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Jul. 15th, 2009 @ 07:14 pm it is trying on liberals in dilton
Current Music: Cat Power - He War
Remember that copy of The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor that I rescued a couple weeks ago? I've been reading through it today, and it's excellent. A shame that O'Connor isn't more widely read outside of high school English courses.

One story in particular, "The Barber", struck a chord with me. It's a really funny story, but for all the wrong reasons. At first glance it merely seems like a typical white liberal upper middle-class perspective on bigotry in the Second Reconstruction, but under the surface there's something subtler, something far more universal. It may be a bit of a stereotype that the male writers of her era were screaming from pulpits while the female writers hung back in the crowd and quietly observed the foibles of their humanity, but O'Connor if anything exemplified the best of that stereotype. In an era in which men with absurd moustaches shouted themselves hoarse about honor and nationalism and destiny, and tried to wipe entire nations off the face of the map with their rhetoric, O'Connor could quietly tear one of those men to pieces by describing a mole on his upper lip.

Not bad for a dyke, eh?

(Oh, my apologies. There were no lesbians in the good ol' days.)

Of course, O'Connor never wrote directly about the war--she was possibly the only author of her generation not to. She preferred to describe the giant elephant in the room by its shadow.

"The Barber" was written in 1947. Sixty-two years, two black preachers, a couple high-profile assassinations and one black president later, and, well, as much progress as we've seen in civil rights over the past half century, under the surface nothing has really changed. Go through the story and change "black" to "gay" and "nigger" to "faggot" and you may be alarmed at how familiar it all sounds.

Hell, translate the story into any of various languages and substitute "American" for "black" and "Yankee" for "nigger," and you have an idea of what it's like to grow up as an American international student in a country that resents American foreign policy.

It is trying on liberals in Dilton.
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Jul. 8th, 2009 @ 11:23 pm ts;dr book reviews
Tags: ,
In which I describe what I've read lately (or not lately) in ten words or less, in approximate reverse chronological order. (For those of you who like to read, but don't like to read.)

  • Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre. LiveJournal of obsessive-compulsive French Adderall addict.
  • Jumpers, Tom Stoppard. (Stage play.) Acrobat philosopher's theodicy interrupted by murder, infidelity, astronauts. Surreal. Hilarious.
  • Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster. Cloyingly endearing metafictional depiction of Alzheimer's patient trapped in room.
  • I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly. (Graphic novel.) BAWWWWWWW CAN'T STOP CRYING
  • Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem. Title beats book. Blade Runner with cocaine and sentient bestiality.
  • After Dark, Haruki Murakami. This novel wants to be a Godard film so bad.
  • House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski. Annotated dissertation on documentary about ominous house. Blew my mind.
  • My Life And Hard Times, James Thurber. Much funnier read aloud. Has aged poorly.
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes. Magnificent Bible fanfiction. Uncannily varied authorial voice. Damned worms!
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Max Brooks. National Geographic documentary about the time zombies almost killed everybody.
  • The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon. Shorter than his other book.

No one wants to talk books with me. :[
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Apr. 5th, 2009 @ 02:20 am why i haven't been reading as much lately
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Today I went to the Strand and spent far too much on books.

Typical thoughts after reading Paul Auster, Jonathan Safran Foer, Haruki Murakami, Chuck Palahniuk, etc. on the subway:

Oh...so that's what the endless city is. I am running there, in my heart--I can see the towers outside the windows, through the tunnels. Man, life is so beautiful, yet so short. To take the quiet misery of everyday existence and distill it into prose...I wish I could do that. Or, at least, I wish I could do it more often. Why is my own writing always so over-the-top? There's such a deep heaviness to these characters, to their situations--maybe all magical realism is is a generation that grew up on television and comic books, products of a bygone zeitgeist, trying to make sense of a different world. To live for tomorrow, in the hope that tomorrow will be better than today, only to find yourself forever grasping for the past--that's not a life worth living. The wonderland Alice escapes from is a fleeting nightmare compared to the wonderland Alice escapes to. Human suffering is so deep, and consciousness so shallow. There's so much beauty in the everyday. This technique...it's cheap, maybe, excessively postmodern maybe, but over time it's so natural, so subtle. I wonder if they did this on purpose, or whether it just came to them--I wonder if these writers actually talk like this. Black spirals. Wow. I'll never think of goldfish the same way again. I hope that cute girl on the other side of the train didn't see me cry when I got to the part where the crazy cat guy finally gives in to Colonel Sanders. Why is so much contemporary lit depressing. Why do I keep getting books about miserable people living beautiful lives--what does it say about me that I keep reading this stuff. This girl in this book, she's beautiful and vivacious, she's a lonely soul but she's a dreamer, she reminds me of a girl I've tried so hard to forget. I wonder if she's read this book and seen herself in it. I miss her...

Typical thoughts after playing the Nintendo DS game The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass on the subway:

thwackity thwackity wheeeeee!

ooh, puzzle.
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Mar. 25th, 2009 @ 04:17 pm starry starry night
Current Music: paint your flowers blue and grey
Hey guys! Here's an idea for a completely insane postmodernist novel. There's this dude, see, in the Netherlands or some other quasi-socialist Western European country, who's the great-grandnephew of crazy sunflower saint Vincent van Gogh. He has his great-granduncle's passion for art and his great-grandaunt's ideological zeal (Vincent Van Gogh's youngest sister was an early feminist), only he doesn't have a revolution to fight in or a Gauguin to quarrel with. So he goes into filmmaking, gets a feel for the political zeitgeist, wins a few film festivals, and after 9-11 and the surge in North African immigration in the Netherlands he discovers his ideological nemesis in--get this--radical fundamentalist Islam. In between writing scripts for popular reality shows he writes angry, unapologetically racist Strom Thurmond-meets-Hunter S. Thompson screeds for radical blogs and right-wing magazines. He throws his weight behind the ill-fated war in Iraq, and manages to incense the ire of the entire civil rights movement by releasing a film equating all of Islam, not just the radical right, with terror, violence, and misogyny. He's made a lot of enemies now; he's made a reputation as an iconoclast and a self-proclaimed "village idiot," lots of publishers are rejecting his stuff and folks in other countries are making noises about wishing he'd go away. He's gone ideologically off the deep end, going from testing the boundaries to sprinting as far past them as he can go. Folks are telling him to take it easy, think things through, cut back on the vitriol and lay off the smack (literal smack, which he uses with unapologetic aplomb). But he's too far gone, now, he's too far off the deep end and too in love with his own rhetoric; he's found his voice and his movement; he's smoking absurd numbers of cigarettes and downing liquor like Kool-Aid; he's writing furiously. He's in van Gogh mode, now; he's made a name for himself, stirred the hearts of a people with ominous and vaguely familiar incitements to hate and violence; he's lived up to his heritage in this horribly twisted way. He's become the voice of a generation. And then an angry kid who hero-worships al-Qaeda shoots him dead. And that kid leaves his own literary mark on the world, an angry clash-of-civilizations call to arms knifed to the back of van Gogh's lung. Murdered with a poem! And so van Gogh is killed by his own furious desire for self-expression, by the power of art for which he lived, killed by the bigotry for which he lived, a martyr to both free speech and the enduring spirit of hatred and intolerance in his time. Despite all the controversy around his life and work he is honored as a hero. His countrymen bury him with a bottle of liquor and a pack of cigarettes. In a twist of irony bound to confuse generations of future art history students, who already struggle with getting their late nineteenth century painters mixed up, the monument his supporters erect in his honor is titled The Scream. Brilliant!

If you thought, "Kevin, there's no way you're smoking enough crack to have thought of that," you're right. All of it actually happened.
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caonima, censorship
Mar. 5th, 2009 @ 09:21 pm ireland's second greatest poet was a potty mouth
Current Mood: :D



(literary nsfw)

Also, the Battle of Hastings as told with kittens.
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Feb. 8th, 2009 @ 11:08 pm pride and prejudice and zombies
Now, as you're probably already well aware, I'm not a big fan of the entire genre of published fanfiction literary tributes that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has spawned. (The kind with such authentically Austenian passages as " 'Why, Mr. Darcy,' cried a breathless Ms. Bennet as the hem of his breeches swiftly descended from his firm, ox-toned hips, 'you never cease to overwhelm me with your considerable...wit.") But I may have to make an exception for this one.
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Jan. 14th, 2009 @ 09:49 pm things i keep forgetting to write about (but can now because i am sick)
Conversation with Maxine, of the Brooklynite Cabal (crwr/english majors who went to high school in Brooklyn together, went to college at Oberlin together, and came back to Brooklyn together), at a holiday party:

Maxine: So I heard you moved? Where?
Kevin: Yeah! Park Slope, near the 7th avenue F stop.
Maxine: Near the hospital?
Kevin: Yes. You familiar with the area?
Maxine: ...We grew up there.
Kevin: "We"?
Maxine: Everyone here.

Park Slope is gorgeous! Absolutely fucking gorgeous. I mean, I knew that before I moved here--it's why I moved here, really--but only after coming this deep into the neighborhood do I really appreciate how beautiful it is. It doesn't feel at all like New York, it feels more like the downtown part of some large-town-not-quite-a-city in Massachussetts, Connecticut, anywhere vaguely New England. None of the tired urban squalor that 80% of the city's neighborhoods have in common; it's all Christmas wreaths and baby carriages, and parents talk to their kids about baseball teams and conservation of volume instead of GIT BACK HERE SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP. (It's so cute...the parents talk to their kids as if their kids were little grown-ups, and the kids talk all grown-up in response. Maybe this is what good parenting looks like?) When it snows there's a coat of vanilla icing over everything. Very Norman Rockwell.

My room may be dorm-like and suffocatingly tiny, but with Prospect Park one one side and 7th Avenue (diner-and-laundromat street) on the other, I really have no excuse to be there. Except, you know, when I'm sick. Like now.

2. I've finally found a few places to eat in Park Slope that I can afford to enjoy more than twice a month. All of them are extremely wanting in atmosphere, but they're about the same price as McDonald's (which I used to eat at least once a week in povertyville), have better variety, and are about twice as good. One of them is a generic Chinese-Mexican place, which, while far more expensive than your typical dirt-cheap New York Chinese-Mexican place, is also proportionately better in quality, and still comparable to a sandwich at the deli. Another, which is a diner, not a bakery, despite the huge "DONUTS" sign out front, is the quintessential greasy spoon. Not the romantic ideal of a lonely urban diner, captured at first by Hopper's Nighthawks and then glamorized into its exact reverse, but the kind of place that inspired the painting in the first place. A newspaper-and-cigarette-butts kind of place, lit by flickering white ceiling tubes, where wizened Jewish grandpas sip iced tea from chipped plastic tumblers and the lone waitress is a scowling middle-aged Greek lady with a dirty handkerchief on her head. There is a wide variety of menu items under eight dollars, most of them large and meat-based, which come with potatoes and your choice of vegetable, making it a great place to go for a pseudo-home-cooked meal if you don't have the energy to prepare one yourself. And the bizarre, gnarly conversations that the aging, racially diverse other customers have in the adjoining booths--not hard to see how that kind of thing has become material for generations of stand-up comedians. It's like eating at a significantly dodgier version of the diner from Seinfeld.

3. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes is a very good read. It's just as smart-assed and pretentious and workshoppy as the title suggests, and it's still a good read. The first chapter is an alternate retelling of the story of Noah's Ark, as recounted by a stowaway (who deeply, deeply resents the humans for the account presented in Genesis, which he regards as historically inaccurate). That tale is masterfully told, even when borderline blasphemous; the creature somewhat appropriately has the voice of an ornery Jewish grandfather and is scathingly funny in his exposition. What follows afterward is not a series of narratives describing subsequent events in the history of the world, as one might expect from the title, but a hodgepodge of chronologically sequential stand-alone short stories, academic papers, legal documents, art history lectures, and what have you, all written in a different style and a different voice, which seem to be completely unrelated until you realize that all but one of them is tied to the first story by an intricate network of motifs, themes, and historical running gags to which the speaker of each document is completely oblivious. (Particularly compelling is the story of the boat full of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, who are smuggled onto a cruise ship out of an emerging Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, only to be denied asylum at every harbor at which the ship lands, due to anti-Semitism.) Apparently the history of the world is the story of Noah's Ark told ten and a half times, over ten and a half different time periods. (And, in a fuck-you to all the creative writing majors who looked at the title and immediately thought he wrote ten chapters and couldn't bear to axe the eleventh, it's actually eleven and a half.) A major theme in the book is the unreliability of history, and how stories get altered and lost in the retelling, with the implication that the perception of those stories passed down to us may ultimately be more important than the truth, and it is this theme that makes this collection of shorts something far greater than the sum of its parts.

Also worth mentioning about this book is that Barnes is a master of voice. Most writers struggle at establishing one compelling, natural-sounding authorial voice; Barnes effortlessly juggles ten. If not for the one name on the cover I would have believed that this book was a concept anthology by ten different people. In one chapter he'll be a dapper, charming, engaging Oxford art history professor, giving an immensely gripping art lecture--the kind that has his students hanging on every words, the female students in particular leaning out of their desks, breathless and spellbound--and in the next he'll be an astronaut from Topeka who used to play college football and used his budding knowledge of rocket physics to play pranks on his neighbors. One of the reviewers on the back of the book (which I generally never pay attention to) described it as "masterful ventriloquism." That's exactly what it is. Most writers, even great ones, can put themselves in the heads of other people, but still come off sounding distinctively like themselves. Barnes doesn't. It's hard to tell which voice is the real Julian Barnes, even in one chapter where he talks to you, the reader, as Julian Barnes. (It's never clear what is fiction and what is nonfiction in this book--which is entirely the point.) Particularly striking are Barnes' many and diverse American voices, which somehow manage to sound unmistakably, believably American, despite the fact that Barnes is British and is writing the book from a very post-imperial perspective.

Be warned that there is a great wealth of Biblical allusions in this book. It's too provocative to be shelved as what most bookstores classify as Christian literature, yet requires too much context for it to be truly appreciated by an unfamiliar atheist. I suppose Barnes could get away with this in Britain, where even (and especially!) the atheists tend to have grown up with an Anglican upbringing, and would at the very least be culturally conversant with certain Biblical stories, like Jonah and the whale and the sacrifice of Isaac. In the secular literary circles of coastal America, however, I have the feeling that many readers will feel like they are reading a joke without a punchline. (Chapter 3 in particular, which is the court record of an eighteenth century French Catholic trial of the descendants of the stowaway in Chapter 1 for an unrelated crime, will be impenetrable to someone who has never taken a stab at making it all the way through both the Old and New Testaments; any such person may want to skip it altogether.) At the very least, you'd have to have read through the first dozen or so chapters of Genesis to make sense of the book at all. Jews will probably love it, though. As will the more open-minded among the hay-and-buckwheat crowd. :]

4. Hey, you. I know you skipped that blue link up there. Go back up and read Genesis, if you never have. Say what you will, and believe what you will, but from any perspective it's extraordinarily beautiful prose. And the source material is a lot more compelling than what you might have seen in Sunday School dioramas. (My favorite book, I confess, in the entire Old Testament.)
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Nov. 17th, 2008 @ 11:28 pm the adventures of thomas pynchon and the infinite sentence
Current Music: Joanna Newsom - Inflammatory Writ
Current subway book is perennial Nobel Prize nominee Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. There's a reason why every pastiche of pretentious postmodern snobbery involves namedropping Pynchon--just having heard of him makes you an insufferable hipster. Imagine that some a bitter, thoroughly Californicated early twentieth century Hollywoodite read Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses and thought, "I could do that," and, well--you have something not too far from the truth? Maybe? (No one really knows Thomas Pynchon, which is probably why douchebags mention him so often--that air of mystery gets people laid.) The first two pages of Lot 49 are comprised of one of the most impenetrable paragraphs I have ever read, surpassed only by his literary antecedents Joyce and Eliot and a certain nineteenth century whaling expert who was paid by the word. Pynchon absolutely does not believe in less is more--in that quasar-dense first paragraph there are three different flashbacks, two references to obscure works of music, a detailed description of what the main protagonist had for dinner and how she prepared it, a synopsis of the TV show she had been watching, introductions for three different major characters--and then we're in a completely different setting and scene than where the paragraph started. Literarily this works as an vivid illustration of the character's meandering thought process and easily distracted nature, but to anyone inexperienced in reading morbidly overwritten postmodern fiction it feels like trying to watch four movies at once after five consecutive shots of Glenlivet.

And this is supposedly Pynchon's most accessible novel.

Fortunately, Pynchon doesn't continue this game of ultra-grandiloquent cockslappery for much longer after that, and by the end of the first chapter the book is pretty readable. Which is kind of worrisome, really...it's like he was trying, with that first couple pages, to frighten away any readers who weren't pompous enough to recognize his genius. Make no mistake, there are still endless early pop culture references and literary allusions and stupid metatextual nods to obscure historical events, but to its credit, it's very much a twentieth century book for twentieth century people--past those first few pages, it is possible for a modern reader to progress to the end without a thirty-page appendix of footnotes. (That's more than I can say for some of Pynchon's contemporaries--but I passive-aggressively digress.) What's interesting about this novel, though, is that it manages to be both this pretentious and authentically American. Up until the modernist era American writing was seen as poor man's literature--all cowboys and gold miners and movie stars, while British, French, and Russian writers were penning intricate tales of class struggle and royal intrigue and noblewomen with massive teacups. Even the noveaux riche aristocracy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby was seen as a reach for an impossible dream--the tragic, futile quest for nobility in a hopelessly ignoble America. In Lot 49, Pynchon says fuck you to all that shit. His characters are Californites, ascended to glory through undeserved family wealth and ties to the silver screen, and they cuss and hang out with hippies based on the Beatles and watch terrible nineteenth century American plays set in eighteenth century Europe, and they're every bit as overprivileged and self-centered and woe-is-me as any fainting English lady in a hoop skirt. There are lots of literary references and embedded poems, but they're all TV shows and pop songs--all of them invented for the book. You could read Lot 49 as either a satire of the Jane Austen steamy rich lady affair novel or the direct ancestor of the modern American shopping and fucking novel, and either way you'd be right. There's a startlingly realistic secondhand description of an impossibly convoluted eighteenth century murder play, a web of violence and intrigue centered around an illegal private mail service, and an titilatting variety of increasingly surreal and improbable acts of adultery. It's wickedly funny, in a horribly tedious sort of way--like a long running joke in which you, the reader, are always the butt.

All this in a book that is, inexplicably, barely more than a hundred and fifty pages long. Written in a style that would suggest the kind of tome you could splatter a bullfrog with.

And, lest anyone mistake this book for a genuine stab at Genius, Pynchon deliberately chooses the absolute worst names imaginable for his characters. A bored housewife named Oedipa? A DJ named Wendell Mucho Maas? An LSD-prescribing psychiatrist named Dr. Hilarius? A barfly named Mike Fallopian? No wonder folks who take this book seriously have been the subject of half a century of hipster jokes.

(On a related note: the San Jose Semaphore is pretty awesome.)
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Oct. 28th, 2008 @ 12:27 am in which i nearly meet a famous person
Current Music: Intercontinental Music Lab - There Is Science In This Child
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The Strand Annex, the overflow location for New York's biggest bookstore, used to be down the street from my office. The Strand Annex closed last month. This makes me extra unhappy.

However! The main store just off Union Square is still there. It's harder to get to from work, and atmosphere-wise it's less like a tasteful library and more like something the brooms from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" threw together, but it's still leagues better for literary fiction than Barnes and Noble. Today I went there and bought $50 worth of books. It was awesome. I have no regrets.

Well, except one.

Tonight, there was a huge crowd in front of the up stairs, and a Strand staff dude in front of the stairs holding everyone back and repeatedly telling everyone that there was no room upstairs. Honestly I was quite surprised--I've been to lots of readings before and none of them have been that popular. Who could it be? J.K. Rowling? Neil Gaiman? I tried to ask around but everyone around me just looked far too busy. It wasn't until I left the store and saw the signboard that I realized I had just missed a reading by Michel Gondry.

That Gondry.

That Gondry.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Science of Sleep (which I still haven't seen). That Gondry.

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Sep. 19th, 2008 @ 10:33 pm the resourcerer's apprentice
Heads up from prussianblueuu:

Beautiful stop-motion update of an animation classic. This is exactly what computer programming is like.

Oh, Mudd Library...how I miss thee, and thine brightly colored furnishings.
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