Category Archives: excerpts

Twitter-length observation

David Foster Wallace in the book-length interview:

I mean, there’s so much stuff going on just in that little ten or fifteen seconds [in Schindler’s List–although this is in the middle of a long segment of: “Remember this part of that movie? That was awesome.”]. Inside of a movie whose central project ended up being, you know, dishonorable and cheating. But that’s the neat thing about–I mean that’s probably ultimately why novels and movies have it over short stories, as an art form. Is that if the heart of the short story is dishonest, there aren’t enough of the little flashes to keep you going. Whereas in a novel or a movie, even if the central project doesn’t work, there are often ten or fifteen great, great, great things.

I can’t seem to turn off looking for the flashes of dishonesty in otherwise great, great, great books.

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Into Thin Air

This was a million months ago. Jon Krakauer wrote this book, which is somewhat about the drive to climb really tall mountains and somewhat about the effect of commercial guiding operations on high-altitude mountain climbing, and then mostly and specifically about being on an Everest-climbing expedition in which people died. If you’re curious but don’t want to read the book–the book’s better–you can read Krakauer’s article about it here. (The article’s account of Andy Harris’s death has since been disproved and corrected.)

Reading this was all about the dread of knowing that it does not go well. It’s like watching a horror movie–“Don’t leave your cell phone behind! Don’t run upstairs! Don’t you know you’re in a horror movie?”–except the analogous yelling would be “Don’t you know you’re on Mr. Everest?” and that’s not a question.* The climbers’ mistakes seem small and unfairly portentous, but I couldn’t empathize the way I might with the serial-killer-stalkee, because, however unlikely it is that I’ll be targeted by a strange murderer, it’s even less likely that I’ll be beamed to Everest in a transporter. At that altitude, it’s apparently difficult to eat, sleep, or think. Krakauer’s cough separated some ribs. And in addition to pushing personal limits over which one arguably has some control, there’s the risk of spontaneously bleeding into the brain or lungs. Two of the names after “in memory of” on the dedication page belong to people who died in two separate avalanches after the climbing season Krakauer chronicles.

Krakauer is scrupulous in reporting the facts he witnessed and investigated–detailed, nuanced, careful. And I don’t mean, by saying that I didn’t empathize with the climbers, that the story lacked drama. The stakes, combined with the knowledge that this really happened, made for plenty, if distant, pathos. I don’t know what to make of my voyeurism in reading disaster books like this, or tendency to wax metaphorical when thinking about the leader of the team stranded on the highest point on the planet overnight in a storm, trying to help his client-friend. Krakauer’s own meaning-making is omnivorous. He talks about the history of attempts on Everest, the effect of Everest-climbing on Nepal’s economy, the climbing skills and practices of those on the mountain, the prestige and backgrounds of various guides. And he includes quotations: Joan Didion, from The White Album (which I still want very much to read),

We tell ourselves stories in order to live… We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and to introduce the book as a whole, José Ortega y Gasset: “Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of the tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world.”

(Another Jon Krakauer I want to read is Under the Banner of Heaven. It combines two topics sure to keep me reading Wikipedia and sundry blogs until dawn: religious fundamentalists and strange murderers.)

*Despite how I will continue to torture this analogy, I don’t watch horror movies. The empathy makes them scary.

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Quotations for 2011

It is more difficult to avoid being ruled than to rule others.

People too much taken up with little things usually become incapable of big ones.

Even the greatest ambition, when it finds itself in a situation where its aspirations cannot possibly be realized, is hardly recognizable as such.

God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.

There’s a saying that culture is something that is done to us, but art is something we do to culture.

When I was younger I’d tape secret notes to the undersides of seats on the city bus. Most days I’m sitting in a chair, but the bus is how making feels when it’s good–the feeling of stepping off the bus.

You must change your life.

And over at htmlgiant, Kyle Minor talks about reading as a comfort, with which I’ve been identifying lately. (If you read it, know that nothing’s wrong and no one’s died.)

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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 movie 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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Got my head right. Completion in 2010.

So Corporal Trim wants to tell Uncle Toby his story of the king of Bohemia and his seven castles, which he never gets around to doing, to cheer Toby up after some sadness related to their siege reenactment:

I’ll tell it to your honour, quoth the corporal, directly–Provided, said my uncle Toby, looking earnestly towards Dunkirk and the mole again–provided it is not a merry one; to such, Trim, a man should ever bring one half of the entertainment along with him; and the disposition I am in at present would wrong both thee, Trim, and thy story–It is not a merry one by any means, replied the corporal–Nor would I have it altogether a grave one, added my uncle Toby–It is neither the one nor the other, replied the corporal, but will suit your honor exactly–Then I’ll thank thee for it with all my heart, cried my uncle Toby; so prithee begin it, Trim.

I’ve disposed myself to like Tristram Shandy–it’s sort of merry, and I’m bringing half the entertainment. It makes my thoughts wander a bit, but I’m enjoying that lately. Book, prepare to be conquered.

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Tristram vs. the critics

If you find the style irritating, Matt Cozart, commenter, who’s apparently reading this simultaneously, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d overtaken me by now, suggests pacing and reading it out loud. This has been exceedingly helpful. I’m now mumbling to myself on various forms of public transportation. If you’re not in public, I find it’s best to have a beer and sort of declaim it to yourself (no pacing for me, as multitasking’s difficult). It gets funnier.

Here he bitches about connoisseurs:

…the whole set of ’em are so hung round and befetished with the bobs and trinkets of criticism,–or to drop my metaphor, which by the bye is a pity,–for I have fetched it as far as from the coast of Guiney;–their heads, Sir, are stuck so full of rules and compasses, and have that eternal propensity to apply them upon all occasions, that a work of genius had better go to the devil at once, than stand to be pricked and tortured to death by ’em.

[Several examples of people saying things that are dumb, and then:]

I would go fifty miles on foot, for I have not a horse worth riding on, to kiss the hand of that man whose generous heart will give up the reins of his imagination into his author’s hands–be pleased he knows not why, and cares not wherefore.

Great Apollo! if thou art in a giving humour–give me–I ask no more, but one stroke of native humour, with a single spark of thy own fire along with it–and send Mercury, with the rules and compasses, if he can be spared, with my compliments to–no matter.

Although his is a benevolent distaste, or else only directed at amateurs:

—-You Messrs. the Monthy reviewers!–how could you cut and slash my jerkin as you did?–how did you know but you would cut my lining too?

Heartily and from my soul, to the protection of that Being who will injure none of us, do I recommend you and your affairs,–so God bless you;–only next month, if any one of you should gnash his teeth, and storm and rage at me, as some of you did last May (in which I remember the weather was very hot)–don’t be exasperated, if I pass it by again with good temper,–being determined as long as I live or write (which in my case means the same thing) never to give the honest gentleman a worse word or a worse wish than my uncle Toby gave the fly which buzzed about his nose all dinner-time,—-“Go,–go, poor devil,” quoth he,–“get thee gone,–why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

But, is he suggesting he could crush them like a bug? Anyway, later, and you’ll have to take my word for it, since it’s embedded in a longish chapter in a way that makes any independent segment incomprehensible, he says that anyone who accuses him of being witty to the detriment of good judgment is Just Jealous. I’m sure this is not the last I’ll read of it, either.

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Tristram has literary priggishness.

—-How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter? I told you in it, That my mother was not a papist.—-Papist! You told me no such thing, Sir.–Madam, I beg leave to repeat it over again, that I told you as plain, at least, as words, by direct inference, could tell you such a thing.–Then, Sir, I must have missed a page.–No, Madam,–you have not missed a word.—-Then I was asleep, Sir.–My pride, Madam, cannot allow you that refuge.—-Then, I declare, I know nothing at all about the matter.–That, Madam, is the very fault I lay to your charge; and as a punishment for it, I do insist upon it, that you immediately turn back, that is, as soon as you get to the next full stop, and read the whole chapter over again. I have imposed this penance upon the lady, neither out of wantonness nor cruelty; but from the best of motives; and therefore shall make her no apology for it when she returns back:–‘Tis to rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands besides herself,–of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them—-The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, “That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.” The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,–do less service, I affirm it, than the history of Parismus and Parismenus, or of the Seven Champions of England, read with it.

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