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Friday, August 26, 2011

Zadig

Ever since I read E=MC2 I have wanted to read some Voltaire. Last summer I bought Candide. It was my first even Kindle book, I didn't even own a Kindle back then, I just used the Kindle program for my Droid. I started reading Candide immediately and fell in love with it. unfortunately a four inch back lit screen is not an ideal reading format so I gave up after a couple of hours. Soon after I purchased a Nook, and then a few months later a Kindle but by that time finishing Candide fell by the wayside for a bit. In a download frenzy of Amazon classics I picked up Zadig and started reading it.

What I love about Voltaire is that his stories sound like Bible stories in viewpoint, vocabulary and because they are told in parable form. However unlike The Bible, no divine creator sets things right. Whether things go right or wrong, fate is in the driver's seat and we mortals are just along for the ride. The books feel like Sunday school lessons delivered by Heller or Vonnegut. I almost expected every chapter to end with "I had to laugh like Hell".

The story of Zadig reminds me of Joseph from the bible. The book begins with Zadig about to enter wedded bliss with his fiance Simere but this is not to be. His rival Orcan eventually wins the heart of Simere and Zadig finds another bride. Now that he is distrustful of women, Zadig designs an elaborate scheme to fake his death and test the loyalty of his wife, Azora. She fails to pass the test which also involves an elaborate scheme where he fakes his own death and pretends to leave his modest fortune to his best friend.

Zadig begins to wander between kingdoms, like the Old Testament, it is set in the middle east in early days where each city and the surrounding farms or pastures are a different kingdom. He is promptly captured but like quickly rises to become an adviser to the king. After a set of adventures involving queens, fools, imaginary creatures and hermits he rides the ups and downs that fate deals him and eventually becomes a king. The ending is happy but you absolutely know that Zadig could have just as easily ended up a blind prophet in India.

The book wasn't too long. I finished in in a couple of afternoons. I really liked the translation of the free version on Amazon.com. I assume this was a scanned version of an out of copyright translation because a couple of the letters were consistently switched. This didn't ruin the book but was a little distracting. If you want a perfect copy you will probably have to go to the library or pony up a small amount of change. I would recommend giving up an afternoon or two to read this. Not only will you realize that people who have been dead for 350 years can make you laugh, but what's more impressive than saying you've read some Voltaire at your next cocktail party?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Desert Rose

I love reading books that get mixed reviews. If you check out the Amazon page for The Desert rose you will see critics and readers are all over the map on this one. Larry McMurtry is almost as well known for his romances as his westerns. Somehow he has the talent to pull off Terms of Endearment and Streets of Laredo. He does this by mastering the art of developing characters and making them living things who react realistically in their little worlds.

The Desert Rose is a story about a Las Vegas showgirl who is approaching 40. She used to be the most beautiful woman in Las Vegas but she has been surpassed in pulchritude by her daughter. Harmony doesn't have a lot of profound thoughts, that's also a McMurtry literary device. His characters generally lack the ability to engage in soul searching. You don't see them go through a lot of internal struggle, it's always the world they live in that they are struggling against.

The book is pretty much a pure character study of Harmony and secondarily her daughter Pepper. They both move around the same circles but rarely interact. Harmony is about to end her career as a showgirl while Pepper is about to start hers. In spite of how similar their lives will be, they are terribly lacking in shared moments. We even are denied the scene where both of them would be on stage together because the show producer, wisely, tells Harmony that to put them both on stage together would just highlight how much Harmony's looks would be overshadowed by her daughter's beauty.

So many of the reviews tend to excoriate Pepper for how she treats Harmony. Personally I didn't get that out of the book. I can't see how having a showgirl mother who has had terrible relationships with men who are drunks and criminals can put Harmony in a place where she deserves traditional motherly respect. Honestly I think there were only two scenes where the two of them were in the same room and most of that time was marked by what they didn't say.

The book is pretty short, at 256 pages. It's an easy read too so it's only an afternoon or two to make it through. I wouldn't say that I recommend it particularly but if you're a fan of McMurtry or have a spare couple of bucks at the used bookstore I'd say it's better than watching reruns of American Idol.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Blue Angel

I love a good piece of literary fiction. You could almost say that's what I live for, the rest is all just reading I do to make sense of the fictional constructs of great imaginations.

Blue Angel was a great read. It is the story of a professor at a small college who has writer's block. He has been working on his next novel for a long long time. He passes his day by teaching short story classes. He is happily married and overall happy with his job until he meets Angela Argo. Meeting Angela exposes how thin his surface happiness is.

He ends up having an affair with Angela, she seduces him in her dorm room. He takes her manuscript to his agent and when he gets back all hell breaks loose. Angela presses a sexual harassment case against him. She claims that he used his position as a professor and his ability to present her book to his agent as leverage to make her have sex with him.

The one thing I disliked about this book was that the ending left a lot of questions unanswered. The books ends in a sexual harassment hearing where everyone testifies against our protagonist. After the scene though I was almost left with the impression that maybe we have only heard one side of the story, maybe the professor did use poor Angela. When I read other reviews of the book it's either well loved or firmly hated. I think that what would have made it a bit more perfect would have been a better explanation of the motives of the other characters.

So even though this novel is deeply flawed and ultimately raises several unsatisfying questions, I couldn't put it down until I finished it. That is ultimately how I tell whether or not a story is a success.

Friday, August 12, 2011

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

Do you ever eat your broccoli first? I usually do. Sometimes I'll have a frozen bag of broccoli or cauliflower for a whole meal. That's what reading the MLA handbook is like. I did something that was almost completely unpleasant because it was good for me. I had to learn how to write again in an academic setting and this book was exactly what I needed.

I learned a lot about grammar, voice, and punctuation. If you look at my older posts you'll see that I used to put two spaces between the period and the next letter, an old habit left over from learning how to type on actual typewriters. Now that modern fonts are made with periods smashed up against the last word of the sentence, a writer doesn't need to add the extra space.

I also learned a lot about citations. I knew the basics, and another great thing about the modern world is that word processing software will let you add your citations as you go along and print your bibliography or works cited list at the end of your article with the click of a menu bar. What I really learned was that you can cite anything, pictures and paintings, musical scores, interviews, pamphlets, comic books and an endless list of other forms of art that are not necessary written academic texts. It really opened my eyes to the number of things that a person can consider to be educational or worthy of referring to in a serious piece of writing.

So I would never recommend this book to anyone as a light summer read or as something to carry around with you as a break between appointments, but I would highly recommend it as an eye opener for academic writers.

Gilmore Girls

So today was the first day of watching Gilmore Girls with Sofia. She was transfixed! We watched the first two episodes together. I can't believe I never saw a single episode of this series, I really do like it so far.

In the first episode we get introduced to the characters, see the relationship between Lorelai and Rory and Lorelai's parents. I loved how in the second episode how Lorelai wore the cutoffs to the first day of school.

The scene outside the restaurant where Lorelai asked Rory about dating the guy from the coffee shop reminded me of last night's Curb Your Enthusiasm. I never thought of the don't eat where your ex is as an overall rule but I have experienced the results of that decision firsthand.

Years ago when I was waiting tables, I had a short fling with a waitress that I worked with. Now that I'm older I know how crazy it is to have anything going on with anyone you work with but I guess that's what youth and restaurants are for. The short affair didn't end well, I honestly don't know what was wrong but it ended up with her not talking to me and me not talking to her and then I quit and moved out of state. Two years later I went back to the restaurant, she had not worked there the full time but was back and recognized me when my friend and I went in for a meal after a night at the bar. We sat in another waiter's section but still the service was terrible. We ended up sitting for two hours after our order was taken, actually my friend took off after an hour and I ended up sitting the two. Eventually I just left. I guess I ended up better off than Larry David but I'm sure that my meal never coming out was a going away gift from the waitress.

So Lorelai, take the advice from Larry and myself, don't date the coffee guy.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Society: The Basics

In order to shorten the time that I have to spend going to classes, I am going to attempt to pass some CLEP tests. In order to get my degree in economics I have to take other social science credits, I guess I should be passingly familiar with psychology if I'm looking at behavior and probably should be somewhat familiar with sociology if I'm discussing gender pay gaps. For two dollars at the thrift story I got a copy of Society:The Basics and read it in lieu of taking a sociology course.

I do love sociology, I can see why students end up thousands of dollars in debt with a degree they can't use to pursue an in depth knowledge of the subject. I thought that each of the chapters was fascinating. I liked learning about how we define gender roles, family structures and was completely engaged by the discussions of social conflict theory. It was good to take a look at all of the structure in my life that I take for granted and realize how much of it is just there by general agreement between me and the people around me. We know that is the case because other societies manage things differently.

As I was reading through the book, trips to the mall took on whole new levels of meaning. What does it mean when you see someone with a polo shirt, or a boyfriend that is shorter than her? Why are teenagers usually in large groups but adults rarely so? Why is that person dressed all in black? The style of clothes that go along with the black can create totally opposite meanings. At the beach I saw a huge pile of cigarette butts in front of a bench. 30 years ago when smoking was just a characteristic and not a sign of deviance, would smokers have littered as much?

That's exactly what I love about education. I love it not for the questions it answers, but for the questions it makes you ask.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Flash Fiction: Very Short Stories

This winter to get some credits between semesters I took a short story class. It was one of the best college classes I've had. Nothing turns my gears faster than looking at symbolism, story structure, theme and character development in literature. A few of the indie writers I follow regularly publish flash fiction either on their own sites or on sites like Brevity.

Flash fiction is a short story that is no more than a page or two long. It usually doesn't include all of the elements of a literary story, it's hard to do a lot of character development alongside exploring a theme. Done well they either explore a mood or character and make you think a bit. Done poorly they are a one page Twilight Zone episode that depends on a twist ending.

This book contained some fantastic stories, most of the very good ones were from literary authors that are already established at longer forms of literature. Pumpkins from Francine Prose was my favorite story which did a little exploration of a relationship. Most of the stories though were quite forgettable. The good news is that each of them took less than five minutes of my life to read. Even the episodes of Law and Order and the prison shows on MSNBC that I have watched can't claim to have taken less of my time.

Short stories were invented to uniquely fit into the American lifestyle during the industrial revolution. Each was designed to be read in a single sitting after a long day's work. Flash Fiction is the genre of the Internet age, designed to be read while iTunes is updating. This book showed me that this genre has potential, but we're not quite there yet.