books

  • The Millions blog has posted a list of their most anticipated books for 2009 and (so far) 2010. I'm with them on: Dave Eggers's Zeitoun, William Vollmann's Imperial, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections. (I know, no women writers on my list -- but I am looking forward to whenever Nicole Krauss publishes her next.) (1) #
    7/1/2009
  • Tibor Fischer received a galley of Inherent Vice, the new Thomas Pynchon book coming out this summer:
    The most striking thing about is that if you had handed me the first 30 pages, I would have staked my life I was reading the opening of the new Elmore Leonard.

    The lean, witty lines recounting the exploits of hippy private dick Doc Sportello in Sixties LA (albeit with a nod to Raymond Chandler) absolutely smacks of Leonard and his humorous imagination (how about a crooked Jewish property developer with Nazi biker bodyguards?).
    Will this become the new gateway Pynchon, replacing The Crying of Lot 49? (via omnivoracious) (1) #
    6/2/2009
  • D.T. Max, the writer of the New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace's work on his third and unfinished novel, answers a few reader questions about his piece. There are few more glimpses at The Pale King:
    I don’t think characterization was what Wallace found hard in “Pale King.” There are several rich characters, among them Wallace (or his double) and a college student named Chris Fogle, who is “called to account” by one of his professors. Wallace chronicles Fogle’s story in some seventy pages. From the pages I saw, what was difficult was then setting them in motion in an interesting way, the architecture of a novel.
    (thx, ben c.) (0) #
    3/18/2009

Notable 2009 consumptions, so far

I haven't been posting much recently for various reasons, and I can't honestly say whether that will change or not. But one thing I haven't done here recently is mention a few things I've read/seen/heard in 2009 that are worth recommending/commenting on. So here goes:

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

I read this earlier this year and was alternately floored and bored by it (mostly the former) -- which is not all that surprising for a 900-page novel split into five tonally unrelated parts. It's such a brutal book to read at times, especially the fourth part which describes in clinical detail the murder of hundreds of women in a Juárez-like city in northern Mexico. But it's been a long time since I've read a book that immediately after I've finished compelled to me to skim through the entire book again right there, even at that late hour. And I had to go on an Internet quest after finishing it as well, enjoying especially this Nation article which delves into Bolaño's real life obsession with the Juárez murders.

Generation Kill

I missed this seven-episode miniseries when it aired on HBO last summer, partially unmotivated by its military subject matter. But I should have never underestimated David Simon and Ed Burns -- the team that brought us The Wire. The same keen dramatic eye they brought to the city of Baltimore is played out here in the more narrowly-focused world of military command, and with the sheer power of realism they have created some of the tensest war scenes I've seen. I probably don't have to add that there's some subtle and not-so-subtle political commentary as well.

Big Love

The first season of this HBO series suffered from several flaws, including a half-hearted attempt to be a Mormon polygamist version of Desperate Housewives. It's still a flawed show, often teetering on the edge of contrivance (sort of like Six Feet Under), but the current season has gotten a lot darker, and more willing to explore the lesser known aspects of Mormon culture.

Real Time with Bill Maher

Sometimes this show has the best political commentary on TV (like the first episode this season with Chrystia Freeland, Tina Brown, and Rep. Maxine Waters on the panel) and sometimes it's painful to watch (like Friday's episode with Michael Eric Dyson and Andrew Breitbart). But on average, it makes even the best of cable news embarrassing to watch.

Battlestar Galactica

This is probably the least consistent show I've ever watched to completion. I can't wait to see the season finale this Friday so I never have to watch this show again.

Lost

On the other hand, Lost is really good! It faltered during seasons 2 and 3, but they've found their voice during the past two. This is the only solid sci-fi entertainment I can find right now. (Please, help!)

Coraline 3D

Those of you who have read my thoughts on Beowulf 3D know that I'm a big promoter of 3D cinema, and Coraline 3D just took it to another level. Since it was filmed with stop-motion animation, watching it felt like I was miniaturized and placed into its fascinating world. And the story and art design are very good, surpassing The Nightmare Before Christmas, I think.

Watchmen

I enjoyed many parts of this movie, but overall the experience was ruined for me by Zack Snyder's ham-handed directorial style, especially the musical selections and over-heightened sense of violence. Surprisingly, I thought the acting was solid, and the story was handled somewhat well. I'm afraid this is the type of movie which makes viewers less likely to read the source material, which is unfortunate as Alan Moore's comic book is a subtler read.

The Hazards of Love (The Decemberists)

I've heard some good music this year, but I want to comment only on this new album from The Decemberists for now. I absolutely loved The Crane Wife, partly for its operatic rock feel. I was disappointed with my first listen to The Hazards of Love, partially because I found the subject matter fairly uninteresting for a pseudo-rock opera, but it's really grown on me with several listens, particularly the parts with Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond singing the role of The Queen.

Tue, 03/17/2009 - 5:23pm

David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel

Today's a big day for David Foster Wallace in The New Yorker magazine. First, they have a long article about his struggles to complete his third novel, The Pale King, which apparently took place much in the accounting world. Second, they have a few pictures of manuscripts from that work, and a few pieces of art from his wife. Third, they published a previously unseen excerpt called "Wiggle Room." I haven't read these yet, but today is an airport day so I intend to do so soon. Check out The Howling Fantods for more information.

Sun, 03/01/2009 - 9:11am
  • The Sonora Review is putting out a double issue with one half devoted to David Foster Wallace. Supplies are supposedly limited, but you can pre-order a copy by following the instructions on their site. Here are the contents of the Wallace volume, which includes contributions from his wife:
    Including an uncollected story, Solomon Silverfish, and essays and reflections from Sven Birkerts, Michael Sheehan interviewing Tom Bissell, Charles Bock, Marshall Boswell, Greg Carlisle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Ken Kalfus, Glenn Kenny, Lee Martin, Michael Martone, Rick Moody interviewing Michael Pietsch, and art and prose from Karen Green.
    (0) #
    2/12/2009
  • The New York Times Magazine has an article that attempts to explain, in layman's terms, David Foster Wallace's philosophy thesis from his senior year at Amherst.
    A highly specialized, 76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs (), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat.
    Until his recent death (but not because of it), the thesis was generally unavailable to the public until this past September. (0) #
    12/12/2008
  • Merely an unusually few years after the publication of his last book, the hefty Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon will be releasing a 421-page new novel in the summer of 2009. It's titled Inherent Vice and looks sort of like a detective-story spin on The Crying of Lot 49:
    It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.
    (thx, david h.) (0) #
    12/5/2008

Writers writing about your state

Seventy years ago, the U.S. government -- via its Federal Writers' Project -- funded the creation of the American Guide Series, a collection of books and pamphlets about every state in the union at that time. (Hard copies are hard to come by now, but I found the Nevada one on Google Books.)

Inspired by this social project, editors Sean Wilsey (New Yorker, McSweeney's) and Matt Weiland (The Paris Review) compiled State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, a book of new essays by contemporary authors about every state in the union. Here's a sampling of the contents:

* California by William T. Vollmann
* Illinois by Dave Eggers
* Massachusetts by John Hodgman
* Montana by Sarah Vowell
* Nevada by Charles Bock
* New Jersey by Anthony Bourdain
* Ohio by Susan Orlean
* Rhode Island by Jhumpa Lahiri

I read a few chapters on Amazon, and unlike their FDR-era counterparts, many of the essays -- perhaps due to the space constraints -- are rather narrowly focused. Bock's Nevada piece, for instance, is a brief memoir about the pawn shop owned by his parents (now run by his brother) near downtown Las Vegas. Vollmann's piece, on the other hand, somehow manages to capture the grandeur of the entire state of California, from poetic descriptions of its landscapes to an S&M joint in San Francisco. The beginning of his essay touches upon the purpose of the book:

It says something about our changing America that once upon a time, an art-friendly governmental organization commissioned one volume about each of our fifty states; whereas this book, inspired by the WPA's example, has been commercially published and allows each state only a few thousand words. Fortunately, mass culture, with its big box warehouses of the landscape, language, and mind itself, has already destroyed so many differences between states that there is less to say anyhow.

Based on the fact that Vollmann's next book, Imperial, contains 1,300 pages about one county in California, my guess is that his last point is somewhat facetious.

Wed, 12/03/2008 - 7:46pm

Memorials of Wallace

There have been several recent memorials of David Foster Wallace. There was a public memorial in New York City, attended by his sister, Zadie Smith, Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, and his longtime editor Michael Pietsch, among others. One account of the memorial talks about an assigned nonfiction Wallace essay we'll never see:

...a piece on Barack Obama and rhetoric, commissioned earlier this year by GQ. [Wallace's agent] Bonnie Nadell... described conversations between the two and Wallace's wife Karen on their enthusiasm and excitement over Obama as presidential candidate. The assignment was to focus less on Obama (there was no way he'd get close to the candidate, Nadell said) and more on his speechwriters, those young turks tasked with putting the words of inspiration in Obama's mouth during stump speeches, town hall meetings and of course, the Democratic National Convention.

And Amherst has a lengthy audio file of the memorial recently held there -- it gets emotional at times, and I was particularly affected by a remembrance from a college friend who talks about Wallace's thoughts about the "spinal" nature of music, mentioning Brian Eno's "The Big Ship" as a favorite of his. (It is a favorite of mine as well.)

Fri, 10/24/2008 - 9:39am

Neal Stephenson's Anathem



As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a longtime Neal Stephenson fan. I've read nearly every book he's published, (sorry, The Cobweb), and excepting his early books The Big U and Zodiac, I've read them in the order they were published. So I've been attuned to his growth as a writer as he went from Snow Crash to The Diamond Age to Cryptonomicon to The Baroque Cycle. While this last one -- being a three volume, 2,700 page historical fiction epic about scientists in the late 17th century -- let down many of his sci-fi fanboys, it is probably my favorite work of his, combining interesting ideas and historical facts with swashbuckling adventure and his best prose to date. (You can read my review of it in the Harvard Law Record archives.)

Anathem, his latest novel and clocking in at 900 pages, is similar to his pre-Cryptonomicon work -- it has fascinating speculative ideas but there's also a slight but noticeable decline in his writing craft. There's something about his historical writing that improves his prose -- perhaps it's the Charles Dickens influence. And without giving away any spoilers, I'll mention another problem that Anathem struggles with and sometimes conquers that I'll call the "Slow Learner" problem, after Thomas Pynchon's introductory essay to his short story collection of the same name.

In the essay, the overly humble Pynchon criticizes some of his early short stories for a mistaken sense of priorities:

It is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it.

He was talking partially about his famous story "Entropy", where the characters at a party act as a representation of the third law of thermodynamics. I actually think that Stephenson was fully aware of this issue while crafting Anathem, and the book steers mostly clear of it by avoiding the metaphorical approach, but I do think that the last third of the book sometimes puts its philosophical ideas above structure and character. (I think this is partially why the New York Times reviewer says he isn't sure Anathem is a proper novel.)

Let me be clear: I hold Neal Stephenson to a high standard, and there are only a handful of writers who I could read a 900-page book by and be constantly entertained and intellectually stimulated. But what it meant for me is that, in the end, I had less fun exploring his wild ideas because they weren't fully earned, whereas here is what I wrote four years ago about the second volume of The Baroque Cycle:

[The Confusion] is Stephenson at his finest, intermixing swashbuckling and piracy with surprisingly engaging digressions on such things as the antiquated timber trade centered in Lyon, France.

The good news is that Stephenson at his finest is to be found in Anathem, but it's mostly in the first third. While the beginning of the book is slow to start due to the heavy load of a made-up vocabulary, much of the fun is learning about the "maths" of the fictional world of Arbre. (If you're interested in details, try the NYT review I linked to above.) The experience of reading this is a lot like a Harry Potter story starring philosophy graduate students. Indeed, in one of his recent interviews, Stephenson explicitly cites Harry Potter as a reason why he thinks readers are comfortable enough with made-up words to take on his latest.

If you're already a fan of Stephenson, then you'll likely enjoy Anathem despite its shortcomings. If not, I highly recommend you start with Cryptonomicon -- if you like what you see there, you'll eventually make it to the philosophically (and sociologically) fascinating ideas of Anathem.

Wed, 10/22/2008 - 11:42am
  • The finalists of a "Rebranded Book Covers" contest. The one for The Road is awesome, and the Virgina Woolf and Chekhov ones made me laugh as well. (via mattbucher) (0) #
    10/20/2008
  • Rolling Stone has a new in-depth article about the life of David Foster Wallace (although currently the online version is abridged). Much of the piece comes from an involved interview by David Lipsky in 1996 that ended up not being published, although he also covers the last year of Wallace's life based on interviews with those close to him. Until you get a copy of the magazine, or a full version appears on the web, RS also has an interview with Lipsky about writing the article that you can read. (via matt b) (0) #
    10/16/2008
  • Powell's has a short interview with Neal Stephenson, whose Anathem I just started dipping into yesterday. He mentions David Foster Wallace, "who I think was the best we had, and who influenced me in the sense of making me try harder and wanting to do better." (0) #
    9/23/2008

More on an Infinite Jest film adaptation

That adaptation of Infinite Jest that I wrote about two years ago? Variety says it's still in early production, despite DFW's agent saying that the option ran out. I've read a draft of Keith Bunin's screenplay and though it was well-written, I didn't particularly like it. (Although if the rumor about a Jon Brion score is true, that would fit nicely.)

It's been awhile since I read the draft, but I wasn't a fan of it because it focused on the global crisis aspect of the novel, and left out what I think is the emotional heart of the book. I vastly preferred the approach of Matt Earp's stage version that he wrote and directed at Wesleyan in March of 2001, which concentrated on the students at the tennis academy, Hal, Madame Psychosis, and Mario. I drove from Boston to see that play and it was worth it. Here's a picture of the Eschaton scene from Matt's play, and here's a summary I wrote about it <gulp> eight years ago.

Hollywood: option Matt's play and build it into a feature, and then have him write a second feature that focuses on Gately. Or better yet, make it a cable TV miniseries.

Fri, 09/19/2008 - 4:59pm
  • McSweeney's will be posting remembrances of David Foster Wallace every day for the rest of this week. (Although they are more about David Wallace the human than David Foster Wallace the writer.) The first batch include several from his former students, and a few from fellow writers, including Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith. (0) #
    9/16/2008

DFW RIP

Based on how many of you have emailed me about David Foster Wallace's recent death by his own hand, I perhaps don't need to remind you all of how important his writing has been in my adult life. (But you can see how much I've written about him on this site.) I may have to sit with this news for a few more days before I can say more intelligently.

Sun, 09/14/2008 - 3:15pm
  • On the eve of the publication of Anathem, Wired just posted the first profile I've seen in a long while on author Neal Stephenson. Highlights: the steel helmet he's constructing in his basement, his extracurricular research on brain surgery tools, and the influence of the Long Now Foundation on his new novel:
    "I could never get that idea, the notion that society in general is becoming aliterate, out of my head," [Stephenson] says. "People who write books, people who work in universities, who work on big projects for a long time, are on a diverging course from the rest of society. Slowly, the two cultures just get further and further apart."
    (3) #
    8/18/2008
  • Willam Vollmann's next book, Imperial, is a 1,300 page nonfiction account of California's Imperial County, and a history of the US/Mexican border. I'm almost done with the 3,500 page Rising Up and Rising Down (which I've been reading off and on since late 2003), but I might have to take a Vollmann breather before even considering this one. (thx, mark b.) (10) #
    8/13/2008
  • I've never read any Dennis Lehane, although I've enjoyed his writing work on The Wire and Ben Affleck's adaptation of his Gone Baby Gone. (Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, however, was atrocious.) But he has a new novel coming out in September that intrigues me: The Given Day, a 700-page historical novel about the Boston police union strike in 1919. Right up my alley. (3) #
    7/18/2008
  • A two-month-old video of Neal Stephenson giving a talk at Gresham College on "Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture." (19) #
    7/7/2008
  • According to Al Billings, who received an advanced reader copy of Anathem, Neal Stephenson's upcoming new novel, the book came with a CD of seven musical tracks with titles like "Proof Using Finite Projective Geometry" and "Sixteen Color Prime Generating Automation." Writes Al:
    [F]rankly, this is some weird shit... The musical styles are all over the map except that they all only use human voices (and occasionally hands).
    I wonder if they are algorithmic compositions of some sort. I'm once again anxious to read the next 1,000 page Stephenson novel. (6) #
    6/24/2008