Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Last week I finished the book Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I really enjoyed this book and it had a lot to question as to what really is normal and what is freakish. There's two storylines being told, one that focuses on the Binewski Fabulon during its heyday and another several years in the future and it's all told from the perspective of one of the Binewski children, a hunchbacked dwarf named Oly. The basic premise is that a young couple, Al and Lil, are desperately trying to save Al's family business of a traveling carnival fabulon and decide to breed their own freakshow. Al devises complex medical regimens for Lil to follow in order to try and design children with specific deformities. Their dynamic, while twisted, was rather touching and almost sweet. To an outsider, parents condemning their children to a lifetime of physical deformity is the epitome of child abuse but within the exclusive Binewski clan it shows their extreme love. The children are aware that their father designed them an the greater the deformity the more precious (both personally and financially) the child was. To be a 'norm' was the greatest sin of all.
The characters of the family members were all very engaging and unique and even when they were being horribly despicable they still maintained a soft side. The rise of the Arturans was rather interesting to follow. The conjoined twins maintained separate personalities and how the issues of sexual maturity were dealt with were rather well done- while disturbing. Chick was really adorable but a sad character. And the main character, Oly, was a sympathetic and loveable character though she needed a slap occasionally.
The book was rather disturbing at times but I felt it wasn't over done and fit this freakish family quite well. While I loved most things about the Fabulon era storylines I wasn't so fond of the modern day ones that follow Oly many years later. I didn't think it served that clear of a purpose and I think the book would have been more engaging and rich if it had totally focused on the Fabulon years instead of switching back and forth.
I had a few other issues with the book that lessened the awesomeness of it. The end of the Fabulon times and what is really the climax of the novel was rushed and vague and should have had much more devoted to it, especially when other nonessential plot points got several pages. The was an awkward shift of tense right at the end which was unnecessary and confusing. I also generally just didn't like the ending. I gave this book a 4 out of 5 on goodreads.
I really liked this quote: "It is, I suppose, the common grief of children at having to protect their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Copenhagen Cruise

I have been such a horrible blogger (and student) and haven't kept up in posting. I went to Copenhagen last week and I haven't even written about it yet. A friend found a cheap coupon on Groupon for a two person cruise to Copenhagen from Oslo. We left Wednesday March 14th and spent the night on a cruise ship, and got seven hours in Copenhagen before having to return to the ship that evening and the boat docks back in Oslo the following morning at 9:30. Seven hours isn't a very long time to see a new city so there was a limited amount of things to do.
From the ship:

When we first got on the ship we wandered around the deck for a bit until it was past most of the islands in the fjord and then we escaped inside from the bitter wind. Checking out the duty-free we bought two of the cheapest bottles of red wine and some snacks. After drinking these (second one being opened by a knife-wielding Finn) and eating the makeshift sandwiches and salads we brought with us we decided to check out the ship's nightlife. Oh dear that was funny. I was easily the youngest person in the bar by several years. There was a live band playing and groups of drunk Norwegians dancing. There was a couple groups of people in their late thirties and then a bunch of older people who were probably on board for a business conference. I love watching older drunk people try and dance and flirt. It's hilarious. The drinks however weren't much cheaper than what you'd get in Oslo so we each bought a round and then headed to bed since we had to be up and off the boat around 9.

I was really interested in seeing Christiania, the autonomous commune where there is no private property and the main street called Pusher street is a hub of marijuana sales.
We arrived quite early on a dreary day and were the only tourists and it was very obvious to everyone there and got quite a few odd looks so we just walked down the main road and out again. Unfortunately they don't allow any pictures to be taken within Christiania because there was lots of really cool street art and graffiti. I would recommend going and taking a look around if you're in Copenhagen but I'd suggest not going before 12 as that seems to be the time they 'open' for tourists as I saw several signs for art exhibits and the like. I'd also suggest not wearing a big camera around your neck.
a painting outside the commune walls

We then tried to go to a museum that we heard had cool Viking weapons but they didn't open for another hour so we headed to the National Museum. The National Museum is awesomely free and has quite extensive exhibits from Danish prehistory through to the Middle Ages- we didn't go any further than that but they do have much much more. The problem with putting two Viking nerds in a museum while on a limited schedule is that we simply can't be rushed with certain things. We spent an hour longer than planned at that museum and I easily could have spent much more time in several rooms.
Some cool museum stuff:

horned god

OMG A MEDIEVAL BRICK! We found it so very ridiculous but awesome that they had a brick on display, like behind glass and everything. They also had several piles on open displays in another room. Why? I have no clue.

St. George killing a dragon.

a baby being impaled on a carved walrus tusk
golden reliquary designed to look like a stave church.


medieval calendar

demon slaying

the molestation of Jesus

more dragonslaying

fancy guns
You may notice none of these are Viking things, I frankly didn't take many pictures in that section. They didn't have anything particularly stunning or anything I hadn't seen before at the museums in Oslo. They do have substantial exhibits on silver hordes which are pretty cool but not particularly interesting for me to photograph.
After spending a couple hours in the museum we were both starving so we walked along one of the main streets to find a cheap restaurant to have lunch in. We found a small Italian place that was advertising a steak and potatoes lunch special for 98kr (approx $17) which is unthinkable by Oslo standards. The place was empty and we decided to have rather low expectations but were pleasantly surprised both by speed of food delivery and taste. My steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare with a tasty pepper sauce and yummy potatoes. Oddly my friend, who ordered the identical thing, got a well-done steak but it was edible. I don't know if it was just a difference between North American and European restaurants where the waitress/waiter visits several times during the meal but the waitress seemed very hesitant and kind of hovered a couple empty tables away before approaching to take our orders or remove the plates, and we had to find her to pay the bill.
It was then time for shopping. No not clothes shopping or anything boring like that but shopping for meat and booze. While by North American standards things in Denmark are pricey they're cheap as hell compared to Norwegian prices and it's especially good when the two currencies are at par as they are now.
Wooden dragons from the National museum guarding my meat and mead haul

Dragons love meat and mead
As well as the meat and mead I got a big bottle of rum, a giant Toblerone bar, a big box of Ferrero Rocher, and a package of After Eight from the duty-free on the ship. I will also make a small profit from selling the carton of cigarettes at double the price (but still cheaper than Norwegian prices) from what I paid.
So YAY Denmark! I'll be heading there again in April because there was another coupon that had tickets even cheaper (29kr a person so about $5). That time I plan on heading off alone and doing some touristy things. Can't wait. And that time I will be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring my glasses and contact case so I eliminate the only negative aspect from the trip.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Canticle for Leibowitz

Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.

This is a post-apocalyptic book centred around a Catholic monastery in the middle of a desert and the story is split into three parts approximately 600 years apart. Shortly after the 20th century warring countries fired numerous nuclear bombs at one another  at set off the Flame Deluge. The Simplification happens in response to this where the survivors first attack and execute the scientists and engineers who created the weapons and eventually turn on anyone who can read. The monastery is founded in order to preserve whatever remnants of written material remains even if they have no idea what it means so that civilization can be refounded once the people are ready for it. In the second part of the book learning is again appreciated and the story focuses on the struggles between the religious authorities and the secular scientists. The third part has civilization with advanced technology and space colonies but also atomic weapons once again.
I liked the cyclical nature of the text and that people don't ever really change. We're destined to continue destroying ourselves until there's nothing left. I thought this point was beautifully highlighted by the presence of the vultures.
Apart from enjoying the overall idea, I was highly disappointed with this novel. I had read lots of really good things about it and knew it had won several notable awards but I did not enjoy it for some reason. I didn't become attached to any of the characters and the pilgrim/Benjamin/Lazarus thing didn't make sense. I found the extensive use of Latin highly distracting and somewhat unrealistic. The thought that English didn't survive but Latin was used somewhat regularly is highly improbable. If the book was set in Italy I might accept it a little easier but this was in "Texarcana" a region I took to be Texas area. I'm pretty sure most Catholic priests in America are not fluent in Latin apart from memorizing select prayers and certainly not enough to for it to be a major language of communication. I just found it to be highly distracting.
My general apathy towards this book makes me give it a 2/5 and I'm glad I'm finished with it.
Certain parts of the novel reminded me of John Wyndham's The Chrysalids  but that was a book I highly enjoyed.

I did really like this quote though:
"The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they- this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness"