Month: October 2014

Steinbeck, The Pearl, and another rant on the internet about YA lit

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The Pearl is a wonderful little novella that is easily devoured in an afternoon. The prose is simple and reads quickly, but surprises with vivid and powerful metaphors. It’s a parable, but it isn’t necessarily instructive; no one is getting clubbed in the head by the Lesson We Need To Learn Today. We gain no insight into the nature of the kingdom of heaven, but we see very clearly into the ruthlessness of humanity when great gain is possible.

I’ve alienated a few people with my stance on young adult literature, but (respective) Johns Gardner and Steinbeck are cementing my position on the issue. Gardner talks about how some of the best writers enjoy pulp and “bad” fiction unironically, but “what makes them angry is bad ‘good’ fiction, whether it’s for children or for grownups.” I feel like most YA novels are harmless fun, light, entertaining reads that require only surface attention. Motivation is obvious, characters are direct and simple, and the narrative follows a familiar arc. that’s fine, but don’t sit there and tell me that reading the things is noble or edifying in any way.

A fourteen year old kid doesn’t have to stretch his mind to imagine a fifteen year old protagonist, even if said protagonist is surrounded by supernatural creatures or lives in a dystopian future or goes to a private school. This is why I wish parents and teachers would embrace books like The Pearl. Kino (the main character) is completely “relatable” (I hate that damn word) but he isn’t the typical YA protagonist. He’s young, but he has a family, he is a father. He lives at the subsistence level. He has no education and because of that people try to manipulate him. It requires more effort to look through the eyes of someone who is as “other” as the illiterate Kino, but unlike most fiction being marketed to teens, the perspective is worth understanding. The prose is beyond approachable and the story is both compelling and easy to understand. Give this book to all the fans of YA lit you know, and read it yourself first if you haven’t already.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs -Chuck Klosterman

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This collection of essays produced a magical juxtaposition in my mind where I was both entertained by Klosterman’s cleverness and really wanted to punch him right in the goddamn face. I’m normally quite wary of quasi-intellectual (or even academic, for that matter) commentary on pop culture. I’m reminded of Don deLillo’s character Jack in “White Noise” and of the absurdly specific pop-art professors he interacts with at the beginning of the novel. But Klosterman wrote a chapter on the Left Behind series, and as someone who grew up in an Evangelical Christian church I really wanted to read it. He was also making fun of Coldplay on the first page I opened in the bookstore, so… points there. Even if it was shooting fish in a barrel, it was an amusing way of going about it.

My biggest problem with the book was Klosterman’s constant need to be clever. This wasn’t always a problem, since he’s a pretty clever guy and about a third of the chapters are funny, making weird but satisfying connections across disparate topics and plotting a new course. The rest of them just felt phoned in. Klosterman writes for magazines, and I feel like it shows. He’s meeting deadlines, not caring if he actually believes any of the crazy connections or the value of even making them. I get why you do that in certain mediums, but a book out from a Scribner seems to warrant more selectivity.

This is what keeps me away from most writing on pop culture (and magazine writing in general). Readers tend to reward the cleverness of an idea far beyond the value they ascribe to the quality of making-any-sense-whatsoever. This is why conspiracy theories thrive, why everyone wants to believe all Quentin Tarantino movies take place in the same universe, and why guys like Klosterman make a good living by sounding clever even when they know how full of horseshit half their points are. I recommend reading each chapter until your bullshit sensor goes off, then skipping to the next.

 

Part 4: Everything Else. Music, Pop Culture, and Conversations.

(I love podcasts. I listen around 2 or 3 hours a day between my commute, time at the gym, and household chores. This is part 4 of 4.)

These are the rest of my podcasts.

I’ve noticed a somewhat alarming tendency in myself and some of my friends. We like to insulate ourselves, socializing and interacting mainly with people who dress, speak, act, and think like we do. Life is far more comfortable that way, but since so much interaction is being facilitated by technology that shrinks the effective distance between people, we can actually create bubbles of reality that isolate us -dangerously- from the perspective of the rest of the world. This is why I keep in touch with friends I have very little in common with anymore, why I try to listen to a co-worker even when I assume they are wrong, and one of the reasons I listen to the podcasts of Doug Stanhope and Bret Easton Ellis.

Stanhope’s podcast is almost entirely the chemically boosted conversations of comedians in nightclub greenrooms, before and after shows, on the road, and in hotel rooms. These are people -mostly all men- that are making their living by speaking cleverly at other people. Most of them have no more than a high school education, they are coarse, vulgar and offensive (sometimes a bit misogynistic) and extremely funny. It’s not a world I’ve ever lived in, but I enjoy listening to it.

Ellis’s podcast is much more produced and scripted. He writes a monologue for every show, the equivalent of a short essay or think piece. In spite of his literary background, his favorite topics are movies, (arguably his real great love) pop culture, the state of the national “conversation”, and the gay community. He’s pompous and excessive to a point that approaches the cartoonish, but he has some clever insights and interesting perspectives. His guests are not usually people I would seek out, but the conversations are wide-ranging and captivating.

The Delano Podcast is local(ish) flavor. Delano is a burg a dozen odd miles north of Bakersfield, but the topics are generally pertinent to the greater Valley area in general. It’s very much a local effort with local-levels of monetary support -so the production is lo-fi- but the conversation is hilarious and the output is professional. I enjoy the clever commentary about local goings-on, like the random clowns walking around Wasco late at night, freak dust storms, and Harley-Davidson culture.

All Songs Considered is a show put out by NPR that showcases a fantastic curation of new music. All subgenres find a home here, and the minimal commentary is consistently well-informed and useful. This is one of the first podcasts I started listening to back in 08 and it has led me to so many bands that I’ve loved for years now.

Song Exploder interviews recording artists and engineers, dissecting the entire process of recording a song. The tracks are broken down, showcasing isolated vocals or percussion, while the creative force behind its creation give their commentary. The musical styles range from the lo-fi freneticism of the Thermals to the the elaborate production of The Postal Service, with 8-bit and hip-hop tracks thrown in for good measure.

Part 3: Writing and Lit Podcasts, or the Terrifying Specter of People Talking About the “Writing Life”

(I love podcasts. I listen around 2 or 3 hours a day between my commute, time at the gym, and household chores. This is part 3 of 4.)

These are all podcasts that focus on the world of books: writing, publishing, reviewing, teaching, all that. I’m always a bit leery of “industry” podcasts, and for every show on this list, there a a couple others that I listened to a half dozen episodes of before giving up for one reason or another.

Book Fight has a special place in my heart. It’s the first lit podcast I started listening to after stumbling on it in iTunes when I was living in Beijing. The co-hosts are both writers, creative writing professors at Temple, Iowa grads, and editors of the eternally clever mid-brow literary magazine Barrelhouse, so they tend to bring a diverse perspective to things. The show is hilarious and informative, and in addition to going through their entire back catalog I’ve even re-listened to selected episodes. I’m not sure how much this reflects on the objective quality of the podcast compared to how well my sense of aesthetics and humor and my hatred of “relatability” syncs up with Mike and Tom’s, but there you go.

Otherppl is an interview show that reminds me of Stern or Maron -but with a much more likeable host- focused on the world of indie literature. Brad Listi runs the show as well as his literary network The Nervous Breakdown. While Listi’s monologues are consistently great, the quality of each shows is usually determined by the guest. Turns out, some authors -even very good authors- aren’t good in front of a mic. Fair enough.

Literary Disco is especially informative. The three hosts are all coming from some of the most widely disparate backgrounds possible in the literary community (screenwriter, book reviewer, and a Mark Twain House employee for starters, and they each wear a few more respective hats) but they know each other well and create some great conversations. They talk about current happenings in the world of letters and their professional lives, justify randomly selected books from their bookshelves to one another, and talk about a book they have all recently read.

A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment  is the recently created project of authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walters, both reasonable successful authors. They read works-in-progress and discuss, giving an interesting look inside the creative production of contemporary working authors. Alexie is a great story writer (a bit hit-and-miss for me, but his hits are always strong) and it’s educational to listen to them going over things. They’re also old friends, and they do the “two-dudes-talking” format really well. I would never have expected this reading his stories, but Alexie reminds me very strongly of a Native American, liberal version of my dad.

Podcast Roundup Part Deux: The Golden Age of Radio(-style)

(I love podcasts. I listen around 2 or 3 hours a day, between my commute, time at the gym, and household chores. I’ll be going over my favorites in the course of a few posts. Part 1 here: https://seanvansickel.com/2014/10/20/podcast-roundup-part-1-stories/ )

Public Radio was never part of my life growing up, but I became a fan of a few programs when I was doing private security as an undergrad. Our local NPR station has a few good programs, but leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, this was around the time when most major programs were offering either selections of their show or entire broadcasts on iTunes as podcasts. I fell in love and looked forward to each new release.

This American Life was one of the first such shows I downloaded. The stories were (and are) compelling and interesting, even when about subjects I wouldn’t have thought had much potential. Ira Glass deserves every bit of critical acclaim he’s received over the years. Whether they are doing long-form investigative journalism or compiling a series of interconnected vignettes, the show is always worthwhile.

RadioLab is similar, but with an aesthetic that focuses on sound, editing, and creating an extremely processed and deliberately created sonic experience. Their stories are eclectic, and more than once I have had an idea for a story or a song that germinated from a single line or idea expressed in passing about a subject I would have never encountered otherwise. The aural style of this program is distinctive, and while I found it a bit off-putting at first I’ve become a big fan of it the longer I listen. This might be something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, but I’m okay with that.

99% Invisible has a similar aesthetic to RadioLab -where I first heard of the program- but a more narrow focus: design. While that might sound overly specific, it’s a good example of the validity of the paradox which holds that limitations placed on oneself are creatively freeing, whether one is writing in tezra rima, recording into a 4-track, or making a podcast about a single general concept. 99% brings listeners into the worlds of architecture, sound design, IKEA hacking and numbers stations. It’s creative in a way that is just different enough from my normal creative outlets to get certain unused sections of my brain firing in a way they wouldn’t otherwise.

New Yorker: Out Loud is mostly interviews and conversations with contributors to the magazine. While fiction authors make occasional appearances, most of the discussion has to do with current events, coverage of the world at large, and discussions about culture -from Linklater to Kanye West. While the pop culture stuff can get a bit tiresome, (the coverage of music in particular) the show host some interesting discussion that offer informed and nuanced perspectives on a variety of issues.

Podcast Roundup Part 1: Stories

(I love podcasts. I listen around 2 or 3 hours a day, between my commute, time at the gym, and household chores. I’ll be going over my favorites in the course of a few posts. This is part one, Stories.)

These are all podcasts that present, in some fashion, a story. Narratives are engaging and the best use that engagement not just to communicate a narrative arc, but to illuminate or reveal something that transcends both our ability to communicate it directly and narration itself. David and Goliath isn’t a story about a minor military victory of tribal antiquity, even though that’s the main narrative arc.

Selected Shorts and New Yorker: Fiction both present published short fiction in an audio format. The New Yorker podcast has a current contributor -such as George Saunders or Joyce Carol Oates- read a short story from the magazine’s archive. There is usually a brief discussion after the reading. Stories published in the New Yorker are usually on the longer side, -by contemporary standards, at least- and they tend to be extremely “safe”. There is some amazing literature here, (just look at what percentage of Norton anthologized stories were first published in the magazine) but they aren’t taking risks.

Selected Shorts is a public radio program; as such, also annoyingly safe. It features “canon” short stories (Carver, Updike, Barthelme), read by screen and stage actors. The delivery can get a bit performative for my taste, and why producers feel the need to bleep out words like “asshole” and “shit” on a podcast in 2014 eludes me, but the selection is good.

The Moth and Risk both draw their inspiration from traditions of oral storytelling; The Moth is the original live storytelling show. People from all walks of life, with all kinds of manners of speech, get on stage and tell personal stories in front of a live audience. There is an energy to live, improvised storytelling that becomes lost in the smoothness of editing, and the raw emotion shines through. Everybody has a couple good stories; The Moth spotlights some of the best out there. Risk is similar, but focuses on the dangerous and taboo. Risk is sex positive and extremely explicit.

Time Capsules

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I’m fascinated by unintentional time capsules. A week ago I picked up The Doonesbury Chronicles (1972) at Phoenix Books for a dollar and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it. To be clear, it isn’t nearly as funny -nor as insightful- as most of my favorite comics (http://xkcd.com/, http://www.smbc-comics.com/, Calvin and Hobbes). It isn’t even as “good” as the Doonesbury comics I read in high school, written about the early part of the war in Iraq. Trudeau is (and was) topical and immediate. Looking back at what he wrote in the early ‘70s is informative. You can look at the media made about a particular time (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Boardwalk Empire, That ‘70s Show) or you can look at what was created at the time.

I was born shortly before the Berlin Wall came down. I have no personal schema for understanding what it’s like to live under the immediate reality of mutually assured destruction, but the closest I’ve ever come to that was reading Watchmen. Alan Moore’s graphically novel is a particularly effective example of the power that a piece of work has in evoking its time. This seems strange; the book moves around through the ‘40s and the ‘80s and the story is set in a parallel world where Nixon has been re-elected 4 or 5 times, yet Moore manages to capture everything in and leading up to the moment of his writing, even as he deconstructs our beloved conception of the superhero.

Watchmen is timeless in its literary merit in a way that Doonesbury is not, but they are both incredibly evocative of the time in which they were written. The format of daily serialization gives Doonesbury an incredibly short focus. The jokes are dated, the ideas have been done to death, but I still love reading it. Sometimes Trudeau makes a particularly scathing bit of criticism that only becomes more acute with with the perspective of 40 years, and it’s interesting to see the scaffolding on which so many other things have been built.