Monday, August 29, 2005

Some books

  • How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers - They're stories, some of them are quite short, one's rather long. I liked the longer stories better. Some stories I read without feeling too invested in them; some I got more into. Overall, not bad. This Eggers kid--he's gonna make a name for himself, someday.

  • The Ghost Writer by John Harwood - It's a ghost story, in a gothic/Victorian sort of manner, with a modern twist; it's also epistolary; it's also got stories within the story. It's sort of a glorious mess, a compulsive page-turner to the point where I realized I'd failed to pay attention to things I'd needed to pay attention to and was focusing too much on things I'd need not have. The book does have one of the most wicked murders I've ever read. And the short story (within the story!) "The Gift of Flight" was probably, by itself, worth the price of admission. I'm not one to get creeped out by horror or scary stories, but, uh, well, let's just say I could easily see how some people who might have a certain aversion to dolls might not quite make it through that thirty-page chunk. Overall on the book--not what I'd expected, and maybe not as good as I'd hoped. But that's just me. And, y'know. Halloween is coming up. Just sayin'.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Your input demanded. No, requested. No, politely groveled for. But not bribed for, because I'm cheap like that

Google comes up blank when you search for the phrase "literary representations of motion". This is a hole that I'd like to see filled, and I'm drawing a total blank. So I turn to you, oh vast, infinite, sexy Internet, and ask: where have you seen motion best depicted in fiction? (Or, really, in any written form; but I really want examples drawn from fiction, for reasons I can't quite explain.)

I can tell you this in return: the band Godspeed You Black Emperor! absolutely nails the musical equivalent of motion on the track "Sleep" (track one of disc two of Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!). Every time, every time I listen to these 23-odd minutes of music, I'm made to fly, without ever standing. I'm a little more amazed by it every time I hear it.

And, okay, I'll even toss off a tentative example of literary motion (though not one from fiction, damn my brain): chapter two of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The driving, the throwing of frisbees. Good stuff.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

I was going to make this post longer but I hear they're running out of space on the Internet

There's a fun discussion about long novels going on (or that has already gone on) at The Elegant Variation. Additional reading material can be found at Return of the Reluctant and Conversational Reading and probably other places I haven't found or don't recall right now. This is all sparked by the Canadian-published Hunger's Bridges, which is soon to be imported to America and which clocks in at a spritely 1360 pages. More on this little dish can be found here.

My take on the issue--if you can call it an issue, and if anybody cares for my take--is that novels, good novels, are exactly as long as they need to be. Long novels can read fast and short novels can be turgid. Long novels can be turgid and short novels can read fast. Both short and long novels can transcend to air the limitations of their pages while bashing you in the head with the weight of the language itself; both can wholly suck you into a world for an extended period of time, both can leave you wishing there could be more. Length, when proper and correct, is relatively insignificant. And before this paragraph becomes inappropriate, let's call up a paragraph break.

All that said: there is an occasional implication by the occasional person that sometimes words count more in other modes of writing; that because column space is limited so every word in an article counts, or that because of rhythm and cadence every word in a poem counts, that these somehow imply that, because the length of a novel is decided only by the whims of the author, the editor, and the marketing team, there are words in novels that do not count. Suffice it for me to say, merely, humbly, that I disagree. And I shall leave it at that, lest I begin to froth at the mouth while spitting juvenile insults.

All of that said, you should probably take two hours to read Paul La Farge's translation of Paul Poissel's The Facts of Winter, a slender volume of text that I think I've already spent more time thinking about than I did actually reading. At 150 pages, it's light as air and completely adventurous; reading it is to take a hard gust of wind to the cloudiest edges of your mind. In color. In black and white.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I guess on the upside, this gives me time to read his first two books


I wonder, are there "pre-bloggers"?

Chances are, most of us pre-published fucktards dream of the glamorous life that awaits us when our genius is recognized and we're sent on tour, the champagne and hookers and cocaine nights and fast cars and having people love us, a lot. It's a good thing, then, that A.L. Kennedy, author of the really good book Paradise, is here to set us straight on that. I'm guessing this means the cocaine isn't really "mountainous," per se.

A.L. Kennedy is really damn funny. Though I think I've linked it before, the FAQ on her site is good stuff. Maud Newton excerpts some of the touring essay here, and as much as I want to excerpt the orgasm paragraph--for purely informational purposes, of course--I'll let you find it yourself. Here's another choice bit:

The point I'm trying to make is, the author you look at on stage, who may appear sane and healthy, may actually be undergoing multiple humiliations designed to deconstruct his or her entire personality. If they didn't already know they were ugly, hours of prodding and teasing will have convinced them. They will be vaguely aware that they are sluggish and stupefied with tiredness, when they ought to seem wise, or at least coherent, like an author should. If they are anything like me, they will find that four or five days of signing – and I don't ever have to sign that much, bear in mind – four or five days of signing will mean that they lose their ability to reproduce their own signature. My signature is a dreadful scrawl anyway, but trust me, it's truly alarming when all you can produce is a completely unfamiliar dreadful scrawl and you can't explain this to the well-meaning stranger in front of you, because they might become alarmed if you begin rocking and moaning and wondering if you'll ever be able to write a cheque again.

Hell, I sign two register receipts in one day, I might as well be trying to work that pen like I've got no opposable thumb. I wonder if it's too late to go into, like, politics, or construction, or something?

(And no, by the way, in case the humor was lost in translation, I do not refer to myself as "pre-published." I prefer the term "pre-dead," actually, because as with all troubled geniuses, it won't be until after I've left this mortal coil that the brilliance of my work will be...yeah, no.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

From now on, all TDAOC blog posts will be authored by the fictional character "Darby", who is not me

Tingle Alley stirs up a bit of conversation about authors writing themselves into their books. There's been a clump of books that have done this lately, including Salvador Plascencia in The People of Paper, which is right now on my TBR stack.

And moving up it quickly, due to Tingle Alley's early "Yes, it's a really exciting, original, kickass book" review. I picked up The People of Paper when the McSweeney's crew came through town last weekend, based pretty much entirely on the fact that Salvador Plascencia was one of the most entertaining readers I've had the chance to see. ("And this," he said, holding up a large white card with a big black dot in the middle--and yes, this made total sense in context, "is the saddest of the punctuation marks. It's the end. It makes time stop.")

Also, Kelly Link neatly handles my comment under the Tingle Alley post in that interview I linked in the previous post. Which I'll link again here for your convenience, because I like you that much.

Darby sat back, looked at the words he'd typed, then down at the keyboard. How could he say such things? How could he imply he liked the reader that much? He wasn't even sure he had readers, let alone readers he could confirm that he liked, to any degree. Maybe everyone who read his blog was a total asshole. He didn't know. And here he was, spewing nonsense into the void. He was shaken by doubt and his shimmering, glistening sense of the tentativeness of ideas, identity.

Then he shrugged. "It's just business, baby," he said to the screen, before chugging two bottles of Jack Daniels while having sex with European supermodels.

Or maybe it's just total freak coincidental timing

In celebration of me finishing reading Stranger Things Happen, Maud Newton posts an interview with Kelly Link as conducted by a former guest blogger. I was going to pull out some choice quotes, but really, the whole thing is interesting, so. You know. Click the link and pick a paragraph and pretend I quoted it here.

Blurb & dash; the up all night reading Kelly Link edition

I'm not sure what I expected from Kelly Link, but in Stranger Things Happen, I found quite a few stories that made me feel...profoundly unsettled. (In a good way, I think.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I kinda gave away the answer there, huh

For your reading enjoyment: an article on Indian writers writing in English, and an article on the rock novel. Bonus points if you can name the book that qualifies in both categories of literature, and no it's not High Fidelity. (Hint: it's called The Ground Beneath Her Feet and it's by Salman Rushdie and it's been moved from my second-tier to be read shelf to my first-tier to be read coffee table pile.) Interesting stuff.

(Reading Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me reminded me of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and while I can think of one very clear parallel between the two books, in terms of structure, I'd be lying if I said I'd read Roy's book recently enough to draw further comparisons between the two; let's just say that The God of Small Things will probably be moved from the depths of the already read shelves to one or other of the to be read piles, and then maybe someday I'll make the grand pronouncements my feeble snap-judgments are making me want to make.)

Monday, August 15, 2005

A little bit more about You Remind Me Of Me

I suppose what struck me most about Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me--aside from the metaphorical language, and everything else I can't think of right now--is that it wasn't until I'd read about seventy pages that I realized, Aw, hell...I've got absolutely no idea where this is going.

Which thought was closely followed by,

Seventy pages, of a 350 page novel. That's about a fifth of the book. That's a long time to remain mostly in the dark, without even realizing it is dark.

See, what I didn't realize when I started the book was that Dan Chaon had made a simple request of me, before I ever picked up the book. He'd asked me to trust him. To trust that these pages were going somewhere, were directed. To trust him that the ride was going to be worth it, and that the destination would repay the effort put into the trip. What I didn't realize was that each time I turned the page, I was responding with a yes. I didn't see any of this, because each page is a destination. The language (metaphorical and otherwise) and the story telling were so very compelling, they exploded any possible doubts.

While it's true that anyone who puts a book out there for people to use cash to purchase and time to read makes a similar contract with the reader--when I hand over my sixteen bucks, I expect my books to entertain and to provoke thought (often in different measures)--when you open your book with four chapters that feel almost completely unrelated to each other, four points of view that are only tenuously connected by translucent threads of fact, you're grabbing that demand and boldfacing and underlining it. Lesser writers would flub this. Dan Chaon, needless to say, does not.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Blurb & dash; the up all night reading Dan Chaon edition

In You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon seems to effortlessly pluck bits of world-expanding metaphorical language from trees in an orchard of story-telling that, even if I thought I could find directions to it on Mapquest, I'm afraid I wouldn't know how to enter. And that's just the language of the story. The story itself is even better.

Which is to say I liked it, and I'd like you to like it, and I gotta go to bed now.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Gimme two letters that spell perfection. And master's degrees. But mostly perfection

(Possible alternate subtitle: "In loose, altogether random, and likely unnecessary defense of the queen godmum of chicklit".)

If you'll pardon what might be a pseudopun, Jane Austen's Emma is about as textbook a case there is of how to write a novel, where novels are based on the problem/solution model of plot advancement. In this model, you can read pretty much every novel as a mystery, plus or minus genre conventions. Sure, you won't find private detectives and styrofoam cups of coffee in Emma, but you will find the driving motive of tension being generated through the solutions to existing problems creating new difficulties that must in turn be solved. There isn't a murder to be solved with bucketloads of other dangers and obstacles created along the way while dealing with plentiful red herrings; but there is the desired outcome of Emma's eventual happiness that has to be reached through the process of overcoming social maneuverings and flubs, some external and some created by the heroine herself, made all the more complex through blatant misdirection. Problems create solutions create problems.

To see how a novel works, you could do worse than to spend some time with Emma. Sure, it might feel a bit sloggish in the middle, and the endgame feels a little random and drawn out, but the basic structure of it is all there, plain as day. It's funny, but of all the books to be reminded of while I was reading Emma, I was reminded of The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus, which I read earlier this year, which, to be honest, I didn't really "get". Now I think I get it: Marcus's "novel" is one of all problems, no solutions. Tension without release, crescendo without crash. Not that I'm saying I'll understand the book any better if I come back to it, but at least maybe Jane Austen is reminding me of, ahem, my roots. (While I'm here: Infinite Jest? Mostly problems, huge crescendo; but the band takes the resolution off stage. Or something.)

One might also make a case for Emma as an epic--hero takes a journey (in this case, a social journey) and comes back changed--but I'll save that for later.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I got lists of lists waiting to be listed here, y'know

Speaking of lists...

  • The longlist for the 2005 Booker prize has been announced. These kinds of lists usually just make me feel bad, because I've most likely never heard of most of the nominated titles. Or authors. (Ouch.) Looking over the list, I can say right now I'm gunning for Kazuo Ishiguro to take home the freaking huge stack of cash because Never Let Me Go was a really awesome novel. And because it's the only book on the list I've read. Well, I did try to read Ian McEwan's Saturday, but, ah...well, hey, Maud Newton says it so much better than I could. I was going to say I didn't realize Zadie Smith had a new book out, then I learned that her book isn't out yet, so I don't feel so bad. (I've had trouble finishing her books, as much as I've enjoyed reading them. Maybe third time's a charm.) Salman Rushdie's book isn't out yet either, but I'm looking forward to it, despite the fact that it has "clown" in the title, which gave me a real heeby-jeeby creepy feeling when I first read it. (His classic, Midnight's Children, by the way? Read it.) Anyways, if you're looking for contemporary BritLit that's been validated by a process, look ye no further.

  • And speaking of lists and books that aren't out yet, I forgot to mention in my last post that Tod Goldberg's Simplify would be on my TBR pile, were it out yet. Yeah, crap. Like I really need to start a virtual TBR pile on top of the physical TBR pile., crap.

  • Also, if you're interested in music lists, what was known as Audioscrobbler is now, as powered by Audioscrobbler. Yeah, I was confused for a minute, too. Anyway, you can check out my profile page here if you're inclined towards pseudovoyeuristic pleasures. There's all sorts of fun charts and lists and stuff, historical and current (or as current as the overloaded servers will allow). It's about as close as I'll ever come to sticking a web cam directly into my ear drums.

From the "blogging when I gosh darn well get around to it department" comes...

...bullet! point! ROCK!

  • Chances are, I've written more unpublished (and let's never mind the "potentially unpublishable, too" conversation) novels than you. I can sit down at the laptop and let words flow like water. (Some of those words, I hasten to point out, turn out not horrible after much, much revision, I like to think.) And yet, nothing compares to the tales told of Thomas Wolfe we're pointed to by Maud Newton: "Wolfe would be asked for a short linking paragraph — and return a few days later with 10,000 words."

  • Amazon sales rankings are bullshit. Consider Tod Goldberg's exhibit one and M.J. Rose's exhibit two (with appropriate comments from #2 pulled out here).

  • So I guess the story (via Rake's Progress) goes that someone slammed the new John Irving book then it was pointed out there was some connection between the author and the reviewer and it made some people look bad. Hey, whatever, man. This link/story is mostly a cheap excuse for me to break certain personal tendencies long enough to point out that holy crap did A Prayer for Owen Meany suck. And I mean, it was bad. Reading that book was like watching a 700 page flip book in which the picture never ever changed. In slow motion. In dire heat and humidity. While John Irving sat on your couch eating your Doritos and saying (mouth full, during chewing) "You know, I'm more significant than you" every fiftieth word. In other words, blech.

  • Four words for you: Naughty Reading Photo Contest. Rawr! Me, I'm hoping for some good sexy librarian photos.

  • I've been quiet about what I've been reading lately because I've been deep into the "writing unpublishable crap" end of the "writing unpublishable crap"/"reading published doubleplusuncrap" continuum. But I can tell you I've been reading Emma by Jane Austen and that I don't give a damn if that makes me a less manly man. And it's not because I'm some uber-enlightened 90s guy who thinks women are just as good if not better than men in both the writing department and the all-the-others department, though I am all that and a bag of cheese. No, it's because Jane Austen knew a thing or two about spinning elegant sentences together in a classy way, and it's nice to spend some time in the company of a gal with a little culturin' under her bonnet. Chick lit? More like KICK! lit. (If it weren't for the fact that the To Be Read pile is growing thicker than wild grass, I'd be tempted after this to stick with a 19th-century dame writers theme to take another spin through Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. Mark my words, kids: EBB? Victorian Hottie.)

  • And speaking of the taller than tall TBR pile, I can tell you that books I'd possibly be talking about right now if I could read as fast and as often as I like include

    • Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh;

    • The Sound of Us by Sarah Willis;

    • You Remind Me of Me and Among the Missing by Dan Chaon (though I can tell you this much; I read the first story of Among the Missing, "Safety Man", and I was laughing by the end of the opening paragraph and cursing my fate that I should not be as superb and as chilling a writer as Dan Chaon by the end of the second damned page; "Something is happening to her", you say, Mr. Chaon? Something is happening to this damned reader, I tell you.);

    • Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link, which I picked up today when I realized that even my completely fictitious pet rock has read and enjoyed Kelly Link by this point and thinks very poorly of me for the fact that I'm still absolutely clueless;

    • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, which has been sitting on my coffee table, far too overdue from the library, with its entirely tempting opening paragraph beckoning to me far too often, until I finally gave in today and bought my own copy, making the commitment to get around to reading it...eventually;

    • Tisch by Stephen Dixon (but only because it's short and I need a damned fix damn you give me my fix arrrgh);

    • and what looks like a whole bunch of other stuff that's all the way across the room right now.

    So, you know, if that's the sort of thing that interests you. These lists usually interest me. What's on your "Oh man, I really need to read that, soon" coffee table stack?

  • Speaking of lists, I, uh, mean to do my own list of the five (or so) books I read the first half of the year that I think you should read too, the first semi-annual TDAOC Reads Awards or something; hopefully something longer, because, face it, TDAOCRA really isn't long enough an acronym. But, uh, you know. Life gets in the way. And stuff. And it's not like the world is going to die without my list, and it's not like the astute and long-time reader can't pretty much tell what I like the most and all. But still, lists are pretty cool, and I'd like to do some. I think I've bought one or two CDs this year that have been worth a mention, too. Now if you'll excuse me I have to go convince the bank to let me take out a mortgage on my apartment building, which I don't own, so I can come up with enough cash to buy something resembling food tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

When the two focuses of this humble blog collide

Cleveland and literature, I like to think, have a few things in common; for example, both are bastions of glittery gems that don't scream out their existence, but rather require a little bit of work for them to be found. This isn't necessarily the way things should be, but it does give the two worlds a certain sort of allure to those who are tuned in to their unique joys. (Also, Cleveland is home to damn fine beer, and literature goes well with a nice pint. One might also say that both Cleveland and literature sometimes get bad raps due to their hidden-gems natures, but I'm wary of overextending the comparison and finding myself spouting nonsense. Pretty soon I'll be claiming that Cleveland is made of paper and literature is made of asphalt.)

So maybe it's understandable that I get a little happy when I find out that the two worlds collide; see also Maureen McHugh and Grant Bailie. And of course the always-entertaining George Bilgere. I've suspected for a time there's plenty of other literary gems lurking about town who I've missed due to my own incompetence and/or laziness. So goes my mental state when I open up the Mac's Backs upcoming events e-mail today:
Our book club has been meeting for about 10 years. It's on the 2nd Wednesday each month at 7:30 p.m. and on August 17th we will be discussing Dan Chaon's terrific novel You Remind Me of Me, a nuanced look at fate and identity. Dan will attend the session to answer questions and sign books.
The name sounded familiar, as if I'd seen his name mentioned before but, due to the fact that on a daily basis I see the names of approximately billions of authors I haven't read yet, I couldn't remember where. So I did a little Googling to find out if he's a known writer and to find out what would bring him to Cleveland for a book discussion session and to find out if I'd want to take off a Wednesday night from my own struggling through trying to string sentences together into coherent pieces of story-telling to go sit in a room with him and some other people where I'd feel my total lack of social grace choking off my breathing and making my heart beat irrationally hard, to find out that he's come to Cleveland because he lives here, and that he's important enough to have his 2001 book of short stories, Among the Missing, be a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award (among other accolades), and that yes, I think I will be picking up a copy of You Remind Me of Me and reading through it in hopes of coming up with some kind of semi-intelligent question for him. (As I am horrible at coming up with good questions for any situation in which a question is called for, I'll happily take suggestions from the peanut gallery, if there's something you're dying to know. Who knows, I might even remember enough of what he says to report back to you with something resembling his answer.)