Saturday, January 30, 2016

Read It (and Watched It), January 2016

Well. This month has been, pretty much, a complete bust as far as reading goes. I've been sick with a flu virus that has really knocked me down.

My symptoms have not been that severe -- just a mild fever and cough and occasional headache -- but it has dragged on, and the mental haze and physical exhaustion that go with it have been really frustrating. It's been two weeks, and I'm not quite done with it. I took a little some sick time, but I hate taking sick time and I had critical work to get done. So I went back to work, and was able to get some crucial work done, but wasn't able to do much else. In the evenings I'd just fade out early. I took cough medicines and acetaminophen to get me through, and had lots of hot tea and broth. I was able to drag myself through the week, but it was really a slog.

Anyway, I got very little reading done in the last couple of weeks. I did make some progress on the novel S. by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams (yes, thatJ. J. Abrams; he's credited with the concept. It's a fascinating book. It has been on my to-read pile for a long time, but I jumped into it because a couple of my Facebook friends proposed reading it together and talking about it online.

The book is slightly difficult to describe. It is, essentially, a very cunning piece of fakery, wrapped in more cunning fakery. It's a fake copy of an old novel allegedly published by a fake press in 1949. But then the fake book is filled with fake marginalia and ephemera -- in fact, stuffed with notes and clippings and postcards and photographs and other oddities. The yellowed pages are fake. The "clothbound" cover is fake; it is textured paper of some kind. The marginal notes are in multicolored pen and pencil writings (not really, but it looks pretty convincing unless you get out a magnifier). The notes are a conversation between two students in a fictional University library, talking about the book, and about the controversy over the author's identity, and his mysterious disappearance, and his translator's identity as well.

The notion of an unreliable narrator is an old one, and so is the notion of an unreliable literary executor, and translator, and critic. I think the book was inspired by some great work of other authors. In particular, Nabokov and his novel Pale Fire seems like an obvious antecedent. The main text, a phony novel called Ship of Theseus by the nonexistent author V. M. Straka, has clear references to Lovecraft and Dante (actually my friend Meredith pointed out the Dante). More recently, there have been epistolary novels like the Griffin and Sabine books; this book reminds me a little bit of those.

It's an interesting piece of work. When you get into it, you discover that pretty much nothing is as you expected. The introduction, by Straka's supposed translator, seems hackneyed, and unbelievable. The main text is very unevenly written; the first chapter contains long sections of truly horrible writing -- deliberately "purple" and filled with "telling" instead of showing. Later sections are much better. This suggests that the book is at least partially a forgery. There are lots more theories and conspiracies at work and I'm not going to go into all of them here, but I am enjoying it, while also refusing to go too deep down the rabbit hole (there are cryptographic puzzles in the text to solve, and online clues; I just really have neither the interest or the time for that kind of thing).

It's funny -- if you were creating a real forgery of a known painting, you'd do your best to make the canvas, and the paint, and the brush strokes, as convincing as possible. I know that this whole project is, as I've called it, a "cunning fake." I unwrapped it. But if you are willing to suspend disbelief, and treat it as if you really found this old book, say, at a library book sale, you discover that in the fake introduction to the fake book there is fakery upon fakery, and in the fake marginalia, fake people obsessed about the fake fakery, and somehow, like great fiction always does, the lies become somehow true.

So I have finished only a single book this month, at least that I can recall. It was the biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. I didn't finish listening to the unabridged audio version of Arguably, the essay collection by Christopher Hitchens (although I am deeply impressed by some of the essays). I didn't even finish reading the first Harry Potter book out loud to my kids. We're almost done, but I lost my voice. However, I am going to count it, because I got the kids to read the last few chapters, so we'll add Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone to my list as a book that I (barely) completed (re-reading) in January.

I did, though, do something I rarely do. I started watching some TV shows. Recently some shows have become available online that I wanted to watch. There are three, and all are adaptations: the SyFy network production of The Magicians, the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and another SyFy production, the adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End.

I try not to sound like some kind of a snob about this, but I really don't enjoy TV shows any more. I spent a lot of time as a child and a teenager soaking up TV shows: M*A*S*H, Star Trek, St. Hill Street Blues, and a lot of sitcoms. I've watched a lot of the big science fiction shows. We have, on DVD, all of Stargate SG-1 (which stands for Stargate Stargate 1), ten seasons long, and I have seen all ten, along with Atlantis and Universe. I've watched so much mediocre TV, and some good TV. I watched the first season of Game of Thrones and the first season of Mad Men, although I have not continued either of those. We have seen all of the rebooted Doctor Who, although I am growing sick of the franchise.

I think what I've grown sick of is the lack of emotional and intellectual payoff in TV series shows that do not follow a closed arc, but exist only to exist, and expose eyeballs to advertisers, for as long as they can -- literally, as long as the producers can drag them out. I find that often so unsatisfying. I was an X-Files fan, for exanple, but to this day I've never seen the last three seasons.

In particular, I really don't enjoy shows about nothing. I was never a fan of Seinfeld. Big Bang Theory is, as far as I can tell, also pretty much a show about nothing. It is too mild to be genuine satire. It is too privileged and too unrealistic and, I'll just go ahead and say it, too white. It's about overgrown children with no significant struggles in their lives fighting to continue to live as selfish children and pursue their own irresponsible self-gratification. Without their endless adolescence, they would settle down with each other and learn not to be so abrasive; they would grow as people and if they grew as people there would be no story. It's been going on for, what, a decade now? And someone finally consummated a relationship?

I really enjoyed the look and feel of Mad Men -- the sets and costumes alone are worth watching, at least a bit. But the story arc felt like it was taking too long to get anywhere, and becoming too melodramatic, setting up too many self-conscious, unrealistic mysteries, and so I basically lost interest. I've been advised to watch Halt and Catch Fire, a period drama about the early days of personal computers. The setup sounds fascinating to me but, basically, I'm again afraid that without a defined arc it will just be another soap opera, and I've got enough soap.

Anyway, I was drawn to these three recent science fiction and fantasy adaptations because they are adaptations, and follow defined stories, with arcs and character development. Or, at least their source material does. I am a fan of Lev Grossman's Magicians books -- they are a great sort of homage to Narnia and Harry Potter but a little darker and a little older. I have watched the first two episodes of the adapted series. I am surprised how much I like the adaptation. I was also surprised at how dark it is, and how well-edited and tight. The author is involved with the adaptation and the storyline has been somewhat restructured; things are happening more in parallel, and faster, so that the first episode can end on a cliffhanger. I don't mind if a show takes some time to build drama, but I guess that just isn't done these days.

Even so, the show seems to respect its audience in that things go by really fast and you have to pay attention. The producers don't explain everything right away but the bread crumbs are all there, and the foreshadowing. So I recommend this show, but I think it would go down better after reading the trilogy, which I recommend more. The first episode is free on the iTunes store if you want to see one before spending any money.

I have some real questions over where they are going to go with the show, though. I don't think they have the budget to do much with the actual magical land of Fillory. That is sort of the beating heart at the center of the books. What will it do to restructure the story to downplay Fillory? I don't know. How long are they planning to run? I don't know. Are they going to cover the events of the trilogy? At this pace, that should only take about a dozen episodes, or one season. Or are they planning to add new material? I don't know. I fear that if they try to turn it into more than one season, the initial thrilling pace will give way to a lot of filler and back-pedaling as the writers try desperately to keep up with the need to fill air time. But we will see. The first two episodes are really quite impressive, although I should emphasize that they are most defnitely not for children.

I am a fan of the 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It is a big novel, ambitious and discursive and strange. The first time I tried to read it, I gave up halfway through, because the story was moving too slowly and I lost my momentum, but I loved the atmosphere, the language, the mood, and alternate history aspects of the book. I tried again a few years later and finished it, and I regard it as a wonderful book, likely to be regarded as a fantasy classic, although a challenging one that is not for everyone.

I was curious about the BBC adaptation because it is a closed, seven-part miniseries. I have watched the first three parts and it is really impressive. The mood, the atmosphere, the world-building, the sets, the costumes, and especially the casting, are wonderful. It seems so far to be a very faithful adaptation, although there are inevitable cuts because the book is absolutely massive, with many subplots and digressions. I am really looking forward to the rest of it. Grace is watching it with me, and she is enjoying it too -- and she has not read the book, although I have filled her in on a few details. I recommend it for anyone who likes historical drama and/or fantasy, and is willing to tolerate a story with a lot of characters and a lot of plotting and scheming. The scenes of Strange doing magic -- in his intuitive, physical way -- are just gorgeous. It's really nicely done.

Finally, I have heard good things about the adaptation Childhood's End but I have not started watching it yet; I should have something to report later.

So, in January 2016, I completed:

  • Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max

Here's to a healthier February!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Read It, January 2016, Progress Report 1

Today is Friday, January 8, 2016. I am beginning the year with an effort to keep myself focused. When traveling down to Ann Arbor each week for work, I am allowing myself to bring less reading material. I will allow myself one novel, one story collection, one essay collection, and one non-fiction book. This will give me a few options. If I'm tired and don't have the attention span for a novel, I'll read essays or short stories. If my selection of a novel isn't rocking my world, I can switch to a non-fiction book, usually one that I've been meaning to finish for some time. We'll see how that goes.

Going back to work after a vacation is always a bit of a downer, and this year I'm jumping right back into a late, stressful project. Nevertheless, I am trying to remind myself that this project is a marathon, not a sprint, and that I have mental and physical health needs outside of work. This week I actually left the building for lunch, running errands at lunchtime rather than eating one of my stash of heartburn-inducing frozen burritos in the office refrigerator. I could tolerate that kind of lunch better in my twenties, but these days I can really benefit from eating some fresher food, breathing some fresh air, moving around a bit, and focusing my eyes on things that aren't a computer screen.

This week my non-fiction book is Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. I have read a bit more than half of this book. I think it is a pretty good biography. Aside from the usual gags, for example the explanation that Wallace wore his bandana to "keep his head from exploding," we learn just how sick he often was. Max does not spare the occasional gruesome detail about just how hard knowing Wallace was on his friends, family, and lovers. He was not always, or perhaps was never, the gentle Buddha of the Midwest of myth and legend. That, I think, is OK -- especially given that, in what I've read so far, he is still very young, and had a sort of shocking inexperience with anything resembling the real world. It is troubling to read of his occasionally abusive, stalker-ish relationships with a couple of women, though. One wishes to believe that the artists one admires are good at everything, in all aspects of their lives -- but of course, the world is short of saints, and even saints probably did not always live up to their publicity.

There are the occasional beautifully-written moments that give me pause. It captures the painful details of Wallace's repeated bouts with severe anxiety and depression, which is heartbreaking, but it seems to rarely portray Wallace the way he comes across in his writing -- that is, a person of enormous energy, almost mania, and confidence. The contrast is unnerving. I recently read his essay on Wittgenstein's Mistress. From the biography we learn that he started, then set aside, then returned to, this essay, and agonized over it, and wrote it during a period of his life where he was undergoing huge upheaval. But the essay itself betrays only, it seems, energy, authority, and no small amount of obsessive focus. The contrast is strange, and something it looks like I'm going to have to come to terms with again and again as I complete this book, because, unfortunately, I know how it ends.

I have also tried to put in time, each weeknight this week, to remain connected with my children and my wife. So I've been reading them Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, the first Harry Potter book. I've read all the Harry Potter books before, and I thought I had read this one to the children before a few years ago, but they tell me I haven't. It wouldn't matter much even if I had -- there are several new ones, and the older ones are years older, and wouldn't remember the details anyway. They have seen the movie many times, and so reading the book is an interesting jumping-off point to talk about the differences between books and their movie adaptations.

My novel this week is Embassytown by China Mieville. I have a somewhat difficult relationship with Mieville. I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station and The Scar when they came out. I have tried to read Iron Council and something seemed off; I could not really get into the groove with that book, although I would like to try again. I have tried to read Embassytown before, and somehow became bored or distracted with it. I am trying again because I consistently read very positive reviews of the book, so I'm willing to believe I just didn't give it enough of a chance. I hear good things about some of Mieville's other work, including the new story collection Three Moments of an Explosion.

The essay collection in the box in my car this week was I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell. My short story collection was Twelve Monkeys, Twelve Minutes by Peter Watts. Since I didn't even crack the covers of either of these this week, they will go back in the box for next week. I also have agreed to try a virtual "book club" to read S. by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams, a sort of experimental novel/art project. It seems a little daunting, like something I would have loved more when I was younger, but now might not have the patience for.

I might have to start putting in overtime next week, so this month might not be the best for achieving my reading goals. What are you reading this week?

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Things I Read in 2015

It looks like my beat-up Lenovo T410 laptop is taking the opportunity to fall apart even more this week. It already lacks a working battery and has a somewhat troubled keyboard, but today the Wi-Fi connectivity is starting to become unreliable. Well, it's what I've got, so I'll do my best with it; but this entry may be a bit late, if I can't finish it today, January 1st, 2016.

First, I want to mention a few non-book items. I read many fine essays in 2015. The best was undoubtedly "The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration," by Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in the Atlantic magazine in October. You can find the whole thing online here. It is very troubling, but very important. I strongly recommend pretty much any of his other work for the Atlantic, especially his essay from 2014, The Case for Reparations.

I did not do a good job keeping track of favorite articles I enjoyed from the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. I will try to do that in 2016. I tried to link to their essay on Trump, but their web site is down at the moment. It was good, but what was really good was the juxtaposition, in the magazine, of their profile directly after a fascinating article about the intellectual underpinnings, philosophy, and world view of Adolf Hitler, based on his writings and speeches. If there is a category for "best editorial juxtaposition of 2015," that would certainly win. Well played, NYRB, well played!

Of the books I read in 2015, these are the ones that stick in my mind as particularly good, worthwhile reads. I cut it down to a dozen, which leaves off several worthy books; for example, some good books by Charles Stross, Terry Pratchett, Andy Weir, and Peter Watts didn't quite make the cut, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy them. I simply had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere to cut the list of 54 down to a dozen.

  1. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness. An undisputed classic, this work proves, as if proof was necessary, that genre fiction can be deeply literate and humane.
  2. Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora. A science fiction novel about interstellar travel to end all science fiction novels about interstellar travel -- literally.
  3. Kim Stanely Robinson, 2312. A wonderful journey across the solar system, visiting some of Robinson's favorite planets, with a couple of memorable companions.
  4. Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem. This is a very strange and fascinating work of science fiction by a Chinese author, newly translated. The sequel is on my to-read pile.
  5. Jan Morris, Hav. An odd fictional travelogue, it is memorable for its vividly described, imaginative setting, and for the way Morris then allows time, money, and progress to make that marvelous place almost unrecognizable.
  6. David Sedaris, Naked. I read a number of books by David Sedaris this year, but I want to mention this one in particular. It's a book of humorous essays, but the best of them are not so much funny as deeply moving. the standout is the absolute gut-punch of an essay, "Ashes."
  7. David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. This is a terrific novel and makes me want to read more of Mitchell's work.
  8. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes. This is an amazing non-fiction book about tiny wooden carvings. The story of their journey encompasses the whole arc of twentieth-century antisemitism in Europe. It's beautiful, startling, and relevant.
  9. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1. Part of a very unsentimental autobiographical novel by a dour Norwegian, its sheer convincing realism makes the sometimes unbearable sadness of everyday reality a thing worth celebrating -- because it is real.
  10. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Nature's End. I believe this odd, dark, somewhat prophetic potboiler deserves to be back in print.
  11. Frans G. Bengtsson, The Long Ships. A terrific work of historical fiction that tells an endearingly human story about Vikings. It's impossible not to like Bengtsson's characters.
  12. William Sloane, The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. A reprint of two neglected horror novels, these works really deserve to be remembered along with the work of such writers as H. P. Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson.

What are you planning to read in 2016?