Archive for November, 2011

Regular Read: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Ghost WorldGhost World by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Everyone seems to love Ghost World, and I just don’t get it. I saw the movie and hated it, and I thought maybe I would like the graphic novel better, but I didn’t.

Enid and Becky are about to graduate college. The two girls, especially Enid, spend most of their time criticizing the world around them, playing pranks on people, and speculating about the lives of the people they see.

I suppose the two girls are supposed to represent disillusioned youth, but, to me, they epitomized the folly of youth. When you’re young and haven’t made all that many major mistakes, you can afford to criticize and scoff at old people with pathetic lives that didn’t live up to anyone’s dreams or expectations. I guess you could say that Enid is an antihero, but I couldn’t connect with her in any way. Her pretention and arrogance made it impossible for me to like her in the least.

I would call this graphic novel “proto-hipster,” and I don’t mean that in a good way (although I suppose hipsters would think that made it cooler). Basically, it glorified a pretentious, ungrateful, critical, self-righteous, elitist generation before it was cool to do so.

hipster kitty

It reminded me a little of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book that takes an unflinching look at the folly and pretention of youth. But, for me, the difference was that, as much as the young Dave Eggers of the novel annoyed the crap out of me, I could still stand back and admire the sheer beauty of his writing. The cat can write; there’s no doubt about that. While I disliked the young Eggers of the novel, I could appreciate Eggers’ brutal honesty and his ability to give his readers an accurate snapshot of the person he was in his early twenties.

Clowes, on the other hand, presents us with a caricature patched together out of snark and snobbery.

I wasn’t a huge fan of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I appreciate it a lot more now that I’ve read Ghost World.

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Cannonball 35: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often hit roadblocks when trying to write reviews. I usually have an especially hard time working up the mojo to write a review if the book was especially good and I want to do it justice in my write-up.

But I also occasionally hit a roadblock when writing up a mediocre book because I simply can’t find anything to really say about it.

It took me a long time to get around to writing a review for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It was an okay book, but I certainly didn’t think it was as good as the hype made it out to be, and now, two months later, I’m having a hard time trying to eke out enough memories to write a decent review.

The book revolves around Oscar de Leon, a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. Oscar is a smooth operator with the ladies… until he turns seven and starts seeing two girls at once. One demands that he choose between the two and, being a dog as all men are (I keed, I keed), he picks the prettier one. She responds by dumping him shortly thereafter, and, from that moment on, he’s doomed to be lady-free.

Oscar grows up to be a stereotypical geek: obese, loves sci-fi, is socially awkward, falls in love with unattainable women on a regular basis, etc. On top of all of that, his sister Lola has a strained relationship with their mother, Belicia, and he often finds himself torn between the two.

geek jedi

Is that.. is that a Power Glove???

We get to see the story from Lola’s point of view, and then we flash back to Belicia’s childhood in a Dominican Republic overrun by minions of dictator Rafael Trujillo. As you’d expect, she had a rough childhood and adolescence, which is why she’s so hard on her own daughter.

The most compelling part of the story for me was told from the viewpoint of Lola’s boyfriend, Yunior. A perennial player, he’s constantly stepping out on Lola, even though he genuinely cares for her and knows that his philandering is going to lose him the love of his life. Yunior begins to show kindness to Oscar because of his connection to Lola, but ends up genuinely caring for him. Seeing Yunior grow in affection and care for awkward Oscar was moving;

The book explores themes like growing up in two cultures, family drama, unrequited love, growing up under an oppressive regime, fate — all weighty themes that should make for a gripping read. And, yet, somehow, the book just felt like a standard coming-of-age/fish-out-of-water story.

Maybe it’s because I’m the child of immigrants, myself; maybe it’s because I grew up awkwardly boy-repellent myself. I’m calloused to the struggles of socially awkward and criminally neglected children. But I just wasn’t too terribly moved by Oscar’s story or by Díaz’s writing (note: throwing in a few non-English words doesn’t make it “deeper” somehow. Not that this was Díaz’s intent, but the critics sure seem to put a lot more meaning into that than it deserves).

It’s a decent book; certainly not the worst I’ve ever read. But Pulitzer Prize material? Hardly. At least I don’t think it should be. But the last two Pulitzer Prize-winners I’ve read have been mediocre at best, and it doesn’t make me too terribly excited to read another.

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Cannonball 34: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.”

It’s Guy Fawkes Day, a fitting day for me to finally post my review of V for Vendetta. I saw the movie back when it came out, and it made an impact on me. Hugo Weaving’s performance as “V” was incredible, especially considering that you never see his face, and I was eager to read the graphic novel.

Well, it finally came up in my queue and I have to say that, as much as I enjoyed the film, the graphic novel was better.

The novel is set in a dystopian future London, and begins with young Evey Hammond trying to turn a trick for the first time. She accidentally propositions the secret police instead, and is about to be raped and murdered by them when a mysterious, cloaked figure in a Guy Fawkes mask cames to her rescue. This mysterious stranger, who calls himself “V,” takes her back to his secret, underground lair, the Shadow Gallery.

V was a victim of human science experiments, and he was the only “specimen” to survive. He escaped from a concentration at Larkhill after causing an explosion and, since then, has been hunting down those who know his true identity and are responsible for the experiments, all of whom are now major players in the totalitarian government.

Evey, anxious to help V out of gratitude for his rescuing her, begs to take part in his activities, but is horrified when V ends up killing a pedophiliac priest. She can’t go as far as V is willing to in order to upset the new world order, and he abandons her.

evey hammond

Natalie Portman as Evey Hammond. This was back when she was still legit, before she was doing terrible movies with Ashton Kutcher.

She’s taken in by Gordon, a petty criminal, and they become romantically involved. When he’s killed by a gangster working for the Party, Evey is determined to avenge his death. But just before killing the gangster, she’s arrested and accused of attempting to kill not only the gangster, but also the high-ranking government official that he was meeting.

It’s while she’s imprisoned that Evey discovers a letter written by a woman named Valerie, who was imprisoned for her homosexuality. Valerie tells her story in the letter, and encourages whoever’s reading it not to give up. Evey, strengthened by Valerie’s letter, quietly accepts her fate, announcing that she would rather be “shot behind the chemical sheds” than give up any information that would help the government. It’s then that she learns what it truly means to be free: not necessarily to be able to be comfortable and free from oppression, but simply to have the strength to make your own choices, instead of cowering in fear over the consequences.

amusing ourselves to death

Also worth a read.

Overall, it was a powerful story about the importance of freedom, and the importance of valuing freedom. But dystopian books always remind me of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. In his book, Postman compares two different visions of the future: the Orwellian dystopia and the Huxleyan future of self-medicated bliss. He posits that television and entertainment have become the self-medicating drug of choice, and that the powers that be are able to exert far more influence over the masses by keeping us docile through entertainment and comfort than they are by brute force and oppression.

It’s a good reminder to me that, as chilling as the portrayal of the future in V for Vendetta is, the best way for us to prevent this sort of future is first to stop self-medicating ourselves by escaping from our troubles through entertainment and overeating and literal self-medication, and instead to deal with our problems and accept that life may be difficult, but it’s better to make the difficult choices and bear the consequences of freedom than to live a life enslaved to comfort.

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Cannonball 33: They Call Me Coach by John Wooden with Jack Tobin

They Call Me CoachThey Call Me Coach by John Wooden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Wooden is the winningest coach in NCAA history, and a legend in the world of basketball. I spotted his autobiography on a friend’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. She also insisted that I take The Zookeeper’s Wife. Suffice it to say that I thought this book was the better of the two.

There were three big things that I was left with at the end of the book:

One of the things that really struck me about this book was the way in which he described his former players. He speaks of them with genuine affection and care, and years after they’ve struck out on their own, you can tell that he still thinks about them and loves them. Wooden wasn’t shy about using the word “love” in regard to his players.

Another thing that stuck out to me was his devotion to his wife. He absolutely doted on her, and the way he talked about her was beautiful to see. Nellie Wooden passed away in 1985, but Wooden remained faithful to her memory for the rest of his life. That’s a rare love.

The last thing about Wooden that really made an impression on me was his love for God. He talks about his beliefs with not only conviction and passion, but with much love and affection for his Lord as well. He doesn’t make any apologies for his faith, and he also doesn’t try to make it the focus of the book. But it’s as much a part of the book as it was a part of him.

My only criticism of the book was that it seemed a little disorganized at times. It was written with Jack Tobin, who writes for Sports Illustrated</a<, so I was a little surprised that Tobin didn't rein in his subject a little.

But as far as sports books go, this is a great one, and a must-read for all fans of basketball, sportsmanship, and heroes.

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