As Zunshine summarizes at the end of WHY WE READ FICTION, we read fiction because “fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and...moreAs Zunshine summarizes at the end of WHY WE READ FICTION, we read fiction because “fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and perceptions; it bestows ‘new knowledge or increased understanding’ and gives ‘the chance for a sharpened ethical sense’; and it creates new forms of meaning for our everyday existence” (164). And while the book explores this theory in depth, it never broadens the argument beyond this simple idea.
Readers without a very specific bookshelf may feel left out for much of the book. Zunshine harps on examples for her theory, ranging from Richardson’s Clarissa, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Woolf’s Mrs. Dallowy, and Nabokov’s Lolita to such extent that unfamiliarity with these texts can distance a reader. Hence, a lot of skimming. But on the bright side, as stated above, Zunshine never broadens her argument beyond a couple key points (Theory of Mind and metarepresentational capacity), so if a reader can grasp even a single example from Zunshine’s referent texts, then chances are he can fake the rest.
WHY WE READ FICTION is definite must for literary theory nerds (such as myself), a probable read for psychology buffs, and an easy pass for all others.(less)
Suffed with images, both grotesque and tender, that will stay with me for life. And threaded by a smoothness of language rarely read, perhaps even mor...moreSuffed with images, both grotesque and tender, that will stay with me for life. And threaded by a smoothness of language rarely read, perhaps even more so than his 10-years-post follow up novel THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.(less)
THE ART INSTINCT applies the ideas of evolutionary psychology to the arts. This is required reading for anyone who considers himself an artist. And fo...moreTHE ART INSTINCT applies the ideas of evolutionary psychology to the arts. This is required reading for anyone who considers himself an artist. And for the fiction writers out there, look forward to an entire chapter called THE USES OF FICTION, which contains some profound ideas regarding the human need for narrative.(less)
It is always the simplest premises that make for the most engaging fiction. With CITY OF THIEVES, the story could not get simpler: in war torn Russia,...moreIt is always the simplest premises that make for the most engaging fiction. With CITY OF THIEVES, the story could not get simpler: in war torn Russia, two boys set out to find a dozen eggs at the demand of a Russian colonel. And Benioff, as if his eloquent command of language and pacing wasn’t enough, even manages to leverage one of the boy’s inability to shit as a point of tension. Quite possibly a perfect novel.
Anyone familiar with Benioff’s collection, WHEN THE NINES ROLL OVER, will recognize CITY OF THIEVES as a possible extension of the collection’s standout story, “The Devil Comes to Orekhovo,” which still stands as one of the best short stories of recent years.(less)
Unfortunately, Bookmark Now fails to deliver what its jacket copy promises. We’re told that this collection of essays will provide reflection on the m...moreUnfortunately, Bookmark Now fails to deliver what its jacket copy promises. We’re told that this collection of essays will provide reflection on the much touted probability of the book as a doomed medium, and reading as a doomed vehicle. What we get is a series of, too often self-congratulating, essays on writers and their personal coming-to of writing as a passion and/or career. There’s not much introspection or exploration to be found.
There is, however, some amount of hope. For those fearful of the book’s death, some essays, and especially the collection’s introduction, do serve to promote optimism in an increasingly TV/video game/interactive culture. It would have just been nice to have more of these moments that actually followed up on the promise of the collection’s subtitle: Writing in Unreaderly Times.(less)
By use of contemporary pop references (The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, the short-lived sitcom, Thanks, among others), The Wordy Shipmates makes American...moreBy use of contemporary pop references (The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, the short-lived sitcom, Thanks, among others), The Wordy Shipmates makes American history relatable. But more importantly, it delves into the oft glossed-over origins of many American traditions (Thanksgiving for example) in order to give readers a better understanding of what has so sadly been misunderstood (purposefully?) for so long.
Vowell’s book would have benefited from a stricter linearity. We jump all over time, and with so many dates to remember, this gets confusing. But even considering that minor fault, The Wordy Shipmates satisfies the armchair historian. It is worth reading just for the Anne Hutchison exploration. I had no idea she had such an impact (I’d be lying if I said I even knew who she was before reading this book).(less)
This being my first Jim Thompson novel, I expected brilliance. I had heard from many readers whose opinions I highly respect, that Thompson novels wer...moreThis being my first Jim Thompson novel, I expected brilliance. I had heard from many readers whose opinions I highly respect, that Thompson novels were apexes of noir literature. Maybe. But The Grifters certainly isn't. It has the tasty cheesiness of a mid-century crime noir, but lacks any characterization that make a story compelling.
I closed the novel recalling this about the plot: criminal meets woman. Criminal’s mother doesn’t like woman. One woman kills the other. Queue twist, and scene. This isn’t something worth praising.
I’ll definitely try another Thompson novel, as I respect close friends who adore his work, but the next one had better be great.(less)
(This review originally appeared at OutsiderWriters [dot:] org)
Kevin Rabas’s second poetry collection, Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano, explores the effe...more(This review originally appeared at OutsiderWriters [dot:] org)
Kevin Rabas’s second poetry collection, Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano, explores the effects of a life structured by music, woven amid a series of failed, yet forever impacting relationships. From learning (”Jack McCann’s Own Hometown Marching Band”) to playing (”Playing for Dave”) to understanding its power (the title poem, “Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano”), music is the backdrop, the blood, and the fuel to this series of beautifully taut relationships.
The collection relies on this powerful tension amid intimacy to justify the apparent cruelness expressed by many of the characters. These vignettes in verse, tiny slices of relationships, reliably build to arresting final images. “Spare Change” caps a brief encounter between a suited man and a homeless woman with the man’s unknowing theft of her change. “Bend Credit Cards” describes the destruction of a failed couple’s final charge card, shared hatred abundant, ending on a note of promise. And perhaps the most stunning poem, likely by means of its content contrasted against the rest of the poems, “To Eat Just Once: Remembering a Ranger Lecture at Yellowstone National Park,” addresses the visceral inevitability of a hunter and prey relationship. However, even given the cruel setup, the piece still manages the understood optimism promised by a Rabas poem.
In addition to the individual beauty of the poems, the collection utilizes a clever framing device to address the importance of a close reading. The opening poem, “Slow Words,” insists the reader slow down, enjoy the words, while the closing few pieces offer the reader a childlike experience involving sidewalk chalk and the rains that will wash those scribbles away (”On My Chalk,” “Economics of a Summer Rain”).
Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano works so well to not only promote Kevin Rabas as a beautiful poet but perhaps more importantly to promote the art of poetry. In addition to the framing mentioned above, Rabas reliably reminds the reader that not only these words, but all words, are worth digesting slowly:
There must be a reason we are given a view of our small part of the universe
from “After Stephen Hawking’s Address on Yahoo!”
My grandparents said that there was no more reason for church. Card games and yarns told their stories better than bible verses, and too many friends had already passed for them to enjoy the service.
The best Evenson work since The Wavering Knife. LAST DAYS is perhaps more accessible than his other work, which makes it all the more reason for those...moreThe best Evenson work since The Wavering Knife. LAST DAYS is perhaps more accessible than his other work, which makes it all the more reason for those unacquainted to jump on board now.(less)
(this review originally appeared at OutsiderWriters [dot:] org)
Simply titled, Stories, Scott McClanahan’s collection intentionally disregards enough s...more(this review originally appeared at OutsiderWriters [dot:] org)
Simply titled, Stories, Scott McClanahan’s collection intentionally disregards enough structural, grammatical, and formatting rules on the first page alone to challenge most readers’ dedication. The collection not only discounts the understood importance of a descriptive title, but also adopts irregular paragraph formatting, a few misspellings, and a lack of page numbers or table of contents. But in a respectable adherence to the story form, Stories is just that in the best sense of the word: stories.
Taking its lack of compromise from the world of personal journals and oral folklore, Stories places a hyper-focus on the fundamental delivery and purpose of a story, exchanging linguistic flair for simple, campfire-styled narrative, and swapping convoluted plot for a poetic sense of ultimate justification. Sentiment and emotion are conveyed beautifully by way of just enough style guidelines to keep the pages from drifting away entirely into the oral traditions from which this collection takes its influence.
The collection enlists a narrator, often soft-spoken, always riding a fine line between innocent child and weathered old man in that he speaks in alternating beats of onomatopoeic EEEEEKKKKs and buzzzzs and good ol’ boy simplicity (“…wearing this ratty ol gray coat that he always wore” pg 31*). Yet this delivery always produces a ending of well stitched optimism. “ODB, The Mud Puppy, and Me,” for example, depicts a roadway encounter with a deer that builds to a slapstick, yet endearing struggle to put the animal out of its misery, culminating in the question “…is this what you called kindness…” (pg 22*).
This simple narration builds from one story to another, allowing each subsequent story to be approached with an implied history, similar to bound journal. “The Phone Girl” works because “Possums” works because “The Prettiest Girl in Texas” works and so on.
It takes a brave author to willingly risk a dull-witted perception for the sake of conscientious style. As McClanahan has said in a recent interview with OrangeAlert, “the worst thing a storyteller can do is start thinking like an intellectual.” But the best thing a storyteller can do is to allow his intellect to organically permeate his words, which is just what Stories accomplishes.
* remember, this collection doesn’t have page numbers. You’ll have to count (as I did) to find these quotes(less)
(this review originally appeared at WelcomeToTheVelvet [dot:] com)
Enticed by the hook of a true crime story involving Hans Reiser’s marital crimes and...more(this review originally appeared at WelcomeToTheVelvet [dot:] com)
Enticed by the hook of a true crime story involving Hans Reiser’s marital crimes and eight unrelated murders, The Adderall Diaries author Stephen Elliott instead discovers a vehicle by which to organize and understand his own disjointed life. “Hans waits in his cell, thinking through his defense like a puzzle,” Elliott says late in the book, ”which once solved will set him free. I’m thinking through my own” (pg 145).
What makes this process of discovery especially engaging is the apparent futility of Elliott’s journey. Just as Reiser’s guilt permeates even the opening pages of the book (one of the first mentions of Hans regards his apparent knowledge of the aforementioned eight unrelated murders), Elliott’s uphill plight is evident immediately. But we keep reading, partly because Elliott’s tortured life invites the morbid voyeur in all of us, but mostly for something else: despite his downward spiral, the reader understands and empathizes with the author’s passion for life. Elliott may admit that he does not immediately grasp the purpose of his writing. . .
For a moment I thought I knew the narrative. But I don’t. I never do. I’ve had too many false starts. I can see it in my own writing, this book functioning as an external memory I go over every day (pg 102).
. . . but the reader is convinced, even if Elliott seems not to be, that more than a simple diary, The Adderall Diaries stands as a goldmine of anecdotal been-there, done-thats implying tangential hope.
In many ways this memoir celebrates the form with overt adherence to so many of its conventions (unimportance of narrative arc, constant self-reflection, addressing the reader as though they share a psychiatrist’s office), but never are we forced to be a part of senseless self-loathing and overt sensationalism. This latter observation is made apparent by the many asides that are discarded so easily. Elliott opts not to dwell on the unnecessary, despite any inherent intrigue. For example, a single line on page 27 both introduces and dismisses Elliott’s time spent stealing Leonard DiCaprio’s fan mail for use as Christmas gifts. Similarly, only a quick paragraph mentions a time he slept at a truck driver’s spare bedroom where “a wooden cross with eyebolts and leather shackles [were:] drilled into the wall” (pg 88). Of course we want to know more about these events, but Elliott knows they are only worth a quick mention as it relates to The Adderall Diaries proper. One must respect him for this.
The disjointed, vignette-heavy style reflects the chaos of the author’s life, proving Elliott’s understanding of the novel-length form. Already known for his previous novels (including Happy Baby and What It Means to Love You), various editorial work (most recently as founder of TheRumpus.net) and writing in Esquire, The New York Times, and GQ, The Adderall Diaries adds a strong sense of credibility to a man’s work that has often dwelled in society’s marginal and misunderstood underground.
(Note: this review quotes from an Uncorrected Proof version of The Adderall Diaries)(less)
David Hollis, “outsider,” “consummate anti-hero” (130), and “intellectual machine” (102) explains away life with the humor and wit of a convoluted Den...moreDavid Hollis, “outsider,” “consummate anti-hero” (130), and “intellectual machine” (102) explains away life with the humor and wit of a convoluted Dennis Miller monologue, the dirty savant barfly philosophy of Tom Waits, and the Hollywood literateur persona of Bret Easton Ellis. Love him (most do) or hate him (most will eventually), Hollis is an arresting personality, beautifully explored and displayed in C.M Barons’s novel, In The Midst Of.
Odds are that a reader’s first introduction to In The Midst Of will unfortunately not be a positive one. Published through a vanity press, having a vague, clichéd title, and given a poorly designed circa 1992 website presence, C.M Barons’s debut novel has much stacked against it. But I assure you, In The Midst Of is near perfect.
From sentence one (“My neighbor was taken away in an ambulance”), Barons displays an impressive confidence with his writing. Hollis, being such an intelligent character, demands smooth writing and an equally intelligent author to both fully develop his persona as well as put him within a context of comparatively simple characters. Barons delivers both, broad intellect with the vocabulary to support it.
Story wise, In The Midst Of is a straightforward college life story revolving around Brian, a forgettable Nick Carraway to Hollis’s Jay Gatsby. In much the same way that the Great Gatsby presents its narrator as a tool for showcasing another, more interesting character, In The Midst Of is all about Hollis. So why tell the story through Brian? As Cindy, Brian’s girlfriend describes Hollis, one can image a Hollis story being textbook dense with occasional moments of empathy:
You know, you can’t stand the idea of being human. You’re Hollis the intellectual machine. You don’t enjoy books; you read literature. You aren’t into music; you collect blues albums. You can’t lower your guard for a second. You resent life. You pick it apart with philosophy and politics. Do you know why they call modern art, abstract?...because, it doesn’t look like anything. (102)
And this overbearing intelligence marks one of the few faults with In The Midst Of. Every ten pages or so Hollis embraces encyclopedic tangents for seemingly no other reason than to announce his intelligence, creating what the reader can only assume is a vehicle to reveal the author’s own intelligence. While interesting as standalone explorations, these digressions do not serve the central story.
Hollis, “he’s an outsider, because he’s doing what everybody wishes they could. He’s got no causes; not out to overthrow anything. He’s the consummate anti-hero. He has this thing about irony. That’s his advantage; he never gets so close he gets taken in by what he’s looking at” (130). And this is exactly what makes In The Midst Of work; Hollis is who we want to be, whether we knew it before reading, or whether we care to admit it afterwards.(less)