Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Or "Now I Know What Reggie Is Talking About When He Says How Much He Wishes Ice-Nine Were Real."

If you love Kurt Vonnegut, you will love this book.

If you hate Kurt Vonnegut, you will not love this book.

If you are not sure whether you love or hate Kurt Vonnegut, you should read this book.

Me? I love Kurt Vonnegut. I loved this book.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shouts and Murmurs

I remember flipping when I found a copy of Without Feathers in my high school library. Between that, Side Effects and Getting Even, Allen's anarchic, hyperliterate absurdism hit me right as I was getting exposed to Monty Python and developing an interest in the aggressively nonsensical. When Mere Anarchy came out, a lot of the reviews dinged it for being overly intellectual, as though Allen was struggling to achieve (or retain) an elite authorial status via ostentatious namedropping and overambitious lexiconography. Which kept me from really jumping at it, but when I saw it in the stacks on my latest library run, I figured it'd be the perfect nightcap-book for a week or so.

And those guys? They are WRONG. Not that the book's not disappointing -- it only really has a few flashes that come close to the demented genius of Without Feathers and Side Effects -- but Allen's fault is not one of excessive ambition. It's a weird charge to begin with -- his earlier essay collections featured humor pieces that relied on at least relative familiarity with the works of Ibsen and Strindberg, Talmudic study, and philosophers of all stripes. If anything, what makes Mere Anarchy a bit of a letdown is that Allen tends to couch his unhinged brainstorms in mundane scenarios. About half the pieces are formatted as short narrative fiction, but the bulk of the stories consist of characters pitching ideas to each other -- it's a weird excess that doesn't add anything, and if anything blunts the impact of the mad notions (a Three Stooges novelization, for example) being pitched. Characters are given catskills-comic fake names ("E. Coli Biggs"), and so forth.

But there are a few really solid pieces here (Nietzche's diet feels pretty classic-Allen), but by and large, he's trying to broaden his style (at least it feels that way) and it's just a little flatter than it has, in the past, been.

I know a guy who is VERY SIMILAR to this author

I like Chuck Klosterman a lot (not least because he has some fantastically healthy attitudes towards the universe, and a generalized nonjudgmental ethos). I liked this book a lot! Hands-down the best piece, for me, is his heavily-footnoting revisiting of an article he wrote as a very young man. Most of the footnotes are devoted to shredding the article, his attitudes, and his pretentions. Lots of other great stuff here (the Radiohead piece is fascinating, and added a book to my to-read queue), but Josh says most of what's worth saying about it. I think I want to be Klosterman's buddy.

Falling Man

And then there was Falling Man, a story about a man with a briefcase that doesn't belong to him, about a woman who won't take the subway anymore, about a performance artist who hangs from elevated railroad tracks and bridges and skyscraper rooftops, to make everyone remember. It's a story about a group of children who search the skies with binoculars, waiting for a man named Bill Lawton, a man who they think is planning to bring another fresh round of airplanes through the clouds to finally destroy the towers. It's about a big empty space where America used to be, filled with intersecting stories of people in isolation, engulfed in white noise, forever altered by a single day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Or "Never Ever Ever Read This Book. Ever."

Never judge a book by its cover. They always say that. Never judge a book by its cover. Well, I did. And I read this book because it had a quirky interesting cover that made me believe its innards would be something Jonathan Safran Foer-ish. But the cover was a liar and this book was just dreadful and I have developed a brand new faith in adages.

Boy coming of age in England during World War II blah blah blah enters a magical fairy tale universe but it's scarier than a normal fairy tale universe blah blah blah theoretically it parallels his own real world existence blah blah blah comes out on the other side having learned about bravery and loyalty and now he doesn't hate his stepmom so much. And it's not so much that it's cliched (which it is), it's just that it's badly done: the parallels aren't really that parallel, the scariness of the alternate world isn't that scary, and the lessons learned seem to have no actual meaning or significance. A faithful film adaptation of this novel would want so much to be Pan's Labyrinth, but end up its poor bastard cousin directed by Chris Colombus in collaboration with Ron Howard, with a screenplay by the Grey's Anatomy writers.

I've already spent as much energy hating his book as John Connolly spent writing it, so I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks" and other exotic recipes.

In 1944, Lucien Carr, A friend of William S Burroughs, stabbed a man named David Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife and threw his body in the Hudson River. The next day, Carr ran to his friends William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac for help.
The story of this murder is very popular among the Beats. Allen Ginsberg has written about it, as have Marguerite Young, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote. This account, written in alternating chapters by Burroughs and Kerouac was written while both of the authors were still unpublished and unknown. The book was considered of little literary merit when submitted for publishing and disappeared until 2008 when it was finally published.
I thought this book was awesome. It's told very simply and realistically and there's something timeless about it that makes it exciting to read. Without stretching my imagination too much (something I never like to do) I could see this story happening to any of us. It's also one of the earliest samplings available of the Beat Movement, which is pretty awesome as well. It's not going to win any writing awards. You can tell both authors are still cutting their teeth, but it was a quick, fun read and a neat glimpse into the early writing of two mega-liths of American writing. Also, the title wins it extra points. Two words: circus fire. 7/10

Sunday, May 24, 2009

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Or "How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb"

Wow! Hey guys! How have you been? Remember me? Julie? I'm sort of smallish and loud and I used to post on this blog pretty frequently? Like, until December when I decided that I wanted to read the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, you know, for kicks? Well, I remember you guys and oh boy have I missed you!

So what have you guys been up to for the past five months? Oh really? That sounds so fun! Oh, not too much. Just hanging out with this nuclear physicist I know. He's great, I think you'd really like him. Or at least find him fascinating. Or at least read about his life and think about the moral implications of having invented the atomic bomb, seen it used, and then trying your hardest to get the government to regulate nuclear warfare since you are one of the only people in the world who understands its full power but the government is too afraid of Communists and revokes your security clearance for pretty bullshit reasons.

So, yeah! That's what I've been up to! Wow, it's really good to see you. Let's get coffee sometime!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

He'd pinch my ear and whisper that if you want to know how to enjoy life, you also have to know what sadness is. Otherwise, it isn't worth a damn.


When you have an asthma attack, you can't breathe. When you can't breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn't much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones - those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says "I love you," and when an asthmatic says "I love you madly," there's a difference. The difference of a word. A word's a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dead is Dead

Here's what I liked about this book:

Josh Bazell is a nerdy guy. He received a BA in English Literature from Brown University, and an MD from Columbia, and is now a medical resident in San Francisco. He's clearly bored with his job, bored with medicine as a profession, and thought to himself that maybe he should let his imagination run wild in the form of a book. What transpired was an exceedingly violent, mind-numbingly action-packed, pop fiction, sensational, senseless novel about the boring world of medicine. 

It's about a doctor who used to be in the mafia. His day starts by beating the shit out of some mugger, smashing his nose into his face like soft clay. Then he's seduced in an elevator. Many many people are murdered. A syringe filled with feces is injected into our hero's left buttock. He throws a man out of a six-story window. He goes down on a girl in a shark tank (after her brother has just been eaten). He rips a bone out of his own knee to brandish as a knife in a fight with a man he's already killed. You get the idea.

I liked it though. I don't know what else to say. Sometimes, you just need something ridiculous. Like a post-2002 (post-Adaptation) Nicolas Cage movie. Anyone? Knowing. Bangkok Dangerous. Next. Ghost Rider. National Treasure. They all go down nice and smooth. Just like Beat the Reaper.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

B is for BEER!

Five-year-old Gracie Perkel has a seemingly insatiable curiosity about that funny liquid her father drinks to make himself feel happy and dizzy. One night, Gracie takes matters into her own hands and chugs a whole can of beer, tasting the delicious golden froth as it travels down her throat. She promptly smashes her birthday cake, jumps on her bed, sings Aretha Franklin into a hairbrush, vomits into her carpet, and passes out. Moments later, she's awoken by The Beer Fairy, who takes her on a magical journey to discover where beer comes from, how it's made, the wonderous courage that beer can make you feel, but also the dangers that ensue when too much beer is consumed. Then Gracie returns home, forever changed. Partly because of the magical journey, but more so because her drunk father is divorcing the family, taking the house and the money, and forcing Gracie and her mother to live in a dingy one-bedroom apartment while the mother works part time at a donut shop. BEER! The magic of BEER! Don't worry, though, everything turns out nicely in the end. As it always does.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Weep weep weep, nobody cares nobody cares nobody cares

I read a play. there. we said we could read whatever we wanted so I read a play. it' borinsg and transparent and I didn't even find any good monologues in it which was why i was reading it in the first place. dumb. Brooke Berman's "A Perfect Couple" 3/10.

"Jane Smiley" the life and times of a sweet-looking older lady who writes the most graphic sex scenes I've ever read

I've been away for a while, this one took me a LONG TIME to read and, I've got to say, after all was said and done, it wasn't all that worth it.
I decided to read "Ten Days in the Hills" because Paul Edwards forced me to read "A Thousand Acres" for a class and I actually ended up loving it. I should have known that any author beloved of Paul Edwards would write books that were excessively wordy beyond comprehension.
"Ten Days in the Hills" is a satire of modern celebrity culture. It follows a group of celebrities, some minor, some mega, as they spend 10 days together doing what celebrities do best: basically, nothing.
I wish I had a more erudite criticism of this book, but what I keep coming back to is that it's mind-numbingly boring. I don't know what play I heard this in, but someone describes a book as being "one of those English drawing-room style stories where 300 pages later they've poured the tea" and that is precisely how I would describe this book. Usually, that doesn't bother me because there are ideas expressed and even some witty dialogue, if I'm lucky, but this one just didn't altogether do it for me. Too little happens over a span of too long (500ish pages).
One interesting thing about this book is that many of the characters and, I believe, Smiley herself, make an incorrect assumption about the war in Iraq, one I think we all made early on. The book was written several years ago and most of the characters have taken as a given that the war will only last a little while, so it was interesting to kind of take a look back on what our mentality was about Bush, the war, the homefront etc. just a few short years ago, but that wasn't enough to save the story.
The book does have its strong points. Smiley is a brilliant writer and definitely does a good job of satirizing our perceived celebrity culture, but even that kind of left me wanting more. I don't get the idea that Smiley IS a celebrity or has spent a whole lot of time in that culture, so it always felt like she was satirizing what we all THINK to be celebrity culture rather than what truly goes on. I dunno. I say read "A Thousand Acres." It's a better book and the cover doesn't make everyone on the subway think you're reading a gossip-girls book. 5.5/10

Monday, May 11, 2009

halfway, bitches!

BOOM. 25 down.

The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God is a beautiful book of whimsical short stories from the "undoubtedly most popular writer among Israeli youth." I think that quote is self-acclaimed by the author, but I can't be sure of anything. He's a Hebrew man. You know how those jews operate. Anyway.

The stories themselves range from a bus driver who once wanted to be god but settled on his second choice profession of bus driving; a little boy who develops a loving relationship with his piggy bank; a very patient daemon who watches TV before stealing away his victim's talent and packaging it in styrofoam peanuts; the world's most beautiful uterus that's heisted from a museum display case by an Alaskan adventurer; and a land where people who have committed suicide proceed to live, drink beer, and perform small miracles that never amount to very much.

And just like the cover says, it was a warped and wonderful experience.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

This Plane Is Definitely Crashing


This is a novel that has haunted me since my childhood. I remember my dad reading it when I was young. And at the time, I was totally obsessed with Michael Crichton. Sphere. Andromeda Strain. The Terminal Man! Lost World!!! So, naturally, in my exuberant youth, I picked up Airframe.

But, unfortunately for all parties involved, Airframe terrified the shit out of me. It's about an airplane crash. I'm terrified of airplanes crashing. And my small mind just couldn't handle it. The mangled bodies. The destruction of towering hunks of metal and jet fuel. The death. The carnage. I made it about a fourth of the way through the story. And then came the nervous jitters, the uncontrollable diarrhea. You know what I'm talking about. So, in a fit of panicked rage, I threw down the novel, never to return to its demon pages.

Until now, that is. I was in the library not so long ago, meandering aimlessly through the fiction section. And, lo and behold, what do I see staring back at me in the C section (pun...intended?)? Airframe. By Michael Crichton. So, what the heck, I thought. I'm older now. I've semi-conquered my fears of air travel. Why not? And I checked it out.

Well, let me tell you a few things. Airframe is NOT about a plane crash. It's about an "almost" plane crash. There are three deaths. There is no destruction of metal, no exploding jet fuel. It's a very technical book, not terribly exciting, filled with well-researched, dry airplane jargon, written in a fairly mediocre manner. Bland characters. Two hundred pages too long.

I don't know what I was thinking. Why was my young imagination so afraid of this book? Maybe I'm remembering it wrong. Could that be? Maybe I only thought I threw it down in fear, when in actuality, I was just bored. It seems plausible now. I don't know. 

But I finished it. Years and years later, yes, but I finished it. And now it's done. Consumed. I will say that the last eighty pages are pretty riveting, and when all is said and done, it was a sort of interesting, sort of compelling story. But, man, I just feel a little disappointed. A little empty inside. I wanted my world to be rocked. And it didn't happen. I was totally prepared to overcome a major childhood fear. But, I have to say, I feel exactly the same now as I did before.

Because really, Jesse, what's changed?

The Boy Detective Fails. To keep me engaged for 300 pages.

Joe Meno likes music.  He tells us so.  While writing The Boy Detective Fails, Joe listened to Belle and Sebastian, The Cocktails, Wilco, and the Beatles.

Thanks for sharing, Joe!

I like music too.  While reading Boy Detective, I listened to heavy metal, specifically Mastodon's Crack the Skye.

The opening track on Crack the Skye explores grief and loss and the mystical more beautifully in 6 minutes than Boy Detective does in 330 pages.

So Joe.  Listen to more metal.  Then maybe your book won't read like the liner notes to the Hardy Boys new emo album.  You mopey bastard.


Finally got that scare!


This book is so scary.  Soooooo scary.  Just thinking about it freaks me the fuck out.  There are moments in this bad boy that I will never be able to un-read.  Moments of terror so unsettling that they cannot be recounted here.

Pick it up.  Read all night long.  Just pray you never meet that #1 fan.

Now I must rinse.

Autocracy in America

And here's the other chap from the tee-vee. Stephen Fry is a crazily intelligent dude, a high-functioning tech geek who has also proven himself a brilliant writer, solid comedian (with stints in Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie), wonderful actor (see: Wilde) and is pretty ubiquitous as an early adopter of Twitter, though depending on your patience for "NOW I AM IN THE CAR DRIVING" tweets, he's not everyone's cup of tea.

But in this book, he's at his best. Thoughtful, empathetic, with a sense of humor. Basically, the BBC gave Fry a London taxicab to drive through America while being filmed; the resulting travelogue aired on the channel and allowed him fodder enough to fill a book with his musings and narratives from all fifty states. He makes no bones about missing a massive amount (Idaho gets a brief stop-by so he can check out the continental divide, and that's IT) but as he argues in his preface, the mistakes of a foreigner writing about your country only helps you get in touch with what seems important to you.

In any event, it's a good, fun, light read -- some fascinating stuff on the South (fascinating at least to me, whose experience with the region tends to be limited to driving-through and reading about it in books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which seems to me must be designed to have something of an Orientalizing effect on the region) and a general fascination -- not romantic, not sneering -- with the American character. Good stuff. And let me tell you, he NAILS how Minnesotans are about ice fishing. To the WALL.

Upperclass Twit of the Year

The world of P.G. Wodehouse is yet another one that I tumbled backwards into. Growing up on a diet of PBS television, I spent a fair deal of my youth geeking out over the hilarity of a BBC program that adapted Wodehouse's most famous writings under the title of "Jeeves and Wooster. " Starring a pair that would grow much more famous for other things (Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the latter almost impossibly associated with the very-unlike-Bertie-Wooster Dr. House), the show was a mashing-together of Wodehouse's stories, centered around the paternal relationship Jeeves, a gentleman's personal gentleman, has with his daffy, brain-dead employer, Bertie Wooster. As a show, it was mostly fun to watch Hugh Laurie blubbering and dithering like an airheaded idiot as Stephen Fry glided through the frame with a certain stoic intelligence. Anyone who's seen Laurie's stretch on Blackadder knows this character.

Anyhow, the books are (as I've recently rediscovered) delightful and absolute fluff. That's not a prejorative -- it's fluff of the highest order, written in the voice of a narrator who's too simple to be unreliable, but who clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. There are dozens of little flourishes (Bertie trying to come up with the word "psychology" and then confirming with Jeeves that "psychology" is, in fact, a noun) all rooted in Bertie's knowledge (made possible by his wealth and lineage) and demonstrating his total lack of understanding. The plots are silly beyond belief (mostly revolving around Bertie getting himself or his friends in and out of various romantic entanglements) but as a showcase for dazzlingly goofy writing, it's about as good as they come.