Category Archives: books

Night Film. Jeeze.

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I finished Night Film, Marisha Pessl’s second book last night. I loved her debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and had high hopes for this. I’m feeling very meh about it. If I think about it too hard, I get really frustrated with it. If I take it on a  surface level it was fairly entertaining for vast swathes. I really don’t understand how this book was marketed as a literary thriller (whatever that is). It’s pure page-turning junk food. Which is completely fine – unless you start thinking about. There is SO MUCH exposition in the dialogue, each revelatory scene feels like a repeat of the last one. If you gloss over the italics (so frigging many italics), which I have a pretty high tolerance for, the writing style in some parts of the book is pretty good. The atmosphere is pretty great. Loved the first 200 pages, and about a 40 page chunk near the end. Ending was a let down.

I am trying to pin point why Special Topics in Calamity Physics was so much better, and beyond having a better story, better characters, and being generally better written, I think Pessl was far more invested in the character of Blue Van Meer than in her middle-aged male protagonist of Night Film. Debut novels that I’ve loved by female authors recently  (Curtis Sittenfeld: Prep, Marisha Pessl: Special Topics) have a closer connection to their adolescent narrators. They aren’t so far removed from those awkward years themselves. Not that you have to write about young women when you’re a young woman (hello, Zadie Smith), but maybe it comes more naturally? Anyway, I would recommend this book for a fun read if you don’t mind length, and a bit of weak writing – it’s 600 pages. But hey, millions of people (myself shamefully included) read all 2000-odd pages of the Twilight Saga, which is literally RIDDLED with errors and lousy writing, so in comparison to that, this is a genius work.

Writing again…

Well, what do you know, I’m working on some stuff. A suggestion, from an artist-in-residence at an art school I went to in 2005, made to me Jan 20th, 2008, is finally bearing fruit. My Donna Tartt-ish pace with be the death of me.

Better than late than never, I suppose.

 

Reading until my eyes fall out…

Night Film by Marisha Pessl just came in to the library and I snatched it up like a greedy little piggy. Also delving in, simultaneously, to Andrew Solomon’s the Noonday Demon (loved his Far From the Tree), and Mary Roach’s Bonk. If only I could always balance one funny non-fic, one serious non-fic, and one hotly anticipated novel. There aren’t enough hours in the day or square footage on my night stand.

I will be back with more GG updates soon, but you just KNOW Rory would stop everything for Night Film too.

A mini review…

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I just finished Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. It’s the second book by her that I’ve read recently; earlier in the summer I read We Need to Talk About Kevin. That book is incredible, precisely observational and sharp as a tack. And what a character, Eva Khatchadourian. In Big Brother, we get some of that same sharply observed detail, some of that character building, but ultimately, an unwieldy ending that almost derails the book. It almost seems like Shriver gets 80% of the way in, can’t figure out how to steer it to the end and so cops out. It’s too bad. Very interesting book, otherwise.

Reading the summer away…

I’ve been avoiding the heat by reading in air conditioned places; reading on the beach; reading beside lakes; reading on the shady part of my deck.

Now I have a stack of books lined up for fall, and you will hear about them soon…

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Read an amazing book…

and then procrastinated writing about it until the very last day when I had to take it back to the library because I’m awful.

Ta-nehisi Coates, my role-model in writing, my best friend in my imagination, had this to say about the Brad Paisley/ LL Cool J collaboration, so astute I hooted out loud:

One of the problems with the idea that America needs a “Conversation On Race” is that it presumes that “America” has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.

Eula Biss, a white (although she complicates this in her book) writer, wrote a book called Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays, in 2010 and it is extraordinary. Reviewing this book in Salon, Kyle Minor writes,

Eula Biss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land” is the most accomplished book of essays anyone has written or published so far in the 21st century. If it has not taken up residence in the popular imagination of readers in the same way Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” did in the late 1960s, perhaps it is because we live in a time in which it is more difficult for books to assert themselves with great cultural force in the way they once did, or perhaps because Biss, unlike Didion, has yet to receive the strong support of the systems of power that bring great books to the attention of a broad readership.

I would also argue this book hasn’t received the attention it deserves because it is a prickly and uncomfortable book about race. Ta-nehisi has always been incredible on the subject of why this “conversation on race” is so rarely done right:

I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that “not knowing” is in its interest. There’s no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible.

Eula Biss, in an interview about revising the essays in this book in 2008:

I was revising this collection during Obama’s campaign and I remember feeling dismay at one point because the national conversation about race in that moment felt so misguided, so atrophied, so impoverished. Almost everything I heard about race on the news was silly or stupid and so I began to worry that my book assumed some basic understandings that just didn’t exist in this country yet.

In one of her great essays, Biss describes teaching a class at the University of Iowa while working on her master’s degree:

Racism, I would discover during my first semester teaching at Iowa, does not exist. At least not in Iowa. Not in the minds of the twenty three tall, healthy, blond students to whom I was supposed to teach rhetoric…. Sexism does not exist either, at least not any more. My students considered my interest in these subjects very antiquated. These things, they informed me, with exasperation, had already been resolved a long time ago, during the sixties.

This book is so rare and so uncomfortable because it is tackling a subject most people refuse to acknowledge even exists, or refuse to acknowledge as complex. I need to buy this book, and re-read it, and stew in it, and write longer on it soon. But please read it, if you want to be challenged, and amazed, and floored.

Amazing debuts….

There is a debate raging about women author’s share of hype/reviews/buzz/critical attention. They may be under-represented in hype, but in terms of quality, women novelists are currently winning the gender battle. I’ve read three debut novels recently by women that are absolutely incredible:

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth is about a lesbian teenager sent to a re-education “pray the gay away” camp. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are heartbreaking – it’s all fabulous.

I recently re-read Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! which I have raved about before. So dark yet somehow light and airy.

I’m currently reading The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff, her 2008 debut and so far I’m blown away.

Also, The Antagonist by Lynn Coady (not her debut) was without a doubt the best novel of the last five years. She’s brilliant and tragically underrated.

RIP David Rakoff

I was reading David Rakoff’s last essay in his last book about having cancer and wondering, hoping that this cancer wouldn’t kill him. It did. His writing is slyly brilliant. Sneaks up on you. He’s also a kindred negative spirit:

Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one’s least attractive, that sometimes it’s just easier not to do anything. Writing… always always only starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time, sometimes forever.

Maybe you can figure out where my head is at.

What I’m reading…

Today, I read Let’s Talk About Love : A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson. It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of books about specific albums. This one is about Celine Dion.

In this book, Wilson investigates issues of tastes, class, ethnicity, language, gender, etc., in the music and fan reception of Celine Dion. It’s a fantastic, very short read. It’s been helpful for me, thinking through my research project, especially the sections on taste. Wilson notes that in a survey from the 1990s, the four types of music that have the least-educated fans are rap, heavy metal, country, and gospel.  This isn’t surprising. This is so often the kind of music you frequently hear people saying they listen to everything but. “I like everything except country,” or “I like everything except metal.” etc. Wilson does some great analysis on why this is so, and how his own tastes as a music critic have been douchey and suspect.

Wilson summarizes the work of French theorists Pierre Bourdieu quite well, pointing out this fun fact:

But it was in asking people the reasons behind their choices that Bourdieu exploded the assumptions embedded in the whole ‘brow’ system (which originated in racist nineteenth century theories about facial features and intelligence). What he found was that poorer people were pragmatic about their tastes, describing them as entertaining, useful and accessible. But from the middle classes up, people had much grander justifications. For one thing, they were far more confident about their dislikes, about what was tacky or lame. But they also spoke in elaborate detail about how their tastes reflected their values and personalities, and in what areas they still wanted to enrich their knowledge…

Taste is a means of distinguishing ourselves from others, the pursuit of distinction. And its end product is to perpetuate and reproduce the class structure.

This is a kind of embodied work that Bourdieu and Wilson are speaking about. I’ve been reading Lit by Mary Karr, her third memoir about leaving her impoverished “white trash” Texas upbringing and going to university. Eventually she marries a wealthy man from a wealthy family. This is the scene at dinner:

Effortless, excellence has to be. Tossed off, reflecting the ease you’re born to, which opposed what little I’ve garnered about comportment. I’m bred for farm work, and for such folk, the only As you get come from effort. Strife and strain are all the world can offer, and they temper you into something unbreakable, because Lord knows they’ll try – without letup – to break you. Where I come from, house guests have to know you’ve sweated over a stove, for sweat is how care is shown. At the Whitbreads’, preparations are both slapdash and immaculate. You toss some melba toast on a plate next to a fragrant St. Andre triple-creme cheese, or on Christmas Eve, half a pound of caviar casually flipped into a silver urn.

It’s taken me so much EFFORT just to do as medium-shitty as I’ve heretofore done. Just to drop out of college, stay alive, and have my teeth taken care of.

In Sara Ahmed’s take on Bourdieu, she notes that the upper class bodies, through their seeming lack of effort, disappear from view. This also takes a kind of work, a disciplining into the right orientations toward objects, music, culture etc., considered tasteful.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I have a lot more work to do on taste, gendered working-class bodies, and obviously, country music performance.

So I read the new Eugenides book…

And I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with the National Post.

But I could have done without most of the first 150 pages of The Marriage Plot, which work through each of the character’s undergraduate backstory, and felt a bit like a rehash of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, without the cocaine, which was the only interesting part.

Oh snap.

Basically, this is a book about three assholes. They are 90% full of shit, and 10% right about things, which maybe is the recipe for all twenty-two-year olds. Such a huge disappointment after Middlesex, which is an absolute masterpiece – certainly kicks the shit out of anything Franzen ever wrote.  The female main character in The Marriage Plot is both slightly prettier and slightly richer than everyone else – and that’s it. Not she’s prettier and richer and a raging boozehound like in Gatsby. Or prettier and richer but totally psychotic and fucked up. Nope. Just really pretty, rich, and normal. And totally fucking boring.

Too bad we’ve all been waiting nine whole years for this book. I know it must be hard to top a book like Middlesex, but you must be able to do better than this.

Salon is on fire today…

Another gorgeous piece about books:

Yes, ambitious, talented writers will continue to exist and their writing will be great because they have read. And yes, there will remain people who have nary an interest in writing but luxuriate in an afternoon of reading. The devaluing of imagination as it departs on flights of fancy brought on by just being with yourself, this is what is changing us in profound, yet to be fully realized ways.

Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to use your imagination without wanting to know how.

Something to think about…

Due to excessive busyness, school-ness, travel-fatigue, etc., I largely avoided the 9/11 ten year hooplah. This, however, is one of the only things I read from the weekend, and it’s damn good.

Check out Laura Miller’s essay at Salon.com

Charged with looking beneath, behind and around such images, the novelist comes up against the question of what makes these particular violent deaths so very different from every other violent death. That isn’t easy to answer, and any answer you do come up with is likely to sound disrespectful, cynical, unfeeling and insufficiently solemn. A novelist may decide to push onward anyway, whether into sentimentality (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) or smarmy self-aggrandizement (“The Good Life”), but in such cases, the results feel thin, vaguely false and meretricious. “It’s kryptonite to novelists,” a critic friend of mine once said about 9/11.

Reading lots…

The Beekeeper’s Lament by Hannah Nordhaus is awesome.  This is one of my favourite parts. Entomologist Justin Schmidt made an index ranking the pain of insects stings, and it’s quite poetic and lovely:

1.0 SWEAT BEE: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 FIRE ANT: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.

1.8 BULLHORN ACACIA ANT: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 BALD-FACED HORNET: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 YELLOWJACKET: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2X HONEY BEE AND EUROPEAN HORNET: Like a match-head that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 RED HARVESTER ANT: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 PAPER WASP: Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 TARANTULA HAWK: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ BULLET ANT: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

When entomologists are also amazing writers, everybody wins.

Reading…

The Game by Ken Dryden, which chronicles a week in the life of the 1978-1979 Montreal Canadians. They say it’s the greatest  hockey book of all time, so I picked it up at the library, and it didn’t disappoint. He’s a great writer, rare for an athlete, especially such a good athlete, and he’s also super introspective and conflicted — which is the really interesting part considering he was the best goalie on the best team in the league and won the Stanley Cup six times in eight years. What is there to be conflicted about when you’re so awesome?

Oh, but he does ennui so well:

From the referendum on Quebec’s independence to the “son of Sam” murders, I find almost everything ‘interesting’ and if pressed for more,  I offer explanations. I show that I ‘understand’ how such things happen and I go no further. But as I hold back, giving less of myself,  I find that I am losing my enthusiasm for the game. In an athlete, it is not the legs that go first, it is the enthusiasm that drives the legs.

Easy, David Foster Wallace. And here he is, on playing at Maple Leaf Gardens in the late 70s vs. going there as a kid.

It was a period piece – elegant, colonial Toronto – perfectly shamelessly preserved from a time before glitter and spectacle came to the city; and came to sports… I don’t much like the Gardens now. Competing against a child’s memory, that is perhaps inevitable, but it is more than that. The building’s elegant touches are gone, but anachronistic perhaps, even in that other time, most deserved to go. It has been expanded and modernized for contemporary needs – more seats, more private boxes, a bigger press box – but I dislike the haphazard, graceless way it was done. There is a veneer of newness about it now that doesn’t quite fit. It has been stranded in an awkward transition; no longer what it was, it cannot be what it wants to be. Now after nearly fifty years, there is nothing special about it. It is just another rink; just another place to play.

Such a great book. Highly recommend it.

Oh, that Ellen Willis…

When she’s right, she’s super duper right; she had Dylan pegged before anyone else, back in 1967 in her breakthrough piece “Into the Flood”:

In six years Dylan’s stance has evolved from proletarian assertiveness to anarchist angst to pop detachment. At each stage he he made himself harder to follow, provoked howls of execration from those left behind, and attracted an ever-larger, more demanding audience. He has reacted with growing hostility to the possessiveness of this audience and its shock troops, the journalists, the professional categorizers. ..  Dylan’s refusal to be known is not simply a celebrities ploy, but a passion that has shaped his work. As his songs have become more introspective, the introspections have become more impersonal, the confidences of a no-man without past or future. Bob Dylan as an identifiable persona has been disappearing into his songs, which is what he wants.

But when she’s wrong – oh dear, is she ever wrong.  One of her favourites on Abbey Road? “Octopus’s Garden”. The one she likes the least? “Oh Darling”.  Also, she hates “Bridge Over Troubled Water” but loves it when Elvis sings it at a concenrt in 1972. In the fat jumpsuit era. Really. Wow. Okay, then.

New book on the go…

Started reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis On Rock Music. So far I’ve just read the foreword by Sasha Frere-Jones, the current music critic of the New Yorker, who, I was recently surprised to find out was neither a woman or a black person, which was oddly disappointing. Moving on – Ellen Willis was the first rock critic at the New Yorker, and the first prominent woman rock critic ever, which is pretty damn cool. Frere-Jones quotes Willis’ co-worker Karen Durbin at length in the foreword:

Ellen was that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality, which is why she wrote with such insight about rock and roll but also with such love. She respected the sensual; in a fundamentally puritanical culture, she honored it. She saw how it could be a path to transcendence and liberation, especially for women, who, when we came out into the world in the early to midsixties, were relentlessly sexualized and just as relentlessly shamed. Rock and roll broke that chain: it was the place where we could be sexual and ecstatic about it. Our lives were saved by that fine, fine music, and that’s a fact.

I’m so pumped to read this book!

TNC on the lack of women in book lists…

I’m quoting the whole thing because it’s so darn awesome:

There’s a lot of twittering about Esquire’s list of 75 books that men should read and the fact that only one book by a woman–Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. There’s a point to be made here about sexism. But I’d like to focus on the implicit incuriosity that always accompanies these sorts of things.

Books are our most intimate art-form. The reader does a temporary mind-meld with the author, and a collaborative world–their words and our imagination–is conjured from nothing. And because each reader’s mind is his own, each of those conjured worlds, each of those planes, are different. And because the libraries are filled with incredible books, those of us who are readers spend our whole lives creating these private planes, walking them, mapping them, comparing ours with those of other readers, and then returning to our own only to see the contours changed.  And so we map anew.
Why any dedicated reading man would dream of this sorcery strictly with other men is beyond me. It goes against one of the great assets of reading–the voyage to new worlds. It would be as if Magellan said, “I like my small town fine enough.”
Put bluntly, if you call yourself a reading man, but don’t read books by women, you are actually neither. Such a person implicitly dismisses whole swaths of literature, and then flees the challenge of seeing himself through other eyes.
This is not a favor to feminists. This is not about how to pick up chicks. This is about hunger, greed and acquisition. Do not read books by women to murder your inner sexist pig. Do it because Edith Wharton can fucking write. It’s that simple.
AMEN AMEN A MILLION TIMES AMEN!!!!! (Sorry that the formatting is fucked up. WordPress is being weird and won’t let me fix it).

An elegant defense of libraries…

Laura Miller, at Salon.

The Rose Reading Room is an exceptional place, but even the humblest branch library can provide the same precious resource to its patrons. There’s nothing “elite” about needing some tranquility, either: If anything, the poorer and younger you are, the harder it is to find a quiet spot to read, write and think, where family isn’t crowding around and countless electronic devices aren’t blaring at you from every corner. Access to a little peace and quiet is as essential to a humane society as access to parks and art. That’s not something the Internet is ever going to be able to give us. It can only be found in a real, not a virtual, place, which is what libraries have always been and what we all still need them to be.

I have newly rekindled my love affair with libraries, and am loving every second of it.

On timing, cynicism-reduction, and weening myself off Amazon…

I voted today, in my slippers. There is a polling station in the lobby of my apartment building; it was embarrassingly easy.  I have spoiled my ballot in the last several federal elections, because I didn’t like the options. I still don’t really, but that goddamn mustachio’d sleazeball is growing on me.

As I voted I couldn’t get the images of Tahrir Square out of my head. People die to be able to do this. No matter how cynical I can get, there’s no way to be cynical about that.

On another non-cynical front! They killed Osama bin-Laden at a completely non-politically relevant time. Timing is  everything in this kind of situation, and obviously this is going to make Obama look good no matter when it happens. But! Why do I get the feeling that if this was 2004, bin-Laden would be chilling for a few months in Dick Cheney’s guest room until a week before the election? So good for Obama, good for Leon Panetta, and yay for them not exploiting this too much. And good for him for being so hilarious at the Correspondents dinner, and totally pwning Donald Trump.

And! I got a library card today, my very first one since I was 11 years old. The Oakville Public Library is awesome. A nice building, good book selection, just an all around great place to hang out. And it only took me eight months to discover it. Obviously, I was one of those kids who loved visiting the library when I was a kid – I was BFFs with my elementary school librarian – but since I left university, I stopped visiting them. You know what I did do? Buy a billion books instead. From Amazon, Chapters, wherever. I have spent so much money on books in the last four years, thinking that libraries wouldn’t have the books I wanted – but yay! they totally do! Now I will only buy the ones I really like, which my husband and anyone who helps us move ever again will surely appreciate!

I realize that the discoveries I made today  – voting is good, libraries are awesome – are ludicrously obvious to normal people. I guess I was too busy being a recluse in my impenetrable bubble of cynicism, running away from anything that had to do with “community” and “civic duty” to notice.

There may be hope for me yet.

More hilarity with your righteous indignation, please…

Still working on David Rakoff’s book, and am particularly loving his essay “Beat Me Daddy” about gay Republicans, published in GQ in 2004-ish. Hilarious, astute, amazing. He wrote about a gay Republican group called Log Cabin Republicans, and had this to say about it:

Such abject masochism may make for great Billie Holiday songs – it kind of ain’t nobody’s business if Lady Day is beat up by her papa; he isn’t hoping to pack the courts with anti-choice troglodytes or to defund social security – but the Log Cabin blues have ramifications beyond the merely personal. It might be a price they are willing to pay for the sweet lovin’ they feel they’re getting from the rest of the GOP package, but I didn’t sign on to get knocked around by someone else’s abusive boyfriend.

In this whole Grizzly Mamas Sarah Palin feminist brouhaha, I’ve never seen a feminist writer take on why it’s so uncomfortable to watch these women sell us out to the GOP in a funny and concise way. There are a tiny handful of funny feminists, but they still aren’t writing stuff this good. He also interviews the head of some Pro-family bigot organization for this piece, who spends nearly an hour obsessing over anal sex, and the following bit of absurd hilarity ensues:

But if Knight displays an obsession with the mechanics of sodomy – simultaneously mesmerized and sickened by the tumescent, pistoning images of it that must loop through his head on a near-constant basis – he is notably impervious to an image he conjures when I submit as how HIV is transmissible through normative, upstanding, God-sanctioned heterosexual congress as well.

“Not as easily,” he says. “The vagina is designed to accommodate a penis. It can take a lot of punishment.”

My regards to Mrs. Knight.

I hate to say this, but if feminists were this fucking hilarious, we would be in much better shape. Can’t someone – other than Alex Pareene, a dude – just absolutely skewer Michelle Bachmann properly and we’ll be rid of her?

And bonus points! He’s Canadian!