Category Archives: blog

The Invention of Everything Else

It has romance with pigeons, Nikola Tesla, time travel, and historic New York, so it can’t not be charming. And it’s playful. But it’s leaving me with the sense that it’s anemic, contrary to all expectations, which I think is because I was never able to get a fix on its tone.

head statue up front thinks in text.

The narration felt like reading a comic book or┬ámovie storyboards, especially early on. Partially this could be because there’s a talking statue of Goethe’s head in the first chapter, and a giant talking head sculpture in Jonathan Lethem’s Omega: The Unknown (which I read all the way through with a similar joy in the parts that never coalesced into an understanding of the whole). But also, the present tense makes the setting seem very framed: as people approach and recede or pay attention to a particular object, I could almost see the panels on the page. There are a couple chapters that pull that cinematic move of introducing you to some people you’ve never heard of who then are affected by or affect our heroes/villains. The poor lady is calling for her cat, which never appears because THOMAS EDISON IS ELECTROCUTING IT, that kind of thing. And there’re a gleeful number of “SQUISH”es and “AHHHGGGHG!”s in a transcript of a radio play–an imitation of radio, obviously, but you don’t see radio.

I loved that about it, but ultimately found it uneven. We start out with a talking Goethe head, an embodied question that sits on park benches, and a two-page-long list of words beginning with S, but when later Walter (our protagonist’s father) is said to have “stared down through sewer gratings looking for his friend, thinking, perhaps, that he might have slipped,” I’m still left wondering “really?” (63). This is literally what he did months after his friend’s disappearance? Or does it indicate how colorfully and completely he missed him? Or fit in with Walter’s understanding of the world as an improbable place? Here and at other points, I don’t know. Once you believe in time travel, is all logic up for grabs?

Of course, the fact versus fiction of the time traveling enterprise is a big part of the book. The excursions to/in the machine always matter, but their literalness doesn’t need to. This is sketched in miniature when Walter and Louisa (our protagonist) go up onto the roof to await the arrival of visitors from Mars, as foretold by a radio show. The Martians fail to appear, and then:

To Louisa’s surprise the following morning, Walter was not disappointed after learning that the invasion was a fiction. It had been an adventure. It didn’t matter to Walter if it wasn’t true right then, because someday, he told Louisa, it would be true, maybe even someday very soon. (21)

There’s still a lot I’ve left out. Tesla has a sort-of romance with this couple that’s maybe the most moving and sad thing in the book. And the book overall had me seeing New York as a magical kingdom (which, it doesn’t take that hard of a push for me to see any place that way, but it’s always welcome). But for a relatively story-driven book in which so much happens, it’s hard to latch on to. It’s a string of awesome scenes; it doesn’t feel smooth. This may be Hunt’s intention, but in the end I felt like I was missing something.

Next up is, emphatically, Into Thin Air.

There’s still time to enter the pennies contest until some to-be-determined time later this week.

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Contest

I don’t think of myself as a big DISCARDER, a la the new header (once again courtesy of Al; thanks Al!), but in the face of my impending move across the country, some culling’s become necessary. So, how many pennies are in this jar?

eight years worth of pennies!

Guess the best and you can have your choice of three-five of the books from this list (i.e., I can get rid of three-five of the books from that list without feeling like such a discarder), and the jug, if you so desire. I’ll send stuff anywhere in the U.S., and outside of it if you want to pay shipping.

The contest is closed. There were 2,846 pennies and one dime. Thanks to all the guessers.

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The Exceptions

I am not only reading what you tell me to. This started small and snowballed, justifications accompanying each slip.

1) Periodicals – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, One Story, Electric Literature, sundries – They’re not books. And if I don’t keep up with them, I’ll drown at my desk. The drown-at-my-desk factor ended up seriously irritating, leading me to turn from proper magazines to more minimal journals, and then to single issues (The Agriculture Reader #3, The Sonora Review with David Foster Wallace tribute) that weren’t, for me, periodical at all, kind of looked like books, and threatened to drown me more than books only insofar as they’re stacked on the desk instead of the bookshelf.

2) Children’s books – Mitchell is Moving – Are for children.

3) Comic books and comic book-like books – Buffy Season 8, Y: The Last Man, Kingdom Come, Gravitation, Northlanders, Everyday Matters, Fables, some Kabuki: The Alchemy before I lost the bag it was in, The Invisibles – Sometimes they’re periodicals. When they’re not, they’re full of (hopefully) pretty pictures and quickly digestible. In the case of the Invisibles, all 59 issues (approx. 1400 pages) of them. Although I may have given some less attention than I could’ve because they were pissing me off.

4) Freebies – AM/PM, Puro Border, Adderall Diaries, Tongue – If I don’t read them right away, the donees will know and cry. Although 2666 also falls into this category and I can’t quite face it.

5) Plays – Southern Baptist Sissies – Aren’t supposed to be read anyway.

6) Quickly digestible books – Sookie Stackhouse novels, The IHOP Papers – Anything that happens without my having to leave the house midway through doesn’t count. Robin Hobb may be on the horizon. They look a little chunky for me to make it through before I want a bagel, though.

7) Poetry – Letters to Wendy’s – Comes in bite-sized portions.

8) Plane reading – Columbine – The only rules that matter on the plane are issued by flight attendants.

9) Reading out loud – Infinite Jest, Sense and Sensibility back at the birth of the blog – Is there something wrong with how I’m reading/choosing books, that I love Infinite Jest so much more than almost everything?

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Penultimate Power

My commitment to Tristram Shandy has lapsed this past week. In the meantime, if you want to put a book in the next poll, give it to me in the comments. I’ve been accused of being a blog-title liar (it’s really tell me which of some books you may or may not be interested in to read), but the next one will be more democratic. First on the list is Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, from Gio.

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Blog gets dressed up

Check out the new header, courtesy of Al.

In return for which he got Finnegans Wake (all this time I thought that was possessive), The Waves, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I asked him to justify himself by email: “Because I’ve read Ulysses, because I’ve read Mrs. Dalloway and because I’ve never ready and DFW.” (I’d [sic], but isn’t [sic]ing obnoxious, non-academically and also always?) I’d like to petition all the syllabus-makers out there to replace Mrs. Dalloway with To The Lighthouse as the Virginia Woolf thing you should probably read if you’re going to read her. Mrs. Dalloway feels a little pat to me, not in all its aspects, and thoroughly unobjectionable as far as being good, but that’s hardly appreciable when you’re looking for a paper topic and there they all are, waiting for you. I could practically feel the collected sentiments of students past speaking to me. Same with The Great Gatsby. In both cases, if they were less good they might be more interesting, at least to be taught. Anyway, Al, let us know what you think if you are so moved. I’ve never done David Foster Wallace non-fiction, and I’m curious.

As for headers, if anyone’s moved to make more in the future, the book-for-header exchange is ongoing. Two books from this list per header (770 x 200 pixels or cropable/scalable), which I’ll change every few months or whenever you send me a picture.

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make a header and get books

The blog could use a new header. And in keeping with the principle that if I really love my unread books, I’ll find them again, I’m giving three away to whoever makes me one. It must be prettier and less boring than the current one, which (sorry, header!) should not be terribly difficult. 770 x 200 pixels or scalable/cropable. In exchange, you can have three of these books and credit, which will surely lead to fame and fortune. Runners-up can pick one book.

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sprawling post: Jamestown, bigotry toward psychiatrists, post-Jamestown, considering the blog

JAMESTOWN

I finished Jamestown what seems like an eon ago. I enjoyed it, especially towards the beginning when I was in a state of near constant incredulity. The first part is told from Pocahontas and Johnny Rolfe’s perspectives, and here’s a sampling of Mr. Rolfe:

There is a window at the front of the supply trailer behind the bus, made, I think, for folks like us who like to see their stuff while hauling it from place to place, and a window at the bus’s back, so people on the bus who wanted to could keep an eye on the air that touched the window that touched the air that touched the window that touched the air that touched the redoubtable body of Jack Smith, shackled to a chair, and his liquor, trapped in glass.

Really, Johnny? “The air that touched the window that touched the air”? This is his diary, supposedly, not disembodied first person. Which, no one writes in their diary like this, but he and everyone else are constantly writing and speaking like this, and in a number of other styles of diction. And at one point, a woman knocks her husband off a ladder as he’s cleaning the gutters as foreplay, which he welcomes without much injury. Everybody’s articulate in their superheroism or patsydom. This is in addition to the appropriate weirdnesses of adapting the 1607 story to the new setting, where Manhattan is England and Brooklyn is Spain and Virginia is Virginia. (I had to look the “Spain” part up, and I still may have it wrong. They had history in Europe? Some family named Hapsburg? I was busy taking American history twice.) This gives us assassins coming over the Brooklyn Bridge and climbing up that tall thing in Fort Greene Park, which amused me. Also means the four main characters from the “settlers” crew are named John, John, Johnny, and Jack. It sounds as though it could be gimmicky or academic, but it was funny and its characters were people, albeit better defined in their awesomeness and patheticness.

I’m not sure what to make of Pocahontas’ secret name (her real name that kills her, you’re probably not following me here, either) business. The last part felt flat in general to me: we keep finding things out about the world, and it’s exciting, and then the point-of-view gets expanded to include everybody in the second part, and that’s exciting, but the last part was not exciting. Which I could accept, but I expected to care about Pocahontas’ death, and I did not. The last chapter was good, though.

Random kudos to Sharpe, also, though, for this line from the psychiatrist interviewing select guys from the bus: “I shrug again. To be seen through and yet maintain a nearly expressionless psychiatric neutrality is so delicious I’m getting a bit of a junior erection that I hope the subject can’t detect from where he sits.” This kind of delight in smug dickery is what I suspect every variety of therapist feels on an at least daily basis. The shrink in question is about to start inadvertently tripping, so his judgment may be slightly altered, but still. You know that Deanna freaking Troi could lead a mutiny on the Enterprise and the shit would be actively going down and deception would be a moot point and she’d still be all, “I’m sensing some very intense anger from you, Captain.” (Minus the part where Troi could successfully lead a mutiny on the Enterprise and the part where “you know” anything about it, depending on who you are.)

STUFF I READ AFTER THAT

So after that I read AM/PM, which was lovely and also free with subscription to paperegg books, which I’m excited about. They’ll send me two books in the mail from Chicago at some point. I don’t know anything about them. It was a good excuse to break my rule about buying new books. And it’s a happy replacement for my New Yorker subscription, which finally ends with the April 6th issue! It’s the end of an era of me stacking magazines on my desk and skimming through them three times a year at best.

Which I started doing after AM/PM in an effort to reclaim the space. I liked the fiction issue, which was surprising, since I often find their fiction boring. (The most not-boring-to-me was this one, not from that issue, though.)

Also in the New Yorker was a pretty amazing profile on David Foster Wallace. I read that, and then I read all the DFW stuff I’d skipped past on my RSS reader, which was a lot, in a couple sittings. I’m not linking to any of it, because I recommend that you not read it, because it was really sad. Or maybe the article just made me sad, so everything I read about him afterwards seemed sad. Regardless.

BLOG

But partially why I’ve been reading these things is because the poll has reached new lows with its single vote for Frank O’Hara. Which I don’t find overly surprising, as I think the rules of blogging are that I’m supposed to attempt to entertain you rather than demanding you satisfy my plan. (And notify more than eight people of the blog’s existence, and post more frequently than biweekly, and comment on other blogs… Nothing in these parentheses is very likely to happen.)

I’ve enjoyed the polls though, so thank you all. There’s something about having an assignment, however voluntary, that makes me pay a little bit more attention. Not that that’s a moral triumph, but it keeps the book from just being swallowed by my brain never to be heard from again.

My feeling is that the blog is dead. I think I’ll read Meditations in an Emergency because of the principal of the thing, and then I’m thinking The Blindfold. Puro Border arrived, so I’ll have to read that so I can pass it on. Maybe I’ll have things to say about them, or maybe I’ll revive this after a hiatus. Happy spring, people.

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