Month: September 2016

Mishka Shubaly’s “Beat the Devil” and Amazon Singles

Mishka Shubaly seems to do a bunch of diverse shit. I’d heard him on a podcast a few times before hearing about his whole relationship with Amazon.com as a popular purveyor of their “Kindle singles,” a novellete-length product usually available for around 1.99 and published exclusively as a digital product. I’ve been leery of those kinds of things -with the sometimes-exception of self-published informational ebooks- because as much as people like to talk shit about “the gatekeepers” the traditional publishing model does hold back the flood of self-aggrandizing “personal brand” vanity publishing, badly edited how-tos, and, oh my god, so much fucking supernatural erotica.

While “Beat the Devil” is certainly a cut above that sort of thing, I can’t really say that I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine, but not great. There’s enough to make it worth the two bucks, enough to keep me reading through to the end, there is some pretty bad writing on display. Shubaly can write damn good introspective prose, but his dialog is badly artificial and his need for an external narrative morality skews things to the cliche. I love his oral history, the telling of insane stories that feel real and drive forward with undeniable emotional honesty, but there’s a lot of shit to wade through, and it’s sometimes distractingly bad.

All of this culminates in the mediocre recommendation of “try the sample?” for this particular artifact and a pretty solid “fuck this noise” on the whole “Kindle Singles” thing. I feeling like Shubaly’s work is some of the better writing in this particular medium, and it’s only OK. I’d love to see more small presses and lit mags really push things on the ebook front, but with Amazon’s history of fucking over presses and booksellers, I completely understand the reluctance.

Recommendation: “try the sample?”

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Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America

Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.

These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.

While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.

Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.

Another Straight White Guy Writer-type in New York featuring Cocaine, or Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City has a lot stacked against it. It’s not only a very “New York” story, it’s about a sensitive and artistic yet somehow tragically misunderstood straight white male in the eighties, who behaves badly. It’s a novel about a writer written entirely in the second person present tense. Massive and frenetically flapping red flags abound. These disclaimers aside, Bright Lights is a damn good book.

The humor in this book is it’s single strongest redeeming feature. It’s the kind of humor that produces involuntary and audible laughter, and I had to stop reading in certain situations on account of my inability to contain laughter in a place whose social norms preclude that sort of thing. It’s dark and hyper-critical, but the criticism inherent in the humor is nonselective, meaning that our protagonist is catching more of it than anyone else. This is certainly earned criticism, and it’s the other major redeeming factor -this guy would be completely insufferable, completely miserable to be around if he weren’t so hard on himself for all of his own bullshit. Not to say that he isn’t dishonest and self-deceptive, even patently unlikable at times, but one even feels empathy and connection to a character who, handled less skillfully, would be nothing but an exercises in patience.

The rather novel point of view would seem on the face of it to be a bit of a gimmick, but it all flows together so well that one doesn’t really notice it beyond itself or think of it as an externally forced device. Again, had the writing been handled with any less care, this would be a major irritant, but everything feels so smooth that I can’t imagine this book written any other way. It’s a testament to McInerney’s chops that he is able to pull together so many concerning and often-done-badly elements and produce something that’s not just aesthetically well-done, but compelling in narrative, empathetic, and fun to read.

Recommendation: Give it a go. You’ll find out by the end of the first chapter if this book isn’t for you.

A Wizard of Earthsea, and why books for young people don’t have to be shit

After a few lukewarm readings of her short stories, I hadn’t really bothered with Le Guin for a few years, but I’m trying to rectify that. The Lathe of Heaven was a great read, and this most recent outing was also well worth the time. A Wizard of Earthsea might easily be classified as YA were it published today, and while it lacks some of the complexities found in her more adult-oriented work, it is by no means simple.

Characters are wonderfully filled out and develop well -Le Guin shows up with some very strong prose that communicates both emotional and external realities, but the pacing of events and the progressions of characters’ personal story arcs are clearly the focus. The sentences get out of their own way, but still turn some good phrases, just never in any kind of distracting way.

While I certainly enjoyed the read (and it was a welcome respite from some heavier tomes) I’m sure it would have made a much greater impression had I read it at a younger age. When I compare this book to other YA fantasy, to other examples of world building and magical narratives, it does exceptionally well. It’s better written than most, it’s internally consistent, and it’s got a narrative arc that keeps dragging you in. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than reading a book like this.

Recommendation: Read it! If you have kids, read it to them.