Archive for December, 2012

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski – review

December 16, 2012

This review is not going to do The Fifty Year Sword justice in many ways, because I just don’t have the time to tear it apart the way I want, to map it out, etc. because it’s a library book, it’s new so I can’t review it, and it is due tomorrow. And this is something that I think is made to be torn apart, almost on a literal level of pulling the book from its cover and pulling the thing apart to look at the binding and everything. That’s with a pretty barebone story that seems pretty straight forward and short, if taken on a purely “here’s the story” sort of level.

Off and on for the past several months I have brought up Building Stories and its thinginess. Whenever you talk to someone who loves books, the actual physical things, it always come down to the tactile experience of the object, and Building Stories goes about this with this vast array of forms and styles. Danielewski has approached the idea of thinginess from somewhat of a different angle. House of Leaves was a textual feast. Danielewski toys with text, twisting and turning it, physically shaping  the formatting  to tell as much of the story as the words themselves. With The Fifty Year Sword Danielewski brings the same textual tricks to the table, and he plays around some more with quotation marks. In fact, the quote marks are really significant to this story, because it is told through a series of quotes, where it’s like you are sitting at a table at a diner and five people are all telling a story to you and they continually bounce off of each other, taking up the thread of narrative for a moment or two before someone else jumps in and does their and the entire novel is told in this round robin sort of way.

What lets you know when a different person takes up the narrative is the color of the quotation marks. Something that I really wish I had the time to do is to go through and map out what each colored quote mark says throughout the novel, and see if there is a story being told by each one, and how exactly each one “speaks.” To make things more complicated there are moments where one color quote seems to be quoting another color quote. Oh, and did I mention that occasionally there are larger question marks that appear to be stitched? And, if I had better eyes, I wonder if the smaller quotes are also stitched. I think there is a good chance that they are, and that’s something else that stands out in a big way when you start looking through the text.

The photos in the book appear to be rather high quality. I think the quotes are pictures of actual stitched quotation marks. With the larger quotes you can see the individual threads. Throughout the book are a series of stitched symbols or just stitched art work that sort of defies explanation other than to say that they are metaphorical takes on places being talked about in the text. And with the photos of the stitches, you can see the threads but you can also see the areas in the paper or material that is exploded up where the need punched through it. in areas where paper is folded, you can see all of the little creases and dents and shadows.  in pictures where cardboard has been ripped, you can see the layers of the cardboard where the rip wasn’t clean.

There are also parts where the stitching looks drawn. Where they drew a line and then just plopped down a heavy blot of color every so many millimeters to signify those dots, and it could open up a whole discussion about the significance of that, and authenticity and how that relates to the text.

And there are some physical things to the book that stands out. The orange cover has all of these tiny holes punched into it. Unfortunately, the dust jacket is taped on, so I can’t really get a good luck underneath of it, but it seems like there are more printed stitches on the cover. And the binding of the the book is done in the gorgeous red thread.  It makes me wonder if they used five different colors of thread to bind different editions or print runs, so while I have a book bound in red thread, yours might be in orange or yellow or brownish. And I wonder if there can’t be some significance to that and how the text can be read.  Maybe the color of the binding thread can be interpreted as the color of the “real” narrator and the fact that everyone could say something about how the story isn’t any one person’s story but is shared equally among the five narrators (who I take to be the orphans mentioned in the story, but that’s just me finding reason).

Alright, so, should you buy it? I want to say yes because I want stuff like this t be supported. At the same time, it is clearly not meant for everyone. Leaf through it at Barnes and Noble or the library. What I wouldn’t do, under any circumstance, is bother with a digital copy. Unless they chocked a bunch of extras into the digital edition, I think you would be missing out on a key piece of the experience of the novel. get a physical copy of it, and enjoy it.

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Some random post about me, today, maybe some links, maybe some lit type stuff

December 7, 2012

My updates have been few and far between over the past month or so. It’s not because I haven’t been reading (I just finished The French Lieutenant’s Woman), I just haven’t been willing to sit down and talk about what I have been reading. Also, the whole book links thing hit a tremendous dry spot. I just wasn’t coming across anything overly interesting. I tried to do a few posts with some links, but it really just wasn’t enough to make it worth while.

Mostly, though, I’ve just been in a foul mood, and when I am in a foul mood I simply shut down. Over the course of this week, I have been making a more concerted effort to pull myself out of that mood. Yesterday, I forced myself to try working out again, and I got twenty minutes of jogging in. Today, I am forcing myself to wear clean clothes. That sounds ridiculous and maybe a bit disgusting, but I don’t do anything. I rarely leave the house, and I hate doing laundry when clothes don’t seem “dirty” in a, “hey, let’s go dig out a stump and burn things” sort of way. But I’ve sort of realized today, as I sort of have to end up realizing at some point in all of my funks, that I need to change things like clothes to help work out of my funks.

Over the past month, my kid has been a random projectile of confusion and horror. I don’t think it’s right to detail his life here, but he has some social/behavioral issues and this school year has been *very* rough on him and us, the past month in particular. It culminated in him deciding he needed to just leave school one day resulting in a school lock down, a call to the police and a subsequent 45 minute conversation involving him, me, the principle, his teacher, a therapist and a cop. This sucked. Bad. Since then, I haven’t had to talk to any cops about his behavior so I am willing to chalk it up to incremental progress.
We also had, then backed out of, a house. What it can be boiled down to is that we leaped when we should have done some more looking. The place had some problems we didn’t notice before we bid, then the inspector pointed them out, and we quickly said, “well, hell no” and got out of it – much to the chagrin of our real estate person, and probably everyone involved on the seller’s side.  So, that was fun.
My work has been its normal blah self. With my crappy mood, the crappiness of my job sort of mutates and grows exponentially and just sort of pancakes me.
Other than that,  my thoughts have drifted a bit from literature and have centered a bit on movies – strangely enough, mostly superhero fair. My wife brought The Avengers home from the library, and it wasn’t horrible. I thought Whedon did a very good job of making an action/superhero movie entertaining and engaging. I, also, watched bits of Thor, which….yeah. It wasn’t nearly as good as The Avengers, but it was far better than the last two Spider-man movies (#3 and the reboot). Of course, conversations between me and the wife went the only direction conversations between us can go when the Avengers are involved and quickly centered on Hulk. I thought this was the only real way to use the Hulk – small doses, smashes everything, and some jokes like smacking Thor in the head. I just don’t see a lot you can do with the character in a feature film focused solely on him. However, I still prefer Ang Lee’s film over whoever did the reboot with Norton, while my wife things Lee’s film is too cartoonish.  Now, what I didn’t bring up with her is what I’ve been thinking about since: Lee’s approach to “collateral” damage in Hulk. One of her prime contentions is that when the Hulk did things like chuck a tank for a few miles across the desert, that they shouldn’t show the soldiers later climbing out unharmed. My opposition to this is that you can’t show the Hulk slaughtering largely innocent people and still have him work as the protagonist, especially not as a sympathetic protagonist – which he is supposed to be, since he’s dealing with his inner demons, his rage, etc. Her response is that they just shouldn’t have shown the soldiers climbing out.
But I think Lee was doing something that I’m not sure a lot of other superhero movies do, or even both to hint at: he’s confront collateral damage done by superheros doing superhero type stuff. In The Avengers, for example, when Loki’s army eventually invades there are creatures crawling all over walls, there are cops in the street taking pot shots, there are massive armored flying gator things….and I don’t recall seeing any people getting hurt or killed. What exactly are all of these creatures doing? Just hanging out on the side of the building, waiting to be picked off by Iron Man or chucked into the ground by Hulk? You see a lot of people in danger, but I don’t recall seeing any actual harm done to them. Somehow, with armegeddon breaking out all around them, no one seems to get hurt. And this seems more realistic, or less cartoony, than Hulk chucking a tank and not hurting anyone?
Watching Lee’s Hulk, I think that’s part of the genius of it. Lee is saying, “hey, it’s a comic book movie, people are not going to get hurt in this.” He rips away that idea of reality, and institutes his own.   This seems like something that could be interesting to look into, how collateral damage is treated in superhero movies. Lee made a clear choice of saying that he would show the results of Hulk’s strength and rage, but take away the repercussions of it. Even with the dogs, they just sort of disappeared with a green cloud, removing the movie further from the attempts of “gritty reality” that we saw Nolan strive for with this Batman trilogy.  Something that should be differentiated, though, is the ramifications of actions by villains and heroes. I have a feeling that there are far more people shown harmed by villains than by the heroes in any capacity.
Something that has been a major bright spot over the past week has been the videos with Adam Savage at tested.com (I’d like the newest, but my internet service is apparently down)(again).  I like Mythbusters. I think it’s an excellent, fun show that does a good job of highlighting science and making it interesting.  I grew up with shows like Bill Nigh the Science Guy and Newton’s Apple, and there are not enough shows out there to do what they did – make science interesting, accessible, and fun. The videos at Tested retain the fun aspect of the show, and Savage in particular, but it also gives us a different side of Savage. He loves films. He loves (LOVES) making stuff, everything from replicas of movie props to Dodo birds. He loves literature and is a huge Murakami fan. He’s engaging. He’s funny. He’s just damn good viewing. If you have the opportunity, look for the Untitled Adam Savage Project, and kill your day at about twenty minutes a clip. You won’t regret it. Check out the whole Tested site. It’s worth it.
Alright, some links.
Amazon is launching a subscription service focusing on hooking kids when they’re young to cheap Amazon content and gutting publisher’s ability to get people to buy books. Yeah, I think damn near any publisher taking part of this is just making a deal with the devil, and it’s going to only be a matter of time before the real payment comes due.
It’s the end of the year, which means the beginning of lists. The Atlantic has a best YA/Middle Grade list up. I browsed through it, interested more in the publishing possibilities and seeing what’s been big this year than any real interest in reading the stuff.  This is probably going to sound offensive, but I just have a terrible time becoming invested in these stories. But they can sell insanely well. So, yeah.

Inverted World by Christopher Priest – review

December 5, 2012

For about 250 pages, I was entirely “in” this world created by Chris Priest. It is a world that is misshaped by…something.  Their world is shaped like a spinning top, wide in the middle, points on either end, and their city must move constantly to avoid being sucked to the edge of their world and destroyed. For whatever reasons, the world around them doesn’t seem to notice these effects, and we gradually learn that the leaders of the city believe that they are the survivors from the world of Earth and they are waiting for their rescue.

Then Priest sort of jerks the rug out from under it.

And I lost interest almost entirely.

On the one hand, the course of the novel seems somewhat convenient.  A reveal was required to happen at some point, something to bring the story to some sort of resolution. The problem I have is that the resolution presented just sort of made the entire rest of the novel pointless, and it doesn’t really reveal how members of the city are able to blind themselves to reality so effectively and so totally, even when they don’t have a point of reference to do this blinding. It is as if the city suffers from a mass hallucination that stretches out to become their lives, and one of the conflicts of the novel is a group of residents of the city who don’t entirely buy into the reality within which the city believes it exists.

Trying to think of something to compare Inverted World to, I’m drawing a bit of a blank. In a way, it reminds me of a generic Kafka tale, but instead of the absurdity and labyrinthine horrors being clear, they are portrayed as normal, sane reality. Which doesn’t hurt the novel at all for the first 250 pages. Really, it’s just a good, though a bit thin character wise, SF/F novel. It posits an interesting world that ultimately comes to a less interesting conclusion, though likely out of a bit of necessity to end the thing.

tablet readers don’t want content?

December 1, 2012

At least that’s what the president of Hearst publishing claimed. Which sort of makes sense, in a weird,lazy, just give me what I’m accustomed to so I can scan through it and get back to my day sort of way. For me it makes absolutely no sense at all. Why wouldn’t you want video with your magazine? Or at least audio? Why wouldn’t you want the magazine to be interactive in a way that allows you to screw around with it a bit more and make it “yours?”

Which would have been good questions, and maybe they were posited/answered and maybe it just didn’t get picked up for this article, but they’re still questions that don’t really get a satisfactory answer. What I thought provided a better picture of what may have been happening was this quote later in the article:

“We were frustrated with how unstable the app was,” David Granger, Esquire‘s editor-in-chief, told me in an interview at Esquire‘s offices earlier this month. “We had a lot of complaints, a lot of bad reviews,” he said of the reason for switching to Adobe’s publishing software.

Esquire, btw, is owned by Hearst, so it fits together rather well. It leaves me wondering how much the readers didn’t want the extra stuff and how much was that the extra stuff was provided in a crappy app? I’m a sucker for extra features, I’m one of the people who listen to all of the commentary tracks to a movie and googles a movie for whatever easter eggs I didn’t find, but even I wouldn’t want any of the extras if it made what I was watching unstable and glitchy. It shouldn’t be any sort of surprise that readers would react more positively to a pared down format that works than to a format abundant in extras that always crashed on them.

This is something that irks me a bit because it seems like a good excuse for companies to essentially provide a PDF file of the text and let it go. With the digital format, we should embrace the idea of extras, of multiple layers, of an experience that goes beyond the text. I think this is also the best way for publishing house to really market themselves and find their niche. I think that content trumps everything. The most important piece of content is whatever work is at the center of what is being built. All the commentary tracks in the world don’t really matter if no one is willing to watch the movie in the first place. But assuming we have several publishing houses that put out quality work, what sets them apart? well, I think it can be the extras they provide.

For a comparison, I’d like to point to The Criterion Collection. For anyone who doesn’t know, The Criterion Collection releases movies that aren’t exactly summer block busters but which they believe are significant to the art form. While they clearly love David Fincher and Wes Anderson, they also release films by Agnes Varda and Yasujio Ozu.  They not only do the best to put out a high quality representation of the film, they also pack in extra features that you really won’t find anywhere else. With the movie Brazil, they packaged in an alternative cut edited by the studios for a more upbeat ending, a documentary about the war waged by Terry Gilliam against the studio to get his version of the film released, a documentary of the special effects (before digital special effects came into their own, so we’re talking some very impressive, classic Gilliam work) and a nice booklet. With their bluray editions, the special features are still there, and the booklets seem to be of heavier stock, with a chunk of better production value to them. In short, they don’t skimp and they have a very loyal following because of it.

Which is what publishers need. They need to cultivate a product that people want, because they certainly don’t need it. As it is, though, an ebook is an ebook is an ebook. Some go out of their way and have begun to really embrace the freedoms of the digital format, but they’re not the norm. on top of that, with the digital format the publishers are fighting the cost image. Now, from everything I’ve read, a whopping few bucks of a book’s price goes into the physical construction of the book, from buying the paper, to printing the words, to binding it all together. It’s a remarkably cost efficient process. Still, that means the TPB you payed $15 for should still be $12 if you buy and download it from B&N. Which should be great, you saved three bucks. Except all of us can made a .docx file or a pdf.  We can even download software that will do it for free.

So why are we paying $12 for something that doesn’t appear to cost much of anything to produce (of course, ignoring costs for editors, marketers, the writers themselves, etc. because these costs are often ignored or seen as something that should be cut for the sake of lower prices)? Well, that is where the extras would come in.  You’re not just paying for the text, but you’re also paying for all of this extra crap that comes with it. And it doesn’t even have to be incredibly great extra crap. Were there several cover designs being considered? Load them in as extras. Does the author feel okay with loading up a doc file with all of the edits saved so a reader can comb through and sort of reverse engineer the book? Awesome! A ten minute interview with the editor? A vid of part of a signing event? ANYTHING. And with classic novels, you can include scholarly work, past covers, etc. There is so much to do out there, especially if you’re creative (I’m not).

Just don’t do it if your format is crap. If your file is going to freeze my viewer every time, crash my o/s and force me to restart, yeah, just go with the story. That’s perfectly fine, too. But if you have something that works, that makes sense, load it up and create a niche. Some sort of author’s commentary track would be incredible.