Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why I love Ursula Le Guin

From her forward to Tales from Earthsea:

In the years since I began to write about Earthsea I've changed, of course, and so have the people who read the books. All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.

It's unsettling. For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go "there and back again," and "there" is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill...So people turn to the realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.

And the mills of capitalism provide them. Supply meets demand. Fantasy becomes a commodity, an industry.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivialises. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great story-tellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life--of a sort, for a while.

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Postmortal, 46/100

Was tired of being bombarded with recommendations for Drew Magary's novel The Postmortal through the Shelf Awareness newsletter, and decided to check it out for myself.

The Postmortal is pure speculative fiction. "So," it asks, "what would happen if there was a cure for aging?"

Wow. Let's see. Well it would probably end in nuclear war, right?

Don't it always? (You maniacs! You blew it up! *damns Statue of Liberty to hell*)

Magary takes the idea and runs with it, crafting the story of a man living in the near future who, along with millions of others, receives the "the Cure"; halting permanently the aging process. The author covers nearly every consequence that could present itself in this situation, although successfully keeping it from becoming a "masturbatory idea dump" (a term Magary uses in the epilogue that I loved) through good plotting.

So what are some of the consequences? Overpopulation, overcrowding, resource depletion, class warfare, terrorism, autocracy, slavery, sex trafficking, Kevorkian-style assisted suicide, mass genocide...just all kinds of sunshiney things!

But of course it's going to end up bad. If you consider the idea for more than 5 minutes you can see how horrible it would be. The novel makes you think about what really defines a life (hint: it's death). But the scariest part of the book is that all of the consequences I listed above are not dependent or unique to the idea of human immortality. Overpopulation is here already, even without a "cure." And the aftermath represented by the author is, frankly, terrifying.

This generation hasn't had to sacrifice one bit, and its reward for such callousness is now eternal life. It's the classic American scenario of people wanting everything right now without caring a lick about the long-term. You could excuse it by saying, "Well, that's just the way we are." Well, the way we are is going to cost us everything.

"I think a lot of people mistakenly hoped the cure would end not only death but also the anguish of processing death, of processing finality. I think people thought they would be able to escape that, and the opposite has proven true. They have to spend much longer dealing with their grief.

Oh, but it's not all horrible. There's this too:

The producers of the Saved by the Bell reboot petitioned the governor of California to allow them to administer the cure to the show's teenage stars, so that their characters wouldn't have to graduate in the show. The governor denied the request.

A world where Screech stays young and lovable forever? Where he never turns into a egotistic, perverted asshole? Where the domain isn't already taken? Maybe all that apocalypse would be worth it.

Here's a trailer for The Postmortal:

And you know what? Seeing the little blurb from Justin Halpern in that trailer just made me realize something. I read his book Shit My Dad Says several months ago and completely forgot to write anything about it. I gave it as a birthday gift to a friend (sneakily reading it before wrapping it up), so I can't go back and pull quotes from it. But damnit, I'm counting it in the 100 books countdown.


Shit My Dad Says, 47/100

If you want an idea of what it's like, just check out the twitter feed that started it all, @shitmydadsays.

It's pretty much like that, but with context and back story and sans William Shatner.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Everything is Going to be Great, 45/100

These people. These people with their European tours. Backpacking through Asia. "Finding themselves" by traveling abroad.

How exactly are they affording it?

I somehow managed to travel to Japan for 2 measly weeks after graduation, and it took me 2 years to pay for those 2 weeks. I'd like to make my way to Europe, but damn y'all, I'm rationing toilet paper at this point.

Rachel Shukert's 2nd memoir (she's in her mid-twenties and already has two memoirs, so yeah, she's had some adventures), Everything is Going to be Great: an Underfunded and Overexposed Grand European Tour was an absolutely hilarious read. Filled with sometimes nearly unbelievable tales of sexual escapades (sexcapades), affairs, cultural misunderstanding and uncanny coincidence, you might wonder if this is truly a memoir. Or more like very creative non-fiction. I suppose my life and experience are just so removed from hers, that I can't imagine so many things happening to a person so young. As she says at some point in the book, she feels like she's lived her entire life before the age of 24.

Well, as long as my life stays sheltered here behind my apartment door, buried under a duvet and covered in Cheeto dust, I may as well live vicariously through Shukert's.

And oh, the adventures she has! She travels with a theatre troupe through Zurich and Vienna, ends up in Amsterdam living with two gay roommates (and somehow not having to pay rent), and meets a whole cast of colorful friends, including two vampires and several potheads. Dental emergencies lead to orgies and near-prostitution, stolen bicycles bring about karmic retribution, and yelling "who wants to go to a comedy show?!" outside the Anne Frank house is revealed to be a bad idea.

But you have to admire just how honest Shukert is in regard to revealing her own mistakes and personal faults. There are a million instances reading the book when I wanted to yell "What in the hell are you doing!? Don't go in there! Don't have sex with that person! Run away!" If this were a moralistic Victorian novel, she would have been killed off or forced into prostitution by the second chapter. But it's nice to read something from a female author where she didn't feel the need to censor herself.

In a Wall Street Journal blog post, Shukert talks about this censorship and how it relates to Eat, Pray, Love: a novel which her own is often compared (falsely, in my opinion). She notes:

Women are constantly judged, so we reflexively judge each other. We’re too fat or too thin; too sexy or not sexy enough; too uptight or too lazy, too feminist or not feminist enough. But in our hypercritical judgment, we miss the entire point of feminism, which was not to transform us all into high-achieving super-beings (or sympathetic victims), but about the universal recognition of the fact that women are as fully human as men.

This means accepting, each other, and ourselves, for what we are warts and all.

We are none of us perfect. And that’s what makes us great.

Here here.

Anyway, I have about 5 million passages I want to share with you. You, the internet. Hope you can handle it.

Shukert, attempting to discuss feminism in French with a local whilst inebriated:
"But I have more to be talking. Simone de Beauvoir, she is talking very beautiful about the feminism. But in the true life? She is washing the underpants of Sartre and then she is making of the tears when he is doing the sex with the others of the women... A woman who is true feminist, she is not doing of this. Hear me Benoit! Me, I do not care if you are erotic...but I am not doing the washing of the shit from the underpants of a man!"

I finished the rest of the wine and smashed the empty bottle against the cobblestones, for punctuation. The shattered glass sprayed my legs, leaving a spatter of tiny red spots of blood against my bare skin.

"I am not even washing the underpants of me!"

I know what's wrong with me." I said to the student psychiatrist the university had provided for my care. "Don't think I don't know. My gargantuan sense of entitlement is matched only by my formidable laziness. I have no self-discipline. My eyesight is bad and I hate my boobs. I habitually shoplift small and valueless objects such as non-dairy creamer and pre-made California rolls. I am paranoid, insecure, and pathologically jealous of what other people have--for example, parents who are rich and powerful. I yearn for the approval of others, even though I don't think I like other people very much, apart from the uninterested men with whom I periodically become obsessed. I am addicted to Diet Coke, which I'm told will give me neurological problems and bladder cancer. I'm a terrible hoarder. The only thing I seem able to get rid of is alcohol, which goes down my throat.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman who spends a lot of time alone is going to find herself on the receiving end of all sorts of attention from strange, often sinister, men.

Talking with one of the Dutch vampires:
"Sebastiao and I are not bound by sexual jealousies in the way of mortals. But this girl, I have known her before, in school, and she is listening to the music of Nelly Furtado. I do not believe she is a true Child of Hell."

A backyard is nothing but a little patch of dirt and rocks and sky. And the world is a vast, terrifying and wonderful place, filled with things we don't yet know we need. Nothing comes to us until we leave our little patch of dirt and go find them.

Great, except to leave a patch of dirt for another patch of dirt one needs a patch of money.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The bad things that happen

You can live with what happens.

There's billions of terror plots! We've pissed off an awful lot of people! We're Americans, that's what we do. If you want to live free and not die, maybe move to Canada. But someone has got to pay for the trouble we've caused all over the world. And after all the press conferences and overmayoring is done, what we'll have left is the old tragedy and response two-step. We'll grieve our own while giving others 100 times more grief. Until we get that the cycle of violence must be broken, terror attacks are just the price of business in America. They can put a camera on every person's head in this great land and still bad things will happen to kind but complicit people. Here's hoping it's me and not you that pays with arms and legs. The only thing we have to fear is the luxury of feeling scared. Commemorate that.
Jim Behrle, Link

But more importantly, you can just LIVE.

Spending your youthful energy on combative, kinetic apathy is a waste. Stuff is AWESOME, GUYS. Something about everything is awesome. Because I live in LA, CA, USA and not other places in the world, I get to write things like “fuck fuck FUCK fuck fuck FUCK” on the Internet (the title of my next blog post). I can condemn Burkas while comfortably wearing a Snuggie (a gateway Burka). I can do an interpretative dance as Hitler for 322 people (suck it, Hitler). I can do whatever I want (sort of) and I can eat whatever I want (not carbs) and be the opposite of dead.

The people who, ten years ago today, flew those planes into the sides of two of the tallest buildings in America had minds that were even smaller than mine (and possibly yours, if you’re wearing a shirt from Threadless Tees). Their worldview was so closed to interpretation that they thought the only answer was a large-scale terrorist attack. I’m not saying Hipsters are Terrorists (though that is a very funny sentiment that I never thought I’d get the chance to write). I am saying that closing your mind to sincerity and praise and appreciation might be the first step in squandering the fucking awesome human condition you possess. Please do not close your mind to the not-small epiphany that epic joy exists.
Megan Amram, Link

Today is a day for remembering. Not just the actual event that happened. Nor the heroic response. And definitely not the all-consuming blind patriotism that followed, resulting in multiple wars and the additional loss of life. But the cause. The people who initiated the terrorist attack 10 years ago, and every terrorist attack in every country before and after, are and were extremely unhappy and closed-minded. They had reason to be unhappy. And there was a reason they were closed-minded.

The thing to remember about today is that you should try your best to live your life with joy, acceptance, tolerance, and understanding. Be the opposite of a terrorist. Understand why bad people do bad things. Understand that your place in the world may have something to do with it. Understand that your actions and attitude have a far-reaching influence.

Yeah, you're free. You have freedom. Don't just defend it. Do something good with it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Gospel of Anarchy, 44/100

Another one off my gigantic currently reading list. Finished Justin Taylor's The Gospel of Anarchy, which up until a few days ago was on sale as a 99 cent ebook from HarperCollins. Apologies! Thought I would finish it before the sale ended so I could tell you about it.

Taylor's novel is about a group of anarchists (punks, hippies, etc.) who become anarChristians -- defiers of authority who somehow end up following the biggest authority of all. The idea itself is really interesting. Even the title brings together two contradictory elements, and many reviewers have admitted they bought the book on title alone.

I had a really difficult time judging just how serious this novel was. The descriptions, thoughts, and actions of the anarchists seemed so much like caricature that I spent the majority of the book thinking it was a parody. Looking back I suppose it was in earnest. And if not a parody, then all the long-winded discussions over philosophy, the bad poetry, the railings over people who actually buy food, the existential conversations with no one...are no longer funny, but just incredibly boring. Like sticking your head into a room of high first-year philosophy majors and being forced to listen to their ramblings. All I'm really hearing is "blah blah the man blah blah bourgeoisie blah blah oh man you should hear them live they're so much better live."

And then the plot. Or the lack thereof. Not that there has to be a plot, but when the door is wide open for a really great one, it's so disappointing when it never emerges. With a group of anarchists forming their own religion, I thought sure it would turn into a story bent on exposing the fallacy behind creating faith. The human faults would shine through and the anarchists themselves would become the rulers, the -archists if you will. Kind of like a religious Animal Farm. But no..

Instead the novel takes itself way too seriously, and the plot becomes seriously muddled when Taylor throws in some supernatural events -- visions, pre-cognition,...spontaneous combustion -- affirming the religion and making the reader go "huh whaa now?"

That isn't to say the novel was a waste of time. Taylor's writing is masterful and his style unique. He flows in and out of tense and POV mid-paragraph, and he makes it work. It's a style I've never really encountered and I like it a lot. I have a feeling I'll be checking out his short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, soon.

And I really liked one of the final revelations he provides: one of the characters decides to vote in the presidential election, going against her anarchist roots, and the fact that "voting is more than a waste of time, it's irresponsible." Turns out it's the 2000 election. And she votes for Nader. And she's in Gainsville, Florida. D'OH. I'm certain this fact is meant to expose the real theme behind the book. But I'll have to think over it.

What I DO know is ever since reading the first chapter I've been inexplicably craving a dumpster-dived vegan falafel pita sandwich. Despite how unappetizing the description of it was. I'm no stranger to dumpster finds -- they make up half of my apartment furnishings -- but I draw the line at food. Craving denied.

Finally, here's a passage I liked:

Thomas's plate is blue. He passes through the kitchen, grabs three beers from the case in the fridge--all with his left hand, the bottlenecks between his fingers--and takes his spoils back to his room, hip-bumping the cracked door wide, then nudging it closed behind himself with a foot. He puts everything down except for one beer, twists the cap off, and lets the little puckered button fall. He turns his stereo on, punches PLAY on the tape deck, and sort of half sits half drops to his own floor while the speakers hiss. He leans his back against his bed, reaches up behind his head and feels around for the plate. Maybe-Cindy didn't give him a fork. Ah fuck it. Poison Idea is singing "Death Wish Kids" at stun-gun volume and Thomas is eating liberated cake with his bare hands.

Image by Kevin Thomas from The Rumpus.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

No one belongs here more than you, 43/100

Finished Miranda July's short story collection, No one belongs here more than you. Isn't the cover nice? I got the yellow and black version from the library and the circ desk clerk asked if it had something to do with the Watchmen.

Miranda July is a filmmaker and performance artist in addition to a writer, which I didn't know anything about until...well until now. I youtube'd her last night and watched some clips from her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. One clip was called "poop back and forth forever." Search for it if you dare.

Here are some excerpts I liked:

From "The Shared Patio"
Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.

From "The Boy from Lam Kien"
I shut my door and listened to the sucking sound. It was the sound of Earth hurtling away from the apartment at a speed too fast to imagine. And as all of creation pulled away in this tornado-like vortex, it laughed--the sarcastic laugh of something that has never had to try.

But my favorite story, and maybe one of my favorite things I've read yet this year, was "This Person." Wish I could share the entire thing. But even though I can't, apparently Amazon can. If the following passage tickles your fancy (or anything else of yours for that matter), click hyeah and go into the preview. Page 53, MFers.

From "This Person"
Someone is getting excited. Somebody somewhere is shaking with excitement because something tremendous is about to happen to this person. This person has dressed for the occasion. This person has hoped and dreamed and now it is really happening and this person can hardly believe it. But believing is not an issue here, the time for faith and fantasy is over, it is really really happening. It involves stepping forward and bowing. Possibly there is some kneeling, such as when one is knighted. One is almost never knighted. But this person may kneel and receive a tap on each shoulder with a sword. Or, more likely, this person will be in a car or a store or under a vinyl canopy when it happens. Or online or on the phone. It could be an e-mail re: your knighthood. Or a long, laughing , rambling phone message in which every person this person has ever known is talking on a speakerphone and they are all saying, You have passed the test, it was all just a test, we were only kidding, real life is so much better than that. This person is laughing out loud with relief and playing the message back to get the address of the place where every person this person has ever known is waiting to hug this person and bring her into the fold of life. It is really exciting, and it's not just a dream, it's real.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Internet Lovelies

Isn’t it funny that this is what happens to us? That even if you love books, if you start to dedicate your life to them, a light goes out, somehow. You come to know them with your brain rather than your soul. Maybe it’s just one more sad example of how you’ve grown up... But it isn’t the least bit of hyperbole for me to say that as an adult who is a voracious reader, I know that I am going to spend the rest of my life not quite managing to love a book the way I loved Anne [of Green Gables], to read it the way I did the first, second, thirty-fifth time. I know that the rest of my reading life is just a thinly-disguised effort to forge a path back to that, but I’ll never get there.
Michelle Dean, Link

using an exclamation point means never having to spell things right.
Adam Robinson, Link

Novellas are like little yummy store samples of the great cheeses of fiction.
Lisa @ BaffledBooks, Link

Fiction will not hasten the decline and fall of the American Empire. A Congressional inquiry into the president's reading habits isn't necessary. Novels are neither a sedative nor a terrorist plot. They are stories about how we have lived, live now and may live in the future, offering perspectives a few more politicians and pundits might consider exploring.
Robert Gray, Link

So it's on my mind this week not only how much I owe to other writers, but also how much I owe it to myself to be selective in what I read, especially as I age and have less time to indulge in books. I used to read everything that came my way, start to finish, but lately I look at the stack of over 50 to-be-read books in my home, and don't feel motivated to open most of them. I am craving a new conversation, or a different one than the ones I have been having in the last few years, and I think it is the writer in me more than the reader that is craving inspiration. While I do read for escape, these days escape-reading bores me, and instead I want to be astounded by the creativity in what I read.
Jessica Goodfellow, Link

Things and stuff:

I'm behind on the 100 books thing, but it's not like I'm not reading anything. Actually, it's more like I'm reading too much. At least that's what I'll tell myself. Here are the books I'm currently in the middle of reading:

The Gospel of Anarchy, Justin Taylor
Bed, Tao Lin
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July
The Other Wind, Ursula Le Guin
The Magician King, Lev Grossman
Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross

These are all the things I'm reading ALL AT ONE TIME. Not to mention the things I gave up on reading just last week. Snuff by Palahniuk and Freya of the Seven Isles by Joseph Conrad. One was all "porn, boobies, blah blah," and the other was all "sailors, damsels, yar yar." No time for blah or yar.

Other stuff:

Adam Ross, mentioned above, will be reading at my alma mater this month! Pretty cool. I'll be going, granted I can drive from work to Hollins in 15 minutes. Who'd of thunk working in a library could be such a literary cock block.

Lydia Davis will also be reading there in December! Just when I start wishing I lived in NYC or Portland just for all the literary goings on, things start happening in Roanoke.

But no, I still want to move to Portland.