Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What I've Been Reading - February 2014

Earlier this month I had the specific displeasure of watching "Vampire Academy".  Weeks later I still remember that experience, mostly thanks to midnight terrors and the occasional emotional breakdown.  It was a bad movie.  A really bad movie.  Theoretically "Vampire Academy" was a Twilight teen fantasy, but instead was so much less:  mainly a hideous drive through slut shaming and various other high school nonsense.  Things so profoundly stupid that only a fifteen-year-old girl could possibly think they are important - also the reason why everybody uses fifteen-year-old girls as a base standard for moronism.

Anyway, at some point I felt it important to revisit my own high school experience.  Was I also a vapid bitch with no comprehension of or interest in other people beyond a slim validation of my ego?  When have I not been that?  More importantly, I discovered that I could barely remember high school at all.  I am fairly certain I went, I have a diploma, and at some point learned trigonometry, but the entire four years is a giant blur of discarded memories.  I had a few friends at the time, I think, I went to classes and had some truly excellent teachers, I had my first drink and kiss... But honestly, the whole four years was wasted time.  College was real living, high school was waiting for it to end.

Early on in Freshmen year I took one look at everything high school was and declared immediately that the entire thing was total bullshit and I would have nothing to do with it.  So rather than joining some tribe of nerds, geeks, jocks, or whatever cultures network TV sitcoms content that I am suppose to join, I did my homework quietly and read.  I had a book with me constantly, and if I was not in class, I was reading.  And sometimes if the class was poorly taught, I would read in class, and then get to sent to detention.  Which was pretty awesome since it was a nice peaceful hour where I could really focus on the text while the delinquents and future drop-outs around me nervously sneaked text messages.  Obviously high school fought back, I got my face punched in once to protect a paperback volume of Tolstoy.  But I ignored them and their punches, and kept on reading.  Then I graduated and went home.

Which leads me to the point of this post:  three great books that I read in high school that you should read now.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

"A Confederacy of Dunces" is a novel originally written decades before its 1980 release by a frustrated failed writer who committed suicide.  Reading the book though, one would never assume that John Kennedy Toole was a depressed failure.  Toole creates a vivid, fanciful picture of 1960s New Orleans, full of various wacky characters such as criminals, homosexuals, a stripper, senile old ladies, and the star, a massively fat pretentious man named Ignatius J. Reilly who is illustrated to the right being attacked by what appears to be an infant Chocobo.  You would expect a novel assigned to a high school class to be full of dreary depressed families slowing going mad - and that's basically a perfect description of my Junior Year English class' entire curriculum - however, there was one bright hilarious spot there, that was "A Confederacy of Dunces".

Ignatius J. Reilly is an ultra-conservative.  I mean, ultra-ultra-conservative.  Most Republican pundits dream of returning America to an idealistic land of purity and family values of the 1950s that never existed.  Ignatius grew up in that supposed idealism, and thinks it is a den of infamy and social decay.  He's not nostalgic for America's Good Old Days, he's nostalgic for the Early Middle Ages, fantasizing about starting a philosophical rebellion based upon the works of the scholar Boethius.  (Do not feel bad if you have not heard of Boethius, nobody has.)  However, what Ignatius really does most of his days is go to movies and heckle them for their moral failings and watch "Batman" on his mother's TV.  As a college graduate he's more of a freeloader than I am, completely delusional - at some point he considers starting his moralizing crusade using homosexuals as his base.  When he finally has to get a job, he fails entirely at it, growing only more fat by devouring every single hotdog in his cat.  Ignatius also has this metaphysical organ that he calls his "valve":  essentially viewing prophetic visions through his bowl movements and gas.

So basically he's me, only better read.  Well, that's a depressing realization.

Most of "A Confederacy of Dunces" involves Ignatius avoiding getting a job or wrecking havoc across all of the French Quarter.  Of course, through his ridiculous misadventures, he manages to sometimes actually pull off some near miracles, like foiling a criminal enterprise, and finding his alcoholic mother a new husband.  Even Ignatius manages to find love, in the form of a Jewish New York beatnik slut named Myra Minkoff, who is continues to obsess over and apparently is obsessed over in turn.  Even though Ignatius is a Quixotic believer in ancient Catholicism and Myra is a free love dirty hippie, apparently their ridiculous behavoir is made to disgust the other in what must be the most extended and bizarre mating display in all of literature.  Also the book ends with Ignatius getting attacked by a stripper's cockatoo, in caset you have not already bought it before reading the second paragraph.

"A Conferderacy of Dunces" is probably the silliest book you would ever find on a high school curriculum, which is a shame since most high schoolers will simply use CliffNotes or buy the notes off of the Asian girl who will become valedictorian.  So let us be superior beings and actually read this book.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Even today most World War II media will constantly blare in your face the almighty importance of America's mission to spread democracy and defeat Hitler for the good of all mankind.  "Catch-22" is not like that.  It has one message, and a simple one:  war is not glorious, it is not very important either, war is stupid.  Joseph Heller wrote "Catch-22" based upon a dramatization of his actual bomber experience in Italy.  He was not proudly announcing how he road into the evil in Paladin Armor on the back of a B-25, doing his part proudly for the Greatest Generation, he just wanted to go home.

The star of "Catch-22" is John Yossarian, a Yemeni Army Air Force captain who is considered insane by every other member of his bomber wing because he does not want to fly any more missions.  Unfortunately Yossarian cannot simply walk over to the local Doctor and announce he is insane to get sent home, because if he takes that step he is recognizing his own insanity, and thus proving himself sane.  This is according to a Bureaucratic order called 'Catch-22', whose meaning seems to change throughout the novel to various other contractions.  Basically 'Catch-22' means this:  you are fucked.  Those in powers will do whatever they want to you - such as constantly increasing the number of bomber missions you need to fly, until inevitably you're shot down over Italy for freedom.

"Catch-22"'s content is almost as anarchic as its order.  Joseph Heller essentially scrambled every single chapter, to the point that the story is very difficult to follow.  At first Yossarian will show up naked for receiving a medal, but you will not know why he got the medal.  The reason for the medal that Yossarian dropped his bomb payload early to avoid Axis anti-aircraft guns, and his ambitious colonel could either make himself look bad by court-marshing his captain, or make himself look good by having a hero pilot.  Why was Yossarian naked?  Because his uniform was covered in the blood of a recent recruit, Snowden*. 

Behind all the wackiness, such as a Major who only received his position because of a clerical error thanks to his name being "Major Major Major" (making him "Major Major Major Major"), and also Milo, the crooked entrepreneurial pilot who is making his fortune by such practices as buying all of Egyptian cotton in existence and hiring out his bomber wing to the Germans to bomb his own base, there is a severe amount of darkness.  Most named characters are killed, some are assumed dead and ignored by everybody else, and at least one soldier is a rapist who can get away with impunity thanks to Catch-22.  "Catch-22" is funny, but also mildly terrifying, almost a Kafka-esque nightmare of a universe that despises you.  And of course, where even insanity is not an option, because Catch-22.

Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships by Jonathan Swift

So my review of "Gulliver's Travels" is about three hundred years late, sue me.

"Gulliver's Travels" is a book everybody on the planet has at least heard of, but for whatever reason, only the first chapter is ever remembered.  It is the story of Lemuel Gulliver, an 18th century English explorer who takes four journeys to fantastic realms in the world.  These include Lilliput, a land of tiny LEGO-sized humans where Gulliver is giant, Brobdingnag, a land of giants where Gulliver is LEGO-sized, and um... Japan.  Weird that in 1726 Europeans viewed Japan with the same level of fantasy and amazement as they did completely imaginary places and giants, but that is history for you.

Jonathan Swift was never a man who took his world very seriously, you could view him as the 18th century literary Paul Verhoeven.  Much of "Gulliver's Travels" was a direct satire of the earlier "Robinson Caruso", which was a stirring tale of the human spirit overcoming the wild parts of the world.  "Gulliver's Travels" is more like the journal of a man slowly going mad.  Not because of the incredible things he sees ("Gulliver's Travels" might count as the very first fantasy novel), but because of his own weird world view, or lack of one.  Gulliver is all too willing to adopt the viewpoints of whatever civilization he last journeyed to.  He is worshiped by the Lilliputians, and so he worships the Brobdingnags.  He is considered wise by the Laputians, a race of scientists living on a floating island who like to drop rocks upon their less advanced neighbors, but also are incapable of inventing anything practical.  Then Gulliver visits the country of the Houyhnhnms, a land where horses are the masters and men are primitives known as 'Yahoos'.

The final journey is probably the most interesting to me, personally, which is why I'm always disappointed that every adaptation of "Gulliver's Travels" can only ever focus on the Lilliputians (the least of which being that godawful Jack Black movie from a few years ago).  The Yahoos are an attack on John Locke's prideful claims that mankind lived best in a State of Nature.  These creatures are depraved apes partaking in every vice imaginable and hording shiny stones of no apparent value.  The Houyhnhnms, however, are hardly much better, though Gulliver himself is happy to join their household.  They are arrogant creatures - whose name means in their language "perfection of nature" - who are considered the height of reason.  In fact, they have so much reason that they use an English concept of neutering pets as the perfect solution for the Yahoos, they will sterilize them all.  Gulliver, true to his 1700s English roots, does not even shudder at the prospect of genocide.  Their logic is so irrefutable that the Houyhnhnms expel Gulliver to return to England, where he has gone completely mad.  Gulliver ends the novel believing his fellow humans are little more than Yahoos, and spends his time in his stables, talking to his horses.

* No relation to Edward.


  1. A Confederacy of Dunces is the best book ever.

  2. Meanwhile, my high school English classes had me read such books as "The Scarlet Letter" and "Ethan Frome", two immeasurably dull stories wholly devoid of any likable characters.

    1. Yeah, we got to read those too. And yup, devoid of anything likable.

  3. ALL RIGHT, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS REVIEW!!!! Thanks Dad for having me read the whole book meticulously in seventh grade!
    But yeah, my senior year lit class had me watch the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver -- which, while deviating slightly from the book, turned out to be awesome.
    Also kinda weird concerning how the West saw Japan as eccentrically fantastical, when, judging by anime like Nobunaga the Fool, Sengoku Basara or the German-esque steampunky designs in Attack on Titan, the Japanese may see Western (and Eastern) culture in a similar light.
    Retrospectively, I think the Houyhnhnm adventure is the most appealing to my mindset, concerning mankind's hypocrisy of civilization vs. crudeness, and the sheer idea of sophisticated horses against feral humans.