Saturday, September 6, 2014

Influential Books

There's been some kind of meme going around with the following theme:  In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes, and don't think too hard about it. They don't have to be the "right" books, or great works for intellectuals, just ones that affected you in some way.  As chain letters go, you could hardly do worse.

After looking back over my list, they're all stories that deal with alienation in some way.  Comprehensive notes for the stories are as follows:

1. The young adult books of Gordon Kormon

The Canadian writer got his start with the troublemaking duo Bruno and Boots at MacDonald Hall boarding school, long before Harry Potter made such administrations seem appealing.  Interestingly enough, I wasn't a big fan of his works at first, but that was because I was in a small classroom with other orally deaf students, and the teacher made us read The War with Mr. Wizzle in a slow and methodical manner, making sure that we understood the material, effectively cutting off the joy of quickly reading and absorbing the story naturally.
She was technologically sound, but it really wasn't to my taste.  Oftentimes, her teaching methods and my learning ability were at odds with each other.

Since my only consensus in doing a book report was to hit all the checkmarks of what was required (what I liked, what I disliked, what the story was about), I hardly paid attention to the little details that were part and parcel of the story, such as what the book was about.  If I'd had a more concrete example to work from instead of having to rely on my internal critic, my reports would've been more organic and fluid instead of static.  As such, I wasn't able to really enjoy Gordon Kormon's stuff until later, far away from the prying eyes of literary critics whose only modus operandi is to overanalyze the text to the point of removing all joy from reading.  Of course, it's doubtful I would've been able to accurately give specific reviews to my teacher's liking, since I had (and still do) have a tendency to remain maddeningly vague and elusive about certain plot details out of an irrational fear for not spoiling the story for anyone who isn't already intimately aware of the details.  It's why I only look up reviews of comics, books and movies after I've already become acquainted with the subjects in question, so I can have my opinion verified, and even get an alternate look if my POV doesn't match the majority opinion.

Ironically, many of the technological concerns that were present in The War with Mr. Wizzle, such as having a computer rely for printout of data, or limited number of letters for names are charmingly anachronistic and outdated today.  These were modified to incompatible technology in later updated reprintings.

But it was Gordon Korman's attempt at youth literature aimed at an older audience that I consider among his strongest works, such as Don't Care High, an apathetic school rediscovering its long-forgotten school spirit, Son of Interflux, a rivalry between the businessman of a successful company of useless (yet essential items) and his artist wannabe son, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, an unlucky student fastidiously scheming to get an all-paid vacation to a Greek island of reputed luck, and my personal favorite, Losing Joe's Place, the madcap adventures of a guy and his two friends doing everything they can to keep his brother's apartment from leasing over Summer Vacation.  Don't Care High is actually the weakest of his attempts, but still got marks for the portrayal of the future School President Mike Otis.  Chosen completely at random, the boy is someone who speaks in monosyllables, never changes his outfit of a plastic pink raincoat with diaper pins regardless of weather, and drives a modified fancy car that doesn't exist on the market.  His most frequent saying to anything is "There are a lot of things at this school I don't understand."  Needless to say, I identified greatly with him, even though he hardly ever did anything.

2. The Wave by Todd Strasser

A true story about how a teacher's attempt to make his class more efficient wound up implicating a cult mentality throughout the school that bordered on frightening.  I later found out it was the novelization of a movie that was originally intended to be an After School Special back when they weren't just regulated to preachy moralistic shows,

The story was powerful enough to be remade into a German movie, which compressed the events into a week, which some critics expressed disbelief that a school would fall victim to fascism so quickly.  Interestingly enough, the events that inspired the book and movie actually occurred over the course of five days, which goes to show that truth is stranger than fiction.

It showed me how people were successible to peer pressure, and got me interested in cult mentality, such as Moonwebs.  I figured at least *I* would be immune, since such cults would require constant intervention from people, constantly exposing new ideas without time to develop or explain them, and I'd need time to process everything I was being told, and make sure I understood everything clearly, which would require constant repetition.

However, despite not falling prey to peer pressure, I still fell for propaganda of an unintentional source.  When I watched Transformers (sans close-captioning) at a friend's house, which aired the Jetfire episode, where a strong transforming robot put up a good fight before deciding to switch teams, and winds up sacrifing himself in the process.  Despite not hearing anything, I was able to easily identify sides, and could determine who the leaders were.  However, when I picked up a copy of the Transformers Marvel comics, I was surprised to find out that the Autobots were the good guys, and the Deceptions were the bad guys.

The reason being - I didn't trust Optimus Prime, because I couldn't see his lips.  (Beast Wars would've made that irrelevant)  Moreover, their logos were at odds with each other - the Autobots looked like they were crying, while the Deceptions were smiling.  As a kid, I was still operating under the illusion that "only bad guys die".  It was a sobering realization, and since then, made it a point to not make rash decisions on deciding who the good and bad guys really were.
Even the Marvel comic was confused, getting Ratchet's logo wrong.
And yet, I still got taken in by the misdirection of the Israeli / Palestein conflict, and in 20th Century Boys.
Even in the best of times, no one is immune from outside influences.

3. Matilda by Roald Dahl

A gifted young girl whose speciality is in reading miles ahead of her age group.  Although I wasn't much for most of her choice of reading material, she was the first literary character who's defining interest was in books.  This, more than the elaborate pranks she'd play on her less than intellectual family and her brief psychic powers were what spoke most to me.  Interestingly enough, the first draft was dramatically different, fully focusing on the child's pranks, and winding up using her telekinesis to manipulate a horse race, sacrificing her life in the process.

4. The Teahouse of the August Moon

I first read it before I even knew it was made into a movie or play.  What particularly impressed me was how much... SLOWER the Oriental's lives were compared to the hyperactive fast-paced storytelling of American media.  Their values seemed completely at odds with what we ordinarily think of as normal, and yet made a kind of sense from their POV.  It was among the first of many stories that got me interested in Japanese culture as a whole.

5. The short story "Mazelife" from Monkey Brain Sushi

Monkey Brain Sushi was a collection of Japanese short stories, some of which were excepts of longer novels.  There even was Japan's Junglest Day, a stiffly drawn Manga about WWII Army refugees, a talking canteen and a space alien collecting for charity debating philosophy about the nature of misery.  (Even among Manga concepts, it's kinda weird)

The most memorable story is Mazelife by Kyoji Kobayashi.  It chronicles a man known only as "K" (a possible allusion to Kafka's other hapless protagonists, but more likely an extension for the author's acronyms) who is tired of having to go through life being confronted with human feelings, so he develops (or tries to) a computer program to simplify his life into a system of computer codes that can be systematically followed.  However, this proves to be far more difficult than he thought, since every possible permutations for doing something as simple as preparing a sandwich would result in thousands of binary circuits (not counting the option of eating said sandwich, and how to eat it)  So he decides to simplify his life further by devoting it to a God.  But WHICH God?  As borderline obsessed K is with trying to find the perfect God to worship, the choice he winds up making turns out to bite back on him HARD in the end.

It's a rare work that has the courage to start (and maintain) a humourous tone throughout, and completely subvert that into a rather depressing ending.  Fully putting your life in someone else's hands is just as disastrous as not wanting to take responsibility for your actions.

6. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

During recess and lunch hours, I would spend my time not going outside, but standing around in the library carrying my heavy backpack which due to its weight and pressure, was not considered a back problem, but my only source of comfort.  In one of the rare moments of intervention between me and my Resource teacher (a teacher for deaf students like me), I was told numerous times that I looked odd simply standing there, but I paid no mind - I felt comfortable, and that was all that mattered.

At the time, I was still largely ignorant of the library cataloging system, and mainly browsed the titles on the shelves willy-nilly, hoping to come across something that seemed interesting.  While checking the category under humour using library catalogue cards (they still existed back then), I came across a collection that was listed with the subgenre of Science Fiction.  I'd always been interested in Sci-Fi, despite only catching brief episodes of Star Trek Next Generation, but hadn't latched upon the idea that something that was based on outlandish scientific ideas could also be funny as well.

Everyman Arthur Dent perfectly captured the essence of someone being constantly out of his comfort zone at all times (even though he hardly did anything in the books), which was explained patiently in a patronizing manner by Ford Prefect who brought him along for reasons unknown.  But it was Marvin the Paranoid Android I really warmed up to.  I was beginning to develop a rather cynical and pessimistic worldview, and there was this robot showing off its ability to overdramatize the pure awfulness of the universe in an understated manner.
He even did the Ice Bucket challenge long before everybody else started daring themselves to.
He hardly even had to be coerced into doing it in the first place.
Thanks to him I was able to define myself as a Pessimistic Positive Nihilist.  Somebody who only sees that behind every Silver Lining, there's a Cloud, yet won't hesitate to describe the bleakness as absurdly as humanly possible.  Therby giving proof to the lie that there ain't no double negative that can't not be disagreed against.  Never simply say "yes", when two "no"s, will do.  Mathematically, it all works out in the end.

7. Battle Angel Alita

While I was beginning to embrace my inner pessimist, there was another aspect of myself that I was beginning to grow increasingly uncomfortable with.  My head was increasingly filled with thoughts of an uncomfortable nature, and I noticed that my tastes were dramatically different from everyone else's.  This wasn't just a cause of being contrary to everybody (though that certainly played a part), I simply couldn't relate to anybody that was around me that wasn't my sister who shared my common interest of comics.

Originally, I wasn't going to include any comics in my list, until I saw that others had titles such as Maus and Watchmen on them.  Since only long-length narratives applied, this would leave newspaper comics off, though if the daily funnies were allowed, Calvin & Hobbes would be at the top of my list.  (Other influential contenders being For Better or for Worse, Fox Trot and Herman)

I was feeling increasingly despondent and disconnected from everyone.  There were things that everybody liked that were completely anathema to me, and there were things I was obsessed with that no one else seemed to share.  In fact, I was scared of how much I related to Anime and Manga at the expense of everything else, including homegrown entertainment.  I had trouble relating to anyone to the point where I began to doubt that I was even capable of being good.  I started shoplifting junk foods I didn't want to pay for in a conscious desire to be caught and rightly punished for my misdeeds.

I'd only come across the Manga series at various intervals in bookstores, which were full of gore and violence with a philosophical bent, reading the 4th, 2nd and 6th volumes in that order.  The nature of the landscape and setting changed so much through its run that I thought they were three individual Manga titles starring post-apocalyptic fighting girl robots.  I thought the genre was popular enough for it to spawn worthy imitators.  In fact, considering the popularity of endearing kick-ass fighting teenage girls, it's surprising it hasn't become more widespread.  (Characters such as Cassandra Cain and Cammy White wound up being spiritual influences though.)

Coming across the serialization of the later volumes came at a turbulent time in my life when I had serious doubt about my self-worth, and hit enough intellectual and emotive points that I thought were already beyond saving someone as wretched as myself.  Knowing that there was somebody - even a fictional character - that would embrace warped ideals while simultaneously being revolted by them was as close to relief I got.  It helped me feel better about myself.

8. Flowers for Algernon

Although comparably smart in High School, I still had trouble relating to people, and understanding basic social concepts beyond saying "Hello" upon greeting, and not much idea of what to say afterwards.  One of the main reasons I read varied Manga was to get a wider range of insight into people's minds.  Despite this, I was extremely ignorant about the internal racial hatred and race relations that existed in the South, and being confronted with the kind of warped logic makes me start thinking unwelcome thoughts that make me uncomfortable to confront.  I even had to be taught why somebody called the N-word on Degrassi was such a big problem, and would've felt completely out of my element reading the book, since at the time, the movie wasn't even captioned.

The English teacher seeing that I was struggling with understanding the theme, suggested an alternate Sci-fi novel more to my taste, and I immediately took to it like a fish to water.  The idea of a retarded man undergoing a surgical process to become smarter was something I could relate to, more than the subtle undertones that would've surely gone over my head.

To this day, I've watched the movie starring Atticus Finch, but have yet to read the book, despite knowing that there additional details that were left out.  I keep telling myself I should give it a try someday, but can never manage to make enough motivation or time to do so.  It's one of those classics that everybody likes to keep on their shelves, but never actually go out of their way to read.  I'd rather have my shelves groan with titles I'm immensely vested in, rather than titles I've never even cracked the spines of.

9. An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks - namely the section with Temple Grandin.

When I graduated from Grade School to High School, it was a major transitional issue.  I was indoctrinated into a new routine with multiple teachers instead of just one, and mainstreamed into a regular school with other students.  Most of the other deaf students who I'd grown up with lived in other parts of town, and we were spread out all over the province.  Only a few came to the same High School as I did.  Over time, anybody I could talk to was systematically taken away from me. One friend from moved to another province after two years.  The remaining friend from my Grade class was monopolized by a deaf girl from the same class.  She wasn't even romantically interested in him, and I found it increasingly difficult to get a chance to talk to him alone.  On the rare occasions where I could manage to get some time together to talk briefly, we were followed everywhere - including inside the boy's bathroom!

Moreover, I was relentlessly taunted and teased to the breaking point.  When I tried to point out these hecklers to my Resource teacher, I was dismissed and told that they were just playing around.  I had to mentally force myself to enjoy being left alone, otherwise I would've been crushed by the loneliness.  I grew increasingly frustrated to the point where when the deaf girl was leaning in front of an open window on the second floor, I simulated pushing her out with my hands, without ever getting close.

Although she didn't see me, the rest of the class did, and I was reprimanded for my actions, even though I hadn't done anything wrong.  There was also an incident where I hovered a heavy vice from woodshop over her head, which may have been an additional factor that made people nervous.

These actions and more earned me a trip to the Principal's office where I was completely unable to convincingly give a reason for my seemingly violent actions, and was suspended for three days.  On the way to my parent's car, I voiced out my frustrations with the deaf girl which I was unable to say in the presence of a crowd of adults all against me.

It never occurred to me to actively talk about my problems at home, since in my mind, the two were separate from each other.  The only connection between school and home was homework - anything else would be bringing more of the former into the latter, and I didn't want to bring more memories of what happened home with me.

During my puberty years, I was too intimidated to even consider taking time out of my schedule to go see a psychologist, who attempted to relieve my tension by coming to my house on a regular basis.  I could never understand why anybody would want to stay after school.  To me, that was the equivalence of having extra homework time that could be better put to doing actual homework.  I was more concerned with rushing out of class as soon as the last bell rang in order to catch the bus going to the metro, otherwise I'd have to stay with the rest of the rowdy teenagers teeming, pushing and shoving each other in a vain attempt to make room for themselves.  Within the crowded confines of a later bus, I developed a fear of crowds, and by extension, people in general.  To this day, I'm still intimidated from being around children, because they're generally unpredictable in their behavior, and I'm always worried that I'll either say or do something that'll impress upon their impressionable little minds.

One day, this psychologist gave me what looked like a routine questionnaire, consisting of hypothetical situations such as how a person would react under certain situations.  This was a welcome change from trying to get me more accustomed to feeling fabrics that made me uncomfortable, since I always tended to overthink these sessions, so I gladly gave my logical answers.

A few days later, it was revealed to me that I had Asperger's Syndrome.  It turned out that my psychologist had found the then-unknown syndrome while looking up information for another client, and found that they perfectly matched my way of thinking.

My general reaction to finding out I had Asperger's was, "I KNEW it!  I always knew there was something different about me!"  Suddenly the multiple factors, such as never quite fitting in with the crowd, having ultra-sensory issues to mild touch, and revulsion to everyday elements made sense to me.  I finally had an answer to why I always seemed off-kilter from everybody else.  There was a scientific mental reason, it had a name, and all the symptoms matched my way of thinking.

Memory can be a funny thing.  At the time, I went around proudly telling anybody close to me within earshot that I had Asperger's, my Relations teacher was going through a bad divorce, and wasn't feeling particularly sympathetic for my cause.  He wound up betraying my trust by siding with the deaf girl, because he felt that my symptom was just an excuse for my actions.  As a result, I was convinced to hide my diagnosis as so not to be labeled with being overly violent.

Somewhere in my field of logic, I decided to keep my symptom a secret, partially so I could use it as a story element in an upcoming Novel I'd write, having the relatively obscure symptom revealed to the world, not unlike Michael Crichton's Velociraptors getting a sudden boost in popularity.  Though on that front, I've probably waited too long.  The other more plausible reason was that I wanted to see if people would accept me for who I was before I revealed my disability to them.

10. The works of Neal Shusterman, such as "The Dark Side of Nowhere"

Ending on a lighter note, Neal Shusterman is well-renowned for creating Twilight Zone-esque stories that while seemingly far-fetched, are still within the grounds of plausibility.  The Eyes of Kid Midas is a cautionary tale about wish fulfillment with ever-escalating consequences.  The Shadow Club is another book about cult mentality spreading beyond its intended limits.  And there are collections of short stories that are as imaginative in their brevity.

Since I'm not that good at summarizing stories with multiple plot twists, I'll just say that The Dark Side of Nowhere takes place at a remote part of town where practically nothing interesting happens.  The protagonist, Jason, wonders why all the adults in his town is so enamoured with seemingly simple and boring non-events happening around them, such as breathing air and touching grass.  Perfectly mundane activities that would be among the level of excitement of seeing a documentary on watching painted grass dry.  The most interesting thing that happens is one of their classmates dying from a ruptured appendix.  From that point on, things only gradually grow more interesting than Jason ever intended, when he and a group of equally disfranchised teenagers are gathered to do some secretive training with fancy gloves, which would gradually reveal their true nature, and what their purpose really is.  As the old Chinese curse goes, "May you live in interesting times..."

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