Oct 21 2009

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Eliza Crossing the Icy RiverI just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 1852 abolitionist classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“. I have of course known about this book for as long as I can remember, but never really intended to read it (until recently). Why? Not sure. Maybe I thought it was irrelevant? Maybe I thought it would be awkward? Old racist stereotypes often are. Maybe I was just embarrassed to read a book surrounded by such negative connotations (which it doesn’t deserve). Much of the criticism for the book actually stems from unsanctioned “Tom Shows” during the 19th century where the main character was depicted as a subservient fool who would not stand up to his white owners.

The book is filled with cookie-cutter stereotypes: demonic slave-owners, dancing and singing black children, angelic golden-haired white children (well okay… just one), large brutish black men, etc., but that’s completely understandable given the book’s purpose. This was never meant to be a great work of literature (though it was the best selling novel of the 19th century); it was composed to illustrate the plight of slaves in pre-Civil War America to a populace that had become complacent (Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). The entire book was an appeal to “Christian values” (I won’t go into that) and an attempt to expose the horrors of slavery to white readers that either had no clue what was going on or didn’t care enough to do something about it.

Was it successful? In its time, absolutely. Today’s reader may find the story a bit of a slog through a seemingly unending barrage of Bible passages, hymns, and perorations on the importance of accepting Jesus and his gospel. The main character pretty much goes down without a fight because he believes it’s the Christian thing to do. Some might argue that his faith and restraint made him the ultimate victor (i.e., “he’s gone to a better country”), but that doesn’t change the fact that his story ends in a grave (spoiler?). Again, it’s important to recognize the audience she was writing for, and how best to stoke their passions. I also found it interesting that Stowe’s idea of reparations seemed to consist of freeing the slaves, educating them, and shipping them off to Liberia.

So, is it a good read? If you have ever had troubles staying awake through a sermon, you’re going to have troubles with this book.  If you’re able to appreciate the importance of this book in its historical context, it is worth reading. It was important 150+ years ago and prelude to where we are today.

“…there can be no high civilization without enslavement of the masses, either nominal or real.”

4 out of 5

Oct 19 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding CitizenThis weekend, we went to see a movie titled “Law Abiding Citizen“. It stars Gerard Butler (“This is Sparta!”) and Jamie Foxx (no relation to Megan Fox because of the single “x” and parentage or some such triviality). I was told this was a “good daddy movie”… and I’d tend to agree, as long as there’s no conflict between “good” and “terrorist”.

On its surface, “Law Abiding Citizen” is your typical movie about an ex-soldier/secret agent who decides to use his extreme military skills to wreak havoc on his enemies. The movie quickly veers into gray areas because the protagonist employs blackmail, murder, and general terrorism to make the judicial system question itself and its priorities. While the main character’s agenda is interesting, in the end it is just an excuse for torture-porn and large fiery explosions. Because of this, I’m disinclined to give this movie a great deal of thought even if I did enjoy rooting for the main character (who had a healthy serving of tragedy with a side of injustice early in the film). While he had every right to be angry, pissed, even murderous… (in my opinion) he carries it too far when he starts blowing up people that were only peripherally (if that) involved in the original case.

Is there a lesson here? Not really. The movie actually gets silly toward the end when the writer runs out of novel ways for the protagonist to kill people (his specialty) and resorts to mechanized military hardware. I guess the main problem with the movie (which is the part I liked the best) is that somewhere in the middle, the protagonist and antagonist switch roles. It might be interesting to poll a number of people and find out when (or if) they think this switch takes place. Personally, I think it happened much later than it probably did for other people… But that’s just me. I can be vindictive like that, well… at least in my imagination.

“Spies are a dime a dozen. Clyde was a brain, the best. If he wants you dead, you’re dead.”

3.5 out of 5

Oct 9 2009

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Ichabod CraneBook reading sex-fecta (sounds dirty) for the week? Maybe. Many of the stories I’ve read this past week have been short. Today’s was very short. With the approach of Hallowe’en (I like that spelling), I thought it appropriate to read (possibly for the second time, can’t be sure) Washngton Irving‘s 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow“.

The story of poor preceptor Ichabod Crane, never gets old. I think most people are familiar with the Disney adaptation (1949) which tells Irving’s tale pretty faithfully. One difference I did notice however, is that the Headless Horseman in the story doesn’t have a jack-o-lantern head, but instead rides with his severed head mounted on the saddle’s pommel. Too macabre for Disney, or just not as theatrical? I also liked the way that Irving weaves the ghost story, finishing the tale with a healthy helping of doubt as to the events which actually occurred, but then admitting that he (the narrator) prefers the version told by “old country wives”. I enjoy ghost stories a great deal, but I think they’re made better when the truth of these events are left to the shadows of the reader’s imagination… that is where they are born and where they belong.

“The pedagogue’s mouth watered as he looked upon this sumptuous promise of luxurious winter fare. In his devouring mind’s eye, he pictured to himself every roasting-pig running about with a pudding in his belly, and an apple in his mouth; the pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie, and tucked in with a coverlet of crust; the geese were swimming in their own gravy; and the ducks pairing cosily in dishes, like snug married couples, with a decent competency of onion sauce. In the porkers he saw carved out the future sleek side of bacon, and juicy relishing ham; not a turkey but he beheld daintily trussed up, with its gizzard under its wing, and, peradventure, a necklace of savory sausages; and even bright chanticleer himself lay sprawling on his back, in a side dish, with uplifted claws, as if craving that quarter which his chivalrous spirit disdained to ask while living.”

4 out of 5

Oct 8 2009

The City of Ember

City of EmberI finished two books in one day! Yea, me! I just finished Jeanne DuPrau‘s 2003 book, “The City of Ember” (a movie based on the book was released last year, might have to Netflix that). It came highly recommended to me by a friend (a teacher, not a teacher of MINE, just a teacher of stuff… kids, and those sorts of filthy, screaming, slimy things), so I felt compelled to give it a shot! The book seems to be aimed toward tweens/middle-schoolers, which is fine. Some of the books I remember most fondly are books I read when I was younger (e.g., Chronicles of Prydain, The Tripods, Satanic Mill). The story revolves around two 12-year old children named Lina and Doon. It follows their initial graduation, employment, and explorations in and about the isolated city of Ember (they start early in Ember… tween empowerment?).

The city of Ember is running out of resources (e.g., food, clothes, light bulbs), it’s residents having lived there longer than the Builders intended. This is all explained in the book’s prologue. I’m not sure how to categorize the book, it’s not really sci-fi (all the tech is 20th century), it’s not really a mystery (you know what’s going on from the start), it’s not really a romance (the kids are 12… Pedo Bear Seal of Approval), it’s sort of a thriller (but you sort of know what’s going to happen)… I guess it’s an adventure book, even though everything happens within a fairly confined area where the most dramatic event is flickering light bulbs. Don’t take from this that the story isn’t good, it is. It’s just hard to pigeon-hole. Basically, if you want to read a non-challenging tween pseudo-post-apocalyptic-adventure book, read “City of Ember”. It’s enjoyable and sometimes that’s all you need.

“In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark.”

4 out of 5

Oct 8 2009

The Castle of Otranto

Horace WalpoleFirst things first… Before today, I was completely unaware of  Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel “The Castle of Otranto“. I encountered the title by chance on LibraryThing and proceeded to download a copy from the Gutenberg repository. I was intrigued (that word keeps popping up!) about a story described as the first Gothic novel (i.e., a story containing horror and romance). I was also interested to see how an 18th century author dealt with fantasy elements, e.g., apparitions, damsels in distress, knights in shining armor, hereditary curses, superstition, etc. The book does not disappoint (though it is very “over the top”).

“The Castle of Otranto” was originally published under a pseudonym, and marketed as a translation of a 15th century Italian manuscript of a Crusades-era (11th to 13th centuries) tale. *deep breath* The “translation” was well-received originally, until Walpole finally admitted that it was a work of pure fiction… at which point the praises turned sour. Think: 18th century “Blair Witch Project“. The movie was MUCH better if you believed the uncredited early screenings were real, than it was after you’d seen the “doomed” actors final hurrah on the MTV Awards.

So did I like this chance find? Yes, I did! The story rolled along quickly and kept my interest throughout. It is packed with turns and twists and intrigues (hmmm…) and a healthy dose of the supernatural. Maybe it’s just me, but my only advice is to keep your dictionary handy, the book is a vocabulist’s wet-dream.

“The fellow made no answer, but continued pointing towards the courtyard; and at last, after repeated questions put to him, cried out, ‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!'”

3.5 out of 5

Oct 7 2009

Ethan Frome

Ethan FromeAre you looking for a tale that’s dark, cold, moody, haunting, romantic, and depressing as hell? Look no further! Today I finished Edith Wharton‘s 1911 novel “Ethan Frome“. Wharton is probably best known for “The Age of Innocence” (which I haven’t read, but won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921). After reading Frome, I may be exploring more by this author.

It starts simply with a businessman visiting a bleak New England town called Starkfield. After seeing a crippled, strong, and quiet man named Ethan Frome, the businessman sets out to learn more about him. His curiosity is further piqued upon discovering that no one wishes to speak of Frome’s troubles. After meeting the man, the businessman learns more about his life, love, and trials than he may have wished (though it’s unclear whether he actually learns these things, or if the book simply outlines all the details that he can never know).

This story is unrelentingly bleak and depressing. I really enjoyed it. I didn’t like it because it was depressing but because it illustrates how little we know about the lives of others and how little thought we give to the struggles,  trials, and sufferings others carry with them through their lives.

“I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ‘cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”

4.5 out of 5

Oct 6 2009

The Red Badge of Courage

Civil War SoldierAfter a great many years, I finally got around to reading Stephen Crane‘s 1895 novel “The Red Badge of Courage“. Why’d it take me so long? I don’t know, probably the same reason I’ve never read “Lord of the Flies” (which is on my list) or most of the other stuff that kids read in school. The book tells the story of a young man’s experience as a soldier during the American Civil War, specifically the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville (explained in a 1896 short story titled “The Veteran”). The author claimed that the story was written because all accounts of the war to that date were dry and unemotional. He wanted to infuse a war story with all the thoughts and emotions that must go through a young soldier’s mind as the battle unfolds. Keep in mind that until that time, Crane had never taken part in war (he later became an international war correspondent).

I must digress here, to point a finger (not saying which one) at one of my University professors who told me not to write about war if I hadn’t experienced it. Here we have one of the most renowned war novels of all time, written by someone who learned about warfare from issues of Century. Not enough? How about Alfred Tennyson‘s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”? Not enough? Idiot.

Back to the book at hand… I’m not sure what I should be taking from this book. Am I supposed to understand that war makes men out of children? That it teaches them truths about life, death, courage, and camaraderie? Am I supposed to sympathize with a character that never seems to reflect on the lives of men he’s shooting at? Is that something soldiers never do? Or something that they choose not to do (out of need)? For a character that thinks himself into knots throughout a horrible situation, I can’t help but thinking that there could have been more. Maybe it’s not fair to criticize sensibilities  over a span of 100+ years, but…

Overall this is a good story and a captivating (though imaginary) window into a terrible moment in American history.

“He would die; he would go to some place where he would be understood. It was useless to expect appreciation of his profound and fine sense from such men as the lieutenant. He must look to the grave for comprehension.”

4 out of 5

Oct 5 2009

The Sound and the Fury

The Old Compson HouseStream of consciousness writing can be very interesting, enjoyable, and provocative. I found none of that in this book. In fact, I am stunned (gobsmacked?) by the scholarship and critical acclaim that has been heaped onto this “masterpiece” since its publication in 1929. While I’m sure Faulkner felt very liberated exploring this style, I found his use of it tiresome, obtrusive, and awkward. Pushing through the first 70+ pages was an effort of pure will. The second section (from the point of view of Quentin) was tedious, meandering, inconclusive, and put me to sleep more than once (granted, my attention span is not the best).  The third section (from Jason’s point of view) was better. The fourth section (from Dilsey’s point of view) was well-written, coherent, and a relief (much like inhaling for the first time after holding your breath underwater for some personal time record… yes, headaches and all). I don’t expect every detail to be handed to me on a silver platter but get a bit annoyed when I’m left to guess whether there’s a platter at all.

Now, I know that my attention wanders a bit, sometimes more than just a bit. But when I reach the end of a book (especially one over 300 pages) I expect to know who all the characters were, how they were related to one another, and why the story was being told in the first place. Unless you’ve read this book a number of times, one of the only ways you’re going to know these things is by reading an appendix written by the author in 1933 (which is laden with inconsistencies). Having now read the appendix and understanding more about the characters and storyline I just pushed through, I guess I will enjoy the book better the second time through… if that is ever to happen, which I doubt. The facts that I’ve heard so many good things about Faulkner and that the last section gave me some insight into what he’s capable of, may entice me to try some of his other works… but for now I’m going to give my brain and my tolerance a much needed break.

The quote I picked to sum up this review is not from the book itself but from an introduction the author wrote in 1933:

“It’s fine to think that you will leave something behind you when you die, but it’s better to have made something you can die with.”

2 out of 5

Oct 4 2009


Zombie GrrlThis weekend we went to the opening night of “Zombieland”. Let me say at the beginning, that I thought this movie was going to suck after seeing the trailers.

My impression afterward was different. Very different. The movie seemed to be a cross between “Shaun of the Dead” ,  “Natural Born Killers”, and “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, three movies that I like a great deal. The movie centers around two unlikely companions named Columbus and Tallahassee. Both have survived the zombie plague apocalypse in their own way. Columbus has found survival-success creating and following a strict list of rules (some of which are the source for long running gags throughout). Tallahassee has found survival-success in more traditional zombie-flick fashion, aka guns blazing. The movie follows their travels, the people and zombies they meet, their successes and their failures. It’s sort of like a Crosby and Hope road-movie but with lots and lots of gore.

If your mind can’t find entertainment sandwiched between horror, gore, and comedy, then this movie probably isn’t for you. As for me, I enjoyed it, though it never seemed to rise to the level of the movies that inspired it. Not surprising, I guess.Woody Harrelson does an okay job, revisiting (to some degree) his role of Mickey in “Natural Born Killers”. Jesse Eisenberg carries the movie well enough for a straight-man sidekick. Emma Stone does okay… but I miss Juliette Lewis *sigh*. And Abigail Breslin proves that she’s more than just “Little Miss Sunshine”.

All-in-all, an enjoyable flick that is good to see on the large screen!

“Rule Number 4, Double Tap”

4 out of 5