Monday, December 26, 2011

Healing story no. 1 billion and seven

Book: Left Neglected

Author: Lisa Genova

Published: 2011(Gallery Books)

Pages: 322

There’s a certain kind of matte-finished book jacket painted with still life that’s supposed to be vaguely symbolic of the story within but mostly reminds you of when your mother dragged you to a bunch of interior design stores because she was redecorating her living room and wanted your input. It’s generic trying to disguise itself as profound. In my experiences, these book jackets do their advertising jobs well; the stories tend toward premises that look cool but are slathered with all the intellectual complexity and emotional subtly of a Hallmark Channel movie.

That is how a book about a workaholic recovering from a rare brain disorder becomes boring.

Left neglect is where a person ignores the left side of their world because a part of their right brain is damaged. Fascinating, right? And rare, and rich with weird physical and psychological challenges, right? Not according to this account of an overworked mom who prattles on about her busy by reciting from a big business trope list without bothering to add her personal details. When she gets into a car accident that literally slows her down to about a quarter of her normal speed, the author lapses into healing family clich├ęs about staying slowed down for good.

I just…y’all, these books wear me out. They make me feel guilty for wanting a sick person to be much more interesting, then they make me question my guilt issues because I’m feeling guilty about a fictional character, then they make me reassert my true hatred for said character because everything works out in the end because she willed it to be so through family rifts and financial crises that in any other universe would require more than her wanting to fully heal. It’s not that this isn’t realistic (although it isn’t). It’s that the dramatic obstacles melt like cotton candy, without any effort, and leave just as saccharine an aftertaste. I HATE cotton candy.

Points for the subtle title pun, though. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

German angst on art and beauty

Book: Death in Venice and Other Stories

Author: Thomas Mann

Published: 1988 (Bantam, this collection); 1897-1912 (original story publication dates)

Pages: 263

Hoo, boy, does Thomas Mann ever have conflicting issues with his chosen profession.

He's this great chatty German with a keen sense of existential dread and how beauty (and lust disguised as high-minded appreciation of it) can wreck an artist especially easily. His character-to-character dialogue has that real-life rhythmic panic of "Oh fuck how much of what I actually feel should I say?", which is not something I expect to come across so clearly from a pre-modern writer. Snaps for him.

Or maybe his 1988 translator. That's a problem I have with translation; how much of the text is lost when it jumps languages? Witness Kafka's "bug" vs. "cockroach" vs. "vermin" opening. Maybe I should just learn German? 

But then I'd be the shitty translator and have no one to complain about but myself, and as Mann proves in his giant blocks of monologue on the nature of Art and the Writer's Role in it all, that is some boring-ass prose. It stops his narratives dead until the hunchback re-meets the lady who makes him feel the pang of being an outcast, or until the shopkeeper yells at the religious dude to stop waving that knife around because that won't make him take the obscene picture out of his shop window, or until the tubercular wife of a count stops playing the piano for a smitten writer. 

See? He's got some good stuff. You just have to get past his angst. I bet he was FUN when his writing was going badly.      

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Book: The Book of Human Insects

Author/artist: Osamu Tezuka

Published: 2011 (Vertical; this edition), 1970-1971 (Play Comic; original serial run)

Pages: 364

Trying to get a handle on what’s so good about a revolutionary is difficult when said revolutionary ushered in the movement that became the norm over the next forty years. Style taken for granted and even expected now blew people’s hair off when it first came out. But how does a style stay fresh through its process of mainstreaming?

Wait, I’m supposed to have an answer for that. Um. Sex and violence and blackmailing that all revolves around a pretty young girl who manipulates her way through most of the artistic talent spectrum while recharging at her childhood home next to a wax figure of her dead mother will always cause compulsive page-turning. Especially if there’s an insect metamorphosis structural metaphor that’s obvious but never explicated mentioned (I love you a little for that, Mr. Tezuka). Especially especially if the characters are all drawn so uniquely and the sound effects are either onomonopias or stage directions, depending on what makes the story clearer.

Yes! That is why Tezuka still reads completely unique. Uh huh.

I mean it could be that I’m still a noob in the comic world. But y’all, the point is I liked the story and I connected with the emotions and I kept turning the pages (taking a break when they discussed the Japanese steel industry and flinching twice when the young girl gets slapped by a man—once because she stole a life’s work’s honor from one and once because she wanted to get rid of another’s child, which—I understand the first instance a lot better even if my kneejerk reaction is “Gah let’s not hit women”) until I hit the lonely, lonely end.

And ultimately, that’s the best measure I have as your Constant Reader.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Auntie Zadie doesn't actually live here.

Book: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Author: Zadie Smith

Published: 2009 (Penguin)

Pages: 297

I had been saving this collection since I bought it for something ridiculous like 90% off cover price in the last gasping summer days of my hometown Borders. Why? Because It's Zadie motherfuckin' Smith, author of three of my favorite novels, the first and the best of which she got published when she was twenty-four. White Teeth at twenty-four!

And so I was saving this because if I read it right when I bought it, it'd be over with too soon. I'd have no ZS to break the monotony of dead white lit fic I have a habit of putting way too much hope in.

And so, when her essays reveal a tremendous knowledge of literary theory and intellectual cultural analysis and only the briefest, unadorned glimpses of personal life, I was reminded of Stuff I've Read on the Internet (fuck save us all) that said she's kind of a cold person. 

I really don't want her to be like that. I want her to be a sister of literature, like she talks about in her essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God. I want to feel like she'd find a funny, easy way to break her favorite subjects down for us while letting her methods reveal how her own brain works.

Maybe these essays do, and her mind just works a lot more like a straightforward scholar than I want it to. Her collection of movie reviews for The Guardian are the strongest arguments for the possibility of her being the person I want her to be; but they're her briefest and least seriously structured. And I could track various tropes in her novels in subject matters, at the very least: Golden-era Hollywood, old fathers who started second lives, mixed race and age-gap marriages, straddling cultural lines and not being quite accepted on either side.

These are solid, excellently-written essays. But I was expecting a series of those chats you have with your best friend at two in the morning outside wandering back to their car when the air is clear enough to shoot your ideas back and forth on invisible telepathic lines. What I got was a series of discussions from a really good teacher. I learned more this way, but I missed the emotional high that comes from the matching of minds.

Translated: I am shamed into thinking I should've been an English major.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Life is a handful of short stories, pretending to be a novel."

Book: The Neon Wilderness

Author: Nelson Algren

Published: 1965 (Berkley Publishing Corporation, this edition at least)

Pages: 222

These stories are hard little punches of grim realism about people who can’t rise above the squalor of their lives. Some of them don’t even want to. A lot of them are losing boxers or disillusioned soldiers or beaten women. The rest are drunks and thieves, and boasters to a one. They all talk along a spectrum of Chicago dialect that’s surprising dense to get through and are all buried in bad luck they generally make for themselves.

And damned if it isn’t enjoyable to read about all of them. How does that even work?

All the gritty impulses Hemingway wants for himself, Algen has, plus a good sense of humor and a more baroque way of capturing complex emotions (PEOPLE FEEL THINGS AND IT’S COMPLICATED, HEMINGWAY) while staying true to whatever voice he’s channeling in a particular narrative. Which he manages to make sound completely unique each time, even though he’s basically writing about the same exact sort of people.

He also has a way of writing a last sentence that neatly wraps up each story, a feat I shall now attempt, and—oh, dammit, I already lost that one. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Useful advice plainly given

Book: By Cunning and Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Author: Peter Selgin

Published: 2007 (F+W Publications)

Pages: 255

If you’re a beginning writer, this book is full of solid, basic advice that is not afraid to tell you it means nothing if you don’t have instinct underpinning it all.

If you’re a veteran writer between projects, this is a good comforting reminder of what you already know but need to have planted deep into your words.

If you’re me, this book makes you think about and subsequently lose a little ground in a process that has slowly, shakily become subconscious enough for you to trust it by itself. (And you also read it in between other books because you've got a full-blown addiction to narrative.)

I so appreciate its pragmatic, mostly non-mystical approach. Selgin assumes you’ve already wrestled with that and won, so now down to brass tacks. He’s bitter about writing conferences even though he contributes to them all the time; he reuses the beginning paragraph of Moby Dick to illustrate like five different, unrelated points; he says snobby things about genre fiction (THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS, lit fic peers); and all of the examples he takes from his own works are stories about car rides to the point where I’m not sure if he writes about anything else.

But it’s definitely stuff every writer needs to know, presented clearly and simply without condescending. That is a minor miracle in writers’ manuals.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Keeping America safe (after checking with supervisors)

Book: Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves

Author: G. Xavier Robillard

Published: 2011 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 255

Everything exciting has already happened to Captain Freedom at this point in his career, but he’s not willing to accept that. He’s vain, kind of dumb, overconfident and delusional about it all. And dammit, he deserves public recognition and an official archnemesis!

So the search and clash of all this is played as satire on something nobody has ever skewered before, ever: modern celebrity culture </end sarcasm>. It hits hardest when Captain Freedom throws out asides that reveal what he thinks is perfectly normal. A lot of those are brilliant little nuggets of hilarious entitlement. The rest, the Big Picture, the part that’s probably supposed to be the book’s comedic backbone, the string of incidents that wander chronologically through his superhero life without linking together in an arc or overall theme—eh.

It wasn’t boring and it WAS funny, but it did seem aimless.