recent thought / activity
See the full list at LibraryThing or here
the year in reading: 2009
A new year means it's time, once again, to crunch the numbers on the reading log.
This year I only completed 23 books, which represents a shocking dip, about half my usual average (last year I read 51, and the year before that I read 58).
What's responsible for the dip? I think I can blame a couple of factors.
1. The New Yorker. I enjoyed a New Yorker subscription this year, and read nearly every issue from cover to cover, all the way down to the art listings and the reviews of restaurants that I don't ever intend to patronize. This ate up an enormous amount of reading time that might otherwise have gone to books.
2. Marvel Comics. I called last spring the "season of comics," but last fall is when I created a pull-file at a comic book store (Cambridge's fine Million Year Picnic) for the first time in my adult life. The amount of reading represented by a weekly handful of comics is small compared to a weekly New Yorker, but they did occupy a non-trivial segment of my reading time.
3. Dissatisfaction with contemporary literature or perhaps just a feeling of being out of touch. Ten years ago, I could have listed at least ten living fiction writers who were producing interesting, rewarding work. Today I could make a similar list, but it would contain almost the exact same ten writers. (Take off David Foster Wallace (RIP) and add Zadie Smith?) It's likely that sometime in the past decade a new class of world-class fiction writers has begun to emerge, but I'm a bit bewildered as to who, exactly, they might be, and I haven't read an exciting debut novel from anyone in a long time. (I'm all ears if anyone wants to shoot a suggestion my way.)
Trends and highlights: most of the eleven novels I read this year were science fiction novels. One could perhaps argue that this is indicative of some escapist impulse, although novels like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Richard Morgan's Thirteen, Ian McDonald's River of Gods, and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy deal with at least as many thorny contemporary questions as anything mainstream lit is producing. Max Brooks' World War Z, on the other hand, doesn't really deal with much in the way of contemporary issues, but is a shockingly detailed and well-realized feat of the imagination, and ended up surprising me by being one of my favorite books of the year.
I also read a lot of stuff dealing with games and game design, including Raph Koster's clever and accessible Theory of Fun. More interesting, however, was Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's monumental Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, a near-comprehensive overview of what games are and how they work. Clocking in at close to 700 pages, this is a book I'd been dipping into since its publication in 2003, but this year was the year I decided to complete it. (A rather dense selection of my notes can be examined here.) This was easily the best book I read all year.
The following authors wrote books I read for the first time in 2009, and also wrote books that I read prior to 2009: Warren Ellis, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. LeGuin, and... that may be it.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
how to read on a budget
Sad but true: with nearly 5 million Americans drawing unemployment aid, it's becoming increasingly likely that you, dear reader, may have less discretionary income to spend on books than you might have a few years ago.
However, that doesn't mean you should have to go without poetry. Many forward-thinking small presses out there have decided to begin producing downloadable chapbooks, as a way of experimentally engaging with the Web's impressive duplication and distribution capacities. And since the production costs of these chapbooks are essentially passed along to whoever decides to print them out (ideally you and me), many of these small presses have made their downloadable chapbooks available for free.
A good place to start?: try Faux Press' index of nearly fifty free chapbooks. If you follow avant-garde poetry, the list of figures who have work there is pretty impressive: Bruce Andrews, Brenda Iijima, K. Silem Mohammad, Chris Stroffolino... but the one I began with was Christina Strong's Utopian Politics, which presents a kind of frenzied transmission that alternately evokes travel, digital communication, and post-millenial state control / resistance.
[Cross-posted to the Vivarium blog.]
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
the year in reading: 2008
One of my New Year's traditions (at least since 2004) is to take a little time to crunch the numbers on the books I read the previous year, as well as to announce a few highlights. (Past years' results: 2007; 2006; 2005; 2004.)
As for this year, I read a total of 51 books, which is about average for me, although down a bit from last year's 58. Here's the breakdown:
Fiction: 16, the same as last year. The highlight here, far and away, was Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, a book I'd put off reading for some time, but which emerged as easily the best book I read this year. Other highlights in the field of fiction are a few books I'd read before (Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Carole Maso's The Art Lover, and Patrik Ourednik's Europeana) and at least one that I should probably have read long ago (J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey). Miranda July's book of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, deserves a mention here as well.
Books on film / film criticism: 7, down four from last year. Highlight: Carol Clover's canonical text on gender in the contemporary horror film, Men, Women, and Chain Saws. (You can browse my notes here, if you're so inclined.) I also re-read Chris Radley's great Cronenberg on Cronenberg volume.
Graphic novels / comics anthologies / books of cartoons: 22. Up fifteen from last year, which means that the "season of comics" I wrote about here and here actually turned into something more like a year of comics. I make no apologies about this: this avenue of my reading provided me with no shortage of highlights, including the four volumes of Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, the first volume of Warren Ellis' Planetary, Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, and the Daredevil Omnibus Companion (a volume which, for my money, is preferable to the actual Daredevil Omnibus). Less escapist stuff included Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi's Complete Persepolis: neither one is the masterpiece that some people have claimed, but both do very good work in expanding the field. Valuable re-reads included the Robert Crumb / Harvey Pekar collaboration Bob & Harv's Comics, Paul Pope's 100%, and Dan Clowes' Ghost World.
Assorted nonfiction and polemics: 4. Among them, three constitute highlights of the year: Oranges, an early work by John McPhee in which he examines the citrus industry; The Ecology of Games, a MacArthur-funded anthology of writing about video games, adolescence, and literacy (see more notes on this book here); and Getting Things Done, the infamous productivity guide parodied here.
Surprisingly, I read no books of poetry or literary criticism this year. I spent extended time with Gertrude Stein's How To Write and John Ashbery's Hotel Lautreamont but did not complete either.
The following authors wrote books I read for the first time in 2008, and also wrote books that I read prior to 2008: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, Frank Miller, Alan Martin, Warren Ellis, Michael Ondaatje, Lynda Barry, J.D. Salinger, and John McPhee.
What did you read this year that you enjoyed?
Labels: book_commentary, comics
Sunday, January 04, 2009
the year in books (so far)
Just a quick heads-up for any of you interested in what I've been reading lately: the 2008 books-log page, which had been languishing for the last few months, is now up-to-date. I'm mostly not writing capsule reviews this yearjust too much other stuff going on but if you just want a raw list of the 47 books I've read so far this year, well, it's there for you. (My LibraryThing page has also been brought up to date, for those of you who prefer that system.)
Anyone have any recommendations for worthwhile books I should try to tackle before the year is out?
Labels: book_commentary, meta
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
the new novel, part II
So I've been kicking around a variety of books for that "New Novel" course I'll be teaching this fall, and some things are beginning to fall into place.
I'm definitely going with Patrik Ourednik's Europeana (2005) as my "experimental-form" novel; it not only pushes the boundaries of what could be considered a novel (in a way that will be fruitful for discussion), but it also gives a big recap of global 20th-century events and thus sets up some useful themes for us to work with, here in the early days of the 21st.
I'd like to follow this up with either Lynda Barry's Cruddy (2000) or Alicia Erian's Towelhead (2006), as sort of a way to look at how those 20th-century forces impact powerless people, specifically using the figure of the adolescent girl to get at this. Of the two, I marginally prefer Cruddy, in part because its status as an "illustrated novel" fulfills my interest in having a "hybrid" book on the list: it opens up a juncture where we can talk about the critical rise of the graphic novel over the last ten years or so. Plus Towelhead has a lot more sexuality in it, and there's only a certain amount of that kind of stuff that I feel comfortable dragging into the classroom.
I also wanted a classically-structured novel, but one which deals thematically with some of the "big issues" that the class increasingly looks to be built around: I'm currently reading Ann Patchett's Bel Canto (2001), which tells a story about terrorists raiding a high-class dinner party in South America as a possible candidate there. Patchett sees human interaction as being capable of generating real beauty, and the book is clearly focused on locating these moments even in the midst of violent crisis. Used too liberally, this could descend into Pollyanna-ism, and the book is definitely running that risk, but it might be a nice antidote to follow the bleakness of Cruddy. [Still a little tempted to wedge in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2005) instead, although this would break my 50/50 gender breakdown.]
[I'd also consider dropping the "traditional" novel entirely in favor of another hybrid, if I could find another good one by a female writer... the obvious choice here is Carole Maso's utterly fascinating novel The Art Lover, which I'd love to re-read, but it seems a stretch to call something originally published in 1990 a "new" novel.]
And finally, I wanted something "outside" the realm of the literary novel, preferably a graphic novel or piece of genre work: I'm leaning here towards Colson Whitehead's great science-fiction-ish novel about elevator repair, The Intuitionist (2000), although I'm also still considering including a graphic novel in this slot, specifically Paul Pope's science-fiction-ish 100%. [One advantage of 100% is that it's a quicker read, and I'm concerned about having enough time to teach the writing elements of the course if I'm also dealing with four long-ish novels.]
Almost decision-making time! Anyone who wants to try to sway me, speak up!
Labels: book_commentary, teaching
Friday, August 15, 2008
the new novel
So those of you who read my Facebook news-feed know that I've accepted an offer to teach two writing courses at Boston University this fall, loosely themed around the topic of "The New Novel."
This is a topic I can have some fun with, obviously, and I quickly decided that a good course on the New Novel should endeavor to include the following things:
A more-or-less classically-structured novel, but which deals with topics that are distinctly "21st-century" in orientation. [Something like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition or Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis or Falling Man are the types of books that fit comfortably in this slot.]
Something that deals with similiar topics, but is more experimental or progressive in terms of its form. [Patrik Ourednik's Europeana might work well here, and I'm tempted to include something like Ben Marcus' Notable American Women or Leslie Scalapino's "trilogy" The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion, but these are probably both slightly too ambitious for college freshmen.]
A hybrid text, something that is "novelistic" in orientation but clearly reacting to the pressures of "visual culture" / multimedia. [Steve Tomasula's VAS: An Opera In Flatland would be a blast to teach, but something like Lynda Barry's "illustrated novel" Cruddy or Zach Plague's brand-new boring boring boring boring boring boring boring could work equally well.]
Something "outside" the realm of the literary novel, preferably a graphic novel. [In a pinch I could use a piece of genre fiction, most likely SF or horror.]
I also am [typically] concerned with balance of representation, so I'd like to see at least one novel by a non-Caucasian writer and at least one novel by a non-North American writer, and I'd like the list to be fifty/fifty in terms of gender distribution.
The problem, sadly, is that I'm trying to limit myself to only four books (ultimately the course is a writing course and not a Lit survey), and trying to fit the four "types" that I want with the gender and ethnicity constraints that I set up is proving something of a diabolical logic puzzle. I'm pretty close to "locking in" on Gibson and Tomasula, white men both (sigh), which means that ideally I'll find a graphic novel and an experimental 21st-century novel, both written by women, at least one of whom is non-Caucasian.
Persepolis is holding a lot of appeal in the graphic-novel category, but its autobiographical status might eliminate it from the running, and as far as I can tell, most crticially-acclaimed graphic novels by women tend to be memoirish. (See also: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.) Has anyone out there read Jessica Abel's La Perdida?
If I swap out the graphic novel for a genre novel, Octavia Butler is a potentially fruitful person to work with, although her only 21st-century novel is Fledgling, not generally considered her strongest work.
In terms of the experimental novel, I think Miranda Mellis' The Revisionist might hold some appeal, and its SF trappings might tie it well to the Gibson and Tomasula, but I haven't read it (a copy is winging its way to me as we speak).
You readers are good at this kind of thing. Recommendations?
Related: Roundtable on gender imbalance in SF / fantasy / speculative fiction publishing
Labels: book_commentary, teaching
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
100 book challenge: part six: miscellany
Down to the final fifteen of the 100 Book Challenge!
As long as we're coming out of the graphic design shelf, we might as well move into Beautiful Evidence, by design critic Edward Tufte
[I panned this book a bit when I first read it, believing it to re-hash some of the material from Tufte's earlier books. However, that also makes it the easiest one to select if I'm going to take just one. It is probably the most well-designed one of the batch.]
Re-Search #11: Pranks!
[Back in the good old days of the mid-nineties, Re-Search was the ultimate arbiter of what was cool and underground, and I'm grateful to them to introducing me to a lot of different countercultural thinkers. Of the Re-Search volumes I have, this is the one that meant the most to me, but Angry Women, Modern Primitives, and the Industrial Culture Handbook are all just about equally worth bringing.]
Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge
[Along the same lines as the Re-Search books, this was a book that taught the young Jeremy about what was cool. (The book's main answer to that question: geeks and psychedelic shit.) Some of the tech romance has lost its luster in the, er, fifteen or so years since this book came out, but I'm more than willing to hold onto it as perhaps the single volume that best explains how I ended up the way I did.]
Along these same "formative" lines, I'm not sure I can part with any of what I consider to be the three key Advanced Dungeons and Dragons texts: the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and Monster Manual.
[I haven't played Dungeons and Dragons in probably five years now, but these three books basically describe how to generate and stock an entire fictional world, and determines coherent rules for how players can interact with that world: the amount of entertainment that can be extracted from their triangulation is truly limitless. A book that strips away the fantasy trappings in an attempt to provide an even broader basis for world-building is the GURPS Basic Set, which I'm also tempted to bring but which I don't think would make a list that caps at 100.]
Continuing with games, I'd bring the Redstone Editions Surrealist Games book-in-a-box...
...and the Oulipo Compendium, which defines a mind-boggling number of literary constraints to play around with...
...and Jeff Noon's Cobralingus, which takes the idea of literary constraints and fascinatingly updates it by mashing it up with the kind of gate/filter/patch mechanism familiar from real-time sound synthesis programs like AudioMulch.
And ultimately, for when I was through with the wacky wordplay and wanted to get back to writing normal English-language sentences, I'd bring a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
I'd cram in a few more great works of fiction...
Cathedral, by Raymond Carver
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
my version of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
[My edition has great illustrations by Rockwell Kent, circa 1930.]
...and one excellent work of humor: Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source
...and maybe one exemplary picture book for children: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg
And that'd be 100 (OK, closer to 115, given the various cheats and bundles I stuck in there.) Could I live with this 100? Maybe, although there's a lot of good writing in the piles left that remain. I find myself already wanting to make a list of a second hundred... the "honorable mentions," perhaps...
Labels: book_commentary, lists, projects
Monday, July 07, 2008
100 book challenge part five: comics, art books, graphic design
Thirty books left to go in the 100 Book Challenge!
Last time I left off on the cusp of "comics," so let's proceed into that realm. I'm fortunate that a lot of the comics I want to bring are actually in comics form, in long-boxes under my bed, and are thus exempt from the purge. But in terms of "trade paperbacks," let's see.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
[Totally essential; besides being a gripping thriller, this is also a decade-by-decade history of the archetype of the "costumed hero" in the twentieth century, with an appreciation of the form of the "horror comic" thrown in to boot. It's also one of the best examinations of what it means to be an aging superhero; in this regard it is joined by Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which I'd bring if I hadn't lost my copy somewhere.]
From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
[If I can bring another Moore, I'd pick this paranormal retelling of the Jack the Ripper story.]
Read Yourself Raw, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly
[A giant, oversized version volume collecting selections of the first three issues of "the comics magazine for damned intellectuals." My introduction to Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Mark Beyer, Gary Panter, and Windsor McCay. Speaking of whom....]
Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, by Windsor McCay
[Surreal, fantastic dream comics, circa 1904 (predating Surrealism by a comfortable margin).]
Rabid Eye: The Dream Art of Rick Veitch, by Rick Veitch
[More dream comics, these circa 1996. But no less fantastic.]
Cheating: I have most of the run of G. B. Trudeau's Doonesbury in a series of volumes: The Portable Doonesbury, The People's Doonesbury, The Doonesbury Chronicles, etc. Any of the individual volumes might not be that valuable, but together they make a form of the Great American Novel.
Another cheat: volumes 4, 5, and 6 of the book-sized comics anthology Kramer's Ergot
[Probably the most important comics anthology since those 80s RAW volumes. I'm not sure I could part with a volume.]
And another cheat: volumes 1-4 of Joss Whedon / John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men
[I've been reading a lot of comics this year, and I'm prepared to say that, although this isn't high art, it's probably the best stuff that mainstream comics is putting out these days.]
American Splendor Presents: Bob and Harv's Comics, by Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar
[Crumb and Pekar are both essential comics creators, and getting both of them, at the top of their respective games, makes this volume a must-keep.]
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware
[Ware's world-view is bleak enough to nearly constitute a form of comedy, but there's no doubt that he's an absolute master of comics form and vocabulary.]
Monkey Vs. Robot, by James Kochalka
[A little bit of brilliant minimalist stuff... his American Elf collection is also great, but I have that in individual-issue form.]
The Frank Book, by Jim Woodring
[Jim Woodring drew my LiveJournal user icon, a character named Frank who roams about in a creepy, psychologically-rich cartoon universe. This stuff is a good example of the kind of things that can really only be done in comics (they've been turned into animated films, but their eerie, airless logic works best on the page).]
The Frank Book is a big coffee-table style book, so let's transition and throw a few more of those into here:
Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective
[Published by the Guggenheim, this 632-page tome contains somewhere around 500 color reproductions of Rauschenberg's work, and another couple hundred in black-and-white. This is also probably the most expensive book I have ever bought for myself (and it would be even more expensive to replace, apparently.) Worth it, though: Rauschenberg, to me, is one of the key artists of the 20th century, bringing together (in a single figure) strands of Abstract Expressionist, Pop, and Fluxus.]
[Another Guggenheim edition. Klee is another of my favorite visual artists, and although this volume isn't as comprehensive as the Rauschenberg one, it's well worth hanging on to.]
I'll bundle two graphic design books here as a final cheat: Sonic: Visuals for Music and 1 + 2 Color Designs, Vol. 2. Neither one is a masterpiece, which is part of how I can justify bundling them, but I do flip through them fairly frequently when needing ideas for graphic design projects, and books of this sort are expensive, and thus a pain to replace.]
Fifteen books left to go, and what's left in the collection? Mostly just miscellany. Stay tuned!
Labels: book_commentary, lists, projects
Sunday, July 06, 2008
100 book challenge: part four: essays and cultural criticism
Moving on with the 100 Book Challenge, we come to the "essays" area. I don't have a huge selection here, but these would be my picks:
I Remember, by Joe Brainard
[Perhaps the simplest organizing principle for a memoir ever: a sequence of sentences, each of which begin with the words "I remember." Yet somehow it works.]
The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker
[This book is full of great pieces, including Baker's hilarious review of the Dictionary of American Slang and his lament on the disappearance of the card catalog.]
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
[Not quite as good as the exemplary Consider the Lobster, but I don't have a copy of LobsterI read the library's copyand this one is also great.]
I'd also probably bring the giant anthology Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate, which has key selections by people like George Orwell, Joan Didion, M.F.K. Fisher, etc., and thus eliminates the need for a lot of individual volumes.
Essays slide nicely into the critical writing section of my library, so let's head there....
Illuminations, by Walter Benjamin
[This book is full of interesting ideas and key essays, but it also has deep sentimental value for me.]
America, by Jean Baudrillard
[I find the central argument here to be incomprehensible, but in a provocative, distinctly "Baudrillardian" fashion. Like a piece of heady SF in its way. See also his The Gulf War Did Not Happen, which I could part with but which holds similar pleasures.]
Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault
[Probably the key Foucault to hang onto.]
Mythologies, by Roland Barthes
[And this the key Barthes.]
The Postmodern Condition, by Jean-Francois Lyotard
[...and this the key Lyotard.]
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, by Donna Haraway
[Contains the great Cyborg Manifesto and a number of excellent critiques of the ideological biases inherent to the sciences.]
A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, by Manuel Delanda
[Between this and Patrik Ourednik's Europeana, one doesn't need any other history books.]
Temporary Autonomous Zone, by Hakim Bey
[Does this belong in fringe ideas or cultural criticism? It's a little of both, but totally freakin' brilliant. Life-altering.]
Moving on into some more straightforward literary and media criticism...
Literary Theory, by Terry Eagleton
[An overview of the main literary theory movements of the last hundred years, written in a style that's clear enough that a bright undergraduate could grasp every word of it.]
Postmodernist Fiction, by Brian McHale
[A good argument about what postmodernist fiction is, what it does, and why it's doing it. I'd also include Marjorie Perloff's Radical Artifice here, a similar argument about experimental poetics, but I don't own a copy.]
Half-Real, by Jesper Juul
[The best piece of video-game criticism I've read to date.]
Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
[Not exactly a piece of video-game criticism, more a design handbook, but a key text for "game studies" anyway.]
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
[Yet, oddly, I might pass on McLuhan's Understanding Media, which has not dated especialy well and in some ways is a model for everything cultural criticsm does poorly.]
That's seventeenand since I'm trying to stick to round numbers for this project I'll include three pieces of fiction I overlooked this first time around: the bizarre Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme, the classic Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and a piece of fun, dense SF, Accelerando by Charles Stross (which I reviewed here.) That brings us to twenty for today, and the running total for the project overall to seventy. I'll move on from the McCloud into the "comics" shelf next.
Labels: book_commentary, lists, projects
Friday, July 04, 2008
100 book challenge: part three: religion, new age, fringe science, and science
Still in the process of [at least theoretically] culling my book collection down to 100 key books. Moving on down the shelf takes us through Dramamy drama selection is pretty patchy and under-appreciated; I'm not sure that any of the scattering of volumes I have would be worth including in the final 100. If I had a good volume of Shakespeare's plays I'd take that, but I don't. Moving on.
The next couple of shelves are religion, "new age"-type stuff, and fringe science. Here are my picks from that area:
The Grove Press "Pocket Canons" Books of the Bible box set.
[I should be honest and acknowledge that I'll almost certainly never read the entire Bible, but reading these twelve books every few years is feasible and desirable.]
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, by Gershom Scholem
[This book took me forever to get through, but was incredibly rewarding. There are so many strange ideas in the history of Judaism, and this book is a fascinating overview.]
A History of God, by Karen Armstrong
[Contains just about everything you'll ever need to know about the three major monotheistic religions.]
The I Ching, or Book of Changes (Wilhelm / Baynes translation)
[Carl Jung claimed that this book was alive. Philip K. Dick claimed that this book could not predict the future, but could rather provide an accurate diagnosis of the present, from which probable futures could be extracted. Anything I could add would be extraneous.]
The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, edited by Lawrence Sutin
[If anything, Dick's non-fiction is even more interesting and loopy than his fiction. This book contains a lot of Dick's thoughts on spirituality, synchronicity, and reality: great stuff. I'd also find it hard to part with In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, the book that editor Lawrence Sutin valiantly attempted to carve out of Dick's 8,000 page journal documenting his mystical experience.]
Cosmic Trigger Volume One: Final Secret of the Illuminati, by Robert Anton Wilson
[For better or for worse, Cosmic Trigger changed my life, and although I'm a little more distanced from Wilson these days, this volume is still a real gold mine of high weirdness.]
Let's move on down into the science books...
Metamagical Themas, by Douglas R. Hofstadter
[Godel, Escher, Bach is more renowned, but this book, which collects Hofstadter's Scientific American columns from 1981-1983, has just as many fascinating ideas, and in more digestible form. Language, self-referentiality, fonts, game theory, geometric art... this thing is like a laundry list of geek interests. Plus it is the book that taught me the game Nomic.]
Emergence, by Steven Johnson
[A good, readable introduction to the science of complexity and self-organization.]
Chaos, by James Gleick
[Great pictures of fractals, and still (to my mind) the best introductory book on this particular branch of science. I also own Mandelbrot's The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which is wonderful to look at, but a bit over my head.]
Li: Dynamic Form in Nature
[A tiny little bookbasically an impulse-buy kind of thingdocumenting "surface patterns" in naturecrystal designs, cat markings, vascular structures in leaves, etc. Those are the kinds of patterns I'm attracted to, so this book is pretty important to me. Since it's small, I'll throw in its sister volume, Sacred Geometry, a similar-sized volume on the harmonic mathematics of ritual spaces.]
This brings me right up to the halfway point: 50 books, 50 to go.
Labels: book_commentary, lists, personal
Wednesday, July 02, 2008
100 book challenge: part two: poetry
Still toying with the idea of trying to figure out which books I would keep, if I were to limit myself to 100. Last week I figured out 25 works of fiction I'd want to keep; here are some selections from the Poetry shelf.
Veil: New and Selected Poems by Rae Armantrout
[Armantrout's poems are enigmatic, delicate, and carefulshe may be my favorite living poet.]
My Life, by Lyn Hejinian
[This is perhaps the most interesting and important poetic project of the last, say, 25 years.]
Deer Head Nation, by K. Silem Mohammad
[Back in 2007, I wrote that this book, part of the "Flarf" / "Google-sculpting" genre, was "one of the best new books of poetry to emerge in the last ten years." I stand by that.]
This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, by Juliana Spahr
[Another important book, this pair of poems has a better grip on the key questions of the contemporary moment than almost any other book in my entire collection. Longer write-up here.]
The Tunnel: Selected Poems, by Russel Edson
[Edson's demented little stories, like psycho-sexually rewired fairy tales, are a longtime favorite of mine. This is another book where just opening to any page and beginning to read is pretty certain to be rewarding. Random opening line, to test this theory: "A piece of a man had broken off in the road."]
How to Write, by Gertrude Stein
[Not sure what to say about this book, except that it's not really about how to write. The classic Stein text is probably Tender Buttons, which I wrote up here and here, but don't actually own. Anyway, this one, also great, will do in a pinch.]
Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania, edited by Jerome Rothenberg
[Classic 1968 ethnopoetic anthology. Reads like a weird alternative Bible.]
Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover
[A good Who's Who of interesting poets working today.]
The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion: A Trilogy, by Leslie Scalapino
[I've always loved Scalapino (I in fact made her Wikipedia page), and this book is a good example of why. Hard to describe, but I'd say it's like what you'd get if you ran a kind of important modern novel about globalism through some kind of syntax re-ambiguator?]
A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, by Tom Phillips
[If you're not familiar with this bizarre text, run a Google Image Search on "humument" right now. Use this link, if you want.]
Human Wishes, by Robert Hass
[This list is heavy on the experimental stuff, so here's what is, to me, a five-star book of more traditional lyrical poems about everyday life.
A Book of Luminous Things, by Czeslaw Milosz
[Another one for the traditionalists. Love poems, haiku, lyrical meditationstandard stuff, but well-selected here, and I think one needs some more emotional and less academic stuff to round out the picks.]
Darkness Moves, by Henri Michaux
[This French poet isn't that well-known, but his poems are blend of Surrealism, drug writing, and cerebral fantasy that I find absolutely hits me in my pleasure center every time. Sample line: "Infinite are the passages from fog to flesh in Meidosem country."]
Howl, by Allen Ginsburg
[One of the greatest books of poems of the 20th century. Nothing more to add.]
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
[I also would like to bring along really good volumes collecting William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, Ezra Pound, or John Ashbery, but aside from the Stevens I don't own any of these books, so I don't need to worry about which get the nod and which don't.]
That's fifteenadded to the twenty-five fiction titles brings us to forty. Sixty more to go.
Labels: book_commentary, poetry_commentary
Monday, June 30, 2008
100 book challenge: part one: fiction
Here are the first 25 picks, all from the Fiction shelves.
The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker
[One of my favorite authors, and this is my favorite novel by him.]
Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
[This book has enough provocative, imaginative ideas in it to last one a lifetime simply by itself.]
The Age of Wire and String, by Ben Marcus
[Still a book I grab on a regular basis to read random passages out loud to people.]
Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
[Like Labyrinths, this is a book that opens up onto a nearly infinite "possibility space."]
If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino [The other really essential Calvino novel.]
Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille
[A 1928 pornographic novel so mindbending it borders on the Surrealist.]
Crash, by J.G. Ballard
[If we're bringing along experimental pornography, we should definitely include this.]
Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs
I'm going to cheat here, and count Burroughs' "Cut-Up Trilogy" (Nova Express, Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded) as one volume
Another cheat: William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive).
I actually don't need to cheat on this one, because I have the single volume that collects The Complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, by Douglas Adams, but it's really the first only the first volume that matters deeply to me. I can, however, see myself enjoying re-reading the others at some point.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
[I've still never made it all the way through all three of these, but it's good to bring an unfinished book along with some of the faves, and good to have a book you could feasibly read out loud for a year.]
The Annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll [annotations by Martin Gardner]
[Another good out-loud book, plus it's essential to have at least one book on hand that could entertain children. Having Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass together in one volume make this an absolutely indispensible choice. Not to mention the annotations, which are fascinating.]
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
[I'm not entirely sure that I'll ever re-read this, but there are some great bits in it that often pop up in my mind, and I'd like to be able to refer to those bits at some point.]
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon [I'll include Gravity's Rainbow later, if there's room]
Underworld, by Don DeLillo
[Maybe my favorite "realistic" novel of the last 100 years.]
White Noise, by Don DeLillo
[Fights with Underworld for the title.]
Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis
[My favorite Amis novel, and the most successful and beautiful extended meditation on the flow of time that I've ever read.]
Blindness, by Jose Saramogo
[Like Time's Arrow, this is a book that's effectively a fantasy, but nevertheless profoundly captures both the horror and the beauty of real-life humanity.]
Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik
[An experimental novel that's also a concise history of the 20th century.]
Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
[Or maybe Pale Fire? Whew, tough choice.]
Valis, by Philip K. Dick
[Far and away the best of his novels.]
My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leyner
[An indescribable mish-mash of cyberpunk, experimental poetry, and humor writing.]
Schrodinger's Cat, by Robert Anton Wilson
[More coherent and more intellectually provocative than the cluttered Illuminatus Trilogy.]
Magic For Beginners, by Kelly Link
[A weird but often delightful collection of fantastical short stories.]
Next up: poetry.
Labels: book_commentary, lists
Saturday, June 28, 2008
(some writing about) writing about film
So after I saw Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (Film Club XXVII), I went and got a book of her writing out of the library (Essential Deren: Collected Writing on Film). It's pretty interesting, and it sheds some light on exactly what it is that she's attempting to do in her films.
I tend to read with a package of book darts nearby, and eventually (because I'm a huge geek) I take the passages of a text that I marked with the darts and transcribe them into the computer so that I can easily access, search, or share them later.
It occurred to me that people reading this blog might be interested in the notes on the Deren book, so I whipped them up into a webpage, viewable here. I'm still reading the book, so the notes aren't quite complete, but there's more than enough there for interested parties to sink their teeth into. (The page will dynamically update with new notes once I return to reading the book, which might not be for a few weeks: I'm travelling.)
Just in case Deren isn't your thing, here are a few other exports of notes on film books I've read in the recent past:
Virginia Wright Wexman's A History of Film
Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film
Stan Brakhage's Brakhage Scrapbook: Collected Writings 1964-1980
Martha Nochimson's The Passion of David Lynch
Eric Lichtenfeld's Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie
Jonathan Rosenbaum's Movies as Politics
Hopefully you can find something in there to enjoy. Oh, btw, these exports aren't hand-coded; they're all made possible by Dabble DB, a great (but not free) service used to generate online databases: that's the same service I use to maintain the 20 Most Recent Films and Favorite Films pages.
Last but not least is a reminder that the Production Design Blog-A-Thon begins Monday...
Labels: book_commentary, indexing, media commentary
Saturday, May 17, 2008
the season of comics
Of the last five books I've read (see sidebar), all five of them are graphic novels. That's the first time that that's happened in the five years I've been keeping a reading log.
I think there are a few factors that might contribute to this, besides the fact that graphic novels are generally pretty quick reads. It's winter, and an especially gray and dismal-looking winter, and the lure of something brightly-colored is appealing. Also, my grading load has increased this semester, and it's hard to want to read more lines of black text on white paper when I'm done with a few hours of reading student drafts. But probably most prominent is that Film Club has begun patronizing comic book / video store / geek haven Brainstorm, and it's one of those local microbusinesses that you just can't help but want to support.
Labels: book_commentary, comics, personal
Sunday, March 02, 2008
the year in reading: 2007
I know we're a little bit far on into 2008 for a year-end recap from 2007, but I try to crunch the numbers on the reading log every year, and I don't want to skip 2007 just because I was so busy for the first few weeks of the New Year.
So. Total number of books I read last year: 58! That's up a comfortable 16 from last year, and only two shy of my high-water mark (60 books in 2004).
Novels / novellas: 16 (up seven from last year). Highlights: Honestly? Probably fantasy stuff like the Harry Potter series, which I read all in a row, and Philip Pullman's Amber Spyglass. Of the science fiction I read this year, Charles Stross' Accelerando was the standout, beating out SF-esque books with greater literary aspirations like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Both of those were fine books, but Accelerando was ultimately more impressive.
Books on film / film criticism: 11 (+11). Highlight: Martha Nochimson's offbeat feminist read on Lynch, The Passion of David Lynch
Graphic novels / comics anthologies / books of cartoons: 7 (+2). Highlights: Roz Chast's Theories of Everything, and Matthew Diffee's great anthology of rejected New Yorker cartoons
Collections of poetry: 5 (-1). Highlights: K. Silem Mohammad's flarf masterpiece, Deer Head Nation; derek beaulieu's fun book of visual poetry, fractal economies
Essays / memoirs: 5 (+2) Highlight: the first three volumes of the Grand Piano collective autobiography project, written by an all-star team of Language poets. I claim them as a highlight, although by the time I got to the third volume they were depressing me deeply: hearing people reflect back upon about the formation of their intellectual / creative community really fostered an indelible awareness of certain absences in my own life
Books of literary criticism: 3 (same as last year). Highlights: the N+1 pamphlet on the "practical avant-garde;" Samuel Delany's Starboard Wine
Books on video games or game studies: 4 (+4; counting Henry Jenkins' Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, which is only marginally about video games). Highlight: I was deeply engaged by all four of these books, but the one of them that was most important for my own thinking on games and narrative was Jesper Juul's lucid and insightful Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, the best book I read all year
Assorted nonfiction and polemics: 7 Highlight: Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand!: Women and Men in Conversation
Authors I read in 2007 who have written at least one book I read prior to 2007: 8 (Philip K. Dick, Paul Pope, Rick Veitch, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Edward Tufte, William Gibson, Samuel Delany. Aside from Edward Tufte and maybe Rick Veitch, every one of them writes primarily in the field of science fiction or fantasy. Interesting.)
Trends: big leaps in reading about film and video games, two categories not even really on the radar in years past. Novels and poetry remained an important part of my reading, although I didn't read a single short story collection this year. Hmm.
What did you read last year that you enjoyed?
Sunday, January 20, 2008
some recent capsule reviews
With classes being over (they ended, for me, on Thursday), I've been able to take some time to catch up on this year's reading log. That said, here are some new capsule reviews for stuff I read this fall...
Alma, or The Dead Women by Alice Notley
This book is many things simultaneously: a collection of experimental poems utilizing different female personae; a cry of abject despair regarding US foreign policy; a set of incantations, curses, and other witchery; a call for the creation of a new species, defecting from the old. The fact that none of these things are particularly popular make it all the more impressive that this book ever made it to press. Enjoyable in small doses, sobering at its full length (at 344 pages it dwarfs most other volumes of contemporary poetry on my shelf).
Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie by Eric Lichtenfeld
A good overview of the action film as a genre, although I wish the book's theoretical basis was a bit more rigorous. It is best at positioning the films historically (it includes even minor details about their promotion and reception) and is weaker when it does ideological or formal analysis. The promise of an argument about "violence and spectacle" is only nominally fulfilled. Scavengings here.
You Just Don't Understand!: Women and Men In Conversation by Deborah Tannen
A careful analysis of the way gender differences manifest in conversation that scrupulously avoids taking a side in the "nature / nurture" debate. The book has no shortage of hard sociological data at its root, but most of the chapters are "humanized" with the inclusion of a lot of (sometimes repetitive) anecdotal data. This makes it slow reading at times, but the insights here remain sound: making this the rare example of a book that will genuinely help almost any adult who might take it to heart. Scavengings here.
Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte
A masterpiece of beautiful design, but content-wise this book feels a bit like a "Tufte's Greatest Hits" collection. The Powerpoint-hatin' and the appreciation of Minard's "Napoleon marches on Moscow" graphic, for instance, will seem familiar to readers of Tufte's other books. (That's not to say that there isn't a pleasant sort of comfort to encountering them again here.) Of the chapters that felt really fresh, the one on "sparklines" is key: it's the one that best showcases Tufte's endless willingness to fruitfully rethink the ways that we visualize data. Scavengings here.
Movies As Politics, by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Book-length volume of Rosenbaum's film criticism, collected from around the 1994-1996 era. I admire Rosenbaum as a critic, but I'm not entirely sure these short pieces, taken together, quite add up to a book. Arguments recur, yes, but in a way that betrays their piecemeal origins rather than working cumulatively. Scavengings here.
Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons 1978-2006, by Roz Chast
Roz Chast's cartooning work in recent years has been so content to mine the vein of child/parent relationships that it's easy to forget the pleasures of her early work, which is much more interested in the intersection between the odd and the quotidian. This is a great collection, although the first third (for my money) is vastly better than the final third.
Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures The Life of The Mind, by Gerald Graff
A book-length argument for some relatively commonsense principles: students learn better when they understand a context for what they're learning; instructors have a duty to try to bridge the gap between academic language and the vernacular; student papers are better when they have a sense that they're arguing *against* someone rather than into a vacuum. Valid points, certainly: but as someone mostly convinced of these points on my way in, I found the rhetorical exertion on display here to be essentially skimmable. Scavengings here.
As usual, the full list of everything I've read this year lives here, and LibraryThing powers a RSS feed of my reviews here.
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Monday, December 10, 2007
accelerando, by charles stross
Back in August, I wrote that Charles Stross' Accelerando might be the best science fiction novel of the last ten years. After a few months to think about it, I stand by that, and I wanted to try to follow up on the claim a bit here.
First off, it touches on just about every hot geek topic from the last decade or two: bandwidth politics, data havens, distributed computing, AI pets, entertainment law, viral marketing, the reputation economy, fringe-science ideas from people like Moravec and Tipler... the list goes on. One of Strosser's great talents is that he can not only cram all these ideas into a single book, but also find the ways in which they can be rewardingly combined, the ways they might shoot sparks if struck together: as a result, the future of Accelerando seems like an actual future, the generated result of ideas that have been lived with for a while, and fruitfully combined, recombined, mashed-up, road-tested, exploited, etcetera. It's a future that's imagined richly enough to be pretty disorienting for the readerthe more familiar you are with those zeitgeisty topics listed above the easier a time you'll have.
It'll also help if you've got a passing familiarity with the basic tropes of SFstuff like interplanetary colonization, "first contact," "the singularity," virtual worlds, consciousness-as-digital-simulacra, etc. Cause most of that stuff's here, too. Still erring on the side of maximalist density, Stross chooses to shoehorn not one but all of these different tropes into his book, again with an eye for the ways they might cross-pollinate interestingly. In other words, this is a book intended to disorient people who find normal SF novels to be not provocative or defamiliarizing enough (no small feat, considering that SF is a genre that has a certain degree of disorientation and frustration built into it as a fundamental requirement). It's also a generational epic and a comic rompit's brisk and flat-out entertaining. Highly recommended.
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Monday, November 19, 2007
some recent book reviews
I've updated this year's reading log with some new reviews, posted below for your reading convenience:
Easy Travel to Other Planets, by Ted Mooney
There's a lot to like about the way this novel chronicles the interpersonal drama among a group of intellectuals and artists. The conversations are stylish, fragmentary, and mediated; the prose is compressed, with a cinematic sense of editing; a quasifuturistic theme (interspecies communication) provides ample opportunity for strange riffs; an atmosphere of geopolitical tension permeates obscurely at all times, threatening, at any moment, to condense into apocalypse—at its best, it recalls the energy and thrust of early DeLillo. At its worst, it reads like high-end erotica posing as lit: Mooney's attention to the sexuality of his [female] protagonist lurches towards the prurient at times (in the first thirty pages of the novel, she participates in three sex scenes, including one with a dolphin).
Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art by Jennifer New
Book dedicated to showcasing intricate art journals, mostly hand-drawn. The journals themselves are so self-evidently fascinating that it's hard to say why presenting them in this fashion doesn't quite work. The choice to reduce intricate journal-pages down to postcard size, rendering them mostly unreadable, certainly doesn't help; I think there's also a problem with the sheer number of journals represented here, which helps to give a sense of scope and variety but eliminates the ability to really immerse yourself in any particular journal. The framing essays profiling each journal-maker are worth a read, but ultimately they're not nearly as interesting as the journals themselves: it's just one more degree of remove between the reader and the subjectivity that's alive in the journal-pages. There's so much "frame" here that the art itself is choked out.
Only Words, by Catharine MacKinnon
MacKinnon is an anti-pornography feminist, which can cause people on both ends of the political spectrum to reject her ideas without taking the time to engage with them first. This is a shame, because MacKinnon's argument here is one of the most interesting anti-pornography arguments I've read, avoiding the easy use of anecdotal pathos, in favor of a legal argument, suggesting that pornography's status as "protected expression" is a classification error, and that it belongs more properly in the category of speech acts that are treated legally as actions rather than ideas (hate speech; sexual harrassment). Elegant and deft.
The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
Final volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy, a children's fantasy trilogy built around the (Gnostic) notion of a War Against God. The fact that such a thing ever achieved a moderate success on the shelves of American booksellers strikes me as so profoundly improbable that Pullman earns points just for pulling it off; that goes double when you also consider that this book also features two heroically pair-bonded male angels and features a young girl's sexual awakening as a major plot point. But to focus on the anti-Narnian qualities on display here is to overlook the sheer strength of Pullman's prose and storytelling craft. In this volume, these strengths are most evident in Pullman's sequences of genuine terror (the passage into the Land of the Dead) and heart-rending tragedy (the parting of lovers). Heavy stuff, but Pullman is right to not flinch from confronting children with emotionally weighty material: it dignifies them as fully human.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Post-apocalyptic minimalism from master prosesmith Cormac McCarthy. This book could fruitfully be partnered with Jose Saramago's Blindness: both stare unflinchingly into extremes of human ugliness in an attempt to unsentimentally illuminate the fragility and sheer miracle nature of human love. In Blindness the love is between a man and a woman; here it is between a father and son, a framework that allows the book also to also rewardingly explore some of the thornier questions of parental ethics—when is it appropriate to lie to a child, for instance? What forms of protection are valid and appropriate? The book disappointingly pulls a few punches in its final pages, but prior to that it was one of the most rewarding novels I've read this year. Recommended.
Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul
If I were to pick a book that this one most reminded me of, it would be Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: you could practically entitle this Understanding Video Games and be none the worse for wear. Like McCloud, Juul comes to his chosen branch of the media tree with a fresh eye, determined to coherently examine its component elements in order to build a new conception of the way they work their effects. For Juul, the key elements are narrative and rule-based play, and the unique experience of video games grows out of cooperation (as well as tensions and slippages) between these forces. Fascinating reading, clear and lucid, an essential work for anyone interested in the academic study of video games or cross-platform narrative. Highly recommended.
(Those of you who are interested in that last one might want to take note that all my "scavengings" from the book (85 in total) can be found here.)
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Leaving tomorrow for a few days in the Great Northeast; if any readers of this blog happen to be in the greater Boston area and have a free lunch hour tomorrow or Friday, let me know and we'll hang. Otherwise I'm going to the Coop to blow some money.
Because of my trip, film club for the week is canceled, and I probably won't really be upping the blog posting pace, but I will leave you with one observation and one question:
The observation: Charles Stross' Accelerando is possibly the best science fiction novel of the last, oh, let's say ten years or so. I am stone-faced serious when I say this, although to get some idea of why, you might want to read some of what I was saying about science fiction last year around this time
And the question: does anyone know of a good way to defamiliarize prepositions? E-mail me at "projects," at imaginary year (all one word) dot com.
Labels: book_commentary, personal
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
some recent capsule reviews
Here are some reviews of stuff I read back in April. I didn't get a chance to review them then, because back then I was posting reviews of stuff I read in March. Oh well.
The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography: Volume 1 by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson
Ten Language poets take turns writing reflections on their origins. This volume (the first in a proposed ten) covers 1975-1980 and is loosely organized around a theme of "love." The unusual collective authorship scheme here is overtly designed to evoke multiplicity and ultimately create a "community of memory," although a less kind read might be to point out that it also serves to build the Language Poetry "brand," perhaps as part of a bid for long-term canonization. After all, the very point of writing autobiography (on one level) is to self-aggrandize, and although the Language thinkers, with their grounding in theory and radical politics, are more likely than most to critique this implulse, they don't manage here to transcend this aspect of the genre. All the same, the group assembled here is basically an all-star list of important poets writing today, and it's fascinating reading for anyone interested in putting their poetic work in context.
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Strange, episodic story cycle of life in a gloomy Eastern European city (Drogobych), which is overstuffed with decaying marvels, cryptic artifacts, and just plain trash. (Same goes for the protagonist's home, which seems both cramped and weirdly infinite.) The book is populated by colorful / quirky / mad characters, most centrally the protagonist's father, who obsesses first over raising exotic birds and then later, over developing a quasi-Gnostic theory about tailor's dummies as a form of imprisoned matter. Uniquely European high weirdness, likely to be enjoyed by fans of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Kafka's parables.
Among the Names by Maxine Chernoff
For this book, Chernoff gathered various texts pertaining to the concept of "giving" or "gifts," ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Gifts," to Marcel Mauss' The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, to DivorceSource.com's "The Question of the Ring." Thus gathered, she culls interesting phrases from them and jettisons the rest, effectively taking the discourse and exploding it into a book-sized cloud. This doesn't reduce it to nonsense, however—the theme of the gift persists—but by shattering the originals she decontextualizes the fragments, transforming them into curious artifacts, rewarding of close examination. The result of arranging these artifacts is not to make an argument about giving, exactly, but to do something more valuable: to try to illustrate (albeit obliquely) the entire sphere of human thinking that surrounds the concept. Fascinating, occasionally moving. Recommended.
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
j. k. rowling, pirates of the carribean, and world-building
One fact that has not escaped mention in the cloud of discourse surrounding the Harry Potter phenomenon is this one: there are certain metrics that traditionally characterize "good writing," and viewed through some of these metrics, J. K. Rowling does not appear to be a very good writer at all.
A few examples: she abuses space-filling adverbs, she circulates through the entire array of distracting synonyms for "said" (including the especially unfortunate "ejaculated"), she relies enormously on wordy expository dialogue (often at the climax of a book), her sense of prose rhythm is clunky, her metaphors are rarely vivid, she intermittently dips into cliche, her combat sequences read like a transcript of a Dungeons and Dragons melee round... etc etc etc. I could continue to populate this list, but really, any fan of the books (and I count myself among their number) could tell you that these things detract from the enjoyment of the books only marginally, if at all. And the unprecendted size of her global legion of fans suggest that there is a whole other unspoken set of "good writing" metrics that Rowling is in fact the undisputed contemporary master of.
So what might that be?
A clue is provided by Chris Stangl, of the great Exploding Kinetoscope film-blog, who has not written on Harry Potter as such (at least not that I've seen) but who understands something about that sprawling subculture we call fandom (just as a for-instance, note his in-depth appreciation / critique of the comic-book-only Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Anyway, in his 2006 year-end list, Stangl writes about, of all things, Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest, and in doing so he says:
"The story is built out of the elements that satisfy and inspire fan-fiction writers. Careful, obsessive attention to the arcs and quirks of every periphery character, piling on the backstory and complicated relationships, until the puffy summer blockbuster assumes Wagnerian proportion. Every character combination would be a potentially interesting pairing for slashfic. Holes in character histories and the timeline are left open for imagining more adventures. New fantasy elements and characters are introduced with such color and variety, they expand the Pirate-verse in every direction. Any Pirates fan gets a three hour cruise on the funniest, sexiest, most breathless, dreamiest galleon on the water. The rest of you may be lost at sea."
Interesting, I thought: and it reminded me of the "mixed or average reviews" that the new Pirates movie, At World's End, had been receiving. Complaints of the movie being over-plotted, talky, tedious, and cluttered made me wonder if these critics weren't just judging it, like some have judged Rowling, by the wrong metric. So let's pop over to see what one of fandom's primary academic champions, Henry Jenkins, has to say:
Unsurprisingly, he calls it "one of the best summer movies that I have seen in a long long time."
"The film ... throws a lot of stuff at us and expects us to catch it. ... [T]he parts add up to a satisfying whole if we connect all of the pieces. For someone really engaged in watching this film, the result is epistemaphilia, a mad rush of information being brought together and being clicked into the right mental category."
And still more:
"The modes by which we consume [franchise] films have shifted. Most films don't warrant a first look, let alone a second viewing, but for those films that do satisfy and engage us, a much higher percentage of the audience is engaged in what might once have seemed like cult viewing practices. Once we find a franchise which floats our boats, we will settle in for an extended relationships and we want to explore all of the hidden nooks and crannies. We want to know everything we can possibly know about this world and contemporary franchise films are designed to accommodate our interests."
And still more:
"Plots cross each other: a choice which seems to bring resolution to one plotline opens up new complications for another; a decision which makes sense from one perspective seems enigmatic from another; and the reader must be alert to all of these different levels of development, must think about what the scene means for each character and each plot if they are going to get full pleasure from the story."
And so all those negative reviews?:
"[I]f [people] suddenly realize that the film is much more complex and layered than they anticipated, they may start to flounder and ultimately drown, which seems to be what happened to a high percentage of the film critics. They went into the film expecting a certain kind of experience; they hadn't successfully learned how to take pleasure from its world-building; they don't want to dig into the film more deeply after the fact, comparing notes online with other viewers, because their trade demands constant movement to the next film and a focus on their own private, individualized thoughts."
Hmm. Nice. I haven't seen any of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, but I think that all the praise that Stangl and Jenkins are loading onto the franchise applies perfectly to the Potter books. People don't care about Rowling's work on the level of prose style, because the books offer a different pleasure from the pleasure of simply reading stylistic prose. Rowling has created a world that people engage with and enjoy. The vast networked ensemble of characters attended to within that world provides a staggering number of points for further engagement. The fact that, ultimately, the amount of information she can supply about these characters is finite is not a disappointment but rather explodes the universe into a practically infinite number of jumping-off points for further imagination, participation, and still deeper engagement. This is what Rowling is good at. To judge from the success of her books it may be the thing that primarily matters. Teachers of storytelling, take note.
(Film club this week was Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), a film that engages in world-building narrative in its own fashion. But more on that later.)
Labels: book_commentary, fandom, media commentary, narrative, writing
Saturday, August 11, 2007
the inevitable harry potter posts: III
Finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows a while ago, but only now found the time to write it up. Essentially spoiler-free, but in the comments area, anything goes:
Here, in the series' final book, is where Rowling strives most evidently for long-term grandiosity, from the Pullman-esque epigraphs, to the honest-to-God old-school Fantasy Quest, to the (disappointing) abandonment of "school" as the primary framing device. She also takes this as an opportunity to effectively trash the franchise, attempting with unrestrained relish to definitively retire most of the major characters (in one fashion or another). Some of the sacrifices thusly endured would feel (more?) capricious if it weren't for Rowling's selection of Life Under Enemy Occupation as the replacement frame. As anyone glancingly familiar with the history of WW-II-era Europe can tell you, enemy occupation makes for harrowing circumstances, and it is these circumstances that the book, at its best, convincingly evokes: no place is safe, everyone is constantly at risk, ignoble death can strike seemingly at random. This is a dark place for the series to go, but it sets the stage for satisfying closure.
Over and over again during my read of the series, I thought about the act of world-building, and how it is distinct from or related to the more traditional acts of narrative construction. Expect a discussion on this point soon, using the Potter books (and possibly the Pirates of the Carribean series) as the prime exhibits.
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
the inevitable harry potter posts: II
Three more Harry Potter reviews. I'm in the middle of reading the last one, which is appropriately harrowing; expect a non-spoilery review here soon.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The transitional book in the series. Rowling still feels indebted to the "boy wizard-detective solves mystery" structure of the earlier three books, but she's also clearly grown more interested in character development and the long-term narrative elements of the story world. This creates an interesting tension: between the desire, on the one hand, to write another self-contained book (like the first three) and the desire, on the other, to write a book that functions as an installment in an ongoing serial. The tension isn't fruitfully resolved: this book is the slowest to get rolling (it takes nearly 200 pages just to get to Hogwarts) and Rowling's heart doesn't seem to be entirely in the mystery: it's the one of the first four which has the least satisfying Big Reveal, which requires an entire chapter's worth of flavorless talk to fully clarify.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The first book in the series where Rowling assumes that the readers have read the previous books. Freed of the necessity to ponderously re-establish the backstory-- the flaw that weighed down Goblet of Fire --Rowling is freed up to hit the ground running: the turbulence begins to hit with the first chapter. As with the earlier books in the series, the book is centered around a mystery here, although unlike the earlier books, it doesn't truly belong the the genre of The Mystery as such--there is no real way to puzzle out the solution, for instance. But the series doesn't really need to rely on mystery structure any longer anyway: by this point the long-form plot has amassed enough potential energy that it can soar simply by exploiting the conflicts already set up in its first four installments. Which isn't to say that there aren't new ones as well, notably in the form of Dolores Umbridge, whose petty abuses of power, disdain for the autonomy of young people, and Kafkaesque punishment schemes make her all-too-familiar: possibly my favorite villain in the series. Recommended.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Feels a bit like a book-length positioning of pieces for the big finale of Book Seven. Not that there's anything wrong with that: Rowling, at this point, has developed a very rich world, populated by literally dozens of characters who we care about, each with their own interesting plot arc. (This may form the basis of an entire later post.) Watching this network click forward in the standard increment (one year) is fascinating unto itself; the Voldemort backstory that forms the real backbone of this book is an added bonus.
Cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
the inevitable harry potter posts: I
So I've been putting off reading the Harry Potter books for what feels like forever, despite the fact that this means that I'm at a real social disadvantage when hanging with my fanfic-writing pals. With the approach of the seventh final book, however, I realized that I'd have only a short amount of time to ever try to read them without knowing The Ending, so I decided to make ripping through the six existing novels my big July Reading Project.
As all of civilization knows, the final book went on sale last night at midnight, so it looks like I missed my deadline: I've finished the first four books and am about halfway through the fifth. Hopefully I'll get fully caught up before stumbling upon any spoilers, although I'm wondering if this is even possible without having to go on Full Media Blackout.
Anyway. What follows are reviews of the first three, free of all but the most mild spoilers:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
A good read. Chugs along surprisingly swiftly, drawn by the well-plotted and essentially rewarding mystery story that forms the book's core. The main characters (Harry, Hermione, Ron) are charming, albeit a bit sketchily-drawn in this early volume (and some of the bit characters, primarily the Dursleys, are cast with a heavier hand than is perhaps necessary, even for childrens' literature). The book's real stroke of genius, however, is the utilization of the familiar triumphs and trials of Going To School as a way to ground us in the quirky tweeness of Rowling's universe. Perhaps a minor quibble after this praise is the matter of the prose, some of which is occasionally clunky or slack (I don't know what enchanted letters shooting out of a fireplace flue are like, but to say they "like bullets" is no help). I'd probably let this pass if I hadn't just read Phillip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, a piece of children's fantasy literature that uses prose so finely-wrought and precise that nearly anyone looks clunky and slack by comparison.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book in the series brings back some of the same pleasures of the first-- the likeable characters, the fast-paced narrative, the "boy detective" elements (clues, red herrings, a finely-crafted Big Reveal) --and also introduces a subtle new one, specifically, a sense of repetition and variation that emerges from Rowling's decision to plot the books around a school year. Many of the milestones from the first book (summer trouble at the Dursley's, a Diagon Alley outfitting trip, the Sorting Ceremony, the Quidditch season, Christmas break, etc) recur here, which adds to our comfort and familiarity, but changing perspective and changed circumstances keep the book from feeling repetitive. The interplay between these poles is essentially the interplay that lends pleasure to any sort of tradition, and it does similar work here, making this book a read that satisfies more deeply than the first-- even if the Dursley's still feel heavy-handed, and even if the climax still has a touch of the deus ex machina about it (tell me again why a sword comes out of the Sorting Hat?).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The best of the first three. At this point in the series, Rowling's confidence appears to surge dramatically, resulting in the book being more inventive than its predecessors, most notably through Rowling's decision to introduce creatures that are brand-new to the series universe (Dementors, boggarts) instead of simply choosing to revamp of already-existing fantasy creatures (as she does with the pixies, goblins, dragons, centaurs, etc. of the earlier books). In addition, the mystery is more complex and satisfying (although the Big Reveal accordingly requires deployment of huge chunks of dialogue in the center of what's ostensibly a moment characterized by murderous desire). Finally, the book has a thrilling post-Reveal final act -- something absent from the earlier two books -- and a satisfying profusion of loose ends, which begin to give some sense to the shape of the larger seven-book arc. Recommended.
More to come in a while; cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Back from two days of mind-expanding drone festival action, two days of on-the-road hijinxs with Harvey P., and five days in Houston, Texas with K. and a rotating cast of guest stars.
Needless to say, I emerged from the far end of it having been pummeled by enough good times to have rendered me nearly insensate. Some highlights, ordered in rough chronology, include: attempting to summarize all of Seasons Two and Three of Lost to Harvey, who indulged this act on my part with a preternatural patience; exploring an abandoned motel in downstate Illinois; listening to the generative music produced by pan-African automated whirligigs designed by polymath George Lewis (currently on display at Houston's Contemporary Art Museum in conjunction with this exhibit); getting caught in torrential rain with old-school compatriots Jon and Sharon; enjoying salmon grill-out with the whole Court of Charleston group; laughing nearly to the point of internal rupture at a story K. told about attempting, when quite young, to make a steak tatare.
Then there was the fest. Saw some fantastic music, felt proud of my own performance as part of The Number None quartet formation, took a handful of decent photosthese are the good things. The bad thing is: we lost money on it, which has resulted in some lingering post-fest complications best left unrecounted here.
Aside from fest music, I've also consumed some other media in the last week, including the Transformers movie and the first two Harry Potter novels, which I'd not read before. Both were surprising: I didn't expect the Transformers movie to be as funny as it is, and I didn't expect the Harry Potter books to be essentially mysteries, complete with clues, red herrings, and big reveals. So many people talk about Harry Potter as a big fantasy epic, but I found themat least these first twoto be much closer to the tradition of "boy detective"-type novels, set in a fantasy milieu. In any case, they are quite charming, and the Transformers movie was worth my $9.50, even though it adds yet another branch to the messy thicket of Transformers continuity.
Has anybody out there read The Boy Detective Fails?
Labels: book_commentary, media commentary, personal
Monday, July 09, 2007
fractal economies, by derek beaulieu
A quick litmus test for whether or not you should read derek beaulieu's fractal economies would be to look at the image below:
This is one poem from the book.
If you can accept this as a poem, you might enjoy this book.
If you can see it as an exciting poem, one that expands the field of what a poem can be and expands the toolkit of ways poetry can represent, then you might love this book. I did.
"sinus headache," above, is taken from "surface," a long sequence of Letraset experiments that comprises most of the first half of the book. The second half is made up of two other sequences, "depression" and "blister," in which beaulieu investigates other visual means of poetry-making: photocopier and scanner experiments, relief experiments (rubbings), found poems, diagrams, etc. These other sequences are slightly less interesting than "surface," although this might be a matter of personal tastepart of what I enjoyed about the dry transfer experiments, for instance, is their compositional intricacy, a quality that doesn't naturally inhere in, say, a photocopier experiment. Ultimately, I'd argue for the importance of these other sequences as well, for they contribute to the book's larger effect: broadening the field of possible techniques for contemporary visual poetry. (There are, by my count, four poems in the book that don't even use letterforms.)
As an extra bonus for the truly hard-core: the book closes with a theoretical essay by beaulieu, "an afterward after words: notes towards a concrete poetic." I'm still digesting the ideas in this essay, and may write more on it later.
Labels: book_commentary, poetics, poetry_commentary, visual_poetry, xerography
Thursday, June 28, 2007
book reviews: march 2007
A temporary break in the workload allowed me to get a chance to breathe yesterday, so I spent it making this collage and hanging out at LibraryThing reviewing books I read back in March. (April reviews coming soon, if all goes well, although I'm getting a new batch of papers today.)
Anyway, here they are:
Crypto Zoo, by Rick Veitch
Hearing other people describe their dreams is supposed to be famously boring, but Rick Veitch has developed quite the knack for it: his autobiographical dream-comics are enormously compelling. Even "inspirational" -- each time I read one of these Veitch volumes I'm driven to re-start my own intermittent practice of dream-journaling. Any book that can motivate me to write first thing upon awakening, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, must be powerful indeed.
Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative
Nearly fifty essays compiled by the creators of the online journal Narrativity. The book promises, in its back cover copy, to represent writers "from Tijuana to Montreal," and sure enough they're there: the overall thrust of the book, however, is Bay Area through and through, and readers' enjoyment of the book will likely vary proportionately to how much mileage they can get out of that particular scumbling-up of aesthetics and theory and personal experience and politics that the San Franciscan literary scene has been reliably producing for a generation now. I tend to enjoy that stuff, but this collection is a mixed bag, in part because of the length restriction: averaging only about five pages apiece (a remnant of their Web origins), many of the pieces are able to squeak out a provocative line of inquiry, but very few develop fruitfully beyond that. This leaves the book feeling like a kind of intellectual snack food: often tasty, but not particularly nourishing.
The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, by Martha Nochimson
Critical appreciation of Lynch's work, up to and including Lost Highway. Iconoclastic to the point where it almost qualifies as "zany," Nochimson's read on Lynch is that he is not only feminist but also radically empathetic: she claims his films are designed "to bring the greatest consolation to the greatest number of people." Along the way we get lots of stuff about surging energy, living vs. constructed form, and forces beyond rational control. Odd, but never boring—in fact, its weirdness makes it often totally engaging. Recommended.
Baby by Carla Harryman
Carla Harryman has described her work as being a series of "studies in sentences, paragraphs, and the relationship of narrative to non-narrative," studies which allow her "to consider the social meaning of form without having to forsake [her] impulse to make things up." If that's the kind of stuff you like, check this one out: it produces a set of quasi-characters (most prominently a baby and a tiger) and suspends them in a void which has narrative elements but manifests as something quite different from a story. Intriguingly strange.
The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula LeGuin
Eerie SF novel about a world whose continuity is repeatedly revised by a man's dreaming mind, an ability which, predictably, begins to be exploited the very second another person gains a sense of it. Fascinating premise, but the book's real strength is in the way it locates the emotional heart of the story, becoming (at its best) a moving meditation on memory and loss, on power and the renunciation of power. Recommended.
Cross posted to Raccoon Books.
Labels: book_commentary, comics
Friday, May 04, 2007
the other hollywood
Legs McNeil's The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry is a book with outsized ambitions: even after doing away with gay porn entirely, claiming, probably rightly, that it's "another book unto itself," there's still at least three major strands operating here: a biography-oriented approach, dealing with major players within the world of porn; a true-crime-ish approach focused on mob involvement, industry murders, high-profile busts, etc; and, finally, an overview of major developments within the industry as an industry (the famous rise of video, for instance).
Although these three strands often overlap, they're distinct enough that the book often struggles to manage the welter of material. (To get a grasp of the magnitude of the topic, remember that the life story of just one figure in this world, porn merchant Reuben Sturman, constitutes an entire third of Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness.) Consequently, the book manages the unenviable trick of both being nearly 600 pages long and feeling like it's barely scratching the surface.
I've never been much of a big reader of true crime, and so that facet of the book is the least interesting to me (although the life story of FBI agent Pat Livingston, and his identity confusion with his undercover alias Pat Salamone is weirdly gripping: another "book unto itself" lies there). In reality, it's the third strandwhat seems to me to be the "true" history of the industrythat I was the most interested in, and at times the aversion to this material struck me as frustrating: why two chapters on a porn oddity like John Wayne Bobbit and not even a mention of industry-wide efforts to come into compliance with Section 2257? Why does the discussion of the star system that dominates porn today seem to end with Ginger Lynn? And for that matter, where's the Internet? (The book closes its history in 1998, with the discovery (and swift containment) of HIV in the post-testing industry, but it was published in 2005, so certainly Internet porn could have at least warranted a brief epilogue?)
Quibbling in this way is easy and perhaps a bit cheap: sure, this book isn't definitive, but I'm pretty certain that at this stage of the game it's next to impossible to write the definitive history in a single volume. And so if this ends up being a historyrather than the historydoes it matter? What matters more is that the book is consistently fascinating (although the short-sighted lack of an index does make the task of keeping track of the hundreds of recurring figures who crop up somewhat more of a chore than it, strictly speaking, needed to be). So, ultimately, recommended, albeit with reservations.
This review will eventually be cross-posted to Raccoon Books.
Friday, April 06, 2007
unit operations II
Just finished reading the second chapter of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, and found it shockingly similar to the first. The pile-up of important names continues: this chapter tackles Plato and Aristotle, linguist Ferdinand Saussure, deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, computer scientist John von Neumann, digital media theorists Lev Manovich and N. Katherine Hayles. And, like the previous chapter, this one ends up with a kind of strange left turn, this time analyzing the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Advisory System, which "underscores the tension between unit operations and system operations."
I'm still really enjoying this book, although I'm still struggling to make sense of its thesis in even the most general sense.
Labels: book_commentary, game_commentary
Sunday, March 25, 2007