Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Belated Goodbye

ISBN-10: 0316281867 ISBN-13: 9780316281867 Published: Redhook, 06/25/2013 Pages: 336 Language: English
It's somewhat disconcerting to find that one of your favorite writers has passed more than two weeks since his passing, especially once you then realize that you knew next to nothing about the author as a person. However, this was the case Friday night when I learned that Scottish author Iain Banks had died June 9th of cancer. Perhaps I could put it down to Banks' never getting the appreciation in the States that I felt (and continue to feel) he deserved (deserves). Honestly, however, it was probably due to my general avoidance of personal details about literary figures I admire. I have been burned too many times by writers who, in my mind, don't live up to their own work-- I won't name any names, but I'm thinking specifically of a person whose name rhymes with Smorson Mott Blard. 

Thankfully, from the evidence springing forth from writers and readers across the internet, Mr. Banks was well-loved both for his work and for his personality. The Guardian has been the source of many heartfelt tributes from writers such as Neil Gaiman, Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh, and more. Mr. Gaiman concludes his with: "If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing." I couldn't agree more, especially after reading interviews and statements from his waning days (he was advised that he had terminal gall bladder cancer several months before his passing) that reveal him to have been as warm, witty, and intelligent in person as his books indicated.

Banks started out writing genre-bending books such as The Wasp Factory and Walking on Glass before delineating his career more sharply between mainstream fiction and science fiction, the latter of which he wrote under the name Iain M. Banks. Shamefully, I have read only his science fiction, but, as many others have affirmed, it was a genre he explored with passion and departs leaving a firm stamp upon its history. Known for his "mordant wit," Banks was equally capable of astounding optimism, perhaps most typified by his creation of The Culture, a futuristic post-scarcity utopia that serves as a through-line for much of his science fiction. If you can't stomach sci-fi, then his latest novel, The Quarry, published just weeks after his death, has come much-recommended. Eerily enough, the novel centers around a man dying of cancer, but was was started before Banks' diagnosis. Even so, the book was partially written while Banks was under a death sentence, and the I feel sure the similarities to his own situation must provide an added resonance to the book.

On first reading his work, I was struck by his phenomenal imagination and ambition, as well as his willingness to explore both the best and the worst in human beings. I will miss this particular talent as well as the man who employed it, even if I only knew him through the worlds he created. I will leave you with this quote from his final interview, which I think both aptly describes his design philosophy and how his legions of admirers must be feeling right now:
"Well," he says, "if you are going to write what a friend of a friend once called 'Made up space shit', then if it's going to have any ring of truth that means sometimes some of the horrible characters get to live, and for there to be any sense of jeopardy, especially in future novels, the good people have to die. Sometimes."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Beautiful People of the Paperback (or Hardcover) Set

Today, towards the end of the week, my brain is just tired enough that forming a coherent sentence feels effortful. On my favorite blogs, the posts that are heavy on images and light on prose are often my favorites, and the ones that balance photos with text -- like Smitten Kitchen -- are equally pleasurable.

In hour of my mental incapacity to write and my love for all things pleasing to the eye, here are some favorite book covers. In my house, a book is not only a companion but an ornament, a piece of furniture that reflects your taste and, ideally, your aesthetic. I've read plenty of novels with garish covers, ones whose packaging was clearly an afterthought, but these weren't those. These -- these! -- are the Platonic ideal of what a book should be: well-designed, striking, and meaty enough on the inside to restore your brain (because sometimes, like now, it could use some awakening).

Newest favorite: Paris I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin

ISBN-10: 1250033357
ISBN-13: 9781250033352
Published: Picador, 06/25/2013
Pages: 304
Language: English
Best use of what could or could not be a stock photo: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ISBN-10: 0062255657
ISBN-13: 9780062255655
Published: William Morrow & Company, 06/18/2013
Pages: 192
Language: English 
Best contemporary fiction cover: Everything Is Illuminated/Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

ISBN-10: 0547447264
ISBN-13: 9780547447261
Published: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 11/01/2010
Pages: 656
Language: English
Best nonfiction, partly for its ingenuity (designer Chipp Kidd literally splashed some ink on some printer paper, according to his TED Talk): Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs

ISBN-10: 0312423799
ISBN-13: 9780312423797
Published: Picador, 04/01/2004
Pages: 320
Language: English
Best children's title: Who Could That Be At This Hour? by Lemony Snicket

ISBN-10: 0316123080
ISBN-13: 9780316123082
Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 10/23/2012
Pages: 272
Language: English

Best classic reissue: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories and  The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
ISBN-10: 0805210571
ISBN-13: 9780805210576
Published: Schocken, 11/14/1995
Pages: 320
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0805210555
ISBN-13: 9780805210552
Published: Schocken, 11/14/1995
Pages: 512
Language: English
Best graphic novel: Dante's Divine Comedy, a Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast

ISBN-10: 1608190846
ISBN-13: 9781608190843
Published: Bloomsbury USA, 08/31/2010
Pages: 128
Language: English

An Alternative View

ISBN-10: 0985023589
ISBN-13: 9780985023584
Published: Tyrant Books, 06/01/2013
Pages: 200
Language: English
There's really nothing I can say on the subject of Marie Calloway's novel what purpose did I serve in your life half as well as one of the best cultural critics writing today, Michelle Orange, so I would strongly suggest that you check out her thought-provoking review before you read on. As Orange correctly points out, there's nothing new about Calloway's mixed fiction/nonfiction short stories, her explicit descriptions of sexual (mis)adventures-- in fact, Lena Dunham is covering that territory fairly thoroughly on her ongoing HBO program Girls-- or her portraits of adolescent ennui. However: "If what she describes is the same old anomie, Calloway joins a new chapter in the literature of disaffection. Here self-consciousness, far from a new literary toy, has flattened into landscape, an airless plane where stunted characters pass the occasional pebble back and forth like a cold potato." That's the kind of sentence I would kill to write, ladies and gentleman. 

What she's getting at is that Calloway is of the Tao Lin/Muumuu House school, a 28-year old author and his publishing house, respectively. Both the author and his associates are known for drastically stripping down the English language, as if trying to finish a job Hemingway only started. Personally, my initial reaction was very difficult to shake-- would you restrict a painter to only two shades instead of a full palette?-- but, on consideration, and after reading more than one review that called Tao Lin's newest novel Taipei a "modernist masterpiece," I decided to take a dive into this youthful movement (this coming from a 23-year-old) with Orange's article and Calloway as a starting point.

Calloway's writing is very New Media-centric, and her fame is consequently Internet-driven. Her most interesting stories, Adrien Brody and Jeremy Lin, can be read in their entirety online. The former caused quite a stir, as it depicted an evidently nonfiction sexual encounter between Calloway and a well-known figure in New York City's literary community. Removed from its context, it seems rather strange that such a simply told piece of writing caused a stir. Her voice seems less confrontational than absolutely unguarded-- the effect would render her almost cartoonishly naive if not for her constant self-examination. Jeremy Lin is the better piece, as it contains long, seemingly transcribed email exchanges between her and Tao Lin, which do provide some insight into the borderline-manic minds of developing young artists.

This may come off as damning with faint praise (which is not my intention), but I think that Calloway is worth reading purely out of sociological interest. Both her and Lin communicate and think-- or depict themselves communicating and thinking-- in such an autonomic manner that it brings to mind two robots slowly learning what it means to be human. In two separate stories a character more or less asks "Am I a sociopath?" The answer seems obvious given each character's constant feeling-- perhaps one out of every four sentences in Calloway's stories literally begins with "I feel..."-- but, as Orange writes of Calloway and Lin, there is a point at which one seems to be protesting too much: "Together they feel and they feel like, such that the phrase begins to suggest, amid a profusion of screens and floating personae, a kind of mutual assurance: I feel." I worry that some older critics are already referring to this burgeoning literary subclass as "voices of a generation," especially since that generation happens to be mine, but it's indisputable that they are saying something that strikes a certain chord with certain people. So, dear reader, I will keep an eye out and my mind open.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stand tall, you short stories!

ISBN-10: 0812993802
ISBN-13: 9780812993806
Published: Random House, 01/08/2013
Pages: 272
Language: English
First, a list of things that are both short and good (or essential):

*Shortstops (baseball)
*Short stacks (a reasonable amount of pancakes)
*Shorts (abbreviated pants)
*Short stories

This last one apparently gives some folks a moment of pause. I've long been a champion of the form, but for many readers, the short story is a lesser version of a novel, something too brief to encompass an entire story or too artsy to be immersive. My goal, as a bookseller, reader, writer, and all-around lover of the written word, is not to push short stories over novels, but to give them their chance, to keep them from being relegated to dusty shelves or heaps in a store-room. I think of past decades, when the short story was serialized or featured prominently in national magazines, and wondered what prompted its decline. The writerly folklore is that, once upon a time, you could make your living publishing short stories. That's sort of akin to the myth of $0.75 gasoline or soda fountains on every main street in every town. Much like the decline of journalism (or corollary with the decline of journalism?), it's getting harder and harder to find venues that pay writers decently for short fiction, and perhaps as a result, the quality of said materials varies widely.

Still, like LPs and newspapers, I have some faith that the genre won't go the way of the snow leopard. Increasingly rare, sure, but still an invaluable part of literature as a whole.

If you're looking to dip your toes in the pool of short fiction, there are several accessible collections I'd recommend.

George Saunders' much-praised Tenth of December epitomizes what a short story can accomplish. This is masterful stuff, prose so thoughtful and taut that it should be required reading for anyone looking to do a creative writing course. The New York Times raved, uncharacteristically enough, and other writers often cite Saunders as a veritable sensei of prose. This is one of my favorite collections of all time, and certainly my favorite book of last year.

Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters is a 180 degree turn from Saunders' style, and that's part of why it made this list. Equally captivating but entirely different, these tales run the gamut from teenage werewolves to post-apocalyptic vacations, and where Saunders employs stoicism and profundity, Link balances whimsy and reality, placing equal stake (no pun intended) in a character's status as a vampire and their difficult love life. This is one I'd hand to anyone who likes YA, sci-fi, or magical realism (emphasis on the "magical").

And for the sake of diversity -- because what is literature if not diverse? -- I'd also like to draw your attention to Lydia Davis' Collected Stories, which is less tome and more surprisingly-slender-volume. The manageable size is due to Davis' propensity for flash fiction, with some stories clocking in at a mere two or three sentences. That's not to say anything here is skimpy; because she's one of the best short story writers in the country, she's able to erect and destroy an entire world in a matter of a few words. If you think I'm a liar (hey, you're entitled), you can trust in the opinion of the folks at Man Booker, who gave her their International Prize.

I encourage you to give one of these collections a try, or pick up a different one. This barely skims the surface of short story collections I keep close by on my shelves so I can pick them up whenever the mood strikes. Like old friends, these are tales whose characters and themes cycle through my mind often, revisiting when they have something else to tell, blooming perennially.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Recipe for a Perfect Summer Afternoon

ISBN-10: 1476733953
ISBN-13: 9781476733951
Published: Simon & Schuster, 03/12/2013
Pages: 528
Language: English
Wake up late, eat brunch, play with your cats, and then let the good times roll.

1. Eat an ice cream sandwich at Foster's Market. The Flyleaf staff is addicted, according to the number of wrappers currently occupying our kitchen trashcan.

2. Pick up a book that'll transport you from Chapel Hill or Carrboro to... anywhere, really. I was hankering for something dystopian and science-fiction based, so I went for one of fellow blog author Hank's picks, Wool, by Hugh Howey, whose premise so far reminds me a lot of Lois Lowry's The Giver. Other good picks I'd recommend, which range from sci-fi to literary fiction to easy-to-read YA: Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Hilary Jordan's When She Woke, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (Mike read this one), or anything by Sarah Dessen, the master of the summer beach coming-of-age tale.

3. Head to Jordan Lake, Duke Gardens, the Eno River, or if you're feeling particularly strapping, the Occoneechee trail in Hillsborough (which is steep but breathtaking!). All of these are within half an hour of most towns in and around the Triangle, and all of them offer rocks, beaches, or benches where you can plop down with your book of choice.

4. Take an (intentional or unintentional) nap in the sunshine. Be sure to wear sunscreen!

5. If you need A/C, check out an arthouse or avant garde movie at The Chelsea.
If you want more sunshine, go grab a cocktail on Lucha Tigre's patio.

6. Treat yourself to some mussels or a summer salad at Kitchen, or head to Neal's Deli for a pimiento cheese sandwich.

7. Head home, put on a record, and grow even more immersed in what might be your new favorite book.

8. Meet friends for a leisurely summer hang at a local restaurant with more outdoor seating -- Milltown, Carrburrito's, Caffe Driade, etc.

9. Head to bed early, and then read into the wee hours of the night.

Poetic License

ISBN-10: 1594205388
ISBN-13: 9781594205385
Published: Penguin Press HC, The, 06/18/2013
Pages: 400
Language: English
The "cerebral thriller" is inherently difficult to pull off. A thriller typically requires violence and at least a pinch of fear, both of which appeal to the reader's unthinking reptilian brain. The cerebral work typically appeals to the brainier part of our brains, but risks feeling cold and joyless. Marrying these too seemingly irreconcilable genres is the unstated ambition of Max Barry's fantastic new science fiction genre-hybrid Lexicon, a novel that manages to include car chases, Charlotte Bronte quotes, semiotics, information-age paranoia, and even a fair-sized dollop of romance. As author and critic Lev Grossman writes on the back of the book, Lexicon is "about as close as you can get to the perfect cerebral thriller: searingly smart, ridiculously funny, and fast as hell. Lexicon reads like Elmore Leonard high out of his mind on Snow Crash." I wanted to write that Lexicon reads like China Mieville on crank, but then I would have to explain that China Mieville reads like Philip K. Dick on crank, and we would get into a whole Russian Nesting Doll scenario. 

Personally, I don't enjoy book reviews/recommendations that serve as plot summaries, but suffice it to say Lexicon involves a class of people called "poets" that manipulate language in order to very literally control the general population. The action bounces back and forth in time and perspective constantly, gradually honing in on a horrific incident that shapes the lives of regular-guy Wil and troubled "poet" Emily Ruff. The book is full of themes and ideas, sometimes referenced directly by email exchanges, newspaper articles, and message board chats Barry inserts between chapters. Thankfully, however, the narrative is so relentlessly fast and the characters recognizably human that Lexicon never feels didactic or preachy. He has his points, he makes them, and everyone has fun. Who says intense pessimism can't be a blast?

Friday, June 21, 2013

How to Write a Review/Endorsement

ISBN-10: 1594487294 ISBN-13: 9781594487293 Published: Riverhead Hardcover, 03/05/2013 Pages: 240 Language: English
When you are writing a review/endorsement of an extremely clever novel that uses the format of a business "self-help" book to tell a narrative entirely in the second-person, it is important to write a thoughtful, considerate blog post without needless rhetorical gambits or meta-tomfoolery. In writing a review/endorsement, sincerity is key, but you are a young person with a college degree who never says anything in four words that could be said in four paragraphs. So, you proceed with your endorsement of Mohsin Hamid's newest novel: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which you know to be Hamid's third novel, and a follow-up to his attention-grabbing work The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has recently been made into a film that you have not seen, but automatically assume is worse than the book that inspired it. 

You might wish to point out that the novel has many similarities with your beloved Great Gatsby: it is a rags-to-riches story featuring an ill-fated love, the prose is florid but wry, it is slight in length but chock-full of ambition, and it seems somehow zeitgest-capturing without sacrificing universal themes. For as much as Hamid's book is about portraying an economic/social moment in time without skimping on post-colonial satire or uncomfortable truths, it is also about redemptive love and the search for what makes life worth living. If "How to..." can at times read as angry or even broadly misanthropic, it is that, but Hamid frequently condemns the mob while showing great compassion for the individual. Even after finishing the novel, you are not sure where it was meant to have taken place-- no cities or people are named and the situations depicted are common in all of "Rising Asia." Specificity is the soul of narrative, though, and Hamid is careful to give attention and consideration to even minor, initially unsympathetic characters. You remember vividly a scene in which a gunman who has earlier brutally threatened our protagonist is preparing for another assignment: 

"Later that week the boyish gunman is once more given instructions to encounter you. He washes and dresses as usual, listening to movie songs on a promotional soda-can-shaped radio and shaving above his upper lip in the aspiration of one day provoking a mustache. His mother and sister bid him good-bye. He is low on funds and so he purchases only a small quantity of petrol for his motorcycle and a single loose cigarette. He chooses an intersection on your route with a giant billboard advertising antibacterial soap, and waits, smoking, a new habit good for making him forget that he is hungry."

In your opinion, that single paragraph is beautiful in its simplicity, and, moreover, is essential to making Hamid's world three-dimensional. Like one of your idols, Kurt Vonnegut, you feel that Hamid's satire, his irony, his anger, his misanthropy, is all earned by an underlying reservoir of deep humanity. You consider that you haven't really accomplished your stated aim of describing how to write a book review, and that your humorous conceit probably was unnecessary and poorly executed. You know, at least, that anything can be salvaged by a great Vonnegut quote, and so you write: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." You don't know Mr. Hamid, and probably never will, but you feel he would agree with the sentiment.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Oh, to be young, rested, and in the mood to cook!

ISBN-10: 1452101248
ISBN-13: 9781452101248
Published: Chronicle Books, 03/01/2011
Pages: 288
Language: English
So far in this long, hard-lived life of mine (I'm in my early twenties, recently graduated college, and have in no way lived a hard life), I've learned that, when it comes to cookbooks, it's sink or swim. Some work, some don't, and when they don't, they really, really don't.

Part of it, surely, is that my kitchen supplies are spotty (I just discovered, upon moving, my lack of measuring cups), and another part is the fact that I've been spoiled by microwave mac 'n' cheese and my family's leftovers. Ask me to rice a potato and I turn deathly pale. Ask me to slice something thinly and you might get some awkward-looking cubes.

Up til now, the "hit" part of "hit or miss" has been largely comprised of The Smitten Kitchen. To anyone who's visited the internet in the last, say, year or so, Deb Perelman, the blog's author, is a familiar voice, one that guides you calmly and confidently through the steps it takes to make Japanese pancakes or bake cardamom-spiced brownies. Her cookbook lives up to her blog's user-friendliness and lack of fussiness, and similarly straddles that oh-so-fine line between absurd foodie weirdness and boring, been-there-done-that dishes. I say, let us not veer too far down exotic lane (where am I supposed to buy sumac in Mebane?), but also let us not fall back on meatloaf for every meal.

Today, I decided I'd try Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty, a vegetarian cookbook with gorgeous photographs (oh, those pomegranate seeds!) and smartly-organized indexes -- you can look up recipes by ingredient and heft. As cookbooks go, it's pretty affordable ($35.00) and it would make a gorgeous gift for anyone that likes seasonal food, Middle Eastern ingredients, or recipes on the eccentric side.

As always, I'd like to know what I'm missing. Are you sensing a trend yet? Please chime in below with comments on your favorite cookbooks, be they traditional or odd. With last night's veggie pancake success under my belt, I'm feeling pretty confident that Ottolenghi's poached eggs and bulgur pilaf is within my grasp.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Guardian on J.M. Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus

ISBN-10: 0670014656
ISBN-13: 9780670014651
Published: Viking Adult, 09/03/2013
Pages: 288
Language: English
I found Benjamin Markovitz's Guardian review (or maybe non-review?) of J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus pretty fascinating, in that it didn't seem to make any definitive judgments at all. It seemed content to stick this game out on the sidelines while everybody else makes their criticisms, which part of me admires -- I've read many a book that didn't really sink in until I'd had time to let it marinate. I have a feeling that the one I'm reading now, Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant, will follow that very path.

TL;DR? A choice quote from the review: "What it reminds me of most is Peter Handke's Kaspar – an experimental stage play about the way language restricts the pure freedom of a childish consciousness. But it's also a little like Werner Herzog's movie, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – a more realist film about an unsocialised man, trying to find his feet in society. Coetzee has always had the enviable ability, in a writer, to make a virtue of his limitations. The prose is very plain; the characters are a little abstract; the questions they ask aren't quite as interesting as they suppose. Coetzee knows all this, but where it leaves the reader I'm not so sure." Sounds almost like Waiting for Godot to me, in its minimalism and metaphor.

I just got my advance reader's copy of the book in the mail this morning, so I'm hoping to have a judgment (or non-judgment) of my own pretty soon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Graphic by Nature: Some Illustrated Books for Real Live Grown-Ups

ISBN: 140123755X Published: Vertigo, 05/15/2012 Pages: 144
Language: English
Like Hank, I too am a nerd. One who will extoll to you the virtues of both hipster footwear (does anyone else really want a pair of these?) and decidedly un-hip literature (let's talk about how good Sisterhood Everlasting, the final installment of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, was). While I'm happy to boast (humblebrag or otherwise) about the things of which I have a comprehensive knowledge (all of Sarah Dessen's novels and the manner in which geodes are formed, for starters), let's also consider this blog a vehicle for me to catch up on things at which I've failed. This time around, I'd like to discuss graphic novels & comics.

Rarely do you see a classic literature connoisseur dressing up as Captain Ahab -- I mean, if you're out there, you go, Moby Dick fan! But in the realm of graphic novels, fans are more than willing to integrate their favorite novels into their lives. You've got comic-cons on one end of the spectrum and themed pint glasses on the other. There is headwear that can turn you into your favorite My Little Pony and there are plenty of blogs, magazines, and forums that will let you discover and discuss to your heart's content. When people talk about a comic book culture, they're not exaggerating, and when you're a total newb, it's hard to know exactly where one starts. Personally, my aim isn't to become the foremost expert on Batgirl, but I don't want to go mixing up Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent -- awkward!

I might be in the minority but I'd love nothing more than to enter this world of pictures and text and come out with a community, whatever that entails. Maybe it's just finding a few Chapel Hill Comics or Ultimate Comics employees who are willing to discuss what's new. Maybe it's debating the merits of Dante's Inferno in traditional versus graphic novel form with my coworkers here at Flyleaf. Maybe, just maybe, it's becoming a true graphic novel nerd, one that knows all of the Watchmen and can tell you the plot of Maus backwards and forwards.

I'm a work in progress, but my first few forays into the world of graphic novels have been major successes. On a whim, I picked up Translucent, a manga about a girl with an invisibility disorder that grappled with teenage issues as gracefully and playfully as a Judy Blume book. The real earth-shaker was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which moved me to tears and redefined, for me, the limits of a memoir. Next on the agenda is one about a cat (I told you I was a nerd) called Chi's Sweet Home, which might or might not be for children (does it look like I care?). I also purchased Fables: Volume 1, which was a New York Times bestseller and charts the lives of fairytale characters in modern New York City.

In the meantime, I'm looking for suggestions -- for the initiated or the uninitiated, what are your favorite titles? Comment below, and help a sister out.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The (Debatably) Defining Decade

 ISBN: 0446561754 Published: Twelve, 04/02/2013 Pages: 239 Language: English

A few weeks ago, I finished Dr. Meg Jay's The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter, and How to Make the Most of Them Now, a treatise of sorts on that writhing, hotly-contested mass of twenty-somethings (it seems like many pundits, writers, and academic types picture us -- yes, I am a twenty-something -- as some sort of wild swarm). I had lots of, you know... FEELINGS. I read very many books, but few of them simmer for quite this long, and it's been almost impossible to keep myself from measuring my life against the metric Jay presents in her book. Am I doing it right? Am I setting my course for CEO or reclusive cat hoarder?

Well, probably something wildly different from either of those options. But let's dive in to what it actually discusses.

Romantically, everything here made sense, and seemed intuitive. Hold partners to a standard, or accept something half-baked and unfulfilling; if you're envisioning a particular type of relationship, look for that person in an environment where they could reasonably be found.

Professionally, though, things felt muddled, perhaps because that's where my 20-something confusion has been at its most chaotic. The book vascillates between case studies and research-infused prose, and one case study in particular unsettled me. In Danielle's passage, we read about her travails as an assistant to a television producer of The Devil Wears Prada ilk - cantankerous, petty, irrational, etc. We read about the toll this takes on Danielle's life, and how its implications become physical (anxiety, long days) as well as mental (work becomes her life). Dr. Jay's advice, after asking the patient to stop calling her mother during her lunch break, is simply to stick it out and put in the hours, the 40 hours a week for five years.

My beef: this seems like the ultimate deferment of happiness. It makes sense that if, as a twenty-something, you're living an unexamined life, then sure, you should try your best to ensure that you're on track to be happy, but if you're decidedly unhappy, is it really worth it to let that anxiety pile up over five years? Sure, you'll be better able to cope with difficult situations in the future, but to what end? Personally, I'd rather be employed in some less prestigious field (and have free time to pursue my art, interests, and friendships) than eternally stressed out and overworked.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Season of the Sociopaths

ISBN-10: 0307956644 ISBN-13: 9780307956644 Published: Crown, 05/14/2013 Pages: 320 Language: English 

I was prompted by an excellent, hilarious article on Slate that purported to be a review of  M.E. Thomas' memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by Patrick Bateman, the corporate shark/literal serial killer protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial satire American Psycho to think about what appears to me an explosion of sociopathic literature in the past decade or so. Nonfiction books such as the Psychopath Test have examined the increasingly prolific application of the term by psychologists with some skepticism, while M.E. Thomas' book and others seem to accept the oft-quoted (and oft-debated) statistic taken from Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door that places 1 in 25 Americans in this burgeoning category. In fact, Thomas goes further and suggests that many revered social climbers have been aided in their success by a sociopathic disregard for morality. Of course, this is more or less the same point Ellis was making rather unsubtly back in 1991, but the prospect still feels unsettling and new. 

Many of these books and articles dealing with sociopathy or psychopathy (while technically different, the terms are most often used interchangeably) also challenge our notions of how personalities are formed by leaning heavily towards biological determinism. For instance, Thomas claims to have been more or less born sociopathic, with an extraordinary degree of emotional distance present even as a child. Consider this piece from The New York Times which asks: Can You Call A Nine-Year-Old A Psychopath? It concerns children, particularly one young boy, who have already been diagnosed as clinically psychopathic without the clear involvement of environmental factors. The disturbing anecdotes and, at times, fatalistic attitude shared by parents and psychologists in the piece harkens back to old-school shockers (based upon dubious science) such as the 1956 film The Bad Seed, in which a young girl's violent actions are explained through genetics rather than demon possession or some other temporary, anomalous state.

As a sufferer of parental abuse at a young age, Thomas has been explained away by many critics as a damaged, narcissistic woman seeking attention and a strange sort of validation through her claims of sociopathy. These arguments may have merit, it's not for me to judge, but the phenomenon of personality disorders is still a major topic in contemporary literature and culture. Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin is one well-regarded example, but there are many more works that deal with antisocial behavior on a less extreme scale. I can think of one literary movement in particular that I would like to discuss, but doing so under the banner of this article seems in poor taste. For now, I will leave you with plenty of interesting reading to do, should your interests be as admittedly creepy as my own

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Father of Beloved Flyleaf Employee Holds Dual Reading

ISBN-10: 0765306115 ISBN-13: 9780765306111 Published: Tor Books, 05/07/2013 Pages: 304 Language: English
As a teaser for our dual reading on June 28 with science fiction authors Jamil Nasir--full disclosure: well, it's in the title-- and Alex Wilson, I thought I would discuss Nasir's most recent book, Tunnel Out of Death. Nasir's work falls into the genre of "hard" science fiction, a nebulous distinction that usually indicates a high level of scientific rigor went into the book's fantastical imaginings, but I prefer my own surprisingly inclusive definition: a science fiction book that, when summarized, will always sound like complete and utter nonsense. Just to be clear, this is not a knock against the sub-genre-- I consider myself a fan-- but an acknowledgment that its authors intentionally present a certain barrier of entry to be overcome, hopefully, by the use of one's respective noodle. 

Bewilderment is a sought-after effect rather than a flaw in this sub-genre, and Nasir thankfully avoids all forms of authorly hand-holding. His prose is spare and the exposition is practically non-existent, while his ideas are vast and ambitious. What it really feels like is William Gibson's brutal efficiency married to Philip K. Dick's LSD-fueled surrealism. It's a heady combination, so prepare to read passages over and over again to decipher gnomic phrases-- for example, one chapter begins "While it was slightly unusual to be wearing anonymizing gear in a neighborhood zoned to exclude infopush..."

 The payoff is worth it, though. Nasir is concerned less with plot-driven mysteries than existential ones, and the entire back half of the book is a meditation on mortality. If you think spirituality is no-go territory in science fiction, Tunnel Out of Death will convince you otherwise. Instead of mutants with guns, Nasir's protagonist is threatened by paranoia, ennui, and the conflict between his mind and the needy meat-sacks that happen to carry it around. Also, there are mutants with guns. It's stuff you can seriously ponder, without being seriously ponderous (if I end up leaving this sentence in, you will know I have no shame). This book is kind of like what I imagine Jim Morrison thought of drugs: hallucinatory, mind-opening, and damn good stuff.

Monday, June 10, 2013

This May Not be for Everyone...

ISBN-10: 0785165622
ISBN-13: 9780785165620
Published: Marvel, 03/19/2013
Pages: 136
Language: English
...but it should be. Dear reader, I try to write for a fairly broad audience, but I am, at heart, a nerd, and a superhero comic this good simply must be addressed. Penned by Matt Fraction-- a genius at reviving moribund superhero titles-- Hawkeye takes a back-to-basics approach to its titular character, aka Clint Barton, by showing us what he gets up to when he's not stopping alien invasions alongside the Avengers. Turns out that Barton is a bit of a lovable goof, and his story somehow manages to be both gritty and consistently hilarious. Fraction's dialogue, especially between Barton and his wise-cracking, hyper-confident Girl Friday/sidekick/fellow Hawkeye/it's complicated, okay?, Kate Bishop, is the dictionary definition of "punchy." 

Beyond simple entertainment, though, Fraction uses Hawkeye to reintroduce the concept of the working class hero. Heroes such as Batman and Iron Man, after all, are also billionaire business tycoons, members of the 1% who are as essentially unrelatable as Superman and Thor. Hawkeye/Barton's adventures include rescuing an injured dog, protecting his fellow poverty line-skirting apartment tenants from rent hikes and gentrification, and crashing a gala thrown by upper-crust criminals. On the latest of these adventures, Barton remarks: "Lots of guns, rich people, and scumbags in that room down there," to which Bishop responds: "You read those newspapers you cut up? There's kind of a global recession on right now. Only people that make money in a recession are scumbags" (the use of bold font to add emphasis to speech is standard procedure in comic books). This re-grounding of comics as populist entertainment is part of a larger movement spear-headed by writers such as Ed Brubaker, who embrace the medium's past as well as its potential for the future.

I couldn't possibly end this endorsement without giving a shout-out to David Aja's thoroughly excellent art, which uses potentially garish primary colors, particularly the oft-maligned purple, with a skill not seen since Dave Gibbons' work on Watchmen. He thankfully rejects the glossy photo-realism so common in the medium these days in favor of a riff on Silver Age exuberance with ambitious panel construction that somehow manages a degree of winking post-modernism without being obnoxious. I'm no artist, though, so really I might as well jettison the fancy terms and just say that Hawkeye is really, really pretty. Ultimately, this whole "review" was just an attempt to explain why something is so great, when it's greatness is already self-evident. Pick up a copy with an open mind-- I expect you'll agree.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Very Benign Addiction

I had to pass on this fantastic list from Buzzfeed: 25 Signs You're Addicted to Books. Full props to fellow blog contributor Laurie for bringing this to my attention. Be warned, it contains some explicit language, and some-- or, in my case, all-- of these "signs" may hit a little close to home.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


ISBN-10: 0062200577
ISBN-13: 9780062200570
Published: William Morrow, 04/30/2013
Pages: 704
Language: English
Horror fiction is a tricky business, and most of its successful practicioners lean heavily on atmosphere and existential dread: Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker come to my mind. It's rare to find a scary, nasty piece of work like NOS4A2 that more or less eschews portent or vague mentions of Nameless Ones and still delivers the goods. NOS4A2's villains have recognizable psychological motivations and author Joe Hill takes pains to show the world from their  point of view. It's a very human approach to apply to characters that are, in a literal sense, only humanish, and it pays dividends in scares. In Hill's world, evil is brutish, backwards, and stupid, but no less terrifying.

By the way, in case you missed the significance of the title, it's a sort of numerical pun spelling out "Nosferatu," the German word for vampire. Hill is also paying homage to the silent film masterpiece of the same name, a kind of foundational text for horror that dared to depict a monster head-on, relying on very early but enduring make-up effects and a strange propensity to empathize with the rat-like bloodsucker. I can't help but go all English major up in here and reach for parallels between the film Nosferatu and the cheekily named book, which both disprove the notion that only the unseen and inexplicable are frightening. I could follow this thread until I get to a bunch of "banality of evil" nonsense, but I'll save you the trouble and simply argue that NOS4A2 is a highly entertaining, book-long refutation of Hitchcock's famous line: "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." One hates to disagree with a master, but he was only half-right: bangs are pretty scary, too.

Plus, Hill is a very gifted prose stylist and master craftsman of nail-biting set pieces. Like his father, Stephen King-- I went as long as I could without mentioning him, because Hill himself has tried very hard to stay out of that particular shadow-- Hill is ambitious and blackly comic, but, unlike his father, he rarely seems self-indulgent. Hill's 700-page horror epic somehow comes off as lean and enjoyable despite its length and the repeated emotional gut-punches he delivers to the reader. Putting a likeable heroine through the wringer turns out to be as effective a plot device as ever, so buckle up if you're at all squeamish. Oh man, I've written all this without even mentioning NOS4A2's particularly harsh take on Christmas tradition or Hill's fantastic comic series Locke and Key!? I suppose I'll have to do what Stephen King has refused to do his entire career: practice some restraint.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Teaching Controversy

ISBN-10: 0062203983
ISBN-13: 9780062203984
Published: Harper, 02/01/2013
Pages: 304
Language: English
Michelle Rhee's most recent memoir Radical: Fighting to Put Students First has been serving as a lightning rod for battles over education reform ever since its release in February, but I was alerted to a particularly interesting critique posted recently by Nicholas Lemann on the New Republic that, at the very least, outlines a notable counter-argument to Rhee's brand of reform. Rhee is no Johnny-come-lately to the educational scene-- she was featured prominently in the documentary Waiting for Superman as the crusading chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s public school system, for instance, and published a memoir on the subject just two years ago. The article and Rhee's book were discussed on Slate's excellent politics podcast, Slate's Political Gabfest, which I cannot recommend highly enough. 

While I agree with the hosts that Lemann's piece sometimes verges on becoming an ad-hominem attack on Rhee and her gigantic personality, it does raise some legitimate questions about her particular approach. Rhee is difficult to argue with in a broad sense-- read this excellent New Yorker piece on New York City's infamous Rubber Rooms if you have any doubts that there are some very bad teachers out there being protected by an inept system-- but her particular policy stances are eminently debatable. After all, "Fighting to Put Students First" is a much more broadly appealing message than "Fighting to Virtually Destroy Teacher's Unions and Institute a Voucher System with an Emphasis on Charter Schools." Here, the waters become much more muddied. 

For a more balanced understanding of educational reform, I would recommend former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, whose approach, as indicated by the impressively forthright title, is more didactic and policy-based than Rhee's, even if her conclusions are hardly less controversial. On the lighter side, I have heard good things about John Hunter's World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, based on his inspiring TED talk. Apparently-- who would guess?-- encouraging your students' creativity through innovative thought exercises is more effective than having them memorize lists of proper nouns. 

I was lucky enough to attend well-regarded elementary and high schools-- middle school, not so much-- so my own views are shaped by this experience. However, without wading into the political arena myself, I think my parents' emphasis on reading was incontrovertibly the most effective contribution to my education, which now allows me to use words like "incontrovertibly" with a reasonable degree of confidence. If that is something you would like your child to be able to do someday, get them hooked on books. On an unrelated note, a great many books are to be found at Flyleaf Books, located on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Hillsborough Street.