Category Archives: lit

Kelly Link @ the Harvard Book Store

Summervillain sent me an email yesterday morning that there was a Kelly Link reading at Harvard Book Store at 7pm; he and Trixie couldn’t go, but he figured I was interested. He was correct.

At about 6 I left work, made time for a drink with the kids from work at Kingston Station (the kids were drinking beer, I left after one martini), and made it to the HBS right as the reading started.

I thought I had blogged more about her, but I can only find one passing mention, which is too bad because she’s been pretty much my favorite writer for a couple of years now. So, the Internets can fill you in on her as easily as I can, but I just recommend reading a couple of stories that are freely available online. “The Specialist’s Hat” had me so creeped out the night that I read it that I didn’t want to go downstairs alone and made Terri come with me. I think about “The Hortlak” every time I go into a convenience store late at night. And I have always loved “The Faery Handbag” because it mentions the Garment District in Cambridge near where I used to work.

She read part of one story from her new young adult book Pretty Monsters, and she basically just stopped as soon as it started to get really scarey. For the record, she mentioned that the Brian Johnson mentioned in the story is based on her real cousin, Brian Johnson, who told her to write the story.

Highlights from the Q&A:

  • The story “Magic for Beginners” is indeed inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer which she claims to have been obsessed with for a while. Specifically, it started with ideas that she had for it that couldn’t or wouldn’t be done on TV (diferent actors playing the same characters each episode, no regular airing schedule, etc.)
  • She had a good response to the question about why the new collection of stories is categorized as young adult when none of her others are. I can’t reproduce the answer perfectly, but the many points included that her stuff is always hard to categorize, that she thinks it’s definitely YA and it’s more than just a convenient marketing label, and that it is does not involve looking back on youth with nostalgia but instead has an immediacy and the sense of intense critical importance of everything.
  • She didn’t talk too much about her reasons for publishing this with large publisher (Viking) this time rather than publishing it through the Small Beer Press which she runs with her husband. But she did mention that she got far more creative control over the whole thing than she ever expected including working with the illustrator she wanted and veto power on the cover art. She said it was kind of a nice change to have someone else do everything, and just have to say “yes” or “no”.

No photos: it would have felt weird.

Postscript: I’ve wondered this before in respect to seeing films at the Brattle Theater but what is it about Cambridge audiences that laughter is their only reaction to any critical moment in any performing art? There were just moments in the story where there was certainly some sort of emotional peak or moment of revelation, but where laughter was totally inappropriate. It’s some kind of bizarre intellectual emotional repression that’s endemic to our fair neighboring city.

Recent Reading

The Good Soldier Schweik— I bought a copy at a used bookstore on our recent trip to Virginia/DC, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s sort of a World War I classic that’s fallen off the radar about a Czech soldier who’s basically an idiot who not so stupidly manages to avoid ever making it into combat. SchweikThe novel starts in Prague, and weirdly, the humor reminded me of Kafka, and there’s probably a thesis in comparing Schweik and K. from The Castle; where K. employs all the intelligence at his disposal in struggling against a vast, almost metaphysical bureaucracy to gain admittence to the caslte, Schweik uses his idiotic blank grin and the deep incompetence of the Austrian army bureaucracy to constantly frustrate their efforts to get him to the front. Seems like it’s often called an anti-war novel, and the novel does preach at times, but Schweik’s honest idiocy seems impervious to all kinds of cant, and he seems like as basic and original a comedic character as Don Quixote. It ends abruptly when the author died of TB.

The Last Tycoon— We got this in our great plundering of Terri’s parents’ book and record collection last weekend and I blew through it in a couple of evenings. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel (which ends abruptly when the author died of a heart attack) about a movie tycoon. Seems patterned after any number of film tycoons, but the one that comes to mind most to me is Irving Thalberg. It’s pretty uneven at times, and you suspect that it would have been seriously rewritten and cleaned up a lot once it was finished. But that in itself is part of the charm; the edition I read had author’s notes and outlines of what Fitzgerald expected to happen, so you get the interesting task of finishing the novel for yourself, as well as an interesting vivisection of a novel in progress. The main character Stahr is a workaholic producer who, while driven into the future out of dissatisfaction with his past a la Gatsby, seems to genuinely love his work, and the scenes where he is prodding his writers and directors to work creatively are alone unlike anything I’ve read elsewhere and are themselves worth the price of admission.

I Will Soon Be Invincible by Austin Grossman — a friend recommended this novel about superheroes and supervillains that are all too human. I liked it a lot (I blew through it it last night and this morning), but if you’ve seen The Incredibles, imagine it as novel, make it slightly moodier and less cartoony, and you’ve got the idea.

QOTD: 20 Dec 2007

From Last Train to Jakarta (John Darnielle(Mr. Mountain Goats)’s blog):

…your content can be 100% seen-it/heard-it nothing-new and you can still come off like a shiny new quarter if your writing is good enough. I’m bourgeois, right: in my life, knowing whether somebody is a snitch or not has exactly zero practical applications, and I only vaguely care on principle: at the end of the day, people protect their own asses, that’s not exactly news. But when Scarface hates on a snitch, his tone is so measured but passionate and the writing so tight that I’m able to share his outrage, even though for all practical purposes he might as well be calling out the guy who fucked up his topiary or something: my level of real-life engagement is about the same. That’s what good writing is about, as far as I’m concerned – drawing things so vividly that you can make people give a shit about stuff they needn’t actually even know about.

Ezra’s crackpot theory #425*

Which until now has been a secret crackpot theory.

I was checking my feedreader this afternoon, after being about a week out of date, and in my RSS feed for all flickr photos tagged “letterpress”, I saw something for the Oblation Press of Portland, Oregon, and it made me think about the Oblation Board in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and that great situation where Lyra is dressed up at an elegant dinner party with Mrs. Coulter and she starts to get a glimmer of the horrible truth about the Oblation Board, and decides to run away. That whole scene, and that feeling of fear, just came alive in my brain, like the fear and imagery of a super vivid dream.

Which leads me to share my crackpot theory. Good fantasy (and I just don’t have the energy now to define my terms, so there) somehow actually is a map of the subconscious, and (even farther out on the limb…) that it actually somehow triggers biochemical reactions in the brain.

I’ve mentioned a favorite Borges quote before, and I think it gets at the same idea: “We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe; but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination, and this accounts for the dragon’s appearance in different places and periods.”

Crackpot theory #425 appeared first a few years ago when I was re-re-re-reading the Lord of the Rings just after the first of the movies came out. The part where Frodo and Sam are in Mordor feels like it goes on forever, there’s such a grey, weighty, washed-out feeling that weighs that whole section down; the landscape seems paradoxically both precisely described but also strangely without landmarks or differentiation. I started wondering why such a place would take shape in Tolkien’s mind, and why it could also appear with such vividness in my own. But simultaneously, it occurred to me that I couldn’t imagine a better depiction of what depression feels like. I don’t know. Maybe your experience of depression is not illuminated by the presence of hobbits, but mine is.

Anyway. Discuss.

*I’m not really counting. There are too many to actually bother counting.

Book Report: Gun, With Occasional Music (with bonus blather about Amnesia Moon, and with homework)

This weekend I read Gun, With Occasional Music, one of Jonathan Lethem’s genre fiction novels, before he got all award-winning and respectable. It doesn’t just mimic one genre, it’s both a Raymond Chander detective novel as well as a dystopian science fiction novel. It’s pretty entertaining, but I found it much less substantial than than Amnesia Moon, which was published the following year.

The structure, style, dialogue, and overall worldview couldn’t be a bigger Chandler rip-off without actually just calling the hero “Phillip Marlowe” (nb, see Lethem on plagarism). Except that that the actual mystery wasn’t that good; the clues were clunky enough that I had it figured out halfway through, and I’m pretty dense when it comes to mysteries, guessing right up to the end.

I thought the technique of setting the first chunk of the novel in the future, having a bunch of time elapse, and then setting the second chunk six years later was an effective technique, giving this science-fiction-within-science-fiction effect. (I don’t read much sci-fi, so maybe it’s actually a hackneyed idiom that’s just new to me).

One small-ish detail late in the book resonated with me. In the novel, the future police state encourages heavy drug use to keep the populace under control, and the standard issue mixture is largely composed of “Forgettol” (which does what it sounds like). But memory is occasionally necessary, so people have these small devices, which they refer to when they need to remember something. The devices speak in the person’s own voice, but give a notably rosy version of past events. The main character thinks

I was beginning to get it. Memory was permissible when it was externalized, and rigorously edited. That left you with more room in your head for the latest pop tune— which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.

It hit home because I’ve sort of come to depend on this blog to actually remember when and what happened in my life. But at the same it’s such a tiny sliver of the whole story: I don’t get it all down from a lack of gumption or time to write, or I intentionally edit out things because they’re about other people or I just don’t want anybody to see it or I don’t want my account to live beyond my ability to control it. Not to mention the inherent limitations of language and medium: the Tao that can be blogged is not the eternal Tao.

Anyway…. the novel was published in 1994, well before blogs and digital cameras and cheap tiny video cameras and infinite storage and the Internet (yeah, it existed, but you couldn’t depend on it to find almost anything you wanted to know). So it struck me as pretty prescient and disturbing— people with no on-board memory are a pretty pathetic lot. (And yeah, it’s a dystopian reductio ad absurdum, and no, things will probably never go to that extreme, but the possibility is worth considering if only to galvanize the feeling that things shouldn’t go to that extreme).

As I mentioned earlier, while Gun, With Occasional Music is pretty entertaining, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Amnesia Moon. Part of why I love Amnesia Moon is that it rips off Philip K. Dick, even down to the way that the premise seems to turn inside out after almost every chapter as in the better Dick novels. What really knocks me out about it is that it conveys things that I just can’t imagine being conveyed nearly as beautifully or precisely or convincingly in anything other than a science fiction novel. And it’s not some bogus crap about aliens or robots or New World Orders: I think he’s talking about things that are central to the human experience and timeless, and paradoxically also completely of the zeitgeist.

Anything else that I have to say will sound even stupider unless you’ve read it. So go, read it, and come back and let me know when you have, and then we can talk about it. OK?

Book Report: Black Swan Green

You know, the virtues of David Mitchell’s most recent novel are almost unreviewable, and it’s because of the reviews that I put off reading it for almost a year. The Globe reviewin particular put me off (“Jason Taylor, 13, is a Holden Caulfield for the Margaret Thatcher era.” GAG). I just didn’t see why I had to spend more of the finite minutes of my life reading another coming of age story about a sensitive, artistic small-town youth, despite how utterly taken I was with both Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. (Have yet to read Number Nine Dream).

It’s too bad, because it really does avoid almost all of the perils of cliché that the premise holds. But again, it’s almost impossible to talk about it without it sounding like it’s the most awful, clichéd crap. I think the best I can do is to say that it really reads like Mitchell wrote it without ever having absorbed anything else in the genre. Yet it feels somewhat wrong to assume that it’s all autobiographical drawn-from-life stuff, either.

All I can surmise is that much of the material has been sitting in Mitchell’s files for years, and with a few heavily praised and unquestionably non-autobiographical novels with plenty of pomo pyrotechnics under his belt, he felt safe enough to publish this without fear of being pigeonholed as an autobiographical writer of coming of age stories.

And if you’ve been put off by Mitchell’s pomo pyrotechnics in the past (I’m talking to you, Terri Wise), I’ll vouch that there is almost none of that here. Though, for those of you who enjoy that kind of thing, the rather stunning appearance of one of the characters from Cloud Atlas alone is worth the price of admission.

But I doubt Xoogling will become a word…

I enjoy reading the Xooglers blog; it’s like readingMicroserfs in installments written by the actual (former) serfs instead of Douglas Coupland who, in addition to other faults, just doesn’t get software. Today’s piece is a great crash course in the absurd world of trademark enforcement.

Aside: every year there’s always all this talk about all the new words that get put into the dictionary, but I think it would be just as interesting to acknowledge and memorialize the words that are getting retired.

Happy Endings & Harry Potter

No, the world doesn’t need Harry Potter to survive book 7. I’m hoping he doesn’t. Happy endings are a dime a dozen. Escapist fantasy and action movies and romanic comedies are everywhere, and like all junk food, leave you feeling hungrier than when you started.

I have always hypothesized that the reason that these books are wildly popular is that the heroes suffer in ingenious and extremely satisfying ways.

Case in point. Terri and I just watched the movie version of Book 4 the other night, and while I think they did an impressive job of condensing an 18,000-odd page book into a pretty good movie, the one scene they botched was the Yule Ball. And it only seemed botched because it’s so perfect in the book: it’s as good a depiction of a junior high dance as I’ve seen in anything, ever. It brilliantly captures the volatile mix of innocence, hormones, and hideously inflated romantic expectations. It captures the terror of actually asking someone to go with you. Nobody ends up going with who they should be going with. Everyone is miserable the whole way through, and it ends in tears, with nobody speaking to each other. And it has that “Oh, my god, my life is over!” feeling.

It’s awful, it resonates, it’s true. Compare and contrast with, say, Sixteen Candles, where after medium-intensity pouting for two hours, Molly Ringwald is swept off her feet by her Ferrari driving bo-hunk. Escapism just doesn’t give you the entertainment bang for the buck that misery does. Admit it!