Archive for November, 2010

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Lionel Shriver has produced a compelling and engrossing work in We Need To Talk About Kevin. The premise of looking at the aftermath of a school shooting from the point of view of the shooter’s mother holds many possibilities, not all of them original or interesting.  Fortunately, Shriver steers confidently for waters deep enough that headlines and sensationalism are the least of the narrator’s worries.

The narrative itself is a remarkable high wire act across a deep chasm of ambiguity.  We’re told the mother’s story in her words from before the shooter’s conception until well into the aftermath.  She’s the real star of the work; a very believable character with flaws and blind spots, who, through a nice contrivance, is telling her story to someone who already knows it.  This means her story interprets  the facts rather than retelling them.

That interpretation is the heart of the book.  The actions of the shooter are pretty much the only unambiguous events in her story.  The rest are presented through the eyes of Eva, the mother, in hindsight and to a particular end. She’s painted strongly enough that the reader forms an opinion of her, and that opinion drives the interpretation of the events she relates.  She’s a strong character, but not a cliched character.  What different readers think of her will reflect the reader as clearly as the character.  This is half the fun of the book.

Though the narrative is direct, a story about a teenager believably committing harrowing acts of violence almost requires a search for root causes.  The elemental nature of the crimes pushes the reader’s questions well past parenting practices to the nature of good and evil.  This is all presented even-handedly enough – or obliquely enough – that the reader’s ideas are at least as important as the author’s.  Or the narrator’s.

I read this on a recommendation from my Mom (read into that what you want), and when we discussed it I was struck by the different interpretations we’d had of the characters and the actions.  It wasn’t as if we had read different books, or even that we disagreed on much, but our impressions illuminated our personal experiences and beliefs.  Each reader will see something different here, and talking about what you see is more interesting than reading it.

In addition to being a catalyst for deep thoughts, the book is very absorbing reading.  I found it very hard to put down.

A must.

Review: The Iliad

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

This is a translation of The Iliad by Edward Earl of Darby in 1862, unsurprisingly free for the kindle, my current e-book reader of choice. I’d read parts of The Iliad in high school and had been meaning to get back to it.  Things come up, however, and twenty some-odd years later I finally got around to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the reading it, front to back.  I suspect that I would have enjoyed it less in high school, but now it was an endless parade of delights.

First of all, it’s a rip-roaring Hollywood blockbuster of a story.  It’s one bloody encounter after another, described vividly and in detail.  I tried to read Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur a few years ago and found it deadly dull.  A big part of the reason for that was how sterile and ethereal all the interactions and altercations were.  Sure Arthur “slew on the left and slew on the right” but that leaves it all pretty vague what was going on.  With Homer You Are There: he describes the various movements of the heroes and how they face each other to the point of telling where the victorious spear enters the loser’s body and just how the body came apart.  While I do not feel any great need to know that Hector decapitated someone as opposed to disemboweling them, the overall tone is much more detailed and close to the action.  As a result the characters and situations are more lively.  Mallory seemed like literature to me in the worst pretentious way; Homer feels like a story that gets retold and amplified by people.

The translation is also a source of fun.  I can imagine a very direct translation that tries to get the meaning across as clearly as possible to modern readers so that they can easily follow events from a couple thousand years ago. That’s not what the Earl provides at all.  Apparently he’s trying to capture the flavor of the ancient Greek, and not knowing any Greek I can’t tell how he did.  What I can say is that his translation has a quirky rhythm and flow all its own.  For example, evidently negation was an intensifier in ancient Greek, because no divine intervention takes place without at least three offsetting negations: “you should not hesitate to avoid throwing your spear.”  It’s all comprehensible, but just alien enough to remind you that Homer’s world is a different place.  It’s also all pretty consistent, which gives the text the flavor of a stylist rather than a translator.

I also enjoy the little shout-outs and digressions throughout that remind the reader that this was a history of the war and the warriors and communities that contributed to it.  It is pretty common to introduce a character and describe his history and personality in the space between a spear being thrown at him and dashing out his brains.  Longer digressions describing the founding of cities or the lineage of the heroes also pop up.  While all this diverts from the main plot, I find it charming that some Greek soldier otherwise lost to the mists of time gets a brief moment of immortality here.

So, overall, The Iliad is a lot of fun to read, and it certainly helps your literacy in the classics.

Strongly Recommended.

Fighting Trousers

Friday, November 12th, 2010

I’ve already mentioned this on Facebook, but Warren Ellis has brought another Elemental video to my attention.  You may want to give it some of yours.  Elemental is well liked here.

Review: The Big Short

Friday, November 12th, 2010

The full title of Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 financial crisis is The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine, which is a little melodramatic.  But not much.

Lewis has made a career out of explaining fairly complicated numbers games and how they impact people’s real lives.  He’s taken on the stats geeks in baseball and Wall Street in earlier books that I haven’t read, but if The Big Short is any indication, Moneyball should be on my list soon.

Lewis dives into the shenanigans that drove the housing crisis with the knowledge of an insider and the eye of a journalist.  He covers the tricky financial instruments in enough detail that one can clearly see the amazing disregard for risk and greed for profit that pulled the bandwagon forward, but at a high enough level that the mathematics is never daunting.  If you want to understand the gears that inflated the bubble and the cords that tied all the banks together when it burst, this will explain it to you.

In addition to knowing and communicating the technical details, he assembles an interesting cast of characters who were working out the problems in real time.  It may surprise you that there were such people, but it’s a big world.  He does a good job bringing them to life and using their stories to tell the larger one that we all saw unfold.

Overall this is an indispensable book in understanding the recent financial crisis, and one that tells the story with clarity and wit.

Strongly Recommended.