Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Children of Men by P. D. James

Title: The Children of Men
Author: P. D. James
Publisher: Knopf (1992)

le0pard13 and I had such a good time with our last joint posts that we decided to take on another book that was adapted for the big screen. I'll be giving you the skinny on the book again and you can click on over here for Michael's Children of Men Film/Disc Review.

In The Children of Men no babies have been born since 1995. The year is 2021 and our narrator is Theo, Oxford professor and cousin of the Warden of England, who has decided to keep a journal. James alternates between Theo's first person accounts in his journal and third person perspectives of the story as a whole. In the midst of a deteriorating society, Theo is moderately successful at maintaining a sense of well-being. He lives a deliberately solitary life but an "intriguing" young woman seeks him out for help (I put intriguing in quotes because Theo is very intrigued by her but, even after finishing the book, I'm still not real clear as to why). She hopes he will carry a message from her group, the Five Fishes, to his cousin. The Warden of England is basically a dictator with a committee of advisers. Theo was at one time an adviser to the Warden but he felt his role was ineffectual and left the post 2 years before this story begins.

I think one of the most appealing aspects of this story is that it's set during the crisis. There are lots of stories that end when great changes have been initiated or that pick up after traumatic events - and so we watch the recovery - but in this story we are there as it's happening. The crazy behaviors, hopelessness, despair, etc is all on-going. Do you give up? Do you try to carry on? Is there any point in maintaining moral and ethical codes? How would you behave if the youngest person alive was 26? btw, this aspect is almost all the book and movie have in common. For the most part, the basic story is the same but the action and narrative are very different.

I first read this book back in 2007 after seeing the movie adaptation in the theatre. I loved the movie (and continue to watch it on a regular basis and actually have it playing right now) and was pretty excited to read the book. Well that didn't work out so well as I don't think I even bothered to finish it. So here I find myself giving it another try. I did finish it this time but I still don't think I like it much. The second half is far better than the first so if you should decide to pick this one up it does get better as it goes along.

Alright, let me start with a few reasons why I didn't like it and then go over the good bits. First off, Theo is not very sympathetic. I don't simply mean that he's a bad person (though I think he is) but that he never engaged my interest in any real way. Also, the story is extremely heavy-handed. This, I think, is in direct contrast to the film. As with the last joint post I'm going to save most of my movie comments for lp13's post but this point I will bring up: The movie creates a wonderfully authentic environment that is completely submersivying (new word?) while the book essentially details the environment. There's only the barest attempt for it to reveal itself naturally as the story progresses. It's just paragraph after paragraph listing for me what this world is like. Ugh! Next, in his diary entries, Theo is constantly "wondering now" if this (insert new interpretation) is what was really going on when he's detailing some past event or situation. Was he on stupid pills for the first ~50 years of his life? It becomes clear as the story progresses that he no longer wishes to be quite so solitary so I would buy that he's going through a period of reanalyzing his life but for fuck's sake can he do anything other than "wonder now?" And then, while this didn't necessarily bother me, it was really odd that all sexual overtones (or lack thereof) were detailed for all relationships. I noticed it not only for its frequency but for its lack of relevance. Strange. I was, however, quite bothered by a scene where Theo learns from his cousin (with whom he spent many summers growing up) that his uncle was gay when his response was, "Your father never made any approach to me." What the shit is that? I told you the guy wasn't all that nice. Why would anyone say this? Did he think it was odd that his aunt didn't approach him? She was heterosexual. Theo was a minor and a relative. Why on earth would he be approached? (Cousin Xan sort of misses the point I would have made but says very pointedly, "What an egotist you are.") Ok, last thing and, fair warning, it's the scientist in me that was annoyed at this. There've been no babies born because all males have become sterile. And, somehow, all the sperm in the sperm banks has gone kaput. Like they all have the same expiration date? Come on! Bad call to make this a mysterious happening. I prefer random events used to set up a story to occur off-screen without poorly presented excuses.

Ok, cool stuff: This really is a very cool scenario. Very thought-provoking. The fact that I'd rather have sat around with pals chatting about it for an evening is really neither here nor there so let's stick with the book. Right near the beginning (p. 9 of the hardback I read) the most interesting part of the scenario (to me) is laid out: how do you respond? Can you continue on blithely going about your hobbies and such or do you sink into lassitude at the pointlessness of life? Do you maintain codes of behavior or simply indulge any whim until the end? I think the question is interesting no matter what but I think it may be that I am part of a select group that can really see the irony (or perhaps horror?) in a countdown to the end of time. I am childless by choice and have never really thought there's much purpose to life. Of course this has never depressed me, life is interesting enough without any point. BUT! Oh but! If its pointlessness was billboard huge around every corner then how would I feel? I certainly don't want children but what if there were no children at all? So what that I don't see any greater point to life? I sure do like it, what if there were to be no new life? Whoa! How do you respond? At one point Theo thinks:
If there had been no Omega [youngest generation], these were aims which a man might be prepared to fight for, even to suffer for. But if there had been no Omega, the evils would not exist. It was reasonable to struggle, to suffer, perhaps even to die, for a more just, a more compassionate society, but not in a world with no future where, all to soon, the very words "justice," compassion," "society," "struggle," "evil," would be unheard echoes on an empty air.

We should be just because it is the right thing to do but do we lose that desire to fight for the right things when a better future, any future, is impossible?

There's a very interesting theme that recurs throughout a greater part of the book. The world is falling apart due to lack of fertility yet Theo is constantly remembering how cold his relationship was with his parents. They had no real interest in him nor he in they. It's like this small reminder that we have the liberty to reject fertility due to its very existence but once it's gone liberties are thin on the ground. Personal liberty and the rights that should be preserved in a dying culture are a constant theme in the book. Also, Theo hangs out in museums a lot which amuses me as it reflects what the world in general has become. I think it matches Theo's attitude of ironic objectivity that makes his observations fairly interesting most of the time.

The Warden of England ends up being a pretty interesting character. You see him almost exclusively through Theo's eyes so I assume the view is slightly skewed but the Warden is yet another angle of response. He's mostly a tyrant and has convinced himself that he's doing it all for the greater good. But many of the programs he's instituted are total shit. It's weird, if everything truly is hopeless then why not do the right thing? At this point, what is really to be gained via cruelty and exploitation? But, of course, in the highs and the lows we are still only human and if I could only say one thing regarding what I took away from this book it would be:

Even with no hope of survival, continuity of life, or bettering your situation we still think of ourselves first.

Is it a reflection of personal naivety that I would think when there's nothing left to lose you may as well be nice?

Like I mentioned above it's the latter half of the book that is the most interesting but I want to prevent spoilers so I'll just mention two things, highlight if interested. It was the sperm that was the problem so why were they so protective of the baby-to-be but not the carrier of the good sperm? Seriously! Nobody seemed to care that he died. And, totally awesome to end with Theo taking Xan's ring! Holy shit! He's such a baddie that I can totally see him doing the wrong thing rather than the right and starting Xan's crap cycle all over. Julian (of dubiously intriguing fame) didn't strike me as a particularly strong personality so I don't see her keeping Theo in line. Interesting stuff.

All in all I'd say you get the best of it by watching the movie. You still get the really interesting scenario, an excellent couple hours spent, and plenty of time after to chat with your friends about the fallout from worldwide sterility.

Don't forget to head over to Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer for the movie review.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Knopf (1929)

It very well could be that I had a "This Is Spinal Tap" experience with Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. After a couple Behind the Music marathons the brilliance of This is Spinal Tap is slightly overshadowed by the real thing. Of course I laughed and enjoyed it (seriously, how can you not laugh at the tiny bread? don't remember the tiny bread? click here) but I obviously didn't see it at the right time. We've all experienced this, right? You were so excited but then it turns out you saw/read something after the hype/right age has completely passed you by? Well, anyway, this might be the case with me and this book. But how about a synopsis first...

San Francisco PI, Sam Spade, is hired by Brigid O'Shaughnessy to help reunite her with her sister. Brigid is pretty sure her sister is kickin' it with a bad man and she'd like help getting her sister away from him. This is all lies, of course, and after the death of his partner Spade becomes embroiled in recovering a stolen statue (see title). Just who stole the statue and who is its rightful owner depends entirely on who is telling the story.

I have to say right up front that my favorite thing about this book was that it was in the 3rd person. My little heart just pitter pattered with love and appreciation when I saw that. It's not that I mind 1st person so much but that my recent readings (esp of the mystery/crime thriller variety) have mostly been 1st person and I was getting sick of that perspective. So huzzah and hooray for a different perspective whilst solving a mystery. Also of note is that I felt the book had no rhythm. This might seem an odd statement but as a speed reader I'm extremely sensitive to rhythm in books. No rhythm = very difficult to speed read. What I can't say for sure is whether I need the rhythm to fit my brain or if books simply have natural rhythms that I pick up on. It may be a little of both, though, because often enough I come by books (most recently Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf) and The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Huston)) that take me 3-4 chapters to find their rhythm. Only after I've found it am I able to speed read (note: I don't always speed read but I'm irrationally put out if the option is taken away:). Anyway, noticing this rhythm thing got me to thinking about what exactly might remove rhythm from a book and my best guess for this book is that it was due to the odd way in which Hammett described action.

Hammett doesn't exactly take short cuts when describing action. In fact, I'm hard pressed to recall if the word "punch" was ever used though certainly several punches were thrown. He has a very distinct style in that he takes you practically step-by-step through the action. A condensed example:
Spade pushed Cairo gently aside and drove his left fist against the boy's chin. The boy's head snapped back as far as it could while his arms were held, and then came forward...Spade drove his right fist against the boy's chin. Cairo dropped the boy's arm, letting him collapse against Gutman's great round belly. Cairo sprang at Spade, clawing at his face with the curved stiff fingers of both hands. Spade blew his breath out and pushed the Levantine away...Spade stopped him with both palms held out on long rigid arms against his face.

There's nothing at all wrong with the style but much of the info listed I can perfectly imagine on my own and, frankly, would assume... heads snapping when punched, stiff fingers when scratching, it would obviously take rigid arms to stop someone in that way, etc. Again, nothing wrong with it it's just that, for me, it resulted in a lack of rhythm. And also, it gave the action a stop-motion quality. Since each step was detailed my brain imagined everything happening much slower than it would in reality.

I liked the twists and turns of the plot but felt it was a tad bogged down in the info-dumping dialogue used to explain it. Also [spoilerish: highlight if interested], why the fuck did Effie and Sam trust Brigid even a little bit. I spent the whole book just waiting for her crumbumness to become known. My favorite character was probably Gutman because he made me laugh and was surprisingly pragmatic. Speaking of characters/characterization I especially liked how it was established that Spade has no idea how to relate to women in a non-sexual manner. I preferred that to many of my experiences with leading men who inevitably end up in the sack with the leading lady (or ladies, or supporting ladies, too) because it was more to do with his social adjustment (or lack thereof depending on perspective) than Leading Man Sees Leading Lady, Must Humpty Hump Right Damn Now. I will refrain from any other gender relation explorations as poss is unfair to judge a book that is ~80 years old in this manner.

From these comments are you totally getting my whole "This Is Spinal Tap" experience thing?

I liked the book well enough though not so much that I will run right out and get more Hammett or even recommend him to anyone. I am interested in The Thin Man though so will probably look out for it sometime in the future. But again, no rushing from me.

There are a lot of great lines in the book and I'm going to leave you with my two faves:
Gutman: "...but we were talking then. This is actual money, genuine coin of the realm, sir. With a dollar of this you can buy more than with ten dollars of talk."

Spade: "That's the trick, from my side," he said, "to make my play strong enough that it ties you up, but yet not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment."

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Ones We Love

The words of William Sloane Coffin, whose son Alex died at age 24 in a car crash.

Tired of hearing well-meaning friends say, “It is the will of God,” he responded with this: “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die. That when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first to break."

I posted this quote about a year ago. It didn't occur to me then to wonder: how do people go on when even god's heart is breaking.

Peace be with you, and with my family.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Business of Genres, or Thoughts on Indicating OTHER.

Apprentice Writer brought up an interesting point in one of her May posts - see numbers 1-4 under "Overall." (You remember AW, right? Reviewer of humorous fiction, blogger extraordinaire, forgiver of this American's disinterest in hockey?) It was one of those subjects that pushes my buttons big time and so I thought I'd say a few words about it (ok, probably more than a few). And I'd certainly be interested in other readers' thoughts because maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion.

When you've got to decide where a book belongs in the stacks you usually start with genre. My third edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary (and yes, I do still pull it out even when online) defines genre as: A type or class. I, for one, like genre as it gives me some idea of what to expect in a book.

Let's start with big picture genre:

Classic literature
Modern literature
Popular fiction

Now let's get a little more specific:

Science Fiction
Current Events
Young Adult
Historical Fiction

You'll notice that everything listed so far reflects in some way on the tone and/or content of the book. This is very useful information for a reader looking for something that falls within their interests.

Now let's explore those buttons I mentioned. Here are some other commonly used labels:

[Race/Ethnicity] American
Women's fiction

Those four tell me fuck-all about the book I am going to read. But rather than go into that I'm going explain what really burns me up: these are an indication of OTHER which presumes a DEFAULT. In this case the default becomes WHITE HETEROSEXUAL MALE. Have you seen a Whitey McWhiterson section? A straight section? How about men's fiction? Where can I find that? The not-so-subtle message that I receive from this is that we can all relate to the white heterosexual male books but these OTHERS are for, and will almost exclusively appeal, only to the OTHERS. Bull, and might I add, shit!

I'm an avid reader. I read practically everything. I'm looking for a good story that's well-written with authentic characters. PERIOD. I also happen to be a white, heterosexual, female reader and I feel that a mere accident of birth should not be looked upon by an entire industry as an excuse to pigeonhole me. Far worse than this though, are the authors that end up pigeonholed because of assumptions regarding their potential audience.

And since I'm calling the publishing industry to task I feel it's only fair to point the finger back at me. I volunteer with my county's adult literacy program and one of my colleagues was very helpful in reminding me that I have my own prejudices to overcome. Age-wise he is almost old enough to be my grandfather, also he was born and raised in Mexico which has, I think, a male default mentality like the US (and many other countries though I would be happy to be corrected), and so when we started chatting about movies and he was trying to remember the title of a recent movie he liked I was surprised (unfairly, I see now) to realize that he was describing The Proposal. He then proceeded to list about three or four other recent rom-coms. I asked him why he enjoyed them so much and he said he really likes stories about interpersonal relationships. He likes to see how families, friends, and significant others work out their differences. So the kicker here (besides the fact that I obviously need to work on my assumptions as much as the publishing industry does) is that while I don't read much of what is found under the so-called women's fiction/chicklit labels, my male colleague would very much enjoy these stories.

So you tell me, is it wise to purposely alienate potential audiences? And also, what do you think about this? Does it get your hackles up, too, or do you like these labels because they tell you right where to go in the stacks?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ride Along

I submitted a request to do a Ride Along with my local PD. Please let me share my favorite bits from the waiver I had to sign (emphasis mine).

" any way related to or connected with my participation in this activity, including specifically, but not limited to, the negligent acts or omissions of the [City] Police Department, its agents or employees..."

So no matter how badly they fuck up I happily release them of any responsibility.

"If a dangerous situation arises, i.e., gunfire, fights, fire, etc., do not attempt to assist the officer. Instead, get away quickly, and call the Police Department and explain what happened."

Well, poo! There go my visions of grandeur!

If my request is accepted I'll be sure to report back on all the fun that is riding around in a patrol car.

Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer

Title: Friday's Child
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (1946)

Huzzah! Found another Heyer romance at the library this week; what luck. So while I watch Mil at Fla (Cubs are in rain delay) I'm gonna share a bit. I think Friday's Child was even funnier than The Grand Sophy BUT I also think you need to have some familiarity with Regency England to really enjoy the book. Anywho, Lord Sheringham, or Sherry, is ready for his inheritance and he won't get it until he's 25 or married. Married can be accomplished more quickly than 25 so he decides to propose to his lifelong friend and acknowledged darling of the season. Unfortunately for him, she's got other plans so he leaves her house in a huff determined to propose to the next woman he sees. This turns out to be Hero (shit you not, Hero!) Wantage, another old friend. I'd like to say he whisked her away to a romantic wedding in London but it's more accurate to say he decided she'd always gone along with his schemes in the past and so he convinced her to snuggle down in his gig and go with him.

I'll admit, I didn't immediately get into this story. At first, I was like, what the hell kind of weirdass romance is this? Then I got it, got into it and, while I still think it's a bit of a weirdass romance, it's great. In addition to the slow start, I think it's too long. (I realize I say this a lot and maybe I'm more in to brevity than most but I think so many books could be improved with the removal of a few pages.) But those are small quibbles and the story is so dang funny I don't even care. It's really a comedy of manners because Hero has no idea how to get on in "good society" when she's in London. But there's a new twist on this in that Sherry, her only mentor in this, is having his own problems sorting out proper behavior and watching these two young people stumble along until they get to the right decisions makes for some hilarious situations.

I think my absolute favorite bit is how Sherry and his friends turn Hero into another one of their bachelor pals. Sherry has two very good friends who immediately befriend Hero as well. Actually, I also quite like the true friendship displayed between everyone. They're not perfect friends, and one of them is extremely presumptuous at times, but they are true friends who care for each other and want the best for each other. Absolutely wonderful examples of friendship. But anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the friends adopt Hero easily and she pretty much spends all of her time hanging out with three single guys. I say three because Sherry, though extremely protective of Hero, has pretty much taken her in as a roommate and for most of the book doesn't seem to understand she's a woman much less his wife.

So here we have four friends with sizable incomes and nothing but time on their hands. I think you can see the innumerable roads to mischief available to them. Couple this with the ridiculous social mores of the time and there is so much funny waiting to happen.

As an example of one of the many funny scenes here are our two hapless protags having a fight after Hero very innocently pointed out Sherry's "fancy-piece" at the opera. (quote condensed)

Sherry: ..."No doubt you asked him if he had an opera-dancer too!"
"Yes, and he said--"
"What?" thundered the Viscount.
"He said he had not," ended Hero simply.
The Viscount appeared to have some difficulty in getting his breath. "Hero!" he uttered at last. "Have you no sense of propriety?"

But in the midst of all the crazy feaux pas and funny moments there's a very sweet love story unfolding that kept me turning pages as much as anything else. And it was so worth it because one of the funniest scenes of all is on the very last page.

rating: 4 of 5 stars