Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Oscar Wilde and Rorschach

January was a long one. I can't believe it's been 31 days since I drank too much champagne and passed out on my bed fully-clothed and...well, you don't want to hear about that.

All that time and I still haven't written those reviews for books I read in December. It might be because I lost all the notes I took when reading them. Or it might be because someone gave me a copy of Dead Rising and I spent a hilarious amount of time getting the 'zombie genocider' achievement. Hooray! 20 imaginary points have been added to my imaginary videogame success tally. Let's all live in the internet.

I need to get on with my life so here's the world's laziest reviews of some really great books.

All of that Oscar Wilde stuff
(A House of Pomegranates, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, and The Picture of Dorian Gray)

All but the last were collections of fairy tales written by Wilde. Most of the stories were incredibly sad. Remember the first time you read The Giving Tree? Well it's three books of that. But so good! The Brothers Grimm can suck it for writing such patronizing, moralistic stories to keep girls scared witless and locked inside bedrooms.

Okay, does that look like Matt Damon and Heath Ledger to you.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde's only novel. I wish he had written more. The basic plot of the novel revolves around a beautiful youth who is granted eternal youth, and in turn a magical portrait of himself ages instead. Dorian's sins and follies cause the portrait to age rapidly, giving him a visual representation of his own soul. It's an exploration of mortality and morality, and how each affects the other. In a way it reminded me of Drew Magary's Postmortal, where the introduction of immortality causes humanity to collapse into death, destruction and depravity. And after all that, the "immortals" don't get to live any longer than they would have normally as mortals.

Another thought: I've always been fascinated that stories always marry immortality with prosperity and hedonism. I guess, after all, if you were poor and lacked a lounge chair and a servant feeding you grapes, you might not want to live forever. But just once I want to see a hobo vampire. Instead they're all filthy rich and rolling around in velvet for no reason. Who's paying you!? Why is blood sucking a lucrative pursuit!?

Back on track...the preface to the novel, written by Wilde, is a wonderful meditation on art and meaning. Here it is:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

You can now count Wilde as one of my favorite authors (there's a list somewhere).


Everything you've ever heard an enthusiastic nerd say about Alan Moore's masterpiece is absolutely true. Watchmen definitely lived up to the hype. And fun fact: I thought this would be a relatively breezy read, and could knock it out in just one bathtub session. It took me about a month to work through. It's not an all-night read. When you finish a chapter you have to sit back and think about it. Several days if needed. The structure is genius, weaving in journal entries, chapters from an imagined autobiography, snippets from a completely different comic (a comic within a comic! Inception!), among other things, right alongside the basic paneling and plot. There's nothing about this graphic novel that I would change. Being in the graphic novel format is the only way the story would succeed. I give credit to the filmmakers who attempted that adaptation a few years ago -- they did the best they possibly could have. But there's no way you could successfully translate between mediums here without missing the entire purpose.

On an imaginary list of the best novels I have ever read, this would be on it. Somewhere between Lolita and Wuthering Heights.

But don't take my word for it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

thinking about the ocean

After reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and watching both film adaptations, I've moved on to reading the next in the series: The Girl Who Played With Fire. Except that after getting through around a hundred pages I put it down, not wanting to move forward. Right now Lisbeth Salander is on Grenada, reading math textbooks on the beach, drinking rum and cokes, preventing murders, hooking up. I know she'll return to Sweden soon -- that cold and rapey land -- but I don't want to leave the sand yet.

I keep running across mentions of beaches and oceans today. Part of a poem I was reading mentioned a stone beach, just two words, and I had to stop and day dream about the ocean for ten minutes. There's something about the open water that fascinates me. All the time spent between infrequent vacations to the Atlantic feels claustrophobic, like life is a box with holes punched in it, just enough to keep one breathing. Everyday you open your eyes, there's always something there, blocking the line of vision. I look now and there's a wall. I look out the window and there's a twenty-story bank. I stare into the sky and people begin staring at me. As long as you're looking at something, the somethings of the world will always be on your mind.

Standing at the ocean, you can stare off into the horizon and see nothing. It's flat and expansive and appears unending. It's the closest most of us will ever get to being in space. It marks a delineation between here and everywhere else. The beach is synonymous with vacation, because maybe you can't go everywhere else, but you're sick and tired of here. It's why no one sets their beach chairs facing the hotels and pools. People don't come just for the bikinis and Mai Thais. Except Carmen Electra, probably.

I've flown over the Pacific, but never sailed across it. I can't even imagine what that it felt like for the first sailors to float unknowlingly into open water. Curiosity is so much stronger than fear, though. Sometimes I'm tempted, standing on the shore, to dive in and swim straight forward, unstopping. Just to see if I eventually hit a painted wall. Then Ed Harris will announce over the intercom that my entire life has been scripted. "What a boring show," I would mumble, swimming back to shore.

Last week I found a tour company that offers trips to Antarctica. You might say Antarctica is my Fiji. I squealed audibly when I found it. It's $8000, so it's pointless enthusiasm. But just knowing it's possible gives hope. Antarctica is not sandy or warm. But it does offer the ability to look at nothing. Or as close to nothing as we can get on Earth. And by looking at nothing I can stop thinking about myself, about everyone else, and just think about the world. The universe. Existence. Penguins. The fact that everything and everyone on Earth is made up of the same matter, the same elements, as what goes into the stars. We are star matter.

The best way to look at the picture of the Pale Blue Dot is to regard the mote of dust, acknowledge it,  note its insignificance. Then turn the camera around and let's explore.

In Defense of E-books


It's Darth Kindle vs. Luddite Skywalker!
Watch as young Amazon Skywalker turns to the glowing side!
'Read books on paper, you must,' Yoda mumbles.

How are these Star Wars / publishing industry analogies working for you? I need to go outside more often.

I never bought into the whole "ebooks are evil" scene. The emergence of ebooks has presented a load of controversial issues regarding permissions, pricing, distribution, access, ownership, censorship, piracy, monopolization, etc. And these all need to be discussed. Extensively.

But please stop talking about smelling books because you're creeping everyone out.

So what's defensible in the world of electronic booking?

1. There's the fact that I just bought the Collected Novels of José Saramago, all 13 novels and 3864 pages, as an ebook for $33. Buying them individually as paperbacks would have cost nearly $200.

This is how ebooks SHOULD be priced (or close to it -- this was pretty dirt cheap actually and I felt bad buying it). And a lot of the slightly older, less bestseller-y titles are. But buying a new release as an ebook? Forgettaboudit. Charging hardcover prices for something that is neither hard nor covered is something publishers need to get over.

2. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf! They entered into the public domain on January 1, 2012. Also known as Public Domain Day to us pale, bookshelf-dwelling shut-ins. I feel like right now I should be slowly taking my glasses off and cleaning them with the bottom of my sweater vest for knowing about Public Domain Day. All I need now are glasses and a sweater vest.

Project Gutenberg is grand, and makes me glad the internet exists. Cat videos and whatever this is are great too, but finding a book on Antarctic penguins that was published in 1914 and instantly downloading it for free is where it's all at.

Just look at these adorable penguins and tell me there's evil in the world.

3. Who knows how many Shakespeares, sisters of Shakespeare, Stephen Kings, or J.K. Rowlings died in obscurity before the internet because their writing was refused the light of day by stuffy publishers? Probably a lot. But now thanks to Al Gore and magic, writers can use the World Wide Web (or whatever you kids call it these days) as a one-stop shop to gain a following, market their writing, and publish their work without great cost to themselves. An important factor to consider when even online literary journals are beginning to charge reading fees for submitted work.

Take The Raven and the Writing Desk, a blog I follow, which just released a Best of collection of really excellent short stories and poetry as an ebook. And it's free until this Saturday! So check it out. Unless free is too expensive for you, you crazy person.

4. There's more than one way to skin a cat (eww) and there's more than one way to buy an ebook.

There's Powells, BooksOnBoard, and this gigantic list of like two hundred indie bookstores that sell ebooks. So if you're into the whole supporting local businesses thing, there you go. And don't forget to support your local starving writers while you're at it.

Look for an 'In Defense of Print Books' post in the near future, once I'm able to get my hands on particular print book I want to talk about and possibly cuddle with.

But NOT a 'Defense of Marriage' post, because I don't feel like wearing a sweater vest THAT much.

You are a bad person, Rick Santorum, and you should feel bad.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sick, sick, sick

Unclear Vicissitudes, by Matt Kish

And no, I'm not referring to the QOTSA song.

Don't you just hate January and February? Every December I can see them looming on the horizon, cold and brown and depressing. No color, no warmth -- at least November has the decency to have rustling leaves and good smells.

If one compares the seasons to a person's life, January and February are the death throes. Give me the 20-somethings of May and June, but please don't let me live past December 31st.

It doesn't help when your Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD :( ) is accompanied by some kind of mystery disease. For the past 8 weeks I have been coughing like a dying orphan in a Dickens novel. At first I thought it was pneumonia. But after I stopped coughing up green stuff and blood (!) I realized I was either over it or never had it in the first place. Although WebMD had me somewhat concerned I was going to die in a matter of hours. And possibly rise from the grave as the undead.

But it's still here, minus the hacking of blood, and I don't know what it is. COPD? Bronchitis? Super Asthma? Shriveling lungs? Whatever Gwyneth Paltrow gave to everybody? Of course I should go to the doctor, having healthcare and all that. But I have a terrifying phobia of doctors that I can't explain. Although it possibly started when I was 10 years old and my dentist called me an "idiot" to my face for refusing braces. I am many things, but an idiot I was not when I refused to make my parents spend $6000 on vanity. And look, 26 years old and my teeth haven't exploded or anything.

Regardless, the majority of my days as of late have been spent under a duvet, neglecting chores and friends, without the brain or willpower to pick up a book. Buying Nyquil has become a sunday night tradition. I actually googled "Ricola overdose" yesterday. I've been killing a lot of zombies in video games lately. It makes me feel better somehow. Although not better about myself.

Two artists whose blogs I follow have recently been sharing work they have created under the influence of sickness. Matt Kish, illustrator of the book Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (which I intend to buy and review some day. some day.) created a series under the title "Radians" which can be in its entirety here.

On the other end of the spectrum is Gabby Schulz (aka Ken Dahl) who has created an ongoing comic series titled "Sick", which as of now includes 15 installments.

Simultaneously funny and depressing, the entire series thus far can be read here.