Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Week 21: The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

The Walking Dead comics series is apparently what the popular television show is based on. I had never seen it before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. This book is the collection of the first six comics in the series. It opens with a gunfight in which Rick Grimes, a police officer, is shot by a criminal while his friend and partner Shane looks on. Rick awakens in a hospital several weeks later, emerging from a coma that he had slipped into as a result of his injuries. He is unable to find a doctor and he quickly realizes that there is no one else in the hospital besides him. Stumbling upon a boarded-up door to the cafeteria, he opens it to find a throng of half-dead zombies. They are horrifyingly gory and immediately attempt to grab Rick and feast on his flesh. He manages to escape and sets out on a mission to figure out what’s going on. Outside of the hospital, he encounters more zombies, but no other human beings. After taking an abandoned bike, he returns to his home to find his wife and son missing. A neighbor helps get him to the police station where he suits up, takes one of the cruisers, and embarks on a trip to try to find his family. The story follows him as he learns how to navigate this new world and starts to get the hang of how to deal with zombies. What happened to the world while Rick lay in a coma is never explicitly explained, but the reader starts to understand more and more as the story progresses. Like any post-apocalyptic tale, there is a certain innate fear that is triggered by the thought of a scenario like this. It’s impossible not to think what one’s own self would do if the world suddenly fell apart. Perhaps a story like this can even serve to make us appreciate our lives a little more, even if zombies probably aren’t knocking down our door anytime soon. The humanity of the story really shines through to make this story rather moving and engaging.

Week 20: Bike Snob: Systematically & Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling

This book was written by the Bike Snob, a New York City-based anonymous writer whose blog is a delightful buffet of snark directed at all types of bike riders. He is a former bike messenger who also races, and has built up many years of experience in the saddle. Since riding a bike has garnered a certain trendiness as of late, he comments mostly on bike culture, and does not hesitate to poke fun at any sort of foofy cyclist. He doesn’t discriminate, whether it be hipsters on fixies or spandex clownsuits on expensive road bikes. He has coined several awesome bike terms, such as “bike salmon” (riders who ride the wrong way down streets) and he has whipped up profiles of common types of riders. His observations on urban cycling ring true for anyone who bikes around town, making his blog pretty successful amongst riders. This book is a primer of sorts, and introduction to some basic Bike Snob tenets that will definitely make any cyclist laugh. Here’s an example of his thoughts on “Contraption Captains” – people who ride recumbent bikes.

“The recumbent strikes fear into the hearts of nearly every non-recumbent-riding cyclist. If you've ever seen a dog growl at a plastic bag caught in a shrub because the dog thinks it might be some kind of weird animal, then you understand the reaction. Cyclists all notice one another, so when we see something that looks somewhat like a bicycle yet places the rider in an odd position with his feet kicking at the air as if he's defending himself from an attacking eagle, we become confused and disoriented.”

In addition to acquainting the reader with various types of riders, the Bike Snob also summarizes the basic components of the bicycle, why it’s important to learn some easy repairs, and how to bike in traffic. His attitude about biking is pretty simple. He advocates simply riding your bike and not thinking too much about it or getting too caught up in the aesthetics of it all. He’s lax on wearing helmets or following traffic rules, which I take issue with, but he never fails to stress common sense when riding. He also includes some photos of very silly bikes and picks them apart mercilessly. The book is wicked funny and worth reading if you are into bikes even a tiny bit. I finished it with a smile, feeling excited to hop on my bike again.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Week 19: Metamorphosis and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka

This edition of the Kafka’s short works is comprised of five stories: The Metamorphosis, The Great Wall of China, Investigations of a Dog, In the Penal Colony, The Giant Mole, and The Burrow. This was the first time I had ever read Kafka. Prior to reading this, my understanding of Kafka was limited to a portrait of a sickly man who succumbed at an early age to consumption (I had formerly regarded death by consumption as a sort of early 20th century urban myth). Unfortunately, this initial impression of Kafka, (bolstered by black and white photos I had seen of him looking serious, hair center-parted), permeated my opinion of his stories. For some reason, I couldn’t shake my sense that Kafka was an epic whiner. Kind of like the nerdy kid in school that is always sick and writes stories about how awful life is. This book really just rubbed me the wrong way. It starts with The Metamorphosis, which is one of the most depressing stories I have ever read. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the tale of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. The story chronicles the reaction of his family; their disgust intermingles with a desire to take care of Gregor. As time progresses, though, the benevolence dissipates and Gregor’s family regards him merely as a problem. Gregor is aware of all that is going on around him, but he is unable to communicate with his family. The reader starts to ponder the story as a metaphor for the aging or the sick, and the effect that their condition has on their caretakers. It’s brutally sad and it really bothered me. I found it difficult to get through because I felt so badly for Gregor. The rest of the stories are not quite as melancholy: The Great Wall of China is a somewhat boring account of (not surprisingly) The Great Wall of China; Investigations of a Dog is a story told from the perspective of a dog; In the Penal Colony concerns itself with an interesting torture device that carves the skin of inmates; The Giant Mole, about a schoolmaster who tries to expose (again, not surprisingly) a giant mole that lives in a nearby village; and The Burrow, which is told from the perspective of a mole-like creature (perhaps the same mole!?) that digs tunnels. It is interesting to me that many of these stories are narrated by animals, or animals figure prominently in the cast of characters. But that point of interest was not enough to fully engage me in the book, and I found myself wishing it was over. I know that there is a devoted legion of Kafka fans, and I wondered what I was missing. Perhaps I just felt that the stories were too bleak, but only for the sake of being bleak – as if they represented a stilted vision of life. I’m not sure. What I do know is that it’s going to take me a while to pick up another Kafka book.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Week 18: The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger is one of those books where you realize, about halfway in, how brilliantly awesome it is. It was loaned to me by my friend Roberto, a philosophy major. I was not a philosophy major, so I’m sure that my thoughts on The Stranger are not nearly as insightful as those of others who have studied the book, but, here goes. The Stranger takes place in Algeria. The book’s narrator, Meursault, is a young man who has just lost his aged mother. She died at a home for the elderly that Meursault had placed her at. The story opens with his experiences as he goes through the motions of her funeral. The account is told with stark, direct sentences that seemingly mirror Meursault’s general affectation. Strangely, Meursault shows no emotion throughout the event, refusing to even see his mother’s body. Initially it is unclear whether his emotions are muted by grief or if this is simply his nature. After the funeral, we follow his interactions with various people in his life. The day after his mother’s funeral, he meets up with Marie, a woman that he once worked with, and strikes up a romantic affair with her. Throughout their affair he displays the same indifference exhibited at his mother’s funeral. Marie at one point asks him if he loves her, and Meursault simply replies that he didn’t think so. Raymond, another neighbor, befriends Meursault and pulls him into a drama concerning his ex-girlfriend. Raymond soon incurs the wrath of a few thugs, only described as “Arabs”, who seek revenge on Raymond for beating his ex-girlfriend. Raymond, Marie and Meursault are enjoying an outing at a friend’s beach house when they encounter the Arabs, and it results in an altercation. Subsequent to that, Meursault wanders the beach by himself, as Raymond is injured and being tended to. He stumbles upon one of the Arabs, who flashes a knife, and Meursault shoots him dead. The murder comes across as unnecessary, even gratuitous (highlighted by Meursault repeatedly shooting the Arab’s dead body). Meursault alludes to the intense sun and heat as being factors in the crime, emphasizing his lack of empathy. Meursault is apprehended and all of his ambivalent personality traits are stacked against him as evidence of his guilt. The fact that he is apparently devoid of any sort of basic emotional understanding portrays him as an abhorrent human being. It is brought up that he had his mother committed to the elderly home and failed to grieve after her death; that he callously became romantically involved with Marie the very next day. These details, brought up by the prosecution, paint an unflattering picture of Meursault and persuade the jury to convict him. A priest visits him in prison to offer religious comfort, but Meursault turns him away, his atheism bringing the priest to tears. I found it interesting that the original French title of the book is L’Etranger, a term that can be translated as “the stranger”, or also, “the outsider”. In a sense, The Outsider is a more appropriate title, as Meursault’s persistent inability to show any sort of emotion renders him as an outsider amongst society. The book strikes up questions as to what the value of life really is, whether there is meaning in anything we do and whether it’s even worth it to experience emotion. The priest finds Meursault’s atheism sad, but Meursault does not understand this. He simply finds God a waste of time. The closest we get to seeing Meursault long for anything is when he is in prison, recalling the summer weather and the evening skies. As the book concludes, the reader starts to wonder whether Meursault is really the outsider, or whether society’s norms and religions are merely frivolities. I really enjoyed this book, and I find myself still thinking about it, unpeeling its layers one by one. The Stranger is an accessible pathway into complex topics that are worth pondering.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Week 17: Henry’s Demons, by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn

Henry’s Demons is the latest selection from my book club, picked by my friend Lisa. This is the non-fictional account of Patrick Cockburn’s son, Henry, and his struggle with schizophrenia. More accurately, it is the entire Cockburn family’s struggle, not just Henry’s, as the diagnosis and subsequent care of Henry devastates the lives of Henry himself, his younger brother, and his mother and father. The book’s chapters roughly alternate between Patrick’s narration and Henry’s narration. This technique is integral to the book’s appeal, because it allows the reader to delve into the mind of a schizophrenic. The story begins with Henry brush with death after swimming in near-freezing water and being rescued by strangers. This incident eventually led to his diagnosis of mental illness. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic and Patrick chronicles Henry’s breakdown as he starts to separate himself from reality. Henry begins a cycle of running away from his family and finding himself in socially unacceptable situations that usually involve nudity and end with him being apprehended by authorities. He transforms into a wholly different person, eschewing hygiene and claiming that nature is sending him commands. Henry is soon committed to a mental hospital, from which he continues to escape at any opportunity he can find. The family is thrust into a new reality of worrying about Henry, dreading every phone call for fear it is news that Henry has disappeared, and wondering how Henry will ever live a normal life. Meanwhile, Henry’s chapters shed some insight into his mindset during these times.  Early in the book, Henry (who, presently, is in no way “cured”) explains that he never felt that he was mentally ill. He simply thought that he was able to see and understand the world in a way that other people couldn’t. For example, he purported to have heard voices from trees. For Henry, this was a spiritual revelation and a source of great wonder – not mental illness. Therefore, to comply with doctors and take medication to quell these voices would be akin to crippling himself. So Henry refuses to take his medication, despite his family’s pleas to do so. He describes “polka-dot days”, days in which he would see polka-dots or rings everywhere, and that was a signal that a breakdown was looming. The book strikes a compelling balance between what Henry’s family is experiencing on the outside, and how Henry’s mind is functioning on the inside.  Readers will easily sympathize with Henry’s parents’ frustration at the sense that Henry’s life is irrevocably changed, and not for the better. It is a touching, interesting book, with concludes with no happy ending but leaves the reader with a sense of appreciation for the trials that this family has endured.