Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Monday, January 29, 2007

Coffee, books, and sex appeal

Here's a handy guide to help you figure out where you land on the TDAOC Hierarchy of Sex Appeal:

  1. If you are Julianne Moore, you are the sexiest person in the room.

  2. If Julianne Moore is not in the room, and if you are handing me a cup of coffee, you are the sexiest person in the room, regardless of how you are dressed.

  3. If you are Julianne Moore, and you are handing me a cup of coffee, you are impossibly perfect, and my brain would rather melt than attempt to comprehend the mythical levels of your sex appeal.

  4. While the remaining levels of the hierarchy are completely predictable to anybody who follows the adventures and thinkings of the TDAOC staff while yet being far too complex and intricate to be accurately written out in a hierarchical format, it may be suggested that one's stature may potentially be enhanced via use of certain advanced mate-attracting pheromonal scent technologies. While first-hand scientific analysis of this theory has yet to be performed, grant application study proposals are being accepted for review.

They were going to be The Hundred Visions and Revisions, but they're rather modest sorts

Not quite book related, but still awesome: if you have yourself one of them MySpace accounts the kids are all hopped up on these days, go befriend The Muttering Retreats. They're three friends of mine who have set out to become the most polite band in the history of indie-rock. (Long-time readers of this blog may recognize Chris as being the oft-alluded-to-on-this-blog Friend Chris, who, turns out, has talents beyond "ability to be alluded to on half-rate local litblog." Huh! Who'd'a thunk, right?)

If you're in town, near town, or understand the definition of the word "town" on April 13, they'll be playing their debut show at the Beachland, opening for Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Which, I mean: hello, awesome. So show up early and buy them beer. I imagine they will accept graciously.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

In which your humble narrator attempts to say something about The Coast of Akron but probably says more about himself than anything else


I liked The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller. Really. A lot. Like, I think you should read it. Consider it a suggestion, or a recommendation, or a command to anybody into the sorts of things I am into. Things I am into, for those of you who have lost your notes or who are just now joining me, include (but are not limited to!) things that are funny in sad ways and sad in funny ways. Both of which qualities this book exhibits in fine quantity.

But so you know I haven't flown over the edge of reason, I'll employ the clever book reviewer's technique of admitting that the book is flawed. This makes me look critical and sexy-keen, and helps justify my crazed raving about the book being awesome.

The book's primary flaw is that it is not propulsive. Not that it's a trudge to read it, but it's not a particularly fast read. This book--unlike, say, Original Bliss, by A. L. Kennedy, which I've already mentioned, which kept me up well past bedtime the night I started reading it--was not hard for me to put down.

It's a plot/structure thing. The book is a miniature dysfunctional family epic, focusing on the world-renowned self-portrait artist Lowell Haven, his ex-wife Jenny, their daughter Merit, and Lowell's gay lover (and friend/acquaintance of Jenny's since high school) (and very very very wealthy) Fergus. The book shifts perspectives between a present-day first person account by Fergus, a third person view of Merit, and journal entries of Jenny's from the late-70s/early-80s. The book is structured such that it is established early on that these characters are all initially separate from each other, and that they will be brought together by the end of the book at a party, where things will go more or less as you expect they would.

Plotwise, that's about it. When you realize how the book will play out, there isn't much of a "What's going to happen next?" thing that drives you to keep reading. Being the sort of person who is often easily distracted by bright shiny objects, the Internet, or stray puffs of air that might exist somewhere else at any given moment, I found it easier to put the book down than I might have wished.


So now then. I've done the critical blah blah blah thing. Now I can talk about how much ass this book kicks.

This book kicks so much ass. I'd say it's not even funny how much ass this book kicks, but part of what the book kicks so much ass at is being funny. So that's out.

There's a ton of good stuff going on in this book, more than enough to offset the structure flaw thing. (Which, really? Not a flaw. Not at all. Just something to keep in mind when you're picking which book you want to read next.) When you first pick the book up, it might not seem obvious that the book does have an agenda. There's a lot of weird things happening, and there's a slightly surreal tone to it, and it might seem like much of it isn't connected to any of the rest of it. Picking up all these pieces and seeing how they connect and resonate becomes part of the fun of the book. (It's far less grad-student-nerdy treasure-hunty than I'm making it sound, don't worry.) In time (and it would probably take less time for better readers than I), though I felt a bit (pleasantly) lost in the early stages of my reading, a portrait of the book's intentions formed in my mind.

Which leads me to my next clever critical book reviewer gambit, the Big Bad-ass Bold Claim: in The Coast of Akron, Adrienne Miller tackles the idea of ego and identity the way David Foster Wallace addressed entertainment and addiction in Infinite Jest.

(Oh, yes. I went there. I went there hard.)

The DFW name-dropping doesn't stop there. Wait for it...wait for it...go: If in Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace created the PGOAT, or the Prettiest Girl of All Time, Adrienne Miller, in The Coast of Akron, created, in Lowell Haven, the MEMOAT: the Most Egotistical Man of all Time.

(That right there? That's the sound of the extra point kick being good.)

Lowell, the self-portrait artist, the MEMOAT. Dude's bonkers. Of the four main characters, we spend the least time with him. But he's the catalyst of everything that happens, no doubt. Here's where I'll back off, and suggest that you're best off seeing for yourself the limitlessness of his self-obsession. He does things that, when you see them happen, they're somehow both glaringly obvious and surprisingly awesome. I'm not sure how many times I found myself saying to myself, "Of course he would do that," while still laughing about it.

The theme of self-portraiture runs through the entire book. It's no mistake, I'm certain, that Jenny, as a young artist, is revealed primarily through journal entries. Then there's Fergus, who, trapped in Lowell's shadow (and his own inability to create himself in his own image), in a futile fit of escapism, writes a series of over-inflated magazine profile pieces about himself. Pretty much everything about the guy seems futile.

Understatement alert: these three characters have issues. With themselves, and with each other.

Then there's Merit. Oh, Merit. Merit's the result of the mess of Jenny and Lowell and Fergus, three of the most self-involved characters I've read recently. Merit seems to be the weird flip-side of the equation; she's grown up to be her own mess, but unlike her parents and "uncle," who are all messed up in each other because they are so self-assured (except when they aren't), Merit's got nothing. She's a self-questioning placeless seemingly empty mess who's desperately looking to be filled in. (Cough. Cough.)

In an interview at small spiral notebook, Adrienne Miller says, "Readers might have their own take on this, but, to me, Fergus is both the stylistic and emotional heart of the book." It's true that I do have my own take on this, in that it was the Merit chapters I felt most drawn to and into. Though, Fergus definitely had some of great stylistic quirks. Another one of those odd pleasures that do keep you coming back to the book is seeing the ways in which he's (consciously or not) glommed on to the personalities of the other characters in the book. And...

And, yeah. There's a lot going on here. Did I mention this book kicks ass? Man. This book kicks some serious ass.


There's a lot more I could talk about. The "Ohio"-ness of the book, the heartbreaking use of the blimp, the dead-on office humor (and whether office humor isn't perhaps cheap these days), Merit's husband and step-daughter, the other secondary characters (who fill out the margins of the story with a rich level of color), the other literary influences/references that the book may or may not exhibit (I really need to read Mrs. Dalloway soon because I suspect there might be a Mrs. Dalloway thing going on here but I'm not sure), the whole Randy thing, the animals, all of it. But instead I'd like to close off this post with a brief look at one of my favorite topics: me.

Me me me.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thesis statement

I keep trying to say lots of things about this book, but I haven't yet gotten my thoughts sorted out well enough to make them make sense to you, which means I haven't even gotten around to stating the main point yet, so I'm going to go ahead and do that now, laying out what amounts to little more than a thesis statement, one which I'd like to support with evidence and analysis and discussion when I'm feeling slightly more mentally and life-ally organized, but at least in the meantime I can get this much out there for your consideration, this one key point, which is this: The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller is an excellent novel that kicks all sorts of ass all over the place, and I happily recommend it to anybody looking for a strangely moving yet equally hilarious read.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Cleveland stuff: Bloomsday Book Club, JCU writers reading, Canadian writers series

Spotted this in the current issue of Cool Cleveland:

Bloomsday Book Club
Book club devoted to the last novel written by James Joyce, the legendary Finnegans Wake. The group will slowly tackle one of the most renowned and respected works in the English language. Group kicks off on Thu 1/25 at 6PM. Loganberry Books, Shaker Hts.

I'm tempted to join in--I think the only way I'll ever read Finnegans Wake is if I've got other people dragging me kicking and screaming through it, or, like, if a cute girl said I should read it, and she maybe blinked at me while she said so--but reality is I will likely wuss out, what with all those other important things I do, like, uhm. Stuff. With things. And, uh, stuff.

Also, not sure whether I'll make this, though I'm sure it promises to be a yabba-dabba-Bilgere-tastic time:

Get Lit features award-winning local writers/John Carroll University faculty members George Bilgere, Paula McLain, Steven Hayward, Philip Metres, Mary Weems and Sarah Willis in a special poetry performance Wed 1/24 at 8PM. No-cost event takes place at JCU's Rodman Hall, 20700 N. Park Blvd., University Hts. Call 397-4528 for details.

Nothing on the JCU site about that, but I do see that the Red, White and Read: Canadian Writers Come to Cleveland series is having a second go-round this year. Featured authors are David Bezmozgis, Michael Redhill, and Alistair MacLeod. Check the JCU site for dates and times.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Book giveaway

Get thyself to The Litblog Co-op, where the discussion of Valerie Trueblood’s Seven Loves begins with a book giveaway contest. Sounds like an interesting title. (One of these days, I really am going to go into seclusion, and read all the books they've suggested but which I haven't gotten to yet. My favorite nominated titles have been ones that weren't selected for the Read This! pick.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Favorites, and, A New Favorite


The idea of favorites has been bugging me lately. As in, I don't know what mine are. I think it's a matter of definition: somewhere along the line, I maybe bought a little bit into deconstructionism. It makes it hard to pick out absolutes when all you see is difference. You say a favorite is a thing liked the most. I ask: Liked how? Liked when? Liked to what end? It all becomes muddy if you think about it too hard. Which I encourage you not to do. I prefer to be a source of joy, not nasty Tylenol-commercial-level headaches.

Still, tough to talk about things (such as, ooooo-o-o-o-oh, books, to take one purely random example) that can be liked without hinting at the fact that there exists some kind of ultimate Platonic-ideal form of "liking," as well as whatever the opposite of that is. (I skipped out on Philosophy after my 101 college class. The Linguistics class I took really didn't count for much more than my own amusement. I mean, that stuff was sexy and all, pretty to look at, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't exactly accessible to me in any useful way. Which, come to think of it, probably summed up how I saw most campus sorority girls. But that's another post, entirely.) During my reading this week, I came up with an alternate, and practical, way of defining who my favorite authors are. You can play along at home: ask yourself, about a specific author, whether you would drop anything and everything in your hands (excluding babies, and very expensive and fragile crystals, both of which, in a pinch, can be sold on the black market, to enable the purchase of new books) in order to read a new book by that author at the moment of publication.

I rather like the strict black-and-white nature of the question. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a handful of authors I'd say yes to: Kazuo Ishiguro, Jennifer Egan. I mean, duh. Jeff Noon, Steve Erickson, yes. Mary Gaitskill, I think I would like to give the nod to her, here. I'm sure I'm missing plenty of names here (and there are more than a few who I would like to read new books by but who I might feel okay waiting on). I like that it's a small number of names, in any case. Makes me look like a smart chap, the sort who has standards, and is therefore deserving of your trust.

Things get knotty after that: while, for some definition or another, Infinite Jest could be considered one of my favorite novels, David Foster Wallace himself is curiously a no to drop-everything question. But! He will become an unholy-levels-of-dread-and-affirmation level yes the moment I learn that he is going to publish a novel. I suspect the same thing is going on for Jonathan Franzen, too. I suspect it is assholes like me who make it hard for authors like these fellows to publish new novels. For which I apologize, while also shrugging, and saying, hey, what can you do, right?

Some other big TDAOC-endorsed names also get voted no, like William T. Vollmann and Stephen Dixon, though they would be voted yes to another potential (and far more broad) favorites classification question, that of whether you can conceivably see yourself systematically working your way through the author's entire back catalogue, however large it may be, in however much time it might take. This question, perhaps obviously, leads to a far longer list of names, and makes me look like a far less-exacting, more-well-read, quite-likeable sort of chap. Plus it opens the field of play to dead authors, who, like blocks of expensive cheese, are categorically incapable of writing new books, but remain very nice in their own peculiar ways.

I've gone through this little exercise as a lengthy lead-in to an exciting conclusion: I think I've found a new favorite author. And not just in the loose Tier Number Two sense (though, definitely, yes, to that), but in the rather more elite "Whip out your tiki torches and loud shirts because we're having ourselves an up-all-night author party" Tier Number One sense.

Honest. It's really and truly all sorts of exciting. What can I say: some people get the power up and win the game; I fall in love with authors. (Well, when I'm not getting the power up and winning the game, at least, which, yeah, that also sort of rules.)

I just, uh, hope Kazuo Ishiguro and Jennifer Egan aren't jealous types.


A. L. Kennedy.

I read her most recent novel, Paradise, sometime in 2005, and I liked it plenty. I guess it took a long walk through the wilderness to see just how much I liked her writing, though, since I only now got around to reading an earlier novel of hers, Original Bliss. To be certain, I've read plenty of damn fine books in between those two. And yet, after returning to her familiar yet distinct prose, I now feel a little bit more guilty about not getting back to her stuff sooner.

The voice of Original Bliss is sparser than I remember that of Paradise being, which makes sense in that the prose of Paradise had to keep up with the woozy drunken mindset of its narrator, while that of Original Bliss had to work in a much tighter (but hardly less complex) space. Yet it seems to me that the two books share some obvious amount of genetic material. There's some definite sibling-resemblance thing going on there. As if this lurched-in-the-gut feeling both books left me with could have only come about through some family-taught technique.

This is where, were I studious, I'd spill out ten thousand words or so about Original Bliss, the story, the themes, the ideas, and the novel's voice, and I'd point to examples of everything I'm talking about. (Examples of simply amazing writing abound throughout the book. I had to force myself, now and then, to stop adding asterisks to the margins, and acknowledge that really, I just wanted to draw a big huge star on the front cover, because, just, all of it, the whole damn thing. Really.) It's that kind of book. It's a short one, which offers more rewards than it can seemingly contain.

But, you know I'm a lazy blogger and all, so instead I'm going to try to say just one thing about the book here. I love the way Kennedy's prose tosses out these bursts of sudden, devastating color, in a way that seems blunt but breathlessly effortless. It's like she finds holes in her prose and fills them with zigs and zags and a general sense of looseness that, really, how can all that be there, on the page? How can prose feel both like tight structured prose and a real live brain?

Comes down to insane excellence in word choice, I think. There's a point early in the book that, when I reached it, made me pretty much totally lose my shit. The two main characters of the novel are having a conversation. They make an awkward (understatement!) pair, one that probably should never have happened, but somehow did. During their conversation, when things were beginning to go a little more fluidly for them, there was a moment of silence, one that "blundered" between them.

"Blundered," seriously, are you shitting me?

Maybe you had to be there, but it's the kind of moment that, it wasn't so much a word usage, as a thermonuclear gigaton word deployment, it's so deadly, and perfect, and accurate, and summary of not just that moment of the book, but, in effect, every preceding page of the novel. I imagine Kennedy had to get some kind of military clearance before going there. Like, what form do you fill out for that? For tossing a live grenade into the middle of a bubble bath that was already a bit too hot to begin with?

Here's the compliment that, I guess, only makes sense if you're not just a reader, but someone struggling to write your own fiction, as well: that "blundered," it immediately, and almost unfairly, rose the bar I've set for myself and my own fiction writing. Which would be great if I were a published somebody. But I'm not even close to being that yet, so, you know: wow, damn. Discouraging, or challenging? I feel optimistic this week, so I'll go with challenging, but, damn, had I been in a particular down mood, when I'd hit that sentence, I'd have hung up on my writing career before it ever thought about maybe considering giving me a call.

Not that that's the only explosive moment of the book. Through and through, these words breathe, and speak, and make me want to go on, and on, and on about them, but I read another book right after it, one that I also want to say things about, maybe sometime in the next month, and, well. Yeah.


Day, A. L. Kennedy's new book, comes out in April. No idea if that goes for the U.S. or not. I would not mind if it did.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Poetry Appreciation Week(s) at Counterbalance

Over at Counterbalance, Callie's been hosting a Poetry Appreciation Week that has, in the way the best timelines do, spilled over into something longer than itself. Callie was kind enough to solicit some thoughts from me, but being statistically unable to get my literary shit together, I haven't yet managed to transpose the sweet music of my own genius onto pixels. But please do help me assuage my guilt by checking out Callie's thoughts and those shared by other litbloggers with a far shorter idea-to-action pipeline than I myself possess.

(Also, I can't help but point out that it looks like Oscar and Kacey would not do well together in book club. Only guessing, here.)

Someone call the Karma Police to arrest this man

You know what I'm sick of? I'm sick of authors being forced to use their sex appeal to sell books. First it was John "The Romantic" Keats and then it was Zadie "Quite a Lady" Smith and then we had Marisha "What a Dish-a" Pessl and now we have this. It's an outrage! A practical travesty! It's...

Oh, wait, that's actually an article about some new "greatest book ever" list. It's not about Tom Wolfe being "the hotness." Right. Sorry about that. Got hypnotized by the shirt.

The list, well, there's some new book out, and it's about some writers, who picked best books, then some other people worked mathematical voo-doo magic on it, and came up with a meta-list, and, well, you think it's wrong. The list. Not the maths.

Rumors of the death of the over-extended metaphor have been greatly exaggerated

I've been slacking off on my Erin O'Brien hype-boy duties. So when I was doing the daily Google Reader dance just now, and I saw Ed "The Red" Champion toss out a seemingly disposable comment about writers and honesty, and then a bit later I saw this post of Erin's, which ends with about as honest a statement as can exist on this level of reality; well, let's say that it was as if a thin layer of the universe had momentarily peeled back, revealing two dots embedded in the fabric of existence, one labeled "1", the other labeled "2". And here I sit, armed with a thick blue Laddie pencil, and the task of connecting them to reveal a hidden picture of awesome.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It's all in the timing

The world pays attention to me. It notices the fact that I'm taking an indefinite hiatus from Very Long Books, and so it goes out, and it causes some Very Long Books to be published that, were I not on said hiatus, I would probably read immediately. (Neither of these books, mind you, is by Don DeLillo--though during a rather energetic round of bowling this weekend, I may have gotten myself caught in the cross-fire of some sort of drunken blood oath to read Underworld this year. [But Friend Chris, the other half of the oath, is somewhere inside Gravity's Rainbow right now, and then he's planning on doing Infinite Jest next, so I figure I've got at least eight or nine months of breathing room before he brings in a truckload of ladies to bear witness as he starts calling me a scrawny little-book reading wimp, at which point I'll have to drop whatever Chekhov I'm working on so I can throw down in order to show him and the ladies--well, okay, it's mostly the ladies I'm concerned about here--what's what. Yeah, that's right: in my town, books are naught but a flimsy excuse for manly displays of valor.])

First book was just nominated by the LitBlog Co-Op as their Winter 2007 Read This! selection: Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. I'm glad they nominated it, because it does look interesting, but it's one of those many books that I've seen lots of references to recently, which has upped the white noise quotient surrounding it in my brain, and has accordingly decreased the odds that I will actually read it. Looks like the paperback is due out in August, which, considering my current reading schedule and my tendency to play fall-behind, catch-up on the LitBlog Co-Op's picks, sounds about right.

The other, even longer, book, would be Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. I like novels about India or by Indian authors, but it's been a while since I've read anything in that vein, and this one sounds like a doozy. To be fair I started reading Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain last year or the year before and sputtered out on it, for reasons I can't recall. From the sounds of it, though, there's no way I'd lose interest midway through this new one. There's reviews everywhere: I'll be a good hometown boy and point to the Cleveland Plain Dealer review.

Then I'll note that, while this review at the Toronto Star is otherwise decent and enthusiastic, it does open with one of the more offensive paragraphs I've seen in my travels. ("I know what you're thinking. You take one look at that page count of Vikram Chandra's novel--916--and lament: "Do I really need another epic novel about India? After Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children? After Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance?") One might ask whether we really need another novel about white people in America after Tom Sawyer and The Catcher in the Rye, before jumping up on one's desk and shouting "U! S! A! U! S! A!" at top volume. Perhaps with foot-stomping. And fist-pumping. The answer, to this and the question posed in the review, is: yes, duh. I know I haven't gone out of my way on this blog to specifically advocate reading outside one's cultural comfort zone, but that doesn't mean I think we North Americans need to go out of our way to look like total assholes about ourselves.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The ad revenue alone will bankroll at least a thousand Mansquito sequels, and, if we're lucky, a second Lost Room series

So, speaking of Neal Stephenson, my Google alert finally brings something that isn't yet another article about how his novel Snow Crash inspired the online video-game universe Second Life:

At Sci Fi, "Diamond Age," exec produced by [George] Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Prods., is a six-hour mini in development that's based on Neal Stephenson's book "The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer," which the author will adapt for the small screen. As the story goes, when a prominent member of society concedes that their futuristic civilization stifles creativity, he commissions an interactive book for his daughter to serve as her guide through a surreal alternate world, but the device falls into the wrong hands.

Clooney producing? Stephenson adapting? That's not rain you hear: it's the sound of the entire executive staff of the Sci-Fi Channel collectively urinating themselves in shock and joy.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Two years of nonsense, and some book talk now and then, too

I tried to think of a good reason not to post this link. Really. In a marked departure from my typical "post first, regret later" technique, I've spent at least five minutes over the last two days debating this one. The best reasons I came up with were "Some people might not get it" and "It might make some people think I'm sort of weird," which, upon further reflection, were less about this particular link and more about this entire blog. Surprise, surprise: turns out not everybody thinks sitting up late at night typing on the Internet about books is "cool" or "hip" or "as fun as going to bars and waking up next to strangers." Pft, whatever--safe is the new dangerous, and that makes it way sexy, right? Right. Anyway, since hypothetical public opinion has never stopped me before, there was no logical reason for it to do so now, so I began to accept the task at hand.

Then I remembered that today, January 12, marks the second anniversary of the founding of this little self-indulgent exercise in time-wasting claptrap, and that cemented it, because honestly, is there any better way to celebrate the occasion than with Swedish Librarian Fashion photos? Suffice it to say that no, no there isn't, and that we here at TDAOC HQ emphatically condone this sort of behavior, and hope to see more of it in the future.

Also, rumor has it there's some fiction links, somewhere over there. Must be hidden somewhere on the sides of the page. Haven't found 'em yet.

I'll be back in a couple days with something else. Hell if I know what yet. Whatever it will be, it probably won't be as awesome as Swedish Librarian Fashion photos.

(Link via Bookninja.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

The clock starts on my mark

Something is about to happen that has not happened in a very long time: I'm about to begin reading a book that is not part of Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle. Which is to say that after drinking far more coffee yesterday than was perhaps healthy, I finished that series, meaning 2006 can now officially end, and 2007 may begin. (Only a week late. Not too bad.)

I could probably talk about the Baroque cycle for days. Specifically, I could probably bitch about elements of it for days, and praise other elements of it for an additional number of days. I don't know whether the two numbers would equal each other, because I'm not going there. Bottom line is, I certainly liked the series more than I did the first time I tried to read it, when it was originally published, and I'm glad I gave it another shot. (Everything that follows is informal, incomplete, and unprofessional. You've been warned!)

My bitches about the books mostly deal with style. Broadly speaking, in this series, Stephenson takes the balls-to-the-wall descriptiveness of Cryptonomicon, and re-shapes it into a more studied, stately, paced language, often technical and sometimes dry, and largely heavy, all of which is appropriate considering the era and subject matter he describes (the late 17th and early 18th centuries, mostly focusing on England, with stops throughout Europe and treks across the globe), but not typically as much fun to read. He likes to describe details first and explain the whole later, which is fun when you're in on the joke from the start but can be wearying after too many mildly disorienting occasions. He winks at us often, and hard; nobody should wink that much. He's definitely not writing in a period style, but there are tics and flourishes in there that pay homage to the era. That's not a complaint--nor is it a complaint that there are occasional dazzling or unexpectedly energetic or humorous bits of writing. The complaint is that the text isn't consistently and completely dazzling, humorous, or energetic.

The author of The Greatest Pizza Delivery Sequence in the History of Literature (see: Snow Crash) writing less-energetic language is disappointing, but not a deal breaker. Which I'm glad I discovered this time through, because there's damn good stuff in these books. Jack's wanderings about the world; philosophic discussions between major historical figures and Stephenson's made-up characters; liberal descriptions of ships and things that happen on them; Newton being a huge prick and Leibniz being a rather nice chap, the sort you'd like to have coffee with yourself; Jimmy and Danny the Irish Samurai, who I could not help but picture getting spun-off into their own film series just so the guys who did Boondock Saints could play them on the big screen; the list would go on, if I were a better note taker. I've never been a post-it note user while reading books? But reading this series, I could see just why I should be. I margin-starred plenty of great passages through all three books. Yeah, they're in there. Somewhere.

It's the disconnect between style and substance that seems most troubling to me, when it comes to Stephenson. He's a sort of master of the completely unnecessary info-dump. You can't bitch about him going on and on about whatever he finds interesting because that's his thing--it would be like criticizing Hamlet for thinking too much, or Virginia Madsen for being hot. What bugs me is that it feels like Stephenson so frequently and lengthily mis-steps in presenting that information to the reader, in these books. It's also highly likely that a lot of what he describes in these books, I'm just not as interested in--mea culpa, for every case I haven't remembered to recognize specifically. But plenty of those times it's possible I could have been convinced, were the author trying harder to convince me, that these were fascinating details.

Here's my big praise. Stephenson, through these books, largely succeeded in accomplishing something that rarely if ever happened in any history or literature class I took during my scholastic career: bringing this particular historical era, for me, to life, as being something that happened, something that was important, and something which has ramifications and consequences that are both current and relevant today. I can't comprehend the amount of information Stephenson had to have consumed, processed, and learned well enough to manipulate it into these books. No small feat. Count me among those waiting, with great curiosity, to see what he does next.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

A look ahead

[Editor's note: an earlier, incomplete, inferior version of this post was leaked through authorial incompetence. The hopefully less sucky version appears below. Responsible parties have been sacked.]

Ladies and gentlemen, you, the People of the Internet, have spoken, and your multifarious voices have raised a most glorious collective cry, ringing in the New Year with a singular, overwhelming, and beautiful Truth, in your official nomination of me as Your Official Authority on Things I Know Nothing About. I shall serve faithfully but inexpertly in this role to the best of my inabilities.

In the meantime, while I'm setting up my office (and getting the number of Gaius Baltar's portrait artist), does anybody need to slay some vampires? Because, holy wiggins-makin' site-stats spike, Buffy.

But no, this is no time to dwell on that which is behind us--neither 2006, nor the young ladies sitting behind me in this coffee shop, who, were they to judge my character based solely on the things I've fact-checked via Google during the writing of this post, would probably find me morally and intellectually lacking. Not that I would blame them. If I saw someone who wasn't me googling both "Gaius Baltar" and "chick lit" within the same quarter hour, I'd probably politely ask them to leave so as to free up that bandwidth for people with more pressing things to waste time on.

Ahem. It's 2007 now, and that means there's lots of 2007-y things to look forward to. There's posts at The Millions and Bookdwarf and Conversational Reading and stories at the New York Daily News and the Guardian that suggest many upcoming titles that you might consider eagerly anticipating. If 2007 is already a little too Web 1.0 for you, you can take a look ahead at 2008 at The Millions.

Me, my plans for the year are sort of half-retro, half-futuristic. You can probably align me with Matthew Tiffany--I'll keep slugging grenades at the TBR pile in a futile attempt to make some holes in it, while looking forward to the stuff that's going to come out of nowhere to take over my mind and not let go. Yes: these goals are mutually exclusive. No: that's not going to stop me from pursuing them both.

Looking at the 2007 lists, a few names jump out:

  • I can see myself dropping everything for Jonathan Lethem's You Don't Love Me when that comes out in March. I've enjoyed most everything of his I've read. The Fortress of Solitude holds a special place in my heart. Lethem says the book should be "funny and sexy...a brave foray to retrieve irrelevance for American novel-writing." I look forward to seeing what he does with that.

  • Then there's the William T. Vollmann book, Poor People, which I suspect will be the exact opposite of funny, sexy, and irrelevant. I'm ready to go either way on this one. A lengthy break from Vollmann's stuff would probably be healthy. But, the topic sounds interesting.

  • There's a new(ly translated) Haruki Murakami book I'm curious about, After Dark. I've opted to ration out my Murakami reading rather than gorge on his stuff, since I gather that he treads a lot of the same ground across his books, and it can be easy to burn out if you read too many of his books too fast. (An experience I can relate to with my own reading of Stephen Dixon's stuff, though I like to think I've caught that in time to prevent long-term damage.) Murakami's new book might be fun to read, to compare notes on how it stacks for a relative newcomer with how it works for people who have read more of his books.

  • AL Kennedy and Rupert Thompson are two writers who I learned about from Maud Newton back in the hazy, uncertain days of 2005. I read one book by each author, liked each book a lot, and then promptly forgot both authors existed, because I am morally and intellectually lacking. They both have new books coming out in 2007. I don't know whether I will read the new books when they are released, but I do plan on re-visiting their back catalogues, probably within the next six months.

As for more general plans:

  • I look forward to finishing Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Before July. Please, God: I know we haven't spoken in a while, but give me the strength.

  • I've developed a low-level fascination with historical fiction. This list and these two lists seem like good places to start searching for additional titles. (Fair warning: that first list is aimed at young adult readers. Therefore, by merely pointing at it, I've caused many people to think better of me, and many other people to think worse of me. I hope the two groups balance each other out.)

  • I nominated five authors for the 2006 Underrated Writers project. Now I need to read every other author on the list. Then I can start tackling the the 2005 list. I plan to complete both lists by Tuesday.

  • I'd like more people to tell me I'm wrong. So that means trying to work a few more current, hot titles into my reading list, so as to facilitate more cross-blog conversation. Or I could take some initiative and form some discussion groups (like the Roundtable model that is currently being used to discuss Against the Day at Metaxucafe) to get some more talk going about books I find conversation-worthy. Or I could start writing reviews for the New York Times Book Review section.

  • Two words: shorter novels. Not that I'm done reading long novels. But once I finish the Baroque cycle, in September or October, I'm going to give myself a pass on anything over 400 pages for a while. Hell, I'd love to make the next twenty or thirty books I read all be less than 250 pages. With my last two or three months being consumed by Pynchon and Stephenson and Ann-Marie MacDonald (for which I'm awarding myself an early win on the Chunkster Challenge), I'm ready for a long season of high variety. (Meaning Don Quixote is going to have to wait just a bit longer, I'm afraid. But, I'll probably make an exception for Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, sometime this year.)

  • Take the above general directives and filter them through my realization that even though I recognize that I don't read enough female authors, I still don't read enough female authors. A while back, sparked by a funny story that involved me accidentally going out on a date with a lesbian (no-really-I-swear-it-was-hilarious), I realized that 97 percent of the music I listened to was created by all-guy bands or bands fronted by guy singers. Some vigorous soul-searching and corrective action ensued, and I've been a much happier person ever since. The kind of person who can now smarmily and accusingly point out that female artists were horribly underrepresented on Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2006 list. (It's been a few days since I ran the count, but I think there is a single-digit number of albums by acts that feature a female singer, and of those, only one, maybe two, could be "classically" classified as albums by female singer-songwriters. Disgraceful! Smarm!) It's feeling like a good time to do the same sort of thing for my reading habits. That This Is Not Chick Lit collection, edited by Elizabeth Merrick, is probably as good place as any to start finding new-to-me authors.