Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cat's Cradle (1963)

Cat's Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five gets on all the High School reading lists, and it's certainly an important book full of insight into humanity's tendency towards tribalism, violence, cruelty, and self-deception. But I never wanted to read it a second time. I've probably read Cat's Cradle fifteen times, and it's always hilarious, cogent, and heartbreaking.

Vonnegut was a prolific writer who combined serious literature and science fiction with mass appeal. He spawned countless imitators, but none can match his cynical sadness as he cracks cosmic jokes to make life tolerable. Cat's Cradle is short, with short chapters — 127 chapters crammed into 300 pages, and each chapter is a brilliant nugget of economical prose in its own right. Put together, they add up to a brilliant, rambling tale of an unnamed protagonist and his growing entanglements with the bizarre children of one of the creators of the atomic bomb. The tenets and rituals of the Caribbean religion of Bokononism were my first exposure to a religion that I could really get behind (too bad it's fictional).

Read this book. Then read it again. Then give it to a friend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some Important Notes!

Metadiscussion #1
If you're going to use this blog to help solidify the foundation of your cultural literacy, I will occasionally provide some random tips or notes that aim to make your journey smoother.
  1. Go in Fresh. Don't read the back of a book before reading it, or the back of a movie's packaging before watching it. Don't watch a trailer for a movie within the week before you watch it. Don't read the wikipedia page for books or movies before you read or watch them, and avoid reviews too. Allow yourself, as much as possible, to experience these things without preconceived notions.
  2. Record your impressions. You can write in a diary, on your own blog, as a comment after a post on this blog, in an email, or on a napkin. It will get you into the habit of organizing your thoughts and presenting them clearly. It doesn't have to be an essay—it could just be notes for further discussion.
  3. Read other material afterwards. Only after you've had your own experience and impression should you go and read what others thought of the work. Hopefully this will prevent your experience from being tainted by prejudicial notions. After all, if you read that some movie is considered "the worst movie of the 90s," when you watch it you may subconsciously quash your positive reactions to it, and find more fault with it, in order to bring your opinion in line with conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is sometimes right! But try to learn to develop your own impressions.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

The Crying of Lot 49
by Thomas Pynchon

The shortest of Pynchon's novels is also his most accessible — but that doesn't mean it's all that accessible. I probably read this for the first time when I was 13, and I think I only really understood everything after I read it for the seventh time, in my mid-20s. Pynchon's writing is obscure, difficult, profane, hilarious, and haunting. On the surface, a story about a woman (Oedipa Maas) being appointed executor of the will of a rich ex-boyfriend (Pierce Inverarity) sounds like it could be the start of an interesting mystery. And it is. But what she uncovers is so satisfying in its implications that you might find yourself getting a tattoo of a certain symbol in the book. Few tattoos would announce your lit-nerd cred as loudly as the muted post horn. As my friend Nathan gave the tattoo to my ex-girlfriend Liz when they were in high school, he said "not very many people will know what this means, but the people who do will fall in love with you for having it."

But be prepared for some passages that are difficult to parse. Take the book one paragraph at a time. Or one sentence at a time. As for help if you get stuck — read difficult passages out loud with a friend until you get it. It's worth the effort.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Birds (1963)

The Birds
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It may seem silly at first to make a scary movie about birds, but Hitchcock was an intuitive master of the human unconscious, and he could have found the terrifying aspect of marshmallows if he had tried. The Birds draws you in with a story about some humans beings and slowly ratchets up the tension until the sleepy California coastal town of Bodega Bay is suddenly and comprehensively attacked by every local member of the class Aves. There is no explanation for why, and there isn't even a cluster of immoral behavior on the part of the people to justify their victimization.

Fun fact: There is no musical score for the film, but the bird sound effects were one of the first uses of electronic synthesizers in a major motion picture.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing..... (1996)

DJ Shadow

Pitchfork ranked it the #7 album of the 1990s. This sample-based album is the kind of thing you just have to put on in the background while you're doing something else, and you have to do it a lot. At first, you might find it annoying, or distracting, or repetitive, but eventually its haunting and spare arrangements will start to make a creepy kind of sense. You will find yourself craving certain passages from it, only to turn on your iTunes and realize that you have no idea where to find it among the tracks.