I know you’ve always wondered what pirates eat. The Newspaper of Record provides the answer: “normal human-being food.”
I also learned from this article that pirates have spokesmen, though I have to assume that the Times’ copy editor deleted all the “Arrrrr”s and “Me hearty”s and “Swab the deck”s from this one’s speech for clarity.
All in all, this is probably the best newspaper article I’ve ever read.
The only catch to reading a novel as imposingly magnificent as this is that for the next few months, everything else seems small and obvious by comparison.
My review is over here.
This week is Banned Books Week. Be sure to check out the American Library Associations information page, including the annual Most Challenged Books List. Read one or two. In light of this week’s terrorism attack on a London publisher, it seems more important than ever to exercise your freedom of speech.
Speaking of banned books, you may remember that I have previously mocked the good citizens residing in suburban Gwinnett County (northeast of Atlanta) in such memorable posts as:
Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge has been billed as the THE great Hurricane Katrina novel. The novel is blurbed by Richard Ford AND Richard Russo, who both sing its praises. I was impressed with Piazza’s non-fiction Katrina book, Why New Orleans Matters. I’m from New Orleans, and I’m working my way through the growing Katrina genre, one book at a time. Clearly, this is a book that was bound to find its way to my “to be read” stack.
City of Refuge tells a tale of two cities. Unfortunately the author is not Dickens. One family, The Williams, are black and live in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Award – ground zero for the levee breach that would flood the city. The other family, The Donaldsons, are white and live near Uptown New Orleans, which is now called the “Isle of Denial” – an area of the city that did not flood. Does that seem formulaic? It mostly reads that way, too. There are no black doctors, writers, or – well, professionals of any kind. There are no poor white people. The two families read initially as cartoonish stand-ins.
The book begins slowly with the author doing a lot of “telling” rather than “showing” – this is especially true when Piazza describes the Donaldsons psychodrama back story. The wife is distant and cries in the night because she would rather not live in New Orleans, etc. Craig Donaldson (like Piazza) is not a native of New Orleans, so he spends a lot of the novel’s early pages establishing his bona fides. For example, if there’s music playing it will only be obscure New Orleans R&B, blues, and jazz acts, to the exclusion of everything else. There is also a running joke in the novel that Craig and his pals can pick out people that aren’t from New Orleans – they’re the people who aren’t wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops at all times. Craig, to a NEw Orleans native, does not seem recognizable as a typical New Orleanian. That’s problematic since he seems to be represting an entire demographic of the city.
The author chose to write the dialog for the black family in dialect, which can often be a questionable call. For what it is worth, he more or less nailed it. However, I still thought it was a problem in this novel, because, apparently, only black people have a distinct dialect in New Orleans. I’m here to tell you that white folks in New Orleans have a very unique accent (butchered in numerous films) that is absent in this book. If you’re going to do dialect, write it for everybody, especially when the dialect is so rich and communicates the culture of the city so well.
OK, numerous gripes aside, once the storm hits and Piazza’s families have to deal with the crisis at hand, the author writes with an immediacy and emotional authority that are missing from the rest of the novel. The ordeal of the storm finally provides the characters with something that feels genuine. As a result, the “after” is much better than the “before.”
There are some bits of comedy that are not surprisingly sparse, given the novel’s subject matter. The novel includes a minor character, Serge Mikulic, who is a stand-in for Romanian ex-patriate, author, poet, NPR commentator, and bar stool philosopher Andre Codrescu. Codrescu Mikulic gets scenes like this:
“Gowing up in a corrupt pestilential backwater has given me invaluable insight into other corrupt pestilential backwater,” he once famously remarked. ”I was made for New Orleans.”
If Codrescu didn’t actually say those precise words, he has said something remarkably similar. I’m not sure if Codrescu has grounds to sue. Another comedic note comes when Craig (an editor for an alt-weekly named Gumbo) comes up with the headline for a review of a new Philip Roth novel – The Gripes of Roth. I liked that one.
City of Refuge, despite its faults, seems to at least have it heart in the right place. It pains me to be so hard on it. Did it help that I was reading this book while my family was fleeing from Hurricane Gustav only to turn around and take in people fleeing from Hurricane Ike. Probably not. I was definitely in a place where the dread of hurricane devastation was very real. Verdict: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke retains the title as THE great Hurricane Katrina novel.
One of the things on my reading to-do list of the last few years has been to work my way through the comics canon. A HUGE hole in my reading list, and one that is especially embarrassing to admit, is Alan Moore’s classic Watchmen. The book was included in Time Magazine’s All Time 100 Best English Language Novels (1923-Present) and is universally well regarded in the comics world.
At the center of the book is a group of “costumed adventurers.” They’re not superheroes, because the group has no real super powers, with one notable exception. By and large, the costumed adventurers are vigilantes with varying level of skills and resources that for various reasons they have chosen to use to fight crime. Their costumes look home made, and they also tend to have an emotional problem or two. They are complex and conflicted characters that have little in common with one another besides their status as freelance crime fighters. The adventurers are drawn together when someone begins to kill off their membership.
The problem with reading the book at this late date is that its groundbreaking influence has already occurred. Watchmen paved the way for sea change in the genre that suddenly featured more complex characters that subverted the idea of “heroes”.
Moore’s story telling is outstanding, and he is a fantastic social critic. The art is pretty good, too. The book takes its name from graffiti that appears on walls throughout the novel that reads “Who watches the Watchmen.” Even though it was written twenty tears ago, Watchmen remains relevant in our age of increased surveillance and paranoia. Check it out before the movie arrives in 2009.
The Watchmen movie trailer:
This has nothing to with books, but I thought that I’d share this story with our gentle readers anyway:
I learned about this woman’s plight while waiting for a bus in downtown Atlanta. She had decided to publicize her situation by posting an account on the bus shelter. Unlike the account on her website (begin reading under “public records available to the community”), the print version helpfully included copies of her driver license, vendor license, and college diploma. Identity theft must not be her primary concern.
Click on the link for The Play to educate yourself about the “unequally yoke predicament” and its pitfalls.
I’ll be upfront about this: I don’t think that an objective review of the novel Awesome by Jack Pendarvis will be forthcoming in this space. For one thing, the author is the proud owner of original artwork created by me. I’m certainly no artist, and this is the only piece of “art” that I’ve sold in my lifetime. The author was the only person to bid on my painting at Wordsmiths’ fundraising weekend forever endearing himself to your faithful reviewer. I think he felt obligated because my robot painting featured a quote from his book – but still… Secondly, said reading was clearly the most entertaining literary event of the summer, so the author has created a wealth of goodwill around these parts. I’ll try to let the book speak for itself as much as possible.
So here’s the skinny on the novel, it features a giant named Awesome, his robot ward Jimmy, and Awesome’s fiancee Glorious Jones. If you didn’t pick up on it, the novel delights in the absurd. Awesome, our giant narrator, describes himself as being, well, awesome, throughout the book. Here’s an example:
I am a hale man with beautiful teeth. My doctor always remarks on my superb physiognomy. I am strong and clean…I am at ease with the lingo of the common folk, explaining complex truths in a down-to-earth slang accessible to all…Deep down I am regular guy.
During the Q&A following the reading, I asked the author if we could believe Awesome’s descriptions of himself. The exchange went something like this:
Me: Are Awesome’s descriptions of himself accurate, or is he one of those unreliable narrators that all the kids are using these days?
Jack Pendarvis: (Scratches chin and mulls it over) No, I think that we can believe his descriptions of himself.
Other dude: But how can we know? If he is the narrator, we have no other frame of reference.
Jack Pendarvis: Well – (baffled look) – I just told you so.
Zing! Here are two quotes from the novel that have a literary bent and made me laugh:
When I woke up I had developed amnesia. I recognized the symptoms of this, the most common disease in the United States of America, from a number of bestselling experimental literary novels concerned with the human condition and the limitations of language itself.
Heh. I love those novels! And…
Could it be argued that artistic dudes live by another set of rules? If the garbage man doesn’t come for a couple of weeks, we all die of cholera. And yet if Stephen Sondheim had never been born, there would be a dearth of angular melody and complicated internal rhyme schemes in the history of Broadway theatre. I am not suggesting that Mr. Sondheim should be allowed to shank garbage men in an alleyway, but it is a theory that has been advanced on respectable litblogs.
Philosophical puzzler: If we were to now advance that Sondheim arguement, would it make us, by definition, a respectable litblog? Discuss.
The book itself is really, really nice, too. It’s a little smaller than the typical hard cover, but the publisher has gone the McSweeney’s route and created a beautiful little book.
Awesome is a wonderfully absurd little gem of a book that contains some brilliant writing. There is also some incredibly juvenile humor that make you question if your 12 year-old cousin briefly took over the keyboard, but in a good way. What does it all mean? I’ll leave the final word on the book to a reviewer in this month’s Believer Magazine who says:
Critics smarter than I am may try to tell you the character of Awesome symbolizes something – maybe the precocity of America in these later-imperial days, maybe literature itself in this age of digital reproduction – but feel free to ignore them.
I’m not sure what that means either. Which is just the way I imagine Mr. Pendarvis likes it.
The Lifehacker “geek to live” blog, usually a source for how to use technology to increase your productivity, recently ran a post about how to “ungeek” by reading well. The post provides tips for finding good books and touts reading as a source of relaxation and comfort. If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably know how to find good books that will hold your interest. However, there were some gems in the post, like this one:
B. Dalton’s is not a bookstore. If it’s in an airport, it’s crap. Don’t go to Borders or Barnes & Noble…find your local bookstore owner. Give her a hug. Visit frequently, even if only to buy one book at time.
Amen. The post also includes nonfiction that may do well on the back of your toilet. Nice.
There are a lot of cool things that can happen when you have your own lit blog. For example, you could post something about the artist Shepard Fairey and lament that one of his books was temporarily out of print. Then your mother might read that post and find a signed copy on the internets and hook you up for your birthday. That’s pretty cool.
I really have no idea how to review a large format retrospective book on an artist’s career. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Supply and Demand: The Art of Sheprard Fairey. I am a fan of guerilla art, and I’ve enjoyed Fairey’s art in particular for a long time. I was reminded that I had yet to post on this amazing book when I stumbled across across an article about Shepard Fairey’s work for the Obama campaign in Wired magazine. If you’ve seen those “Hope” posters, you know the guy I’m talking about.
This book also got me thinking that, for now at least, this is exactly the kind of book that the Amazon Kindle would fail miserably at translating. Large format art books may be the last refuge of print. If you enjoy this sort of thing, I highly recommend Supply and Demand for your coffee table.
The Wren’s Nest, Atlanta’s favorite author house museum and friend of the blog, is hosting a fund raising gala on September 27th. It’s going to be a swell night under the stars, let me tell ya. First of all, they have Big Mike and Kingsized – and boy do they treat. I’ve seen Kingsized roughly a million times, and they are always spectacular. Guaranteed fun. Food will be provided by Taqueria del Sol. Which is nice. I can eat my entry fee in tacos, no problem. There’s also a cash maguerita bar, and we love the margueritas.
But check this out: Executive Director guy Lain Shakespeare is throwing in FREE DRINKS for anyone who purchases a table (ten tickets). Here’s the plan. I am going. You’re going. All we need to do is round out the table and cocktails are free. You were planning on going, right? Well now all of our drinks are free. The catch: the tickets have to be purchased by the 22nd to qualify. Here’s how to buy tickets: Call The Wren’s Nest (404-753-7735) and say, “I’d like to buy a ticket for the Baby Got Books table, please.” Say it with authority, and don’t let them give you any jibber jabber either. I’ll see you at our table. It’ll be the one with all the free drinks on it. (And some portion of the ticket is tax deductible, too. I don’t know how much. Ask your accountant, Scrooge McDuck.)
Here are the particulars:
It must be said: the cover you see below of Martin Millar’s novel Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me is hideous. According to me, anyway. My eyes! If you can make it past the cover, inside is a well-written novel that surprised me with its depth and its humor.
The novel is the semi(?)-autobiographical coming of age story about a boy, Martin, trying to make sense of the usual adolescent angst. Martin is a nerdy kid from the nicer part of Glasgow whose only real friend, Greg, joins Martin in Tolkien-esque fantasies of slaying dragons. Cherry is the nerdy girl that Martin and Greg mock to make themselves feel better. Suzy is the beautiful girl they have no shot of dating because she is the girlfriend of the über-cool older guy, Zed. Zed inexplicibly befriends Martin and Greg and steeps them in the lore of Led Zeppelin. That’s high school.
The story is told from the perspective of the present day. Martin is an aimless writer who suspects himself to be something of a fraud. His best friend, Manx, is a single mother battling post-partem depression. To cheer her up (and himself as well), Martin tells Manx The Led Zeppelin story, which over time becomes The Led Zeppelin Book that he is working on. Martin’s adult reflections on a bittersweet past provide the perspective and depth that make the book more than just a high school drama.
The backdrop of the novel is a real Led Zeppelin show that occurred on December 4, 1972 in Glasgow, Scotland. Led Zeppelin was arguably at the height of their powers, having just released Led Zeppelin IV. The show was played in Green’s Theatre, an impossibly small venue for Led Zeppelin to find themselves in at this point, seating only a few thousand. And the price! £1! Inconceivable. Two friends of mine managed to get into the Led Zeppelin reunion show last year in London – let’s just say that they paid more.
Millar’s descriptions of the anticipation of the show, the amazing show itself, and the show’s lasting impact on Martin’s life are some of the best writing about music that you’ll come across. More than that though, Suzy, Led Zeppelin and Me is a great coming-of-age story for those that already have. If you’ve ever felt, like Dewey in The School of Rock, that the perfect rock and roll show could change your life forever, then you might need to check this out post-haste. If I lost you at Led Zeppelin, you may want to skip this one.
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this:
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!
Immigrant Song (features prominently in the novel)
Also: Check out the author’s web site to see a ticket from the fabled show and the author wearing an Afghan coat (which feature prominently in the book) to read at the book’s launch party.
And: Read the review of the 2007 London show that my friend Huey somehow filed for The Washington Post. That’s 35 years later than the Glasgow show if you’re keeping score at home.
My podnah Frank is doing his best to make me a George Saunders fan. He actually sold me on Saunders some time ago. I don’t let on though so that he’ll continue to forward me links to brilliant essays like this one in that Élite publication, The New Yorker, by regular guy Saunders. Here’s an excerpt.
Sarah Palin knows a little something about God’s will, knowing God quite well, from their work together on that natural-gas pipeline, and what God wills is: Country First. And not just any country! There was a slight error on our signage. Other countries, such as that one they have in France, reading our slogan, if they can even read real words, might be all, like, “Hey, bonjour, they are saying we can put our country, France, first!” Non, non, non, France! What we are saying is, you’d better put our country first, you merde-heads, or soon there will be so much lipstick on your pit bulls it will make your berets spin!
Genius. Thanks, Frank, and keep ‘em coming.
The self-inflicted death of author David Foster Wallace has left many scratching their heads and wondering “why?” over the weekend. The team at Very Short List uncovered this nugget from Infinite Jest that may explain DFW’s view of the matter – or not:
“The person in whom . . . agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”
Eulogies and memorials have been written in newspaper book sections and lit-blogs everywhere, but you can always count on Machiko Kakutani to provide a steely-eyed assessment of the author’s work that avoids sentimentality,
Umberto Eco will be in Atlanta October 5, 6, and 7 presenting a series of lectures and readings at Emory University. There is no cost, no need to make reservations, and all events are open to the public. Naturally I will be out of town all three days. Grrrrrrr. Someone please go check out one or more of these events and report back to us. And bring some of my books to get signed. Thanks!
What’s more awesome than the Large Hadron Collider? It’s a trick question. Obviously the answer is nothing. Who can think about books when the LHC is out there doing its thing?
A round-up of my favorite LHC links:
- LHC Home Page
- The National Geographic’s article and photo gallery from March 2008 are brilliant.
- This XKCD cartoon is chuckle-worthy.
- Straight outta Geneva! Don’t miss the LHC Rap featuring the world’s funkiest PhD physicists
- Wired’s pictures
- The New York Times‘ article and interactive feature
- PhD Comics drop some LHC science on you in comic form
- As we now know, the world was not consumed by black holes when the LHC was fired up. Whew, right? But who has time to continually monitor the situation? Check in with the helpful web site Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet throughout the day to stay up to date regarding the world’s current status.
- I survived the LHC t-shirt
Gotta run. I’m keeping an eye out for a Higgs boson.
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is not like most books that you come across on the bestseller list. (I’m pre-supposing that this novel will perform as well as Stephenson’s recent books.) It has a glossary of book-specific words. It contains detailed discussions of philosophy, abstract physics, and religion. It includes three appendices of detailed mathematical concepts (with figures). It comes with a CD of specially commissioned monastic chant music. It’s 960 pages long. I couldn’t put it down.
Anathem is tough to summarize, but I’ll give it a go. The novel takes place on a planet (Arbe) that is similar to, but different from, our own. Groups of men and women (The Avout) live in geographically (and philosophically) diverse cloisters known as concents. The avout live a monastic (“mathic” in the parlance of the book) lifestyle dedicated to keeping ancient knowledge alive and protected from the outside world (“extramuros” – which is a new favorite word). The avout are not religious, however, and are generally suspicious of the religions of the extramuros crowd.
At the center of the concent of our protagonist, Erasmus, is an elaborate mechanical clock that marks not just the hours of the day, but the years, decades, and the millenia that mark the frequency that various strata within the concent are allowed to have contact with the extramuros (and with each other). Things get exciting for the avout and the extramuros world when avout astronomers observe strange phenomena in the night sky that leads to an unprecedented mixing within and outside of the walls of the world’s concents. To say more about the story would be a disservice to future readers, so mum’s the word.
Stephenson has plenty of room to explore weighty themes and ideas in Anathem. Among the Big Ideas in the novel: the imponderable march of time, technology as a source of good/evil, communication, community, isolation, any number of theories on the relationship between religion and science, reality, quantum mechanics, government, relativity, and our place on the continuum of existence. Stephenson has also mentioned in an interview that the mathic/extramuros dichotomy was a means for examining the differences between the literate and the aliterate, which he defines as those who can read but choose not to. That’s just one of many differences between the two groups. This is the kind of book that you are thinking about when you’re not busy reading it.
As weighty as the philosophical and scientific discussions can be between the avout, the novel is also a great deal of fun. Stephenson packs genuine adventure into the story from page 1. (The first line reads: “Do your neighbors burn one another alive?”) Given the length of the novel, I was near panic-stricken to realize that the novel would be a page turner. ”I’ll never sleep again!” (And I didn’t.)
Stephenson’s use of language to describe things in the similar world of Arbre is at turns deeply insightful and just plain funny at others. Most of the created language is a play on familiar words or are based upon combinations of words. A humorous example of Stephenson’s lexicon is his term to describe a frowned upon rhetorical device that is sometimes employed when the avout engage in their formal, Socratic-style dialog:
Bullshytt: Speech (typically but not necessarily commerical or polictal) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said.
There’s a timely definition.
The ideas of “story” and “narrative” as forces in our lives are featured prominently in the novel. Here’s Erasmus waxing philospical on how the extramuros people live their lives:
So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives.
Anathem is a novel for people who want more story in their lives. It is a rollicking non-stop adventure loaded with humor and Big Ideas. I loved, LOVED, this novel. It is ridiculously good. You may want to check it out even if the mere mention of science fiction brings out your gas face.
Other opinions: Although I loved this book, it’s clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. Take Michael Dirda at The Washington Post, for example, who says that the novel is “ultimately grandiose, overwrought and pretty damn dull.” Boo! Salon has a more suitably enthusiastic review.
Also: Stephenson was inspired to write parts of the novel by a real organization call The Long Now Foundation that is commited to thinking about problems from the very long term perspective.