Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “scruffyrube”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #17 Chains

This entry marks step two in my search for books that would fit my students request for “stuff with more DRAMA” (emphasis theirs)

For a while I thought that DRAMA meant personal turmoil, inner struggle and conflict. I’m not so old that I have forgotten what it was like to be a teenager, with all the private doubt and fear coursing through your veins on an hourly basis. So perhaps my students, who care so much for protecting and understanding themselves, thought of DRAMA as a subtle, internal tug-of-war.

I’ve written before about the author Laurie Halse Anderson, a woman called by some critics: “the Reigning Queen of Teenage Angst”. While her most popular and prevalent books remain modern stories of endangered young women. But a recent run of historical fiction, beginning with Chains, has given her a different audience, and a different setting to play in, even if the power of her protagonist’s internal struggle remains the same.

Embedding herself in revolutionary America, Anderson establishes a powerful heroine in Isabel Gardner, a girl no more than 12 who has lost her mother, father and cares for a younger sister in the grips of epilepsy. And while that, in and of itself, is enough to recommend her as a superb role model for young girls, the fact that Isabel is also struggling to free herself from the bonds of slavery adds a powerful element to the character and the story.

Anderson, as usual, does not accept an easy or stock answer to questions of right and wrong, just or unjust. Though Isabel suffers under slave laws and a petulant mistress, she finds solace in the compassion of people both white and black, working class and landed gentry, immigrants, indentured servants, rebels and British officers. The subtle interplay of individual personalities eventually creates a complete portrait of New York City in 1776 through the eyes of one slave.

Isabel’s struggle is clearly different from Anderson’s other protagonists, and so is her internal struggle. The physical pain or visceral emotions experienced by Melinda in Speak or Lia in Wintergirls is not as apparent for Isabel. Instead hers is a a familial despair borne of the situation and her inability to protect and nurture the one family member she has left, and a philosophical disbelief that the right thing to do is ignored by far too many people.

Whether students appreciate that philosophical struggle in the same way they acknowledge the physical pain or visceral emotions of other protagonists, I cannot say. Nor can I say whether or not young readers will push through Isabel’s formal language. Having learned to read and speak from concerned owners, she shows a grammar school appreciation of proper speech, which can seem alien to the modern day short hand of contractions and elisions. I am thoroughly convinced that Chains is an excellent text, worthy of study, though perhaps not among readers for whom contemporary language or general abstractions is a challenge.

But again, I’m afraid that Chains with all its subtlety, philosophy and internalization with an historical time period doesn’t quite meet that desire for DRAMA

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #16 Something Wicked this Way Comes

This entry marks step one in my search for books that would fit my students request for “stuff with more DRAMA” (emphasis theirs)

At first I thought that DRAMA meant intense danger, especially when a grand, unwieldy spectacle threatened the heroes way of life (I figured the longevity of I am Legend and Armageddon among my students would relate here). The more that things were out of control, the more things were likely to blow up in the protagonist’s face, the better. Which is why I brought home a candidate for my curriculum by Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked this Way Comes.

book cover of Something Wicked this Way Comes  (Greentown)byRay Bradbury

Few people can master the art of rising tension and imperiled heroes like Bradbury can. The packs of students who are annually assigned Fahrenheit 451 can attest to that. And Something Wicked this Way Comes delivers a similar sense of danger as the boyish heroes Will and Jim confront evil amid the creepy calliope sounds of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, a carnival that comes to their sleepy little town just before Halloween. The carnies promise to fulfill anyone’s deepest desire…for a price.

That’s where the moral drama comes into play in Bradbury’s work. While he revels in the details of sideshow illusion made real: living corpses, ice maidens, ant-sized adults, his real passion shines in the life or death, salvation or damnation questions that percolate behind the eyes of both the boys and the lost souls around their town.

Though the themes are captivating, the language is a special Bradbury blend of philosophy and his own 1930’s childhood slang. As such, it does not quite communicate the themes to a modern audience, and even I found my attention wandering. Dark and grim, with a smattering of spectacle it’s an intriguing book and certainly set the standard for copycats from Steven King to RL Stine, a standard unmet by anyone I’ve read. After all,  there are few who can match Bradbury in the sheer audacity of his scenarios and dramatic terror in his climaxes.

As much as I can admire Bradbury’s work, I don’t think it’s actually the kind of book my students are asking for. Intense danger and life threatening situations are exciting no matter how old you are, but they aren’t dramatic with a capital DRAMA for my teenage students.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR Review #15 Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

I’ve been reading a lot into the difference between books based on spectacle and those based on subtlety lately. While The Civil War thrives on spectacle and Indian Killer glories in subtlety, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter tries to thread the needle between the two. Seth Graham Smith (the man behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) has a lot of fun with coupling the dried, academic language of a typical Lincoln biography with the pulse pounding gothic thrills of a vampire rumble. And even I, stodgy old English teacher that I am, had fun with the genre mash-up most of the time.

A lesser known portrait of the great emancipator

My only complaints (and genuinely, they are minor complaints) revolves around the erratic pacing. Much of the time, Smith is content to let the life story of Lincoln slowly unfurl–like a genuine life story–guiding him to motivated (and logical) peaks of axe-wielding fury. But at points he seems bored with Lincoln’s maturation and either adopts an ambivalent tone in his writing or squeezes in a dream-sequence to satisfy those desperate for a little blood and guts.

Still, it’s a fun ride through the 19th century, with the rail splitter, splitting skulls for fun. Smith tries his best but definitely wobbles between spectacle and subtlety. And while some might say that a man like Abraham Lincoln is badass enough not to need an action-star alter ego, I tend to think of it like a chocolate coated chocolate sauce: unnecessary? Yes. Still worth a try? ABSOLUTELY

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #14 Indian Killer

 

A few days ago I wrote about how comic books fixate on spectacle, and how you might simply assume that your average grown up novel will fixate on subtlety. However, there are plenty of gritty crime novels (particularly those related to gruesome serial killers who go the other way. Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer eschews the straight-up spectacle of a racially motivated serial killer mystery (with its potential for red herrings and dramatic climaxes) and instead savors the subtlety of innumerable racially conflicted characters who seem equally capable of murder–and leaves the whodunnit unanswered.

I have an undeniable fondness for Alexie (I’m already planning how to teach his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian at the beginning of the next school year). One of the things I appreciate about his work is the raw but uncertain emotionality that comes with reflecting on race and identity. Throughout Indian Killer, there’s a mixture of zeal and shame that pushes Native American characters to demonstrate their culture and yet assimilate to white society. Meanwhile a hodgepodge of lust and defensiveness leads many white characters to couple their interest in the other races around them with an attempt to maintain the privilege offered by whiteness. Alexie’s world is not black and white (or red and white), but a complex amalgam of shades and senses that seems just right in our “Melting Pot” society.

I can certainly see how Indian Killer might cause discomfort in readers, the more the violence and animosity between cultures escalates, the easier it becomes for readers to say: “well, that’s not me,” or “can’t we all just get along”. But when Alexie refuses to provide the spectacle of racists receiving the comeuppance, or of children of every creed joining hands to sing, the subtle truth shines through: race matters, and as long as it does, excuses, scape goats and utopias will simply distract from actual reflection on and analysis of race.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #13.5 Marvel’s Civil War

Note, I’m counting this as half a book, because I didn’t read all the other tie-ins that would have given me a full understanding of the series’ plot.

I’ve been wanting to read the epic Marvel Comics mini-series Civil War for four years now. Comic book fans I know have spoken highly of the philosophical undertones in what might otherwise seem a gargantuan Superhero Battle Royale, it even made its way into the mainstream news media as an intriguing take on a traditional superhero story. So I giddily gulped down my first big comic book in quite a while.

Nerdgasm…HO!

As the superheroes struggled with the question of whether or not to relinquish their independence and join a firmly regulated federal agency (removing their secret identities), I quickly realized that the challenge of writing and designing an event this massive requires just as much skill and dexterity for the writers as any epic novel. But when the series is compiled into one thin compendium the authors have to leave out tie-ins and crossovers to dozens of other story lines and serials that help complete the series. In the brief book I bought, the swift shifts in Spiderman’s allegiances seem random, largely because he debated the matter in his own Spiderman series. The same goes for a subplot where villains are hired to hunt down independent heroes (such an exciting idea that I’m considering buying that series as well). Clearly the series flourishes when it’s at it’s most fleshed out, but the single volume of high points in the mini-series leaves a lot unsaid.

That (I hope) is the reason why I was underwhelmed by the philosophical nature of the book. I could see the potential for a great debate: do superhero teams constitute a “militia” under the second ammendment, and should they therefore be “well regulated? Or is this a time when, as Ben Franklin suggested: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security”. These issues are never broached, instead the dialogue between the battles boils down to: “let’s change” v.s. “no I don’t want to.” Maybe I’m asking a bit much for Captain America to cite Thomas Paine, but as much as I enjoyed the spectacle of the superhero conflict, I missed the subtlety of the serious questions at hand.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #11 We’re Gonna Win Twins

You can read this review in the context of me defending sports at my personal blog, or you can just read about my moronic thoughts on baseball at my ultra-nerdy Twins blog

To the ambivalent and indifferent observers, sports culture can seem down right idiotic, but believe me it’s something special to love a team. It takes you beyond the nationalistic fervor of the Olympics or World Cup and ties you to a more regional, more specific tribe–a feeling often lost in an increasingly isolated, hyper-individualized society. They’re part of your family, on the tv or radio 162 days a year. Blustering cliches and bombast through offseason “special reports”. The longer they last with a team, the more you care about them–absurd as that feeling might be–because they’re one of your own.

That’s where We’re Gonna Win Twins! hits the mark. Author Doug Grow, a local Twin Cities sportswriter, offers no quarter for owners, players or fans–when any one of them behaved poorly he points it out in blunt, direct reporting; but beyond the foibles lie the anecdotes and memories that endear this particular team to this particular region of the country.

This is not a paean to the glory of the powder blue and norse red.  Owners seem conspiratorial and miserly. Contract disputes of hall-of-famers (Bert Blyleven & Rod Carew) and all-stars (Torii Hunter & Johan Santana) paint a picture of disingenuous greed. Even supposedly admirable, die-hard fans seem like abusive pinheads when they throw garbage at a returning prima donna (Chuck Knoblauch). But there’s something to admire in all the same people, things that make the Griffiths and Pohlads, Blyleven, and Carew, Hunter and Santana beloved figures when they return home. [Though the jury is still out on Knoblauch.]

Little stories about Cuban-born Tony Oliva navigating America in a state of deep anxiety over the chaos in his home and finding a home among the mallards and mosquitos remind you of how welcoming the midwest can be to those who are different. Conveying the eardrum destroying mania of fans reminds you how fiercely passionate the supposedly “phlegmatic swedes” of our region can get. Even little story-lines about born-agains, bonding bills and bloggers demonstrate how locals enact their reticence to accept change.

You can learn a lot about society through the ways it entertains itself. So, you can learn a lot about Minnesota (and other parts of the upper-midwest) through this comprehensive history of the one local team who has won multiple World Championships. You may not be a baseball fan, you may not care about Minnesota. But if you’re interested in exploring a different culture (either in sports or in our own country), We’re Gonna Win Twins! is a great guide into this little segment of our world. (Oh, and if you’re an actual Twins fan…you’ll be happy)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #10 Wintergirls

You can read this and other thoughts on teaching books to tumultuous teenagers on my blog

Reading another best seller by Laurie Halse Anderson (“the reigning queen of teen tumult” according to Newsday) prompted a lot of those thoughts. As my students read Anderson’s most famous novel Speak, I read the more recent but equally affecting novel Wintergirls. And as my students mulled the weighty “what-if”s of how they would live with the traumatic experience of personal abuse, I wondered just how many of them were living with other secrets.

Anderson has a great sense of how silent and secretive teenagers can be, how they occasionally isolate themselves as they start to work their way–independently–through life, and just how often they are dragged through an uncaring, dismissive and apathetic adult world. And so it goes with Wintergirls. 

Lia and Cassie, young, successful and capable of more are driven to greater and greater levels of altering their appearance through eating disorders. They do this not out of vanity or ego, but because of their social circumstances and (especially) their relationship. In her most compelling choice, Anderson lets her narrator [Lia] offer a voice for both her genuine pleas to change and her intense determination to get thinner, and thinner.

As effective as this narrative choice is, it also minimizes the sympathy that a reader might feel for Lia. Whereas the hero of the Speak, Melinda, seems to be a distraught victim, Lia is a willing accomplice to her own pain. To those unfamiliar with eating disorders or depression, Lia’s insistence that she continue destroying herself might seem intensely aggravating. To those who recognize peers, friends or students in the plot, it becomes deeply demoralizing. The emotional reaction for all readers makes the book powerful, moving and deeply engaging–even if it’s not the most appealing topic to spend your free-time with.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #9 Metro 2033

Read more of this review (along with other apocolyptically bad writing at my blog)

I genuinely do like end of the world narratives, there’s something riveting about seeing what people will do when thrown into desperate situations, and rather than conduct unethical experiments with real human subjects, I’ll satisfy my curiosity with engaging fictional story telling. After all, what is Gulliver’s Travels if not the story of a man–deprived of the world he knew–surviving in a world beyond it? What is Candide if not one hapless student’s effort to endure cataclysmic events. What is The Wizard of Oz if not the story of a girl who survives a cataclysmic event only to discover the world a strangely mutated place?  Into that tradition comes Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

The modern Russian novel has developed a cultish following around the world. Set in a post-nuclear war landscape, the plot requires one man (Artyom) to deliver dire news of dangerous mutants to the last vestiges of society–inside the labyrinthine Moscow subway system. So Artyom sets out from the only home he has known and struggles to navigate the complex political context of a world gone mad. Trudging through bureaucracy, ganglands, crazed cults, fascist prisons, communist rebel camps, and pseudo-metropolises.

While it might seem odd, I could not help but connect Metro 2033 to those canonical throughout the reading of it. A foreigner confronting strange customs and ideals in new lands–Gulliver; a young man striving for calm in the face of perilous situations–Candide; unusual alliances and a desperate desire to just go home again–you aren’t in Stalingrad any more Dorothy. As Artyom slogs through the tunnels of Moscow, his literary forerunners slog along with him.

Slog is the right word for it because Metro 2033 moves every bit as slowly as your typical Russian novel, without the same amount of character development. While the central conceit of surviving in a subway system after nuclear war is interesting, it never really moves beyond the obvious challenge of diverse philosophies complicating life in a confined space. While GulliverCandide and The Wizard of Oz spin and spoof human nature, ideologies, and political perspectives through cheeky, subtle satire; Glukhovsky riddles the pages of Metro 2033 with blunt, literal representations of easy satirical targets. Not everything has to be artful–but if you could merge action with artistry–that’s where great things happen, and while I love the potential in Metro 2033 I’m a little disappointed by the execution.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #8 The Devil in the White city

This review can be read in it’s entirety here

The real crux of Erik Larson’s pop-history novel: The Devil in the White City, lies in the oversized dreams that support American identity. At the start of the Roaring 90’s, as America felt fully prepared to move beyond the war that had torn it in two, as it began to stand up on the global stage, it was high time for people to dream big. So we stretched out across the country, we linked the oceans with a railway, we expanded business and art and culture and crafted new inventions to announce our presence to the world. And as our prominence increased, so too did our appetites, both for the good and for the bad.

Larson does a masterful job of interweaving our appetites and our grandiose dreams through two main figures. On one side is Daniel Burnham, a visionary architect who sought to turn the 1893 World’s Fair–a showcase of Chicago and America–into a festival for the senses and ode to the art of construction; on the other Herman Webster Mudgett, a sociopath straight out of nightmares who killed at least nine and likely many dozens more for the sheer visceral thrill of total control.

Daniel Burnham (Wikipedia)

What is most captivating about Larson’s work is that, throughout the build up to the World’s Fair, Burnham seems the most daft and decried by public eyes. (He and others chose a desolate, swampish site to welcome the world? He wanted to build monstrous buildings of unprecedented scale at a feverish pace, regardless of the human lives risked in the process? He ruled the building process like a tyrant? What a maniac!) While Mudgett–aka Dr. Henry Holmes aka Harry Gordon aka Henry Howard–would seem like the epitome of a Gilded Age entrepreneur to his friends and neighbors. (He wants to own a drug store, then build an apartment building and he is always so accommodating to young women. What a gentleman!) We can always tell the truth about each man, but Larson adroitly balances what the reality is with what the perception was creating a masterful sense of “you-are-there” non-fiction so rare in the field.

Herman Mudgett (Wikipedia)

Perhaps the only flaw with the book is the sprawling cast of cacophonous Chicago that populates the pages around Burnham and Mudgett. With settings and lead actors so captivating a casual reader can easily be forgiven for convoluting the names of victims and tycoons, architects and diarists. But through all of that, the burning passion and dreams of these wildly different men echo their age and foreshadow our own intense desires. Who hasn’t wanted to shake loose the bonds of society and pursue their deepest desires? Who hasn’t wanted to stand tall, turning themselves into a quasi-immortal in the eyes of their generation? And while we hope to emulate Burnham’s edifying dreams rather than Mudgett’s destructive ones, the fundamental truth is that both men reflect an undeniably human trait: to want, to desire, to dream.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #7 Clash of Kings

Read this review (and how it relates to my last review) on my full blog here

As I was just saying (about two days ago) Increasingly, stories have to be franchises. It’s not enough to write a good book with great characters and relatable themes. Now, to be a successful author, you need to craft a creative series with consistently charming protagonists (preferably ones that can be played by rising Hollywood stars). You need riveting action and a dollop of comedy–but of course the action can’t be too violent, nor the comedy too coarse or else the movie version will be R rated. And you need to keep the door open, just a crack, for another sequel, and another, and another…

Reading Clash of Kings the second entry in George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series reminded me of many of the things I liked about the first book. The characters frequently pop off the page, especially when they get into intimate, engaging dialogue that offers complexity for their character and context for the book’s action. I frequently found myself marking winning quotations (favorites include: “sorcery is the sauce fools spoon over failure to hide the flavor of their own incompetence” and “a woman’s life is nine parts mess to one part magic”) and savoring each scene with my favorite characters. Again the seemingly minor characters sell the story and own the audience’s attention, and again, I love that.

But, while a sequel can build off the successful elements of the first book, but it also amplifies the things that were irritating. For instance, wide swathes of the book go by with little more happening than people standing and talking about the possible meaning of minor omens. People want to fight. People talk about fighting. People get ready to fight. And then! we hear an oblique reference to how the fight came out for one sentence and get back into discussions about possible meaning of minor omens. The detail of the first book was valuable, but as we go forward looking for plot development as much as description, it becomes a bit much.

Also, while the most integral female characters (specifically the ones who narrate the story) stand out as brave, independent heroines the primary role of women in Westeros seems to be: have sex with guys before battle, have sex with guys after battle, and have sex with guys just on the off chance that a battle might occur eventually somewhere in your general vicinity. (Cue the SNL clip)

As any franchise grows more complex and expansive, it has to change. In many cases, the funhouse amazement of earlier installments wanes until the author either abandons it (as Harry Potter largely does with Quidditch) or overuses it to the point of diminishing returns (as Star Wars does with the increasingly inane planets of sand/ice/rain/lava). Martin’s reliance on increasing both positive and problematic elements of his first book makes him seem indifferent to the potential of a broader fan base and wider appeal. The initial stunner of so wide and complex a world may eventually seem familiar, but if it’s also predictable, what’s the point?

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