Saturday, December 31, 2011

77 ain't bad

Books owned that were read

Or is it?

That's the final number of books read this year. It's not 100, but I'm happy. I'm behind on the reviews -- those stopped at number 70. I'll finish the rest in the next week or two.

So here's the list:

1. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
2. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne
3. Dealing with Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede
4. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt
5. Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller Jr.
6. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind
7. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
8. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Young-Ha Kim
9. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
10. Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
11. Eeeee Eee Eeee, Tao Lin
12. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
13. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
14. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
15. Take the Cannoli, Sarah Vowell
16. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
17. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
18. Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell
19. Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao Lin
20. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
21. Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman
22. Vox, Nicholson Baker
23. V for Vendetta, Alan Moore
24. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, Ursula Le Guin
25. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Tao Lin
26. You Are a Little Bit Happier Than I Am, Tao Lin
27. The Stranger, Albert Camus
28. A Listener's Diary, Sarah Vowell
29. Contact, Carl Sagan
30. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
31. Drinking at the Movies, Julia Wertz
32. Skim, Mariko Tamaki
33. The Lifted Veil, George Eliot
34. Mathilda, Mary Shelley
35. Lady Susan, Jane Austen
36. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
37. The Help, Kathryn Stockett
38. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See
39. First Love, Ivan Turgenev
40. One Day, David Nicholls
41. Parnassus on Wheels, Christopher Morley
42. During My Nervous Breakdown I Want My Biographer Present, Brandon Scott Gorrell
43. No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July
44. The Gospel of Anarchy, Justin Taylor
45. Everything is Going to Be Great, Rachel Shukert
46. The Postmortal, Drew Magary
47. The Shit My Dad Says, Justin Halpern
48. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
49. Sloth, Gilbert Hernandez
50. Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 1, Gilbert Hernandez
51. Ayiti, Roxane Gay
52. The Farthest Shore, Ursula Le Guin
53. Tehanu, Ursula Le Guin
54. Tales from Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
55. The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin
56. Bed, Tao Lin
57. Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, Ellen Kennedy
58. Wilson, Daniel Clowes
59. Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
60. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
61. When She Woke, Hillary Jordan
62. Camera, Jean-Phillippe Toussaint
63. Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, Megan Boyle
64. Break it Down, Lydia Davis
65. Vathek, William Beckford
66. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
67. The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
68. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
69. A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
70. Us, Michael Kimball
71. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
72. The Happy Prince, Oscar Wilde
73. A House of Pomegranates, Oscar Wilde
74. Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde
75. The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China
76. Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women's Poems from Tang China, Jeanne Larsen
77. Watchmen, Alan Moore

And I wanted to see what my unconscious reading habits looked like statistically:

40% were by female authors
60% by male authors

Only 16% by authors of color

60% novels
12% graphic novels
10% short stories
9% poetry
6% non-fiction
3% other

12% translated from another language

So it was the year of the English white male novel. No surprise there. Next year I will strive for more diversity.

But I did manage to knock 21 off The Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list. If I keep going at that rate I'll finish off all 1000 when I'm... 70 years old! But by then they'll change up the list and we'll all be too preoccupied wearing anti-gravity boots and dancing on the ceiling to care about books. If we even make it to the year 2013.

Countdown to the zombie apocalypse 2012!


Monday, December 19, 2011

Us, 70/100

I feel a little bit like a dick for giving Us by Michael Kimball only two stars on goodreads.

Here's why: Kimball wrote the story about his dying grandparents. Most of it is from the perspective of the grandfather, who takes care of his wife after she has a seizure and goes into a coma. Very little is from the perspective of the grandmother. There's also a portion from the point-of-view of Kimball as a boy going to his first funeral.

At first it is heartbreaking. But by the end I felt like the biggest Ebenezer Scrooge (McDuck) in the world, at one point doing the jerk-off motion with my hand while reading it. So heartless! I know. But the entire thing seemed like an exercise in emotional masturbation.

It also felt like something meant for people who maybe haven't gone through the type of emotional trauma experienced by this family (although it's something we all eventually go through). I'm not one of these people. The problem with having a large family is that you become very familiar with sickness, death, and funerals. I've been visiting hospitals and attending funerals all my life. It hasn't gotten any easier. There's nothing more profoundly disturbing to me than going to an open-casket viewing or putting flowers on a grave. I did the latter just this weekend.

I understand why Kimball wrote this book. It was a way to process what he experienced, and what his grandfather must have gone through watching his wife die. All the same, I can't give it a good review based entirely on the subject matter and the fact that it made me weep like an Oprah audience member. You can't write a book that consists entirely of the last third of Nicholas Sparks novel.

The idea would work wonderfully as a writing exercise, or a creative writing class work-in-progress. A personal reflection or meditation. The most disturbing meditation ever I presume.

However it blows my mind that anyone could have actually enjoyed reading this. Or got anything out of it. Or, for the love of god, would recommend it to another person. This book would make the worst Christmas present ever.

"Merry Christmas! When considering what to get you I thought, 'I bet this person would just LOVE reading about old people slowly and painfully dying!' Can you pass the eggnog?"

Bah humbug.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Room of One's Own, 69/100

It feels like I've read the first chapter of Woolf's book-length essay a thousand times; where the fictional narrator is chastised for (literally) walking off the path at Cambridge's campus, barred from the library, and complains about being served prunes for dinner. The prune discussion, although funny, always led me astray from the book's purpose and caused me to put it down. But picking up from that point and moving on I was finally able to finish it this time; and I'm so glad I did.

Apologies up front for all the very long quotes I am about to post. I had more marked but decided to take mercy upon the internet. Besides, you can always read the entire thing for free right here.

Woolf's published essay is a lengthened version of a series of lectures she presented to two women's colleges at Cambridge in 1928. I would give anything to have been in the lecture halls when Woolf recited her views, just to see the women's reactions. Presented with the broad subject of "women and fiction", Woolf narrows it to a discussion of why women have been unable to produce the volume and quality of work that men have been able to over the ages. The answer is fairly simple: women haven't had the advantages that men have. It's hard to write the complete works of Wm. Shakespeare when one is forced into marriage, take care of children, and refused the right to own property. Instead, she argues, any woman with the genius of Shakespeare during his era would have been driven mad and committed suicide; an eerie precursor to Woolf's own fate.

My only criticism of A Room of One's Own, as others have pointed out, is that Woolf doesn't discuss the conditions of women of color. It certainly would have made it a longer essay, but its glaring omission leaves holes in her argument. There should be a disclaimer at the beginning of book stating that what she means by "women and fiction" is really "middle-class white women and fiction."

Regardless, it's a must-read for anyone interested in the history of English literature, and even for writers, for there are plenty of observations on what it takes and what's needed to be a successful writer. Or at least a self-respecting one.

Now here are some lengthy passages I couldn't edit down without their losing meaning and soul:
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size....That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is? ... They start the day confident, braced, believing themselves desired at Miss Smith's tea party; they say to themselves as they go into the room, I am the superior of half the people here, and it is thus that they speak with that self-confidence, that self-assurance, which have had such profound consequences in public life and lead to such curious notes in the margin of the private mind.

What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonitions of the eternal pedagogue--write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronising, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some too conscientious governess, adjuring be refined...admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in questions thinks suitable...It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs and chidings and promises of prizes. One must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can't buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

...where books are concerned, it is notoriously difficult to fix labels of merit in such a way that they do not come off. Are not reviews of current literature a perpetual illustration of the difficulty of judgment? "This great book," "this worthless book," the same books is called by both names. Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the degrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery...

...fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.

For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.

A Clockwork Orange, 68/100

What could I possibly say about Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange that hasn't been said before? Beats me. But I have to write something.

It's considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. It inspired one of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time. Plus plenty of halloween outfits. I'm guessing one out of every five college freshmen has the notorious movie poster in their dorm (next to "crazy stairs" and Munch's The Scream). It created an entirely new form of slang, nadsat, which is going to make me ask for "eggiweg" for breakfast for several weeks I'm sure.

And its own author hated it.

From Burgess' book Flame Into Being : The Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence:

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.

The misunderstanding was that by depicting "ultra-violence," the novel was glorifying it. It was released in 1962 after all.

Did Kubrick's film adaptation glorify sex and violence? First off, are we combining sex and violence into one thing? -- as in "violent sex"? If not, then I'm not sure why sex is in that sentence. Because sex does not need to be glorified. Most people find it pretty glorious already. Secondly, at no point in the film did I feel violence was being glorified. Try watching the scene where Alex rapes a woman while belting out "Singing in the Rain" and not be traumatized for life. I feel a bit traumatized just typing it out.

The moral of novel (and film) is extremely clear. Anyone who can make it all the way through either should have the intellectual capacity to understand its message: it's better to have free-will and be evil than none and be forced into kindness. It's a big idea with a lot of social and religious implications. One could argue for days on it. I won't be doing so because I have a stack of books on my nightstand I need to attend to. But one thing it's NOT doing is saying "violence is sweet."

*Warning, possible SPOILERS below. If you care about that sort of thing.*

But I have another bone to pick with Burgess. In the original UK version there are 21 chapters. In the first US edition they cut the last chapter, and that is what Kubrick based his film on. After reading the full 21 chapter version I have to agree with Kubrick and say the last chapter felt unnecessary. It changes the tone of the novel drastically, and quite honestly, makes no damn sense. I get what he was going for -- a sort of No Country for Old Men type of old vs. youth battle. Alex grows one year older and, poof!, wants to be responsible, stop the raping, killing, and pillaging, and (good god) have a kid of his own. If Burgess had fast-forwarded 5-10 years in the future, this may have worked. Although from a stylistic point of view it's still horrible. The previous chapter ending in flying colors, and the last being a great pile of mush.

What if instead of Brian De Palma ending Carrie with her grabbing that girl's arm, it continued 5 minutes more with them sitting down together and discussing the weather? No! Bad storylining. Bad bad.

But THAT'S IT! I swear that is the last novel with rape in it I will read this year (what's left of it). I'm all raped out. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest, 67/100

Aubrey Beardsley cover art <3

The first play I've read all year! And probably since college. Seems crazy that I haven't read The Importance of Being Earnest before. I think I saw part of a movie adaptation once. I knew it had something to do with the fact that a bunch of guys pretend to have the name Ernest.

Did Jim Varney's Ernest character every do a parody of this? Something like "Ernest Goes to 19th Century England"? Or "Ernest Scared Witless?" No? He should have.

This was one of the funniest things I've read all year. It so fun to read something that is just outright hilarious. A nice break from all the depressing and murder obsessed literature that's been populating my "have read" list. Wilde's play manages to make the trivial serious, and the serious trivial. Cucumber sandwiches and muffins are more consequential than marriage. Or death. Thus the play's subtitle: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

Here are some passages: is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.

...I know perfectly well whom she will place me next to, tonight. She will place me next Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent...and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public.

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?

Cecily: Oh no. [Puts her hand over it.] You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.

Jack: How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.

Algernon: Well I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins calmly. It is the only way to eat them.

Lady Bracknell: Dead! When did Mr. Bunbury die? His death must have been extremely sudden.

Algernon: [Airily.] Oh! I killed Bunbury this afternoon. I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon.

Lady Bracknell: What did he die of?

Algernon: Bunbury? Oh, was was quite exploded.

Lady Bracknell: Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation. If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

Algernon: My dear Aunt August, I mean he was found out! The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean--so Bunbury died.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Vathek, 65/100

William Beckford's Vathek had been on my reading list a long time. It's always paired with other classics of 18th-19th century gothic literature, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Castle of Otranto--faves of mine--so it's been on my radar awhile.

Rather than taking place in Europe like most gothic lit of the period--amongst medieval ruins, wind-swept plains and sublime mountains--we're transported somewhere in the Orient. It's very vague. Beckford was no doubt taking advantage of the then current (1782) popularity of "Orientalism," since stories like The Arabian Nights had just found their way to Europe.

All the tropes of gothic lit are here: ghosts and demons, extreme emotions, towers, subterranean passages, and religion vs. enlightenment (science). In this case the religion being explored is Islam rather than Catholicism.

I wasn't familiar with a lot of the terminology and mythology of Islam, so of course I had google up and ready. I think I spent more time wikipedia surfing than actually reading the book.

If you feel like wasting a few hours, here are some pages to check out:


Wait, Ifrit! I know that one. Thanks Final Fantasy! (don't let anyone tell you can't learn from video games)

In the story the Caliph Vathek is a rich, spoiled, pleasure and knowledge-seeking ruler. He is given the opportunity to attain all the power and knowledge of a god, if he renounces Mohammed and performs heinous deeds to prove it. Heinous as in feeding 50 children to a demon. Goaded on by his evil mother, Vathek works his way into hell and discovers just what his reward will be for his efforts.

It's a twisted fairy tale with a heavily didactic moral in the end. Which is beyond being just "don't kill children." Beckford's fight is against the enlightenment movement. The moral is "don't seek knowledge you're not meant for." An Adam and Eve story for an Arabian prince.

And don't make deals with the devil. At least not for "ultimate knowledge." Don't settle for less than new car. Or a Mad Men DVD box set.

*struck by lightning*

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 66/100

 Featured cover is a minimalist interpretation made by an artist at this blog. It uses the original Swedish title "Men Who Hate Women." Which is really a much more appropriate title.

Lisbeth Salander, the "girl with the dragon tattoo," is one of the protagonists. She shares equal page time with the other protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist. But the American publishers didn't call it "The Guy With a Grudge Against Corrupt Business Moguls." I understand it's not as flashy.

But all the focus on Salander's character in marketing the books, and the subsequent film adaptations, has been a bit disheartening. I've been trying to pin-point why I feel that way, but can't. Would the novels have been as popular without Lisbeth Salander's character? No, probably not. She's a fascinating character. So it makes sense that she would be the one publishers and producers push forward as the image for this series.

But maybe that's it. She's the "image." I have a knee-jerk reaction to seeing women used as images to advertise things.

I really enjoyed reading Stieg Larsson's first novel in the series. I plan on reading the other two in January. I was warned about disturbing scenes of sexual violence, but my god, after American Psycho they seemed fluffy in comparison. I don't think I can truly be disturbed ever again. I decided to finally jump on the bandwagon and read it after finding out David Fincher was directing the American film adaptation. You know Fincher, right?: The Social Network, Se7en, Fight Club? Yeah, I'm definitely going to see it. Of course Fincher has had his own share of criticism, particularly for his portrayal (and lack thereof) of women in The Social Network. Let's see how he handles a film with GIRL in the title.

For the 3-4 people out there who haven't read the first in the Millennium series (I used to be one of them!), here's the basic rundown: Mikael Blomkvist is a disgraced investigative journalist who's been hired by an eccentric millionaire to solve the case of his missing niece, who disappeared almost 40 years ago. When Blomkvist suspects the disappearance may have something to do with a string of violent murders, he recruits PI researcher Lisbeth Salander -- an extremely talented, asocial young woman with a history of sexual abuse in her past. She holds a personal vendetta against men who abuse women, and takes up the case for almost no money. What follows is what you'll read nearly 700 pages to find out: what exactly happened to Harriet Vanger 40 years ago?

My very first guess turned out to be the right one. Might I mention that my college roommate was obsessed with Law & Order so I was forced to watch it multiple times every day for about a year. I had ~90% accuracy guessing the killers. Stories are stories. They have to be set up a certain way for them to work. Unfortunately in real life crime solving I would probably be horrible.

*walks over to dead body, kneels down and runs a gloved finger over the sidewalk next to the victim, tastes the residue. "The nun did it," I say with absolute certainty.*

Monday, December 12, 2011

Break it Down, 64/100

I mentioned the other day about blogspot farting and causing me to lose my whole post on Lydia Davis. I'm not rewriting the entire thing because that would require rereading all of Break it Down to find all the passages I marked. Maybe another time.

So why aren't the passages still marked? Well, dear imaginary reader, it's because I removed all the post-its when I went to have my book signed by Lydia Davis. It just so happened that she was having a reading at my alma mater. I found out after I had already mooched a few of her books on a recommendation.

Her reading was good, and mostly from new unpublished material. She shared one piece that she had rough-written that morning. I admit it was difficult to pay full attention to her, since there was a student in front of me practicing her cross stitching for the entire duration.

I should mention that my alma mater is a women's college. Of which, every year, a portion of the student population has an "embrace the textile arts" movement; a way of empowering an art consistently overlooked because of its association with women. But really it's an excuse to knit ugly fucking scarves during class and pretend you're doing something profound. I fail to see how it's empowering to ignore the visit of a highly successful, internationally recognized female author, just so you can cross stitch the Little Mermaid on a fucking pillow.

Despite the seething beams of hatred I directed towards this young woman for upwards of 90 minutes, I remained calm enough to wait around for Davis to sign books afterward. Where surprisingly (stupidly) there wasn't a line. Kids these days! (shakes fist, yells at cloud)

Our short exchange was appropriately awkward -- Davis often writes awkward, almost autistic characters, probably why I like her so much -- and I left with a signed book and a very sad soul. On the way home I stopped by Krogers and bought "sad soul" food, i.e. barbecue potato chips and soda.

Blogspot decided to erase all the passages I had already copied over from Break it Down, so I'm just going to share with you one of her short stories, my favorite from this collection.

From "The Fish":

She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her--there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.

Love every word of that. Wonderful.

Writing a short story now called "The Barbecue Potato Chip."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Internet Lovelies

Daniel Clowes' cover for the New Yorker

"Where are the books?"
"Um, they're over here on the bottom shelf. But wouldn't you rather have a Simpsons themed Monopoly board? Or perhaps you'd like to browse our 32 different varieties of moleskine notebooks?"

So many bookstores (and online book retailers) have become like pharmacies; barely even carrying the things they were created to sell. My local CVS (aka Snuggie Outlet) doesn't carry Tylenol. The biggest pharmacy in town doesn't have Tylenol. TYLENOL. My god but they have waffle irons.

A book — a real book — is one choice, taken from a pile, opened and entered as its own singular, separate world. Once chosen, you are not holding the constant opportunity to alter or improve your choice, or simply change it just for the sake of restless change. You are there, now, without the relentless pressure of the fact that you could always be, and maybe you should be, maybe you’d be happier or more productive or different, doing something else.
KJ Dellatonia, Link

Imagine the least funny joke you can imagine and then imagine having to see that joke repeated for a hundred minutes while someone punches you in the face with the sharpest knife in the world while also pouring gasoline into the cuts and occasionally burning you with white hot fire. That’s a moderate approximation of the experience of watching this movie.
Roxane Gay on watching Jack and Jill, Link

It's also the experience of watching Carlos Mencia try to perform comedy. OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. Snap.

Nothing will trickle down to you unless you shake the clouds. Time to make it rain updwards.
Jim Behrle on occupying American poetry, Link

I think mostly what this is about, is whether you’re the type of person who writes something on the Internet and feels secure/smug/confident or the type who is immediately racked with regret and self-doubt and self-loathing...

But there is that compulsion to say something. (Dare I say?) to say anything.
Elizabeth Ellen, Link

I'm that second type of person. Whenever I get a comment, facebook like, retweet, etc., evidence that whatever bullshit I've been spewing forth has actually been read, I become a nervous wreck. Whenever I comment on message boards or other people's blogs, I immediately close out of the window and log out of email, terrified of any response back. Or no response at all. It's complicated.

Hi! I have social anxiety disorder. Even on the internet! (fun!)

There's a list of the 56 Best/Worst Similes in this blog post from House of Figs. Whether they're the best or worst is up to you. But they're all hilarious. Here's a sample:
5. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

16. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

17. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

43. The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.

And my all time fave:
51. It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.

That sentence is so intriguing! What is "it," and what could it possibly look like? My mind goes immediately to Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, but I've seen it before, so it obviously cannot look like that. The mystery!

I feel like I've used too many exclamation points today.


Whatever. I'm just gonna watch this 50 times over and then play some Simpsons Monopoly.

Monday, December 5, 2011

why blogspot is a gigantic fart

I was almost finished with this nice, longish post on Lydia Davis and one of her short story collections, but I tried to undo posting a picture I realized was stupid, and somehow everything was deleted when I clicked the undo button, and clicking redo did nothing, and then blogspot autosaved like an ass, I lost everything, and now I feel like Jo March and Amy has burned my manuscript.

Dear blogspot: if you fall through the ice I'm not going to come save you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, 63/100

Read Muumuu House's most recent publication, Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee, a poetry collection by Megan Boyle. I was really excited to read it, being a fan of her blog (, twitter, and ThoughtCatalog articles (including the classic Top Ten Things to Imagine Happening to Nicolas Cage as He's on His Way to a Dentist Appointment he has Postponed for Three Years).

The first word that comes to mind in regard to this collection is "funny." The second is "honest." The third is possibly "relatable" and/or "internet."

Boyle's collection is an amalgamation of chronological blog posts and poems, describing her daily actions, thoughts -- pre-meditated and stream of consciousness -- confessions, memories, and self-reflection. It brought to mind that Jean-Philippe Toussaint quote I posted yesterday:

literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the "not interesting," the "not edifying," on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books

and from the same interview

The problem with the idea of the "minimalist novel" is that it's very simplistic. The term "minimalist" calls to mind the infinitely small, whereas "infinitesimal" evokes the infinitely large as much as the infinitely small: it contains the two extremes that should always be found...

Boyle's collection contains the infinitely large and the infinitely small. Large ideas like the difficulty of human connection, small actions like eating noodles and "surfing the web."

But can I stop waxing literary and say that I really really really really really enjoyed reading this book?

Here are some passages:

i could never be a sports writer, unless my assignment was to write 'sports sports sports sports sports' for three pages

i want to delete everything from someone's computer except a giant microsoft paint picture of a dick that takes forever to load

am i consciously trying to think interesting thoughts because i think i'm going to write this down later? am i actually interesting or do i just want to construct a view myself as 'interesting' so i can feel like i shouldn't die? 'interesting' seems mostly dependent on other people's perceptions, less on mine, maybe. or more like my idea of what will 'interest' others. if other people didn't exist i wouldn't worry if i was interesting or not

i keep thinking about updating my blog, twitter, and facebook with 'AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH,' then leaving the internet indefinitely

it feels like i could die in 50 years or tomorrow and the world would be relatively the same place

there would still be trees and people loving each other and killing each other

i feel insane and maybe on the verge of some kind of breakdown right now, like i'm not even sure what the internet is right now, i feel like i've taken a lot of pills but i've just had hummus, pita bread, an apple, some oreos, coffee, water, and birth control

i would like to matter to every person in the world

i would like every person in the world to matter to me

neither of those things will ever happen

i strongly feel that everything is and always will be okay while walking from subway to my apartment, holding a sandwich and a diet coke, usually around 9PM, seeing maybe two other people on the street and very few cars

when i close my apartment door and turn on the lights something changes in my stomach and i think 'shouldn't there be something else, something is missing'

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Camera, 62/100

Finished the slim but worthwhile Camera by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith. The novel follows the thoughts and actions of a Parisian man as he pursues a relationship with a driver's ed instructor. The style of writing, what you might call minimalist or matter-of-fact, combined with the narrator's actions, had me convinced in the beginning that the man was possibly a psycho or murderer. I was prepared for something dark and grisly. This is what happens when you pick up a book and start reading without looking at the back cover or any reviews or descriptions. That, and you've been reading American Psycho for ten months.

But here's why my mind was set on him being a psychopath. The man is presumed to be older and doesn't have a driver's license. He goes to sign up for driver's ed classes, doesn't have all the application materials necessary, and keeps returning every day to the driver's ed office without them just so he can hang out with one of the employees. And by hang out I don't mean have conversations with, but just to be in the office with her. I found it terribly creepy, although the back of the book describes it as a "love story."

Perhaps I'm sensitive to this particular brand of creepy, since I once had a workplace stalker. A library patron who would play solitaire on our computers, waiting for me to get off work so he could follow me out and try to start one-sided conversations. Possibly wouldn't be so creepy if I hadn't lied and told him I was engaged, and wasn't interested. Several times. Creepers please stop with the creeping.

The story in Camera turns out not to be creepy or murdery at all. Instead it is an account of an uneventful period of time in the self-obsessed narrator's life, not special for any particular reason, but given importance through description of his activities and his thoughts.

Take the very first line:
It was about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that, considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The novel is split into two focuses (foci?): the first half dealing with "the struggle of living," and the second half with the "despair of being," both lines used by the narrator.

In the "struggle of living," most of the narration is centered on his actions -- step-by-step the things he physically does during the day. Often sprinkled with extreme detail. Think of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" when he spends nearly ten pages describing the house and its surroundings, except with this guy eating an olive. In an interview with the author he refers to this mode of writing:

Underlying my novel is, although it isn't expressed theoretically, an idea of literature focused on the insignificant, on the banal, on the mundane, the "not interesting," the "not edifying," on lulls in time, on marginal events, which are usually excluded from literature and are not dealt with in books.

In the "despair of being" the narrator slips into philosophical thought, with his self-obsession turning from "what I am doing" to "what am I doing here?" Self reflection not of the body but of the mind.

It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-darkness of the booth and I was thinking, protected from outer torments. The most favorable conditions for thinking, the moments when thought can let itself naturally follow its course, are precisely moments when, having temporarily given up fighting a seemingly inexhaustible reality, the tension begins to loosen little by little, all the tension accumulated in protecting yourself against the threat of injury...and that, alone in an enclosed space, alone and following the course of your thoughts in a state of growing relief, you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.

The novel never becomes grisly, but it does turn a bit dark.

A nice read, and I'll be looking into Toussanit's other work in the future.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

When She Woke, 61/100

The premise behind Hillary Jordan's When She Woke is what made me grab it. In a near-dystopian future (when will I tire of dystopian fiction?), Hannah Payne awakens in jail with her skin dyed bright red -- her punishment for having an abortion.

When She Woke is a re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but it is also heavily influenced by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In Jordan's dystopian future, a sterility epidemic has caused an under-population crisis. In some countries women are subjected to forced insemination. In the U.S., Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and the government has devolved into a dictatorial theocracy.

A feature of this new society is a process called "chroming" -- a form of punishment alternative to prison, in which citizens are punished for their crimes by being dyed a color relative to their offense. These "chromes" are then shunned, discriminated against, abused, and in some cases hunted once released back into society. Hannah Payne (think Hester Prynne) is guilty of murder in the eyes of the people: she had an illegal abortion to save the reputation of the already married father.

Not everything about chroming or the logistics of this dystopian world really sticks together or remains believable from beginning to end. But it's not meant to be. It's more of a plot-device to explore the concepts of guilt, faith, and dogma.

Some might consider the novel having an anti-Christian slant, and it definitely focuses on questioning the standard practices and doctrine of evangelical religion. However, I wouldn't consider it anti-god or anti-faith. The protagonist is a deeply religious young woman who, through her chroming experience, comes to question and ultimately rebel against the theocracy governing her. Her faith in god is explored, but never completely denounced.

Similarly the novel takes a pro-choice stance, but acknowledges the complexity of the issue. Hannah retains a feeling of personal guilt and responsibility for her action which she explores, while simultaneously refusing the guilt placed upon her by the puritanical society she lives in.

Jordan provides the best answer for the abortion argument: "It's personal."

...the procedure. Hannah remembered how the term, along with the other equally clinical and dispassionate words he'd used, had calmed her. She saw in retrospect that they had in fact enabled her to go through with it. You didn't temporize, much less agonize, over a procedure, you proceeded with it. A procedure didn't induce regret or require expiation. But how different the scenario became when you substituted words like "murder" and "abomination." The truth of it, Hannah thought now, lay somewhere in between. She'd ended her pregnancy out of love and fear and necessity. It hadn't been simply a procedure, but neither had it been an atrocity.

I would consider When She Woke to be YA fiction, despite it not being classified as such. I'm sure the publishers decided not to market it this way to avoid controversy with parents over it's subject matter. But everything about the way it's written and the way the subjects are approached point directly to YA. How disappointing that a book which could help young adults work through issues of faith and sexuality won't find it's way into their hands. I'm sure if the book was about actual murder, full-fledged and gruesome, it would be sitting right there on the school library shelf next to Twilight.

Friday, November 18, 2011

American Psycho, 60/100

The very first substantial piece of creative fiction I remember writing, as a junior in high school, was a short story about a well-dressed business man who attempts to murder a woman he approaches on the street. From what I remember it was horribly-written, tied up with a great big moral at the end, along the lines of "don't trust appearances!" or the like. Little did I know this premise had already been used 10 years previously by Bret Easton Ellis.

I've been reading American Psycho since February, which has kept me in a constant state of paranoia and anxiety nearly the entire year. If you're not familiar with the novel or film adaptation, let me fill you in:

The story is told in the first-person by the protagonist Patrick Bateman; an extremely wealthy, young, good-looking Wall Street investment banker in the late 1980s. By day at least. On his own time he's a psychotic serial killer, torturer, and rapist.

Bateman narrates his day-to-day activities, which for the most part revolve around materialism and participation in Manhattanite and yuppie culture. There are pages and pages of him and his colleagues going to nightclubs, doing drugs, talking about fashion, and discussing proper etiquette and popular culture. It's a life obsessed and saturated with consumerism. There are endless descriptions of designer clothing and products, name-brands thrown into every sentence. I'm guessing at least 100 pages are dedicated entirely to describing what people wear.

Let's put it to the test. I just did a search in the ebook format, and the word "wearing" is used 208 times. 208 times in 438 pages.

But all of this is Bateman's surface persona. The guise he's undertaken to appear human. He's studied what he believes human behavior to be, through movies, TV, and catalogs, so he knows how to act. A mask of sanity.

This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw.

Surface, surface, surface was all anyone found meaning in...this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged...

There's a lot going on this novel, and I can see how people could go different directions with the meaning. It could act as an indictment against yuppie culture and the Wall Street elite, who are greatly satirized (spending gross amounts of money on meaningless things, cruel and heartless towards the poor, compare business cards to see whose is better, etc.) An exposure of unfair capitalism and separation between classes. Bateman's attitude toward the poor and needy -- almost all of his victims are dependent: beggars, prostitutes, animals, children -- is that of total disgust. Like Ayn Rand if she were a psychotic murderer. How apt that I finished reading this at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Or the novel could work as an indictment against human consumerist behavior in general, elite or not. 1% or 99%. Patrick Bateman isn't human. Being a materialistic pop culture obsessed asshole is his human disguise -- what he considers to be the norm.

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other... There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being--flesh, blood, skin, hair--but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

On the other hand it could be a study of how a psychotic mind works.

When his mask of sanity slips, he indulges his dark impulses by viciously torturing and killing people. He progressively becomes worse throughout the novel, with relatively little violence happening the first third of the book, to WOW, I DIDN'T KNOW THAT WAS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE by the end.

The chapter titles give you a good heads up:

Ch. 2: Morning
Ch. 7: Health Club
Ch. 13: Video Store then D'Agostino's
Ch. 18: Lunch
Ch. 22: Killing Dog
Ch. 38: Killing Child at Zoo
Ch. 44: Tries to Cook and Eat Girl
Ch. 45: Taking an Uzi to the Gym

The novel's very graphic and extreme depictions of violence, primarily towards women, has made it controversial. In many countries it cannot be sold to minors, and stays shrink-wrapped until sold. I haven't seen the 2000 film adaptation, but it was only given an R rating, so I can guarantee you it's fluffy in comparison.

I wanted to hate this book, but I couldn't, being so well-written. It's one of the best books I've read this year. If there was a way to read it again, skipping all the extreme violence and endless descriptions of ties and dress socks, I would do so right now. But it could never be a favorite book. In fact I don't think I could be friends with someone who listed American Psycho as their favorite book. And definitely wouldn't spend any time alone with them.

So was there a point or need for all the graphic violence in the novel? Could Ellis have gotten his point across without that scene with the girl, burning acid, a starving rat, brie cheese, and one of those play mouse tunnels? (whatever you're thinking, yeah, that's what he did).

Here's Ursula Le Guin's take on violence in literature:

Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?

These are revelations?

Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?

Or do they just like to read about it?

They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.

But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.

I'm not sure I can answer whether Ellis was going for pure shock value, without intention, or if the extremity of Bateman's actions was meant to illicit something more from the reader. Possibly it's a way of undermining the "moral voice" that's so prevalent in literature (as it was in my high school story). This time the reader gets to be the moral conscience.

Some moral conscience I am though, being unable to stop laughing out loud after reading the following line:

In the kitchen I try to make meatloaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skins I ripped from her body, then I rest by watching a tape of last week's new CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown.

I am a horrible, horrible human being.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wilson, Ghost World, 58-59/100

Here's a short post, basically just updating the numbers on what I've read.

Finished Wilson by graphic novelist Daniel Clowes a few weeks ago. It's about the unlikeable Wilson, a middle-aged guy who's honest to a fault. The kind of guy who will start up a one-sided conversation with you in Starbucks, and turn it into a rant against society. You know that guy. But because he's honest, he's still relatable. He says what we're all thinking.

Here's two panels I liked:

I used to fantasize about being is prison and having time to read/think. What a privileged, surburban thing to fantasize over. Even though I've never lived in a suburb.

The panels are done in newspaper style, with the art style on each page being different, and every page being a new "chapter." I loved the alternating art work. But the setup got a little old by the end. Since every page has to be self-contained, they followed the same pattern: Wilson talking or doing something brash, awkward silence, one-liner by Wilson. Repeat. It was okay, but no one wants to read an entire book of Garfield, even if Garfield ranted against consumerism or went to prison (presumably for killing Nermal).

It was fun, but I think the biggest thing I'll remember about this book was that Wilson bears a striking resemblance to Drew from Toothpaste for Dinner.

When writing this "review" I tried to find my review of Ghost World, the other Daniel Clowes book I've read, but realized I never actually did a post on it. Whoops! Really thought I did. I could swear I remember scanning pages from it. I think I just mentioned it one day and made a Steve Buscemi joke.

Rather than do a full review, which would require a reread and some scanning, I'm just going to leave you with the fact that it's really good and you should consider reading it. Lisa Simpson concurs.



Monday, November 7, 2011

Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, 57/100

Read Ellen Kennedy's book of poetry, Sometimes My Heart Pushes My Ribs, the second book I've read from publisher Muumuu House. Started by Tao Lin in 2008, Muumuu House will be releasing its third (fourth?) book, SELECTED UNPUBLISHED BLOG POSTS OF A MEXICAN PANDA EXPRESS EMPLOYEE by Megan Boyle next week, the title of which I had to copy/paste to ensure accuracy. Why are there so many links in this paragraph.

Like this more articulate and thought-out review on goodreads notes, Kennedy's writing seems a bit too derivative of Tao Lin's style, and it comes off more as a parody than original. The poems that are more sincere and (seem) to reflect her own voice are the strongest. That being said, I still laughed at the Woody Allen/Ned Vizzini one.

Here are the two poems I liked best:

I wish my life consisted only of
riding my bike with you
down a giant hill that never stopped
while listening to music
with no one else around
in the middle of nothing,
except a few shiny and relaxing lights above in the sky
like stars but a little brighter
and more orange

I'm violently stuffing
the void in my life
with cute toys
from fifty-cent machines

and they aren't helping
but they might give the one
who performs my autopsy
something to bring home
to the kids

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bed, 56/100

Advance apologies for all quotes below.

Sometimes I have a lot to say about a particular book, and sometimes I don't. I've never been very good at coming up with abstract reviews for things like poetry, short stories, conceptual novels -- anything without a big ol' plot. I can write about plot. But I can't write a review with phrases like "impressively smart" or "highly entertaining." Because that wouldn't tell you anything. I may just as well say "I liked it. It was good."

So trying to tell you why I liked Tao Lin's Bed would be like me trying to tell you why I like Seinfeld.

Seinfeld is a show about nothing.

Bed is a short story collection about:

College students, recent graduates, and their parents work at Denny's, volunteer at a public library in suburban Florida, attend satanic ska/punk concerts, eat Chinese food with the homeless of New York City, and got to the same Japanese restaurant in Manhattan three times in two sleepless days, all while yearning constantly for love, a better kind of love, or something better than love, things which--much like the Loch Ness Monster--they know probably do no exist, but are rumored to exist and therefore "good enough." [From the back cover]

And I liked it. It was good.

Bed has to be my favorite of Tao Lin's books. And it's probably the most accessible. Start with this one rather than Eeeee Eee Eeee. Work up to that one.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Outside, crossing Fifth Avenue, he looked up at the buildings and felt a kind of rapture, something of apology and thanks and intelligence--though maybe just a thing of coffee and wakefulness--forming, like a good idea (the world thinking hard, finally), here, in the little wind, the slightly infrared space between the buildings, the wet, shucked gemstars of the traffic lights, and all the glassy windows above, bright and comprehending as eyes, watchful as a world that wanted, truly, to know--and to love--all its lost and bewildered people.

"And what's gravity? No one knows. No one cares. Why is there gravity? That's so weird. That's like, why are there things? That's so depressing, that that question even exists. But sincere, I think."

[Aaron] began writing sort of science-fiction conceits for workshop; crude, uncritiqueable things that did not fuck around, but got straigt to the point, which was always bafflement. In one, an alien civilization discovers that gravity is the cause of worry, love, and fear, the underlying desire of all things to occupy the same space (to correct the big bang, go against God's, or whoever's, big impulse move, that shady decision of somethingness) to again become one final, gravityless, unchangeable thing--and is baffled.

He thought it might make a good children's book one day, a collection of them "Fairy Tales for the Young Disillusionist", or something. "Handbook for Doomed and/or Disenchanted Children: a Pop-Up Collection".

As one had to expect very little--almost nothing--from life, had to be grateful, not always trying to seize the days, not like some maniac of living, but to give oneself up, be seized by the days, the months and years, be taken up in a froth of sun and moon, some pale and smoothie'd river-cloud of life, a long drawn-out and gray sort of enlightenment, so that when it was time to die, one did not scream swear words and knock things down, did not make a scene, but went easily, with understanding and tact, and quietly in a lightly pummeled way, having been consoled--having allowed to be consoled--by the soft and generous worthlessness of it all, having allowed to be massaged by the daily beating of life, instead of just beaten.

"Depressed people...are so depressed and harmless. Bin Laden and everyone, Bush--they're always grinning on TV. What the fuck is that. No on ever thinks about this shit, really."

First week of February you began to suspect that, for the rest of your life, nothing might happen. This was one of those years. You mail-ordered a special mattress, and napped too much. In restaurants, people ordered the ice-cream cake, shoved their hands under their thighs, and talked loudly about death. On TV, politicians began to snack from Ziploc bags, like a provocation. Almonds, raisins. Sour Patch Kids.

Things, you felt, had changed.

There was a new foreboding to the room in which you slept. There was the fear, now, that all your anxieties and disconsolations might keep on escalating and never stop. There was the theoretical chance that if you threw a banana at a wall the banana might go through the wall.

You were one person alive and your brain was encased inside a skull. There were other people out there. It took an effort to be connected. Some people were better at this than others. Some people were bad at it. Some people were so bad at it that they gave up.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.
Edith Wharton in The Writing of Fiction

Nim Chimpsky: Live at the German Bordello

Read Elizabeth Taddonio and Daniel Bailey's chapbook Nim Chimpsky: Live at the German Bordello while standing next to my stove waiting for some pasta to cook. Read it again while dying my hair and listening to Death From Above 1979.

It's really good.

Here are some lines from it I liked.

i want to write a hot club song called "twitpic yr dickpics"

i hope i die from rabies 10 seconds before i would've died from natural causes

From 'Public Knowledge'
Gif request - Mark Wahlberg punching himself in the chest repeatedly in the movie Fear

my google chrome download bar shows that today I downloaded a gif called 'friday afternoon' & 2 pictures of mario batali

i googled who is my mom and it turned out my mom is the same person I always thought she was

i think i'm gonna pitch "totally chill men" to amc, a show about dudes from the 90's who watch tv commercials and then chill with the products

how different human history would be if humans could jump as high as cats

From 'Memoir Titles'
Off-brand graham crackers
Cocktail hour with the mammoths

Not now, I'm wired in
Old Lady Swag - Socks

Artifical light and watching Roseanne alone after work
A bookcase made of ottomans
Cat Dress

movie where viggo mortenson runs around a forest with purpose for 2 hours. we never find out his purpose. viggo's boot gets messed up and that is the main crisis of the movie.

i want to be a rapper where my name is every letter except j and z

i want to live two lives simultaneously. one as myself and one as "pump up the jam" by technotronic

i wish i had an ethnicity to write about

i want to smoke a shitload of salvia and then walk around a mall and wherever i am when the salvia wears off is where i build my castle

Buy your own copy for $2.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fictional maps, forever and ever

Was going to add this to my Earthsea review, but decided it needs its own post.

Lindy West in a review of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire:

Basically—here is the dark, mewling shame-baby that's been calcifying for years in my brain-womb (medical term)—I will read anything with a fucking fictional map in the front.

Ohhhhhh, how I crave a fictional map! Oz, Middle Earth, Narnia, Neverland, Fantastica, Tortall, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the one with the talking war-bears where everyone gets to have a magic otter that is their best friend... uhhh... Dinotopia... ummmmm... you know, all the other ones. All the main ones. I love that shit. So imagine my delight upon discovering that not only does each volume in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series have a fictional map in the front, IT HAS A FUCKING FICTIONAL MAP IN THE BACK, TOO. That's two fictional maps. Two. (Plus sometimes a third supplementary fictional map that I really can't get into right now because I need both hands for typing, if you know what I mean [MASTURBATION JOKE].)

All hail fictional maps.

And check this out as well:

Earthsea Series, 52-55/100

I kind of love this cover art for the first book. It reminds me of Fuseli's The Nightmare. Only one problem: the main character isn't white! Oh, book publishers. Forever whitewashing the world.

When I first started reading Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series about a year ago, I decided to wait and do a blog post when I finished all the books. Now I wish I hadn't, not realizing quite how many there were. I"ll be stretching my brain trying to remember everything.

These are the books in the series:

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)
Tehnau (1990)
Tales from Earthsea (2001)
The Other Wind (2001)

Only the last four were read this calendar year.

The Earthsea series is fantasy aimed towards young adults. It molds itself after Tolkien and preludes Rowling. At the beginning of each book is a lovely, sprawling map of the fictional world of Earthsea, drawn by Le Guin herself.

Don't hurt your eyes. Click the pic to make it much, much larger.

Don't you love big maps like that? I could look at them all day. Earthsea is an archipelago of islands that necessitates all travel be made by boat; or flight if you happen to be a dragon. Oh yes! There are dragons. You can't go wrong with wizards and dragons.

Most of the stories revolve around the wizard Ged, who as a young boy travels to a wizarding school to learn magic. His school adventures don't span 7 books, however, and by the third book Ged is middle-aged. It's nice to come across a YA book that isn't so obsessed with youth. I think more literary fiction should feature young adults and vice-versa.

One of my favorite aspects of Earthsea is how the magic system works. Le Guin explains fully how the magic works in this world, instead of just claiming some things to be magic and some not. Here magic is performed by learning and using the "one true language": the language that existed before men created their own. Every rock, tree, person and animal has its own "true name" that allows any wizard or witch who knows it to have complete control over it.

But there is a downside to this system. It's knowledge based. Wizards learn the true words through memorization, which means that the knowledge can be withheld from anyone who isn't deemed worthy.

In the first 3 books, written between 1968-1972 (The Farthest Shore was originally subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea"), Le Guin was criticized for making this wizarding world almost exclusively male. There are village witches, but they are considered lowly, working mostly as mid-wives and healers. "Weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic."

Tehanu, written 18 years later, was her response to the outcries of sexism from critics and concerned fans. The novel focuses on the gender discrimination and segregation within Earthsea. She reveals that both sexes hold the talent to perform magic, but only one is privileged enough to be taught how.

Le Guin has apologized before for the supposed sexism in the earlier novels:

What happened in the 17 years between Farthest Shore and Tehanu was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older, and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.

From a woman's point of view, Earthsea looked quite different than it did from a man's point of view. All I had to do was describe it from the point of view of the powerless, the disempowered - women, children, a wizard who has spent his gift and must live as an "ordinary" man.

But reading the first three, I kind of "got it." I understood the sexism at play; that it was the work of the characters, not the author. Tehanu addresses the issue nicely, although perhaps a bit too thoroughly, sacrificing story for preachiness. And it's a bit sad that the big "feminist" book in the collection is basically 300 pages of two women trying to fend off a rapist until a prince comes and saves them. An over simplification, but that's what it boils down to.

From Tehanu:
She felt as she had felt in Havnor as a girl; a barbarian, uncouth among their smoothnesses. But because she was not a girl now, she was not awed, but only wondered at how men ordered their world into this dance of masks, and how easily a woman might learn to dance it.

You've probably noticed some similarities between this series and Harry Potter. Both feature schools for young wizards. The prejudice against women resembles the discrimination against mudbloods (the founders of the school on Roke debated over accepting women, declined, and kicked out the founders who WERE women. At Hogwarts it goes the other way, with the anti-mudblood Salazaar Slytherin renouncing his position).

Another aspect both series share is their focus on immortality vs. death. In Harry Potter, the entire story springs from an evil wizard's desire to be immortal. The Philosopher's Stone, horcruxes, the Deathly Hallows--all attempts to cheat death. Dumbledore, ever the voice of reason, reminds us that death should not be feared, but looked to as "the next great adventure." In Earthsea the moral is much the same: cheating death, destroying the balance, will have dire consequences.

From The Farthest Shore:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose....That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself—safety forever?

In the first book, Ged summons a dead spirit, unleashing a shadow into the world that seeks to destroy him. In The Farthest Shore, Ged must travel into the afterlife to defeat an evil wizard who, in his quest for immortality, has taken magic from the world. We return to the afterlife in The Other Wind, when it's discovered that a decision made thousands of years ago to create life after death has sentenced generations of people to purgatory.

Moral of the stories: You're gonna die. Just deal with it.

From The Other Wind:
"I think...that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me that life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed."

I've always loved how works of fantasy draw on each other, and can take tropes of the genre and will them into a new creation. No work exists that wasn't inspired or adapted from something else. Earthsea is very much tied to Middle-earth. And Rowling's creation was undeniably influenced by the works of several fantasy authors. I don't think she has ever tried to hide the fact. But I've read a few interviews with Le Guin where she expresses a bit of animosity towards Rowling that I find deeply unfortunate. There's nothing grosser than rivalries between authors.

Example: The 50 Best Author Put Down of All Time. It's kind of funny, but it's also really sad and pathetic. Like some kind of nerd rap battle. You don't have any microphone to drop, Mark Twain, so just stop. Leave the insulting to the critics and your fans.

Thinking every piece of fiction that comes along is going to be sublimely original is ridiculous. It's all about what you do with your inspiration. Just take a look at Lev Grossman's The Magicians. It very actively and openly drew from the world of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Middle-earth. But no one's complaining, because he ran with the idea of merging these worlds, creating something new that celebrates the entire fantasy genre. I love it.

So get over it, jealous fantasy authors. You're not the first person who's ever written about a dragon.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ayiti, 51/100

Was really happy to receive Roxane Gay's debut collection Ayiti a few days ago in the mail, after pre-ordering it months ago. And can I mention just how much I love getting books in the mail? I spend a good portion of my work day opening interlibrary loan packages, and then come home and open some more that are just for me. Anything that comes directly from the publisher are always the best, packed with goodies and bookmarks. Bookmooch packages are great too, especially when they include little personal notes and books with marginalia. I should probably go outside sometime.

Gay's book is a collection of short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, all representing experiences of the Haitian diaspora. Most readers coming to this book won't know much about Haiti or its people, besides the fact that it is a devastatingly poor country. "We are defined by what we are not and what we do not have." The stories are presented honestly--not sugar-coating the poverty and hardships of its characters--but also avoiding using gimmicky sob stories (although I did sob in at least one of the stories).

One of my favorite shorts, "There is No 'E' in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We," is a zombi(e) "love story." Or could it be classified as zombie erotica? Either way, it's not whatever you're picturing. As Gay emphasizes in the beginning under the headline [Things Americans do not know about zombis:], "They are not dead. They are near death." No necrophilia here.

My other favorite, "In the Manner of Water or Light," is devastating and beautiful. Narrated by a second generation immigrant, it tells the story of how her mother was conceived during the 1937 massacre of Haitian people by the Dominican Republic. The mystery and romance surrounding her grandfather, encouraged by the grandmother, shows the lengths we go to to protect ourselves from tragedy and the truth. Even when it means crossing an ocean.

From "All Things Being Relative"
My parents were born in Haiti, the first free black nation in the world.

It is an island of contradictions.

The sand is always warm. The water is so clear blue bright that is sometimes painful to behold. The art and music are rich, textured, revelatory, ecstatic. The sugar cane is raw and sweet.

And yet. What most people know is this--Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Her people eat mud cakes. There is no infrastructure--no sewer system, no reliable roads, erratic electricity. Women are not safe. Disease cannot be cured. Violence cannot be quelled. The land is eroding. The sky is falling.

Freedom, it seems, has a price. We are defined by what we are not and what we do not have.

You should also check out Roxane Gay's blog I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection, where she writes some of the funniest movie reviews on the internet.

She also contributes to Bookslut and HTMLGiant; two of my favorite favorites.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Love and Rockets: New Stories, Vol. 1, 50/100

Be prepared for some venting, ranting and/or raving, and tons of geekdom.

In my review of Sloth I mentioned I wasn't familiar with the comic series Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers. I happened to see this first volume for New Stories at the local comic shop and grabbed it. The cover alone (once again) would've been enough for me to buy it.

Just like in Sloth, something felt "off" about the entire volume. Even starting at a point in the series where I was missing some back story, it was still pretty easy to pick up on what was going on. But all the dialogue felt like it was translated from another language, badly, even though it was written originally in English. Almost every written word just felt unnatural and odd.

However I couldn't make myself hate it. The artwork is wonderful, the characters fascinating, and the stories are definitely never boring. The backbone story in this volume follows a group of female super heroes known as the Ti-Girls, who are....I don't know, trying to stop an enemy from destroying earth after she loses her tiny bean-sized baby in space, or something. Like I said, it's odd.

But here is what makes the Ti-Girls unique:

A middle-aged Spanish speaking maid turned super hero? That makes me very happy.

I'm sure this grouping looks odd. Like something from Kick-Ass or Mystery Men -- super heroes that break the Superman/Wonder Woman mold. But it's more than just breaking outside a race or age barrier. Let's get gender specific (yes, let's).

Unless you've been living under a rock (or you're just not a complete dork like I am), you've probably heard about the controversy over the representation of female characters in DC's "new 52" series, which is a complete reboot of their line of super hero comics. The representation of women in comics is not a new controversy, but this recent release has really brought the issue into the spotlight.

The two characters readers had the biggest problem with was the new Catwoman and Starfire. And just to give you an idea of what we're dealing with here:

And no, this didn't come from DeviantArt (where any person, animal, and inanimate object probably has fetishized fanart dedicated to it). That's in a real live comic book.

Catwoman's portrayal is (arguably) milder in comparison, and honestly, she's CATWOMAN. As in CAT. She's allowed to be sexy and have awkward clothed sex with Batman if she wants. I shall allow it.

But this has been a long-time problem in comics. Women characters, even as the good guys, are represented as Playboy Bunnies. Eye candy with no personality. Or if they DO have personality, it's gotta be a sessy one. If she has goals or motives, chances are she's a villain. It goes beyond anatomy into their actions and attitude. Cookie cutter women different in hairstyles and costumes only.

If you want to see a list of grievances (and possible solutions), read this lovely set of interviews with comic creators at ComicsAlliance. Everyone has a different opinion on the problem, but at least they all agree that there IS a problem. Also, check out this great article by FilmCritHulk on the unfortunate sexism in the new Arkham City game -- the problems in comics and videogames tend to overlap.

So I agree with the cause. I'm all for transforming the way women are represented in comics. At the same time, even in the most well-intentioned arguments I see an unfortunate double standard.

Super heroes aren't a 20th century phenomenon. They've been around since the creation of stories. The gods/goddesses of Greek/Roman/Norse mythology, the Titans, Achilles, Perseus, Hercules, Beowulf, Paul Bunyan...we've been obsessed with super people for a long time. These heroes were also incredibly idealized. And not as much in their personalities or morals as they were physically idealized. Think of the ancient Olympic games. Think of Sparta. The perfect athletic body was revered; almost worshiped.

And in 2011 we still worship in the cult of the "perfect body" (or whatever a particular society as a collective deems to be ideal). It only follows that our super heroes continue the trend of being oiled-up body builders. I don't personally agree with it, but there it is all the same. Comic book super heroes are the new gods. And in some cases ARE gods (THOR!).

So why is it different when it comes to female super heroes? Yes, they have impossible chest sizes, perfect faces, and wear outfits that could easily be mistaken for underwear. But so does Superman. (how is his chest possible? HOW?)

"But the representation of male super heroes isn't sexualized like it is for women."

Isn't it? Just because comics and their TV spin offs starring male supers are marketed mainly towards boys doesn't mean it's not sexualized. They market an idealized sexual identity. "If you want to date Lois Lane, be this."

After all, I've read several outcries against shows like Sailor Moon (a spin off from the wildly popular manga series), claiming indecent sexuality in its all-female cast, despite it being marketed entirely to girls.

So let me get this straight.

This is ok for boys 9-12.

But this is not ok for girls 9-12.
"If you want to date Tuxedo Mask, be this."

And here's what I'm getting at here. There's this horrible, repressing notion floating around out there that the mere existence of a female body is automatically sexual. It doesn't even have to be Pamela Anderson shaped. If it's just there, being female, it's automatically sexual. (quick! cover it in a burka!)

Well I have news for the entire human race. If you have a body, congratulations: you are sexual.

Sorry, that's just how it works. So let's stop pretending only half the human population is about sex, and the other half is only about technology and Dr. Pepper 10.

I want comics where even the super heroes are believable. Realistic characters with flaws doing unrealistic things. Let's bring variety to the genre by creating heroes we can identify with, instead of idolize.

But as long as we still have Adonis super dudes, with muscles in places muscles shouldn't exist, and chins that could cut through adamantium, please don't throw such a shit fit over super ladies having super boobs.

DO get angry when they have no personality. When they make stupid poses or say stupid things. When the only aspect of their identity is sex, sex, and more sex (although it certainly works for James Bond).

Let's use this controversy to create something entirely new. Instead of relaunching the same characters (now with even more muscles/boobs/chin dimples!), come up with something unique. Original. I want to see an entire comic series starring a middle aged Spanish-speaking maid fighting crime. Make it happen.

Check out Kate Beaton's "Strong Female Characters" comic here.