Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Good writing, boring story

Book: Dicey’s Song

Author: Cynthia Voigt

Published: 1982 (Fawcett Juniper)

Pages: 211

There are two tags I expected to use for this post but didn’t: dysfunctional families and coming of age. You want to know why? Because I don’t believe in false advertising, unlike the blurb-writers on this book.

I guess you could argue that the dysfunctional family part is inherent in four siblings who have to find a place to live after their mother gets—too crazy? Too sick? Too crazy-sick? The narrative is never specific about that, and by the time this book starts Dicey and her sister and brothers are already settled at their grandmother’s.

But that’s just it; they’re settled. Their most traumatizing conflict is behind them, and in this book all they have to worry about is being too good to fight on the bus and waiting for the smart brother to figure out how to teach them to read and letting the sassy popular girl in their English class convince the teacher they didn’t plagiarize their super good essay and finding the $500 their piano teacher cum family friend slipped them for a trip to visit their mother who dies and needs to be cremated.

It’s an interesting setup of real-life problems (I was for serious worried about what they were going to do with their mom when she died and the undertaker told them it would be $750 they most certainly did not have for a burial) that each get solved within fifty pages or so, staggered so not everybody’s made happy at the same time but they definitely all are by the end. There’s nothing truly at stake; even if they fail, their grandma won’t let them back into the real hardships of their earlier life.

And the coming of age part was going to be a sort of automatic thing because Dicey, the oldest, is thirteen, and what the hell else do you do at thirteen, especially if you’ve been in charge of your ad-hoc family until you show up at your grandma’s?

But Dicey’s such a blank character. I accept the fact that her life has made her brusque and practical, but I refuse to believe that she doesn’t have even half a speck of the imagination or rebellion that makes teenage characters so interesting. She doesn’t change at all; the world around her just starts telling her how good she is.

All that being said, this book was very well-written, just the perfect balance between understated prose and decorative language that exactly explained abstract thoughts and feelings. I read it fast because I remained convinced that there was a better story released in the next chapter.        

Also, this is “a Tillerman Family Novel,” according to the cover. This is a SAGA, folks. I bet the first couple books are more interesting. I trust Voigt to handle melodrama with just the right touch.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Predictions of the digital age

Book: Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite

Author: John Brockman

Published: 1996 (HardWired)

Pages: 335

Irony is reading a physical book all about how the world is going digital and how we should adapt or risk getting left behind.

What Brockman did was gather up all his influential friends and acquaintances from the industry, sat them down one by one, and interviewed them about where they thought the Internet and the World Wide Web were headed and what they and the world at large needed to do about it.

And then he typed it and sent it off to get bound in paper and glue and cardboard and to sell on one of the platforms most of his interviewees predicted would be dead by now (to be fair, they’re getting sort of right).

Reading fifteen-year-old predictions about the Internet feels a little like reading Nostradamus; it’s a faddish way of retroactively proving that psychics really do exist. Although the people interviewed for this book were far more actively engaged in the innovations they talked about, their projections were still vague enough to apply correctly to what the Internet has become without knowing if 2011’s Internet is exactly what they were thinking in 1996.

A good bit of why I liked reading this was so I could nod my head and mentally mark off what we’ve innovated from these Suggestions of the Future.

  • Interaction and personalization will always be king in a medium that’s simultaneously broadcaster and audience.
  • As long as we have such a thing as technology, we will have people worrying about whether or not we’re spending too much time on it.
  • Ease of access, cheapening of speed, and building of communities are the steadiest foundations on which to build Internet interest.
  • Nobody will ever care about interactive TV.

I really, really wish Brockman had hosted round table talks/arguments and just recorded those verbatim, or at least left his questions in so on the page his interviews would get some of that interaction action they all yap on about. That way he would’ve caught some great arguments that would have taken all these sentiments, which were thought-provoking but difficult to get through in big chunks that said basically the same thing.

“You sly dog! You’ve got me monolouging!”  

Anyway, this was a sort of interesting book, but it’s by no means necessary.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

YALL come and see us, y'hear?

Hey guys! Guess what awesome thing my state is doing later this year!
No, okay, FINE, I'll just TELL YOU: we're hosting a young adult book festival! Woo! 
There will be famous authors and seminars and storytelling games, all in Charleston. 
You should go. And keep clicking on that link to see updates. 
The author list is going to be revealed pretty soon, and I'm already excited that I have my own car and will be able to day trip this. 

It's everybody's fault

Book: Somebody Else’s Daughter

Author: Elizabeth Brundage

Pages: 338

Published: 2008 (Viking)

Somewhere (“way outside of Yonkers…”) there is a book jacket painted with an artistically blurred family portrait of a mom and dad and baby girl in which only the little girl’s face is completely in focus, or a book jacket painted with a stark bloody picture of a murdered hooker in a plaid skirt propped up against a tree with snow getting in her hair. Either would fit this story about a small private school community that basically gets ripped apart when all the grownups around can’t contain their secrets (money and a wife from the porn industry, a not-really-accidental murder at the last school they headed, eating disorders, general paranoia).

And the new writing teacher gets swept up in everything as the biological dad of Willa (one of the school girls) who takes this job because he wants to see how his daughter is doing in her adopted family. He hasn’t seen Willa since he and his drug-addict wife gave up Willa at her birth, and nobody knows who he really is for 99% of the book. He’s just kinda there, hanging out and teaching and reading her writing class journal and trying to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble in as discreet a way as he can. That’s, um, sweet? Or creepy, maybe? A little?

I don’t like how this book is written: third person omniscient that gives away all the secrets in blobs of thought-exposition before any of it has a chance to make for real dramatic tension. It decentralizes the plot to the point where I was reading about how the headmaster was the one who murdered a hooker because she was pregnant from him and I was going, “So, this? This is what everything’s supposed to lead to, right? Dead hooker usually automatically indicates climax in a community melodrama, so…I’m going with yes.”

I don’t like the character growth, either. When I first met them, the characters seemed promising: an adopted girl who’s got a great life but is starting to get uneasy enough to explore her identity through sex and her biological roots; a liberal sculptor of a mom who will have to mold her son a little more than she wants to so they can both survive the school year; a porn producer father and husband who’s starting to feel extreme guilt about how he makes his family’s money; an angry young girl who doesn’t know how to deal with her anger or sideline status and starts lashing out.

But do any of them do things that make character sense after the shit starts going down? NOT REALLY, NO.

What especially bothered me, like, took me out of the story bothered me, was the “conversation” the adults had the first night they met. They were basically throwing around buzzwords about feminism without actually saying anything to each other, which would be fine except this was supposed to be a very revealing conversation, how they all got to know each other, because they never got together in groups larger than happily/transcendentally or unhappily/forcefully screwing couples for the rest of the book.

And, and—the porn guy starts off as super misogynistic, but that turns off abruptly and is never mentioned again when the sculptor lady starts an affair with him but then that just ends and dies as one of like five subplots (most of which are about sex or love) that only get mentioned when hookers aren’t getting murdered.

Sorry to dwell on that part, but I keep mentioning it to remind myself that it happened and was supposed to be dramatically important, because in all honesty there was no reason it should have been.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nobody expects the...you know...

Book: The Witch of Cologne

Author: Tobsha Learner

Pages: 462

Published: 2003 (HarperCollins)

Everybody in this book lives in terrible fear of the Spanish inquisition, especially the protagonist who is a Jewish midwife who dabbles in kabala just to make sure but only really believes in actual science that she had the balls to learn because she pretended to be a boy to get educated and then she turned out so awesome at it that nobody cares except the meany priests bent on revenge and power.

This is a very serious book that takes itself, True Love, and fighting for freedom very, very seriously. Its whole tone is covered in that layer of misty gravity historical novels seem to think they need to convey that this is some important shit going down. Look, lady, I can tell, not the least reason because you insist on telling me everything and showing me nothing (except sex scenes, which, I mean, good job on that part). You get inside everybody’s head, which would be awesome except that they’re all cardboard. It especially bugs me that Mary Sue and Mr. Too (not their real names), the protagonists, are portrayed as the only two enlightened enough to even consider that everyone is equal. All the other characters are like, “Scandal!” or at the least, with fond chuckles, “You crazy kids.”

I guess it is hard to portray how new the idea of equality was back then without American readers of today finding the arguments cartoonish and obvious. But I bet it’s not impossible. 

And I know it’s possible to portray all the devastation of a doomed romance without overwriting about souls and destiny and how unicorns fart rainbows when these two fornicate but only in secret because Society doesn’t want them to be together.   

Here’s a list of things I said out loud as I was plowing through this, in rough chronological order.
  • How’d she get such a good manicure in the German Jewish ghetto of the 1600s?
  • It’s a crime for a book with this cover to be SO BORING. (The plot gets better, though.)

  • “Speak plainly, Wilhelm, my gout has shortened my temper.” Ha. This. Do more of this.
  • Does one pronounce the city Cologne like the stuff men use to smell pretty cologne? Is that where that came from? Where’s the Wikipedias I left lying around here?
  • There was seriously someone called the Witchfinder General?
  • Besser tsu shtarben shtai’endik aider tsu leben oif di k’nien; better to die upright than to live on your knees. That is this book’s motto, right there.
  • I HATE WHEN AUTHORS GO, “blah blah was blah blah as if it were blah blah, as indeed it was.” IF IT WAS LIKE THAT JUST SAY SO. DON’T DOUBLE BACK ON YOUR METAPHORS. THEY WILL BITE YOU IN THE ASS FOR THAT.
  • Her “nether hole.” Um. Is that…the, ah, female opening designed for sex, or does that mean—okay, I can’t tell from this scene and am just going to move on. She had a good time, anyway.
  • Of course she’s pregnant. (Not related to above scene. Different lady.)
  • And—wait, he actually DIES on the rack? Huh. That works for the narrative. Yay, no last-minute saving bullshit.

Terrible things. Happen to saintly people. Another one. Okay, it’s symbolic corn-punching time. *rolls up sleeves* 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Weirdness evolves

Book: Innovative Fiction: Stories for the Seventies

Authors: various

Pages: 224

Published: 1972 (Dell Publishing Co., Inc.)

The seventies, man. To me, they sound like Led Zeppelin, look like my parents’ faded high school senior portraits, and make me blink like I’m staring at a disco ball. I don’t know how much of the persevered nostalgia to believe; I wasn’t there.

But I’m most inclined to believe real time travelers like this collection of short stories, which have the authentic whiff of being written and published in the era. It’s interesting to see what qualified as innovative fiction from forty years ago, because to me, it seems like avant-garde prose shares a lot of the same underlying structural principles:
  • Stream of consciousness narration that implies chaos and all its marginalia is important because it’s closer to the actual thinking process and thus a more authentic way of recording
  • Screwing around with grammar, most notably making up new words and writing dialect phonetically
  • Seemingly nonsense that represents a higher theme buried under stupid-sounding sentences
  • Titles that crack me up (I’m going to start yelling, “Miss Euayla Is the Sweetest Thang!” [all emphasis and capitals and exclamation points the author’s] at random intervals to liven up my work of standing at a cash register)
  • Multiple points of view that clash together like jagged pieces of glass to make the reader wonder what really happened and how

But just because authors play around the same way doesn’t mean they come up with the same thing, or even things that look remotely like each other. These stories still seem odd now, which means weird just keeps evolving. (Woo!)

Most of these stories I enjoyed on at least one level. Sheer absurdity carries a lot of them, like the first one “The Hyannis Port Story” about a guy who goes to install windows in a very vocally Goldwater-supporting house that’s right near the Kennedys’, and “The Jewbird,” which is about a talking bird who comes into a family’s house and starts integrating himself into the family before the dad decides he hates it and kicks it out. 

“Momentum,” the story I was most reluctant to read because it was presented in one big breath of stream of consciousness on two independent columns of each page that I had to zigzag both my eyeballs and brain through while still remembering the other side, surprised me at how touching I found it by the end. It’s about a guy going back to his college and trying to relive his glory days. This was the best example of how a weird structure can elevate a common subject; his rush of confessions and digressions revealed his nerves and mood swings right next to the everyday details that he had to pay just as much attention to in order to get through his visit.

A couple stories I just didn’t understand, whether I’m too removed from the political subtlties of the times or whatever a hobo in a wheelchair is supposed to mean as a symbol when he gets shipped across America in a big crate. Sometimes I just DON’T KNOW.

But that’s okay, because as weirdness evolves, so does your Constant Reader.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Drunken adventures in going blind

Book: Slackjaw

Author: Jim Knipfel

Pages: 231

Published: 1999 (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman)

I like Jim Knipel, starting with his last name (you pronounce the K) and ending with the narrow fedora-shaded face in his author photo. He sounds like an excellent person to take to a bar and get drunk on a boring midweek night.

Which is exactly what his book feels like, a long tale spun frankly and wryly somewhere dark and smoky that tastes like beer. According to his roughly chronological stories, that’s exactly where most of them start or end up, launching or killing a long day of the author bouncing his cynical personal struggle against weird characters on his way to get things done that may or may not be illegal.

Knipfel gives the standard self-destruction narrative unexpected texture with normal loving parents, a genetic disease that makes him start going blind by age twenty, deft and liberal touches of black humor, a frank understanding of his own suicidal impulses (every year or eighteen months, he says, living just gets too much), and, eventually, a foldout cane that goes “flubbity-flubbity.”

It’s hilarious and compulsive and peters out into cranky optimism that feels well-earned by the end. 

Life and books and books and life

Your Constant Reader is not going to do that thing she despises in other blogs, where the writer apologizes for going silent for awhile and spends too many words describing why when “life” usually sums it up pretty well.

Life is NOT what happens when you’re making other plans. You have to catch that mofo and shape it however you can or else it’ll just ooze through your fingers like flubber.

That’s what your Constant Reader has been doing lately—trying to mold this post-graduation mush into some sort of living. And it’s working, sort of. In the past month, I’ve finished the first draft of my (latest? Third? Sounds pretentious until I remind everyone that they’re all unpublished) novel, gotten a (part-time minimum wage) job, and laid plans that might soon have me moving out of my parents’ house and back to my college town (NOT GRAD SCHOOL, you fake job site leeches! Gerroff!).

I keep reading through all this, continuously, compulsively, like breathing, but it’s all old stuff I’ve read a million times and I’m reading again because it soothes the anxiety that thrums through my brain and keeps me up at night worrying about my next steps in that pesky real world. The most coherent opinions I have about any of them by now have degraded to “SHUT UP AM REEEEEAAAAADING.”

But Monday, I drove by Boarder’s and mourned their last four days of business over here by spending $6.22 on five books and one album. All new.

I also dove into the free pile which is caged outside the (other) bookstore that’s next to the store where I work now. I’m going to need blinders or massive stress-induced migraines to keep my reading list from multiplying like bunnies.

Look to the next entry to see which one I’ve already devoured, and stay tuned for the rest mingled amongst your Constant Reader’s shouts of triumph and frustration. I imagine it’ll get rather loud around here.