Monday, December 31, 2012

Lunatics, by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel

Hands-down, nuttiest book of the year.

The new year is upon us, and tonight marks the start of the annual tradition of assessing our lives and determining how we would like them to change. We look back over the past year, or several years, and see all the stagnation, all the accumulation, all the sloth and selfishness and business, and resolve that this new year is going to be different.

Or, if we are very, very lucky (and perhaps very, very driven), we look back and see just what we have accomplished. What we have gained. How we have changed. Then, we can look forward with the confidence born of accomplishments and decide how our future lives will be shaped by our pasts.

This process is never cut and dry, never simple, and usually not as conveniently bookended as a calendar year. Life is messy, in a way that fiction doesn't have to be. Which is why we expect the change from characters in books that we seldom recognize in our own lives. Page One is January 1st, and the final page is New Year's Eve. A character's life is never the same (or perhaps I should say "should not be the same") after a story concludes. The events and realizations affect a character just like they do us real-world folks... only usually much more neatly and tightly.

This year has been for me a year of reading and writing wildly, watching unbalanced characters in stories survive (or not) tumult greater than my own. So I figure, what better way to wrap up such a year than with a book called Lunatics?

Of all the fiction and nonfiction adventures I've been taken on this year, this one is without contest the craziest. Barry and Zweibel have a knack for what writers call "turning it faster," that ability to take a situation and test the boundaries of just how far it can be pushed. You know that moment when you think, "This can't get any worse for these characters!" and then it does? Yeah, these guys master that technique.

But it got me wondering just near the end whether they could bring it back -- whether or not I would see how the characters are altered by their experiences. The two main characters, Horkman and Peckerman, have an adventure of mishaps nuttier than most of us could imagine. But their attitudes and their perspectives, by the final page, have not changed one smidge. These are the same two deluded individuals who started the book. Yes, they had me laughing out loud and clapping my hand over my gaping mouth every five minutes. But at some point, the story needed more than humor.

It needed what we all yearn for on January 1. Change.

Who wants to look back on the past year and realize that the year has not changed them one tiny bit? More to the point, who could experience a year full of trials and accomplishments and not grow as a person?

As we slide into the new year, here's what I wish for all you Microphone readers. I wish you a year full of epiphanies and adventures, challenges conquered and struggles overcome. I wish you a year of both self-cultivation and feral jungle flowering. And I wish you the opportunity to look back on it all.

Life isn't what we do or what happens to us. Life is how those events change us, and even more so, how we change them. May you become more the person you want to be in 2013. And may your year have a storybook ending, where the hero and heroine stand atop the hill, better for accepting adventure and living their lives.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, by Dave Barry

This blog's cherished bat poop jokes annual tradition.

I've never understood why so many families choose to attend movies on Christmas Day. For those who celebrate it, for either festive or religious reasons, the holiday is meant to be a time of memorable moments, of family, of togetherness. Maybe I don't watch movies correctly -- but I've never found them to be the epitome of close-knit quality time. (Especially not in theaters, where someone's bound to dump popcorn on your snarky and noisy familial bonding.)

What if, instead of paying ten bucks a head to send the crew to the cinema, every family gathering this time of year celebrated together by reading a book? I've got one that's becoming a bit of an annual tradition in whatever house I'm living in come Christmastime. Some folks love it when I pull out a book to read aloud. Others groan. Inevitably, within ten minutes, everyone's smart phones are sheathed and their chairs are in danger of toppling due to their edges being perched on.

Yes, it's a book about Christmas, though I suspect that anyone with a passing familiarity with the season would "get it." Christmas is the backdrop, but it's really a story about family, childhood, growing old, dogs, and the perils of accumulated bat poop. Things we can all relate to.

The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog kills every time. (Will it get you on the manger scene? Or the Rolodex?) And it breaks someone into tears every time. (At the same part. Every time.) That's why it's my favorite family Christmas story. But that doesn't mean it should be yours.

Whatever your flavor, try reading a book together this December. See if it doesn't provide all the thrills of the movies, with more interaction and easier access to cookies.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling, by Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka

Starting up serious cycling? This'll get you going!

Earlier this fall, I got to thinking about goals, goal-setting, and goal-achieving when I read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. While my post talked about goals in general and in storytelling, I had my own personal subtext at the time. I was in the midst of NaNoWriMo, that mad dash of creativity where thousands of people the world over sprint to complete a 50,000 word novel in thirty days. (I did it!) At the same time, I started riding my bike several times a week, pushing myself a little farther and a little faster each ride. The rides were a great way to experience nature and get to know my new environment outside Durango. But that tickling at the base of my brain let me know these rides were more than merry jaunts.

The distant stony mountains to the north, crisp in the clear air up here, challenged me. Beckoned me. If I could conquer a novel in a month, what was to say that I couldn't accomplish anything I wanted?

December 1 was my day of reckoning: the day registration opened for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. At the end of May, several hundred bicyclists ride 50 miles from Durango to Silverton. Over two mountains. Up over 6000 feet. And they race a train there.


Until this fall, I had probably clocked less than 50 miles on a bike total. And my biggest uphill was our residential driveway. So I figure, I'm the perfect insane person candidate to tackle the Iron Horse.

If my old man can train for (and triumph in) the IHBC, then that's the gauntlet. It's official. I'm riding over those mountains come May.

So far, I'm loving it. I fully expect there will be those times for despair, agony, heartbreak, and regret. (And angry quadriceps.) And I'll count on my lovely family and friends for support in those times.

I feel prepared, though. I can pick my dad's brain when I have questions. And I've read The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling. I'm the kind of fella that prefers not jumping into a challenge entirely cold. If I can read about it and learn about it, I will. This book won't pull me up hills, but it's brought me up to speed on the equipment, the lingo, the methods of training, and the nutrition. Now I'm not a total noob when I walk in a bike shop. I feel like I'm armed to accomplish this goal.

It's effing terrifying. But it's exhilarating, too. Considering that I am traditionally an eggheaded chap whose idea of a perfect day is reading in pajamas, this ride and its training may just be the perfect proof of what humans are capable of accomplishing when they put pride (and a sign-up fee) on the line.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Breaking up with Facebook


I am making the choice to break up with Facebook.

We share a lot of the same friends, Facebook and I, and I realize that ending this relationship means that I may lose contact with the people I have known and met throughout my life. That reality saddens me, but it is not enough reason for me to stay in what was becoming a lopsided relationship. I hope that many of my friends will choose to stick with me through this breakup. If they insist on staying friends with Facebook too, which I expect they will, I hope they at least don't tell Facebook where to find me.

The problem was, Facebook was really great to me -- in the beginning. The concept of a centralized social network, where folks can connect with other folks, with interesting groups and like-minded communities, with companies and movements and products, is just… convenient. Heck, it's maybe even necessary to our modern ways of interacting with each other. Even though Facebook made sure that my communication with friends stayed brief, going from wall posts to comments to likes, it at least kept me wired to a broader world. It let me know more about my family, friends, associates, acquaintances, and favorite celebrities than I otherwise would. So what if keeping in touch always felt like peeping through a window into their homes without actually getting to knock on the door?

Sure, we had our issues, but whatever problems Facebook had would go away as I got more used to interacting with it. I learned to embrace its method of staying in contact via a series of posts broadcast by my friends like miniature bulletins. The changes in Facebook's policies, its frequent manipulations of my preferences and privacy settings, were just the necessary quirks of adapting to this new age of socialization. Same with Facebook taking its pictures of me and all the information I gave it privately and showing them -- flaunting them -- in front of its advertising buddies. Yet an uneasy feeling lingered and grew like old cheese slices in the fridge.

But what could I say? If I tried to change anything, Facebook and its algorithms had the power to cut me off from everyone I hold dear.

I finally took a step back. No change, just distance. I went off for a weekend -- without Facebook -- and the time away gave me a new perspective. The problem isn't me and my inability to adjust. The problem is Facebook and its informational promiscuity. Facebook and its non-consensual violations of my personal space on the internet. Facebook and its changing the rules of our relationship, which it was my fault if I didn't see but which I agreed to explicitly every time I continued to call it up.

I used to be my own person, with my own space and my own standards of decent behavior. When did I let Facebook define not just how, but whether I interact with other people? When did I let Facebook decide what parts of me the world could see? When did complete personal transparency become the accepted norm for all of us?

Yes, Mama always said that if I didn't want the world to know something, then I shouldn't put it on the internet. But the internet is not the realm of the Big Bad Wolf, and it should stay that way. I never gave Facebook my social security number or my credit cards, thank goodness. I never shared anything with it that I wouldn't tell a girl on the first date. But we usually trust our dates not to sell our chitchat to complete strangers, don't we?

When Facebook announced another wave of security adjustments, it declared that it valued the quality of our feedback over the quantity of our comments. Well, Facebook hasn't listened to me yet, and I finally see the abuse for what it is. So I'm breaking up with Facebook, because it's the only voice I have that it will listen to. I'm tearing up the scrapbook with my pictures and my little descriptions in it. Deleting everything we ever shared seems like the best way of making sure I maintain some scrap of my privacy. Maybe by leaving Facebook I can effect some small change in the future I envision, which is a future where business practices treat me like the man I am instead of disregarding and disrespecting my patronage.

Breaking up with Facebook is the only way to make sure it doesn't start to violate other aspects of my personal, private life. It will also clear room in my life, maybe for a hobby or my work, or just to have some empty space to enjoy for a while. No need to rush out and repeat the cycle.

I understand that my life, as one of Facebook's exes, will be different. And I will mourn the loss of communication that will happen with other people in this new life. But what contact remains, I believe will be far more fervent and far less compulsive.

Such a dream is possible because taking time for myself also means more time for heartfelt (rather than merely convenient) connections with my family and friends. Facebook did a lot of discourtesy to me, but it didn't delete my email address, and it didn't cancel my phone bill. My channels to the wider world will be narrower without Facebook than with it, but I think that my connections will run much deeper and more meaningfully, because they will be self-motivated and not Facebook-enabled.

Also, my communications will be private and personal once again. The publication of our lives is not necessary. It is not inevitable. It is not permissible, and yet we allow it to penetrate our daily lives. We embrace it so tightly that we can't see what its hands are doing down where the sun don't shine.

It's time we remember who's in charge here. We have the power to say no as much as yes. We are the ones to set the rules for this new age of social networking, like how many dates until we round second base (and whether or not Aunt Sally gets to read about it). We must strive to maintain our individual privacies, rather than learn to accept a standard of no privacy at all. Otherwise, what answer will we give the future when the future asks us who its real mommy and daddy are?

I tell you one thing: I don't want to beget the future with Facebook.

If Facebook wants to have any more contact with me, it will be on my terms. It can come to my office and act professionally. We can conduct business as colleagues, both of us benefiting from the terms of our arrangement and neither of us taking unrequited advantage of the other. Not again. That's why I'm keeping my Zach Hively author page alive and active -- that profile helps me (on my terms) reach a reading public. That side of me, the professional side, is a naturally public side, and anything I share as a writer is meant to be public. So have at, Facebook! See how you think I fit into your little algorithms now. You'll never get into my living room again, let alone my bedroom.

Setting myself free has always terrified me, even more so than chaining myself down. But that's why I have to make this move. I do not want to concede what is right and good for what is simply convenient. I do not want to compromise privacy for a default public setting. I want us human beings to dictate our communities and not relinquish our power to evolving technologies and those in charge of them. We determine the shape of our futures.

It's taken me a dozen or so times of fantasizing about this future day to make it my present reality. And it feels good to be strong. Sayonara, Facebook.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Coldest War, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best follow-ups in ages. Check it out for yourself, and support the blog in the process!

Last year, I came across Ian Tregillis and his first novel, Bitter Seeds. This book blew my hair back in a big way. So many follow-ups are disappointments -- they continue toying with a played-out premise, or forget what made their readers fall in love with the early stories, or lose threads, or fail to surprise their readers any more.

The Coldest War, in the most emphatic way, is NOT one of those sequels. Tregillis isn't writing a train of connected books, seeing what happens with the same characters twenty years later. He's crafting a series where the second book changes how you read the first one. If the first volume blew my hair back, then I can blame the second one for my encroaching baldness, because my hair couldn't even hold on for the ride this time. (I almost regret coming to this series while it's still being published. I would have sacrificed needed sleep last night to read the third book straight through.)

In the first volume, I appreciated how Tregillis (more than many authors of all genres, though it's particularly important in sci-fi and fantasy) gave each of his characters' actions risk and consequence. The bigger the action, the weightier the repercussions. And no action is easy; every one is dearly purchased and limits further actions.

The Coldest War does the same thing, though perhaps less of it -- this volume's less about supermen vs. warlocks and more about emotions and machinations. In this book, I noticed the importance of precise language taking its place. The words spoken come with immense consequences and are all the more dangerous because they are so easily breathed.

The necessity of linguistic precision crops up in many stories about magic. Spells go wrong because of the nuance of translation, or the ambiguity of grammar, or the altered meanings that come with variations of tone. The concept is nothing new.

What Tregillis remembers, though, is that words aren't only magical when magic is being performed. The very act of language is itself alchemic. We take abstract concepts, give them representative symbols (in words and sounds), and cause events to happen, emotions to swing, people's behavior to alter. Sometimes it's simply physics -- our vocal chords vibrate the air, which sends tremors to our eardrums or to mechanized voice detectors. And sometimes, the effects of language go beyond our capacity to explain with physics.

Whether people wield words like scalpels or scythes, they cause shit to happen. And in The Coldest War, hoo boy, does shit ever happen.

[Superficial side note: I am no book designer, nor a publisher, so I hardly know best what helps a book on the shelves sell. If the new cover designs for the Milkweed Triptych will increase sales and get The Coldest War into more hands, it's a success. I mourn the loss of the dust jacket design from Bitter Seeds, though. It was one of the more handsome, melancholic, evocative covers I've seen, and I looked forward to having a complete matching set. Ah well; so it goes.]

Monday, November 19, 2012

In One Person, by John Irving

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This blog is my forum, the place where I voice the ideas that pop in my head while reading a book. Sometimes my thoughts come out sounding like a book review; other times, I'm sure I sound like I took the branch line to Randomtown and jumped the tracks partway there.

I even get political sometimes, though I try to refrain from the more overt diatribes.

Some people will think this post is political, but I think it's just human.

John Irving's In One Person (his strongest and most moving book in years, in my opinion) might have caused quite the entertaining stir ten years ago, and an outright kerfluffle twenty years ago. When it was released this past spring, I heard... nothing. Nothing but "Hey, John Irving's got a new book coming out."

More than any political and electoral strides in the direction of sexual equality, that radio silence tells me how far we've come in American society. We are moving ever closer to a time when gender identity is no more peculiar an identifier than height or hair color. (Humans are just a prejudicial species; true equality will never exist. Just look at blonde jokes. But the level of prejudice on hair color is about as low in the United States as it ever will be.)

Political gains for (in a blanket term) gays and (in a blanket acronym) LGBTQ individuals are certainly too great to dismiss. I am so proud of my home country that Don't Ask Don't Tell has been repealed, and even prouder of my compatriots that have now voted to permit gay marriage. They are all steps toward general and broad acceptance.

(A friend of mine once had a long diatribe about her distaste for the "tolerance" word; why should we merely tolerate one another? she wanted to know. Annoying children are sometimes tolerated. A neighbor's loud music is tolerated. Nothing positive is ever tolerated. If we can't love each other, can't we at least accept each other instead of just tolerating? I've accepted her intolerance of tolerance as my own philosophy.)

Irving's latest is not ten or twenty years too late; on the contrary, he finds the most unaccepted kind of person and tells a story about him. As we question our societal and individual levels of acceptance, we need this sort of litmus paper. Billy is bisexual; straight people don't entirely trust him because he's kind of gay, and gay people don't entirely accept him because he's kind of straight. How do we respond to him?

In reading about Billy and his overwhelming humanity, we face our own discomforts (fess up, we all have some) and embrace what we have in common with him -- which, despite all his effed-up Irving-esque qualities, is far greater than any of our differences. We unfold our empathy for Billy, and I think in so doing, we roll out our empathy for anyone like him.

That is to say, we learn a little bit about loving one another. And that feeling stays with you long after you close the book.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Psychedelic Pill, by Neil Young with Crazy Horse

Rock along with the blog - in vinyl, CD, or (don't tell Neil) mp3

I may not be a musician, but as an artist of a different medium, I have the utmost respect for Neil Young. (If you're not new to the blog, or to me, you know that already.) 2012 is turning out to be a banner year of sorts; although I had to miss his August tour opener in my hometown, I now have two new albums with Crazy Horse (the first since 2003) and a book in less than six months. I'm feeling pretty pleased.

While I find much to admire in Mr. Young's artistic principles and much to enjoy and inspire me in his music, where he earns my greatest respect is in his ability to stay relevant. Fortunately for his commercial success, that relevance correlates with a shared relevance for thousands of fans. What I mean by his relevance, however, is his relevance to himself.

How many rock-and-rollers can you think of who haven't performed a new song in ten years? Twenty? Thirty? And how many musicians of even twenty years' vintage can you think of who still tour to support new albums, not as an excuse to play the hits from the past, but simply because that new music is where their souls are happiest and their muses are engaged?

Mr. Young, as far as I can tell, doesn't put out new material because his fans want it. And he doesn't base his concert setlists on what the average radio listener expects to hear. (I've been to shows on at least three Neil Young tours where people walked out because the music didn't match their expectations.) Commercially viable or artistically shaky, the music he plays is the music that means something to him at that moment in his world.

That commitment to his own artistic morals is how he can release an album like Psychedelic Pill. It reminisces, but without nostalgia. It mourns, but with hope. It looks over its shoulder, but always while stepping forward.

This is where Neil Young is right now, folks. Of all the writers and musicians and craftsmen and painters whose work I have experienced, he's the artist with the least artifice. Love his stuff or despise it, you can't fault his honesty for being straightforward. I aspire to be that true to myself, to my writing... hell, to my life.

(Also: I appreciate this album more every time I listen to it. If you have even the slightest inclination to like Neil with the Horse, you must. get. this. album.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Feeling adventurous and supportive? Then get the book!
 
We all set goals; it's part of what makes us human. Granted, some of our goals aren't terribly ambitious -- I once had a goal to drink so much water that I could spend my entire eight-hour shift walking to the bathroom, urinating, and returning to my desk. But the point of the matter is that I set a goal, I did what I could to accomplish it, and we all have similar experiences every day.

Sometimes those goals get a little more courageous. Bill Bryson's did. He decided to set out one summer and hike the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. (And he wrote a very informative and funny book about the adventure, too.)

And now I'm wildly curious about humans and our setting (and sometimes accomplishing) of goals. Yes, we all participate in the ritual; but how does it work? How are our brains wired so that we constantly set goals -- whether it's climbing Kilimanjaro or getting home in time for Seinfeld reruns -- and seemingly even more constantly fail to reach them?

These questions are not rhetorical. I'm throwing this out there to my readers. If you have thoughts on how the brain's capacity for goal-setting (including both success and failure) functions,  I want to hear them. And if you know any sources that discuss these phenomenons (books, websites, actual human beings, whatever), please, please pass their info my way. I would love you and appreciate your assistance forever.

(Comments are good. So are emails, if you don't want to share publicly. I'm at znhively at gmail.)

One thing that A Walk in the Woods really got me thinking about: I find that many folks (myself included) measure the success of a goal on whether the outcome matches the original objectives. What if we treated goals more like science fair projects? You know, instead of saying "I will lose twenty pounds this year," what if we said "I'm going to find out if I can lose twenty pounds this year." Then the outcome isn't so dependent on a success/failure balance. Instead, you discover an answer. "Whaddya know, I can lose twenty pounds in a year!" or "Well, I gave it my best, and it turns out I'm capable of losing fifteen pounds in a year."

And, like a science fair project, the experiment leaves itself open for further discovery -- those wonderful moments of insight that get pushed aside when our goals are so focused on a single result. "I only lost five pounds, but I discovered that I really enjoy hiking!" or "I actually gained five pounds, but I discovered that I'm an amazing pastry chef!" For Bill Bryson (no direct spoilers here, unless you really try to read into it), the goal ends up being secondary to the opening of his worldview.

Isn't that what we expect in a good story, whether nonfiction or novel? We care less about whether or not the Jamaican bobsled team wins a medal than we do about how everyone changes from the experience. We care less about whether or not Bryson completes the hike than we do about how the hike changes him.

If our own personal goals were set up the same way, don't you think we all might have a little more self-discovery and a lot less disappointment?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ostrich, by Michael A. Thomas

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Once again I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month, the lemming-like annual event where thousands of people decide that writing a 50,000-word first draft in 30 days sounds more sane than ever because thousands of other people are attempting it, too.

Only this year, I'm prepared. I went from having no clue (2008) to a bare-bones outline (2011) to a structured series of notecards with scenes, backstory, research, questions to be answered, and motivations for minor characters. I have a writing desk that is, for the first time, not also my designated dining space. I have even left the four walls of my home in order to talk to real people in preparation for this novel. Gads!

About seven times per hour of writing, I also have that debilitating sense that I am a hack, that I have no business charting stories, and that this story will in no way succeed the way I have planned it.

The first two doubts require simply practice. (Or so the proverbs about perfection say.) And the last one -- oh, what a beautiful doubt that last one is. Because what a shame it would be if the novel kept the precise form I have planned for it! What a dirty stinking shame it would be if the process of writing didn't surprise me, reveal truths to me, teach me about myself!

My lovely little lady recommended this book to me, based solely on the tantalizing tidbits of the story I've spoiled for her. (Somehow, a slacking entrepreneur deciding to convert his father's sheep ranch to an ostrich farm sounded right up this NaNo novel's alley. And the recommendation wasn't wrong. What glorious mishaps must await the story I charted?) Yet Ostrich provided a different sort of inspiration, as recommended books often do.

The best laid plans... often bear unexpected fruit. Everything might go wrong with this suicidal first draft. But as long as I keep bullheadedly pursuing it, pushing its possibilities and discovering whether it's crazy enough that it just might work, I might get the end result I want (a rip-roaring comedic masterpiece) even if it's not the one I set out to write.

The plan works for VJ Eckleberry and all his bird-related master goals. So why not for writing a novel? It's even crazier than raising persnickety ostriches for cowboy boots. It just might work...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young

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Neil Young has a reputation as a loner, a rock star selfish with his muse (though generous with his time and talents--when the cause is worthy). He comes across as an eccentric recluse, famously reluctant to give interviews and willing to sink resources into various projects, like Lionel trains and dorky films.

So for appreciators of both the man and his music, Waging Heavy Peace is a bit of a treat. The book is not the tell-all autobiography for gossip hounds, nor is it the Literary Masterpiece that some writing critics would prefer. I know many folks who go to a Neil Young concert and delight in those cherished between-songs conversational moments, no matter how brief or rambling, and understand that they may not hear a single spoken word if the man doesn't feel like it. For people like them, this book is well worth the cost of admission. Young opens his heart on these pages.

What I took away from the book is that Young is not the self-centered fellow many rock fans think he is. Yes, he tends to listen to the muse at the expense of his personal relationships--this is the musician who bailed on Stephen Stills mid-tour and ditched Crazy Horse for Pearl Jam, after all. Yes, he invests incredible amounts of time in high-aiming projects like LincVolt and Pono. But like all artists, believe it or not, he is not a solo act.

Musicians, writers, painters, dramatists: we all rely on our communities. Sometimes that means our artistic peers. Young shows us that his community, while very music-centric, extends beyond music. Waging Heavy Peace is as much about his friends as it is about him. He is his friends, in that his friends seem to have shaped his existence on this earth. He turns to them when he feels down, when the muse washes over him, when he needs to eat breakfast. Young likes to talk about all the cars he has owned, but behind the wheel of each of them sits a friend--each car runs more on memories than it does gasoline.

I know many people tend to idealize successful artists--hell, I know I do. We think of them as self-made men and women, driven by their passions and talent and carried to the top by no one. Young simply, poignantly, reminds us that community is the important aspect in human endeavors, artistic or otherwise. While personal accumulation of wealth and objects and fame have their place, the human experience is more about the way we spend our lives than the money we have to spend on it. It's about who we spend it with.

Eleven days before the next presidential election here in the United States, I think we will soon cast our symbolic votes for the decision we make every day. What kind of culture do we want to foster: one that leaves each person scrabbling for a piece of the pie, or one that relies on friendships and support and community? Both have the potential to make a person wealthy. Love, or money: what is the currency of our future?

I have a feeling Mr. Young, for one, would choose love. I would too.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Under Mountains, by Rachel Sermanni


It's time for Alone at the Microphone to deviate once more from books to talk about a remarkable musician. I've done it only twice before, I think -- both times for Neil Young albums. This one is a little bit different, though I'll say this songwriter is as talented as Neil Young was at her age.

You probably have not heard of Rachel Sermanni, especially if you are one of my Stateside readers. She's beginning to splash the waters in Europe, and I'm one of the lucky ones who fell in love with her music before the release of Under Mountains, her new full-length album. We went to see Elvis Costello perform in Sligo, Ireland, just about a year ago. The spritely young Scottish woman opened for Costello, and in this writer's opinion, she stole the show from the veteran. A small group of female violinists backed Sermanni (who sings and plays a stellar folk guitar), and after the concert we picked up her first four-song EP outside. The recordings are great, though they are far from a representative sample of this lady's capabilities (even considering the jazzy edge to "Pablo's City").

Then Sermanni released a much stronger EP in early 2012. In March, she put on a solo show in Dublin, at Whelan's Upstairs, which is the kind of place where you'd be proud to say "I saw her when." She showed off her impressive range -- of volume, soulfulness, fingerwork, songwriting styles, and hilarious between-songs chatter. (And Rachel, if you should read this: I hope that someday you release the song called something like "I Have a Girl." Also, the burger van song.)

---

Under Mountains finally came out last month, and my hopes soared. Would this be the diverse album I'd been yearning for? Several of the songs were already released on the EPs, so the new songs would make or break the album as a coherent work rather than just a collection of tracks from a talented songwriter. (At any rate, the artwork is beautiful. Not enough artists put energy into album covers.)

Perfect timing: a drive through the Black Range in the Gila Forest of southern New Mexico awaited me. On a hunch, I put the CD in the car and withstood its temptation until Hillsboro had fallen away behind me and the swerving road climbed ahead.

Straight away, the record plays with the juxtaposition of sounds. "Breathe Easy" reveals a songwriter unafraid of empty space, where the listener hangs suspended between bass notes as in a thick hammock. Then "Bones" jumps in with a soulful edge, reminding the listener not to get too comfortable here; the unexpected lurks like a deer in the road around each switchback. I heard this song when Sermanni was backed by the ladies -- it was the one that made me say "whoa" -- and I could not be more tickled to hear it included here.

"Waltz" is one of those songs deep for its simplicity and simple for its depth. It's beautiful. I just wished that Sermanni had not chosen to make the song a duet, or that she had chosen a male singer with a voice to complement and challenge her own. I've heard Neil Young sing with Josh Groban (no thank you), and I've heard Neil Young sing with Dave Matthews (drooling with awe). Just because you have two unique or talented voices doesn't mean that the result is always a success. Perhaps Sermanni doesn't recognize her strength as a vocalist. She needs to, and then she needs to be selective in who she braids her voice with.

As the elevation soars into the Range, the entire terrain transforms around the highway. Clinging scrub brushes, ragweed, and spindly cacti abdicate to soaring red ponderosa pines. And amid the pines stands a single peach tree, the accidental growth from a traveler's discarded pit. That's when the whimsical and surreal "Ever Since The Chocolate" submitted to one of Sermanni's most powerful songs, "The Fog." It's got tension and suspense in the music, and deft interplay with the lyrics.

"Little Prayer" provides a breather, kind of like Young's "Til the Morning Comes" following "Southern Man" on After the Gold Rush. Then "Sea Oh See" (a self-proclaimed "pirate song") egged me forward. The peak of the Black Range sneaked up on me, as it often does, announcing itself only because the car was suddenly rolling downhill rather than climbing ever upward. Right near here, I once saw a mountain lion; this time, the animals were hiding, and the unsettling soaring of "Sleep" gave way to the descending bass line that rolled downhill with me.

Eventually, the precarious cliffs mellow out into deeper forest paths, and here I saw a flock of wild turkeys in the road. I slowed down to admire the sheer size of these birds who roam the woods heedless of being eaten, and "Marshmallow Unicorn" serenaded us like I picture in the epiphany scene in an indie film.

The rest of the album may not have the variety in tone that the first two-thirds or so has, though it's no weaker for that. Each of the final pieces -- "Black Current," "Eggshells," and "To A Fox" -- has its own musical magic. These are no filler songs to flesh out a CD, but the proof that this songwriter has the chops to write beautiful and evocative pieces. These ones may never be chart-topping singles, but those aren't typically the songs I like anyway. I've always appreciated an album that feels like a novel rather than a collection, and these songs provide the perfect denouement.

They also gave me time to contemplate Sermanni's style. Under Mountains is unified by certain threads running through many songs, ideas like dreaming and waking, dancing and loving, naming and moving. But more than the common words and themes, this album is unified by its opposite and complementary parts. Just like Sermanni's soulful voice bounding forth from a tiny 20-year-old body, her music comes alive in its cognizance of yin and yang. She sings often of soul and skin, of sky and stone, only they come together as one rather than clashing as oil and water.

Her music is ether and earth. It is never one or the other. It is always one and both.

As the eerie and uplifting "To A Fox" wound down (is the fox Rachel Sermanni's totem? her guide? her muse?) the road dropped suddenly from the trees back to the hills and the dust. The speed limit soared, the road straightened out before me, and I ejected the disc. Driving over a granite monolith, I had breathed in the sky. Returned to earth, I knew I had brought the ether back with me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Caliban's War, by James S. A. Corey


I may not be the first to say this, but Corey's series The Expanse (and particularly this summer's installment Caliban's War) is the very definition of post-9/11 literature.

Of course, some obvious books are post-9/11 because they deal with the effects of that day directly (like Don DeLillo's Falling Man) or indirectly (like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Caliban's War is a tougher book to pinpoint because it doesn't even mention the United States or twenty-first century terrorism, which it shouldn't, being set in the remote future and all. At the time of the book's events, there's too much recent history for an event in our present-day to bear much weight. It would be like you consciously dictating your life based on the Jamestown settlement. Of course, it affects our world today. But you're not thinking about how it does so.

I'm convinced, though, that if The Expanse were published twelve or fifteen years ago, it would have been a vastly different story -- or it wouldn't have received the attention it's getting now.

Up to World War II, conflict was simple: we understood nations like England and Germany. Even in Vietnam and with the Cold War, the threat might have been less bordered, but we could still call it Other, and in so doing we could perceive if not exactly understand it.

9/11 gave Americans our first taste of a threat we truly could not comprehend. Those who directly committed the acts against us were dead, so we could not bring them to justice. Whatever weight the conspiracy theories held, we could not begin to think that We, rather than Other, were culpable, so we dismiss them. We had to put faces on the threats in ways we could understand: individuals and nations. And, yes, as a nation we experienced catharsis when Osama bin Laden died. We breathed a little easier when Saddam Hussein was disposed and Iraq began following a different path, no matter what our individual beliefs about the war were.

But the real threat that 9/11 exposed was not bin Laden and it was not Iraq and it was not Afghanistan and it was not the Taliban. It wasn't even terrorism, not exactly, though we've tried our best to squeeze our hands around that wet sponge. The threat is one we don't know how to combat because we cannot comprehend it. Because of 9/11, we take our shoes off at the airport and we live under the constant and real possibility of indefinite detention. Those are the new facts, regardless of political beliefs or personal inclinations.

As humans, we feel the need to act when our survival-as-we-know-it is threatened. So we act, even if our actions are directed at the wrong source. Even if our actions are ineffective or counterproductive. We act, so that we feel like we stand a chance.

One definition of post-9/11 is the recognition that we may be acting against a bogeyman -- that we may not be willing to face or able to comprehend the threats to our existence because they are much more unrecognizable than Other. Or sometimes, the threats may be much more recognizable and closer to home than Other, which frightens us more than any foreign intrusion could. The key to survival in our worldview has become more than outgunning our enemies. It means either understanding that we may never understand the threats to our existence, or transferring those ghostly threats onto tangible avatars.

Those are our choices, and they play out in Caliban's War. I'm trying not to give spoilers to the book, for which you're welcome. But go read it, and then think about how your own understanding of the novel would have been different in August of 2001. (Then go brush up on The Tempest and see what you conclude about the title of the book. Corey ain't no dummy.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach


This book worked as one heck of a transition for me -- the last book I picked up while living in Ireland, the one I started while grounded in Europe, read the entire trans-Atlantic flight, and finished with my feet back on American turf. It was recommended by my favorite Irish bookseller (tip o' the brim to you, E) and it circles around my favorite sport. How could I go wrong?

I couldn't. The novel is fantastic -- one of those books that makes me happy to be a reader and a writer.

Part of my general motivation for writing is that I want to be a doer. The old adage goes that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. I fear being "just" a teacher, especially an academic -- never mind that some of the most inspirational and impressive folks in my life have been teachers and scholars. The burning in my brains is to create, to contribute original material -- not to work with the creations of others.

I will never knock teachers (by which I mean those who teach, not necessarily always the same as those individuals hired by our schools and universities). The effort that true teachers put forth every day, even in those so-called summer vacations, shames many of the best of us. Thinking that they lack some essential trait of doing, though, is perhaps understandable. Teachers have to know the theory, the whats and the whys and the hows; but if they had the ability, wouldn't they be putting their talents into practice?

The Art of Fielding is full of this juxtaposition of teaching and doing. Its main characters are all doers (ballplayers and lovers) and teachers (academics and coaches). They are each defined by what they do and teach -- or fail to do and teach. Some of them struggle to harmonize their deep knowledge and understanding, and their yearning for more than their God-given portion of talent. (I think particularly of Schwartz, the baseball captain who sacrifices his own athletic and law-school goals to further the baseball career of his friend and teammate.)

The way I read the novel, what Schwartz realizes is that coaching is not a role to succumb to. Not when he's so good at it. Sure, some people who can't do teach. But the really good teachers? For them, that is doing. Teaching is as difficult to do well as playing baseball or writing a book or loving another human being. When teaching becomes more than the mere conveyance of information -- when it helps learners develop the framework to think and act on higher levels for themselves -- it requires a true set of abilities.

Those who can, do. And those who can, teach well.

(I almost wrote about the comparison of baseball to aikido. I'd never thought about it. But the way Harbach writes about baseball is often reminiscent of what little I understand of the gentle martial art. I've had baseball on the brain since I was seven. Anyone who can make me think of the game differently is doing something effectively.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Emma, by Jane Austen

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Emma is a comedy; it could very well be a tragedy, and its heroine is a hair's breadth away from being immensely unlikeable. I'm convinced that we only enjoy the young woman because we see that she is not selfish in her meddling. She wants only to bring happiness to other people, primarily by pairing them together. If there were a shred of malice or hope of gain in her behavior, she would be utterly despicable.

That doesn't mean she ought to meddle, though. It works well for a story rife with misunderstandings and conjectures rooted in half-truths. Ultimately, I think Emma learns not to meddle in the affairs of other people's happiness; such tinkering never leads to success of its own doing, and it nearly leads to social disaster all around.

Oh, if only more folks would learn not to interfere with the pursuit of happiness.

Giving advice is one thing, even if unasked-for. But dictating the course of life for another capable human being is, in my view, worse than caging a bird; at least the caged bird doesn't have the illusion of a world open with possibilities. Emma got me thinking quite a bit about the meddlesome nature of so many people in this world, particularly those connected to some individuals I know. (Apologies now for the vagueness of the rest of this post. I don't want to single anyone out by name or situation, because I don't know who reads this blog.)

I get that steering another's ship must be awfully tempting, if you think you know best. Especially if you think the ship's captain doesn't know what she's doing. And maybe you really do know best; maybe the ship really would sink if the captain were at the helm.

But that doesn't make commandeering the craft the right thing to do.

I have no deep insights here, no resounding conclusion. Everything further I can think to say on the subject sounds like a cheesy parenting proverb: You are your own person. Only you can discover your own happiness. But corniness doesn't diminish the truth of the sentiment. I just get really sad when I see how certain controlling individuals attempt to dictate the right or best path of another person's life. And I get to feeling incredibly powerless at my inability to free such people from their cages.

It wouldn't be so bad if all meddlesome-type people were as harmless as Emma. Sadly, the world is not a Jane Austen comedy.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

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So I bought a round-trip ticket on the Chandler train. Can you blame me? The guy tells good stories.

And that's what I've been thinking about -- stories. Or, more specifically, story. When I finished The Big Sleep, I wrote a post about novels having plot. Normally, when I finish a blog post, I release the thoughts I've had on a particular, and they release me. But not this time. Something has been nibbling at the edges of my mind. Something about how some folks sneer at "plot," but still love a good "story"; and how these concepts matter to books like Chandler's.

The confusion -- and this isn't just in my mind, I think -- lies in the distinction between plot and story. In the Venn diagram of these concepts, I think there's a fairly substantial Cecilia. (Plenty of people will disagree with me; whaddya gonna do?) That overlap is "what happens" in a given novel.

I tend to forget that, while plot and story have a lot of parallels, they don't require each other. Vaguely and loosely put, plot is what happens externally, and story what happens internally. My routine visit to the grocery store has a plot; I can tell you precisely what happened and in what order, complete with reasoning and motive and all that jazz, but there's no story. Likewise, I could change my life by staring at the unrelenting sun through my window; nothing happens except that I (or maybe my readers, if I'm a character) undergo some shift in how I (or my readers) understand the world.

When the Modernists eschewed plot, many of them still clung to story -- to the change or refusal to change, largely independent of neat-and-tidy outside factors that to them were absolutely unlike real life. To me, that's as interesting as a novel with all action and no internal change on anyone's part. (Not very interesting at all.) I think most enduring stories exist in that Cecilia, those stretches of storytelling where the tracks of plot and story run side-by-side. (Like train tracks! And the story runs over them like a locomotive! Metaphors are fun.)

So when I said before that Chandler's books require an element of plot, I meant it. But unlike many other detective tales, the story of novels like Farewell, My Lovely is why we come back again and again. Once we know the answer to the puzzle, we're not ruined for re-readings. And Marlowe's story can shine through because it doesn't get too bogged down in plot -- we never find out what those five words are, the doctor really was just coincidental, we don't get an arrest and a trial and a neat-and-tidy conclusion.

I don't care, though. What happens plot-wise is still critical to the novel, but I don't come to Chandler to solve logic games. I come to learn about myself, to see my own world in a new way, to better understand where the monsters really are. (This novel is one of those where the reader changes as much as the protagonist -- I love when that happens.)

When I close the book, my heart is broken and my confidence shaken. Only a proper Cecilia has that kind of power.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

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I read an article this week (available here -- yes, it's from 2009, which in my mind is like two months ago) whose author, Lev Grossman, made the claim that "If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot." I give Grossman some cred for acknowledging the apparent prevalence of strong plot elements in contemporary stories, and I really appreciate his concise summary of the Modernists of the early 20th century. Those are the writers largely responsible for the idea that "good literature" should be somewhat difficult to read, and its plot should be far from primary (if there at all). Those are also the writers in whose shadow every genre writer, every commercial writer, every plot-conscious author has written for the last hundred years or so.

Yes, plot is making a comeback of sorts, in that it's pushing aside much of that highbrow "literary" fiction. But doesn't something have to go away in the first place in order to make a true comeback?

Sure, the Modernists contributed to the 20th century some of its greatest literature. But they didn't contribute its only great literature. Plot-based (not necessarily to mean plot-centric) fiction was still there through it all. It mutated and evolved as much as any other type of storytelling in the last century; it gave us modern fantasy, science fiction, and the hard-boiled detective.

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, the first of his Philip Marlowe novels, is one of the great books of that century rife with good books. It's a mystery, so of course plot is critical. But can the Modernist-influenced among us truly sneer at it simply for having a plot?

It's not a great novel because it has a plot; it's not even the plot that makes the novel memorable. I would argue that Chandler's style, his voice, those elements oh-so-important to the Modernist gang, are what make his stories great. He feeds us the Los Angeles of the 1930s and makes it Marlowe's own, simply through his use of the language. Marlowe is blunt, straightforward, and yet also lyrical. His descriptions make the world, make it pop from the page as much as Anne Shirley's descriptions make Anne of Green Gables so cherished.

Yet a book full of a detective's wise-cracks without a plot -- without a sphere for the shamus to move around in and make his own -- would be a pretty hobbled effort at storytelling. The plot may not be central here, but it sure is necessary. Isn't that true for most stories? For most readers?

I have to say that plot's always been important to readers as a whole. Some folks decided in the early 20th century (and, sure, with good reason) to eschew plot, and it was a worthy experiment. But plot's not making a comeback so much as the elevation of plot-less storytelling appears to be declining. The task that awaits the 21st century's best writers is not to fall into the trap that plot is everything: plot must be populated with real characters and with language that goes pop! in the reader's imagination.

And readers must shoulder their share of the burden: they must demand quality not just in what happens, but in how it happens. In that combination, rather than in some Modernist ideal, might rest the key of classic writing. After all, what is the Great Novel of the Century if no one cares to read it in the next century?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mother America, by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

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The stories in Mother America, a brand-new collection of writing from one of Ireland's young stars, are emotionally, locationally, and temporally diverse, and Ní Chonchúir's prose is both simple to read and beautiful to contemplate. You see right away why she is so highly regarded on an island that honors its literary spirits.

This collection got me thinking about two aspects of writing that I now think are intertwined. (Maybe the connection between these two aspects is obvious; still, it's one my brain is formulating for the first time.) The first springs from a comment fantasy writer Daniel Abraham made to me. He said, "Genres are where fears pool." That is, genre fiction is free to explore (and often does explore) whatever aspects of our cultural and social psyche make us uncomfortable, confuse us, or frighten us. Powerful women? Out-of-control technology? Dying and, worse, living alone? Yup, we as a society (and often as individuals) grapple with these very concepts. And in order for us real people to confront our fears, the books we read end up confronting them, too.

Now put that thought on hold for one moment while we contemplate the other aspect of writing, which is more craft-based than the first one. In my opinion, any successful story involves a character facing some difficulty and either actively overcoming it, or actively failing to overcome it. (That's a very simplified version. Bear with it.) Otherwise, the story is a vignette, a glimpse, a snapshot (not a photograph--a successful photograph can very much tell a story). Many writers and critics will tell you that the purpose of a short story is to capture just such a moment, and that change of any kind is unnecessary. I disagree with them. The difficulty faced can be minute or it can be monstrous or it can be monumental; it can be getting out of bed, or it can be landing a Volkswagen on the moon. But it must be there, and the character must face it, and regardless of the result, the character must be changed or affected in some meaningful way.

Why shouldn't these two concepts come together? In genre, the pooled fears are our fears. You could read that to mean that in "literary" fiction, the fears are not ours, but belong... to whom? To the authors? To the characters alone?

Baloney, spelled B-O-L-O-G-N-A. In order for us real people to confront our fears, the characters in the stories we read have to confront them, too. Genre simply has more options to make our fears metaphorical, symbolic, exaggerated, or otherwise removed from the "real world." Fiction set in this "real world," stories like Ní Chonchúir's, don't allow the degrees of separation. The fears aren't metaphorical here; they are personal. In either kind of story, the fears are there.

Stories are where fears pool.

This is why each and every story worth its salt has a difficulty that a character must face. Everything that is puppy-dogs and cotton-candy and rainbows doesn't resonate, doesn't ask questions, doesn't evaluate. We don't learn who we are as individuals and as a race by being happy all the time. We learn who we are by facing our fears.

The thread that sews together the stories in Mother America is, ostensibly, motherhood. Yet I see the thread of facing fears more strongly than I have in many genre collections. Fear of living alone. Fear of committing infidelity. Fear of parenting. Fear of how to define oneself. Fear of death. Fear of living. Fear of knowing, of being a child, of being part of a couple, of being part of a family. Fears many of us have on an intensely intimate level.

In many of these stories, nothing "happens" in an external sort of way. (In many others, all kind of events "happen.") Either way doesn't matter. Plenty happens when these characters step up to their fears. And when they do, the reader is right there with them, joining in the showdown.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, by Tom Robbins

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Well, whaddya know, pardner? Alone at the Microphone is celebrating its 100th post today. That's one hundred books (give or take) that spurred musings of one kind or another, one hundred threads of thought woven together into an Indian blanket that keeps a mind warm at night, one hundred forays into the e-frontier of the Wild Wild Web.

Thank you all for hitching your wagons to this here train.

What better way to commemorate one hundred posts than with a book that knocks me clean out of the saddle every time I read it?

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was one of the first books to make me evaluate the world and how I live in it. The fact that it's just as powerful on re-reading proves that its potency was no mere trickery of radical language on my malleable undergraduate brain.

What I appreciate now, and feel I missed the first time through, is that Tom Robbins expands the mind without dictating new ways of thought. His characters (who alone can make a reader spin around and take stock of the world) spout some form of quotable wisdom about every third page -- and every single instance of such sage thought is questioned, or willfully contradicted, or gleefully countered. Who's to say what we should think?

What we think is not the goal. How we think is not the aim. That we think -- now there's the ace in the sleeve.

The form of thinking most dangerous to each of us individually occurs when we align our wheels with the railroad laid by someone else -- and then allow our cabooses to glide along the rails without wondering when we should jump the tracks. Realize what your words mean when you use them; aim for freedom (in yourself -- forget politically; political freedom will be irrelevant when we are all free in our own selves) over happiness (for what could be happier than freedom?); revel in your paradoxes and find in your contradictions the truth of your existence!

Or don't. Why should Mr. Robbins and I tell you how to think? We shouldn't! What do we know any better than you? Buy into what I say, or what Tommy says, just because we say it, and you're not thinking for yourself.

As you should. (There I go, telling you to think for yourself. A contradiction?)

So don't listen to me. Except when I say that you should read this book. (See? I revel in my contradictions!) It's rude, irreverent, and farcical. A thumb debates civilization with a brain. Gender is blurred. Semen sloshes and vaginal odors waft. (This book may not be for the puritanical or the chaste-of-thought. Or maybe it's perfect for them!) And through it all, you will think.

Now tell me, pardner: what greater gift can a book give you than the gift of thought?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro


I had never thought about the deterioration of paint until recently. When I hear or read of damage to old paintings, I always think of water stains, or transport damage, or other such wear-and-tear calamities. Actually, certain compounds in paint will decay, and often at different rates, so that what you see on many older paintings is a variance in brightness, vividness, and (believe it or not) opacity. Some bits of old paintings are now transparent because the top layer of paint has aged so noticeably.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery in London, I was fascinated by a painting of a drawing-room. The artist wanted to show off how he could paint sunlight coming through a window at an angle, and the focus is meant to be the noble men and soldiers sitting around a table. However, my fascination rooted itself in the long skirt of a maidservant. Her blue garment was transparent. Through it, I could see that the artist had carefully painted the floor tiles and the fireplace before putting the woman over top of them.

Yet she had no legs.

Why, you might think, should she? Of course, looking through her skirt and seeing no corporeal stilts jars an admirer of the painting, but the artist could not have been concerned with how his painting would look after long years of slow deterioration. If her skirt was plausible in and of itself, who would care whether he had bothered to paint the unseen supporting frame underneath?

I was disillusioned, to say the least. Disappointed in the artist, and consequently the entire painting. The painter had not done the leg work (yeah, I went there), and yet he expected to pass his work off on me. Yet I felt it was all artifice and no substance, once I saw that the woman's legs were as real as Casper's. That blue skirt did precisely what suited the painter, and not what it would have done had the body swishing it been permitted any amount of life.

I had the same unfortunate feeling with Ishiguro's novel. Yes, he is a masterful writer, and The Remains of the Day continues to haunt me with its beauty, its resonance, and its power (come on -- he makes an impossible love story between a butler and a maidservant more meaningful than all of World War II). But Never Let Me Go showed me the gears where there should have been legs.

The narrative structure bothered the snot out of me, for one thing. Our narrator, Kathy, takes up a conversational tone when she needs to jump around in time or provide explanations for earlier references. But we never learn what context this conversation is in -- is she writing it, or speaking it? To whom? And why? By pointing it out so blatantly in the story, Ishiguro begged the question of context without satisfying the hunger for an answer.

And the characters follow what I can only assume is Ishiguro's own sensibility when it comes to relationships. Conflicts never happen in the open -- they're all full of supposition and nuance. Which, fine, okay; some people interact like that. But to have a boarding school full of teenagers who (VERY minor spoiler) know for a fact that they cannot get pregnant, and to have those same teenagers take a very timid and cautious approach to sex? Please. These aren't butlers. No matter how prissy and reserved some of them are, sex would be happening all over the place -- if not in the cafeteria, then certainly in every bedroom and every unlocked classroom.

The story is enjoyable enough, and the threads all get tied up (even if, in my opinion, unsatisfactorily). But if you want a good Ishiguro, go find The Remains of the Day. It does a much better job examining "what it is to be human" (an honest-to-god puff quote from Never Let Me Go) than this effort, which will likely stand the test of time about as well as blue skirt paint.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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Anne Shirley is a toad. And in my mind, she could receive no greater compliment.

Others may have used this terminology before me, though I've never heard it. A toad sees the best the world has to offer, and a toad always has ambitions simply because the world has so much possibility. A toad may go along with society's rules, and a toad may shatter them; either way, a toad is indifferent to those societal standards, because a toad has her own standards of what is great and glorious, good and worthwhile.

I wrote a few months back about Toad from The Wind in the Willows and how so many folks try to squelch his free-spirited ways. Since then, I've developed a bit of a toady fascination, and I see toads in all kinds of great stories. Ramona Quimby is a toad. Jane Eyre is totally a toad. (Goodness, why are so many toads female?) I think Bilbo Baggins is a toad, though he has to learn to embrace his toadiness. And young Anne Shirley is as toady as the best of them.

She does not bow to the expectations of others simply because it is expected of her. She finds exceptional beauty in the most routine locations, and for her, every individual has great heroic and tragic possibilities. Through it all, she is neither selfish (a claim often levied against the toads of the world) nor selfless; her wild spirit enriches her own life in ways she sees fit, and still she is always concerned with the well being and benefit of everyone in her wider community.

No one sees the world quite like Anne Shirley does. And her enthusiasm for life itself makes Anne of Green Gables the funniest, most endearing, and most uplifting book I've read in ages.

Everything goes right for Anne throughout the book, yet we do not begrudge her the seeming luck. After all, her accomplishments are earned more through pluck and dedication than blind luck. When things go horribly wrong for her, as they inevitably do, she feels as deeply and powerfully as anyone else; yet on the other side of tragedy, she sees opportunity and possibility where others might see only a narrowing of the road. Where her road was once straight and marked with possibilities, Anne ends the book with a bend in the road. "I wonder how the road beyond it goes," she says, "what new landscapes--what new beauties--what curves and hills and valleys further on."

Like a true-blooded Toad, she knows that "nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams." Oh, if only we could all live with such satisfaction in our birthrights! If only we could all be toads, thrilled by the bends in the road! Poop poop!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Misery, by Stephen King

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This is a book only a writer could have written.

Who else would understand the brutal anguish of burning a stack of papers -- or even the desire to spend two years pouring forth sweat and tears and energy and life creating said stack of papers in the first place? Who else would understand the power of a story to tip the scales of life and death? I don't even mean in an external, my-crazy-number-one-fan-has-me-trapped-oh-god-what-do-I-do situation, but in a I-cannot-leave-this-mortal-coil-until-I-know-what-happens way.

For a writer, the true horror of Misery isn't the axe-wielding, or the forced drug addiction, or the psychological domination. The horror is that Annie Wilkes is all the worst traits of an editor, a publisher, a fan base, and a meal ticket rolled into one.

I think that the biggest development as a person for writer-turned-prisoner Paul Sheldon is not whether he overcomes the physical hardships, or whether he gets free (can't have spoilers leaking into this blog!). It's whether he recognizes, and then acknowledges, the kind of writer he truly is.

You see, I find that so many fresh, new, young, up-and-coming, developing, whatever-other-euphemism-for-"beginner" writers (and in fairness I'll include myself in this bunch) have an idea of what sort of writer they think they are. That's the sort of writer they want to be, and you'll almost always hear these writers saying that they hope their novels get picked up and then strike gold -- and until then, they'll just have to toil through day jobs. Some fraction of these writers figure out that they can write "other things" to pay the bills. At least they're still writing, and on the side they can still work on their real projects.

That second one is the kind of writer Paul Sheldon is in Misery. Every writer who makes it that far has a decision to make (or maybe more accurately, a self to uncover). Are they the kind of writer they think they are, the one whose best and most soul-enriching writing is the side-writing that might not sell but dammit is good? Or are they really the kind of writer who has pretensions about being a "serious novelist," but whose true talents lie in the smut-and-pulp realm of popular fiction?

The first of those two shudders at the very concept of "popular fiction." The second, which I think includes Stephen King, embrace their talents and run with them.

No judgment calls here -- plenty of canonized Novelists made their wages writing for the masses, and plenty of canonized books were smut-and-pulp upon first publication. (Vonnegut or Chandler, anyone?) Just thoughts. Thoughts that so many beginning writers would be happier upon doing a little soul-searching and discovering what truly gets their mind-gears greased and their fingers twitching.

So amend that first sentence: Misery is a book only a self-aware writer could have written.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Americana, by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

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Nostalgia is an erratic conglomerate of emotion, and at its worst a dangerous one. At its core, it supposes that some point in the past was fixed, constant, and true -- that, for a while at least, the past flew by less transiently and confusingly than the modern world. We might know that the past was as varied and as subjective and as nuanced as our present, but we don't like to feel that way.

Take the American folk music tradition, just as a crazy random example. If I threw out any Stephen Foster-esque song title, like "Oh Susannah" or "Clementine" or "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," to a room full of Statesmen, they'd all be able to join in and sing the same melody and all the same words (for the first verse) as if the song were permanent and petrified like wood. They'd feel like part of a tradition -- and they wouldn't be wrong, even if the bean-eating tent-throwing wagon-driving cowboys in their collective imagination didn't match the real historical precedent. They'd be subject to a powerful dose of national nostalgia, part of a long and broad musical heritage, even if said heritage has failed to pass down all the lyrics and any of the meaning of its most popular songs. (It's also largely failed to pass down the idea of these songs as mutable and malleable. I seriously doubt every 19th century American with a guitar or a harmonica played those songs sans improvisation or alteration.)

Perhaps our modern sensibilities (no judgment here -- every time period has its own sensibilities) don't particularly allow us to receive our American musical heritage. Neil Young has said of the songs on Americana that they are all tunes we've known since kindergarten, and I just don't think that's true anymore. For one, music in general and singing in particular factor ever more minutely into our public education (despite the fact that, as I learned in my college German classes, music and singing can be incredible teaching tools). If we're not being taught the lyrics to "Clementine," how should we know that despite its jaunty tune, it's a wonderfully tragic song? (And how should we know that "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" is at all political or apocalyptic when it sounds like someone's aunt is coming for a weekend visit, probably with gifts?)

I had my first ritual listen-through of Americana last night, with my partner by my side. She speculated that, aside from not teaching us the songs in the first place, our modern sensibilities don't particularly allow us to juxtapose melody with meaning -- that is, are our minds on guard for this dissonance between lyrics and music? The composer of "Clementine" must have wanted to contrast the story of a girl's death with a whistle-able tune. Could we even wrap our heads around that today? Could we, as a nation of nostalgic first-verse singers, comprehend the significance of an adapted version?

The Horse wants to find out.
---
Americana is getting all kinds of hype -- it's officially released tomorrow, June 5, though anyone with an ear to the e-ground has heard it already. (Hey, Young has said that streaming/piracy is the new radio, which I take as a full-out endorsement of all the free streaming versions of the album available. If you like it enough to carry it around on an iPod or spin on your home turntable, you'll buy it.) Long story short, Young and Crazy Horse have taken eleven songs from different periods of America's past and reinvented them to varying degrees, mostly with electric guitars, all with percussive garage-rock attitude.

I'm one of the deepest Neil Young fans out there. So when I say this album perplexes me, that means something. (In fairness, the first internet rumblings of Le Noise had me incredibly skeptical, and now it's one of my favorite albums by anyone, ever.)

I'll be giving my CD (better sound quality than mp3, not as good as vinyl -- darn this living abroad without an awesome sound system business!) several good listenings when it arrives this week, all in an attempt to sort out the puzzlement. First impressions are that some of the songs are geniusly reinvented and will wear out my speakers:
-"Oh Susannah" sets the tone for everything this album could be -- groovin', funky, and like seeing your former babysitting subjects all grown up, a fascinating combination of familiarity and newness.
-"Jesus' Chariot" you'd know better as "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." This song is on the warpath. It's frightening. It's doomsday with a four-piece band. It's easily my favorite track.
-"Gallow's Pole" is a great take. It's not Zeppelin's, it's not trad, and I think it more than any other track captures the dissonance between subject and sound.

At the same time, other songs are disappointing:
-I love the Horse for their ragged looseness as much as anyone, but "Tom Dula" feels just too strung out and jagged. I'm curious to hear the CD version, as I do think my low-quality streaming threw off some of the sounds. But meh.
-"This Land Is Your Land" is the song that stays truest to form, and I wish so badly that it hadn't. Maybe the band felt the often-dark album needed a pick-me-up, but this isn't it. I'm glad that the more questioning lyrics come through, but the music does nothing to challenge my brain. I wanted a rearrangement, not a cover.

Some are very rockin', very worthy of inclusion, and yet...
-"Clementine" gets dark and mournful... yet I keep imagining what it would have been like slowed down to a meandering, lamenting, "Cortez the Killer"-like tempo. I feel like the Horse was in a groove, and nothing could slow that freight train down.
-"Travel On" could have been plucked straight from the 1991 album Ragged Glory. If you liked Ragged Glory, you'll dig it... yet you can also take that to mean that it fails to break new ground.

Then there are some oddities (and I think liking oddities is a requirement of being a Neil Young fan):
-"Wayfarin' Stranger" is deep and off-kilter, like some of Young's more peculiar late-'70s material. It's also the only acoustic track, and very much worth hearing.
-"Get a Job" has to be the first grunge doo-wop cover. However much fun that sounds like to you, that's how much fun you'll have with the track.
-"God Save the Queen" is like this: Hendrix doing an anthem, minus all the flash and drugs, plus a medley with the American reclamation of the song ("My Country 'Tis of Thee") that chronicles both America's colonial past and our (light-hearted?) musical finger to the old monarchy. It also continues Young's relatively recent penchant for ending an album with a full choir. (Go back over the last decade's albums and look at the closing tracks. I'm not kidding.)

Americana is absolutely worth getting. Despite my quibbles and as-yet uncertainties, it blows most cover albums out of the water because it's so much more than a cover album. For the most part, the songs take on new meaning because of their arrangements. It advances the American folk musical heritage without being irreverent, allows the songs to speak for themselves rather than wielding them as modern-day commentary (and boy, are they still relevant or what!), and ultimately continues looking forward. That's how it avoids the worst pitfalls of nostalgia. It's a risky album, and ultimately a successful one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Tower Treasure, by Franklin W. Dixon

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Our perspectives on the outside world shift as we grow older and, for those first fifteen years or so, bigger. Our memories fail to adjust accordingly. Think about it: have you ever gone back to your elementary school (or even your high school) and sworn that it used to be... well, not so tiny?

Remember when you had a babysitter and you thought she/he was the very pinnacle of womanhood/manliness? Think about that now that you know she/he was all of fourteen years old at the time.

Pull out your favorite childhood VHS and reminisce about how you would watch it for hours. Then find a VCR, dust it off, find a place in town that will actually repair it, and then watch that tape. Yeah, it's all of twenty five minutes long.

That's kind of what rereading the first Hardy Boys book, The Tower Treasure, was like for me. Even as a young reader, I could whip through one of those adventures in about two hours... but now, that seems like an hour longer than necessary. I remember the mysteries being truly mystifying. I remember being terrified of the hobo who locks Frank and Joe in an old, rotten water tower -- like, I couldn't go to sleep after reading about his dirty, cackling face disappearing behind the trap door.

Now? Not quite so frightening.

Revisiting a childhood favorite is a good lesson in relativity, though. I feel like I see all the time some instance of an adult coaxing a kid by saying, "Oh, come on, it's not too far" or "Oh, come on, it's not too scary" or "Oh, come on, it's not too tall." The adults aren't lying -- the challenge in question is neither too far nor too scary nor too tall.

To the adult, at least.

We may not be able to fully sympathize with folks of another culture or gender. But everyone is a kid at least once. Perhaps we could all benefit from occasional reminders of what intrigued or overwhelmed or otherwise affected us in our own smaller days, so we can better comprehend how our smaller counterparts are interacting with their worlds.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

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The first good reason for my finally reading Jane Eyre is the richer understanding lent to this webcomic (full props and credit to Hark! A Vagrant):


The second good reason is for getting over this stigma that Charlotte Brontë and other authors like her (see: Jane Austen) produce pure chick-lit. Yes, women seem to love this story type more than men do; honestly, I think this difference stems more from our manly prejudices than from any qualities inherent in the works.

Why shouldn't men like to read a good love story? Especially when that story is not mere mush and sentiment, but chock-a-block full of subversion, spooky attic noises, and near-death wanderings, its romance element nearly takes a backseat. (I say nearly, for Jane Eyre is a wholly different kind of story without the love interests.)

Actually, these romance stories--when well done!--are among the most intriguing. We know these two characters are perfect for each other; we know they ought to get together and get on with the down-and-dirty already; and we really really believe they will. How is it that the protagonists' inevitable pairing is stretched so thin that we demote it from knowledge to belief? How is it that, despite our knowing (or thinking we know) precisely how the story is going to end, in the generalities if not in the specifics, we keep reading, enthralled, our certainties tempered and our knowledge doubted?

Pulling off those questions is a remarkable enough feat for any storyteller. And readers, male and female alike, appreciate when an author does it well. We men, though we might not like to admit it, fall in love as often and as powerfully and as capably as our counterparts. We have the same doubts and anxieties about romance, and the same exultation and exuberance. So why should we not partake of the same literature with the same enthusiasm?

Give romance a shot, men. You couldn't start with a much better example than Jane Eyre.