Monday, October 31, 2005

Book #36: A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin

I read a few of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories a few months back for the first time since I was a child and found myself enjoying them as much for the view into the Victorian mindset about crime and police as the my somewhat nostalgic feelings about the actual stories. Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind is an attempt to fix Holmes in time and add a dose of emotional humanity to the character by setting it after WWII with a Holmes who is 93 and suffering from natural memory loss. This Holmes isn't trying to solve a case, and the only detective work we see is in a fifty-year-old case Holmes is writing about, one where he becomes enamored of a young woman who is forever beyond his reach. Instead, he spends time with his housekeeper's son, who is managing his apiary, and thinks about a recent trip to Japan.

It's not a bad novel, but neither is it a great one. Holmes hardly seems like Holmes, which Cullin explains by having him constantly describe the famous stories as fictions by John Watson, but it seems cheap to appropriate a major character of fiction only to modify that character under the guise of adding new dimensions. I don't know. I can't imagine this story being interesting (and it was interesting) if there were another elderly man at its heart - if, for instance, Cullin had written the exact same story but changed the name of the central character - but the story as it is is unsatisfactory, not because Holmes is sacred, but because he is a collection of behaviors, a characterization, not a real person. Maybe that's the point. There's a certain wit to having Holmes tell others that he never wore a deerstalker hat or smoked a pipe, but there's also a certain shorthand involved in asking readers to feel a certain way about the central character because of our pre-existing knowledge of his fictive life.

Anyway, I liked a great deal of the story, but disliked the blatant manipulation on display towards the end of the novel. If you've read it, I think you'll know exactly what I mean. I'm planning to read Michael Chabon's Holmes retread in the near future, too, so I'll have something to compare with this.


On another note, this is my 36th book of the year. With a mere 9 weeks left in 2005, I don't think I'm going to read another 14 books. However, I intend to continue reading and reporting on them and will perhaps continue this challenge into the new year.

Oh, I didn't finish George Pyle's book Raise Less Corn, More Hell before the library needed it back (and thus didn't write about it here), but I enjoyed the half of it I read.

No other personal news to report at the present. I added the blog Critical Culture to the list at right after reading the author's interesting take on a few books and movies over the last few weeks. New parents like myself should read Emlyn Lewis's blog. I knew the guy a million years ago when we were young, and back then he was one of the most intelligent people I had ever encountered in my brief experience. It's many years later and I've met a lot more people, but Emlyn is still about the smartest and most incisive person I know. I'm happy he's turning his smarts on being a dad, because it saves me a lot of soul-searching. Oh, and I'm adding a link to Ludic Log Leonard's LiveJournal Skullbucket, because that's where he's putting his best stuff these days. Go today to read his Halloween awesomeness, especially the best H.P. Lovecraft tribute/ripoff I've witnessed.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Book #35: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Not long ago, I wrote a song about clever novelists comparing the best of them with magicians pulling out the rug from beneath the reader, who can only sit there, open-mouthed, visibly shaken but physically unchanged. It's not a very clever song, I know, but Ishiguro is such a magician. I read this novel in such a rush that I had no idea how affected I was by these characters until, suddenly, with just a few words near the end, Ishiguro ripped my still-beating heart out before my stunned eyes. I mean, here's the trick: Ishiguro told me all along what was going to happen and who was going to suffer from it, and when it inevitably happened, I was more shocked than if it were completely out of the blue. And I was even more surprised by how much it affected me. When did I start to care? How did I go from being a moderately engaged, somewhat cool reader to being a tear-soaked, weak-kneed mess in just a few words?

Poof. Voila!

So, the novel. As I assume you know, it's written from the point of view of a young woman, Kathy H (there is no more to her last name, but the evocation of Kafka with his single initials is deliberate) who happens to be a clone. Her worldview has been deliberately limited throughout her entire life and Ishiguro imagines the four corners of this particular education with unbroken clarity. She is entirely believable as the product of the upbringing she describes. Much of the book is taken up with her memories of Hailsham, the institution that raised her and her small circle of friends. As in the horrible A Separate Peace, the novel captures the boarding-school cliches, but Never Let Me Go makes them its own, mainly because of the peculiarity of the residents. The two people most important to Kathy are Tommy, a star athlete who is mocked because of his poor art skills, and Ruth, a manipulative, somewhat mean, girl who is Kathy's closest friend. Kathy doesn't exposit about her situation, but it soon becomes clear what she is and what her life has been like. It would ruin the narrative spell to give too much away, but attentive readers (and we're all attentive readers these days) will notice quickly that Kathy's is a smart-but-normal woman with a somewhat emotionally stunted girlishness in a horrible, horrible circumstance, one with a horror to it that is barely articulated in the novel. But the horror is there, creeping around the edges, seeping into the narrative cracks like a fog. By the end, it's so strong that you'll be astounded, suggestable, a ripe mark for literary sleight-of-hand. Fortunately for you, Ishiguro isn't interested in picking your pocket, but in subtly implanting the seeds to larger ethical issues. No cheap stunt magician, this is the work of a master wizard.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Great Jonathan Lethem interview, responding obliquely to that godawful skewering from John Leonard I posted about lo those many months back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Haven't finished a book in over a week, but I will soon. In the meantime, this'll put a little marzipan in your pie plate, bingo:

Thursday, October 13, 2005

I should mention that I went to see the Gang of Four last night, which was well and truly mindblowingly, ass-shakingly, skronk-skronkingly great.

The songs performed, in no particular order: Return the Gift, Not Great Men, Natural's Not In It, At Home He's A Tourist, Anthrax, He'd Send In The Army (according to Pitchfork, it was probably a microwave Jon King was whacking with a baseball bat just outside of the view from our vantage point), Paralyzed (I could be wrong about this one - should've taken notes), 5.45, To Hell With Poverty, Outside the Trains Don't Run On Time, Ether, Damaged Goods (encore). MIA: "I Found That Essence Rare" and "Contract," but I'm not complaining.

In this Salon article, some blowhard named Steve Almond discusses a blogger who hates him and name-checks High Hat contributer Robert Birnbaum.

From the article:

Here is a direct transcription:

1:41 - Steve Almond is standing right in front of me ... We haven't spoken; he's talking to Jim ... Wondering if he'll punch me out ... I think I could take him ...

As sad as this might seem, even sadder was the response of his fellow blog bitches. One of them, a guy named Robert Birnbaum, sent the following response:

Yo! Fo! Shizzle! Almond b a wus. He gotz to be got.

Remarkably, Birnbaum is not a young, African-American blogger from Compton who goes by the street handle OGB (Original Gangsta Blogga). He is a paunchy middle-aged Jew who conducts long interviews with writers for his lit blog, often mentioning himself and his dog Rosie. Having been interviewed by Birnbaum myself, I tend to think of him as the Regis Philbin of the lit game, though that may be overstating his charm.

For the record, Birnbaum: If I get wind of you dissing my junk ever again, I'm gonna track down your mutt and see how she like my chocolate bone.


Cuz that b how real authors do they bidness.


The funniest part about all this is how right the Almond-haters are. I'd never heard of him before reading this, but is there a wussier action than threatening a man's dog in an article in a national magazine?

Edit - Actually, I found a few things interesting in the Almond article, including his attempts to engage his nemesis. Therefore I retract the term "blowhard" and substitute the more neutral "somewhat whiny guy" until future notice.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Book #34: The Preservationist by David Maine

The Preservationist is an odd novel: a rather modern-naturalistic retelling of the story of Noah (known here as Noe), complete with odd miracles (or incredible coincidences, sure), as told by Noah and his family. The story of the ark and the flood has an unreal fairy-tale quality that I've glossed over in my own head due to its pure familiarity (not that I'm saying that I believe in the story - I'm saying that I've never really thought about how odd it is, just how impossible).

Maine's stories vary in and out of first-person (strangely enough, it seems in my memory that only the parts of the tale from Noe's perspective are told third-person), handling Yahweh's occasional conversations with Noe and a few experience unlikely enough to be miracles with a deadpan nonchalance. Maine lingers over the details of Noe's attempt to build the ark (fortunately, his second son Cham - or Ham in most English-language Bibles - has learned shipbuilding skills) and to collect the animals (he sends his daughters-in-law North and South after animals with no money or provisions) and the somewhat hellish experience of travelling in a floating zoo. Characters ask themselves why they are building the ark, why Yahweh has chosen to flood the world, and, most importantly, why they survive when others die.

Maine also captures the primitiveness of the time. Noe and his family hardly have sophisticated ideas about sex, which happens all the time, and are aware, though just barely, of their similarity to animals in that regard. The ark is full of shit, which must be carried up to the rail and thrown overboard constantly, although the deck is also covered in shit - bird shit, almost an inch thick. Noe, who is 600 years old (in a world only 1000 years old, at least as far as the characters are concerned), tells stories about the disappearance of the hunter-gatherers. Noe rejoices in the drowning people (although others in his family are traumatized by the children he refuses to help) around the ark as the world turns into a giant ocean. When Noe gives an order, his children don't even hesitate before obeying.

All in all, a brilliant novel. It most reminded me of Jim Crace's Quarantine, which put a humanist face on Jesus's ordeal in the desert, a story in which, like in the Noah story, few of the nitty-gritty details appear. Unlike Maine's novel, in Crace's book God does not appear, nor are there any unlikely circumstances/miracles. However, both allow for the ambiguous possibility of the Old World God acting directly on the world as much as the possibility that people read miracles into coincidence. Admittedly, the events in Maine's book are far less likely to be anything but actions of an angry god, but Crace's book (and I should point out that Crace is an avowed atheist) ends with an image of a possibly Already-Risen Jesus following some of the other characters across the desert back to civilization. Maine also provides a certain sense of why people reject the capricious Yahweh, why Yahweh forms his covenant with Noe (not to destroy the earth again, as symbolized by the rainbow, just so), and lays the groundwork for how evolutionary thinking will eventually change the way that people understand history.

Maine has a second book out, about Adam and Eve. I intend to read that one, too, with due diligence.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Book #33: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel by Rebecca Goldstein

Gödel was the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century, and Goldstein, a novelist and philosophy professor (according to one of her anecdotes, she's roughly a contemporary of Rorty's), finds a way to explain his incompleteness theorems in plain language, wrapped up inextricably with the story of Gödel's life. Gödel was a lonely man, at odds with almost everyone he met other than Einstein, and Goldstein provides a narrative that demonstrates clearly why Gödel felt like an exile all of his life, even in the occasionally loving arms of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.

It's in her description of his philosophy that Goldstein really shines. She places Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which I've seen used to both support and refute positivism (that's the notion that there's no objective reality unmeasured by humans), in its proper context, which is to refute positivism and uphold Gödel's Platonism. She also carefully shows why Gödel and Wittgenstein (arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and certainly in a class with few others) disliked each other and refused to engage each other's philosophies, despite the fact that she believes that the Tractatus-era Wittgenstein (that's the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, mind you, before he became interested in deconstructing language) and Gödel were more-or-less in agreement.

Heady stuff, and it's admirable that Goldstein made into such a light read. I'm certainly not a Platonist - in fact, I feel quite a bit of kinship for Rorty's anti-essentialism, which leans towards the positivists - but I also believe that it's a hubristic mistake to discount the ineffable (much like the Tractatus, which ends "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent."). Despite my own prejudices against Platonism, I found myself able to appreciate Gödel's elegant theorems as both mathematical and philosophical positions, and found a greater understanding of the logical-mathematical side of philosophy, which has always previously left me cold (and is one of the main reasons I've had trouble understanding Wittgenstein and Quine, despite my admiration for both). Anyway, Incompleteness is a great book for lovers of philosophy or math from the general public, but not the practitioners. Then again, it ain't for them; it's for the rest of us.

I actively endorse this commercial.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Book #32: Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Marukami

As diligent readers of this blog (Ha! See what I did there?) will note, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle earlier this year. Perhaps due to the apparently more complete translation, Kafka on the Shore has a more holistic feel to it, although it never achieves the great high points of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The narrative follows two main characters. Kafka Tamura is a 15-year-old boy who runs away from his distant father and the Oedipal prophecy/curse his father placed on him when he was young. He finds refuge in a small town private library run by a friendly young man and an attractive middle-aged woman who may or may not be his long-absent mother. Meanwhile, Satoru Nakara, a simple-minded elderly man who can speak with cats, becomes involved with a supernatural plot that leads to an unwilling murder, rains of fish and leeches, and a search for a mysterious "entrance stone" that opens an inexplicable door. Their stories are intertwined in ways not immediately apparent.

This is obviously the stuff of fairy tales and the subconscious mind, and Murakami gives it a full rounded life of its own. I thought several times of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which wanted so badly to mine this territory but fell painfully short. The pop culture references and perfectly captured character study reminded me of Jonathan Lethem's work and, as with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I could picture the action - well, some of it, at least - only in the shimmering anime style of Miyazaki (which, of course, may say more of my slim knowledge of Japanese culture than anything). All of these analogies point to two things: 1) Murakami falls into the comic-book-meets-intelligentsia style of Gaiman, Lethem, and Miyazaki, and 2) I am a big ol' geek.

To be fair, Murakami also suggests other, more high-falutin' Western writers, such as Garcia Marquez and Borges (although not so much Kafka, so... ok), and I understand that much of the book is a tribute to one of the authors Kafka reads during his lazy days at the library in the beginning of the book.

Well, this isn't kid stuff, anyway. Murakami is interested in dreams and the origins of the subconscious, which in this case means that the book has several graphic sex scenes, all between ambiguously inoppropriate partners, graphic violence, and various ways in which the nasty things from Grimm's fairy tales (or Jung's archetypes) slither into a naturalistic setting with deft ease. Yeah, that's the good stuff.

Book #31: Thelonious Monk: His Life and Music by Thomas Fitterling

Fitterling's book is translated from the German, and the first section, which details Monk's life, definitely reads like a poor translation. I didn't know much prior to reading this book about Monk the Man, though, and even in bad translation, Monk's story has interesting points. The second section, which consists of a detailed analysis of Monk's style and each of his recordings, is indispensable reading for Monk fans. Steve Lacy's introduction is also fascinating, simply by virtue of being a firsthand account of working with Monk the Man by one of the great interpreters of Monk the Musician.

Li'l Sphere's first band photos.

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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