Month: September 2015

“Fun Home” and aesthetic cohesion (featuring possibly offensive cartoon breasts and implied cartoon cunnilingus)

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’m certainly glad I picked up Fun Home. It had been on my radar for a while, but I had managed to miss picking up a copy, which was rectified via a loan from a friend who was also borrowing it from a friend, (thank you, Megan and Zeke) and so, while we might be clogging up Alison Bechtel’s revenue stream, (although only temporarily, since I plan to get a copy myself when it comes time to re-read) we are definitely supportive in our evangelical zeal to share this thing with the people around us (and in my third parenthetical address of this sentence, I urge you to buy and read this book). Fun Home is a quick but rewarding read, another creation of one of those singular minds that both impress and intimidate me in their ability to not only create simultaneously detailed literary work and vivid visual artistic representation, but to take full advantage of the fact that the same mind is responsible for both and to create that kind of self-like resonance between the two that I always associate with siblings who harmonize their genetically and environmentally similar voices together especially well.

It’s a fantastic book that regales us with a strong sense of story and idea, Bechtel shaping her life via literary devices and narrative structures pulled from the literary canon. The art is simple and perfectly suited to the material, intensely personal. The plot progresses inevitably and perfectly, never leaving us hanging unsupported or jarred and always marching to the foretold conclusion. It’s a simple family story told with the nuance and gradations of impossibly complex reality.

Recommendation: Read this book, unless you are offended by cartoon depictions of breasts and insinuated cunnilingus, like some shithead freshman at Duke apparently is.


“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and -just read it already it’s a great goddamn novel, ok?

One of my favorite novels of the year, this book does very many things extremely well. It’s one of the best examples of free indirect narrations I’ve ever come across, with the narrative voice a seamless mix of the invisible third-person narrator (educated in his vocabulary and nuanced in his prose) and the main character, Billy (very clever and perceptive, but with little education and virtually no opportunities to develop as a human being). The meshing of these two disparate influences creates a compelling voice that solves that very thorny problem of wanting to authentically tell the story of someone who lacks the linguistic frame to do his own narrative justice. In lesser hands, all of this shit would fall apart, but Ben Fountain shows such deliberation and care in his construction that the narrative structure begins to fade from conscious awareness, even to a reader such as myself who obsesses over constructive metadata in relation to the act of writing.

It’s also a really good story, both on the level of a compelling sequence of events and in raising questions whose answers will influence some very high stakes. It novel feels like one is reading a Novel of Ideas, but one is nonetheless compelled to examine closely everything about the way we wage war in the 21st century, about the nature of the men who fight in it. This line of thought is then contrasted with all kinds of aspects of the American way of life that would otherwise be innocuous, but stand pretty stark and unhappy in the context of that particular comparison. Its a novel that has that cognitive stickiness that fills up your mind, that your thoughts keep drifting back to as you wait for the light to change.

It’s also worth mentioning that a film version of the novel, directed by Ang Lee, is currently in post-production, awaiting a release date next Veterans Day. In the novel, Bravo Squadron are being feted and courted by Hollywood types seeking to turn their group experience into a summer blockbuster, capitalizing on the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation. The satire of that kind of effort works well in a novel, but I have a hard time imagining it will work well in a film with Vin Diesel and Steve Martin. And while it’s pretty straightforward and narrative, (easily film-able, as far as lit-fic goes) some of the most powerful aspects of this book function best in novelistic form. In spite of those concerns, I think that a good director (which Ang Lee can be) could make a powerful film, something that redefines the Iraq war and war movies in the same way that Full Metal Jacket did for Vietnam -something sorely needed after the jingoistic masturbation that was American Sniper. And, evein if the movie turns out to be utterly irredeemable shit, the national buzz such a venture creates is going to get a lot of people reading the book, and that is a very good thing.

Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Unreservedly recommended for all readers. One of the best novels I’ve read this year. 

Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”: In Defense of the Pocket Protector and Slide Rule

Carl Sagan’s writing is hopelessly nerdy. It’s also pretty time-stamped -even without the rather frequent references to current events, it’s not hard to tell what part of the twentieth century the man was writing. That said, it’s not a bad read. This was my first venture into anything book-length (I’d read a few excerpts of his writing) and I’m not opposed to reading something else by him, which seems to me to be the most objective test of my personal response to any given author.

I’m not particularly scientific in my formal education, although I spent a lot of time with analogue electronics for a few years and even took some college classes in electrical engineering. I’ve always struggled with an mathematics beyond algebra, and my requisite science classes during my undergrad were mostly selected based on how little math and/or physics I would have to subject myself to. Nonetheless, I’ve followed scientific advances in a handful of areas with decent focus in the last 4 or 5 years, and I’ve tried to educate myself on the broad scientific consensus in as many fields as I can handle -I grew up in a strict Evangelical Fundamentalist environment with a decided lack of interest in all things scientific, so I feel like I’m always playing catch-up.

This is why books like Sagan’s are so interesting to me, in spite of their rather limited literary merits. Sagan is a wonderful educator and evangelist for science, and, although he can sometimes be overly pop-science and age rather badly, he can be counted on to explain complex ideas in an accessible way, with passion and educational experience. As much as I love it, not all prose need be literary and not all strings of words should need to be savored slowly. Sagan’s prose is not distractingly bad, and the amount of information he communicates is impressive.

Recommendation: Try it, unless you have a need for reading things that are in vogue, or science isn’t your bag.

Oliver Sacks’ “On the Move” -a rich existence relived

I finished the late Oliver Sacks’ most recent (and most general) memoir days before his death. As an avid listener of Radiolab (where he was a frequent contributor) I was aware of the severity of his illness as I read, which lent the whole experience a far more deliberate sense of looking back upon a life in its entirety. Sacks cast a wide net in his life, pursuing science with a sense of narrative that evoked the best scientific writing of the 19th century, but with all of the wonderful advances and wide knowledge base of the 20th century driving him to greater specificity and rigor, and his personal life is equally compelling.

This is far more what, growing up, I would have called an autobiography, as opposed to a literary memoir. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with Sacks’ prose. It’s simple and direct, but each word is well-chosen. The intent is not to dazzle, but to create an honest and plain communication between the reader and the life of the author. Sacks only falls into that Latinate vernacular when describing something in medical terms, camping squarely in the Anglo-Saxon when he tells us stories of his days riding motorcycles to the Grand Canyon on the weekends or participating in competitive weightlifting at Muscle Beach.

One of the things I find myself repeating in my reading log is how little the subject matter really matters, at least in comparison to the honest joy the communicator can bring to bear through good prose. I’m certain this truth has its limits (I probably don’t want to read about the minutia of the breeding displays of Western Fence-Post lizards, no matter how passionately its described), but I’ve found it to be a worthwhile truism. Sacks’ memoir details a fascinating and richly lived existence, but, more importantly, it does so with real, communicable joy.

Recommendation: Go get it.

On the Move: A Life
by Oliver Sacks
Powells.com

Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and Cultivating the Virtue of Solitude

Rilke’s 10 letters -written when he was rather young, to an admiring fellow poet, younger still- continue to enjoy a popularity within the artistic set. I came to this slim little thing with a bit of trepidation, on account of my cynicism and my lack of patience for anything that might possible swerve in to the territory of “Chicken Soup for the Artist’s Soul”. Happily, it turned out I had no cause for concern. There is plenty of angst but, come on, we are talking about German poets here. I’d assume some kind of disingenuous posturing if the angst was totally absent.

What Rilke seems to spend most of his time on is in describing his relationship with solitude, with the artistic necessity of removing yourself from the crowd of people whose company you enjoy and spending time in your own head. Out of this grows the need to build your own mind into a place where you are comfortable spending extended periods of time -this idea being the big take-away for me. I’m an extremely social person, but I can become depressed if I don’t take the time to go into my own head, creating and dwelling, building the frames and references there before setting them down on paper later. Rilke is talking about it mostly as a precursor to creation, but the solitude he prescribes stands for more than that. It’s about cultivating the kind of mind that is capable of saying something legitimately remarkable, and not merely clever. It’s a damn hard thing to do.

I really appreciate the value of craft-based books, from Rilke’s epistolatory commentary on the artistic life to John Gardner’s far more specifically instructive “On Becoming a Novelist”. I notice that I tend to read these kind of books very differently, almost always with a highlighter or pen ready, and the finished volume full of notes and underlining. There is no substitute for the instructive power of the act of creation itself, but regularly reading the thoughts of great writers and artists isn’t going to hurt. We all want to have someone like Rilke as a mentor, but reading the collective mentoring of all the powerful writers who have written such things isn’t that poor a substitute.

Recommendation: Read it. Spend some time rolling it around your head, especially if you want to create.

Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” and my protestations at the alleged death of the short story

This is one of the seminal short story collections of the last few years (or, as some less charitable critics might put it, one of the last dying gasps of the short story as a culturally relevant artistic medium). I’ve been consistently impressed with Denis Johnson’s work, but, on account of never finding “Jesus’ Son” at a used bookstore, I’d never gotten to this heavy hitter. I finally broke down and ordered it from Powell’s. Good move. These stories are deeply interconnected, sharing, if not a specifically same narrator, then a shared narrative voice, a troubled young man, addicted to substances, prone to the melodramatic  sentimentality of alcoholism and the rambling narration of serious substance abuse. This is not an indictment; the stories are made more powerful by the obfuscation and unreliability of their circumstance, a distilled narrative always skipping in media res. Every word counts.

I was reminded a lot of Thom Jones as I read this particular collection -a connection I’ve never felt with any of Johnson’s other work. The two men were contemporaries. “Jesus’ Son” was published the year after “The Pugilist at Rest”. I have no idea if the two influenced each other in any way, (I doubt it -the logistics seem unlikely) but I’m sure they both drew on the same kind of literary inspiration. There’s a lot of Raymond Carver in here, the further evolution of Dirty Realism that moved away from Hemingway starkness into more direct narratives, no less meticulously constructed for their more built-up sense of narrative.  

Short stories don’t have the same mass appeal as they have enjoyed in the past. This isn’t a particularly revelatory sentiment, but I’ve always wondered why. Much of our most popular media is shrinking -witness the bite-size appeal of shorter and shorter articles online, the growing popularity of “list-icles”, YouTube videos, and so forth. Why don’t short stories have their place here? People aren’t afraid of reading, (reports of the Death of the Novel continue to be greatly exaggerated) so why don’t people give a shit about short fiction? Perhaps everyone got put off by the overly-understated stylings (for the general reader) of Carver and Tobias Wolff. Don’t get me wrong -I love that stuff. But I also think it’s not nearly as interesting for people who aren’t writers themselves. Denis Johnson and Thom Jones, on the other hand? If we can get people to pick them up, they might discover that it isn’t short stories they dislike, just a particular subspecies.

Recommendation: Read it. Evangelize it. The short story is dead. Long live the short story!

Jesus’ Son
by Denis Johnson
Powells.com

Flash Fiction Forward: it ain’t the length itself that bugs me, but there are some disturbing correlations…

Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories

by James Thomas (edt)Powells.com

I approached this critically acclaimed collection of flash fiction with as much honest impartiality as a true-born cynic such as myself can offer the medium. I had been disappointed by subpar stories that hid their mediocrity behind brevity and a clever turn, but it seemed foolish to cast negative aspirations on an entire genre because of that. But I may not have been entirely wrong.

I concede that there were some very good stories in the collection (Updike’s “Oliver’s Evolution and Bruce Holland Rogers’ “Three Soldiers” were exceptional -and Hollands’ piece even more so, as it was further broken down into three even shorter sections). But well over half of them fell completely flat. Another 25% were only good. If this is representative of the critical consensus of the best offerings the genre can produce, then I feel rather disappointed in both the writers of flash and in the editors and gatekeepers who are elevating this incarnation of the medium up into the realm of dedicated educational anthology.

I take some solace in my faith that this volume is merely bad curation, but I think there’s something more at play. I have read some wonderful fiction under 1000 words, but the best of it is often presented as good fiction that happens to be short, rather than relying on the surging popularity of the obsessively genre-ifying subcategory “Flash Fiction” (a construct that reeks of a marketing committee’s involvement at some point in the process if anything has ever reeked of anything else). I will continue to read fiction of all lengths, but my experience is conditioning me to be more cautious in my optimism when the phrase “flash” gets thrown around.

Recommendation: Skip it. Read Space Squid or Thrice if you enjoy a bit of discerning quality amongst your brevity.