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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

Railroad reading by Sam M. '07

A Thursday evening book review that nobody really asked for.

Harrisburg Update: Yesterday, I biked 20 miles with Ben, see?

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I was trying to find myself but was unsuccessful. Then we went to Shawna’s house and played Guess Who with the extra rule that you couldn’t ask about anything tangible, you could only ask questions that required value judgments. “What socioeconomic class would you say your person belongs to?” “Do you think it would be viewed as strange if your person and Maria dated romantically?” “If you dipped your person’s head in liquid nitrogen so their hair froze exactly as it was, would you be able to roll it like a bowling ball?” It rocked.

Today Sam’s Mom and I went for cheesesteak at my favorite place downtown–it’s not exactly an authentic Philadelphia experience (which I had in June), but I never go to Philadelphia and I won’t eat Cheez Wiz anyway because of its association with food murderer Sandra Lee. So, good enough. Then I visited Dot, my across-the-street neighbor, and she gave me plenty of great recipes for Apple Bake, Burton-Conner’s annual culinary “competition” that Conner 2 always totally dominates. We don’t get Bravo at MIT, so this evening I watched Battle of the Network Reality Television Stars and Celebrity Poker Showdown, both of which featured Charla, the plucky midget from The Amazing Race 5, which made me ecstatic. Finally, I went to Allison’s and watched Sin City and as a result I can’t sleep for days so I figured, hey, what the heck, I might as well write a blog entry.

And then we went to humanforsale.com and found out that Allison was worth the most because she’s a girl and artistic. I was worth in the neighborhood of $1,680,000, for your reference. Make sure you have a popup blocker or, better yet, Firefox before you go.

Anyway, today I got a phone call today asking for a book recommendation–one that’s suitable for the beach, but also dark. Right. So I suggested Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. In this entry, I thought I’d prove to you that MIT students really do read by telling you what I thought of various books that I enjoyed, despised, or wholeheartedly attempted to read this summer.

Of course, I turned down a job as head literary critic for the New York Times to come to MIT, so I’m a total authority on all of this. Plus, I’m worth $1,680,000, so you know you can respect my opinion.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer) — His first novel, Everything is Illuminated, is my second-favorite book, with a sparkling, majestic portrayal of an imaginary shtetl, risky literary devices that actually succeed, and Alex’s unforgettable, guileless narration. So, I knew his second book would be a total letdown because I found the first so amazing. It’s about a boy whose father died in 9/11, so it’s a quite depressing read, although Foer does find several new (to me) ways of expressing grief, and there are a few amazing passages, including an elementary school staging of Hamlet and the firebombing of Dresden. My main complaint was that Everything Is Illuminated, though carefully constructed, never seemed that way because the writing was so natural. This time, I knew all of Foer’s old tricks, and his new ones weren’t so impressive–it often felt like Foer writing rather than Oskar Schell talking, which is something I could never say about Alex Perchov.

Portnoy’s Complaint (Philip Roth) — This is essential reading for every male in Western society, I think. I don’t think there’s any way that a female could possibly enjoy this book. Roth can really write, and I want to get acquainted with some of his less prurient works.

The Day of the Locust (Nathanael West) — This book is the origin of the name “Homer Simpson,” although I don’t see how Matt Groening used West’s character as a model, really. The novel was okay, but The Great Gatsby is basically the same book, only much better, and you’ve probably already read that one. West is generally an excellent writer, but I’d only recommend his Miss Lonelyhearts, about a newspaper columnist who keeps having creepy symbolic nightmares.

The Dream Life of Balso Snell (Nathanael West) — This is total crap. I read it because West only wrote four novellas and I’d read the other three. A guy crawls into the anus mirabilis of a wooden horse and then West just wrote whatever weird ideas popped into his head. It’s only sixty pages long, but each page you read subtracts one day from your life. There is one interesting thing–a sect of Christianity that worships a flea that lodged itself in baby Jesus’s skin. There, I saved you the trouble.

Animal Farm (George Orwell) — This was $2.50 at the Harvard Bookstore used, so I figured I’d pick it up. I took it on an eight-hour train ride back home without realizing it only takes two hours to read. It’s enjoyable and well-written (in the style of a children’s book), and thematically important enough that everybody should probably read it on some rainy afternoon or bus trip.

Snow in August (Pete Hammill) — I started this one during a particularly hot week in Boston; it was kind of like wishful thinking on my part. This one’s a pretty good realistic portrayal of a poor boy growing up with his mother in New York. However, I find it hard to take seriously any book that includes a fart joke, even if it’s made by lovable Rabbi Judah Hirsch (named after the Taxi actor?). Also, I found the last fifty pages horrible and offensive on a basic moral level, but you might love them.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) — This might be my third-favorite book now; it’s terribly long and compendious in its description of Vietnam-Era Gravesend, New Hampshire, but Irving’s writing is so conversational and flowing that I barely noticed the length. Owen Meany is one of the least forgettable characters I’ve ever encountered, and there was one passage so powerful that I was afraid to turn a page for five minutes. Heck, it begins with a foul ball accidentally killing the narrator’s mother at a little league game–that alone is worth the price of admission.

Light in August (William Faulkner) — I’ve liked all the short stories of Faulkner’s I’ve read, so I thought I’d give this one a shot. It’s good and not as difficult to read as most modernism, but it’s the most sweltering book I’ve ever read–everything is about shoveling sawdust and smoking cigarettes and being dirty and sweaty in the middle of the summer in Mississippi. When it got to be 90 degrees in Boston, I just couldn’t take art imitating life any more, so I stopped a quarter of the way through. I’ll try to pick it up again in IAP.

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) — I’ve actually never seen the movie, and I was glad that I had no basis of comparison. There are a lot of powerful passages in here, either in terms of deep paranoia or ultraviolence. I found it sometimes hard to read, because a lot of bad Xanga entries have ripped off Palahniuk’s short, choppy, violent style. However, I assume the Xanga writers have imitated Palahniuk rather than the other way around, so, even though I really, really hate one-sentence paragraphs, I’ll semi-enthusiastically recommend this one.

Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre) — It’s about a school shooting and reality television. Take from that what you will. Vernon isn’t the most likable narrator ever, which started to turn me off about a third of the way through. However, he complains less and does more interesting stuff as the book goes on, and winds up in the most satisfying ending I’ve encountered since The Shawshank Redemption. A great book, almost worth it just for Pierre’s mixed metaphors describing the smells and squalor of small-town life in Texas.

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) — This is Ruth’s favorite book, I think, so she lent it to me. I’m not quite done yet, but I think I’m through all the important parts. The writing style and technological references are a little dated, but the ideas and themes aren’t at all. It’s longer and somewhat more ponderous than Animal Farm and 1984, but it definitely had a lot more of an impact on the way I view our society than either of those did.

Well, I’ve done a lot better than last summer, when all I got through was West’s other two novellas. Anyway, I’m headed to the beach next week, and I’ve got three books for that–The World According to Garp (John Irving), Cosmopolis (Don DeLillo), and Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond). I’ve started on the last one and I’m really excited about it; I’ve always had an interest in the evolution of humans from monkey to Mozart (I did my AP Bio research paper on hominid bipedalism), and Diamond seems to be a pretty fair and well-researched writer.

Today I talked to Allison’s Dad and I found out that when he went to the beach, he read a bunch of mystery novels from the 1980’s starring Eleanor Roosevelt as the detective. However, they’re apparently out of print and available only on certain online auction sites. Otherwise, I’d totally be there.

I was going to link to all of the books above, but I feel like a certain internet book seller doesn’t need any more hits from my blog readers. Plus, it’s already been advertised extensively by another mitblogger. Anyway, I have confidence that you guys are competent enough to seek out these books if you’re really interested.

Unless you go to MIT, in which case you don’t know how to read.

7 responses to “Railroad reading”

  1. Laura says:

    I loved Animal Farm- we read it for English class in the same unit as Brave New World, which I didn’t really like at all. It was really interesting but I just…eh.

    I want to read Fight Club, but I have seen the movie, so that’ll probably suck.

  2. Bryan says:

    I wonder who mitblogger could be.

    I’m glad you enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meany. I read it senior year of high school and I got to make a Guess Who game as my final presentation. It was awesome.

  3. Mariya says:

    Incoming freshman!

    I’ve never commented on this blog before, but I must now:

    I am a female and I loved Portnoy’s Complaint. So there.

    I don’t feel qualified to write a book-review-like summary of why I liked it, but I did. It was funny and it was… accurate… painfully so, and pertaining to things that don’t only apply to little boys.

  4. Eric says:

    This is my worth: $1,990,854 exactly. Didn’t think I’d be worth so much.

    Animal Farm’s a cool book. I still remember that quote – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” What an irony.

  5. Mitra says:

    I just finished “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth. You must read it so we can discuss.

    (Yesterday, Spencer spent 4 hours on a bench with his 14.03 textbook and read 15 pages. I’m not kidding.)

  6. Jessie says:

    Personally, I preferred 1984 to Brave New World, because I thought George Orwell “got more things right” than Aldous Huxley about what can lead to what and the direction the world was going. Though I was fascinated by Huxley’s Alphas, Betas, etc. – you know they actually used to use such a system in the military?

    I liked Fight Club, but I’ve never read any bad (or good) Xanga entries.

  7. Ruth says:

    $1,880,718

    I just finished Vernon God Little, and it’s really good. The writings a little dense, but it’s all awesome analogies and imagery that are with the extra effort, and efforts must occassionally be made to read it away from loud people. But great!