Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein

This is the last Heinlein I will ever read. God, it was awful. It’s everything that I stopped reading science fiction for. Two people, a man and a woman, who both kill people indiscriminately, fall in love with each other and have to find a way to be together in a world where everyone walks around naked and screws at the drop of a hat. I know, I know, that’s the point. It takes place so far in the future and among people not raised in our culture that different viewpoints on such traditional subjects as sexuality and monogamy have evolved and now hold sway. OK. That’s fair, but how about writing a story someone can follow? How about making one thing connect to the next in a way that tells a story? Or is that what’s being deconstructed, too? Whatever. Sometimes you deconstruct too much and what you wind up with is meaningless crap.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The new audiobook is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Not sure what possessed me to get this one. Fifty bucks and twenty-four cassettes. I hope I like it because I’m going to be listening to it for some time to come. So far there’s this guy, Ablomski (it’s Russian literature and I’m only listening to it; I’m going to get all the names wrong), who’s had an affair on his wife with their children’s governess, and his friend, Levin, who’s come in from out of town to propose to Ablomski’s wife’s sister. Anna Somebody is coming to visit, but it’s not Anna Karenina. At least not yet. I get the sense that this Anna will become Anna Karenina when he marries another character named Karenin. We’ll see. The writing is good and in a style that isn’t used much any more. We spend some time inside Ablomski’s head and his sensual-seeking, upper class, unredeeming state of mind is on full display.

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Levin went ice skating with the woman he intends to propose to—her name is Kitty—and although he was filled with love, he had too much self doubt to pop the question. Then he went out to dinner with his friend Ablonski (I think it’s Ablonski, not Ablomski, now) and Ablonski told him that he thought Kitty would agree to marry him, but only if he hurried up and asked her. Levin has just returned to Moscow after a few years in the country and while he was gone a rival had appeared on Kitty’s horizon. This news both encourages and frightens Levin.

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Levin proposed in a clumsy fashion to Kitty and, although Kitty’s heart was momentarily filled with joy at receiving a proposal, she realized that she truly loved Vronsky and so turned Levin down. Vronsky himself then makes an appearance, along with Kitty’s mother who openly favors Vronsky over Levin for her daughter’s nuptials. Kitty’s father favors Levin, and he comes in as well.

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Not sure I’m going to make it through all 24 tapes of Anna Karenina. Much has happened since last time I wrote, but I’m not sure I remember much of it. Anna Something is Anna Karenina. The Something was evidently her middle name or the feminized version of her father’s name or whatever crazy thing those nutty Russians do. Vronsky has fallen for her but she’s married to a famous guy and has fled back to Petersburg but Vronsky has followed her. Levin has gone back to live in the country. Ablonski and his wife have reconciled, but Ablonski’s eye is starting to wander again. Kitty has gotten sick and she and her family are planning to go abroad to help her recover. The current action is taking place in Petersburg with Anna and Vronsky and the social circles in which they move. Anna finds herself drifting from one circle to another since her return from Moscow, the modern and bohemian suddenly more attractive that the traditional and stodgy. One thing I do like about the novel is the way the characters lead their separate lives but are all interconnected through love, friendship and/or family relation. It makes me realize how much drama there is in the day-to-day reality of people and their relationships.

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Lenin and Ablonski argued over Ablonski selling a forest he owned to another guy for what Lenin thought was well below its value. The argument included different perspectives on what it means to be an aristocrat and what it means to be working class, and I could tell that Tolstoy was making commentary on Russian society. I couldn’t tell what the commentary meant—just like I can never tell what the social commentary means in Russian literature (except for the scene in Crime and Punishment with the old man whipping his lame horse to death; I know what that social commentary meant but only because I read the Cliff Notes)—but I could tell commentary was being made. Vronsky and Anna have begun an affair and Anna has just told Vronsky that she is pregnant.

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Long passages in Anna Karenina about Levin and his laborers working in the fields, mowing the grass and bailing the hay. Levin’s half brother has come to the country to stay with Levin, and they have opposite perspectives on the country. To Levin, it is a place free of the corruption of the city, where work can both fortify the body and heal the soul. To the brother, it is a place to relax and do as little as possible. Again, the social commentary is fairly obvious, especially when Levin and his brother get into an argument over some of the social reforms that the brother supports and Levin opposes. Ablonski also wrote and asked Levin to visit his wife Dolly and their country house, where she is staying with the children for the summer. Levin agrees, only to find out after he arrives that Kitty will also be visiting there.

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Levin is so enamored with the pastoral way of life led by his peasants that he decides to adopt it wholly for himself, but then goes to visit Kitty and is smitten again with her and the “civilized” circles in which she moves. The triangle between Anna, her husband and Vronsky gets more complicated as Vronsky decides that since she is carrying his baby Anna has to leave her husband and pledge her life to him. Karenin decides that he won’t let Anna go because to do so would make her happy and publicly bring scandal down upon his good name, and Anna waffles helplessly in between. The character study is quite well done, with each set of thoughts and motivations being presented and explained in turn. Tolstoy does a good job making each character’s position seem logical and true given what information they have, but ultimately, each is limited not only by the partial vision each have of the situation, but also by the acts of the other two on which their considerations are only a reaction.

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Finally finished this audiobook. I did not enjoy it. It was probably a mistake to begin trying to log this one on a day-to-day basis. My god. So much going on. So many characters. No clues as to which ones really matter. Maybe that was the point?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Booknotes: Stories from American History by Brian Lamb

Interesting, but at first disappointing because each chapter is obviously only a slightly embellished transcript of one of the Booknotes interviews. The info is good, but the delivery depends on the speaking style of the historian. Some are good. Some are really bad. But it did pique my interest enough to add books on Charles Lindbergh, Robert E. Lee on Leadership, Women of the Slaveholding South in the Civil War, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the Western Impact on the Middle East, and Al Smith to my reading list.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

So I read this book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell or something. It was the first selection in an online book club I got exposed to at work. It’s work-related so I don’t think I’m going to specifically track it here, but I did have a personal reaction that I would like to mention. The book is about the snap judgments we all make in the blink of an eye and about how some of them are amazingly accurate, about how some are downright wrong, and the physiological and observable differences between the two. One chapter is about cops, and about how they are trained to avoid stressful situations, because a highly-stressed state of mind is one of those physiological conditions which make our snap judgments go bad. It made me think of a novel I would like to write. Something about cops and their “good guy/bad guy” view of the world and how it leads to more not less confrontation and violence.

Blink talks about how police departments across the country are eliminating the option of chasing suspects who run, not because it’s dangerous to civilians (which, if in cars, it is) but because it produces a hyper-stressed state in the police officers and destroys their ability to make good snap judgments. That’s why so many chases end in gunplay. He was going for his gun. I swear he was.

Blink tells one story about a cop who chased someone who ran, and when he finally got them to pull over, he broke every regulation about how to approach a suspicious person on a traffic stop and wound up killing the driver, convinced he was pulling a gun on him. Look, he complained during the investigation, being a cop is hard. I put my life on the line every night and I couldn’t take the chance and let the guy pull his gun on me. It was either him or me. Which, Blink points out, is all bullshit, because the cop used poor judgment and violated procedure to put himself in that situation. If he had shone his high beams on the suspect’s mirrors, kept himself behind the driver’s left shoulder with the car’s door post always between them, and shone his flashlight on the suspect’s hands—all as he had been trained to do—he never would have “seen” a gun (there wasn’t one) and never would have shot the suspect.

At the same time, the cop’s actions were not part of some racist attitude, even though he was white and the suspect in question was black, so that usual refrain is also faulty. His snap judgment that the suspect had a gun was based partially on his perception of him as a black man and the stereotypical associations our culture has pummeled into him his whole life, but no more or less than any other white person in the society. His action was not a result of his individual racism, but more of a cultural racism, and in his highly-stressed condition and in the milliseconds he had to make the decision, he could no more control his ingrained associations than he could control his heart rate.

This is the story I want to write. The cop, steeped in his “bad guy out to get me” view of the world and the victim, in the wrong but not deserving to be killed, moving slowly towards each other until they collide in this three second encounter that leaves one of them dead and the other forever changed.