Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Best of Lisbon by Lonely Planet

This guide book to the capital city of Portugal is adequate…if you want to plan your trip emotionlessly and going only to the big tourist spots. It is a "best of" book, so I guess I can't entirely blame them for focusing on the main tourist sights, attractions, restaurants, and accommodations. Still, this was a bit of a disappointing book.

I've been told by multiple people how beautiful Portugal is, so it's disappointing to have that beauty dumbed down and somewhat erased. There are a few small pictures of some of the places highlighted, but the descriptions are lacking.

And the lack of opinion is frustrating. Everything is charming, beautiful, picturesque, imaginative, etc., but descriptions stop there. There's not much of a sense of what type of beautiful things are. Who would like this, that or the other? How would we know?

Normally, I'd like to find something nice to say. However, I'm really coming up blank on this one. Lonely Planet, how you've disappointed me!


Monday, April 14, 2014

A Night at the Movies, or, You Must Remember This by Robert Coover

Woah… So this is one of those books that is best read in a semi-sober or semi-conscious state. It'll go down much easier if you can turn off your inhibitory processes and just play the text through your mind as though it was describing totally normal action in a movie. Of course, it's not. Not really…

Parts of it actually reminded me of Jean Cocteau's film about the artist…the one where the artist's work sort of comes to life and he travels down a hallway and in one room he sees opium and in one room a little girl is on the ceiling, etc., and eventually he finds himself in some courtyard and there's a gallery of aristocrats looking on from a balcony... That's the level of weird you'll find in some parts of this book.

Other parts seem to be mere parodies. But somewhat twisted parodies. Really the whole thing is twisted, dark parodies and interpretations of classic films or amalgams of classic films. The western where the White sheriff saves the town against the villainous Mexican. The kidnapped/almost-killed heroine, who narrowly escapes a tragic fate while semi-clothed. Casa-freakin'-blanca.

I still don't fully understand the beginning. What's the point of spending so much time telling us that the projectionist is melding pieces of things that don't belong together into new art forms with different meanings? What's the point of setting this all up by showing us how pointless feature films are in the grand scheme of things?

What's the point?


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

So I was re-watching Warehouse 13 for the umpteenth time and I was like, "You know what? I actually don't think I've read anything by good ol' H.G. Wells." He's one of those authors who is so well-talked about in school that you can kind of gather the basic plot information of his works without actually having to read them.

So I started reading The Time Machine, and it was pretty surreal. Actually, what was really surreal was watching the H.G. character on Warehouse on the right while reading the real H.G.'s work on the left. Of course, the real H.G. wasn't a female ex-federal agent wakened after a century imprisoned in bronze. But it was still pretty cool. I was about halfway into the book when the time machine episode started. Radical.

If you haven't read the book, or aren't able to guess the plot from the title, I guess I should give you the low-down. It's about an inventor who is recounting his first foray into time travel to some of his skeptic contemporaries. He builds a time machine (off of some seriously shaky scientific theories) and just zips off one day.
"I suppose a suicide who holds a pistol to his skull feels much the same wonder at what will come next as I felt then."
He's travels forward to the year 802000-something, into a world where humans have evolved into two different kinds of beings. One group is beautiful and fragile, stupid and useless--like cattle--and the other is fighting for survival underground. To an extent, this is your typical dystopian novel in that he at first believes he has come to an enlightened utopia, but realizes it's as real a world as our own, with some similar problems.
"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble."
As he tells his tale, the time traveller perceives, comments on and theorizes about everything from the social structure to evolutionary behaviors to the eradication of differences between the sexes. This was perhaps one of the things I was most surprised about--that someone would write such radical ideas of what could be at such an early point in time (1890s). Some of his ideas are progressive or far-fetched even by today's standards. Only a few are clearly products of his time.

Although I'm not a big fan of sci-fi, this was enjoyable to read and intriguing. As an older novella, it can't quite be pigeon-holed into a certain style of writing--it's uniquely, almost freshly Wellsian--so I feel like it's accessible to more people than just those who like classic sci-fi. Also, now I can rewatch Warehouse 13 episodes and totally get the references.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Eyewitness Travel: Eastern & Central Europe by Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc.

If you are doing a multi-country trip in Eastern Europe, this is a good book to take with you. It contains all the most popular tourist attractions and describes them and their history in great detail. There are also pretty photos, maps, and drawings, which can help you when you're right there, trying to figure out what's what.

What DK doesn't do well is trip planning. They don't really dole out opinions on what's worth seeing and what's worth skipping, and they focus solely on the very popular tourist stuff. They also provide either basic factual or sugar-coated information on each place, so it's hard to tell if it's safe to travel to a certain country or if a country is easily accessible via public transportation or even how long it might take to travel around to some of these attractions.

I do like that they provide you with information on so much of the Eastern European region, broken out easily into countries and color coded. They're very thorough with organization of information.

Furthermore, the pictures and short history lessons make this a badass way to learn about countries torn apart by war and recreated several times. Who needs history textbooks when you have this bad boy?!


Friday, April 11, 2014

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

They don't make children's books like this anymore. This starter chapter book with pictures is--in some ways--a relic from the 1940s, but it's also a great piece of and inspiration for imagination!

In its lack of depth, an almost total absence of greater meaning than whimsy, it really is an outdated example of children's literature. Children's authors nowadays have to tackle important social justice issues, intercultural experiences, or human rights issues to stay relevant. The only issue this book really tackles is slavery.

It does tackle slavery head on, though. A young boy travels to an imaginary world (on the advice of a wise old cat), where he hopes to free a baby dragon held captive by some selfish animals. Yes, literal animals.

The animals are using the baby dragon as a method of transport across a river. The boy, in being genuinely nice to all the animals he comes across, succeeds in distracting them long enough to get to the poor dragonet whom he hopes to free. Have you ever imagined seven tigers chewing bubblegum and looking in each others' mouths to see if the gum has turned green (which of course it never does)? Have you ever imagined a big gorilla with six monkeys clambering over him with magnifying glasses, trying to spot and eradicate fleas? These are the sort of whimsical, nearly hilarious images crafted by Gannett.

I feel like this book really has the perfect combination of whimsy, ease and fun, and plot twists, evolution and detail that make it a great one for young kids. The words and sentence construction are pretty simple, so young'uns can easily understand what's going on. And the book is long enough that, if you're reading it with a younger kid, you could take a few nights to finish it.

It's almost like a much younger version of Le petit prince.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

In this collection of poems written before she finally succeeded in killing herself, Sylvia Plath shows you the world through her eyes. A couple of these poems were actually familiar--we studied them in high school. Read in context of other works she produced around the same time, though, they gave me less of a one-sided perspective on Plath than I had developed in the past.

"Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" are the ones I remember. Looking back, I can't believe we were allowed to address such heavy topics without a serious discussion about mental health and self-care. The first is about Plath's experience in attempting suicide by crawling under her house and laying there until she was found. The second is about her confusing, damning attachment to her father, who killed himself when she was ten.

The collection overall is dark, but in a practical sort of way, and with an ethereal quality that lets you know that everything is going to be okay. Rather than aggression or deep melancholy, there's a feeling of detachment from the rest of the world that seeps out of every stanza. Plath has her perceptions and experiences and we are experiencing a similar world in a completely different way as an "other."

I found I really liked "Getting There" and "Poppies in July." "Getting There" (to me) evokes that moment when you're doing something, but you sort of zone out, and you muse and daydream in your own confined headspace. Often this involves internal dialogue and commentary about your perceptions. I get it. I may not have seen or felt what she did on the train, but I understand the practice. For a while you are able to be in your own reality--dark and stream-of-consciousness as it may be--but then something happens (the train arrives) and you have to snap out of it.

My warm feelings toward "Poppies in July" probably stems from my childhood memories of poppies. Very vivid memories. Plath's descriptions are just as vivid, but I wonder what hides behind them. Are the poppies an allegory? It almost seems that she is disappointed that they are not more alive, that they don't have more power than they do. I get the feeling that she expected them to harm her in a delicious way and they instead fluttered harmlessly like the soft, "bloody skirts" they are.

Anyway, I think this is a great collection of some of Plath's final poems. My only criticism is "What's up with the bees?"


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou

This book of poetry by the prolific Maya Angelou covers everything from racial issues to women's issues to economic issues. She also just writes about the human experience--being sad, happy, lost, inquisitive, etc.

Other than the title poem, which is obviously important, forming the backbone of this collection, my favorite poems were "Known to Eve and Me" and "The New House."

I think "Known to Eve and Me" is great because it tells multiple stories in one telling. Ostensibly, she's talking about loving the snake, being used by him, then being left by him. Of course, more than the Eve-serpent pairing, she's talking about a woman who became dependent on a man. There's a lot you can delve into in the imagery in that one, too.

"The New House" is probably one of the tamest poems in this book. But it's relevant nonetheless, proving that art doesn't always have to push boundaries to be good. It's about how a place or an object (in this case a house) can pick up something of the person to whom it is bound. Your experiences, your emotions, and your actions leave traces of you in your house. Well, I was raised in a house with character, so maybe that's why I liked this one so much.

Anyway, altogether a solid, pleasant volume of poetry. Not super life-changing, but strong.