Thursday, September 30, 2010

To Live Forever In An Endless Loop of Unreality

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Ruth L.C. Simms
103 pages
published by NYRB Classic

Fleeing from Johnny Law, a fugitive finds himself on a mysterious deserted island with ghost-like inhabitants. If you don't want to know what's really going on, stop reading right now. Ok. I warned you. These ghostly inhabitants turn out to be a kind of "projection", produced by a machine, invented by a man named, you guessed it, Morel. This machine recorded these actual people some time ago on this island, kind of capturing their souls, to be played on a loop for, theoretically, eternity, thereby making these group of friends immortal.

All the while, before this whole machine projection plot is revealed, our narrator and fugitive has fallen in love with one of the projections! Short story short, the fugitive manages to manipulate the machine enough so as he is recorded into the loop, giving the appearance that him and his new love are in fact, in love. So now he can and her can live together forever, in a manufactured reality.

Borges seems to think this is the perfect story, though him and Casares were like bff, so you can't really trust that opinion. Regardless, it was a great story, if not a little confusing towards the end. An existential-science-fiction type love story thing. Also, apparently, it was very important to the screenwriters of LOST during the fourth season. At least that's what a Google Image search of "the invention of morel" revealed:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Let's Get Lost

Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles by Kira Henehan
256 pages

published by Milkweed Editions

Pretty much every review of this novel I've read (professional and otherwise) has had two things in common: they (1) have no idea what is really going on plot wise and (2) this doesn't really bother them. I second that motion. I had a tenuous grasp of the happenings from page to page and by the end, surprisingly, I didn't really mind that I was lost in this absurd, shrimp and gravel-filled world. Also, it's pretty darn funny. Also, the book jacket is a little "hip-young-adult-chick-lit", but that ain't her fault.

Kira is a "friend" of mine on So there is bias. Deal with it.

Check out reviews of Orion... at Bookslut, The Believer, and The Millions.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I Learned This Word While Reading A Book: Vol. 1

Soughing- to make a moaning, whistling, or rushing sound (of the wind in trees, the sea, etc).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bowling With A Severed Head

Black Flies by Shannon Burke
184 pages
published by Soft Skull Press

This is some dark stuff. Burke (who worked as a paramedic in Harlem during the early 1990s) documents the life of a rookie paramedic in Harlem during the 1990s. Write what you know, right? He (the main character, Cross) shows up all wide-eyed and hopeful, medical textbook tucked under his arm, thinking he's going to save the world, or at least this neighborhood. It's pretty much a rapid decent into the heart of darkness from the opening pages though, and we watch the horrifying hardening of Cross as the day in and day out of being a thankless (in most cases, cursed at and abused) paramedic in a economically depleted district where you (the paramedic) become a punching bag for all the wrongs the world has wrought.

All the crazy little medical episodes keep the pages turning (like the title of this post, where one particularly cruel and calloused medic has a proud posed picture of himself holding the severed head of a 14 year old girl, pretending to line it up and aim at a rack of 40s at the end of an alley), if only out of disbelief. And as a reader, you pray that half these stories aren't true, but deep down, you kinda know that isn't the case. I mean, I don't use the word "shocking" a lot, just because I guess I'm not easily shocked, but this novel is shocking, as in jarring, as in powerful, as in made my soul shrivel. Yeah.
Also, bad ass cover right? So simple.


"The entire landscape of your life will become the rundown neighborhoods, the neglected, the homeless, the insane, the drug addicted, the sick, the dying, and the dead...You'll be a witness to all of the fucked-up shit that's hidden from most of society. You'll be a part of it. And there will come a time where out of frustration, out of despair, out of anger, you'll want to give in to the misery and ugliness. I can't teach you how to act at that moment of temptation, and I can't teach you how to deal with the fallout, either. Because it's not a question of medical training. It's a question of strength. And of good versus evil." pg. 131

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Time is a Goon

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
288 pages
published by Knopf

When I checked this out from the library and began reading it, I almost put it down several times. I had heard so many good things about it, from people and blogs and critics I respected. I was skeptical though. I didn't like the cover. I didn't really like the title. And the plot didn't seem that interesting to me. I just imagined it was going to be some kind of bildungsroman thing sprinkled with lectures on punk rock.

Well, let me just say that I'm glad I stuck with it. It took me a little while to get into but after I shed all my preconceived notions, it turned out to a damn fine book. It's doesn't have a traditional narrative arch (thank God) with each chapter devoted to one character, with each story directly, or sometimes indirectly, related to previous chapters and their characters. So it's a little more short-story-ish in format than it is novel. Like a really tight, super connected short story collection. Egan also blends enough satire and literary trickery to keep things fresh and engaging, including an entire section told through a teenagers Power Point journal, which was, oddly enough, way more genuine than I thought possible.

So it kinda ends up being about music, but not in that slightly annoying way (think Perks of Being a Wallflower, think Love is a Mixtape). And time ends up being the goon. And the only reason I didn't like the cover is because I thought it was going to be an annoying diatribe about the death of music and the only real music is punk rock, etc. The cover was misleading. But I'm not gonna stop judging books by them. What would happen if we went back to the age when books didn't have dust jackets? Like it was just the title and author on the spine and that's it? How would those sell in the now heavily image-based consumer culture, where the image is king? Cause now probably like half the reason a customer will decide on one book over the other is because it has a better cover, right? I know I've done it. This all being said, book covers has evolved into this strange art form. I don't know about you, but I think book covers are freakin' beautiful nowadays. But I digress.
So read this book please. I liked it a lot.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ruminations on the Essay and Doritos

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir by Ander Monson
208 pages
published by Graywolf Press

I've had Monson on my radar for a long time now, probably ever since he wrote Vacationland, which seems like a long time ago and I have a vague recollection of him visiting my college campus for a reading, probably promoting Vacationland. Am I making this up? Not remembering it correctly? Whose to say. Also, I never ended up reading Vacationland, or haven't yet anyway.

So, I was ready to enjoy Vanishing Point. I wanted to love it. I am excited about writers who choose to expand certain forms, in this case, the essay. And while a few pieces were really excellent (like his piece on Doritos and artificial flavors or his eulogy-type thing on the death of Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax or his time serving jury duty) the others were a bit too circuitous for my taste, where Monson seemed to be wandering around this essay space he had created, not quite sure how he was going to write himself out of this subject he found himself in, which more often than not, were meanderings on the 'I' of memoirs. I think I could have appreciated the dissection if it had just been one essay on the 'I' but Monson kept coming back to it again and again, to the point where I didn't care anymore. But that's just me (well, it's always just me) and that subject didn't particularly catch my thinking fancy.

I'll definitely read more Monson though. Vanishing Point is certainly on the experimental side, which I'm down with, but I'd like to read some of his more "traditional" stuff. And his poetry. Also, I will now try and stop using a 'double space' after the ends of sentences. I forget why exactly, but he touches on it briefly, something to do with Courier font and how it made the formatting all weird and so they (I don't know who they is) had to implement the 'double space', which really isn't needed with other fonts, and if you'll notice, books don't use the 'double space'. But now that I've taken a brief moment to do some research, a la Wikipedia, they say that the 'double space' has been carried over from type writers, when the ink ribbon would get would too dry and the period could sometimes not be seen clearly at the end of a sentence, so the writer would just use a double space to indicate the start of a new sentence.

Oh man, I totally forgot to mention the website! Along with the print reading experience, various words throughout the text have a small dagger as an indicator to go onto the books website, input the indicated word into a search engine, and then a digression (or any other various thing) pertaining to that word will appear. Kinda like web-based end notes. I was not always near a computer when I was reading the book, so I only used the site a few times, but it was a cool idea nonetheless. Though I usually read books to get away from computers.

Fragmented knowledge!

"But still there is life there, even if in data fragments. All human lives can be described by this esoterica, this collection of descended asterisks. It's only in the tiny that anything matters or exists at all." pg.62

"Some true things are not dramatic. But the minutiae of our existences are. These are facts, friends, all twenty thousand boxes of our lives of eating them. We are surrounded by their ordinary glory." pg. 164

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Franzen and Oprah Kiss and Make Up and It Gets Me Thinking About Art in America and Batman

Tomorrow, Friday, Oprah will announce that her new (possibly last) selection for her book club will be Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. You may recall that Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, was also chosen as an Oprah Book Club Selection, but due to some poorly chosen words by Franzen that were largely taken out of context, he was uninvited to appear on the show, due to what Oprah deemed, his "conflicted" feelings.

There's a large, weird part of me where I want the stuff (I'm going to say "stuff" and not "art") I enjoy, whether it be music, movies, books, whatever, to remain mine, to remain secret, in the most selfish and childish sense. It's a suspended reality, this illusion of ownership. But also, at the same time, I want to expose people to this same stuff, to push it on others, convince them of its worth, and to cheer for its much deserved, wider recognition.

So, it gets tricky, because we believe that what the masses enjoy can't be good, that the mass culture is stupid and enjoys stupid things like Two and A Half Men and James Patterson and The Black Eyed Peas. But what happens when art is both good and adored by the mass population? Can Real Art withstand popularity? Withstand recognition? Withstand the machine of consumerism? Because, of course, the fear (by me and others like me...though don't say snobs because that is not the right word) is that this popularity will A) dilute the art, turning it into a product of sorts and B) change the artist, for the worse. Always for the worst.

Franzen is not a secret. I realize that. But he's still in the "respected writer" camp, though some still think him a pretentious, untalented stooge. But I think we (you know who you are) need to re-evaluate our notions of Art and Mass Culture because the two are merging, at least here in America. I suppose they've always been merging, or advertising companies have been trying to merge them since who knows when. But it seems to me that the merge has sped up in the last, let's say ten years. I guess I'm thinking of things like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. Of the recent fame of Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy. Of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Of the rise of bands like The Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and "indie rock" in general, for better or worse.

Don't get me wrong, most entertainment enjoyed by the masses is terrible and mostly because it's not trying to be more than entertainment. You're not about to catch me watching an episode (are they called episodes?) of The Bachelor(ette). But I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's okay to enjoy art that a lot of other people also enjoy. I'm saying this to myself and to people like me. Those who generally scoff at mass culture (not necessarily "pop culture", that's a bit different and tends to be more interesting), instinctively offering a snide, irony-soaked remark on what is popular, cutting it down merely because it is popular. Because popular things can't be any good, right? Right?!

Well, now I'm not so sure. There are some conflicting examples and ideas in this post, I acknowledge that but I just wanted to get the thoughts brewing and I don't really feel like going back and cleaning it up. I mean, come on, it's the Internet.

Things I Enjoy That Also Happen to Be Very Popular:

  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Miller High Life
  • Modern Family
  • the NBA
  • Arby's Roast Beef Sandwiches (mostly because of the Arby's sauce)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Satisfied Mind

Stoner by John E. Williams
278 pages
re-published by The New York Review of Books Classics

Huh. Ya know, I didn't know if I was going to like this novel. I tend to have a hard time getting into "period" novels, which this kinda is, taking place from about 1891 to 1950s. But it's a testament to John Williams and his storytelling abilities that he was able to take a simple story about a passionate, though ultimately ordinary, English professor named William Stoner and turn it into an compelling (yes, compelling) tale of a life fully lived...or at least attempted.

Pretty much everyone on The Millions (.com) is in love with this novel and it's been called "the perfect novel" by more than a few respectable literary types. Perfect? Well, I don't really even know what that means. Is there some sort of Perfection Checklist for the novel? Entertaining. Check. Clear, fluid, and often gorgeous prose. Check. Funny. Check. Sad. Check. Main Character is dignified and near heroic in his quiet struggles, though also we can't help but feel a little sorry for him. Check. Holy shit. It is the perfect novel!

But seriously, it was pretty awesome. I don't think there was a single scene, or a single page, where I checked out mentally and started thinking about what I was going to make for dinner or whether or not I should play Batman Arkham Asylum on the XBox360 before bed. I cared about William Stoner. I cared about his small, human plight. I wanted Stoner to die (as we knew he would by the first page) happy. And I believe he did.

Take the time to read the below quotes to get a taste of aforementioned 'gorgeous prose'. There, I made it through the entire review without making a lame pot joke.


"He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember ." pg. 181

"They [Stoner and his daughter] talked long into the night, as if they were old friends. And Stoner came to realize that she was, as she said, almost happy with her despair; she would live her days out quietly, drinking a little more, year by year, numbing herself against the nothingness her life had become. He was glad she had that, at least; he was grateful that she could drink." pg. 248

"On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs, and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow. Nothing moved upon the whiteness; it was a dead scene, which seemed to pull at him, to suck at his consciousness just as it pulled the sound from the air and buried it within a cold white softness. He felt himself pulled outward toward the whiteness, which spread as far as he could see, and which was a part of the darkness from which it glowed, of the clear and cloudless sky without depth. For an instant he felt himself go out of the body that sat motionless before the window; and as he felt himself slip away, everything-- the flat whiteness, the trees, the tall columns, the night, the far stars-- seemed incredibly tiny and far away, as if they were dwindling to a nothingness. Then, behind him, a radiator clanked. He moved, and the scene became itself...He walked slowly home, aware of each footstep crunching with muffled loudness in the dry snow." pg. 180

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Short and Sweet

AM/PM by Amelia Gray
144 pages
published by Featherproof Books

Read this on a recommendation from...someone. I can't remember. I think I just read a lot of good things about it and I am easily swayed by exaggerated praise. Little stories that are sometimes precious, sometimes bizarre, sometimes daring, sometimes clever, sometimes bewildering, sometimes funny, sometimes connected, sometimes not. Delightful, for the most part. Though, I would say you have to read it in one big gulp or else you'll be even more lost than you most certainly will be. Huh?

On the Road...Now With Murder!

Going Native by Stephen Wright
320 pages
published by Delta

Click on Stephen Wright and has a nice bio on the dry comic, Steven Wright. This is not the same Stephen Wright. At first, I was like, "Wait, the dry ironic comic Stephen Wright wrote several works of post-modernish fiction?" Well, no, he didn't, and he spells his name "Steven" not "Stephen". Now that we got that out of the way.

Most reviews reference this as a "horror" type novel, and even DeLillo calls it a "slasher classic". I guess. It didn't strike me a particularly violent novel. Well, it kinda was but most of the violence was off stage. But I must say, the second to last chapter was rather chilling.

So it's a road novel, in that we're (the reader) are following the trail of Wylie, a wandering suburbanite, who up and leaves his bbq one night and, as we're led to believe, kinda goes on this killing spree of sorts, though several times throughout the novel, you (the reader) begin to question if this is even Wylie you're reading about. And if not Wylie, then who is this psycho?


"But you [America] make a cartoon of everything: your movies, your clothes, your furniture, your books, your food, but especially your sex. Everything bright and tasty. But this is a dirty game you are playing with yourselves. This ideal of honesty and openness is a pathetic fraud. You pretend to be so innocent when none of you are and it is this charade that is genuinely pornographic." pg.146

"The momentary lull between driver and passenger transgressed by the inexhaustible exertions of Pastor Bob launching a possibility bomb into Satan's stronghold in Chillicothe, Ohio, where a sister in need required an emergency financial healing." pg. 89 (Look Perrys! Your hometown!)