Monday, January 23, 2012

Machine Man

Max Barry

A friend mentioned this book and it sounded interesting enough to me to remember to go to Amazon and one click it to my Kindle.  I’m not sure of the genre it might be science fiction sort of, but it’s set in what feels like the present, there are no flying cars. I think of it as dark humor, a twisted Michael Crichton novel perhaps.
Barry explores the soulless military industrial complex and the mind of a brilliant engineer/scientist with no life aside from his employment with a large high tech company.  Due to an accident in the lab, caused by distraction over his misplaced phone, Charlie the protagonist loses a limb. While in the hospital he falls in love for the first time ever with the physical therapist that’s helping him to learn to use his prosthesis. 

Being brilliant and unsatisfied with his prosthesis, Charlie, unauthorized and ignoring all other duties at work makes himself a better leg.  Soon he becomes acutely aware of the deficiencies of his other limb and makes a decision.  His second trip to the hospital is not well received by the hospital staff but by this time his employers see the value Charlie may bring to their military products.  The cold hand of corporate personhood becomes more involved while Charlie struggles between reinventing himself and seeking affection. Some of the human parts of the corporate body suffer the consequences of their determination to exploit Charlie as does Charlie’s love interest.

But it doesn’t end all that well, Charlie’s girlfriend survives but Charlie finds himself somewhat reduced. 

I was entertained and given cause to speculate on how far away some of things imagined in this novel actually are. 

This, the first guest review on I'll Never Forget The Day I Read A Book, was written by Mark Bjorke. Mark is the older, wiser brother of this blog's publisher.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Just Kids

Patti Smith

Celebrity autobiographies are an iffy proposition. This one grabs your with the first sentence and never lets go. No wonder it won a National Book Award.

Patti Smith arrived in New York on a Trailways bus with only a few dollars in her pocket and an old address of some friends she hoped to stay with. Instead she found Robert Mapplethorpe, then an unknown young aspiring artist. Together they worked their way up from homelessness to fame, or at least noteriety, and relative affluence.

You may recognize Robert Mapplethorpe's name. He was the artist who's work was used as an justification for an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, led by then House Speaker and now Presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich. Mapplethorpe never received any NEA money. The controversy over an exhibition of his work that resulted in cuts to the NEA budget erupted about four months after Mapplethorpe's death.

Mapplethorpe's photographs were a deliberate attempt to make pornography an art form. His awakening to his own homosexuality, as well as the development of his artistic vision are central to this book.The opening chapter, as well as the end of the book deal with Mapplethorpe's death from AIDS. Smith does not attempt to gloss over or sugar coat his, or her own, participation in the sexual revolution that took place in the 1970's, or it's consequences. I'm sort of glad that I was so clueless that I missed the whole thing. You may want to have a serious conversation with your middle school age child before giving her this book to read.

Patti Smith came to New York believing that she was an artist, or maybe a poet. It was only through a series of accidents that she came to realize that she could be a rock star. Her musical debut occurred when she brought her friend, Lenny Kaye, along to play guitar at one of her poetry readings. She continues to produce drawings and publish poetry along side her musical career.

Smith and Mapplethorpe lived together in a room at the Chelsey Hotel in New York for a couple of years. At the Chelsey they met such people as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and saw Salvadore Dali stroll through the lobby. Many opportunities came to them through their association with the Chelsey.

Just Kids is not a "how I became a rock star" pot boiler. Smith's attention is very much on Mapplethorpe and the intense, if odd, relationship she had with him. Her premise is that the growth of his art, and hers, came directly out of this relationship. I get the impression that she feels it was worth the price of admission.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Leftovers

Tom Perotta

My cousin, DeAne, who teaches at St Olaf and writes interesting things here, suggested that I read The Leftovers. I guess I should assure you right away that this is not a book about the contents of someone's refrigerator on the day after Thanksgiving. You must be thinking of a John McPhee book.

Something has gone wrong with the Rapture. One day, shortly before the story begins, people all over the world, some small but significant part of the population, simply disappeared. The problem is that it appears that this was a random sampling of humanity. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, posibly even a few Unitarians, all were among those that departed. They were not all pillars of the community, some were philandering husbands, others were small children. Nothing makes sense.

One character in the novel, a former minister, who believe he should have been first in line for the Rapture, publishes a scurrilous newsletter, exposing the sins and the foibles of those who went. He is trying to prove that the departure was not, in fact, the Rapture.

Several cults have arisen, members of one, The Watchers, follow people around, wearing all white, not speaking, and try to remind their victims, as if they could forget, that they have been left behind. Another paint bulls-eyes on their foreheads and party like there is no tomorrow.

I am not surprised by Perrotta's inexplicable rapture event. I was taught that we mortals should not expect to understand God's plan. If there were to be a Rapture I would expect it to be inexplicable. This, to me, is just another way to say it would indeed be random. One can not explain the reason for a random event.

The people in The Leftovers are like the survivors of a disaster. Everyone has lost friends and family members in a single world wide event. One one level is a very naturalistic book about the way we deal with grief. Most of the characters in the book are residents of the fictional town of Mapleton and they carry on with their daily lives despite the unexplained disappearance of many of their fellow townspeople.

The rise of these various cults is a second theme in the book, again, excluding the root cause of their rise, it is a realistic seeming look at how cults arise. "Holy Wayne" is a man who tries to help people by offering to take their pain, by giving them hugs. He gives only momentary relief to any individual, yet a cult of personality forms around him until, like Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He finds himself living in a compound in Idaho with armed security patrolling the property and a harem of underage "spiritual wives."Incidentally, I'm sure that Tom Perrotta didn't realize that he gave "Holy Wayne" the same name as the former Congressman from the first district of Maryland, the honorable Wayne Gilchrest.

I won' give away the ending - it is either a surprise which brings all of the themes together in a sudden and satisfying way (my view) or a cute but cynical cop out. See for yourself. Just don't read the last page first.