mon, 06-aug-2007, 05:12


the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, mark haddon

The Tanana Valley State Fair (Faster than a speeding pullet is this year’s pun) started Friday night and we went on Saturday. For me, the Fair is actually more of an “event,” than something I really enjoy. It marks the beginning of our descent into winter and usually also coincides with the rainy season (August) in Fairbanks. I do like the food (grilled corn on the cob, deep fried halibut are my favorites), it’s fun to wander around and see what our community looks like, and sometimes I discover something new like the hardwood charcoal supplier operating out of his garage in North Pole. The reason I don’t entirely enjoy the Fair is that I don’t like crowds. I’m nervous in groups larger than a few people, and at the Fair I really have to concentrate to keep from being overwhelmed by all the people and what they’re all doing. When we got home on Saturday night, I was exhausted.

What does this have to do with Marc Haddon’s debut novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? The main character is autistic, and in addition to several strange quirks like refusing to eat yellow or brown foods, he is easily overwhelmed by people because he can’t comprehend their emotions or perspective. At one point in the book he’s in a train station, and is unable to read any of the signs because he’s so overwhelmed. It’s a strange, and compelling, voice to narrate a story, and it was easy for me to sympathize with him because of my own introversion.

The book is narrated in his voice, with language like this (from page 56):

Then Ivor did a poo and Mrs. Alexander picked it up with her hand inside a little plastic bag and then she turned the plastic bag inside out and tied a knot int the top so the poo was all sealed up and she didn’t touch the poo with her hands.

There are cool mathematical digressions showing how his deeper understanding of mathematics helps him navigate the minefield of the world he is largely closed off from. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the solution to the Monty Hall Problem.)

It’s a very effective book that shows a little of what it might be like to see the world in a completely different way, as well as how difficult it is to be a parent to a child like that. The first amazon customer review is written by an autistic: “As an autistic, I have a special interest in reading works that feature autistic main characters, partly to see how neurotypical people thing our brains work, but partly just for the joy I feel when someone ‘gets it right.’ Mark Haddon absolutely ‘got it right’ in this book.” It would be hard to give the book higher praise than that.

tags: books  Ivan  review 
sun, 05-aug-2007, 08:53


absurdistan, gary shetyngart

Absurdistan is the story of grossly overweight Misha Vainberg, aka “Snack Daddy,” the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. It’s basically a love story: Misha is trying to emigrate to the United States to be with his New York girlfriend, which he met while attending Accidental College in the U.S., but because his father killed an American in Russia, the State Department won’t give Misha a visa. Stuck in St. Leninsburg, he travels to Absurdistan, a small oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea where he hopes to get a Belgian visa that will allow him to escape Russia. Unfortunately, soon after he arrives, civil war erupts between the Sevo and Svanï ethnic groups (whose main dispute is over the slant of Christ’s footrest on the cross) as Absurdistan tries to stay on the global media’s radar long enough for the U.S. and it’s military contractors to show up. If you can’t tell from that description, the book is a hilarious satire of world politics and the excesses of American capitalism (and it’s grotesque relationship with the American government).

tags: books  review 
wed, 01-aug-2007, 16:02


jamestown, matthew sharpe

It’s been a very busy month, and even though I really enjoyed this book, it took a long time to finish it. Jamestown is a reworking of the story of the Jamestown Colony, told primarily from the perspectives of Johnny Rolfe and Pocahontas (who married in real life, back in 1614), but at some point in the post-apocalyptic future when Virginia represents the wild unknown and the boroughs of New York City are at war. Instead of European colonists travelling by ship to Jamestown in 1607, it’s colonists from the Manhattan Company travelling by bus. The “natives” they encounter aren’t really Native Americans, but are the warring clans of people left in the area after the cataclysm struck, including the Powhatan tribe.

The first and last sections of the book alternate between the voice of Pocahontas, a very horny 19–year girl, and Johnny Rolfe, who as we know from history, will fall in love with her. The middle part also includes chapters told by many of the other major and minor players in this, and the historical story. This is fiction, so Sharpe doesn’t stick too close to the facts, but the broad strokes seem to follow what I know of the actual events.

In addition to being a surprisingly touching love story, the book is extremely funny and deadly serious at the same time. Because of the humor, the undercurrent of violence, struggle, and loss seems underplayed until you realize how much of it there really was. I can only imagine what the Michael Bay or Mel Gibson version of the book would look like. I think that one of the points Sharpe is making here is that even as safe and secure our world seems right now, the distance between the world of 2007 and 1607 is much, much smaller than 400 years would suggest. Here’s Jack Smith, returning to the colony after a month, with a bunch of corn from Powhatan’s tribe. Pages 177-178:

By the way, that’s the core of what they have that we want: untainted food, real food that comes from things that walk on two or four legs or swim in the sea or fly or grow from the ground, real fucking food, it’s genius, worth killing and dying for, the staff of life, make a note of it, you peacenik dimwits.

Or Johnny Rolfe, from page 59:

To consider the imagination it took to invent the automatic assault rifle is not a happy or controllable activity. I wish I hadn’t started to think or talk about it or its user or its maker or its effects. I wish I hadn’t seen its effects, or known of its existence, or been born into a world in which people use, make, think, or are shot by automatic assault rifles.

Later in the book Johhny Rolfe IMs Pocahontas (the intersection of certain bits of modern technology in the book with the effectual return to the fifteenth century is brilliant) the following explanation for human survival. Page 207:

A guy observes a lot of the ideas his fellow humans come up with and act on and he despairs; he wonders how the human race survives; evidently not by the frequency of consistency of its good ideas. I believe survival is predicated on unrelenting will plus aggression plus, of course, how very pleasurable God made fucking…

There’s a lot more to think about and enjoy in the book, so head over to Soft Skull Press and pick it up. It’s also been chosen as the Summer 2007 Read This! pick on the litblog co-op. It should be a good discussion.

tags: books  review 
sat, 07-jul-2007, 16:37

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10, michael chabon (ed.)

I’ve given up the monthly book reports in favor of a post every time I finish something. I think it’ll give me a better chance to write more about each book, and my memory will be fresher when I do it. I won’t have a public record of what I’ve acquired each month, but the book queue sidebar gives a good view on what I’ve got (the un-italicized titles) and haven’t yet read.

McSweeney’s Issue 10 (reprinted by Vintage with the proceeds going to support 826 Valencia) is a collection of short stories, but rather than the typical “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stories” (to quote Michael Chabon’s Introduction), the stories are all attempts by the writers to revive the lost art of writing genre short fiction. It’s quite a list of authors too, including Chabon himself, Nick Hornby, Michael Crichton, Dave Eggers, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, Rick Moody, Neil Gaiman, and others I’m less familiar with.

My favorites include Elmore Leonard’s story about a young man becoming a U.S. Marshall, Kelly Link’s strange story about cat skins and witches, Nick Hornby's take on an end-of-the world coming-of-age story, and Michael Moorcock’s 1930s detective fiction about the murder of Hitler’s half-niece. Rick Moody has an interesting pseudo-time travel story that didn’t grab me enough for me to completely follow it, but it was very interesting and I’ll have to re-read it again to see if I can figure it out.

Some may have suffered in my eyes because I wasn’t enamored of the genre they chose. Despite Geek Love and the first season of Carnivàle, I don’t like carnivals that much, which made Glen David Gold’s carnival story awfully dull. My least favorite parts of Cloud Atlas (itself a work of genre fictions) were the first and last parts, similar to the Jim Shepard story and the “survival / man on the run” story by Carol Emshwiller. Maybe Gold, Shepard and Emshwiller succeeded with fictions I'm just not that fond of.

At the same time, some of the best stories in the collection were the ones that didn’t stray too far into pulpy genres. Dave Eggers’s mountaineering story and Laurie King’s backwoods cabin tale were enjoyable less for the plotting and occasional dips into the genre pool, and more for the fully fleshed out characterization, and the human emotions in evidence.

So, what can the collection tell us about genre fiction and it’s place in the short story world? For me, not a huge fan of short stories to begin with, it’s clear that there’s room for all kinds of fiction, and there’s no reason to reject a story because it’s got themes further from our own, more mundane, experience than usual. I enjoyed both the really pulpy fictions in the collection, and those that were more conventional; and I was bored with quite a few of the stories in each category as well. If Chabon keeps writing great genre novels like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, maybe there will continue to be room for all sorts of stories in the “Literary Fiction” section at the bookstore.

tags: books  review 
sun, 01-jul-2007, 15:10

black swan green

black swan green, david mitchell

Books Acquired

Books Read

I think this is the last time I post one of these long monthly summaries of what I’ve read. I should be considering the books when I’ve finished them, not a month later, as is the case with Galatea 2.2. I remember what it’s about and that I liked it, but the details of the story and exactly why I liked it is already fading from memory. Plus, if I comment on each book, there'll be more posts!

As for the best of this month, it's a toss up between The Raw Shark Texts, which is a great “summer read”, and Black Swan Green, which is a more serious coming-of-age story. Read both!

Galatea 2.2

As I mentioned, I liked this book a lot and am really looking forward to reading more of Powers’s work. The book appears to be somewhat biographical since the main character’s name is Richard Powers and the number of books he’s written and his back story match what the Wikipedia has to say about him. But it’s unlikely that Powers really participated in the creation of a neural net genuine enough to make it’s creator consider whether it had a right to life. Which is what happens here.

As to why I liked it, I’m afraid I can’t really remember exactly. It was very smartly written, had some excellent science in it about the nature of language and consciousness, but didn’t get too hung up on the science that it felt like you were being educated.

Never Let Me Go

I’ve never read Ishiguro before, and I didn’t want to start with Remains of the Day, so I chose Never Let Me Go. The book is a sort of argument about how far we would be willing to go to extend and improve our lives. In this case, by producing humans whose purpose is to provide replacement organs for the rest of us. When they’re not donating organs, they’re taking care of those that are. The book is told from the perspective of one of the organ donors, mostly in the form of flashbacks to her growing up. I found that technique to get a little old after awhile, because I got tired of the first person voice and wasn’t as interested in learning every detail of her childhood. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the final section of the book had a strong emotional effect.

Page 263:

…when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most…How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.

The Raw Shark Texts

I read this book in two days, and once I hit the half-way point I couldn’t put it down. It’s a smart, funny thriller that’s also a love story. The main character wakes up on the floor of his apartment with no memory of his past, and soon discovers that this has happened to him multiple times in the past. Notes he sent to himself from the past start to clarify the situation, and once he figures out what’s going on, the adventure begins.

Some of the dialog didn’t ring true for me, but the sections from his past life were great. Page 123:

“Hey” “What?” “While we’ve been sitting here, have you been thinking my girlfriend has no knickers on? ” “No, course not,” I said, then, after a second: “Well, it depends. What’s the right answer?” Clio tucked her hands deeper under her knees and looked away so I couldn’t read her expression. “No clues,” she said.

The book isn’t perfect: the last fifty pages bear a striking similarity (intentionally, I’m sure) to a famous movie about a shark, and I kept thinking to myself, “this will make for a great movie.” None of these issues is damning, though, and in fact, The Raw Shark Texts is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Plus, how can you go wrong with a book that’s got a flip-book section in it?

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor (presumably not this Jason Taylor), growing up in a small English town in the 80s. I found a lot to like about this book, since I was also a teenager in the 80s (in a small town in the U.S.A.) and faced many of the same problems fitting in with my peers. Thankfully, I didn’t have a stammer, but it’s a good stand-in for whatever it is that makes a person not part of the in-crowd. The book is rich with the details of the community, Jason’s family, and the trials he faces among his peers.

What was most impressive, though, was how much Jason changed and grew through the year that the book covers. Not only does Mitchell convince you to care about Jason, but you feel like you’ve lived his growing up along with him.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver and her family move to a small farm in rural Virginia to see what it would be like, for a full year, to grow as much of their food as possible on their farmstead. The book is another view of the same issues that Michel Pollan considers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read last month. The main narrative describes the yearly cycle of food on their farm, from the asparagus of April to the squash, frozen meat and banked root vegetables they eat over the winter months. Along the way Kingsolver’s daughter includes commentary and recipes from the perspective of a 19-year old, and more political or scientific sidebars from Steven Hopp.

It’s an effective way to consider the subject of the worldwide industrialization of food production, but suffers because most of us can’t just pack up and move to a farm. I’d love to be able to raise chickens and turkeys and grow all my own food, but land covenants in my neighborhood forbid raising “livestock”, and Alaska is a tough place to grow your own food (although we’re doing what we can in our small garden. Still, this, and Pollan’s book have caused me to think more carefully about the food choices I’m making and what options I have available for making better ones.

Falling Man

This is DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, and man, is it a flat, emotionless book. I guess that must be the point, though.

From page 75:

“Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don’t need this anymore. We can live without it. Am I right?” “We’re ready to sink into our little lives,” he said.
Working Alone

I’ve done quite a bit of work around our house, most of it by myself. Hanging fourteen foot-long pieces of siding while standing on a swinging platform hung from the roof is not easy, and neither is raising, squaring and plumbing walls. Carroll considers solo building from the ground up starting with the foundation, moving up through the structure to the roof, and even has a chapter on building a deck. This book, and Moving Heavy Things, will go a long way toward allowing you to work on your house by yourself without getting hurt.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Genuinely funny, honest and open, and yes, heartbreaking.

tags: books  review 

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