Saturday, February 28, 2009

David Foster Wallace: Smarter Than You.

"A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" is a collection of DFW's essays from the mid-nineties and was my first exposure to same.
At first glance, I wasn't to thrilled with Mr. Wallace. The first essay in this collection is a long kind of diatribe about how he used to play competitive tennis as a child and was really good at it because he was really good at math and blah blah blah and I think sounds a lot more braggy than it does interesting, however, I really started to like him as I read on. He's brilliant and easy to relate to in this kind of bizarre way.
The second essay deals a lot with television's place in society and specifically its place in the world of fiction and was fascinating. DFW has this weird relationship with TV where he both loathes and adores it, hates and needs it. Over the course of the essay he convinces you that, actaully, everyone has that realtionship with television, they (we) just are't smart enough to realize it and they (again, we) base most of our social interactions on behaviour learned from television. I wish he were still alive. The essay was written in like, ninety-three, and the dude basically predicts (with the help of others) you-tube, sooooo...... badass.
I skipped over one essay about literary criticism. Sue me. I'm not in school anymore and I wouldn't even have read it then.
The two gems of the collection are expanded versions of articles that he wrote for Harper's magazine covering the Illinois State Fair (Getting Away From Pretty Much Already Being Away From it All) and a 7-night luxury cruise in the Caribbean Islands (A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again). Both of these essays are works of literary genius. After judging a dessert competition, DFW writes:
"08/14/1315h Illinois State Fair Infirmary; the motel; then Springfield Memorial Medical Center Emergency Room for distention and possible rupture of transverse colon; then motel; whoe day a washout; incredibly embarrassing; unprofessional; indescribable; delete entire day."
My favorite section of the titular essay (originally only several pages and presented in this collection in all of its 80-ish page glory) involves DFW describing the "paradox of pampering" that occurs when a cruise patron would like to carry their own bag, thus trapping the helpless porter between "The passenger in always right" and "never let a passenger carry his own bags." Both essays are simply magnificent. read them, please.
Awesome collection. too much to go into in a blog post. 9.5/10

Monday, February 23, 2009

How Meta Are They?

I'd like to devote this post about Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan's sixth entry in the Wheel of Time series, to a phenomenon that appears throughout the book but has thus far been previously unremarked upon by me. I don't know if this is something you all have run across in other books, fantasy or otherwise, but throughout Jordan's novels, something funny is going on with the text itself. Not the writing, the literal printing. Often, single letters will be slightly misaligned, so the "T" that starts "the" will float a little above the "h". In more extreme cases, words will appear to be falling into the line below them, and in some cases, are totally absent from the space they belong on, only to turn up sideways jammed into the margin two paragraphs later. Its very strange. These were bestselling novels that each had many many printings...and as any sci-fi/fantasy reader knows, Tor is no small press. So its not like they suffer from low-budget workmanship. I've literally never seen the same thing in any other book, but it happens throughout the series. Its only on this third pass that it occurs to me...the Dark One (the embodiment of all things evil and the Lucifer proxy in this world) tells his minions in this novel to "Let the Lord of Chaos rule". Perhaps Tor et al are doing his work for him?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All Barker, no bite

Hello friends.

In my never ending search for something scary to read, I came across the tomes of Clive Barker.  Totally sweet!  Clive Barker!  Hellraiser!  Hellraiser II!!!  I figured I was in for a scary, poop-my-pants treat.

Sadly, not the case with Mister B. Gone.  Good concept, kind of.  The book you hold in your hands is possessed.  Ooooh...booo...creepy...story...?  No.  Not creepy.  Annoying.  Every time the narrative builds momentum the action grinds to a stop so that our narrator can chastise us for reading the book.  Creepy the first time, sloppy the second...boring every other time.  And there are lots of these interjections.

Now, I have to admit that I picked up this particular Clive Barker work because it is so short.  I will totally dive into his longer works, perchance a good scare can come my way.  But damn.  CB let me down this time.

There are some cool set pieces, like when a horribly disfigured demon makes out with a girl and then tosses her in a pot and watches her skin get ripped off.  There's a great scene where the same demon is taking a bath drawn from the blood of hundreds of freshly slain children.  Totally slammin'.  But Barker's juices must have been tapped, because these moments are few and far between.

Hellraiser still fucking rules.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Not A Killers Song

In my head, I kept referring to this book while reading it as "When We Were Young", which it is not. Rather, When We Were Orphans is a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote Never Let You Go (a semi-sci-fi novel much beloved by me) and Remains of the Day (a not at all sci-fi novel much beloved by my mother and Anthony Hopkins). Ishiguro is a great writer, and the synopses of merely these three novels prove he is adept at many book of his seems the same as the one before it. For those who haven't read them, Never Let You Go follows a group of boarding school kids who are slightly (I won't give away how) different than other boarding school kids, and it definitely is a science fiction, though a gentle, pastoral science fiction. Remains of the Day, as far as I can remember from the movie trailers, is about the relationship between a rich woman and her butler, who really likes dusk. When We Were Orphans bears no resemblence to either book. Rather, it follows Christopher Banks, famous detective, as he lives and explains his path to a life of celebrity and class in London, before he is dragged back into trying to solve the case of his parents' kidnapping/disappearance when he was a child in Shanghai.

Not to beat the whole genre jumping thing to death, but one of the problems I had with When We Were Orphans is that Ishiguro never seems content with the book being any one thing. The novel is narrated by Banks, via journal entries, which allows him to mix present events (or at least recently past ones) with childhood memories and the events surrounding and following first his father's then his mother's mysterious vanishing. But the book jumps around from Doyle style detective work (less active detecting and more the-great-detective-at-his-leisure) to high society intrigue and chronicle, to a few chapters that are harrowing first person account of the war. All the while, Bank's great detective work is lauded, though you never experience him solving a case; his parent's case is discussed at length but not actually pursued until the closing chapters; and, most frustratingly, all events are seemed to be loosely tied together by the idea that a "great evil force" is taking hold in China, and that only intrepid, virtuous men like Banks can fight it. But this is not a superhero story: neither Banks nor the reader get glimpses of said evil beyond hints, and no active role in fighting it is taken. This seems to imply it is beyond the power of any one man, and maybe the lack of a satisfying conclusion to any or all of the subplots is part of the point. But it felt like many threads of many novels were pushed together into one. Ishiguro is adept at all of them (its not like Ang Lee's Hulk or anything), but it just wasn't a satisfying read. I recommend the writer, but go for Never Let You Go (unless you're my mom. Then read Remains of the Day).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events, Volume 1: The Bad Beginning


Ok, maybe I THOUGHT it could, but I had to rely on Lemony Snicket to put it into action.
This is the first of a series of something like 13 books and, while I would like to blow you all out of the water by reading the next 12, I will probably refrain. Not because I didn't like the book (because I LOVED IT!) but because I'm not a lame-ass.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Lemony Snicket prefaces A Series of Unfortunate Events with the warning that if you like books to end happily and not have any suffering in them, this is not the book for you and you should close it immediately. (If you do like stories like this, I would refer you to Snicket's introduction to Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, etc where he outlines several hilarious "tedious stories" that had Julie and I in stitches) Snicket them proceeds to made good on his promise, subjecting the Baudelaire children to any number of inhuman not-niceties including (but not limited to) the death of their parents, beatings, imprisonment, starvation, etc.

This is young adult fiction at its finest. I recommend it to everyone. read it. read it now. 10/10

Sunday, February 8, 2009


We have completed the first 100 days of our blog and it is now time to ask ourselves a very important question: how do our achievements stack up to those of our new president, Barack Obama? Some food for thought:

1. To date, we have completed 81 books (with a few overlaps). Barack Obama has not been reported to have read a single book since his inauguration. (the Constitution isn't bound, so I don't count it) Point: YOMR

2. In a gesture of good will and reconciliation, Barack Obama appointed his formal rival, Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State. We spent several posts expression our deep-seeded hatred for Pat King. Point: OBAMA

3. Barack Obama has set forth plans for an $825 billion stimulus package to help bring the country out of the current recession, most of which I naturally assume is earmarked to be spent on books. Many of our books were rented from libraries, Barack could take a lesson from us about responsible spending! Why buy them if you're never going to read them again, Mr. President! Point: YOMR!

4. Obama's first two staff appointments were Rahm Emanuel and John Podesta, both of whom have Latin Americanny sounding names. Oscar Wao lives in the Dominican Republic, a country I assume is somewhere in Latin America! DRAW

5. Obama's cabinet includes 4 African Americans, 2 Asian Americans, 3 Latinos, and 2 white women. As Andy has pointed out, we're all whities, and only one of them is a woman (way to let the whole team down, Julie) Point: OBAMA

6. Three of Obama's cabinet appointments have come under heavy scrutiny regarding their tax history. Except for Grant (a grown up) none of us even make enough money to PAY taxes because we are in the business of feelings! Point: YOMR

7. Our blog runs perfectly, Barack Obama's blog is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Point: YOMR!

So there you have it, we have achieved more in our first hundred days than Barack Obama could ever have hoped to achieve in his short, unimpressive presidency. Congratulations, Bloggers! Keep up the good work!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Most Aptly Named Book in Literary History

I took Pat's suggestion and read John Hodgman's second installment of his compendium of complete world knowledge. More Information Than You Require is a delightful romp through the truly odd landscape that is Hodgman's mind. Since the book has already been reviewed, I will be brief and share with you my favorite section:

"after the success of the Tasmanian Devil, the Tasmanian government had attempted to rebrand many of its native species as ferocious and uncontrollable... hence we get the Tasmanian Killing Mouse, the Tasmanian Blood Dove, and the Tasmanian Wallaby of Infinite Danger."

One of my favorite parts about this book was reading the footnotes, which would direct me elsewhere in the book for more information about the current topic. I often found myself wondering "how the hell is this book going to go from talking about the US Presidents to somehow talking about the Seven Portals to the Hollow Earth?" But Hodgman had the chops after all!
My only criticism (and perhaps its a criticism of myself) is that if the book is read cover to cover in a rather short period of time, one becomes numb to Hodgman's absurdities. So, if you choose to read it, maybe read it while reading something else, perhaps as a toilet book yes, a toilet book would be perfect. Read it while you're pooping. (8/10)

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Dear Julie Ritchey,

Thank you for recommending this novel. I know you didn't give it the most glowing review earlier on in this blog, but if you remember correctly, you recommended this to me BEFORE you reviewed it. And because you were spot on with Black Swan Green, I thought it was only fair to heed your advice once again. And, I'm very happy to report, I LOVED it. Oscar Wao may have just snuck its way into my top ten. What a vibrant, colorful, amazingly written book. Those Pulitzer folks, they sure do know what they're doing.

Anyway, thank you thank you thank you. I'll bake you a cake next time we meet. And I promise to never take you to any Trujillo dictator dance parties. We all know what happens at those.

GO DOMINICANS!!!!!!!!!!!




As I've expressed in this forum previously, I love scary things.  The dad-blang problem with loving a good scare is that one becomes desensitized to ghouls and ghosts and zombies and the like.  Much to my chagrin, I don't get scared much any more.

Two nights ago, I couldn't sleep.  I was freaked the fuck out.  I mean, afraid to close my eyes because of the insanity that might seep into my dreams.  Afraid that I'd wake up to a world ripped free of the moorings of the sane.  All thanks to a book about sailing.

The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst is a detailed journalistic account of a 1969 solo circumnavigation of the globe.  A race of unprecedented difficulty, in which participants would be in almost complete isolation for the better part of a year.  In a sailboat.  Going around the world.

Crazy enough already, jah?  But when the action focuses on Donald Crowhurst...shit gets crazy.  Crowhurst is a remarkable figure, a man who, through his own sheer will and imagination, believes he can win the race.  He is a relatively inexperienced sailor, and is in no way prepared to make the journey.  But he plunges headlong into the race, defying logic and safety.  He seeks glory...Glory...MERCY.

Cryptic perhaps?  Yes.  But to divulge more about this story is to rob you of the terror of this tale.  Crowhurst is under my skin...I have a feeling I'll be thinking about this story for years to come.  I can't think of the last time I felt altered by a book.  This rocked my boat.  Keep your eyes peeled for future dispatches from the world of Crowhurst--inspiration is setting in.

I'll leave you with a quote from the man himself.

"I had a complete set of answers to the most difficult problems now facing mankind.  I had arrived in the cosmos while contemplating the navel of an ape..."


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What's Not To Love?

The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer

This is Jonathan Ames' life story, thus far, told in short dirty snippets that are disgusting and wonderful all at the same time. I loved this. Jonathan Ames is this young Jewish guy, Princeton educated, struggling writer type. On the surface. But underneath, oh my god, what a strange, fascinating person.

In What's Not To Love?, he bares it all. He writes about what it was like to hit puberty at sixteen (and when it finally happened one night, how he ran naked into his mom's room, snuggled up next to her in bed, and showed her with profound excitement this strange new phenomenon called an erection!), the sadness of going bald, his sexual encounters with post-op transsexuals and lonely Italian men, his accidental son, what it was like to smoke crack rocks until his mind melted away from his body, his involvement with the development and publicity of the Mangina (a female vagina that is placed over the penis so the testicles hang down and form a sort of natural labia), his adventures with enemas and colonoscopies and pooping in his pants on more than one occasion, and how he got crabs from a doctor's unwashed hands when he went to get his genital warts checked out.

Dirty, right? But through it all, he maintains this kind of childlike innocence, this beautiful sense of humor about the whole thing, and you can't help but really really like him. This was a lovely read. I recommend it, as long as semen stains and handjobs from matronly grandmothers don't make your heart flutter.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Girls=Good. Girls+Dragons=Better?

Over the many (at least 25!) years of my life, I have tried many things for the first time because of a girl. Unfortunately, those things have rarely been things like "hitchhiking through the Swiss Alps" or "beluga caviar" or "page 76 of the Kama Sutra". Because the lens through which I view my world is so heavily tinted by the things I watch, read, and listen to, I have made the assumption (often incorrectly) that the path to a girl's heart is through getting to like the things she likes in this milleau. And while a cute girl who suddenly started quoting the Mountain Goats and Wet Hot American Summer would undoubtedly stir my loins (metaphorically, natch), these forays into new pop culture have rarely served me well romantically. They have, however, turned me on to such wonderful things as the Barenaked Ladies (who were my favorite band sophomore year of high school), "This Must be The Place" by the Talking Heads (my favorite song of all time), The X-Files, and A Bright Room Called Day. All were mentioned in passing/totally beloved by/featured on the facebook profile of a girl I was interested in, and investigated for that reason and that reason alone. Cumulatively, I went on 2 1/2 dates with those four girls.

Recently, I have been complicatedly sort of seeing a girl (theres been way too much autobiography in this post already to go into more than that) who, defying a long held theory of mine, is both very attractive and likes fantasy novels. While she's not anxiously awaiting George R.R. Martin's next book or anything, she does still love Tolkien and, may, perhaps, have an entire shelf devoted to the works of Anne McCaffrey. I don't know what else McCaffrey writes, but this girl (who will remain nameless despite the fact that the only person reading this who knows her is Pat, and he knows about it already) claims to only like the books in her "Dragonriders of Pern" series, of which Dragonflight is the first. The Dragonriders series (I would assume, having only read the first) takes place on a far off planet called Pern. Pern is more or less a medieval-style society...the inhabitants live in large fortresses called "Holds" which are ruled, fiefdom-like, by a lord, and also, people ride dragons. Seriously. Apparently the dragons are called dragons because, well, they resemble the old Earth legend of dragons, but the distinction as to whether these dragons are dragons are merely dragonlike is mostly academic. The dragons are ridden by specially chosen dragonriders, who can communicate telephathically with their mounts. The dragons and dragonriders historically have held a place of honor in society, as it is their job to combat (by breathing fire) the "Threads", spindly things that drop every so often from the adjacent "Red Star" (presumably, a nearby star), and, if unchecked, destroy everything green and growing on Pern, and burn something fierce if they touch you.

Beyond that complicated backstory, Dragonflight is pretty standard intro fantasy. There have been no thread attacks in 400 "turns" (either a season or a year), so everyone is complacent, except for a headstrong dragonrider who wants to lead the remaining dragonriders. He is allowed to do this only after he discovers an orphaned girl with special powers, who must learn to accept her destiny as the leader of the main dragon force (she does so by riding the Queen dragon...etc etc). The Threads do return, and then as if matters weren't complicated enough, the dragonriders discover time travel, and a lot of Lost-esque time jumping occurs (complete with time sickness). Lessa (the destined girl) figures out all of what she needs to in time to save the day, and the day is saved. I'm not quite sure where the other books go from here. The writing is not very good, in fantasy terms it falls somewhere between Jordan and my personal least fave Terry Goodkind...its also strangely G-Rated. Sexual relationships are implied, but everything takes place off-screen. The few battle sequences are decently exciting, but the time travel stuff is so thrown together...I mean, i certainly don't recommend it, but I can see why if you were a girl and already liked dragons and magic it would appeal to you, and its not bad. And, if the relationship (or whatever it is) lasts, I have promised to not give up til I've read at least the first three. So I'll let you know.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Apparently Mark Twain did something other than supply us with witty quotes to put in our Powerpoint presentations

I am ashamed to admit that I have not read anything by Mark Twain other than Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, lending further credence to my claim that I am actually a high school English teacher in disguise. So, when I came across Connecticut Yankee in my roommates personal library, i decided to give it a try.
For those of you like myself who are as unfamiliar with Mark Twain as Pat claims to be with macro-economics, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court follows our protagonist "Hank" or "The Boss" as he is later known, a nineteenth-century all-American, Hartford man. Hank takes a blow to the head in a scuffle and finds himself suddenly transported LOST-style to the sixth century. Hilarity and hi-jinx ensue. Duels are fought, peasants are dazzled, and the satire! Oh the satire!
In Connecticut Yankee, Twain spends most of his time lambasting the church and making fun of the superstitious, both favorite pastimes of mine, so it was fun to see some of that classic Twainonian wit applied to things which I like to apply my less classic, Gowlandious wit.
I don't think I came into my reading of this book with the right expectations. I was hoping for pages and pages of satire that would feel self-satisfied about the points with which I agreed and humbled by those that revealed how far I had yet to come to reach that shining city on a hill that is Twainistan enlightenment, but I mostly got plot. ENGAGING plot, ENTERTAINING plot, but plot, nonetheless. That being said, there were moments it this story that were heartbreaking in Lamplian proportions as well as moments that made me laugh out loud on the subway, but I just didn't have any amazing greater truths revealed to me.
Overall, I had a blast reading this book and seeing what nineteenth-century technology would have done to the sixth century and making fun of the church, but it's not the book I would pick up if I wanted my world-view shattered, all tall order, but it's Mark Twain. 6.5/10

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Which I Remember Why I Am Not an Economist

Hey kids! Now that we've all enjoyed our Roald Dahl, it's time to get down to the supreme fun of a libertarian's book about the globalizing forces of culture analyzing the net benefits and costs of global homogenization! It's like the dessert bar at Old Country Buffet! Let's eat til we ralph.

So. I'm a chap who's never taken an economics course. As such, I'm pretty well out of my depth in tackling this work (a Christmas present from my little brother, who read it in a class last year and found it very interesting). That being said, I'm totally fascinated by global culture, and about three thousand percent in the camp that feels that the spread of McDonald's to every colorful locale is detrimental to the soul of Mankind, so the book felt like a necessary read -- Cowen's hypothesis being that while globalization of culture (i.e. freer and more aggressive trade of artistic goods, from film to textiles to music) can have a destructive impact, its overall effect is to increase diversity within cultures while diminishing diversity across cultures. The argument goes: if a McDonald's opens in a hypothetically pristine Paris, Parisians now get the option of McDonalds AND the option of a corner bistro. Whereas Americans see less difference across the border of these two cultures now, the French enjoy the benefit of greater choice. Cowen's not afraid to occasionally admit that this has a detrimental effect (indeed, he concedes early in the book that China's allowing Tibet to be opened to tourists might more effectively destroy Tibetan principles and culture than did decades of oppression), but on the whole he sees the impulse against cultural globalization as a bourgeois, tourist's game. Essentially, that only the "superior" culture benefits from an idealized restraint in cultural exchange, by absorbing that of the smaller culture while on holiday while denying the smaller culture the benefit of the larger culture's technological advancements and etc.

It's frankly a dense read. I'm certain I'd find it less so with a more solid (that is to say, "in any way extant") economic background, but Cowen doesn't help matters with his stylistic approach. Rather than commingle the two viewpoints he embraces (cultural exchange destroys AND cultural exchange enriches), he tends to tackle the one and then the other. So you have chapters on Indian weaving that begin with an admission that the import of British textiles was hugely threatening to India's homegrown, generally hand-made industry, and that in the wake of all of this, Indian weavers came out significantly disadvantaged financially. He then pivots and argues that the British textiles were of a cheaper nature, more about the bottom line than the craft, and that it pushed Indian weavers to make only high-quality product that was more profitable. Apart from the apparent contradiction in our intended response to the impact on Indian weavers, it seems like a self-defeating argument: if arguing for globalization improving artistic standards, it's not in your best interests to acknowledge that the market gets flooded with an inferior product. Cowen's later accusation that Ghandi's stance against British textile incursions was hypocritical since Indian weavings had steamrolled their neighboring countries is not particularly compelling, in and of itself. Sure let's say Ghandi was a big fat hypocrite (it's easy to say and fun to do!). But can't it be that both cultures are in the wrong? Or, at a minimum, isn't it clear that flooding a market with an artisinal product made by craftsmen is in some substantial way different from flooding a market with an inferior product with limited artistic value whose main virtue is its cheapness?

This is all going on much longer than it ought to, so I'll wrap up here. In general, Cowen's arguments are a bit sprawling and omnidirectional to make the book a clean, clear read; ideologically I find myself frustrated by it, and some of the work feels shoddy (in particular Cowen's argument of television's detrimental effect on moviegoing in Europe, which draws figures from suspiciously cherry-picked years: 1956-1962 for Germany, 1967-1986 in the UK, 1956-1988 for France, because we all know how all Germans had adopted the television five years before the Brits had ever even heard of it). But then, I'm not trained in the stuff, nor do I have the temperment to really educate myself, so I guess it's a wash.