Okay, while stuck in the morass of David Sedaris’ book, I let the 2008 Pulitzer Prize announcements fly by without comment.  The fiction prize went to Junot Díaz for The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I’m sure I’ll get to it soon … as I’ve said before, I have a habit of reading the Pulitzer winner each year.   Go here for the NY Times review of the book.

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cover art Currently reading …

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book cover Yes, it really took me this long to finish this book.  I read it in bits and pieces, lost interest and ignored it for a while, then picked it back up, etc.  It was not a good book — and, as I’d built up quite an expectation from critical acclaim and recommendation from trusted fellow readers, it was an especially tough disappointment.

The book is quite funny in places, but for the most part David Sedaris comes across (to me) as just petty and mean-spirited.  I am perfectly comfortable with biting and sardonic wit ( love Balzac, for example), but good humor of this nature tends to have a point, Sedaris rarely does.  His writing is certainly accessible, and he narrates well; however, his humor is of the sort that I am left with the impression that he thinks himself to be sly, subtle, and clever, though really he is just constantly and directionlessly patronizing.

He is at his best when he makes fun of himself.  The sections on his art/drug years and his trip to France are among the funniest, in my opinion.  The rest of it reads like a thirteen-year-old who just discovered sarcasm and has run amuck with it.  It is tedious and annoying, and I had to put a force of will into it just to finish it.

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Amber After having read the first book in this series again a while back, I decided to go ahead a re-read the remaining four books.  It’s been years, and as always when I revisit something I read long ago, things were quite different for me this time around.

For one thing, I guess I never noticed (or didn’t remember) how poorly edited the books are.  Not only are there a number of obvious and silly typos scattered throughout all the books, but there is at least one place where Zelazny got the names of characters mixed up and the editor never fixed it (in Signs..., the doctor is confounded with Bill Roth’s character).   Perhaps this is a function of having read an early edition?  These were fixed in later versions?

But the real meat of the differences for me were surrounding Corwin’s character.  In the past, I’d always viewed him as a strong main character who dug his way out of a very complicated series of interconnecting conspiracies to save the day.  This time I saw him more as an ineffectual pawn who blasted his way through the world foolishly, being used the whole time.

In fact, in some sense, he’s wrong about everything to the very end:  He even creates a new pattern, though never instructed to, without any care for what will happen if the old one still survives, mainly on the word of the most deceitful villain in the series (Brand).   Moreover, his main goal in creating it was to get to the Courts quickly to deliver the Jewel, which he failed to do precisely because of the endeavor (he is too weak to stop Brand).

Indeed, Corwin is duped by virtually every important character in the series:  Brand, Ganelon/Oberon, Dara, Caine, Bleys … and even, in a sense, Jullian & Eric (Jullian admits that they pretended to be viscous to him in the beginning to spare his life).  I knew all this from previous readings, but it just never came together for me in this way before.   In the past, I’ve always excused Corwin’s mistakes as having come (back) into the game with a severe deficit (sudden recovery of memory loss after a prolonged absence), and I credited him for foiling and cleaning the mess so quickly after he returns:  Corwin comes back and things happen, darn it!

But this time it never pulls together for me like that.  I had a hard time seeing Corwin’s role as anything but the fool.  Even most of his “uncovering/foiling” of the various plots underway is master-minded by Oberon.  In reality (it seems to me now), Corwin resolve very little on his own.

I’m sure that at least one of my occasional readers will disagree, but I’m satisfied with this view of things for now.  It’s a new view for me, and I’m sure it will differ in ten years when I re-read the series again.

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Vonnegut book Like many college students, I went through my Kurt Vonnegut phase. I picked up some arbitrary book of his (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in my case) and thought, “How the heck could I have called myself a reader and never read this man before?” Then I sucked down paperback after paperback until I burned out, having absorbed most of K.V.’s very impressive publication list before grinding out in a book that managed to somehow disappoint (Hocus Pocus, in my case). I haven’t touched Vonnegut since then, but virtually every piece of modern fiction that has any kind of satire in it is held up against that yardstick.

And it is quite a yardstick. Vonnegut was an impressive humorist.

When I heard of his death last year, I was more than a bit affected by it: It seemed like part of my young adulthood was dying too … and at just the time in my life when my humor seems to have darkened and become more bite than is really necessary. Just when my personal sense of humor has devolved into cynicism, the man who managed to make even the most horrible things funny (in a more or less positive way) dies.

I thought this book might restore some of that, but it did not. The book reads like a parting letter to the world … the message seems to be, “We’ve screwed it all up, and it can’t be saved.” Though I agree with virtually everything he says, and though I did give a chortle or two as I read the book, there’s no denying the defeatist tone in this little semi-biography. It’s not a book that is meant to inspire … or, if it is, I’m not sure what I’m inspired to do aside from find meaning in just being alive. That’s a great message, but I already feel that way, so it’s not one I needed.

I needed a good, positive laugh at the world. But K.V. addresses this, too, in the book: He says that there comes a time when many people just stop being funny, stop finding things funny. Maybe so.

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LtPGv1 I’ve read this series before, but my interest in Go has resurfaced so I re-read three of the first four volumes. If you don’t know the game and want to get a good jump-start into it, this is the series for you.

LtPGv2 I judge go books along two dimensions: 1.) How useful are they in terms of improving the game of readers at or below the targeted level of the player reading the book, and 2.) How much they avoid the trap of being mind-numbingly boring. This series scores well on both axes. The books are very easy to read, do not take much time, aren’t too boring, and will certainly improve your game if you are just starting.

LtPGv2 Going through them again after so many years had passed was less useful than it might have otherwise been; however, it did get me interested in the game again, which was my main motivation for reading them. They also make good books to loan out to people interested in the game because they are so easy to read and so useless to you once you’ve progressed passed them. You lose nothing, but possibly interest a new player.

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cover I know I have not kept my reading journal up to date … I’ve been reading, but I just haven’t taken the time to write about what I read. So these next few posts will be a bit terse in an effort to get caught up and lose the momentum problem.

So I restrict myself to Notes from Underground for time reasons.

I admit that I was frustrated by Notes, which is too bad because I really loved The Brothers Karamazov. This story, a mouthpiece for Dostoevsky’s vehement disagreement with the philosophy of rationalist egoism, consisted predominantly of a main character who whined and complained. Though, but the end, we have a sense for his bitterness and and an understanding of his motivations, I could never say that I absorbed into the story.

An essay on the subject would have sufficed. This kind of blatant, head-beating author-speak should be reserved for grade school novels and Kevin Smith movies. Brothers integrated Dostoevsky’s romantic notions of traditional Russia in a way that Notes simply doesn’t even attempt.

It doesn’t help that I find both extremes absurd and pointless. Rationalist egoism, enlightened self interest and the inherency of natural law, is a ridiculous idea in its purest form — but Dostoevsky’s total and almost fanatical retreat from these ideas is equally nonsensical. I find myself in the radical position of finding all these philosophies interesting intellectual exercises, but nothing like “T”ruth. This makes the “Man” in the Notes sound even more over the top than Dostoevsky meant for him to sound. He is a willfully extreme example of an extreme position written by an author who is already quite extreme. In the end, the sense (for me) was cartoonish … exactly the opposite of my impression of Brothers, whose characters are among the most believable and developed of any novel I have ever read.

Still, F.D. is a great writer, and the stories are enjoyable, even that one. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth the read.

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There was a very interesting article today in the Post about a group that has discovered the fossilized remains of a dinosaur where much of the actual tissue of the creature (a hadrosaur) was preserved. This included scales and muscle tissue, etc.

There’s also a cautionary note that the findings have not been properly scientifically vetted yet, but the scientists involved are in the process of publishing what they have discovered so far. Also, there’s apparently going to be a special about the process of studying this find on the National Geographic Channel next Sunday and Monday.

I totally agree that scientists should be very reserved until the community has had a chance to properly vet the results … maybe the special is premature. On the other hand, I will probably watch the special (after all, I watched Tin Man on SciFi last night, so I must not be too picky). It will be interesting to see where the the study of this find leads.

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cover In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to admit that Kay McSpadden was my high school American Literature and Journalism teacher. She was also one of my favorite (and hardest) teachers.

There is something very odd about reading (then reviewing) a book written by one of your high school teachers. Part of me is the boy who still seems to need approval by currying favor, so is predisposed to automatically approve of the book. Another, even pettier, part of me wants to take the opportunity to turn the red pen around. While such a dichotomy isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I actually try consciously to write something positive and negative in every review), I guess objectivity will be a casuality in this case.

It doesn’t help my objectivity that she has actually posted on this blog, so there remains the remote possibility that she might actually read my review … though which part of me this feeds isn’t quite clear to me.

In terms of my petty red-ink-vendetta, I can only say that Ms. McSpadden’s casual disregard for the proper relative pronoun for connecting restrictive clauses will cost her a few points — as will the quotation typo at the bottom of page 113. And, as I recall, her tests always had an essay portion and a short answer portion … where are the short answers? Perhaps I should ask where are the short questions …

I guess there are none.

But more seriously: The book is very well-written and certainly quite accessible. I’d forgotten how much she could write in just a few words — a skill that, despite her excellent teaching, I never mastered (as the few readers of my blog must grudgingly admit). It is significantly more sentimental than my tastes prefer, but it is also more moving and insightful than my skills can produce.

For some reason I had assumed the book would be more like a manual on teaching, but it ran counter to these expectations. Had I spent even a second reflecting on her, it wouldn’t have. This is exactly the book I might have imagined her writing about teaching, had I gone to any effort to imagine it: Frank, witty, and experiential story-telling.

I love the title, and I imagine her putting care into selecting the correct article adjective — it isn’t “the classroom”, but “a classroom”. And I imagine that by “classroom” she means “life”, “experience” … other people. I hope that she meant it that way; that’s wonderful.

Though my own teaching duties are meager, I hope they will be improved by reading this book. I come from a family of teachers, but teaching has never really felt very natural to me. I’m the teaching black sheep. But I love to teach, and this book encourages that feeling. That can’t be a bad thing.

The only really frustrating thing was that I couldn’t shake Kay McSpadden’s voice in my head. I am an aural reader. I always have been — it’s one reason why I am such a slow reader. Because I read a lot, though, I’ve developed a kind of quirky omnipotence with my internal narrative voice … now it’s a British accent, now German, now in a funny rhythm, now silly low/high oscillations (Yes, I know … I’m weird). But it is always my voice.

Not so with this book. No matter how hard I tried, the voice was always Kay McSpadden’s voice (from nearly two decades ago). It was as though she were saying, “Paul Wiegand, these are my stories. You sit down, be quiet, and listen for a minute. It wont take long. Then you can talk again.”

Wise advice from a book that shepherds us to listen more. Advice I certainly can use.

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cover Every once in a while, one should re-read childhood favorites. I had a brief interlude between finishing my last book and the book I was anticipating in the mail, so I thought I’d re-read this old friend. What a fun, simple book.

I’ve always wondered (and perhaps one of my three blog readers will weigh-in on this) whether this book was written anticipating the rest of the series. It certainly feels different from the other books in a number of ways. It reads like a book written with very vague ideas about possible future books, but no real serious effort in that direction. The other four books seem to connect the series plot arc much better than this one.

Still, there are hooks for the plot arc in this book (Bleys sends creatures from shadow at Eric, Corwin sees the road at the end, etc.). Additionally, it ends anticipating more action (though an entirely different type of sequel might have fit just as well) … and there are other unresolved issues that suggest Zelazny had a sequel in mind (the person responsible for the accident that preceded the series is not revealed until much later in the series).

Also, little things bothered me. I had trivial questions like: Why did Flora not just contact Eric by Trump at the beginning? Why not someone else who could contact Eric? But I also had more general skepticism about the plot this time around: Why on earth would Random and Corwin just hop in a car and drive toward Amber? I mean, Corwin didn’t have his memory, so we’ll give him a pass … but Random? It just doesn’t fit for me.

Everything moves so fast in the book; I’d forgotten. Corwin acts and things happen as a result … which I always felt made him a great character (in contrast, in the second series, Merlin is acted upon, making him seem particularly weak). But this time I almost had the impression that Corwin was ahead of the plot, like his actions were driving things so completely that the verisimilitude of the story itself suffered. I’m sure this feeling has exacerbated (or produced?) by the fact that I’ve read this book many times before.

Still, I had fun — it was a good interim choice for a minor reading project.

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