Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

It may seem surprising that the plots of many books involve school--particularly high school--but the experience of growing up, learning, and discovering sexuality, existential angst, and personal philosophies roots itself deeply into the soil of our individual excursions into that nameless void of life. High school, a rare universal in the lives of most Americans, acts as a microcosm for spying on all of those little questions and urges that sprout into actions, beliefs, and deeds. We cannot study these ambitions and drives, if not in that sacred grove, that breeding ground of hormones and desires and rivalries, that bucolic and sought-after glade of nostalgia: the corridors of high school and the hallways of the home.

In her debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl channels erudition, wit, and wisdom through the wry observations of Blue Van Meer, a Harvard freshman who, a year afterwards, reflects on her senior year at an exclusive school in Stockton, North Carolina. Blue’s father, a professor who accepts visiting positions at a slue of universities, uses travel time in their Volvo station wagon as an opportunity to make his daughter recite poetry and read from books about trivia, history, political theory, and philosophy. The narrative, recounted from Blue’s first-person perspective, invites the reader into these transits from one town to the next, and as Blue and her father traverse the nation--marking their place in a Rand McNally atlas with pushpins--the reader embarks on a journey through Blue’s story and through a bevy of pop culture references, product placement, citations, and literary movements.

But Blue remains human, despite her head-in-the-clouds level of intelligence, despite her father’s penchant for spitting out a wildfire of quotations, because she is a teenager, ravaged by sexual awkwardness and the desire to fit in. Blue, whose mother has passed away, becomes a special adoptee, in a particular way, of schoolteacher Hannah Schneider, who introduces Blue to the elite clique of Stockton students known as the Bluebloods. They effect in Blue a social and psychological makeover, but her ties to Hannah and the Bluebloods initiate a sequence of fatal events that test the limits of Blue’s intelligence, her resourcefulness, and her perception of meaning and value.

Pessl’s novel is a clever exploration of the intersection between literary tropes, between the lofty abstractions of ideas and the tangible, earthy quality of daily life. Pessl blends genres through Blue’s wide reading list and intelligent witty remarks; at moments, Special Topics is undeniably Gothic--the narrative has a surreal quality, marked with delusions and the notable absence of Blue’s mother because of an automotive accident--while at other times the novel treads the terrain of a detective story or a how-to book or popular nonfiction.

But this movement between genres and modes, between moments and memories, between forms and functions, succeeds because Pessl, from the very beginning of the narrative, asserts Blue’s primary purpose for working out this story on paper: She has to write this story, record her experiences, and use storytelling as a way to determine what she believes and how she understands her own life. At the center of this novel, like a monument in a city square, is the idea that, for Blue, all of these events and reading assignments somehow weave together. Blue is human, after all, and wants to make sense of what and how she feels. Knowing all of these fragmented pieces allows Blue to assemble a map of her own narrative as well as others' tales, a reminder to us of how our minds might nail together a series of random occurrences, fateful encounters, or odd happenstances into a logical, cohesive story.

Pessl, Marisha. Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Viking-Penguin. 514 pp. $25.95.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Lame Excuse, Um, Lame Excuse

Dear all,

Due to holiday insanity (and the fact that I'm away from my scanner, personal library, The New York Times, and daily routine until I return to Lewisburg tomorrow), I won't be able to get a proper post up until Tuesday.

But, for Tuesday, I'll promise all of you a book review on Marisha Pessl's debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Fantastic book--energetic, witty, and full of pop culture references, and perhaps one of the smartest books I've read in a while. That's the reaction, in brief. The full monty, tomorrow.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays, from The Penguin in the Machine!

Happy holidays to all of you folks, from here at The Penguin in the Machine! This year, I’ve finally succeeded in convincing my family to carry through with a holiday tradition that I had intended to start several years ago—a reading of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on the nights preceding Christmas Day. It’s an alternative to watching any of the dozens of adaptations of the famous little story. Disney has their recent adaptation, with Jim Carrey voicing Ebenezer Scrooge, which--if I’d been able to finagle my way out to see it--I would have posted a review of that.

In that spirit, though, I’ll take a quick glimpse into the past to a few variations of A Christmas Carol that I’ve seen across the years. So, as a present to assist you with your holiday movie choice, I present several quick film reviews of Christmas Carol adaptations.

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
“Harold and the Purple Crayon” has a more vibrant color palette--and better animation, frankly--than this 1960s mash-up of poorly scrawled animations over bland, minimalist washes of monochromes. There is some bizarre desire that the characters all seem to possess for “razzleberry dressing,” perhaps the concoction that drugged the writers and artists into swirling together sub-par musical numbers and shallow characterization. As far as animated/children’s renderings of Dickens’s classic go, there are many renditions that hail to the original and still provide solid characterizing. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is as blind to development as its titular character.

A Christmas Carol (1984)
George C. Scott produces an iconic performance of Ebenezer Scrooge--tough, austere, distant, and yet harrowingly soulful as the ghosts trawl this lost man through the snares of memory and personal history. The aesthetic of the film grounds itself in authentic, Victorian design, and the shots--which ground the narrative in a series of tight, dark shots--reminds the viewer of the political and economic constraints of industrializing London. However, the tight cinematography provides a sensation of impression, that we are trapped along with Scrooge in his crucible.

Scrooged (1988)
Billy Murray stars as the unsympathetic, grouchy network executive Frank Cross--a name square and taciturn as anything that Dickens could conceive. Karen Allen, as Claire Phillips, plays against Murray’s stalwart, capitalist exec; Allen’s character works in a homeless shelter, while Murray’s Cross proposes films such as The Night the Reindeer Died to a board of directors. The movie whimsically moves between layers of watching and viewing, mimicking the very medium with which it was produced--film. Viewed as good fun, Scrooged is a lighthearted, but entertaining, modern treatment of the Scrooge narrative.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Surprisingly, director Brian Henson assembled a cast of Muppets in one of the most loyal renderings of the holiday classic. The greatest alterations are those inserted to account for the idiosyncrasies of the Muppets; the most obvious of these concerns Gonzo (playing Charles Dickens) referring to the Marleys (as opposed to just Marley) being “dead to begin with.” (Statler and Waldorf play the “Marley Brothers,” hence the change.) The Muppets follow the narrative closely, sharply, and combine much of Dickens’s original dialogue with voiceover narration provided by Gonzo/Dickens and an entertaining, memorable, and lively array of musical numbers. Michael Caine contributes a strong performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a manner that borrows heavily from George C. Scott’s deeply affecting portrayal of the character.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Jon and Kate Plus...Wait?

As of 18 December, Jon and Kate Gosselin of the TLC reality program Jon and Kate Plus Eight announced that their divorce was finalized after a hiatus of the hit show. Since the couple first announced the death throes of their marriage, they have become the veritable eye of the reality television tornado. I’d go so far as to say that their domestic drama--through the medium of television--sucked in thousands of viewers, kept hundreds perched on the edge of their seats.

The only reason I knew about the split was because it made the frontpage of the “Life” section--the fourth section--of The Altoona Mirror. But I heard whispers about it everywhere I went: grocery store checkout lines, the Verizon store in the Logan Valley Mall, some folks flipping through the glossies at the news kiosk, the one that used to sell fountain drinks for a dollar and ten cents.

But there was something about the Gosselins and their domestic crumble that, despite all the gaudiness of the media circus surrounding their swelling brood and the dissolution of their marriage, that draws in viewers and television commentators.

In a word: drama. But what is drama?

The everyday, the quotidian, but made extraordinary. Something so plain, so normal, that it becomes--to use a cliché that I’d much rather shirk--larger than life.

We can summarize most pieces of literary fiction in this manner. Okay, ready? Let’s go, then. Ulysses: Leopold Bloom is afraid of his wife’s affair, so he spends the entire day meandering around Dublin. Jane Eyre: Jane, raised by her aunt, wants to find a family where she can fit in, feel important, and be loved for who she is. Persuasion: Anne Elliot, who listened to other people and therefore screwed up her best shot at love, just wants to pull off a second chance with the beau of her dreams.

And the trend works in contemporary literature, too. Writers such as Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley have earned themselves a great deal of renown for their treatment of everyday events as ways of looking into the deep, underlying tensions in human life. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist begins with a moment where a couple, driving their car through the rain, reflect on the death of their son; the drive becomes a metaphor for their failed relationship, and the marriage splits--within the first dozen pages--with the reader in the passenger seat. More optimistically, Jane Smiley gives us The Age of Grief, a novella in which her characters--both dentists, oddly enough, though I doubt most non-dentists know only one dentist in real life--discover the ties that bind them together: children, sickness, work, and our own little insecurities.

So though we gawp at Jon and Kate Gosselin (and though reality television is 1/3 voyeuristic, 1/3 ridiculous, and 1/3 strangely enticing), we’re drawn to it precisely because these crumbling, treacherous domestic situations are made of all the stuff of good stories. Drama. Personal conflict.

The stuff might be hackneyed and trite, but it at least knows where the story is at.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Book to Gift and Re-Gift, Time and Again

Several weeks ago, The New York Times posted three articles from its daily book critics--Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and Dwight Garner--with each writer’s picks for the top ten books of 2009. Generally, I tend to take little value in these lists, especially since popular book review pages write toward the middle audience: that wide readership that sometimes wants flaky love novels that possess all heart and not a minute of soulful plot, a detective or sci-fi/fantasy novel with ratcheting suspense yet cringe-worthy cliché characters, the self-help book that promises to change millions while rehashing the same tired platitudes, or the ghost-written memoir of a politician or athlete or film star (or, in some cases, the memoir of somebody who has filled all of these rules). Certainly, some good literary works get on these lists--the list from the Times includes Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs and Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite--and even some of those “flaky” books are actually a lot of fun, some of those general audience nonfiction books interesting or catchy.

Janet Maslin--who wrote the brief note for the overview page describing the project--writes that none of the reviewers “has an objective view of the year’s best and most important books, but this is what we do have: favorites. They are books we have not only admired in the abstract but also enjoyed, recommended, and given to friends.” Though the reviewers’ lists provide a decent overview of the year in books--genre, nonfiction, literary fiction, biography, finance, etc.--I feel that, overall, these top tens aren’t constructed to urge us into buying any books. It’s mostly informative, although the Times has termed this a “holiday gift guide.”

But Maslin has found the heart of the matter; as a journalist involved with books, publishing, and the literary world, she has proposed the proper question in this time of year. Why buy somebody a book, when this is a difficult time of year for many poor and struggling families, when the country is in recession, when money is tight? And she gives us an answer: Because people might enjoy this book. That she emphasizes enjoying the book and then passing it along to friends, encouraging others to read--this shows us a great deal of the festive, December spirit, and it reminds us that books can be an important part of our communities.

Let me say this: There are few things that excite me as much as when a friend not only tells me I should read something but goes so far as to put the thing in my hands (physically or as a gift through snail-mail) and inform me that I must read this thing because she found it so incredibly enthralling, so entrancing, so beautiful. Whenever I read those books--one group that comes to mind, strangely, is my collection of Philip Pullman’s young adult series His Dark Materials--I come back to the sensation of, firstly, the book, but also this idea that my friend’s gift has given me something to share in return.

I can pass the book on to somebody else. Or I can read it again. Or I can call the friend on the phone to spend the time gushing over what the story means to us. The best books of 2009 are the ones that you have read this year that have compelled you to pass them on and to make your friends read. Stories that need to be shared--those are the best of 2009.

To see Janet Maslin’s piece about the 2009 NYTimes book lists, please visit http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/27/books/27ggbooksintro.html?_r=1.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: The Humbling, by Philip Roth

If you’ll allow me the pun, any decent critical reception of The Humbling, the most recent novel by three-time PEN/Faulkner-award winning novelist Philip Roth, should be a humbling experience for its author.

The Humbling, which comes out at a very sleek and easily read 140 pages, begins at a pace unusually slow for Roth’s fiction; he begins the narrative immediately in flashback, and the first episode of the book, entitled “Into Thin Air,” chronicles the spontaneous loss of stage actor Simon Axler’s ability to portray the toughest stage roles of his time, in productions of Shakespeare to contemporary plays. Roth possesses in the first 40 pages of this book an opportunity to hook us with the poignant and powerful story of an actor declining despite his best efforts, yet we are treated to several dozen pages of exposition, background, and passive voice.

For forty pages, Simon Axler—and the narrative—lack any agency, of any kind. In the opening pages, Axler’s wife and his talent have both departed him in prose that—even for Philip Roth—is shockingly distanced at odds with the elegant, Jamesian voice that he possessed in his earliest work in Goodbye Columbus. After his wife leaves, Axler considers committing suicide; Roth writes: “Now there was nothing stopping him. Now he could go ahead and do what he’d found himself unable to do while she was still there: walk up the stairs to the attic, load the gun, put the barrel in his mouth, and reach down with his long arms to pull the trigger.”

But the reader lacks an authentic connection to Axler, to his struggle, because so much of this book begins with a mere gloss of Adler’s depression, and the narrative hardly delves deeper than surface perceptions. Roth—whose previous few novels have also had the macabre theme suggesting that little in life matters and, hey, what’s the point because we all die anyway?—has not helped this little book along, especially in his stereotyped treatments of stock manic and depressed characters in a psychiatric hospital and a hackneyed lesbian-turned-straight-turned-lesbian love interest of Axler’s who, by the end of the novel, has wrecked Axler’s home, offended a lover, and turned a previous lover into a man through sex-hormone replacement therapy and surgery.

I hesitate to call this book a “novel”—anything that I can read in less than an hour and twenty minutes is not, most likely, a novel—but it also lacks the depth and emotional catharsis readers generally expect from the form. When Simon Axler—depressed, unable to pull himself from the depths of doldrums, and despondently alone—finally commits suicide in a brief, terse, passage, the moment occurs in the text just as a matter of fact, like the concluding passages of a history. When Simon Axler dies, humbled and broken, his life becomes—like this little book—largely forgettable.

Roth, Philip. The Humbling. Hardcover. Houghton-Mifflin. 140 pp. $22.00.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Reality of the Imagination

BBC News - Rare words 'author's fingerprints'

French surrealist painter, poet, and critic Max Jacob observed, “What is called a sincere work is one that is endowed with enough strength to give reality to an illusion.” Media circuses in the past few years have given us plenty of reason to doubt the veracity of appearances; I think of the Kobe Bryant scandal a few years back and the recent Tiger Woods imbroglio—multiple women scrambling from the woodwork to have their say—as examples of how clean images and massive media campaigns can crumble in seconds. Or—since I’m sticking with athletes this morning, apparently—consider Andre Agassi’s recent revelation that he abused crystal meth and lied about his drug use during his competitive days.

So what endows a work or a human life with that sincerity, that strength, as opposed to merely plating it with glass? Language is involved, obviously: multi-million dollar campaigns, advertising contracts, public appearances, and prize money contribute to putting these superstars in the limelight. But these appearances are mirrors; these clean images reflect back at us exactly what we want to see, and the smallest things—a crash into a fire hydrant outside your home, for instance—can split that fragile surface, send cracks rippling across the whole infrastructure.

I, for one, believe that what imbues a narrative with strength is precisely the perception that it is real, that although it is something imagined (it’s a story, made out of words strung into phrases linked together into sentences blocked together in paragraphs, constructed from the letter level on up) it nonetheless has the full essence of something lived, something real. Propaganda and cover-ups are just ruses. Feints. Distractions from the actual narrative, something layered under photo-ops and press conferences and advertising your recent breach of the White House on your StalkerBook page.

I originally intended to write about something else today—film adaptations of stories, actually—but I decided to bring up this idea—what makes the reality of a story—after reading a BBC article that claimed that authors have stylistic fingerprints. Sebastian Bernhardsson, the leader of the research, claims that we all possess a “meta-book,” the theoretical text that contains all of our uses of particular words. He said to the BBC’s writer that “That story you’re writing right now is a piece of that big book and that is what you’re pulling out.” They catalogued the words in the works of Thomas Hardy, Herman Melville, and D.H. Lawrence.

I can’t help but feel that this diminishes what a work of art is. It’s more than simply the words—there’s the obvious manner of arranging them. Perhaps there is a “meta-book” on some theoretical level, some way for us to catalogue an author’s use of language. But it stops at this brand of textual fingerprinting. This reduces narrative to being just a matter of words—and then we ignore the poetry of language. Hardy, Melville, and Lawrence aren’t remembered because of the words they used but because of how their words were used. And literature is adaptable, alterable even across the career of a single writer. I would love to see them do this sort of fingerprinting based off the career of modernist experimental writers—a Woolf or a Joyce or a Faulkner—and then compare it to contemporary modern novelists—a McEwan or a Byatt, perhaps—whose styles have evolved and finessed over their careers.

In short, what I wanted to get across this time around is that there’s more to a story than simply language and the choice of words. Philip Roth said in an interview in The New Yorker about his novel Exit Ghost a few years back that the novel is “language in service of a surmise,” and that’s what this fingerprinting overlooks: the way the words accrue significance upon the page, induce in our imaginations something realer than the sight of ink on an off-white page.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Identity Crisis

On 1 December, the trial of John Demjanjuk began in Germany. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should--but I wouldn’t be surprised if this sounds like news, because most American news agencies that I frequently look at (NYTimes, LATimes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, CNN) have been relegating this to their international news pages, a few clicks away from plain sight. This is why I have the BBC as one of my start-up pages on Firefox; I can actually learn what the news is, as opposed to learning that yeah, we still don’t have an exit strategy for Afghanistan. That’s nothing new.

But then again, neither are trials for John Demjanjuk. Demjanjuk has spent the better part of the last three decades embroiled in legal controversy. He first immigrated to the United States and obtained citizenship in 1952, at which point he got married and started the American dream life--work in a car factory in Cleveland, Ohio; have kids; et cetera. In 1977, he was first charged with war crimes, for being “Ivan the Terrible,” a notorious concentration camp guard responsible for the deaths of more than 27,000 Jews. The United States revoked his citizenship in 1981 and extradited him to Israel five years later, where he was charged and convicted for the murders--a ruling that Israel’s Supreme Court overturned for lack of evidence explicitly connecting Demjanjuk to “Ivan the Terrible.”

In 2002, however, problems arose again, with Demjanjuk once again losing his American citizenship when an American judge ruled that there was information linking Demjanjuk to “Ivan the Terrible,” most specifically a wartime ID that American prosecutors have used to place him as a guard at the Nazi death camps. Now, after being extradited and without any citizenship, 89-year-old John Demjanjuk is standing trial for the murders of nearly 30,000 people.

The greatest question amidst all of this is: Who is John Demjanjuk? Murderer? American laborer? Father? Husband? Racist prig? It’s a question that Philip Roth explored in his 1993 PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel Operation Shylock. In the novel, Roth--who has his own identity issues, as he’s being stalked and has had his identity stolen by another man whose name appears to be “Philip Roth” (the sort of blatant narcissism/self-ego-boosting typical when Roth makes himself a character in his books)--watches the trial of Demjanjuk in Israel during a chapter entitled “Forgery, Paranoia, Disinformation, Lies.” He listens to an English translation of the proceedings through a headset. Lots of mirroring ensues--Roth mulls over the legal history of the Demjanjuk proceedings, of his own doppelganger (the reason for his stay in Israel in the first place), and also the position of John Demjanjuk, Jr. watching Demjanjuk, Sr. being tried.

Roth writes, “Admittedly, the story of my double was difficult to accept at face value. The story of anyone’s double would be” before later commenting “Not everybody is crazy. Resolute is not crazy. Deluded is not crazy. To be thwarted, vengeful, terrified, treacherous--this is not to be crazy.” In this line of questioning, Roth wants us to consider two things: Who is Philip Roth? (Another version of this first question—Who am I?) And who is John Demjanjuk? What terrifies Roth in Operation Shylock is precisely this sense of doubling--that maybe out there, somewhere, there’s an identical stranger (who may or may not be me) for whom I’ll have to take the fall.

Read more about the Demjanjuk trial at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8388334.stm

Roth, Philip. Operation Shylock. Paperback. Vintage-Random House. 398 pp., $14.00.

Friday, December 4, 2009

No Country for Old Typewriters

At the beginning of the week, a friend sent me an article about Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter; I can’t claim any originality for the title of this post, since I’m stealing it directly from The New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/01/books/01typewriter.html?emc=eta1

McCarthy, author of spare and grim novels such as The Road and No Country for Old Men, used a single instrument—a portable Olivetti manual typewriter that he purchased in a Knoxville, Tennessee pawnshop in 1963—to write all of his novels across the past four decades. After years of faithful service, the typewriter has started to show signs of its age. A friend found McCarthy another typewriter exactly like it, and as such McCarthy has agreed to auction off this literary artifact.

Writers and their habits often shroud themselves in these auras of mystery, prestige, and the spare, lean voice of McCarthy’s dark novels certainly assist in evoking readers’ wonder. How does he so convincingly create the apocalyptic wastelands of The Road with his lean, toned sentences?

That old Olivetti is part of McCarthy’s process, as much as his politics and philosophy on literature are. Something easily overlooked in a writer’s craft is the matter of how a writer works. Different methods—longhand, typewriters, computers—produce different narratives, different ways of thinking about the writing process.

In the article I’ve linked to above, McCarthy notes that the antiquarian use of a typewriter baffles the younger generation. Why use this clunky, noisy, heavy thing when some laptops—my MacBook, for instance—weigh less than five pounds and have software integrating your machine with the boundless resources of the Internet, enabling searches for synonyms or research, allowing the instant movement of text blocks, and granting ways to share your thoughts immediately (as with this blog, novel idea, no?) with a few clicks of a button?

To keep my self-aggrandizing here brief, I share McCarthy’s love for the typewriter (at least for early drafts), and it’s a creative process that quirks quite a few eyebrows amongst my peers. But for those of you in my age bracket—between, say, seventeen to twenty-five—who have never used typewriters, I suggest that you ask your relatives if they still have one around. Grandparents, parents, aunts, or uncles. Write for two hours on the typewriter, manual or portable doesn’t particularly matter, and think about how you work differently. The typewriter requires a physical labor and force that computer keyboards don’t require, but with the typewriter, there’s also something undeniable: the music of the hammers striking against the platen roll, the sensation that the words and phrases are lifting up toward something as you type.

So there’s your assignment for the weekend. Find a typewriter. Give it a go. Let me know how it works out for you, and I’ll be back on Monday.