Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The omnivore’s dilemma is that…for those who can eat just about anything, the problem lies in selecting what to eat, especially since some of it can sicken or even kill you.

– Paul Rozin in The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals.

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Quick Review: The Broom of the System

This is a book that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading. The first novel by the late David Foster Wallace, it was born from a comment by a former girlfriend, who said that “she would rather be a character in a piece of fiction than a real person”. In Broom, Wallace explores the difference between the two through Lenore Beadsman, a young woman who is unsure of whether she is real or not. According to whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry, “the controlling idea surrounding all of these crises are the use of words and symbols to define a person.”

At first glance, definitely an interesting concept about identity that seems like it would be steeped in philosophical jargon. But the reason Broom was a challenging book was not due so much to difficult words, but rather to the uniqueness of its writer. Although any attempts to describe Wallace in a sentence can never give him justice, to put it simply, DFW was a genius whose mind never let him stop thinking, whose brilliant analytical tendencies eventually led him to take his own life. The threads and tangents he follows are manifested in long, verbose sentences, with many phrases wrapped around each other, wound and twisted to the extent that the reader can lose the thread before reaching even the end of one of these thoughts. Wallace himself once noted that Broom feels like it had been written “by a very smart fourteen year old,” and that is probably the most succinct yet accurate description that anyone can give it.

In summary, whilst I would recommend reading some of DFW’s essays and speeches for a uniquely intelligent, if verbose, take on a number of existential questions, his novels are definitely not for the faint hearted. If you decide to pick one up, I wish you good luck and more. You’re definitely going to need every ounce of perseverance that you can master.

Review: A Voyage Long and Strange

“What happened in North America between Columbus’s sail in 1492 and the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620? ” Tony Horwitz notes that most Americans – including himself before he started working on this title – have little idea, having grown up believing that their country started when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. And in a 464 page tome, Horwitz proceeds to fill in the missing 16th century by tracing the journeys of the early explorers across the land called America.

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Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

The most notable thing about Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the first novel by Cory Doctorow, a Canadian author and digital rights activists, is that it is available freely online. The digital edition was released online concurrently with its publication by Tor Books (for those people who simply have to have physical copies), and is the first novel released under a Creative Commons license, allowing copying and distribution without further permission from author or publisher. Under a new license stemming from 2004, derivative works now be made freely, provided the license and attribution are retained and the works aren’t used commercially.

There is a far amount of debate about Creative Commons and other “copyleft” licensing systems such as GNU, which I don’t have the time to look into. A quick glimpse at all the jargon on Wikipedia is almost enough to convince me that it really isn’t for lay people…

Anyways, the novel is set in a futuristic world, where people no longer ‘die’ because they can continuoually replace their bodies, and reputation (called “Whuffie”) has become the foundation of life. Oh, and the protagonist lives in the Magic Kingdom, i.e. Disney World.

This is just the third English book I’ve read of my own violition since I came on JET (the others are all bookclub titles). What can I saw? It was the title and the blurb that got me reading it.

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Quick Review: The White Tiger

I don’t really have much to say on The White Tiger, the first novel by Avarind Adiga, which won the 2008 Booker Prize. Apparently, it’s a pretty typical Booker winner…but it’s my first one, so I wouldn’t know.

Anyways, what to say…

For a start, the protagonist is pretty unlikeable, as are most of the people that form part of his story. His tendency to go off on tangents sprouting words to sound verbose and intelligent (one good example is the very start of the novel, where he tells of a useful “thing you can only say in English” which he learnt from his employer’s wife…but doesn’t reveal it for many many pages as simply “what a f***ing joke”) got on my nerves pretty quickly. I’m sure it’s not only the Indians who think “well, I’ve made it, so what I’ve done must need no improvement”, but because of personal experience, that was one of the things that irritated me, as it seemed to come through from the narrator’s tone.

There are, perhaps, a few interesting things about it. For example, what entrepreneurship in India is in reality. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were even more horrific (and true!) stories out there. It was also refreshing to read a ‘local perspective’ on the Ganges River, which is not the holy ground that many tourists see it is, but rather a polluted river you wouldn’t step in otherwise. However, I would have liked the caste system to be explained a little more than in the few references to it…well, a limitation of the first-person narrator – and an unreliable one at that – I suppose.

But really, I was just wrecking my brains to find stuff to talk about. In short, an average tale, but really, I wouldn’t have read it if not for bookclub.

Review: Lolita (novel)

I’m sure most educated people are well aware of this incredibly famous novel, as the term “Lolita” has long been a part of popular culture, giving rise to further derivations such as “Lolita Complex” and “Lolita Fashion”. Perhaps ironically, Lolita Fashion can now be seen as a counterpoint to the overt sexuality that is implied by the word “Lolita”, an implication so deeply engrained in the public consciousness that the popularity of Lolita as a girl’s name in the US has dropped since the 1960s. (Ironically, just one year after the popularity of Lolita as a girl’s name peaked in the US in 1963, Nabokov noted that “people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita anymore.” Surely it hadn’t plunged all that much in just one year…?)

Back to the point, Lolita takes the form of a biography narrated by one Humbert Humphrey, who tells the story of how he become obsessed with a 12-year not yet emerged from puberty, and eventually become sexually involved with her. (Here’s wiki’s summary if you really need to know more…)

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Review: The Old Man and the Sea

Just about the only English books I read nowadays are for bookclub…even though I still struggle to make any progress on the Japanese stuff on my backlog. I wish people would stop choosing 300-400 page bricks! This particular choice was an exception, but it might not have been the best choice for, as it turned out to be, a group of people who haven’t read much Hemingway.

Published towards the end of Hemingway’s life, The Old Man and the Sea was initially widely acclaimed for being so completely different from the rest of his oeuvre, a departure from the realism that characterises all his other works. Word is that this novella was the major catalyst for Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Since then, however, views have become more critical, with some like Robert P. Weeks pointing out the irony that the extensive focus on natural objects in this novella belies the romanticism with which they are treated, especially from an author who had been criticised for his devotion to realism.

So, what did a Hemingway virgin think of it?

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Cloudstreet – classic description of Australian life, or not?

This was the novel selected for the last meeting of a bookclub that I attend. It’s also the favourite book of one of the members, meaning that she didn’t actually want it nominated and selected. And after the discussion we had at the meeting, I think I can understand. It doesn’t happen with all the books that we read, but sometimes, there is a sense that the discussion would improve immensely had someone raised questions for all of us to think about whilst reading. I typically go to wikipedia and then branch out if I think of something I want to check or research, but it seems like not all of us do (or have the time to do) that.

Anyways, on to the thoughts then…about why we Australians (or quasi-Aussies) connected with it much more than the others did.

The basic story – two families move into a rundown house in a big city and eek out an existence as different as night and day. Their children don’t want to stay, but in the end events, feelings etc change and they end up coming home, bringing new life into the place.

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The DH – thoughts on the final curtain of of Harry Potter

I must be mad…I finished it just 4 and a half hours ago and am awake again. Actually, it’s just that I can’t sleep –  I really want to get these thoughts out of my head before I look though a few other LJs and then, perhaps, try to get more sleep.

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Reviews: various films

Now about some films I saw on my last few plane trips.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth really is something I feel that more people would watch. Not that I can say anything, I know that I have changed very little about the way I live.

I also caught the Pride and Prejudice movie, the one with Keira Knightley as Lizzy Bennett, and well, I regretted it. They cut out way too much from the story, removing most of the dialogue that made the book and the BBC series so enjoyable. Darcy may look dreamy in that proposal scene, but to me, he was reduced to someone whose developement seemed contrived and unbelievable. And let’s not talk about the costumes…when I go back to Perth for a break, I’ll gladly make myself a cup of hot chocolate, put my feet up, and go back to watching the BBC production… (There was a note of interest for me though…throughout the film, I wondered where I’d seen Caroline Bingley before…and well, I finally realised that she’s Wendy from L’ Auberge Espagnole and Les Poupées Russes…)

I saw Flags of Our Fathers because I wanted to watch Letters from Iwo Jima before it left the cinemas here. I failed in the latter…but FoOF was interesting enough. Some people criticise it for its sentimentality…but I felt that they had a point. I haven’t seen that many war movies…but I don’t know of a war movie with the same message – that many of the heroes of our wars don’t wish to be remembered as such. Rather, they were people who did what they had to do under the circumstances. Maybe it seems rather contrived since most people with sufficient education understand the point, but it is nice once in a while to have a film that doesn’t glorify what happens in war.

But on that note, guess what other movie I’m going to be talking about soon…