Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Before and After Quiz #3

Third time's the charm!  If you don't know how to play, check the first weekly puzzle.

1. A boy who never grows up fights surreal monsters in revolutionary Spain.

2. A Treatise on how to gain and keep power as a Narnian monarch.

3. A former carnival freak is covered in moving tattoos that tell the musical adventures of a 17th century Spanish 'knight.'

4. Wesley must rescue Buttercup from the clutches of a giant, a swordsman, and a Sicilian, who plan to make her marry a reanimated corpse.

5. After ending up on double secret probation, the brothers of Delta Tau Chi find a door leading to a hallway in an external wall at the frat.  Their attempts to document the shifting and seemingly infinite passages put strain on their relationships and sanity.

Scroll down for the answers!

1.  Peter Pan's Labyrinth (Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006 film))

2. The Prince Caspian (The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli (1532) and Prince Caspian (1951)

3. The Illustrated Man of La Mancha (The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (1951) and The Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh (1964 musical)

4. The Princess Bride of Frankenstein (The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973, film 1987) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935 film)

5. Animal House of Leaves (Animal House (1978 film) and House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski (2000))

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If High Schools Taught Philosophy

For some reason, I found myself thinking of my freshman sociology class.  The professor was dedicated to breaking down the assumptions college freshman tend to carry over from an institutional high school education, which, for me, meant it was pretty unexciting. (I went to a high school where we called the teachers by their first names, everyone cussed as they saw fit (teachers included), and all discussion was allowed, no matter how 'inappropriate,' so long as it was constructive.)  One thing that I remembered was the professor pointing out that high schools don't teach philosophy, and she claimed this was because of the institutional nature of high schools, and they didn't want students questioning the school's authority.  And I had an insight.  If high schools taught philosophy, nothing would ever get done.  It would be sheer hell for anyone who taught any subject besides philosophy.  Here are some examples of what classes would be like if high schools taught philosophy.


"...and therefore exposure to water causes the carbon to explode."

"But will it really? How can we know?"

"Well, if you'll remember the scientific method—"

"No, I mean, how can we say that one thing causes another?"

"We can discuss metaphysics some other time, but now—"

"But why talk about cause and effect when we can't even be sure it exists?"

"Interrupting like this will get you sent to the principal's office."

"... But will it really?"


"...leading to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo."

"But how do we know this?"

"Well, there are plenty of first hand accounts, as well as—"

"No, I mean, how can we be sure that Napoleon even existed?"


"We've never seen him, and even if we did, we'd need to consider the possibility that he's an illusion."

"Fascinating, but completely irrelevant to the discussion."

"Well, I guess I have to question the relevance of a lecture about a battle we can't really know ever happened."

"If you keep interrupting, I'm sending you to the principal's office."

"... But how can we be sure the principal exists?"


"For warm-ups I want one lap around the football field."

"But that's impossible."


"Well, if I run one lap, first I'd have to run half a lap."


"So, before I run half a lap, I'd have to run half that.  And before I run a quarter lap, I'd have to run half that.  Before I can run any distance, I'd have to run half that distance first."

"Look, either you run the lap or I send you to the principal's office."

"...But to get to the principal's office, first I'd have to go half the distance to the principal's office..."

Monday, April 20, 2015

2008: The Appeal by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project. 

The Book:

Cover design-John Fontana/Illustration-Shasti O'Leary Soudant/
Photograph-Nicholas Giraud

Length: 484 pages
Subject/Genre: Law/Legal Thriller

The Appeal starts with a verdict against a blatantly evil chemical company which had been knowingly dumping toxic waste into the water supply.  The jury finds the company responsible, and, in addition to a few million in actual damages, awards $38 million in punitive damages.  This opens up the company and it's owner, Carl Trudeau, to more lawsuits and possible bankruptcy.  Trudeau realizes this, and knows he might not win an appeal (mostly because he's unbelievably guilty), so he decides to stack the deck in his favor.  Mississippi is one of a few states that elects state supreme court judges, so Trudeau decides to get someone who will side with him on the bench, replacing a justice that generally sides with plaintiffs.  This process takes up most of the book.  I don't generally like giving away endings, but in this case it's necessary.  Fisk gets elected, almost has a change of heart, but ends up sticking with Trudeau, who ends the party having a big big party on a big big boat.

Trudeau is evil to the point of making the issue of judicial elections go past black and white and into comic book territory.  He's a mix of Sherman McCoy from The Bonfire of the Vanities and Lex Luther.  Here's an actual quote from the meeting after he finds out he lost the initial case.  "Not one dime of our hard-earned profits will ever get into the hands of those trailer park peasants."  While I understand the use of setting clear good and evil when writing a novel with a very specific moral (electing judges is a bad idea), you eventually reach a point of diminishing returns.  Either your reader is an idiot, in which case you're screwed no matter how obvious you make your point, or he's not an idiot, in which case you shouldn't treat him as if he needs the obvious shoved in his face. And this isn't just me griping over my tenth Grisham novel.  I've mentioned before that I like to read the Goodreads reviews on the books I read for this project, and reviews for this book generally fell into two camps.  The smaller camp was people complaining about the panderingly oversimplification of the novel's purpose.  The larger camp is mostly comprised of people who start the review declaring their fandom for Grisham, but giving it a one star rating because they didn't like the ending.  To quote user Alicia: "Grisham could have had a great legal thriller but instead he chose to write a political commentary that tricked me into thinking I was reading for pleasure and enjoyment."    

To quote the top review (from user babyhippoface): "I understand what Grisham was trying to do, but I hate what he did. Hate. H-A-T-E. "    

I never thought I'd feel bad for John Grisham.  He usually gives his book happy, or at least happy-ish, endings.  The good guys win and bad guys get theirs, even when it doesn't make sense.  He's often written about the corruption in politics and the legal world, and if the goodreads response to this novel is indicative of his average reader, I can understand why he felt the need to stop giving them happy endings.  Look, I get that people want stories that are entertaining.  There's nothing wrong with entertainment, with enjoyment, with reading for pleasure.  But what level of obliviousness and complacency and entitlement leads to the response this novel received?  The dislike it receives for being hyperbolic or heavy-handed I understand (and agree with).  But it seems like the general reaction was anger, anger at Grisham for not having given them a happy ending tied up in a neat bow.  Their reaction was to go online and write angry comments about Grisham, rather than write angry letters to their congressman.  Grisham usually brings some social issue into his novels, and he usually deals with them in a very superficial manner.  The Appeal is no exception.  But I'm just struck by the aggressive indifference of his fanbase.  It's one thing if they didn't just like the ending, but the general rhetoric is that they were angry at Grisham for not giving them the ending they wanted, that he had wronged them by disturbing their carefully built up complacency.  I guess I'm angry.  That I had to first read nearly five hundred pages of boring, heavy-handed agitprop, and that I now have to get up here and defend it against criticism far more stupid than the novel itself.  It would be one thing if they disagreed with the message of the novel, but they seem to generally agree.  Perhaps a condensed version of the response would be: "I agree that this is bad, but how dare you make me be aware of it."

I know there are still good books that sell a lot of copies, and there are writers who take on serious social and political issues.  But these two categories seem to keep moving farther and farther apart.  Even up to the 1970's you'd find people like Solzhenitsyn on the top ten annual list.  And this is ignoring the days when people like Sinclair Lewis, or Pearl Buck, or John Steinbeck, or Edna Ferber were some of the most read authors in the nation.  Even books I enjoyed, like A Thousand Splendid Suns or the Millenium trilogy, are limited to already popular statements like 'don't blow shit up' or 'sexism is bad.'  I guess I'm just frustrated by a culture that considers entertainment to necessarily be nothing but mindless diversion and wish-fulfillment, and an industry that caters to and encourages this.  

I'm sure you can figure out my recommendation (and probably my general frame of mind as well).

Bestsellers of 2008:

1. The Appeal by John Grisham
2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
3. The Host by Stephenie Meyer
4. Cross Country by James Patterson
5. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks
6. Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
7. Christmas Sweater by Glenn Beck
8. Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell
9. Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz
10. Plum Lucky by James Patterson

Also Published in 2008:

2666 by Roberto Bolaño (English translation)
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Home by Marilynn Robinson
When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Before and After Quiz #2

Time for round two! If you don't know how this works, check out the instructions in the first set of brainteasers.

1. A British Monarch goes insane, and his doctor has an unconventional treatment: abandoning him in the rain forest with a talking gorilla.

2.  Technology has replaced emotion in this socially striated utopia, and it's up to one Alpha, one Beta, and one boy from a reservation to stop the zombie apocalypse.

3. A treatise on the need for the American people to declare independence and use their brains when picking a husband.

4. An explosive exposé on a notorious biker gang's coming to terms with homosexuality and AIDS in 1980's New York City.

5. Anna Leonowens and her son arrive in Bangkok to teach the Siamese royal children, all of whom exist inside a malevolent AI that keeps them alive for its sadistic pleasure.

Scroll down for the answers!

1. The Madness of King George of the Jungle (The Madness of King George (1994 film) and George of the Jungle (1997 film))

2. Brave New World War Z (Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932) and World War Z by Max Brooks (2006))

3. Common Sense and Sensibility (Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776) and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)

4. Hell's Angels in America (Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson (1966) and Angels in America by Tony Kushner (1993))

The King and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (The King and I by Rogers and Hammerstein (1951 musical and 1956 film) and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" by Harlan Ellison (1967)

Monday, April 13, 2015

2007: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Author:

Khaled Hosseini (1965-    ) was born in Kabul, Afghanistan.  His father was a diplomat and his mother was a teacher.  His family lived in Tehran, Iran, from 1970 to 1973, when his father was stationed at the Afghan embassy there.  In 1976, his family left for a diplomatic position in Paris.  They were in Paris during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and applied for political asylum in the United States, which was granted in 1980.  The family settled in San Jose, California.   Hosseini earned a Bachelor's in Biology from Santa Clara University in 1988, and got his medical degree from UC San Diego in 1993.  He worked as an internist from 1996 to 2004.  His first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), was a critical and commercial success, and received a film adaptation in 2007, the same year A Thousand Splendid Suns was released.  He published his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, in 2013.  He lives in Northern California with his wife and two children.

The Book:

1st edition cover
Jacket Design-Honi Werner/Jacket Photo-Andrew Testa

Length: 367 pages
Subject/Genre: Afghanistan/literary realism

A Thousand Splendid Suns takes its title from a description of Kabul in a poem by the 17th century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi.  The novel is split into four sections, the first focused on Mariam.  Mariam's father was a wealthy business owner in Herat, and her mother was a maid in her father's household.  Her father and his wives came to an arrangement whereby Mariam and her mother lived in a small isolated home outside of the city, and the father visits once a week.  Mariam's mother is bitter and stubbornly superstitious, considering her epilepsy to be possession by a djinn, even though, as Mariam's points out, there are pills to treat her condition.  Mariam leaves her mother for her father's family, only to discover how unwanted she is and is soon married off to an older man from Kabul.  This man, Rasheed, is violent, overbearing, and religiously conservative.
The second section follows Mariam's neighbor's daughter, Laila.  Her father was a teacher and both parents were forward thinking progressives.  Her best friend, who she falls in love with, is a boy named Tariq, who lost his leg to a landmine.  The wars in the area tear her family apart, first with the death of her older brothers who had been fighting with the mujaheddin, which leads to her mother's depression and nervous breakdown.  The victory of the mujaheddin is only a brief respite from violence, as the different factions turn on each other.  Tariq and his family flee Afghanistan, and Laila's family is about to do the same when a rocket hits their home, killing Laila's parents.  Laila is rescued from the wreckage by Mariam and Rasheed, who decides to make Laila his second wife.  
The rest of the novel deals with the relationship between Laila and Mariam and the continuing strife in Kabul.

I'd like to point out that the thirteen books preceding this on the list consisted exclusively of Grisham, Brown, Albom, Waller, and LaHaye/Jenkins.  It's nice to read a bestseller that isn't pandering/pseudo-intellectual/boring/or mind-bogglingly stupid (Albom/Waller, Brown, Grisham, and LaHaye/Jenkins, respectively).  A Thousand Splendid Suns can be didactic at times, especially early on with language and culture, the characters are rounded, the prose is clean, the history isn't made up, and Hosseini manages to be make moral statements without being heavy-handed.  Well, generally.  The first section is pretty in-your-face with its message, but it still manages to avoid being patronizing.  The second section is less heavy-handed, but it often lapses into didacticism.  This is often understandable though, as the history of modern Afghanistan is complex and Hosseini is writing to a mainstream American audience, an audience which he hopes to teach about his home country.

Hosseini uses Mariam and Laila to contrast the radically different social and ideological backgrounds in Afghanistan, without resorting to caricature.  As opposed to someone like Michener or Uris, who would spend 367 pages covering a century of Afghan history via a family line acting as representative of an entire ethno-religious demographic, Hosseini views about fifty years of Afghan history through the lens of two individuals and their experiences, with much greater effect.

And Afghan history, for obvious reasons, was much on the minds of the American reading public in 2007.  Middle Eastern politics is a massive can of worms and seemingly impenetrable to the layman.  Tie this to the popularity and credibility Hosseini gained with The Kite Runner, and it's easy to see why A Thousand Splendid Suns was a smash hit.

While the beginning felt a bit heavy-handed, once I got past it I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.

Bestsellers of 2007:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling*
2. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
3. Playing for Pizza by John Grisham
4. The Choice by Nicholas Sparks
5. Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich
6. Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich
7. The Book of the Dead by Patricia Cornwell
8. The Quickie by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge
9. The 6th Target by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
10. The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz

Also Published in 2007:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

*Although Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold more copies, it was not included on the original Publisher's Weekly list, which is what my reading is based on.


"Biography." Khaled Hosseini, 2015. Web.

Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

"Khaled Hosseini." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday Before & After Quiz #1

Time for the first weekly brainteaser installment!  Here's how the game works:  You get a synopsis of a story, and you have to figure out the title.  The title will be a combination of the two sources (books, plays, movies, tv shows) that are combined to form the synopsis. For example:

After the Union Army ends her idyllic antebellum lifestyle, Scarlett O'Hara works to devise an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language.

The solution is: Gone with the Windtalkers.  (A combination of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and the 2002 film Windtalkers.)  Some leeway will be taken with articles at the beginning of titles, but all answers can be determined from just the information provided.  Here are your five for this Friday:

1. Ernest Hemingway describes his early days in the South of Westeros.

2. Frodo and Sam take a walking tour of Suffolk.

3. A middle-aged black chauffeur is hired to drive a white young American girl on her fateful Roman holiday.

4. Three French sinners must spend eternity locked in Banksy's first art gallery exhibition.

5. A group of Prague-based intellectuals and free thinkers struggle to deal with Soviet oppression, the fleetingness of life, and a portal that lets them enter the consciousness of an American actor.

Scroll down for solutions!

1. A Moveable Feast for Crows (A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964) and A Feast for Crows by G. R. R. Martin (2005))

2. The Lord of the Rings of Saturn or The Fellowship of the Rings of Saturn (The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955) and The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (1995))

3. Driving Miss Daisy Miller (Driving Miss Daisy (1989 film) and Daisy Miller by Henry James (1879)

4. No Exit through the Gift Shop (No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944 play) and Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010 film))

5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Malkovich (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984) and Being John Malkovich (1999))

Friday Quiz List

Quiz #1 4/10/15

Quiz #2 4/17/15

Quiz #3 4/24/15