Archive for May, 2010

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston – Review

May 26, 2010

It’s been awhile since I just picked up a page turner and fell into a few hundred pages of fun but Preston’s Blasphemy did the trick. It’s not high art, it may not even be great writing, but it’s fun. It reads a lot like a light Michael Cricton, when Cricton was still doing good stuff. Or like the Michael Cricton of Congo fame with half-bred gorillas protecting diamond mines.

The one serious problem I have with the novel is that it attempts to set science up as a new religion while giving it a foundation based on a lie. Perhaps it is to push another interpretation, that science and religion do play fundamentally different roles and for either to attempt to cross over to the other, certain ethical/moral sacrifices have to be made.  Maybe Preston isn’t thrilled with either field as a whole but sees one still being clearly better than the other. Still, the heighs and fanaticism inspired in its followers  by the end of the novel does not cast this religion/science combo in a nice light. It’s just as unsettling as its predecessor.

Still, it’s just a good, fast, fun read.

The Other and Ulrikke by Borges – Story Review

May 20, 2010

I have been trying to get into Jorge Luis Borges for about five years now. I had a professor at Siena Heights who really pushed the guy and I really respected this professor, so when he leant me his collection of Borges’s fiction I really tried to bear down on the thing and get under its skin. And I failed. Miserably. The thing ended up sitting on my shelf for a few weeks until the time that I returned it to him, told him how much I enjoyed it but didn’t get far into it and silently promised to take up the task again in the near future.

Five years later I pulled the collection out of the local library and have begun again. I may or may not have given the thing a chance while at UT but I can’t say for certain as that period of my life is mostly filled with memories of darkness, destruction and calamity. And none of the aforementioned triumvirate of misery had anything to really do with grad school itself, which should really tell you how wonderful those two years were.

Now I am having just as difficult of a time but I’m still trying. Instead of starting at the beginning, I’m going through the book almost at random, reading what immediately catches my eye while skipping over the things that hold less interest. This is the first story that truly grabbed me.

It centers around Borges encountering a younger version of himself on a park bench. in Cambridge, in February 1969. The bulk of the story consists of the older Borges trying to convince the younger Borges that this meeting is actually taking place and that they are, in fact, the same person. Despite many repeated attempts, the younger Borges refuses to capitulate, refuses to believe in the assertions made by thee older Borges.

It finally turns at the end where the older Borges continues to believe that he is real but that the other Borges was dreaming, but dreaming poorly as he dreamed of  a paper bill that couldn’t have existed. It’s an almost easy ending that allows you to forget how well it just plain old works.

and I’m still trying to decide whether I like it or not. It is a variation on the old “and it was all a dream!” ending that reeks of an author taking the easy way out of a difficult situation. At the same time, Borges isn’t saying all of it was a dream, just the other guy; that everything else was real except the younger Borges was there while dreaming while the older Borges was awake during the conversation. And all of the proof the older Borges has is this dollar bill that was dreamed incorrectly.

At first I didn’t think there was much to it, despite the story being enjoyable. I thought it was just a cute little thing. But the most obvious question soon surfaced: why does the older Borges so stridently believe that he’s not the dreamer? After all, it could just as easily be him that dreamed the incorrect dollar bill and it may be more likely that the dreamer would believe in his reality more than the dreamed.

But there wasn’t much I could do with this until I read the next story, Ulrikke. It’s a story, again about Borges, but about his short affair with a Norwegian woman: Ulrikke. Like The Other, Ulrikke depends greatly on the author’s point of view and the knowledge pre-supposed. Taken together, it seems that memory and perception are focus points for Borges. In either story, the protagonist has a great belief in how they view the world being the correct view. They take assured steps because of this. But I’m not sure either protagonist has great reason to believe this.

The problem I am encountering with Borges is that his fiction is so short, that it is difficult to break one story down into enough, well, stuff to really do anything with. It appears that the only way to mine Borges is to read an entire collection (not necessarily his career collection but one of the individual collections he put out in his life) and to see where the whole goes.  I’ll keep mining.

The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu – Review

May 17, 2010

On the coldest day of the year a boy is born the unwanted child of a prostitute.  It’s so cold, his little heart does not want to work and to set it working properly, the woman who delivers the child, a woman of bizarre means and ways, graphs onto his heart a cuckoo clock to help the little heart find its rhythm, to help it beat in tune with time.

Of course, this premise has its own twist and turn to it, and it’s the journey to the playing out of this premise that makes this novel. While the love story between the main character, Jack, and a near blind singer, Miss Acacia, is the focus of the story,  a second and, ultimately, tragic love story quietly plays out beneath this, a love story of a different nature between Jack and the woman who had grafted the cuckoo-clock to his chest, Dr. Madeleine.

The romance between Miss Acacia and Jack have the usual obstacles, largely being Jack’s inferiority complex and the return of one of Miss Acacia’s former beaus, Joe, who was also Jack’s archenemy in public school. And, really, the love affair ends as you would fairly expect it to. But it is also this ending that brings about Jack’s knowledge of the truth of his heart and the ultimate destinies of every character in the novel.

There really isn’t a lot to mine from the story. Love is displayed in many forms throughout, but never really explored with any depth. There are Dr. Madeleine’s desperate motherly love for Jack, there’s Jack (and Joe’s) obsessive love for Miss Acacia, there’s Miss Acacia’s love which appears the truest but also one of the most abused, and Melies’s love for women in general and few women in particular. The book is chock-full of of love malformed, love unrequited and love abused. But it finds a way to still say very little about it.

Which is alright because it’s still a good little read for what it is. On a personal note, I was somewhat disappointed by the turn that befalls the main character. I thought it took something away from him, made him (and his story) pretty normal fare. I can’t help but think that the idea of a boy with a clock grafted to his heart, in some way tied to his physical being so that each is dependent on the other, could have been followed to richer spoils, but it’s not a total turnoff. Considering the novel stretches on for all of 171 pages, it’s fulfilling enough without being repetitive or boring while also offering no real illusions that it needs to be more than it is. So since it is something you can pick up on a Sunday afternoon and put away late Sunday evening, it’s not bad. I’ve seen that it is supposed to go with a music album by the band the author heads, but I have not heard this album or any other album by this group, nor do I think it is necessary to enjoy the story. It’s good for what it is which, unfortunately, turns out to be something without the heart that it thought it possessed.

bad poetry

May 11, 2010

been writing a lot of poetry lately and a lot of it is just plain bad. Not sure why. What I’m writing about is good, but the words I’m using and how I’m using them, well, not so good.

It’s frustrating to have the words come but to have them be all of the wrong words. The wrong form. They may as well not show up at all at that point, just more editing later, but they ring the bell and I open the door and before I know it the damn things are littering the page and I don’t like them hanging around, sitting on my furniture, drinking my beer. It’s mine. I don’t want to share with them. Go. Just go.

On top of that, I haven’t been able to get moving on the novel re-write and the more I work on it the more dissatisfied I am with it anyway. I’m going to want to re-write it a third time.

On the plus side, the landlord finally turned the heat back on as Cleveland has been slammed by another cold snap. So the apartment is comfortable to sit in and not get any work actually accomplished in.

Rane Arroyo – RIP

May 11, 2010

Just learned today that I lost a friend of mine early Friday morning to a cerebral hemorrhage. I met Rane Arroyo during my stint at UT. I was pursuing an MA in English Literature and had an opportunity to take a class I figured I would enjoy for a change, a creative writing/poetry class, and jumped at it. Rane was a wonderful professor. He cared about all of hsi students. He would do anything to help nudge them down the road of becoming better writers. He gave. He gave a lot. He gave of himself, he gave his time, he gave his friendship, he gave his joy. He was a joyful person despite all of the crap he had to go through and I only knew a fraction of that crap.

The immediate reaction is to, in some way, quantify the loss. One Rane Arroyo is equivalent to X amount of sorrow. Rane was unquantifiable. He was too young to go and the world is the worst off for losing him. If you get a chance, check out his stuff.  Donate some time/money to your local humane society or animal shelter. Laugh. Be joyful. Rane was joy.

Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip Dick – Review

May 7, 2010

I was ready to give up on this thing 80 pages in. It was slow, it wasn’t going anywhere, the characters weren’t overly interesting…For a relatively short novel, it just wasn’t taking off. It kept switching viewpoints from chapter to chapter, from one character to another, and none of them were overly interesting. A few pages into whatever character’s chapter and you would have a pretty good idea of what that character was about and the characters never really surprised you.

And then one of the characters has a heart attack.

And then things speed up.

And then things get interesting.

And none of the characters really grab any depth. One of the more interesting characters is a side character, a Mrs. Hambro, who is the leader of  a UFO group that would give Heaven’s Gate a run for its money.  She seems dedicated to the group, to its bizarre ideas but, at the same time, you wonder if she isn’t in it for other, more selfish reasons as well.  There are moments in the novel where it is hinted that Mrs. Hambro is really a mirror of Fay Hume, the sister of the central character, Jack Isidore. But while Fay has the single mindedness and blatant manipulation of a child, Mrs. Hambro seems much more complex, subtle and, generally, adult.

Jack, for his part, sees through both characters equally well. This isn’t to say he doesn’t do what they want him to do, but he does it for his own reasons. He knows his sister is manipulative and states it frankly. He follows Hambro for the simple reason that he believes in what the group believes in,not necessarily in Hambro herself. And, at the end of the novel, when his decisions are clearly shown to be mistakes, he admits it and figures he should get the psychiatric help his former brother-in-law suggested. Despite, or because of, his mental baggage, though, Jack seems to have an ability of making decisions free of coercion in a way many other characters in the novel lack. Nor does Jack try to manipulate people for his own ends, as still other characters in the novel seem addicted to doing.

Still, the novel seems deeply flawed.  the male characters are either mentally challanged (Jack) or easily manipulatable (Charley, Nat, Charley’s employee/friend who picks Charley up from the hospital) and the woman (Fay, Hambro) are manipulative and cruel. Gwen, Nat’s wife, breaks from the archetype Dick uses, but even she is caught by Nat in the beginning stages of an affair and the impression is that Gwen might just not be as good as the other women at her manipulations – though good enough to lure another married man out of his marriage for a fling.

the dumb male stereotype is finally broken at the end of the book when Nat goes to court to get a decree for a divorce. His lawyer is openly manipulative in instructing Nat and his “witness” in what to say in court to get what they want. The judge, for his part, is clearly aware of this manipulation and does what he can to prevent it but only succeeds in baptizing Nat into a world of lying and manipulation so that his divorce could be obtained and only for Nat to realize, too late, that he has essentially destroyed himself.

Is this just a look at 1950s California? I don’t think Dick intended it that way. I think there are elements of class to it that are tied almost directly with education. Charley never has a formal education beyond high school and falls into a destructive life with Fay most easily. While Nat has the beginnings of a formal education and continually notes how he’s doing the wrong thing while still falling into the same trap. Jack lacks the education but has a “scientific mind” and sees the traps and manipulations for what they are. But then, at the end, the most educated male characters in the novel (the judge/lawyer) are also the most aware of how and when manipulation occurs. While the women just seem naturally inclined to it.

In the end, I think it is much like other work by Dick that I’ve read. Good idea, some good stuff crowded within it, but ultimately falling just a bit short of where it could have been.

Men Don’t Read! (but they do!)(but boys don’t!)(and what about that Ipad?)

May 5, 2010

well, I guess when you essentially disappear from the blogosphere for a week you tend to miss things like the dust-up caused by Jason Pinter’s article about men not reading any more (except they do!) and Laura Miller saying  not to blame the feminine editors, men just don’t want to work low paying jobs while Will Weaver sneaks a little article in about how young men don’t have many options in the library (except for his own book, of course, geared towards boys, which he mentions repeatedly).

I can’t say I buy Pinter’s argument at all. For one, he seems to be calling for more crappy writing geared towards men. I don’t really care who is lining up for Tucker Max. He is not a good writer. He’s entertaining for guys the same way Kathleen Woodiwiss is entertaining for women. And while I’m sure Jericho has led an interesting life, getting more guys to read celebrity bios doesn’t seem like a great goal.

I also don’t buy Miller’s argument, what there is of one. It’s more of a plea not to blame women for being editors while slamming guys for taking jobs that pay better.

Weaver is the one I would put money on for being on the right track. And I know from experience. I have a six year old boy who is a voracious reader who is running out of material to read. There isn’t any. And not just because the majority of it is geared towards girls (though it is) but because there literally just isn’t a lot out there for his reading stage where he’s getting past needing pictures and what is out there is crap. Or geared almost exclusively for girls. Going to the library is grueling. Thank god for Bunnicula lately. And, apparently, Carl Sandburg (who knew the kid would be a fan of rutabegas?).

By the time guys get old enough to buy books the publishing world has already lost them. Their reading experience has likely sucked and they haven’t even taken the necessary courses in high school to be prepared to read serious fiction. And Miller is wondering why more guys aren’t becoming editors? Not surprising considering their test scores on reading/writing when they were younger and how fewer of them are going to college in general.

And, no, it won’t matter if the Kindle is marketed differently. Apple markets the Ipad as an Apple product, occasionally mentioning the few things it does (and here’s a review of the keyboard dock so it can be at least a marginally functional piece of tech). throw the Apple logo on Kindle’s and they’ll sell like crazy. Well, even more crazy than they were selling before.

You want guys to read? Take a lesson from Big Tobacco and Alcohol: Get Them While They Are Young.