As a chess-centric conspiracy sequel to The Eight, The Nine TOTALLY BLOWS. No chess, no crazed races through the desert, and they don't even manage to make every Supreme Court justice a player in some idiotic centuries-old "this chess set has some secrets, k?" cabal. F MINUS.
As a glimpse into the Rehnquist court (and a li'l bit of the Roberts court that just began) it's pretty great. So far it's the breezy feel-good read of the summer! So, on balance, I guess it'll do.
Coming soon: NIXONLAND. (Yes, you should be excited.)
This is a crazy, silly little novel about a fat, eccentric billionaire who spends his money in strange and fascinating ways. Getting strangers to eat his parking tickets. Persuading folks to bob for $10,000 dollar bills in a huge vat of blood, feces, and animal urine. Bribing professional actors into walking off-stage mid-act, or professional boxers into throwing their fights in vaguely homosexual manners, like sugary figs. Buying a movie theatre and splicing in scenes of women with prosthetic claws scratching under their skirts. Hiring a pig to be the new CEO of a prestigious ad agency in New York.
My good friend Josh Sherman came into town recently, and invited me to a fancy Chicago BBQ along with his mom. It was wonderful. Cajun salmon, soy ice cream, white wine, lots of adult conversation. I felt like a real person.
But then Josh's mom, a lovely woman with short gray hair, a fellow Northwestern grad, and a total type-A, alpha-female New Yorker, cornered me on the couch and started to pick my life apart. Then I started to feel like a child again. Totally aimless, without hope of direction, dizzy from putting my forehead on the baseball bat and spinning around too many times.
Josh's mom said I needed to read a book. A book about writing and life. She said it had all the answers for a creative soul trying to tough it out, the hard days. I promised I would read it. And now I have.
I love Josh Sherman's mom. I think, at some weird level, she understands me better than I do myself. At least, she always seems to have the right things to say, the right books and articles to recommend, the right advice to impart. And this was no exception. Bird by Bird is a charming, self-deprecating book about what it means to be a writer, what it takes to stay a writer, and how to arm yourself with lots of little tricks and tools to make yourself believe you have what it takes to be, well, a writer.
First off, let me apologize that I've been AWOL for so long. I don't have a good explanation, other than that I've been reading less, but I've been posting even less than I've been reading, so its not really a good excuse.
This is a book I've recommended to countless people since I read it. This is not because it is particularly well written, or essential, its just pretty damn cool. I'm not much of a non-fiction person, and I'm less of a science person, but I am a science fiction person, and the idea of explaining the real science behind the fiction definitely drew me in. Kaku is a many award winning physicist who seems to specialize (as a writer) in explaining physics to lay people. The focus of this book is sorting the technologies that we have seen and read about it things like Star Trek, Harry Potter, Star Wars, (ie invisibility, time travel, pyschokensis, interstellar colinization, precognition, etc) and countless other sci-fi/fantasy classics into Class I, II, and III impossibilities, and then explaining when, why, and, most importantly, how, they could become real-world realities. Class I impossibilities are the most likely...things we are on our way towards as a society, that the tecnology to create them exists they just aren't cost effective yet, or we are lacking that one essential discovery but are near it (the most likely impossibilities are things like Force Fields and Phasers, which we have small versions of now and should have real working models of in the next few decades, according to Kaku. This may not seem like a big deal, but with force fields would come those flying cars our parents were always promised). Class II impossibilites are things that wont be actualized until our society evolves (this mostly involves harnassing and using way more power than we do) and/or new discoveries that are only suspected are made (like the existence/utilization of things like dark matter and wormholes). These are things like faster than the speed of light travel, time travel, ESP, etc. Class III impossibilities are things that won't be realized for millinea or more, or until currently held laws of physics are disproved. These are precognition and a perpetual motion machine.
Kaku does a great job in explaining these things so that a person who got a C on online physics in high school and never revisited the subject can follow along, as well as tying the real science of molecular and quantum physics to Star Trek. But a lot of the science was still over my head (faster than speed of light travel is currently possible, as long as what you are sending contains no information. this sentence was repeated over and over in various chapters, and i have no idea what it actually means. But as a basic primer on where our society may be headed, technology wise, and as a means of getting excited that our grandkids may be able to become invisible, its a fun read.
Call me pedestrian. I didn't like it. Kevin Reich told me it would take me a day and it took me weeks because it was so mind-numbingly boring. Blah blah blah literary masterpiece, blah blah blah portrait of the modern female, blah blah blah the hours, blah. 2/10
Qualifier: Kevin Reich is more well-read than I, and is probably a better judge of the actual merits of this book.
A gigantic concrete tub sitting at the corner of State and Lake. Under the tub are hundreds of blue flames burning brightly through the night. Inside the tub is a potent concoction made of truckloads of urine, feces, and blood. Inside the concoction is a small fortune in cash.
So there's a political blog I read (Matt Yglesias's at ThinkProgress) that recently had a piece up about another pundit griping about the DaVinci Code being seen as literary trash instead of vicious attacks on the Catholic Church, arguing that the same treatment applied to Islam or Judaism would be seen as horrifyingly bigoted. Yglesias responded that the Church just happens to have a long enough consistent centralized structure to be a useful hook on which to hang dopey-fun conspiracy tales, a rigid structure that's absent in the other faiths. He mentioned "The Eight" as his favorite historical conspiracy fiction novel, adding that it "takes aim at the Freemasons, a group that seems to have been invented precisely to provide fodder for good conspiracy theories. Plus, it also involves accounting improprieties!"
So, good enough for me! It's summer and I like me some dumb National Treasure-style romps that posit "What if the Founding Fathers were, like, hiding sculptures and only created a sovereign nation as an afterthought?" Grabbed The Eight at the library and dove in.
And guys, it's just not that fun, at least to me. Neville is WAY into the idea that she's never met a conspiracy romp that wouldn't be improved by adding nearly every historical figure available to the mix, so over the course of the book we see Napoleon, Catherine the Great, Robespierre, Marat, Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton, Charlemagne, Kadafi, Voltaire, Bach, Euler, and oh god I don't want to name everybody, but come on. It passes from amusingly-unhinged to exhausting pretty early on.
Neville is also big on piling as many codes and secret messages into the book as possible, laying on eights with a gleeful abandon. If you thought Lost's makers had a lot of fun inserting The Numbers wherever they needed a number, just wait til you see how many eights crop up in this book (or how many floors are described as "chessboard"s, culminating with the protagonist's realization that ZOMG the floor in her friends' home really DOES look like a chess board!).
Anyways, there are some books like this that, in their last twists, make you go "oh, that's clever" or tie things shut in a way that makes you appreciate the structure of it, but this ain't it -- everything seems too obvious too early, so when the ending comes (with some bizarre details that aren't quite plausible even in this deranged reality) it's a letdown.
So anyways, I'm 0-for-1 on delightful light summer reads. Anyone who has suggestions for better options in this field, let me know! I like to balance my reading out, and so far Nixonland is proving to be the feel-good hit of the summer in comparison...
Or "WHY HAVE I NEVER READ ANY GEORGE SAUNDERS UNTIL NOW? WHYYYY???"
A toeless barber. A motivational speaker who encourages his followers not to let people "crap in their oatmeal." A sweet, loving old aunt who dies and later returns to her favorite rocking chair, swearing at her loved ones and decomposing. A man who works at an aviation-themed strip club called "Joysticks." One of the funniest books I've ever read. One of the scariest books I've ever read. And, although the situations seem absurd, they're really not all that much of an leap from reality. Now I'm clamoring for more George Saunders.
Or "For A Book About Snap Judgements, You'd Think It Would Have A Snazzier Cover."
I liked Outliers ever so much, so I decided for a little more Gladwell. And Blink was definitely same song, different verse, but not at all in a bad way: the same kind of pop-neuroscience, anecdotal examination of physcological phenomena, fun, quick, definitely thought-provoking, but not to be read without a dose of skepticism.
This time Gladwell looks into the unconscious, snap judgements, first reactions, and how they're often just as reliable as rationalized ideas, if not more so. Blink is full of the kind of informtion that comes up at dinner parties in the form of "They did this study about..." Gladwell makes some interesting cases, or at least fills his book with some great stories and studies, but not without fault. One particularly cringe-worthy section is devoted to an idea Gladwell terms "temporary autism." Yeeeesh.
From April to July of 1994, over the course of less than 100 days, 800,000 members of the Rwandan population were murdered by their friends, neighbors, in-laws, and co-workers. the government-sponsored murder of Rwandan Tutsis by the Hutu-Power movement was clearest case of genocide since the Holocaust and the international community (The United States leading the charge) stood mute.
What shocked me about this story was that this genocide was not committed by a trained army. These killers were ordinary people who were driven by mob mentality to literally decimate the population of Rwanda.
There's not much more I can say about this book. It's incredible and horrifying and shocking. Gourevitch is a marvelous writer and the stories he tells are humbling. (10/10)
Andy has already posted about this one, so I'll keep it short.
Don Delillo has an incredible ability to remind me that I am just like every other person on Earth. BUT NOT IN A BAD WAY!
For example: I don't know if any of you have ever done this, but the characters in this book talk at one point about how long they can go with their eyes closed on the open freeway. I though I was the only one who ever did this because it is a sick, dangerous, ridiculous thing to do. Apparently, there is hope for me yet! (disclaimer: my record is less than one second.)
Seriously though, more than any other book I've ever read, this book makes me feel like I am not alone in my feelings, which, I have to say, if comforting. (7.5/10)
Last night I returned from the rock 'n roll monolith that is Bonnaroo. Words cannot describe the sights and sounds I have taken in over the past 5 days. Peace and love and drugs and music and cuddling and fountains and fire and sweat and laughs and love and brothers.
When a group of 75,000 people all have a collective comedown there is bound to be trouble. Mostly, there wasn't. But on Monday, as we were packing up the tents and preparing for the long drive back to Chi-Town, we witnessed a nasty fight between a couple, resulting in the man knocking his defenseless girlfriend to the muddy ground. It was fucked up, to say the least. We offered to give her a ride home, but she lived far out of our way. Let's hope she's alright now.
As we left the site I couldn't help but think that the bad vibes were spreading...that the hippie dream was curdling into something grumpy, something angry, something wicked.
I tell you this story because four decades ago, Charles Manson and his Family would have almost certainly attended Bonnaroo. His girls would have danced through campsites, sharing love and drugs with the masses. Charlie probably would have set up shop in tent-city, playing songs on his acoustic deep into the night. The vibe would be one of harmony and understanding...peace and love to all.
And then he'd fucking chop me to bits.
Have a safe summer everybody...Helter Skelter is coming down.
I was not a good high school student. Especially towards my english teachers. I refused to read what was given to me, instead becoming a master of CliffsNotes essay writing. And because of this stubbornness, I consequently missed out on all the classics that I probably should have under my belt at this point in life.
Two days ago, I was in Barnes & Noble and found a copy of Of Mice and Men on the Summer Reading "2 for 3" table. I immediately recognized it as a book from my past that I should have read, but have not. And then I discovered that it's only 100 pages. Perfect! I get to read an important book that will make me feel studious and respectful, while simultaneously putting in minimal amounts of time and effort!
So, I say to you, John Steinbeck: Not bad. You're a classic and accessible kind of guy. Not bad at all.
Or "I'm A Little Behind On My Posting So Rather Than Going All Pat King On This Blog, I'm Just Gonna Post 'Em All Real Short And Quick"
Spilling Open: The Art of Becoming Yourself - Sabrina Ward Harrison
Sabrina Ward Harrison is an artist. A young artist. Finding her voice, her art, and herself. This book is a raw look into that journey. It is simultaneously private and universal, intimate and expansive. Through collages, quotations, and (mainly) excerpts from the diary she kept from ages eighteen to twenty one, we get to see Sabrina wondering all those things we all wonder -- who we are, how we fit in the world, how to accomplish our dreams. A beautiful book.
Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner - A.A. Milne
These books are perfect. Absolutely perfect. Sweet and warm and wonderful for children, hilarious and
profound and beautiful for adults. Plus I cried like a wee baby at the end. I already can't wait to read these again.
Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer
You've read this one, right? It's great, isn't it? On an unrelated-to-Everything-Is-Illuminated note, on the inside cover, in Jonathan Safran Foer's biography, it says that he is working on his second book, which is set in a museum. I wonder what that was going to be...
A Midsummer Night's Dream - William Shakespeare
This is my favorite Shakespeare play. Pretty standard, perhaps. Overdone, perhaps. But my favorite nonetheless. Plus the Arden editions of Shakespeare's plays make my knees quivery and weak. Just thinking about them make me drool a little. Do I get to double count this one for memorizing a huge chunk of it and performing over eighty times in high schools throughout Idaho? Didn't think so. Really, though, I love this play.
A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room - Lemony Snicket
I LOVED the first Series of Unfortunate Events book. LOVED it. So I grabbed the second one as a breezy airplane read and, I gotta say, I didn't love it as much as the first. Not because it was any worse, just because it was exactly the same. I always love stories where kids are the heroes and where they use their own cleverness and teamwork to solve problems. Always. And this was no exception, just the second time around all the stuff I loved so much about the first one got a little repetitive.
The House on Mango Street tells the story, sort of, of Esperanza, a young Mexican-American girl growing up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago. It's a series of small vignettes, some interconnected, some non-sequiter, giving the book a sort of mosaic effect. Close up, it's a lot of individual pieces. Far away, it's a rich, textured, lyrical look at what it means to be young and on the edge of being not-young, to be poor and female in a rich man's world.
I'm not going to say any more that that. If you've already read it, you don't need me to, and if you haven't, I don't want to spoil anything with a weak attempt at a synopsis. Not because there are thrilling plot twists, or events whose impact would be lessened by my reveling them. Just because the book is delicate and lovely and heartbreaking and unbelievably joyous and you should just read it for yourself.
When he was 43 years old, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a massive stroke that left his body completely paralyzed, but his mind free and active. Locked-In Syndrome. Living inside the diving bell of his body. Jean-Dominique learned to communicate through the blinking of his left eye. The alphabet was rearranged from the most commonly used letters to those lonely stragglers on the end. W's and X's and K's. Through this system, Jean-Dominique could very slowly, painstakingly blink out single letters to form words and sentences. And eventually, these words and sentences turned into a stunning novel about memories. About how good and full life can be. The smell of sausage. Finding yourself alone at midnight in a foreign town. The simple act of speaking. Walking with your children. Jean-Dominique remembers everything, relives every moment, every detail. He calls himself the butterfly, flying out of his diving bell, exploring the world a bit differently this time around.
City of Thieves is about these two Russian boys living in Leningrad during World War II. One is Lev, the narrator, a small, virginized 17-year-old boy, who is caught stealing from a dead German paratrooper. The other is Kolya, handsome, a womanizer, a soldier who is caught deserting his post. The two are thrown into the same cell, where they quietly wait till they are summoned to execution. However, instead of a bullet to the back of their heads, they are instead charged with an unusual mission. Leningrad has run out of eggs. The colonel's daughter is getting married in five days. The colonel figures that you can't really have a proper wedding without a proper wedding cake. And wedding cakes need eggs. If Lev and Kolya can sneak behind enemy lines, secure a dozen fresh, unbroken eggs, and return to Leningrad by Thursday, the colonel will let them live. So the two Russian boys set off on their journey to find some eggs.
I was really taken by this book. Granted, I had sort of grown unreasonably excited to find a copy. Every bookstore that I went to, City of Thieves was always displayed. And I was always titillated by the cover. If you look really closely, next to the second small tree, you can see that the two men are chasing this adorable-looking cartoon chicken, who's leaving tiny footprints as it hobbles away. And I kept thinking to myself, "This looks delightful. I can't wait to read this delightful thing."
It wasn't delightful. It's a story about the war, and lots of terrible war-esque things happen within. Murder, sawed-off limbs, bullets into jawbones, that kind of thing. You know. But really, it's a story about friendship. And trying to sleep with women, or at least catch a glimpse of a naked breast. And it's about eggs. And a rooster/chicken named Darling. So, maybe it was a little delightful after all.
Or "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad!" Here I am, revisitingAnimal Farm for the first time since my sophomore year of high school. This fall, Filament is doing an adaptation of this book to open our 2009-2010 season (PLUG!), so I figured it would behoove me (Is that kind of a pun? Like hooves?) to refamiliarize myself with the text. So I did.
I'm sure we've all read this one. We all know about political satire, a dictator pig named Napoleon, and typical classic Orwellian dysopic society stuff. I won't go on and on with summaries and analysis and all that, because we all already wrote those papers when we were 15. But here's the thing. Animal Farm is really really really good. And not just "Yeah, I remember that being one of the books I actually enjoyed reading in high school" good. It's just so so so good. It's funny, it's insightful, and it's genuinely scary. Yeah, you've already read it. But read it again. I promise it's worth it.