Friday, December 26, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse December 2014

For this month's Cephalopod Coffeehouse, hosted as ever by Armchair Squid (whether or not he's seated at the moment, because he's a squid, okay?), I decided to recap the whole year with a ranking of what I read in the last twelve months.  And here we go!

  1. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan - I didn't anticipate calling this the best book I read all year, but here it is.  A truly astonishing glimpse of Chinese culture through the last sixty years or so, elucidating the effects of the communist revolution on a single family and succeeding generations struggle to reconcile the legacy of the landowner whose legacy was sacrificed so that Ximen Village could embrace the changes.  Most remarkably, it also serves as a study of reincarnation, as that landowner comes back in various incarnations to experience those changes firsthand.
  2. Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison, etc. - I've become more and more convinced that this might be comic book writer Morrison's bid for his own legacy, a modern fairy tale about a boy who goes into hypoglycemic shock, and enters a fantasy world that forces him to reconcile the void his father has left behind.
  3. S. by J.J. Abrams, etc. - I'm an unabashed fan of Abrams through his work in film and television, so it was an instant delight to experience his first foray into literature, which did not disappoint.
  4. Captain Kidd by Jerome Charyn - Over the years what began as a fascination with one recent, curious look at the Revolutionary War has turned into a full-blown obsession with Charyn's career.  This was the best of a generous helping I allowed myself this year from his catalog.
  5. The Ghosts of Nagasaki by Daniel Clausen - The best Goodreads Giveaways win from the year, always a mixed bag, but this is exactly what I always hope to find when I register in those lotteries, discovering a truly great new voice.
  6. Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino, etc. - I experienced most of Quentin Tarantino's latest film in its graphic novel adaptation first, when it was originally serialized in comic book form, then saw the movie, and then finally read the complete adaptation, and it was fascinating to see how closely the appeal translates, and where the subtle differences lie in the screenplay as it was before it was shot.
  7. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson - I finally read the Millennium Trilogy.  This was a rare instance of the product far exceeding the hype, and the most pleasant surprise was that the final book, which was the only one I hadn't experienced in a different form prior to reading the books, was actually the best of them.
  8. The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling - The second Robert Galbraith mystery is yet another reason to celebrate Rowling's mounting legacy.
  9. You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry - A new Dave Barry is always cause for celebration!
  10. Zenith Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison, etc. - Dipping into Morrison's origins was made possible when Zenith finally began being reprinted after being unavailable for several decades.  A truly inspiring look at the formative instincts of a master.
  11. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  12. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  13. I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn
  14. The Seventh Babe by Jerome Charyn
  15. Bikini Cowboy Vol. 1 by L. Frank Weber
  16. The Infatuations by Javier Marias
  17. The Guts by Roddy Doyle
  18. Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, etc.
  19. Flashpoint by Geoff Johns, etc.
  20. Mom's Had a Rough Day by Julie Harrison
  21. 52 Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, etc.
  22. Amulet by Roberto Bolano
  23. G.I. Joe: Cobra Vol. 3 by Mike Costa, etc.
  24. Green Lantern Vol. 3 by Geoff Johns, etc.
  25. Batman and Robin Vol. 3 by Peter Tomasi, etc.
  26. Batman and Robin Vol. 1 by Peter Tomasi, etc.
  27. Seven Soldiers of Victory Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison, etc.
  28. Billy Budd, KGB by Jerome Charyn, etc.
  29. Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, etc.
  30. Once Upon a Droshky by Jerome Charyn
  31. G.I. Joe: Cobra Vol. 1 by Mike Costa, etc.
  32. G.I. Joe: Cobra Vol. 2 by Mike Costa, etc.
  33. G.I. Joe: Cobra Vol. 4 by Mike Costa, etc.
  34. Justice League Vol. 1 by Geoff Johns, etc.
  35. Green Lantern Vol. 1 by Geoff Johns, etc.
  36. Action Comics Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison, etc.
  37. Batman and Robin Must Die! by Grant Morrison, etc.
  38. Batman Incorporated Vol. 1 by Grant Morrison, etc.
  39. Archeologists of Shadows Vol. 1 by Lara Fuentes, etc.
  40. Archeologists of Shadows Vol. 2 by Lara Fuentes, etc.
  41. Archeologists of Shadows Vol. 3 by Lara Fuentes, etc.
  42. Justice League Beyond: Konstriction by Dustin Nguyen, etc.
  43. Wonder Woman Vol. 1 by Brian Azzarello, etc.
  44. Star Trek Federation by David Goodman
  45. The Beast of Wolfe's Bay by Erik Evensen
  46. Little Demon in the City of Light by Steven Levingston
  47. Darlin' Bill by Jerome Charyn
  48. The Isaac Quartet by Jerome Charyn
  49. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn
  50. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Denise Mina, etc.
  51. Epic Mom by Julie Harrison, etc.
  52. Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
  53. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie
  54. Last Man Standing by Roger Moore
  55. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  56. Orfeo by Richard Powers
  57. We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  58. Old Land, New Tales by various
  59. Allwenn: Soul & Sword by Jesus B. Vilches
  60. Astronaut Dad Vol. 1 by David Hopkins, etc.
  61. The Black Well by Jamie Tanner
  62. Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger
  63. Teen Titans Vol. 3 by Scott Lobdell, etc.
  64. The Boston Rob Rulebook by Rob Mariano
  65. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  66. The Best of McSweeney's by various
  67. American Reckoning by Christian Appy
  68. The True Story of Noah by Kerry Barger
  69. The Harry and Sylvia Stories by Welch Everman
  70. The Decameron by Boccaccio
  71. Binary by Chris Hinz, etc.
  72. Stan by Richard Wold
  73. Lord Sananda Speaks by Narkael
  74. Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand
And two more books that won't be ranked: the first is the Ignatius RSV Catholic Edition Bible, which is to say reading it through in any form for the first time, and the second is Monorama, which is by the blogger himself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse November 2014

This month's meeting of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, chaired by Armchair Squid, falls on Black Friday.  Spend some time reading!

This month I began tackling my recent Jerome Charyn order beginning with his first book, Once Upon a Droshky, released fifty years ago this year, and then The Isaac Quartet, collecting the first four Isaac Sidel crime novels.

My history with Charyn began in 2008 with the release of Johnny One-Eye, set in the Revolutionary War, characteristically a picaresque journey across a turning point in history.  I fell in love with the author immediately and began a picaresque journey of my own through his backlog.  I wasn't aware of the significance of Sidel (much less that the whole series even existed) until the release of his latest adventure, Under the Eye of God, in 2012, which is the eleventh in the series.

Until Isaac Quartet I was far more familiar with the crime genre in movies than in books, which is to say I was only familiar with crime movies.  Crime novels are normally shelved with mysteries at a bookstore and as such are easy to lose in the shuffle.  Crime comic books are perhaps easier to find, and the most famous example would be Frank Miller's Sin City, a series that has been adapted into a couple of Robert Rodriguez movies (Sin City, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).

Charyn is an unabashed fan of Quentin Tarantino (he wrote Raised by Wolves, tracking the filmmaker's career through Kill Bill), but his style probably has more in common with Rodriguez, whether depicted in the Mariachi trilogy (El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), the Machete movies (Machete, Machete Kills) the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise (From Dusk Till Dawn itself and various spin-offs, including a new TV version on Rodriguez's own channel, El Rey), Planet Terror.

If you're not too familiar with Rodriguez (I would watch Desperado to get an idea of his style), you might also consider Martin Scorsese (I know Squid is familiar with Goodfellas, which would be a nice primer to understand the Guzmann family that causes Sidel so much misery in the early books) or the Bad Lieutenant films (Bad Lieutenant, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans).

Isaac Quarter follows the legacy of Sidel's trusted underling, the eponymous Blue Eyes of the first book, Manfred Coen, who becomes a Billy Budd figure, one of many literary references (James Joyce abounds in Secret Isaac, the last book in the volume).  Much of how Charyn constructed the premise of Sidel's world comes from the author's own life.  Coen's obsession with ping pong comes from Charyn's.  Charyn's brother is a New York cop.  Although hopefully he has no firsthand experience with a worm in his gut, what Sidel acquires after half a year undercover with the Guzmanns.

Charyn is most comfortable exploring the various ways his characters rationalize their lives, often in the midst of considerable turmoil (Mel Gibson's Riggs in the Lethal Weapon movies is probably another good example).  The reader's challenge is to separate these self-justifications from the circumstances that have created them.  Actually, that's a good summary of Once Upon a Droshky.  As a series, the Sidel books have a way of putting an extreme focus on Charyn's tendencies.  The longer he spends with a character, the less excuses they have to hide behind.  Often Charyn's characters have unhappy fates (his latest book, I Am Abraham, may make that most clear: the lead character is, after all, Abraham Lincoln), making Sidel the rare instance where despite everything he does he keeps coming out on top, the infinitely evolving good luck of a bad luck guy.   

I'm currently reading Darlin' Bill, featuring Wild Bill Hickok, which was released in 1980 and seems to suggest both the later Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and I Am Abraham.  More value from following Charyn's career.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse October 2014

I am Lisbeth Salander.

That was the realization I had after reading Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy this month.  You perhaps know these books better by the title The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next.  Although it's just as likely that you know the name Lisbeth Salander, too.  She's become something of an icon, after all.

I was working at a major bookstore chain (since gone out of business) when these books became worldwide bestsellers, although you'd hardly have had to be doing that to know how popular they were.  David Fincher adapted the first book into a movie starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, and that was my first direct exposure to any of it.  Later I read a comic book adaption of the second one.  Finally I had a chance to sit down and read the books themselves, including the mysterious concluding volume, which I remember at the time of its release being (as it turns out, inaccurately) described as basically reiterating previous material (although there's a trial involved, so of course some of it's referenced).

Okay, so I'm not literally Lisbeth Salander.  That would be pretty difficult.  Larsson was an investigate journalist, and the trilogy is based on his ideas about what that means (it remains to be seen if his native Sweden upholds this tradition better than elsewhere, or if the books are in some sense wish fulfillment), as Mikael Blomkvist finds himself involved first in the mystery of the disappearance of a girl forty years ago and then in the life of Lisbeth, who helps him along the way and then needs his help to disentangle her from the mess her life's been.

Lisbeth Salander's mess is epic and tragic, and the third book is arguably the best one because it reveals the full scope but also the emotional conclusion of her struggles as she learns to reconnect with a world that previously seemed only interested in rejecting her.  Larsson made sure readers found her more sympathetic, and that was his true genius.

So what makes me thinks I'm Lisbeth Salander?  She's the first literary outsider I've really connected with.  In some ways she's a modern Holden Caulfield, although instead of being a rebellious punk she's a young woman who's been a victim on multiple levels and has ended up socially compromised.  It's the social compromise I understand best, the instinct to shrink away from others.  For most of my life people have tried to label me as shy.  Lisbeth is suggested to have Asperger's, and maybe that's what explains her, but I think it's more that for as long as she could remember, there was little reason to acknowledge the outside world.

People can be cruel, on the outrageous scale Larsson detailed in his books, or in smaller ways, too.  Everyone wants to be accepted, but sometimes that seems impossible.  People adapt.  But sometimes miracles happen, and you discover those who actually do understand you.  The most remarkable elements of Lisbeth Salander's journey involve people like Blomkvist, who see through the surface of her life and recognize how special she really is.  We're all special for one reason or another.  Larsson made Lisbeth special in a lot of ways, but that was to keep the attention of finicky readers, readers who probably needed someone like Blomkvist to discover Lisbeth, too.

(She considers him, for most of it, to be a bloody do-gooder.)

Lisbeth herself flits in and out of the narrative.  She disappears for large stretches at a time.  The story follows other characters.  But in the end, the trilogy is a timeless piece of literature most certainly centering on her.

And just perhaps, if you read it, you'll realize you're Lisbeth Salander, too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jerome Charyn's 50th anniversary

Fifty years ago this year, Jerome Charyn published his first novel, Once Upon a Droshky.

Since the publication of Johnny One-Eye in 2008, I've become a late-arrival fan and have been working my way, slowly, through his catalog.  I made a little more progress earlier this year in conjunction with his latest release, I Am Abraham, and recently I realized, wait a minute! this year is pretty significant!  So I ramped up my Charyn a little, dug around and got a few more of his books, and hopefully will get around to reading a few if not all of them by the end of the year.

The first, naturally, will be Droshky.  When I compiled a list of all his novels for this blog, I tried to find out what each of them was about.  Charyn isn't generally appreciated for the quality and breadth of the material he's given readers over the years, which may be due to the fact that Droshky wasn't well-received fifty years ago.  He developed a reputation for being at the fringe of the literary scene, and hasn't managed to leave it.  If his lead characters are any indication, though, I doubt Charyn much minds.  The quality speaks for itself.  As someone who has read a few of his books and gotten a handle on his themes, I wonder what kind of impression I'll have of Charyn's first effort.

After that I'll read my first Isaac Sidel mysteries.  Sidel is the one character Charyn has returned to, repeatedly, over the years.  In some ways he might be the author's best bet at establishing a full-blown reputation.  The Isaac Quartet collects the first four Sidel books.

Darlin' Bill was released in 1980, the year I was born.  It felt right on that level to make this particular book a priority, plus my own fascination with the Wild West and the fact that Charyn has demonstrated a great ability to revisit known figures from a fresh perspective.

Charyn has also dabbled in graphic novels.  I happen to love comic books.  It's like Charyn has secretly been writing for me all these years.  Ha ha!  Just kidding.  But I've also got my first Charyn graphic novel on the docket: Billy Budd, KGB, which also manages to evoke Melville, which for me is another good thing.

The last selection is 1999's Captain Kidd.  It's got a dog wearing an army helmet on the cover.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse September 2014

Via Armchair Squid.

Five years or so back a coworker of mine asked me if I'd ever read The Satanic Verses.  Wherever I work I always bring a book with me.  People see me read.  It's always notable.  The digital revolution has been going strong but it hasn't really been the revitalization of the craft that some observers thought it'd be.  Anyway, as it happened I hadn't read it.  She said she'd had a copy for years but had never managed to make her way through it.  So for the next few months I read it on lunch breaks.

I quickly fell in love with it.

I'm sure you've heard of it.  Salman Rushdie had already been a name in the literary world, but he became much better known after the fatwa was declared on him in Iran after the publication of The Satanic Verses.  These days it's impossible to ignore how seriously Muslims take their religion.  Twenty-five years ago the Arab world was still working its way toward a clash with the West.  After all the border-shifting in the wake of WWII, the increased emphasis on oil, and the massive changes that are still developing today, there were always going to be difficulties of some kind, cultural conflicts as civilization found it increasingly hard to segregate different populations from each other.  Outside of war, everyday life can make a real mockery of peace.

I just finished reading Rushdie's account of the fatwa decade he experienced, Joseph Anton, a kind of modern Odyssey.  He focuses mainly on the impact of the protection teams he had to live behind, the wives he cycled through, and the support he found in the midst of a chaotic existence.  A lot of readers have found it difficult to sympathize with Rushdie based on how he wrote his account.  It spares precious few details of those years.  Warts and all, he emerges as a man who desperately wanted to return to normalcy, but instead finds himself pressed up against matters we still can't figure out today.

The thing is, I love The Satanic Verses.  For me it's inconceivable to consider it in any other light than as a work of literary genius.  But there are people who don't consider such things as their top priority.  For me there's very little point to living if you're not free to enjoy the best of this world, and for me that means the arts.  For me, religion is that thing that allows you to put up with everything else, gives you hope.  But for everyday life, it's the arts.  The two have far more in common than it can sometimes seem.  Rushdie himself is an atheist, but that hardly means he has nothing to say on the matter.  Atheists are funny like that.  They'll spend all their time dismissing the value of religion, but for what it's worth, what someone says isn't always what they mean, whether they realize it consciously or not.

That's a little of why you ought to consider Joseph Anton an important book, and also The Satanic Verses.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse August 2014

Via Armchair Squid.

I thinking I'm going Japanese!  I think I'm going Japanese!

No, wait, Chinese.  I'm going Chinese!  Is there a song for that?  Anyway, so obviously I've been reading Chinese literature all month.  The book I've actually finished reading is Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan's brilliant Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, which tracks the dramatic developments of 1950-2000 from the perspective of a man who is reincarnated into a donkey, an ox, a pig (the longest section), a dog, very briefly a monkey, and then a large-headed child.  Those are two big subjects to tackle, the big giant cultural reforms China tackled and reincarnation.  Besides Ximen Nao, one-time landlord of Ximen Village, we follow the lives of those he leaves behind and their descendants, their own changing fortunes (though remaining, er, human as they do).  Sometimes it's a little like Animal Farm if it was less allegory and more an imaginative tour of history.  For a reader like me, very fascinating stuff.

What it does most interestingly, for me, is explore China.  I don't know about you, but my practical understanding of China stops short after grasping the bold strokes.  It's the major country that has been allowed to remain in its own bubble, mostly out of its own choosing, which remains true to this day, always warily taking small steps to joining the greater global community (at the moment, embracing the Hollywood blockbuster!).  I think the massive political (which we think of almost exclusively in its greater Communist context) shift that characterizes the period featured in Life and Death was really all about China realizing for the first time that it was being left behind by the rest of the world, and taking drastic measures to catch up again.  Terrible thing to experience personally, but a real test of character, and that, after all, is the mark of the best storytelling.  Thankfully someone like Mo Yan comes along to capture the experience perfectly.

I randomly received from my periodic Goodreads Giveaways casting net Old Land, New Tales around the same time I was reading Life and Death.  It's a collection of Chinese short stories.  I figured I might as well start reading that next, and so that's exactly what I'm doing.  As with any collection, some of the stories are more interesting than others, but more to the point, I think it's giving me another look at China, a little deeper, and that's pretty interesting on the whole.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse July 2014

The last Friday of every month is the designated meeting date for Armchair Squid's Cephalopod Coffeehouse.

After finally finishing the Indiespensible Experiment early in the month, I moved on to a couple of my favorite writers: J.K. Rowling and Javier Marias.  Instant improvement of literary spirits!  Rowling you may have heard of, and hopefully you know she writes as Robert Galbraith these days and with The Silkworm has released her second Cormoran Strike mystery.  Marias is responsible for the genius Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, and The Infatuations is his latest book, released last fall.  (It's actually been read by a club member previously!)

I wouldn't call either effort the best from their respective authors, but I soundly enjoyed both.

I'm settling in nicely with the Galbraith/Strike phase of Rowling's career.  I'm glad she's found a new story to tell, one that she's eager to explore.  The main character is kind of like a real world version of Harry Potter's Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, half a leg blown off in adventures prior to when we first meet him but still soldiering on.  Strike's past is as important as his present, and not just his past past but the effect of his last case, The Cuckoo's Calling.  I love that.  I love that Rowling can so easily spin a fascinating mythology and have it so relevant to a series of books.  This more human approach is no less involving than a wizarding world.  Strike's assistant Robin is equally intriguing, and their relationship continues to evolve, although calling it a relationship may be jumping the gun a bit.  Their working relationship.  But clearly theirs is a story that will also continue as the series continues.

Much of the book is clearly a pastiche on Rowling's experiences and observations after Harry Potter.  The mystery this time involves a writer who's murdered after writing a chilling parody of his life and the personalities of those around him who hardly appreciated such attention.

Since Rowling has basically been writing mysteries from the start, the concept comes naturally to her best tendencies.  If you enjoyed reading her in the past, you'll love doing so again.

In a lot of ways, meanwhile, Infatuations is Marias condensing Your Face Tomorrow into a single volume and ramping up the philosophy of his perspective.  In fact, the whole thing's a cerebral exercise, getting into the main character's head as she analyzes her experiences tracking the results of discovering a man she used to see every day has been murdered.  Marias is a writer who appreciates his characters thinking things over, as often in conversation as not.  This is far from a typical read.  It's Italo Calvino for the modern age, although I like Marias better.  It's not easy reading even for someone prepared to enjoy something like this, but it's rewarding in every sense with enough patience.  This is an author in full control of his powers, and that is always exciting to see.  I love knowing that I'm reading something that only that writer could have accomplished, that the writer dared to attempt such a thing, not an experiment but a full-blown case of literary bravado.  And that's what The Infatuations is.

And hopefully it'll get more people to read his even better and more important work, Your Face Tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Best of McSweeney's recap

Here's a recap of the contents of The Best of McSweeney's and what I thought of them:

  1. Letters (p. 10-26) A real mixed bag.  Pretentious humor from far too many of them, sets a bad tone for the anthology.  Also way too long.
  2. "The Ceiling" by Kevin Brockmeier (pp. 27-38) A sort of middling version of Stephen King's Under the Dome.  A lot of literary fiction adds quirky elements to an otherwise ordinary world.  They don't really know what to do with these concepts, so that's why you don't know this is so typical.
  3. "New Boy" by Roddy Doyle (pp. 39-57) I love Doyle.  I've only just read him for the first time with The Guts, but he's well-known thanks to movies made from his books like The Commitments.  Good representation of contemporary Ireland.  This story is about an apparently autistic boy coming to a new school after the death of his father and finding unlikely friends.  One of the few entries with a full, satisfying story.  No wonder Doyle is one of the best-known contributors.
  4. "The Operatives Ball" by Laird Hunt (p. 58) A twenty-minute story, a periodic feature in the anthology.  A good one.
  5. "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington" by Jess Walter (pp. 59-67) A list of things Walter figures are worth mentioning about Spokane.  Very interesting, one of the true successes of off-beat formatting in the anthology.
  6. "Circus" by Jennifer Michael Hecht (p. 68) A pantoum, a resurrected dead poetic form.  Probably should have stayed dead.
  7. "Phantoms" by Steven Millhauser (pp. 69-88) Could have been very interesting indeed.  But sort of kind mixed with middling failure.  Good to include early in the anthology, because I probably wouldn't have read it at all if it'd been part of the lackluster final selections.
  8. "Do Not Disturb" by A.M. Homes (pp. 89-111) A cancer story featuring a cancer patient who is pretty much thoroughly unlikable.  Daring, I guess, but baffling at the same time, with a twist that doesn't really improve it.
  9. "from Optic Nerve #9 by Adrian Tomine" (pp. 117-127) The start of the comics section, doesn't really make a strong case for normal relationships making a compelling comics experience.
  10. "We'll Sleep in My Old Room" by Chris Ware (pp. 128-131) Ware is known for his intricate designs (to say nothing of just how intricate Building Stories is).  That ensures this one is a much better representation of what makes comics without superheroes a compelling proposition.  Listed incorrectly in the anthology's table of contents as coming after the next entry.
  11. "The Darlington Sundays" by Daniel G. Clowes (pp. 132-135) Clowes is best known for Ghost World, which became a beloved indy movie.  This is a middling example of his work.
  12. "The Fixer" by Joe Sacco (pp. 136-144) Sacco's art is probably what you expect to find from underground comics (pro comics that are indy comics at their best but also sometimes strangest), but he's got excellent storytelling ability.  This excerpt is about a guy who makes a living working at the sidelines of war.
  13. "A Child's Book of Sickness and Death" by Chris Adrian (pp. 145-166) Somewhat interesting but also somewhat creepy and weird, all the moreso given that Adrian actually works with children in hospitals.  Would his patients be flattered by this story?
  14. "They All Stand Up and Sing" by Julie Hecht (pp. 167-186) If this had been a novel, I would have suffered a great deal trying to finish it.  Random nonsense, basically.
  15. "Oral History with Hiccups" by Lydia Davis (p. 187) A creative curiosity.  Typed as if the hiccups presented the writer with occasions to actually miss some letters.
  16. "A Mown Lawn" by Lydia Davis (p. 188) Honestly, sometimes it seems as if McSweeney's idea of literature is what you would find in a high school or college classroom.
  17. "The Bees" by Dan Chaon (pp. 191-209) Actually one of the better stories.  Kind of like Stephen King (who actually has contributed to three McSweeney's issues).
  18. "Retreat" by Wells Tower (pp. 210-258) An introduction and two versions of the story.  One of the highlights of the anthology.
  19. "Mr. Squishy" by David Foster Wallace (pp. 259-315) With an introduction explaining how the story was originally published under a pseudonym.  I'd never read DFW before, only a quasi-autobiography (Although of Course You End of Becoming Yourself).  This is one of the most famous literary writers of the past twenty years.  Infinite Jest is considered a classic.  But this was also a famously tormented writer, someone the literary community immediately embraced.  I think "Mr. Squishy" explains everything in a nutshell.  The dude approached writing strangely.  There's no real story here.  Just DFW's perspective on market testing.  Which is interesting.  To a point.  But it's not a story.  Would have been interesting if done slightly differently.  But in the end I think DFW is a case of a talent not being allowed to evolve organically.  Led to believe he's a genius.  But developed that genius in such an esoteric way that if you read this, if just anyone read it, they would not see genius.  This is different from a work of genius that only a few people, relatively speaking, can appreciate.  This is something that just isn't very interesting.  Just someone sitting there writing something that seems like a good idea, good and relevant and telling for its age.  But it's not even Tristrum Shandy good, not quirky in a good way.  Indicative of McSweeney's as a whole, as far as I can tell.  Just the literary establishment congratulating itself without purpose.  From the outside, all writers seem like outsiders.  The insiders aren't outsiders, however.  And therein lies the rub.  
  20. "Days" by Aleksandar Hemon (pp. 316-317) A longish twenty-minute story.
  21. "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines" by Andrew Sean Greer (pp. 318-342) A nonfiction entry that's about a gay couple going to a NASCAR event and finding that they fit in nicely.  Interesting reading, but also is kind of bigoted itself, assuming that racing fans are a certain way, the way the writer and his husband assumed everyone would treat them.
  22. "Can a Paper Mill Save a Forest?" by Nicholson Baker (pp. 343-349) Another nonfiction entry, made me think of its issues in an entirely new way, the worth of paper mills (when operated responsibly) versus our increasingly reliance on digital media, which is not as green as we're constantly led to believe, apparently.  One of the true highlights of the anthology.
  23. "The Girl with Bangs" by Zadie Smith (pp. 350-357) Hopefully not very representative of the acclaimed White Teeth author.
  24. "Coop" by Glen David Gold (p. 358) A twenty-minute story.  One of the better ones.  
  25. "Bored to Death" by Jonathan Ames (pp. 359-386) I love what I've seen of the HBO series based on this story (how that came about is explained in the introduction), so it was interesting to read the original version (I think I like the series better, but the story is still pretty good).
  26. "There Is No Time in Waterloo" by Sheila Heti (pp. 387-397) A slightly better version of the one-thing-is-different type.  
  27. "The Double Zero" by Rick Moody (pp. 398-409) Moody is the author of The Four Fingers of Death, a book I eagerly added to my collection hoping it would be a great read.  After reading this short story, I wonder if my initial impression was accurate or hopelessly optimistic.  I'm wary to find out.
  28. "K is for Fake" by Jonatham Lethem (pp. 410-424) A sort-of mash-up between Kafka's The Metamorphosis and Orson Welles' F is for Fake (his final directorial effort).  Lethem is one of the best-known contributors, and I've long been interesting in reading him.  He comes off better than Moody, but not as well as, say, Roddy Doyle.  So I don't know how quickly I'll pursue reading, say, Fortress of Solitude.
  29. "Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events" by Kevin Moffett (pp. 425-445) Interesting, but also serves as a key basis of my DFW analysis, McSweeney's writers who constantly sit around fretting about what other people think of their writing, doubting themselves even while being able to make a living doing it.  A depressing portrait of the life but still interesting.
  30. "Panteetoum" by Bill Tarlin (p. 446) Another pointless pantoum.
  31. "Fire: The Next Sharp Stick?" by John Hodgman (pp. 447-455) Hilarious satire of business culture (the complete opposite of DFW's over/underthinking).  One of the true highlights.  You know Hodgman from those Mac-and-PC commercials he used to do with Justin Long, but he's also known for books with awesome titles like The Areas of My Expertise.
  32. "Miss Greenburger" by Peter Orner (p. 456) A twenty-minute story about a mortifying experience for a teacher.
  33. "Benjamin Bucks" by Jennie Erin Smith (pp. 457-475) A total miscalculation of a nonfiction piece.  The entry, in fact, that so sorely tested my patience that I couldn't get back into the anthology.
  34. "The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald" by Michelle Orange, Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet (pp. 476-490) Could have been very interesting.  But ends up reading more like the high school/college writing class material I thought of earlier.
  35. "Star Where You Are" by Deb Olin Unferth (pp. 491-505) Couldn't get into it.
  36. "Milltown Auspice" by Ben Jahn (p. 506) A pantoum (*sigh*).
  37. "Hot Pink" by Adam Levin (pp. 507-526) Couldn't get into it.
  38. "Four Institutional Monologues" by George Saunders (pp. 527-541) Mind-numbingly miscalculated fiction.
  39. "To Do" by Jennifer Egan (p. 542) Interesting.  From the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
  40. "How to Sell" by Clancy Martin (pp. 543-558) Couldn't get into it.
  41. "Fathers and Daughters" by Lawrence Weschler (pp. 559-562) Nonfiction based on a concept I read in better form in Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow.
  42. "(Notes from the Middle World)" by Breyten Breytenbach (pp. 563-576) An essay that does not appear to know that it's featured in a McSweeney's effort.
  43. "Two by Two" by Gunnhild Oyehaug (pp. 577-588) Couldn't get into it.
  44. "The Bastard" by Nyuol Lueth Tong (pp. 589-602) Couldn't get into it.
  45. "S&J" by Ellen Van Neerven-Currie (pp. 603-610) Couldn't get into it.
  46. "The New, Abridged Dictionary of Accepted Ideas" by Edwin Rozic and Aleksandar Hemon - Could have been very interesting.  But wasn't.
Bottom line is, I wish the contents had been better.  Some of it is down to how editors Dave Eggers and Jordan Bass arranged their selections (poorly).  Some of it is down to the selections themselves.  I really hope this is not the best McSweeney's has published so far.  And how can it be?  Roberto Bolano was a one-time contributor.  Not in the anthology.  What's up with that?  Couldn't get the rights to republish?  Best-of-the-material-we-could-republish?  

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse June 2014

In my return to the Coffeehouse, I figured I'd do a kind of survey.  Call it Results of the Great Indiespensible Experiment.

Indiespensible is the book-of-the-not-quite-month-club from Powell's, the great bastion of independent bookstores headquartered in Portland, OR.  Last fall I subscribed (that seems to be the only way to get their selections, although you can easily unsubscribe whenever you want) to the not-quite-club, and quit after four books.  I chose to insert them into my Reading List, hoping that I would have some exceptional material that was unusually current with other people for me.

The first book I received was recent Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch from Donna Tartt (which has been featured in the Coffeehouse before).  I loved the opening act but didn't like the rest of it, basically.  No big deal.  More books to follow!

That was in April.  In May I read the second book, Orfeo from Richard Powers (if you're curious, I've got a whole listening companion available).  I wasn't really wild about this one, either.

Between last month and this month I read The Best of McSweeney's.  Hopefully you're familiar with McSweeney's.  It represents the modern literary school.  I will be writing a full recap of my thoughts on each selection at some point.  Basically, though, it was a mixed bag.  There was stuff I loved and other stuff I have no idea why it would be included in a "best of" collection.  But then, you can't really expect to satisfy everyone with all the stories in a collection.

This month I read the fourth one, The Blazing World from Siri Hustvedt.  It was the most successful of the four books, although I had my issues with it.

Now, the big thing with Indiespensible is that these are all special editions unique to Powell's, complete with interview booklets and goodies the kindly booksellers slip into the packages.  Most of the goodies I received ended up being actual goodies, sweets from local Portland businesses.  Personally I think they really stiff the subscriber when they pull something like that.  Fortunately, the add-on with Blazing World was a little more involved.  It was one of the instances where Powell's sticks in another book!

This was We Are Not Ourselves, which is an advance reader because the book does not actually get published until August (which must have been bumped up, because the copy reads September).  This is the debut novel from Matthew Thomas.  I'm nearly a hundred pages in (five hundred to go), and I'm once again wondering how Powell's makes these picks.  It seems all of them are from the literati, the establishment that doesn't really judge a book by its content so much as the pedigree of its writer.  Tartt is the most obvious example (besides McSweeney's).  Her past fiction was widely praised.  I know for a fact that Goldfinch was not uniformly warmly received by critics.  Reading the thing, I can't imagine someone arguing that it was the best possible writing from last year.  We Are Not Ourselves seems to be receiving similar hype, but I find it pedestrian, a kind of historical survey that flits around its main character's perspective.  I kind of expect better.  I kind of expected much better from Indiespensible, from Powell's itself.  But then again, maybe my instincts were off because I had no idea what to expect.  I've never visited Powell's itself.  I do know readers can make some arbitrary decisions on which bookstores to laud, based on factors that don't really seem to have anything to do with the quality of its literary environment.  When I lived in Colorado Springs, I had just missed the Chinook experience.  Chinook, basically, was the Powell's of Colorado Springs.  I worked with its star bookseller for four years.  I think she wouldn't mind these Indiespensible books at all.

But they just aren't for me.  I don't want fiction that just kind of explores what writers who have constantly been pampered by their peers think they should be writing.  I want fiction that challenges and innovates.  Tellingly, Blazing World is the only real innovator in this set, even though it has the same creaky pains as the others.  McSweeney's published Roberto Bolano once (I know, because Best of... includes a full index of contributors to every volume).  That story isn't included.  Roddy Doyle is accounted for.  He's really the only writer I know of, have read, and fully endorse from the collection.  You've maybe heard of him (several of his books have become excellent movies, including The Commitments).  Strangely, the McSweeney's guy himself, Dave Eggers, doesn't have material featured in the book.

So I walk away from the experiment kind of baffled.  I wanted to have my finger on the pulse of some excellent contemporary, as-it's-published fiction.  Part of that goal was achieved.  And as I said, I'm still reading We Are Not Ourselves.  It could still surprise me.  Stranger things have happened.  Blazing World alternately inspired and infuriated me, which is more than I can say for the rest of the Powell's selections.  I consider that a good thing.  If you want to know about feminism in modern art, Blazing World is a good place to start.  If you want to read a good book, maybe...look elsewhere.

But then, I can be hard to please.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Music to read Orfeo by...

I just finished reading Richard Powers' Orfeo.  No, I wasn't hugely impressed.  (Maybe you can find my Goodreads review here.)  What struck me most of all was all the music he kept referencing that I wasn't really that familiar with, which got me thinking: this book needs a soundtrack.  I will do my best to provide one:

This is the piece that inspires the young Peter Els to his whole music career.

Peter bonds with Clara over this one.
Peter's breathless reaction alienates him from his peers.
It's Bob Dylan.
Peter's roommates engage him in one of several force-feedings with this one.
Most affecting historical interlude featuring musicians in the clutches of Nazis.
Song that fascinates the young Madolyn.
Serves as the link to Peter's meeting Richard Bonner.
Peter experiments with this song.
Peter does the same with this one.
Ringtone to Klaudia Kohlmann's phone.
Gets Peter interested in music again.
The follow-up to the above.
Music as public treason.
More music with a depressing backstory.
Nothing depressing associated with this one!
Music to end a journey with.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Things I've Been Reading

As always, I remind you that I have a Goodreads profile that will keep you more up-to-date than this blog has since...about a year ago.  But here's some of what I've been reading since last fall:

  • Fated by S.G. Browne - Amusing but not as interesting as it thought it was.
  • How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu - Brilliant.
  • Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano - Fine sketch of a detective novel.
  • The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano - Jumped to the top of Bolano canon.
  • The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano - A collection of essays and sketches.
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano - Brilliant.
  • Between Parenthesis by Roberto Bolano - Essays and speeches.
  • Call for the Dead by John le Carre - Excellent detective fiction.
  • A Murder of Quality by John le Carre - More excellent detective fiction.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre - Superior spy fiction.
  • A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre - Superior terrorism fiction.
  • The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling - Brilliant.
  • Holy Bible Revised Standard Version - First time I've read the complete book (thoughts here).
  • Amulet by Roberto Bolano - Fine sketch of a novel.
  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio - Prototypical Canterbury Tales is...not as fascinating.
  • I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn - Genius reworking of Lincoln mythology.
  • The Harry and Sylvia Stories by Welch Everman - Collection from an old college professor.
  • Little Demon in the City of Light by Steve Levingston - Superior version of Devil in the White City.
  • Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger - What's billed as the inside story of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is perhaps better read as an early sketch of U2 and/or Bono's biography.
  • The Guts by Roddy Doyle - Excellent slice of life.
  • You Can Date Boys When You're Forty by Dave Barry - Proof that Dave has more hilarity in him.
  • The Boston Rob Rulebook by Rob Mariano - The Survivor alum shares nuggets of wisdom.
  • The Seventh Babe by Jerome Charyn - My favorite Charyn is constantly shifting whenever I read another one; this is currently my pick.
  • The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn - The typical Charyn inverted.
  • Stan by Richard Wold - A huge waste of time, the kind of bad writing that is itself based on bad writing (in this case, bad horror movies).
  • The Ghosts of Nagasaki by Daniel Clausen - Brilliant.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Started brilliant, but degenerated into nonsense.
  • Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson - Promising prose debut.
I'm currently reading Orfeo by Richard Powers.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A recently concluded spin-off blog...

I've recently completed my reading of the Ignatius Holy Bible Revised Standard Version (to be accurate as to which version I read).  For the past few months, as I read, I've been keeping a separate reading blog to record my observations, Little Theo's.  I haven't advertised this blog too loudly (other than in the seemingly automatic updates into my Google+ feed) because I didn't want to step on too many theological toes, at least not blatantly.  The material is there if you want to have a look, cataloged a number of ways for your convenience.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Updated Reading List

I've done an update of the Reading List (one of the tabs above).  This past summer I underwent a purge of my collections of books as well as movies and music.  Some of the books in the previous List are no longer in my collection.  I've also added some interesting new books.  So I've recalculated the List (it's shorter, too!).  I won't be providing further reading updates here, but will remain posting thoughts at the previously stated destinations, if you so choose to have a look.  This particular blog will remain a little sampling of my thoughts, should anyone care to read them.
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