8. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
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When I teach my Introduction to Literature class, we spend a day talking about narrators—First person, second person, third person; omniscient, limited, limited-omniscient; objective or subjective; reliable or unreliable. We talk about the possibilities that each type presents and the reasons that an author might tell a story using an objective, omniscient third person narrator versus a mentally unstable first person narrator. We don't really discuss what happens when a story has a dog for a narrator. But perhaps I should.
This was a book that was given to me for Christma by tsukitosh, and as I am stunningly ignorant about modern fiction with contemporary settings, I had no idea what it was about until I opened it and started reading. It becomes immediately apparent that our narrator is not a person, but a dog named Enzo who loves his human companion Denny with the devotion one would expect from a dog.
The book follows Denny's life as he marries, has a child, tries to make it as a race car driver, loses his wife, and struggles with his in-laws for custody of his daughter. It's a sad story, to be sure, but it's Enzo's voice and narration that really make it. He is wise in the way that outsiders looking in on human culture are wise, and while he loves people, idolizes them even, he perceives their weaknesses with startling clarity. Enzo wants to be human, and because of a documentary he saw on TV about a culture that believes that when dogs have lived enough lives as dogs, they are reborn as people, he believes that he is very close to being human. His keen observance, though, is coupled with his inability to express himself to the people around him, and he sometimes has to resort to some very dog-like behaviors. (I think one of my favorite scenes in the book is one where he purposefully eats a pepper he knows will make him sick and then poops all over Denny's horrid in-laws' expensive white carpet. Because they deserve it.)
But this isn't just a book about family drama… it's a book about the possibility of souls being connected to each other, about how the choices we make about work and family and dreams are important, and it's about racing cars. I've never watched a full race, but Garth Stein makes driving competitively sound like poetry and art rather than the metallic, soulless pursuit I've always thought it to be.
An insightful, sweet book for people who love dogs… or cars… or fascinating narrative voices.
9. Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson
I've read a lot of criticism of pop culture in my life, starting with the classic Amusing Ourselves to Death by Marshall McLuhan when I was in the eleventh grade for a research paper on the effects watching television has on children. When I started teaching composition, I started giving an in-class final about violence in popular media based on two essays about video game and comic book violence, and so I did a lot more thinking about that particular critique of pop culture. However, in the back of my mind, even as I read all of this very legitimate sounding criticism, I knew there was a disconnect between what I was reading and my experience with pop culture. I knew that Buffy and Firefly were incredibly, blazingly intelligent shows with stories and characters that demanded engagement, not passivity, from their viewers. I knew from my comic book junkie friends that comics were smart and complex and referential, and from hours spent with lynxgriffin playing Kingdom Hearts and various Final Fantasy games, I knew that in moderation, there is an incredible amount of satisfaction to be gained from figuring out the puzzles, and having the hand-eye coordination to make the right move at just the right time and beat the big boss.
Therefore, it was with great interest that I borrowed this book from ghettopeach. Johnson's basic premise is simple. As media (he focuses mostly on TV and video games) grows more complex and requires more of its users, it is actually making us smarter in ways that are difficult to measure. Most of the criticism of Johnson's work comes from the fact that this thesis is difficult to prove. He attempts to do so with the data available, but even he admits that it isn't sufficient to prove anything conclusively.
The value of this book, then, is in the rethinking of old criticisms of pop culture that expected new forms of media to conform to old definitions of what constituted valuable, thought-provoking entertainment. He points out that complex video games require the users to figure out how to "work the system," set priorities, and keep track of a myriad of different tasks with different levels of importance. If the stories in the games aren't up there with Tolstoy or Shakespeare… that's because the engagement that the games offer isn't entirely story-based. (Though I've always enjoyed the stories in the games I've played… trying to unravel exactly what is going on and who has whose heart at any moment in the Kingdom Hearts series is liable to give even the most seasoned follower of complex plots a headache.)
I was completely on board with his argument that television shows have gotten more complex and demanded more of their viewers as the medium has continued to evolve. For me, it went without saying that an episode of Arrested Development is a thousand times more complex and self-referential than an episode of The Brady Bunch. (And I watched a lot of Brady Bunch reruns on syndication on our local FOX channel when I was a kid…) I also think he's pretty dead on in his assessment of why shows are more complex: first, the internet lets people come together and discuss and dissect complex plot elements, and second, the TV on DVD phenomenon rewards shows that have high re-watch value. He argues that instead of airing the least objectionable programming, as networks did when audiences were only going to get to see a program once, so it didn't pay to even take a chance that they might be confused, networks now stand to gain from airing the "most repeatable programming" – shows that reveal new layers with each new viewing.
The thing I wasn't expecting to be sold on was reality TV. Now, Johnson doesn't argue that all reality TV is great, but he does argue that some reality TV shows encourage its viewers to hone social skills and figure out the "rules of the game" in a way that is active, not passive. I can't say he's wrong… I've done it. I've sat on the couch with Neko watching an America's Next Top Model marathon, and in between cracks about how bitchy the contestants are being, we're also trying to stay ahead of the game, debating who's going to get kicked off this week based on what we know about how the judges have worked in the past, and offering useless and unsolicited advice to the contestants about how to best work the unspoken rules of the game.
Johnson very clearly states that he's not out to convince parents to let their kids sit in front of the TV or game console all day, and those who think this is his argument aren't reading him carefully enough. I think a quote from his concluding chapter sums up what he's trying to argue quite well: "Yes, popular culture can be addictive and time-consuming; yes, you have to draw the line sometimes. [. . .] But you can't figure out where to draw the line if you don't have a working theory of the potential benefits. To plan a balanced diet, you need to know something about the nutrients in all the food groups, not just the ones that have tradition on their side."