The Book's Lover

The Book's Lover
Damiano Cali

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week: Naomi

 Today’s post is in honor of Banned Books Week.  I won’t waste your time by explaining why banning books is bad.  I won’t mention Hitler’s book-burnings, or GroupThink, or the dangers of a world without critical dialogue.  If you’re reading my blog, Gentle Reader, I presume you have enough brain cells to rub together to figure all of that out.  I’m not worried about you; I’m worried about everyone else…

Because the idea of book-banning has not gone away.  Last week's banning of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in Randolph County, North Carolina makes it perfectly clear that some people still see ideas as dangerous.  Thankfully, that ruling has been reversed, in spite of one committee member asserting that “I didn’t find any literary value” in the book.  Sure.  It only won a National Book Award.  It's only number 19 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.   It only has its own monument.  Nope, obviously dreck. 

But let's be honest, Gentle Readers.  Even if the book was total crap (50 Shades, I'm a-lookin' at you), I will still respect your right to read it.  I will judge you, O Twilight readers, but I will not ban your book, regardless of its literary merit or lack thereof.  Read as thou wilt.

There are hundreds of people that do not agree with my laissez-faire reading philosophy.  Here is a list of the 100 most-challenged books from 2000-2009.  And here is a PDF of books that were banned or challenged in 2013.  One of those challenged books?  An easy-to-read version of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.  Because it's not like Shakespeare can teach us anything. And let's be honest, Readers: Do you really think middle schoolers are going to understand all of Shakespeare's sex jokes in R&J? Did you? *headdesk*

Also challenged or banned in the past are such heretical texts as Where's Waldo?, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Alice in Wonderland.  Oh, yeah.  You know what else has been banned?  THE DICTIONARY.  Because it defines sex words like "breast."  Filthy, filthy educators.

All I can speak to with real authority is my own experience.  And Readers, I read all kinds of age-inappropriate material when I was growing up.  And somehow I am—against all odds—well-educated, highly critical of what I read, and able to make my own decisions.  Color me shocked.  All the personality flaws that I possess I blame on my parents, not on my reading materials.  

Ray Bradbury said “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”  In a world where children are more likely to watch a watered-down film adaptation than crack a book, and people are content to get the "real" news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, I am worried that a culture without books is imminent.  And that frightens me.  

So Banned Books Week is not over, Good People of the Intertubes!   Find a book that someone, somewhere, thought you shouldn't read.  Read it.  Love it.  Hate it.  It doesn't matter.  But think about it.  Don't let someone else decide what you need to know, what's good for you.  Sometimes, the best things in life are a little naughty. 

And if talking of banned books gets you depressed, just read this article about a publisher, a book outlet, and private citizens who banded together to give away free copies of Invisible Man in Randolph County.  America, I love you.
Buy this spiffy Banned Books tote bag here from Out of Print Books.  Also look at their t-shirts.  I own like 8 million of them and I LOVE them.  So buy me one while you're shopping.  I need Goodnight Moon, please.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The End of the World (As We Know It): Naomi

Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite writers, is probably best-known for her 1985 dystopian feminist fable The Handmaid’s Tale.  This book scared the crap out of me when I was younger.  And it taught me bastardized Latin (nolite te bastardes carborundorum: “don’t let the bastards grind you down”).  It made me more aware of the role that religion plays in politics, especially politics as visited upon the female body.  And yes, Atwood seems prophetic now, especially as we live in an America of banned sex ed classes and lawmakers telling me what I can and cannot do with my body.  The Handmaid’s Tale also gave me one of my two favorite ambiguous endings in any piece of literature (the other is Measure for Measure, FYI).  In short, the book is amazing.    
I am not, however, going to write about The Handmaid’s Tale today.  Instead, I’m going to talk about Atwood’s other prophetic apocalypse, the MaddAddam Trilogy.  The first book, Oryx & Crake, was published in 2003 (Find here Lorrie Moore’s review of such.  Two of my favorite women in one headspace *geekgasm*).  The Year of the Flood followed in 2009, and finally, last Tuesday, the trilogy rounded out with MaddAddam.  

The Handmaid’s Tale discussed troubled relationships between the sexes by highlighting controlled reproduction, the hierarchy of gender roles, the power of language and re-naming and the dangers of growing complacency.  The MaddAddam Trilogy touches on genetic tinkering, unchecked corporations, viral warfare, religion, and ecology. 
Essentially, the first two books recount the same events from opposing viewpoints.  In an unidentified future that looks eerily like our present, humanity is governed by mega-Corporations and consumed with gene-splicing newer and weirder subspecies.  In a misguided effort to save the planet from the ravages of unchecked humanity, one man creates a global pandemic and nearly wipes out mankind.  The MaddAddam Trilogy has a dual-narrative structure, where each book tells the story of a human survivor while flashbacks describe the immediate circumstances leading to the virus’s manufacture.  Oryx & Crake is the inside story of the creation of this plague, born from boredom and privilege.  The Year of the Flood, on the other hand, describes the world from the point of view of society’s have-nots, known as “pleeblanders.” MaddAddam stitches both earlier narratives together, finally connecting the Corporations and the pleeblands, the God's Gardeners and the MaddAddamites into a recognizable whole.  In short, it completes the world as it completes the narrative.

Names are fluid and evocative in Atwood’s near-future.  Corporate compounds are named after products like OrganInc (which, of course, produces transplant organs while still sounding…organic) and RejoovenEsense (which produces face creams and aphrodisiacs).  The Corporations seem to have done away with actual government, and regulate through private police forces, called CorpSeCorps (Atwood's "corpse" pun is certainly deliberate in this violent world).   Our main characters codename themselves after extinct animals, in homage to a video game called "Extinctathon," which happens to be a front for a militant protest group.  The originator of the pandemic calls himself Crake, and in the aftermath of the destruction, narrator Jimmy renames himself (Abominable) Snowman.  The mere process of re-naming something or someone changes it, erases its history, ReJoovenates it.

Oryx & Crake is recounted by Jimmy/Snowman, an often-clueless young man whose love for words makes him an outcast in a society where only scientific progress and profit are valued.  His best friend is socially awkward but scientifically gifted, and, well, destroys humanity in order to save the planet.  They both grow up in one of the many huge Corporate compounds wherein families live and work, with little to no contact with the outside world.  These compounds are both all-inclusive and all-exclusive.  Thus Jimmy has an intimate view of his friend’s obsessions and his creation of a world-altering plague.  Our POV, therefore, is of this future world in close-up, watching scientific geniuses tinker with creation not out of necessity, but boredom.  While Jimmy is often oblivious to Crake's machinations, the reader—with the advantage of flashback "hindsight"—is able to interpret the signs pointing to imminent global apocalypse.

Crake has destroyed humanity to make way for a genetically engineered “superior” species known as “Crakers”—nonviolent humanoids who have combined the optimum characteristics of various plants and animals to make them a harmonious part of the ecosystem, not an apex predator. These "Crakers" have been bioengineered be vegan, insect-repellent, UV-resistant, physically flawless, and completely uninterested in sex until a female goes into estrus (therefore avoiding all emotional complications associated with sex and love).  They also drop dead at age 30, to forestall senior complaints (Logan's Run, anyone?).  While Crake intended them to be devoid of religion, the Crakers perversely insist on deifying Crake himself, proving that their vestiges of humanity are not merely physiological.  They are the new piece in the ecological puzzle and the heirs to humanity, but not quite human. 

Oryx & Crake introduces a fascinating, if depressing, near-future, but The Year of the Flood falls into the dreaded second-book trap.  The force of Oryx & Crake is plot- and environment-driven; it’s a page-turner.  The Year of the Flood is not.  It retells the descent into chaos from the first book, but attempts to be more of a character study.  I did not, however, find the characters of the second book complex or intriguing enough to truly engage with them.  

Jeanette Winterson's New York Times review calls The Year of the Flood a “strangely lonely book.” Even the flashback stories have a thread of melancholia to them, a sense of hopelessness, of powerlessness.  The biographies of each narrator intertwine with one another and with characters introduced in Oryx & Crake, allowing for a more nuanced picture of how the world came to its present chaotic state.  I found most arresting those moments when their experiences dovetailed with the history described in Oryx & Crake, perhaps because I preferred the first book to the second.  

The Year of the Flood is narrated in turns by Ren and Toby, two women involved in the God’s Gardeners religion? sect? cult? This group is a back-to-nature effort in the pleeblands which melds creationism and evolution with a side of veganism and intensive ecology.  God’s Gardeners have prophesied a coming disaster, “The Waterless Flood” of the title, which will wipe away human sinners, à la the Noahic flood.  When disaster strikes, each woman is separated from the Gardeners: aesthetician Toby has sequestered herself in the AnooYoo spa, where she survives by eating the all-natural facial treatments, and Ren is a SeksMart trapeze dancer who waits out the epidemic in quarantine.  While Atwood’s focus on the pleeblands is an effective gambit to round out this society, frankly, God’s Gardeners feels a little like a neo-hippy mishmash, and I was not drawn in by either character.  

Toby continues as our narrator in MaddAddam, and it is through her that we see the emergence of unlikely alliances in this post-apocalyptic world and we discover the final moments of history that tie the story together.  The connections between Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, the alliances between God’s Gardeners and the MaddAddamites, and the continuing education of the new humanoid race all come to fruition in the third installment of the trilogy. 

Each section of the book begins with Toby telling the Crakers a story of their origins.  In order to simplify history for their childlike beliefs, she finds herself ruminating upon the very art of narration: "There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too."  Atwood’s strength lies in her ability to tell the story behind what’s written, and to let the reader understand how the world of the MaddAdddam Trilogy functions, without being explicitly told. 

For example, in MaddAddam, we again encounter the vicious Painballers, convicts sentenced to an arena of death-sport.  They're a little bit Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and a little bit No Escape (one of the greatest bad movies of all time, with a great death scene, seen here), with a dash of The Running Man thrown in.  These bloodthirsty men were sentenced to Painball because of violence, but can only survive in the arena by inflating said violence a hundredfold.   One could extrapolate an awful lot about the near-future society and its comfort level with violence and entertainment, should one wish. Our intrepid survivors must mount an attack against local Painballers in order to protect themselves from future attacks.  It’s a kill- or -be killed environment now.  

Of course, the Crakers have no concept of violence, and no taste for it.  So the Painballers cannot be tamed, the Crakers cannot fight, and the human survivors must protect their future.  Their secret weapon? Pigoons—bioengineered pigs bred to nurture human organs which the assimilated the human brain tissue implanted in their heads.  Yep, that’s right, Gentle Readers, pigs with people-brains!  (I secretly want another MaddAddam book from the POV of the pigoons: they’re wicked cool.) 

MaddAddam adheres to the dual-narrative structure, and flashbacks reveal the story of Zeb, badass go-between of the God's Gardeners and the MaddAddamites.  He and his brother Adam invented and nurtured both the hippie eco-peaceniks and the militant eco-terrorists.  The eco-terrorism group was then hijacked by Crake, but one can argue that Zeb and his brother share some responsibility for the current state of the world.  

Speaking of the current state of the world, Atwood's acknowledgments remind you: “Although ‘MaddAddam’ is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.”  Speculative fiction indeed.  I’ll never look at piggies quite the same way again. 

NOTA BENE 1:  Here's a TEDTalk posted just today (9/19/13) on how to bioengineer meat and leather without the animal.  Hello, Oryx & Crake!

NOTA BENE 2:  In an interview, Atwood explains that she named bioengineering mad scientist Glenn (later Crake) after wunderkind pianist Glenn Gould.  Not particularly interesting until she continues: “Want to know a factoid I learned after I wrote the book? When he was 10, Gould wrote an opera where all the people died at the end, and only the animals survived. That gave me a chill."  Creeptastic!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Vonnegut on Film: Naomi

This semester, I assigned my students a Kurt Vonnegut short story.  Harrison Bergeron has always seemed prescient to me, especially as our society becomes more and more prejudiced against the intelligent, the complicated, the extraordinary.  We seem happier to stare at the latest reality show than create for ourselves or challenge the norms.  Ours is the era of acquiescence, of apathy.  ...Or so I feel when I read Vonnegut.

If you have not read Harrison Bergeron, here is a full text.  It should only take you about five minutes to read.  The style is typical Vonnegut, where you're not sure if the characters are likeable, but boy O boy are they interesting.

There have been many attempts to make Vonnegut cinematic, and most of them fall painfully short.  There is a wry quaility to Vonnegut's prose that makes it difficult to film.  One of my students, however, found a decent short film version on YouTube.  It's about twenty minutes long, largely wordless, and pretty good.  If you've got twenty minutes to kill, and want your brainstem tickled a bit, try this: