Sunday, December 31, 2017

High Fidelity - Nick Hornby

I wasn't an adult in the 1990s, so I'm just now getting around to Nick Hornby.  I let it slip in the last post that English majors are taught (I don't remember in which lecture, but whatever) to divide popularity from quality when it comes to our reading lists.  We don't always term it that way.  Sometimes, we'll call popular books by another name, like "beach reads."  As if to say that no beachgoer would want to splay himself or herself on a towel that features Tweety Bird or a Rebel Flag, or perhaps Tweety Bird and a Rebel Flag, and read Faulkner, even if he was from Mississippi.

When I matriculated, I suppose Nick Hornby wasn't yet out of vogue enough to be featured in any class other than contemporary lit, and he wasn't new or radical enough to be featured there either, so he's largely escaped my attention, except that I see his books occasionally as well-worn paperpacks at thrift stores, and I knew he was part of what inspired some of Hugh Grant's fame in the 1990s.  I'm not painting with too broad of a brush, I hope, but Hornby reads in that British accent that just sounds like Hugh Grant, and it's easy to see him being cast in Hornby's About a Boy, which I've seen and not yet read; John Cusack got the nod in the adaptation of this one.  He likes to brood.

Nonetheless, let's talk about what this book describes: it's a romance, kind of, from a man's perspective, kind of.  Specifically, it's about the fallout of Rob, our protagonist, and Laura, who had been cohabitating with him for a while on the north side of London.  She started seeing someone else, and he goes off the mental deep-end for a while, rehashing old relationships, even going so far as to catch us all up on the beginnings of his love life, which I believe happened when he was 12 and involved a friend's older sister, a playground, and a line of old cigarette boxes that separated the girls' area from the boys'. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down - John Green

I feel like I haven't been very kind to John Green in the past.  There's a part of every recovering English major that draws a distinction between popular fiction and good fiction, and at some point, I placed Mr. Green on the popular side, probably because of the fact that everyone I taught that had two X chromosomes was quoting him incessantly, and from there I stuck to my judgment.  That wasn't kind, or fair.

It's been a while since Mr. Green published anything, so he's fallen out of step with my current students, at least most of them, and so the release of his latest book this past October went by with little fanfare in the 8th grade.  Nonetheless, I bought Turtles All the Way Down and prepared for the eventual onslaught of borrowers.  I'm prepared that upon my return to school, I'm going to try to cause the onslaught.

This book is finely tuned.  Mr. Green has really matured as a writer, and he expects more out of his readers this time around.  By approaching a topic like mental illness on the sly, but in the first person, his ambition would be too much for less capable writers.  He swirls it around quite deftly.  Much of the stuff that has bothered me in the past about Green's writing (the randomness of profanity, the arbitrary treatment of sex, the pace of the dialogue, the quirkiness of the characters) doesn't get abandoned here.  He's still himself.  Yet, it's more polished here.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

1984 - George Orwell

It's quaint to revisit one of the original inventors of the dystopian genre.  Our shelves are saturated with the content in modern times, but when Orwell first put his ideas out, they were a horrifying vision that many have, over the years, tried to distance themselves from in terms of applicability.  This book is the story of Winston, who works for the Ministry of Truth in a war-ravaged version of what we would call Britain.  Winston's job is to intentionally pervert the documents of the past by selectively editing them to correspond and confirm whatever the Party (the political elites) wants the truth to be.

Winston hears rumors of an underground society known as The Brotherhood, and he thinks he might have glimpsed one of its members while he was at work, and there's also this mysterious and attractive young woman he keeps bumping into...maybe dystopian life isn't all that bad?

Not hardly.

I read or perhaps skimmed 1984 as a student at some point.  Although I've always been interested in politics, it wasn't as interesting to me then as it is now.  This is once again one of those classic novels that a person can read and not really internalize in youth only to reread and almost rediscover it in adulthood.  The applicability is profound.  1984 shot back into prominence after the phrasing "alternative facts" was first uttered in the wake of Trump's inauguration crowd size dispute.  The term, put forth by Kellyanne Conway, seemed to remind the more literate of viewers of Orwell's invented language: newspeak, in which Orwell again recognizes (I say again, because he really explores this topic in Animal Farm) the power of language and terminology to influence discourse and thought.  The Party, as it is known, operates under principles that are seemingly illogical: things like "War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," and "Ignorance is Strength."  While Winston does discover a seminal text later that attempts to explain these linguistic conundrums, the public's willingness to accept them as fact is where Orwell really hits home his points.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

11/22/63 - Stephen King

As this blog will testify, I enjoy sprinkling some historical fiction in between nonfiction and other titles.  I'm not sure why, but I think it might even be my favorite genre.  As I think about that, I guess it's fascinating to me to see the tiny minutiae of mundane life cast against a huge background of history.  Scout's dolls against the background of the Depression.  That sort of thing.  I guess it's comforting in a way that although history sometimes seems huge, it's carried out in small bites by everyday people.  That sounds almost romantic.  Let's move on.

The last book saw me meet my goal, but this book is one I've also had on my list for a while.  Back over the summer, I even bought the audiobook version of it--a fact I remembered when I was already halfway through without it--but I hadn't gotten around to reading it for one reason or another.  With a little time on my hands, I thought I'd get into it.  Stephen King is not among my favorite authors.  His writing is sometimes interesting, but he has a habit that is often difficult for me to get past: he casts an unbelievable amount of characters in his novels.  I remember putting down one of his works (I can't remember which) a number of years ago due to this.  King is generally regarded as a good writer, but a writing teacher I had once told me that many characters onstage don't make up for a bad plot.  I've always kept that in mind.

This novel doesn't fall into that pattern.  Although it is a hefty work, King doesn't front-load a few busfulls of characters into the first few chapters.  As a result, the book's pacing moves more normally.  Herein is the story of Jake, a high-school English teacher working in adult ed in Maine to help pay his bills.  His ex-wife was an alcoholic.  He has no kids.  He has a cat.  His kids are the ones he teaches during the days.  He's unassuming.  The other teachers look down on him somewhat.  All of that changes when he gets clued in by Al, the owner of a diner in town where Jake frequents.  Al has discovered a "rabbit hole" in the back of his diner. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg

I vividly remember the first time and the most recent time that I drove a vehicle.  The first time, I wasn't yet licensed, and I don't think my grandmother knew what I was doing.  For some reason, I was able to acquire her keys and her vehicle, and my 14 or 15-year-old self drove a few miles away from where she was--at an antiques auction--and then back a short time later.  I remember how intensely I monitored every detail of that trip: my speed, my mirrors, my seatbelt, distances between vehicles.  Coming home just a few hours ago, driving has become routine.  I still do all of the same actions, but I don't really have to think about them anymore.

That, among many other examples, is why habits are so interesting to me.  Although many of us are likely not interested in admitting it, many of the things we do each day are not by conscious choice.  Just like driving, we simply practice behaviors until they become routine.

Charles Duhigg is a journalist with The New York Times, and he writes this book to discuss this phenomenon: what is a habit, how do we develop them, and what control do we have over them, if any?  This book is the latest in a series of books I've read this year about the brain and some of its mysteries, and each one has been equally fascinating.  This book describes case studies of people who have focused on improving habits, a man who suffered memory loss due to infection and was still guided by habits, and even a man who unconsciously killed his spouse!  It's quite unique.