Aging, Book Review, Death, Fiction, K.B. Dixon, metafiction, Psychology

The Ingram Interview by K.B. Dixon

Meet Daniel Ingram, retired English professor: despondent, eccentric, and in the midst of writing his memoir, after being kicked out of his current home (a retirement facility) for depressing the other residents. The story itself is the process of Daniel writing his story, so the reader witnesses him interviewing himself (at least, this is what I eventually concluded – as the interviewer is never identified) as he moves out of the retirement center to live, briefly, with an ex-student and attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife so as to find a more permanent place to live. Daniel recently suffered a medical shock, which seems to have jolted his sense of self and needled at that pesky morality issue, wherein Daniel realizes that it may be “now or never”. Surprisingly, that is about the extent of his revelation and, while he mentions his family and other past failures, he has little regret in life and, instead, seems focused on just getting his story written and moving onward to a new retirement facility, to new people, to new experiences. He is a people-watcher, an outsider, and finds little importance in life, outside of what he is doing in each moment. Still, there are moments where he seems genuinely proud of and hopeful for certain people and things; it’s a strange, cold type of non-emotional emotion.  Daniel clearly feels things, worries about things, and thinks about quite a lot, but he uses all of that to one end: writing.

There is only one main character in the book, and that is Daniel Ingram,  interviewer and interviewee. The other characters are present only in relation to Daniel’s interactions with them and opinions of them. Still, though Daniel seems emotionally detached, we are able to learn quite a bit about him, about his fears and ideals, by the questions that are asked and how he responds to them. One of my favorite moments is when the Interviewer mentions the nice weather, and Daniel rants about the inanity of mediocrity, how, even when it comes to weather, there should be some kind of substance (so a beautiful, clear day – 72 and sunny- is worthless – give him 48 degrees any day!). There is something about life in that answer; Daniel wants to feel something, he wants to (or does) appreciate the less-than or more-than average. Another favorite moment is the end of the book, where Daniel’s fears and recovery are finally addressed head-on, and that beautifully moving admission is quickly followed by a comment on somebody’s shoes, and how those shoes speak to the man’s personality. It’s kind of brilliant.

The self-interview as style was unique and interesting. Many writers I know employ this device when creating stories, but few –if any- that I can think of have actually turned the process itself into the actual story. I honestly had an incredibly fun time reading this book (and read it in two sittings of 60-pages each) because of the style; it was interesting and new and reminded me of something I would do for myself, either in preparation for writing a short story or other creating writing piece, or simply as a self-evaluation for blogging purposes or job interviews, etc. It was also amusing to keep up with Daniel’s thought process, which was ever-changing. In the course of a chapter, the questions would range from topics like burglary in the retirement center to the artistic value of a certain movie, to the nature of Daniel’s relationship with his son. This style reminded me of how quickly our own thoughts race through our heads, how we can be sitting in a room, staring out the window, and in the hour that passes, a thousand thoughts about a thousand topics and memories will have passed, and these little thoughts are what we are made of and these moments of reflection are how we grow as individuals.  

What I find so attractive about this book is that there is a very real human spirituality to it. The themes and style remind me of something Mitch Albom would write, if he were more focused on the human element, rather than the religious. Dixon is allowing the reader to take a look at a man, aging and coming to terms with that mortality, but not grasping at any straws, not looking for any type of relief, but just living to the best of his ability, through the last of his days. The narrator, Daniel Ingram, still has to struggle with accepting mortality and the fact that the “better days” are over, but he uses that struggle as another life event, another learning experience, another writing process. This type of spirituality, the intellectual pursuit of life through life, resonated with me in a way that similar topics, addressed through religious revelations and explanations never could. 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Dan Noakes.  He has a weakness for taffy-colored shoes.”

“In thirty years I have never been able to look out on a meadow filled with grazing cattle and not first think – ah, a field of swaying bovines.”

“He has an excellent reputation, Dr. Nesbitt – you just have to ignore the fact that for some reason he thought it would be a good idea to do something interesting with his mustache.”

“Who is Everyman?  Where did he go to school?  What sort of jobs did he have before he ended up with this one?  He used to be one way, now he’s another.  Does he know why?”

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1001 Books, 2013 B2tC Challenge, 2013 Challenges, Book Review, CC-Spin, Chivalry, Classics, Classics Club, Comedy, Historical, Literature, metafiction, Miguel Cervantes, Morality Novel, Parody, Romance, Spanish

Thoughts: Don Quixote, Part Two by Miguel Cervantes

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The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Part Two

by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 40


The Second Part of Don Quixote was published in 1615, exactly ten years after the first. According to Cervantes’s dedication, it was written, “in order to purge the disgust and nausea caused by another Don Quixote who has been running about the world masquerading as the second part.” Indeed, ironically, after his first part in some ways posed the question of “honesty in fiction,” another writer (pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda), without consent or collaboration, took it upon himself to write the sequel which was foreshadowed at the end of the original Part One.

Part Two begins again in La Mancha, where Don Quixote has been for some time. His friends and niece have tried to cure him of his obsession for knight errantry, but to no avail. Once again, he and Sancho Panza (who seems much wiser in this second part) leave La Mancha to wander Spain and seek adventures. Unlike the first part, though, which was primarily concerned either with the misadventures which Don Quixote brought upon himself or with the adventures of minor characters, relayed to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at various times throughout (to bring in historical context and to add depth to the overall narrative), this second part adds two new antagonists, the Duke and Duchess, who are hell-bent on causing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as much grief as possible, for their own amusement. Also, Don Quixote’s motivation changes somewhat, after Sancho Panza convinces him that his great love, Dulcinea del Toboso, has been transformed from the most beautiful flower of Spain into a poor, peasant girl, by an evil enchanter. Instead of scouring the globe trying to prove his love to the lady Dulcinea, Don Quixote is instead on a mission to disenchant her (which, thanks to the Duke and Duchess, will result in great grief and pain for poor Sancho). Sancho will eventually earn his governorship, though it turns out to be more trouble than it is worth, the great knight Don Quixote will be challenged, twice, and ultimately vanquished by the Knight of the White Moon, and Cervantes, in all his wisdom, will ensure that Don Quixote’s story will end on his terms (via the historian Cide Hamete Benengeli) this time.

As it turns out, the continuing adventures of Don Quixote (or Part Two) is a bit of meta-fiction, constantly interrupting itself to talk about its own story, mostly about Part One and the imposter who wrote the false sequel. Many of the characters in Part Two have read Part One and the unauthorized Part Two, so they have preconceived notions (some accurate, others not) about Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho. In addition to writing about his own writing and acknowledging the story as a story within this story, Cervantes also mentions a variety of other literary works, including plays and poetry, which help to place this particular text into a literary timeline (especially important, here, as Spain and Europe are in the midst of great intellectual changes, as mentioned in my discussion of Part One). While this allows for a conversation about literature itself, Part Two is also, in general, a deeper, more fully realized work. Unlike Part One, wherein the characters were primarily flat, Part Two sees a variety of characters with varied motivations – they engage one another in more realistic ways, although their motives are still generally suspect.

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Cervantes further builds on some of the concerns he laid out in Part One, including religious and social commentary. He is critical of Spain’s caste system and makes clear that is not one’s property or title that speaks to one’s worth, but one’s actions and beliefs. This point is elaborated on through the foul deeds of the Duke and Duchess, who, though members of the nobility, are downright nasty people. Furthermore, Cervantes makes a concerted effort to raise the wisdom of Sancho Panza (and also of his wife, Teresa) – education, goodness, and common sense are, for Cervantes, the markers of true character, wisdom and self-worth; obsessions over money, land, and practicality lead to pettiness and cruelty.

Although Don Quixote is generally published as one large work, it is clear that Part One and Part Two are indeed separate books, and not just because they were published a decade apart. Cervantes’s motivations and styles are strikingly different in the two books. Part One is largely parody, with plenty of social and historical commentary as well, but with much to be desired in terms of construction and complexity. Part Two adds, in my opinion, what Part One was missing. Although there is still a great deal of humor, it is not as slapstick or farcical as Part One (at least, not the majority of it). The work is more serious, more intentional, and well-realized. It certainly works as meta-fiction (though Cervantes’s anger at Avellaneda can sometimes overshadow the story) but also as a pioneering piece of literature caught in a time of great change and transition. It aptly pays tribute to the bygone era of romantic chivalry (the Renaissance) and meaningfully presages, perhaps unknowingly, the Enlightenment to come. The depth and complexity, and especially the character development, make Part Two quite superior to Part One. For more, see my thoughts on Part One.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Spanish Literature, Classics, Parody, Comedy, Romance, Morality Novel, Meta-fiction, Sequels.


Notable Quotes:

Don_Quixote_6“I know very well what the temptations of the Devil are, and that one of his greatest is to put it into a man’s head that he can write and print a book, and gain both money and fame by it” (Prologue to Part Two, p. 468).

“It is not pleasant to go about with scruples on your conscience” (478).

“To have companions in your troubles generally helps to relieve them” (547).

“If the blind lead the blind, both will be in danger of falling into the ditch” (548).

“So, let’s consider now which is the madder, the man who’s mad because he can’t help it, or the man who’s mad by choice” (561).

“He who reads much and travels much, sees much and learns much” (635).

“The Devil must certainly be an honest fellow and a good Christian. For if he weren’t he wouldn’t swear by God and his conscience. So I suppose that there must be some good people even in Hell” (697).

“For the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die just like that, without anybody killing him, but just finished off by his own melancholy” (937).


Don Quixote is Book #12 completed for my Classics Club Challenge
Don Quixote is Book #3 completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge 2013 
Don Quixote is Book #124 completed for my 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die Challenge


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Book Review, Family, Fiction, Marriage, Memory, metafiction, PhD, Richard Russo

Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 52

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

That Old Cape Magic might be one of my favorite reads of the year.  The main character, Jack Griffin, is the son of two Literature Professors – brilliant people, Yale educated, who never quite made it as far as they believe they should have.  Jack is a disappointment to his parents because he gives up on “important” writing and moves to Hollywood in order to write screenplays. Of course, they are also quite envious of him for getting out of “the mid-fucking-west,” as they call it.  Still, his parents are of the class of “academics” who find any popular writing – anything that anybody would willingly publish or find enjoyable to read- not at all valuable (don’t we all know those types of academics who think, “if the commoners are reading it, it must not be very good!”?). Griffin struggles against their influence all his life, only to realize very late that he has become exactly like them (even –gasp- a literature professor!).  Over the course of decades, as he slowly morphs into the very thing he was rebelling against, he loses his parents, his wife, and any sense of self he once had.  He, like his parents, seeks out Cape Cod in order to reclaim himself and remind him of what is truly important to him, and to set his parents to rest, at long last. Ultimately, Jack’s journey is to find happiness by accepting where he comes from, by letting go of pains from the past, and by acknowledging all the good things that he has – a lesson most of us could be reminded of from time to time.

Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

The characters in this book range from self-absorbed (most of them), to self-deprecating; from hilariously buffoonish (Jack’s brothers-in-law) to sensible and patient (Jack’s wife).  Although the main character’s parents are painted with a somewhat biased brush, the truth is that they are supposed to appear rather one-sided.  Part of the story is an exploration of memory and perception – when we remember events from childhood, when we think of our parents as they were when we were children- are we remembering things accurately?  Could we really have known what anyone was like, when we look back on a child’s perspective, thirty years later?  Jack looks at each character in the book a certain way, very rarely changing his mind about anyone, but readers get glimpses into different sides of their personalities, which tells us more about them but also about the narrator and his reliability (or not). Russo is adept at narrating small moments, such as a woman crying in the shower or a father thinking about his daughter, to illustrate and round-out even the more minor of characters in the story.  We learn that everyone has at least two identities, the way they see themselves and the way others see them, but two is just the minimum – most of us have many more.  Although the cast is rather sad and unlikable (his characters and plots combine in ways which create a sense of what Thoreau calls the “quiet desperation” of man), and though many of them have bloated egos and often lament the life they could have had, without making much effort to achieve it, still they come together to tell a story – they are believable, recognizable people in believable, recognizable families and situations. 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Perhaps Russo’s greatest strength, at least in That Old Cape Magic, is his storytelling ability.  He understands people and their complexities.  He is sensitive and observant, which is appropriate when considering that this is really a story about stories and a tale about telling (one would expect a writer to be almost obsessively observant – and we surely recognize this in ourselves). His prose is light but serious – it’s a bizarre way of reflecting real life, where most of our thoughts are on the surface, yet powerful and sometimes dangerous emotions are always at work, deep in the undertow.  Russo drops philosophical tidbits here and there throughout the book – little life lessons about understanding people, living with compassion, questioning (and even doubting) our own memories.  The fluid prose, the welcoming language (drawing us into the story even when the characters might be repellant), and the oftentimes hilarious reflections and dialogue all make for an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present & enhance the story.

There are two primary subjects in That Old Cape Magic.  The first is family and relationships; the second is writing and, more specifically, popular writing vs. academic writing (what is “valuable?”).  For the first, Russo explores an idea that his main character, Griffin, inherits from his parents – that happiness, and home, is “a place you could visit but never own.”  For his family, that place is Cape Cod, but the reality is that they are never truly happy there, either.  The second theme, academic versus popular writing, and what matters, is especially fun and interesting for students of English/Literature, particularly those familiar with academic department politics (groan).  Russo’s book is clever in that it is written as popular contemporary fiction, but he is clearly aware of the academic side (and likely reception by academics to this, his own work) and of the prejudices and pretensions that come with “literary” scrutiny.  Who are these people who get to define what is “good” and “important,” he seems to be asking.  Russo drops-in references to Melville, Faulkner, and other canonical writers, which is clearly a “poke in the eye” to the prestigious readers, indicating that he knows what he is talking about; but, he also manages to make the story his own, modern and readable, so that really anyone (particularly fans of fiction that explores families, memory, and writing) can enjoy it.  I would not go so far as to say that this is a brilliant work, but Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and That Old Cape Magic helps to explain why.  It is fun but powerful, light but deep, easy to follow, yet deceptively layered.  A great read, especially for the well-trained reader who will pick-up on subtle literary references (they are not as in-your-face as Jasper Fforde’s, but they are there).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Family, Marriage, Adultery, Academia, Metafiction, Literature, Memory

Notable Quotes:

“For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.” (8)

“Stories worked much the same way . . . A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.” (67)

“Only very stupid people are happy.” (195)

“Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

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American Lit, Book Review, Culture, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Literature, metafiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Psychology

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

923693White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 51

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

 “This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”

White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated).  Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying.  They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father.  The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community.  This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing.   All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost? 

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
 
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family.  They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere).  Parents have lost a certain parental authority.  Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology.  All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children.  Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything.  Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows).  Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it.  Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.  

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
 
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style.  Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him).  He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular.  This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language.  For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
 
This is the book I would love to have written.  This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively.  Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better.  We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers.  Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones.  We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine.  We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets.  We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen.  We are becoming something other than human.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
 
Notable Quotes:

“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”

“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities.  Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

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2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Jasper Fforde, metafiction, Mystery, Science-Fiction

Review: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0

YTD: 67

Plot/Story:


3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Thursday Next, Special Ops LiteraTec Agent, has a secret or two.  The biggest secret, perhaps, is that, as a young girl, she once met Mr. Rochester inside Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  In doing so, she changed the story slightly, making the meeting scene between Jane and Mr. Rochester slightly more interesting than it had been before.  Now, decades later, Mr. Rochester leaves the book to visit her – when she is in grave danger.  Hunted by and hunting the formidable Acheron Hades, the world’s most dangerous and devious criminal, Thursday Next comes to realize that she and Mr. Rochester are not the only ones who can jump from reality to fiction.  Acheron himself soon learns this secret – and it is up to Thursday to stop him before he destroys some of the world’s greatest pieces of literature forever, by visiting the original manuscripts and kidnapping their main characters.  After a beloved Dickens character is murdered, Thursday is given all the power and money the government can grant her, but will it be enough to stop Hades?  And who, of the many possible options (Thackeray? Shakespeare? Austen?), will be the next target? 


Characterization:

3 – Characters well developed.

Characterization is definitely a strong point for Fforde.  What makes this book stand out in regards to characterization is the fact that, not only does Fforde create his own characters, good and bad, who each have their own histories, relationships, quirks, etc. – but he also must re-imagine some of literature’s most beloved and well-known characters, making them believable in regards to their original works, but also relative to this story’s contemporary plot.  Fortunately, Fforde manages this quite well, and the outcome (Dickens and Bronte characters interacting with people from the 21st Century and 21st-Century folks visiting Victorian England?) is quite delightful.  Some of the minor characters, such as Thursday’s father and Bertha Mason, did tend to overshadow some of the primary characters at times, which was a bit odd.  Thursday, the main character and narrator, was one of the least empathetic, in my opinion, which made it at times difficult to enjoy the story (because, although the reader roots for her as the “good guy,” she is not exactly a champion).  Still, the characters’ stories overall are interesting, as are their histories (many are connected through distant pasts while others are new acquaintances who just happen to have excellent chemistry).  Hades is evil for evil’s sake, as are his henchmen, which is admittedly difficult for me to swallow (I like explanations for my bad guys!) but it works fine in this case, particularly since the primary character, at least, is flawed (if the good guy was purely good in addition to the bad guy being entirely evil, I would not have been able to enjoy the story nearly as much).


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The best element of this story is the prose and style.  The story itself is a bit odd.  It is a mystery and a thriller.  It’s contemporary literature and it’s a throwback to the classics.  It’s fiction and it’s meta-fiction.  It is science fiction and realism.  What holds together all this craziness?  The writing.  Fforde is clever enough to realize that, with everything he is attempting here, a linear plot and limited first-person narration is the way to go.  It keeps the story grounded and keeps the reader engaged; all the while the story verges on spinning out of control.  The narrative voice is simultaneously witty and sincere – serious in what it aims to achieve, but light-hearted enough to poke fun at itself.  The reading level is probably high school, but even more experienced readers will appreciate what Fforde accomplishes – although a fun read, it is not necessarily airy.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the story.

The enormity of literary allusions will leave less experienced readers (particularly those who do not read classics or literary fiction) feeling a bit out of the loop (or simply missing out on what others are enjoying, without even knowing it).  As The Wall Street Journal notes, this book is “filled with clever wordplay, literary allusion and bibliowit” and it “combines elements of Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawking, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  What could be more fun for bibliophiles and the literati than reading a sci-fi mystery-thriller all about books?  How many of us would sacrifice ourselves to save the original works of our favorite author?  To protect our favorite book from permanent destruction?  The power of books – the danger of tampering with the classics – the sheer joy of finding oneself immersed in a literary mystery (who really wrote the Shakespearean plays, eh?).  The book was a joy – a page-turner- a carnival ride for book lovers.  This is the first book in a series that I definitely plan to continue reading. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level:  High School+

Interest: Literature, Literary History, Mystery, Science-Fiction, Action/Adventure, Meta-fiction.


Notable Quotes:

“Religion isn’t the cause of wars, it’s the excuse.”

“I think that you could have used your vast intellect far more usefully by serving mankind instead of stealing from it.”

“No bond is stronger than that welded in conflict; no greater friend is there than the one who stood next to you as you fought.”

“I’m not mad.  I’m just…well, differently moralled, that’s all.”

“Literary detection and firearms don’t really go hand in hand; pen mightier than the sword and so forth.”

“Ordinary adults don’t like children to speak of things that are denied them by their own gray minds.”

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Drama, Fiction, Martin McDonagh, metafiction

Review: The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh

Summary:

As New York Times columnist Ben Brantley said of McDonagh’s work here: “comedies don’t come any blacker than ‘The Pillowman.’” The vast majority of the play is set in a police station interrogation room, where a young man is being tortured into admitting to crimes that he did not do. The crimes, all (except two) are against children, and all were actually committed by the main character’s mentally challenged older brother, who was himself tortured and abused as a child by the brothers’ parents. The play works as a piece of meta-fiction, telling a story about story-telling and the misperceptions about writers’ and dramatists influence on their readers.

The Good:

As a reader, I absolutely enjoyed all of the many ways which McDonagh played with the idea of writing and the power of written expression & emotion. The plot twist at the end, involving the reality behind the abused brother’s crimes, is fantastic. Also interesting is the idea that true writers can, in their last few dying seconds, completely re-write their life story as their body is shutting down. Because that’s just what writers do. I also enjoyed the two policemen’s hidden back stories, one of which became a bit obvious as the plot wove on, but was still interesting. The impetus behind their actions – behind all actions, really- are well conceived and realistic. What would drive a boy to murder his parents? What would drive a man to torture children? What would drive a writer to develop story-after-story about the death and suicides of little boys and girls? And what would make policemen enjoy abusing their prisoners and sentencing people to death without so much as a lawyer present or a trial offered?

The Bad:

It is difficult not to put something in the “bad” column, because that makes me seem either 1) bias or 2) unable to do my job correctly, that is, comprehensively and objectively. But there is so much to like in this play, and so little to dislike. I suppose one criticism may be that, for a play, it is written much more like a novel. There was very little stage direction, which one comes to expect from a play though, in reality, more dramas are being written without stage direction, leaving this up to the directors’ creativity. Still, it did seem pointed, particularly as I started reading Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” the day after I finished “The Pillowman” and the difference is conspicuous. Another minor criticism is the denouement with the children. The question is, why would Michal (the “slow” brother) lie about what he did to them? Was he truly that confused – did the stories get jumbled in his head and, therefore, so did his actions toward the children? Or was he trying to write his own story, and using his brother and the policemen as an audience? It is hard to say, but a final resolution here would have been nice (if, perhaps, too clean for such a dark comedy).

The Final Verdict: 4.5 out of 5.0

I truly enjoyed this play, morbid as it may have been. It was like a love-child of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Banks’ The Wasp Factory. The examination of effects of literature on human action is always a fascinating on here and, while any direct connection can be dismissed relatively simply, what happens when the readers happen to be mentally underdeveloped or emotionally damaged at the outset? Does this change the impact that literature might have on their actions, based on perception and an inability to keep separate fact from fiction and reality from fantasy? This play also says much, I think about the idea of truly understand literature and all its idiosyncrasies – the way a book can be misread and misunderstood because the reader lacks comprehension in terms of satire, allegory, metaphor, parody, leitmotif, and psychological exploration . It’s a brilliant play, also, because character interaction and monologues are moving and each moment seems to do more to advance the plot.

Published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004.
ISBN: 0571220320
Challenges: N/A
YTD: 31
Source: Owned Copy

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