Finding Wallace (Part 1: How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace)

Finding Wallace (Part 1: How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace)

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last ten minutes trying to figure out why I should write this post. My main concern is that it will only make sense to me and that, even after I make the proverbial thirty revisions creating a somewhat coherent text from beginning to end from what would otherwise be a collection of random  and unrelated anecdotes,  it will seem incoherent/redundant/stupid/pointless (reader’s choice).

The worst part is that I think that I nailed it down with the first sentence I wrote and only when I went to add a second word insecurity creeped in. I’ve also gotten into a fairly decent routine with book reviews and straying from them feels odd. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to write a disclaimer with huge big fucking words.

“WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS VERY  RANDOM AND IT TREADS ON TOPICS THAT I’VE PREVIOUSLY WRITTEN ABOUT SO YOU MIGHT AS WELL DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE OTHER THAN READING THE TEXT BELOW”

Now that I’ve gotten all my existential dread out of my system – and what better way to do that than by having a complete breakdown and posting it on the Internet – I think I’ll go back to my original first sentence to tell you how I discovered the magnificent writer David Foster Wallace.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long long time. When I first started this blog, one of the main objectives I had (besides book reviews that chronicle my reading habits), was to trace back the path that leads me to a book. Whether it is by mere chance (Dracula), nostalgia (Tolkien: The Painter), or a gift (Cathing the Big Fish) I like looking at the bread crumbs to see if I can identify the source that ultimately lead me to a book or an author whose work speaks to me on a personal level. In the case of David Foster Wallace the first crumb fell more than a decade ago in an office.

In the year 2007 the fourth season of “The Office: An American Workplace” had come to halt due to the writer’s guild strike. I had begun watching the show soon after the end of season two when Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly’s will-they-won’t-they romance was at a fever pitch, and two seasons later I was still committed one hundred per cent to the succesful coupling of those characters. (Context: This was at a time when I was hoping that my best friend would actually fall in love with me, so one can imagine why I responded so strongly to Jim’s predicament). Even though by season four the characters were together, the writer’s strike had left me wanting more so I went looking in IMDb to find out about The Office’s return. Going through all the different articles and post I read that John Krasinsky (Jim Halpert) would be taking his first stab at directing by adapting the book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” by David Foster Wallace. Two years later I finally watched it.

Without going into too much details and to avoid spoilers in my next post, the problem with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as a movie is that it is very slow and lacks any real sense of character. Despite an amazing cast and the richness of the source material it feels both pretentious and looks amateurish. I think that Krasinsky did not have the experience or the skills to pull this off so unfortunately his passion-project passed without much recognition from the general crowd and was quickly discarded in my film library.

*

A few years into the future another sitcom ruled the world: “How I met your Mother”. Theodore Evelyn Mosby, “Ted” to his gang of friends, and his never-ending quest to find “The Mother” had conquered TV audiences thanks to its creative reverse story telling and the growing popularity of womanizer Barney Stinson played to perfection by Neil Patrick Harris. In a similar cycle of repetition I found myself hooked on a show with a romantic underdog and once again I prowled IMDb looking for more information on the show. In this search I found out that Josh Radnor (Ted) was going to direct his second film called “Liberal Arts”, and once again I made a mental note after watching the trailer.

Liberal Arts is a well-executed, competently directed film that is pretty much harmless to the casual viewer and that may resonate with people who miss their college days; I’d also recommend it to fans of the Ted character in HIMYM since Radnor pretty much plays the same notes in this film. There are a couple of scenes that I really liked centered around the (lack of ) quality of the Twilight books and another one about the calculation of the age difference between the two leads, but the movie also had moments where I was almost waiting for the characters to say “Liberal Arts are more profound people than you” and it felt a bit pedantic. Also, whilst I commend Radnor for directing and writing his own film I wonder if he ever noticed that every single female in this movie is sexually attracted to him.

Pros and cons aside, there is one subplot in the movie that caught my eye. Radnor’s characters meets an awkward and lonely college student and their first conversation pivots around a book that he (the lonely college student) is reading for a second time and that Radnor’s character also read obsessively during his college days. Minor spoilers ahead: In the third act of the movie the college student tries to commit suicide Radnor’s  character tells him that he does not have to be like the author of the book – which again is unnamed – and in fact he should read something stupidly bad (Twilight). This unnamed book and unnamed author piqued my interest and once again thanks to IMDb I found the name of both: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

This time I got curious enough to research deeper on David Foster Wallace and I learned about the impact of Infinite Jest, his other works on fiction and non-fiction and his suicide at age forty six after struggling with depression. However, after doing the research my immediate reaction towards his work was intimidation – or in far more simplistic terms I thought “Whoa, this is BIG BOY reading” -, so I didn’t immediately jump into his writings which, at first glance, show no clear reference point as Infinite Jest is well-known for its difficulty and behemoth-sized.

The path set by The Office/Brief Interviews with Hideous Men/How I Met Your Mother/Liberal Arts had guided me to the figure of David Foster Wallace but did not manage to make me commit to one of his books. That honour goes to the essay “This is Water” and to the movie “The End of the Tour”.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace is a speech first given to the 2005  graduating class at Kenyon College. It is a beautiful text dealing with the importance of empathy and awareness beyond our self-centered default mechanism that expertly communicates a sense of optimism. It is the one piece of his that I constantly re-read and that I keep always on my phone because it is both inspiring and motivating and because it really helps me to put things in perspective. If you’ve managed to reach this point in this text, please indulge me a bit further and listen to his speech:

The End of the Tour has been the other big reason why I decided to read David Foster Wallace and that was, in fact, part of the subject of my very first post. Editorial note: after this sentence I re-read my very first post in this blog, where I talked about this movie. It is funny how I’m still echoing some of the sentiments in that post.

The film, as past-me said, is “a road-movie based on the trip that David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother fame) and Dave Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network fame) took to promote Wallace’s famous book Infinite Jest. Lipsky, an unknown writer working as a reporter for Rolling Stone, covets Wallace’s achievements, thus creating the whole dynamic of the film”.

To this day, I still re-watch it from time to time. The conversations in The End of The Tour create a sense of kinship in me. It has become one of those perfect background movies that I can have on whilst I’m working on something  and that I can just jump into for a few minutes. As someone who loves books and that has been struggling with the idea of writing one for many years, hearing rationalized conversations about the sensations that I felt but that I wasn’t able to put into words was like finding a beacon of sanity. Every fear, hope and reality about writing is directly or indirectly present throughout each conversation.

It has been more than two years since The End of the Tour came out but I’ve finally read my first David Foster Wallace book and I’m happy to announce that the decade-old trail of crumbs has led me to a fantastic book and an amazing author. Next post it comes full circle: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Until then, thanks for reading!

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A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (A brief review)

A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking (A brief review)

I bought Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for one euro in my favorite used book store. I wasn’t really sure about this purchase– obviously not because of the price tag –, because I was worried that a book regarding physics would not make for a very interesting reading in my mathematics-friendly-yet-low-attention-span mind. Fortunately the paperback I bought had a seal of approval in the cover that calmed all my fears: Introduction by Carl Sagan. This introduction dissipated all the doubts I had, and I can think of no better way to start this review than by quoting what Sagan wrote about A Brief History of Time.

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Couldn’t find a decent picture on the web that had the exact cover of my paperback. Sorry for the quality of the picture

This, Hawking’s first book for the nonspecialist, holds rewards of many kinds for the lay audience. As interesting as the book’s wide-ranging contents is the glimpse it provides of the workings of its author’s mind. In this book are lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and courage.

This is also a book about God … or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills this pages.

In 211 pages Stephen Hawking achieves quite a feat. Not only does he manage to give a history lesson on all the subjects Carl Sagan mentions, but he also describes each one of them in a way that is understandable for the casual reader. In all the topics regarding physics – which is ninety percent of the book – Stephen Hawking does a fantastic job explaining everything in simple terms, with each chapter usually starting with a basic idea that is gradually developed and fitted in a holistic vision of the universe. Hawking seems capable of easily identifying concepts or ideas that may be difficult to understand and, whenever that is the case, he usually asks the reader to visualize particular scenarios (nearly in all cases accompanied by Jon Miller’s helpful illustrations) to help with the explanation. Editorial note: through no fault of Hawkin’s and most likely due to a particularly dense day on my part I found that the chapters titled “Elementary Particles and the Forces of Nature”, “Black Holes” and “Black Holes Ain’t so Black” where a bit too complicated even with illustrations.

What I enjoyed the most about A Brief History of Time are the casual anecdotes. The first chapter, “Our Picture of the Universe“, begins with a very funny one that sets up what the entire book is all about: What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the end of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down”

I guess you could say that the anecdotes in this book make his relativity a bit more about relatability (PU TUN TA!). From Hawking’s personal adventures, like his participation in a convention organized by the Catholic church (where I learned that they -the church- embraced the Big Bang Theory originally proposed by Hawking because it fits with the idea of a creator) to Einstein’s disregard of quantum mechanics (despite his role in its development) with the famous phrase “God does not play with dice” to Newton’s apparently unpleasant persona, the anecdotes in A Brief History of Time provide moments of levity within what is essentially a book about physics, and they give an added value (at least for me) to what Hawking is talking about because they show that he has a good sense of humor, curiosity, and most importantly that he loves a good story.

Wordplay aside there is so much more to this book that I enjoyed. As Carl Sagan mentions in his introduction, this book is filled with the word God and, as someone who struggles with this idea, I loved reading what Hawking has to say about the role that a creator would play in the universe. I also found very interesting the whole idea of deterministic VS probabilistic models  (here is where Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Einstein’s dices collide), as it sparked an idea in regards to the actual probability (or lack of) of predicting the future – a science-fiction concept if there ever was one –.

Random Meta-Trivia: and if you ever read Hannibal by Thomas Harris you’ll learn that Hannibal Lecter also finds some of Hawking’s ideas very interesting, particularly the one related to a broken tea cup. I just love these coincidences!

“Dr Lecter was watching a film called A Brief History of Time, about the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his work. He had watched it many times before. This was his favorite part, where the teacup falls off the table and smashes on the floor.

Hawking, twisted in his wheelchair, speaks in his computer-generated voice: “Where does the difference between the past and the future come from? The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future. Yet there is a big difference between the past and future in ordinary life.

“You may see a cup of tea fall off of a table and break into pieces on the floor. But you will never see the cup gather itself back together and jump back on the table.”

The film, run backward, shows the cup reassembling itself on the table. Hawking continues: “The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.”

Dr Lecter admired Hawking’s work very much and followed it as closely as he could in the mathematical journals. He knew that Hawking had once believed the universe would stop expanding and would shrink again, and entropy might reverse itself. Later Hawking said he was mistaken.

Lecter was quite capable in the area of higher mathematics, but Stephen Hawking is on another plane entirely from the rest of us. For years Lecter had teased the problem, wanting very much for Hawking to be right the first time, for the expanding universe to stop, for entropy to mend itself, for Mischa, eaten, to be whole again.”

I finished reading this book on the 4th of November 2017 (lots of work and travelling hence the reason for the delay in the review). For those loyal followers thanks for reading and stay tuned for more broken tea cups in two reviews!

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Jodie Foster’s choice)

Hannibal by Thomas Harris (Jodie Foster’s choice)

I was not planning on reading this book so soon. Both Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs left a wonderful taste (link to that review is right here), and I was worried that the third dish in Hannibal’s menu would spoil my enjoyment of those novels. After all, this is the book that fans are split upon. Some say it is nowhere near as good as the previous two and others say it is superior (Stephen King is in this camp). Alas! Once again browsing through my favourite used book store I found a paperback of Hannibal for two euros and I just couldn’t resist buying it. Random Trivia: The book was in fantastic condition. Inside there was a signature “Laura 01/01”. I wonder why Laura got rid of it…

A novel based on Hannibal had a couple of things going against it. First is the hype and the risk of comparison: Both Red Dragon & Silence were huge hits, and once Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster embodied those characters on film they became part of mainstream culture, so the pressure on Harris to deliver something as good as his previous works must have been immense. Second, in both novels Hannibal is not at the centre of the story and maybe that is why he is so effective. This begs the question: Will knowing more about the character kill his appeal?

Before I address these two points and even if I run the risk of being unpopular among fans of the first two novels – that will of course flood my blog, AMIRITE? –, I have to point out that both Red Dragon and The Silence of The Lambs are very similar books: the structure is the same, they have the same length, same genres, both main protagonists are FBI, both antagonist have a fairly similar idea of becoming/transforming into something else. This is not meant to take away anything from them, I think they are fantastic books and I really like the different spin on the same type of story, but I believe that some readers could have been expecting more of the same on the third novel and were disappointed when Hannibal didn’t tread familiar grounds.

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Book cover of the paperback edition I got. Thanks Laura!

Hannibal is not The Silence of the Lambs Part Two. I think Thomas Harris was smart enough to realize that he had to go in a different direction with this novel and avoid replicating his previous work, so this time around, instead of a thriller, he delivered a grotesque character study centred around – but not focused on – Hannibal. This forces the reader to look at the story on its own, making all comparisons a matter of taste rather than quality, and it also keeps the character of Hannibal a mystery. 

When I was reading the book, I felt that Harris understood that revealing more about the character would ruin him (and before you bring up Hannibal Rising please note that Dino de Laurentiis basically put Thomas Harris on the spot to write it), so instead of a story from Hannibal’s perspective he delivered a rich tapestry of old and new characters deeply affected and pivoting around the figure of Hannibal.

As far as new characters go the Vergers were my favourites. Both Mason & Margot Verger were once patients of Hannibal. He, a sadistic, brutal, crippled monster, is the only known surviving victim of Hannibal – who made him cut off and eat his own face – and is dedicating all his fortune from the meat-packing industry to capture and torture him. She, an unfertile lesbian body builder, abused by her brother since she was little, needs to cooperate with him to fulfil her desire to have a child with her partner.

Sticking strictly to the above paragraph, these two characters may seem a bit too much –almost caricatures –, but in the expert hands of Thomas Harris they are both wonderful additions to the story. Mason is a disgusting human being psychologically and Hannibal saw this from the very beginning and merely made his appearance match the inside, and Margot and her relation with Barney is one of the highlights in the novel; in a way she is almost a twisted version of Clarice, determined and strong but brutalized and broken by her brother.

On the other hand Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi, a member of the Italian that has fallen out of grace, didn’t bring much to the table as a character, but this is compensated by the most beautiful passages describing Florence and its history (a city were the author spent a few years living), and also the re-introduction of Hannibal under his new façade.

From The Silence of the Lambs, we also get appearances from Jack Crawford, Krendler, Barney and Clarice Sterling. For the past seven years since the Buffalo Bill case ended, Krendler has been sabotaging Clarice’s career for robbing him out of all the fame and glory, but Jack Crawford remains a firm supporter of Clarice and gets her out of the political cogs of the FBI for one last attempt before his retirement to capture Hannibal. Barney no longer works in the mental hospital that once held Hannibal prisoner but remains oddly connected to him after all this time.

But what about Clarice? What has happened to the one rising star of the FBI?

As mentioned before, the capture of Buffalo Bill was a curse in disguise. All the unwanted recognition she received for that case created jealousy and bitterness (not just from Krendel), and the once idealistic agent begins to see cracks in the FBI. The determination that endeared her to the reader in the first novel is still there all throughout the story until the last part titled A Long Spoon where things take a weird twist; and which made Jodie Foster decline the chance to reprise her role in the movie sequel.

Warning: I’m going to go into heavy details about the end of the book, so if all the above has piqued your interest I suggest you stop reading.

In the last part of the novel Hannibal takes Clarice away to a safe place to begin a treatment of hypnosis and drug induced hallucinations. This gets Clarice to slowly open on past traumas dealing with her father’s death, and it also strips her personality away in order to make room for Misha, Hannibal’s dead sister. When these sessions are over Clarice offers herself to Hannibal. The book ends after a year has passed with Barney seeing both Clarice and Hannibal together at the opera in Buenos Aires.

Miss Foster’s thoughts on what this ending meant for Clarice was that it betrayed everything that Clarice stood for in The Silence of the Lambs; hence her (unofficial)reason to refuse reprising the role that gave her a second Oscar (despite the fact that the final movie had a completely different ending).

My personal opinion is that the ending of the novel was a good idea but that it wasn’t particularly well executed. I understand what Hannibal is trying to achieve and how he is trying to achieve it. He is the ultimate manipulator and has the skills to do it. However, we’ve been inside Clarice’s head for two novels. We know how she ticks and how stubborn and firm she can be, so for her to end up like a puppet in the hands of Hannibal with no qualms, no real struggle or fight just seemed off and a bit anticlimactic. An argument could be made that Hannibal understands and accepts her for what she is, or more accurately for what she could be, so it’d make sense for Clarice to offer herself to him, but I’d have to remove the hypnosis and drugs from the equation in order for the catharsis to ring true. Another argument could be made that Clarice ends up seeing that her believes have gotten her nowhere and embraces the catharsis that Hannibal offers. 

Ultimately, I like the idea that Clarice and Hannibal end up together because it is twisted and it is unexpected  unlike the movie , but something in the execution of how they end up together felt off and I wish that she had embraced Hannibal voluntarily rather than through active manipulation on Hannibal’s side. Regardless of the end, I immensely enjoyed reading Hannibal. Thomas Harris is an expert story-teller, a fantastic talent developing interesting characters and his pacing is spot on. Will I go for the fourth Hannibal book? Actively no, but for another two euros I just might have to consider it.

I finished reading Hannibal the 28th of October of 2017.

Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Robots and Empire is the fifth book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series that first began with his short story collection I, Robot published in 1950. It is the last novel that he ever did on the Robot series, and it signifies two important events both for the author and for the world he created: the bridge between two of his most iconic universes (Robots & Foundation) and the introduction of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.

PREFACE TO THE ACTUAL REVIEW

MY JOURNEY TO ASIMOV

Isaac Asimov is the first science fiction writer I ever read and the one that I’ve read the most from (this is my eleventh book of his). Asimov is also partially responsible for my love for literature and, when I think about it, it is somewhat bizarre how I first found out about him.

When I was little, around age eight or nine, on school day mornings all the kids that arrived before the doors opened would wait on the playgrounds. One of those mornings, out of the blue, a kid named Jaime just opened his backpack and pulled out this red hardback book with an image of a galaxy right in the middle. It was Asimov’s Introduction to Science. He said it was a gift for me.

Jaime was a classmate that I played with during recess but not really a close friend. I don’t have perfect recall on this but I believe he might have said something about his father not wanting the book or something like that.

To this day I still don’t know why he gave me that book. If I had to take a guess, I do remember going through a very weird phase when all I did was talk about archaeology and astronomy, and maybe he thought that I might like the book because it deals quite a bit with astronomy, but even that explanation is odd considering he was also my age. All I’m certain about is that I still have and treasure that book.

It was more than a decade later when my brother lent me the first three Foundation books and I discovered the brilliance of Asimov. They were the perfect books at the perfect time. In them, Asimov introduces the idea of “psychohistory” a science dedicated to predicting the evolution of future events by applying the laws of statistics to large amounts of people. I read all three on the underground and bus trips to my college classes where I was studying – and hating – game theory and statistics, and thanks to these books I began to appreciate numbers and the science behind it.

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The post’s main image features Giskard. If you like it or if you are a Sepultura fan check out the work of artist Michael Welan.

I didn’t get to the Robot series until much later. I had just begun working on a new job and I didn’t know anybody so I walked around a lot during lunch time. Thanks to those walks I found what would become my favourite used book store, and in it, hidden at the very bottom of one of the shelves and covered by other books piled against it, I found a paperback omnibus with the first three robot novels for just four euros. I still remember the old book smell  that it had. How it made its way to the bookstore must have been quite a story considering it is an American edition.

TO THE ACTUAL BOOK REVIEW

I think the first thing to say is that the novel doesn’t really work as standalone book. Asimov’s main objective was to link both Foundation and Robot sagas, and it is very clear that this novels works towards that; so if you are looking for a self-contained story skip this and go to The Caves of Steel.

All the main characters (with the exception of D.G) have been introduced in previous novels and their motivations, personalities and actions are shaped by the events in those books. Although Asimov does a bit of catch-up within the novel I think that, to fully enjoy this book, you’d need to read the previous novels.

The Robot series is also known unofficially as the Baley series, taking the name of the main protagonist of the first three novels Elijah Baley. The events of Robots & Empire take place years after his death and follow Gladia, her two robots (Daneel and Giskard) and D.G (a descendant of Elijah). However, Elijah makes two stellar appearances in the book.

Asimov uses these appearances skilfully and, in one of the two occasions, when Daneel is remembering Elijah’s last words in his deathbed, he beautifully links and wraps with a nice speech his two main sagas. I’ll take the liberty of putting the text below because it is just such a wonderful message:

“My death, Daneel,” he said, “is not important. No individual death among human beings is important. Someone who dies leaves his work behind and that does not entirely die. It never entirely dies as long as humanity exists. – Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Daneel said, “Yes, Partner Elijah.”

“The work of each individual contributes to a totality and so becomes an undying part of the totality. That totality of human lives – past and present and to come – forms a tapestry that has been in existence now for many tens of thousands of years and has been growing more elaborate and, on the whole, more beautiful in all that time. Even the Spacers are an offshoot of the tapestry and they, too, add to the elaborateness and beauty of the pattern. An individual life is one thread in the tapestry and what is one thread compared to the whole?

“Daneel, keep your mind fixed firmly on the tapestry and do not let the trailing off of a single thread affect you. There are so many other threads, each valuable, each contributing – !”

The reasons why Elijah’s last words are so good are mainly because:

  • They are delivered by the protagonist of all the first three novels that we know and love right before his death. This makes the moment more poignant in Daneel’s memory (and the story), and it also feels like Asimov is talking to his faithful readers from the heart through a beloved character and telling us something important about his work.

  • “The totality of human lives forms a tapestry” is, in summary, what The Foundation is in charge of: the mapping of humanity pasts, present and future.

  • This moment plants the seed of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.

Thirty years after the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics Asimov adds one additional law that takes precedence over the three. The Zeroth Law of Robotics states that: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

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This is the cover image of the hardback I bought from the always amazing Chris Foss.

One of the main drivers behind the narrative of this novel is the inception of this new law of robotics, and Asimov is skilled enough to weave an engaging story around it with good character arcs that develop the protagonists we already know and takes them in new directions.

There were a couple of loose threads that I think could have been finished a bit better: Gladia is kind of ignored once she has served her purpose, the Solarians disappearance is left for other works and the ending, although satisfying, was a bit abrupt. Without giving away anything, all I’ll say is that the fourth and fifth Foundation novels give some of the closure that this book lacked.

This was a great book to finish my “summer” reading and a fantastic addition to the Robot series. Note for future-me: Yes, I know that technically I finished it in Autumn but in case you forgot, September and the first half of October 2017 were really hot.

I finished reading this book the 1st of October 2017. Next on the list I’m visiting an old doctor with very peculiar appetites.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. It takes a futuristic/technological/alien scenario and uses it (when it succeeds) to tell us something about humanity. This requires both tremendous imagination and a deep knowledge of what it is to be human. Solaris, the novel by the polish author Stanislaw Lem, has plenty of both.

The planet Solaris orbits around two suns. Above the ocean surface of the planet near the clouds there is a space station tasked with the scientific observation of the heavenly body. Though there are many theories about the planet (is it alive but unaware? Is it a sentient being?) it remains a mystery yet unsolved. The ocean moves and changes with the color of the sunset and strange cloud formations appear and disappear without rhyme or reason. Our protagonist is Kris Kelvin, a psychologist assigned to the station orbiting Solaris. When he arrives everything appears to be empty, there are no robots and he only manages to talk to two scientists that are acting strangely and that only give him cryptic answers to his questions. Things take a stranger turn when he receives the visit of his wife (named Rheya in the Kilmartin/Cox translation that I bought and Harey in the original novel) just exactly like she was years ago, before she committed suicide.

At this moment, I’d like to mention that I’ve revisited this post quite a few times because I was unsure about the correct approach to take for this review. After I first read Solaris, I wasn’t certain what the novel was about. Was it about the relationship with Rheya, about letting go of the past, about interaction between two life-forms that are completely alien to one another? I decided to re-watch the 2002 film by Steven Soderbergh to try to see if I could crack the book by seeing his take on the source material.

In the movie the main focus is Rheya and Kelvin’s past and current relationship. It is primarily a love story. There are moments when it attempts to tackle the psychological, moral and philosophical implications of the novel but they fall flat and feel empty. The three main problems that I experienced with the movie are the pacing, the fact that the presence of Solaris is almost anecdotal to the plot and the ending. There are a few cuts to the planet which looks very pretty, but Sodenberg focuses so much on the relationship between Rheya and Kelvin -with poorly placed flashbacks to some awkward staring- that add very little to the either character, and  finally the film ends with a “and they lived happy ever after somewhere” ending that comes out of nowhere.

I was also going to see the Tarkovsky film – which I’ll eventually watch but not for this review– but I felt I had everything I needed to finish this post after seeing Sodenberg’s film. I will however include what Stanislaw Lem had to say about Tarkovsky’s film as some of what he said helped me to grasp a little bit better the novel.

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Wish the English edition had  featured the artwork of artist Oscar Chichoni (post featured imaged), instead of this bland cover.

In the book, one of the many schools of thought about Solaris regards the planet as a “hermit” forever alone in the universe, perceiving and trying to make sense of itself in an eternal monologue. A being unable to communicate and trapped inside. Out of all the theories that Stanislaw Lem describes in the novel to interpret what the planet Solaris is, this is the one that draws the most parallelisms with the main character.

Kris Kelvin is confronted by the planet, by Rheya, by the other scientist in the station and by the situation with questions regarding love, morality, religion, science and philosophy. All of these questions, in one way or another and to different degrees have shaped and continue to shape humanity. One could argue that the embodiment of a dead wife is the hardest blow to Kris as he is immediately confronted with two emotions at the same time, grief and love, but those are just the trigger in the novel.  What follows is his struggle to make sense of the events – both emotionally (interactions with his wife) and rationally (trying to reach a scientific explanation between him and the two scientist)-, his attempts to take action whilst juggling all the moral implications they may have, and his isolation and entrapment in the space station. That is when it dawned on me that Kris Kelvin and Solaris are both, essentially, hermits.

Soderbergh’s decision to focus on the love story and to give a conclusive ending ultimately simplifies the complexities of the exercise that Lem does in the novel. Rheya is a mirror for love, Solaris is a mirror for god and/or philosophy (and this is a por simplification on my side), and the scientists are a mirror for reason and rationality. By leaving the last two (or executing their role poorly) out of the equation he ultimately made the movie hollow. The movie’s message is the tired trope that “love conquers all”, whereas the novel rings truer and hits harder with the message, that often, when we are forced to look inside, we find far more questions than answers.

I finished this book on the 6th of September. I read it on the flights to and from Amsterdam. Much like the Dracula review I struggled with this post because I wasn’t sure if I had anything to write about and, in both cases, this forced me to look deeper at what I just read. This is frustrating at first but extremely pleasurable by the end, as I find myself enjoying more and more looking beyond the surface.

P.S: if somebody finds the full artwork done by Oscar Chichoni and not just the top half of the body, please let me know.

 

McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

McKee & Kaufman: A look at writing (and loneliness)

Why did I begin this blog a year ago? I’ve been asking myself this question for the past three weeks and I’ve identified two main reasons that encapsulate the answer to it: loneliness and the desire to write. Anyone that writes or tries to write is familiar by default with the second, and I want to advance that you’ll find no insights here on how to deal with them; everything that needs to be said about the two has been subject to analysis by better people and all I’d add would be a banality or a boring cliché. However, I want to take a look at two works that focus on these two reasons and looks at them both individually and as a whole, analytically and emotionally and that are oddly linked: the movie Adaptation directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman and the book Story written by Robert McKee.

The first time I read about Adaptation (The Orchid Thief) was in Roger Ebert’s Best films of the decade -it did not make the Top 10 but appeared as an honorable mention-, but it was my love for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michele Gondry) that really made me curious to see more films written by Charlie Kaufman. Thus, I bought Adaptation in a double pack DVD along with Being John Malkovich.

If I had to summarize Adaptation I’d say it is a movie about a writer trying to finish a script about a book dealing with orchids that ends up writing a story about himself adapting the book about orchids, however that would be awfully reductive. This movie’s script is the closest thing that I’ve seen to a magic trick unfolding on my TV screen and requires multiple re-watches to fully understand  what Kaufman managed to pull off. It twists, bends, re-shapes and laughs at the clichés of writing to create a unique movie, and the funny thing is that the actual story behind this script is not that far from the final product. Charlie Kaufman was really hired to adapt the novel “The Orchid Thief” written by Susan Orlean, but being unable to adapt it he wrote a script about him failing to write a script.

In Adaptation you’ll see a pretty funny and insightful look at both loneliness and the difficulties to write. This is well illustrated  in all the interactions that the main character has with his own brother – both of them played superbly by Nicolas Cage –. The main character (Charles) is the talented and lonely writer that puts effort into his writing and his brother (Donald) is the talentless writer that is extremely optimistic and social. At one point in the movie (minor spoilers) Donald suggests Charles going to a seminar on scriptwriting that is being given by Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) to see if it helps with his struggle to finish the script. When he goes, the following happens:

This is one of the many  brilliant moments in this movie and I think that, behind all the exaggerations in it, Charlie Kaufman wrote a really personal script that touches profoundly on both loneliness and the desire to write. After watching the cathartic feedback given by the fictional Robert McKee to the fictional Charlie Kaufmann, I knew that somewhere down the line I’d have to read McKee’s book and once again my friend Mrs. A happened to give me this book for my birthday.

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If you want to write you MUST read Story by Robert McKee. It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about writing a novel, a screenplay or a short story, this book is filled with so much good and insightful advice that it would be helpful for any writer. From the very minute details necessary to develop a scene to the holistic godlike knowledge that a writer must have over the world he is creating in the page McKee shows how to tackle every single element necessary for good story telling.

Back on topic of loneliness and writings this is what he has to say (this is taken from Chapter 1: The Writer and the Art of Story):

“Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You must be born with the creative power to put things together in way no one has ever dreamed. Then you must bring to the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society, coupled with in-depth knowledge of your characters and your world. All that… and, as Hallie and Whit Burnett reveal in their excellent little book, a lot of love.

Then there is one big paragraph explaining the love of the story, and then there is one sentence that really hit me hard.

You must love to write and bear the loneliness.

I’ve been in a position where I’ve wanted to write but was unable to do so of loneliness, and to a degree this blog has helped me to turn that loneliness into something positive, but if by any chance you struggle with the desire to write and/or loneliness, either emotionally or rationally, I’d strongly recommend both this movie and this book to help you identify why and give you that little push necessary to sit down and write.

I finished reading Story by Robert McKee the 20th of August.

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

Of Hammocks and Deck Chairs (Anthology: Places where I enjoy reading)

It is summer. It is warm and I’m on vacation. This means: swimming pool, gardening, nature, relax, DVDs, masturbating, and reading. In the last concept there are two subsections conditioned to location, hammock reading and deck chair reading, that I’m particularly fond of and that, in time, have joined the ranks of my favorite places to grab a book and get lost in the pages. I assume that the notion in itself is alluring enough for anyone reading this – I dare anyone to refuse a hammock – but as always the idea behind this post (and again you are justifying yourself for the eight billionth time to nobody) is to find out why this is a special place for me.

In my previous post of this anthology I found it helped to write about the place and time that I’m describing when I’m in it rather than from the top of my head, so I figured I’d try the same approach again to see if lighting strikes twice. (Editorial note: No. I did not write my first posts in the toilet)

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The hammock hangs between two evergreen trees (quercus ilex). To its left there are hydrangeas that also surround one of the two trees and to its right there is a nice view of the swimming pool, but what particularly endears me to it is the view above. The sky is clear and blue in the few open patches between the boughs and the sun lights the top of the trees with an orange dusky glow (I tend to lay there only in the late afternoon, usually after taking a swim). My eyes swing back and forth between the book and the different birds playing in the branches.

This hammock has been in my house since I was a little kid, but it was only in the summer of 2012 when I was reading Walden or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau when I truly fell in love with it, and it owes its position in this anthology to this book. When I combined these two elements I realized how much nature enhances the reading experience. How? First some context.

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A drawing of the cabin where HDT lived done by his sister Sophia.

Around 1850, Henry David Thoreau decided to leave the city and live in the forest close to Walden pond where he aimed to experience life in its simplest and truest form. This book is a recollection of his experiences and thoughts throughout the two years that he spent living in a little cabin in that forest. A fantastic stylist (one of my favorites along with Edgar Allan Poe) and a deep thinker; Thoreau finds an infinite source of inspiration from the broader aspect of nature and the changing of the seasons to the smallest events, insignificant to the unobservant, like the savage war raging at his feet between two different colonies of ants.

I found joy in the simplicity of laying outside with a book, under two big trees with the birds chipping on the branches. It was the perfect combination of book and place: Walden became one of my favourite books (and is one of the main reasons why I started planting tomatoes) and that hammock became one of my favorite reading spots. (Random Trivia: I first read about this book in Roger Ebert’s review of Into the Wild. Better write that down so that you don’t forget future-me)

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I love my shitty deck chair. I love it so much because it is so shitty. It is old, dusty, bulky and barely comfortable enough to sit in. Every summer I take it out of a room at the end of the garage, dust it off and place it in the spot with the best view in the whole house, and every time I sit there with a book I am quite simply happy. Life does not get better.

I usually lay there in the morning or late in the afternoon when my legs are a bit numb from the hammock. The morning view is characterized by the miles of pine forest sprawling from the skirts of the mountain to its very top and the cool morning breeze and is usually when I get most of my reading done. However, I think I like it best when the sun sets and the seat is still warm from all the evening heat and Venus shines meekly in the horizon. The time window to read is shorter in the afternoon (one of the cons of fading light) but it is a magical place to end a fine day of reading; in my very own window to the stars.

Much like the hammock there are quite a few books that will be forever linked to that chair. I’ll always remember how inspiring and wonderful it was reading Contact by Carl Sagan , or how I  was glued to Stephen King’s On Writing to avoid thinking about a horrible breakup, or how I read the first four robot novels by Isaac Asimov and started thinking about writing my own science-fiction novel. I’m not sure how long this deck chair will last. It is really beaten down and worn and I know that I’m overtly sentimental for something awfully silly, but the memories attached to it are really special to me.

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Behold the glorious shittiness!

A few months ago I bought Robots and Empire (the fifth novel in Asimov’s robot saga) with the clear idea that I’d only read it in summer. I may be a creature of habits, but when this post is published I’ll be sitting in that shitty deck chair reading it and I’ll be as happy as you can get. I guarantee it!

Bonus round: Walden, or Life in the Woods in PDF. Happy summer reading!