november 2014 books.

Hey, we're almost caught up here!

The Double
Jose Saramago
A depressed history teacher watches a movie and sees one of the actors is an exact duplicate of him. He becomes obsessed, tracking down the actor by watching other movies (it's a bit part, so the role is not credited directly) from the same company. By cross-referencing movies, he's able to figure out the actor's name, though he finds it's only a screen name and then he has to track down the real name. Finally, he contacts the actor directly to tell him that he, a stranger, is apparently his exact double.

It's such a thin premise on first glance. The whole time he is seeking out the actor, I'm yelling at him in my head. Dude, just let it go and mind your own business. What difference does it make that this guy exists? But I can see how it would bug someone, particularly someone who didn't have much else going on in his life at the moment. Even he doesn't really know where he's going or what he will do once he finds the actor, he just feels the compulsion to follow the trail.

It's a strange sort of thriller, and the ending has a great twist. I enjoyed it, though it did not strike me nearly as much as another work of Saramago's, Blindness.

The News From Paraguay
Lily Tuck
This was historical fiction, based on the lives of President Francisco Lopez and his long-term mistress. This guy apparently ruined Paraguay by starting a war he couldn't win or pay for. Spoiler alert, he dies in the mud. After getting 60% of the population killed and devasting the economy, of course.

You know, this book won a National Book Award, but the Amazon reviews are pretty mixed. I'd have to agree. It didn't really stick to me, one way or the other. It's clearly about the mistress, and I think I was supposed to feel...something about her involvement with the politics of killing a lot of people for the sake of vanity. But it wasn't really clear what her involvement was. She has children and affairs and sometimes she sit there while the President rants about politics to her. She did not seem to have any actual power. I would've preferred an alternate history where she kills the guy before he breaks Paraguay.

The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity
Mark Vonnegut
I read this on the way back from San Francisco. It's all about hippies, so it was entirely appropriate. These hippies do not live on the street, but instead take to the woods to build a commune. They buy some land in British Columbia, work all day at building a house and growing/catching food and try to make a real go of the simpler life.

The only problem is that the author comes down with a bad case of schizophrenia. His friends try to contain and help him for a while, but at some point they have to put him in an institution for his safety and their sanity. I fortunately have had very little experience with schizophrenia, but it sounds pretty terrible. He talks about receiving information, but it comes in so fast (and from where, exactly?) that his brain cannot process it. At least some of it is outright untrue, though much of it feels like revelation. It sounds sorta poetic and magical, except for the not eating or sleeping and the suicide attempts. Maybe he is having revelations, but a body cannot function that way.

What struck me was the stigma about mental illness within his group. When I think about a mental illness stigma, I think about people saying that the mentally ill just need to get over it, that we all go through crap and those people just want attention or are too weak to suck it up and get on with living. That's essentially saying that mental illness itself does not exist. These hippies also believed mental illness did not exist, but for different reasons. They thought that the mentally ill were just super oppressed. A quote he uses frequently is that "schizophrenia is an appropriate reaction to an insane world." Basically, this person is not sick, the world is.

Vonnegut himself has this view, and has a really hard time resolving it with his own experience. In fact, he is terribly disappointed to find out that it's about brain chemistry, not oppression and society. It makes him feel like a bad hippie. He wants this poetic condition to have a poetic cure. But in the end, he has to admit that treating it as a brain chemistry problem seems to work.

I think we can all agree that the world is quite sick, but I'm pretty sure some people have something in their brains that does not let them function. The more I read or listen to accounts of mental illness, the more I realize that I don't know anything, and the best course is to just be compassionate and also thankful that I haven't had to deal with it.

The author is the son of American author Kurt Vonnegut. That's the first thing that is mentioned in the author bio in the book, and I felt kinda bad for the guy about it. That being said, I think it's the very reason I picked up the book in the first place.

Saints and Strangers: Being the Lives of the Pilgrim Fathers and Their Families, with Their Friends and Foes, and an Account of the Posthumous ... and the Strange Pilgrimages of Plymouth Rock
George F. Willison
I picked this up right before Thanksgiving - how appropriate! I don't guess I had any strong ideas about the Pilgrims, other than a vague notion they wore buckles on their hats and that colonizing a new world sucks. As it turns out, the whole black clothes with buckles thing was the Puritans, who were farther north. The Pilgrims were also not hardcore believers in religious freedom. They were in disagreement with the Anglican church about a lot of things, and they resented the way that the state was able to enforce religious belief. So they went off, first to the Netherlands, and then to the New World, to practice their religion the way they wanted to. Anyone else who lived with them was also forced to practice religion that way. So their disagreement was not in the intermingling of church and state, but that it was the wrong church.

If you are interested in a actual pioneer of religious freedom, check out the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Willams.

Not all of the Pilgrims were even religious types. Many of them had just signed onto the voyage to make their fortunes. In fact, the only Pilgrim most people could name, Myles Standish, was among these. And once they all got to the New World, there was a lot of politics and backstabbing and a bit of unnecessary killing of natives. You know, regular human stuff.

What was interesting to me was how much the reality differs from the myth. Our popular notion of the Pilgrims comes from a poem that a lady in England wrote after reading an article about some journals that had been rediscovered. She did not read the journals, nor did the article she read have very much information about the settlement and its inhabitants. I don't know if you know any poets, but it really does not take much for their minds to just take off, filling in the holes with imaginative details. In fact, they don't even need holes to make stuff up. Sometimes they just make something sound better. That's not this lady's fault. If you'd asked her, she would've told you that she was a poet, not a historian, you silly goose. And that's how legends and myths are born, with a bit of fact and a smattering of poetry.

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
I read The Handmaid's Tale not too long ago, and we talked about speculative fiction. It's sorta like sci-fi in that the world described does not exist, but while science fiction is often talking about other worlds entirely, speculative fiction deals with what could happen, if certain human tendencies were taken to their extremes. The Handmaid's Tale was about a society of extreme oppression of women. This one deals with genetic modifications.

We follow the thoughts and actions of Snowman, who appears to be the last man on earth. There are other "people," called the Children of Crake, but they are clearly not like people we would recognize, in either their physical form or their society. In the course of Snowman's narrative about his days, where he is barely surviving, he relives his past and just how the human race came to this. Hint: it was our own dang fault.

While the world that Snowman describes is completely unrecognizable from ours (bizarre weather, no civilization, weird critters), his flashbacks sound sorta familiar. It's like our world, except certain things are amplified. Enormous resources are put into science and technology, while the arts founder. The rich and educated are kept in sterile compounds associated with their science-based jobs or institutions of learning, where there is abundant food and recreation. The rest of humanity lives in dirty, crime-ridden cities. Porn is everywhere. Food is largely synthetic; even chicken nuggets are grown on weird nugget trees. Everything sounds just a little bit familiar.

And then it all goes bad. There's a plague, the genetically modified creatures get out, all those neatly sealed barriers between the rich and the poor break down.

While this was interesting, I did not enjoy it as much as The Handmaid's Tale. I was not particularly attached to the characters. However, I did like the ending, when the Children of Crake, which were genetically designed to not be the screw-ups that we regular humans are, start making art. Their creator, Crake, implied that if that happened, they were doomed. And maybe they are, but after all, they were designed by a screw-up.

No comments: