Sunday, June 30, 2013

Night of the Assholes

Night of the Assholes, Kevin L. Donihe
Read: 1 May to 2 May 2012
3.5 / 5 stars


I've spent most of my life in New Jersey, so I've probably encountered every type of asshole at least twice. Yeah, yeah, you all think you know something about something thanks to the intellectual wasteland of "The Jersey Shore" but that's just scratching the surface. (I mean, I assume. I've never watched the show because I don't feel like explaining to the emergency-room staff that I've punched out my television. Again.) Those are what we sneeringly call "Bennies," the over-privileged, overgrown children who storm the state's shore towns every summer to ooze their particular breed of slimeball all over a state that reached its capacity for flagrant douchebaggery back in the '80s. That's just one flavor of asshole we offer, and they're only available seasonally. Try venturing inland and bearing witness to our impressive array of disgruntled Philly rejects and self-entitled soccer moms who can't believe that a stranger had the audacity to not find it, like, utterly charming when their undisciplined rugrats turn a grocery store into a playground.

To survive in the self-proclaimed armpit of America, I've had to do as the assholes do and adopt a few of their tactics. The difference? I generally try to reserve my powers for solely defensive use, rather than construct my entire personality on a foundation of bitchiness -- of course, lesser days have seen my temper flare up without provocation. For the most part, though, being raised by assholes (do you have a better name for the kind of people who punish their children for the unimaginable transgression of wasting a quarter on a stranger's expired parking meter?) and pursuing a short-lived career in print journalism have taught me that the best weapon in the war against assholes is plastering on a big, unwavering smile and killin' 'em all with a sickeningly sweet kindness that just won't quit.

The few "normal" people swimming against the surging tide of assholes in Night of the Assholes cling to that same arsenal of impregnable politeness, and also any umbrella, pole, stick or anally penetrating weaponry within grabbing range. Because when the assholes spill from the local mall to congregate around the farmhouse in which a small cluster of survivors seek refuge, one cannot simply exchange barbs or blows with the masses of asses: To sink to their level is to become one of them. You can grin and bear it, or you can stake an asshole in the asshole and know that you did your part to make the world a better place. You know, if it mattered.

Is this starting to sound like a variation on the zombie theme? It probably should, as the book openly takes its inspiration from George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. For people like me -- those weirdos who've had zombie-apocalypse survival strategies and go-bags at the ready for years -- the shuffling undead just aren't that scary anymore. A zombie somehow circumvented the booby traps littering my property? That's nice. Get out of my living room or prepare for a bullet to the forehead and a blade to the neck (thanks for the Nazi sword that not even eBay would consider touching, Uncle Walt). But a legion of assholes? You're not just one among a dwindling herd of brains to them: You're a target, and it's personal. They'll taunt you, pry the layers of boards off your windows, stuff a hot dog down your throat 'til you've choked, or charge your shelter with a fleet of molester vans just to hack away at the civility you're desperately trying to maintain for the sake of your humanity. Or, y'know, they'll just as soon kill you in the most demeaning way possible and rejoice that their laughter is the last thing you'll hear as your life seeps away. Because that's how assholes roll. At least zombies are limited in both methods of attack and motivation. Assholes dedicate their entire being to ruining yours and will keep plotting until they've won.

And, oh my god, are the assholes ever on parade in this book. If the barrage of high-octane jerks in the first 30 pages don't make you hate humanity even more than you usually do during your rush-hour commute home, then you're a better person than I am: The onslaught of persistent telemarketers, pushy salespeople, loudmouth racists, deliberately terrible drivers, stereotypically catty cheerleaders, ineffective mall-security stooges, and the holier-than-thou faux religious zealots had me seething with barely contained rage. Those kinds of people are insufferable on their own and in small doses. But en masse? I can't imagine reacting with anything less than full-on stabby rage. For the few times I had to put this book down in order to distance myself from the growing need to tell everyone to eat me raw and like it, I couldn't leave it alone for more than a few minutes. The story is compelling -- how, or WILL, the non-assholes free themselves? -- and the characters are so fully realized that you just have to root for them. Or root for them to meet with the kind of gruesome death you didn't know you could wish on another person, living or imaginary.

This is my introduction to Donihe's works and it's my second helping of the bizarro genre: Reading Night of the Assholes made me want more of both. The story would be campy and artificial in a lesser writer's hands but Donihe deftly navigates his reader through the seemingly hopeless tale he's spun. And the writing is really quite good! I can't emphasize that enough, as I wasn't really expecting it to be. I am one of those people who gets hyper-involved in a story and can't help putting myself in the characters' shoes, but the way I started getting too irritated at some of the displays of assholery featured in this book was on another level entirely -- and that's a testament to the talent that crafted the story, to make a reader feel what the characters are feeling to the extent that I did. Barbara, the protagonist, struggles with anger issues all through the story, and I wished many, many times that she'd just admit defeat already and beat the bejeezus out of someone -- asshole transformation be damned -- because that's what I wanted to do and I needed some catharsis: Luckily, when the assholes get staked, it is satisfying in ways that should probably shame me.

In the end, I like to think that the moral of this story is exactly what my planned defense plea has always been: It's not enough to placidly tolerate the world's assholes; you must kill them to fix the problem. And anything that can justify well-meaning but extreme measures is okay with me. It just helps that it's a mighty fun read, too.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1), Stephen King
Reread: 4 April to 8 April 2012
5 / 5 stars


I first read The Gunslinger almost five years ago, not knowing that it would indelibly alter my opinion of Stephen King's literary merit. I was so taken with the titular character and so wrapped up in his story that I finished the book in a matter of hours, immediately and hungrily scrabbling for The Drawing of the Three because I couldn't bear not knowing what happened to Roland next. When I returned to the introductory novel for a second helping of the series a few years later, it was like coming home to dearly missed friends. I rarely reread books -- let alone seven-book series -- these days because there's simply too much I still need to read for a first time but I will always find a reason to travel the path of the Tower again.

It was the expanded-and-revised edition of The Gunslinger that I'd twice devoured with a nerdish urgency; my husband's copy of the original, which I'd never read, slipped into the nether regions of our dormish apartment to remain unfound for years. When the moving process unearthed all sorts of forgotten or lost treasures by the metric shit-ton, my husband's discovery of this original introduction to Sai King's magnum opus was among the most celebrated finds.

I didn't think that the tale of the last gunslinger could have been improved upon: I was half-right. In truth, it didn't need any tweaking in the first place. Yes, the revised version is more canonical in terms of where the series wound up heading (and, given how long King toiled at this series -- I mean, it's a thing measured in decades and a near-fatal car accident -- I can understand why the series's first installment needed to be reworked for the sake of the overall story) but the original is perfect as a standalone piece. Its sparseness and terse voice suit both the atmosphere and Roland's character perfectly. It's creepy in all the right places, heartbreaking where it needs to be and an all-around tighter narrative. It's the strongest possible argument in a series of strong arguments to lob at King's naysayers who've written him off as a one-trick author rather than a damn good writer.

There's something special about seeing a familiar story in a new light. It's a double joy when that experience comes with finding that a much-loved tale can be told even better than the first two times one has both heard and loved it.

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Read: 13 August to 22 August 2012
3 / 5 stars


It's no secret that I get to read on the job. I proofread for a financial publisher, which means that I spend my days getting lost in the lilting legalese of prospectuses, trustee meeting results, shareholder reports, highlight sheets – it's riveting stuff, trust me. But we're a small operation with only a few clients and the fiscal schedule is defined by a feast-or-famine work flow: While the numbers are still being tabulated, portfolio managers are polishing their semiannual interviews and style redesigns are being approved before the work descends in avalanches, I’m usually catching up on my reading with on-the-clock me-time.

Since it’s almost instinctive to dislike the person whose job it is scrutinize and correct everyone else’s work (especially when said person has one of the few oh-so-coveted offices with a window overlooking the bucolic charm of two parking lots and a heavily traveled roadway), I have spent the better part of my three years there endearing myself to my coworkers to soften the blow when I literally cannot hack through a report because it’s so choked with errors. My efforts have mostly paid off and a number of my mom-aged coworkers have grown rather maternal with me, as it’s also not a secret that I stopped speaking to my parents more than two years ago.

When a coworker recently came into my office brandishing an almost-finished book and saying that she kept thinking of me while reading this memoir she couldn’t put down, I assumed she was referring to the way I always have my nose in some kind of reading material at work. And then a little bit of research revealed that The Glass Castle was about growing up under the rule of parents who clearly had no business accepting the responsibility of parenthood, which was when I realized that this was my coworker’s way of reaching out to me.

A couple of days and maybe about 100 pages (and a lot of wincing because, holy crap, the Walls kids are tiny troopers) later, I got into a car accident during my commute home via a road that sees about seven or eight accidents a day, most of them during rush hour because it is a totally good idea to have a direct route to and from Philly narrow down to two lanes in one of the area’s larger suburban oases. Long story short, I escaped the ordeal with my admittedly low expectations of humanity exceeded by miles. As I watched the tow-truck driver (who was totally cool with my nervous habit of asking a thousand rapid-fire questions as he drove both my car and me to the auto-body shop) load up my beloved, battered car with minimal fanfare, the last sigh of relief I heaved tasted something like “At least I don’t have to explain this to my parents.”

The thought resurfaced throughout the evening, like when my husband met me at the mechanic's and I just lost whatever composure I'd been faking when he was right there to help me out of the truck before pulling me into a bear hug. And later when my in-laws, who live right next door and treat me like the daughter they’ve always wanted, greeted me with open arms, said that Mom’s car was all ready for me whenever I was ready to go back to work (as they all but told me that I was going to stay home for a day or two) and reiterated that “A car can be replaced but you can’t” every other sentence and meant it.

By the time I was going fetal on my couch and started to feel the damage that a seat belt and steering wheel are capable of (which is surprisingly extensive when you’re a small-statured, large-chested woman who always knew she’d pay for leaning too far forward while driving), still marveling over how I received neither a single verbal evisceration nor a ticket after two of the most emotionally draining hours of my recent existence, I blurted some garbled admission to my husband about not knowing how to stop expecting someone to punish me, which is about when I realized that I’ve spent my adult life bracing myself to be torn down for every misstep as if the fate of the universe relied on me not fucking up, which isn’t entirely unlike the way my parents reacted to the staggering majority of the things that came naturally to me.

I called out of work for two days not because my boobs were bleeding (they were) or because it hurt to move my neck (it did) or because pulling open doors made me feel like my chest was on fire (holy crap, did it ever), though my collection of minor injuries eased the terminally itchy conscience that won't even be appeased by having a valid excuse for calling out and leaving other people to pick up my slack unless I accept a load of Catholic-sized guilt in exchange lest I give myself a few justifiable recovery days without the appropriate reciprocal suffering. I needed some time to consider how much an inherently lousy experience opened my eyes to damage I didn’t even know I was still carrying around (what the hell, surely talking about going to therapy is just as good as actually going, right?). My coping method of choice? Alternately napping like a champ and juggling three books, including this memoir of the girl who was born to a bitterly brilliant drunk she idolized and an indifferent, self-involved artist who she tried so hard to understand, only to become the person she was meant to be with little support from the two people who should have been there to cheer her on all the way.

Like I’d said, I knew I wasn’t going to be unbiased in how I approached Jeannette Walls’s coming-of-age story: No matter how sympathetically she painted her parents (which she did quite well), I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from resenting them for failing their children. But then the little-girl hero worship Jeanette felt for her tortured, misunderstood genius of her father just struck every raw nerve I have and just poked and poked until I had to physically distance myself from the book. The killer was that I’d stew in whatever calamity last befell these children to the point of needing to know how things were resolved (or avoided entirely). It's distracting to be doing other things and thinking about the book you'd rather be reading.

Not even the blatantly narcissistic ravings of Jeannette’s mother sounded enough alarms to keep me from venturing back to this book if I’d stray too far for too long. And I’d’ve thrown the book across the room at Mrs. Walls’s “I’m not crying because you’re leaving me for New York City; I’m crying because you’re going and I’m not!” outburst had I not already been forced to corral all my determination to return this borrowed book in acceptable condition after Mama W -- whose “Oh, I don’t believe in discipline because children need to learn their own lessons” philosophy barely disguised the maternal disinterest and selfish absence that I know all too well – wailed that she has sacrificed so much for her children when the scamps had demonstrated time and again that they’re more responsible for their family than the matriarch is. I, uh, may have transferred a lot of my own lingering anger at my emotionally damaging mother onto Mrs. Walls, which makes me question how justified my screaming dislike of her is.

The less said about Papa Walls, the better. My father might not have been a hopeless drunk but I kind of wish he had some kind of excuse for routinely breaking promises to the children who thought the sun rose and set on him. An absent mother is easy to hate while growing up and even easier to pity once you’ve come of age. That simpering animosity is something you get used to after a while and, if you’re like Jeannette and a better person than I am, you simply accept that your self-involved mother has constructed such an elaborate alternate reality around herself that nothing real can get through to her if she doesn’t want it to, that she can even turn homelessness into an enviable adventure. But an idolized father’s fall from grace? The older you get, the harder it is when you finally realize the one person you’ve told yourself can do anything is the person who's let you down with the least remorse. That first hard look at how helpless and broken the man behind the curtain is.... that is not easy to come back from. That’s how little girls grow up to become giant messes.

When Jeannette found her way to the school paper and sampled her first taste of print journalism's sweet, sweet escapist nectar.... oh, my heart went out to her younger self in eagerly over-earnest ways. Being a half-consumed whiskey bottle rolling around an otherwise empty desk away from calling herself a true-blooded journalist at such a young age would have won me over if the entire book preceding such a moment hadn't already made me want to see Jeannette find her place in the world. Newsroom nostalgia will always be the easiest way to my too-soft heart.

I am amazed that this isn’t one of those “Oh my God, so let me tell you about my super-sad story so you’ll feel just awful about the craptastic childhood I had and then you’ll be totally amazed at how far I’ve come and how functional I am hey, why don’t you love me yet please love me and feel sorry for me I need your sympathy give it to me” memoirs, thank bouncing Baby Jesus. It’s a documentation of these things that happened to the four Walls children and how at least three of them embraced responsible independence and sibling camaraderie. Walls describes what she sees, reporting the facts and supplying exposition as needed like any good journalist. Also like a good journalist, emotions get minimal face time here. Jeannette is the perfect narrator because it seems as though she is the most willing to accept her parents for what they are. Even though I selfishly wanted to know how her adult self dealt with the fallout of her turbulent childhood (because every little adult grows up to be a big child, let's be honest), I found myself admiring how Jeannette was in no way reliant on cheap feelings to maneuver the story to its conclusion.

Jeannette and her siblings are the heroes of this story. They get themselves out of a bad situation one by one, fishing out each younger sibling as the means become available. Because what’s a better introduction to a new life of stability after years of only knowing that what comes next is an obstacle you can rely on exactly yourself and your equally young siblings to overcome?

This book was quite good but it struck far too close to home in ways I may have overly personalized. It didn't make me laugh like it did my coworker but it sure as hell did make me appreciate how Jeannette Walls turned out. I've had a lot of people recently and unknowingly demonstrate that humanity might not be as awful as I've always thought it to be, and witnessing a grown child forgive her parents for their many crimes against her certainly made for the kind of book that confirmed it's probably time to fix my perspective. Maybe we're not as fucked of a species as I've feared all along.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Read: 15 June to 21 June 2013
5 / 5 stars


Italo Calvino is a veritable drug. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, and don't trust them if they do.

Ever since the rapturous reading experience that is If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, I have been hooked on the man's words. As it is with most blossoming relationships, I'm a little wary of coming on too strong or getting too close too quickly and chipping away at the charming veneer of novelty in the throes of my overeager enthusiasm before we've gotten comfortable with each other, but this is the third book of his I've read in a year (exactly a year, actually) and I am just as giddily smitten with Invisible Cities as I was with my aforementioned introduction to Calvino's works and also Cosmicomics.

Invisible Cities clocks in at a seemingly stingy 165 pages, with many pages only half-filled and a number of them left conspicuously blank. But since this is a Calvino novel, his beautiful, beautiful words are only a fraction of the payoff: The ideas, the images, the quiet messages, the prophetic warnings disguised as storytelling, the dreamlike quality licking at the edges of every sentence and even the apparent silences of seemingly unused spaces carry more weight than they would if they were crafted by any other writer's hand. And there is not a sentence that does no warrant savoring with a second or third read in this entire book.

This novel is what happens when two historical figures -- in this case, an elderly but spirited Kublai Khan and the younger traveler Marco Polo -- whose lone commonality is being alive at the same time try to communicate without sharing a language. Polo conveys the cities (or is it just one city's many faces?) he has seen to the emperor through gestures, objects and other nonverbal cues. Like Cosmicomics, it is a map comprising the essences of things; like If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the reader becomes part of the narrative as he is welcome to draw his own conclusions just as much as Khan is.

I think I've made it pretty clear in previous reviews that I love duality and the play between opposing forces in my reading materials of choice, probably to the point that I find them in places they don't really live. Invisible Cities has 'em by the fistfuls, though. The palpably dynamic tension between the visible and in-, happiness and misery, the imagined and the real, the living and the dead, the storyteller and his audience, the roaring inferno and the heavenly plains, the finite work of creation and infinite motion of ruin, the image and its mirrored reflection was a delight unto itself, but the additional step of blurring the lines between each extreme with every achingly gorgeous stop on the raconteur's journey through recollection and the listener's odyssey of imagination was exactly the kind of extra mile I expect Calvino to traverse with gusto.

There is an inversion of expectations that gives each push-and-pull pairing of opposites some of the hazy magic that is so particular to Calvino's works. It's not entirely surprising to read about cities where the living envy the cities of their dead to the point of emulation and confusion as to which populous is really alive, or whose people are more at peace with the certainty of obliteration than their earthbound counterparts because their metropolis is built upon a spider-web network of ropes and they are all too aware that their precarious balance could fail at any moment (is there anyone more alive than those who are reminded of death on a daily basis?). But there is a pleasant surprise when the design of a carpet and the layout of a city are echoes of each other; oracles who are consulted about the mystical connection between two unlikely entities only offer the ambiguous insight that "[o]ne of the two objects…. has the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other is an approximate reflection, like every human creation."

While there are common threads and themes woven throughout Polo's narratives, no two cities (or no two faces of the city) are examined in the same way. The cities' signs, desires, dead, names, skies and other shared traits may be explored but never to the same effect. And sometimes seemingly unrelated characteristics make similar points: A city would have no history without its dead, just as its living have no motivation for progress without acknowledging the mistakes upon which a history was built, just as the dead have a peace that the living won't know without forging ahead in life.

There is a sense of concentricity that unites each urban observation, which, along with the interspersed exchanges between emperor and explorer, help move the novel toward its oft-hinted-at augury of urgency that reaches its climax as the stories reach their conclusion, as relevant as it was centuries ago when Marco Polo and Kublai Khan were supposedly having their animated discourse in a garden, as when Invisible Cities was published four decades ago, as when I finished it this morning:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, and make them endure, give them space.

The Language Instinct

The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker
Read: 9 May to 22 June 2013
4 / 5 stars


I have this incredible mental block about reviewing nonfiction.

My formal linguistics experience is limited to exactly one History of the English Language class as a college junior (and it remains one of the most fascinating, satisfying and illuminating classroom experiences I've ever had, university-level or otherwise), which was about when I realized that the study of language was up there with the school paper and my creative-writing courses in terms of the all-over fulfillment I found in it. It helped that I had an enthusiastic professor whose wealth of knowledge and general zeal turned my disappointment in the English department's lack of additional linguistic offerings into a fervent hunt for extracurricular reading material regarding the topic, though I can't help but feel that my self-guided tour through the field isn't yielding the same benefits I'd've received from exploring the same terrain with an expert leading the way. Hence my concern that I'll sound like I'm trying to pretend that I know what I'm talking about on some deeper level when my background in the roots of language is far more recreational than academic. All's I can say for sure is that The Language Instinct was great fun, beautifully written and an absolute whirlwind of information that covers a dizzying array of unexpected but thought-provokingly relevant subjects.

Oh, and that Steven Pinker has the most admirably disheveled hair since Georges Perec. Their locks are not to be trifled with, nor, clearly, are their minds.

The last language-centric book I read argued in favor of a point that had been laughed into noncredibility for years thanks to the implied racism it still carried from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis days, which is that the world actually looks different based on one's view of the world based on his or her culture and language (Through the Language Glass, written by Guy Deutscher and published in 2010 -- and which I must admit to having read long enough ago that I have shamefully forgotten many of its finer details but do recall as having made a rather convincing argument, as it delved into stuff such as how a language can reflect a culture's attitude toward its women) -- an hypothesis that Pinker decried within the first 50 pages of this 1994 bestseller as "wrong, all wrong," as it is his view that "discussions that assume that language determines thought carry on only by a collective suspension of disbelief." My copy of The Language Instinct includes Pinker's chapter-by-chapter asides about updates in the many areas he explored in a book he published more than two decades ago, including the neo-Whorfism that has sprung up in recent years, a revival that allowed works such as Through the Language Glass to be taken more seriously because the misguided blinders and red herrings of the linguistic avenue of contemplation have finally fallen away and its points can be made in such a way to sidestep the unfortunate pitfalls of the past.

Seeing the inverse of an argument made just as successfully as my initial exposure to it was what sucked me in for good with this book. The overlapping of an argument's two sides and seeing familiar names, familiar backgrounds, familiar failings and completely different conclusions were all strangely rewarding payoffs for my own curious, solitary explorations.

And that spark of recognition just kept cropping up in myriad forms as I read on and on (and on and on, as it took me, like, two months to finish this -- absolutely no fault of Pinker's, but rather that of my compulsion to juggle two and three books at once and work's nasty habit of reducing my reading time in two-week cycles). While the biology and neurobiology and child development and abnormal psych were all a bit of alien territory for me, Pinker presented them all in such accessible ways that my tactile-learner self was picking up everything he was putting down. Which made the friendlier faces I'd seen before all the more inviting: The progression of Old English to Middle English to Modern English was like having tea (or mead) with an old friend, reading about the Great Vowel Shift was like reminiscing with an old lover and wondering if maybe the stars are finally aligned in our favor, the uncanny commonalities between seemingly unrelated tongues was a kiddie ball pit wrapped in a trampoline for my brain, and the pages and chapters of grammatical theory? Be still, my pedantic heart! I didn't even mind, as a happily neurotic proofreader, when Pinker started asserting that maybe the Grammar Mavens have their priorities all wrong, that even nontraditional dialects have their merits, that "whom" ought to go the way of "ye" and its other equally antiquated brethren, that it's okay to hang on to the rules of usage for clarity's sake rather than browbeating those poor folks who don't work themselves into paroxysms of glee at the very notion of sentence diagrams over their truly nitpicky transgressions.

I had no idea the lengths and detail necessary in asserting that something so mind-bogglingly complex but is so universally taken for granted -- that is, human speech -- is a deep-seated biological impulse, hard-wired into our brains to the point that we are all, in fact, baby geniuses when it comes to sussing out most of the nuances of our diabolically tricky native languages by the age of three. I had no well-formed opinion on the matter of language as a learned habit versus a communicative imperative instilled in us via evolution before coming into this but did Pinker ever reel me in, hold my attention and make me want to delve deeper into his research, theories and positions regarding the language instinct. Bearing witness to the impressive lengths he goes to to cover all his ground from every angle is reward enough for hearing him out for nearly 500 pages, because Pinker's dedication to the language instinct is evident enough in the miles of homework he did to make his point with armfuls of wide-ranging detail and chapter upon chapter of some truly compelling writing.


The beginning bounty of the Maccarden: Behold, basil!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin
Read: 7 April to 21 April 2012
4 / 5 stars


I know enough about music theory to have a favorite time signature; my knowledge of neurological studies, however, is about what you'd expect from someone who's taken a long-ago Psych 101 class to fill a core-curriculum requirement. Also, I'm very much a hands-on learner: Sometimes I need some auditory help, sometimes I need a visual example before I can figure out what the hell's being taught to me. So reading a book about the science of music should have been an exercise in making myself feel positively daft, right?

If Levitin were pretentious enough to slap the "Doctor" title he earned onto his byline, maybe I would have beaten my (autographed!) copy of This is Your Brain on Music against every poundable surface within bashing range. But the nonchalant anyone-can-figure-this-stuff-out-with-the-right-guidance attitude that Levitin takes with a subject that is clearly exciting and dear to him is quite possibly the best part about this book. Having an expert navigate the sometimes murky waters of music theory and the baffling stuff of which neuroscience is made turned what could have been a daunting and confusing journey into an actively enjoyable reading experience. Kudos to you, doc. And kudos again.

So before he was a neuroscientist, Levitin worked in the music industry. Because of his immersion both fields (and because citing your sources and offering examples makes for a stronger argument), he name-drops a lot of musical powerhouses and prolific sciencey smarty-pantses. A lot of the reviews I've read make it seem like it's distracting and comprises the bulk of these pages: It's not and it doesn't. I mean, the guy has a favorite Zep sound engineer and gets all tongue-tied fangirly when he talks to the scientists he admires. Those aren't the sort of sly moves that try to subtly scream "Look at all the cool people I've rubbed elbows with, guys!" Rather, such things lend credibility and real-world examples to a lot of theorized text while also giving credit to the people who've influenced him along the way. Do we know with absolute certainty how the brain works and why music moves us the way it does? We do not, but Levitin backs up the theories he supports with lots and lots of musical and personal examples. Which helps someone who can't help having a blatantly abstract interpretation of the world around her (i.e., me) understand an argument that would usually be best made with a series of presentations and musical interludes.

The range of musical examples used in this book is astounding. Everything from the classical composers' mainstays to mid-aughts pop-culture hits is explored for their structure, songwriting, beats, technically imperfect but emotionally spot-on interpretations, earworminess and more. It helped me appreciate the skill of artists like Buddy Holly, who I'd known mostly as a popular act instead of an actual songwriting powerhouse, who knew how to use all sorts of tricks to maximize the emotional impact and suggestions of his tunes.

While explaining the science behind music, he taps into art, psychology and general creative pursuits just as confidently as he applies his arguments to those fields and mines them for one-step-further examples. If Levitin's casual approach to dispensing accessible musical and neuroscientific knowledge is what helps make this book a success, the far-reaching nature of his thesis helped dial the interesting factor up to 11.


Courtesy of the best best friend ever and her Floridian travels.

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Read: 4 December 2012 to 24 February 2013
4 / 5 stars


By the time I hit third grade and had still demonstrated absolutely no inclination toward athletic pursuits, my parents forced me into the township's local softball league. Because that's what you do when your bookworm daughter begs to take art lessons and possesses a nigh prodigious talent for falling up stairs, right? My first year of being a young ball player was punctuated by lots of praying for rain, daydreaming in the outfield and swinging at every pitch just because I liked how it felt: Somehow, despite my staggering disinterest and physical ineptitude, my team won the championship that season, heralding another god-awful year of endless drills that still have phrases like "loosey goosey," "call for the ball" and "keep your HEAD in the GAME!" providing the hellishly looping soundtrack to my nightmares.

Miraculously still, I landed a spot on the all-star team my second year, which only led to more rigorous and more time-consuming practices after school, on the weekends, before games, after games, whenever there was even half an hour to spare in the pursuit of athletic greatness -- time I would have preferred to spend with my nose in a book. Any book. By my third year, I was pretty much self-sabotaging myself at every step of the game, eventually sacrificing the only thing I cared about: my beloved spot at second base. By the time I was a sullen eighth-grader and limply going through the motions I’d had mercilessly drilled into my rote memory for nearly five years, I made it pretty clear that my parents were wasting their time and money on misguided wishes that I’d conform to whatever young-athlete ideal they had mistakenly thought could be pinned on me. This was only a viable exit strategy because the one thing they hated more than relinquishing control over their children was throwing money at hopeless endeavors.

But my doomed-to-fruitlessness years spent toiling at the batting cages and the local baseball diamonds and the front- and backyard were not why this book resonated deeply with and brutalized me as severely as it did. Though being forced into the arduous efforts of participating in a sport I didn't much care about save for the way it occasionally diverted the otherwise endless torrent of parental disappointment sure endeared Enfield Tennis Academy's students to me in a way I didn't see coming.

It's incidental that, about a month into the nearly three I spent reading this gargantuan tome, I kicked my own chemical dependency. I won't at all go so far as to call it an addiction, as it was a habit I dropped with surprising ease and have yet to miss at all. And I sure as hell didn't have half the troubles that I learned true addicts do (thanks to this book, which I'm pretty sure the completion of is the equivalent of a master's degree in twelve-step programs). But I did take the cold-turkey approach, and the sudden absence of a comforting vice offered a hard look at just how close I was to losing myself in what began as a recreational escape.

For as easy and as shockingly non-disruptive my sudden cessation of a years-long habit was, you're goddamn right there were moments when my resolve almost caved -- not of weakness, really, but just because, meh, why not? That's about when I realized that the ritual has become as comforting as the substance itself. So I focused on the distance that my new-found independence from dependency put between me and that last indulgence: One week without backsliding. Two weeks. One month. Now almost two.

Pardon the descent into clich├ęd territory for a second, but every journey of 1,000 miles begins with just one step: My attempt to shake a years-long bad habit began with one day of sticking to my guns, just like conquering the beast that is Infinite Jest began with the turning of a single page. Both offered a few instances of me wondering what the hell I’d signed up for but, even with their lesser moments, both efforts have been more than worth their comparatively few and fleeting pains.

I’ve made it abundantly clear before that I don’t give a leaping, prancing fuck about tennis but DFW sure made it interesting in the two essays he devoted to the sport in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Coming into this having read even one collection of his non-fiction ruined IJ for me from the beginning, as it is the man's non-judgmental but deeply, quietly observant presence in his fact-based writing that draws me to him the most. But it also made me realize that the guy could have rewritten the phone book and I would have vomited praise all over everything because he’s that good at honest storytelling.

There are truths pouring from every page in IJ, which do lend a certain familiar presence reminiscent of DFW's non-fiction: The AA meetings, the depression, the internal conflicts, the biggest truths coming from the most inconsequential moments and, yes, even the tennis all resounded with real-life personal experience. Even the characters I absolutely hated (like that fucker Lenz) were crafted in a way that made them so human and multidimensional that it was obvious they were intended to be victims of circumstance who demanded more than black-and-white consideration.

The ways DFW blurs the lines and draws parallels between seemingly at-odds concepts show how polar opposites aren’t even as far removed from each other as we like to tell ourselves, that perspective, motivation or a simple name are all that separate, say, physically brutal athletic training and mindlessly indulgent entertainment, as the former is shown to be just another means for an individual to deliver the latter to the many. Similarly, an elite tennis academy really isn’t that far removed from a rehabilitation program: It becomes screamingly clear that both house addicts of some kind when you’re forced to examine what really lies at the heart of each institution. Even, obviously, sexual encounters and the family of one's childhood are complicit in one's effect on the other, as seen in Orin’s tendency to seduce mothers and how his own mother, in turn, carries on an affair with a boy young enough to be her son and who is wearing a disturbingly familiar football uniform when their tryst is brought to the reader’s full awareness. Because, really: Is the path to learned, painstakingly accrued greatness not all that different from a seizuring, pants-shitting junkie in the realm of addiction? Filling a void with finely honed talent that will one day destroy the body is revealed to not be entirely unlike filling that same void with a destructive substance that, too, renders the addicted vessel to a ticking time bomb of physical and mental ruin.

But in a time when one can no longer be certain of what the future holds -- the country is run by an increasingly unstable president, when something as indelible as a country’s topographical familiarity is eliminated, when one can’t even rely on the unfailing numerical certainty of what to call the next and all subsequent years -- is it any surprise that extremes are no longer separated by distinct boundaries and that the sweet escapist nectar of entertainment has ascended to such obsessive, pervasive heights? All people can be sure of is that the television show or movie that provides comforting relief from the unflagging instability of the real world is never more than an always-available cartridge away. In this regard, DFW presents a strange sort of dystopia where any addiction or superficial sense of microcosmic control is necessary to cope with a world whose only constant is perpetual upheaval.

It is that very instability that dominates the end of this book, as demonstrated by characters being (sometimes violently) uprooted from the surroundings that the reader has spent the length of three normal-sized novels relegating them to and then replanted in wholly surprising locales: Hal is taken from the strictly regimented ETA where children are turned into perfectly performing machines and thrust into a regressive support group where adult men are encouraged to embrace their inner infants; the imperturbable Remy descends from his southwestern heights to the rock-hard bottom of Ennet House’s desperate pursuit of getting life back on track; poor Gately is ripped from his more-or-less secure life of sober, middling authority to being completely dependent upon machines to keep him alive, where he is at constant odds with his rational mind to avoid all addictive substances no matter what necessary relief they bring while battling unimaginable physical pain; the less said about Orin's upturned world the better; even the long-deceased JOI returns to the mortal coil in a sense –- by the way, I could have happily read nothing but the interfacing between Gately and Himself the friendly wraith for 1,079 pages and been as happy as an addict on a weekend drug binge.

Life is not always interesting or without its flaws and, honestly, neither was this book. For me, IJ wasn’t a perfect novel, nor was it the absolute best thing I’ve read. But it was the most human, the most humbling and the most honest: As far as I’m concerned, those are much more difficult and far more noble superlatives to reach for, especially with a piece of fiction that manages to resonate with more desperate sincerity than some people can ever hope to manage.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Slouching Toward Nirvana

Slouching Toward Nirvana, Charles Bukowski
Read: 28 May to 30 May 2012
5 / 5 stars


Bukowski nearing life’s end zone is the celebrity I’d go to dinner with in that one hypothetical exercise. Seeing him, mainly through the lens of his writings with a few supplemental perspectives of movie adaptations, biographical sources and the rare treat of a filmed poetry reading, through the decades and how the suicidally volatile drunk becomes a casually disgruntled older guy whose patience for bullshit is as hearty as his aged-beyond-its-years liver is just a fascinating character study. Brutal, unflinching honesty is the constant force that propels the staggering poet through volume after volume of novels, poems, short stories and raving observations, and it’s an honesty that proves Bukowski is far braver than his legendary drunkenness implies.

He’s still writing about racetracks but it’s nostalgic now, like he goes to remember what it was like to be that desperate, to cling to his bets like a liferaft. There’s a sheepishness in his tone now, as if he knows that his scraps of fame (which he alludes to with convincing amusement) render his former worries obsolete and to write about them would be unforgivably artificial, and he mirrors the inevitable change in his lifestyle with a natural shift in his writing: Bukowski was strutting his taste for irony both before it was cool and better than anyone since.

There's something laid-back and (dare I say) almost upbeat in this collection that's unusual for Bukowski; it's unusual but neither an insincere nor unwelcome deviation from the hot-blooded output of the poet's earlier days. He explores unexpected terrain -- a visit to the beach, a young girl at the dentist -- and offers up tales of lives that are much sadder than his with a poignancy that screams of learned understanding.

For as hesitantly optimistic as this collection could be, there is a resonating sadness to be found in it. Buk himself seems content as long as he's writing -- much of his youthful anger seemed to stem from not being able to write for one reason or another -- but is sad for humanity. As a man who has put the whole of himself on display through his writing, leaving him with nothing left to hide his lesser qualities behind, it seemed like he pitied those who chose to wander through life with their eyes closed.

Bukowski blends those opposing forces of peaceful contentment with his own path and empathetic sorrow for everyone else to much success. I alternately laughed out loud at some of these poems while I'd reread entire stanzas over and over to make sure that someone else, even if for a few fleeting seconds, understands that there's beauty to be found even when an entire world is collapsing.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun
Read: 15 May to 19 May 2013
4 / 5 stars


Like apparently so many others, it was my love of Bukowski that led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as well kiss your ass goodbye," my literary hero asks one of his own, "Sir.... that first novel, did you really eat your own / flesh as a young writer? were you that / hungry?," leaving me to ask how can one NOT give in to curiosity when presented with bait that's so temptingly flavored with desperation and meat of the scribe? Besides, reading the very book that left such an irreversible impact on Buk the same way that his poetry has affected me was the kind of atemporal unity of shared reading experiences that makes me love discovering my favorite writers' favorite writers even more.

If I hadn't realized a long time ago that the romance surrounding the life of a starving artist is more of a well-manufactured lie than an honest portrayal of an uncertain existence that's fraught with so many basic concerns that any hope of creative output is thwarted by the much more biologically imperative pursuits of food and shelter, Hunger would have been a rude awakening.

Ostensibly, this is about a homeless, jobless and increasingly hairless writer's slow descent into madness through hunger: hunger for food, for shelter, for adequate company, for letting his talent flow from his brain through his pencil to the page. He is completely at the mercy of the notion that creative greatness can't be rushed and he suffers poignantly (and sometimes with a dark humor) for it. He goes days without eating, he pawns his possessions nearly to nakedness, he chews on wood chips (and, yes, his own fingers) for sustenance, he sleeps outside as another brutally cold Scandinavian winter bears down on his little patch of Norway. It is the ultimate ballad of what can be sacrificed in order to live through just one more unforgiving day, how the hope of publication propels the despondent writer in his peregrinations.

As the story trundles on and Hamsun avails himself (or attempts to, being limited not by his own fading conscience but rather the standards of those to whom he tries selling his possessions) of everything down to the buttons of his coat, it becomes increasingly clear that those who are blessed with talents they are meant to share with the world can stand to lose everything of material worth so long as they keep those precious mental facilities about them, as evidenced by Hamsun's mounting fear of permanent madness: Losing his mind for good means that he has lost the one true asset that is the essence of his being and, at a survival level, makes him economically viable again so he can afford to focus on the outpouring of words that he is so clearly meant to leave behind as inspiration to generations of his literary successors.

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Read: 19 February to 23 February 2013
4 / 5 stars


I feel like I owe Sylvia Plath an apology. This is a book I actively avoided for years because so many people (namely female classmates who wanted to be perceived as painfully different or terminally misunderstood or on the verge of absolutely losing their teenage shit) lauded the virtues of this book and how it, like, so totally spoke to them in places they didn't even know they had ears. My own overly judgmental high-school self could not accept even the remote possibility of actual merit lurking between the covers of something that such bland, faux-distraught ninnies clung to like a life raft.

I should probably also apologize for referring to every pair of oven mitts I've ever owned as a pair of Sylvias but I think the lady scribe in question was too mired in real problems to care all that much about my sick amusement's crass reduction.

The Bell Jar, packed as it was with bleak truths, difficult topics and wryly dark humor, was not at all what I was expecting. Old biases die hard: I couldn't help but brace myself for a trivial tribute to mental imbalances, White Girl Problems and petty complaints disguised as life-ruining moments. What I got was an utter lack of histrionics and a sincere, to-the-point road map of one talented young lady's fight against her inner demons. Sylvia's alter ego Esther Greenwood (let's all take a second to appreciate the sly cleverness of trading "Sylvia" for the fictional surname "Greenwood") is so straightforward in addressing her despair that I couldn't help but extend more sympathy than I thought I could muster to her understated suffering. If nothing else, this book taught me that my own bouts of the blues are simply me being human and could be so much more debilitating: For that clarity of self-awareness alone, I am grateful.

Reading this as I neared the Infinite Jest finish line offered necessary perspective that helped me get a better idea of what it must have been like inside such a messy head. The relative ease with which IJ's depressed cast could self-medicate in secret or seek refuge where at least someone was trying to understand the extent of such gaping psychological wounds offered a jarring contrast to the way Sylvia/Esther seemed truly isolated from those who couldn't see how awful it was to live inside herself. While she encountered precious little understanding in both her personal life (Mrs. Greenwood's inability to see her daughter's problem as her daughter's problem instead of her own just rubbed my modern sensibilities the wrong way) and from the medical professionals who were tasked with helping her rise above the sinking despair she couldn't escape, I finished this fictionalized semi-autobiography 50 years after its publication with a far keener understanding of what Sylvia Plath endured than I'm comfortable with and a more sincere interest in pursuing the rest of her works than I expected.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Jitterbug Perfume

Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
Reread: 26 May to 29 May 2013
5 / 5 stars


Before I knew that magical realism was a thing, I loved Tom Robbins. Before I fell hard for postmodernism, I fell for Tom Robbins. Before I had developed a literary taste that I can be proud of, there was the beacon of hope for me that is Tom Robbins.

There aren’t many things I loved in high school that I still love now: Listening to the same Dashboard Confessional CD on infinite repeat, running to Livejournal to unselfconsciously document every oh-so-significant spike in my emotional temperature and wearing brightly colored tights under fishnet stockings are all things I’ve let slip into the past but Robbins has seen me through all the milestones and minutia of my teenage and twentysomething years.

Jitterbug Perfume was not my first foray into the weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird worlds that Robbins builds from the gossamer threads of imagination unbound (I'm actually not sure which one popped my Robbins cherry but I do know I first read this one during my last summer of college when I was a live-in nanny -- which was a surprisingly good summer for bibliomania, actually). It is, along with Skinny Legs and All, tied for the honor of being my favorite of his, and both novels are longtime mainstays of my desert-island reading list. So when my craving for Robbins got to be too demanding to be delayed any longer and the heady of perfume of spring was calling too loudly for the only companion novel that successfully captured the power of scent in words, I knew I could rely on this book to deliver everything I needed and more.

It is tempting (like, it is taking an inordinate amount of self-control to fight the impulse) to say something about how beets are the beating heart of this novel but that's only because I have a sick, unironic penchant for puns. Really, this is a story that spans 1,000 years (or about as long as I've been staring at the computer screen while waiting for this review to write itself C'MON BOOZE LUBRICATE MY THOUGHT PROCESS NOW) and connects Seattle to New Orleans to Paris to Bohemia of yore with the wafting of a fragrance. There's also a very loyal swarm of bees serving as the halo a modern-day Christ figure would wear and Pan comes and goes to prove that man creates and destroys gods with a fury and jealously no spiritual figurehead would ever dare to act on. And a fallen king who proves that love can last more than a lifetime and winds up behind bars in the process (if that's not a metaphor for modern times, I don't know what is).


...


You know, I thought a little liquid creativity would help me here but it is just so damn hard to express how much and why I love this book and how excited I am that, almost eight years later, it is actually even better than I remembered. This is so much more than beautifully playful prose, a caution against taking oneself too seriously lest you forget to stop and smell the beet pollen, more inventively evocative metaphors than a whole hockey team could shake some really long sticks at -- just to mention a few of the things that established my seemingly eternal entrenchment in the Tom Robbins fan club so many years ago. That's not to say that I wasn't thoroughly tickled by those elements this time around but the more subtle aspects of the storytelling were what really got to me during this most recent reading.

This book is a little disarming because it addresses so many issues, Big Ticket and otherwise -- life, death, love, immortality and the conflicted yearning for it, what happens on the other side of death, the individual vs. societal norms, the search for perfection, scientific pursuits, religion (and the lack thereof) -- in such a lighthearted, unexpectedly connected way that its moments of seriousness pack a brutal but enlightening punch. A character who triumphs over death for a good millennium is bound to lose more than he gains in his willful longevity, and his moments of introspective contemplation are a little hard to watch unfold, especially as some of the other characters are revealed to be carrying around the kind of sadnesses that compel them to keep moving; I can now appreciate that there is a definite Pynchonian element of contrasting goofiness of the highest order against some truly sobering sorrows to maximize the impact of each emotional extreme.

I was a little worried that, like so many things I've outgrown, my love of Robbins's unique storytelling might now be a thing of the past tense. But he so intricately layers and pieces together so much in his books that there is plenty to notice for a first time (like how Jitterbug Perfume really does follow the format of a hero's journey, complete with help of and hindrances from mythical beings, a never-say-die determination to reach the finish line, the occasional occurrence of wine-dark liquids, and even a visit from a cyclops) and even more to rediscover anew.

The Walking Dead, Compendium One

The Walking Dead, Compendium One,  
Read: 11 November to 14 November 2012
3 / 5 stars


(Some spoilers for both the show and the graphic novel herein. I tried not to include too many. You have been warned.)

Okay. Forget everything you know and hear me out: Zombies are the great equalizing scourge.

One of the first books my younger self fell hopelessly in love with (which probably explains an awful lot about my older self) was Stephen King's The Stand. The book's been out for, like, more than three decades now, so it's your own fault if this is a spoiler but all you need to know for this review of an entirely different creature is that a government-wrought superplague has wiped out 99.4% of the population, leaving the American survivors to be led by moral compasses/epically fucked-up dreams to their fated good-or-evil faction. Having watched society repeatedly crumble away so many times through this particular King-colored lens has left me decidedly immune to dispatches from the end of the civilization as we know it -- y'know, in the fictional sense.

Being one of the most affecting reads of my formative years, The Stand is also, for better or worse, what I can't help but measure other end-of-days works by. I've mentally revisited it quite a bit in the past few years (the stuff of that tale is lodged in my brainmeats for always because, whatever your opinion of Sai King is, the guy paints some uncomfortably visceral, lingering images) as my own longstanding zombie fascination has invariably led me to books like World War Z and (somewhat regrettably) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and I suppose Night of the Assholes counts, too, since bizarro zombies are still zombies and then also dozens of undead-themed flicks and marathons of The Walking Dead, which always always always end in a few nights of zombie-related nightmares (just once, there were kitties to make the whole nocturnal shebang less horrifying).

The thing about the apocalyptic scenario in The Stand (and other media that take the disease route to decimating humanity) is that there's no cure, no battle plan, no hope of survival beyond sheer, dumb luck. And that's too fucking terrifying for our control-freak culture. Just like a natural disaster, a weapon of mass destruction, a meteor strike or whatever other cataclysmic event that could be the end of life as we know it, widespread, airborne pestilence fucks up everyone's game with no hope of fighting back. But we still like to pretend that we have some control over both our environment and the course of our lives. Enter: the ravenous dead, or the strangest occurrence of entertainment zeitgeist I've ever watched gain momentum.

Zombies are the enemy you actually have a fighting chance against AND come with the bonus of an annihilated societal infrastructure. Hate your job? Hate your neighbors? Hate your family? Hate your first-world problems in general? Want to kill some folks without any real repercussion (you know, other than waving goodbye to the simple hassles of modern, privileged life before the dead claimed the apex-predator role)? ZOMBIES ARE THE ANSWER. Man gets to fall back to his more primitive nature (as our current society becomes increasingly bizarre and stifling, the sweet release of all-out chaos is a welcome fantasy, is it not?). And I think, with our actual times being as strange and stressful as they are, it's cathartic to imagine oneself in a world where all those mundane problems are obliterated by tending to the daily survival we've come to take for granted in our coddled state. It's a weird return to less civilized ways without losing the safety that our civilized facades allow.

So. The Walking Dead. I am so happy that a friend hoisted this 1,000-some-page monster on me during the show's third season because reading this and then coming to the show would have me so terribly disappointed in the necessary changes made while translating this gorefest into less blatantly offensive fare for a television-watching audience. I mean, sure, I can live without seeing how Herschel's very young daughters' murdered, headless corpses coming back to life would be adapted for my needlessly giant TV screen. And, in the general book-to-show scheme, I didn't really mind that Daryl and his stink-palmed brother weren't in the book, so long as I wasn't watching the show and being all "OMFG DARYL IS THE TITS." Because he is and I will cry my face off if anything happens to him post-mid-season hiatus. But, unsurprisingly, I digress. I don't necessarily condone excessive violence but, c'mon. When shit gets cray-cray, it's ridiculous to expect that people will behave as anything other than the humanimals they are once all of society's safety nets are effectively obliterated or that taking the nonviolent high road will result in anything other than becoming a victim with no law or legal counsel to help get us back to that once-idle existence.

Overall, the characters in the graphic novel seem less like caricatures than they do in the show. I know it's easier to get into a character's head to understand their thought processes and motivations in a book but they actually seems less interchangeable and predictably dramatic in these pages. The stuff with Shane coming undone happened so much earlier and faster, which was like ripping off the Band-Aid to make the whole ordeal less painful (it actually sucked more in the book because I wanted more time with Shane's cracked self but that's what I get for predictably claiming the most damaged characters as my favorites). Rick's frustration with the way his fellow survivors cling to their naive humanity in the face of some shitty odds is more overtly driven/explained by how deeply responsible he feels for everyone's safety. He's grappling with a black-and-white perspective while realizing that even a world of Living vs. Dead has plenty of room for grey areas. Micchone is a fucking animal in both worlds and I love both versions of her, though I wish her AMC counterpart got as much backstory as she did in the book because she is a complex little warrior. Graphic Novel Lori was infinitely less irksome than TV Lori, so watching her (and Baby Judith) eat it once the Woodbury folk opened fire on 'em was really, really fucked up. Oh, hey, while we're on the topic of fucked up: Carol. She's the one character whose television incarnation is so much more stable than her graphic-novel counterpart. She freely admits to being damaged well before the era of the undead, and then introduces herself to a chained-up zombie before committing suicide via zombie noshes: "You DO like me" are her dying words to the undead beast that snacked on her neck like it was a pack of eagerly proffered movie-theater Twizzlers.

I originally said that the Woodbury residents are so much more glaringly psychotic here but it's really just Philip who's got his wires in knots. The Governor (who looks like a more stereotypically intimidating Danny Trejo, which I didn't think was possible even in an artist's rendering) is... okay, look, we all know that he stares at a wall of fish tanks filled with severed heads like it's reality television and he's keeping his Zombie!Daughter in secrecy like one keeps mum about an illegal mail-order bride but if you're only watching the show, you're missing a scene wherein he pulls out his daughter's teeth -- presumably to make her more docile for the secret-keeping BUT REALLY SO SHE CAN GIVE DADDY A FULL-PAGE, OPEN-MOUTH KISS AND IT IS THE MOST DISGUSTING THING IN 1,000+ PAGES OF DISGUSTING THINGS. Ew. Just.... ew. It reinforced the notion that when the dead roam the earth, the living are the real enemy. And then it made me want to start digging a moat around my house. Just in case.

The art wasn't really earth-shattering in originally or anything but it was still pretty damn good. I did like the black and white inking, which was totally a metaphor for something. The starkness of such an approach certainly meshed well with the tone of the story. What struck me hardest was how the kids, especially Sophia and Carl, frequently look like miniature adults. Whether it was intentional or something I imagined entirely on my own or whatever, it was definitely a nice, subtly rendered touch.

All told, I'm not really sure how I feel about this eight-book collection, honesty. I think, like a lot of things that straddle multiple representations across different media, it's hard not to compare one to the other, which, in this case, took away something from both the show and the book for me. I mean, this graphic novel was fun and disturbing and I couldn't tear through it quickly enough but it was missing something. It's certainly the first thing I've read that really dealt with the survival aspect of the zombiepocalypse as it's happening and how people's reactions would obviously run the gamut of emotions in the aftermath of such an event but I would have loved more post-zombie psychology and less hanging around waiting for the shit to happen. I guess, obviously, in a real-world situation, there WOULD be more inaction once a haven (like a reclaimed prison) was secured, and I can't really fault it for attempting to make such an unbelievable scenario more credible and less outrageous but... meh, better pacing would've been nice. Not like that'll stop me from reading more, though. I actually do like the characters and the way this one ended was just fucking brutally awful. I have a very real need to know what happens to these fictional people because I am more emotionally invested in them than a mentally healthy person ought to be.

Good, viscera-strewn fun, this. But I really wouldn't recommend reading it in tandem with the show -- not because of the potential for spoilers (they're certainly different enough animals for that to not be a real problem) but because it is bloody confusing when things are just similar enough to create confusion in keeping the specifics of each Walking Dead incarnation straight.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Read: 24 November to 26 November 2012
3 / 5 stars


Score another point for the It's Not You, It's Me rating. In books as in life, I just can't get past certain character flaws.

Miss Jean Brodie is the kind of teacher my high-school self would have gone positively apeshit over. Younger Me would have eaten up her determination to shirk the stifling curriculum to impart the wisdom and knowledge she felt formed a remarkable mind, hoisting her onto a pedestal made of hero-worship for having the temerity to rock the establishment's boat. That cynical bitch Older Me, however, was suspicious of her motives and couldn't shake the feeling that this tale was like an all-girl Dead Poet's Society with a less purely intentioned teacher and less naively worshipful students (minus the saccharine charm of departing the story before the awestruck pupils grew up to be disillusioned adults). My other problem with this one was my lingering hostility toward the type of woman Miss Jean Brodie seems to be. (Really? You're in your prime? I can't wait for you to hammer home that conversational nugget, like, 87 more times and talk all about yourself some more.) And possibly the distracting scrawlings of the book's previous owner, which were clearly jotted-down lecture highlights littered with words' less common spellings, like "desparite" and "bicariously."

I know I'm missing something in not better appreciating what is a much-lauded novella by being so turned off by just a small facet of the main character's personality because there was quite a bit more going on than one might expect from a deceptively slim tome. The titular lady certainly is a complex character who seemed to be preserving her own fading youth in those select girls in whom she saw protege potential (I want so badly to make a "Brodie set : Jean Brodie's prime :: horcruxes : Lord Voldemort's soul" comparison but I feel like that's just setting myself up for a rabbit hole of recreational thesising). Brodie is determined to tear through life and distill her experiences into vivid life-beyond-cold-academia building blocks for her chosen pets. I was fascinated by her ability to dedicate herself completely to whatever passion tickled her fancy at whatever point -- teaching; art; strategically placing a favored student, as a stand-in for herself, in the best position to carry on an affair with a much older married man -- without it ringing with the falsity of a passing, half-hearted fad. There was something desperate in her determination to suck the marrow out of life, though -- like it was missing the unselfconscious joie de vivre of a person truly enjoying existence with reckless abandon. She was the cat parading around her mouthful of feathers, pushing societal boundaries for the sake of daring others to take notice of her untamed ways and marvel at her free spirit.

The non-linear narrative neatly packed 10 pounds of enlightening exposition into a five-pound bag; I'm generally a fan of chronological meanderings, so that was a definite plus. The Brodie set was a gaggle of foils, both among themselves and for their teacher: Their innocence and adolescence played so perfectly against the surrogate mother figure whose own purity was abandoned long ago and whose peak has already begun its decline. And I positively adored Sandy, the most prominently portrayed of Brodie's elite, even though I knew she was the obvious choice.

Definitely worth the read, especially for a book I grabbed on the sole basis of its length as the end of the world 2012 loomed ever closer with my year's reading goal still unmet. I just wish I hadn't chanced upon it more than a decade too late, as I feel like this is one of those books that's a primo gauge for measuring how far one's come over the years.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, Rob Sheffield
Read: 2 January to 3 January 2012
4 / 5 stars


I started reading this book during the two-day buffer between the beginnings of both 2012 proper and the working year, thinking that I’d have to look no farther than the other end of the couch if the story really destroyed me to the point of needing my myriad mostly-under-control-but-always-threatening-to-surface spousal fears allayed by husbandly hugs. Turns out, catching up on laundry and tidying up our soon-to-be-vacated first home ate into my reading time and I wound up finishing this about an hour after hubs left for work. (Luckily, this book wasn't the sob-fest I was fearing, which is a huge point for the "pro" column.)

But you know what? That lost solitary reading time was put to good use. Hubs and I giggled our way through the brutal minute-long walk to the laundry room, encountered a comedy of errors while corralling our smallclothes and turned vacuuming into a contact sport. And I think that, more than actually sitting down with Love is a Mix Tape, helped drive home the unspoken point of the book, which is that you never know how much time you'll have with someone so you'd better make the most of the present.

Every time I’ve seen Rob Scheffield wax eloquent about music on television, he always seems to have this goofy grin and be a generally amiable person, an image which I’m sure is aided by how not pretentious he is about the music he loves (which is admittedly foreign territory to me). We can all agree that a personable demeanor is unusual for a rock critic and an avid connoisseur of music, right? Because you should believe everything you see on TV, I assumed he was a happy-go-lucky dude who just truly loves and is animated by music. So imagine my surprise when I realized there’s a heart-rending tale under all of that.

This isn’t a prettied-up-for-mass-consumption account of an individual's personal tragedy that is just, like, so super unique and deserving of publication because the author said so, thank god. It’s about Rob. It’s about other things, too, of course – music being chief among them – but mostly how they’ve left distinct and indelible marks on Rob’s persona. His late wife Renee gets a lot of page time, but she’s a living, thriving presence for most of the book. The reader wouldn’t get the full extent of the things that made Renee so magnetic if this was another pity-party strutting its stuff for affirmations of the author’s suffering. Instead, Rob presents enough of her traits and habits to make us understand her without betraying all of her secrets. We see Renee through Rob’s eyes: She’s flawed but good-hearted, quirky but grounded, an individual who’s bubbling over with life.

It is so obvious that Rob is still smitten with Renee and probably has been since their first encounter. And it’s obvious that his love is motivated by who she is as a whole rather than what she represents to him. For someone with so little relationship experience, like Rob, that kind of selflessness is nigh impossible to either understand or execute. But you can tell that this boy is just wild about his girl by the way she’s framed within the book.

A memoir like this should be more of a tribute and less of a fishbowl therapy session, and it should exist to deliver a message rather than parade the author's personal tragedies in morbid self-congratulation; thankfully, this one rises above the usual credibility-killing narcissistic pitfalls. There are no excessive displays of grief and Rob doesn't rely on his wife's death as the storytelling vehicle, as either would be disrespectful to Rob and Renee’s short-lived union. Rob mourns his wife, of course, accepts that he’ll never be rewarded for dealing with his widower status by getting to have Renee back, and spends an appropriate amount of time in the fetal position, but he does so with dignity. He doesn’t want to wallow in self pity or spend night after lonely night in a cemetery because to do so would be to succumb to a dismissal of Renee’s joie de vivre, which was clearly one of her defining attributes.

There were definite divisions marking life before, during and after Renee, which certainly helped the story find a universally applicable element, but it’s Rob’s love of music that gives this books its strongest framework. Just like there was life with and without Renee, there’s music before and after Renee, too. For every milestone, be it as a child or a grieving adult, there’s a song or album or band to serve as the soundtrack. What is music’s greatest purpose if not to act as a personalized landscape for each individual, after all?

As someone who went through a rabidly elitist phase of music consumption (a phase that has, fortunately, waned over the years but still needs to assert its lingering presence at the least appropriate times) and is drawn to those who’ve traveled a similar path, I feel pretty confident in saying that the least musically talented music aficionados aren’t the most accepting folks. It’s easy to scoff at pop music and the bands who create it but Rob doesn’t fall victim to this. He admits to secretly loving some disco ditties as a teenager and accepts his phases of enjoying some truly craptastic tunes. The mix tapes’ track listings that open each chapter illustrate that he never really let go of that open-mindedness, which make his honesty and vulnerability regarding other facets of his life that much more credible. He doesn’t limit himself to the music that’s peripherally cool or only listen to what the radio spoon-feeds him, which, to me, demonstrated an unabashed affinity for all music, much to his credit.

One of the points that Rob subtly made was that when two people are just as sick about music as they are about each other, music gradually becomes a third entity in the relationship. Having that life raft of shared music (and, later, music he wishes he could share with Renee) is what kept the intimacy of his late wife close and, as I saw it, kept Rob from totally coming unglued. It always seemed like he knew he’d soldier on without his other half, but music seemed to be what kept propelling him forward, however stumblingly or reluctantly.

Music does emerge as the real hero and great unifier when it comes to the crux of the story, though the quiet messages of human kindness and self-discovery serve as its moral. I held myself together through Rob’s accounts of Renee’s death and funeral and his mourning period; what finally pierced my groggy heart was Rob’s awe over complete strangers’ acts of kindness toward him. I’m a sucker for the moment the veil of cynicism is lifted (probably because I am pretty certain humanity comprises a bunch of selfish jerks and, therefore, get all warm and gooey when someone can convince me otherwise for a little while), and Rob’s realization that he can’t go back to his former skepticism over the goodness of people was a defining moment of the story. Yes, there is some goodness in the world: It just took a world-shattering tragedy for Rob to gain some firsthand knowledge of it. Human kindness helped him to move on while pointing out the places where some silver lining is peeking through.

It is hard to write about a loved one’s sudden death without summoning every cheaply sentimental cop-out to prey on the audience’s emotions, so Rob gets all kinds of kudos for offering up a good read rather than a cloying trick. This is a beautiful remembrance of a well-loved someone while doubling as a love letter to the music that will always be there through the highest highs, lowest lows and every small moment or long car ride between.

A Void

A Void, Georges Perec
Read: 17 January to 18 February 2013
5 / 5 stars


Okay. Let's all take a second to appreciate that this was both written and translated without a single instance of the letter "e." You have to respect that kind of lipogrammic dedication on both the author's and translator's parts (translating the puns to be relevant in another language deserves additional kudos). Its effect on the dialogue, narrative and story itself is a wonder to behold in its own right.

This is a hard one to review because most of what I want to say would divulge too many spoilers and I just can't ruin something this good. Y'all need to experience this wonder firsthand to appreciate how mind-bogglingly fantabulous it is. Cop out? Perhaps. Cheap ploy to encourage even one other person to read this? Hell. Yes.

The back-cover blurb calls this "a metaphysical whodunnit"; Wikipedia posits that its total absence of the fifth letter acts as "a metaphor for the Jewish experience during the Second World War"; the author states in his postscript that this novel and its constraint were born of a haphazard bet; I say that it is proof of how my life had no real meaning before my introduction to Georges Perec. And possibly that this is the book Pynchon would have written if he were a crazy-haired French dude (seriously, stop and take a gander at GP's photo on his profile page -- this is exactly the kind of book one ought to expect from a bloke who looks like the very personification of mad genius). His trademark paranoia, obscure allusions and hysterical-antics-hiding-a-deep-melancholy are all but oozing from these pages of another man's work.

In the first 24 pages alone, references are made to (among other things) various operas, international political figures, Warner Bros. cartoons, James Joyce, biblical parables, Franz Kafka, Monty Python, Malcolm Lowry, Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind and Virginia Woolf (specifically Orlando); the rest of the book is just about as schizophrenic and far-reaching as the allusions and parallels it invokes in just its first two chapters.

At the heart of this, underscoring the madcap detective story, is an unfolding revenge plot that, like Moby Dick, is thoroughly Shakespearean in its unrelenting quest for so-called justice, and is driven by a deep understanding of the extent that both self-preservation and familial, friendly and romantic love can all impel individuals to the same degree of action (or in-), much like The Bard so masterfully demonstrated so many centuries before. The rendering of Willy Shakes's "To Be, Or Not to Be" speech as "Living, or Not Living" is as inspired as the novel to its very end, where those left standing even extend some closure to the audience as the curtains fall.

It's worth nothing that the body count is downright nihilistic but the detours necessary to sidestep any use of "e" (as well as Perec's adeptly applied sense of humor in detailing God-awful tragedies, which is apparent just halfway through the novel's preface) as if the second vowel were a strategically placed turd create such finely tuned hilarity that I couldn't help but laugh when I should have been nursing a punch in the gut. I like my humor like I like my coffee (i.e.: almost too black to be palatable), so witnessing gallows humor used to an awe-inspiring extent was an unexpected bonus appealing specifically to my dark and demented tastes. That's not to say that the truly sad moments aren't drenched in heartache, because they do try to rip the reader's heart out through the most painful means necessary.

Whether this is novel is brilliantly insane or insanely brilliant, the ride is an absolutely incredible one that is brimming with breakneck twists and meticulous construction, both in its language and its plot. And it's made me absolutely certain that, if all of Perec's stuff is as tight and compelling and beautiful as this, I need to stuff my head with all of his works I can find. You should consider doing the same.

Between the spectacular florescent lighting in my office and the rush I was in to document my lunch before doing wholly unladylike things to it, this photo does not do justice to some of my favorite Pad Thai ever.
(Takeout from Fusion Bay, Collingswood, NJ)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quartet

Quartet, Jean Rhys
Read: 1 April to 4 April 2013
3 / 5 stars


Oh, another instance of three stars signifying my failure as a reader (and possibly as a compassionate human being). I haven't felt such regretful pangs of "It's not you, it's me" and been so keenly reminded that my histrionic, womanly emotions prevented me from appreciating the finer points of a novel since A Confederacy of Dunces. At least that had moments of comedy to keep the blackness at bay; Quartet was just all hopelessness all the time. And I just couldn't take it, regardless of all the tragic beauty Rhys veritably stuffed into this inspired-by-true-events tale of woe.

I feel like such a hypocrite for recently praising Woolf's ability to summon inglorious emotions and loving her for it while allowing the same gut-wrenching talent Rhys exhibits to anger me to the point of yelling at these characters because I couldn't relish the physical relief of smacking some sense into them: The difference is that Woolf seemed to give terrible things a bigger-picture significance while Rhys's intent is not the same. There's no point to the bleakness because sometimes life just sucks. Especially if you're a woman in the early 20th century and, therefore, are expected to live as a subservient possession -- and so help you if you're not appropriately and outwardly grateful for the privilege to go through life on your hands and knees, please and thank you, sir. It takes some writing chops to believably portray the ugliness going on here and make it sound so necessarily hopeless yet so poetic, and, ye gods, does Rhys ever have 'em. It is no fault of her own that I read this with a post-women's-lib perspective, often in my office where I get to rule my department with an iron fist (or passive-aggressive guilt -- whatever, same result) and, according my boss, have instilled the fear of God in men older than I am and then go home to a husband who loves me as a person and treats me as an equal partner in our relationship: Mine is not at all the world Rhys is writing about, and I realize not being able to truly understand hers is not a bad problem to have but presents a problem nonetheless in my approach to Quartet.

It is remarkable that, for being written in the late 1920s and so clearly expressing how servile women are supposed to be, there was something so urgently timeless about this book. It's not easy for a piece of literature that's nearing its centennial to shirk the grasp of datedness but this book certainly does. And Rhys? You're fucking AWESOME for pulling that off.

I wanted to feel so badly for Marya, I really did. A husband in jail and a married man whose advances she mistakes for love make for a lousy situation, especially when the weakling she married forces her to fend for herself when that's just not feasible, leaving her to seek refuge with a couple whose interest in her well-being is so transparent a blind man could have realized their motives. It's really not her fault that she had no means of surviving on her own, let alone the knowledge or inner strength to do so even if she had found a path to freedom. What made things all the more awful was that Marya had these achingly poignant moments of hating her circumstances so much and recognizing the futility of her situation that almost -- almost! -- drove her to action if she weren't so damnably susceptible to being torn down by both her husband and the cad to whom she is a reluctant mistress. It was like watching a friend stubbornly spiral down the rabbit hole of bad decision chased by bad decision all because she had no regard for the well-intended interventions that all proved maddeningly futile. Seriously: If I had to hear one more character, even the all-bark-no-bite Lois whose big mouth only took her as far as her dominating husband would let her run, I was going to throw this book at the first guy who had the misfortune of speaking to me at the wrong time.

In the end, I couldn't help but feel like such somberly lovely prose was wasted on such irrevocably rotten characters -- not that the play of the two dueling aesthetics didn't add to the insurmountable misery that was doing a fine job of escalating on its own. But I just couldn't, in good conscience, say that I loved a book where a woman was so ruthlessly victimized by both the era in which she had the misfortune of existing and the men who dominated her without a twinge of conscience. I usually do care more that a story is told well than I do about the plot itself but this one was just too raw and too filled with hurt to ignore: The beauty of the language couldn't save the soul-crushingly appalling tale it told.