Friday, May 25, 2012

Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

While I personally am not a fan of the self-indulgent memoir and more in favor of memoirists who balance personal divulgence with cohesive storytelling, indulgence can be forgiven in the hands of a self-deprecating, dryly humorous author like Chuck Klosterman. An author, essayist, and rock critic with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Klosterman makes Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story an honest, amusing and at times thought-provoking existential treatise on the rock stars whose fame only peaked once they kicked the bucket.

Upon being given an assignment to write an article for Spin magazine on society’s relationship with dead rock stars, Klosterman embarks on a three-week road trip that takes him everywhere from the big cities of New York and Minneapolis to the countryside of Montana and Mississippi, visiting the historic death sites of rock stars. During this time, Klosterman juggles relationships with three different women, does some recreational drugs—at some point snorting cocaine at the site of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island—and wonders whether he has Cotard’s syndrome, a rare mental disorder that deludes a person into believing they’re dead. Along the way he meets some colorful characters, such as Kurt Cobain devotees who maintain the belief that he was murdered, a drunken Uma Thurman lookalike who climbs on the roof of a building in heels, and a Cracker Barrel waitress who likes Franz Kafka.

Among Klosterman’s philosophical musings on the deaths of rock stars—whether by accident (Duane Allman) or suicide (Kurt Cobain), during a time of career success (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash) or fading popularity (Elvis Presley’s overdose)—are his commentaries on social hypocrisy; his meditations on what song he’d like to play while committing suicide; and an outlandish theory about Radiohead’s album Kid A unintentionally predicting the events of 9/11. Needless to say this guy is all over the place, and for every insight he offers, there’s twice as many ruminations on an unrelated topic.

While a lack of direction, as well as the absence of any conclusion, pervades the memoir, its saving grace is that Klosterman never pretends his narrative is anything more than it is. His unpretentious, self-deprecatory tone and willingness to admit his faults as a memoirist—and as a person—gives it a sort of charm, and makes him a relatable and entertaining narrator, with plenty of humor and wit to move the story along.

In short, don’t go looking for any profound insight on life, death, and rock’n’roll; just for a steady 256 pages of travel, philosophizing, and an endless sea of pop culture references. For those wanting more, Klosterman is also the author of the nonfiction book Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota; a collection of essays entitled Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man; to name a few. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

Continuing the legacy started with Sorcha, the resilient heroine of Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier returns us to the enchanted land of Sevenwaters with this spellbinding second installment, Son of the Shadows, a historical fantasy novel with elements of a war epic, as well as a stirring love story set in the midst of warfare between Irish and British chieftains.

The heroine of this novel is Sorcha’s youngest daughter Liadan, who grows up in Sevenwaters with her sister Niamh and twin brother Sean, and has inherited her mother’s skills in the healing arts, as well as the family gift of the ability to see the future. When her family’s allies return from the battlefield, they bring with them stories of a murderous band of mercenaries and their ruthless leader known as the Painted Man. These stories come true for Liadan when, while riding through the forest, she’s kidnapped by these outlaws and made to use her healing abilities to save the life of their injured blacksmith. Over time, Liadan bonds with the men and begins to question her loyalties, all while falling in love with the Painted Man, and eventually finds herself in the midst of fulfilling an ancient prophecy that will drastically alter the fate of Sevenwaters.

Celtic mythology and folklore have a strong presence within the novel, such as the legends of the ancient races of the Túatha Dé Danann (the Fair Folk) and the Fomhóire (the Old Ones); both of whom guide Liadan throughout her odyssey of both mind and body. Also included are the ancient seasonal festivals, such as Samhaim, Imbolc and Beltaine, which—though Marillier’s extensive research—play their part in creating a fully realized cultural backdrop of the story at hand.

Similar to its predecessor, Son of the Shadows also touches upon the gender politics of ninth-century Ireland, such as the marriage market and the expectations placed on a wife to serve her husband. In particular, the tragic plight of Liadan’s sister Niamh—namely, her marriage to an abusive chieftain, arranged for the sake of military alliance—serves to poignantly represent the treatment of women as livestock during that era; a haunting subplot that leaves its mark on the reader’s consciousness, and provides some foreshadowing for the next installment of the Sevenwaters saga.

Once again, Marillier succeeds in concocting a thoroughly rewarding read with her skilled blend of history, fantasy and romance, and her fans should not be disappointed with Son of the Shadows. Chances are they will eagerly pick up the next book in the series soon after finishing this one.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to scientific studies that are revealed to have been miscalculated only in retrospect. Such is the true story behind Project Nim, an experiment that revealed the long-term consequences of exploiting a primate for research. A result of interviews and historical records collected by journalist Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is a tragic, funny and maddening story of misguided attempts at scientific advances resulting in animal cruelty, and a character study of a much loved yet much mistreated chimp.

Project Nim was an attempt on the part of Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the capacity for language belongs exclusively to humans. Taken from his mother at birth, Nim was placed in a human family in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and raised as one of the children, while taking lessons in American Sign Language. Yet as human as he was, it soon became clear that Nim’s feral nature could not be contained, and the experiment was subsequently deemed a failure. When Project Nim ended, the chimp was abandoned by the only family he knew, and rotated throughout various facilities, from a chimp breeding farm to a medical research lab. It was his signing ability—along with the fame he amassed as a result of the study—that would save his life.

Given that Project Nim took place during the 70s, the personal dramas of the people involved were influenced by the zeitgeist of the era: a time of increasing political activism, hippie culture, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. By detailing the cultural backdrop, Hess successfully provides some rhyme and reason to the uninformed and deplorable actions on the part of the researchers, from substance abuse and marital infidelities to punishing Nim with solitary confinement. Additionally, Hess always makes it clear that there are few clear-cut heroes and villains, and that their intentions, whether good or bad, have little bearing on the outcomes.

Hess characterizes Nim himself as not unlike a human child: mischievous, playful, unruly, and endearingly creative in his means of disobedience. But the professionals involved would eventually realize the hard way their own cardinal sin of anthropomorphizing a primate; a fact that became clear during attempts to socialize Nim with other chimpanzees after a lifetime spent with humans. What appears infuriatingly obvious to modern readers was not so to these seemingly intelligent psychologists and linguists whose actions are now considered not only despicable but completely foolish.

Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, Nim Chimpsky is a story that needs to be told; a cautionary tale of the treatment of animals as research subjects, and the unpleasant truth about the price of scientific discovery; as much a morality tale, and a fun, charming story, as it is an educational biography. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Gender is an intriguing sociological aspect of the lives of human beings; one that has been extensively studied, challenged and altered throughout history; and, in the case of Jeffrey Eugenides, explored through the medium of storytelling. Narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphroditic man of Greek descent—who lived the first fourteen years of his life as a girl named Calliope—Middlesex is the darkly comic and captivating story of a Greek-American family and their triumphs and failures in their pursuit of the American dream.

Calliope Stephanides, a second-generation American, grows up in suburban Grosse Point, Michigan within the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, a time of political turmoil, racial tensions, and the sexual revolution. As narrator, Cal—now an adult man living in Germany –traces his genetic history, starting with his Greek grandparents’ emigration from Turkey during the Greco-Turkish War, and the long-buried family secrets that ultimately lead to him being born intersex—a condition that would go unnoticed until his tumultuous teenage years; and a revelation which, during an adolescence beset with sexual confusion and experimentation, would mark the transition of Calliope’s transformation into Cal.

Throughout the novel, Cal interweaves various historical events with the concurrent storylines, starting with her grandparents fleeing Turkey during the Great Fire of Smyrna and travelling to America during Prohibition—a time during which his grandfather gets involved in bootlegging. The novel then moves forward in time to the courtship and marriage of Cal’s parents during the Vietnam War, and Calliope’s childhood during the Detroit Riot of 1967 and the Watergate scandal of the 70s. With these events serving as backdrops, the issue of gender politics is explored through the relationships of the Stephanides family, and the roles the men and women fulfill within the social and cultural context, as well as the closeted lesbianism of one of Cal’s distant cousins.

Allusions to Greek mythology have a strong presence throughout the novel, such as the symbolism of the Minotaur, the Greek beast that was half-man and half-bull; young Calliope’s identification with the Oracle of Delphi; and her role in her middle school’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone. In a sense, Middlesex also contains elements of Homer’s The Odyssey, as it tells of a family’s epic journey that spans cultures, continents, and times of great social upheaval, in addition to Cal’s coming-of-age journey, and his struggle to come to terms with his identity as a man.

Long story short, Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. The novel succeeds on many levels: as a family saga, a bildungsroman, an historical chronicle, and a modern-day Greek epic, with the occasional bit of mythology thrown in; simply put, an impressive accomplishment in the art of storytelling.