday! The Clitoral Truth! I proceeded to read the entire thing yesterday afternoon, since I didn't have anything better to do (other than occasionally tuning in to Spongebob). It was an interesting read, although I was a little disappointed by its lack of accessibility to both sexes. Obviously I'm not a man so I can't judge that with complete accuracy, but I felt like the author was clearly addressing a female audience. It is a book about female anatomy and female sexuality so I guess it's fair that she presumes her audience will be mostly women. I just feel like the author is a little patronizing at times, constantly referring to the heterosexual male model of sexuality and how men only seek to have an orgasm as quickly and efficiently as possible. I mean, I consider myself a feminist but is it really appropriate to pigeonhole men in a particular sexual stereotype? It isn't appropriate to do that to anyone, regardless of sex or gender. I was especially surprised by her tone throughout the book because I glanced at the Amazon reviews before mooching the book (from a man) and found that many of the reviewers were men. Obviously they were hoping for some sort of insight, but instead they found themselves being berated for trying to have fast and efficient orgasms...yeah...that doesn't sound like a great way to open up a dialog about pleasure.

Anyway, tone aside, I thought it was an interesting book that covers many aspects of female sexuality and how it has been covered up throughout history (and how it is changing today). The author provides many resources listed in the back. The first chapter extensively goes over the Feminist Women's Health Centers' anatomical definition of the clitoris, which includes 18 parts, some internal and some external (god damn!)

One aspect of this book that I found particularly interesting and invigorating was its attempts to examine female sexuality as something that a woman can experience for herself (i.e. with or without a man, or a partner of either sex for that matter). Chalker places emphasis on pleasure and sexuality as means of personal self discovery--a method by which we can not only gain an intimate knowledge of and love for our bodies, but also an understanding of our emotional and psychological selves (by examining our fantasies and what we find sexual or sensual). I think Chalker does an excellent job of explaining both physical and emotional aspects of female sexuality, and she does so by placing emphasis on the woman herself, not necessarily the interaction between partners.

Friday, July 17, 2009

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

What miracle is this? This giant tree.
It stands ten thousand feet high
But doesn't reach the ground. Still it stands.
Its roots must hold the sky.

I loved this book. I first heard of it in the englishmajors community on LJ, and was instantly intrigued. It's been on my to-read list ever since, and this summer I finally had time to tackle this beast of a book. It really drew me in, so it took me less time to read than I predicted.

I loved this book for a few reasons: it's self-referential, it has an attitude, it pokes fun at scholarship, it questions assumptions. It is quite frankly pretentious, but in an amazingly fun way (is that possible? Apparently it is). There are extensive footnotes, some of which are composed of references to imaginary sources, some of which are written by Johnny Truant, who tells his own story of psychological and physical deteroration alongside the unfolding of the Navidson report.

In terms of being a horror story, I found Johnny Truant's portions far more chilling than those by Zampano, perhaps because, like Johnny himself, I too found myself in the position of reader. His mental breakdown seems to imply how books (or texts in any format--even just a bunch of mixed up pages gathered in a chest) construct a reality of their own, unencumbered by physical limitations or logic, but with a history of their own and an existence that will extend far beyond that of both author and reader.

Overall I found House of Leaves simultaenously amusing and thoughtprovoking. It's a simple enough plot: a house that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But this simple idea is then expanded and entwined with the legacies of literature, philosophy, fantasy, mathematics, psychology, and all manner of imaginary academic writings. It's amazing how much work must have gone into writing this book.

Definitely a must read.

A sun to read the dark.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Just finished reading this today. I enjoyed The Subtle Knife more than The Golden Compass. I think primarily because the characters in The Subtle Knife make mistakes. They seem more human. Things seemed way too convenient in The Golden Compass...everything just fell into place, with the occasional minor diversion, which usually ended up fitting neatly into the plot anyway (such as Lyra falling out of Lee Scoresby's balloon and getting captured by the bears).

Another thing that I enjoyed about the The Subtle Knife was that it got more into the specifics of Dust (Shadows, dark matter, what ever). I think subconsciously I found Lyra somewhat annoying, and it was nice to learn more about the plot and how all the various characters fit into everything. The addition of Will was particularly interesting. He's almost like a male version of Lyra--I actually suspected that Lord Asriel might be the father of both of them, except in different worlds. Of course, now that I know that isn't the case, I'm leaning more toward an Adam and Eve connection. Overall, I felt that The Subtle Knife seemed to really dig into the religious and political ideas that Pullman laid the groundwork for in The Golden Compass, which focused much more on Lyra as a character, and emphasized her importance in this mysterious grand scheme.

I don't know why I can't seem to assemble any coherent thoughts about this trilogy so far. All I know is that I'm enjoying the story!

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I am simply too tired/lazy to write a summary, so here is my reaction to the book, which I just finished tonight!

Usually, I'm not a fan of fantasy. I finished this book in a few days, and if I hadn't had to work, probably would have read it in a single sitting. It's a good story and really draws you in. I rated it 3/5 stars mainly because I felt that some of the characters fall flat, and I wish that the church and all it entails were more deftly woven into the story. It comes up a few times throughout the book, but most of the information about the church and its possible connection to Dust is revealed within the last 50 pages, when Lyra finally finds her father, Lord Asriel. I do appreciate that Pullman doesn't spend pages and pages simply world-building and explaining things--the writing is almost always directly developing either the plot or characters, not really the world that hangs in the background. However, I do wish there was more detail about the church and how religion functions in this world (I suppose we're to assume that it's essentially like our own universe's version of Christianity?).

I suppose the next two books will go into far more detail about the church--it is a trilogy after all, so I can only judge it according to what I know so far...and I only know 1/3 of it. I saw the movie when it came out in theaters (which prompted me to look into the books), and was surprised while reading to find that I could recall almost scene-by-scene the progression of the story. Granted, I saw the movie quite some time ago, and it isn't exactly fresh in my mind, but nonetheless I was impressed that--from what I can remember--the movie seems to translate the book almost exactly. I'll have to watch the movie again and see how it compares now that I've read the book.

One thing that I think comes through in the book more than it did in the movie is the presumption that the audience is intelligent and composed of both children and adults. As a children's story, it was refreshing not to have things spelled out constantly, to have characters feel rage and lust and disappointment. Pullman manages to address a lot of interesting themes and creates characters who are human--they deceive, lie, love, hate, falter, and hope. The tension between Lyra and her parents and between her parents themselves are some of the most interesting character interactions in the novel (in my opinion). I'm definitely intrigued by the sick sort of sadomasochistic relationship between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. It's also interesting to see how Lyra reflects certain characteristics of her parents--who thus far appear to be the antagonists--while Lyra, the heroine, must use those very same qualities for good.

I should be careful about using words like good and evil, since at this point in the story, it seems that "good" and "evil" are largely undetermined. It seems clear-cut for a good chunk of the book, but by the end I think that dichotomy is disrupted.

Anyway, I'll wait to pass further judgment until I've read the next two books.

Man Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates

Man Crazy begins on a seemingly "normal" note, albeit sad and heartrending. About halfway through, it takes a turn toward the bizarre, but I'll get to that in a moment. Ingrid, a young girl, is in hiding with her mother, Chloe. Her father is a wanted man, and despite his charm and "love" for Chloe, he is violent and possessive. Ingrid idolizes her father and desperately misses him, yearning for the day he will return and make their family complete again. Ingrid witnesses firsthand the many disfunctions of her family, including a brutal fistfight between her father and one of Chloe's suitors, who has been supporting her with a house, car, and job as his secretary.

Ingrid leads an awkward childhood, and develops a tic in which she compulsively picks at her face and body. She is smart, but anxious and shy, so her teachers and the other students often make fun of her. She is popular because of her beauty, but has no friends. She repeatedly describes how she has dozens of friends, and no friends--no one who wouldn't betray her in a heartbeat, that is. Ingrid soon finds herself in a situation similar to her mother's: she is a beautiful woman, and men's eyes follow her everywhere. She finds pleasure and power in this, but is ultimately disempowered completely because of her utter submission to being a sexual object, one whose sole purpose is to please and then be cast aside.

About halfway through the novel, Ingrid runs away from home. By now she's already involved with drugs and alcohol, but that pales in comparison to the latest trouble she lands herself in: she is abducted into a gang called Satan's Children, in which she is raped and tortured. Despite this, she and the other women worship Enoch Scaggs, the leader of the group, said to be Satan's own son. It soon becomes apparent that rape and torture aren't the full extent of the horrors committed by Satan's Children--they also engage in ritual human sacrifice. Eventually it is Ingrid's turn to be sacrificed, but she manages to escape. She's so emaciated that she manages to slip through the slit of an open window in the garbage dump of a basement in which she's being held captive.

Ingrid reconnects with her mother, and goes through rehab and psychiatric evaluations and therapy. She falls in love with her therapist, and tells her mother she plans on marrying him. Chloe, too, seems to be settling into a calmer life, one safe from her ex-husband. In the last chapter, Ingrid observes the results of a winter storm, and how many of the ruins aren't actually new, but have been there all along, years perhaps. The broken trees are evidently a metaphor for her own broken, but alive, state:

You wondered how they could survive but of course they did. In the skin were marks just visible through the ice-coating, like a secret writing, scars. Nor were they dead exactly, those fallen trees. They were alive, only not vertical. The heartbeat inside them had maybe slowed, only a murmur but if you squatted to listen, if you knew how to listen, if the wind would die down you would hear it.

Ingrid has her own scars, both phsyical and psychological, some more apparent than others. And although her time with Satan's Children resulted in some of the most brutal damage, it's undeniable that some scars run deeper and were inflicted much earlier in her life. Her mother, too, carries scars as well, and both women deal with their pain as best they can. They are alive, even if bent and broken.

I found a few aspects of this novel very interesting. The story is told from Ingrid's perspective, looking back on her life as though recounting these events to a therapist (perhaps the very one she speaks of marrying? It's unclear, and given her manic state, it almost seems like she may have relapsed and is not actually as well as she seems at the end of the novel). Her narration comes as a stream of consciousness, sometimes with a paragraph composed of a single sentence. Thinking back on it now, I'm beginning to think Ingrid may not be a reliable narrator. The novel begins with her entering a women's detention facility. She is on suicide watch. The doctor asks her to tell him about her life, and the story begins, although she tells the doctor that she will not tell him of her life. Is it not her life being recounted then? Perhaps all of it is merely a fabrication.

Anyway, aside from the narrative structure of the novel, it is also interesting how Oates creates a dynamic in which the main female characters (Ingrid and her mother) are located at the center of male violence. Chloe tries to use her beauty as a weapon and means of controlling men--she attracts suitors who can support her and uses them for her own benefit, giving in return, of course, her beautiful body. This power is taken from her when her husband asserts his own claim over her mind and body, beating her suitor and eventually murdering him (being sure to snap some polaroids, which he sends to Chloe just make sure she knows her place). Ingrid, too, attempts to hold some sway over men with her physical attractiveness, and flaunts her sexuality. She feels confident and strong (and perhaps tries to overcompensate for other insecurities), but one day she flirts with the wrong man, and is promptly taken home by Enoch Scaggs, who essentially makes her a sex slave to him and the other men in Satan's Children.

It becomes clear that neither Chloe nor Ingrid are able to assert their own sexual power because they are expressing their sexuality within the limited structure prescribed for them by society. They become prisoners of their own sexuality because what they are expressing is a male construction of female sexuality. While Chloe and Ingrid are both beautiful, intelligent women, in many ways independent and strong, they embody the opposite of the femme fatal trope (perhaps even parodying it). They need men because their very sense of sexuality is defined by them, but that sexuality and sense of self is also, at a basic level, what imprisons them in a cycle of abuse.

This is a compelling novel. Deeply disturbing, but compelling. I'm still not certain of how reliable Ingrid is as a narrator, but the question of reliability only adds to the intrigue of this twisted tale.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Yes Man by Danny Wallace

Yes Man is the tale of a man who takes the advice of a random stranger to "Say yes more." He takes this suggestion to the extreme and challenges himself to quite literally say yes to everything (including email spam telling him he's won the Spanish lottery). Needless to say, this leads to many humorous situations. Danny's childlike optimism is occasionally shattered, but he somehow manages to stay determined throughout it all and in the end, learns how positive and negative approaches to everyday experience can drastically change the direction of one's life.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is Danny's whimsical approach to life. At times he is naive, silly, even idiotic, but he undeniably has a wonderful appreciation and understanding of people and all their idiosyncrasies. Rather than shying away from awkward situations with strangers, Danny embraces those situations and fosters many new friendships, often leading to amazing opportunities.

A few of my favorite stories:
- Danny journeys to Amsterdam in order to collect the money he "won" in the Spanish Lottery. Unfortunately for Danny, the whole Lottery bit doesn't quite work out, but he does meet a few travelers, one of whom offers to take him on a tour of Amsterdam. It turns out to be a wild night, involving, among other things, a psychotropic mindbomb. Danny wakes up the next morning to find a portrait of himself with a small dog on his shoulder. Danny does not own a dog.

- After traveling on a whim to Barcelona to meet Marc (another "Yes Man"), he hops on a plane to Singapore just for the hell of it and lets a kind taxi driver lead him around the city. He enjoys a peaceful afternoon on Pulau Ubin, where he is chased by a lizard while riding a bike.

- Danny meets up with a hypnotist and his hypno-dog, who wears a fez.

Yes Man is an easy read, and Danny's writing is amusing and inviting. He admits his own mistakes and failures, but nonetheless fully embraces "yes" and encourages others to do the same. Danny's experiences are a testament to the power of a simple three letter word and all the positive energy it radiates.