Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery

Brian Francis Slattery’s debut novel, Spaceman Blues, begins with the disappearance of Manuel Gonzalez, the boyfriend of Wendell Apogee. Wendell isn’t willing to accept that Manuel is actually dead, and knowing that he has contacts with a whole assortment of random people sends him off to find his whereabouts. Of course, it’s not that easy, and long the way he encounters an underground civilization, alien assassins, and weird offshoot of the Catholic Church.

Slattery spreads the narrative over a fairly diverse cast, and the connections between the characters n
ever seem too strained. Every sentence is packed with information, and the author’s style involves an absence of verbs that contributes to this. Oddly enough, the affectation works pretty well, and though there are times during the narrative when the reader is quite lost as to what is happening, by the resolution everything makes perfect sense.

There are a lot of mythological parallels in the novel. For one, Wendell’s descent into the underground
civilization in order to return with his lost love comes straight from Orpheus, but the progression of the story never goes beyond this and one wonders of the parallel was unintentional. The alien assassins are called the Four Horsemen, which fits well with the apocalyptic tone of the Catholic sect. Though the narrative ends before any apocalypse can come to be or be averted, this allusion to the Bible actually works quite well.

That lack of conclusion is likely to turn off many readers, but as Slattery accepts some of the genre conventions of science fiction, he also maintains a more literary sensibility that allows him to end the narrative without playing out every note. Not in the sense that there will be a sequel, but that when Wendell’s arc is finished, the novel concludes; the novel’s about Wendell, not the world facing alien invaders. The aforementioned stylistic devices Slattery uses also can be distracting, especially at the novel’s opening when one may feel as though they just can’t ‘get into’ the narrative.

In all, I found Spaceman Blues to be fairly enjoyable, especially because unlike so much of genre fiction, this was constructed as an exploration of characters rather than a focus on plot. With a new novel about the US after a complete economic collapse that leads to chaos, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Slattery’s name mentioned in the future among such genre-defying authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dennis Lehane's Coronado

After seeing his name appear time and time again as one of the best mystery writers, I finally sat down with Dennis Lehane’s collection Coronado. I expected to like it, seeing as I enjoyed the movie Mystic River that is based on one of his novels, and like any collection some of the stories worked better than others. But what I was enamored with is the eponymous play and the story it was based on.

Earlier this year when studying Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, I learned that the play h
ad its origin with a short story he had written several years earlier. Though I didn’t have much time to really ponder the connection, I did read the story and it is something I would like to get back to one day. In ‘Until Gwen,’ Lehane tells the story of a young man who has just been released from prison. He is picked up by his criminal father, one of the most reprehensible and psychopathic characters I’ve ever encountered, who is interested to find where his son hid a large diamond that they stole. Told in second person, the story is paced quite well and is a fascinating study of a young man who has been betrayed by the father who has twisted his life.

‘Coronado’ is the story translated into a two-act play. It begins in a bar with the father and son having a very similar discussion as they do at the start of the story. Yet in the bar are two other couples, seemingly disconnected: one involves a middle aged woman who is meeting her psychiatrist for a drink, the other a young woman and man who plot to kill the woman’s husband so they can be together. As the play progresses, we realize slowly that each of these couples’ stories relate much more closely than we were lead to believe at the start, and rather than occurring somewhat simultaneously, the occur spread out over a great length of time, albeit in the same bar.

I suppose what I find so delightful about this play is the way he truly changes the way the narrative works to suit the different medium. Too often I have seen plays directly translated to television, or novels like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men that are nearly direct adaptations of the prose. It just ever seems to work that well, though I guess Steinbeck did okay. But different mediums require a different method of storytelling; Lehane captures the essence of his very good story, yet translates and expands it to work well on a stage.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a play likely to be performed here anytime soon. After reading the script, I would like to see how a director and stage designer would approach the first act, how the different tables in the bar would be arranged. However, these concerns not applicable to a review of the material here.

The other four stories mostly work, especially the opening novella ‘Running Out of Dog.’ The only one to come up short in the Kafkaesque ‘ICU,’ that seems more an exercise in imitating the Austrian than a successful attempt at a story. But that shouldn’t top you from reading this collection if you are interested in dipping a toe into Lehane’s work. I’ll likely be picking up one of his novels in the near future.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Future of the Newspaper Comic Strip

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the future of the newspaper comic strip is in doubt. Newspaper circulation has been on the decline for some time, while the primary advertisers in newspapers, department stores and car dealerships, aren’t exactly having banner years. Last year I did a bit of research and wrote a paper about succeeding as an independent creator of comics by distributing them online: the chances of making enough to live even sparsely aren’t good.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article in the business section about the effects of declining newspaper sales on comic distributors and creators. Universal Feature Syndicate, whose comics include
‘Peanuts’ and ‘Dilbert’, has recently released all its archives online for free. Apparently some revenue is drawn from advertising on the site, but it primarily is intended to introduce comics to a new audience.

So the distribution plan for the future includes mobile devices like the iPhone. Though I believe there are some drawbacks to this, most notably the reduced screen size that might cause readers to view panel separately rather than as a whole, this has potential. Yet the ability to raise revenue with such a project is not addressed in the article. In addition, though I am skeptical of the influence of the Kindle, especially as I have never seen one in real life, it wouldn’t be hard to envision that newspapers making the transition to such a platform might include comics as part of their offerings.

Learning more and more about the rhetoric of digital media has driven home the fact that few readers on the web are willing to pay for access to content (that is non-pornographic, I guess). A couple of years ago the Times was forced to scratch their Times Select program that restricted access to columns by staff columnists and other content. Slate found itself unable to survive with a subscription model, and now gives away all its content for free. While signing up to receive a comic like ‘Pearls Before Swine’ on your cell phone would probably be free and carry an advertisement with it, could that possibly generate enough revenue to keep the syndicate model viable?

My research showed that the only way for independent creators to earn money from their sites was to give away the content and then sell products like t-shirts and postcards. (There has been some success with donation drives as well.) So it would seem that a lot of merchandise would need to bring in the revenue that the syndicate needs. This isn’t impossible, especially when you can market comics geared to wards younger readers into shirts and bumper stickers that could be sold at places like Hot Topic. Yet one might ask if it is this easy then why aren’t syndicates doing this now.’

I would submit that the syndicate model is flawed. For one thing, they insist on owning the property, and though creators are usually compensated fairly, their lack of ownership is a real sticking point for many of them. Relinquishing some of the control might be in their best interests. The need for new comics with a greater appeal to younger audiences is an immediate concern. No one I know gets a kick out of Dagwood making giant sandwiches. Perhaps by cutting deals with independent creators to distribute their content while letting them retain ownership would be a shrewd move for both parties.

All this said, it is hard to envision now how the comic strip business model will survive the change from the print medium into the digital one. Yet giving away the content for free has helped quite a bit. Since we haven’t gotten the paper regularly for several years, I have only been introduced to new comics like ‘Frazz’ and ‘Sheldon’ through the blogs of friends and later feeds of my own. The topic has captured my fascination and charting the progress of the changing distribution designs will be something I keep a close watch on.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

Though I didn’t feel that Benjamin Black’s first novel Christine Falls worked as well as most people did, he was successful in capturing a certain noir atmosphere of 1950s Ireland that intrigued me enough to follow up with The Silver Swan. Black, of course, is the literary alter ego of John Banville, widely regarded as one of the best current writers in the English language; shamefully, this is something I can’t vouch for as I’ve never read anything published under his own name.

The Silver Swan picks up tow years after the conclusion of Christine Falls, and medical examiner Quirke is approached by an old university classmate, whom he hardly remembers. Over coffee and tea, the former schoolmate tells Quirke that his wife has been discovered as a suicide, drowned in Dublin Bay. He implores the pathologist to see that she isn't subjected to a forensic dissection, as the law requires. Quirke agrees, but no sooner does the body pass into his custody than he notices a needle mark on the arm and begins to slice his way to the truth, which is that the woman didn't drown. As Quirke unravels her deceptive past, the trail leads to a fashio
nable beauty salon called the Silver Swan that the dead woman once ran, to a sinister Englishman and to an intricate web of deceit and blackmail in which the doctor's own daughter, distant and bitter, appears to be heavily involved. Best of all, everything builds to a credible and strangely satisfying conclusion.

Two things make this novel superior to its predecessor: the highly developed character of Quirke’s daughter, Phoebe, and the relatively limited scope of the conspiracy that is uncovered. In an interview at The Elegant Variation, Black claims his agent thinks he’s in love with Phoebe, and her focus as a central character whose perspective informs much of the story would bear this out. I would be unsurprised if she were more dominant in the next novel in the series than her father.

The conspiracy in Christine Falls involving both Quirke’s adopted father and father in law, not to mention the larger Catholic church in both New England and Ireland, stretched the credibility of the mystery. With a relatively smaller scale of mystery in this novel, one enjoys it because it seems so much less grandiose. In fact, I often was reminded of the plot in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as I read along; consequential, but not earth shattering.

I mused a couple of months ago about the choice of a pen name for these noir mysteries, concluding that it was fun for Banville and that was reason enough to explain it. But after reading Jim Ruland’s very good interview at TEV, it almost seems like Black/Banville are not as interchangeable as all that. In fact, one isn’t exactly sure who the interviewee is. I’ll be excited to read more about Quirke sometime in the future, but for now perhaps I should actually pick up my copy of Banville’s The Sea.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Harold Pinter, winner of the Nobel Prize, passed away on Wednesday. He revolutionized the way stage dialogue is used, something obvious when the terms ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘the Pinter Pause’ come up time and time again as one studies contemporary drama. His work influenced not only later playwrights like David Mamet and Sam Shepard, but also the way a young man in Austin, Texas, would feel about the power of drama.

Though in many of Pinter’s scenes, there is little of consequence transmitted verbally, labeling such pieces as uncommunicative completely misses the point. Pinter is far from wanting to say that language is incapable of establishing true communication between human beings, but merely draws our attention to the fact that human beings rarely make use of language for that purpose, as least so far as spoken communication is concerned. People tend to act not so much logically as emotionally through language, and the tone of voice, the emotional color of the words is often far more significant than their exact definitional meanings. For example, the verbal outburst of one persona against another is basically an act of aggression, an assault by verbal blows in which the violence of the emotion behind the words is far more important than their content. What matters most in oral communication through words is more what people are doing to each other through it rather than the conceptual content of what they are saying.

Thus in drama, dialogue is ultimately a form of action. And Pinter found a way to insert the silence into his poetry. The silences in his plays are written into the text, are a part of the dialogue, and are wielded against other characters. If a line of Shakespeare’s verse is like an atom, full of infinite energy if we can just find a way to split it open, then perhaps the same can be said for the silence in Pinter’s plays. They derive their power for suggesting possible answers to questions that the audience thinks could be said, then subverting that expectation with a spoken line that seems less than meaningful. The power in these exchanges derives from the silence, not from what is spoken.

I’ve written several papers about Pinter, but have been most influenced by an essay concerning radio drama by Mamet. His claim is that one could get just as much out of Shakespeare listening to a radio broadcast as one could receive at a staged version because all the power is packed into the language. Yet I imagine that Pinter’s plays could be just as well observed the same way. The power isn’t in the staging at all. It’s the silences that not only we hear, but the characters hear as well. As a person who has written a bit of drama and likely will return to that again, this aspect of Pinter’s style literally changed the way I approach my own work as well as they way I critique the work of others.

Harold Pinter was a revolutionary playwright, taking the Absurdist nature of Samuel Beckett and placing it amongst lovers or a family. His best work is probably The Homecoming, but I’ve found one can’t really go wrong with him. I urge any of you to make an effort to see one of his plays and to find Peter Hall’s BBC version of The Homecoming. Pinter will truly be missed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Harvey Pekar's The Quitter

Up until now I’d only read short works by Harvey Pekar, a form that is suited to his style though lacks the ability to do any real in depth character work. In The Quitter, he pairs with artist Dean Haspiel to create a moving and effective coming of age story. In a sense the book works more like a novel, even though it is nonfiction, for the arc of the story is in a very real sense the origin story of Pekar’s American Splendor persona.

Since he covered about the entire time he worked for the federal government in American S
plendor, Pekar begins this tale during his boyhood and takes us through to his hiring at the infamous job shown in his previous work. His parents were Polish immigrants who came to Cleveland in the 1920s, buying a small corner grocery and struggling to make ends meet. Harvey was born in America, and the culture divide between he and his parents is a constant source of problems. Harvey doesn’t get along with most of the kids in his mostly black neighborhood, frequently fighting. Yet his mother, a Communist sympathizer, tells him that blacks and Jews needed to get along to succeed, an interesting fact that makes his later intellectual development fairly interesting.

Harvey was a perfectionist who, if he considered his own efforts even slightly flawed, simply quit rather than let himself finish in second place. Haspiel presents Harvey's dilemmas in powerful split-screen shots, rendering Pekar's world in shades of black and grey. Unable to pass a math class, Pekar drops it. Not given a fair shake to play on the football team, he leaves that behind as well. He forgoes college because of his fear of math, then when attending later drops out when he gets a C on a geography test. Rather than buckling down and tackling his opposition, Pekar instead quits, carrying the shame of being less than a success with him forever. Anyone familiar with the angry tone in some of his earlier work can see where his personality really develops here.

But eventually Harvey discovers jazz, creating relationships with other fans and eventually writing reviews for magazines. He then becomes enamored with the comics of R. Crumb, and started writing his own, which of course continues to this day. In a sense, Harvey has found something he enjoys enough not to give up on. Hard work though it may be, it seems to have been tolerable because he was doing it as something he liked rather than trying to make a buck.

There is an emotional resonance in the book with which I identify greatly. Harvey felt like he was a smart but misunderstood young man who never was able to impress those who could have helped him out. In my eyes, he never had someone really encourage him and help him believe in himself. Haven’t we all felt that we could be more than we are now if someone had just given us a little boost when we were young?

The conclusion feels as though The Quitter will likely be Pekar’s last autobiographical work, but one wonders that if he was able to leave his childhood untapped for so long, couldn’t there be more than he is holding in reserve? I certainly hope so. His work has been instrumental in beginning to break comics away from the superhero dominance that has stifled the medium for so long.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

Always a big fan of time travel/alternate universe stories, I was bound to pick up Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine at some point. Believing it would be a lighthearted look at time travel, I was a bit surprised by how far my expectations were off, and how disappointing the book was.

Matt is a lab assistant at MIT in the near future who accidentally creates a time machine when building some sort of graviton spectrometer. Finding that the machine jumps forward and only forward in time in progressively lo
nger interims, Matt decides to hop aboard himself and check it out. Feeling threatened at future stops, he continues to fling himself forward ever farther in time. Eventually, about 200 years after the story begins, he winds up in a sort of post-apocalyptic theocracy where he meets Martha, the obligatory eventual love interest. As they jumps take him father and farther ahead in time, the different earths he explores are fairly boring. For what is a short novel, it would have been nicer to get more a sense of these worlds before leaping to the next.

The theocracy I described takes place after the second coming of Jesus, and there are religious themes throughout the book. Unfortunately, the religious angle isn’t played up enough for my tastes, and the evolution of Martha’s character is fairly unbelievable when one considers that she has grown up in a sheltered world full of old time religion.

Haldeman relies on the standard third person narration here, but with the entire novel being told from Matt’s perspective, I wonder why he didn’t go the first person route. I think the humor would have worked better, and it just might have made things more exciting to experience them through his eyes rather than just being told through the narration. Perhaps this is just an inherent bias with me; I tend to prefer first person narration above all others.

Matt really wants to return home, so the basic quest is the search for a time machine that allows one to travel back in time. He keeps jumping to the future in order to find someone who can help him build one of it doesn’t exist already, and when he finally does discover a way back no real explanation besides ‘you don’t have the worldview to begin to understand the math’ is given. I’m not some big tech head who has to know how everything works, but why write a book about time travel and go light on the mechanics?

All in all, The Accidental Time Machine is a fair book that was more entertaining than not. I suppose my disappointment mainly stems from my wish that this would be a sort of comedic version of David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, probably the best time travel book I've read. However, it was nice to read a little more of one of the most respected SF writers. I may have to go with a more traditional military SF novel by him sometime next year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Giordano Bruno

When reading Paul Auster’s latest novel Man in the Dark, I speculated that the alternate universe he was writing about was in fact the real one, and that the past eight years under the current administration was the alternate reality. Auster dropped the name of Giordano Bruno within his narrative, claiming that he was the father of the multiple universe theory, and after a comment by my friend Allyn Gibson, I determined to find out more about him.

I began by getting my hands on a seemingly decent scholarly work by Dorothea Waley Singer called Giordano Bruno: His Life and Thought. Yet the prose was so dry that I did little more than skim after the first dozen pages (after seriously pondering a quick gouging of my eyes), then dropping the book only to learn much more from a thorough read of the Wikipedia entry. However, a much better reviewed biography of Bruno was recently released and pointed out to me over the weekend.

Imagine my surprise when that book, Ingrid D. Rowland’s Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic, landed in today’s New York Times Book Review. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst revie
ws I’ve read anywhere in the past year. Anthony Gottlieb does little more than provide a Cliff’s Notes version of Bruno’s life, shedding no light on historical circumstances that he lived in nor analyzing the approach Rowland took to the material.

In what is likely a full-page review (I read the Times online), Gottlieb only renders an opinion with the last hundred words. I’m not all that sure that he understands what a review is supposed to be, which also begs the question of how this slipped by editor Sam Tanenhaus and made it into today’s issue. Rather than compiling a list of facts about Bruno’s life, perhaps the book could have been placed in context with other works on Bruno and/or the time period, helping a potential reader determine if the book is something they might enjoy. A review exists only to help a reader make that decision; I am less interested in reading a list of facts about Bruno that I could find easily in any number of places, but instead would like to know about this particular book. How good is Rowland at presenting scholarly work to a lay audience, why should I read/not read this book instead of another on the philosopher’s life?

Gottlieb criticizes Rowland at the end of the piece, finally talking about the book rather than the man, claiming ‘the book has too little examination of [Bruno’s] ideas.’ Funny coming from a guy who details exactly none of Rowland’s.

Is it really too much for me to expect even the slightest bit of competence from the leading platform for book reviewing?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Newbery Award Controversy

All the book blogosphere this week has been linking to this recent article in the Washington Post about the outcry from children’s book advocates that the Newbery Award winners are discouraging children from reading. This is the same argument I essentially touched on back when this year’s National Book Award nominees were released: should awards/nominees be selected on marketing criteria in addition to merit?

The argument begun by Anita Silver is questioning whether the books nominated for the Newber
y Award in the past few years are too difficult or inaccessible to their targeted audience. Backing this up, the article quotes that National Endowment for the Arts is reporting that fewer Americans are opting to read than did twenty years ago, creating social and financial consequences.

The last point first: there wasn’t an Internet twenty years ago nor were the video games interactive and/or complex. It’s no wonder that in a world with more choices, readership has gone down. That doesn’t mean people don’t like to read, just that they like to do other thing too. As to whether the subject matter is too tough for readers, somehow I doubt that in a society with a large divorce rate, reading about a single-parent household isn’t shocking. In a world where we routinely are subjected to explosions on news footage that show people being killed, where we are ‘constantly being hunted by terrorists,’ I don’t think books about death are too close for comfort either.

That said, the most interesting aspect of this debate is the posed at the top of the post: should awards/nominees be selected on marketing criteria in addition to merit? With regards to the National Book Award, I was glad to see a book like Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions nominated even though it was sure to prove unpopular with the average person looking for an entertaining yarn. It was a brilliantly conceived experiment in variable storytelling and typography that deserved to be recognized because it worked so well. From this perspective, I suppose that I would agree that the Newbery should only nominate books worthy of the honor and make their decision separate of marketing.

Yet what awards make decisions like this separate from marketing? The Oscars don’t even pretend to select the best movies of the year, only the best movie to play at least one weekend in Hollywood over the course of a year. In a time when publishers are hemorrhaging money and employees, does it really make sense not to consider how big awards like these affect the business? Newbery nominees sell huge, not only to go in personal libraries but also in public ones. This is a big financial consideration.

But the argument by Silver and others goes further: if kids aren’t fans of the ‘best of children’s literature’ when they are kids, what hope is there to grow into the adult readership that the publishing industry so desperately needs? However, look at the different landscape that exists in publishing today versus twenty years ago: readership down twenty percent. Who knows what it will look like twenty years from now? It’s exceedingly obvious that publishing houses are going to have to refine their models of business long before that if they hope to stay afloat.

I don’t necessarily think that considering marketability when determining an award’s nominees should be verboten. But I don’t think it should be the leading factor either. That said, the problems with creating young readers have almost nothing to do with the Newbery’s selections and everything to do with a rapidly changing media landscape that publishing houses have been loathe to respond to. In essence, this appears to be a non-issue.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Three Brief Reviews

Feeling uninspired to write lengthy comments yet not wanting to forego commenting completely, here are brief thoughts on three recent books I have read.

A Better Angel by Chris Adrian
Hyped by all of the Best of 2008 lists, I picked up this collection of short fiction a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised by the contents. Adrian’s writing often has an element of magical realism that cap
tures the essence of wonder in me. The title story was the true standout for me, telling about a young doctor addicted to all sorts of things as he struggles with his father’s waning health and deals at the same time with a guardian angel that doesn’t like him. Many of the pieces are told from the viewpoint of children, typical for short fiction, but said characters are abnormally intelligent and/or mature, making them not seem so much like children as small adults. This is a bit distracting, but I really enjoyed the collection and will read The Children’s Hospital in the near future.

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon
I’m working my way through the fiction of this Bosnian-American writer, and his first novel centers on a character introduced in a novella in The Question of Bruno. Though that novella wasn’t a favorite, Hemon managed to write a strange and fascinating story that centers around Jozef Pronek yet is never told from his point of view. Instead, the story is told through various narrators who all have some sort of relationship with him. But even through all this, there is a sort of mystical nature surrounding Pronek that left me not feeling that I really know who he is at all. This among several works I have read recently that center on Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and it is a solid work that will help inform how we as Westerners look historically at the people who were involved in the Yugoslavian conflict of the early 1990s.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
Discovering that Fountain lives in Texas and writes about Cuba and Haiti intrigued me enough to pick up this collection. His short fiction is overtly political, yet he doesn’t put his postcolonial before the story; he reminds me a lot of Tom Bissell, though the politics are different. But what really makes this collection stand out is that it feels authentic and fresh in a way that most short fiction coming out of MFA programs just doesn’t seem to be anymore. Even though one often knows where the stories are ultimately leading, the prose and construction are such that it is a joy to read anyway. Interestingly, the two pieces that are set in the US and not in third world situations were the weakest in the book. He is supposedly releasing a novel next year, and I will be picking that up when it debuts.

I kind of like the short, mildly substantial review, especially for collections of short fiction. Perhaps you will see this more often as I continue to write about more than just book reviews.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

I’m not much for conspiracy theories. I find them a bit cynical, as if it is impossible for someone to believe that there is not a hidden agenda that benefits an entity in every circumstance. Yet there was a time in my life when I was into such things, watching The X-Files and reading about cover-ups of teleportation and spontaneous human combustion that even Art Bell would find hard to believe: when I was fifteen or sixteen.

So in a book aimed at people in their teenage years who likely are as cynical as they come, I wasn’t pu
t off by Cory Doctorow’s new YA novel Little Brother. Marcus is a high school student in a near future San Francisco who can find a way around every institutional roadblock. The school installed devices to track a student’s gait so they know who is walking down the hall, therefore he slides pebbles into is shoe to change his.

When terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, Marcus is skipping school with his friends playing some sort of computerized scavenger hunt game. Separately, each finds himself locked away and intens
ely questioned by the Department of Homeland Security in the ‘Gitmo-by-the Bay.’ There he is subject to harsh interrogations, his teenage arrogance for asking for a lawyer quickly wiped away.

Released a few days later, he suspects his computer of being tapped. So he uses his hacked Xbox and a program called ParanoidXbox to create a community of like-minded young hackers like himself who then attempt to stick it to the DHS. He manages to figure out ho to change people’s car toll tags to say they are a different car, screwing up the department’s ability to track citizens. As the novel progresses, Marcus takes on the DHS more and more directly, fighting for the freedom that is his right; he isn’t shy to quote from the Declaration of Independence about a dozen times.

For the most part, Marcus is a well-developed character as is his girlfriend Ange. But too often the ‘villains’ of the novel are drawn as moustache-twirling ideologues. From his principal to the government, none seem to care about anything but staying in power, refusing even for a moment to consider an alternate point of view. But as the novel is narrated by Marcus and teenagers are a cynical lo, perhaps this is merely a reflection of the narrator (and intended audience). The only time I had a huge problem with this was when Marcus managed to get his hands on a video of the president’s chief advisor claiming to know when a terrorist attack was upcoming but refusing to do anything about it to help in the midterms. Despite what many people feel about the current Administration, which serves as the blueprint here for Doctorow, I can’t believe that so many American lives would be thoughtlessly sacrificed just to win an election. It didn’t ring true to me at all.

Doctorow is really good at explaining things, and at times Marcus shifts into a sort of help mode were he provides historical context for hacking tricks or the layout of San Francisco. Often this was relatively seamless and does serve the reader quite well. For example, he explains early on how to use a toilet paper roll and a few lights to make a camera detector. The author is also good at providing for the human element in so much technology. The ability to highjack an Xbox and create a secret Internet is neat, but the fact that it only succeeds because of social networking makes it even more realistic. Like Neal Stephenson, Doctorow doesn’t lose track of the humanity in the midst of a technological story written with a political agenda.

While I didn’t always buy what the narrative was selling, I did find this to be a quite enjoyable novel and one that really stands apart as an exemplary work for this possibly mythical YA audience. It is important that young people realize the price of freedom and when ceding said freedoms for safety is too high a price. Rather than straight indoctrination, Doctorow has laid his message on the back of a good yarn. While it was obvious to me at 29, it might not have been to me at 14. The fact that Little Brother works is testament to his skills as a fiction writer rather than just someone with an ideology.

Doctorow is a firm believer in copyright reform, a hot topic among authors these days. He provides digital editions of his books for free when they are published as physical texts, and you can find a link to a copy at his website. The cover displayed here is from what I think may be the softcover edition of the book. It is so much better suited to the content than the lame cover of the hardback version.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates

I’m not sure why I’ve never read a book by wildly prolific author Joyce Carol Oates before now. Like most, I enjoyed ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been’ when I read it as an undergraduate, and thanks to my good friend Brendan Moody I read her biographic story of Alfred Hitchcock with great interest. Yet for some reason I never sought out anything else, surprising when one considers how much I read and the fact that we have a few of her novels around the house.

But with all the effusive praise that her collection Wild Nights! has received since being published early this year, I knew sooner or later I’d sit down with it. A collection of five biographical stories about the late days of American literary figures, I was reminded of Cynthia Ozick’s musings on the life of George Eliot when reading. Rather than criticizing Oates for a failure to capture the true’ story of said writers, one should instead look at the way she (like Ozick) uses factual information to create literature.

I’d previously read the first story, ‘Poe Posthumously, or The Lighthouse,’ when it was published severa
l years ago by Michael Chabon in McSweeney’s, but that didn’t prevent me from settling down with it again. Based on an unpublished manuscript by Poe, Oates has the author take a position as keeper of a lighthouse after the death of his wife Virginia. The story is narrated through a journal, which Poe agrees to keep for the doctor who nursed him through an illness (or was it his death?) and is interested in studying the effects of loneliness in humans. Though Oates emulates Poe’s style to a degree, her overall narrative does not remind me much of the horror genre. I’m unsure if this is for the best; though not a big fan of horror, I think I might have enjoyed the story a bit more had it skewed a bit more in that direction.

Oates continues with a sort of sci-fi tale in ‘EDickinsonRepliLuxe.’ A middle-aged couple with no children but a RepliLuxe, a sentient android with the personality of a famous person programmed inside. Choosing Emily Dickinson, the couple is both frustrated yet surprised by what they get. Noticing that the android is writing snippets of poems on scraps of paper, the wife is frustrated that she won’t share them with the family. The husband is frustrated by so much in life, eventually taking out his anger on the Dickinson robot. It’s easy to see the effect that loneliness plays in the story, both sides of the couple trying to compensate for their emotions with the android, but I just didn’t get much out of this story. Perhaps it is because I know so little about Dickinson and her work, though a lack of knowledge about the longer work and life of Henry James did not prevent me from greatly enjoying a later story. For me, this story was the least effective of the five.

The final three stories are more directly historical in nature, and therefore more enjoyable to me. In ‘Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,’ Oates presents a portrait of a writer in his last days who befriends a young girl at a book signing and engages her with correspondence and the occasional meeting. Though Mark Twain is a beloved American figure, the inkling of impropriety with a child caused me to constantly battle between the man as presented and the historical figure, giving up some of my assumptions about him. This isn’t to say that Oates has Clemens do anything untoward, but perhaps that in this day and age, an old man tricking other adults so he can be alone with a child is a bit troubling. The story though is quite powerful, making me want to delve farther into the man’s life.

Oates has Henry James confront the horrors of war in ‘The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916,’ contrasting the tone of his fiction with that of the real life he encounters. James finds himself shamefully overcome by his homoeroticism towards the soldiers he speaks with in the hospital’s recovery ward. Oates provides a fantastic setting, bringing to life the horrors of WWI medicine, causing me to think often of the time period’s depiction in Atonement. Perhaps the most simple story, for me it was the most powerful. Not precisely sure why it was the case, but James’s anguish has stayed with me longer than any of the other stories.

Finally, in ‘Papa at Ketchum, 1961,’ Oates presents the late life of Ernest Hemingway who is constantly plotting to kill himself. Capturing the mental deterioration after a lifetime of alcohol abuse, Oates surprised me with references to shock therapy, something I was unaware that Hemingway had undergone. The bravura and ego of the ‘man’s man’ are rendered effectively, making one sympathize and hate the author at the same time.

Though all about loneliness, I find myself more drawn to the use of historical information to create fiction in this manner. While I have no doubt that there are many inaccuracies in these works, as there are in Ozick’s as well, these stories helped me understand and identify with characters, which is what good fiction does. The fact that Wild Nights! is about real authors is somewhat beside the point, yet therein lies my fascination. I would imagine that more Oates will be in my near future.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Changes at The Atlantic Monthly

To be entirely honest, I’m not sure what is happening at The Atlantic Monthly. I’ve been a subscriber for several years, but some of the changes the editorial staff has been making leave me scratching my head and wondering if I want to continue reading. In an attempt to distinguish itself from the likes of Harper’s and The New Yorker, the magazine has moved away from the literary roots of founder William Dean Howells (who wrote the most boring ‘classic’ in American history) yet failed to become something different though equally good.

While the foreign policy reporting is among the best on any magazine that regularly read, especially the work of James Fallows in China and eastern Asia, the sort of staff and freelance pieces that have been published in a transparent attempt to gain more widespread readership are sinking the whole publication. Earlier this year, the editors were widely criticized for putting Britney Spears on the cover. And while I understand the need for the cover to attract readership on the newsstands, it is not as if the sort of people who gravitate to such a cover are going to be looking at the section in which The Atlantic is usually placed.

This month’s issue has a fantastic piece on the crumbling economy by Henry Blodget, but also contains an anemic story of Disneyland’s ‘World of Tomorrow II’ by P.J. O’Rourke and a love letter to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga by Caitlin Flanagan. And while Flanagan’s piece isn’t without interest, it doesn’t seem to be the sort of criticism that should anchor the back section of the magazine. Not to mention be paired with Christopher Hitchens’s thoughts on Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (a book I shall have write about sometime).

But the crème de la crème is a seriously long piece on MMA fighter Quinton Jackson, who fights under then name of ‘Rampage.’ Now I understand that mixed martial arts is becoming hugely popular, but is this really the audience that will be receptive to such a piece? According to the advertising in the issue, not likely. Here is a list of the ads, all full page, that run with the story:

• Rosetta Stone software to help one learn a language quickly
• Knopf’s new book Looking for Lincoln
• Bose headphones for superior sound
• Three nonfiction books from Hachette Books
• Books from Da Capo Press including The Letters of Allen Ginsburg & Mona Lisa in Camelot
• Johns Hopkins University Press
• Caravan.com tours of Costa Rica
• The ecology magazine Discover

I’m not an expert at analyzing audiences by any means, but it doesn’t seem too likely that the sort of person
interested in MMA fighter Rampage is going to be interested in ecology or Allen Ginsburg.

So what’s the story here? Are we seeing an attempt to shift the audience towards a demographic more desirable to advertisers with deeper pockets than Da Capo Press? Surely, yet at the risk of alienating the older, richer demographic that has been The Atlantic’s bread and butter for 150 years.

Once a year, magazines publish a statement of ownership, management, and circulation in small print on
one of the back pages. It just so happens that it was included in this issue. Over the past 12 issues, the subscription rate average stood at 375,373, while the November issue was sent to 382,185 households (difference of 6812, +.18%). However, the overall distribution stood at 551,619 over the previous 12 months, and only at 547,842 for last month (difference of 3777, -.01%).

These aren’t huge movements by any means, but it would suggest that recent trends to broaden the readership base haven’t done much to improve subscriptions or circulation. Yet each month the letter column is flooded with people decrying things like the Britney Spears article, a sign that at least a portion of the base is becoming uns
atisfied with the product. While I’m sure motorcycle and dirt bike advertisers would pay more for a full-page ad than Bose headphones, it won’t matter if the magazine fails to draw the readership it needs to justify the inclusion of Rampage-esque material.

The everyday content of The Atlantic’s website is based around Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder, two bloggers. The former gets millions of hits a month and provides interesting insights into politics and current events, while the latter is a damn good reporter who covers politics and is my personal go to source for analysis. The magazine is failing to establish a consistent brand, with the content of the magazine being very different from the content of the website, and thus at least one audience will likely abandon it.

The Atlantic had best hope it isn’t the people who have been with it for a long time, because they don’t have a great chance to lure that desirable younger crowd.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is What's Good for Leno Good for NBC?

Though the tagline in this journal claims that content relating to television will be presented, I don’t believe I have yet to post anything on the subject. Perhaps that is because I happen to be much more interested in television as a business rather than any specific content aired, and that doesn’t seem to come up all that much in the reading I do.

Yet this evening when I finally got around to reading the news, I was surprised to see that NBC is planning to sign Jay Leno to host a show much like The Tonight Show to air at 10/9pm each weekday evening. Ab
out five years ago, the network announced that they would move Conan O’Brien into the late night slot in 2009 in an effort to retain him. He had already been offered incredible amounts of money to jump ship, and his popularity with young people meant that as they got older they’d likely prefer to watch his brand of humor over that of older comedians like Leno and David Letterman.

Of course, the issue is more complicated than that. Leno is a longtime ratings king in the 11:30/10:30 slot, so ousting him was not necessarily the best short-term business move. Rumors swirled that he could hop over to ABC and replace Nightline or sign a syndicated deal with Sony for $30 million a year and try to get picked up by a lot of Fox and independent stations ala Arsenio Hall. This move by NBC allows them to hang onto Leno and thus not alienate his fanbase too much nor allow him to become the competition.

One also would expect that with off-color humor popularized on shows like Family Guy becoming the norm, the content of both Leno’s new show and O’Brien’s move to earlier shouldn’t affect their shows too much. This is of course dependent on the audience differences between the timeslots, a trend that will be interesting to track over the coming year.

While I am no longer a fan of these types of shows, I have been fascinated about the business side since reading Bill Carter’s The Late Shift and later Desperate Networks. I would imagine in another few years as television continues t change the way it presents content, Carter would have plenty of material for another book. With the emergence of sites like Hulu.com, NBC will now have more content with which to generate revenue online. Many more people will likely watch a five-minute clip of Leno’s new show than will watch a forty-two minute episode of Law and Order.

This also will save huge costs for NBC. Rather than generating an additional five hours of programming a week, usually costing about $3 million per episode, they essentially will only have two hours of content to generate on weeknights. That’s save them around $13 million per week, and eliminate weeks of reruns over the summer when Leno is producing new content.

Though my analysis here may be a bit staid, this is the sort of change in the way networks are doing business that is of great interest to people who pay attention to media. Perhaps we will see more content along these lines as the Fall 2009 television season begins to take shape.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman

We have exactly enough time—starting now.

There’s no simpler way to summarize Tom Friedman’s new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded that the above statement. Combining many of his ideas from The World is Flat, this book is a progression from that bestselling volume, weaving in the energy crisis to his flat world theories. Anyone who has read the majority of Friedman’s column
s over the past five years wont e surprised by anything here: it’s better written and obviously more extensive than any piece for the New York Times, but the information is essentially the same.

Friedman presents a compelling case for the energy crisis, and is able to explain complicated issue in a way that is easily understandable for the layman. He breaks down the current problems into five categories: energy supply and demand, petrodictatorship, climate change, energy poverty, and biodiversity loss. He argues that only by reducing these effects can we preserve the world as we know it for future generations. His analysis of the current climate is enough to give one an ulcer, but his claims on ways to overcome the crisis aren’t all that convincing.


Calling himself a ‘sober optimist,’ Friedman presents all sorts of fantastical contraptions that we might have in the future. A lengthy section details the energy demands of an average worker through his work day, only with the twist of being able to set his house to only run appliances when energy costs are at a certain level and the ability to sell energy from one’s car batteries into the energy net while one is at work. The idea of an energy internet is fascinating, but he glosses over the huge cost and infrastructure needed to have such a plan work on even a regional level, much less a national one.

He also calls for the new president to set a price bottom for crude oil at something like $100 a barrel. When oil is cheaper than $100, the US Treasury would reap the difference, when it is over $100 then it would just sell for the market value. This would allow energy companies to have a definite cost for carbon and thus allow them to successfully plan for the future with new technologies. But what he doesn’t hit on until the last ten pages of the book is how unlikely this is to happen—and not because of energy companies. Earlier this summer, when it was costing fifty dollars to fill up a small car with gasoline, there was an outcry. People were driving less, vacation revenue was drying up. Now that oil is selling in the forty dollar per barrel range, this pressure has been lessened, but can you imagine what would happen to President-Elect Obama and the Congressmen who voted for a price bottom? They could kiss reelection goodbye. The American public is notoriously near-sighted and on this issue they would be no different.

But where Friedman succeeds is in establishing firmly the principle that the market will have to dictate what kinds of clean energy will be produced and how quickly they will come about. Currently we have a market designed to keep dirty fuel cheap and new energy resources expensive. When it is cost effective, people and organizations will change. He recounts the US Army’s adoption of insulation for its tents in the Middle East, which allow the air conditioners to run less often and at lower power, which in turn means less diesel needs to delivered to camps, which in turn leads to fewer casualties from IEDs since fewer trucks are required to make deliveries. His use of examples and case studies is likely the strongest portion of his book, as I have found the case in all of his writing.

While the pleas for Americans to rise to the occasion and dominate the new energy technologies may be a bit of a surprise coming from Mr. Globalism, the message in Hot, Flat, and Crowded is one that we need to hear. Some of the details are shocking, especially the fact that pet food companies spend more on research and development than energy companies. But Friedman repeatedly hits home with a message to which audiences from tree-huggers to corporate board members will be receptive, and given his prominence in these sorts of discussions, it will prove to be a book that shifts the current conversation to a great degree.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

David Rabe's Streamers

One of the best things about reading a lot more criticism is the introduction one gets to new authors and even genres that weren’t even on his/her radar before. Such was the case for me when John Lahr reviewed the work of playwright David Rabe in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Though I had heard the name, I was unfamiliar with his career and work so I went to the library and picked up a couple of his prominent works.

Rabe is best known as a ‘Vietnam playwright,’ the sort of tag is reductive to the point of absurdity. In Strea
mers, the third play is his Vietnam trilogy, it is easy to see that the play isn’t so much about Vietnam as it is about state of America as a whole in 1965. Like a lot of drama, the characters and situation serve as a microcosm to society.

Three soldiers bunk together in a small room on a military base, waiting for orders to be deployed to Vietnam. Over the past few weeks, several men from their unit have received their orders, so they
know it is just a matter of time. The three soldiers are Billy, an idealist who represents the typical white American; Roger, a young black man who has become comfortable with his place in a society that is patently unfair to him; and Richie, a young man who is struggling with his homosexuality. Into their midst comes Carlyle, a bitter, vicious, trouble-making black man.

The others recognize they must get rid of Carlyle to survive; in other words, the must purge him to save their harmonious society. Yet they fail, and in his murderous rampage, Carlyle kills Billy, the all American kid.

The play is rooted in the supposed sublimated sexual drive that men use as an excuse for fighting and waging war. Each character is compelled to establish a sexual identity in order to stake their claim as a legitimate art of the all-male environment. But as each character is given the ability to defend himself and justify who they are, one gets a bit weary of the tired mechanics. However, when one considers that the play originated well over thirty years ago, it is a bit easier to forgive the characters for becoming so unsettled by one man flaunting his homosexuality.

The end result is a play that is not so much anti-war as it is an examination of the psychological and sexual motivations that lead men to wage war. Though reading a play never gives one the full effect of seeing it performed, it isn’t hard to imagine how powerful a production of Streamers could be with such a small set consisting of the spare, wooden barracks.

In fact, I may need to revise my penchant for criticizing drama based solely on reading the script. Though as a student we have necessarily studied plays this way, one does lose the visceral impact of witnessing a performance. Earlier this year I was blown away by seeing a staged version of Pinter’s Homecoming, so the next time a local theater stages a play of Rabe’s I’ll eagerly try to attend.

Powers: Roleplay

I wasn’t crazy about Brian Bendis’s Powers when I read the first collection a few months ago. However, the universe he created worked for me in a way that many of the ‘what would it be like if people in the real world had powers’ scenarios just haven’t. So I was happy thing afternoon when I found a copy of the second collection, Roleplay, at the used bookstore.

The series is classified as crime fiction/superhero in genre, and in this collection I think it is very apt. College students have been dressing up as heroes from the world and playing some sort of real life roleplaying game. Bu
t when four of them turn up dead, homicide detectives Walker and Deena are put on the case. Their interaction both in personal conversation and professional ones is strikingly well done, really picking up the noir feel of a police show like Law & Order. Michael Oeming’s art is stylized and works perfectly with this sort of storytelling. His sketches almost give one a feel of the old Batman animated series, with square jaws and more attention called to the lithe movement of the heroes than to their huge muscles or giant breasts.

But what wowed me more than anything were the layout choices chosen by Bendis and Oeming. Frequently, a two-page spread contains three rows, each being read across both pages before moving onto the second. For the most part this is successful, but not all pages initially thought to be drawn in such a manner are, and occasionally words or clues on how to read a page are lost in the gutter between pages. It would be interesting to look at the individual issues to see where the ads are placed and try and figure out how that constrained their storytelling ability.

After the deaths occur in issue one, Walker interviews a victim’s girlfriend while Deena interviews all the students in a dorm across the street from the murder. Deena’s interviews are rendered only with images, each box being a different person facing her, and these boxes extend around the page down the left side of the first page, across the bottom of the two pages, and then up the right side. All these panels are colored prominently in the dark blue used to connote nighttime.

Meanwhile, the center panels that depict Walker’s interview of the girlfriend are cast in a greenish-yellow light, meant to evoke the feeling of an interrogation room. These panels contain both image and dialogue, but the success of these pages is the way that it depicts the police work going on simultaneously without having a bunch of cross talk between the two scenes. Expertly done.

The lettering is a bit interesting as well, especially when several times an argument is depicted in a word balloon as taking place behind the closed door that is the only image in the panel. This argument basically is constructed through many balloons adjoining each other. Each new balloon indicates a new speaker, and even though more than one person is talking and the balloons aren’t visually different from each other, it is still possible to follow the argument itself. Though it is hard to describe without a visual, these balloons progress across a page more than once in what might best be described as a very steep sine curve. One must not only follow the balloons to make sense of the argument, but also learn to read from the bottom of the balloon to the top when on the upward portion of the curve.

All this talk of comic architecture is likely of interest only to me, so I will conclude by saying that after a mediocre start with the first collection, it’s not hard to see why the series has gotten such rave reviews after reading Roleplay.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination owes a lot to Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. After being rapped aboard a spacecraft after everyone dies, forced to stay inside a locker the size of a coffin for six months, Gulliver Foyle becomes a monster bent on revenge when another ship approaches only to leave him behind. Vengeance drives him for the rest of the novel, with no price to high to pay in order to get back at those responsible for abandoning him.

Bester also uses concepts that are familiar to anyone whose read Neal Stephenson or William Gibson: huge corporations bent on world domination, cybernetic enhancements to the body, and a generally bleak version of the future. Yet the idea of jaunting, teleporting through sheer will, adds a bit of a science fiction aspect to the story that is lacking in the more realist tradition of cyberpunk authors. Bester also describes the sort of drugs we see often in such books, one of which puts humans in the state of a savage animal (in this case, a python).

A large company called Presteign and run by a man with the same name abandoned Foyle because his ship carried the top secret substance, PyrE, which could cause huge nuclear explosions activated only by the will of a human being. The plot basically revolves around Foyle trying to find out who is responsible for his situation and make them suffer, while Presteign and others try to find Foyle so they can lay their hands on the PyrE.

Bester has these advanced technologies, but is careful to tie them to the minds of the humans. Jaunting lets one teleport a thousand miles with the mind; PyrE, the omnidestructive matter, is activated through a wish. And personifying the savage in Gully Foyle, he seems to be saying that there is no force bigger than the instinct and emotion found within the mind of a human. The original title of the novel was Tiger, Tiger, a reference to Blake’s poem that supports this interpretation. (Gully is also scarred from facial tattoos that appear as red whenever he becomes angry, making the comparison to Blake's tiger unavoidable.)

Foyle is very well described, being, violent, immoral, and uncontrollable just as the unconscious of all men. This savagery is the catalyst for the novel’s action, and pretty well rendered. Bester should be commended for creating a character so captivating yet so unlikable. However, other characters like Presteign seem to be a bit superficial and one-note. It would have been nice to see them fleshed out a bit more, and a little more time spent after the climax by showing how those actions would affect the world (depending on optimism or cynicism, the ending could be taken in two wholly separate directions).

Yet so far as the old guard of SF goes, this is probably the best novel I’ve read. If someone is looking to explore the Asimov era, skip Foundation and take a look at The Stars My Destination.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

A few years ago my friend Corey Reilly introduced me to a new series of short novels written by prominent authors that attempt to explore classic myths in new ways: the Canongate Myth Series. Jamie Byng, the owner of the British publishing firm, envisioned what has been called ‘one of the most ambitious acts of mass storytelling in recent years.’ His plan is for the series to reach one hundred entries, but seeing as how only nine have been released in over three years, I’ll have kids in college before I read the last of them.

Though my opinions of the stories have been mixed, I generally have enjoyed what I’ve read. David Grossman’s reimagining of the myth of Samson was especially engaging, as was Russian author Victor Pelevin’s take on the Minotaur of Crete in The Helmet of Horror. But as one might expect, I am more partial to novels based upon a myth with which I have some familiarity; Alexander McCall Smith’s Dream Angus failed to really resonate with me because I’d never heard of the basis for the story.

Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy is a reimagining of the tale of Iphis, which is originally told in one of the later books in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. It makes me feel less well read to have such a gaping unfamiliarity with a prominent work like this, but I don’t know all that much about Ovid at all. But this didn’t keep me from enjoying the book at all; I found that like the best entries in this series, it managed to be quite stirring.

The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (called Midge). Anthea falls in love with Robin, who is protesting against Pure, the water company that both sisters work at. Overcome upon seeing Robin, Anthea says to herself, ‘He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life. But he really looked like a girl. She was the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen in my life.’

This leads Midge to worry about her sister, not to mention fret about her own comfort with the lesbian relationship. Her stream of consciousness is transmitted parenthetically, an interesting device that separates it from her narration, and much more original and demonstrative than italics. I do wonder though how the story would have been different had Robin been referred to as a transgendered female rather than a masculine-looking lesbian. It seems that would have fit in with the myth of Iphis more easily.

Unfortunately, Smith has few if any of her characters embrace any sort of grey in the spectrum of morality. Midge hangs out with two male coworkers who are homophobic louts. The sisters’ boss at Pure tries to bed Midge so that she an take a high paying job with the company, telling her:
Small body of irate ethnics in one of our Indian sub-interests factioning against our planned filter-dam two-thirds completed and soon to power four Pure labs in the area. They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water and ruins their crops. We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers who are trying to involve us in a despicable religious war. Use the word terrorism if necessary. Got it?
Meanwhile, Robin and Anthea spray paint tired feminist slogans about the oppressive hegemony of men all over the town.

Smith isn’t bashful about continuingly reflecting her themes of gender and equality everywhere she can, nor does she hesitate to use motifs of the original myth again and again. But rather than being bothersome, it gives the novel as a whole a real sense of completeness, especially with the resolution. Girl Meets Boy manages to be light-hearted and serious at the same time, pulled off by Smith’s charming prose.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bertolt Brecht's Galileo

There are few plays with which I am more familiar than Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. I’ve studied it as an undergraduate and a graduate student, writing a seminar paper on the differences between the penultimate scene in Brecht’s two versions as well as Charles Laughton’s. I even participated in a dramatic reading when I was in high school. But on rereading it earlier this year, something nagged me that I wasn’t able to quite put my finger on, and life being what it is, other things came up and it was forgotten.

But in the past few days I have been thinking about the role of religion in our society, comparing my own anecdotal experiences and attitudes with those of my grandparents. I’m not really sure if there is a larger point to be made without significant research but this afternoon I started thinking about Brecht again.

On one level, the simplest I suppose, Galileo is about the rise of scientific reason against religious faith. As a young adult in the 21st century, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that scientific reason should probably trump faith when it can be sufficiently proven. For example, I don’t really think Christian and Jewish faith is injured too much by admitting the world is more than 6000 years old. Just like it didn’t hurt to much to admit, as Galileo proves, that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Yet when I get up every morning and walk out my front door, the world appears flat to me, and it appears to be in the same place it was yesterday. By my senses, the sun moves overhead, the ground isn’t rotating. Of course, I believe what science has explained, yet I do not possess the abilities to go out and prove it myself. I don’t have the slightest idea how to prove a rock is a few million years old. I don’t even understand the sunspot experiment that Galileo performs in the play.

I have faith that these things are true. The same faith that those in the 16th century placed in God, I place in science. Brecht even acknowledges this, with the Papal Inquisitor saying ‘Can society stand on doubt and not on faith?’ I suppose by the Inquisitor’s rationale, it can, for we as a society have left behind so many preconceived notions about the world as time has passed. Yet this new situation is possible for society only because it has faith in the science that it can’t hope to understand on its own.

I’m not sure that any of this is news, but somehow this truth is one that I am surprised to be so surprised by. Perhaps articulating things we all know is a way at really pointing them out, casting a light on what we often overlook. Thinking we are men ruled by science is not all that far from thinking we are men ruled by God.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reading List: November 2008

Despite my glacial progress on my thesis over this semester, my proposal is complete and being reviewed as we speak by my committee in order to be finalized soon. In its writing, a moderate literature review was necessary which gives me a solid start on the full version, which is my seminar paper for my current class. I need to read through a couple of books and a few articles, then hammer the rest of it out over the weekend. Feeling pretty good about that.

One negative to this sort of work in academia is the length of tie one must dedicate to a central topic, especially since I tend to be interested in a lot of different things for a short period of time. I just started a book on hermetic philosopher Giordani Bruno, something that likely will have no bearing on any future scholarship. There are times when the difference between literary/cultural criticism and scholarly criticism seem so pronounced that I am beginning to realize the art of doing some things I don't really want to do is necessary to have the time and funds to the things I really enjoy. This is the closest thing to a perfect fit that I have found, though if someone wanted to be my benefactor, I certainly wouldn't turn them down.

In the midst of the thesis work, I managed to finish fifteen books over the past month, and this is what they
were:
Though I found The Fall of Hyperion one of the best SF books I have ever read, I didn't feel that I had all that much to say about it when I was finished. And perhaps that is the sign that a book has truly succeeded: it was so well executed that one can't really find much to comment on when it is finished. I might have liked the first book, Hyperion, a bit more because of the Cantebury Tales device, but this novel managed to be thrilling and I couldn't quit turning the pages. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

I'll probably have something written on Girl Meets Boy in the next day or so, but I would recommend you take a look at the Canongate Myth Series, of which this is a part. I have enjoyed most of the books, and some like David Grossman's Lion's Honey a great deal.

As always, comments are welcome and appreciated. I wouldn't mind a recommendation or two either.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The New York Times Notable Books of 2008

The New York Times released its famous Notable Books list this week, meaning that 100 paperback copies of novels can slap it on the top of their covers to boost sales. This is the first year that I have really been locked into the book review community to any real degree, so it wasn’t all that surprising to see most of these books listed. Of the books listed, I have read nine, am in the middle of a tenth, and have an eleventh that I probably will use in my thesis so it’ll be finished before the New Year.

I really like that the books aren’t listed in a hierarchy, but alphabetically, which probably eliminates some of the bickering. I also enjoy looking at the various publishers represented. I’ve always wondered why we as readers aren’t more brand-conscious when we read. Even though noted book jacket designer Chip Kidd claimed that you should be able to predict whether you will enjoy a book or not based on your enjoyment of previous titles by the same publisher, I haven’t found myself even really noticing. It would be interesting for someone to run a comparison between books and other entertainment industries where people are more conscious of the brands they buy, e.g. comic books or music.

The lack of a hierarchy brings something else to mind. Though I failed to note this when pondering Amazon.com’s Best of 2008 a couple of weeks ago, there has to be a bit of cynicism over someone who stands to profit off the sales of books directly to be ranking them. I’d never heard of #1 selection Philip Hensher before, much less his book The Northern Clemency, and from reports I read few others had either. What would be the point of Amazon selecting a bestseller for that coveted spot? If it’s already selling, it doesn’t need a boost. However, a good novel by a foreigner who no one has heard of could use a leg up, and the fact that Amazon offers it for sale only a click away makes it difficult to regard their list as credible.

The Times also released its Notable Children’s Books of 2008; the list is eight books long. I’m not suggesting that another hundred should be selected, but not even two more to make it a nice, round number? Dwight Garner is able to list well over ten gift books ‘worth buying a coffee table for,’ so it would lead one to believe that children’s literature is undervalued by the paper (which is also obvious in seeing how it is covered by the Review). Of the eight books, three are listed for children who are likely preliterate, while five more are novels targeted at the young adult audience. No delineation between the two are made, though at every bookstore I go to they are categorized and displayed in separate places.

As I continue to read more YA literature, one of my agendas is to see how and why certain books are categorized that way. As William Gibson said, novels are called novels because they are meant to provide a novel experience (ideally). But in genre, you are sort of buying a guarantee that you are going to have the same experience again and again. But the books listed here, as well as the YA books I’ve read recently, don’t fit this mold at all; they aren’t a genre. It’s all marketing, trying to catch that Harry Potter crowd. And I’m not even really looking at the sort of books that are aimed at preteen girls, which would further confound your expectations if using Gibson’s model.

It’s not that I have some ax to grind; I just want to understand why these books are being classified this way and how the books are treated once they have the classification. I don’t mind rules being broken for a good reason, but right now it doesn’t seem that there are any rules at all.

ETA: After some brief but sadly overlooked research, I found that Amazon named Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns its best book of 2007 and Joan Didion's fantastic The Year of Magical Thinking the best book of 2005. Both of these books sold incredibly well before being named, so perhaps it was a bit unfair for me to criticize Amazon's selection of Hensher's novel as a ploy to boost sales.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cynthia Ozick's Dictation

I’ve now read three collections of Cynthia Ozick’s fiction, and it isn’t hard to find things to admire: sly humor, impressive stylistic mechanics, and an engagement with serious themes come to mind. Other than an essay or two though, I am not familiar with her nonfiction, and it seems this is the way she is often judged. However, it is her careful and deliberate use of the sentence to convey meanings both immediately apparent and deeply concealed that cause me to rate her new collection Dictation as one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Though the four long stories seem to be fairly dissimilar, there is the overarching comment on the natur
e of truth and authenticity in all of humanity but especially channeled through these characters who exist in the world of ideas.

The title story tells of the secret friendship between the two typists who work for Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ozick is a James devotee, writing her master’s thesis on his later novels. Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary for James, describes her the intimacy of her relationship with the writer by c
alling herself ‘blessed to listen to the breathings, and the silences, and the sighs, and the pacings,’ finding herself closer to him than any other person for she witnesses firsthand his deliberations and process. Lilian Hallowes does the same work for Conrad, falling in love with him in the process.

Each woman believes her boss is the best writer of the age, and this debate allows for some charming conve
rsation. Yet Theodora wants more. She wants to live forever as James’s amanuensis, but live both in plain sight and hidden at the same time. She can’t do it alone, needing a ‘secret sharer,’ none other than Lilian. Ozick blends history with invention, taking time to note that she is not beholden to history itself. Licenses have been taken, which are noted at the end of the story in a footnote and commented on: ‘Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? Mocks Dream.’

‘Actors’ focuses on an aging actor who plays bit parts and was trained in the Method school. He is at odds with himself over the necessity to appease his wife (who is herself a crossword writer delivering cross words to her husband) and their financial situation by taking a Lear-like role in a production meant to revive the histrionics of the Old Yiddish theater. In ‘At Fumicaro,’ a Catholic journalist travels to Italy in the 1930s and finds himself attracted to the pregnant young maid of his cabin. This mix of sex and sin reminds one of an older writer like Graham Greene with the setting, but works the least well of the four stories.

‘What Happened to the Baby?’ sees the narrator’s uncle Simon create a new language called GNU, which attracts all sorts of left-wing students in the NYC that one imagines Ozick grew up in. As the story progresses, the narrator finds out the circumstances that led to her uncle’s quest for the universal human language, his hatred for Esperanto, and answers the title question. Her revelation has shook me since I read it yesterday evening: ‘Lies, illusion, deception, she said—was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?’

That sentence could serve as a thematic link for the entire book, with each story following essentially the same trajectory. Comedic beginnings grow increasingly darker and end with pathos.

Ozick is a deliberate writer, claiming that she cannot proceed to a new sentence until the one before is perfect, making her a one-draft writer who must figure everything out for she can’t go back a drop in something to foreshadow a later event if the story leads her that way. It is a bit of an odd style, I suppose, though I have read that other writers like Tim O’Brien and Zadie Smith do it as well. Yet that care is evident in the powerful works that make up Dictation, and I am quite excited that I have so much more Ozick to read in the future.