Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't give the kid a gun

Book: Goat Mountain
Author: David Vann
Published: 2013 (HaperCollins)
Pages: 239

Holy shit, you guys. I was not prepared.

Of course I read the summary and of course it sounded intriguing so that's why I bought it but - wow. This kid is a psychopath.

Let me back up: on a hunting trip with his dad, grandpa, and family friend, they see a poacher on their land and one of them points a gun at him and the kid pulls the trigger and shoots the poacher. Blows away pretty much all of his back.

And then everybody goes crazy in their own ways, the friend's "We gotta report this" and the dad's "Oh my god you ruined our lives" being the most understandable. The grandpa wants to kill the kid, which doesn't end up amounting to much except excuses for the author to go on about the Biblical tradition/instinct of family violence. Not even allusions but straight up flat out references that don't do any more connecting to this situation so you're kind of left just hanging out going, "Yep. Cain and Abel, man..."

And although the book's written in first person from the kid's point of voice, he doesn't actually talk or think or feel much of anything. Just a lot of description. In really annoying, disconnected sentence fragments. There are teases of him alluding to the fact that he's narrating this during the modern day, years after the actual event as a grownup, but again, nothing actually comes of that.

I dunno, guys. What's there is beautifully written, but there's not really much there. I don't think I'll keep this one. 

To the event horizons and beyond

Book: A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes
Author: Stephen Hawking
Published: 1998 (Bantam)
Pages: 182

I will read about theoretical physics until I understand it, dammit, and Stephen Hawking has helped me get more of the way there. 

He explains everything from subatomic particles (quarks make up protons and neutrons and electrons, rightright, but my brain can't picture "packets of energy" - I keep thinking of Taco Bell sauce) to the Big Bang in clear language with a vague hint of humor once in awhile that maybe works better out loud but is appreciated nonetheless.

My favorite parts were about black holes and anti-matter (which apparently runs on imaginary numbers and calculus).

Hawking also outlines what he means by theories and emphasizes the testability aspect and talks about different ones in history and why they came about and how/why they've been discouraged or become popular. 

It's a great tour of astrophysics and even more remarkable when you think about how he had to write it. Bookshelf!

Locks and translations

Book: The History of Love
Author: Nicole Krauss
Published: 2005 (Penguin)
Pages: 385

Shelving and organizing romance paperbacks every weekend has made me even more tired and cynical about artistic portrayals of love and the giant-ass yawning gap between that and the real stuff. It's exhausting, and one day I will break down and read one and tell you exactly how many times my soul rolled its eyes at someone's heaving bosoms. 

But not today. Although it was sandwiched between two really cheesy-looking tomes, this book was quirky and unexpected and heartbreaking in a these-are-real-people-with-real-emotions-and-this-could-really-happen way. 

It's told in alternating voices of a retired locksmith shut-in whose carefully reconstructed life is shaken by the discovery that he's got a famous writer for a son and the son just died, and a twelve-year-old girl who's trying to find love for her shut-in mom while she tracks down the real author of the book that got her mom and dad together. (Spoiler: it's the locksmith dude, only his friend stole it and published it when he immigrated to America first.)

Both the old man and the young girl have unique voices and operate their own systems of logic that make perfect sense to them but nobody else, which leads to their discovery of one another and draws neat parallels between their situations. 

I really liked how the book's main focus wasn't on some great starry romance but on the weird hidden working love of missed connections, with side tracks but not distractions into budding adolescence and discovering the unexpected indignities of old age.

Good read that proves the people, not the actual love, are the interest parts of a love story. Bookshelf!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

In America, Communist Party complicates your life!

Book: Dissident Gardens
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Published: 2013 (Doubleday)
Pages: 366


This story could be subtitled “How the Communist Movement Destroyed My Family’s Ability to Have Anything Close to Normal Relationships,” and it’s SO GOOD.  It’s reminded me how lit fic can the connections in our lives, twist the hell out of them, and spread it out across a couple generations for us to find disturbing patterns and how maybe, just maybe, we can make changes for the better.

Or not! This book touches on the futility of the communism ideal and how that affects kids when a mother refuses to let go and how a young girl rebels against a rebel parent and how love can fester and warp a commitment to a cause and the slow painful death of inspiration and the special humiliation of growing up different and instead of learning how to blend in you accidentally find someone who makes you incurably weirder and how that affects the rest of your life.

It’s a non-chronological story about relationships, not just love. Love is a part of it, of course, but I appreciated that it was just another outgrowth of the Party because that’s the mom’s base of affection – her love for the party comes first and that’s what she models her parental and romantic love on. It’s an impractically idealistic and pragmatic way to love, and it warps whoever comes in contact with it in all kinds of interesting ways.

I liked the mix of political and personal, which made me read it slower than usual to digest all the allusions and connections and connotations. A good story with its gaze trained firmly above the navel. Bookshelf!  

Planning yet more bookish things

Book: Mentors, Muses, and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives
Editor: Elizabeth Benedict
Published: 2009 (Free Press)
Pages: 268

I got a hell of a lot of future reading list ideas and also more dream fuel for my MFA plans from this, but not as much inspiration as any of these contributing authors got from the people or books they talk about here.

It’s a great idea. I kind of doubt the editor’s assertion that she couldn’t find ANY book on authors’ inspirations on Amazon when she was doing research for this (really? NONE? IN 2009?), but I love reading what makes writers tick and where they get stuff from because I know firsthand how different the voodoo is for each person.

But these essays did start sounding the same after awhile. The best ones where when writers talked about formative experiences (apparently you can be a waiter at one writing retreat and they let you read your stuff and write and take classes while you’re there too) instead of actual people as mentors. Of course all the mentors are going to be supportive and maybe outwardly crusty and terrifying but they all have the familiar – and similar – squishy guiding light center that all good teachers share.

Not that those mentors deserve all the praise they can get. This one’s staying on the booktruck bookshelf for the afore mentioned booklist growth, mostly, but also, I did like reading it from a pure lit geek point of view. I don’t know if any genre writer or journalist or screenwriter would find much here, though, and I think that’s why the stories smooth together like they do. Anyway, I like it in maybe a more specific way than it was meant, so it’s staying. 

Not the revolution you might think

Book: The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution
Editor: John Brockman
Published: 1995 (Touchstone)
Pages: 388

Don’t trust the copy on the back of the book to accurately represent the content, is the lesson here, although it’s dwarfed by lots of mini-lessons on evolution, the philosophy of life, artificial intelligence verses artificial life, and what other scientists think of these theories.

It’s a collection of interviews of preeminent scientists in these fields, not so much a comparison of scientific thought to artistic thought like I expected. Although the scientists have been chosen because their theories involve more imagination, they don’t really talk explicitly about it.

In the intro, the editor talks about how he put the pieces together, and I really wish he had left in the questions he asked, because each essay is constructed like the scientist said/wrote it from their perspective, so I want to see the questions to see where it’s all coming from. Also, the comments by other scientists at the end of each essay were kind of useless and occasionally catty. They didn’t add much – any controversy worth mentioning was already touched on in the main essay.

But oh man. I learned so much about what, like, Richard Dawkins actually thinks about evolution, and how artificial life and artificial intelligence are different  (artificial life is actually much more difficult to simulate because it’s trying to make machines go through biological processes that we don’t fully understand yet, but intelligence is more mechanical), and how different people define consciousness.

All the essays were fascinating insights into stuff I don’t know enough about, so I enjoyed this book. It took me awhile to get through because each essay was pretty dense, but it was worth it and will be going onto the bookcart bookshelf and staying there.