Friday, May 25, 2012

Consider the Wallace

Book: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

Author: David Foster Wallace

Published: 1997 (Little, Brown)

Pages: 353

I’ve decided to make my Wallace collecting semi-accidental, i.e. going to Barnes and Noble or Amazon and buying all his books at once will be considered cheating. But finding A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again bury amongst other 1-for-$5, 2-for$8, 3-for-$10 (guess how many I bought) volumes in the used-book alley of the South Carolina Book Festival is fate, and a damn good turn of it.

This could turn into How I Am Learning to Stop Worrying About My Literary Pretensions and Love the Wallace: The Essay, but I’m saving the real meat of that for my MFA application statement of purpose (just kidding) (sort of, halfway) (oh God I want to do that so badly but how in any sort of fashion am I going to be able to suspend enough belief to pretend it’s a viable and practical way of steering my life?) (did crystalizing that thought out loud kill the true writer in me?) (SEND HELP AND MOTIVATION). So you guys get the cliff notes.

It boils down to how skillfully Wallace is able to use his intellect to reveal his humanity. That’s it; that’s his entire nonfiction trick, and it’s very, very powerful.

Wallace captures sort of controlled explosions from his brain in hyper-analytic language that permeates each subject, no matter how pedestrian (tennis, Midwestern geography, David Lynch movies, a cruise, a state fair), with equal and enormous amounts of passion. I love how deep yet conversational he writes; that balance is how a writer gets people to care.

His writing is difficult, full of allusions sometimes explained but sometimes left to dangle and make fun of how little you’ve actually read. And I’ve an idea that Infinite Jest and the rest of his fiction only gets more thickly veiled with layers to chip away. But the key thing is he makes the reading work worth it. There’s a spark of humanity and meaning that exhausts you in the very pleasant way of sinking into a comfortable squishy armchair after a long journey home.

And when you discover that, all the mystique and pretension and literary idolizing inherent in his name falls away and leaves you feeling understood as only the best authors can.
My copy of this book is from 1997, which means there’s no mention of what happened to him. I kind of like that, and it sums up why I like literature so much: it endures, even when we don’t.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A supposedly sexy triology I'll never read again

Books: Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Free
Author: E.L. James
Published: 2011 (Vintage--although there's a Fifty Shades Ltd. trademark on here too, which I think got it first)
Pages: natch
Guys, I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I tried. It’s not you; it’s the twits in these books that broke my will to find out what happened to them.
I didn’t care in the first place, based on the first book, but somehow they made me care EVEN LESS by arguing pointlessly, repetitiously, saying THE EXACT SAME THING over and over and over through like the 600 pages I managed. And when I say the exact same thing, I mean they were saying words that agreed with each other but somehow they were massive fights about demons from What’s His Fucking Shade’s past that STOP BEING SO FUCKING SHOCKED HE’S TOLD YOU ABOUT THIS SHIT FIFTY SHADES OF A BILLION TIMES ALREADY JESUS CHRIST.
They’re in love, which, okay, whatever, but you know what she says about it when he proposes? “We don’t know each other but there will be plenty of time for that after we’re married.” WHAT. She says this after freaking out about every other little thing he ever tells her.
She calls him Fifty. SHE CALLS HIM FIFTY, IN HER HEAD, WHICH WE HAVE TO LISTEN TO. That’s between them protesting how awesomely gorgeously perfect the other one is. 
And then the older lady mentor who taught Morning Mist about BDSM—she’s still his friend, and, yeah, weird kind of icky start to that relationship, but it’s all good now, and she seems nice and guiding and mentor-ish in a totally non-jealous way right up until their engagement announcement when suddenly she turns evil long enough for Totally Not Bella Swan to toss a drink in her face and justify TNBS’s own totally-unjustified-until-now jealous accusations of pedophilia.
None of the drama had any motive. Shit just happened because oh yeah, shit has to happen.
I hate these books so very, very much. I hung in as long as I could to get exact material for why I hate them (this blog is nothing if not a Learning Process, people), but… holy fuck. Life’s too short and depressing to waste on a bad book, much less a sex trilogy that prompts me to send this exact, real life text message:
OH MY GOD YOU TWO JUST FUCK ALREADY. (My thought process while reading Fifty Shades Darker. Even when they are in the middle of having sex. This is not good.)

...No. No we cannot. Argh.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Still hunting

Book: The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing
Author: Melissa Bank
Published: 1999 (Penguin)
Pages: 274
I wish this book was as cool as its title and structural premise.

It’s another book about a slightly weird girl growing into her sexuality. She makes bad choices, believes guys she shouldn’t, gets lonely enough to almost fumble her one (last?) chance at a good relationship but saves it by blurting honesty at the guy who really wants to hear it.
The first bit, about when she’s fourteen and her older brother brings his much older girlfriend to a weekend at their family’s shore house, is great. She’s all sorts of bluntly adolescent insightful, and her parents are real people, and her brother tries too hard with the best of intentions.
But after that, it gets progressively less interesting and therefore more depressing by (accidentally?) proving that growing up dulls you into being normal if you do it right. I reserve my right to refuse that for at least another 22 years.
Seriously, though, the emotional depth just sort of goes away even as she’s talking about how her dad’s battle with cancer affects her romantic relationship with a much older man who refuses to take care of himself. The parallels, they are everywhere, but they don’t make me care. She says she’s devastated and lonely, but I don’t believe her.
I’m gonna start a new end-of-post categorization called “Bookshelf, Donation Pile, or Trash” for each book I paid money to own. Such as this one, which I’ll go ahead and place in the Donation Pile. It’s not offensively terrible. It’s got some good parts, one or two insights. It’s just too boring to keep myself, because I know what will happen. I’ll get a hankering for a re-read because the title’s so nifty, and then I’ll get disappointed all over again and lament the time I could be learning something new. Off to the (used bookstore that will give me money for it? That could happen! I read it in another blog this morning! Y’all, my rent went up) place that needs books.

Pushed him down a well

Book: Dolores Claiborne
Author: Stephen King
Published: 1993 (Viking)
Pages: 305
Crusty old New England lady lets loose about the time she murdered her husband by pushing him down the well! Now she’s testifying in the suspiciously similar death of her fellow crusty old New England lady employer! Aw, yeah, Stephen King, you work that regional dialect into one break-less story and add a complete solar eclipse just for good measure. We know how you do.

It’s such a pitch-perfect voice the whole way through. And the story leans completely on the horror of what regular human beings get up to when they get mean. The eclipse is nothing except the way to conceal revenge and heartache. It’s a straightforward psychological dissection channeled through a lady who would snort at that phrase and say she doesn’t know about no psychology, she’s just tellin it like it happened.
I got into it a little bit more than I got into Thinner because the narrator was so well-defined. If the mullet King is wearing in his author photograph is any indication with the copyright dates, these were of roughly the same writing era for him. A good vintage.
Donation Pile, Bookshelf, or Trash? Bookshelf. It’s not my favorite King book, but it’s my favorite voice of his.     

Monday, May 7, 2012

Put a bird on it

Book: Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman
Published: 2012 (Scribner)
Pages: 221

I found a way to check out this book because it’s short stories with an owl on the cover. It knows how to get my attention.
And I enjoyed these stories, albeit in a very quiet way. They are prime examples of lit fic, with one potentially interesting stab at half-hearted (pun intended because the old dude wears an artificial heart) sci fi about an old survivalist living with his daughter and her partner who accidentally steals the old man’s Alzheimer’s patient girlfriend while they’re all trying to live in a rapidly drying up world.
That’s also the only story that doesn’t have animals figure into themes of family, love, and protection that, though hard-won, are almost never strong enough to last. People leave and animals die and everybody wonders what they’re doing here.
I appreciate how the author doesn’t try to add substance by going needlessly artsy on the prose. She presents slices of not-quite-ordinary lives as they are; the thematic metaphors are there for readers who want them. That is either a good command of subtlety or boring, depending on how much you like cows.
I felt really cheated that there wasn’t at least one story about an owl, though. At this point, owls are shorthand for quirky on par with handlebar mustaches, so I never really know whether the picture means anything or not.  

Time to eat?

Book: Thinner
Author: Richard Bachman
Published: 1984 (Signet)
Pages: 309

Free Comic Book Day, you guys. It means half-off Heroes and Dragons’ fairly new section of used books, too, and Liberry Tom had just sent me a list where Vulture ranks Stephen King books, and I’ve been wanting to read Thinner ever since I learned Richard Bachman was a thing, and $4 for a good-condition hardback, and…well. Second verse, same as the first.
To the story!  Spoilers ahoy!
It’s a combination of King’s sense of macabre justice and Bachman’s ability to blaze through that with slightly more gore and a lot less padding. This fat lawyer dude runs over an old Gypsy lady while his wife is touching him in the car and he gets off manslaughter charges because he knows the judge and so the Gypsy lady’s dad curses the guy to lose weight until he dies. Lawyer dude starts wasting away, hunts down the Gypsy man to make him take off the curse (using a handy mob connection he picked up through his firm work). Along the way, lawyer dude grows intense hatred toward his wife and how she hasn’t been cursed for her role in all this until by the end he decides to throw the curse onto her and live happily after with his daughter. But the curse is contained in a pie that the mom and daughter both end up eating as a make-up gesture from a fight they had while lawyer dude was out, and so in the end he’s like, “Fuck it, won’t be worth living after this starts working on  the daughter I still love” and eats some too, putting the curse back on himself.
A few things:

  • Once it gets to a certain point, his thinness is constantly described as scaring people, like literally causing strangers to turn away in horror, yet physical descriptions of him are a hell of a lot less gory than his fellow lawyer who got him off (skin turned into an alligator-like hide) and the deputy sheriff who tussled with the Gypsies when they were setting up their camp (they cursed him with face-boiling acne).
  • I sense faint racism in how the Gypsies are a big part of the story yet are written with much less nuance and sympathy than the guy who ran over and killed one of them. Bachman is usually better at streaking his antagonists with complexity so neither side gets a hold of the moral high ground.
  • Very nice blend of psychological cracking up and driving plot. Yet it didn’t dig as deep into me as I thought it would.
  • I have my next reading project, which will be to get through all the Stephen King books I haven’t read yet. That’s mostly the Dark Tower series, plus a few strays like Cujo and From a Buick 8 and Desperation.
Glad I finally got to read this one. It reads like a graceful hybrid between King and his alter ego.

These American lives

Book: American Lives: A Reader
Author: various
Published: 2010 (University of Nebraska Press)
Pages: 300

These chunks pulled from full-length memoirs made good episodic reading that brought me back to earth.
All of them had the same sheen of quiet honesty, which was great because it pulled me into the humor and gravitas with equal strength. But that same sheen made reading things like multiple excerpts on losing children (in utero and born) less affecting than they would have been standing alone. Some of the excerpts were so short I couldn’t tell why they bothered to use that section instead of another.
My favorite, “Son of Mr.Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers,” was set up as a list of dictionary-style definitions mixed with personal connections to the concepts being explained. It nicely spiraled into itself to make its point in the way that a kid with a missing father would piece together his feelings about that as he grew up and slowly learned what it meant. That would’ve been super annoying to read in a whole 300-page book, but as a collected piece itself it was really effective.
None of these memoirs were uncomfortably navel-gazing; they all gave good reasons outside their authors for being written. Latched together, they made a smooth patchwork of the genre.

Origin stories

Book: Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal
Author: Jeffrey J. Kripal
Published: 2011 (The University of Chicago Press)
Pages: 334 (not counting endnotes)

Holy shit, comic book writers are just as crazy as you think they are.
Kripal’s conclusion is a lot more nuanced, academic, and sympathetic than mine. But all his research into the great minds of speculative fiction basically comes down to this. Everyone from Alan Moore to Jack Kirby to Philip K. Dick to pulp writers of the 1950s had some sort of paranormal/religious experience that brought them out of their own consciousness in some elaborate mind-melting way that may or may not have involved drugs (it’s split about even along the users/nonusers line). And boy howdy did they ever want to dissect the hell out of these experiences in print.
I won’t cheat or pretend to remember by paging back through for some random quotes about any of this stuff. It was confusing and blurred into one giant blob of higher intelligent beings revealing themselves to grant their higher knowledge on the open-minded. Basically, these guys did not go, “You know what would be AWESOME? SPACESHIPS and sexy goddesses!” and proceed to make it up as they went along. They were transcribing, translating, and interpreting. Their work was not their own.
To me, that’s disappointing, mostly because I want to hear how artists take control of their own creativity. I wanted to read about how they took ordinary lives and molded them into fantastical allegories about their world and its direction, disguised in mystical experiences that their audiences would use for escape. I did like that Kripal had enough insight to divide the experiences into different socio-historical anxieties, like alienation, radiation, orientation, mutation. 
But then he dropped giant musing paragraphs into the middle of everything and lost me out in the cosmos. Maybe I’m just not ready for enlightenment yet.