Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Oh God He's At It Again. This Time It's Books

Blogger has added a new feature that lets you post up images into the blog's header with ease. I've taken advantage of it, as you can see, in the stupidest way possible. An uncropped, unfinished drawing of what appears to be a total dullard now greets all comers to the Inanities. While I was away, my PC crapped out on me, so I haven't yet moved Photoshop CS from my busted PC to my still-working laptop (on which I'm composing this blog entry). But if I had access to Photoshop, this image would be cropped. But until I get access to it, this image will remain in its goofy, uncropped state. (Or until I get tired of it and ax it altogether). I actually think though that this drawing I did on Photoshop last month is kind of fitting. No offense to any of you, of course, but he kind of looks like he ought to be reading this blog.

Anyway, as you may have guessed, I'm back from my trip to the British Isles. Got back about a week ago and since then I've been dealing with uncooperative computers. Those issues are all resolved now, or mostly resolved (see above), and now we look ahead to the big move out of Atlanta. We have to be out of our apartment in 9 days, and we still don't know a.) what city we're going to, or b.) what or how the new employer plans to subsidize our relocation. We're hoping for a telephone call of enlightenment sometime today. I don't mean to give the impression that we are 9 days away from homelessness. The wife and I will be staying one county up with her parents until she goes away for training. But as to where we'll be at the beginning of September and the foreseeable future following, we do not know. Good times.

Enough of that. My plan was to come back, get on the 'puter, and blog about my trip right away. The 7th of this month is what I think I'd promised. A week later, I'm still not prepared to do that. The photos we took are off the camera but loaded onto my wife's calculator-sized laptop, and I won't use that because if I so much as rest my gigantor hand on it, I'll break it. So, seeing how I want to supplement my exciting travelogue with photos and those photos are not, this moment, available to me, I can provide no travelogue today. But I will do something far more boring instead. I'll tell you about the books I read while I was traveling the world! Whoo! And for those who are already clicking on other websites, take care and check back for an exhaustive description of my England trip. Here we go:

1.) The Raw Shark Texts. A Brit named Steven Hall wrote this novel which someone billed as "Memento meets Jaws". Unfortunately, this summation is accurate, and it's just as bad as that weird mish-mash of stories and genres would suggest. The story's about a twenty-something named Eric Sanderson who wakes up in his apartment one day with no memory of who he is. He finds a note nearby, addressed to him (he assumes), penned by someone calling himself "the First Eric Sanderson." In the first 20 pages, he goes to see a shrink the First Eric Sanderson tells him to visit, reads about 200 instructive notes written by the First Eric Sanderson meant to gently ease him into understanding the terrifying predicament that is his life, and he is then attacked, in his living room, by a "conceptual shark." My copy of the "Raw Shark Texts" was a library book. I've already turned it in so I can't, as I'd like, include passages from the book, but take my word for it: as difficult a time as you're no doubt having trying to imagine in your head what a "conceptual shark" looks like, the author of the novel is able to lend absolutely zero assistance. Instead of sitting down and trying as hard as he can to make the unimaginable imaginable, Hall just adds a lot of clever but bullshit modifiers to the word 'shark' to sell his story. Add in a ridiculous, shoehorned love story, a penchant for writing novels like an amateur screenwriter who's just got his hands on Robert McKee's "Story", and you've got a novel with problems. If only those were his worst sins. The end of "Raw Shark Texts" follows, in many instances beat for beat, the last 30-40 minutes of "Jaws". Seriously. So much so, that I knew what was going to happen to the characters 75 pages away from the last page because I recognized which character was Brody, which Quint, which Hooper. As I read, I held out hope for Hall. "This whole sequence is going to just be a riff on 'Jaws', he's not going to just keep ripping it off, is he?" But he does. After finishing the book, I was more than a little mystified as to mainstream publishing's well-documented excitement surrounding its release. Less mystified, though, as to why it's been termed a "disappointment" in the few months since it came out. I doubt there was very much positive word of mouth because it is not very good. That is not to say that Hall didn't have an interesting premise -- he did. I likely wouldn't have picked it up off the New Fiction shelf at the library if it didn't. He even manages to include some legitimately mind-expanding passages in his novel -- ways of thinking I'd never encountered or seen put into writing with such precision. But the goofy, screenwriter-wannabe missteps he makes the rest of the time overpower the story. I hope he has better luck next time out of the box.

2.) For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This collection of short stories was written by Nathan Englander. He did the Iowa Writer's Workshop, his stories have appeared in Story magazine and The New Yorker, and his new novel, "The Ministry of Special Cases", has been getting rapturous reviews from everyone who reads it. Since I didn't want to plunk down $25 for an un-discounted hardcover of the new book, I picked up his first book instead. In one a wealthy, WASPy gentile decides, while sitting in the back of a cab, that he is Jewish. His transformation from Polo shirt and penny loafer wearing prep into an Orthodox Jew (right down to the little black box some penitents wear at the Wailing Wall) is meant to be hilarious, and though it is funny at times, mostly it is just sad, as are most of these stories. Englander's reputation as a masterful short story writer is well-deserved. His tone is pitch perfect for each story, the epiphanies subtle and well-managed, the themes clearly drawn and if creative writing teachers held this book up to their students to say "this is how you write short stories", I would have no problem with that. Though, as with most serious, so-called "literary" fiction, I feel I'm only half-getting the stories. And by that I mean I understand them on one, maybe two of several levels the authors were writing on. I think in the case of this particular book, some of my ignorance might be corrected if I'd either a.) retained what little Sunday School instruction I got, or b.) pick up the Bible and just suck it up and read the damn thing. In all of these stories Englander is much concerned with Jews and Jewishness, and the Old Testament Biblical allusions were a flyin'. Anyway, good reviews are much more boring than bad, so I'll just end with that.

3.) Arthur & George. Another book written by a Brit. Written by Julian Barnes, this novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize in England a couple years back. Set primarily at the beginning of the 20th century, "Arthur & George" tells the story of George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half-Indian man living in the English countryside who becomes the object of an unjustified criminal prosecution. To the rescue comes the rich and wealthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. Spurred to action by a letter from George's father, a Vicar, Doyle uses his position and wealth to clear Edalji's name. Though Arthur and George don't meet until page 293 (the book is 501 pages long), the meeting still manages to feel perfectly timed. Barnes is so deft at not only conjuring the imagined personalities of these real-life men with clear attention to the true details of their actual lives, but also to recreating the world they inhabited. The effect of this careful work is that their first meeting in the lobby of the Grand Hotel is actually thrilling and, in the end, not at all predictable. Because the characters in this novel, even the non-famous ones, behave like people and not as characters in a novel, unexpected moments do sometimes arise in the story that intentionally move the reader away from easy judgments and moralistic pronouncements. For instance, after Doyle has begun his investigation into the crimes George is alleged to have committed, he interviews the bigoted chief of police (or the British equivalent) that managed the original investigation. Far from depicting the systematic and satisfying destruction of the Chief's (Anson's) irrational and dangerous beliefs on race at the hands of a Holmes-like Doyle, Barnes instead casts Anson in the Sherlock Holmes role and Arthur Conan Doyle in the exasperated and befuddled Watson role as Anson calmly and condescendingly instructs Doyle on both the particulars of the case and the sad truths about the nature of truth. After that conversation, I figured that none of my assumptions were safe, and even began to doubt the innocence of George. I have to say that my reading of the story was in no way helped by this suspense, so, if you do plan to read this book, let me tell you this: George didn't do it. Knowing this may help you later on. Anyway, an engrossing, beautifully-written, fast-moving read. I highly recommend it.

4.) The Interpretation of Murder. So we go from brilliant to terrible. This is the book I read while flying back to the States. This means that, along with "Raw Shark Texts" I sandwiched my UK trip by reading two bad books while flying over the Atlantic. This is by far the worst of the two and a particularly egregious instance of an author completely failing to deliver on a fantastic premise. This, from a single page preceding the novel.
"In 1909, Sigmund Freud... made his one and only visit to the United States. Despite the great success of this visit, Freud always spoke, in later years, as if some trauma had befallen him in the United States. He called Americans 'savages' and blamed his sojourn there for physical ailments that afflicted him well before 1909. Freud's biographers have long puzzled over the mystery, speculating whether some unknown event in America could have led to his otherwise inexplicable reaction."
To me, this is a great premise. What terrible thing happened to Sigmund Freud when he visited New York at the height of its Gilded Age? Just as with "Raw Shark Texts", the author got a big advance for a first novel, and the publishers put a lot of their selling power to bear to get this into bookstores in a big way. I opened the book expecting something on the order of Caleb Carr's "The Alienist", which was also about psychology, serial killers, New York and true life historical figures. Instead I got 529 pages of true dreck. Though Rubenfeld may have mastered many a discipline in his life (his author bio, located on the inside cover, lists his many accomplishments in both drama and law), he can not count "Writing a Good Book" as one of them. This is one of the worst books I've ever read, and I've read a few. Here is a brief list of his transgressions: He starts his novel in the first person voice of one character and then, in the next section when describing things the other character cannot have witnessed, blithely switches to third person voice. The "great trauma" Freud was supposed to have suffered, the one Rubenfeld alludes to in his one-paragraph preface, turns out to be neither great nor particularly traumatic. He uses movie-like catchphrases. For instance, after the main character is nearly drowned in the Hudson river, he emerges alive, and reunites with a fellow psychiatrist. When the main character is asked what he's been up to, he says, "Just trying to keep my head above water, really." If that's not enough, the novel was boring, the characters all lifeless puppets, and the solution to the murders was, if not completely implausible, than at least intolerably dull. The only vaguely interesting thing about this book was the interplay between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who traveled with him and whom Freud considered the heir to his methodology. But even that Rubenfeld manages to caricature so cartoonishly that Freud comes off as the all-knowing, all-seeing mind reader, and Jung the hedonistic, deluded, mentally ill ass-hole whom Freud insensibly coddles. The only thing more opaque than the plot or the inner workings of the minds of the characters is how much praise this book received! My copy is riddled with adulation. "Spectacular ... fiendishly clever", says the Spectator. "Unusually intelligent", so says the Times. The Sunday Telegraph weighs in with, "Rubenfeld writes beautifully." The Independent: "A dazzling novel." Entertainment Weekly calls "Interpretation", "an expertly crafted novel." I don't know if they read a different book or didn't read it at all, because none of this has any bearing on the contents of "Interpretation of Murder".

All right. I'm through. More soon.

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