Tuesday, December 26, 2006

some fresh book reviews

Here's some of the books I've finished in the last two months or so, along with some capsule reviews:

Justice League America: World War Three, by Grant Morrison & co.
Grant Morrison closes his run on JLA with a bang, taking us from Atlantis to Heaven to cosmic space in a dogged determination to out-do every previous comic-book end-of-the-world storyline. The result is hyper-kinetic and deliriously crammed: a psychedelic mandala made out of superheroes. There's no room for (much) character development here, but amid the fireworks there are still moments where the story manages to feel surprisingly moving and personal. A blast.

Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer
Fabulist allegories investigating the relationship between power, humanity, and storytelling, using Empire as the central metaphor. Often fascinating, although the book has a tendency to skew towards abstraction: this has the feature of making the stories feel more universal (a plus) but also saps them of concrete details that would make them more memorable.

Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace
Strong collection from Wallace, with the opening and closing stories ("Mister Squishy" and "The Suffering Channel") being the high-water marks. These two stories are perhaps the strongest pieces of fiction I have ever read about life in corporate America, revealing yet another vast field of human experience that Wallace has seemingly obtained mastery over. Impressive.

The Garden of the Departed Cats, by Bilge Karasu
Strange narrative about a traveller who grows embroiled into a conspiracy / human chess game, interspersed periodically with fables, metafictions and allegories. Sounds promising: the combo of "fantastic tales plus framing narrative" recalls Calvino, and the tales themselves are akin to Kafka's parables. But in the end, the book misfires more often than it connects, rendering these comparisons tragically superficial.

Time Maps, by Eviatar Zerubavel
Brief, readable book about the ideology of historical narratives and timekeeping systems (i.e., the calendar). I'm no stranger to the ideological dimension of the quotidian, so the revelations on hand here didn't feel especially startling, but having so many examples so accessibly presented kept the book enjoyable.

All of these reviews are mirrored over at my LibraryThing page, for those of you who are into that sort of thing. Plus they're also on the Raccoon Books page for the year-in-progress.

Since the year's almost over, some year-in-review posts will appear soon (my anuual one for albums of the year and for books of the year). But I'm still on the road, moving ever further north and not logging a lot of time on the computer, so those posts may not appear until early 2007. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 13, 2006

recent reading: november

Some new capsule book reviews of things I've read in the last couple of months:

Y: The Last Man Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughn & co.
Q: In a near-future where only one man survives, will there still be stereotypical man-hating feminists? A: Oh my yes. Promising premise (first pitched by Mary Shelly in 1826) degrades quickly into garden-variety gynophobia.

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
Short stories. The title story is a killer, one of the best I've read in recent years.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Autistic boy attempts to solve neighborhood crime. A promising premise, one which the book dutifully carries out, and then memorably transcends. Recommended.

Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America's Educationally Underprepared by Mike Rose
When a book defines itself as "moving" in its own subtitle, approach with caution... and, indeed, this memoir-ish book is not without its soft-focus moments. It does manage, however, to amply convey that peculiar love that a teacher feels for even (especially?) his or her worst students. But its episodic nature and unwillingness to follow through on its argument(s) grows wearying by the end.

Venusia by Mark von Schlegell
Delirious piece of writing growing out of that verdant patch where the tributaries of science fiction, psychedelia, and abstract critical theory all drain into one another. Equal parts William Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs, this book features sentient plants, unstable psychic landscapes, drug-induced reptile hallucinations, and pulp-grade sex: what's not to like?

Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee
Take a topic which is inherently fascinating (the inner workings of America's transportation industry), and then hand it over to "writer's writer" John McPhee, with his unerring eye for illuminating detail, and his unerring ear for unusual turns of phrase, and the result is absolute delight. Steering a barge, braking a locomotive, getting a package through UPS: McPhee handles them all with great elan, rendering them accessible to the mind of the reader without sacrificing an iota of their boggling complexity. Highly recommended.

Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Polymath whiz David Foster Wallace on John McCain, pornography, grammar, 9/11, sports memoirs, conservative talk radio, and, yes, lobster. And yet from the welter of topics a coherent theme emerges: how to communicate in a world so thick with irony and spin that genuine, sincere communication is automatically considered suspect. An important book, highly recommended.

The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon
Short stories by Bosnian-turned-Chicagoan Aleksandar Hemon. Hemon, like Nabokov, is an ESL writer who puts most native speakers and writers of English to shame: the language-acquistion process seems to generate linguistic strangeness (or at least a total liberation from cliche). Hit or miss overall, but certain sentences here are as good as they come.

I've also begun to maintain a LibraryThing page, for those of you who would rather go there than dig around in the Raccoon Books directory... expect old reviews from 2005 and 2004 to be appearing over there sometime soon(ish). And if you have a LibraryThing profile, dear reader, don't hesitate to post a link to it (or your username) in the comments box, so that I can add you to my watchlist.

Monday, October 9, 2006

the corrections, by jonathan franzen

So I've finally gotten around to reading Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, a novel which is now five years old. I ended up avoiding the book at the time of its publication, as a result of the now-infamous "Oprah controversy," which made it difficult for me (depite basing my understanding of the controversy completely on second-hand retellings) to think of the book as anything other than a node in a complicated argument about literary elitism, corporate populism, and garden-variety sexism. Eventually I grew less interested in this argument and more interested in the more basic question of whether the book is any good.

Short answer: it is. The world of The Corrections is more keenly and deeply envisioned than any that of any other novel I have read in recent memory. Franzen's great triumph here is to have produced a set of believable characters and built their personalities, histories, and current contexts in extremely fine-grained detail. Furthermore, Franzen routes this information to the reader through channels that feel consistently fresh, proving that there are still artful ways to present exposition in an essentially traditional narrative.

And make no mistake: this novel is, at its core, a traditional dysfunctional-family drama, a book with aspirations that are essentially modest, despite the tendency among some critics to talk about The Corrections as a "big" social-novel-type book.

In fairness, Franzen himself speaks perfectly clearly about the book's true scope: in this Bookpage profile, Franzen says that an earlier draft of the novel "was much more about the stock market, insider trading and prisons. I finally found that the big social picture stuff wasn't working so well, whereas the little crises these characters were involved in interested me a lot." I think Franzen's right to trust his instincts here: in my own reading of the finished novel, I found that the stuff that works best was the attention to the nuances of interpersonal crisis, whereas what works least well, at least for my money, was the stuff that seemed most obviously intended as Important, Relevant Commentary. (I'm thinking specifically of the psychophamaceutical drug Aslan, which enters the book almost exactly at the halfway point and functions, in my opinion, as a glaringly "devicey" plot device in a book that otherwise sticks to more realistic terrain.)

Franzen makes related points in this interview: "[T]he problem with the social novel is that we don't need it anymore. Before TV, people would actually read a book to learn about a subject, and TV does it so much better. The serial dramas like ER and the news do it so well. So, if you have something important to say why would you write a novel? If you are trying to advocate two sides [books] aren't a good way of doing it. But, TV is really good at it."

These claims, which show Franzen moving from personal feelings about his own novel to broader claims about the Novel in general, work a little less happily, in fact, there's almost no sentence here that doesn't make my mind ache. Is the point of the social novel really to "advocate two sides?" Is TV news really that good at helping people "learn about a subject?" Are the people who have "something important to say" really all working as ER scriptwriters? (It's fuzzy thinking like this that helps to justify something like Ben Marcus' hatchet job on Franzen-the-critic that ran last fall in Harper's.) For all its flaws, though, I feel the quote does adequately sketch out the scope of Frazen's ambition.

Which still leaves me feeling puzzled by pieces like this one at N+1 (actually a profile on David Foster Wallace's recent work). In it, critic Chad Harbach makes the claim that The Corrections serves as a worthy follow-up to Wallace's Infinite Jest, a claim which strikes me as frankly bizarre: although the two novels share a degree of thematic overlap, they have radically different ambitions (not to mention broad differences in their respective formal concerns).

So: is The Corrections worth reading? Yes: but you'll need to dig through some misleading hype to discover the excellent (but modest) novel which lies beneath.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

recent reading: september

Writeups of a few books I've finished recently:

The Totality for Kids by Joshua Clover
Arch little poems and hypercondensed travelogues ambiguously regarding the waning of Europe, modernism, and theory and the concomitant rise of America, pop, and capital. Occasionally exuberant, but only in a way that suggests deep and abiding sorrow.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
It's kind of amazing that a story cycle containing so many different hot-button global elements (art thieves! disembodied souls! apocalyptic cults! artificial intelligences!) can end up feeling so oddly understated. The end result is something like one of Warren Ellis' Global Frequency trades, only four times the length and lacking most of the kinetic energy. Interesting enough to be worth finishing, but I would have preferred the faster, denser book that the subject matter suggests.

Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory by Franco Moretti
I'm interested in diagrams and info visualization at least as much as I'm interested in literary history, so when Moretti argues that the former can be used as a tool to learn more about the latter, I don't find it particularly controversial. But the examples he uses to prove the utility of his method are startling in their clarity and force. Recommended.

This Is Not A Novel by David Markson
Novelist attempts to write an anti-novel, seeing what survives when you reduce narrative to a cascade of facts (literary anecdotes and gossip, mostly). The experiment yields its most interesting results over the first 40 pages or so, so the remaining 150 serve primarily as feeble inquiries into the effects of perserverance and duration, effects explored more intriguingly elsewhere.


I've also read the first three volumes of the Seven Soliders of Victory trade paperbacks, which represent the newest comics work by Grant Morrison: I have some things to say about this series but will probably wait until I've read the fourth and final volume.

I'm also still working on writing up some thoughts on David Foster Wallace's new[est] book of essays, Consider the Lobster. The book is complicated, and my thoughts on it are thorny, but I can probably say that it has been the best book I've read so far in 2006.

Sunday, July 2, 2006

recent reading: summer

Sorry things have been so quiet over here in blogland lately. I've been writing a lot elsewhere, mostly in the form of steady progess on the Novel of Adequacy (currently titled Meanwhile, although that might change). I just wrapped up Chapter Nine, and the chart has been complicating pleasingly. I'm working on a few other visualizations of the book's network; expect them to appear here if I ever finish them.

In other news, still broke, which means I've been continuing to churn through summer reading. Who wants capsule reviews?

Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World by Jack Goldsmith & Tim Wu
This book lucidly debunks the notion that the Internet inherently possesses territorial independence or extra-legality, mostly by clearly laying out various ways that governments can (and do) enact enforceable restrictions upon Internet content and behavior. Recommended.

Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris Kraus
A curious book, collecting essays which straddle the line between art review and memoir of alienation (book club question: is Kraus' BDSM practice a cure or a symptom?). The institutional critique is sharp, the observations on LA are witty / bleak, and the overall grimness is leavened by Kraus' obvious yearning for meaningful human interconnection (and art that can express it). Bracing, enticing.

Demonology by Rick Moody
A frustratingly uneven collection, containing one story which I'd consider to be a modern classic ('Demonology') and one story so torturously overwritten as to be unreadable ('Pan's Fair Throng'). Sometimes I found myself suppressing the feeling that these stories exist primarily as an excuse to showboat, that they're really more about Moody as a stylist than they are about the people they are ostensibly about. In this way the book ends up reminding me of the Coen Brothers movies: inventive, flashy, often entertaining, but with little sense of human urgency.

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson
Breezy book making what essentially amounts to a three-point argument: that video games engage mental skills such as problem-solving and pattern recognition, that a lot of contemporary TV indulges in fairly complex narrative strategies, and that online discourse rewards writing skills and in-depth thinking. I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments, so the book's conclusions felt a bit foregone to me, although certain examples felt freshly cogent (the diagrams of character networks in a show like 24, for instance).

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
This slim volume attempts to develop a theory which will position bullshit in the framework of moral philosophy, and along the way answers questions like: how does bullshit differ from the lie? A blast to read, although I disagree with almost every major conclusion Frankfurt makes (with the anti-postmodernism argument that closes the book being particularly unwelcome).

I might write up a more thorough critique of the Frankfurt at some point, we'll have to see. And, despite the fact that I finished the Moody book only under some (self-imposed) duress, my interest in literary fiction does seem to have re-awakened after the slumber of the last few years. Consequently, I'm looking for recommendations: use the comments link down there if you want to plug anything.

Friday, June 23, 2006

recent reading: june

I find myself, this summer, with less disposable income than I have had at any time in the past ten years: my paychecks are covering rent and bills but just about everything else (including, say, groceries) either needs to be put on credit or done without.

This has kept me suspended in a foul mood that's hard to shake but it has also resensitized me to just what a friend the university library can be. Needless to say, I've been reading a lot. Here are some books I completed last month, with some brief notes:

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis
MacArthur fellow Mike Davis hunkers down and attempts to produce a readable synthesis of the enormous body of current literature on global urban poverty in this book, which ends up averaging about four footnotes per page. The general adherence to hard fact makes it difficult for Davis' usual theoretical insight to shine through, but the urgency of the subject matter more than compensates. Required reading.

Europeana, by Patrik Ourednik
Twentieth-century events, intriguingly reordered and recontextualized into something that more closely resembles experimental fiction than a history book. No characters as such: Ourednik instead works mostly with collective masses such as 'scientists' or 'soldiers' (although a few representative individuals shimmer through occasionally). Fascists and communists factor in as the big baddies, with capitalists and neoliberals getting more of a free pass than I'd be inclined to give. But then again I'm not Czech.

Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Davis
Slim, readable critique of the prison-industrial complex. Points out ample racism and sexism, although, oddly, the titular question of "obsolescence" is mostly left unaddressed. Useful as an introduction to the prison abolition movement, although newcomers to the topic may want more convincing that punishment and/or reformation would function better in a post-prison world.

I've completed four other books this month; expect some notes on those soon. And the list of all the ones I've read this year lives here, as always.

Monday, May 8, 2006

recent reading: may

Couldn't sleep, so I got up and wrote capsule reviews.

Kathy Acker's Great Expectations

In this novel Acker aims her critique at the gnarly intersection of capitalism, violence, sexual dysfunction, and male dominance. In order to live out this critique, Acker jettisons most of the (male-dominated) traditions of narrative as she writes, systematically disrupting the stability of characters and setting, and rejecting the claim to authorial originality (as you might guess from the title). Some might say that this rejection is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I'm more inclined to say it's form following function. Exemplary.

Johanna Drucker's The Visible Word : Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923

This dense book by the brilliant Johanna Drucker focuses primarily on four practicioners of experimental typography: Tristan Tzara, Ilia Zdanevich, Filippo Marinetti, and Guillaume Apollinaire (with Mallarme visible in the background). It's not merely a general overview of these four poet-typographers, however: it's a sustained book-length argument about the nature of signification and textual materiality. This increases the intellectual value of the book but also makes it less welcoming to a non-academic audience, despite the one-chapter recap of the history of semiotic theory that's crammed in there. Essential for visual poets who want to better understand the historical and conceptual underpinnings of what they're doing, less useful for graphic designers or casual browsers.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

povel, by geraldine kim

I'm pretty sure the claim that Geraldine Kim's book Povel represents a new form that successfully merges confessional verse poetry and the novel should be taken as tongue-in-cheek, appearing, as it does, in an introduction that claims to be written by Lyn Hejinian and claims to have originally been published in An Exaltation of Forms CXXXVIII, only to turn around to tell us, in a footnote at the very end, that "Lyn Hejinian never wrote this and An Exaltation of Forms CXXXVIII is not an existing text."

This fake introduction, with its sense of pomo gamesmanship and its willingness to cleverly tweak elements of "the book as form" (the author photo, bio, and epigraph are all played for gag effect, too) initially seems to place the book in a tradition staked out by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and later parlayed into a literary career by Dave Eggers, particularly in McSweeney's and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But perhaps Povel's claim to hybridity is not all red herring, as the book does ring akin to Lyn Hejinian's My Life, at least in the way that it makes a sort of biographical narrative by aggregating a set of tenuously-related details.

The main difference is that Kim renounces just about all claim to "poetic"-sounding language. A Hejinian line might say something like "The waves rolled over our stomachs, like spring rain over an orchard slope," a sentence that might contain the somewhat ungainly noun "stomachs" but which also is built around a "nature-y" simile that should sit pretty comfortably with readers of traditional lyric poetry. Contrast this against Kim's "Sarcastic Starbucks Guy runs like a frantic penguin to get tea for the lady in front of me." Still based on a nature-themed simile, but the difference feels pretty stark, even if what exactly distinguishes it is hard to articulate. Is it just the presence of the corporation name? Is it the fact that this image feels, to me, familiar, whereas the "orchard rain" image feels, frankly, exotic?

Whatever the reason, Hejinian's book feels like a poem, whereas Kim's book feels not exactly like a poem or like a novel but a bit like reading straight through the archives of a breezy, funny blog. "It would suck to be a unicorn" (p. 40). "A woman walks in front of me as we climb the stairs and I notice that her ass resembles a pair of tympanis" (p. 86). The whole book is like this, ten thousand bits of random observation, accumulating in various ways, some of which take on some of the features of narrative (the book does have, for instance, characters, some of whom have back-stories, although how much "character development" is happening here is questionable).

The fact that the book piles on these observations and leaves them in free suspension qualifies it as an "Everything Device," although one that's fragmented and trivia-focused in comparison, to, say, Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs. One could almost think of Kim as the anti-Spahr: where Spahr's book keeps focusing consciousness outward, broadening it, attempting to see each detail as part of the Big Big Picture, Kim's book seems more focused inward, the sheer massive weight of detail-to-be-collected cramming out any sense of wider connectedness as it overtaxes the very consciousness responsible for collecting it: "Trying to constantly remind myself to write it down before my short-term memory takes it away." I'm not saying that Spahr's book is better—in fact, if you asked me which one works as a better representation of everyday consciousness, I'd say that while we all might wish we had minds like Juliana Spahr's—concentrated on making sense of world atrocity and issues of personal agency—I, for one, feel the shock of recognition much more when confronted with the mind of Geraldine Kim, fixated on TV shows, celebrity trivia, momentary impulses, vaguely narcissitic anxieties, and things said to me by an ex, years ago. This may or may not be lamentable.

Monday, April 3, 2006

this connection of everyone with lungs, by juliana spahr

OK, so for a while now I've been wanting to talk about Juliana Spahr's new book, This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, as an example of what I've been calling an "Everything Device," a structure, framework, or system which positions disparate information into a meaningful relationship.

We can get a sense that the book is going to do this from its title alone, a phrase drawn from the opening poem: "Poem Written After September 11, 2001." This poem's central task is to articulate the model of radical interconnectedness upon which the rest of the book depends. Over its eight pages it performs this task through what essentially amounts to a slow zoom-out, from the microscopic level ("cells, the movement of cells and the division of cells") all the way out to global scope ("the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands"). To call oneself a "global citizen" is slightly pollyanna-ish, but this poem still functions as a lovely vision: the way it is made elegiac by its positioning as a "post-9/11" poem feels slightly predictable, but that makes the elegy no less real. One of the more "important" poems in recent memory (let's set aside, for now, the question of whether poetry should aspire to importance).

More interesting and important still is the book's remainder, a single long poem (broken into discrete chunks), entitled "Poem Written From November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003." (The first bit of it lives over at Shampoo, you can go check it out if you're so inclined.) I think this poem is more interesting because it's doing the thornier work of dealing with the consequences of the first poem: if "everyone with lungs" is connected in a "lovely [and] doomed" global matrix, then what does this mean? If we can successfully expand our consciousness to the point where it encompasses the whole earth as a system, then what does it mean when part of that system (including but not limited to "our part") is attempting to kill another part of that system (including but not limited to "their part")? Is it possible to love humanity all-encompassingly when some of the humans that we're connected to behave so, well, shittily? Is a person killed in the Burij refugee camps important? What about someone killed in the Monoko-Zohi civil war? What about Justin Timberlake? How important is the weather? If you can make your own bed a place of "connected loving" and "pleasure" and "agency," what relevance does this have to the rest of the world, if any? How can you consider these questions seriously in a world at war without going insane or succumbing to crippling grief?

I don't think that the book answers these questions, but I think they're the right ones to be asking, and any book that represents a sustained attempt to address them (lyrically no less!) gets my recommendation.

PS: When I first wrote about Spahr's project I said that the high lyrical voice and the sometimes "newsy" details made it seem like "Walt Whitman doing NPR's Morning Edition," and it still seems possible to say that Spahr's project is to represent the newspaper in the form of a poem. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, and it has its own storied tradition: the avant-garde has been attempting to beat the newspaper as a model for radically discontinuous juxtaposition at least since Mallarme.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

war in the age of intelligent machines, by manuel delanda

Manuel DeLanda's preeminent virtue as a scholar is the way in which he applies the ideas of complexity theory (emergence, feedback, etc.) to the historical record, and War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991) follows this template, looking at moments where technological developments (the conoidal bullet, wireless technology) spur military systems to evolve (a process which, in turn, triggers other armies to evolve in response).

If you accept this premise (fail to at your peril), it naturally suggests that the militaries of today will one day evolve even further. So in addition to sketching out historical instances of this sort of thing, DeLanda spends a lot of time drawing attention to contemporary developments in technology or military theory that might be putting us on the road to future phase shifts that might spell Bad News for soldiers and civilians alike. Artificial intelligence, RAND-style war game simulators, and predatory machines (of the sort outlined in DARPA's "Strategic Computing Initiative") all come in for an extended critique, although DeLanda seems more optimistic about technological systems that don't take human beings "out of the loop" (the book ends with an appreciation of humanist interface designer Doug Engelbart).

All in all, this book is pretty essential reading for anyone interested in the "machine" part of the war machine, although it could definitely benefit from a little revision and expansion: some of the Cold War anxiety undergirding the book has lost some of its edge in the intervening years, and I could stand to lose some of it in favor of having DeLanda as a guide through past two wars (although War was published in 1991, Desert Storm hardly ranks a mention, a little odd, given the use of Israeli-built Pioneer UAVs in that conflict).