28 February 2010

But still you're surprised, surprised, surprised when I eat ya

When I was little I had six neon tetra fish and named them all after characters from GONE WITH THE WIND. (Scarlett survived the longest -- coincidence?!) Still, I think naming an animal after a book character can go too far. After the fatal attack at Sea World in Orlando this week the Miami Herald ran a story on the killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita. Lolita! I quote:
[Seaquarium curator Robert] Rose said trainers and veterinarians spend long hours developing trust and relationships with orcas and dolphins, which, like humans, have different personalities. Trainers look for signs that an animal may be ill or off.

Lolita enjoys performing, he said, as the orca lolled behind him in its tank, occasionally spitting water. "I've been with her longer than I've been with my wife,'' he said.

She was Lo, plain Lo, at the morning feeding, standing six feet one. She was Lola in the breeding tank. She was Dolly in the shows. She was Dolores at the vet's. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

(Also, the newspaper pidgin used in the print headline: Lolita not kill nobody! Lolita good whale! Lolita take English lesson from Drunk Hulk!)

27 February 2010

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

(If you like Millay, Daniel Mark Epstein's WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED is super -- and as a selective biography it won't take you forever to read.)

26 February 2010

You can read me anything

The ignominious return of book-related songblogging! Sorry about the poor quality, it was the best one I could find.

A pretty soundtrack for a snowy day.

25 February 2010

On "a technical matter appreciated by specialists"

Laura Miller in Salon responds to a much circulated list of writing tips from famous authors in the Guardian with her own five rules. I know she speaks for a reader (herself), not all, but there's this:
4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can't recognize "good writing" or don't value it that much.
I don't know if this is untrue so much as that I want to believe that readers, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, know good writing when they see it. Even if we can't all agree, there must be a baseline somewhere. Or have I lost all perspective? What do you say?

24 February 2010

D.H. Lawrence And The Emo Daffodil Alert

A week and change ago I named a line from D.H. Lawrence's WOMEN IN LOVE regarding daffodils the passage that made me roll my eyes the most. Wouldn't you know, it happened again!? So I made this graphic with roflbot to commemorate what looks like an ongoing feature for as long as it takes me to finish this book.

In this scene Ursula has been watching Rupert Birkin throw rocks in the water to disturb its reflection, and I could really quote all that stuff because who knows, maybe it could show up in a Hoobastank song, but let's cut to the chase:
'When did you come back?' she said.

'Why did you never write?'

'I could find nothing to say.'

'Why was there nothing to say?'

'I don't know. Why are there no daffodils now?'

There aren't even any daffodils in that scene! Which takes place at night! Sheesh.

Photo credit goes to rocan42, who captioned this on Flickr "This poor daffodil looked lonely. So I took a picture cos I was EMO due to drinking 5ish pints of broadside." Broadside is a British beer.

23 February 2010

Spotted on the subway

Stubby girl in a green hat reading over people's shoulders. Oh wait, that's me!

During the morning rush, burly guy with a thick gray beard clutching to his chest a copy of the British YA bestseller ANGUS, THONGS AND FULL-FRONTAL SNOGGING. All I can remember is that the ending was disappointing, but that's not the kind of thing you tell a stranger unless you really want to ruin his day.

22 February 2010

And for a low, low price, you can tell everybody that this is your song

According to author Bill Scheft, you are allowed to print up to four lines from a non-public-domain song in a book before having to pay for the privilege. (Yes, that means websites that post song lyrics are legally vulnerable.) That number is based on the copies in the initial print run, so if you want to publish, say, a teenager's diary, you'd better make your sales estimate really low on your initial P&L and then pick up a huge audience later.

Homer, Continued

We've got an exclusive here on the blog today! But don't get too excited, it's just a book review. I was planning to cover Zachary Mason's THE LOST BOOKS OF THE ODYSSEY for the A.V. Club, but I screwed up and they can't use it -- something I figured out when I was 95 percent done writing the review. Now that I've finished self-flagellating over this I decided to finish it and put it up here. House rules over there are a little different from ye olde blogue, but it's a continuum.

I haven't even edited it since that last draft, so any errors below are mine (and sorry). For funsies, I took off the customary letter grade so if you want you can guess how I graded this book -- or if you've read it, play critic yourself.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey
Zachary Mason

In purporting to add to Homeric legend, Zachary Mason’s poetic and transporting debut goes where many writers, from James Joyce to the Coen brothers, have gone before. The particular charm of “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” is to uncannily evoke characters in nudging open the door to other visions from those pages.

The 44 chapters that form Mason’s collection are by turns straightforward and discursive, playful and tragic, respectful of or discarding their source; most describe an episode along Odysseus’ classic route, a few with him even narrating, but others examine its events from the vantage point of earlier legends and some from the afterlife. (Fear not, there are footnotes.) Routes not taken spring forth in the lost books, and Odysseuses who may have lived: “Sanatorium” finds him a madman in a temple, unable to remember where he came from after being evacuated from the front; in “Bacchae” and “Islands On The Way,” he succumbs to temptresses en route and forgets his legendarily patient queen. A few of Homer’s minor characters speak out, from the lyrical puzzle of “Phoenician” in the voice of the swineherd Eumaios, who helped slaughter Penelope’s suitors, to “Stone Garden”’s striking image of a lonely Medusa tending her flowers alone. Two pieces envision a particularly gruesome alternate fate for Helen than that written into other authors’ accounts of the fall of Troy.

And other authors are constantly on Mason’s mind: While some of its images are as striking as those in Homer’s work, “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” is in conception naturally derivative of its inspiration, even if it didn’t also invoke Shakespeare, Dickinson and a host of others. “The Book Of Winter” owes the biggest debt to Borges, whose playfulness and erudition are honored here, in its evocation of a stranger who is gifted a mysterious book, while “Record Of A Game” shuttles the epic poem around using a metaphor Nabokov would have loved.

Mason builds this multiplicity of voices into the book’s preface, citing (fictionally) the lost books as original pieces of Greek legend discarded as a legion of bards repeated and added to the old songs. In “The Iliad of Odysseus,” the Ithacan king even becomes one of those bards, leaving the Trojan battlefield in disguise and writing a song of his heroics to disguise the fact that his flight forced the Greeks into a war of attrition from which Agamemnon barely escaped. Even a few less distinguished chapters in Mason’s arsenal articulate themselves through the voices used -- of the Furies being eavesdropped on, or the implacable third-person view of ruined Troy. As “The Lost Books Of The Odyssey” coils back into itself through the superb chapter “Last Islands,” it leaves in its wake the impression of a homage, but also a continuation of Homer’s work.

21 February 2010

You did it, America!

As hoped, "Shutter Island" beat "Dances With Na'vi" and "Pagan Holiday, Actually" at the box office this weekend. And you did it without my help because I haven't gone yet (to be hopefully rectified this week).

SHUTTER ISLAND author Dennis Lehane was credited as an executive producer on the movie. He is currently adapting his short story called "Animal Rescue" about a lost pit bull into a full-length screenplay and his novel THE GIVEN DAY, set in Boston in 1918 (shiver), has been optioned by Sam Raimi.

Madeline Dare is moving here

Back in '07 I got a review copy of a book called THE CRAZY SCHOOL by Cornelia Read. I noticed it was the sequel to Read's first book A FIELD OF DARKNESS, so I picked that book up and basically lived in it until I finished. It was the kind of book that makes real life going on around you seem shimmery and somehow less real when you set it down. For much of the book, which involves a 20-year-old murder in upstate New York, Madeline is knocking around on her own in this small town full of eccentrics and I was right there with her. I can even remember the way the wood floor in her apartment was described. THE CRAZY SCHOOL is good, but not as good as the first book.

Catching up on Publishers Weekly I just found out that Read's third book INVISIBLE BOY is coming out in March -- and it's set in early '90s New York City -- this is so promising. The review (which can be found on this page) mentions a Prospect Cemetery in Queens that really exists, and is one of the city's oldest.

Sidebar: I try not to read any reviews of books I know I'll be reviewing in the future, but PW is the exception -- it's a great resource for finding titles I wouldn't have otherwise heard about, early enough that I can write about them. (And I'm not just saying that because I also write for PW, although its editors have been swell to me.)

20 February 2010

Pau Gasol is going to finish 2666 before I do

Many of the NBA's 83 foreign-born players say reading was always the main form of entertainment in their home countries. Cleveland's Mr. Ilgauskas says he grew up with no videogames and a TV that had only two channels. Nenad Krstic of the Oklahoma City Thunder says his basketball coaches in Serbia probably gave him as many books to read as his schoolteachers did when he was a child. "People are just brought up with more technology here," says Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who grew up in Australia. (Mr. Bogut says he's such a bookworm he can't bring himself to use a Kindle. "I get more of a thrill out of going through the actual book like you're supposed to," he says.)
It's out of date now but this Wall Street Journal article about NBA players who like to read is pretty neat.

19 February 2010

Opening this weekend: "Shutter Island," finally

Had I not known about it already, I would have guessed from the trailer that this was the kind of horror movie I always avoid a la "The Crazies" (worst title ever?) but I'm giving Scorsese the benefit of the doubt. And while I recognize the metric is meaningless, I would also like to see it beat "Space Smurf Pocahontas" and "He's Just Not That Into Your Holiday" at the box office.

Here's the trailer:

P.S. "The Crazies" is actually a remake. Perhaps the title was less funny in 1973.

18 February 2010

Spotted on the subway

A 20-something woman with brown hair reading I HOPE THEY SERVE BEER IN HELL, on the R train. At the end of a chapter she used her book as a plate to feed her pet unicorn! Just kidding, it was a pig with wings.

This would be nothing compared to a GOING ROGUE sighting but that hasn't happened yet. Either the NYC members of its intended audience don't take the subways I do, or they read it months ago in one sitting as if it were the third Hunger Games book.

Seen anyone reading something unusual lately?

17 February 2010

Give Elizabeth Gilbert a second chance

Hey, I heard you're getting married -- congratulations! I mean, statistically speaking, anywhere from 90 to 98 percent of you will be married at some point in your lives if you aren't already, so in fact you are getting married. Shall I put you down for a fondue set or a wok?

You may doubt the figures I just quoted, for good reason because I can't remember where I'd read either of them, but you've probably heard the one about how half of all modern marriages end in divorce. There's actually a sensible curve-wrecking reason for why that oft-quoted statistic is so high (hint: kids these days), one of the many pieces of trivia I picked up from Elizabeth Gilbert's new book COMMITTED, in which a divorcée convinces herself to get hitched again. Its trivia-packing isn't the only reason this book is more smart and serious than I expected, but it doesn't hurt.

To rehash one more time, Gilbert's previous memoir EAT, PRAY, LOVE was the product of a book deal she inked after her first marriage fell apart, in which she traveled to Italy, India and Bali looking for inner healing and okaydom and whatnot. In Bali she meets "Felipe," a divorced older Brazilian-born Australian national, and falls madly in love. (She doesn't reveal his real name in the book, but it amuses me to set it off in quotes as if to remind myself of the taste of artifice.) They promise they will live happily ever after criss-crossing the globe without getting married.

Enter stage left, the Department of Homeland Security, currently being blamed for everything except the recent economic downturn.* "Felipe" is flagged and detained for hours on one return trip because he has been going back and forth into the U.S. too many times for his unwedded bliss. Now he can't come back at all unless, you guessed it, they get married. It sounds like a romantic-comedy set-up, but given what DHS is capable of, I believe her. So Gilbert and "Felipe" move back to Southeast Asia for a while so they can live cheaply while doing all the paperwork for "Felipe"'s fiancé visa, which will allow him to enter the country in order to marry her within 30 days. And while they're out there, she might as well do a little reading on marriage in history and different cultures and how the creator of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" was a eugenicist and every man is, in terms of evolution, either a Truman or a JFK.

Considering that the "Love" section of her last book was the weakest, COMMITTED is remarkably strong. I credit Gilbert for trading honesty in her doubts when it would have been much easier to quietly get hitched and not open herself up to scrutiny. She goes out of her way not to be flippant, sometimes too out of her way; in one chapter I could've sworn she was about to break into a verse of "Just Around The Riverbend" instead of making her point. But her wry humor snuck up on me; in a discussion of the Great Depression, she shows why divorce rates from the period are not a good representation of social trends, and then exclaims, "Where do you think all those hobos came from?" Where indeed.

The experience of reading this book reminded me a lot of A VINDICATION OF LOVE, in that even when I didn't agree I was still very much engaged in Gilbert's arguments. One of COMMITTED's chapters even seems to refute Nehring's book in suggesting that the "love-based unions" currently in vogue "make for strangely fragile tethers," although I wouldn't follow Gilbert so far as to say that marriages These Days are based solely on romantic feelings. Another chapter I even went back and re-read after I finished, something I was never tempted to do on EAT, PRAY's behalf.

The ending of COMMITTED is a foregone conclusion as Gilbert had earlier jokingly referred to the moment "I found out I would be marrying again." Her fans won't take to this book in droves, but that doesn't make it less thought-provoking; besides, like they say in all the jewelry commercials, the effects of one Oprah-championed mega-bestseller are forever.

*Wait, I will try! Tightened security standards mean highly skilled employees can't get their H-1B visas in order to work for American companies, which then fall behind in innovation compared to other developed countries with less restrictive entry procedures, leading to less demand for American technologies, lower profits, stock slump and layoffs, plus in the financial sector a removal of an important layer of checks and balances against subprime investing. Tom Friedman, surrender your mustache.

Who is Catherine Cookson?

Via 52 Books: The Guardian got hold of a list of the top 250 titles borrowed from UK libraries in the previous fiscal year and asked its readers to analyze the data. But what jumps out at me is how many authors I didn't recognize on the list: Apparently we're not only two countries separated by a common language, but also by our most popular literature. The British takeaway on this list, on the other hand, is how many American pop thrillers have sneaked into their libraries under cover of night.

16 February 2010

The Ayatollah's, on the other hand...

This is the kind of confession you want to forget so you can have the joy of remembering it again. Follow freelance writer Lauren Bans on Twitter.

15 February 2010

Most unlikely book signing of the weekend?

Calling it at the Daytona 500, where Sarah Palin compared NASCAR to "snow-machine races" in Alaska and described the race as an "all-Americana event" before signing copies of GOING ROGUE. As usual, her cooler is full of word salad.

This probably isn't the first ever book signing at a NASCAR race -- with all those people camped out for the weekend, you have to think a savvy author would have gone there before -- and I'm not trying to say that people down there don't read. They read so much Harlequin broke out a line of NASCAR romances a few years ago, and you really have to see all of them to believe.

So that's how Sarah Palin spent her long weekend. How was yours? Mine was swell until the food poisoning.

Who wants to live in Norman Mailer's house?

British GQ is holding a writing contest for UK undergrad and grad students over 18 and the winter gets to live at his former Provincetown home, now a writers' colony, next July. (Lovely time to be on the Cape.) Mailer loved Provincetown and had lived there full-time for a decade before his death in 2007. Judges for the contest include novelists Geoff Dyer and Tony Parsons, Jamie Byng of the Scottish publisher Canongate and singer Lily Allen.

If you aren't eligible you can still apply for a fellowship at the writers' colony, which includes free lodging and tuition "and a bicycle for local transport." Had I but talent and temperament...

14 February 2010

Colson Whitehead on "...J. Alfred Prufrock"

From the reading I went to last week:

The event was called "Love: A Rebuke," so the emcee for the night insisted before every reading that we offer unironic love to each author up, as if it wouldn't have occurred to us otherwise. I especially liked Heidi Julavits' excerpt as well.

13 February 2010

Five passages from WOMEN IN LOVE that made me roll my eyes

I have been reading WOMEN IN LOVE since the end of September, one e-mail-sized chunk a weekday, and only now am I beginning to mildly enjoy it. There are a lot of reasons for this, among them that I used to like Lawrence a lot more and now I feel as if I'm reading the diary of a 14-year-old whenever I "see" into any of his characters' heads, which happens quite a lot since Lawrence is famous for breaking ground in that area. (On the other hand, maybe I'm just a robot incapable of reading or processing human emotions.)

I'm starting to make the turn because the novel is growing beyond its four primary characters, the sisters Brangwen, Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich. I wish a nasty accident would befall them, and luckily there is still time. The following five passages are all real and unaltered; for best results, picture them written in silver gel pen and large, bubbly handwriting on a diary page.

5. "She was palpitating and formless within the flux of the ghost life. She could not consider any more, what anybody would say of her or think about her. People had passed out of her range, she was absolved. She had fallen strange and dim, out of the sheath of the material life, as a berry falls from the only world it has ever known, down out of the sheath on to the real unknown."

4. (Hermione) "'Yes,' she said, as if she did not know what she were saying. 'Yes,' and she swallowed, and tried to regain her mind. But she could not, she was witless, decentralised. Use all her will as she might, she could not recover. She suffered the ghastliness of dissolution, broken and gone in a horrible corruption. And he stood and looked at her unmoved. She strayed out, pallid and preyed-upon like a ghost, like one attacked by the tomb-influences which dog us. And she was gone like a corpse, that has no presence, no connection."

3. "Gerald was excited by the desperate cleaving of Gudrun to Naomi. The essence of that female, subterranean recklessness and mockery penetrated his blood. He could not forget Gudrun's lifted, offered, cleaving, reckless, yet withal mocking weight. And Birkin, watching like a hermit crab from its hole, had seen the brilliant frustration and helplessness of Ursula. She was rich, full of dangerous power. She was like a strange unconscious bud of powerful womanhood. He was unconsciously drawn to her. She was his future."

2. "Then he clambered into the boat. Oh, and the beauty of the subjection of his loins, white and dimly luminous as be climbed over the side of the boat, made her want to die, to die. The beauty of his dim and luminous loins as be climbed into the boat, his back rounded and soft--ah, this was too much for her, too final a vision. She knew it, and it was fatal. The terrible hopelessness of fate, and of beauty, such beauty! He was not like a man to her, he was an incarnation, a great phase of life. She saw him press the water out of his face, and look at the bandage on his hand. And she knew it was all no good, and that she would never go beyond him, he was the final approximation of life to her."

1. "The daffodils were pretty, but who could see them?"

I'm pretty sure that last one is going to end up on a bumper sticker at Hot Topic someday.

12 February 2010

Paperback Upgrade/Downgrade: Zoe Heller and Arthur Phillips

Two books I really liked from last year just came out in paperback. I'm going to give my (non-artist, non-sales department) opinions and you tell me which you like better.

First case: Zoe Heller's THE BELIEVERS. This cover is based on the British edition and I like it just fine:

But the paperback is definitely an upgrade:

I was scanning the H-shelf at a bookstore and this jumped right out at me. It alludes cleverly to the subject matter -- a family in the '00s of which the parents were '60s radicals -- without being obvious or spoilery. And the book opens in a townhouse much like this one. Is it possible the designer actually read the book? That's... splendid! (I don't know if they always can or do -- if anyone with insider knowledge wants to chime in...)

Second case: Arthur Phillips' THE SONG IS YOU. The hardcover design is a bit vague but the black-and-white photograph with the blue are pleasant:

And here it is in paperback:

What's so bad about it? Well, I'm still not a fan of the font, but I couldn't help noticing this cover illustration is a slightly altered photo of Arthur Phillips. I recognized it right away -- see? (Don't know why I remembered it, but carry on.)

I mean, he must have signed off on it, and I doubt anyone in a bookstore would care. But is this going to be part of the writer's job now as well? Are there not models for that?

Bonus cover: While looking up the UK cover for THE BELIEVERS I spotted the across-the-pond paperback redo for Joseph O'Neill's NETHERLAND, whose derivative design I wrote about last year. Behold:

Definite upgrade. I know some people find that tilt-shift work unbearably twee, but I am not one of them yet.

11 February 2010

New favorite title of all time

Thanks to W.W. Norton for allowing this chortleworthy book to, uh, come into being:

"Help! I'm trapped in a lady!"

Your Assistance Please: A word you like but never use (Accidentally Valentine's Day themed!)

A few weeks ago I found myself reluctantly taking the word "courtship" out of a review. I was using it to describe two characters whose marriage begins the book, but about whose origins almost nothing is revealed -- no meet-cutes, no first dates, and so on. (This omission is not all that relevant to why I didn't like this book.)

"Courtship" is a lovely word -- sweeter than "relationship," less clumsy than "dating history," more poetic than "past." At some point in the past "courtship," I think, bore the same connotations as "dating" does now. Now if you use it you're either talking about how Grandma met Grandpa or a fundamentalist couple who only goes out accompanied by chaperones. (No offense, fundamentalists; I know you don't all do this.) Mostly I worried that if I used it my dislike of the book would be somehow tied to the fact that I am an 80-year-old crazy cat lady, and then I'd be accused of not knowing what a Tumblelog was or not daring to try Google's flashy toy of the week, etc. etc., and it just seemed easier to write around it.

Still kind of like it, though. Do you have a word you'd like to rescue from whatever function it's serving now?

10 February 2010

Currently buried under a mountain of snow at 79th and Broadway

Nonfiction of note from this week's deals:
Erica Heller's YOSSARIAN SLEPT HERE, a humorous, moving memoir of her childhood and her parents, Shirley and Joseph Heller, set against the backdrop of the Apthorp apartment building where the Heller family has lived for decades, [sold] to Sarah Hochman at Simon & Schuster, by Henry Dunow at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner, for publication in Fall 2011 (the 50th Anniversary of the publication of CATCH-22) (world).
You know what this means, right? They were the Ephrons' neighbors! Do you see a heartwarming literary buddy comedy in this? Me either.

But who knows if the Apthorp will still stand after today's epic blizzard of 8 to 13 inches. No city in living memory has ever had to bear so heavy a burden. It's just like in LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, except with convenience stores, and central heat, and high-fructose corn syrup. Well, if we all escape becoming the 21st century's Otzis the Icemen, let's meet up at the Harper's/ Housing Works reading tonight. (Julavits, Whitehead, Lipsyte; 7PM) I'll be the one who doesn't look cold.

09 February 2010

It's sort of hard to find out that a passage from a book you really liked was composed at Home Depot on the author's Blackberry.

08 February 2010

Book-Related Super Bowl Ads

As near as I could call it, there were two: First, this promo for a new video game dramatizing Dante's "Inferno":

You can actually hear him calling "Beatrice!" Detail, I always appreciate that. And... then there's this Bud Light spot about a man willing to crash a book club for a beer:

Finally, an ad to bridge the gap between beer ads and ads featuring clumsy, broad gender stereotyping. See man! Man no read! Lady books no matter to man! (Though to be fair it wasn't the worst in either category for the night.)

07 February 2010

The D'oh Vinci Code

A common argument used in favor of popular literature is that it caters to a strong public need to relax and escape. Mr. Throckmorton works hard all day at the salt mines, so how can you expect him to read Camus for an hour after dinner when James Patterson probably has a new book out? (Yes, I finally finished that feature.) In theory I should be more receptive to Dan Brown's THE LOST SYMBOL because I happen to be a little stressed at the moment, although I can't exactly create lab conditions with a control Ellen who is merrily skipping through a grassy field without a care in the world.

It took me three hours to read THE LOST SYMBOL, and frankly, my time would have been better spent re-watching "National Treasure" one and a half times. They both have Masons, and heroes who we are supposed to believe are buff as well as brilliant, but I would have laughed a lot more at "National Treasure."

So I'm going to spoil most of this book, or at least the parts I feel like, because I don't want you to waste your time. If you still want to read it unspoiled, turn back.


Okay then. Nothing I predicted about this book came true, but the plot and its underpinnings were actually not the most annoying thing about this book. Maybe I would have been distracted from Dan Brown's substandard plot if he had managed to make me give a shit about its results.

So Robert Langdon is summoned to D.C. by his old mentor Peter, the director of the Smithsonian and a high-ranking Mason, only to find out when he gets there that Peter has been kidnapped by a lunatic and will die unless Langdon gives him an ancient Masonic secret he believes he needs to obtain by a merry overnight romp through Washington landmarks like the Library of Congress and the National Cathedral. First surprise: The Masons are the good guys! But they want to stay hidden lest people get the wrong idea about how awesome they are.

In a late-stage reveal (I told you I was spoiling!) we find out the lunatic who kidnapped Peter is actually his long-lost son Zachary on a complicated and bizarre quest for vengeance and possible deification. Zachary was a dissolute playboy whose father refused to bail him out when he landed in an Eastern European prison on drug charges, so he faked his own death and reinvented himself as a sort of spiritual body-builder, covering himself with ritual tattoos and believing he would attain some mystical power by infiltrating the Masons and getting their Big Secret, which is God... or Christianity... or something. (The fact that I don't care what the real answer is speaks to this book's problems.) The lunatic Zachary/Andros/Mal'akh (his spiritual bullshit name) combines the weirdest qualities of the priest from ANGELS AND DEMONS and the albino from THE DA VINCI CODE, while also having immense wealth and strength, and a tendency to wear make-up on civilian errands. (For real!)

Langdon's partner in this quest is his mentor's sister Katherine, a "scientist." Peter believed her experiments were so important he built her a multi-billion-dollar secret lab in the Smithsonian to do them. Mmmm, corruption! The only fully explained experiment involves weighing a man right before and after death to determine the weight of the soul, proving that Katherine doesn't see a lot of art house movies. Most of her work from what we see trends towards proving that THE SECRET is real, but we already have a lab for that, it's called "Oprah."

There's a lot of ancillary nonsense, including the fact that Brown saw fit to throw in a chapter in which Langdon calls his "New York editor" for help mid-quest and the editor peevishly reminds him he has a book due. I'm sure everyone at Doubleday and Brown's literary agency wanted him to autograph that page. But my real problem with THE LOST SYMBOL was that Robert Langdon is stupid in this book. Instead of building tension by having him do battle with his intellectual equals, Brown inexplicably has Langdon screw up every time he gets half a step ahead of the lunatic or the CIA, thus forcing him to either get captured or get bailed out by someone smarter. It's not fun watching someone who is supposedly a genius get tripped up by ploys that would be obvious to an ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN reader. Did Peter give up his name under torture because he knew Langdon wouldn't be able to handle it, thus concealing someone who was smarter and better connected? It just doesn't make sense.

Finally, about 380 pages in, Dan Brown finds the perfect solution for the problem of Robert Langdon being a moron: He kills him! Too bad it doesn't stick. Having fallen into the clutches of Zachary/Andros/Mal'akh, Langdon is placed in a tank that begins to fill with water so the baddie can extort some information from him, and then kill him anyway. Langdon drowns. But wait!!!!! The tank is actually full of super-oxygenated water, so Langdon thinks he's drowning but he's really not! Instead he just blacks out and sees weird lights and such until revived by the CIA. Just like in the Great Flood or season 3 of "Grey's Anatomy," the creator forms an opportunity to kill off the most annoying creation by drowning but ultimately doesn't have the balls to go through with it.

After that, it's all a depressing downhill into mystic revelations and daddy issues. The end of the book features Langdon and Katherine watching the sun rise from the top of the Washington Monument, which is cool and all, but did we just go all that way so this guy could have his "Jesus Walks" moment? THE LOST SYMBOL could be read as Dan Brown's apology to Christianity for putting it on the villains' side in his last two books, but I think Brown honestly expected readers to have some kind of spiritual moment along with his hero. I thought my expectations for THE LOST SYMBOL were low; now I realize they weren't low enough.

06 February 2010

TIME Magazine: Buy our Haiti book for "relief efforts"

Oh, this makes me so angry:

Look, I get it. TIME is pouring a lot of money into its Haiti coverage and wants to make money off it without seeming like the bad guy, so the book division repurposes some magazine content for a book and promises to throw some change towards the subjects. In theory this isn't any worse than helping out Haiti by buying a celebrity-designed handbag or going to a party hosted by someone whose 15 minutes are up. The "share" (how much? Five percent? Ten? One?) probably won't pay out immediately, meaning that the most urgent relief efforts won't be funded, but Haiti will still need help in 6 months, a year, or longer.

No, it IS worse, because this is a news organization and as such I hold them to a higher standard than Scarlett Johansson or any of Tiger's mistresses. I don't think that's unfair.

The reason I even got this e-mail is because I subscribe to TIME. I've been a subscriber for years. The division that puts out these books is separate from the content creators anyway, so sending Richard Stengel a poison-pen letter (poison-keyboard e-mail? Phrase fail!) won't be effective. But TIME, how about sending the hundreds of thousands of dollars it will cost you to print and distribute these books directly TO a reputable charity organization. You can even put out a press release if that will make you feel better and call a news conference with Anderson Cooper in his stupid black T-shirt and the Utah adoption brigade and repeated plays of "We Are The World 2010: We Are The World When It Suits Us To Be Part Of The World, Which Is When It Will Look The Best."

I'm going to go breathe into a paper bag now.

05 February 2010

Spotted not being read

In a cardboard box of discards on the corner of Broadway and Spring last night, atop water-logged notebooks and a dusty desktop computer, a shiny hardcover -- JEB: AMERICA'S NEXT BUSH.

04 February 2010

"So, they chose books."

I only now got around to seeing this "Saturday Night Live" sketch about Barnes & Noble:

I used to have a picture of Jon Hamm (right) as Don Draper reading in his office to illustrate a post like this, but I must have deleted it. Not that I'd consider the minutes I just spent looking for it again on Google Image Search wasted, exactly. What can I say? The man has good taste in literature.

03 February 2010

Filmbook-to-Be: Salinger doc to premiere at Cannes

The ink on the obituaries is barely dry and here comes news that a major documentary on the writer's life could hit theatres this fall. It's the passion project of screenwriter Shane Salerno who co-wrote "Armageddon" and "Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem," who has been working on it the last 5 years; it started out as a feature adaptation of one of the many unauthorized Salinger biographies, but switched course when Salerno realized he would probably run into rights trouble over that.

Was everyone aware except me that the reclusive writer in "Field of Dreams" was based on Salinger? The More You Know!

On SHOP CLASS and showing your work

There's a pleasure and a satisfaction in accomplishing something tangible when you are otherwise denied that option. I wouldn't say I look forward to coming home from a hard day shoveling data or pushing around icons designed to look like paper to, say, sew on a button, but it's nice to know that I can should the need arise. Matthew B. Crawford isn't a tailor, as it happens, he's a mechanic, and thanks to this book's press well on his way to becoming the second most famous philosopher-mechanic out there. "I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time," he writes "because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness." SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT is an insightful book about work and values, but it loses its way when it tries to stretch around a moral framework.

Crawford uses his own experiences to augment, not provide a skeleton for his argument that the definition of work in this modern age has come down somewhat addled. He grew up loving, then tinkering with classic cars and motorcycles, a hobby he carried through a deadening office job (more on that later), a Ph.D in philosophy at the University of Chicago and a frustrating stint at a think tank, after which he opened up a small bike shop in Virginia. (Also, in the notes to this book Crawford mentions as an afterthought that he grew up in a commune, which is potentially the most hilarious author fact I've ever seen shoved into a reference section as if it were irrelevant.)

This is strictly subplot, though, to his arguments, and some of his points are hard to assail: Young Americans are encouraged in greater and greater numbers to go to college and become knowledge workers instead of tradesmen. At the same time, we still need tradesmen, while those knowledge jobs (I don't think this is the term he uses, just my shorthand) are very easy to outsource. Moreover, knowledge jobs rarely require a college degree anyway, nor do they definitely demand more from their holders than a trade like plumbing or electricity or mechanics, occupations unfairly stigmatized by their perception as easy to perform, dirty and undignified. To build these arguments he quotes from a broad range of sources from Aristotle to Iris Murdoch and yes, even Robert Pirsig. (Uncited, he also quotes St. Augustine as saying "The curious man is always a fornicator," a statement both personally morally troublesome and linguistically suspect. Anyone have a copy of CONFESSIONS handy? Footnote me!)

In his introduction Crawford writes, "I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a 'simpler' life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being 'working class.'" Unfortunately, he sort of does this anyway, romanticizing the tiny dump of a shop he used to share in a slummy neighborhood in Richmond or the first time he rode in a hot rod. Beyond that, his historical argument is a little crooked: Crawford has clearly found a way to unite his mental and physical talents, but in order to do that he had to have the opportunity to do that as a factory worker in 1875 wouldn't have had. Theodore Q. Factoryworker had to start threading bobbins at age 8, so he didn't have time to attend classes at the U of C.

Crawford makes it clear that he doesn't think education is wasted on anybody, but his point that those interested in a trade consider not going to college assumes that they have the luxury of considering going. Not everyone may want to hold the kind of office job Crawford satirizes in his chapter "The Contradictions of the Cubicle" -- more on that in a sec -- but his advice is for students and their advisers to opt out of higher education, rather than suggesting to employers that their standards are too high.

"The Contradictions of the Cubicle" is Crawford's best chapter and also the one I found the most problematic in its implications. Crawford takes on the natural habitat of the knowledge worker and finds it not only wanting in challenge and human suitability, but also bankrupt:
Absurdity is good for comedy, but bad as a way of life. It usually indicates that somewhere beneath the threshold of official notice fester contradictions that, if commonly admitted, would bring on some kind of crisis. What sort of contradictions might these be? To begin with, we are accustomed to think of the business world as ruled by an amoral bottom-line mentality, but in fact it is impossible to make sense of the office without noticing that it has become a place of moral education, where souls are formed and a particular ideal of what it means to be a good person is urged upon us.
Crawford's office experience, I mentioned earlier, consisted of what sounded like a totally soul-deadening stint writing summaries of scholarly articles for a database marketed to libraries (InfoTrac, anyone?) Its governing idiosyncrasy was that Crawford, with an image of himself as a thoughtful and probing individual, was asked to read dozens of scientific studies a day and then boil them down into incomplete, factually questionable abstracts as soon as possible so that other educated people could make decisions based on them. Raise your hand if you've had a job governed by idiosyncrasy before.

Later in the chapter, he takes on trust exercises and team building and the paradox of "management," a (in his opinion) nothing word describing a nothing job that has leached into organizations everywhere, and it's all spot-on and funny until Crawford claims that such environments are actually poisonous to the soul. Surely not everyone in America goes to work and comes out Gordon Gekko. Or is that just my naïveté showing because I haven't been in the workforce long enough for it to morally grind me to dust? I have had jobs like Crawford's database madness, and I don't think they ever launched me into a philosophical crisis, but what if I'm not higher-order enough to realize that that had already happened to me? (Well, there's my crisis now!!)

As for the natural antidote being tinkering with a Porsche or building a shed, I didn't follow that as a useful moral cure. Crawford argues that moral inquiry "may be helped along by practical activities in company with others," but I wasn't sold on the practical activities bit. On one hand he rhapsodizes over the companionable silence of his motorcycle shop, broken only by expletives when he screws up, but on the other hand he implies that he attained a philosophical clarity through his work that I would have liked to see more of in action. I greatly appreciated that he did not create a bunch of archetypal workers to have dialogues that make his points, a la anything in the business section subtitled "A Fable," but it seemed that he glossed over that logical step a little.

Did Crawford feel a sense of accomplishment after turning in his draft of SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT? I heartily hope he did, it would be well-deserved. I cling to the belief that writing is my motorcycle but I would be delighted if you would read this book so we can discuss it, potentially while fixing things, but perhaps not. Meanwhile, Crawford's original essay that inspired the book is still online for a taste.

02 February 2010

The Kindle, one month later

So last year I got a Kindle for Christmas. How do I like it so far? I like it fine, although I haven't used it to its full capability yet. I've read it in transit and at home, mostly, and here's my report on what I've discovered about those experiences. I'll also comment on what I've been reading on it and how that's worked out. I have not yet taken it on a long trip or used the Amazon store, but plan to do both those things -- not so much just because I can blog about them as that I see them as approaching the intended function.

The Kindle in Transit
Pros: Apart from the mass-market paperback, it would be hard to find a more compact way to carry more than one book with you. You can hold it open with one hand on the subway and hang on with the other. You don't lose your place, as often happens to me when I'm shuffling a book and a bag and trying to do 5 other things at once. And while commuting, the dull-gray "e-ink" screen makes a nice break from staring at a glowing screen all day.
Cons: First, on a plane, you have to turn it off during take-off and landing. Major disadvantage over the ol' paperback. The on-off switch is on the back, so if you have it in a case you have to half-slip it out in order to switch it off. It's easy to botch this maneuver. I also worry, just a little, about it being stolen if I pull it out late at night on the subway* -- less than with my iPod, more than with my dumbphone.

The Kindle at Home
Pros: it's lightweight and, again, you can hold it with one hand. You can read it hands-free (hard to do with paperback alone) while you make dinner or sew on a button.
Cons: When reading in bed you'll probably want the overhead light on -- a bedside lamp won't give you enough light for it since the screen is slightly darker than most paper pages would be. Clever folks have hacked it by attaching an LED light; if Amazon were smarter they would market a clip-over light with batteries like the ones for Game Boys in the '80s. I might be mistaken, but I don't think there's an automatic shutoff to save battery life. If you fall asleep while reading, you may wake up to a dead Kindle. Bummer. (Also, you can't read it while it's charging.)

The Kindle and Nonfiction
The reason I haven't bought any books for my Kindle yet is that, as I mentioned, the gift was a hand-me-down from my dad. Dad had some books loaded onto it already, and while not all of them piqued my interest, enough did that I decided not to switch the device over to my account right away. (If you really think I should read THE SNOWBALL: WARREN BUFFETT AND THE BUSINESS OF LIFE, though, I'd entertain the argument.)

By chance, one of the "legacy" books was one Dad had earlier given me in hardcover, Sheila Weller's GIRLS LIKE US: CAROLE KING, JONI MITCHELL, CARLY SIMON... AND THE JOURNEY OF A GENERATION.** I thought this would be an interesting test because I could switch back if I wanted to compare hardcover and Kindle, but I didn't had the urge. I would have thought nonfiction would not be a comfortable experience on the device, but so far it's been good. In fact, the Kindle may be more suited to a work intended to be read slowly than a page-turner, because of the paucity of text in each "location" (the derminant it uses instead of page numbers to label where you are at a given time). A few times I had to page back to remind myself of who a just-introduced person was, but that was relatively easy. I really appreciate it when the occasional endnote comes into play -- I can scroll up, click on it, and then hit "back" when I'm done to return to the text. It keeps your place in the endnote too, which would have come in handy when reading INFINITE JEST last summer.

As for the actual content of the book, it's an overlapping biography of three singers I didn't know much about and whose lives as depicted here have been very interesting. (Also, did you know that Mia Farrow and Sven Nykvist had an affair in the '70s? The mind reels.) The prose is a bit purply, especially when trying to connect events from the lives of these women to larger social currents -- the parallels are often evident without that last paragraph of "and women looked inside themselves to change the world" -- but the material was compelling enough that eventually that didn't bother me.

* I was surprised to find myself defending New York City's relative safety when I was at home over Christmas, visiting with friends who live in smaller cities or my hometown. Maybe I shouldn't have been. What I really need to make this argument convincing is a comparison of urban street crime and suburban/rural/highway car accidents, because I suspect the latter is more common than the former.
** The other books he left on there I'd like to read (out of 7 books, tops) are T.J. English's HAVANA NOCTURNE, David Maraniss' ROME 1960 and Steve Martin's BORN STANDING UP. I assume once I switch the Kindle over to my account these will disappear, so I'll read them first.

01 February 2010

January Unbookening got it all wrong

An inauspicious beginning to the new year:

Checked 18 out from the library
Got 13 to review
Bookmooched 1 (Patrick O'Brian's MASTER AND COMMANDER, for Wrapped Up in Books)
32 in

Returned 14 to the library
Donated 8
Lent 2
Gave 2
26 out

Ouch! I didn't even buy anything! (But not for lack of trying; I hit a few bookstores over the weekend looking for WINTER'S TALE, without success.)

The reasonable explanation for this is that at the end of December my cache of review books was pretty empty, and then starting in January books for the next few months flooded in. But I knew that was going to happen, and I could have made more room. Well, better luck next month.

Not counted on either list: the e-book I checked out from the NYPL (yep, I'm getting back on that horse!) or the book I finished on the Kindle. I'm not sure how digital books should factor in given that the original goal of this enterprise was to reduce or manage my physical book collection. At the same time, buying or borrowing a lot of e-books also creates a kind of clutter. What do you think?