Monday, May 08, 2006

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
House of Leaves had skimmed its way across my radar a half dozen times in about two months, and someone kindly gave me a copy for Christmas. I’m thrilled that they did.

Danielewski’s novel is a sprawling, post-post-modern epic horror story. Sort of. There are several narratives rolled into one, which, in sum, deal with a collection of footage by a documentarian named Will Navidson. Two of our narrators, a dead man named Zampano, and another named Johnny Truant compile a collection of scraps of analysis on the footage, footnotes on the analysis of the footage, and notes and letters about the events described in the footnotes. There’s some further interesting content in the Appendixes which deal with Truant’s history, all of which suggest that one or both or our narrators are not being entirely honest with us about their identities, and may, in fact, be the same person.

There’s a horror story in this, I promise. But it’s one you only get brief, oblique glimpses into.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention that some of the book’s more interesting features deal with it’s typesetting and page layout. First, the word “house” appears in blue ink every time it is used. Second, the text layout on pages is labyrinthine, frequently appearing sideways, in mirror-writing, and so one. Thirdly, the footnotes, the narrative, the appendixes, and the letters are a maze as well, frequently pointing back in upon themselves, leading to narrative dead ends, referring to exhibits which are not present, filled with sections damaged by fire, ink, blood, and so on.

I don’t want to say much more, because, honestly, I don’t want to give too much away. This book is a treat if you are the type of person who appreciates subtle disquiet as opposed to the Dean Koontz style of horror. If you are, or have ever been a grad student, or felt lost in footnotes; if you’ve ever enjoyed DFW’s linguistic high-jink re footnotes, or if the idea of getting lost in a sinister labyrinth of words, textual analysis, and theory sounds like fun.

Else, you might not care for this one. But I loved it.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Love Medicine is a hard book to approach. Its focus is on two families of reservation Chippewa, and the ways in which they intermingle over the course of a century.

There are some heartbreaking stories here, some funny stories here, some dull stories here, and some confusing stories here. I like Erdrich’s language, which is spry without being particularly masterful. More interesting are the Indian words she peppers the narrative with, always being careful to let the reader know that she, like us, is outside the circle; that these are not her words, but the words of a people she views with love and disappointment.

If I were to reread this book, which would likely be a fruitful enterprise, since there’s too much good stuff here to get on the first time through, I would keep a family tree. See, the chapters ramble through time and relationships in such a way that it’s pretty hard to keep track of how each of these folks is related to one another. Couple this with the marriages and the multiple names several characters have, and a few unreliable narrators, and you’ve got a fun blend which can be a little hard to follow on occasion. I don’t doubt that Erdrich’s spiderweb is carefully designed to remind us how tangled, intertwined, and convoluted family relationships can get, especially on a reservation where few people leave and fewer still escape.

Love Medicine is a well written, beautiful book on the rich, damaged lives of Erdrich’s subjects. With this book, (published in 1984), Tracks, and, I’m told, The Beet Queen, Erdrich establishes herself in the tradition and company of other native writers like Leslie Marmon Silko. Would she be offended to be put in the company of “great American Indian writers” as opposed to the less bigoted category of “great writers?” Maybe. But alas, the bar to enter the great writers club is set far, far higher; it’s a height to which Love Medicine just can’t hope to aspire, despite the quality of its craftsmanship and the poignancy of it’s stories.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
I finally couldn’t resist any longer. I really wanted something fluffy for our weekend getaway to Tofino recently, so I grabbed a copy of Dan Brown’s treasure mine and headed for the beach.

This book was a fun, silly romp through tourist destinations of Paris and London. The constant double-crossing got a little tiresome, but Brown managed to make an improbably strung together sequence of pedantic lectures on art history fairly interesting. The Jason Bourne style plot was a silly collection of contrivances, and there’s little to speak of in the way of style, but the book is never dull, and you can read it in about four hours, so I didn’t feel like it was a very big waste of time. And it was certainly pleasant. A ‘page-turner’ as they say.

No more probably needs be said about this novel, since I believe every human on planet earth has purchased three copies at least, and Tom Hanks will be starring in a film version for the illiterates out there.

Oh yes, I should mention that the core mystery (the vilification of Jesus’ girlfriend, Mary Magdaline by the wicked, mean catholic church here is supposedly dealt with in much better capacity by Holy Blood, Holy Grail.) If I actually cared about this topic, or wanted to tilt the windmills of religious dogma further, I might read it, but since I don’t…

Esctasy by Irvine Welsh
Irvine Welsh wrote Trainspotting, as well as a half dozen other books dealing with Scottish lowlifes. Esctasy caught my eye at Half Price Books in Austin about five years ago, back when E was in. I guess maybe it’s still in with some, but the rave scene Welsh describes in this work is firmly anchored in the year 2000 or so.

This novel is really a collection of three novellas, connected through their geographic location (all in Edinburgh, I believe), and the presence of MDMA in the lives of their main characters.

The first tale is the worst, in my opinion; really more of a far-fetched, rambling fantasy in which a young nurse befriends an aging, obese author of romance novels. The two conspire to humiliate and dump the romance author’s husband, an insincere pervert who has treated the poor romance novelist badly. This story is filled with sexual deviance (not a term I apply lightly), and runs the gambit from zoophilla, to fisting, to some really unpleasant necrophilia. If the previous sentence makes you squirm even a little, this book is definitely NOT for you. The smut serves only to shock, the story fails to retain focus on its characters, and the transformation of the romance novelist, presumably through the discovery of a newfound self-confidence and joy de vivre brought on by taking ecstasy all happens off screen. This story is a failure, in my opinion.

The second tale deals with a hardcase and his amputee girlfriend, who go to great lengths to exact revenge on the marketing manager at a wicked pharmaceutical company which sold the product responsible for her deformity. Right.

The third story is actually pretty good. It’s a classic love story, with a dash of Kate Chopin, filtered through the eyes of a bright young woman who is fed up with her boring husband, and the Trainspotting type good-hearted down and out drug addict with whom she discovers true love (or at least sexual release.) It is in this third story, where Welsh keeps a relentless focus on the drugged out residents of Scotland’s garrets, that he succeeds most admirably. His descriptions of the sorts of mental and emotional alterations one undergoes when taking various drugs (Esctasy, general methamphetamines, cocaine, LSD, and marijuana) all seem to be right on. These will only be of interest to those who are steeped in the drug culture, but then, I can’t imagine anyone else would have even bought this novel. Where Welsh really shines though is in his unflinching ear for, and faithful reproduction of Scottish slang and dialect. Welsh is likely the premiere (only) person to have made so noteable an entry on the speech patters of this particular time subgroup in the linguistic annals. It’s a feat of dialog and voice which is every bit as compelling as Richard Wright or Elmore Leonard. Listen:

“Ah was sick with a dentist-drill headache and my lip was bust and swollen and ah had like a nasty smudged bit of purple black mascara under my right eye. This reminded me why ah took Class As instead of alcohol. Ah mind ay Nukes and me paggering. Fuck knows whether it was wi each other or some other fucker. Given the slightness of my wounds it was probably some other fucker cause Nukes is a hard cunt and would have done me a lot more damage.”

And that’s the narrative. The dialog is even less decipherable in many cases:

“-it’s no that, Lloyd, Vaugh mumps, -Aw ah’m tryin tae say is that you’re no a member here. Yir a guest. Yir the responsibility aye what cunts bring ye. That’s aw ah’m tryin tae say.”

The King’s English this ain’t. But it’s delightful to hear in your mind, or to try to wrap your tongue around when no one is listening.

Agile Project Management with Scrum by Ken Schwaber
Needed a little light reading, so…
This book is one of the Microsoft Press series of books dedicated to improving the professionalism of software development by helping educate leaders in the space on how to achieve higher quality more predictably. The first one of these I read was Debugging the Development Process, many, many years ago. I think that the level of consistency and quality put out by this press is fairly high. While I've been managing software development teams and projects for almost ten years now (gulp!), my formal methodology talking points were beyond rusty, so I decided to bone up on 'em a little.

This book is boring; mind numbingly boring unless you happen to be into ways to organize dev teams. Since I am, at least professionally, I found it pretty interesting. There are nine chapters and a few appendices, each dealing with a different element of Scrum development. For those who don't already know, Scrum is a subcategory of agile development, whose tenants involve bottom up scheduling, short development sprints, and empowering teams to make decisions on the fly.
I'm not gonna write much more about this one, except to point out that I did find it quite helpful in helping me get a lot of jargon straight. These are things you know if you work in the biz, but the different terms for them which are in vogue change every few months and differ widely at each organization, so it's always good when a book like this can help us settle on a common vocabulary.

Books of Blood Volume 1 by Clive Barker

After the joys of Scrum, and a grueling 8 hour discussion on game development practices last week in Austin, I was ready for some good ole fashion pulp horror. Barker's Books of Blood is (I believe) the collection of short stories which first brought him some attention, back in 1983. Books of Blood is a short collection, only about five stories here. But three of them are excellent horror, which I much enjoyed. (Pig Blood Blues, The Yattering and Jack, and The Midnight Meat Train.) One was a bit dated (collectivism as an ideology hardly needs to be railed against anymore), and one was pretty unoriginal, (Sex, Death & Starshine,) but overall, this was a fine and nasty little piece of work. Makes me wanna go read some more Barker, which I think I'll go ahead and add to the stack. Anyone got recommendations for his best book? I've read the Great and Secret Show, and Everville. Anything else stand out from his body of work?

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Martel was given a Booker Prize for his charming little tale of a boy and a Tiger lost at sea. Anyone who reads this blog knows what a whore I am for Booker Prize winners, so you can imagine my excitement over this one. I waited for months, the way you’d save the tastiest bite of a meal until the end. And I don’t want to admit to being disappointed, but I was.

Martel’s novel is cute. It’s got a sufficiently parable (parabolic? ;) quality that one is inclined to give more credence to it than I suspect it really deserves.

Piscine Molitor Patel is a young Indian boy from the small backwater of Pondicherry. His father is a zookeeper. The most interesting thing about Pi is that he is simultaneously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu. The novel’s most amusing moment details a meeting between his minister, his imam, and his umm… hindu spiritual leader (the term escapes me.) The tale starts out strong and beautiful, with a multi-layered framework story, the kind superlative writing one expects from the winner of so prestigious an award, and interesting characters.

Then all the interesting characters and the framework story all but disappear, and a series of (Lemony Snicket’s?) improbable events unfold. Then the novel is over, the framework story lost at sea, like most of the interesting characters, and any sense of closure or message. At 350 pages, the book is far, far too short to deliver on any of the interesting questions it poses. (What about this fascinating religious quandary?) But I do know a lot about how to tame a tiger, gut a sea turtle, and generally survive at sea now.

I enjoyed this book. A particularly nice passage early on about the degenerate behaviors of zoo animals tickled me (though it may have come across as too cutesy for some.) The writing was excellent, definitely A+ caliber work, but the structure of the novel, and those few occasions where the language stops soaring long enough to splash into the tedium of adventure tale like one of the flying fish on the cover of the paperback version, all ended up feeling like a bit of a disappointment from a Booker Prize winner.

Finally, I take a bit of issue with the novel’s conclusion. We are led to believe that Pi, our trusty narrator, is not entirely reliable. Fair enough, unreliable narrators are nearly a trope of the new literary masterpiece these days, but the clumsy reveal on the matter feels like the trick of an amateur illusionist.

Ultimately, I look very forward to Martel’s next work for this reason. He has in him the stuff to become among our best. But as delightful a treat as this work is, The Life of Pi lacks the finesse, the wordplay, and the delicacy of structure that would turn its cheap conjuring trick into a truly magical creation.


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