Monday, December 10, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

With classes being over (they ended, for me, on Thursday), I've been able to take some time to catch up on this year's reading log. That said, here are some new capsule reviews for stuff I read this fall...

Alma, or The Dead Women by Alice Notley
This book is many things simultaneously: a collection of experimental poems utilizing different female personae; a cry of abject despair regarding US foreign policy; a set of incantations, curses, and other witchery; a call for the creation of a new species, defecting from the old. The fact that none of these things are particularly popular make it all the more impressive that this book ever made it to press. Enjoyable in small doses, sobering at its full length (at 344 pages it dwarfs most other volumes of contemporary poetry on my shelf).

Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie by Eric Lichtenfeld
A good overview of the action film as a genre, although I wish the book's theoretical basis was a bit more rigorous. It is best at positioning the films historically (it includes even minor details about their promotion and reception) and is weaker when it does ideological or formal analysis. The promise of an argument about "violence and spectacle" is only nominally fulfilled. Scavengings here.

You Just Don't Understand!: Women and Men In Conversation by Deborah Tannen
A careful analysis of the way gender differences manifest in conversation that scrupulously avoids taking a side in the "nature / nurture" debate. The book has no shortage of hard sociological data at its root, but most of the chapters are "humanized" with the inclusion of a lot of (sometimes repetitive) anecdotal data. This makes it slow reading at times, but the insights here remain sound: making this the rare example of a book that will genuinely help almost any adult who might take it to heart. Scavengings here.

Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte
A masterpiece of beautiful design, but content-wise this book feels a bit like a "Tufte's Greatest Hits" collection. The Powerpoint-hatin' and the appreciation of Minard's "Napoleon marches on Moscow" graphic, for instance, will seem familiar to readers of Tufte's other books. (That's not to say that there isn't a pleasant sort of comfort to encountering them again here.) Of the chapters that felt really fresh, the one on "sparklines" is key: it's the one that best showcases Tufte's endless willingness to fruitfully rethink the ways that we visualize data. Scavengings here.

Movies As Politics, by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Book-length volume of Rosenbaum's film criticism, collected from around the 1994-1996 era. I admire Rosenbaum as a critic, but I'm not entirely sure these short pieces, taken together, quite add up to a book. Arguments recur, yes, but in a way that betrays their piecemeal origins rather than working cumulatively. Scavengings here.

Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons 1978-2006, by Roz Chast
Roz Chast's cartooning work in recent years has been so content to mine the vein of child/parent relationships that it's easy to forget the pleasures of her early work, which is much more interested in the intersection between the odd and the quotidian. This is a great collection, although the first third (for my money) is vastly better than the final third.

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures The Life of The Mind, by Gerald Graff
A book-length argument for some relatively commonsense principles: students learn better when they understand a context for what they're learning; instructors have a duty to try to bridge the gap between academic language and the vernacular; student papers are better when they have a sense that they're arguing *against* someone rather than into a vacuum. Valid points, certainly: but as someone mostly convinced of these points on my way in, I found the rhetorical exertion on display here to be essentially skimmable. Scavengings here.

As usual, the full list of everything I've read this year lives here, and LibraryThing powers a RSS feed of my reviews here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

accelerando, by charles stross

Back in August, I wrote that Charles Stross' Accelerando might be the best science fiction novel of the last ten years. After a few months to think about it, I stand by that, and I wanted to try to follow up on the claim a bit here.

First off, it touches on just about every hot geek topic from the last decade or two: bandwidth politics, data havens, distributed computing, AI pets, entertainment law, viral marketing, the reputation economy, fringe-science ideas from people like Moravec and Tipler... the list goes on. One of Strosser's great talents is that he can not only cram all these ideas into a single book, but also find the ways in which they can be rewardingly combined, the ways they might shoot sparks if struck together: as a result, the future of Accelerando seems like an actual future, the generated result of ideas that have been lived with for a while, and fruitfully combined, recombined, mashed-up, road-tested, exploited, etcetera. It's a future that's imagined richly enough to be pretty disorienting for the reader—the more familiar you are with those zeitgeisty topics listed above the easier a time you'll have.

It'll also help if you've got a passing familiarity with the basic tropes of SF—stuff like interplanetary colonization, "first contact," "the singularity," virtual worlds, consciousness-as-digital-simulacra, etc. Cause most of that stuff's here, too. Still erring on the side of maximalist density, Stross chooses to shoehorn not one but all of these different tropes into his book, again with an eye for the ways they might cross-pollinate interestingly. In other words, this is a book intended to disorient people who find normal SF novels to be not provocative or defamiliarizing enough (no small feat, considering that SF is a genre that has a certain degree of disorientation and frustration built into it as a fundamental requirement). It's also a generational epic and a comic romp—it's brisk and flat-out entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

I've updated this year's reading log with some new reviews, posted below for your reading convenience:

Easy Travel to Other Planets, by Ted Mooney
There's a lot to like about the way this novel chronicles the interpersonal drama among a group of intellectuals and artists. The conversations are stylish, fragmentary, and mediated; the prose is compressed, with a cinematic sense of editing; a quasifuturistic theme (interspecies communication) provides ample opportunity for strange riffs; an atmosphere of geopolitical tension permeates obscurely at all times, threatening, at any moment, to condense into apocalypse—at its best, it recalls the energy and thrust of early DeLillo. At its worst, it reads like high-end erotica posing as lit: Mooney's attention to the sexuality of his [female] protagonist lurches towards the prurient at times (in the first thirty pages of the novel, she participates in three sex scenes, including one with a dolphin).

Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art by Jennifer New
Book dedicated to showcasing intricate art journals, mostly hand-drawn. The journals themselves are so self-evidently fascinating that it's hard to say why presenting them in this fashion doesn't quite work. The choice to reduce intricate journal-pages down to postcard size, rendering them mostly unreadable, certainly doesn't help; I think there's also a problem with the sheer number of journals represented here, which helps to give a sense of scope and variety but eliminates the ability to really immerse yourself in any particular journal. The framing essays profiling each journal-maker are worth a read, but ultimately they're not nearly as interesting as the journals themselves: it's just one more degree of remove between the reader and the subjectivity that's alive in the journal-pages. There's so much "frame" here that the art itself is choked out.

Only Words, by Catharine MacKinnon
MacKinnon is an anti-pornography feminist, which can cause people on both ends of the political spectrum to reject her ideas without taking the time to engage with them first. This is a shame, because MacKinnon's argument here is one of the most interesting anti-pornography arguments I've read, avoiding the easy use of anecdotal pathos, in favor of a legal argument, suggesting that pornography's status as "protected expression" is a classification error, and that it belongs more properly in the category of speech acts that are treated legally as actions rather than ideas (hate speech; sexual harrassment). Elegant and deft.

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
Final volume in the His Dark Materials trilogy, a children's fantasy trilogy built around the (Gnostic) notion of a War Against God. The fact that such a thing ever achieved a moderate success on the shelves of American booksellers strikes me as so profoundly improbable that Pullman earns points just for pulling it off; that goes double when you also consider that this book also features two heroically pair-bonded male angels and features a young girl's sexual awakening as a major plot point. But to focus on the anti-Narnian qualities on display here is to overlook the sheer strength of Pullman's prose and storytelling craft. In this volume, these strengths are most evident in Pullman's sequences of genuine terror (the passage into the Land of the Dead) and heart-rending tragedy (the parting of lovers). Heavy stuff, but Pullman is right to not flinch from confronting children with emotionally weighty material: it dignifies them as fully human.

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Post-apocalyptic minimalism from master prosesmith Cormac McCarthy. This book could fruitfully be partnered with Jose Saramago's Blindness: both stare unflinchingly into extremes of human ugliness in an attempt to unsentimentally illuminate the fragility and sheer miracle nature of human love. In Blindness the love is between a man and a woman; here it is between a father and son, a framework that allows the book also to also rewardingly explore some of the thornier questions of parental ethics—when is it appropriate to lie to a child, for instance? What forms of protection are valid and appropriate? The book disappointingly pulls a few punches in its final pages, but prior to that it was one of the most rewarding novels I've read this year. Recommended.

Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul
If I were to pick a book that this one most reminded me of, it would be Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: you could practically entitle this Understanding Video Games and be none the worse for wear. Like McCloud, Juul comes to his chosen branch of the media tree with a fresh eye, determined to coherently examine its component elements in order to build a new conception of the way they work their effects. For Juul, the key elements are narrative and rule-based play, and the unique experience of video games grows out of cooperation (as well as tensions and slippages) between these forces. Fascinating reading, clear and lucid, an essential work for anyone interested in the academic study of video games or cross-platform narrative. Highly recommended.

(Those of you who are interested in that last one might want to take note that all my "scavengings" from the book (85 in total) can be found here.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

away notice

Leaving tomorrow for a few days in the Great Northeast; if any readers of this blog happen to be in the greater Boston area and have a free lunch hour tomorrow or Friday, let me know and we'll hang. Otherwise I'm going to the Coop to blow some money.

Because of my trip, film club for the week is canceled, and I probably won't really be upping the blog posting pace, but I will leave you with one observation and one question:

The observation: Charles Stross' Accelerando is possibly the best science fiction novel of the last, oh, let's say ten years or so. I am stone-faced serious when I say this, although to get some idea of why, you might want to read some of what I was saying about science fiction last year around this time

And the question: does anyone know of a good way to defamiliarize prepositions? E-mail me at "projects," at imaginary year (all one word) dot com.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

Here are some reviews of stuff I read back in April. I didn't get a chance to review them then, because back then I was posting reviews of stuff I read in March. Oh well.

The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography: Volume 1 by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson
Ten Language poets take turns writing reflections on their origins. This volume (the first in a proposed ten) covers 1975-1980 and is loosely organized around a theme of "love." The unusual collective authorship scheme here is overtly designed to evoke multiplicity and ultimately create a "community of memory," although a less kind read might be to point out that it also serves to build the Language Poetry "brand," perhaps as part of a bid for long-term canonization. After all, the very point of writing autobiography (on one level) is to self-aggrandize, and although the Language thinkers, with their grounding in theory and radical politics, are more likely than most to critique this implulse, they don't manage here to transcend this aspect of the genre. All the same, the group assembled here is basically an all-star list of important poets writing today, and it's fascinating reading for anyone interested in putting their poetic work in context.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Strange, episodic story cycle of life in a gloomy Eastern European city (Drogobych), which is overstuffed with decaying marvels, cryptic artifacts, and just plain trash. (Same goes for the protagonist's home, which seems both cramped and weirdly infinite.) The book is populated by colorful / quirky / mad characters, most centrally the protagonist's father, who obsesses first over raising exotic birds and then later, over developing a quasi-Gnostic theory about tailor's dummies as a form of imprisoned matter. Uniquely European high weirdness, likely to be enjoyed by fans of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Kafka's parables.

Among the Names by Maxine Chernoff
For this book, Chernoff gathered various texts pertaining to the concept of "giving" or "gifts," ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Gifts," to Marcel Mauss' The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, to's "The Question of the Ring." Thus gathered, she culls interesting phrases from them and jettisons the rest, effectively taking the discourse and exploding it into a book-sized cloud. This doesn't reduce it to nonsense, however—the theme of the gift persists—but by shattering the originals she decontextualizes the fragments, transforming them into curious artifacts, rewarding of close examination. The result of arranging these artifacts is not to make an argument about giving, exactly, but to do something more valuable: to try to illustrate (albeit obliquely) the entire sphere of human thinking that surrounds the concept. Fascinating, occasionally moving. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

the inevitable harry potter posts: III

Finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows a while ago, but only now found the time to write it up. Essentially spoiler-free, but in the comments area, anything goes:

Here, in the series' final book, is where Rowling strives most evidently for long-term grandiosity, from the Pullman-esque epigraphs, to the honest-to-God old-school Fantasy Quest, to the (disappointing) abandonment of "school" as the primary framing device. She also takes this as an opportunity to effectively trash the franchise, attempting with unrestrained relish to definitively retire most of the major characters (in one fashion or another). Some of the sacrifices thusly endured would feel (more?) capricious if it weren't for Rowling's selection of Life Under Enemy Occupation as the replacement frame. As anyone glancingly familiar with the history of WW-II-era Europe can tell you, enemy occupation makes for harrowing circumstances, and it is these circumstances that the book, at its best, convincingly evokes: no place is safe, everyone is constantly at risk, ignoble death can strike seemingly at random. This is a dark place for the series to go, but it sets the stage for satisfying closure.

Over and over again during my read of the series, I thought about the act of world-building, and how it is distinct from or related to the more traditional acts of narrative construction. Expect a discussion on this point soon, using the Potter books (and possibly the Pirates of the Carribean series) as the prime exhibits.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

the inevitable harry potter posts: II

Three more Harry Potter reviews. I'm in the middle of reading the last one, which is appropriately harrowing; expect a non-spoilery review here soon.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The transitional book in the series. Rowling still feels indebted to the "boy wizard-detective solves mystery" structure of the earlier three books, but she's also clearly grown more interested in character development and the long-term narrative elements of the story world. This creates an interesting tension: between the desire, on the one hand, to write another self-contained book (like the first three) and the desire, on the other, to write a book that functions as an installment in an ongoing serial. The tension isn't fruitfully resolved: this book is the slowest to get rolling (it takes nearly 200 pages just to get to Hogwarts) and Rowling's heart doesn't seem to be entirely in the mystery: it's the one of the first four which has the least satisfying Big Reveal, which requires an entire chapter's worth of flavorless talk to fully clarify.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The first book in the series where Rowling assumes that the readers have read the previous books. Freed of the necessity to ponderously re-establish the backstory-- the flaw that weighed down Goblet of Fire --Rowling is freed up to hit the ground running: the turbulence begins to hit with the first chapter. As with the earlier books in the series, the book is centered around a mystery here, although unlike the earlier books, it doesn't truly belong the the genre of The Mystery as such--there is no real way to puzzle out the solution, for instance. But the series doesn't really need to rely on mystery structure any longer anyway: by this point the long-form plot has amassed enough potential energy that it can soar simply by exploiting the conflicts already set up in its first four installments. Which isn't to say that there aren't new ones as well, notably in the form of Dolores Umbridge, whose petty abuses of power, disdain for the autonomy of young people, and Kafkaesque punishment schemes make her all-too-familiar: possibly my favorite villain in the series. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Feels a bit like a book-length positioning of pieces for the big finale of Book Seven. Not that there's anything wrong with that: Rowling, at this point, has developed a very rich world, populated by literally dozens of characters who we care about, each with their own interesting plot arc. (This may form the basis of an entire later post.) Watching this network click forward in the standard increment (one year) is fascinating unto itself; the Voldemort backstory that forms the real backbone of this book is an added bonus.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

the inevitable harry potter posts: I

So I've been putting off reading the Harry Potter books for what feels like forever, despite the fact that this means that I'm at a real social disadvantage when hanging with my fanfic-writing pals. With the approach of the seventh final book, however, I realized that I'd have only a short amount of time to ever try to read them without knowing The Ending, so I decided to make ripping through the six existing novels my big July Reading Project.

As all of civilization knows, the final book went on sale last night at midnight, so it looks like I missed my deadline: I've finished the first four books and am about halfway through the fifth. Hopefully I'll get fully caught up before stumbling upon any spoilers, although I'm wondering if this is even possible without having to go on Full Media Blackout.

Anyway. What follows are reviews of the first three, free of all but the most mild spoilers:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
A good read. Chugs along surprisingly swiftly, drawn by the well-plotted and essentially rewarding mystery story that forms the book's core. The main characters (Harry, Hermione, Ron) are charming, albeit a bit sketchily-drawn in this early volume (and some of the bit characters, primarily the Durselys, are cast with a heavier hand than is perhaps necessary, even for childrens' literature). The book's real stroke of genius, however, is the utilization of the familiar triumphs and trials of Going To School as a way to ground us in the quirky tweeness of Rowling's universe. Perhaps a minor quibble after this praise is the matter of the prose, some of which is occasionally clunky or slack (I don't know what enchanted letters shooting out of a fireplace flue are like, but to say they "like bullets" is no help). I'd probably let this pass if I hadn't just read Phillip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, a piece of children's fantasy literature that uses prose so finely-wrought and precise that nearly anyone looks clunky and slack by comparison.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book in the series brings back some of the same pleasures of the first-- the likeable characters, the fast-paced narrative, the "boy detective" elements (clues, red herrings, a finely-crafted Big Reveal) --and also introduces a subtle new one, specifically, a sense of repetition and variation that emerges from Rowling's decision to plot the books around a school year. Many of the milestones from the first book (summer trouble at the Dursley's, a Diagon Alley outfitting trip, the Sorting Ceremony, the Quidditch season, Christmas break, etc) recur here, which adds to our comfort and familiarity, but changing perspective and changed circumstances keep the book from feeling repetitive. The interplay between these poles is essentially the interplay that lends pleasure to any sort of tradition, and it does similar work here, making this book a read that satisfies more deeply than the first-- even if the Dursley's still feel heavy-handed, and even if the climax still has a touch of the deus ex machina about it (tell me again why a sword comes out of the Sorting Hat?).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The best of the first three. At this point in the series, Rowling's confidence appears to surge dramatically, resulting in the book being more inventive than its predecessors, most notably through Rowling's decision to introduce creatures that are brand-new to the series universe (Dementors, boggins) instead of simply choosing to revamp of already-existing fantasy creatures (as she does with the pixies, goblins, dragons, centaurs, etc. of the earlier books). In addition, the mystery is more complex and satisfying (although the Big Reveal accordingly requires deployment of huge chunks of dialogue in the center of what's ostensibly a moment characterized by murderous desire). Finally, the book has a thrilling post-Reveal final act -- something absent from the earlier two books -- and a satisfying profusion of loose ends, which begin to give some sense to the shape of the larger seven-book arc. Recommended.

More to come in a while.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

fractal economies, by derek beaulieu

A quick litmus test for whether or not you should read derek beaulieu's fractal economies would be to look at the image below:

"sinus headache"

This is one poem from the book.

If you can accept this as a poem, you might enjoy this book.

If you can see it as an exciting poem, one that expands the field of what a poem can be and expands the toolkit of ways poetry can represent, then you might love this book. I did.

"sinus headache," above, is taken from "surface," a long sequence of Letraset experiments that comprises most of the first half of the book. The second half is made up of two other sequences, "depression" and "blister," in which beaulieu investigates other visual means of poetry-making: photocopier and scanner experiments, relief experiments (rubbings), found poems, diagrams, etc. These other sequences are slightly less interesting than "surface," although this might be a matter of personal taste—part of what I enjoyed about the dry transfer experiments, for instance, is their compositional intricacy, a quality that doesn't naturally inhere in, say, a photocopier experiment. Ultimately, I'd argue for the importance of these other sequences as well, for they contribute to the book's larger effect: broadening the field of possible techniques for contemporary visual poetry. (There are, by my count, four poems in the book that don't even use letterforms.)

As an extra bonus for the truly hard-core: the book closes with a theoretical essay by beaulieu, "an afterward after words: notes towards a concrete poetic." I'm still digesting the ideas in this essay, and may write more on it later.

Friday, May 4, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

A temporary break in the workload allowed me to get a chance to breathe yesterday, so I spent it making this collage and hanging out at LibraryThing reviewing books I read back in March. (April reviews coming soon, if all goes well, although I'm getting a new batch of papers today.)

Anyway, here they are:

Crypto Zoo, by Rick Veitch
Hearing other people describe their dreams is supposed to be famously boring, but Rick Veitch has developed quite the knack for it: his autobiographical dream-comics are enormously compelling. Even "inspirational" -- each time I read one of these Veitch volumes I'm driven to re-start my own intermittent practice of dream-journaling. Any book that can motivate me to write first thing upon awakening, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, must be powerful indeed.

Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative
Nearly fifty essays compiled by the creators of the online journal Narrativity. The book promises, in its back cover copy, to represent writers "from Tijuana to Montreal," and sure enough they're there: the overall thrust of the book, however, is Bay Area through and through, and readers' enjoyment of the book will likely vary proportionately to how much mileage they can get out of that particular scumbling-up of aesthetics and theory and personal experience and politics that the San Franciscan literary scene has been reliably producing for a generation now. I tend to enjoy that stuff, but this collection is a mixed bag, in part because of the length restriction: averaging only about five pages apiece (a remnant of their Web origins), many of the pieces are able to squeak out a provocative line of inquiry, but very few develop fruitfully beyond that. This leaves the book feeling like a kind of intellectual snack food: often tasty, but not particularly nourishing.

The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, by Martha Nochimson
Critical appreciation of Lynch's work, up to and including Lost Highway. Iconoclastic to the point where it almost qualifies as "zany," Nochimson's read on Lynch is that he is not only feminist but also radically empathetic: she claims his films are designed "to bring the greatest consolation to the greatest number of people." Along the way we get lots of stuff about surging energy, living vs. constructed form, and forces beyond rational control. Odd, but never boring—in fact, its weirdness makes it often totally engaging. Recommended.

Baby by Carla Harryman
Carla Harryman has described her work as being a series of "studies in sentences, paragraphs, and the relationship of narrative to non-narrative," studies which allow her "to consider the social meaning of form without having to forsake [her] impulse to make things up." If that's the kind of stuff you like, check this one out: it produces a set of quasi-characters (most prominently a baby and a tiger) and suspends them in a void which has narrative elements but manifests as something quite different from a story. Intriguingly strange.

The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula LeGuin
Eerie SF novel about a world whose continuity is repeatedly revised by a man's dreaming mind, an ability which, predictably, begins to be exploited the very second another person gains a sense of it. Fascinating premise, but the book's real strength is in the way it locates the emotional heart of the story, becoming (at its best) a moving meditation on memory and loss, on power and the renunciation of power. Recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2007

the other hollywood

Legs McNeil's The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry is a book with outsized ambitions: even after doing away with gay porn entirely, claiming, probably rightly, that it's "another book unto itself," there's still at least three major strands operating here: a biography-oriented approach, dealing with major players within the world of porn; a true-crime-ish approach focused on mob involvement, industry murders, high-profile busts, etc; and, finally, an overview of major developments within the industry as an industry (the famous rise of video, for instance).

Although these three strands often overlap, they're distinct enough that the book often struggles to manage the welter of material. (To get a grasp of the magnitude of the topic, remember that the life story of just one figure in this world, porn merchant Reuben Sturman, constitutes an entire third of Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness.) Consequently, the book manages the unenviable trick of both being nearly 600 pages long and feeling like it's barely scratching the surface.

I've never been much of a big reader of true crime, and so that facet of the book is the least interesting to me (although the life story of FBI agent Pat Livingston, and his identity confusion with his undercover alias Pat Salamone is weirdly gripping: another "book unto itself" lies there). In reality, it's the third strand—what seems to me to be the "true" history of the industry—that I was the most interested in, and at times the aversion to this material struck me as frustrating: why two chapters on a porn oddity like John Wayne Bobbit and not even a mention of industry-wide efforts to come into compliance with Section 2257? Why does the discussion of the star system that dominates porn today seem to end with Ginger Lynn? And for that matter, where's the Internet? (The book closes its history in 1998, with the discovery (and swift containment) of HIV in the post-testing industry, but it was published in 2005, so certainly Internet porn could have at least warranted a brief epilogue?)

Quibbling in this way is easy and perhaps a bit cheap: sure, this book isn't definitive, but I'm pretty certain that at this stage of the game it's next to impossible to write the definitive history in a single volume. And so if this ends up being a history—rather than the history—does it matter? What matters more is that the book is consistently fascinating (although the short-sighted lack of an index does make the task of keeping track of the hundreds of recurring figures who crop up somewhat more of a chore than it, strictly speaking, needed to be). So, ultimately, recommended, albeit with reservations.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

unit operations, part II

Just finished reading the second chapter of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, and found it shockingly similar to the first. The pile-up of important names continues: this chapter tackles Plato and Aristotle, linguist Ferdinand Saussure, deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, computer scientist John von Neumann, digital media theorists Lev Manovich and N. Katherine Hayles. And, like the previous chapter, this one ends up with a kind of strange left turn, this time analyzing the Department of Homeland Security's Homeland Security Advisory System, which "underscores the tension between unit operations and system operations."

I'm still really enjoying this book, although I'm still struggling to make sense of its thesis in even the most general sense.

Friday, March 23, 2007

unit operations, part I

I just finished reading the first chapter of Ian Bogost's Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, and I'm really enjoying it.

Bogost's approach hinges on the concept of the "unit operation," a "mode of meaning-making that [privileges] discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems," and the first twenty pages of the book pretty much constitute an attempt to clarify this distinction.

I'll confess that he isn't a hundred percent successful. At the end of my first pass through the chapter, I feel like I might have a tentative grip on what distinguishes a "unit operation"-based analysis from "systems operation"-based analysis, but I strongly doubt that I'd be able to do something like summarize the difference between the two. I can't entirely blame Bogost for this: "units" and "systems" are both high-level abstractions; we're not exactly talking about apples and oranges here.

Determined to make it clear, Bogost starts pulling in conceptual machinery from a variety of different disciplines: half the fun of the book so far is watching the interesting thinkers pile up on top of one another. By page twenty we've moved through quite the array: Heidegger, Spinoza, Leibniz, Alain Badiou, "object-oriented" philosopher Graham Harman, "autopoetic systems theorists" Francisco Valera and Humberto Maturana, sociologist Niklas Luhmann, mathematician Georg Cantor, digital media theorists Janet Murray and Espen Aarseth, and poet T. S. Eliot—all this en route to, of all things, a unit-operations-oriented analysis of Spielberg's film The Terminal (2004), in which Bogost concludes that the film is about "specific modes of uncorroborated waiting."

So, in conclusion, I'm not really sure yet exactly what Bogost is even talking about, and yet I've jammed the first chapter full of about a pound of bronze (in the form of Levenger Page Points). Being disoriented by brilliance is a good thing.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

reefer madness: sex, drugs, and cheap labor in the american black market, by eric schlosser

Three decent essays posing as a coherent book.

There's a broad unifying theme—the premise of examining "what happens in the black market." But the approach that Schlosser takes towards this content—what we could consider his methodology—varies widely from piece to piece, rendering the examination oddly diffuse, short on unifying vision.

Compounding the problem is the fact that each piece comprising the book seems drawn from a different genre: the "drugs" chapter is essentially a persuasive piece, a call for marijuana-law reform, and the goal of examining "what happens" in the drug market is mostly subordinated to the making of that argument. (This isn't to say that growers, dealers and buyers don't make their appearances—but Schlosser's more interested in focusing on the few penalized growers that will help him to make his case rather than trying to draw a larger, richer picture of the market as a whole.) By contrast, the "Sex" chapter is built around the model of the biographical profile, looking at the figure of pornography magnate Reuben Sturman (1924-1997). Sturman was a colorful guy, and Schlosser makes his tale engaging reading, but I'm not convinced that Sturman embodies the vicissitudes of the porn industry so perfectly that one can pass off Sturman's life story as an exploration of the market.

None of this is intended to knock the pieces themselves, which are clear, well-paced, and nicely detailed, essentially bedrock models of good journalism. But as a book it doesn't live up to the promise of its organizing principle.

This review will eventually be cross-posted to Raccoon Books.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

assorted capsule reviews

So here's the last bunch of book reviews I wrote.

Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
Paul Pope is one of the best comics creators at the moment, not only because he's a great visual artist and a sharp writer but also because he has a wild, unsummarizable theory about the way that comics work as an iconic language. His theory, wild though it may be, intersects nicely with the way that superheroes are currently being treated in our culture: less as characters (who would need to grow and change as their narrative unfolded) and more as unchanging archetypes, collections of iconified traits. Once a set of traits is indestructibly established (as with Batman) you can improvise off of it pretty freely, just like you'd do with a jazz standard. Pope understands all of this, and it's part of what makes his superhero riffs so great.

In this book, Pope plants Batman in the 2030s, which permits him to riff mightily, telling his tale with verve and style, but ultimately the stock elements of the State-controlled dystopian setting erode some of the freshness on display. It's still a blast to read, but ultimately it doesn't hit as hard as the best Batman stories out there, or as Pope's own unfinished masterpiece, THB.

Godland Volume 1: Hello, Cosmic! by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli
In this graphic novel, Casey and Scioli blow the dust off the vast cosmic machinery of 1960's-era Kirby-Lee collaborations, and reboot it for the contemporary present (by deploying it in a world that contains junkies, S/M, punk rock girls, and irony). It makes an ambitious attempt to be both parody and homage and a satisfying SF/adventure story in its own right—and if it occasionally falls short of getting this balance exactly right, it at least gets points for trying. Fun.

Groundhog Day, by Ryan Gilbey
Part of the BFI Modern Classics series, slim critical volumes, each on a single film. The critical elements in this one are dialed back a bit—it's more of a summary-plus-appreciation. A quick read, likeable, on an enjoyable film.

Deer Head Nation, by K. Silem Mohammad
A paranoid mind, restless in its search for pattern, can take just about anything that can be named with a noun and make an organzing narrative out of it. In this book of poems (which utterly transcends the "novelty" origins of the "flarf" genre), K. Silem Mohammad chooses deer as the thread that joins up the rest: at the beginning of the book, a deer head is merely "spooky," but by the end of the book, after being presented with a "suite" in which dozens, possibly hundreds of disembodied Internet voices have made their ellipitical proclamations on the search term "deer," the animal and its oft-displayed head both seem deeply braided into the book's other concerns (war, terror, America, human abjection). Paranoid? Sure. But these are paranoid times. Highly recommended; one of the best new books of poetry to emerge in the last ten years.

Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers by Henry Jenkins
Odds-and-sods collection from Jenkins, reprinting a smattering of essays, interviews and Congressional testimony [!] from the last dozen years. The divide between the more rigorous critical writing, and the more generalist Technology Review pieces renders this collection slightly uneven, but Jenkins is one of the preeminent thinkers on fandom and participatory culture, so even at its most fluffy, this book is always an interesting read.

The Mother's Mouth, by Dash Shaw
I seem to remember reading an online profile (or something) where Dash Shaw described his work in indie comics as exploring the effects of "putting one thing next to another." I've been unable to relocate the exact quote, but The Mother's Mouth is testament to this as an aesthetic. At its most straightforward it tells the (fragmentary, partial) story of an emerging romance between Virginia (a sunken-eyed, heavy-set librarian) and Dick (a gaunt musician). But this story is intercut with other kinds of visual material--from cutaways of geological formations to dance instructions to the drawings of children in therapy --which expand the context and deepen the narrative in intriguing and evocative ways. Recommended.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

some fresh book reviews

Book-review page for 2007 is up now, kicking off with these three reviews:

A Short Guide to Writing about Film by Timothy Corrigan
Slim, steeply-priced volume which deals tidily with the subject promised by the title. Clearly intended for a classroom environment, although general readers wanting more methods for thinking about film might be able to extract something from it as well. (My students are using this book this semester; we'll see how it goes.)

Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow
Encompassing a 1980 New Yorker article and a 1997 companion piece, Trow's book is an exercise in stylish despair. At its most basic level it functions as a critique of a media-based society, but this book is neither manifesto nor jeremiad--it's something altogether more sly. For every point made by an incisive aphorism there's another made only obliquely, by way of, say, a witty anecdote, or an evocative coinage. As a result the critique here is essentially slippery: it seems to explain everything, but by way of not actually explaining anything. Tricky. (Also oddly riddled with typos: you'd think Atlantic Monthly Press would be able to scrape up a few proofreaders.)

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick
PKD at his loopy best: starts out as a spirituality-based thriller (what if Christ were secretly reborn in a dystopian future?), but by the book's midpoint the entire universe has become queasy and unhinged as the novel's theological forces grapple and debate. Messier than Valis and with more "wtf?" moments, but a worthy follow-up nevertheless.

A few more coming soon(ish), and as always, anyone wanting a more real-time-ish feed of my reviews can find such a thing on this LibraryThing feed page.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

year in reading 2006

Happy New Year, everyone. And time for me to crunch the numbers on the reading log:

Total number of books I read last year: 42 (up 7 from 2005)

Novels / novellas: 9 (up four, counting David Markson's This Is Not A Novel and story cycles like David Mitchell's Ghostwritten or Bilge Karasu's Garden of the Departed Cats)

Collections of poetry: 6 (same as last year, counting Geraldine Kim's "poem-novel" Povel)

Collections of short stories: 6 (+5)

Graphic novels / comics anthologies: 5 (-4)

Books on science / technology: 2 (same as last year)

Books of literary criticism: 3 (+2)

Essays / memoir: 3 (+3)

Books on art / architecture / music: 2 (same as last year)

Assorted nonfiction: 7

Authors I read in 2005 who have written at least one book I read prior to 2005: 12 (Manuel DeLanda, Mike Davis, Steven Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Johanna Drucker, Steve McCaffery, Grant Morrison, Rick Moody, Joshua Clover, David Markson, Kathy Acker, Robert Coover)

Trends: whatever I was working through last year seems to have resolved / been repressed: last year I tackled eight heavy books on religion and mysticism, and this year I didn't read a single one. In exchange, this year marked a big return to fiction, with both novels and short story collections up.

Highlights?: Three books especially helped to define the scope of the writing project I'm currently working on: two collections of poems (Geraldine Kim's Povel and Juliana Spahr's This Connection Of Everyone With Lungs) and one experimental novel (Patrik Ourednik's Europeana). A lot of the other fiction I read was less immediately applicable to my own writing, but was impressive on its own merits: traditional novels like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and stranger fiction like Mark von Schlegell's Venusia, Kelly Link's Magic For Beginners, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, Kathy Acker's Great Expectations, and Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association. I also read two great essay collections: John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers and David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster (the latter indubitably being the single best book I read all year).