Sunday, February 28, 2010

Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium
by Paul Auster

(10: 10/50)

"Tomorrow? Mr. Blank roars, both incredulous and confused. What are you talking about? Tomorrow I won't remember a word I said today."

The entry below will openly analyze Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Auster is an author that is relatively new to me. My experience with him before now is limited to the graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass which, though fabulous, isn't exactly like reading Auster himself. Despite limited exposure, his influences aren't allusive. It's evident he's the progeny of writers such as Beckett, Sarte and Pinter.

The work of the absurdests and the existentialists also proved to be the major inspiration for much of Television's The Twilight Zone (Five Characters in Search of An Exit, anyone?) and Travels reads more like the bubblegum-take of The Twilight Zone than it does their common forebears. The narrator, whose identity is fascinating to consider given the context of the work, periodically reads like good old Rod Sterling and that certainly doesn't help matters.

As far as Auster's thematic objectives, I won't go any farther than to say that he's concerned with notion of characters and authors. As with most pieces of this nature (and Twilight Zone episodes!), any semblance of plot is tied to the thematic concerns, so I'll refrain from further elaboration. And if I can dwell on the Twilight Zone for just a minute more, I'd like to point out that even the structure of the narrative resembles episodes of the show.

In the process of looking up the author and novel, as I tend to do, I actually saw this referenced as the "worst" book to start reading Auster. But a great familiarity with Auster apparently isn't much help to the novel either. The novel's principle characters are also those that haunt Auster's other work. With this in mind, it's much easier to see why the work is so heavily criticized, and arguably why it makes for a poor start. An Auster enthusiast, or general literati will make textual connections far before recent arrivals.

Either you're reading something that feels lowbrow-highbrow or you're reading what I imagine suffers from crushing obviousness and-- possibly-- foul self-indulgence. If I had to guess, that is. I suppose the ultimate idea here is that all-round you're best just avoiding the book, unless, you know, you happen to really love the Twilight Zone.

Up Next: Woody Allen's Side Effects

Saturday, February 27, 2010

EW: Book Retrospective

Entertainment Weekly is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week! It's hard to believe the rag rack staple is so young. I've been reading Entertainment Weekly for somewhere around five-years now with only momentary punctuations of unsubscription, and yesterday I cleaned out my closet to find full year or twos worth dating back to around 2005. It felt like the stars were aligning, so I thought I'd plow through the book reviews from five years past, and share some retrospective observations, quotes and ironies.

July 22nd, 2005: Before hitting super-star status with The Road, the review for Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men gets buried behind reviews for a bunch of books no one remembers.

September 9th, 2005: The late Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell's Fan-Tan is released, despite both authors having had lost interest in it years before and being dead. EW said "surely the story behind the story is the only story worth telling in Fan-Tan,". They gave it a nice, fat D.

September 30th, 2005: Julie & Julia by foul-mouthed Julie Powell comes out and grades an A. Later gets adapted into a movie that doesn't make sense because Julie Powell is a bit of a bitch, and Amy Adams isn't.

December 16th, 2005: EW runs an article that begins "Who ever said books were supposed to be cheap?", and follows with a list of impressive, pricey coffee-table tomes. Oh, 2005.

December 30th/June 6th, 2005/06: Best of 2005 Fiction list doesn't include Pulitzer winning Gilead by Marylnne Robinson, or Hugo winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

January 13th, 2006: EW runs an article on Brooklyn native Paul Auster whom I decided today I would read next, and for the first time. The article details Auster's interest in astronomical coincidences. The article ends mentioning what day "Paul Auster Day" is in Brooklyn. It's February 27th. Today.

March 17th, 2006: With the release of Macaulay Culkin's Junior, EW includes a ranking of other celebrity novels, which they did sometime in 2009 with another celebrity release, making me wonder how many times EW has recycled such devices.

March 24th, 2006: A Da Vinci Code imitator, Javier Sierra's The Secret Supper, trumps new releases by Christopher Moore and Colson Whitehead for the feature review. Early March 2006 marked an additional 5 million copy printing of the Da Vinci Code, and feature on Sierra is a testament to the fever the country was in over Dan Brown. Sierra's book also went on to be a best seller.

June 9th, 2006: Sara Gruin's best seller Water For Elephants gets graded a B, and takes a backseat to John Updike's second-to-last novel Terrorist (C+): Yet another post-9/11 novel. Is it any wonder why Terrorist clung to the discount shelves?

July 29th, 2006: Eragon author Christopher Paolini reviews the sixth installment in the Harry Potter series, The Half-Blood Prince. Because he's an expert on good young adult fiction?

I can't even tell you how many hours this blog took, simple though it is. Having looked through all of these, I can tell you a movie retrospective would be ripe for the picking. Oh, so very ripe. Should I? Hm.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
by Michael Chabon

(10: 9/50)

"'Yes, the Cloud Factory. Haven't you ever noticed it? When you walk across the Schenley Park bridge, there, from the park into Oakland, you pass above the Cloud Factory. What does it do? we used to wonder.'"

The entry below will openly analyse Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

My general rule of thumb for reading fiction is fifty pages a day. Paced, but not glacial. That I finished Chabon's first novel of roughly three-hundred in four days rather than six can be attributed to its quality or its generous font size. I'll leave it up to you. I'm really not certain myself.

The novel is very quick to get on its feet, which is something of an anomaly among literary fiction writers, and which I suppose is a testament to Chabon's future interest in genre fiction. In Chabon there is a genuine interest in the structured plot, which has been corroding for decades, and for which its presense I suppose I'm thankful for. There's a cool ambivalence to most modern fiction, like watching a sporting event and simply being pleased to be there. There's a lack of invested interest, and I feel -- though this may only be my relation to the work, rather than the work itself-- that Chabon supplies those things in Pittsburgh where most other writers of his present stature fail to.

Chabon's characters also have blood in their veins, another unfortunate rarity, I feel, in modern fiction. Not to say that I haven't encountered well-crafted characters yet this year, but none that feel so alive. None who speak vaguely, or act surprisingly, none who have said something and made me wonder why they said it. It speaks to a higher understanding of inner-consciousness. Perhaps it's only something that comes from writing autobiographically, but it's admirable regardless. Kooky Phlox, catty Arthur, and stiff-jawed Cleveland are real enough that you're forced to have an opinion of them.

Perhaps all this dancing around in a reviewish style is an attempt to avoid analyzing the book. At it's heart I feel Pittsburgh is about the quest to establish identity: What we were, what we want to be, What we might be, What we don't want to be, What others don't want us to be. It's a theme Chabon explores through sexuality, profession, idolization and relationships. Therein lies why it was so imperative that Chabon's characters come through the page: without a will of their own his premise would falter. It's not a revolutionary idea, but knowing that Chabon lived some of these events, and that this book was written in his twenties, there's a certain touching relateability. And as always it's often not what you say, but how you say it.

I'd be remiss if I didn't address the Cloud Factory, though I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what it symbolized. Its unrevealed purpose seems to suggest that it plays into, like so much else, finding identity but I feel that it also is representative of dreams and ambition. The promise of bigness, as Cleveland might phrase it.

I certainly understand Chabon's detractors. The man does love the adjective a bit too much, but hardly to severity. And true, the novel isn't perfect. I have no significant complaints and yet while I feel I have every reason to love this novel, I don't. I simply enjoyed it very much.

Up next: Paul Auster's Travels in the Scriptorium

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Common Sense Media

Recently I meandered over to the Barnes & Noble website, and I noticed two things: First, you can now get free shipping on orders exceeding $25 dollars (sound familiar?) and second, there are now advisory ratings on YA media courtesy of a company named Common Sense Media. This is the preamble to their beliefs:
Media is fun and our kids love it. We also know that kids now spend so much time absorbing its messages and images that it has become "the other parent" in their lives. We started this organization because we know families need trustworthy information to help manage their kids' media lives.
What follows is a list of ten beliefs, the first reads: "We believe in media sanity, not censorship". If you want a more elaborate cross-section of what this company does, there's a handful of other excellent blogs google will direct you to if you search for it, but as always this blog is for my thoughts. This isn't journalism. I also really don't want to get into the quagmire of parental philosophy.

The first thing to address is their principle tenant: "media sanity, not censorship". First, what is media sanity? It sounds wonderful. It sounds like a call for an end to propaganda and the rebirth of honesty. Except what do they consider propaganda? Well. Common Sense Media judges content based on the presence of Role models, Violence, Sex, Language, Consumerism, and Drinking/drugs/smoking in media. Therefore media sanity is the judicious consideration over the exposure of these very real, ubiquitous, theoretically negative elements of modern culture. Sounds like something we were just discussing, doesn't it?

So that's media sanity. Censorship is defined as "the act or practice of censoring"; Censor is defined (second usage) as "any person who supervises the manners or morality of others". Without making any kind of judgement call on the aforesaid material, I think we can safely assume that Common Sense Media is in fact a censor. Even if we were to define censorship as the willful, physical withholding of information, which I can only assume they must, it can at least be said that they enable censorship by providing families with their "trustworthy information."

Now that we've dispelled that misunderstanding, let's take a closer look at the preamble to their list of beliefs:
We also know that kids now spend so much time absorbing its messages and images that it has become "the other parent" in their lives.
I believe the operative word here is messages. The criteria they evaluate (that which I listed above: Role models, Violence, etc.) is compiled into an overall ranking under "messages". Simply, what's being communicated. Smart thinking. Let's make sure the author/creator has something positive or important to say, and not something destructive or harmful.

But there's a problem here. Let's look at Common Sense Media's evaluation of John Green's Printz Award winning (That's the award for YA literature, by the way) Looking for Alaska. It only has a two out of five smiley faces in Messages. That's a little confusing as John Green's Looking For Alaska is an emotional coming-of-age story that, if memory serves [it's been about two years], is about the heartbreaking difficulty of truly understanding another human being. It's an important message, and even more so for young adults when being understood is yearned for, and the act of trying to understand others falls victim to adolescent self-absorption. That's something important and positive, not something "iffy" for ages 15-18.

The problem with Common Sense Media's system is that they associate the sheer presence of what they deem negative as a poor message, and ignore what an author is legitimately communicating. They have, as so many of the systems do, taken thinking out of the equation. These people not only assume young adults can't determine right from wrong when they're shown it, but actually can't do it themselves. It's not the presence of violence or drugs that's wrong but to what end its presence is used for.

Common Sense Media acknowledges media's place as "the other parent" but ignores that parents teach. If a family goes out to dinner, they'll pass a smoker, see someone drinking, and if the night is particularly wild maybe even something sexual or violent. These things exist. They just do. You can't help that, and so it becomes what you communicate to your children in the presence of these things that's important.

Media sanity, not censorship. It's a wonderful notion, but the kind of parent who grooms a purity-ring-wearing zombie, or naive paper doll can't appreciate it. These aren't thinking people, and neither are the people at Common Sense Media. Congratulations on your new partnership with Barnes & Noble. Let's hope the book buying public has enough common sense to keep your mindless Puritanism away from their children.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Zach Galifianakis interviews John Wray

John Wray, author of The Right Hand of Sleep, Canaan's Tongue, and Lowboy, which I reviewed on my old blog, sits down with Zach Galifianakis for the best interview ever.

Lowboy is out in paperback now. I enjoyed all three of Wray's novels, but if I had make a recommendation I'd tell you Lowboy is the most accessable, Canaan's Tongue the most interesting, and The Right Hand of Sleep the best in a technical sense.

Monday, February 22, 2010

George Williams' Degenerate

by George Williams

(10: 8/50, N: 1/10)

"It was the dumbest show I'd ever seen. No such New York existed, nor could it, even if it wanted to. It was New York's greatness not to endure such people. I imagined the hollow dummies run down by laughing cab drivers, who back up to finish the job."

The entry below will openly analyse George Williams' Degenerate and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

It's difficult for me to begin this entry for a handful of reasons. Surprisingly, I'm not wrestling with an urge to be more kind or more objective, but rather trying to resist the urge to write an out-and-out book review. This blog will be sloppy. You have been warned.

Here's what Degenerate (pronounced however you choose, really) is: A stark, critical examination of a decaying America. Set upon a pre-millennial backdrop, with the end of the 20th century in full-view, it carries the reader across a country littered with museums and graveyards and infected by lusty adolescence. It depicts a stubborn, obstinate culture that refuses to acknowledge its age, and foreshadows a dim future for subsequent generations. Thematically, it's a challenging, and arguably important novel but you can't bet the house on a theme.

Degenerate's narrative is a tenuous, off-putting thing that, when functioning at its best, resembles something like a middle-of-the-road crime novel, not in the quality of the prose, but in the structure and overall effectiveness of the narrative. Nothing in the novel ever feels exactly solid: plot, as it were, seems to be non-concern for Williams. The story will travel the road it will, and check off thematic supports like they were road-side attractions. It's a confusing ride, quite honestly. The plot is convenient when it needs to be, and some things just sort of happened at some point. Chekhovian omissions, or reader's haze, I couldn't say. Probably a bit of both.

Williams, and I say this both as a reader and a former student, can also be a difficult pill to swallow. His opinions aren't always conventional; occasionally they can even seem out of touch with reality, but its their extremism that makes them fascinating, and often entertaining to read. The sitcom Friends (see above) is made reference to multiple times in the novel. Williams is likely the sole person in America with such disdain for the show, but he uses that disdain swimmingly.

I find myself asking: Who would I recommend this to? And the answer is anyone who hates modern American culture, and can tolerate literature that reads like a fever dream. I don't quite know what happened, how it happened, or exactly why it happened, but the reality painted is frightening and maybe worth it regardless. The late novel symbol of America is perhaps one of the most acute I've ever seen/heard/read.

Color me ambivalent, and excuse me if I fudge my amazon review.

Up next: Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jacket Praise

Would it surprise anyone if I said you can't exactly trust the quotes on a movie cover or a dust jacket? I hope not. Anytime you see a praise-filled quote, it always requires some scrutiny on the part of the reader to determine if the quote in question is legitimate. After all, every book or movie that has ever been released has at least one person in its corner.

I'm nearly half-way done with George Williams' Degenerate and because I'm personally acquainted with the author, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate the praise that decorates Williams' back cover. Let me say outright, this is not an attack on anyone involved. This stuff goes on with every new book published. My vantage point simply allows me to point these things out without excessive researching.

Most first editions, and in particular debut novel first editions, pull praise from every corner. Reviews for the book, obviously, haven't been written at the time of publication, so it's not uncommon to see praise from other authors. Here's the tricky thing: How do you get someone to read your book, much less say something nice about it? Well. You ask your friends, that's what you do.

Eric Miles Williamson, author of East Bay Grease, Two-Up, and Welcome to Oakland said of Williams' novel:
"... reads like Hemingway on benzedrine and steroids. Williams' razor-honed sentences explode like grenades, rivaling the best work of Cormac McCarthy."
Bloody impressive, right? Williamson not only compares Williams to two literary giants but describes his work, more or less as equatable. Williamson is the author of four books, his debut, East Bay Grease, being the most successful. I have never read Williamson, but I attended a reading of his work as a student at SCAD. An event primarily organized by George Williams. Williams has also taken to teaching Williamson's Two-Up in his Fiction I class, but thankfully, not while I was taking him.

I don't exactly know how these two know one another, but they certainly do. Williamson is also the editor of the Texas Review; which means even if he doesn't have out-and-out final say in book acquisition for Texas Review Press, Degenerate's publisher, he certain has pull.

I will skip the next two blurbs supplied by authors Tracy Daughtry and Larry Fondation, as I don't know if they have a relationship with Williams. The next quote comes from Adam Davies, author of The Frog King, Goodbye Lemon, and Mine All Mine:
"With his first novel George Williams has inserted himself into the pantheon of American visionaries somewhere between Cormac McCarthy and Richard Price."
A much more modest quote I think. It doesn't set up expectations by comparing the prose to that of literary luminaries (Note: American visionaries). It only suggests a significant, unique perspective on America. I have also had the opportunity to attend a reading of Mr. Davies work, specifically a chapter from Mine All Mine just prior to its publication. Davies was until recently a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where Williams himself teaches. These two were colleagues for a number of years.

It also strikes me as very funny that three out of four of the quotes on the back of Degenerate reference Cormac McCarthy, whom I know from experience is one of, if not Williams' favorite authors. Even the authors (and books!) with single references such as Hemingway, Kerouac, and Nabokov rank near the top of literary totem pole for Williams. Can you imagine these folks commenting on his work aren't aware of that, given that I know it? How much easier is it to make those connections when you know the tissue is already there?

George Williams was my favorite professor in college. I'm so glad to be reading his work in print, and I wish him all the success in the world. You'll know my thoughts on his novel soon enough, but the jacket praise can't help but make me smile.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Jonathan Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower

How to Talk to a Widower
by Jonathan Tropper

(10: 7/50)

"I had a wife. Her name was Hailey. Now she's gone. And so am I."

The entry below will openly analyze Jonathan Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

In heated August, walking across the lot of a Rochester's cooperate copy Barnes & Noble, floating on the high of a book purchase, I had no way of knowing that the two attractive hardcovers in the bag at my side were in fact two copies of the exact same novel. All I knew at the time was that Amazon editors had selected Tropper's This is Where I Leave You as their book of the month, and that at $5.99, a hardcover copy of Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower was a steal.

In truth they're not exactly the same novel. This is Where I Leave You is a novel about the nature of family, cemented with an interest in grief. How to Talk to a Widower is a novel about grief, cemented with an interest in the nature of family. The redundancies in plot, situation, and tone hit the levels of Woody Allen, except that unfortunately Tropper doesn't have the skill, charm, or even the intelligence to make that okay.

A second reading of Tropper tares off the flimsy sheet of sensational sentimentalism that he uses to disguise his masturbatory fiction as something other than it is. The self-indulgent narrator an apparent default for Tropper, or worse, possibly only a standee for Tropper himself, immersed in the center of a sex-and-fist-fight narrative with a wet-dreameque happy ending spared from being obviously so only by its optimistic ambiguity.

We all want our dysfunctional families to come together at the crucial moment. We all want to live in a world where past the storm clouds are blue skies, where although no one will come out and say it-- the guy always gets the girl. We all want that, and Tropper is happy to dole it out in spoonfuls. It's so sweet it washes out the taste of his mediocre metaphors, and the irritating qualities of his generation X protagonist, but God help you if you go back for seconds. Once you realize you're eating sugar coated shit, nothing else tastes quite worse.

If Dan Brown is the literary world's mystery-thriller flick, Jonathan Tropper is its sticky sweet, zany feel-good movie. Here is just another gen X author, writing for a gen X protagonist, in what I can only call the gen X novel given its ubiquity. Tropper benefits from a juvenile sense of humor, and occasionally keen sense of observation but underneath, it's really all just more of the same.

Up Next: George Williams' Degenerate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Brief Note On Stephen King

Now. I do love Stephen King. The man has wit, he's- for good or for bad- the clearest literary decedent of Shirley Jackson, and something of a pop-culture icon. It's been a very long time since I've read a novel by Stephen King, but always look forward to his monthly column in Entertainment Weekly. That he is also willingly and openly critiques the writing of his peers make me love him more: It speaks to a lack of self-consciousness that we should all be so lucky to have. Our filter is really only for fear of open reflection on our own work, and Stephen King knows he's written some turds.

While I have cheered him in his unabashed criticism of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, or even Dean Koonz, I really must point out: This man should probably refrain from making "best of the year" lists for movies.

Shockingly, the writer/director of Maximum Overdrive doesn't have the best cinematic taste. This is what King dubs A material:
10) 2012
09) Fantastic Mr. Fox
08) The Taking of Pelham 123
07) Law Abiding Citizen
06) District 9
05) The Reader
04) Disgrace
03) The Road
02) The Last House on the Left
01) The Hurt Locker
I'm all for a man expressing his opinion, but let's not throw around the word "Best." If you ever needed proof as to why a Stephen King screenplay has never worked out very well, I think it has just been found. By the way, in case you're curious, only six of those ten even hit the "fresh" mark on Rotten Tomatoes. Only three are above 85%.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Observations: Blogging

As with everything else, you only want to when you're not. You only have something to say when you don't have an outlet. As I sit here, dreaming up topics I could expound on, I feel a bit silly.

It's all well and good at the end of the year when you've got best of lists to throw together, or when you've just finished a book, but in these great expanses of time in between, what is a fellow to do?

I don't believe in the contrived. If I'm going to blog, I want to blog with purpose.

So, dear unnamed thing, I'm breaking off our commitment. I still want to see you, of course, but I can't take this guilt. I'll be around. We can still be friends. I just need some time to think of something to say.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Building Stacks

Or, How I Accumulated so many Shitty Books.

It's generally known among my close associates that I loathe my stacks. Part of this is because I make many decisions by feeling. That means that when I decide I want to read something, it's best that I read it then. I am not unlike the fickle public consciousness in that way. There is a zeitgeist for everything. So when I have to turn to my stacks for a book to read, most of which I acquired between six months to three years ago on impulse, I'm not particularly happy about it.

Bargain Books: Being both cheap and a hardcover fanatic is a problem. I adore hardcover books, so when I'm in Barnes and Noble, and I see a book by an author I've been meaning to get to (or sometimes not) in hardcover for something like six dollars? I get more excited than I have any right to. Mercifully, the last time I went to Barnes and Noble I managed to avoid buying Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Don Delillo's Falling Man. Barely.

Out of the 17 novels/collections in my stacks, a whopping 7 of them are bargain books.

Assigned Reading: You get assigned a fair amount of reading as a writing student, and rightfully so. Sometimes it gets near impossible to keep up, or only part of a book is assigned to you. Sometimes your professor changes the syllabus mid-quarter (Thanks, Stephen Geller. I'm totally going to read this $50+ volume of English Renaissance Drama that doesn't include Shakespeare). But we were talking about prose.

Assigned reading accounts for 3 more of the books. That accounts for 10.

Remnants of Reading Past: I'm a big believer in documentation, organization, and the like. So when I decided to start reading more in March 2008, I decided I would do it with a clean slate. Effectively, I considered any book I'd read before then as "unread". Like resetting your play count on itunes. Many of my old books were put aside without any problem: Every mass market edition I own can be explained. If it can be helped, they won't be entering my shelf. However, I owned a few suitable (some even nice) editions from previous false-starts. So books like Agee's A Death In The Family, Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, among others, were folded into the mix.

Old Books account for another 3. That makes 13.

Unwelcoming Receptions: I'm very touchee when I start a book. An author can be difficult once I've gotten through the door, but If I'm met with a cold glass of water to the face on the welcome mat, I won't be walking in. It inevitably comes to be that some books I buy on impulse fail to engage me long enough to commit. This doesn't mean their bad. Actually, they tend to be classics or at least well-regarded.

Another 3 books are accounted for here. That's 16.

The Last One: If this deserves it's own section or not, I'm not sure, but it's uniquely classifiable, so I thought I'd just do it. It's an old book, an unwelcoming reception, and a book I had once intended on using for the basis (in an "inspired by" kind of way) of something I wanted to write. This book would be Margaret Yourcener's Memoirs of Hadrian.

So that, dear friends, is how you build a stack of books you have no interest in reading.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson

(10: 6/50)

"The son shook his head. 'I suppose I can't make you understand, but oh, I wish I could,'"

The entry below will openly analyse Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

There is something fascinating, unnerving, and somehow emotionless in reading themes and ideas that you yourself have expressed in writing. In Winesburg, Anderson tackles a half dozen subjects I've written about in the past such as judgement paranoia in "Queer" to the importance of experience in Drink. Yet somehow, because these subjects are so personal to me, it lacks the resonance you'd expect the work of fellow mind to have. I do believe it's all in the pitch.

Winesburg, Ohio, characterized as a short-story cycle is almost novel-like in its treatment of theme. Winesburg speaks specifically to how the importance of leaving home and experiencing the world is necessary to growth. The citizen's that populate Winesburg lack the ability to communicate with one another. Just as many of them have never left the surrounding area, so too are they bound to themselves. Expressing anything to another human being is Herculean effort rarely, if ever, achieved in the cycle. The result is an undeniable connection between experience and understanding.

The overarching narrative, if you deem it to be described as such, of ubiquitous "protagonist" George Willard serves to illustrate these ideas. Through Mother, Loneliness, Drink, Sophistication and the rest of the cycle, it becomes clear that Anderson is insisting on leaving home's importance to the road to adulthood.

Anderson doesn't, however, attack his subject. There is an almost refreshing sense of non-judgement throughout. Their stories are regarded as stories to illustrate a greater point. Of course, many stand on their own (though a few require the entire cycle) to present specific ideas but I believe they generally serve a larger whole.

Winesburg, Ohio isn't quite an American masterpiece. It glimmers in parts, recedes in others. Despite literary critic Malcolm Crowley's efforts, Anderson, like many significant writers, will eventually, within a century or two, be sandblasted from literary history; known only to Ivy League period specialists, and assuredly out of print entirely. Already, despite being of direct literary importance in both the establishment of Hemingway and Faulkner, Anderson's writing is already reduced to four or five in-print novels/collections. I've expressed on numerous occasions in the past how pitiable I find this reality.

Anderson may not be the strongest voice of his generation, but stories such as The Untold Lie are of beautiful quality. Anderson is so completely unlike his characters in that way. Winesburg, Ohio, if it is nothing else, is an impressive examination of the psyche of mid-America in the early 20th century. Anderson communicates on their behalf, and he does it lovingly. Though perhaps not well enough to convince a small-town, bad tempered misanthrope.

Up Next: Jonathan Tropper's How To Talk To a Widower

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Auteur in Residence

Okay. So perhaps "auteur" is too strong a word, but this is beside the point. Warner Brothers just announced that Batman director Christopher Nolan will be mentoring the development of the company's new Superman franchise. That's good news for Warner Brothers. If only every movie could make a billion dollars (and being half-way decent wouldn't be too bad either!).

I thought this news was exciting. Mostly because it put this notion into my head: Every major studio should have an auteur in residence. It would be a symbiotic relationship in which high-profile directors are assured backing for their projects in exchange for supervisory consultation of the studio's various projects. Sort of like a well-funded American Zoetrope.

Who benefits: The auteur. Projects no longer have to be assured commercial giants. The notion of film as art is supported by the studio under the stipulation that budget costs don't rise like a second production of Cleopatra. We smack Jean-Luc Godard upside his head and make him swallow his oft quoted pity. Assured vision and art-film for the masses.

The studio. This is where is gets tricky. In order for this to work, the director in question needs to be someone both innovative and with a commercial mind. Someone who can thin out bad ideas while simultaneously keeping the studio in the green. Someone who knows the difference between Transformers and Dragon Ball, and who could have improved either of them with their input. The goal here is to eliminate box-office drags before they hit the ground.

Someone who has the mind to suggest the proper people get into the director's chair rather than the same schmucks who have made friends over the years.

Loss on auteur project is less than the loss on box office failures

The Audience. Not only does American cinema get a blast from the art world, but hopefully the bar standard on popcorn flicks get raised in the process. There will always be Matthew McConaughey movies: They take $30 million to make and generate around 50. But maybe all hope isn't lost.

So that's my idea for near cinematic utopia. Plus, think of how much of a big deal it would be when a studio had to change directors. It would be like waiting for white smoke!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Muss up your cage then, bird.

You want to write about the toxic ignorance of small town America, the elliptical nature of human failing, the seductiveness of that which will kill us but you don't. You sit on eggs promising they'll hatch and smash them before they do. Eggwhites and blood cover your walls.

All you succeed in doing is messing up the cage.

Aren't these things good enough for you? Important enough to you? You pretentious little shit. You'll spout off like some self-important boho schmuck, but won't create. You won't do it. Why?

You're a fucking charlatan peddling property you don't own. You're a sadistic sap soaking apathy so swiftly you can't swing this shit. It'd be a miracle if you finish this.

Apathy is your alcohol and you're a lousy alcoholic. You're so wrapped up in yourself you can't spare the effort. This is the well you have found that none may drink from; the Prometheus that hoards is chained to no rock.

Do you love the sight of your shit-stained walls so much?

Muss up your cage then, bird. Live in the filth of your own ideas. You're no majestic creature poised for great flight; just a callous crow starving in your self-imposed winter. Feed on the carcasses you've hid away; they'll get you by but get you no wear.

Muss up your cage then, bird. You are no great hunter; just a crow among millions.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides
by Jeffrey Eugenides

(10: 5/50)

"And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: 'Obviously, Doctor,' she said, 'you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl.'"

The entry below will openly analyze Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

If ever I felt the term effortless applied to anyone or anything, I would have to assign it to Eugenides' prose. They are of a striking beauty and seamlessness beyond the superficial tricks of literature. They are not a fireworks show of alliteration, or a painted vista metaphor, they are simply the craft at near perfection. They are sentences of unfaltering word choice, and yet seemingly pulled from the ether, skimmed as effortlessly as refuse from a pool.

Told in collective first-person by an unnamed, innumerable group of former neighbor boys, the novel presents the fate of the Lisbon sisters as it would be experienced by someone who had lived on their block. It's a position of close physical proximity but ultimately vast emotional distance. We, like our narrator(s), do not know our subject. We can only observe them through the dubious lens of our unknown narrator(s), and the accounts their life-long fixation has amounted to.

The Virgin Suicides is an examination of the hand-in-hand companionship of distance and decay. The former heralds the latter. More damaging than physical imprisonment or distance is self-imposed mental and emotional distance; the willingness to recede into oneself. It is a corrosive, self-dissolving attitude that leads to non-existence.

The virginal motif of the novel, I believe, refers primarily to life unlived, and life without human contact. That Mary Lisbon is the final sister to pass away suggests perhaps an even more complicated symbolic narrative than I can even begin to comprehend. References to Christendom certainly proliferate the novel, but as to a greater implication, I'm at a loss for ideas save for what Eugenides' narrator presents at the end of the novel.

Speaking of which: It bothers me immensely that this otherwise exquisitely written and fascinating novel ends quite on the note that it does. Fiction is of course a forum for personal statement, but Eugenides shift to a seat of judgement at the close of the novel, literally in its final two pages, is upsetting to say the least. It elicited a knee-jerk reaction that threatened to change my opinion of the novel. He presents two notions, one completely in keeping with his perceived intent, and another that, although maybe a commonly held belief, can be too bitter a pill to swallow. That it should be presented by our unknown narrator(s), they themselves not above questioning, makes it all the worse.

Still. It's a beautiful, enigmatic novel, well worth reading and perhaps best read before Middlesex. If this was Eugenides' focus on language, and Middlesex his focus on plot, I cannot wait to see them combined with his focus on character. Really. Whenever you're done, sir. We're waiting.

Up Next: Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sorry, but I died.

You are aware, I think I can safely assume, that I am a great fan of Shirley Jackson. However, I'm afraid between the late Mrs. Jackson and the good people at Penguin, I'm in a bit of a bind. You understand, Jackson published six novels in her lifetime. Two of them are still in print, both of which I've read. Now. If we set aside what's out of print, that does leave one little stone left unturned without dipping into her non-fiction or short stories: Come Along With Me.

It's the novel Jackson was writing at the time of her death, and is currently collected along with some short stories and lectures in a volume published by Penguin of the same name. The problem is that I don't know where I stand on unfinished novels.

Certainly, their academic value is unquestionable. They serve as the best example of where a literary career might have gone if it continued, or as it faces down death. I don't know if I --as a fan, reader, and writer-- would want to dive into those waters. Of course, the state of the work is perhaps the greatest consideration.

With Jackson's Come Along With Me, it was something freshly started, a mere 30 pages of it exist (still a substantial amount considering the general length of her other work). However, In my crate of unread books, Henry James' The Ivory Tower awaits (weighing in at 348 pages), currently off-limits until I've read something James actually did finish. Which is worse? The one that takes only a lazy afternoon hour, or the one with the promise of a complete novel without the ability to deliver? Does it even matter? An incomplete novel is still an incomplete novel, after all. Though... Better to be kissed than left alone at climax.

Perhaps that's how it is then. As frustrating, or heartbreaking it may be, perhaps it's better an unfinished work be an infant than almost grown. If pages were pringles, and a novel were satisfaction, better to eat one and dream of the rest than indulge in almost enough. Both leave you disappointed, but at least you're spared the promises of closure.

I suppose then that the unfinished novel is worth one's time, assuming your passion for the writer is strong enough. It hardly seems worth it to read say Capote's Answered Prayers if you weren't struck by the rest of his ouvre. Something of that sort isn't going to change any opinions, although there is a certain allure to the unfinished novel. That it's somehow greater because it is incomplete. But I suppose that is just a bit of human nature. We can't help entertaining the idea that we just missed out on something. Who doesn't have an anecdote?

A formula. E=Enthusiasm on a scale of 1-1000. X=Page count of unfinished work. If E-X= Positive Value, Read. Or what you will.

Really. All of this could be avoided if you geniuses would have the good decency to stop dying.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Case for Due Apprecaition.

Perhaps the problem is that I don't read enough female authors; my shelf only includes Ingalls, Jackson, Korelitz, Oates, Smith, and Tan. Still I don't expect any injection of La Guin, Rand, or Woolf, would remedy the problem.

It appears to me that within our modern culture there is an undeniable romanticism, mysticism, and eroticism given to the female form in literature and pop-culture that is not duly given to the male form, or generally masculinity as a whole.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an author who has an apparent great interest in the role of gender in our lives. This quote comes from The Virgin Suicides:

"We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to facinate them."

Now. Regardless of whether this is Eugenides himself speaking, or his narrator, I would like to point something out: This is nothing more than a well-articulated version of a comedian's "Men are Dopes, and Women do everything" bit, which is increasingly featured (to great applause) in the comedic acts of both genders. For shame.

First of all, whom does this self-deprecation benefit? If we belittle masculinity, and elevate femininity what possible positive role results? None. You're left with unreasonably high expectations on one gender not totally unlike how American Men were regarded in the 1950s. Aren't we still coping with notion of men having difficulty expressing emotion some three generations down the line?

I am not saying that the female form and mystique shouldn't be glorified. Far from it. I think it's healthy, I think it's emboldening, I think it's appropriate as there is an undeniable mystique to the gender but I feel you cannot express a healthy appreciation for one without doing so for the other. Like it or not, there is an equal romanticism, mysticism, and erotism to the male form.

Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a mole hill, but as I mentally index the novels I've read, or become familiar with, it seem the novels that glorify femininity far outweigh the other. Is this because the opposite would be a "backwards step of feminism"? Really, who better than a female writer can accurately express such notions, and yet-- isn't there a risk there? Maybe.

Yet we see authors like Miller or Roth who use the word "cunt" half as often as they do "the". Where is the cutting objectification from the other side of the fence? Wouldn't is be equally as riveting? Isn't someone writing this?

Can we just stop pussy-footing around and acknowledge both genders as strong, sexual entities? That can exist as both a mystique and as an ideal? Can we stop with the infuriating self-deprecation?

There is an artistic beauty to both genders that can and should be expressed. You can fill volumes about either without it having to cause damage to the other. I simply don't understand why the male form and identity is undersexualized and underappreciated in literature and in our culture.