Thursday, August 9, 2007

David Mitchell

I'm reading David Mitchell's Number9Dream now, the last of Mitchell's books for me. I read Cloud Atlas a year and a half ago, Ghostwritten last summer, and Black Swan Green during this year's AP exams, when I should have been writing content for an online film study course.

They're all great, all completely worth reading -- even Number9Dream, which is, 75 pages in, definitely my least favorite so far.

They're gimmicky, I guess, and I suppose a pretentious grad student could accuse them of being too circular, too neat, but I like them. A lot.

Cloud Atlas is a series of long stories, moving from the 19th century, to the distant future, and back again, each story written in a dramatically different, but perfectly realized, style, from Melville to Isherwood/Waugh to airport thriller-ish.

Ghostwritten is, sort of like Cloud Atlas, a series of connected stories, again moving freely through time and geography, but this time written in a mostly similar style.

Black Swan Green is a coming-of-age novel disguised as a series of 13 short stories, each one taking a month in the year of a young British adolescent. It's first-person, and the narrator is, like most adolescent first-person narrators, a little too precocious, occasionally, for his own good, but it's always believable in this book as his intelligence is balanced with his pretentiousness (he's a poet who uses the penname Eliot Bolivar) and his insecurity. He keeps his poetry hidden, of course, and worries that if his secret were discovered, "I'd get BUMHOLE PLUMMER scrawled on my locker." And he claims that Neil Young sings like a barn collapsing. And how can you not like that?

So, read Cloud Atlas. And Black Swan Green.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Mo' Summer Reading

Reading continues, on the deck, in the hammock, on the beach, on the porch, and, occasionally, when I get sucked into Sam Harris' blog, on the computer.

John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is a good re-imagining of the Hamlet story, focussing on the parents instead of the child. We see Gertrude's marriage, her growing unhappiness, her frustration with the teenage Hamlet and her eventual infidelity with her brother-in-law. We also spend a lot of time with Polonius, who comes off much better ni Updike's book than in Shakerspeare's play. Like with most Updike, I wound up liking the writing more than the whole of the story (that's sort of been my experience with a lot of books over the last year, I guess), and I still don't feel like Updike should be considered in the same company as, say, Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth or Cormac McCarthy (even if he is probably more consistently funny than any of those others) in the pantheon of the great American writers of the second half of the twentieth century, but it certainly wasn't a waste of time. I'll teach Hamlet again this year, but I won't teach this.

I read William Boyd's Restless because I loved his book Any Human Heart, a look at the intellectual and artistic history of the twentieth century through a fictional journal. Restless is a spy novel, ultimately, and a good one, but it doesn't resonate (for me) like Any Human Heart. Unlike most spy novels, it's not ultimately about moral ambiguity, but more about trust -- and, in the novel's best stroke, about mortality.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A Series of Michigan Things

Sure, you can nitpick and nitpick, and sure the state has, like, a third-world economy at this point, and, sure, it has its share of godawful stripmalls, and the world's largest cross in the woods, or some such, but, look, every state has godawful stripmalls, every state's economy is going to collapse at some point, and there are some great, great things about this state. Here's what I've run into thus far in my visit:

1. Bell's. Everywhere.

2. Trees. Everywhere. (Except along 96 between Lansing and Grand Rapids. That's a terrible stretch of roadside nastiness).

3. Lakes and rivers. Everywhere.

4. Lake Michigan. Obviously.

5. I had to travel on a highway at ten in the morning, about 20 miles of road, and it took less than twenty minutes. And the cars in the left lane passed the cars in the right lane. And no one slowed down to 35 mph for inexplicable reasons.

6. People can merge into highway traffic. This is a seriously underrated driving skill and one that, apparently, not all states emphasize in their DMV-sponsored licensure exams.

7. Sand.

Clearly, there's a whole lot more, but those were the first seven that I thought of.

Meanwhile, here's the messed-up thing about Michigan: the state done gave me a problem with my teeth. Is it really the state? One temporary filling, one permanent filling, and half a root canal later (all on the same tooth, with the second half of the procedure scheduled for Wednesday), I'm ready to put the blame right here. Right here.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Pava's High School Musical Breakdown

After reading and thinking about Dr. Pava's breakdown of High School Musical, I realized why my brain kept wanting to force a link between the HSM Happening and the Now That's What I Call Music Happening.

As Dr. Pava points out, the bond between HSM and Mssrs. Cassidy, Travolta, and Newton-John is strong. And, like always, what happens in one facet of our culture, must happen in all facets of our culture. Thus, we have the return of the 1970s Disney-esque musicals and pinups and, simultaneously, the return of the K-Tel Corporation.

Now, I have no idea what sales of K-Tel compilations were thirty years ago, and maybe they weren't as heavy as sales of the NTWICM sets, but there's a connection, for sure.

Invest in iron-ons. It's all happening without irony, which means that even though ringer-tees and glittery iron-ons might have had a brief resurgence among hipsters, these sales will be huge. Huge. Wal-Mart huge.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Fast Times with Book Reviews

It's hard to work up the motivation to post while in Michigan, what with the lake, the beach, the dunes, the Two Hearted Ale, the family, the Harper playing in the sand, in the creek, and in the woods, but here are a couple of quick book reviews to help me keep track of my reading:

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I had never read any of Gaiman's prose before this, but, based on this (a recommendation from a former student), now I may. An enjoyable, if somewhat occasionally overwrought romp through what appears, at first, to be a climactic (and probably doomed) battle between aging, forgotten, mostly immigrant gods and the more modern, sleeker gods of the computer, the stripmall, the digital watch. Some great writing, solid pacing, only one or two misshapen speeches, and a whole lot of ideas that high school students are more likely to find new and inspirational. Plus, one character says, "My last girlfriend was Greek... The shit her family ate... Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that."

The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. Felt like a coming of age story at first, about a kid in early twentieth century Newfoundland getting initiated into art, sex, and family strife. Winds up being much more about transformation (transforming birds into art, for example, or transforming live birds into dead birds into money, or transforming a man into a corpse, or sex into love, or adolescent confusion into vengeance, or events into a story and a story into redemption) and is all the better for it. And Norman can write. And it's got a great female lead who does some serious damage to the world whisky supply over the course of the book.