If I didn’t have some weird neurotic rule against short stories and novellas qualifying for space on my “thrill me chill me fulfill me” shelf, this bo...moreIf I didn’t have some weird neurotic rule against short stories and novellas qualifying for space on my “thrill me chill me fulfill me” shelf, this book would have totally gotten five stars from me. It really is that good.
Last week I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel and even though I was majorly disappointed, there was a blurb at the end about how the movie was based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, whom I had heard of but didn’t know a great deal about. Then someone (I forget who) told me that Wes Anderson is a fan of Zweig in general, and that many of his works have been influenced by him in some way—not just Grand Budapest.
So I read Chess Story, because...Amazon sale! And I thought it was great. It begins with an idiot savant named Czentovic who becomes a world chess champion despite his inability to maintain a grade school–level conversation with anyone. Czentovic is on a cruise ship to Brazil for reasons I don’t remember exactly but while he’s there he makes the acquaintance of a presumed “layman” who demonstrates surprising chess skill against him. Upon further inquiry by another passenger on the ship (who also happens to be the story’s narrator), the layman reveals his background, which is both fascinating and highly disturbing. This revelation sets the stage for a glorious mental breakdown that had me riveted which if I have to remind you again that this is a story about chess and how can that possibly be riveting, well that just speaks to the vibrancy of Zweig’s writing.
After having read Chess Story, I can’t say that I see any obvious connection to Wes Anderson’s characters, nor is any Wes Anderson plotline recognizable in it, but maybe such a connection can be found in other Zweig novels. HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW? But irrespective of this, Chess Story is a perfect little piece of literature.(less)
This Is Water is kind of like a modern version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. With the exception, of course, that This Is Water is n...moreThis Is Water is kind of like a modern version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. With the exception, of course, that This Is Water is not a collection of letters, does not discuss poetry or writing, and is not addressed to a single individual but to a college’s entire student body. Other than that, though, they’re pretty much the same thing.
What I mean is that there’s something very inspirational (for lack of a better word) in these texts whose words seem to have been composed on-the-fly, were not intended for publication, and are delivered to a person (or to a group of persons) in a manner that is simple and direct, essentially conversational, but which have the unintended consequence of breaking out beyond the scope of the limited audience for which they were intended. Others discover these “gems of life” (ugh, I sound like Mitch Albom now) and they become words of wisdom for the masses.
Spoken as the Kenyon College commencement address in 2005, This Is Water is about David Foster Wallace’s assertion that perspective, a necessary absolute in the life of the well-adjusted individual, is a conscious choice (albeit not always an easy one to make), and that the greatest thing we can do for ourselves as humans is to forcibly extricate ourselves from the natural thought-path of viewing every situation as inherently ABOUT MEEE!, which is natural only by the fact that we exist in a perpetual state of self-centric experience—everything that happens to us happens, of course, to us—but which subsequently limits our ability to be happy. I mean there’s something rather lonesome about the “me” perspective, isn’t there?
Well, DFW’s argument here is that the ultimate goal of higher education is less about learning how to think than it is about learning the value of the thought process itself, realizing the importance of putting ourselves in one another’s shoes, acquiring an empathetic point-of-view, not just for the benefit of any kind of global betterment (though I suppose that could be a nice secondary effect) but for the benefit of each of us living our mundane, daily lives. Waiting in a excruciatingly slow checkout line, for example, and concluding that the “this sucks FOR ME” attitude, while understandably the default attitude most people would assume in such a circumstance, isn’t the only attitude, and is certainly not the best attitude for maintaining a happy internal disposition. Maybe the line is slow because someone is holding it up with all her coupon scanning, coupons she has been saving out of desperation to make ends meet after the loss of her husband’s job, and maybe if you knew this you’d understand that things are possibly worse off for her than they are for you, and maybe it will seem less of an annoyance that you’ll be home seven minutes later than you had planned to be.
I mean it’s also possible the line is slow because the checkout guy is being a complete dumbfuck, but the point is that it is not going to help you by getting upset at how the situation is inconveniencing you. Your overall and long-term happiness depends more on scrambling out of that depressing “it’s all about me” trap which, admittedly is not always possible to do, than it does on satisfying your immediate need to get out of the checkout line as soon as possible.(less)
I don’t normally review books of poetry because, if I’m going to be honest, poetry has never been something I’ve traditionally gotten very excited abo...moreI don’t normally review books of poetry because, if I’m going to be honest, poetry has never been something I’ve traditionally gotten very excited about. However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t bumped into poems here or there that have affected me somehow, and it is usually (which is the thing about poetry, I think) not what the poem is about per se so much as it is about how it makes you feel. Which then circles back to my point about not being overwhelmed by it in general because that part of me that is supposed to be susceptible to the feeeeeeling of poetry is, clinically speaking, 90% necrotic.
But as I said there are exceptions. One of my favorite poems, for example, is T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which even to this day I quote sections of to myself from time to time because it really is just that awesome. Of course, admitting that may out me as a mere commoner—“Prufrock” is a highly popular poem, after all. So next I’ll mention a more obscure poem, something I read once in high school and I loved it so much (for whatever reason) that I memorized it, which maybe isn’t that big of a deal because it’s a short poem, but it was a big deal to me because, remember? Necrosis.
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare Through the hollow of an ear; Wings beating about the room; The terror of all terrors that I bore The Heavens in my womb. Had I not found content among the shows Every common woman knows, Chimney corner, garden walk, Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes And gather all the talk? What is this flesh I purchased with my pains, This fallen star my milk sustains, This love that makes my heart's blood stop Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones And bids my hair stand up? —W. B. Yeats, “The Mother of God”
I actually read a lot of Yeats poetry during that time of my life and I even went to check out his grave in Sligo when I lived in Ireland, which I realize sounds rather morbid but I swear it’s a thing and people really do it.
Sorry for that long intro, but the reason I’m writing this review is because Love & Misadventure, a book of poetry by someone named Lang Leav, has been popping up on my feed a lot lately. It is one of the highest user-rated books of poetry on all of Goodreads, right up there alongside Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare (whose poems I’ve also enjoyed, by the way) and so I thought maybe I should check it out.
I played it smart, though, by searching online for her material which, thank god I did because I would have been massively irritated if I had wasted $7.69 on this crap (the price of a Kindle edition), let alone on one of the first-edition signed copies which are going for over $300 on Amazon.
So here’s some Lang Leav for ya...decide for yourself if you think I’m being unfair:
There is a love I reminisce, like a seed I’ve never sown. Of lips that I am yet to kiss, and eyes not met my own. Hands that wrap around my wrists, and arms that feel like home. I wonder how it is I miss these things I’ve never known. —Lang Leav, “A Stranger”
Ack! But oh good lord there’s more:
Before I fell in love with words; with setting skies and singing birds— it was you I fell in love with first. —Lang Leav, “First Love”
If I wasn’t necrotic before, somebody please begin the amputation before I so septic on your asses. Here’s another:
There was a time I told you, of all that ached inside; the things I held so sacred, to all the world I’d hide. But they became your weapons, and slowly I have learnt, the less that is said the better, the lesser I’ll be hurt. Of all you’ve used against me, the worse has been my words. There are things I’ll never tell you, and it is sad to think it so; the more you come to know me— the lesser you will know. —Lang Leav, “Poker Face”
I feel like she spends more time working on her margins and tabs than she does on the poetry. Didn’t Lady Gaga do a way better job with this material?
So then I was wondering how something that to me seems so transparently saccharine could be so highly regarded. And that is when I came across this:
That is a screenshot of Lang Leav’s personal tumblr blog, and if you have trouble reading the text there, this is what it says: “Competition time! WIN a Kindle and First Edition hand signed copy of Love & Misadventure! To enter, simply click a like on this lovely Goodreads review by Lara ♥ Winner will be drawn randomly from the list of likes and announced this Wednesday. So hurry and get liking. :)”
Wow. So not only do we have a woman who struggles to write decent poetry but she actually has to fiscally reward readers for promoting her work which, while perhaps not being an illegal practice, certainly raises ethical concerns given the nature of a website whose ratings system is supposed to be based on the opinion of actual, unbiased readers. Given these alarming shenanigans, in addition to the quality of the writing itself, I’d steer clear of this one.(less)
I’m not generally in the habit of reading books written by people I’m friendly with, because then I’m always afraid the book is going to suck and I’ll...moreI’m not generally in the habit of reading books written by people I’m friendly with, because then I’m always afraid the book is going to suck and I’ll be forced to either lie to the friend about what I think of his book, or worse, tell him the truth and then feel horribly guilty about it afterwards. And plus, if the book is going to suck (which it invariably will if one of my dumb friends wrote it), then there’s also the added issue of me spending my time reading something I doubt I’ll even like. I mean, it isn’t as though I have all the free time in the world, right? Can’t I at least spend that time reading books that I think will be interesting?
Well, a few months ago Curnutt wrote a short biographical fiction piece called “I, Jozan” for Map Literary, a contemporary writing journal published by William Paterson University. It’s about—and if you know Kirk you won’t be remotely surprised—F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. (He’s sort of a Fitzgerald junkie, to put it mildly.) (To put it non-mildly, he’s vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.) (Yeah, I know, seriously.) Anyway, the story caught my attention, not just for its subject matter, which has to do with an affair Zelda allegedly has with a French pilot named Edouard Jozan during her marriage to Fitzgerald, but also for its writing quality. I was delighted! Curnutt struck a remarkable balance, painting Fitzgerald in somewhat of a negative light (for the purpose of the story) while still allowing the awe he has for the Fitzgerald family to shine through. Here’s the story, by the way, in case you want to read it.
And that’s when I decided to take a chance with one of the guy’s novels. I picked Dixie Noir, probably because it was on sale and I’m a total cheapskate, and do you know what I discovered? This book is great! It is essentially a Southern crime novel and though it does start off with a bit of a hardboiled edge, it finds its groove as more of a crime thriller, I think, in the form of someone like Tom Franklin. But I say “essentially,” because it also has some literary elements and, of course, an intertextual tribute to Zelda Fitzgerald’s own writings. (I’m not even kidding. This guy needs, like, serious help.) Curnutt, a Montgomery resident, bases his story there and, just as he does with Scotty Fitz in “I, Jozan,” effectively unites the flaws he sees in his city with a competing amount of admiration that he can’t help but have for it, as well.
“I love this city. I believe that Montgomery’s contribution to America lies in its complexity, the fact that this is the birthplace of both the Civil War and of Civil Rights. Everybody wants to resolve the opposing forces that those two things represent, but they can’t be resolved, and they shouldn’t be, because they’re the yin and yang of America.”
I drove through Montgomery once, about twelve years ago, and while the particulars of it escape me, I recall feeling as though I were passing through the epitomical center of the nation’s Deep South. Which I suppose in a way I was. And now that I’ve read this book, I wonder if I might not have a better appreciation for a city that is home to such a dizzying array of American history, dizzying not just by the volume of its history but by the sometimes dualistic nature of it.(less)
That’s what one school-aged child says to another somewhere in this book. I read it in the third grade and I remember very clearly...more“You’re a bastard!”
That’s what one school-aged child says to another somewhere in this book. I read it in the third grade and I remember very clearly talking to Kevin Petrasek about it, Kevin telling me it was a swear word and me not believing him (I had never heard this word before in my life). So of course I asked Miss Lisak and she decided we should discuss it further in detention.
So anyway, my kid picked up this book at the library today. On my recommendation. I understand they changed later versions of this sentence to “You’re a fink!” which is totally fucking ridiculous. I just hope he enjoys it every bit as much as I did.(less)
I avoided this book for a long time, though I’m not exactly sure why. I think the premise (or at least what I understood to be the premise) reminded m...moreI avoided this book for a long time, though I’m not exactly sure why. I think the premise (or at least what I understood to be the premise) reminded me of a book I read last year that was so horribly executed I felt very little inclination to get into something similar again. Who wants another lousy memory loss story, anyway? Well, put me in the “wrong again, asshole!” category because where the first book failed, converting an otherwise interesting idea into cheesy mindless schlock, this one delivered just fine.
It is the story of Alice Howland, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who, at the height of her research career, slowly begins exhibiting signs of early-onset dementia. Attributing her symptoms to stress or exhaustion at first, she eventually learns that she carries a gene mutation responsible for Alzheimer’s and is already well into the early stages of the disease. Knowing the gene mutation is autosomal dominant (meaning she only needs one copy of the gene to express the disease), each of her three children stands a 50% chance of inheriting the disease as well. The knowledge of this, on top of her own losses of stature, confidence, and ultimately her independence, serves only to compound the agony.
It is not all perfect, of course. The book is fairly breezy, refusing to delve much past the expected feelings of frustration, loneliness, and confusion that accompanies Alzheimer’s, and it often times felt rather clinical and pamphlet-y. But I am a giant nerd—I like clinical and pamphlet-y when the subject matter is in my realm of interests. Regardless, the book serves a purpose. It strikes the reader as remaining fairly true to the experiences of someone beginning to lose the required synapses necessary to retain memory and cognitive function—my second grader would call this “realistic fiction”—and as of its publication, it is in fact the only novel ever to have been endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association.
And what I’m saying here is that I guess I am endorsing it a little bit, too.(less)
The Long Walk is a book by an elusive author named Richard Bachman—whom no one has ever met—about a bunch of kids being slaughtered in a near-future (...moreThe Long Walk is a book by an elusive author named Richard Bachman—whom no one has ever met—about a bunch of kids being slaughtered in a near-future (or alternate reality) dystopian America. Which, been there, done that, right? Can’t unknown authors write about something that wouldn’t be covered again decades later? The lack of foresight here is really disappointing.
There are differences, though, between The Hunger Games and this book, particularly in that the kids in The Long Walk are mowed down by military officials rather than by each other, and that participation in this deadly event is strictly voluntary (whereas in The Hunger Games, there is little “choice” in the matter). And while I don’t think it is a bad thing necessarily for some of these teenagers to get their just desserts—seriously, have you met a teenager?—the voluntary aspect of this event is something that I had trouble with. Because we’re not just talking a few hundred mentally disturbed kids who cannot comprehend the meaning of a 99% mortality rate. We’re talking tens of thousands of kids across the country who seem to want to be chosen for competition, and whose family and friends seem even to encourage their participation. I am not sure how dystopian this dystopia is, other than that it appears to include a military-run government, but it certainly doesn’t leave one with the impression that laying low and avoiding the event entirely should be all that difficult to do, so what’s with all these idiots wanting to get themselves killed?
But still, the book is pretty good overall. It draws interesting conclusions about survival and what drives us to surpass that which we believe to be the limits of our physical capabilities (mind over matter) and it also addresses a point that I have always been able to relate to particularly, which is that it doesn’t take much more than a simple conversation sometimes to connect with another person, and in the case of The Long Walk, that connection can come to mean the difference between life and death for its characters. At the end of it all, though, it is a book that was hard to put down, and it makes one wonder why the author—whoever he is—has not been more prolific and has never broken free from relative obscurity.(less)
It is often the roll your eye moments of books or movies that weaken the reading/viewing experience for me, but I have to be honest in saying that I c...moreIt is often the roll your eye moments of books or movies that weaken the reading/viewing experience for me, but I have to be honest in saying that I cannot always define what exactly triggers those eye rolls. I think sometimes it is the predictability of the plot, other times the outrageousness of coincidence or lack of plausibility. If I get the impression I am being manipulated to feel a certain way, I bristle and balk. But what happens when a book commits one or more of these grave errors and I don’t roll my eyes? What was different that time? Did the book just happen to execute things more effectively? Did it possess some other, albeit unrelated, redeeming quality that allowed me to overlook certain flaws? Or does it really all come down to my state-of-mind at the time of reading?
I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do know that I really enjoyed Night Film—despite its main character being a bit of a retard (not to mention a lousy father), despite motivations that stem more from a sake of convenience than from any reasonable source, and despite the intrusion of the wild and zany into what is otherwise a reality-based investigative thriller.
So what did I like about this book? I liked the writing, I liked the supporting characters—not just the peripheral ones but also the ones who exist only in the ethereal sense. I enjoyed the twists and turns, which are perfectly timed and manage to prevent some elements from being revealed until the final page. I liked that not everything is ultimately revealed and I like what that says about who we are, as readers, and what we want out of a story. There may be two sides to a coin but at the end of the day it is the same coin, and maybe you need both sides to complete a picture. Or maybe that picture is never really complete because it exists in an ever-changing reality and all you can do is theorize and deduce and grab hold of whichever belief helps you sleep best at night, hoping nothing will come along later to challenge that belief, but still preparing yourself for that possibility because it almost always happens eventually, one way or the other, doesn’t it?
My apologies for the vagueness there but when you finish the book you’ll understand. Or maybe you will just roll your eyes and think, “whatever, man.” Either way.(less)