Notes From a Lapsed Blogger

When I started up this blog a bit more than two years ago, I envisioned a little space where I could ponder whatever I happened to be reading, hopefully engage in some stimulating discourse, and meet a few new cyber-pals along the way.  At the time, I knew that the only way for this to work was if I was committed – regular posts, replying to comments, actively engaging with other bloggers, etc. – all the Blogging:101 stuff you find if you query Google about how to have a successful blog.   I found that it was hard work – for me at least, the words don’t flow from my finger tips.  There’s always been a good deal of prevaricating, writing, rewriting, deleting, writing a few words, running off for a snack, forgetting what I had written, starting over.   But, as with any hobby, you keep at it because the pay-off is worth the effort.   I met interesting people, had intelligent conversations, and, most importantly, was motivated to read more. I suspect this is why most bloggers keep at it.

And then life changes and priorities shift.  As with any hobby that requires a bit of effort, it’s easy to let it go.  And, once you do, it becomes harder and harder to pick it up again.  And that’s where I find myself now – I haven’t posted a word in two months and have, for all intents and purposes, dropped off the face of the blogosphere. Which is not to say that I haven’t thought about getting it back up again.  Every time I read pick up a book, I find things that I would like to write about.  The effort required to do so, however, just seems greater and greater the more time goes by.

The good thing about blogging as a hobby, though, is that the internet never really lets you forget that your space is still out there and that the conversations you long to be part of are still going on.   They’re going along just fine without you (“you” meaning “me” in this case) and will continue to do so, but…they’re still there.  You can be a part of them again if you can muster up the commitment and dedication to participate.

A single, unexpected comment about a year-old post landing in your email box can be a very persuasive reminder of the reasons you took up blogging in the first place.   A shared opinion about a writer or an argumentative, yet intellectual challenge – it doesn’t so much matter the content just that there are people out there who are willing to engage on a subject of mutual interest.   This is a powerful motivator, one that can easily nudge a lapsed blogger back into writing.

 

 

 

The Dog That Made Me Sad

Why should it be that tragedy is so much more tragic when it happens to our canine cousins?  Take the following brief passage from Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies:

In one thing, Kiku and Hashi actually envied Milk a little: though he’d lost his mother early in life just as they had, Milk later got a chance to meet her…Though she was completely changed since their last meeting, Kiku immediately recognized one of them as the white dog from the mining town.  A patch of fur was missing where Gazelle had hit her, her eyes were cloudy, and she drooled a bit, but it was unmistakably the same dog.  Her right front leg was bent and dragged along the ground.  Milk, having no idea that this was his mother, growled quietly for a while, and then seemed to lose interest and passed on with the boys.  The mother never even glanced up.    When they had gone quite a distance, Milk stopped at the crest of a hill, shook himself and gave a long, mournful howl.

This is, up to the point where I’ve read, the saddest scene.  In a book that begins with a mother abandoning her child in a bus station coin locker, that’s saying something.  Reading it now, the disembodied passage above doesn’t even reflect the full tragedy of the scene – in the book, Milk’s mother is beat to the point of death protecting her child.  The fact that she doesn’t even recognize her own pup, the one she suffered so much for,  and that Milk doesn’t recognize her, is what makes this scene so heartbreaking.  It’s a sacrifice of love that, in the end, amounts to nothing.  It’s horribly depressing.

But how is it that this scene is more rending than some of the others scattered through this dark story:  a mother unceremoniously dumping her child in a bus station locker to suffocate to death;  a kindly woman knocked to the ground by an uncaring teen and then later dying in bed next to her adopted child;  a little boy poisoned in an industrial accident until his skin literally falls off of his face.  These scenes of humanity at its darkest and most tragic don’t affect us (at least me) in the way that a botched reunion between a couple of animals does.   Perhaps that’s a tragedy in and of itself.

 

 

Genius

“Albert Einstein was a ladies man
While he was working on his universal plan.
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a Genius”

This is one of my favorite lines from Warren Zevon’s modestly-titled gem “Genius.”  It’s a brilliant song – at once hilarious, scathing, dark, and vulnerable.  And it epitomizes the career, and the life, of one of America’s most under appreciated musical talents.

Reading I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon’s biography of her late husband, it very quickly becomes clear that Warren Zevon was a genius in every sense of the word.  As some might jot down a grocery list before running out to buy tomatoes, Zevon would dash off entire symphonies on the back of cocktail napkins in full musical notation for instruments which he knew how to play or could figure out how to play in the time it’s taken me to type out this sentence.   He liked to brag about being tested as having the highest IQ ever in Fresno, California.  Whether there ever was such a test, it would be a risky proposition to bet against his IQ.

Zevon was a voracious reader and would veer from Stephen King to Russian history to Catholic theology to Norman Mailer.  His apartments were always strewn with books and, as a friend noted, he read every single one.  Zevon was not a person to buy a book and not read it.  As his good friend and novelist Carl Hiaason writes, “A prodigious reader…he could talk knowledgly about Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, or Micky Spillane, all in the same conversation.”  This vast body of literature informed his songwriting in a way that made Zevon one of the most admired and creative lyricists around.  His songs veer from flat-out goofy (“Werewolves of London“) to cheerfully dark (“Life’ll Kill Ya“) to plaintively earnest (“Don’t Let Us Get Sick“).  But each one displays a way with words that was the envy of many of his novelist friends.  Stephen King summed it up pretty well:  “When I listen to some of the stuff Warren wrote…I think if I could write something like that, I’d be a happy guy.” That’s pretty high praise from a guy who’s put more words to paper that probably anyone else on the planet and is damn good at doing so.

Genius as he was, Zevon was far from a saint – as was probably to be expected given his profession as a rock musician.  Drugs, alcohol, and smashed up hotel rooms are par for the course in that line of work.  Yet, as he went beyond most others in terms of creative abilities, his bad behavior also crashed through boundaries.  In a song titled “Mr. Bad Example,” there’s a line that goes “I like to have a good time and I don’t care who gets hurt.”  This is certainly autobiographical.   In addition to alcoholism, drug abuse, and fits of narcissistic rage, Zevon’s life was littered with other  instances of darker, more despicable behavior.  He beat his wife.  He cheated on every girlfriend he ever had.  In a particularly disturbing incident, he impregnated a fan, lied to convince her to have an abortion, and then refused to talk to her again.   In short, he could be a disgusting human being.

But he could also be a loving father, a caring friend, and a sincere partner.  When he chose to be, if ‘choose’ is the correct word.  I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is told through the eyes of those who knew him so there is no professional psychological analysis at play.  Yet, it is clear from the stories of his friends and relatives that there was a battle going on between his better and his baser instincts with the later often winning out.  While this made for a train wreck of a personal life, it’s a conflict that permeates his music in such an important way that, were he not as twisted, it’s easy to imagine him not having been such a successful and creative artist.

In 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the age of 55.  A week or so before he finally passed, he told his ex-wife Crystal to tell his story.  “You are my witness,” he said. “The story is yours.  But you gotta promise to you’ll tell ’em the whole truth, even the awful ugly parts.  Cause that’s the guy who wrote them excitable songs.”  I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead certainly tells the whole ugly truth and, in the process, helps us to better understand this flawed and tragic genius.

2011: The Books

When people ask me about my favorite book, I often have no idea what to say.  Come up with one book that I like more than any other book that I’ve ever read?  How am I supposed to do that?  I most certainly have books I like more than others.  There are books I love and books I hate.  But I find it almost impossible to choose one single work that I value above all others because, among the really great books, they each have something of value that can’t be fairly compared to others.

In this spirit, my new years review of the books I read in 2011 will not be a single ordered list of books I liked culminating in my favorite book of the year.  Instead, I’ve come up with a few categories into which I can place just some of the books I read last year.  This list is by no means comprehensive but it gives some good examples of what made me happy to be a reader in 2011.

The “Try Not to Make an Ass of Yourself By Laughing Hysterically in Public Places” Books

The Books:  Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik; Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore; God, No! by Penn Jillette; Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre

Most books are not laugh-out-loud funny.  They might inspire a smirk, or an inside chuckle, maybe a giggle.  But, some books are pee-your-pants funny.  Christopher Moore’s Lamb is one of these books.  The story of Jesus’ missing years is narrated by Biff, a well-meaning but flawed sidekick to the Son of God.  For all it’s wacky irreverence, the book manages to remain surprisingly inoffensive, no small feat when dealing with two teenage boys (even if one of them is Christ).  Penn Jillette’s God No! could be summed up with  “a fat dude vomits all over naked strippers in zero gravity.”  That sentence in itself is funny and the book follows suit.  Jillette does, however, get a little bit preachy in his hatred of anything religious and that drags the book down.  Pandaemonium, by Christopher Brookmyre, sits in as a a gaggle of hormonal teens battle demons at a forest getaway.  Sex, drugs, and mayhem predictably lead to hilarious results.  And Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of an adolescent spy sent to the American heartland to instigate chaos and destruction.  Told through the butchered syntax and grammar of a non-native speaker, Pygmy  is a brutal satire of American society in the guise of a raucous farce.  It was certainly the funniest book I read in 2011.

The “It Would Be So Cool to Do These Things But I Don’t Actually Want to Die” Books

The Books:   Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; No Way Down by Graham Bowley; The Wave by Susan Casey; Blind Descent by James Tabor

Four very strong books round out this category of tales chronicling men and women jabbing their fingers into nature’s eye by exploring those places where mortals have no business being.  Two have to do with mountain climbing tragedies in the Himalayas.  Krakauer’s Into Thin Air  and Bowley’s No Way Down  read as gripping thrillers set on the rooftop of the world.  Turning a complete 180, Blind Descent by James Tabor follows those who explore the earth’s deepest depths in a claustrophobic tale of supercave spelunking.  The final work in this category is Susan Casey’s The Wave.  She follows  scientists, sailors, and (of course) surfers on a quest to find the worlds largest and most dangerous waves.  The tale of a 1700+ foot wave alone makes this book a gripping read.

The “Sometimes Religion Makes People do Crazy Things” Books

The Books:  Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Underground by Haruki Murakami; Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman; The Cleanest Race by B.J. Myers

There were four excellent books in this category, each one exploring a different religious movement and their often tragic collisions with mainstream society.  Haruki Murakami’s Underground deals with the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.  Murakami chooses to forgo any sort of author driven narrative by telling the story almost entirely in the words of the victims and cult members.  The result is a sobering meditation on Japanese society and it’s culpability in this horrific tragedy.  Inside Scientology,  by Janet Reitman, takes a more traditional approach in exploring the origins, beliefs, and future of Scientology.  Her research is insightful and scathing.  While remaining sympathetic to Scientology’s many adherents, she paints a vivid portrait of a power-hungry organization founded by a delusional huckster and being led into the 21st century by a violent sociopath.B.J. Myers’ The Cleanest Race seems to be misplaced in this category as it is a book about how the North Korean people perceive themselves and how this affects contemporary geopolitics.  Myers, however, makes a very persuasive argument that the North Korean worldview is informed by their own psuedo-religious belief in the purity of their race and in their leaders ability to protect this innocence against an onslaught of corruption and filth from the rest of the world.  Finally, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven explores the violent roots of Mormonism while telling the story of a grisly modern-day murder.  This story of faith gone awry is masterfully told, moving at times more like a thriller than a religious history.  His book challenges believers to ask themselves how far they might go in the name of faith and, depending on the answer, what this implies about the very nature of religious belief.

The “WTF???” Books

The Books: American Psycho by Brad Easton Ellis; Ed King by David Guterson; The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik

As an adult reader of literary fiction, one can very easily become desensitized to scenes of violence and sexuality (or a combination of the two).  Depictions of this nature often pop up in various works and, having read hundreds of them, they’re usually not quite as shocking as perhaps they should be.  Still, every so often a book can truly jolt.  Dave Guterson’s Ed King is a modern retelling of Oedipus Rex and is billed as such.  Therefore, the ending’s not a complete surprise.  No matter how prepared you are, however, it’s still cringe-inducing when the titular character discovers the truth about his wife.  Chuch Palahnuik’s Pygmy makes a second appearance for its bipolar swings between boring suburban life and graphic mayhem.  The scene where the diminutive narrator deals with an oafish bully will test your resolve as you try not to laugh at something that shouldn’t be in any way funny.   The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks also deals with an adolescent narrator prone towards violence and sociopathic behavior.  As his story careens towards it’s disturbing surprise ending, he spends his time collecting his own bodily fluids, killing dogs, and torturing wasps.  The last book in this category, however, makes the rest of these seem like appropriate bedtime stories for toddlers.  Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho depicts scenes of violence, sex, and sexual violence more disturbing and graphic than anything else legally available.  Readers beware.

“Even Though I’m a Guy, I Sometimes Cry a Little at the End of Books”

The Books:  Room by Emma Donoghue; 11/22/63 by Stephen King; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I’m not a crier.  Even if I was, I probably wouldn’t admit it.  But, I’d be lying if I said that these books didn’t bring a tear to my eye.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 may seem like an unlikely choice – time travelling alternate histories aren’t exactly known for their emotional potency.  King, however, turn this tale into a poignant meditation on memory, loss, and time.  You’d have to be one tough person to remain dry-eyed at the end of this one.  Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men needs little explanation.  The ill-fated story of George and Lenny has been regurgitated so many times in pop-culture that it almost seems cliche.  But this doesn’t negate the raw emotional power of this tragic novella.  The gem in this category, however, was Emma Donoghue’s Room.  The brilliance of this novel lies in the author’s use of Jack, a six year old narrator.  Jack’s innocence in the face of a dark,cruel world is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

 

 

2011: A Year in Review

Number of books read in 2011:  54

I’m quite happy with this number as it met my goal of a book a week with some change left over.  For a year that included a major move, a career shift, and a number of other largish personal events, this is not too shabby.

Number of Non-Fiction Works Read:  23

This number feels about right – while I’m a fiction guy, there are some amazing non-fiction reads out there and I’m happy that I balanced them off a bit better this year than last.

Number books read written by white males: 39

I’m not sure what to make of this number – I’m vehemently against reading books simply because the author is female (or black, or Asian, or gay,  or young, or Ivy League educated, or Klingon stamp-collecting birdwatcher, etc.).  At the same time, this statistic is a bit lame.

Number of Stephen King books read: 10

Yup – slightly more than one out of every six books I read this year was a Stephen King book.  Granted, a reread of  The Dark Tower series constituted seven of the ten books and one of the books, Black House, was only half-written by King. Still, any way you parse it, it’s a high number – certainly higher than any other author I’ve read in 2011.  What does it say about me? That I love me some Stephen King.  If you don’t like that, take your Harold Bloom and go stuff it.

Number of Repeat Authors: 5

Aside from Stephen King, I read more than one book each from Richard Dawkins, Jon Krakauer, Haruki Murakami, and Herman Wouk.

Number of Paper Books Read:  1

The world has moved on, I’m sad to say, and I’ve had no choice but to go along with it.  With the lone exception of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, all of my reading in 2011 has been done electronically, either on my Sony E-Reader or my i-Pad. Am I sad about this? In a way – I miss books as physical objects. I miss the thrill of hunting through used book stores and delighting in my various finds. Clicking through Amazon or the iTunes Bookstore just doesn’t compare. At the same time, dragging Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 around the subway may very well have resulted in a few strained muscles. The plain fact is that e-readers are more convenient than traditional books, both in acquisition and consumption. I’ve made peace with this and do not envision going back to paper for anything more than the occasional touch of nostalgia.

To all my fellow book bloggers, best of wishes in 2012 and happy reading!

“The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami”

Haruki Murakami (from The New York Times)

Every year, I get excited about a few books.  Usually a new Stephen King release, a couple of literary works, maybe one or two China-related non-fiction pieces.  But rarely do I get myself worked up years in advance.

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is the exception.  I’ve been itching to get my grubby paws on this one since even before it was released in Japan two years ago.  And now I’ve got a copy in my hands and a few days this week to dive in.  It’s a behemoth – 900+ pages – and I’m going to savor every page.

If you haven’t already got your copy of 1Q84 (or even if you have), take a jump over to last weeks The New York Times Sunday Magazine.  There’s a wonderful piece on Murakami, his process, and his imagination.  It has a particularly interesting section on Murakami’s work in translation.

September Mini Reviews

Interesting fact:  Most companies, if they promote you and give you a raise, also expect you to do more work.

Crazy, but true.

As a result, this place has been neglected for the past month as I’ve gotten settled into my new position and caught up (kinda) on all the fun new excitement that comes with managing an English training center.  Luckily, I’m not working so hard that my reading has been affected.   Here’s a few short thoughts on what I’ve read in September.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Imagine The Catcher in the Rye if Holden Caulfield had a few additional screws loose and his own island where he could run amok.  The plot of The Wasp Factory revolves around Frank, a lovable teenage sociopath.  As he waits for the return of his brother (who has escaped from an insane asylum where he was put for killing a dog and making local children eat worms), Frank spends his time collecting his own bodily fluids, killing small animals, trying to break into his father’s study, and getting drunk with a dwarf.   Good clean wholesome fun.  Upon his brother’s return, s**t predictably hits the fan and we learn something shocking about Frank.  Or kind of shocking, because the reader can see it a mile away.  All in all, an enjoyable  selection in the “spend some time in the mind of a lunatic” collection.

God, No! by Penn Jillette

If you’ve ever wanted to hear about a naked fat man vomiting all over a topless woman in zero gravity, this is probably the only book you’ll need to read this year.  In between dozens of tasteless, but often hilarious, anecdotes,  Penn pauses to say that God doesn’t exist.   It was amusing enough, although the preaching got tiresome.  At least it was short.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In the early 1950’s, a poor black woman died of cervical cancer.  Her cells, however, lived on in laboratories around the world enabling revolutionary new research in numerous scientific fields.  These two parallel stories are brilliantly woven together by Ms. Skloot in a book which examines the ethical implications of medical research in the twentieth century.  More importantly, it finally tells the story of a woman who, despite having been nearly forgotten, was one of the most important figures in the history of medical research.

Anyone else read any of these?  Each one could have easily been an entire review in and of itself.  But, I’m gearing up for a lengthy in-depth review of The Art of Fielding soon.  So, stay tuned.