Sunday, September 26, 2010

Songs of the Humpback Whale

I'm still on my quest to read all of Jodi Picoult's novels. So, a couple of months ago when I was in my days of not blogging, I finished Songs of the Humpback Whale, Picoult's first novel. I wasn't as hooked into this one as a I have been to others, but it was still pretty interesting. I kept tuning in because I wanted to see what would happen, but I was not impressed with the ending (which I'm sure she hears a lot).

Songs of the Humpback Whale involves a woman named Jane who is unhappy with her marriage to her husband Oliver. Oliver is a renound scientist who specializes in whale studies, but he is obsessed with his work and travels a lot. He misses out on his life with his wife and teenage daughter, Rebecca. One day, after a fight escalates in their San Diego home, Rebecca slaps Oliver. She then flees with her daughter Rebecca with no place to go.

In the car, Rebecca (the seemingly stronger of the two) convinces her mom to run if she isn't happy. Why stay in a mediocre situation? They travel across the country, stopping here and there, as Oliver tries to follow them to track them down. Jane calls her brother Jolie who lives in Massachusetts and works on an apple orchard, and they decide that they will stay with him there until they figure out what to do. One of the stops that Jane and Rebecca take is to the site where Rebecca experienced a plane crash. This incident is referenced often. During this crash, Jane was also thinking of leaving Oliver, but the crash brought them together. However, Jane still wants to leave him years later.

Most of the novel is told from the orchard. Love blooms (not to use a ridiculous pun, but I'm already guilty). Jolie's boss Sam and Jane do not hit it off right away. They have that middle-school relationship where they are always bickering, but you can tell that they're flirting. They seem to pre-judge each other--Sam as the redneck idiot farm boy and Jane as the uptight California high class girl. As they spend more time together, these images slowly fade, and they fall in love.

On the other hand, Rebecca falls in love with an older boy on the farm named Hadley. Hadley respects Rebecca's innocence and does not push her into love. It just naturally unfolds, but they try to hide it for a little while. The odd thing about all of this is that Hadley, Sam, and Jolie are all roughly the same age. So when Hadley and Rebecca's interest comes out, fights ensue because Jane thinks Rebecca is too young to know what love is and Hadley is taking advantage of her daughter. Then Rebecca argues about her infidelity from her father, and they aren't on the best of terms.

Meanwhile, Oliver is in his quest of finding his family as he travels across the country. While in New England, as he tracks down Jolie's location, he saves a humpback whale which lands him a spot on the local news channel. He confesses his love to his wife on television, which they watch in the house, and this stirs up emotions among Jane and Sam. The next day, Oliver shows up at the house in the middle of the night. He finds Jane and Sam in bed and goes crazy, demanding that they leave for San Diego immediately. Jane tries to resist. When they try to locate Rebecca, they notice that she and Hadley are missing.

Sam and Oliver leave in Sam's pickup to find her, as they believe that they have run away to Hadley's mother's house. This upcoming scene is foreshadowed in earlier chapters. Hadley and Rebecca are found camping near a cliffside, and a fight escalates as Oliver is sort of insane at the idea of his daughter sleeping with this older man. He demands that they leave him immediately and end this now. As the fight escalates, Hadley accidentally slips and falls over the cliffside to his death. Rebecca is beside herself with grief and has caught pnemonia, so she must return back to the farm.

Because of these terrible circumstances, Jane decides to return to San Diego with her family to ail her wounded daughter. As the car pulls away, she looks at Sam and discusses that she feels that she will see him again. The novel ends on their travel back home.

I was so pissed off that Jane went back to Oliver. She wasn't happy with him, and she found new love, a person who would treat her well, and she ran back to her unhappy marriage. She loved life on that New England orchard, what a different new chapter to her life! However, I can see why it DID end this way because it seems what women might typically do, which gives it that realistic twist. However, I wanted Picoult to give Jane's character more, to make her dynamic and special. But, she is just like her name, a plain Jane. Nothing memorable.

I guess we're left to believe that someday, their love will reconnect. But I just feel bad for Sam. Now he knows what a wonderful love could have been, and it drove away. Now he goes back to his old life with tons of time to think about what he's missing. And, he has her brother around to help him think of it. Lame, lame, lame!

But, I did like how Picoult challenged couples that are far different in age. She showed both sides of the argument, as she normally does, and they both made sense. She showed the intricacies of a broken marriage. She showed the difficulties of understanding people from different backgrounds. When you break it down into these simplicities, the book covers some good topics for discussion. I just wasn't as on-the-edge-of-my-seat as I normally am with her stories.

As her first novel, I can see how it is her first as her other ones get stronger and stronger. I like how she continues to use the dual point of view system to see everyone's perspective. This novel jumped in time a little bit which made it a little more interesting. A lot of information was provided about whales which was kind of interesting extra information to get tied into. She also painted the person who connects more with animals than humans, and we do see that a lot in daily life.

The parallels and deeper connections with the whales can further be made within the actual story. Oliver spent his life listening to love songs of whales, and he had a hard time keeping his own love in tact. In the end, he sings his own love song to Jane (metaphorically) on the air for all to hear (similar to a whale broadcasting his love). It's funny that Oliver seems to be this expert, yet he's really not one at all in his own life.

This time of year would be a good one to read this novel, as it does connect with apple orchards, New England, and fall. If you enjoy Picoult's novels, then this one would be a good one to pick up as well. It's always good and interesting to check out that first, breakthrough novel and see progress or where it all began. At least I find that interesting.

So what do you think of Songs of the Humpback Whale?

The Stationary Bike

For whatever reason, I tend to read obscure Stephen King novellas, short stories, and novels instead of his more well-known choices like The Stand, It, Christine, The Shining, etc. The list goes on and on. However, I did get my hands on a novella of his called "Stationary Bike." The back of the book drew me in because it just seemed so different, so mysterious, so bizarre. I hand to find out what this was about.

"Stationary Bike" is about a man named Richard Sifkitz who goes to the doctor to check out his cholesterol levels. He discovers that they are too high, and his doctor tries to describe his high cholesterol levels with a metaphorical scenario of workmen clearing off junk foods on the roads of his arteries. Richard becomes obsessed with this idea, and it will be brought up later on.

So, Richard, an artist, buys a stationary bike in order to lose weight. He sets it up in his basement, and he actually uses it all the time. On the blank wall in front of him, Richard puts a map of the United States, imagining where he travels with every mile he pedals. As he continues to daydream on his bike, he decides to paint a mural of these metaphorical workmen that his doctor described to him. He pains four workmen clearing fat off of a road. However, the mural starts to come to life.

When he rides, he enters a trance where he actually enters his mural. When he sleeps, he dreams of the workmen. One of the workmen enters his dream which inspires him to paint his garage. However, when he paints the garage, he discovers that this workman has hung himself. Richard realizes how serious this is all getting, so he decides to dismantle the stationary bike.

Richard parallels drug addiction to his addiction to this stationary bike. He tries to make his addiction to riding it to be less than that of someone addicted to drugs. He ponders the idea of doing the drug or the addiction that "one last time," thinking that drug addicts say it all the time and don't mean it, but he is somehow stronger and really can do it one last time. In any event, his one last time is the most intense and really does become the last time.

He interacts with the workmen in the mural who are angry that Richard has led to the death of their friend. Since they've cleaned up all the fat in the streets, they no longer have work. Their lives are ruined. Richard tries to tell them that they are all imaginary, but their comebacks seem to make him think otherwise. He tries to take one of their hats with him almost as a test. He wonders if it was all a dream.

How it ends: Richard receives a hat in the mail that says LIPIDS on it, affirming that the mural, perhaps, was real.

Interesting huh? It read very quickly, and was very interesting as you wondered what was real and what wasn't. It was interesting to hear him parallel what constitutes addiction, and it may even coincide with King's own thoughts of addiction. I liked that the story was about such a solitary guy in his home and how even though it seemed so mundane, it became so outrageous. You can tell that King spends a lot of time at home to concoct such a story. It's not a bad thing--I spend a lot of time at home as well, and because of that, I could see where he could concoct a story like this. It's like he had a crazy daydream, or dream, and then put it down on paper. Who doesn't have odd daydreams like this one? It almost sounds inspired by some sort of drug or drink anyway. I wonder if the wall started to come to life man... Crazy.

People write about what they know, right? King knows about the darker side. He knows about life at home (it's the life of the writer). He knows about addiction. He must know about daydreams or imagination from the intense stories and novels he has concocted. And, he knows how it is to be an artist, even if it is a different kind of artist, he paints even more elaborate paintings with his words.

As always, I am impressed with King. He is definitely one of our great writers alive today and should be consistantly commended for his incredible imagination. I feel like more and more people try to repress the imagination, but I admire those who connect with it. This is one reason that I really respect this man. He continues to come up with stories that are so engaging to a wide audience. Now THAT is talent.

So what do you think of "Stationary Bike?"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Men at Work

Recently, I've been getting into some old-school 80s music, and it's surprising the hell out of me. I used to loathe the 80s even though I am a byproduct of it. But, I am coming to terms with the decade. Why not embrace it?

Well, Men at Work has caught my attention. There's just something about them that really makes me want to dance. And I hate dancing. But, on a similar parallel, the New Yorker published a poem called "Men at Work." Weird coincidence. So, here it is!

Men at Work

by Julie Bruck

I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
-"Down Under"

We middle-aged sense them immediately:
four brittle pop stars sprawled across
the rigid fiberglass chairs at the airport gate.
It's not just that they're Australian, that gorgeous
thunk of English, the stacked electric-guitar cases
draped with black leather jackets, on their deep
tans on this Sunday night in midwinter Toronto
that holds everyone's attention, drawn as we are,
pale filings into their pull. Even their rail-thin
lassitude attracts us, as it must Doug, the portly
Air Canada gate manager in his personalized jacket,
who arrives to greet the band, cranking hands
and cracking jokes. Doug, who must live in
Mississauga with the wife and a couple of kids,
and who insists the boys come back to play Toronto
next year, when we clutchers of boarding passes
will have abandoned our carry-ons for tickets
to a midsized arena and a ressurrected band
whose lyrics never did make sense but
which are laced to a beat that won't let go--
propelling us down the carpeted ramps
of late-night flights on feeder airlines, hips
back in charge of our strange young bodies,
now shaking down runways in rows.

I wonder if this was inspired by a true story that occurred to her in an airport or whether it was inspired by the song itself in which she invented this fictional story to paint the picture of how she sees this old band today. Yes, the lyrics aren't really memorable (more funny than deep), but the beat is killer! It does make me want to dance. I love how she constructs the sentences of her poem, carrying on for line after line--the emphasis drawn on the final word in each line. Excellent word choice. A story to hook you. Allusions to connect with. I love it!

What do you think of "Men at Work?"


Chuck Palahniuk, I believe, is one of the best writers alive today. Would I recommend to all people? No. Would I recommend him to most people? No. He has such a specific audience that it's hard to peg who would enjoy him. However, I think I fall under that small category that would.

Does a good writer have to appeal to a lot of people?

Not a bad question to ponder.

In terms of Palahniuk, he is just SO out there. He writes about content that might make you embarassed to be reading in public (as I feel). Certain scenes or subjects are either too extreme or gory or explicit, so it's borderline embarassing to give it the stamp of approval. He's certainly not someone to recommend to a high school student (for fear of parents getting angry). However, he is someone to recommend to another adult.

His writing, I find, is so intelligent. Rant is one example that shows how diverse and intelligent he is. The ending became so complicated that I had to reread sections to make sure I was understanding it. After completing research during my post-reading exercise that I do, I discovered that Rant is the first book in a trilogy. Imagine my excitement!

Rant has scenes that made me cringe as I read it. He is so descriptive that it's hard not to physically contort your face and continuously mold your countenance into ways that people near you might start to question what you're reading. But, I think this makes him both memorable and effective. His description of the rotten, dirty, poverty-stricken town just makes you uncomfortable when you read it. Normally, when people read, they like to be taken to a nice place to escape the one they currently live in. When you read this setting, you are transported to a place where you just feel downright icky. It's not something you want to escape to. It's somewhere you want to flee from. But, that really encapsulates what he's trying to get across. This is why Rant wants to leave.

What makes this book unique is that it's told by everyone that Rant encounters except for Rant (if you've read this, you know that this is slightly untrue, but I will not go into further detail as not to spoil it just yet). Rant is the main character. The first scene introduces Rant's father on an airplane. Rant is known throughout the country as this horrible, horrible person for starting a nationwide rabies epidemic, and he has just died. The interviewer asks Rant's father questions about him, and then we flash back in time to see who he was through everyone he knew.

The true title of the story is Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Rant's true name being Buster Casey. I thought it was so interesting to read a story through people's interpretations. You have to pick through what people say to see what is real instead of taking everyone's word for truth on face value. You read a range of people's interviews from friends to enemies, from teachers to parents. It's very cool to watch it all unfold while still following a plot.

Rant is such a deep, diverse character. Even though he seems to be portrayed as a villain (seemingly killing family members with spider bites and spreading rabies), he is very intelligent. He discovers valuable coins and spreads the wealth in his poor town. I think it's interesting to see how the town manipulates one another and how they spend the money. Rant also graduates early from high school because he brings up an adolescent male issue that the town just wants to get rid of. I don't want to tell more details; it could be inappropriate for some viewers. He makes deep comments where it shows that he's trying to live this life differently than others and experience all that he can (not a bad human trait). The reader is constantly conflicted with his villainous side and his admirable side.

He seems to have some superhuman qualities as well, which brings in the fantasy/sci fi twist towards the end. I will not give away the end. If you would like to see it, view Wikipedia's explanation of it. Rant has hightened senses--he can smell or taste something and tell much more than an average person could tell about it. When he kisses girls (and more) he can taste what they've eaten for days past. He leaves messages on eggs for his friends when he passes; he writes in wax on the eggs and in order to read the message, viewers must dunk the egg in some kind of ink to read the message. Interesting.

Throughout the novel, we travel all throughout Rant's life. We see his childhood. We see his adolescence. We see his transition from the small town to the big city where he becomes a Party Crasher. Once Rant arrives in the city, we see that it is a dystopian future where the world is divided into Daytimers and Nighttimers, two different classes. Daytimers, as it appears, are classier individuals who play by the rules, and Nighttimers are oppressed individuals looking for a wild, good time.

Of course, Rant is a Nighttimer. He is involved in a group called the Party Crashers who drive cars late at night with the purpose to crash them. Each night has a different theme. For example, one night may be Christmas, and cars well decorate themselves with trees on the top of them, lights around the sides, and someone dressed as Santa driving the car and elves as passengers. It is when Rant becomes a Party Crasher that he meets the woman he loves, Echo Lawrence, a physically deformed girl.

I will not spoil the ending in this entry, so read elsewhere for more!

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. If you like sci fi twists or dystopias, then you will like where the book goes. If you can stomach some hard core descriptions, then you can make it through the book. But seriously, it's really interesting and it's really entertaining. Give it a try, but if you don't like it, don't blame me!

So what do you think of Rant?