Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: Lazy-Brain Edition

I'm in between projects, and my brain, as my husband lovingly puts it, is in standby mode. But it's Hump Day, and I owe you something nerdy, darn it!

Do you guys watch Castle? You should . . . if only to see the episode wherein THIS happens.

And if you didn't get that reference . . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

American Gods, you can't make me love you if I don't

First things first. I love Neil Gaiman. I LOVE him love him. This just happens to be the first book of his that I've read. And look, guys . . . I ACTIVELY tried to love this book as much as I love its author. A book has never been given a better chance at love than the chance I gave THIS book. It just didn't do it for me.

Go ahead, American Gods fans. I can take it.
So the setting is America, as you may have gathered. I think this, in a nutshell, is what I didn't like about it. (More on that later. Let it simmer for now.) Our protagonist is Shadow, a shadowy (I mean, come ON) character who's just been released from prison and learned that his wife and best friend were killed in a car accident while engaging in . . . a compromising activity. On his way home, Shadow is approached by a mysterrrrrious stranger called Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a mysterrrrrrious job. Events get weirder and weirder, and every time Shadow asks a question, he's told that he's not paid to ask questions and I break another pencil.

Also, America is full of gods from various cultures that were brought over in the hearts and minds of immigrants over the years. The old gods (think Anansi and Kali) are fading, because few actively worship them in the New World, and the new gods (think Media and Technology) are thriving from the focused adoration of the masses. And therein lies the main conflict of the story (I think?): the old unwilling to make way for the new.

This is all perfectly acceptable . . . and even GOOD. Interesting premise. Complex characters. A clever explanation for the significance of roadside attractions ("In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they've never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit" [p. 118]).


As far as the content, one of the main complaints I've heard is that certain prominent deities (most conspicuously, the Christian one) don't figure into the plot at all. This particular aspect didn't bother me once I realized that the oversight wasn't an oversight at all.
"'It's going to be a white Christmas,' said Shadow as he pumped the gas.
'Yup. Shit. That boy was one lucky son of a virgin.'
'Lucky, lucky guy. He could fall in a cesspit and come up smelling like roses. Hell, it's not even his birthday, you know that? He took it from Mithras. You run into Mithras yet? Red cap. Nice kid. . . . So, yeah, Jesus does pretty good over here. But I met a guy who said he saw him hitchhiking by the side of the road in Afghanistan and nobody was stopping to give him a ride. You know? It all depends on where you are.'" (pp. 207-208)
If Jesus isn't adversely affected by the central conflict between old and new, it makes sense that he doesn't figure into the plot. And, in a Q&A at the end of my edition of the book, Gaiman confirms that the omission was a conscious decision.
"If you're asking why Christ doesn't turn up, it's mostly because he was, like Buddha, or several other individuals, much too successful and busy to be interested (or even interestable) in anything Mr. Wednesday would have had to offer."

There's THAT gripe settled.

But what kept me from loving this book as much as I wanted to was the writing style. It's clipped and cold and . . . kind of soulless. I didn't find ONE sentence that was underline-worthy in the whole book. Not ONE phrase constructed well enough to warrant reaching for a pen. Oh, wait . . . I just found something I underlined toward the end.
"The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies." (p. 547)
I really like cookies.

But, once again, Neil explained himself in the Q&A:
"I wanted to write American Gods in what I thought of as an American style---clean, simple, uncluttered---and push the narrator further into the background than I had on previous books."
Oh, Neil. You were trying to write "American"? Let's not try that again, please.

I'm about 100 pages into Neverwhere, and I am a MUCH bigger fan of British Gaiman. I've even underlined things! This is good news for me, a lover of Neil Gaiman who didn't QUITE love American Gods.

Now watch as I wantonly compare this book to other things: When I described the plot to my husband, he said, "Oh. So it's like Watchmen." *shrugs*

SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil. (2001). American Gods. New York: HarperCollins.

I'll never get a better opportunity to use this.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Revolutionary Road: Proving it's possible to hate every character and still love the book

Frank and April Wheeler first crossed paths at a party in New York City, when their hearts were young and running free.

Events directly preceding their first meeting.

April didn't have any particular direction in life, and neither did Frank. But they shared at least two things: debilitating baggage from the separate failings of their parents and the central goal of being more fabulous than anyone else in the history of ever.

Their romance was whirlwindy, and then they got married because it seemed like a fun activity for a weekday. But with one catalyzing event, their lives started getting less and less fabulous.
"Wasn't it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn't really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn't been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it. Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time---this was the hell of it---who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him. It was as ludicrous and as simple as that." (p. 53)
They never resigned themselves to the life they were living. They were constantly expecting to transcend circumstances they deemed unworthy of their self-conceptions, constantly at odds with each other and their home and work and friends and coworkers . . . and, most tragically, with their role as parents.

For the first 20 pages, I marginally identified with Frank and April. My husband and I are frolicking through a nontraditional life in a nontraditional neighborhood in a nontraditional city. At this point, neither of us would go quietly into an office job or the suburbs. But that's where the comparison ends, I hope . . . because I LOATHED these people. They are probably the most shamelessly selfish characters I've encountered in literature, and not just April and Frank; EVERY SINGLE character is competing to be the most self-involved, and they're ALL WINNING. And that's kind of the point. Well, it's ONE of the points. There are an astonishing number of points (without being preachy, I promise).

Now watch as I wantonly compare this book to other things: In terms of themes, I can trace major parallels to Blue Valentine, and at least a few to American Psycho. You'll have to figure out what those parallels are. Think of it as a very sad Easter-egg hunt. Find an egg; take an antidepressant.

Kitty self-medicates after learning the American Dream is a lie.
SOURCE: Yates, Richard. (1961). Revolutionary Road. New York: Vintage.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: Puberty Flashback Edition

In my awkward adolescent years, directly following my classics-only phase (A Clockwork Orange isn't suitable for 8-year-old girls? Pshaw!), I went through a period of reading ONLY from the Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy shelf at the severely limited Air Force Base library. After wading through a good amount of terrible-awful, I found Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I didn't know anything about it when I pulled it off the shelf, and I don't know what persuaded me to take it home.

Must have been the alluring cover design
But, like so many generations of readers before and after me, I was immediately entranced. And I will ALWAYS equate this book with the rare feeling of being 100% captured by a story . . . maybe for the first time (it's possible The Boxcar Children series got to me first).

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this crazy-pants book, and it's also the year it will be released as a graphic novel, custom tailored for consumption by a whole new generation of Meg Murrys, Charles Wallaces, and Calvin O'Keefes.

Coming in October!

Adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson.

First glimpse of Meg Murry.
More? Here, have this New York Times article about how Meg Murry bridged the gap between young female readers and the male-dominated sci-fi genre.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: A Cautionary Tale

We're all acquainted with the find/replace option in word processors, yes? It's a fancy little doodad that highlights a thing for us and then replaces it with another thing altogether. And there are JUST so many times in a human person's life when this tool comes in handy.

All-too-common scenario: The main character of the massive novel you have just written comes to you in a dream and says, "My name ISN'T Stan Mason. If you want to know my true name, look to the humble mountain goat."

This, as you realize upon waking, means you have to rename your character Wispy Wiggins (according to the strict rules of dream visitations). But what of all those Stans and Masons peppering your manuscript? The solution is none other than Find and Replace.

Your generally positive outlook on life is reclaimed! That sandwich you've been saving to celebrate Manuscript Submission Day is finally within your mouth-grasp.

But stay a moment. What's that sweet sound you hear? The siren call of the "Replace All" button.

You know you shouldn't, but you're just no match for its magnetic pull.

So you click it.

Important side note: The publisher didn't assign you an editor for this book, because there's been a nationwide shortage on editors. Because they've almost all been committed to psych wards . . . or something.

Only after the book has arrived in bookstores nationwide do you realize that you have been royally screwed by "Replace All."

Your timely passages about Kazakhstan? Those are now about . . . Kazakhwispy. Crucial references to the Mason-Dixon Line and mason jars and the Freemasons? Well, they just confuse the hell out of everyone. YOUR BOOK IS RUINED. I HOPE YOU ENJOYED YOUR SANDWICH.


Rant inspired by the recent War and Peace find/replace goof.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm (an increasingly regular thing)

If we're friends, I've probably invited you to a little event called Literary Death Match. If you've never heard me talk about this ever, then we are not friends. I'm sorry you had to find out this way.

Los Angeles became home base for Lit Death Match when event creator Todd Zuniga (who has been compared to Gatsby, always dresses for the occasion, and is one of the LA Times' Faces to Watch in 2012) moved here from Chicago. But he still travels all over to host these shindigs, which have been held in 36 cities around the world. If you live in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Boston, London, New York City, or pretty much any other major city anywhere, you have no excuse not to go to at least one of these and then get addicted and go to EVERY ONE FOR THE REST OF FOREVER.

But you're still a little confused about exactly what this is, aren't you?

Each episode features four different writers (be they well established or up-and-coming) and three judges. The readers are divided into two rounds, in which they each read an excerpt from their own work (published or unpublished), within a 7-minute time period. The judges---usually a mix of literary hard-hitters, celebrities, and comedians---decide the winner of each round based on the criteria of literary merit, performance, and intangibles.

Comedian Rory Scovel, musician Moby, and LA Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg
pretend to take judging seriously while Taylor Negron reads at LDM  LA, Ep. 9.
The judging usually isn't serious or particularly insightful, but it's ALWAYS entertaining. And most of the audience is well into their second cocktail before the reading even starts, so everything is the most poignant and/or hilarious thing they've ever heard.

The winners of each round go head-to-head in a finale that is usually only vaguely related to literature and always requires volunteers from the audience. It could be "Pin the Mustache on Hemingway" or "Throw the Cupcake at Brett Easton Ellis's Face," or some other activity that involves tipsy audience members getting fresh with literary greats. Eventually, a winner is declared.

Kit (of Books Are My Boyfriends) reuniting Hemingway with his mustache.

You never know what may happen at Lit Death Match. Last night, for instance, I sat slightly to the left of Michael C. Hall, and the friend I went with convinced two out of three of the celebrity judges to make out with him (side note: only one of those judges was a woman).

So next time I ask you to come to Lit Death Match with me, you should have no questions. And you should be honored to have the opportunity. And you should say yes.

The impossible-to-review Sisters Brothers (pretending to be at gunpoint did the trick)

This review (reflection, WHATEVER) has been next to impossible to write. I've had the book sitting at eye level on my desk for the past month, and I just gaze at it adoringly . . . AND NOTHING ELSE HAPPENS.

OK, here's what we'll do. I'll tell you what other books The Sisters Brothers reminds me of, and you'll not laugh at me.

First, it makes me think of Into the Wild, because there's an end goal, but the resolution of the journey (and of the story, really) isn't as important as the people encountered along the way.

Second, it reminds me of True Grit, because contractions are scarce. And it's a Western. What do you want from me? In-depth literary criticism? No.

And third, it's a tad reminiscent of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, because Charlie Sisters is a George and . . . I'm sorry, Eli, but you're definitely a Lennie. You kiiiiind of squish women with love.

The year is 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns from Oregon City, working for a crime lord called the Commodore. They've just come off a bad job, during which their horses were burned to death in a barn. Now they have new horses (I LOVE YOU, TUB!) and a new job, to kill a California prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm.

The brothers have earned quite a reputation across the country as stone-cold killers, and Charlie does seem to enjoy the work. But Eli is starting to think he might like to find a good woman and settle down. His sentimentality is that of a man hardened by circumstances, but it's all the more sincere for that.
"I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness; and though it was unrealistic for a man in my position to be thinking such thoughts, I could not help myself: I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?" (p. 56)
"Might I leave her a secret note? But I had no paper or ink and at any rate what would I say to her? Dear Miss, I wish you would wash your face and be nice to me. I have money. Do you want it? I never know what to do with it." (p. 59)
And the dynamic between the brothers is what you might expect from two grown men who love each other and also kill for a living. There is much drinking and bickering . . . SO much bickering. But kind of adorable bickering?
"'You're not smiling, are you? We're in a quarrel and you mustn't under any circumstances smile.' I was not smiling, but then began to, slightly. 'No,' said Charlie, 'you mustn't smile when quarreling. It's wrong, and I dare say you know it's wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.'" (p. 46)
Some of their exchanges are hilarious (Charlie is clever and retains his biting sense of humor even in the face of death), and some are sobering.

Discussing a trading post they had just patronized:
"'It struck me as restful industry. I'll wager that old man sleeps very well at night.'
'Do you not sleep well at night?' Charlie asked earnestly.
'I do not,' I said. 'And neither do you.'
'I sleep like a stone,' he protested.
'You whimper and moan.'
'Ho ho!'
'It's the truth, Charlie.'
'Ho,' he said, sniffing. He paused to study my words. He wished to check if they were sincere, I knew, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding overly concerned. The joy went out of him then, and his eyes for a time could not meet mine. I thought, We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness." (p. 50)
This complicated relationship between brothers is couched within a larger story about raw human ambition, the American Dream, the California Gold Rush, and just . . . life. So many passages struck me as the purest and truest thing I had ever read. I basically just reread the whole book looking for excerpts to share with you, and I want to share them ALL. I'm refraining from doing so with the understanding that you will go immediately right now this very second and read the book yourself.

SOURCE: DeWitt, Patrick. (2012). The Sisters Brothers. New York: HarperCollins.

And thanks to Brooks at Forever Overhead for hosting the giveaway that led to me winning this book that is full of win!