the lacuna, by barbara kingsolver

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Neutered homosexual is party to most of the tumultuous historical events of the early 20th century. Frida Kahlo is a magical pixie dream girl, boarish Diego Rivera drinks to excess and hosts swinging Communist parties at his digs, and Leon Trotsky the keeper-of-chickens is a heroic martyr but not otherwise discernable as a human being. Due to being entirely passive and afraid of life and people, the author stand-in does not do anything for most of the novel but stand by and record the riot of activity on-going about him. Grey personage is redeemed by his tearful amanuensis for having “lived through his words”, or some such nonsense (see also: A.S. Byatt’s more convincing explication of the same in her story collection, Elementals). Ending, telegraphed about twenty pages ahead, made me chortle cynically. One more book added to my to-donate pile.

Despite all this it was enjoyable in the reading. Kingsolver is a skilled writer of sentences, so she makes it worth your while roughly half the time. But am now extremely leery of trying Prodigal Summer or The Poisonwood Bible, despite owning a copy of the latter.

After an extensive investigation I can safely say that 95% of the stuff published within the last ten (fifteen? twenty?) years is trumped up horseshit. Harrrumph. I should stop reading contemporary literature and tackle my storehouse of Dumas/Patrick O’Brian/George Eliot/Ursula Leguin/Alexander Durrell/Rebecca West.

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cloud atlas, by david mitchell

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another reread from when I was eighteen years old. This book isn’t as forthrightly enjoyable as Number9dream, which was this headlong surge into urban surrealism and ultraviolence and rivening familial loss and the travails of being a lovelorn story-tinkerer in an immense and alienating metropolis. Cloud Atlas is a very self-consciously thinky project that constantly calls attention to its own fictiveness. Same’s true of Number9dream, except in CA the tale-spinner’s an even more pronounced presence, isn’t he? CA’s also got what an academic might call a transculturalist agenda badge stuck dead-center on its chest. This novel is a card-carrying pluralist. It is organizing food drives and handing out flyers outside of the central subway station. Which, fine, that’s wonderful — so glad to see D. Mitch pushing progressive values in his fiction. I really admire his panache and determination in constructing a novel about the rise and demise of all of human civilization, for cripe’s sake, and one that pivots on a critique of predacity and xenophobia. As an politically aware young person I basically erupted into thunderous applause on reading the last two pages. « Read the rest of this entry »

hitch-22, by christopher hitchens

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

This man’s life. I would like to make it into a novel. No, a biopic. No, a hysterical bullet-strewn manga, serialized over an extended period of time to ramp up anticipation for the next breathless installment. What will the Hitch be doing next? Exposing corrupt electioneering practices in India? Vivisecting Kim-Jong-il during an interview on worldwide TV? Caning Noam Chomsky over his knee? « Read the rest of this entry »

the writing life, by annie dillard

October 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

This is a reread from a few years ago. (June 11 2008 – wow! More than three years!) You know, back in undergrad, I didn’t do prose writing on any kind of regular basis. This, despite the fact that I a) wrote for the university paper, b) interned for a Bay Area weekly, c) was in and out of fiction workshops for several years, d) co-taught a writing class in the English department, e) was briefly an editor with a campus literary review, f) wrote a bi-monthly newsletter for my job, and g) developed close relationships with crazy writer people (and imagine me saying this in the most affectionate way possible). These people were hardcore. They had penned fantasy trilogies as adolescents. Every November they stockpiled white bread and nutella, shoved a chair under the doorknob, and ran through a few relaxing yoga poses, such as standing on their heads, to keep their bodies limber and their minds prepared. Then they got right down to it. By this I mean they put ass to chair and banged away at their keyboards, every day for the next thirty days.

Anyway, that’s all to say that my friends were amazing, strong-willed, and driven. They were Possessed by their Art. I wasn’t. I was just pretending to be so that I could hang out with them.

Three years later, I’m trying to do it every day, and for the most part succeeding. While working full-time can be draining, it also allows me to clear away the brainspace for what’s important. I’ve been doing this for coming on three and a half months now, and while there’s still not a respectable story in all the rubbish that’s accumulated in the dragnet, and certainly nothing to rival the efforts of some of my former peers, I have gotten a little bit better. So I decided to read this book again, thinking it might have something new to offer me. You know, like scintillating insights, or horribly embittered jokes.

When I read Dillard’s The Writing Life the first time around, I found it okay. It didn’t really “speak” to me. Oh, there was much to like. It was the same things that distinguished Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim Creek from shelves of other books. That style that seems both economical and wildly luxurious. Her wisdom and piercing insight. Those sentences.

“They seemed too well to be altogether good for them.”

But now that I’ve made this a habit, I understand everything. Everything. I understand the story at the end about the airpilot executing rolls and curls and pirouettes and mid-air twirls. I understand the comparisons to surgery, painting, alligator wrestling, confronting a lion with a chair for a buckler, rowing a boat against the tide. I understand, despite all those flashy images, her assertion about the reality of writing: it is unromantic, insufferably lonely and very often miserable work. I understand her slightly manic, self-berating humor (“I had written a complex and long-winded narrative essay about a moth flying into a candle flame. No one understood it except for a Yale critic and he understood it perfectly. What was I doing with my life?”). I understand how difficult it is to work yourself up to the task, how much cajoling, self-bribing, email-checking, diversionary reading, guilt-tripping, and last-ditch dish-washing needs to happen before I take a final uneasy look at the clock and click to open that cursed text document; how, if you let a WIP lapse mid-tell for more than a few days, it grows and grows and becomes this gross, struggling, unmanagably large thing. I constantly point at things on the page in stunned recognition–this! this is me!

Possibly this conveys something alarming to you about my current mental state? Well, yes. Don’t do it if you can help it. GO! LIVE! STOP BLOGGING*! SAVE A CHILD FROM A BURNING BUILDING.

(*Actually, don’t. I enjoy reading your blogs very much. Please don’t stop.)

Dillard on facing down the blank page (The Nothing, the abyss, the ravening pit of despair and futility, etc, etc):

“Every inchworm I have seen was stuck in long grasses. The wretched inchworm hangs from the side of a grassblade and throws its head around from side to side, seeming to wail. What! No further? Its back pair of nubby feet claps the grass stem; its front three pairs of nubs rear back and flail in the air, apparently in search of a footing. What! No further? What? It searches everywhere in the wide world for the rest of the grass, which is right under its nose. By dumb luck it touches the grass. Its front legs hang on; it lifts and buckles its green inch, and places its hind legs just behind its front legs. Its body makes a loop, a bight. All it has to do now is slide its front legs up the grass stem. Instead it gets lost. It throws up its head and front legs, flings its upper body out into the void, and panics again. What! No further? End of world? And so forth, until it actually reaches the grasshead’s tip. By then its wee weight may be bending the grass toward some other grass plant. Its davening, apocalyptic prayers sway the grasshead and bump it into something. I have see it many times. The blind and frantic numbskull makes it off one grassblade and onto another one, which it will climb in virtual hysteria for several hours. Every step brings it to the universe’s rim. And now—What! No further? End of world? Ah, here’s ground. What! No further? Yike!”

On the fear that your story/book/poem/screenplay/nonfictional research project on the phenomenology of hermeneutics in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy is stupid and trivial and what are you doing you should be a fire woman or a special ed teacher or a pro-bono lawyer (can I do this last thing while still writing a book? What do you mean, I will need to toil away all the waking hours of my next ten years of living to pay off $200K of debt?):

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

The wonder and suspension!

“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

The contemplative vs. the active life:

“The written word is weak. Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses–the imagination’s vision, and the imagination’s hearing–and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks you and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader’s ear must adjust down from the loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word. An ordinary reader picking up a book can’t yet hear a thing; it will take half an hour to pick up the writing’s modulations, its up and downs and louds and softs.”

And most of all:

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking. If we are reading for these things, why would anyone read books with advertising slogans and brand names in them? Why would anyone write such books? We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”

I know I have a few writer people from uni friended on this account. Keep at it, you guys. And read this book if you need encouragement.

checkmate, by dorothy dunnett

September 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about this book for a while. It keeps bugging me. Like every time I think of this series I’m like — “ASGLKAJGLKAJGASGAJGLK BEST SERIES EVER!!!!!!!!!” but then I think of the ending and my face takes on this involuntary grimace and I feel horribly let down by it, as if by a extraordinarily precocious child prodigy who goes to college swearing to solve cancer and comes back a obese couch potato with his finger permanently inserted in a chip bag. Specifically, Marthe. Can I get a WTF, ladies? When I read it, I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly about Marthe’s ending – besides the obvious – made my mouth shrivel like a prune, but now I think I’ve got it. It’s that we’re made to feel relief at her death. After two books of investing our sympathy in this wonderful, horrible, faceted, mad, motivated, spit-in-your-face defiant woman, Dunnett has her decide to expose the family secrets. There’s a dramatic confrontation and a stabbing of the adorable Monseiur Hislop thrown in for good measure. Then she goes and rides off while vicious thoughts of vengeance condense in a miasma about her head and the reader is like “noooooo. don’t let this happen. STOP HER!” And she is stopped. In the most literal way possible. And then the reader puts down the book, blows out a breath that ruffles the bangs on her forehead, picks the book back up, and blithely forgets ALL ABOUT MARTHE when she returns to reading roughly twenty pages of Philippa and Lymond sexing in their blessed matrimonial bed.

As another review sniped, seeing a friend die horribly and graphically in front of you is a surefire way to make any rape victim horny again, I can tell you that.

Other than that I think I would’ve found this book extremely affecting if I hadn’t been already spoiled for about 80% of its developments. Sabina called the First Baron Culter/Sybilla connection. I knew Marthe was going to die because clodhead that I was, I tried to read fic before finishing the series. I still felt nauseous at Philippa’s sacrifice and my chest got all blocked up and my breath came faster. What else? I think another criticism that I’ve read elsewhere is spot-on. This last book is pretty much structured like a romance novel. Depending on your tolerance of Lymond/Philippa, this is either a great thing or a thing to make your gorge rise. Books 3 and 4 (still my favorites) were much more adventure-oriented, in that Lymond had an external enemy whom he pursued across several continents and eventually put to the death. But once the conflict guiding the narrative turned inward (books 5 and 6) — Lymond struggles with his pain and wants to kill himself, among other tiresome retreads — things get so much more soppy and ungainly.

Things that I liked: Lovely descriptions. And Adam and Danny. On the level of the writing, I thought Lymond’s discovery of Philippa post-Bailey was very well done. Once again, Dunnett excels at letting the reader realize on her own the horror of the unstated. Powerful technique.

And poor Jerott:

“As he watched, she bent her head and crossing her hands, slid them along her forearms to still them. Oh God, thought Jerott. Don’t let it happen. She doesn’t deserve the torment. The lifetime of waiting, in return for a handful of moments of ecstasy. And standing behind him, always, the ghosts of his other, experienced women. The thoughts he did not share. The knowledge that one had his total friendship but never the key to the innermost door. . . . And there was an innermost door, which Marthe did not have, and had never had, although his hopes of that, and that alone, had been his reason for marrying her.

Adam was looking at him. Stupid with too much wine and too much emotion Jerott turned his head, and so caught, without warning, the expression on Austin Grey’s face.”

Can’t remember anything else, it’s all been blotted out by the wtf ending.

notes from august 17, 2011

September 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jim’s Famous Quarterpound Burger in Monrovia. Zucchini fries: sweetly mellow inside, batter-fried outside. Avocado cheeseburger? Coulda used more salt.

The Arcadia arboretum is a 127 acre preserve that I’d never heard of prior to googling for things to do in the area on Saturday. They have peacocks! Trees whose trunks look like spiked clubs, topped with incongruously frilly flowers! Greenhouses! Areas of plants divided by continent! An herb garden! The peacocks were the highlight of the trip, though. And the wedding parties. The groom in a white suit posed with his dudely family and friends, all in matching black tuxes, rowdily laughing and joking. The bridesmaids in satin, coral pink. I felt so glad for them.

Watched Drive, starring Ryan Gosling as Pinochio. Isn’t it ironic that a story about an emotional idiot savant’s reintegration into society as a feeling human being turns on the one act that would normally sever a person from all his relationships and expel him from civilization in handcuffs — murder? Have mixed feelings about this movie, tipping towards a positive reaction. I think it was overegged in some parts — the soundtrack, the liberal usage of slow mo, not to mention Refn clearly has a raging hard-on for Gosling’s face, as half the movie is composed of shots of Gosling’s profile bathed in various intensities and gradients of light — but still I liked it. The first scene is a tension-building wonder. The family dinner +1 (toasting each other with sippy cups!). I don’t believe that any man who looks like Gosling could have lived such an emotionally sterile and isolated social life, to the point where a kid and his deadbeat mom end up being the “best thing to have ever happened to him”, so for now I’m just like SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF, pretending this guy is like 100x uglier than he is.

B. tried to hack into my facebook account, but Facebook caught him. Mark Zuckerburg is laughing at him from behind his bunker in Palo Alto.

Got home. Laid in bed, exhausted. Then we dug up so many good songs! Neon Indian, The Golden Filter, some new M83. I felt so content, lying in bed, watching B. scourage up music videos. (On the cover of M83’s single — “I would love to get a blowjob from that creature” — anonymous commentor on Youtube.) Toe-wriggled with pleasure: the good feeling of having had a fun day.

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” — George Bernard Shaw

james baldwin’s another country

September 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

By all accounts this is a book I should despise. If it were written by another author I probably would have hurtled it across the room about a third of the way in. 350+ pages summed up in a few sentences would go something like this: sad people sleep with each other, and then they talk about it at length in their distinguished Manhattan lofts/artistic hovels/crack dens of sin and misery. MORE SEX OCCURS, much of it tortured and sad. There is an effete, hurting Parisian boytoy whose name is Yves. Yes, his name is actually Yves. Intermittently, a kitten pokes its head in. When it does it is the most hopeful thing to have happened in hundreds of pages.

All facetiousness aside, I am still glad to have read this book. My problem with Giovanni’s Room was that it was extremely one-note — you know the sounds that whales make when they’re on the hunt for a light lunch of krill or looking for lady whales to nail? it’s really beautiful and eerie and soulful and it makes you cry because all that ineffable beauty of nature disturbs the crystalline silence at the center of your soul? but then it goes on, and on, and eventually it starts to sound like someone with an inexhaustible supply of energy and oxygen blowing lustily on a broken foghorn? and damnit, after five hours, it’s really starting to hurt your ears? — that was Giovanni’s Room by the time it had gotten to its end. Another Country is done up from a broader palate, and I think the book benefits from it. For one thing, there are more things that the characters can be sad about. Artistic failure and the difficulties of interracial love being just two items, among multitudes. For another, it treats its relationships with something approaching optimism — Ida and Vivaldo, Eric and Yves. The last two make me go all dewey-eyed, holy shit. I’m glad the novel ended on an uplifting note for them.

Baldwin’s writing continues to wow me. It is heavy and dramatic and constantly breaking off pieces of its soul to exhibit, bleeding, on a little cushion. This may not sound like a pleasant time, but actually I derive a lot of pleasure from reading Baldwin’s sentences on a line-by-line level! Powerful stuff. And his control of rhythm is, as previously mentioned, intoxicating.

“Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them a part of the world’s experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so rare.”

and

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not he had ever, really, been present at his life.”

As well, there are scenes in here that I won’t easily forget. In all likelihood I’ll probably end up cannibalizing them for future fic. Rufus, cold, in the streets, being bought a sandwich by a stranger. Ida at the microphone, seizing the audience by their throats with her voice. Vivaldo thinking about young brother-like boys he’d like to jostle across the bottom. And Yves and Eric at the train station was the single most stirring moment in the book to me.

One thing that I find noteworthy here is the way that Baldwin’s writing style blots out the voices of his characters, except in cases of dialogue where they come through unfiltered — Ida’s is especially distinctive. The effect is strange: I can’t tell Cass apart from Rufus apart from Eric apart from Vivaldo. In fact, there were several times when I thought I was reading from Eric’s point of view only to discover that it was actually Vivaldo who had just picked up the phone, put it down, lit a cigarette, walked to the rain-beaded window, gazed mystically out. I don’t think I’m the only reader to encounter this problem. It’s interesting, and relevant, because I think I might have a tendency to do the same — to get so wrapped up in my natural voice that I sacrifice the character’s mode of thinking and feeling in favor of propagating my own. When this book didn’t work for me it came down to this, I think — there’s little to distinguish this person from that one, and Baldwin’s naturally very vigorous, emotional narration doesn’t help, in fact it actively hurts the reader’s ability to differentiate between characters. Apart from some distinguishing traits — this one’s a woman, that one’s black, they’re straight, and by that, I mean bisexual — they’re all uniformly unhappy. They all sleep with each other. And that’s all I got.

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