Thursday, December 31, 2009

I want more of Lorrie Moore.

"Don't make your own life your project in your own life: total waste of time.
People were not what they seemed and certainly not what they said.
Madness was contagious.
Memory served melancholy.
There could be virtue in satirizing virtue.
No one loved a loser until he completely lost."

I loved this book. Finished it on the way back from our Xmas vacation and dog-eared many pages that stuck out in my mind. This is a year in the life of Tassie Keltjin, a quirky twenty year old Midwestern daughter of a boutique potato farmer, who has moved to a university town as a college student. She becomes the nanny to a 'glamorous' (in her view) couple who have adopted a 2 yr. old biracial girl, learning to adore this baby and trying to understand the eccentric mother and father. Helping to raise the little girl provides all kinds of interesting material on race in America. For example, on learning that Tassie has taught the toddler the song "I've Been Working on the Railroad", Sarah (the mother) distastefully announces that there will be no more singing those lyrics on account of its use of poor grammar and hints at slave labor. Lorrie Moore throws in several other interesting characters along the way...Tassie's younger brother, lost and pondering the possibility of signing up for the army (did I mention this takes place right after 9-11?), Tassie's parents, her new love. But not everything is as 'clean' as it seems. There were twists, turns, shockers and what surprised me the most was how I could be humorously snickering at one part and reading with a huge lump in my throat at another. Ultimately, this is the story of a young woman's lessons on the bizarre behavior of seemingly normal people. Lorrie Moore's wit combined with tragedy blind-sided me every step of the way.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sun, Won't You Come

Black Hole is a graphic novel I had never heard of before it was handed to me by my friend Morgan. He said it had been all over the AV Club, which I trust beyond all things, and that it was weird but I should read it. It was, in fact, weird.

The story, told through the eyes of multiple high school students in narrative, flashback, and dreams, takes place in a 1970's alternate universe where a nameless disease (called only "the bug"), passed through bodily fluids, causes its victims to mutate. Some have barely noticeable or easily disguisable changes (a small mouth on their neck, the ability to shed skin, a tail), whereas some break out in boils or have a skull instead of a face. And then things get weird.

The story was actually rather hard to follow (owing in part to the fact that two of the main male characters look sort of similar and are called by both first and last names interchangeably) and because it jumps around from flashback to present, so it can be hard to tell what is happening and what is being remembered. The "bug" device, while at first seeming like just an allegory for AIDS or similar STD's, becomes much more the further in one reads. The bug isn't life threatening, and it manifests randomly...but it seems the popular kids all lead more or less normal lives with it, while the dorky kids are the ones that are most deformed and stay outcasts. Its a world where casual sex and random drug use have consequences, but don't seem to prevent anyone from doing them (much like high school). In fact, the risk (and even the result) seems to be attractive for some of the characters. As a less obvious, but no less blunt and apt allegory for puberty and adolescent changes, the grotesquery of Burns' world works incredibly well. While I'm not sure I liked it, I'm glad i read it. Zeke, here's looking at you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Ripping Yarn

It has been a long time since I got so lost in a book that I would rather be reading it than doing just about anything else. Or rather, I should so it had been a long time. I came late to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but I'm glad I did. This was the rare book that I stayed up later than I intended to to keep reading, and then woke up early and read some more. It's not great literature, but its a great story, a gripping mystery with characters that get under your skin and told in a simple, straightforward manner dripping with forward momentum.

To reveal too much about the plot would be unfair, it is a mystery after all, and a highly readable one that I would unreservedly recommend to just about anyone. But the basics are this: Investigative financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist is convicted of libel for printing an unverifiable story in his magazine that accuses a prominent Swedish business man of criminal acts. This brings him national attention, and one of the people who takes notice is an elderly titan of industry named Henrik Vanger. Vanger has a proposition for Blomkvist, one that gets Blomkvist tangled in the possibly sordid history of the Vanger clan. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, an extremely bright but socially awkward sort-of PI (and the titular tattooed girl) is also on the case. Their paths cross, and together they uncover a mystery more twisted than they could have imagined etc etc...

My one complaint about the book is that I may have enjoyed it more if I was, like the author and all the characters, Swedish. It references Swedish geography, laws, history, rules, and themes that, while its possible to pick up on, could only be more resonant if you are already familiar with them. The epigrams that begin each section of the book deal are all statistics about violence against women in Sweden (a theme that runs throughout this book and apparently all of Larsson's novels), and there is a major plot point that deals with how Swedish legistlation deals with persons the government has deemed incapable of caring for themselves...neither of these things are unique to Sweden, or hard to get a basic handle on if you are, say, American, but they feel particularly Swedish in a way that means I feel like i missed something. In spite of all that, I enjoyed the act of reading this book more than any in recent memory. I can't wait for my dad to finish the next one and send it to me, and I'm glad I didn't read Allison's post on it a few weeks ago any closer than I did.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


A beautiful book about dreams and time! A whimsical and sad poem about the way we see things and the way that we maybe ought to see things. In one world, time moves backwards. In another, time is illogical. Time is erratic. Time flows like water. In yet another, time is a flock of birds, and if you wish to stop time, you must catch one of these birds in a glass jar. Albert Einstein has been dreaming, you see. He's been working on a new theory of time, and his mind has been doing the strangest things.

Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao

Gone is the playfulness of White Noise. This time, Don DeLillo puts on a much more serious face to deliver a kind of meditation on writing and terrorism, solitude and congregation, Semtex explosives and upper crust art. At the center is Bill Gray, an aging novelist who used to move the masses with his words, who now sees that bombs and gunfire do his work for him. Around him swirls his assistant, his lover, his loneliness, his failed novel-in-progress, a hostage in Beirut, an apartment in New York, the teachings of Mao Zedong, the imaginings of Andy Warhol. Bill's afraid that he might be losing his touch. That he can't do it on his own. After all, the future belongs to crowds. Quoting Bill.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Grew Up in Gordita Beach

While this may only be significant to previous Vice-readers Andy and Zeke (okay, who am I kidding, its only significant to me, but I digress), perhaps my favorite thing about Thomas Pynchon's sprawling, drug-and-surf noir Inherent Vice is that it is set in my hometown. Okay, Gordita Beach is made up, but Manhattan Beach (my hometown) is mentioned by name as being a neighbor city, as are Manhattan Beach neighbor cities Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, and Torrance. The Manhattan Beach neighborhoods of El Porto and the Tree Section (where my parents house is) are mentioned by name, as are streets like Sepulveda and Artesia, and even my high school (Mira Costa High) gets a shout out. Granted, the yuppified, multi-million dollar home Manhattan Beach is a far cry from how it was in the 60's setting of the novel, but still, I thought that was neat. Plenty of novels are set in NYC or London or Chicago or the Greater Los Angeles area, it gives me a little thrill to read one set in my backyard.

When I say that was my favorite thing about the novel, that might be bit understatement, but it really is not a compliment. While I like Pynchon's writing style, his flair for colorful characters and dialogue, and the way he captures the pervading sense of dread and end-of-an-era-ness that surrounded LA after the (oft refrenced in the novel) Manson murders, the book felt about 100 pages too long and about 45 characters too big. The central noir mystery gets lost after a few chapters, so much so that I didn't even notice when it was solved at first, which happens maybe 2/3 of the way through the book. That mystery is of course replaced by a bigger one, but, you know what? Neither are that mysterious. The fun part of the book is watching PI Larry "Doc" Sportello wander around the South Bay in a pot haze, dodging or failing to dodge the various people who wish him ill or want something from him. But after a while, it starts to feel as if Pynchon had a list of his infamously silly and descriptive names and refused to finish the book before he managed to use every single one of them (some favorites include Sauncho Smilax, Riggs Warbling, Bigfoot Bjornsen, and Vincent Indelicato). Mostly I was ready to be done with the book long before I was, and that's never a good sign.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Acts

The Humbling by Philip Roth

65 year old Simon Axler has lost it. A famous actor who has lost all confidence on the stage, who has become the laughing stock to his once adoring audience, has lost his wife, and lost his will to live, vanishing "Into Thin Air" as this first of three parts is titled. The suicidal Axler checks himself into a mental hospital and after 26 days, is released. Thus begins Part II, "The Transformation". Axler is visited by the 40 year old lesbian daughter of long-ago actor friends, they fall in love, she for the first time with a man, and she 'transforms' him back his will to survive, lots of kinky sex, and the stirrings of desire to re-enter the acting world which he had given up on. I won't ruin "The Last Act" , Part III. Suffice to say that I read this book in a couldn't-put-it-down sitting. That's the powerful punch Philip Roth handed out. Excellent!

Is there such a thing as Too Much Happiness?

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

I've never read anything by Alice Munro before but I found her new collection of short stories intriguing and found myself thinking about some of the stories long after closing the book. She incorporates the "usual" fiction fare: murder, suicide, adultery, illness, theft, crime, dysfunction, mental instability, cruelty, violence, emotional abuse......yet never does the story end up where you think it will, such is her creative twist on our expectations. Don't expect anything "usual" about these stories at all. Alice Munro will suck you in and keep you on your toes while doing so.

And on a different note: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY FAVORITE OLDEST SON!!!!!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

And then what happened?

"Invisible" by Paul Auster

Somewhere in the many reviews for this incredible book was a perfect description of what you enter when you begin reading this one: A hall of mirrors. Adam Walker, a 20 year old Columbia University undergrad of literature and poetry in 1967, is about to meet the intriguing Rudolf Born and his equally mysterious French lover, Margot. From that moment on, his life will never be the same. I anticipated every turn of the page to see what would happen next, what is truth, what is fiction, can we trust our memories, but most of all, I was in awe at the clever style in which Auster told the story. (Those of you who have writing aspirations, take note! Yup...I mean you!) Add this one to the pile on your nightstand. Meanwhile, I'm going out to buy another Auster novel....

Monday, December 7, 2009

Asterios Polyp

About once a day, an asteroid the size of a grapefruit burns through our atmosphere. And if lithium had been available a few thousand years ago, the world might be a very different place. Paper architects can blueprint their entire lives with T-squares and ink, but sometimes a well-placed lightning bolt can be the catalyst to a very undrafted kind of journey. Relationships are messy, clunkers can run on sunshine, and reality seems to be split between those who divide everything into two, and those who don't. Cells regenerate, people change, mistakes are made, and the larger asteroids still remain, hiding just beyond the sight of any curious telescope.

Points to Pat King. This is stunning.

Heaviness and Light

Milan Kundera, you beautiful bastard, this is exactly the book that Blindness thought it was gonna be before it sank under Saramago's thuddingly heavy Hammer of Laborious Obviousness. Because dudes! Kundera is right up front with how he's interested in wedding a philosophical inquiry to a character-based narrative! Early on (to my boundless delight) Kundera breaks from the action to note that Tomas was born not from a mother, but from the idea of a man staring out a window into a courtyard with two possible life paths ahead of him. There's something really lovely and refreshing about acknowledging the construct of the fiction at play (some would call this "lampshade hanging"), and I think it's at least partially responsible for the piece's levity and readability.

More importantly as a distinction from Blindness (and after this I'll leave Saramago behind because I know other people like it, and Unbearable Lightness of Being is just operating on a much higher plane and deserves to be discussed on its own), Kundera's philosophical inquiry is just that: an inquiry. He's toying with contradictions (building the book around the conflicting desires for heaviness and light, or the dichotomy of the body and mind, and so forth) and proffering ideas as to how to look at the world, but it's all done with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Contrast that with Saramago's leaden parable in which a civilization goes blind and Just Happens to behave in a way that ploddingly illustrates his "Dudes can be pretty bad to other dudes" theme.

But I said I was done with Saramago, and I am. Unbearable Lightness of Being is really quite joyful and wide-ranging, skipping from Nietzsche's philosophy to an exploration of romance and eroticism to the agony of infidelity to a sharp, personal sketch of life under Soviet rule, with detours exploring the absurd pageantry of political activism and the purity of the love a master bears its pet. It's emotionally barbed, deeply humane, and wildly affectionate. I loved it, guys.

Next up: a book of interviews with Uwe Boll? I WISH! But seriously, it's probably gonna be a history of Disney. Suck it, literati!

Now that's more like it...

I promise that my books aren't just going to alternate between pulp detective noir and compendiums of interviews with filmmakers (it really can't, as I've already read my next book, and SPOILER ALERT it's a Czech novel of instant-classic status and almost no goons busting in on private-eye protagonists). But I gotta say, if there are more interview collections of this caliber out there, particularly for directors who fascinate me endlessly (Altman, Leigh, etc.) I may keep disappearing down this rabbit hole.

Okay, that's just to say, this was pretty great. Allen is a brilliant mind, and these interviews find him mostly (and delightfully) free of the obligation to entertain -- it's just a set of very sober, probing, sometimes quite insightful reflections on his body of work (about which he's largely ambivalent, considering all of his films with the possible exception of Stardust Memories to be failures), his philosophy, the nature of mankind, and a generalized riff on dating (loosely paraphrasing: a guy will look at himself in a mirror, change ties, change to a gray suit from a navy blue one, change ties again, change shirts, and meanwhile the girl he's about to go on a date with has already decided whether or not she's going to sleep with him). It's fascinating stuff, deeply enjoyable, and if nothing else, reminds me that for all that I've seen a dozen of his films and change, I have major gaps in my Woody education. So thanks, Reading-Blog, for adding an impossible list of films to my to-do list on top of your grueling literacy demands! Will you leave me no rest, no rest at all?

I Listen To the Same Music as Joe Meno and Still Didn't Love This Book

I remembered someone reading this book and feeling ambivalent about it last year, but honestly I thought it was Andy (because it is, frankly, Andy and my kind of book). Turns out it was Zeke, who was anything but ambivalent about it, in that he seems to have hated it with the special kind of hate metalheads reserve for their wimpy friends and neighbors. Fair enough, Zeke, fair enough. Unfortunately, for me, while my reasons were different, my conclusion about this book is largely the same.

Even though by the end I was pretty over it, this book is almost worth reading for the premise alone. The idea is that the titular "Boy Detective" is a detective wunderkind, solving all sorts of crimes before Bar Mitzvah age with his beautiful sister and fat best friend. Time passes, as it is want to do, and when the Boy Detective leaves for college, his sister kills herself, an act which is a mystery to the BD, and one which he will spend the rest of his life trying to solve. He has his own suicidal nervous breakdown, and decides it is safer to spend the rest of his life in an institution largely populated by the criminal masterminds who he helped catch in his youth and their prime. For anyone (me) who grew up reading Encyclopedia Brown (which is, I think, clearly the model for the BD...he is also like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, obviously, but the HB show up as thinly disguised brothers I think named the Handy Boys, who know work as the ticket taker and asst. manager, respectively, at a movie theater).

I am all for post-modernism, especially in literature. And this book is full of it, which out of order chapters, digressions, footnotes, and a special decoder ring in the back which lets you, the reader, help the boy detetcive, at the urging of the narrator. The narrator also often pauses the action to talk directly to you, the reader, using the second person. This is the largest problem I had with the book, and it got to be an overwhelmingly large one. Joe Meno has a great gift, I think, for premises and for capturing small, achingly sad moments and crafting pathetic, heartbreaking characters. But the man cannot get out of his own way to tell the story he has set up so well. While I am sure it is done slightly more artfully than this, Meno (or his narrator) comments in the action in such a blindlingly obvious way that it really starts to feel that at the end of any sad chapter, there are a few sentences where we leave the BD, alone in his room or whatever, and the narrator says "Isn't that sad? Isn't your heartbreaking? Wasn't that last scene just so sad and awesome and you have feelings that you are feeling now don't you? And they are sad feelings? Because of the story I am telling you" etc. I know its sad. I just read it. And if I didn't think it was sad, you, Joe Meno, have frankly failed and no amount of you asking me if I found your sad story sad will make me go, "Oh, that was supposed to be sad? I get it now!". While I imagine that was not his intent, it feels like it sometimes, and the meta-commentary that points out exactly what I am feeling is so alienating and distracting that it prevents the book from being intimate for any sustained stretch, which is what it needs to be affecting when its story is so small and precious.

And as for precious, the book drags on and on (I felt like I should've been done at about the halfway point, and its less than 300 pages long) but it really lost me with one chapter towards the end. The BD and his object of affection finally get together, after much mumblecore posturing. The chapter is nice but I was, as I said, mostly over it. The problem was the entirety of the next chapter was roughly the following (i am paraphrasing, but not as much as it might seem):

"Did you read that chapter while holding hands with someone you care about? No? Well, go find someone to hold hands with and reread the chapter? wasn't that better?'



1. 26 Songs That are As Good as Short Stories
2. 37 Sound Effects Created By Al Jean for Mad Magazine
3. 21 Films too Painful to Watch Twice
4. 6 Keanu Reeves Movies Somehow Not Ruined By Keanu Reeves

etc. etc. I'm at a coffee shop, the book is at home, and I'd like to get caught up on posts, so I'm going to stop there. If you'd like more lists of lists, I'd be happy to comply. The point is, I love lists. I also love pop culture. Furthermore, largely because of the previous two statements, I love the A.V. Club, the Onion's culture section/blog/website. I read it religiously, and I started reading it religiously for two reasons: 1. I was working in an office with access to the internet and 2. Their weekly "Inventory" feature, where they would make up a list (this week's is 21 Great Albums with terrible cover art, they did a double list not long ago of 42 songs about suicide, which has long been a fascination for me. My favorite is probably Jets To Brazil's "Conrad", which also made their list) of something to do with pop culture, but something very specific...those of you who know me well may remember a love I have of theme mixes, and my little brother probably remembers my love of thematicly built Magic Card decks (I had a particularly good Goblin one, if I recall). This book is a collection of mostly new, mostly funny and fascinating lists of this type, with pithy descriptions of each entry. For most, its probably exceptionally bathroom reading. For me, I went to the reading on the release day like it was the album release from my favorite band.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

-Ten minutes, please.
-Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?
-To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That's all we need to understand each other's feelings.

Toru Okada is 32 and unemployed. He spends his days looking for his missing cat, swimming laps at the ward pool, boiling spaghetti for breakfast, and sucking on lemon drops. He lives in a quiet house on a quiet street that dead-ends in both directions, and is watched over by an unseen bird that seems to wind its spring to start each morning.

And then Mr. Okada's wife disappears, and our Japanese Everyman sets out on a journey to find her, from Manchuria to Kyoto to the world of dreams. The strange telephone calls persist. Many, many sexually alluring women of all ages enter his life. I would say that Toru Okada has no less than three wet dreams over the course of the first 200 pages. Our narrator is wrapped up in political conspiracy, war stories about men getting skinned alive, undercover bald profiling for a wig company, mystical healing powers and mysterious blue scars. He beats the shit out of a man with a baseball bat. He finds himself at the bottom of a well. And there's someone waiting for him in a hotel room in a reality just beyond the present one, if only Toru Okada can figure out how to pass through the door.

All in all, a very interesting read. It's chock-full of images and stories and dark Japanese history. It's consistently engaging. It's also really sad, when consumed on the human level of a lonely man who's so broken by the loss of his wife that all he can do is spin a massive all-encompassing fairy tale to trick himself that the pain isn't real.

However, it's also an unnecessary 600 pages long, which is not a terrible length if justified. But after finishing, I didn't think it was justified. A little too swollen, perhaps. It seemed like Murakami just couldn't bring himself to whittle it down.

I don't know. I'm still looking for that one Murakami book that just knocks my socks off. I know it's out there. It has to be. But so far, every Haruki tome that I've read has me wanting just a little bit more. And I want to be satiated. Give me what I need.