Saturday, December 17, 2005

Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

I first attempted this book while attending the University of Texas as an undergraduate. At the time, its style and horrific violence turned me off sufficiently that I abandoned it and did not expect to ever return. But as McCarthy is considered one of the only stylists working in the realm of Western fiction at present, and as his Borderlands trilogy has garnered such respect, I decided I’d give it another try. I’m certainly glad that I did. Blood Meridian is an incredible work of fiction. It’s the most graphically blood-soaked novel I’ve ever read, and it manages to sustain a uniquely neo-biblical style and hellish intensity that puts most writers I’ve ever read to shame.

Blood Meridian is the story of a young man named simply the Kid, who falls in with Captain Glanton, a renegade officer of the US Army who is conducting his own private depredations against Mexico in the wake of the war. Glanton, his dragoons, The Judge, and the Kid go on a murderous spree through the badlands of Mexico, raping, butchering and slaughtering everyone in their path. Sound unpleasant? It is.

But it’s not the graphic violence of the acts which are portrayed that give the novel it’s power. There are instead two notable stylistic achievements in Blood Meridian which make it such an incredible work.

The first of these is McCarthy’s satanic figure: The Judge. Giant, bald, semi-omnipotent and seemingly immortal, the Judge is a figure who is oft compared to Milton’s Satan, or Conrad’s Kurtz. He is a powerful and depraved child molester whose goal is to wipe knowledge from the face of the earth. In several of the novel’s most interesting passages, the Judge finds artifacts of lost civilizations, only to record them in his private journal, then destroy them so that no man may ever understand them. He views “the freedom of birds as an insult,” he regularly kills puppies and children, at one point he discharges a pistol into the maw of a volcano, and often appears immune to fire. Judge Holden is among the most fascinating and demonic characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

The second, and more important of McCarthy’s accomplishments is a sustained tone which reads like an unfolding Hieronymus Bosch painting. Every page is drenched with skeletal remains, blood, the dead and dying. All landscapes are beyond hellish, and McCarthy’s vocabulary is stunningly suited to this task. By way of example:

“They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredible elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.”

Or this:

“On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of boneblack smeared about their eyes and some had blackened the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the underside of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were painted upon the fine white powder in purest indigo. Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augured the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones may cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what? And if the dried and blackened shell of him is found among the sands by travelers to come yet who can discover the engine of his ruin?”

Wow. Yes, the entire book is written in this fashion. Yes, this does make it a bit challenging to read. But it also makes for an incredibly powerful tale, and gives me newfound respect for its author. A man who can write prose such as this deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the very best of writers: Nabokov, Rushdie, and other wordsmiths of their ilk.

Fantastic, powerful, sickening, impressive piece of work, Mr. McCarthy. Thanks.

Monday, December 12, 2005

More than two months without an update. Terrible, Lazy Tim...

Since I last blogged, I've read a few books and written quite a few chapters of the western. In an effort to not lose the books I've read, on which I promise to opine before the end of the year:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Sakajawea's Nickname by Larry McMurtry
A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin

I hope to take care of these this week... All but the last one are really good...


Saturday, October 08, 2005

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

As predicted, I was unable to just cherry pick this book for a few scenes I was interested in. Once started, it was impossible to put down. So I read Steinbeck’s fine novel in the few days before our trip to Austin, finishing it on the plane ride home, while done up on diazepam, exhaustion and worry.

This is a tremendous book. It’s a sprawling epic tale of two families and the nation from the American Civil War to World War I. It’s also a study of the fable of Cain and Abel, which poses a number of insightful queries on the topic. Since Abel was killed, and we are all in fact offspring of Cain, what does that say about evil inherent in us? Why would God cast one son aside? Can man triumph over the evil in his own nature, etc. The Hebrew word “Timshel” is the answer, but like “42” it probably won’t do you much good without a much better understanding of the question.

The characters in this novel are old friends to me, as this is the third time I’ve read the book in the last fifteen years. Lee the cook-philosopher, Samuel, the beloved pater familias of Steinbeck’s mother’s family, mercurial Tom and his sister Lizze, Abra, Olive, Charles, Cathy, and all the rest are an unforgettable cast, whom I miss very much be the novel’s conclusion. It’s the kind of book which saddens you to finish, because you lose friends the minute you close it. This sounds cheesy, juvenile, and stupid, and if you’ve never finished the last page of Tolkien’s epic only to open again to the first page, then you probably have no idea what I mean.

Steinbeck’s language and style are haphazard, elegiac, filled with soaring truths and a love of landscape. On his style much has already been written elsewhere, with critics falling out of the proverbial woodwork to issue comment. He is not the brilliant and flashy stylist who garners so much acclaim in literary circles. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that his language, while still superb, is not what makes him a great American writer. It’s his sense for characters, motivations, and the poignant vignettes the laces the novel with. If you’ve ever read The Chrysanthemums, Tortilla Flat, or any of the shorts from The Long Valley, then you know what I mean.

The book did have some weaknesses that I’d never noticed before. The main one I take issue with is the character of Cathy, and the generally weakly written women in the book. With the exception of a few passages which describe his mother, Olive, one that deals with Lizzie, and one dealing with his Aunt, Steinbeck falls fairly short with women characters. I believe this is generally regarded as one of his shortcomings, and I’m sure he was chewed up and spit out by the seventies feminist lit circle for having his Eve (Cathy) a monstrous incarnation of original sin. He doesn’t bother to question this particular parable in the slightest, but then, his biblical analysis is restricted to only seventeen stanzas, so maybe that’s okay.

In re-reading the above, it bugs me how poorly written it is. But it’s been a few weeks since I finished the book, and this is scribbled for me alone. So, it’ll have to do.

In the time since I started this book I have: Finished SSX On Tour, visited home, returned, read much, and written much. Today is a grey and drizzly Saturday in Burnaby.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Interesting article which gnaws at Friedman's newest book:


Saturday, September 10, 2005

It has been my practice over the last several years to restrict myself from posting any comments on books I do not finish. I implimented this rule as a way of forcing myself to break a habit that I dislike, of starting many books but finishing few. As anyone who has ever lived with or slept with me knows, I've got a bit of ADD when it comes to focus. As a rule there are at least two or three books by my bedside table, and often I'll read a few pages of each before I go to bed.

Then there are those that I WANT to read, but just can't make myself finish. For the record, here's a list of books I'm either in the middle of, or have abandoned somewhere along the trail this week:

The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson - (too neurotic, too boring, too self-absorbed)
Lust by Elfriede Jelinek - (too hateful in it's depection of sexuality)
Discipline & Punish by Michael Foucault - (I lack the background in psycho-analytic theory I fear, though I love the premise of this one)
Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan - (just sucks too bad to waste more time on)
Everything's Eventual by Stephen King -(already read it once, but wanted to re-read his tale of a haunted hotel room, as an interesting look at the single setting short story)
Collapse by Jared Diamond - (wonderful, just dense and requires focus. Can't read it while tipsy or stoned, or with music on.)
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pyncheon (brillant but too insane and too long to take in one sitting, or even a hundred)

Then beyond these, which are all on the nightstand, there are the books I look at for research. I tend to keep these by my computer, where I write or work. Right now, since I'm working on a western, I've pulled out and re-skimmed some of the better fiction that I think falls into the category. I've read all of these before, but am interested in looking at how these diverse authors use language, density, structure, etc.

The ones I've looked at and read at least in part this week are:

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walten Van Tilburn Clark - (a classic, but nothing stylistically very interesting here)
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - (fascinating, beautiful, horrific, too overly stylized to ever be widely read. Try for literature, miss out on the mainstream.)
The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan - (really fun, mass-market historical fiction.)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck - (so beautifully written it makes me want to cry. I love this book and am working hard to resist it's siren song... I want to re-read it all again, but am trying to prohibit myself from doing so until I finish my current project, since I'm afraid it will "kill my self-confidence after posioning me with words.")
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - (In re-reading parts this week I am struck by LMMs ability to render epic through volume and character those stories which would otherwise fall into the stylistic realm of pure pulp.)
My Antonia by Willa Cather - (Loved this when I first read it, still think it's beautiful. It differs greatly from the rest of these mentioned for several reasons. First, though it is a western, it concerns itself with only small-group social themes, second, it it told in first person, thirdly, it is such a tragic bildungsroman that on this list only East of Eden can compete with it for epic beauty.)
Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver by J. Frank Dobie - (I wanted to go back and see how the original Texas folklorist wrote. Turns out it's more in the nature of campfire yarn spinning than in the vein of modern fiction. No wonder I loved this book as a kid in Colorado.)

All of these books when taken as a blend, a few pages from here and from there comprise a pretty delightful salad of "western fiction" -- does anyone but me care about the above? No, I don't think so. It would have been a fun undergraduate course-load in western fiction though.

This is how I spent my time this warm September in Burnaby, British Columbia.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell

Y-Man, now departed for the rugged frontier of Tuscon loaned me his copy of this book after an interesting conversation we had about the nature of 'influencers' in society. What C. Wright Mills did for our concept of elite players in government, Y-Man maintained that Gladwell did for our understanding of social connectors.

Turns out that Gladwell's book is a more general case look at the was social movement follow the same patterns as epidemics. He looks at teen smoking, suicide in Micronesia, the spread of syphillis, the fashion predominance of Hush-puppies, and a few dozen other social trends and concludes that each of these follows a pattern which is nothing new to the CDC. Interestingly, he goes a step further and analyzes the types of people who are involved in the spread of social epidemics (mavens, connectors, etc.) and determines that certain 'key influencers' and salesmen "connector" types weild disproportionate amounts of influce over the shape of society.

The book is fascinating, actually, and certainly thought provoking. The statistical analysis of these trends, at the point at which each goes from being something that is isolated to being a bona-fide social epidemic gives the book it's title. The Tipping Point is that moment when someing, anything really, goes mainstream.

Gladwell's observations are acute, if somewhat simplistic. The studies he quotes are interesting. The writing is sloppy. Stylistically, obviously there's nothing here; it isn't that kind of book. But that's not what bothered me. My issue with the book is how ill-documented most of his research was and how quickly he jumped over the logical 'proof' required to draw a conclusion. Gladwell will off-handedly mention a study, breeze through it's conclusions, draw his own, assume they are fact, then build his argument atop this house of cards. It's sloppy writing, and it's certainly sloppy social science.

Compared to, for example, Jared Diamond's fantastically argued, agonizingly researched 'Collapse' which I'm reading concurrently, Gladwell comes across as a bright sociology undergrad, with some cool ideas and a penchant for pointing out neat factoids that support his basic thesis.

This isn't science, and it isn't research. It's not academic writing at all, but instead one of those interesting over-the-counter-at-the-airport pieces of non-fiction which coins a phrase and lets people with a shaky grasp of social trends throw around some smart sounding ideas about how these trends work.

Interesting but deeply flawed.


Monday, August 29, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price by J.K. Rowling

I really enjoy J.K. Rowlin's saga of good natured wizards and comicly sinister villians. After reading the first four over a week while soaking up beach-sun in Guantacaste, I was hooked. So of course when the Half-Blood Prince was annouced, the Professor preordered me a copy right away. Now, I'm a fan, but not the kind of person who was going to wait in line at midnight holding a broom or anything. So when Amazon fucked up and didn't deliver the book until a full week after it was availible in our local grocery store, I wasn't really all that distraught, especially 'cause I was still hip deep in Collapse. I'm still hip deep in Collapse, the newest Harry Potter book wasn't more than a 2 day blip on the radar.

Enough has been said about this book everywhere else, so just a few comments:
Thoughts on the Half Blood Prince
Fun. If you liked the others, you'll probably like this one, though not as much.
Rushed. She could have made this book 200 pages longer and tied up a number of loose ends.
Shoddy construction. She eschews the structure of the previous books; not self-contained.

I'm making this one short, because I want to dedicate a little more time to Margret Atwood's beautiful book The Blind Assassin, and to Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point, both of which I thought were fascinating, albiet in very different ways.

Also, as most who know me know, we're crunching to final the game right now, which means I've been putting in about 70-80 hours per week here at the pixel factory for the last month. The game, for those who care, is actually shaping up to be vastly better than I'd hoped. I've learned a few things, and had a small amount of fun working on it. It's a project I can be proud of, but one I won't be sad to see in the rearview mirror. I'm very much looking forward to getting a little time to actually explore this cool city we've moved to, and getting a little more time to read. Each night now, I get home and my eyes are bloodshot from staring at monitors for 12+ hours. The professor actually asked if I was stoned when I got home the other night, cause they were so red! All of this means that I've had little time to update the blog and less time for reading.

But soon it will all be at an end, and I hope to do lots of reading, relaxing, and exploring Vancouver in the coming months!


Thursday, August 25, 2005

I have never worked on a project where the an-evolved process worked so hard to choke out actual work on the game. The legal, compliance, & localization hoops that this team has had to jump through are well beyond anything I've ever seen. We've spent the majority of the last two weeks fighting fires that have nothing to do with shipping a high quality product and everything to do with being part of a too-large corporate entity; which is remarkable for a company less than 10% of the size of the last one I worked for.

Deeply frustrated right now.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Blind Assassin by Margret Atwood

Margret Atwood is a first class writer. And she's Canadian, which makes her eligible for the Booker Prize. See, it turns out that only Brits, or citizens of former British Colonies (which, for some reason doesn't include the US of A) are able to recieve this award. As all of you know, I was so completely blown away by the adventures of Saleem Sanai in Midnight's Children that I have vowed to read as many of the Booker Prize winners as I can get my hands on.

Particularly sleuthful readers of this blog will recall that this book has been mentioned before, when it arrived with an armful of books I got the Professor for Valentine's Day a few years ago.

So I took it with me on a whirlwind trip to Europe. The trip was 3 countries, 3 days, which is a pretty brutal schedule when you START over here on the other side of the world. I believe Mongolia is actually closer to where I sit currently than Munich. (Yep, Google Maps confirms.) I had a lot of reading time on planes and the surreality of serious jetlag, exhaustion and travel lent through circumstance an ever greater psychological impact of this book on me.

Language useage is first class. Among the finest novels I've read for wordplay & cleverness with structure on many levels. Atwood always has the right verb to bring her characters to life. She also interjects enough of her own authorial love of langage to her protaganist that the teller of the tale is usually in on the linguistic high-jinx.

Four separate frameworks make up the action and narrative. There's 'The Blind Assassin', a novel which features in the novel. There's a private journal, in which the narrator gives us excruciatingly personal day to day account of the aftermath of events. There is an autobiographical relating of the lives of the main chracters, leading up to the central event. And then there are newpaper clippings detailing the public percepion of all of the above.

These four threads play across the span of one woman's lifetime. They are beautiful, historical, troubling, titilating, lurid, poetic and powerful.

And there's a damn cool twisted sci-fi tale related post coitally throughout. Yep. Sex. Usually a little kinky. Followed by sci-fi. And the sci-fi is worthy of it's own mention, particularly for the style:

'The Blind Assassin' novel-within-a-novel is one part Amazing Stories, one part Conan the Barbarian and one part Gene Wolf. As a work of period piece sci-fi 'The Blind Assassin' is a loving look back at the golden days of American science fiction, with a raised eyebrow towards the psycho-analytical content and gender politics of the genre. Atwood knows old science fiction and can nicely play mimic while issuing subtle comment.

Too long. Too much Word. Move on.

One helluva a fine book, she definiely deserves a prize for this one.


Sunday, July 10, 2005

It's a beautiful sunday here in Burnaby. I'm awaiting The Professor & Weezel to come and rescue me from work.

In the meantime, I have to urge any readers of this blog to look into the absolutely shameful case of Time magazine and Judy Miller's imprisonment. Do not buy Time magazine. If you can help it, do not support Time-Warner. This is a further troubling erosion of the once very important separation of government, entertainment and journalism. These three each serve important functions, and the collapse of the separation of powers between these three faces of the Ministry of Truth is one of the most alarming casualties of our current dark night in US politics.

Up here in Canada, me, The Professor & The Weezel are heading off to the beach to let the sun melt away the last dregs of this hangover.


Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Gotta say, I didn’t care for this one.

Chuck P impressed me deeply with Fight Club, then again with Lullaby and Choke. But Haunted is just plain gross. Worse still, the writing is a poor mimicry of the style of his previous works. It’s almost self-parody, but isn’t that clever.

This book feels like a novel designed by a misinterpreted focus group of Palahniuk readers. It slogs through his usual nihilistic ethos and crawls along shining a flashlight into the depraved corners of modern North American life. But there’s no point to it (the empowering characteristics of masochism have already been suitably covered in his previous works), his use of technical details and medical jargon to sharpen the edge of his descriptions of the horrific, and his repeated reuse of clever phraseology have all been deeply mined in other places. Worse still, the novel really falls apart by the end, as do most of his. But while Lullaby, Survivor, and Invisible Monsters all suck by the end, Haunted just becomes incoherent. In fact, I have no idea how the novel resolves itself, and I just finished it on the beach yesterday.

In addition, the wallowing in the profane and downright repulsive is taken to whole new levels here. Every sexual deviance and cultural taboo is taken three steps too far in this book. From boys who have to gnaw through their own intestines, to dolls gang-banged by police squadrons, to human veal, to… even worse stuff, this book has it all. And by it I mean all the stuff you don’t want.

If you want to read Chuck P, read Choke, Lullaby, or Fight Club. Put this book just below Invisible Monsters and Diary in your list. It just isn’t very good, and it doesn’t take you anywhere you want to be. No more time or words will be wasted on this one.

Chuck, you’ve let me down. If you’ve got nothing else to explore, then quit writing and enjoy your money. If you want to try again, make sure it’s good.

Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan

I think the person in my life who has gotten the most irritated with my long term obsession with Bob Dylan must have been our old landlady, Victoria. “Can’t we listen to something else, just for a few minutes, please,” complaining one time. Needless to say, she didn’t ever become anyone important in the pantheon. I’ve told people that the first cassette tape I ever owned was Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. That wasn’t entirely true, as I believe that my father may have given me a Simon & Garfunkel tape a few months earlier. But I vividly recall a Friday night after dinner where Vic handed B & I a tape of Highway 61 Revisited, and we listened to it many times over the course of the weekend. I remember that we were also playing The Bard’s Tale 3 at the same time. I’ve heard a lot of Dylan since then, but Desolation Row is still my favorite. There were times back there at theWARWICK (& Placid Place too) where Dylan still set the beat for most of the weekend’s soundtracks. I remember too when B began an even more serious study of folk music, ranging pretty deeply into Guthrie, Phil Ochs & Leadbelly.

Just before leaving Austin I remember thumbing through a copy of Chronicle that B had received for Christmas as a gift, likely from one of his brothers. The observant Professor noticed my interest I suppose, and picked up a copy for my birthday a few months ago. I finished it late last night in bed, here in Vancouver, smelling the night air coming in from a window, with a cat curled up between the two of us.

Dylan’s autobiography is fast, fun and rambling. It restricts itself to a few non-chronological segments of Dylan’s life, and steers clear of most of the most personal events. (Weddings, kids, divorces, motorcycle accident, money, etc.) Instead, it concerns itself mostly with Dylan’s early years before he signed with Columbia Records, with a brief period in which he recorded a forgettable early nineties album in New Orleans, and the early years of his life between adolescence and his move to New York.

I suspect that Dylan’s editors (I don’t think the book was ghost written, a concern I had at first glance) had a helluva time determining how to cobble these diverse memoirs into a coherent narrative. The book is a bit of a disappointment as a stand alone work, because it skips over those times in his career in which most Dylan fans are likely to be the most interested. Specifically, there’s no discussion here of the time between his first record and the mid seventies. This is a decade when Dylan was at the top of his game; prolific and powerful. There’s no mention of the time period involving Woodstock, his notorious Albert Hall show, or any of his protest period. Presumably that’s all being held back for a sequel, though the only suggestion of this is the inconspicuous “Volume One” subtitle.

By way of style:

“The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds – the cemeteries – and they’re a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sheep. Greek, Roman, sepulchers – palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, sign and symbols of hidden decay—ghosts of women and men who have died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn’t pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time. The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing—spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking.

He goes on this way for quite some time, and the entire passage, too long to quote here, evokes perfectly what I remember feeling on a warm summer day in this city of tombs, with good friends and a hangover, many years ago…

The bio really picks up a lot of steam and fuerte in the last fifty pages, where Dylan returns to a discussion of his inspirations:

“Folk music was really more of a brilliant dimension. It exceeded all human understanding, and if it called to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it. I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes, vividly drawn archetypes of humanity, metaphysical in shape, each ragged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom. Each demanding a degree of respect. I could believe in the full spectrum of it and sing about it. It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Folk music was all I needed to exist.”

And of course, Dylan’s biggest hero, Woody Guthrie, he saves for near the very end, saying:

“I felt connected to [Guthrie’s] songs on every level. They were cosmic. One thing for sure. Woody Guthrie had never seen or heard of me, but it felt like he was saying, ‘I’ll be going away but I’m leaving this job in your hands. I know I can count on you.’”

This one comes at the end of a long section on Guthrie, and a lot of other interesting people besides. (Like Richard Farina, who I spent some time researching, and whom I determined I think was sort of a jerk.) The section mentions several other bios, Positively 4th Street, for one which deals with a lot of these people, and Guthrie’s Bound For Glory, for another, both of which I’d like to take a look at. But I think somehow that Dylan’s poem, Last Thoughts On Woodie Guthrie, somehow would close out this entry best of all. I remember how much this fascinated B & I the first time we heard it. Here it is for the non-existant reader now:

There's this book comin' out, an' they asked me to write something about Woody...
Sort of like "What does Woody Guthrie mean to you?" in twenty-five words...

And I couldn't do it -- I wrote out five pages and... I have it here, it's...
Have it here by accident, actually... but I'd like to say this out loud...
So... if you can sort of roll along with this thing here, this is called
"Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie."

When your head gets twisted and your mind grows numb
When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When you're laggin' behind an' losin' your pace
In the slow-motion crawl or life's busy race
No matter whatcha doin' if you start givin' up
If the wine don't come to the top of your cup
If the wind got you sideways it's one hand holdin' on
And the other starts slippin' and the feelin' is gone
And your train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood's easy findin' but you're lazy to fetch it
And your sidewalk starts curlin' and the street gets too long
And you start walkin' backwards though you know that it's wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow's mornin' seems so far away
And you feel the reins from your pony are slippin'
And your rope is a-slidin' 'cause your hands are a-drippin'
And your sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And your sky cries water and your drain pipe's a-pourin'
And the lightnin's a-flashin' and the thunder's a-crashin'
The windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops are shakin'
And your whole world's a-slammin' and bangin'
And your minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
An' to yourself you sometimes say
"I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn't they tell me the day I was born?"

And you start gettin' chills and you're jumpin' from sweat
And you're lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet
And you're knee-deep in dark water with your hands in the air
And the whole world's watchin' with a window peek stare
And your good gal leaves and she's long gone a-flyin'
And your heart feels sick like fish when they're fryin'
And your jackhammer falls from your hands to your feet
But you need it badly an' it lays on the street
And your bell's bangin' loudly but you can't hear its beat
And you think your ears mighta been hurt
Your eyes've turned filthy from the sight-blindin' dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterday's rush
When you were faked out an' fooled while facin' a four flush
And all the time you were holdin' three queens
It's makin you mad, it's makin' you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin' around a pinball machine
And there's something on your mind that you wanna be sayin'
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin'
But it's trapped on your tongue, sealed in your head
And it bothers you badly when your layin' in bed
And no matter how you try you just can't say it
And you're scared to your soul you just might forget it
And your eyes get swimmy from the tears in your head
An' your pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion's mouth opens and you're starin' at his teeth
And his jaws start closin' with you underneath
And you're flat on your belly with your hands tied behind
And you wish you'd never taken that last detour sign
You say to yourself just what am I doin'
On this road I'm walkin', on this trail I'm turnin'
On this curve I'm hangin'
On this pathway I'm strollin', this space I'm taking
And this air I'm inhaling?
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I'm playing, on this banjo I'm frailing
On this mandolin I'm strumming, in the song I'm singing,
In the tune I'm humming, in the words that I'm thinking
In the words I'm writing
In this ocean of hours I'm all the time drinking
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking?
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make your heart pound
But then again you know when they're around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
'Cause sometimes you hear 'em when the night time come creeping
And you fear they might catch you sleeping
And you jump from your bed, from the last chapter of dreamin'
And you can't remember for the best of your thinkin'
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that's somethin' special you're needin'
And you know there's no drug that'll do for the healing
And no liquor in the land to stop your brain from bleeding

You need somethin' special
You need somethin' special, all right
You need a fast flyin' train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That's been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows your troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race
That won't laugh at your looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rolling long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it's you and no one else that owns
That spot that you're standing, that space that you're sitting
That the world ain't got you beat
That it ain't got you licked
It can't get you crazy no matter how many times you might get kicked
You need something special, all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope's just a word
That maybe you said, maybe you heard
On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve

But that's what you need man, and you need it bad
And your trouble is you know it too good
'Cause you look an' you start gettin' the chills
'Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill
And it ain't on Macy's window sill
And it ain't on no rich kid's road map
And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house
And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain't on that dim-lit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Rantin' and ravin' and takin' your money
And you thinks it's funny
No, you can't find it neither in no night club, no yacht club
And it ain't in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you're bound to tell
No matter how hard you rub
You just ain't a-gonna find it on your ticket stub
No, it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you
And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you
And it ain't in a cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star's blouse
And you can't find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain't in the cream puff hairdo or cotton candy clothes
Ain't in the dime store dummies an' bubblegum goons
And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knocking and tapping in Christmas wrapping
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute, look at my skin,
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow,
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry,
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No, you'll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made of paper maché
And inside of the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain't in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who'd turn you in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind your back, my friend,
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can't find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all the rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain't in the ones that ain't got any talent but think they do
And think they're fooling you
The ones that jump on the wagon
Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of rnoney and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down your hat
Saying, "Christ, do I gotta be like that?
Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at
Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty, that stuff ain't real":

No, but that ain't your game, it ain't your race
You can't hear your name, you can't see your face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that you're seekin'
Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin'
Where do you look for this oil well gushin'
Where do you look for this candle that's glowin'
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you go to Brooklyn State Hospital

You find God in the church of your choice
You find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it's only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You'll find them both
In Grand Canyon

Or this one: Song for Woody, written by Dylan “in Mills Bar on Bleeker [sic] Street in New York City on the 14th day of February.”

I'm out here a thousand miles from my home,
Walkin' a road other men gone down,
Seein' your world of places and things,
Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.

Hey, hey, Woody, I wrote you a song
'Bout a funny ol' world that's comin' along,
Sick an' it's hungry, it's tired an' it's torn,
It looks like it's a-dyin' an' never been born.

Hey, hey, Woody Guthrie, but I know that you know
All the things I'm a-sayin' an' a-many a times more.
I'm a-singin' you this song, but I can't sing enough,
'Cause there's not many men who done the things that you done.

Here's to Cisco an' Sonny an' Leadbelly too,
An' to all good people that traveled with you.
Here's to the hearts and the hands of the men
That come with the dust and are gone with the wind.

I'm leavin' tomorrow, but I could leave today,
Somewhere down the road someday.
The very last thing that I'd want to do
Is to say I been hittin' some hard travelin' too.

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

There was so much I wanted to write about this book. I know that the right, left, and center all take issue with Friedman, but I admire his columns a great deal. In fact, I've never been so irritated by a newspaper as I was by the NYT when they moved he and Maureen Dowd's regular op-ed pieces from Sunday to Wednesday… Who reads the paper on Wednesday?

I've got volumes of correspondence on The World is Flat -- with my father in Texas, the Senator in Qatar, big bosses to whom I sent the book, and of course, with my beloved Professor. I wanted to take the time to go through each of these, mine the gems and present them here for Lynn & Weezel, my only two readers. But as the good man says, "these clouds keep on rollin by and I don't know why" - so of course, the time has passed. I'm six books behind again, but all of them have been written about…

I don't want the past to drag on the present until it is stale too, so I'm going to post only a brief overview of Friedman's fascinating look at our modern global economy. Besides, after about 30 weeks on the non-fiction best seller's list, most everyone has apparently bought a copy of this book already, so I guess me reviewing it is hardly a scoop.

Friedman tells us that the world has been flattened. What he means by this is that, essentially, globalization has come weather we like it or not, and that we are now all part of a deeply interconnected global economy and culture, with an incredibly fast rate of evolution. The first portion of the book addresses the recent history of how we got here. The middle portion describes in endless detail those companies and countries which stand to benefit the most from having taken advantage of this new world order. The end poses a series of challenges, familiar to readers to Friedman's columns, which face the modern United States and her citizens.

The book is fascinating, if not exactly a page-turner. Stylistically, I'm forced to indight Friedman for having become too accustomed to rely upon economy of words in his columns. As a result, this book frequently feels redundant. He'll make the point in four paragraphs, then keep running over the same ground for another 50 pages.

Most importantly though, Tom Friedman is probably RIGHT. And that makes this book worth the time.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Great Gatbsy by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“You’ve read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books, you’re very well read it’s well known,” Bob Dylan snidely croons in Ballad of a Thin Man.

I’m not sure that there really is too much Fitzgerald that has withstood any test of time other than TGG. If any of the readers of this site have any suggestions for other works of his that are good (Tender is the Night doesn't count), please lemme know.

I wish I could go back and find whatever essay I wrote on this book back in tenth grade when I last read it. Whatever themes I regurgitated from my high school English class, I doubt I really got this book in any way. Ultimately now, I don’t see this as much more than a mild rebuke of the decadent partyin’ lifestyles of the upper middle class in the nineteen twenties, and a tale of someone who wanted one thing to the exclusion of all else.

Fitzgerald’s novella would likely have completely slipped beneath the waves of decade were it not for three things:

First, the book is short enough to be assigned as reading in high school and has lots of clumsy, overt symbolism that make it easy to teach.

Second, Fitzgerald kept good company, as is well documented in better books, like A Moveable Feast.

Third, his style is descriptive, but concerns itself so overly with unearthing what appear to be pearls of timeless wisdom that it’s easy to think this is a great book with lots to say. For example, the book’s closing line, impressively quoted to me from memory my Y-man when he saw me reading the book “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Sounds pretty deep. But for a book that addresses the way the past shapes the present and limits the future, try Robert Penn Warren’s fantastic novel, All the Kings Men.

In rereading the above, and skimming the battered HPB copy of Gatsby here on my desk it strikes me that the above comes across as a bit cynical, and probably unfair. Fitzgerald writes well. It isn’t his fault that his beautifully written little tragedy has acquired stature far beyond it’s desserts. It’s a good story. If it weren’t famous, I’d likely be raving about how much I enjoyed it, because I did.

Tangentially, if I were to bother to look any more deeply into Fitzgerald, I think I might want to start by focusing on what I’ve always heard rumored but never seen in print, that his wife, Zelda went crazy and completely fucked over his life. I think it might be fun to take a look at he and old Hank Williams and see if one could find some parallels between their creations and their damaged marital lives. I wonder if there are other good examples of this in the last century. Considering how screwed up so many relationships are, it seems likely. So reader, any artists whose crazy wives ended up becoming a dominant force in their careers?
I just noticed that on 5/29 of this year, George RR Martin updated his website and mentioned that A Feast For Crows, the next book in the series I just reviewed is now complete, at least the first draft. He also mentioned that it weighed in at about 1300 pages. That's greater than the length of Tolkien's entire (non)trilogy! No word on a publication date, but I'm sure Drew will be happy to know that he didn'e keel over from a heart attack before finishing.

Here at work today, waiting for a build to complete. I'm also almost finished writing up my notes on the first volume of Dylan's autobiography. They're not 1300 pages, but still a bit too long right now... Of course, it'll be a few more days before I post them, since I'm still several books behind. But the gap is closing! From a worst moment, when there were 14 in the waiting-to-be-reviewed stack, we're down to only about 4 missing posts.

I expect I'll be here twiddling my thumbs a lot this weekend, so I'll try to get completely caught up soon, then stay caught up if possible.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Three part update describing the first three novels in an ongoing fantasy series. I read these in February and March.

A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
If you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

Okay, now that the snobs are gone. If you ARE into pulp fantasy—if names like Raistlin, The Forsaken, Rand al’Thor, Thomas Covenant, Belgarath, Severis, Drizz’t, Tanis, Tad Williams or Robert Jordan provoke an emotional response from you—then you should probably read George RR Martin. His is a new look at fantasy, an R (X really) rated re-invention of Tolkien’s sanitized magical spaces. His books are epic, violent, complicated, and a lot more fun to read than are Jordan’s extended meditations on teen angst.

A Game of Thrones chronicles the beginning of a power struggle for control of a particular Kingdom. This Kingdom, which has no real name, exists on the southern tip of a continent in what might be described as a low-magic world. Due to some planetary axial issues which are (thankfully) never deeply explored, this kingdom enjoys years or decades of summer, followed by an equally long and difficult winter. When winter arrives, undead evil arrives with it. Unfortunately, since these seasonal shifts usually only occur once per lifetime, none of the petty kinglets who are busy tearing their kingdom apart really pay much attention to the onset of winter.

In this first novel in a planned series of five, Martin introduces us to many of the characters from whose perspectives we will see the war (and presumeably the darker events which will follow once winter arrives) unfold. Unlike most fantasy authors, Martin seems more than willing to spend hundreds of pages writing from over the shoulder of a particular character, get the reader emotionally involved, then wreck their life and kill them off.

This book mostly introduces the reader to the world, some major characters, and sets up the events that will unfold in the second novel.

A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin
If you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

Clash is longer, meaner, and much cooler than its predecessor, A Game of Thrones. In this 900 page installment of Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice we see many of the young characters who watched their disintegrating world with eyeswide start to grow up. But make no mistake, this is not the little-boy-becomes-hero novel which so pollutes this genre. I’m not sure there are any heroes here, and mostly the little boys in this story get killed off in gristly ways.

A Clash of Kings and deals with the fallout of the events set in motion by the first novel. The magic component of the world gets ramped up a bit, and we start to get our first real look at some of the cooler characters (Dagenerys, Jon Snow, Tyrion). Martin also continues his trend of rewarding no one, and punishing anyone who even tries to act out of principle. In fact, any attempt at honorable behavior is, without exception, punished severely, usually fatally, for their lapse. This is not a world in which it pays to be good.

A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
Again, if you aren’t interested in pulp fantasy novels, skip this review. Ultimately, that’s all this series of books will ever be.

By this point, all of the social structures which defined society in the first two books have so fallen in upon themselves that all is basically chaos. Some of the characters you love are dead. Many others are heading that way. A few of the ones you didn’t care much about start to grow in prominence (Bran, for example). The violence, sadism, and depravity all get ratcheted up a notch, as do the big battle sequences.

By the end of this novel, no one is still innocent, and the tide of evil is just about to break over all the conflicts which, while they seemed important at first, are about to be reduced to petty squabbles. Winter is coming, and I for one am looking forward to the rest of the series.

It should go without saying that there is no real style or interesting usage of language here. These are pulp. If you like fantasy, and are NOT squeamish about sadism and depravity, read these books. Else, pass.

Monday, May 30, 2005

It's a fine and lazy holiday here. I've been relaxing, reading, talking to the family.

I also took the time last night to finally update the booklist on the rhs, and properly link each title to it's corresponding review.

Vancouver & Victoria 2004 by Frommer's
While a travelogue isn’t quite in my usual reading list, this one was a well timed Christmas present. I read it all the way through in the week surrounding our exmigration to Canadia.

This book is a well written treasure trove of information on Vancouver and Victoria. The scattergun approach it takes to describing something as complex as a city of this size is largely effective. I knew a lot more about the city after reading it than I did beforehand. What else can you ask?

These travel books, especially when supplemented with a solid diet of web browsing, are a great way to get a primer on an area before you visit for a while. Regardless of the length of your stay, a week or a year, there’s little better way to get a sampling of what a city is about than reading a travelguide.

Not much else to say about this one.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galapagos is a fun romp, recommended to be by the esteemed PWatt. It’s a cool look at evolution told with Vonnegut’s usual tongue in cheek humor and mobid cynicism.

“Thanks a lot, big brain,” is the phrase that sticks in my head the most.

This is a fast and fun ride with all the usual Vonnegut trappings. Well worth the time; a good plane trip novel, only barely dated by it’s thirty year history.
Lots of updates today, beacuse it's a lazy overcast Sunday out here in Burnaby. While the order in which these entries are complicated because they are posted from bottom to top (like most blogs), these are even more achrononistic because I'm still playing catch up. In an effort to maintain the order in which I read these books, I sometimes sit on a writeup for some period of time until I'm caught up on past entries. The below entry on Crazy Horse is one of these, read in January, written up in February, and posted now in May.

Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry

And there it was! Another LMM book I hadn't read! Imagine my excitement!

I started Crazy Horse a few days before New Years back in Austin, then
got distracted and it fell into a coat pocket. I finished it this
afternoon in a coffee shop in Vancouver while waiting for The
Professor to check her email.

One of the things I regret about leaving Texas was that Vic & I never
found the time to go up to Archer City and visit McMurtry in his
bookstore there. He will likely be dead before I return to the Lone
Star State, and I will have missed the chance to meet the only living
Texas man of letters whom I have studied or of whom I am aware.

Crazy Horse is a biography. It is a work of non-fiction which is so
speculative as to resemble fiction. McMurtry is upfront about this,
criticizing those scholars who have come before for inventing much of
the so-called history upon which he draws. The simple truth seems to
be that little is known about the life of Crazy Horse, a warrior of
the Ogallala & Sioux, and a symbol of the final years of the plains

Crazy Horse was not an Indian chief like Sitting Bull. He was not a
butcher like Geranamo. He really wasn't a particularly influential
figure in the so called Indian Wars. He seems to have been more
notable as a martyr, whose betrayal and death at the hands of Little
Big Man and a white general (whose name escapes me, between the Buffy,
the sounds of sirens, and the constant but pleasant interruptions from
the Professor) turned him into something of a legend and a resistance

More later… too distracting here…

One of the characteristics of the narrative in this book that casts
some doubt in my mind on it's historical accuracy is how closely it
tracks to a number of McMurtry's lifelong themes. Consider, for
example the lifelong love triangle between the stoic Crazy Horse, the
more socially adept No Water and Black Buffalo woman. The parallels
with the love triangle in Leaving Cheyenne, in The Last Picture Show,
and other LMM works can't be missed. The lifelong friendship between
Crazy Horse and his best friend has shades of the Lonesome Dove
sequence (as well as LPS and LC), and some of the tales LMM tells are
reflected elsewhere in his works, from the Gus-like personification of
Lt. Crook to Geronomo's headfirst dive out of a jailhouse window, sure
to remind any reader of the final flight of Blue Duck. Were McMurtry's
fictional events in his last 30 years of novel writing influenced by
these historical events? Certainly. Is his historical scholarship
tainted by his years of yarn spinning? Assuredly. Does he recognize
this? Without a doubt.

On balance, Crazy Horse is an engaging, short look at a man who is
more legend than a meaningful historical figure. As a work of
scholarship it is likely lacking (not saying any of the other scholars
who have approached this have done better, just that there is precious
little real data to draw from when trying to describe these events)
but LMM is acutely aware of the tension between imagination and
description of the facts. This book is fun, a must for any LMM
scholar, and a fun diversion for any Western fan or anyone with
interest in the Plains Indians. I should mention that while KM in
Houston things highly of the Penguin Lives series, I found the editing
in this book to be lacking; it was rife with mild errors, both
typographic and otherwise.

As an aside, I'd like to apologize for the poor quality of writing in
this entry. City Confidential and other murder shows have been
screaming at me from the television a few feet away, and I'm having a
hard time regaining the level of concentration I'd come to enjoy while
writing in my private study at Kingfisher Creek. This is an obvious
downside to the tiny condo downtown living we are enjoying so much in
other ways….

The Stand by Stephen King

Ahhh, apocalypse, it’s post-note, and horror. Now this is the intersection of 3 streets which I enjoy visiting in fiction! It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve an apocalypse fetish. Particularly for disease based holocausts like those described by George Stewart, and King.

I’d read the Stand before, many years ago, but after reading On Writing, wanted to go back and refresh myself with how King deals w/ his characters over such a bloated novel.

I’m not going to bother with recording plot details of the book here, except in very brief: A biological agent is released from a US military lab, 99% mortality rate is realized, and the survivors are polarized into two camps, who do battle.

King creates several memorable characters here, and the book is never dull. I don’t ultimately buy his message, just as I don’t ultimately buy the neo-puritanical moral chasm that divides his techo-hedonists from his more socially minded goody-two shoes. But then, I’m probably a lot closer to one camp than the other, so…

This isn’t the best SK book, but it’s loving descriptions of social collapse by way of global pandemic are fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Unknown Man #89 by Elmore Leonard

I was delighted to read that Will Saffire addresses Leonard in his NYT column, On Language, which I read religiously. Saffire gives an entire section to the so called “Hot Kid” of American fiction. While the cynic in me can’t help but wonder if ole Billy Saffire wasn’t contractually obligated by E.L’s PR agent to give his new book & movie a mention, the reader in me is pleased to see Leonard get some attention from the popular linguist corps.

Based on King’s advice in On Writing, I read two of Leonard’s books back in the winter in order to listen to his use of dialog. Many writers, Gibson for one, have credited Leonard with having the best dialog currently in use, and I was curious to see what all the talk was about.

Unknown Man #89 was written almost twenty years ago now, and while the content feels dated, the style does not. The novel concerns itself with the double crosses and murderous activities of a bunch of Detroit low-lifes. It’s the type of book that gave root to a hundred seventies era crime shows. It’s portrayal of down and out dope pushers, junkies, drunks, cops, and other small time grifters feels authentic and dirty.

The premise is pure Chandler: A man-hunter is paid to find a guy. Murders ensue. The style is economic, the dialog sizzles, the characters are caricatures. The plot is complex, and already I’ve forgotten most of it. But it doesn’t matter. The dialog is the point here, and Leonard delivers exactly what was promised: street lingo that rings true, and characters who come off sounding legit when they mouth it.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Get Shorty, which I’m told was made into a film starring Danny Devito, was not nearly as interesting to me as was UM#89. First, it deals with Hollywood, and Hollywood’s obsession with itself has never been very interesting to me. Second, the complex double dealing and backstabbing present here read a bit more like an attempt at postmodern something or other, what with all the folks trying to turn this story of their lives into a movie about their stories. Chili Palmer, loan shark enforcer and general cool guy goes to Hollywood, beds an aging actress, pushes a movie script, gets involved with coke dealers, and chases down a guy who conned some money out of an airline.

Again, cool dialog, complicated plot, cardboard characters.

The Elements of Style by Wm Strunk & EB White

I took King’s advice.

The Elements of Style is the best book on language usage I’ve ever read. It is precise, economic, and relevant.

If you ever plan or hope to write anything professionally, you should memorize this book as should I.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Yes., I will eventually update the links on the right. I know they need to link into each review. Yes, I know all the books discussed aren't listed there. Luckily, since I don't think anyone reads this, that's okay. Just out of curiousity, I'd like to know if I'm wrong. This blog is at least quasi-anonymous, but here's an email address you can write to that I will check:

On Writing by Stephen King

More copies in print than the bible. Where else to start? Even JK Rowling can’t compare with King for sheer sustained commercial success. And I enjoy his stories a great deal. In fact, I’m not sure there is a living author I admire more, at least in some ways. The man knows how to spin a yarn, never takes himself any more seriously than does grandpa, sitting ‘round the campfire telling ghost stories.

So what does Mr. King have to say about writing fiction? Quite a bit. While this book (his second on the craft) also concerns itself with a winding autobiography, it’s filled with solid advice on mechanics, characters, plot, dialog, and many other toys in the writer’s toolchest.

King’s style here is his usual, just plain folksy prose. It’s fun and fast to read, as any reader’s of his regular author’s notes will attest.

The first thing Mr. King recommended (demanded really) was that the reader buy and read a copy of Strunk & White’s style guide. So I did.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

If there is a finer vampire story ever written (the laborious Bram Stoker included) I’d love to read it. This is young Stephen King at his best.

The novel asks the question, “What if vampires took over a small new England town?” King heeds the call of Callus and answers, “they would kill everyone.”

Salem’s Lot is a wonderfully paced roller coaster. The first half is all slow description and character introspection, punctuated by brief hints at the malicious actions occurring behind the scenes. Just about the moment you reach the top, the whole thing gives a great lurch and hurls you downward in directions you didn’t expect to go. The conclusion is awash in blood, gunfire, false leads, starts, and some genuinely scary scenes, then you get a few minutes to calm down and exhale before the ride is done.

Classic modern horror.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Fury by Salman Rushdie

Fury by Salman Rushdie

I didn’t enjoy Fury nearly so much as Midnight’s Children, with which, as all present know, I was enchanted. Fury is the tale of a Professor, more or less Rushdie himself, who leaves his wife and child in England and goes to NYC. Set sometime during the dot com bubble of the so-called new millennium, Fury is the fantasized account of Prof. Solonick’s womanizing and emotional outbursts. There’s a murder mystery, and a lot of semi-interesting discussion surrounding the relationship between creators and their creations. There’s a cool story-within-a-story which tells a fantastic tale of the inventor Chronos, whose puppets turn against him. There’s a farcical ending which dissolves into a military junta, and some other fairly incomprehensible unraveling plot threads.

Seeing Rushdie turn his mind, eye, and formidable abilities with language towards (almost) modern America is fascinating. All of the writing here is top quality, the type of prose that most authors will only dream of ever getting near. But the overall package is largely forgettable. The passion with which Rushdie writes about his homeland in earlier works, when alchemically transmuted into the rage and fury he feels for the new world in this book loses a lot of it’s power.

I’d love to give more time to this book, because Rushdie deserves more than a few tossed off sentences. Unfortunately, I’m now officially 14 books behind, half a world away from where I was when I read this, and six months older, so any brilliant observations I might have once had are gone. Out of respect, however, I will at least quote some of the passages that I made notations on in the back of my copy.

17 Reference Stew describing one of the Prof. S’s early creations:

“Little Brain, his hip, fashion-conscious, but still idealistic Candide, his Valiant-for-Truth in urban guerrilla threads, his spiky-haired girl-Basho journeying, mendicant bowl in hand, far into the Deep North of Japan. Little Brain was smart, sassy, unafraid, genuinely interested in the deep information… For example, the favorite fiction writer of the seventeenth-century heretic Baruch Spinoza turned out to be PG Wodehouse, an astonishing coincidence, because of course the favorite philosopher of the immortal shimmying butler Reginald Jeeves was Spinoza. (Spinoza who cut our strings, who allowed God to retire from the post of divine marionettist, and believed that revelation was an event not above human history but inside it.) The Great Minds for Little Brain could be time-hoppers too. The Iberian Arab thinker Averroes, like his Jewish counterpart Maimonides, was a Yankees fan.”

(Note Rushdie’s typical amazing command of history & philosophy. Note too him weaving creator/created relationships into each section.)

86 A description of modern US urban life:

“Things appeared to proceed by logic, according to the laws of psychological verisimilitude and the deep inner coherences of metropolitan life, but in fact all was mystery. But perhaps his was not the only identity to be coming apart at the seams. Behind the façade of this age of gold, this time of plenty, the contradictions and impoverishment of the Western human individual, or let’s say the human self in America, were deepening and widening. Perhaps that wider disintegration was also to be made visible in this city of fiery, jeweled garments and secret ash, in this time of public hedonism and private fear.”

137 Ever wanted to know Rushdie’s take on oral sex re Clinton?

“…Professor Solanka’s as-yet-unpublished theory on the differening attitudes towards oral sex in the United States and England— this aria being prompted by the president’s inane decision to start apologizing yet again for what he should always have crisply said was nobody else’s business— got a sympathetic hearing from the young woman snuggled down in his lap. “In England,” he explained in his most straightlaced style, “The heterosexual b.j. is almost never offered or received before full, penetrative coitus has taken place, and sometimes not even then. It’s considered a sign of deep intimacy. Also a sexual reward for good behavior. It’s rare. Whereas in America, with all your well established tradition of teenage, ah, ‘makeouts’ in the backs of various iconic automobiles, ‘giving head’ to use the technical term, precedes ‘full’ missionary-position sex more often than not; indeed, it’s the most common way for young girls to preserve their virginity while keeping their sweethearts satisfied.”

150 Or finally, who could pass up quoting his take on W?

“…’there’s no difference between the candidates. That Gush-and-Bore stuff is getting so old. It makes me hopping mad.’

‘No difference?’ she cried. ‘How about, for example, geography? How about, for example, knowing where my poor little homeland is on a map of the world?’ Solanka remembers that George W. Bush has been ambushed by a journalist’s crafty question during a foreign policy Q-and-A one month before the Republican convention. ‘Could you indicate that nation to us on the map? And what was the name of it’s capital city again?’ Two curve balls, two strikes.” Obviously, Rushdie thinks as highly as our erstwhile prez. as I do…

So, if you are looking for this sort of thing, read Fury. But if you haven’t already, run, don’t walk and buy a copy of Midnight’s Children instead.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

It's always bothered me that so little literature comes out of the far
east, or at least that so little gets translated and popularized here.

Dai Sijie's beautiful tale of two city youths sent to a remote
mountain village for Maoist re-education after the cultural revolution
of the seventies is charming, surreal, well told and a treat to read.
It's also short and very accessible even to those with little to no
knowledge of Chinese history.

Books other than Mao's little red one were forbidden throughout China
for many years. So when another youth in a nearby mountain village is
found to have a chest containing a number of European works by Balzac
and the like, our two heroes steal it.

Each night they read the stories to one another. They start relating
these stories to the peasants of the villages. A young woman (can you
guess her professon?) is met and becomes central to the tale. I'll
give away no more information, except to say that magic realism is
alive and well in this story, and that there are some really charming
chapters that will bring tears to your eyes.

A fine and enjoyable tale. I'll happily read anything else Dai Sijie
ever writes.
Man it's hard to catch up on these. Luckily, the reading hasn't slowed down. Here are a few back posts:

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

Since Nick and Nora are both drunk all the time, it seems fitting that I write this one while drunk myself.

This is the most fun Dashiell Hammet novel I’ve read. It’s got the most style and charm.

Nice and Nora are a wealthy, fast livin’ couple. They mostly go to cocktail parties speakeasies and the like. A la Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote, crime and it’s perpetrators seem drawn to the Charles’s. Someone is murdered, other murders follow, the police are involved, and there are cocktails. Lots, and lots of cocktails.

This book was a treat, a delight, and revised my opinion of Hammet upwards a full letter grade. Unlike the Op, this pair made for a great amount of fun and a great period study.

More, later:
This is certainly the best book by Dash Hammett I've ever read. Inever canvassed the breadth of his work the way I did with Chandler, mostly because I think Hammett is about half the stylist. Never wasreally clear to me why he seemed to garner more acclaim. Neither wereprolific, both came from a genre and publication history shunned byacademia.The Thin Man is a charming book. It introduces Nick and Nora Charles awell-to-do West Coast couple who get caught up in some seedy dealingsin New York while vacationing there. They spend most of their timedrinking and partying and living a charmed and enviable lifestyle. Inthe spaces in between their dinner parties and morning martinis,various people come to visit them and give them clues which ultimatelyunravel a complicated patchwork of crimes, false identities, murders,and sordid relationships. The back of this Vintage Crime paperbackvolume credits Hammett with writing not only a fine murder mystery, but a final "comedy of manners" and indeed, like much of Chandler, so it is. Nick and Nora provide a fun insight into a time gone by when itwas possible to live large, drink cocktails with breakfast, and livein hotels for months at a time if one felt like it. How fine a thingto have been rich, young, married and cosmopolitan during the 1920s. Almost as much fun, I expect, as it is to be those things now.

PS: Please forgive bad editing in this post, it was copied and pasted and that seems to have screwed up some formatting.