Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Nothing To See Here

I'm taking a break from the blog for a bit while the fall term finishes up with a full load of projects and final exams. If you're looking for lit events, check out Beltway for things in D.C. and the events page at the City Paper for Baltimore. I pull from a few other places they don't, but between the two it should give you plenty of options.

I should have a nice pile of reviews to post up after my break. I'll be back in 10-12 days. In the meantime keep reading, keep writing keep happy.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Review: Jack Absolute

For inspiration for his series of historical thriller/adventure stories author C.C. Humphreys reached back into literary history to a comedy popular in the late 1700’s, a play by James Sheridan called The Rivals. A comedy of mistaken identity and romance that ends in a heated duel, The Rivals was immensely popular both in Sheridan’s native England and in the colonies that would become the United States a few years later. It was even a favorite of George Washington.

Humphreys takes the main character of the “The Rivals”----a quick witted British soldier of wealth named Jack Absolute---and fleshes him out with codebreaking skills and knowledge of and sympathies for the natives of North America. At the starting point of the novel Jack Absolute, Absolute himself is pushing past middle age and trying to grow beyond his youthful days of wild adventure. He’s shifted his focus from pioneering and soldiering in the Americas to running business ventures in India, both to make some money and to renew honor to his family his own disreputable father lost decades earlier.

But this is also the midway point of the American Revolution. Absolute is pressured to drop his business activities by the British General Burgoyne, who wants to employ Absolute’s skills in codebreaking and espionage as well as exploit Absolute’s contacts with the native population of the Americas. With his Mohawk friend Até in tow, Absolute sets out to convince the various tribes to join with Britain in suppressing the revolt of the colonials. Along the way he trips through the battle of Saratoga, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a colonial businessman and, finally, uncovers the main plot. Through his codebreaking Absolute learns of a secret organization called the Illuminati that seeks to cause destruction and demoralization on both sides of the conflict in the colonies, enabled them to pick up the pieces and rebuild the society with their own ideals.

Humphreys handles the historical aspects fairly well for what is essentially a pop-novel. We here state side don’t often read things from the Brit point of view of the Revolution, and he does a good job getting across those feelings. Seperatists, rebels, traitors….many of the same name calling and finger pointing that occurred then occured again during the US Civil War. The battle details don’t shy away from portraying death and violence, but do so without glorifying it or making it excessively gory. Appearances by minor historical characters like James Sheridan, General Burgoyne and Benedict Arnold add some thin layers of authenticity and color to the tale. Even the Illuminati plot makes some nice references to Masonic Rites and to the societal revolt in Bavaria led by Adam Weishaupt.

You do have to suspend a bit of disbelief when it comes to Absolute himself. All of his narrow escapes and fantastic skills reminds me of no other character more than James Bond----not surprisingly this novel was subtitled the 007 of the 1700’s when it first appeared in the UK a few years ago. He openly supports the ideas of the colonials but can’t separate himself from his loyalty to the crown. This unique fence sitting makes his perspective on the revolution fresh in that he sees villains on both sides of the conflict and provides a nice layer of complication to both is character and the direction of the novel.

The weakest aspect of the novel is that it tries to be all things to all people. The Illuminati plot lot functions like a mystery; while Humphreys works in some nice red herrings when we finally get to the master of the diabolical plot it is somewhat of a letdown (I won’t say exactly why, since that would spoil the ending). The historical aspects are nicely done, but probably don’t dig deep enough for someone wanting a full portrayal of the times and all the issues involved in the Revolutionary War.

The main reason---really the only reason---to read this novel is to watch Absolute in all his exploits: slick escapes colonial jails, codebreaking, sword duels. No matter how improbable they all are, they sure are fun to read.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Rant on Reviews via Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's new novel Against the Day, came out today. It's a good thing none of the stores in my immediate area had it in stock. I'm enough of a fan that I probably would have dropped the $35 if I found it on the shelf. Instead now I can wait a bit, at least until I get a coupon to cut the cost a bit. I know I'll buy it, though. I have a short list of novels I count as vastly important to me and Pynchon's the only one to have written more than one.

The literati hasn't been very receptive. The reviews thus far of Against the Day have been mixed at best, but two of them in particular jump out at me as two different ways of doing reviews.

Michiko Kakutani opens her review in the NY Times with this:

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day,” reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex. (NY Times, 11/20/06)

Steven Moore chose this approach for his review in the Washington Post:

Pynchon fans will accept this gift from the author with gratitude, but I'm not so sure about mainstream readers. While Against the Day isn't as difficult as some of Pynchon's other novels, its multiple story lines test the memory, and some folks may be scared off by the heady discussions of vectors, Brownian movements, zeta functions and so forth, not to mention words and phrases from a dozen languages scattered throughout....Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives. (Washington Post Book World, 11/19/06).

To me, a reviewer should principally do three things: 1) Summarize the main ideas, 2) write briefly on the good and bad points, and 3) suggest who would like it and maybe even who wouldn't. Kakutani, for whatever reason, chose to slam the novel in her opening paragraph. While she moves on to some interesting (and balanced) analysis of the strong themes and weak characters, many would abandon reading the rest of the review after that opening. Between this and the bad review they gave Only Revolutions, I may start thinking that a bad review in the NY Times means its the perfect book for me.

More critical analysis is certainly needed in reviews, but so is the understanding that tastes in books have ranges far greater than your own. Moore suggests other viewpoints, hinting that the audience for this novel is probably limited but that there is an audience nonetheless.

Would I be bitching about this if Kakutani raved about the novel? Probably not. I admit, I am slightly defending one of my literary idols. But Kakutani's method here is one I see in reviews all the time and it's really been bothering me lately.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Events for the Week

Listing of fiction and poetry events in the DC and Baltimore area for 11.20-11.26. Feel free to email me if you know of other events you feel should be listed here.

20 Monday

1 PM The Mid-Atlantic Mystery Writers of America's "Mystery Monday Lunchtime Series" hosts a discussion with Maureen Corrigan, book reviewer for NPR's "Fresh Air" program and a Book World mystery columnist. Chapters Literary Bookstore, 445 11th St. NW DC. 202-737-5553.

7 PM Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her extensive travels throughout the U.S., Asia and the Middle East, “wandering poet” Naomi Shihab Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity. Ms. Nye will deliver the Friends School Class of 2000 Lecture. Friends School of Baltimore, 5114 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 410-649-3200

7 PM Naturalist writer Barry Lopez, author of Of Wolves and Men and the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams, discusses and signs the new anthology Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape: 45 writers and poets define words that describe America's land and water forms. Chapters Literary Bookstore, 445 11th St. NW DC. 202-737-5553.

7:30 PM The Folger Poetry Series presents a reading by Tess Gallagher, author of the collections Dear Ghosts and Moon Crossing Bridge. $12. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE DC A reception and signing follow. 202-544-7077.

21 Tuesday

7 PM Kinky Friedman reads from and signs The Christmas Pig: A Fable. Olsson's Books-Penn Quarter, 418 Seventh St. NW DC. 202-638-7610.

22 Wednesday

7 PM A Space Inside, with featured reader Eugenia Kim. Riverby Books, 417 E. Capitol St. SE DC. 202-543-4342.

23 Thursday

No readings, so go load up on waldorf salad and yams. Happy Thanksgiving!

24 Friday

Fridays at 8 p.m.
Ends Sunday, February 18
52 Fridays reading series continues with a Featured poet and open mic. Load Of Fun Studios, 120 W. North Ave., Baltimore, Md. 443-318-4762.

8 PM Bee Free Friday: a featured artist/open mic event showcasing the area's spoken word artists. $5 before 8 PM, $10 after. Teavolve, 1705 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, Md. 410-327-4832.

25 Saturday

5 PM Novelist Wayne Karlin and peace activist Lee Swenson read from and discuss their contributions to the new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW DC. 202-387-7638.

26 Sunday

2 PM The Enoch Pratt library presents a discussion with the author Pearl Cleage on her book Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Edmondson Avenue branch, 4330 Edmondson Ave. Baltimore, Md. 410-396-0946.

3 PM Kaza Kingsley reads from and signs her new young-adult fantasy novel, Erec Rex: The Dragon's Eye. Barnes & Noble-Rockville, 12089 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 301-881-0237.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Danielewski on Segundo

Episode 79 of the Bat Segundo podcast show features an interview with Mark Danielewski. As always, the intros to his shows drive me crazy with the all-too-cute, faux shock-jockey. But once you get to the interview itself it's quite entertaining and informative. Definitely helps enlighten some aspects of Danielweski's new novel Only Revolutions, which I ranted about a scant two days ago. You don't need to have read the novel to follow the conversation, and I actually might suggest listening to it before reading it.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: Only Revolutions

About six years ago Mark Danielewski put out one hell of a first novel called House of Leaves. Blending pieces of horror and pomo fiction, it delivered complicated techniques and ideas in ways that were very accessible. The novel became more than a cult following; it became a NY Times bestseller. Despite it’s accomplishments, HoL wears its influences like tattoos on sleeveless arms: Lovecraft, Straub, Delaney and especially Borges. It was easy to see where Danielewski’s ideas and styles were coming from.

His new novel Only Revolutions is quite different. While there are certainly influences that show through----WS Burroughs, EE Cummings, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac----OR feels more like his own book, like Danielsewski’s managed to cover up all the seams and make the material and concepts really his own. Unlike most reviews that focus on plot, this one inevitably has to focus on other concerns like style, concept and structure. So be forewarned. I write very little about what actually happens in the book plot-wise in and when I do, I do it without caring about giving things away like I normally would. Because, honestly, in a book like this it really doesn’t matter.

But what is the book about, you might ask?

In short, Sam and Hailey are two wild souls who meet and fall in love with each other. They circumnavigate the U.S. together in true road novel fashion, blasting down highways and dirt roads with complete abandon, caring little about anything save the thrill of speed and jars of honey the carry around for sustenance. Through the magic of fiction both characters remain sixteen years old forever, removing any sense of responsibility from them and imbuing them with an overpowering sense of freedom. The main conceit of the tale is that Sam and Hailey exist in different points in time; Sam’s story begins with the Civil War while Hailey’s opens with the assassination of JFK. The story is told from both points of view. Following the publisher’s forward, eight pages of Sam’s story are to be read first, then the volume needs to be flipped over and upside down and read in reverse for Hailey’s story.

Page 8, Sam's Story

This flip-flopping between time periods creates connections between events in time---all listed as marginalia---hinting at similarities between events occurring around the two main characters. The Civil War and the JFK assassination, for example, were both times of great political, cultural and societal change and linking these two events separated by 100 years suggests a cyclical progression to our nation. Danielewsi makes great use of dialects and cultural references of each period, and at times even mimics voices of writers from the day. Sam’s story, for example, starts in a lilting poetic voice that reminded me a lot of Walt Whitman. When we get to the 40’s and 50’s, the language is more jumpy and recalls beat poets and early rock and roll lyrics. I found, quite by accident, that it’s a novel that works much better when read aloud (although with all the sex I don’t suggest reading it aloud on the metro).

Page 8, Hailey's Story

It’s a structural masterpiece, with most of the structural conceits referencing circles. What occurs in Sam’s story on page eight also occurs on page eight of Hailey’s story, but with her own perspective and in her own time with its own cultural references giving a back-and-forth, spinning around feeling with the novel. The letter “O” is highlighted in different colors throughout the book, and there are constant references in the text to cyclones, tornados, gyres and twisters. If you choose to disregard the publisher’s suggestion and read Sam’s story straight through, when things end you’ll also find yourself back at the beginning when Hailey’s story starts on the last page of Sam’s. Even the act of physically flipping the book back and forth has an inherent circular motion. The book is precisely 360 pages long, equal to the number of degrees in a circle. Although the prose at first might seem loose and very WS Burroughs, it’s actually very controlled. Each segment on each page---meaning each half page---has exactly 90 words. After you’ve read each eight-page segment you’ve read 720 words and made yourself spin around two full times.

Much of the structure that happened in HoL---the intersecting storylines and the marginalia---could have been done in hypertext. I remember thinking as I read it that it probably should have been done in hypertext and that Danielewski put it into a standard novel form to sell it. But OR stresses the book as a physical artifact: the pages, the cover, the text. Each time you flip the book over to read the other side of the story D doesn’t just remind you that you are reading a book but forces you to interact with it. Book-ribbons to help mark your place in both storylines are not only helpful but increase the physical interaction with the book.

There are a few parts of the story that slowed down for me. For some reason I have yet to figure out, the two spend an inordinate amount of time working in a diner in St. Louis. With all the constant wild motion, they suddenly seemed trapped standing still for so long. From St. Louis they bounce through court-houses trying to get married---remember they are always sixteen---and ultimately get lost in the mountains during an ice storm. The last thirty pages are particularly powerful as we flip the book back and forth, seeing and feeling the reactions of Sam and Hailey as they see their loved one freeze to death in their arms.

I don’t know if my review here does the book justice. In fact, my thoughts on it probably muddle Danielewski’s skill more than enlighten it. Taken individually the techniques he uses are not particularly new; I’ve seen most if not all of them done before in poetry and experimental short fiction. But he stretches these techniques to the limit by applying them to a novel and creates a new fictional experience. OR is a novel that’s bound to launch the academic careers of many a literary theorist as they sit down to interpret everything Danielewski is doing.

If all of this sounds confusing to you, parts of it are. If you are a reader who looks only for the familiar, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are like me and enjoy being truly surprised by a writer’s invention I suggest picking it up for yourself. Ride along with Sam and Hailey. Run with them, revolve with them, forget any preconceptions of what fiction should be and enjoy the freedom of reading something entirely new.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Apologies, and a Picture for No Good Reason

I apologize to those of you using a newsreader to track my ramblings. Apparently going back and adding in meta-tags re-posts the material, making it look like I had 48 posts in one day. Now I have my industrious spurts, but not that industrious. I'm working up some reviews of a few things, which should be up soon. In the meantime I leave you with the below image, taken from issue 46 of the DC Comics title Doom Patrol, written by Grant Morrison and art by Richard Case and Mark McKenna. I'm re-reading the issues in newly printed trade paperback Musclebound, which prints issues 42-50 of the series. If you don't know Doom Patrol, it's one of the wackier things DC ever put out. It's a superhero book, but a book with villains like the New New New Brotherhood of Dada. Re-reading this stuff is a true guilty pleasure.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Libraries and Writers

I'll have to give my library system credit. They're under a mandate of sorts to embrace new technology, and they've now taken on audio clips of interviews with authors dubbed Bookcast. So far they seem to be writers of pop-oriented material who happen to live in the area (Melanie Jeschke, Donna Andrews, Caroline Kettlewell, and Christine Anderson). It might be a nice way for local authors to promote their projects. The interviews are all conducted by Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax County Libraries and are pretty light and fun.

I do have a few problems with it. The link is located well down towards the bottom of the front page of the library website; with something new they really need a banner promoting it. I'd like to see them perhaps tapping a little more deeply into the local writer community as well. Otherwise it will probably only get as much attention as the blog (which they do a nice job with) and myspace profile (which I don't see the point of).