Sunday, December 29, 2013

Change of Location

Zach Hively has a new website. Check it out at where you can find limerick contests, low-ku poetry (which avoids hai expectations), writings, editorial services, and other goodies.

As of December 2013, "Alone at the Microphone" exists as a memorial to itself. I'm proud of the work I put into blogging about books for five years. As a writer, I found myself wanting to write about more subjects, and in more styles; thus, the new website.

Feel free to browse around here still. When you're finished, please hop on over to the shiny new Zach Hively website to see what juicy pieces await you there.

To all my Microphone readers over the years: you've been awesome. Cheers.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Mason, Ink Slingin' Samurai

Today, we have a special guest broadcast from Alone at the Microphone. Jennifer Mason writes young adult fiction and nonfiction for children, but that's like saying birds fly -- her writing inspires and amazes, yes, yet it's far from the only thing she does. She offers insightful manuscript critiques for authors of all stripes, she blogs about practical and artful angles on writing, and she will throw you to the ground if you mess with her. (She's earned the "Samurai" part of her website title, which you can visit here to learn more about her critiquing services.)

Of all the writers I know, Jenny is the best at burrowing holes into any topic, digging out any opportunity for (paid!) publication, and backing up her feral creativity with daily grindstone time. I asked her to write just a bit about her most recent successes, and how they might help other writers gift their words to the world.

And she actually obliged. So please, allow me to pass the Microphone to Jenny Mason.


Thank you, Zach! It's an honor to post on your blog -- which, incidentally, has been around long enough to have over 100 posts. Talk about dedication! No wonder you are one of my writer-idols.

I am very proud to announce that my work is now available in two issues of Chicken Soup for the Soul now available to order online!

Actual working links to these books! Click 'em and see!

Setting out to write stories for these anthologies presented me with several unique challenges. For instance, "Papaw's Lantern" encouraged me to share and explain an inexplicable yet uplifting event in my life. "You Do It Your Way, I'll Do It Mine" required that I delve deep into my childhood and recall what it was like to triumph despite being the smallest, the one who knew the least, the one who had so much to learn.

I was truly delighted to be included in both collections because Chicken Soup expects fine writing. Just like my MFA program, they expect stories to have strong verbs, evocative moods, unexpected settings, dialogue, and so forth.

For most good writers, all that is no problem. It's all made up, crafted, perfected, revised, and altered over and over until it reads just so.

But the catch with Chicken Soup is that your story must be true! It must be reflection of your past, your memories. It must also be heartfelt -- which for me, goes without saying because I cannot write anything well unless it comes from my heart.

Essentially, like the world's greatest creative nonfiction writers, you can't make anything up, and yet you still have to wrangle the ethereal chambers of your heart and soul.

That is not to say that only a small and exclusive gang of phenoms can ever hope to get published in a volume. Far from it! I recommend anyone take a look at their site and read about the upcoming issues and the writing guidelines.

You may not initially think that your life and past experiences are interesting enough for the world to read about, but that's where Chicken Soup may just surprise you. And once you've penned your story (or poem), you may likely surprise yourself!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

Already available for pre-order!

Here at the Microphone, fall has seriously kicked in. Who knew that gardening could be so absorbing? And who knew that so many plants mature at the same time? I have a whole new respect for our agricultural forebears.

All that's my way of saying: stay tuned for more bookish goodness. I've had some great reads the past month that I'm itching to write about.

First, though, is a bit of writerly holiday news. (As if autumn weren't surprising us enough -- now I'm asking you to think about Christmas!) I have a nonfiction story coming out this month in a Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas collection. This inclusion feels like quite an accomplishment. A long-running, best-selling national publication likes my writing! Enough to print billions of copies!

(Okay, maybe not billions. But certainly millions.)

My story, "Pepper's Last Gift," is about my family's final Christmas with our present-opening pup. It's apparently quite the jerker of tears; so far, everyone in the family has choked up reading it. And I might have cried a little while writing it. But all in the good way, because Pepper was the kind of dog that inspired love, adoration, and awwwwwws. (Which is to say, she was a dog.)

If you're interested in reading my story (and 100 other Christmas-themed stories), Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! is available for pre-order.

One of the great things about this series is that anyone at all can share a story. Whether you are an aspiring author, a work-for-hire writer trying to make a living, or just someone with a good story to share with the world, there's likely an upcoming Chicken Soup volume that could have your name in it. I encourage you to take a look at the constantly updated list of book topics.

Happy autumn, everyone!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, by John Irving

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Some writers are so inextricably linked with place. Think Mark Twain and the Mississippi. Tony Hillerman and the desert Southwest. James Joyce and Dublin.

John Irving writes books set in Iowa, Vienna, and New England (often, all three). He's lived in all three places and has a strong sense of each. But for me, John Irving is inseparable from New England, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire.

So when I was setting off to Vermont last month, I checked out one of the only Irving books I hadn't yet read: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. I hoped to immerse myself in a bit of Irvingian landscape. In part, I wanted to compare it to the real place; in part, I wanted to imagine Vermont one last time, unaided by reality.

Only when I scrunched up in my airplane window seat with a plastic cup of ginger ale did I realize this book isn't a novel. It's a collection of memoirs, short fiction (the dude hasn't written much of that; why would he, when his novels are often so epic?), and literary appreciation.

This conglomeration turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to my journeys. Novels are often a glimpse into the novelist -- perhaps more than usually so in Irving's case -- so what better way to experience the place than through the man, and to examine the writer than through his home state? If the two really are so strongly linked, then really I was seeing two things at once and getting a greater sense of their whole. Depth perception!

The whole Vermont experience, for me as a writer, was unmatchable. I took more inspiration from the VCFA Summer 2013 graduation ceremony (and the remarkable writers in that crowd -- cheers to all of you!) than I did from my own year's worth of graduate school classes. I returned home more jazzed to create (and capable of creation) than I'd ever felt.

Part of the mindset I cultivated in Vermont, I attribute to feeling so close to Mr. Irving. I had stepped into every one of his novels, which is not to say that I felt I might bump into Garp or Owen Meany around any corner. No, I felt I had come in contact with what makes Irving's books true. True, not in fact, but in emotion. (Irving writes on the first page of Piggy Sneed that "(to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false." I love that idea.)

Sometimes, readers and fans and literary critics get too caught up in what is factual about an author's existence. We get tangled up in which Dublin building is "'The Dead' house," or whether Hillerman's mysteries are based in real cases. The source of a good author's stories is not the facts of his life, but rather, the truth on which he can work his magic of falseness -- his fiction.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

We've had a magpie couple living in the mini-woods along our driveway ever since last fall. "Trouble," we call them, and "tree-toppers," because they insist on flailing to stay atop the highest twig on the tallest trees in the neighborhood. These two magpies punctuate our every morning, and their presence pleased us to no end when we first moved in. (I'd be lying if I said that the abundance of magpies in the Durango area didn't influence our decision to live here.) Every time we take a walk, we greet the birds, whether we can see them or not. "Hi, magpies!" we call. "Hi, trouble!"

This spring, we watched the two schemers collect building materials from nature's Home Depot for their nest. Just as a Labrador retriever will insist on carrying more tennis balls in his mouth than he can actually hold, these gumptious magpies swooped through trees with twigs longer than themselves. We knew they were making babies. "Make babies!" we hollered to them. And before long, we heard series of calls in a fresher, higher pitch than usual. They made babies!

We had to leave the house for a few weeks this summer. Our landlady agreed to water the plants, and I really wanted to ask her to keep an eye on the magpies for us. We didn't want them thinking we had left for good.

The week before our trip, we found two beautiful magpie feathers in the driveway, little gifts from our flighty friends. These wing feathers revealed the white blocks that fan out like poker hands when the magpies take flight, and the black border shows flashes of green and blue and violet when you stare at it just carefully enough.

This story can only have one ending, can't it? When we returned from our time afield, the trees before our house stood strangely still and bare. One day without magpies means they're up to something; two days is an aberration. After a week, we had to acknowledge that our magpies were gone.

At this point, most people who have heard this story pull their lips tight into a sympathetic grimace. But we don't believe that the magpies are dead. (And if they are, they probably went down defending their brood against a bobcat.) These birds are smart; more likely than the death of an entire family is that they relocated. Maybe it was for a change of scenery; maybe the summer monsoons drove them from their nest.

We like to think that our wing feathers were truly gifts from our neighboring magpies. Parting gifts, because they knew us and where we walked, and they also knew they would be leaving soon.

A whole lot of hippie-minded mumbo jumbo? Our human knack for putting human meaning where there's just the cruel facts of nature? Could be. Or it could be that these birds are as clever and brilliant as John Marzluff and Tony Angell have shown them to be. Gifts of the Crow -- the magpie is the cleverest child in the crow family -- is full of anecdotes showing just how much corvids and humans think and act alike. Behind the stories, they have a career's worth of observation and scientific study.

Which means, these magpies remember us, and literally (not just sentimentally) always will. Without the ominous overtones, they know where we live. So we await their potential return. Every jay's caw causes us to dash for the windows, only to be disappointed. Yet our hope has wings; this week, we separately spotted two magpies swooping in that familiar arc over the driveway and into the brush.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

Desire lines. Palm readers ought to study for those, because as far as I can tell, what one wants (and I mean really wants -- yearning, not craving here) defines a life far more than how long that life is.

Fight Club is case-in-point. An unimaginable number of men across the United States go from beating the teeth out of each other in cement bar basements to forming commando terror squads. This is not behavioral progression we see every day in our neighborhoods. How are we, the readers, supposed to believe it, even within the confines of a novel?

I reason that these fight clubbers must have a reason for their actions. That is, they must have a desire line needing stretched taut. The fight clubs -- and the chances to belong and to alter this humdrum world -- are the nibble at the end of the line. The promise of a catch. Fish to fill a needy belly.

Sometimes, an author can forget that EVERYONE wants SOMETHING. And I mean EVERYONE. The dog in your neighbor's yard wants food, or attention, or to protect her master. The odds are, the humans in your life (and in your stories, if you're one of us stricken with writer's disease) have needs and desires not much more complicated than your neighbor's dog. Food. Shelter. Sex. Love. Attention.

This reasoning started to satisfy my puzzling mind. But, I countered myself, what are the odds that untold hundreds, uncounted thousands, of men would have the same need, filled in the same way? How can I believe such nonsense? Implausible, Palahniuk! Not buying it.

Then I looked around. Groupthink, politics, media -- call it what you will, the mass effect of filling a single void is frequent as farts in an unsupervised Boy Scout camp. (Truly frightening is when that void is created in order to be filled.) What is the Tea Party but a set of insecurities and fears being filled? What is Duck Dynasty but... something I cannot even begin to understand, yet something that apparently fills some perceived need in America today?

Fight Club unsettles readers not because its unstoppable cult is plausible, but because that exact kind of control is exerted over regular citizens every damn day. Some people resist inclusion in these groups, and others flock to them. Resisting is difficult work, though; it wears down willpower, each conscious effort sapping some store of decision-making ability. Eventually, our higher wants worn to little nubbins, we resort to our more primal needs. Protection. Attention. Survival. And we allow others to fill those voids for us.

Play out that scenario to its logical conclusion, and in the end every single one of us will wear down. No one has infinite willpower. That means any human society may never circumvent groupthink entirely, no matter how strongly we may desire to.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bicycle Diaries, by David Byrne

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You could say that I've become a bit of a bicycling advocate. The two-wheeled angle certainly stems from my own recent exposures to narrow shoulders and obdurate drivers, but really, pushing for a cycling-friendly environment has much more to do with sustainability and democracy.

Democracy, because pedestrian areas are by definition available to everyone and anyone in a way that roads and streets are not. Sustainability, because folks interact with their urban environments more intimately on foot and on bike; as I wrote last week for the New Mexico Mercury, that interaction could lead to culturally active neighborhoods across a city like Albuquerque.

Some of the biggest obstacles to a vision of a truly pedestrian-friendly American city are, as Mercury commenter Margaret Randall puts it, "a) that developers care about something beside making money, and b) that zoning laws, investment, etc. be conceived of and implemented with quality of life in mind." Such obstacles are certainly daunting in a sprawled and largely corporatized city like Albuquerque.

However, among his many musings and interesting tidbits, David Byrne offers a glimpse of success. Near the end of Bicycle Diaries, Byrne discusses an urban planner named Jan Gehl.

Gehl, according to Byrne, "has successfully transformed Copenhagen into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city. At least one-third of Copenhagen's workforce gets to work on bikes now! He says it will approach half soon."

In Albuquerque, most of the folks who would even think about a radical pedestrian conversion would feel that the city government and residents would never go along with it.

Byrne continues, "Gehl reveals that his proposals initially met with exactly that kind of opposition over there: the locals said, 'We Danes will never agree to this -- Danish people won't ride bikes...

"Previously, the area bordering this canal [shown in a photograph in the book] had been used for parking; cars would drive along it looking for parking slots. This lovely spot was, not too long ago, primarily an ugly parking lot and a thoroughfare. Now it's a destination. Cars are still allowed to drive here, but not park. And from that one small change the area exploded as a pleasant gathering place and even as a tourist destination. Expensive 'improvements' by the city weren't even necessary to allow this to happen. The customers and local businesses did the improvements -- putting out chairs and installing awnings -- though many of them initially complained that if people couldn't park in front of their establishments their businesses would suffer. That seems to be how Gehl works, making fairly small incremental changes over many years, here and there, that eventually transform the whole city and make it a more livable place...

"Enrique Peñalosa implemented a similar plan in Bogotá, as well as creating the longest pedestrian (and bike) street in the world -- twenty kilometers. He began by closing select streets on weekends, and then gradually, as businesses realized that this actually increased sales and improved the general mood, he added more days and closed more streets. It transformed the life of the city. Needless to say, it reduced the congestion as well. People came in contact with each other more often, went strolling, and enjoyed their city. Peñalosa had to fight an alternative plan that was already on the table -- a $600 million highway project that would have both destroyed large parts of the city and not solved the problem."

Small changes beget big changes. Neuroscience has revealed that making your bed each morning can build in your brain a sense of accomplishment and success that spills into other activities and your general sense of well-being. Imagine if we tried for small and foundational steps toward pedestrian well-being in every American city! The sorts of changes I propose in my article, and that other (and more knowledgeable) urban leaders  have already implemented in large cities, don't necessarily need the initial approval of profit-driven developers. They simply need a few people willing to take some harebrained baby steps.

UPDATE: The New Mexico Mercury asked to run this blog post under the "Voices" section as a follow-up to "Breaking the Cycle," the article I wrote for the site last week. I'm honored. Please visit the Mercury version here, and then check out the rest of the site while you're at it. These guys give intelligent discourse a classy face.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Abaddon's Gate, by James S. A. Corey

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With the political shifts in the United States just this week, namely through SCOTUS decisions, I'm glad I waited to post about Abaddon's Gate, the third piece of James S. A. Corey's The Expanse space opera. (I wrote about the first two books here and here.)

You see, I was going to write about personal change versus external change. Plot versus story. Who has the most room to grow, to change, to fall, and how that's the character whose story should be told.

Completely separate from that, I enjoyed this excellent tweet:

Spoiler-free context: one of the point-of-view characters in the book is a female Methodist preacher who is married to a woman. Also, her sexuality plays no significant role in the plot. Her role is not to advance any agenda, promote any political schemes, or rub her crotch all up in her wife's business for your viewing pleasure/disgust.

The Expanse books excel at projecting forward a plausible development of humanity. What happens when cultures and languages are isolated together in a carved-out asteroid, what happens when colonies on other planets become independent political entities, what happens when our current social "debates" become an accepted part of existence. Things like, for example, homosexuality.

Our society changes just as characters change. In both cases, I find the most effective change to be an internal shift. When people view the world differently than they did before, and their outlook changes how the interact with the world, they have changed. It's no coincidence that my favorite characters in each of the Expanse books are the ones that undergo the most internal growth.

This change cannot be prescribed. It is not simply the acquisition of knowledge or awareness. You're not a new person because you took Algebra II. And for all the celebration over the end of the Defense of Marriage Act this week, we're not a different society because of it. Sure, the rules are different -- but as a culture, our views on marriage have not changed a whit just because some judges decided on the constitutionality of a law.

But that change will come, and it will be aided by the politics. Abaddon's Gate isn't wrong to presume a lesbian preacher will be no big deal in the future. In a few hundred years, it should be so NOT a big deal that it's hardly worth mentioning.

Just as the plot of a novel affects the characters, the repeal of DOMA this week affects our American society. (Maybe even some other societies out there -- shout out to you, Irish friends!) Now, let's wait and see how everyone grows by the end of this saga.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

All things must pass. Old proverbs know this to be true, and so does George Harrison. So why doesn't The Night Circus?

I worried about the end of this book for a looong time. The last several months have involved several road trips, and the audiobook of Erin Morgenstern's novel filled part of each leg. So ever since about March, I've recognized that this book is a lovely book. The descriptions are magical, and the magic is moving. Yet the whole time, I sensed that the ending of this story would be more than a simple climax/resolution. It would be more than tying off loose ends and tidying up the character's messes. It would define the whole book.

Unfortunately, I was right.

The magic of existence is that it ends. We die. Someday, the sun will burn up our planet. To pretend that flowers never wilt and ice never melts is to deny the very beauty of their existence.

Besides, put beauty aside for a moment: the excitement of existence sprouts from what comes next. And what comes next can only come if we let go of what came before.

A clinging unwillingness to let things pass (like a nun in public -- ba-dum-chah!) is, essentially, a refusal of mortality. Death makes life all the more beautiful, and stubborn permanence undoes all the charm that exists in Morgenstern's truly magical world.

Can you sign someone else's love letters? Can you paint someone else's masterpiece? I don't think so. I think we are all meant to create our own dreams. Collaboration and continuation are parts of creating in a community, but you must be free to add your own strokes to the painting. Otherwise, you're simply lacquering someone else's love letter to the world until it is entombed, a preserved mummy of the beauty that once was.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Involution: The First Two Years of Line Zero

The soul of publishing, I'm increasingly convinced, nestles in the bosoms of small presses. The big publishers might get the publicity and the bestsellers, but the chances and challenges, the risks and the dares, come from the publishing houses you've seldom heard of.

That artistic spirit thrives when readers keep the true indie publications alive. Line Zero picked up my first published story in its second year, and I'm tickled to announce that the magazine is still chugging along. Not only is it rolling down the tracks, but it's doing well enough to warrant a retrospective.

I'm really tickled to announce that my story, "Such a Lovely Girl," is included in that anthology. Involution: Stories, Poems, and Essays from the first two years of Line Zero just came out, and the Kindle e-book version is available now on Amazon. (For those, like me, who still enjoy the flutter of pages, Pink Fish Press has the hard copy available here. But, you know, you could already be reading the Kindle version by now. So it has its advantages.)

(UPDATE: The print version is now available on Amazon, as well. Prime eligible!)

Thank you, Microphone readers, for supporting me and my writing career. Thank you, Line Zero, for supporting dozens of artists like me. Be sure to hang on to your early copies of the magazine, because I have a feeling many of the contributors could turn out to be stars.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

As a writer, I can vouch that a primary writer’s worry is whether or not our fictitious worlds are plausible. Believability is key. Never mind that a story exists as a façade of ink and paper, or e-ink and screen, or voices. We want the story to transcend the medium and transport the reader into a world as vivid -- more vivid! -- than the "real" one.

To let the construct of "story" show is like revealing your panties on the playground.

Sometimes, I wonder why authors go through all this trouble to shroud the fact that we work in words and metaphors. Readers know the seams are there. We can either spend all our time muting the seams and hiding our undergarments. Or -- like an open-raftered building, or a pinup magazine -- we could let the supports become the show.

You want to know why most writers don’t drop the veil? Because it’s a hell of a lot easier to putty over the cracks than it is to incorporate them.

Kurt Vonnegut figured out how to make the workings of a story become the story, like a watch with a transparent back or a Japanese chef who cooks at your table. He figured out that his voice drives his stories, and that people read them not for Billy Pilgrim or Kilgore Trout, but for Kurt Vonnegut. The author is the main character, his antics the reason to follow the other characters.

So in Breakfast of Champions, he made himself an actual character. The author-within-the-story decides who should meet whom and what calamity should drop next. And in the best commentary on writing I’ve ever read, the characters he creates enact themselves against him, despite his being the Creator of this little Universe.

By the rules of writing, I should not believe for a moment that this story is "real." My disbelief should never be suspended. And yet... I still care. The book still compels me to read. I still cannot wait to see what happens, even after Vonnegut tells me what will happen.

The strip is no longer the tease. The seams become the show. And the fireworks are no less spectacular, no less magical, even though I watched them get lit.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis

Pulp fiction (not the movie) intends its readers to breeze through it. The thoughts that smut novels evoke aren't supposed to be worth the paper and ink in the book itself. Volumes of pulp exist to fill shelves, to decorate windows, to sell quick or go in the trash. If pulp writing has that reputation, then how can I fault literary types for so often leering at genre fiction? Science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, comic books, romance, adventure, mystery -- tradition dictates that these are printed cheaply and read mindlessly.

Anyone who reads such smut, though, knows differently. Raymond Chandler went from hack to Supreme Being of Hardboiled Detective Writing. J. R. R. Tolkien made fantasy cool in the fifties... and in the seventies... and again in the aughts. And Ian Tregillis, in the final book of the Milkweed Triptych, proves that cross-genre fiction can be smart, witty, devilish, and addictive.

Plus, the writing is deceptively smart. All three books have lured me into reading speedily because they are snagless. I read them too quickly, actually; someday soon, I want to re-read the whole set to see what I missed.

(They're the kind of books that will be different the second time through. You'll know what's going on... but instead of spotting the seams, you'll gape at the fine needlework.)

The books are so enjoyable that, as you can see, I spend my time going off like a fanboy about how TOTALLY WICKED they are instead of musing about their themes or what deep implications their pages hold.

But honestly, these books are so good because you don't feel like you're reading a diatribe. Ayn Rand's books are a tin-can shell for her philosophy. But for all the immense and torrential thought Tregillis puts into his books, they are first and foremost stories. No spoonfuls of sugar here.

(He let me hurl questions at him over on the New Mexico Mercury, if you want to sample his take on humanity's potential and read about his next projects.)

High school teaches most of us to pick apart literature like a baked chicken carcass without letting us eat the good meat. I think we get more out of books when they spark us to think, to examine, to wonder, while being themselves enjoyable. Necessary Evil (along with its predecessors) is just that kind of book.

The literary snobs shy away from hedonism as if a book must be obtuse to be worth reading. Give me the high-quality pulp any day.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Average American Male, by Chad Kultgen

Honesty is really difficult to take, isn't it?

I lived in Germany for a year, and the part of the culture that took the most adjustment for little American me was not the openness of sexuality, the drinking on the train, or having a genuine rail system in the first place. The most difficult aspect was the honesty.

No niceties from my colleagues about my dramatic haircut. (I blame my translation skills at the hairdresser's.) No mincing of words from my roommate about splitting the phone bill. No holding back about my shortcomings as a foreigner from folks at the Diskothek. Honesty was right in my face; once I got used to it, I quite appreciated it.

Even so, honesty is difficult to implement in my everyday American existence. I don't mean not telling lies; I mean not glossing over the improprieties and not burying criticism in compliments. The situation only gets worse when someone tries to make new friends or, heaven help us, get a date. Honesty means sharing despicable, embarrassing, and improper thoughts! Honesty means feelings could get hurt! Who wants to get coffee with a truly honest person?

Remove the filters, remove the censures, and you get a book like The Average American Male. Yes, honesty is sometimes revolting, sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes incredibly meaningful. This book is what we'd all hear from someone, sooner or later, if we could be completely honest with one another.

But what about being honest with ourselves? For all the narrator's crass honesty, he doesn't recognize what he really needs from life. A culture of compliment sandwiches encourages softening the truth, and that's especially accurate when we deceive ourselves. True honesty doesn't stem from being blunt with everyone else in the world, but from cultivating self-awareness and self-honesty.

The German experience didn't make me honest. If I can be forthcoming with anyone about my feelings, my opinions, my desires, and my perspectives -- and if I can take such forthrightness -- it's because I am learning to know myself, and to trust myself.

(Since we're on the topic of honesty: I can't suggest this book for minors or relatives. If you are a minor or my relative, and you read this book, you do so independent of ever hearing about it from me. Unless you are my grandparents; in which case, just don't read it, period.)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dark Lies the Island, by Kevin Barry


Stories -- powerful, effective stories -- pack your bags and send you traveling to places boggy and foreign, and to places darkly familiar. To lands where the slang puzzles your reckoning, and to realizations that you never would admit to yourself but are as true to you as the wrinkles on your palm.

If those are the criteria for a strong story, then Kevin Barry has some darn muscular ones in Dark Lies the Island.

Stories this insular, with their peculiar dialects and speech rhythms, with their reliance on local geography and entrenched politics, with their undoubtedly Irish sensibilities and remoteness, are as particular to Ireland as the Gaeltacht. Reading them places you as soggily in the rural counties as reading Mark Twain places you rocking upon a river boat. And yet... you'll find a piece of small universality in each of them. These are truths that fit inside our psyches and transcend oceans.

No doubt about it, Barry's writing quirks the usual. (In ways like verbing "quirk." And verbing "verbing.") But sometimes, you learn more by studying the world through funhouse lenses. When the same old isn't the same and it isn't old, it reveals itself. It discovers itself. And once it finds a home in a story, it brings you along for the ride.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis

Think of the pleasures you have wished would never end. A glorious day in summer, a perfectly seasoned dish, a first kiss, a good book. Do you linger to prolong the pleasure? Do you stay outside until the sun is chased by the evening cold, leave aside a final bite until its sauce has firmed and cooled, dive in for one more soft peck, read the penultimate page again to avoid turning it?

I do. I'm a professed lingerer. I always figure that by drawing out the enjoyment, it lasts longer, and in some way the memory will be fuller for it.

One passage in Out of the Silent Planet might have changed how I feel about pleasure. The character Ransom (a human, or Hman) is trying to figure out how the Martian hross lives his life, because it seems not to be in pursuit of repeated pleasures. The hross, Hyoi, elaborates:

"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure.

"How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back -- if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?"

Pleasures are transient; pleasures are ephemeral. Yet the memory of pleasure may live as long as the one who experiences it. The memory will naturally grow in its own way, but is that not part of the pleasure?

When next I encounter a stunning view, or go to a revolutionary concert, or taste a delectable beer, I won't rush through it just so I can get to the memory. But neither do I intend to linger, and thereby reduce the memory by reducing the initial pleasure. When the sun sets, the music fades, and the pint glass empties, I'll understand that I still have the memory -- and with it, an extension of the pleasure itself.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

Children are so often relegated. Not to any lower realm or back shelf in particular. Just relegated. Period.

Children's and young adult books are less serious endeavors than grown-up literature. (Don't believe me? Eat lunch at work or school while reading Harry Potter, and then again while reading Finnegans Wake.) Children's opinions, no matter how well-informed, are less valid than adult rantings. (Don't believe me? Check and see the last time your state legislature had a member of the high school speech and debate team in to give a presentation on a controversial topic.) Children's perspectives in history, and the way historical events affect children, don't expend much ink in history texts. (Don't believe me? Go to the library and see what you find that isn't related to Anne Frank.)

Which is what makes One Crazy Summer such a special -- and important -- kind of book. Its narrator, Delphine, and her sisters get caught up in the Black Panther movement in Oakland in 1968. Children are present for, and affected by, all the great political and social movements.Their experiences and responses are genuine and human. So what if their take is different than the canonical history? Doesn't that make our understanding of the past all the richer?

Wearing the harmless cloak of the "children's book" label, novels like Rita Williams-Garcia's can fly under the radar of those who relegate children in the first place. Once they make their escape, however, these books have the power to show us our world through different eyes.

Isn't that what all books, for readers of any age, aspire to?

UPDATE: Same day I wrote this, I came across a great and relevant line from C. S. Lewis: "A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then." Sometimes, these stuffy old dons really knew where it was at.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

I'll be honest: I don't like seeing homeless people standing in medians, holding cardboard signs, and asking for money. Their presence makes me uncomfortable, because I am driving a car and wearing clean clothes and wearing my permanent orthodontic retainer and showing any number of other signs of relative privilege, while they are the epitome of need. I am blessed in many ways that keep me from standing on a roadside asking for help from strangers. Ways, in other words, in which these people are not blessed.

When I really assess my discomfort, I find that it doesn't come from a deep fear of that-could-be-me. It doesn't come from the not-uncommon opinions of go-get-a-job-why-don't-ya or you'll-probably-just-spend-it-on-booze. No, it comes from the feeling of skewed perspectives skewering my own self-evaluation. I might often think that I am broke, but my tough times are a hell of a lot cushier than the guy fortunate enough to find a piece of cardboard and a magic marker.

Yesterday, pulling into the grocery story, Jenny and I passed a man in the median asking for help. His dog laid by him, clearly pleased just to be with her friend. I felt bad for the dog, who hadn't asked to be in this situation -- as if the man had.

We bought the staples to get us through the month -- milk, eggs, bananas -- our tight budget for the month already tapped. We left the store, and the light at the edge of the parking lot turned red. I was first in line to pull up next to the man and dog in need. "I don't want to look at them," I said. "I feel too bad." So I stopped the car where the windshield pillar obstructed my view.

I stared straight ahead, in that way where I was ignoring the man by trying to look like I wasn't ignoring him. I couldn't even look at Jenny, because it would look like I was avoiding looking at him. I think the whole time, she was busy staring at me. "Or you could just help them, if you want to. We have change."

Protest was my reaction. We did have change in the console; not much, but some, and it was for parking meters. Yet I felt that Jenny's spirit was open and giving at that moment. Why wasn't mine more so? Especially because I had Grace Lin's book fresh in mind, where Minli learns to be thankful for what she has, and to improve other folks' fortunes instead of her own. Where everyone finds happiness that way.

I didn't think. I rode the wave of feeling that swelled from my gut to my shoulders. I scooped up the tray of coins, rolled down the window, pulled forward, and handed the man the change. While the notoriously long light sat on red, we chatted. He was not a homeless man, and I was not a driver of a car. We were two guys talking about a sweet dog.

More factors went into that moment than a kid's book about a girl's attempts to change her family's fortune. But Where the Mountain Meets the Moon played its part. Books change the world, because they change their readers. That's the strength of a story.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

You want to know what's backwards? As kids, we ask "why" of everything. As adults, we cease to question "why" of everything. We get selective. We accept a whole lot of "what" exists and "what" works, but we pry a whole lot less into "why" it exists and "how" it works.

From where I stand, that's a shame. That's a whole bunch of shame. The world doesn't become any less fascinating and new when we age. Or at least, it doesn't have to.

Charles Duhigg would respond -- and he wouldn't be wrong -- that an accepting brain is a habitual brain, and a habitual brain is an efficient brain. If we got bogged down in the "why" and "how" of every question, we would never accomplish anything in our daily lives. And to a point, I agree. If I questioned how I put toothpaste on my toothbrush every  morning, brushing my teeth would require both more time and more energy.

But when I encounter something new, I want to know all about it. I'm not satisfied with learning that habits exist, that they can be changed, that corporations use my habits to manipulate my purchasing behavior. I'm not satisfied with shallow answers to "why" and "how," like "habits exist because your brain internalizes a routine following a certain cue, in order to obtain a certain reward." I want to know why the brain does that in the first place, and how the heck this lumpy gray matter can organize itself in such a complex arrangement.

Some books go into those nitty gritties. I appreciate those books. As a kid, I sometimes asked "why" ad nauseam -- but beyond the pleasure of annoying the questioned adult, I always wanted to find out where the rock bottom of explanation was. More often than not, I found a "why" or a "how" deep enough to quench my curiosity. Deep enough where I could learn something that I didn't know before, and that I could not extrapolate on my own. Deep enough where I discovered another piece of the universe.

I wish more books took it upon themselves to dig deep. The Power of Habit will help me out at my next cocktail party. It taught me cool facts. It granted me an awareness of my habits and my ability to make decisions. But it didn't grant me any thorough understanding, the kind of knowledge that I could apply to the wider world. And the shame is, it could have. It could have dug deeper.

Why didn't it?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Edge of Reason, by Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass may well have her books burned in the streets. (I hope not. No book deserves to be burned.) But the likelihood stems from this chain: Book-burners tend to be fanatics of one stripe or another; fanatics tend to rely on belief rather than knowledge and emotion rather than rational thought; The Edge of Reason is the first book of a series that pits science against magic in a real-world, Large Hadron Collider-versus-fundamentalist religion sort of way; Snodgrass and her heroes come down on the side of reason; fanatics tend to not like it when folks point out they might be eeeeeevil.

Thus, seemingly inevitable book-burning.

Knowledge has bumped against faith for centuries, so our contemporary struggles are nothing new. That said, the United States appears to be stuck in a roach-trap of denying knowledge in the face of faith. I will never hold a person's religious beliefs against them, but I will fault a person for ignoring verifiable conclusions with no better cause than "well, I just don't think that's true."

As citizens of the world, we each have a responsibility to accept the empirical evidence staring us down. Global climate change isn't something we "believe" in -- it's something that exists whether we believe it or not. Like the sun, or gravity. And for all the questions regarding Beowulf's exact date of composition, the interpretation of its poetry, its clues to the history of a region, its religious influences, and (less questionable, thanks to Tolkien) its literary merit, we can be quite certain that Grendel was not a Tyrannosaurus rex. We cannot ignore the linguistic workings of Old English no matter how much we believe that a word means something it just doesn't.

Belief and faith may alter our brain structures, but even that result is not merely faith-based, in that it is scientifically verifiable.

Faith in a God should not controvert the world that He/She/It is believed to have created. For the faithful, why can science not be a way of receiving messages from above? Why must science be the enemy of religion, when the religious could view science as illuminating God's wonder and beauty?

I genuinely wish I could understand the answers to these questions. I may never be satisfied with the responses, though, because reason and belief operate on two different planes. We don't use the same language, so when one says "We're having brussel sprouts for dinner," the other answers "But I don't like carrots!" Both sides know they're on the same subject, but discourse is impossible when one side refuses to acknowledge the tenets of the other.

Melinda Snodgrass is not exaggerating. A war does exist, and it may well determine the fate of our planet and our very humanity. How much nicer it would be if our species could settle this over a cup of tea.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dark Rivers of the Heart, by Dean Koontz

A lovable villain, quest for true love, and a mutt with need for speed? Go on. Read the book, and support the blog while you're at it.

I would not be off base if I used Dark Rivers of the Heart to springboard a discussion about accountability in government, the power of different offices and agencies, and the tenuous definition of freedom in America today. The technology in this nineteen-year-old thriller might be laughably outdated (a hard drive in gigabytes all but gives protagonist Spencer Grant a boner), but the concerns about an out-of-control political power system come across oddly prescient.

Though I figure, why spend time on stuff we mere citizens cannot control when I could talk about puppies?

Seriously, the dog in this book steals the show. Rocky is a total mutt, but with a personality that jumps off the page more vividly than most human characters I've read. Is it not totally natural that Spencer should turn to his pup when he cannot rely on people? Rocky and Spence give each other a reason to live, someone to struggle for, a companion in quirkiness. Without turning this post into a Chicken Soup story, can I at least say that loads of folks in this world would benefit from socializing more often with animals?

Not just with dogs, either, though they are my species of choice. This world has cat people, goat people, fish people, bird people, horse people, snake people, and they all find a level of humanity in their relationships with critters. The sense may come merely from caring for a dislocated and otherwise helpless creature, like a gecko in a terrarium or a clown fish in an aquarium. Sometimes a more reciprocal relationship, complete with expectations and cues and routines, develops.

I've heard plenty of people claim not to be "an animal person." Perhaps some such heathens folks never had the right exposure to pets. But is a complete lack of animal connection not in some sense a denial of humanity? Human civilization, human culture, humanity period would not exist without our partnerships with domesticated creatures. You think we have technology if we don't have dogs helping us hunt and protecting our clans? You think we have society if beasts of burden don't help us till the first agricultural fields?

Not a chance. Animals -- pets, farm animals, all of 'em -- gave us the luxury of efficiency. And in our new spare time, we created civilization.

Dean Koontz's Dark Rivers is, as expected, a story of life and death, of survival, of technology. It's also a story of the fate of civilization. Our animals gave us the gift to grow; will we take that gift and mutilate it with drone strikes and surveillance? Or will we side with Rocky and strive for love, freedom, and true companionship?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How Music Works, by David Byrne

Every page left me torn -- keep reading, or share ALL THE THINGS with anyone present?

Every now and again, you come across a book that tangentially interests you, and then it rearranges the bricks in your foundation. It makes you think about how you come into contact with the world. It alters how you fit in with the world, too.

(More than likely, such books come across you and not the other way around. Books can be crafty like that.)

How can I pin down any single way this book redecorated my brain-plots when it coaxed open my mind in so many directions? I certainly pay less attention to music than many people, but for all that, I think I pay more attention than some. I notice the type of music playing in various stores (and not just when it's Christmas music in October). I try to ensure that smaller-time artists whose music I enjoy get supported by my money so they can continue making music. I bemoan the corporatization of the radio and the channels through which popular music delivers itself to us, the listening public, all the while acknowledging that I enjoy some of that very music.

Neil Young's Greendale tour: "Support Our War" -- on a Clear Channel billboard

But what do I know about the forces that shape our music? Not just the songwriters and the producers and the record labels and the means of distribution, but the venues, the scenes, the environments, the rituals, the cultures, the technology? Turns out, I hardly knew a blessed thing.

Then How Music Works came across me. From the title, I expected only a practical and theoretical look at the science of music: say, how its sounds are produced, what effect it has on us, how our brains interpret it, and so on. That's all in there, to some extent, but the book is so much more than that -- and so much more fascinating! David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame and serious experimental reputation, examines not just how music works as a transitory sonic effect, but also how it functions with us and how we function with it. (The dude can write, in that charming intellectual way that's conversational without ever dumbing down to the reader. How many writers of such deep subjects can claim that talent?)

Music, Byrne says (and I agree), is not the isolated art we often think it to be. Context shapes music just as much as music shapes context. He explores beautifully how music is better for being terrestrial, for being ephemeral yet not ethereal. Limitations on creativity spark innovations and developments and surprises -- so yes, let's acknowledge that Bach's music was shaped as much by his church and its organ as it was by his genius, and the Ramones were catapulted as much by the scene at their regular club as they were by their talents! Let's understand how recorded music differs in its very essence from live music, and then acknowledge the merits of both!

Let's recognize that we shape the music we listen to, just as it shapes us!

This book may not change how you acquire recorded music, or the type of music you listen to, or whether you play music of your own. But it's a bit like watching a documentary on factory farming. When you do each of those things, you will be aware of how you acquire, what you listen to, whether you play. You will understand that you are participating in a community that extends to wherever in time and space there is humanity.

Your foundation will change to allow for just how connected you are. Aren't these devious books the best?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Why Is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond

Support the blog. Get the book. Then impress your friends with your knowledge of concealed ovulation and penile evolution!

Assumptions are part of our daily lives. And for good reason -- imagine if you had to qualitatively assess every aspect of your regular day. You assume that the food at the grocery store (and in your pantry) is edible. You assume that even the idiot in front of you will drive through a green light. You assume that you will, indeed, wake up tomorrow instead of dying in your sleep. These patterns lead to a certain degree of predictability. They happen to be right (most of the time), and therefore to spare some brain power for the surprises of the day, we assume them to be given.

Basically: it works this way most/all of the time. It makes sense this way. Why imagine it any other way?

When something deviates from our assumptions, it's abnormal. Weird. Strange. An aberration. Which is why we think so many animals have the weirdest mating habits. Mantises and some spiders eat the male during copulation? Chimpanzees' lady-butts swell during ovulation? We humans procreate just fine, thank you very much. Our system is tried and true. Why can't these other critters behave more normally, like us?

This is why I love to have assumptions challenged and perspectives placed in context. We assume humans are normal because we have to in order to function. But in so many ways, taken in the larger contexts of primate-kind, mammal-kind, and animal-kind, we are the freaks. The kooks. The evolutionary deviants.

From time to time, we all benefit from a little bit of reality check. Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality puts our species into perspective and tries to riddle out why we're this particular kind of peculiar. The reframing of perspective is hijinx-level fun in your brain cavity.

(I have an issue with the book. It puts human culture -- that is, the evolution of our mental constructs -- on the same workbench as human and animal sexuality -- that is, the evolution of our reproductive constructs. Gauging how a "natural" human behaves is impossible, because the crunchy cultural coating we all wear gets in the way. Our cultural constructs are, on an evolutionary timescale, brand spankin' new. That is, our biology is practically identical to the way it was eleven thousand years ago. Yet our self-domestication is only ten thousand years old, as earmarked by the advent of agriculture.

Our culture has not yet had time to significantly affect our evolution -- and yet our variety of culturally-imposed sexual and reproductive habits are viewed in the book as evolved behavior. I don't see how Jared Diamond could have handled it any differently, because there are no "wild" humans. But I wish he had addressed the issue more thoroughly.

What I would like to see -- listen up, science nerds -- is an exploration of how our brain plasticity interacts with our sexuality. I think that approach could reconcile our reproductive and physiological evolution with our behavior.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

Losing Julia, by Jonathan Hull

One of my dad's favorite movies is the mid-2000s Garden State so revered for its indie-rock soundtrack. My favorite part of the movie is that everyone I know takes something different from it. For my dad, the film is about a father and son reconnecting after their strained past. For others I've asked, it's about developing a friendship, discovering that happiness is more important than a career, and finding true love in unexpected places and times. For me, it's about a man becoming himself.

The beauty of our disparity is that each of us is right.

Like any thorough story, Losing Julia is about many things. A moving novel leaves part of itself in you when you finish it, and I can only speak to what I walked away with. Which is:

Live life.

Yeah, yeah, it's not new. Even Latin speakers had something to say about seizing the day, and they be old school. But old folks keep trying to tell us young farts that our youth is wasted on us, that we don't know what's important yet, and if we did we would just live for what's important rather than wasting away our time. That's what old-man Patrick keeps on about throughout the book, anyway. (Don't worry. He learns to go for the gold.)

Those old folks don't give us snappers of whippers enough credit, though: we know exactly what's important. We just have to wager a whole lot of life on our decisions, because if all goes to plan, we still have forty or sixty or eighty years to carry around with us. The trick is not figuring out what's important, so much as going for happiness now instead of mortgaging it for later.

I've never liked the motto "live like there's no tomorrow," because quite frankly I couldn't condense into every day all the big things I'd want to do on my last day on earth. Too many small things deserve to be spread out and absorbed and pondered and enjoyed. But I suppose I'm echoing the sentiment of the mantra. Go for happiness. Be who you are. Love who you love, and make sure they know it.

That way, when you're old, you won't bore all the young'uns with your drivel about the mistakes you made. You'll have them begging you for stories. And instead of putting up with whatever message you want to instill, those kids can carry away from your tales precisely what they need.

(Mad props and many thanks to my sister Kara, who gave me this book for my birthday after experiencing what it is to hunt down an out-of-print book. It now appears that a trade paperback version is available on Amazon, but who knows how long that will last.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Charles and Emma, by Deborah Heiligman

I think the Darwins knew how to make love with their brains.
(Not to mention their bodies. Ten children?!)

As a writer, talking about writing and being a writer is one of the more complicated tasks I'm forced to undertake. The concepts are somewhat ethereal, a nuance which doesn't help matters. But what complicates the questions even more than the abstract notion of successful writing is that I'm not entirely sure what makes a writer tick.

Much easier is discussing what a writer is not. A banana. Aloe vera. Invincible.


The concept of a writer scribbling and tapping furiously in a lonely garret must have some basis. And sure, when it comes down to putting ink on the page, no one can do it for the writer. But neither can the writer do it by himself. Leastwise, I can't.

Writing is a labor of love. But what many readers overlook is that both the labor and the love are shared. Like its other forms, the love that goes into a book, a story, a treatise, or a poem (and ultimately into the writer who makes them) is varied, passionate, and weird.

Stephen King's wife held bloody towels under his nose so he could continue typing. That's love. J.R.R. Tolkien shaped the central relationship in his legendarium after his romance with his wife -- and as for life imitating art, their shared tombstone bears the fictional characters' names. That's love. Bill Bryson's overweight, middle aged, out of shape friend joined him on a trek along the Appalachian Trail just so Bill would have someone to hike with. (Not to mention a wife who was chill with him disappearing into the wilderness for weeks at a time.) That's love. Emma Darwin, a faithful nineteenth-century Christian, debated the nature of creation with her husband Charles for decades -- not in hopes of talking him out of his ideas, but out of a desire to help him test the mettle of his theories and make them as strong as possible before publishing them. That's love.

I might say that I can only hope to be as successful as those authors. But that's not true -- I can work my tail off in an effort to be as successful as those authors. I believe I can do it, too. My writing may not be as evocative, as epic, as humorous, or as revolutionary as theirs (yet). But I have one thing each of those authors has, the one thing without which they could not have written their books.


Anything can happen in a book. So in a very real way, love makes everything possible. With freedom like that, let's see what we can accomplish together, shall we?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Once in a great while, you find a book that knocks you silly while you're reading it and that changes you. This is that book. Only, it turns out that every book you read alters your brain. This one just helps you recognize the process.

This week, in the midst of reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I recommended it to a friend who is uniquely religious and incredibly well educated. She seemed intrigued by my description of the brain's phenomenal plasticity as outlined by Dr. Doidge, but straight away she declared that she would be unsatisfied with the book. She believed it, like other science books, would fail to take account of the soul while fully addressing the physical aspects of the brain.

Leaving aside the point that science and religion are two different games and applying one to the other is like playing tennis by Dungeons & Dragons rules, I had two questions for my friend: If you believe God in whatever form created the universe, is it not reasonable to think that by better understanding his handiwork you could better understand the nature of him? and, What is so wrong about finding miraculous that which we have here, on this planet, in this physical universe, without having to ascribe to it some unattainable, and by definition incomprehensible, religious context?

The questions are more important than the answers, so let's leave behind my friend and her responses. Whatever your beliefs on the physical brain's relationship to the mind/spirit/will, we now have empirical evidence that the brain is malleable well beyond our infancy. Environmental and social factors shape it, certainly. But the really cool part is that our thoughts alter the actual structure of our brains. Our minds can define our cranial anatomy!

Tell me, how does that belittle or ignore the presence of the soul? Our consciousness, at least as much as our environment, has the capacity to shape how we function. We determine ourselves!

Since reading The Brain That Changes Itself, I can hardly move a finger or take a step without wondering why my brain is organized the way it is, and how I'm changing that organization with each action and each thought.

Yes, our brains are products of our early childhood, of our most formative and plastic years. But no part of that programming is set in stone. Which means your conscious thoughts have control over yourself to a greater extent than most Western societies ever believed. Do you feel incapable of working at your computer without first checking Facebook and conquering another game of Spider Solitaire? You can alter that neuronal pathway to make your routine what you want it to be. Do you feel like you'll never be able to ride your bike up that steep hill? Visualize yourself doing it enough -- really working to accomplish it -- and your brain will actually strengthen itself for the real deal.

Those are the routinely applicable aspects of this book, the everyday motivational abilities our consciousness has over the physical aspect of our brains. The real inspiration comes from just how freaking powerful the brain is, to the point where it can compensate for its own damage and help stroke victims relearn movement of paralyzed limbs, help autistic children differentiate sounds and distinguish interpersonal cues, and help elderly people keep their brain activity young.

Call our brain plasticity an inconceivable accomplishment of evolution or a gift from God, whatever fits your worldview. Either way, its abilities astound me, and this book reconfigured my mind. Literally.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

It's like The Maltese Falcon with long hair, surfer rock, and reefers

The very distinction between mystery stories and hardboiled stories is the neatness of the world in which the detective snoops. Saying that an Arthur Conan Doyle or an Agatha Christie (or heck, even an Edgar Allan Poe) mystery is comparable to a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler novel is like saying pennies and pipes are the same because they're both made of copper.

In one case, the ills of the world stem from a single source, and logic and level-headedness can riddle out the problem. Cut down one rotten tree to save the forest. In the other, crimes are less clear-cut, stickier, and far more wide-reaching. Cut down one aspen, and its roots will still feed a hundred other connected trees.

Isn't life hardboiled? How often can we solve a problem with a single solution while preserving the world as it was? You're overweight; the solution is not simply cutting calories or taking longer walks, but a range of approaches without a definite end point, some of which are outside your immediate control. Your nation has an epidemic of mass shootings; where in the nebulous web of causes and possibilities can you reduce the chances of death by firearms?

Logic does not help solve your problems when your ex-girlfriend runs off with a real estate magnate, when a dental surgery office has ghostly but undeniable ties to a drug cartel that's also a schooner, when your culture swaps the very use of logic for spiritual guidance.

Wait. Those may not be your problems, precisely. But Doc Sportello tackles them in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Pynchon's take on the hardboiled is spot-on, even after factoring in the translation to the psychedelic sixties. Pot is spiked instead of scotch, and Hollywood starlets are replaced by Gilligan and the Skipper. But Doc's problems are the same in principle if not in details to our more mundane individual conundrums. The same core issues infest Sportello's world as infest Sam Spade's and Philip Marlowe's -- and ours.

In some ways, the world never changes. From decade to decade, era to era, through cultural upheavals and technological sea changes, we deal with the same shit over and over and over. We might yearn for simpler times, but let's face it -- they never were simpler, and they never will be. Real problems are often interconnected, complex, and tangled. Their threads stretch back as far as we do, and their frayed ends are not in sight.

But does that mean we don't try to riddle the unsolvable, untie the Gordian Knot, square the circle? Hell no. Just because we can't uproot the whole forest of vice and unhappiness and serious problems doesn't mean we don't face it anyway. I think that's what the hardboiled authors realize -- we can't solve the world, but we can define it. We can make it more than livable. We can make it whatever we want it to be.

Doesn't that sound more intriguing than simply excising the problem spots from an otherwise pristine and unchanging world?