Thursday, April 30, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

I've seen some other lit blogs have a similar weekly-ish post like this, so I figured I might as well, as well.

I'm nearing the end of Dan Simmons' SFF novel Hyperion (1989), the first novel of a tetralogy called the Hyperion Cantos.  Beyond the fantastic world-building, Simmons does a great job of melding science fiction and fantasy elements in the same worlds as a group of unlikely pilgrims go on a quest to find the mysterious and deadly Shrike.  I can't help but feel that Hyperion had a big aesthetic influence on Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga series.

I also saw Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland (screenwriter for 28 Days Later and Dredd).  It's a solid, absorbing SF piece, with fantastic acting by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander.   The less you know going in, the better.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On the Popularity of Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

An article from the Guardian's blog has been making the rounds recently, being shared by message boards and The Paris Review alike.  The article is titled Has US literature awoken from the American dream? and discusses the modern popularity of post-apocalyptic novels. First, let me point out that even within the context of the article, this title makes no sense.  The article points out that American literature has always been critical of the American dream, pointing out examples as far back as Huckleberry Finn.  But my main complaint is when the article comes to the conclusion that 

"Perhaps an exhaustion with national myths explains the recent advent of post-apocalyptic literature: from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. When the dream has been blown to bits for more than a century, all that’s left is to tell bleak stories of human survival set in the wreckage of a junkyard."

I'm going to do two things here.  First, I'm going to refute the claim that the advent of post-apocalyptic literature is 'recent,' and provide an alternate hypothesis as to the cause behind what is actually recent: it's surge in popularity.  Secondly, I want to examine why people like post-apocalyptic literature.   

First, let's acknowledge that there is a long history of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature.  Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1912)  Aldous Huxley's Ape & Essence (1948), Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), Shirley Jackson's The Sundial (1958), Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (1969).   This is, of course, only a tiny piece of the a much longer tradition.  What you may notice about all these titles, is that they fall into a genre.  Most are Science Fiction or Horror and were marketed as such.  

Until the last few decades (and even now to a lesser extent), Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and genre fiction in general have been considered marginal literature.  They were looked down on by the literary establishment and the reading populace at large.  And apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature was a trope of these genres.  If World War Z had been published in the 1960s, it would never have been nearly as popular as it became, because it would have been relegated to the horror rack in the back of the store, and no self-respecting reader would be caught dead back there.  With growing acceptance of these genres came a growing acceptance of their constituent parts.  By the late 1990s, even John Updike was writing post-apocalyptic fiction.  

So one simple explanation is that we're seeing more apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction because Science Fiction and Horror, the genres into which most post-apocalyptic works fall,  have become popular genres.  And authors who don't normally write in these genres are no longer worried about being pigeon-holed or discredited for doing so. Despite what the Guardian writer claims, we've been telling these stories for over a century.  People just haven't been listening.

As to my second subject, why people enjoy this type of narrative, it's first necessary to make some distinctions. To my way of thinking, there are two primary forms of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature: issue-driven and societal.  Let's talk about issue-driven first.  

Despite the Guardian's bizarre attempt to portray post-apocalyptic fiction as a product of the US, the fact is it is an international genre.  While it dates back to the early 19th century, it started reaching critical mass in the 1950s.  This was a) the 'Golden Age' of Science Fiction and b) soon after the advent of the atomic bomb.  Huxley's Ape & Essence, Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), and Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963) are all post-apocalyptic novels dealing with the results of atomic warfare (although Vonnegut handles Mutually Assured Destruction with the fictitious Ice-9, the message is still the same).  I keep making reference to apocalyptic literature as opposed to post-apocalyptic, so I should give an example of what I mean.  Dr. Strangelove is a good example, as it deals with the end of the world, rather than life after the end of the world.  The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is also, I feel, largely apocalyptic.  An alien species comes to Earth to deliver a message: If you don't get your crap together, you're going to kill us all.  So get your crap together or we'll kill you first.

More recently, issue-driven works have been focused on the environment. In film, we can find The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or The Happening (2008). (I didn't say they were good films.)  The appeal of these is simple.  It's our way of saying, to steal a quote, "You maniacs!  You blew it up!  Ah, damn you!  Goddamn you all to Hell!"

The other category, which I've vaguely titled "Societal," uses the breakdown of civilization to explore the individual or society.  This can be done in a largely literary way (e.g. McCarthy's The Road (2006), Shelley's The Last Man (1826)) or as fun/exciting SF/Horror (e.g. Brooks' World War Z (2006) or Mad Max (1979)) or anything inbetween (e.g. Matheson's I Am Legend).  Jackson's The Sundial is a good example of societal apocalyptic (as opposed to post-apocalyptic) fiction, as the end of the world is at the end of the novel.  

The appeal of reading The Road is different from the appeal of reading World War Z.   In cases like The Road, the appeal is a desire to understand human nature, and the complete destruction of society, of civilized behavior, of everything but the will and need to survive, allows an individual's humanity (or inhumanity) unfettered control of his/her situation.  While there is certainly some such exploration in novels like World War Z, novels and films like this also have an escapist function.  That job you hate?  Gone.  Those people you can't stand?  Gone.  You can do anything you want, whenever you want.  No responsibility, no constraints.

But both of these types of narratives have corollaries outside of the (Post-)Apocalyptic narrative.  Something like William Golding's The Lord of the Flies (1954) provides many of the same possibilities as The Road.   It is a study of human society, a dissection via disintegration.  On the other hand, something like Zane Grey's The Man of the Forest (1919), or any of the countless novels about pirates or lone rogues or charming crooks who live by their own rules and don't take no guff from no one, these fulfill much of the same need that books like World War Z fulfills.  Post-apocalyptic fiction is a very easy way to do this, because you don't need to write a society that your protagonist is at odds with.

Long story short, post-apocalyptic fiction is not a recent genre, but has a long history as a subgenre in SF and Horror, which have only recently gained mainstream acceptance.  It doesn't address any new psychological need, but rather addresses many existing needs in a very direct way.

Monday, April 27, 2015

2009: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Author:

Dan Brown (1964-    ) was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, where his father worked as a professor of mathematics.  Brown went on to study at Philips Exeter and later Amherst, from which he received his B.A. in 1986.  He moved out to Hollywood to pursue a career in music.  He released a few albums by 1994.  In 1993, he moved back to New Hampshire with Blythe Newlon, whom he married, and taught English at Philips Exeter.  He and his wife co-wrote his first book: 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.  Brown was credited under the pseudonym Danielle Brown. He quit teaching to work full time in 1996 and published his first novel,Digital Fortress, in 1998.  Angels & Demons (2000) was his first novel starring Robert Langdon.  His fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) was the bestselling novel of the year it was published and the following year.  His next two novels, The Lost Symbol (2009) and Inferno (2013) were the bestselling novels in the year they were published.

The Book:

Cover Design-Michael J. Windsor/
Cover photograph-Murat Taner

Length: 639 pages
Subject/Genre: Masonic 'symbology'/conspiracy thriller

The Da Vinci Code  The Lost Symbol starts when Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to Paris Washington D.C. by an older, established symbologist.  After he arrives, he finds himself in the world famous Louvre U.S. Capitol Building, where he finds the older symbologist's corpse severed hand, surrounded by arcane symbols.  This older symbologist was a high ranking member of the Priory of Sion the Freemasons, and the location of a secret and powerful item is being sought by a deadly albino man covered in tattoos.  With a killer on one hand, and a detective CIA officer of questionable loyalties on the other, Langdon must find the secret with the help of the older symbologist's daughter sister, before it's too late.

On the one hand, Brown spent less time blatantly fabricating facts this time around.  Not that it did much good.  To clarify before I go into this, historical inaccuracy isn't itself the problem. The problem comes from the fact that Robert Langdon is supposed to be an expert, but consistently ignores, or rather, is unaware of, the obvious answer to questions when such answer would make things less mysterious.  I'm no expert on history, yet I still seem to know more than Langdon in some cases than others.  One common topic in the early parts of the novel is the Greco-Roman influences on D.C. architecture.  In addition to their masonic background, Langdon points out the most mysterious aspects of this influence, completely ignoring the fact that the Greeks and the Roman Republic were the first great democratic systems.  It ignores the rather interesting Society of the Cincinatti of which George Washington, James Monroe, and Alexander Hamilton were founding members.  The theme of apotheosis is also prominent, with Langdon describing The Apotheosis of George Washington and a statue of Washington as Zeus that used to be on display.  Somehow, he's completely unaware of the fact that the 'good' Roman emperors were elevated to divinity after their deaths by the Roman senate.  Because simply continuing the Greco-Roman motif isn't that mysterious.

There's a scene in the book where Langdon is giving a lecture to a bunch of college freshmen, and he just, like, blows their minds, by pointing out that taking communion and bowing before the cross consists of symbolic cannibalism and bowing before a torture device.  And I realized that this is Brown's attitude toward his audience in a nutshell.  Except Langdon would be less of a world-renowned Harvard professor and more of a low-tier community college professor, or a guest host on Ancient Aliens.  Because the fact is, Robert Langdon comes across as a guy who memorized a bunch of facts, but ignores the obvious explanations and relevant connections.  He's a hack.

But as to The Lost Symbol, it has some specific problems The Da Vinci Code didn't.  First, and I'm sorry if I spoil anything for you, but nothing is really at stake.  At least in The Da Vinci Code, the discovery of Magdalene or of Jesus' descendants would have massive implications, theologically and politically.  In The Lost Symbol what's being sought is, well, symbolic.  I mean, imagine if Langdon found what the Priory of Sion was hiding, and it turned out there was no grail, the real treasure was friendship.  It's basically that bad.  It also ends with a twist regarding the bad guy, except the twist is completely pointless.  Another spoiler alert.  The older symbologist was extremely wealthy, and his son was a irresponsible party boy.  After however many attempts to save him, he decided to let his son suffer the consequences.  His son was arrested for drug crimes in Turkey, and rather than bribe the guard to release the son into his father's custody, the father decided to go through the official channels with the embassy.  The son's cellmate and the guard killed the kid, and took his considerable fortune, and the cellmate then killed the guard.  The cellmate soon grew bored with the good life, and saw a special on the freemasons, talking about a secret masonic pyramid.  He remembers that the son told him he was offered a small pyramid by his father in lieu of his share of the family fortune.  This sets the cellmate off on his quest.  He gets some tattoos, changes his name to Mal'Akh, and starts killing people.  In the end, we find the twist:  Mal'Akh was the son the whole time!  He and the guard killed his cellmate, then he killed the guard and ran off with his money because his dad left him in prison.  So, this irresponsible millionaire playboy, who as far as we know has done nothing worse than some recreational drugs, decides to murder two people?  Especially considering he could have just bribed the guard and bought a fake ID, this makes no goddamn sense.  Twist endings are supposed to explain inconsistencies, not create them!

This book is, to borrow a phrase I used frequently in my review of The Da Vinci Code, bullshit.  Robert Langdon is to history and art what the cast of The Big Bang Theory is to math and science: caricatures that only make sense when you know absolutely nothing about the subject.

Bestsellers of 2009:

1. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
2. The Associate by John Grisham
3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
4. I, Alex Cross by James Patterson
5. The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
6. Ford County by John Grisham
7. Finger Lickin' Fifteen by Janet Evanovich
8. The Host by Stephenie Meyer
9. Under the Dome by Stephen King
10. Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Also Published in 2009:

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
The Women by T.C. Boyle
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

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

Quiz #4 5/1/15

Quiz #5 5/8/15

Quiz #6 5/15/15

Quiz #7 5/22/15

Quiz #8 6/5/15

Quiz # 9 7/10/15

Monday, April 6, 2015

2006: For One More Day by Mitch Albom

The Author:

Mitch Albom (1958-    ) was born in Passaic, New Jersey, the son of Ira Albom, a corporate executive, and Rhoda Albom, an interior designer.  He attended Brandeis university, receiving a B.A. in 1979, and an M.B.A. from Columbia University in 1982. Albom embarked on a popular and critically successful career as a sportswriter and broadcaster in Detroit, winning numerous awards for his sports columns.  In fact, his first six books include four anthologies of his sportswriting (The Live Albom (1988), and Live Albom II-IV (1990, 1992, 1995)) and two long-form non-fiction sports books.  His major breakthrough as a popular writer came in 1997 with the publication of Tuesdays with Morrie, documenting his conversations with terminally ill Morrie Schwartz, a former professor of his from Brandeis University.  The book was promoted by Oprah, who also produced a made-for-TV movie of the book in 1999 starring Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon.  Albom's first novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (2003), which was a huge commercial success.  He penned two plays, Duck Hunter Shoots Angel (2004) and And the Winner Is (2005). His 2006 novel, For One More Day, was the bestseller of that year.  Since then, Albom has written one non-fiction book, Have a Little Faith (2009), and two 'inspirational' novels, The Time Keeper (2012) and The First Phone Call from Heaven (2013).  Albom currently hosts a nationally aired general talk show, and a weekly sports show.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover/Cover art by Phil Rose

Length: 197 pages
Subject/Genre: Family/'Inspirational' Fiction

For One More Day starts with a prologue in which an unnamed narrator shows up in the small town of Pepperville Beach, and meets Charles "Chick" Benetto, a washed up major league baseball player who had tried to kill himself.  The majority of the novel is Benetto telling his story.  In broad strokes: His parents got divorced when he was a kid, and the dad, who was a jerk and the reason Chick became a baseball player, moved away.  He dropped out of college to play major league baseball, made it to the world series, lost, got injured, his marriage fell apart, his mom died, he became an alcoholic, and now, after finding out he wasn't invited to his daughter's wedding, he decided to kill himself.  His attempt to kill himself is unintentionally bizarre.  He gets drunk and drives back to Pepperville Beach, only to crash into a truck on the offramp and he gets thrown clear of the car.  That he survives is believable, that he survives and is then able to walk to a water tower, climb it, and throw himself off, and survive that, seems more like a gag from the Simpsons.  Anyway, after he throws himself off the water tower he walks to (or hallucinates himself walking to) his childhood home where —Surprise!— his dead mother is there and acting like nothing happened.  Chick gets to talk about how much he missed her while his mother goes around comforting a few people who are soon to die.  

There is a significant difference between sentimental and saccharine, and this novel is exclusively the latter.  It's also unashamedly pandering to a specific demographic, namely mothers.  I realize that sounds weird, but let me explain.  The vast majority of the novel is Chick lamenting not appreciating his mother more. He even fills up a journal listing every time his mother stood up for him and every time he didn't stand up for his mother.  The former includes times when his mother really shouldn't have taken his side (e.g. Chick wanted to invest in a sports bar after his career ended.  His wife points out that Chick shouldn't, as he knows nothing about running a sports bar.  His mother backs him up.  The sports bar is financially disastrous.) and the latter includes a middle-aged Chick regretting every instance of rudeness from his childhood.  I started writing what platitude we were supposed to learn from each of these in my copy.  One example, taking up two pages of a less than 200 page novel, tells us about when Chick was six years old, and his mother made him a rag and toilet paper mummy costume for the school Halloween parade.  It starts raining during the parade, and the costume is ruined, causing Chick no end of embarrassment.  "When we reach the schoolyard, where the parents are waiting with cameras, I am a wet, sagging mess of rags and toilet paper fragments....I burst into tears.  'You ruined my life!' I yell."  So remember, if your six year old child is ever upset at you, he'll regret it deeply when he grows up.  In fact, this entire novel seems to be an extrapolation of "You'll miss me when I'm gone."

Look, I have a good relationship with my parents (Hi, Mom!), and, like any child who ever existed, there were times when I was a real brat.  But I think everyone in my family is well-adjusted enough to not obsess over every temper tantrum I had when I when I was still using training wheels.  Family is important, and I don't mean any disrespect to people who dedicate their lives to their family, but the mother in this novel has absolutely no interests besides her kids.  They are her entire life.  If she did or thought anything that wasn't about them, it didn't make it into the novel.  And this novel panders to this personality.

While I generally try to avoid giving away endings, I want to break that rule here.  After the monologue that makes up the majority of the book, there's an epilogue where the unnamed narrator from the prologue talks about Chick's death natural causes a few years later.  I only mention the epilogue because the last paragraph reveals that the unnamed narrator was Chick's daughter the whole time!  What a twist!  Except, it doesn't change anything.  At all.  Nothing is resolved by this, nothing is changed or reinterpreted.  I guess Albom thought books should end with a twist, so he decided to hide an irrelevant piece of information and reveal it at the end.  Is it a surprise?  Yes, in the sense that no one was expecting it. But no one was expecting it because it was completely beside the point.  It doesn't strengthen the novel in anyway, it just confuses being unpredictable with being original.  So, standard formulaic bull.

Beyond pandering to a specific demographic, Albom had a lot going for him with this book.  Beyond having his own show, there was the Oprah connection.  Her TV movie version of For One More Day, starring Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) and Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist, Requiem for a Dream) came out in 2007.

But more than that, For One More Day was the first novel Starbucks selected for its Book Break program.  According to the linked New York Times article, "Starbucks [was] selling “For One More Day” in about 5,400 stores in the United States..."

So, its success isn't that surprising.  A lot of people bought it, but I don't think you should, unless you fall into the particular demographic Albom is writing for and want to be pandered to.

Bestsellers of 2006:

1. For One More Day by Mitch Albom
2. Cross by James Patterson
3. Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
4. Next by Michael Crichton
5. Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris
6. Lisey's Story by Stephen King
7. Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
8. Cell by Stephen King
9. Beach Road by James Patterson and Peter De Jonge
10. The Fifth Horseman by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Also Published in 2006:

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski
What Is the What by Dave Eggers
An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Everyman by Philip Roth

Albom, Mitch. For One More Day. New York: Hyperion, 2006. Print.

"Mitch Albom." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.

Motoko, Rich. "Starbucks Picks Novel to Start Its Book-Sale Program." The New York Times. New 
     York Times, August 8, 2006. Web,

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reality Television and the Modern Human Oddities

One of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century, and one I heartily recommend, is Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum written by Himself.  As the aptly grandiose title indicates, this is the autobiography of P.T. Barnum, or rather one of them.  He wrote three main versions, the first in 1855, the second in 1869 with an update in 1872, and the third in 1882.  If you're wondering why you should read the second edition (available free in facsimile from, it's because Barnum expurgated hundreds of pages from the final edition.  Barnum, in true picaresque fashion, goes from a rascally youth to a man of the world, collecting the strangest specimens on the planet for the American Museum in New York, appearing before the crowned heads of state, and himself becoming an icon in the process.  But of these strange specimens, which include everything from elephants and angelfish to tribal relics to the infamous Feejee Mermaid, none are as memorable, or controversial, as his human oddities, oddities like Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, who by the time he was ten years old had performed for Queen Victoria and other European nobility.  Also notable are Joice Heth, who he claimed was 161 years old and George Washington's 'mammy,' and Chang and Eng Bunker, better known as the Siamese Twins. Not to mention the time he tricked a group of Native American chiefs (none of whom spoke English) to appear on stage every night while they were in New York on a diplomatic mission by claiming that the crowds had assembled to pay them respect.       

Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren - 1863

Anyone writing of Barnum today has to take a defensive stance on the exploitation of the deformed or disabled, although Barnum himself feels no need to do so.  This is not because Barnum was a vile man, but rather that it was not thought of as manipulation.  I bring this up only to point out that we live in a culture that would find freak shows morally wrong, but this attitude, for good or bad, is cultural.  We accept that this ogling of the strange is wrong, yet the underlying desire that led to the popularity of freakshows still exists.  Whether this desire is merely morbid curiosity, a ritualistic attempt to keep the grotesque or unfortunate at a distance, or something altogether different, is beyond me.  But I remembered something when I was thinking about the Barnum autobiography.  About two years ago, I was walking down the Venice Beach, and passed the Venice Beach Freakshow, one of the few extant freakshows in the nation.  The barker, an unusually tall, thin, and pale man, clad in all black with lanky white hair, was calling out his spiel: "Come See the Venice Freak Show, We have a show on AMC, Same station as Breaking Bad."  Obviously, I paraphrase, but the salient details of his spiel, that they had a show on AMC and that this was the same station as Breaking Bad, are completely accurate.  Another detail: Everyone kept walking past.       

But Freakshow isn't the only freak show on reality tv, just the only one that admits to it.  The old standbys are there.  We have dwarfs (Little People, Big World) and the fat man (The Biggest Loser) as well as any other number of human oddities from people who eat toilet paper (My Strange Addiction) to people who live in squalor (Hoarders) to unique communities (Breaking Amish) to women who have unusually many children (Jon & Kate Plus Eight; 19 Kids and Counting). But why does a society that finds freakshows morally indefensible not have a problem indulging in what is essentially the same form of entertainment?  Here's a hint: Many of the shows on the above list are on TLC.

TLC, for those of you that don't know, stands for The Learning Channel.  Their viewers don't watch My Strange Addiction to ogle the freaks, no, of course not, they're there to learn about these conditions, they watch Breaking Amish to try to understand.  People who would never go to the Venice Beach Freak Show, or any freak show, are still willing to watch a reality program about a freak show.  It's a way to indulge in whatever curiosity satisfying/catharsis inducing element provided by freakshows, without the attendant guilt.