February 22, 2010

Back and Forth

Karen gave me a list of books of poetry that may be relevant to my interests based on what she knew about my own book I was looking at. I didn’t really know what to expect: she hadn’t really see the fairly… sexual side of the book yet. However, if I was going to make this my thesis, I needed to be able to place it in the conversation of poetry. I needed to read more, and her list seemed a good place to start. I ordered up used copies of the more interesting ones on Amazon, to check them out.

Well, I just finished reading Enough Said: a Poetry Dialog Between Father and Son by Michael and Kiev Rattee, and it was pretty fantastic.

There are definite things about it that make it very different from what I am trying to accomplish. My book is two characters, and these are two actual people. This works in a back and forth style, and my book gives all of one side, and then the other. But when I opened up the strangely-built book (the back says that only 250 of these were created, by hand, with a weird printing press, and I would believe it. The texture of the pages is really weird and wonderful, and you can see where it is actually sewn together in the middle. It’s pretty cool.) and read the first poem, “Big Things,” I completely saw glimmers of what I was trying to do in it. It was filled with direct conversation with the other party spliced with poetic images and ideas, and it was just fantastic. I was in love.

From there, the book deviates from that feeling. Michael and Kiev seem to play off of the key image or idea in each other’s work, giving their own spin, and keeping a conversation going. It’s really interesting, though I admit that I missed the direct contact between the two after the first. The conversation turned almost completely to poetic metaphor, with figures standing in for the authors and whatnot. There was nothing wrong with that, really. Many of them were completely excellent poems. But the ones that resonated more with me were poems that more directly expressed their connection, such as “The Sky Is Full” which ends with the lines “as I should have said / I guess at the beginning” which just feels so… real to me. It establishes a connection that I just love seeing, and also works with the theme of the poem, which is talking about how the sky tricks, and Michael is admitting that how he lays out the poem also tricks away from the real meaning. It’s very open and heartwarming. It’s a real emotion there. It means a lot. I loved seeing that throughout the book.

It also spikes near the end, where Kiev apparently was slow in responding, and we get a gentle poetic prod, followed by a lovely poem by Kiev called “Silence,” which is just a perfect end to his side of the conversation. “I’ve talked all evening / with it caught in my throat” Fucking perfect. You can fill the air, but it’s not necessarily with substance. It’s the silence that’s important, at times, and you can’t get it out in the right way.

I feel like I need to read it again to really “get” everything completely? But good poems work that way. To really dig into them, you need to read them multiple times. But the truly good poems still leave you with a strong feeling that first time, and most of this book does this. It’s pretty great.

Makes me look forward to digging into what else Karen suggests for me.

December 14, 2009

Apparently endings are hard.

I wrote an actual professional review of the book, and I was just going to cross-post it, but then I’m like, wait, that’s stupid. If I post the full text here, then I can’t put it up elsewhere. Therefore, you get the very casual review version. Lucky you.

I had to read a book of short stories for my short story class. The press constantly gets review copies of books, so I always just assumed I’d grab one from the review shelf and use that. Susan tends to use the reviews for class in Big Muddy anyway. So, a few weeks ago, I grabbed a copy of the first short story collection on the shelf that seemed halfway interesting, and was soon in possession of a copy of Fugue State by Brian Evenson.

First off, I highly recommend clicking on that link up there, or these next links, and it seems like my favorite story from the collection, “Younger,” is available online in audio and text forms. It might give you some idea of what I’m talking about.

“Younger” really sums up what I did like about this book, and I did like it. It’s filled with psychological horror, the sort that isn’t connected with monsters or anything supernatural, but is just powered by characters having internal conflicts that make things creepy. I’m not a horror person, but this kind of character struggle is something I love in stories, and Evenson does a fantastic job of it, when he puts his mind to it. The majority of the stories play out in a form similar to “Younger.” I don’t feel they’re as successful, but, you know, they’re still fairly entertaining and, if nothing else, are based on a very entertaining idea.
The rest of the stories are split between a dark humor and what I would call more standard horror fare. You have stories that are just humorous in the tale of a editor who wants to publish literary work but ends up publishing trashy mystery novels with names like “Never Been Bjorn” about a detective who’s a swede, because that’s the hook. You have stories about a woman fucking a mime because “it would be a good story to tell at parties” who is haunted by the act ever since. These are just really clearly meant to be humorous. Then you have stories like the title story, “Fugue State,” which work with a supernatural threat. Still, even the supernatural stories are very character-driven, which is good. At least in my opinion.

The main issue I had with the book is that many of the stories have endings that fall completely flat. I know endings are hard. Endings are very hard. But it’s just a shame when you get a published work with so many failed endings in it. So many stories have such great premises, but once that premise has run its course, the story just stops, without any sort of satisfying conclusion. The previously-mentioned “Invisible Box” is probably the worst offender in that regard, being so entertaining, funny, and slightly creepy all the way up to the ending, which just seems completely phoned in.

Still, as I said, I certainly enjoyed the book overall. There were some very good stories in there. At least read “Younger” for me, hm? If you like that, and think you’d like a little more, even if it isn’t quite up to that quality, then Fugue State is almost certainly a book for you to check out. It’s pretty solid stuff.

October 22, 2009

A new essayist appears! And then immediately disappears.

So, David Foster Wallace was a name I had heard of, vaguely, before. I knew I’d heard of him from somewhere. But I got into a conversation with Airek at the office, and he gives me this note, telling me to go watch this Youtube video of him. I put it in my pocket, set it on my desk, and promptly forget about it.
A week or so later, I find the note and, having nothing in particular to watch while I eat, I used the information to pull up this video.

About, oh, 28 minutes and 2 seconds later, I’m on Amazon, ordering every book of essays by him I can find.

I fucking LOVE a good essayist, and especially if you watch that video, you’ll know that David Foster Wallace was one. Those little tidbits are so fun, and so well realized, I can’t help but love them.

A couple days later, I go up to Airek and I thank him for telling me to watch that, because it was awesome. And then he tells me David Foster Wallace killed himself.
That kind of put a damper on things. It’s a shame. He had skills. One would assume he could have paid bills with them. But yeah… sad.

Anyway, we’ll see how me reading those books goes. I’m excited! But I also suck at the whole “Reading books” thing. So we’ll see how well it all goes.

October 13, 2009

In which I shockingly actually read a book for fun and then tell you about it.

There was this one time when the internet went out for a whole 10 minutes, and I got so mad that I went to Barnes and Noble. Once there, I spent too much money on books. One of the books I bought was Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders, because I seriously, seriously did like that story “Jon”, and wanted to read more.
Then, I read the book.

I’ll admit that this is the first book I’ve read solely for fun in… fuck, I have no idea. Since the last Harry Potter? (No, actually, I bet it was When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris) And that was really more out of an obligation at that point, since the series had gotten so bad. I am such a horrible English Major… no, wait… English Grad Student now, I guess.
One of the reasons I felt like I could read this book for fun is because it’s a really small book. It’s not even 200 pages, and it’s not like the text is tiny of anything. One of the reasons I rarely read, besides not being willing to invest the time into a book I won’t like and then not knowing what I will and won’t like, is because it FEELS like this huge time commitment. Which I know is a lie, especially because I read so fast. But I dunno. Having a small book of short stories just felt right for my own entertainment, so I went for it.

The book itself consists of a few short stories and then a novella. The main theme of the whole thing seems to be “amusement parks.” The only story that doesn’t really fit this theme is “The 400 lb. CEO,” but it can almost count because they go to this crazy theme restaurant. Sort of. When I say “amusement parks,” though, think places much more surreal and fucked up. We’re talking the kind of places that would have “SafeOrgy” rooms and exhibits where an actual plate glass window is installed into a living, breathing cow so kids can see the insides. Those kinds of amusement parks.

I feel that nothing in this collection was anywhere near as good as “Jon,” which is a shame. That one just came together on such excellent conceptual and character arc levels. These stories tend to be of the same quality in concept, but seem to lack the extremely strong character arc that pays off in the end. The ideas and strange worlds are mostly worked through, but the characters showing us these worlds rarely get a satisfying conclusion. The best in this regard was probably “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” but it was also the story with, perhaps, the least strange setting, so maybe that had something to do with it.
I did learn, however, that a lot, though not all, of the qualities that make the writing in “Jon” so offbeat are more elements of Mr. Saunders’ style than elements of Jon’s voice. Not that Jon doesn’t have a distinct voice, but it was simultaneously neat and kind of sad to learn he just normally writes like that. I love his voice! It’s neat! But it was also cooler when it was a very specific thing he adopted just for one story, you know?
I also learned Mr. Saunders really likes the work Milquetoast. Seriously, he used it like.. at least 4 times in this book. That’s rather a lot for a word like that.

Still, George Saunders is a really good writer. He’s great at creating internal monologue and has that excellent voice and neat ideas. I find myself coming away from the book a little frustrated, but that’s simply because so much of his work is so high quality that the flaws stand out. His characters in this book, especially in the novella at the end, really never get proper closure. The ride, however, is completely fun for all of them. You have a good time reading them. But it just feels like such a waste when, for example in the novella “Bounty” (Are novellas in quotes or italics? I’ll have to look that up sometime) the huge road trip that showed so much about this nearly apocalyptic world is ended in about a page and a little change. The main character makes it to his goal, but nothing really becomes of it. It was still a fun read, but it’s frustrating, because it would have been a significantly greater read still if it had paid off better.

I guess that’s essentially what I think about this book. Many great ideas that certainly could have paid off better, but was still fun enough to experience. I’m sure if you weren’t the kind of person who cares so deeply about characters above all else, like I am, you’d probably be in heaven with the world building of these stories, especially the novella. If it sounds interesting, certainly give it a read. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I’m not going to go crying out all over the place that you should check it out, either.

I bought another one of his collections, too, called Pastoralia. Maybe that one will be stronger? I suppose we’ll see sometime soon. I’m sure I’ll let you know when I read it.

October 3, 2009

The final straw that broke the back of the saying no to my gonads.

Speaking of World Building, you should read this story. It’s “Jon” by George Saunders, and it’s long, but it’s awesome. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

– – –

What did you think? Awesome, right? Well, actually, maybe you won’t think as such. People outside of my short story class, which is where I first encountered this story, haven’t liked it so far. Maybe it’s too “english major-y?” Is that even a thing? I dunno.

Mainly, though, this is just a poster child for what I’m going to talk about in my previously mentioned paper. The story does an AMAZING job at building a world with no exposition whatsoever. It’s really quite neat. You know more about Jon’s world in the first couple of paragraphs where he shows us “all what he is saying” than you do in multiple pointless paragraphs of back story in a fantasy novel.

I dunno. I loved it. LOVED IT. And I wanted to share. So there.

April 28, 2009

The cover shows some sort of coathanger monster, too.

The semester is winding down. That means I’m almost out of novels from my novels class! One more after this! But I finished the second-to-last one, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. And now I will blog about it.

If I were to describe the concept of this novel to you, you would be all “woah, what a great idea.” That’s because it is a DAMN good idea. Basically, souls of people that are remembered personally (aka met them in real life, not read about in a book or saw on TV) by those still alive go to a “City” where they live out their afterlives. However, the world is ending. There’s only one person left alive. This City is then populated by only people whom this last living human knew, and the book follows them as well as the last bits of the last human’s life. That is a damn compelling idea.

However, it never really works. There’s nothing particularly bad about the writing in this novel. Mr. Brockmeier likes his tangents, and the story often goes that way, but at the same time, it’s a tale of memory and remembering, so it fits the novel. The main problem is the lack of an overall narrative.
The story of Laura, the last person left alive, has a complete arc, but it has to end tragically. There’s little meaning to it. We struggle with her in the really harsh conditions she finds herself in, and we can sympathize with her, all alone, in the ice and snow. It’s beyond her to find sense in her situation, though. She’s just trying to survive a catastrophe she had no part in. She can’t make it mean anything, and I don’t expect her to.
No, it is the people in the City, who are looking on these events with much more knowledge from beyond the grave, who should be making all of this make sense. It should be in them, who are trying to figure out what to do with the knowledge that the only thing keeping you here is likely about to die, and what to do with what little time you have left in this second life, that gives the book an overall meaning and significance. However, it completely fails to do that. The chapters dealing with the City jump from character to character. Some people show up again and again, but we only get little slivers about what these people are thinking and worrying about before they are gone. They all have completely different goals, even when dealing with the same thing. I would normally be all for these different perspectives, but these perspectives completely fail to give any meaning to the events. The significance of their actual situations as souls in waiting really doesn’t matter to them at all. The fact that they are all about to be “evacuated” seems to matter even less. No attempt is made to tie a unified theme throughout, I suppose. That’s what I want. Maybe class discussion will help me find one, but I sort of doubt it.

It doesn’t help that the book ends so abruptly. Yes, it makes sense that the world will end not with a bang but with a whimper, but again, it just feels like a distinct lack of planning. The book just ends, with absolutely no guidance into what I should think about that or what to take away from it. Once could argue that perhaps that’s the point of the whole book. The whole idea is that death is ultimately meaningless, even after having lived through it once. But that’s giving the book a whole lot of credit, and it’s so much more likely that it just wasn’t put together well, wasn’t it? If that was the point, I should have felt it, right? I think so.

In any case, I can’t really recommend the novel. It’s not bad. You could read it and I wouldn’t stop you. Again, the idea, the concept, is amazing. I would have liked to have read a really good book based on that concept. I just don’t think that The Brief History of the Dead is that book.

April 8, 2009

He hates quotation marks SO. BAD.

So, continuing on our “Things with two word titles that have to do with places for walking” theme week here at the blog (not actually a theme week) I think it’s about time that I talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the latest book in my novels class. This book apparently got a Pulitzer Prize for some reason, and is going to be a movie in theaters in November. Both of those things actually make little sense to me. I think this book is going to translate pretty horribly to the screen without major edits, which of course will happen, and then it won’t be the same story. I also don’t think it’s crazy award-winning material. That said, it is a pretty darn good novel, and was worth my time to read.

The story itself is a post-apocalyptic setting. America is destroyed somehow. There’s ash in the air. Somehow. You never really find out what happened or anything, and frankly, that is just fine by me. Because although this seems like a book, at first, about surviving in this harsh climate, it’s totally not. It’s a book about a father and a son, and how they grow over the course of attempting to get to the ocean. I’m pro-character focus, so I was all about this.

The book makes some odd narrative choices. The main characters are only referred to as “the man” and “the boy,” giving the whole thing a very removed feeling. Also, for no apparent reason, the book refuses to use quotation marks. Most dialog is just a list of short sentences, back and forth between the boy and the man. It, I suppose, just shows how useless the quotation mark is in these situations, because it was only really confusing when there was dialog in the middle of a paragraph, and that happened rarely. However, at the same time, I have absolutely no idea WHY you would just leave out the quotation marks. Nothing was gained by the choice, as far as I could see. It was just made arbitrarily, or via extreme hatred of the punctuation mark. It was odd.

None of the action in the book is particularly surprising for the setting. They deal with finding food, being starving, having to deal with cannibals and road gangs and whatnot. Again, this is all just a setting to drive the character interaction. That’s where the real meat of the book is.
You’ve got the man, who is all alone with his son. His son is the only reason he’s fighting so hard, and doing so much to keep them alive. At the same time, he’s developed a horrible cough. He knows his days are extremely numbered. He’s unsure what he’s going to do, so he stays positive, lies, keeps pushing forward. What else can he do? Meanwhile, you have the son, who is becoming an adult. He’s no longer buying the man’s stories of how great the world used to be and how it will soon be that way. He’s seeing more and more horrible things as the book goes on, and he realizes how the world works. He isn’t sure he doesn’t want to just die. He isn’t sure he wants to push on. He’s looking for a reason to, much like how he is the reason the man pushes on.
You’ve got this constant back and forth of the boy looking for answers and the man not knowing how to deal with the fact that he has exactly zero answers. It’s a compelling bit of character interaction, and it’s basically the whole book, so it’s good that it is.

I’m going to talk about the ending now.
—This is the spoilarz line—

The ending is expected, but I don’t know if it’s particularly effective or not. It’s a questionable thing. The man dies. The boy meets a family on the road and joins them, living on. You can see this as a fairly positive thing. The boy finds something to live for, his dad’s memory, and finds the “more people” and a kid his age that he’s been wanting through the whole book. The man died, but accomplished his mission of sorts. At the same time, you could look at it as a failure. This new family is too good to be true, and appears at exactly the right time. The boy abandons much of what his father taught him when interacting with them, though he does follow a few rules. (Not letting them have the gun, for instance) Perhaps the man didn’t succeed to making the boy into a man after all. He’s still helpless and needs a guardian, and those guardians might be planning on doing bad things to him. I don’t know. Would it be better having left the story right when the man died, and not knowing what would have happened to the boy? I don’t know. I do hope Mr. McCarthy tried that way, though.

Anyway, this isn’t some life-changing piece of fiction, but it’s an extremely solid and entertaining piece of fiction. I have no trouble recommending it. Whether the extremely slow pace and subtle character interactions survive on the big screen, though, remains to be seen.

March 26, 2009

Paint Moar.

Chuck Palahnuik is one of those authors where I feel like, as an English Major, I am required by law to enjoy his writing, much in the same way I am required to take smoke breaks during night classes and to go out drinking every night to facilitate talking about “deep” topics. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I assumed I wouldn’t like Diary, a novel of his that I had to read for my novel class. My only real knowledge of his work was watching the movie of Fight Club, which Brer swore up and down I would connect with and I didn’t really at all, and hearing stories about his short story Guts but never looking it up to actually read it. This information told me, when I looked on the syllabus for my novel class, that I would dislike this book, but hey, at least it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer long.

When I started reading, it felt like my vague, baseless assumptions were right. Misty, the main character and narrator, is kind of hard to like. She’s extremely confrontational towards her husband, whom the book is “written” for and thus is aimed at with “yous” and whatnot. She seems very much like a complainer, blaming everyone for her problems, then blaming herself, then blaming everyone who tells her that she should be blaming herself. It’s just not all that fun to read.

However, the more and more I got into it, the more and more it’s brilliance got to me. Misty, the character, is a bit unlikable, but as her situation is slowly revealed, it’s clear why she’s so angry and so like she is. The plot is revealed very well, the situations are a bit surreal but not surreal enough for you to not believe they could be happening. I don’t even want to talk about the plot too much, actually. I feel like the way it is slowly shown to you is a lot of the book’s charm. It’s much like a Lost or something like that, only it’s very clear that every little fact is very planned, and every bit of it is going to pay off, (whereas I look at Lost and just see a bunch of cool ideas thrown together with a weak promise they’ll make sense, but then again, I haven’t seen much Lost, so take that as you will.) and that just keeps you turning pages again and again.
It’s also a really good example, to me anyway, of Post-modern fiction done well. Like anything, art can get really bogged down in tropes of movements like that, but this book uses them effectively, and that’s really great. The book breaks the fourth-wall in really fun ways, not just from the use of “you” throughout confusing the characters in the book and the reader, but also in other, spoilarz sort of ways.

Basically, the book hooked me, and before I knew it, it had overcome my prejudices and I was all in. I finished the book in two days of hard reading, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After the last two novels letting me down, pretty much, I was very glad that I hit another novel that really excited me. I can very easily recommend the book, especially since it’s fairly short. It’ll be an easy, fun read. Hopefully. It was for me, anyway.

March 3, 2009

I guess it’s about 9/11 or something? I dunno.

So, the latest book in my “I suppose I best read these books so I get an A in my novel class” reading series was Pattern Recognition by William Gibson. He’s like… a cyberpunk guy, right? Well, this wasn’t a cyberpunk novel. This was the first of many little letdowns from me reading the novel.

The novel is decently written and constructed. The chapters are short, and often have completely cryptic titles that I didn’t always get. The main character, Cayce, is a pretty interesting girl in a lot of ways. I wanted so desperately to like her, because I could totally dig her way of looking at the world, and how she liked to wander about in cities, her obsession with a certain little slice of internet culture, and so on… I got her. But I could never really get her. Because the book has this air of complete removal from its own story. It feels like I’m watching the story happen on a TV in a store window. There’s just an extra level of removal, even past the whole “third person limited” narrative style. It frustrated me all the way through the book.

The other big problem with her character was the entire 9/11 thing. Now, I’m not going to say the event wasn’t important, and novels shouldn’t be written about it? But this wasn’t a novel about that. I have no idea what kind of 9/11 based message Gibson was trying to make, but it was extremely forced into the novel and I would have greatly preferred it not to be there. I sort of feel like maybe it was supposed to draw me to the character more, but it really just pushed me away. It just felt like a clear intrusion on the reality of the book, and I hated it.

The plot itself does kind of go all over the place. Everything ties up in the end, but at the same time, you don’t feel like anyone has particularly accomplished anything, even though the goal Cayce was chasing for the entire novel is achieved. It just feels too “happy ending” in a lot of ways, the main way being the whole “Oh, now you no longer have your lifelong phobia for no reason yay!” mention at the end. Really? Seriously? Why the hell would you do that?

Overall, I probably can’t recommend this book too much. It wasn’t nearly as painful as Water for Elephants was in parts, but it also wasn’t as engaging as other parts of that novel. It’s a much harder read, and I left the novel getting just as little out of it, as well as being annoyed about how he was trying to manipulate 9/11 for no apparent reason. I dunno. I guess Brer might have been right, and I should have just read Neuromancer. Heh.
But, you know. Class. Had to read this one.

February 18, 2009

Even just the cover is awesome.

So, along with Retro Game Challenge (which I would expect a review ramble of… oh… tomorrowish.) I finally got my paws on Scott Pilgrim Vs The Universe last Friday. Ah, it is a wonderful thing, even without flipping it open. The cover is super-foil-y and neat, and the back cover has these “screenshots” of the Scott Pilgrim “game.” It’s nice.

The story inside is nice, too. There be spoilarz going forward, though. Not huge ones, but, you know, just in case, wait until you get to read it.

–This is the SPOILAR line.–

The book is going in a different direction. Pre-me-getting-my-copy reviews I read suggested that this book takes a much more emotional turn than previous, and that the fights are much less a focus because it’s already been established that there is no way Scott can lose. This is pretty much accurate. All but the final fight scene are mostly just in the background while other characters talk. I am totally and completely okay with this. I love the game references, I love the action, but all that wouldn’t make Scott Pilgrim as awesome as it is. It’s a great series because it has emotion and romance things underneath its silly exterior. It really comes out and shines in this book.

Talking Time favorite Kim Pine plays a very big role in this one, too. There are some revelations about her motivations that sort of caught me off guard. Maybe because it’s been too long since I read the first four. But it was just shocking at first: it all makes perfect sense. The plot is making really good sense! And I can’t wait to see the ending.
It is sad that there’s so little Wallace, though. He is just hilarious. His comment of “Hey, it’s that guy” at the end of the first volume is what made it completely clear that I was going to be a huge fan of this series. His role gets more toned down now, though. It makes sense. Things are more emotional than funny. But it’s still unfortunate.

It was also decently tugging at the heartstrings. Seeing Scott lash out at people is silly and fun, but is just so… representative of what he’s going through. He’s not the brightest guy. He very much wants to fix things. He was trying the method in the last book, of getting a job and becoming, you know, and adult. But even that suddenly becomes not enough in this one. All he knows how to do is fight, so he’s desperate to and sure that will fix things. You gotta feel for him.

People have been saying that this is good, but not the series at its best. I don’t really think that’s the case. In volume four, the series took a very clear emotional and focal shift, and this is just the result of it. I suppose if you got into the series for wacky action, you’d be disappointed a bit? But if you got into it for that, and stayed for the relationships like me? You’re going to be very interested in this volume. Very.

Reading it does make one thing clear, though: I need to reread the whole series. I’ll put it off until after Essner gets to read this one, though, so I have more people to discuss it with. I also need to force Spaeth to steal my copies and read them… yep.