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?  
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