Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Everything That Rises Must Converge

“And they all lived happily ever after” is a sentence that Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t be caught dead writing. Instead, she was caught dead writing Everything That Rises Must Converge*, so it was published posthumously. My three-part O’Connor selection consists of Wise Blood (her first novel, 1952), The Violent Bear It Away (novel, 1960), and Everything that Rises Must Converge (collection of short stories, 1965). I started with her first novel and moved on to her last stories in order to track her trajectory as a writer; then, I circled back to her 1960 novel. Here, I’ll give a brief summary of each book and aggregate the ratings. Lots of sophisticated mathematics occurring on this site.  

Wise Blood is one of those first novels that you know is a first novel. Some authors thrive on subtlety, which I assume comes with experience. In this case, O’Connor thrives on hitting you in the face with an idea over and over again. The blood motif referenced in the title points to several—mostly religious—conclusions. The notion that blood can possess the quality of wisdom suggests that a person can have an innate sense of guidance that renders spiritual guidance irrelevant. Additionally, the Christian belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through the blood He shed contrasts with some of O’Connor’s characters’ insistence that salvation isn’t necessary in that their own blood sets them free. Lastly, because blood is associated with inheritance, O’Connor plays on the idea of psychological lineage to emphasize inevitability: some tendencies run through our blood that can’t be eradicated.  Because O’Connor’s devout Catholicism imbues the majority of her work, these bloody implications remind us that no character is safe from the author’s need to show a reckoning with Christ. Although it is impressive that Wise Blood extends from her Master’s thesis at the University of Iowa, I can’t appreciate the story. The characters’ actions seem consistently non-sensible. I know that religion can sometimes make people do irrational things, but I don’t want to read about a series of bizarre events that don’t get due explanations. Either develop your characters more or create less wacky scenarios. Not into it... Wise Blood receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

The Violent Bear It Away evinces O’Connor’s growth as a writer. The novel discusses similar themes while telling a more sophisticated, interesting story. In it, a fanatically religious uncle indoctrinates his orphaned nephew. After the uncle’s death, the boy must come to terms with his own faith (or lack thereof) and carve his own path outside of the influence of an overbearing relative. Again, there’s a darkness to the plot, and no character comes out unscathed. We get to watch the characters wrestle with their inner demons and reconcile their insecurities with the irresistible draw of a passionate religiosity than runs in the fam. The downside? Her transitions between past and present are too abrupt and they result in reader-whiplash. I also seriously question the practical aspects of some of the forest fires scenes. As a whole, The Violent Bear It Away receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

Everything that Rises Must Converge stands out well above the rest. Each of the nine short stories shows a character confronted with their own mortality, which is perhaps reflective of O’Connor’s own battle with lupus at the time of writing. She wields incisive prose, a dash of wit, and tragic endings as usual; but I believe that this triple threat is better packaged in a short story. She trades tediousness for tension—every interaction is charged with some sort of conflict (generational gap, racial prejudice, intellect disparity, religious quarrel, etc.). Her characters realize that they’re shitty people, but the insight comes too late. I’m very impressed with this collection, and I would re-read and recommend it to others as an introduction to O’Connor’s work; therefore, Everything that Rises Must Converge receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

Overall, this three-book edition was good bang for the buck, but only parts were worth a read. As promised, the average score is 3 out of 5 camel humps. Be selective with your book of choice.

*O'Connor, Flannery. Three by Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Signet, 1986. Print.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Candide

            Never have I ever been so thankful for Voltaire than when my boyfriend and I came dangerously close to starving in an area of the world that’s basically Antarctica. Yes, that’s a real sentence.

Recently, we went on a three-day backpacking trip through Patagonia. We had withdrawn what we assumed was a generous amount of Chilean pesos for the trip, because various legs only accept cash, and we knew there wouldn’t be an ATM chillin on one of the glaciers out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, some expenses that we thought we had already paid for actually needed settling, some transportation that we’d been told could be charged by card actually needed cash, and some rates were more expensive than we had anticipated. Really, we’re noobs. After we got to the end of the earth via three planes and three buses, we didn’t have enough pesos for both of us to take the necessary ferry that would finally shuttle us to the start of our trek. More troubling was the fact that I had only packed enough food to have meager snacks on the trail (I planned on eating dinner at the hostels along the way). Even if we could finagle our way on the ferry, if the hostels pulled the stunt that everyone else had pulled and didn’t accept credit cards, I foresaw many hangry nights and weak attempts at backpacking uphill. I clutched to a word that means the same in English and in Spanish: no no no no no.

Luckily—before I completely lost my shit amidst a multicultural group of mostly non-English speakers—a nice American couple agreed to trade USD for pesos and the hostels agreed to take our Visa.

Truthfully, I was very grumpy in the hour or so that I envisioned having to live three physically strenuous days off of one questionably packaged Chilean sausage and a bag of raisins; however, there were brief moments where I found solace in Candide*, Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella that I had finished the day before. Candide is like The Odyssey, in that a man named Candide travels a long, fraught journey to reunite with his true love, CunĂ©gonde. Unlike Homer, we know a great deal about Voltaire, especially how his philosophical and religious views influenced his work.

Candide was written in response to a philosophy of optimism espoused by Voltaire’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz believed that, because God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, the world that we live in is necessarily optimal, or the best of all possible worlds. The character Candide inherits this worldview from his mentor, Professor Pangloss; however, this belief is continually challenged as Candide faces trial after trial. He’s a good man with simple aspirations, and he can’t seem to catch a break. Surely his experiences are not the best that they could possibly be? Perhaps Pangloss deludes himself with a false optimism that’s in reality “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong” (Voltaire, 49)?

I’m a sucker for dry humor and Voltaire knows how to dish it out. He renders Candide’s misfortunes as larger-than-life, and he describes catastrophic events in a deadpan, dark way, similar to that of Catch-22, the GOAT of 20th century literature. In the end, Voltaire doesn’t provide us a clear-cut answer key on how to endure hardships. Instead, he offers an enigmatic practical solution: avoid idleness and work without disputing. This notion reminds me of Albert Camus’ suggestion that one must accept the absurdity of existence and actively live in spite of it. Keep on keepin’ on.

In Patagonia, as I considered my helplessness and yearned for Taco Bell back home, I thought of Candide’s tribulations and his insistence on perseverance. He hoped that his plights would eventually resolve, but because nothing is guaranteed and things don’t always work out for the best, he swallowed the bitter pill of life and accepted his less than gratifying hand. Mad props to Candide and medium props to myself for not publicly wailing. Voltaire, in his infinite critical wisdom, receives 5 out of 5 camel humps for Candide.


*Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1984. Print.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Meh. I bought Me Talk Pretty One Day* because I had heard wonderful things about David Sedaris’ previous work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The latter, published in 2013, was hot—it stood at the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. The former, published in 2000, was not (in my humble opinion). Truthfully, I had no idea that Sedaris is a humorist; I thought that Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was genuinely about owl diabetes. Healthcare is confusing, but I figured that owls can have diabetes because they have insulin, which I discerned after a simple Google search—“do owls have insulin?” Spoiler alert: they do.

You can imagine my surprise when I started reading and realized that Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of comedic essays. This realization was further delayed by the fact that the essays are not very funny.

 I love collective works (like George Saunders’ Tenth of December and The Best American Short Stories 2013) because they’re easy and fun to navigate. I can finish a short story in one sitting and let that simmer in me for a while before I move on to the next, which is a totally different user-experience than if I was dealing with a novel in its entirety. 

Unfortunately, the bite-sized offerings of Sedaris produce little more than pity laughs. He’s the guy that gets you a notch before laugh-climax but can’t go all the way. I do an inner chuckle, but I recognize it as a cheap joke. Obviously, not everything is going to land, but out of a whole book, I expect at least one LOL.

Sedaris’ life in general is interesting enough to wield comedic potential. He went through a period of methamphetamine addiction, served in a series of jobs that he was highly unqualified for, and moved to France largely unprepared. I found myself more interested in the plot than his attempt at witticism. The truth of the matter is that there are much funnier people out there begging you to read their book. I’m reluctant to throw out a number, because my sense of humor might be different than yours, but I suppose you came here for a reason. Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day receives two out of five camel humps.

*Sedaris, Dave. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sick in the Head

            I like to laugh. Judd Apatow’s work makes me laugh, so I keep seeing his stuff. It’s a really complicated relationship.

            In 2015, Apatow published Sick in the Head*, pledging all profits to Dave Eggers’ tutoring and literacy nonprofit, 826 (Note: Eggers is the author of A HeartbreakingWork of Staggering Genius). Sick in the Head is about funny people, but—although it has its moments—it’s not super funny in its own right. The book consists of interviews with comics to show readers the mechanics behind comedy. What drives a particular comedian, emotionally? How do they go about creating a stand-up routine? How do they define their brand of comedy in relation to others? When did they initially see themselves as funny? Etc.

Apatow is uniquely equipped to author a book like this; he started conducting interviews at the age of fifteen as an ambitious representative for his high school radio station. As a result, this compilation spans an impressive range. In the case of Jerry Seinfeld, we see the trajectory of his career through interviews from 1983 and 2014, pre and post Seinfeld. There are 38 interviewees in all, with some, like Seinfeld, repeat interviews at different time points. Admittedly, I didn’t care for some people, mainly because I hadn’t seen any of their work. However, even the interviews I wasn’t excited about contained some sort of curious or insightful tidbit. For readers who don’t want to tackle all 500 pages, it would be very easy to skip around and only read the interviews of people that interest you.

Here are the interviews that I enjoyed the most: Freaks and Geeks 2013 Oral History (an explanation of how this GOAT show was developed), Harold Ramis (2005), Jeff Garlin (2013), Louis C.K. (2014), Miranda July (2013), Sarah Silverman (2014), Seth Rogan (2009), and Stephen Colbert (2014).

            Overall, Sick in the Head is not some hilarious Nobel Prize masterpiece, but that’s also not its goal. The book in its entirety probably only appeals to a specific demographic: people looking to get into the comedic arena. Portions will still appeal to the general public, especially those that are Apatow fans. The only real issue I had with the book was a consequence of its structure. Because Apatow leads the interviews, we hear his story over and over again. His childhood insecurities and his family issues resurface, which leave me thinking okay, I get it. Fortunately, he’s an incredibly talented person who has worked with so many incredibly talented people; so, an overused story of his is much better than the average person’s. But if you tell me that you used to record SNL with a cassette recorder and then transcribe it all by hand just to get an overview of the process…I only need to hear that once or twice.


            As someone who is intrigued and attracted to the world of comedy, I appreciate Apatow’s probing, which allowed for deeply honest and personal conversations with some of the most fascinating minds. Comics discuss their therapy sessions, how pressures of race and sex affect their acts, and how the arrogance of stepping into the spotlight shapes them as humans. I’m thankful that Apatow started this endeavor at such a young age and gifted it to us. Sick in the Head receives 4 out of 5 camel humps. Here's a gif of my favorite Freaks and Geeks character dancing to brighten your day:
*Apatow, Judd. Sick in the Head. New York: Random House, 2015. Print.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Life of Pi

            “I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me” (Martel, 107). Yowza. This quote encapsulates Pi Patel’s struggles in the 2001 novel, Life of Pi*. Suffice to say that I’m not giving away any major plot points, considering the poster of the movie adaptation looks like this:

            Although the movie is very visually appealing, the book takes the cake. Pi’s journey, albeit fictional, is emotional to witness as a reader. Any tale of human resilience in the face of such calamitous odds makes you feel proud to be a part of the race. The story is structured as a first-person account, based on a fictional interview that the author, Yann Martel, has with Pi Patel.  It follows Pi’s life in India >> sea voyage to Canada with animal cargo (his parents are zookeepers) >> abrupt sinking of the ship, which results in Pi and a handful of dangerous animals left on a lifeboat as the only survivors >> 227 brutal days stranded at sea >> eventual rescue. I’m exhausted just typing that.

            There are many things I expect from a castaway book. Pi has a hallucinatory period in which he goes blind, and he believes that he’s able to speak to the tiger, who is talking in a French accent. That’s amusing, but it’s not necessarily shocking, given the circumstances. Additionally, when animals are involved, I presume that I’ll learn at least some basic facts about the species. Martel teaches the reader about numerous animals in a straightforward voice that isn’t too scholarly. He doesn’t go all zoologist on you, and I came away with quite a bit of practical knowledge.

I also anticipate some sort of religious aspect; if I survived such a wild series of events, I’d probably be thanking God too. What I did not anticipate is Pi’s particularly refreshing, unique take on God. Pi has a brilliantly inclusive opinion on religion, evident in the fact that he’s a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. The prophets and gods of each religion resonate with him in compelling ways, and he focuses on what he considers to be the core of each religion, rather than get caught up in peripheral details that might lead to contradiction between the faiths. His convictions are personal and he presents them without imposition.

Pi’s belief in a higher power sustains him during his suffering, because he feels that both good and bad emanate from a wholeness of the universe beyond his understanding. Religion gives him dignity, which lifts his spirits when his stout vegetarianism is compromised by the inevitabilities of starvation. He warns against human arrogance in the face of something as grand as divinity, and he compares this dynamic to the relationship between him and the beautiful, horrific, powerful beast in his lifeboat. The acknowledgement that he is but a microcosm of the divine provides him a mentality that helps him find peace while persevering. He admits, “I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still” (Martel, 177).

The novel reminds me of The Old Man and the Sea for several reasons. One—the most obvious—is that the sea is pertinent in both novels. We see the main character’s relationship with their fellow creatures and watch how persistence in the face of the elements affects that relationship. Taking a step further, I recognize humility in the face of majesty. Pi and Santiago (the fisherman in Hemingway’s novel) exude a modest reverence for the world around them, which makes us respect and root for them. Neither Hemingway nor Martel force their main characters on readers; they present them fairly unadorned and let us be the judge.

I, for one, find Pi to be an incredible testament to the goodness in humans. While reading, I was continuously inspired by his story (and Martel’s storytelling abilities), such that I had to remind myself that the details didn’t actually occur. Of course, several people in real life have survived being lost at sea, and similarly harrowing feats occur on a regular basis outside of the ocean. But there is something about Martel’s use of an imaginary story that more aptly captures the vibrancy, range, and absurdities of human experience (as fiction typically does, IMO). As such, Life of Pi receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.


*Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. New York: Harcourt Books, 2001. Print.