Thursday, February 28, 2013

#CBR5 Review #10 - The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman


Brief Lives is the 7th volume of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series of The Sandman, and while I am obviously already a fan of these books, this installment has struck me as my favorite to date. All the fantastical and bizarrely wonderful things from the previous episodes are strongly present, but there is also something more… something simple, human and remarkable. Here’s the deal:

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head throughout the entirety of reading a book? I have, and it was with this one. Whenever I picked it up and read a page, my brain started blasting, “Red! The color of Desire/ Black! The color of Despair” at me, over and over again. But in all honesty, that wasn’t really a bad thing. It actually makes a lot of sense, as this addition to The Sandman focuses heavily on the family of The Endless, two of which are the twin embodiments of Desire and Despair. (Oh, my dear brain, your mind-palace is far more organized than I ever realized.)

But although Desire and Despair play a part in this tale, the plot itself centers around the youngest of The Endless family, Delirium (formerly Delight), as she manages to convince a heartbroken Dream to go on a hunt for their lost brother, Destruction, who abandoned his realm 300 years earlier. Delirium wants to find Destruction because she misses him. Dream goes on the quest to get his mind off of his broken heart, and also to try and coax his brother back to his realm to once again perform his duties. Along the way, certain changes occur in the siblings, and people are lost on the way to finding Destruction, insinuating that maybe he doesn’t want to be found. Inevitably, in order to once again contact Destruction, Dream is forced to face a past he left behind, thousands of years earlier.

And despite having such a twisting and turning setting and course of action, the story itself can be boiled down to the most humanly relatable things: family, duty, the strength it takes to walk away, loss, regret, forgiveness, and --more than anything-- change. The changes that happen in the world around us that force us to change, or the changes in ourselves that make everything around us appear different.

The beauty of The Sandman is that even though the tales within appear to be bizarre and otherworldly on the surface, Neil Gaiman manages to root them in emotions that every one of us has --or will-- experience. Not only that, but the way in which these ideas are expressed is just beyond creative; Gaiman is in a league of his own. And in my opinion, Brief Lives knocks it out of the park even more so than any of the other installments of the series leading up to this point. Maybe it is the fact that every one of The Endless are featured in it (and let me tell you, they are probably the most interesting fictional family I’ve ever met), or maybe it is the smooth ease with which the story unravels. Either way, I adored this book, and hope to read the remaining 3 volumes of the series soon.

[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read 5 Group Blog for more reviews]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Trouble with Humans: Some Thoughts on Liking and Being Liked

I was thinking, and thinking can only lead to trouble as far as I'm concerned...:

The thing about humans is that we need to be liked. We crave attention and --typically-- all we want is positive attention. And what is wrong with wanting people to like you? It's a part of the natural selection of our species, and the pain of social rejection triggers the same regions in our brain as the areas triggered when we experience physical pain. Being disliked and excluded hurts; literally.

Yet at the same time, despite the fact that we need to be liked, we are so quick to dislike others around us. Have you ever found yourself just looking for a reason (any reason!) to hate someone? I have. And I think that's a part of being human too: we fight for resources like any other animal (albeit, slightly different ones), and as far as we are concerned, those not in our circles or who we consider "fit" enough (in a Darwinian sense) are our competition. But that seems like such a base idea regarding the human condition. Are we truly just like animals? Then again, are we really that different? Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he said that mice and dolphins are smarter than humans, and we just don't know it. We think we are the highest of mortal beings on this earth because of our minds and emotions, but haven't animals been able to show emotions and communication-- and even language, in some cases-- as well? Maybe our brains are wrongfully wired to believe in an intense superiority that isn't really there; who is anyone to say?

And getting back to what started all of this, I have one more thing to say about the need to be liked: 
As a human, I understand what it feels like to be disliked. I need to be liked, just as anyone else does. I also understand the need to dislike, and am quick to dislike those who do not fit what I (personally) would consider to be a "good" person. But I myself don't even fit this description, and so I often don't like myself. And I even find myself needing to be liked by those people who I myself dislike, because I feel it is better if they like me and I don't like them, rather than the other way around. Because that hurts too. It hurts like hell to like someone who won't like you back, and I'm not even talking in a strictly romantic sense, but in general. 

And once you experience a feeling of social alienation, or have the seed of doubt planted into your brain as to how anyone feels about you, it becomes a self-conscious gnat, constantly tearing away at you. How can you deal with that? How can we, as humans, think ourselves to be the be-all and end-all of intelligent minds when we let our brains become the ones to hurt themselves?

We are the most basic of animals, but also one of the greatest mysteries of the world. Sometimes I really want to know and understand, but I know that I just don't, and it's unclear if anyone ever will...
Like what we see to be the definition of a palace, our mind becomes a distorted labyrinth of everything we've ever known and ever will know.
The pieces can be put together into one picture, but it is never fully complete or clear.
(Photo of Sanssouci in Potsdam, Germany: taken and edited by me.)
(I think I used the word "like" about 500 times too-many in this post.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

#CBR5 Review #09: Richard II by William Shakespeare


Richard, Richard, Richard… What ever are we going to do with you?
No, this isn’t the one they found under the car park a few weeks ago, this is the one that came before all the Henrys. If I’m being honest with this one, while I do love my serious Shakespearean tales, his histories are not really my thing. The large amounts of (real) characters, almost all of which are Dukes or nobility of some sort always leave me confused as to who is who and who is on whose side. And I’m sorry to say that I found Richard II to be no different. After being a little confused as to how the whole thing went down, however, I decided to watch the BBC’s film version of the play with Ben Whishaw (as a part of their “Hollow Crown” series), and it definitely helped me understand not only what happened, but also what exactly was being said. And in this way, like some of Shakespeare’s other works, I found Richard II to be much more suited to viewing than reading.

Ben Whishaw as Richard II in BBC's "Hollow Crown" series.
(Just look at him... Gorgeous little thing)
The story itself follows the youthful King Richard II in the last two years of his reign, before his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, deposes him from his throne. The rebellion of Henry Bolingbroke stems from a banishment that both Henry and his father deem to be unfair and rash on the part of the King. Along the way, more and more people begin to turn on Richard as he is accused of wasting England’s money for the warring against rebels in Ireland. Richard finds his losses in allies to be disheartening, and is angered by the lack of respect he is receiving from both his family and noble peers. But to be honest, Richard is a bit of a drama-queen about it all, throwing hateful words about whenever he feels someone is not respecting his authority. In the end, tragedy does befall young Richard, though this can be seen as an inevitable end from the get-go, as those who show their flaws within serious Shakespearean works are often cleansed from the world.

What I find to be interesting within Richard II is the character changes throughout the course of the play. A simple statement from one side or another regarding the King or Bolingbroke can change loyalties in an instant. Words are the true weapons within this work, and the strict adherence to verse conveys the seriousness in every word spoken.

However, being that this is a historical work of Shakespeare’s, the usual, “he is a villainous character because I said he is,” or “she is angry because she is jealous” type of simplistic explanation as to a character’s motivations leaves me feeling like something is lacking. Usually it is okay to stray away from trying to understand characters within a context of psychological realism, but Richard, Henry, and all the other historical characters within the play were in fact real people. It is rumored now that Richard II may have had schizophrenia, leading to some of his rash and inconsistent actions within the last years of his life? But how exactly are we to know that for sure? In the play, Richard’s narcissistic tendencies are all too apparent, but are we to just say, “I understand that he acts this way because he is a narcissist” and have that be enough? This is why I personally have a bit of trouble with Shakespearean histories: I can’t seem to just accept that the character is simply what is being shown to me and nothing more, due to the fact that these were real people in real conflicts, not just some characters following a reused plot with masterfully new language.

In the end, I feel like reading Richard II is a great way to make personal interpretations as to what people’s feelings are of the King based on what they say, rather than what an actor has individually interpreted. That being said, however, the history itself is much easier to understand, and far less tedious to work through when you watch a stage or screen production of the drama. And trust me when I say that Ben Whishaw’s interpretation of Richard as an overly dramatic little shit is absolutely delightful. But is it accurate? Who is to say? I do find Shakespearean histories to be a bit tedious (Julius Caesar being the exception, but has a weird little place in my heart), and Richard II was no exception. I do feel like I need to stop being so harsh on good olde’ William though… 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

#CBR5 Review #08 - The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


(It's been a while since my last Cannonball 5 review, I know. Schoolwork hath slowed me down immensely, reminding me why I only signed up for a half-cannonball, and not a whole one this year. In any case, here we are at #08!)

As I sat on the bus the other day, thick in the midst of this novel, I heard a couple of first-year university students nattering behind me claim that they needed to read The Picture of Dorian Gray for their compulsory English class. “Oh hey! That’s what I’m reading too!” I thought gleefully, “They are in for a treat”. But then I heard it. I heard the disgust in their voices. “Man, that totally sucks. Just watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s basically the same thing.”

The face I made when I heard this… I only wish you could have seen it. Because no. No no no. Nothing about that abomination of a film relates back to this novel in any sense, especially thematically. And while the themes of the novel may seem simple in this day and age, they are still incredibly powerful and worth more than even all the not-terrible-but-not-great movies that have been made about Dorian Gray. Yeah, I saw the recent film adaptation with Colin Firth and Ben Barnes, so I sort of knew what the whole thing was about before I got into it. But trust me when I say that that does not take away from the experience of reading the book in the slightest. Sure, you may know some of the twists and turns, but it’s the language and ideas that really sell Oscar Wilde’s work (and the best medium through which that comes across is definitely in writing). But enough nattering! What’s it all about anyways? That is, if you aren’t familiar with the mythos of Dorian Gray already.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, we find a talented painter, Basil Hallward, producing a masterpiece of a portrait of his new muse, Dorian Gray. Dorian is described as a well to-do, absolutely beautiful young man, whose appearance only accentuates the untainted purity of his youth. Basil Howard’s sly friend, Lord Henry Wotton, on the other hand, has a bit of mischief on his mind. Henry is full of so many grandiose ideas about life and the pleasures to be found in it, and finds those who do not take up experiences to be boring. Well then, why not try and plant a seed in young Dorian’s pure little mind in order to get him to take up some novel experiences and make him truly interesting? Dorian Gray is profoundly influenced by Lord Henry and his many words, and begins to learn of the fragility of his youth and beauty, leading him into vanity. His vanity is particularly noticed when Dorian expresses a jealousy that his portrait will always be younger than he is from this point on, leading him to wish that he could stay young forever, and his gorgeous painting will be the one to bear his inevitable diminishment in form.

Well, I suppose this is a serious case of “be careful what you wish for,” as Dorian finds himself never growing older. But upon learning more and more from Lord Henry about the ways of the world and the experiences of all the world’s pleasures, his portrait starts to grow hideous with each nasty or salacious act that Dorian performs. Scandal begins to follow Dorian wherever he goes, and he becomes ever more like Lord Henry in his views of the world, yet with the slightest hint of cruelty and selfishness in everything he does. While Lord Henry may like to lead young men down an interesting path, he is not without a heart down deep, and does appear to care for people, regardless of what he may say to their faces.

All in all, The Picture of Dorian Gray paints a portrait of vanity, corruption, and the influence that others may have on our lives and personalities. These may appear to be simple ideas, but Oscar Wilde is extremely effective in presenting them, in that many of Dorian’s scandals, unthinkable acts, and “sins” are not directly laid out for us. In this way, readers can decide for themselves what a true mar of the soul is, leading the consumption of this work to feel like a more personal experience. Or, at least, this slight removal of specific explanations leaves the novel open for more individual connections to be made. How exactly all this “magic” with the portrait even started to happen is also left a bit vague: is it simply a case of wish fulfillment, or did Dorian full on sell his soul to the Devil in order to stay young forever? (I’ve been working my way through “Supernatural” lately, so my mind is inclined to go with the latter, but that’s not to say it’s the truth.)

As I mentioned earlier, one of the greatest strengths of Oscar Wilde’s writing is the beautiful language he employs. There is a smart flourish at every turn. If there is a problem with the novel, however, it also comes in the form of Wilde’s use of language; every now and again, after clipping along at a sensible pace, I found certain passages to just become bogged down with the stylish flaunting of words. Typically this comes in the form of Lord Henry going on and on in cryptic little epigrams about the way of the world, which become excessive at specifically two points in the novel. I just wanted to say, “Chill out for a second! We get it; you’re really clever and have all these pompous ideas about everything. Can’t we just get on with it already?” Once you get past that slight trudging, however, the seemingly straightforward story is breezy and stunning. At least, that’s how I felt about it.

Oh, and there is a little matter of characters sitting down: they are constantly described as “flinging” themselves into couches and chairs. That’s a bit overdramatic, don’t you think? I don’t know about you, but whenever I read that I picture a series of soap-opera stars hamming it up on set. I’m not really sure why, to be honest…

But to wrap this meandering review up, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a very enjoyable read, regardless of any preconceptions or knowledge I had of the story beforehand. Oscar Wilde’s style of writing may not be for everyone, but if you enjoy tales that are shiny and beautiful on the surface, with something darker lurking underneath, then I would definitely recommend taking this one in.