Friday, August 02, 2013

On reading your text

The normality of our son’s life for this instance—
training graduation potlucks, on lunch break, going on a date—
brought a flood of relief and tears.

Yet the relief turns on a dime,
indistinguishable suffering in advance
for the next disappointment.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The truly realistic fiction of Judy Blume

BlubberBlubber by Judy Blume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every time I read Blume, I wonder if on some level most/many writers since her have chickened out. So many times I was pleasantly surprised by the very real world of Jill, a 5th grader I think, who, following the lead of the head bully, bullies a girl named Linda. The realism is stark: calling a teacher a bitch, adults having a couple of bloody mary's, Jill's friend squatting to pee saying, "Ah, it feels good" AND, of course, the cruel depictions of bullying.

It was a painful read; yet a story we must be more honest about. I wasn't a 100% sold on the ending. I get it that Blume didn't want to tidy everything up: have Jill become friends with Linda or have everyone embrace in a communal hug. But...I was left somewhat emotionally flat. Maybe that's my issue as so much fiction gives a forced emotional ending.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Another Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnother Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book about a father, about Flynn's relationship with his father, even though his father is rarely present in the story, certainly never fully present. Flynn is experimental, edgy, philosophical, but still maintains a narrative arc, a comprehensible story. I like this balance. The title itself announces his edginess, his unwillingness to simply write the story down Oprah style (and there is a big payout when the reader learns the origins of the title). The chapter called "Same again" is not narrative yet is central to the narrative. It is a poetyic list of drinking terms which goes on for four page "The usual I say. Blood of Christ I say. Essence. Spirit. Medicine. A hint. A taste. A bump. A snort..." The list reads both as a meditation and confession of the devastating impact of hard drinking on his father and on the author himself.

And: I'm predestined to engage and enjoy the strained father-son relationship story, most certainly because I have as yet to figure out my relationship with my own father. He both abhors and loves is homeless, crazy father. Can't stay far enough away but can't stay completely away and is haunted by him at every turn, especially when Nick starts to work in a homeless shelter. At one point his father tells him, "You are me." Paradoxically, he can neither fully find nor completely escape his father; maybe he can't fully escape him *because* he can't actually find him. And with supreme irony NICK Flynn writes an actual book about his father to fulfill? supplant? compete? render? the mystical, non-existent book his father, Jonathon, has "written" and talked about his entire life.

A favorite quotes comes in the the "aftermath," certainly non-standard Q and A at the end, where he answers the question "Was writing the book cathartic for you?":

"Whatever happens clings to us like barnacles on the hull of a ship, slowing us slightly, both uglifying and giving us texture."

I'm with him here: this is ALL that's left when we burrow deeply into the mess we call life.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into CollaboratorsCognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shirky opens up an intellectual space for his book with several crucial, almost obvious, yet often overlooked claims:

1. the current generation of young people are the first generation watching *less* TV than the previous generation
2. this extra time or cognitive surplus is often dedicated to production rather than pure consumption
3. participatory culture is a call back to the traditional past

From this crafted space he soundly argues that we should stop listening to those people lamenting the rise of the amateur--look at all the crap on Youtube, all the stupid indulgent writing on blogs, the quippy ill-formed sentences on FB and Twitter. And on this point I agree. Historically we have always been nervous about any new technology which allows mere commoners, and especially illiterate youth, to produce content.

Let the crap flood the bandwidth because the young producers are learning about design (see Ze Frank's "I know me some ugly myspace" contest/video commentary) and many other frameworks historically cordoned off for official producers of media content. This is a no-brainer for good teachers--for people to learn they must be given opportunities to practice, fail, make crap. Secondly, let it flow because one out of 100,000 (or whatever) of these productions and social connectors will be amazing, a game-changer. He sites many examples such as Ushahidi (used to track ethnic violence in Kenya) or the chromosome project and many more. My oldest son told me about Ouya, a video game platform, which allows users to create their own video games starting with the open source platform. Withing a few days my son went from a video game consumer to a producer.

To me his most important argument is that when we focus on technology we focus too much on the amazing technology itself rather than how these new technologies connect and create community. Shirkey convincingly argues that if you allow for intrinsic motivation, which he defines as an environment that allows for and promotes autonomy and competency, they will come--thousands upon thousands of users willing to dedicate time to creating and building the community.

Overall Shirkey has a more optimistic view of all this--while I agree with his overall analysis, the cynic in me says that most, if not all of these self-generating communities, will be co-opted by capitalism, purchased, converted to hierarchies and rule-based organizations. I hope I'm wrong. But I absolutely disagree with Shirkey's crystal clear distinction between consumption and production.

At one point he says that all TV watching is less creative and generous than any sort of blogging because bloggers, of course, produce something and TV watchers simply absorb. He seems to discount the many theoretical models which have illustrated active consumption such as Reader Response Theory and many others coming out of Cultural Studies.

While some TV watching may be mindless so is some blogging; watching TV, for example, can be active and engaging without an auxiliary website for fans to argue and produce their own episodes. A good old family discussion, well-placed pause to discuss a show, and the move to connect the current show to a book on the shelf demonstrate as much intrinsic motivation, autonomy and competency as any new fangled social media group. Surely it is small but these discussions can spread like viruses through simpler means--a conversation at work or school the next day. So, yes, Shirkey offers an important push back to the critiques of amateur online culture, but there's no need to overstate or discount slower old-school means of engaging the media.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Can a detective novel work with a female lead?

outrageoutrage by Arnaldur Indridason
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's fine book but a bit of a disappointment for me. The plot didn't quite work as the red herring was never plausible for me, even for a second. And, of course, there was no Erlendur. I feel some guilt (am I a sexist?) in not fully embracing the female lead detective Elinborg, but then the detective genre is so tied to the lonely dysfunctional male detective. And while I liked getting to know Elinborg and enjoyed the parallels between the plot and her struggle to understand her teenage son who never says a word to them but writes about all sorts of personal things on his blog, I couldn't get over not having Erlendur.

I hope Indridason has a few more Erlendur books in him. This novel certainly sets us up for that (possibly) as Erlendur is on leave but then seems to have gone missing in the East Fjords, on the land I assume dealing with the demons of his past, namely his brother's death. And I hope if he writes more books with Elinborg that he pushes himself to more fully realize her as a complicated and uniquely female character.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

A self-indulgent conceit I grew to love

BrokenBroken by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While quickly ordering books from the same seller on hoping to get a good deal and save on shipping, I accidentally ordered this book thinking it was another in Fossum's inspector Sejer series. So, initially, I was disappointed, envisioning another heartless experience as when I inadvertently picked up Arnaldur Indridason's *Operation Napaleon* hoping/praying it was another of his Erlendur detective series. It wasn't and after reading 20 pages, I discarded with a bad taste in my mouth, unsure how the amazing writer of Erlendur could write such mind-numbing action drivel.

But...*Broken*, though not immediately, won me over. I got caught up in the sad lonely life of Alvar, a man who has coasted into his 40s, remaining unconnected and above it all until a heroin-addicted young woman, Lyndis, seeks him out and eventually turns his life upside down. Alvar is never comfortable with what most would consider life, poignantly saying at one point "This world will never be a familiar place; everyday I have to navigate it as a beginner." And that captures Alvar exactly--a 40 year old virgin, to quote the irresistible movie title, but more importantly a 40 year old newborn tensing at ever new noise and bright light.

I must come clean now; I'm leading you on because thus far I've failed to mention a key piece of information--certainly most of you learned, especially my literary, friends will dismiss this book as self-indulgent. One articulate Goodreads reviewer lashes out against Fossum's invention, "The book’s concept, that a character is harassing the author to write about him and must face the story she presents to him, is definitely a bit indulgent. It feels like something she wrote while stuck on another project, something that probably should never have been published." Yes, that's right the main character, Alvar, has been quickened because he jumped the line in the author's mind and begged her to write about him. And, yes, it's a self-indulgent authorial exploration of what it means to write and I was absolutely and completely ready to, pun-intended, write it off. But, alas, just as the author, the one in the story that is, can't dismiss Alvar, I couldn't dismiss Fossum's neurotic self-examination.

I became fascinated with Alvar's attempts to be a "decent person" and yet not be completely controlled by Lyndis the young seemingly frail heroin addict. Alvar may be the most inept character I've ever experienced, but still I took up his struggles body and soul. And while I intellectually understand why many will find Fossum's author/character conceit indulgent, for me this heightened my compassion for both Alvar and his creator. Worried that Alvar is going to be tested by the author, he asks about his future and she replies,

"Alvar, my're worse than a child. And I know that you're in a tricky place right now. It's as if you're half finished. You're dangling, literally, in thin air. But if it's any comfort, Alvar, I'm dangling too. I'm halfway through my story...I'm struggling to sustain my faith in my own project. Doubt creeps up on me like an invisible gas...Have I found the right words?"

Grown if you must...but for me, I can only feel compassion for Alvar the pathetic and his nearly as pathetic creator and author. Maybe because it seems to me we are all pathetic and weak. Or maybe because I'm simply pathetic. Who knows. What I do know is that when Alvar contemplates suicide and the author dissuades him, recounting her own failed attempt, the author/character conceit melted. She tries to convince Alvar,detailing each step in her own attempt, that it's much harder to kill yourself than you think--and I, most pathetically, wept.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Absurdly human drunk Indians

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally got around to finishing this. Started it like 6 or 7 yrs ago after having watched Smoke Signals which was loosely based on these stories and was written by the same author, Alexie.

I'd like to say that I was completely riveted by each story because I so so much loved Smoke Signals. Instead I can say that several stories were wonderfully written: "The only traffic signal on the reservation doesn't flash red anymore (probably my favorite) which is a meditation on reservation heroes, basketball, alcohol, and dreams; "This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona" where we get the broad strokes of the Smoke Signal plot; "Jesus Christ's half-brother is alive and well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" which is philosophical and surprising; Family portrait which gets at the constant distortion of language and history.

I can also say that the overall impact of the book is unique, irreverent, fanciful yet stone-cold serious, playful yet philosophical AND my sense is when I wasn't riveted it was about me, about my inability to close my eyes and embrace the wispy lunacy that Alexie is boring into. Here's some stone-cold serious lunacy, an irreverently counterintuitive passage from "The only traffic signal...":

"It's hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don't wonder if it's half-filled or half empty. They just hope it's a good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass Murder, loss language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins" (49).

And that's the essence of the book and Smoke Signals. Alexie faces the pain and suffering of the Indian, completely embraces AND rejects the truth and stereotype of the drunk broken Indian, yet comes out laughing and fancydancing and storytelling. Alexie embraces the meaninglessness, the absurdity of it all, instead of trying to explain it or rectify it.

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