Odd Book Titles

February 26th, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Bookseller Magazine has announced the finalists for its “Oddest Title of the Year” contest:

I voted for “Cheese Problems Solved” because it is obviously the “oddest.”

But “How to Write a How to Write Book” and “If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs” are funny. But not really very odd.

What to do?

I’m certainly eager to read one that failed to make the shortlist, “Tiles of the Unexpected: A Study of Six Miles of Geometric Tile Patterns on the London Underground.”

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What really intrigues me though is that the spotter of the winning book receives a magnum of champagne.

A MAGNUM OF CHAMPAGNE!!!

My eyes for odd book titles are officially peeled.



The Times Revives Reading

February 25th, 2008 at 6:39 am

The New York Times recently ran a few articles beautifully illuminating the more writerly things in life.

There’s Immigrants and Gatsby.

Timothy Egan eloquently (and thankfully) rendered Steve Jobs’ silly dismissal of reading Out Of Touch.

And then there’s a gorgeous piece about a semicolon. Yes gorgeous. And yes a semicolon.

Though Kurt Vonnegut hated them, I have always considered the semicolon to be the second sexiest punctuation mark. Second chair only to that undulating harp that is the ampersand.



Marley & Me

February 21st, 2008 at 5:34 am

I have a dog (my first) and like all good, over-excited, enthusiastic first-time parents, when I got it I had every intention of reading every single goddamned book on the topic. Marley & Me by John Grogan was the next on a long and ever-expanding list. It had been on the bestseller lists for quite a long time and so I was expecting it to be a light, enjoyable read. The kind palatable to the masses and easily read between Mitch Albom and Nicholas Sparks.

With “Marley & Me,” I was expecting a dog book, a man’s book. I mean, right on the cover is a picture of a cute little puppy looking up at the camera with innocent, loving eyes and a subtitle reading, “Life And Love With The World’s Worst dog.” So I was expecting a book about a man and his dog.

What I got was a book about marriage and babies, two things that gross me out. Two things that my feelings about rank somewhere between ironing shirts and slamming my penis in a sliding door.

That being said, this book is very, very good. By page thirty-two, my eyes were welling with tears. The book actually ended up being a relatively slow read because I had to stop every other paragraph to lift weights, drink beer at a strip club, and watch kung fu movies in my underwear while eating a bowl of cereal for dinner. You see, “Marley & Me” is not a story about a man and his dog. “Marley & Me” is the story of a young married couple that adopts a dog. Like all good characters in good stories, this particular dog is not perfect. In fact, it’s an outrage. Marley is a barking, drooling, rampaging, gnawing, destroying, pillaging Viking of a dog. His energy is endless. He is kicked out of obedience school. He eats expensive necklaces. He rips apart furniture. He destroys an entire garage. He transforms into a howling terror of a werewolf during thunderstorms. He never stops. He is always moving, his frenetic tail constantly wagging and tipping over anything in its oscillating path.

With Marley’s hyperactive and destructive back story carefully laid out, it is an emotional scene when the couple gets pregnant, only to lose the baby in the first trimester, and the mom comes home to be comforted by the surprisingly now-calm Marley with his big head on her lap and his still, patient body consolingly at her side. I am a non-breeder and when reading this scene I was an absolute mess. I was a thirteen-year-old girl saying goodbye to her friends at the end of summer camp. I was a mother at her daughter’s wedding ceremony. I was the girlfriend who didn’t get anything from her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. I was Meryl Streep in a Meryl Streep movie: weepy and distraught. Grogan poignantly balances the humor, stress, and satisfaction of pet ownership with a young wife as they transition into parenthood. His story is a pleasure to read in its effortless weaving of funny anecdotes, emotional growth, and the changing priorities that come with parenthood, all with an amusing animal for comic relief. Hollywood could not have done better.

The Grogans get pregnant again and their birth story is one of the more interesting ones I have heard (again, I’m a non-breeder so hearing this kind of schmaltzy crap usually bores me to tears. Why do you tell me this stuff? What do you want me to say, “Congratulations, you successfully carried out a maneuver that baboons accomplish every goddamned day, but with less fanfare, books, websites, and talking?”) But the Grogan’s story is quite remarkable as it offers a unique window into the child birthing methods of America. Before the birth, they reserve and pay extra for an upgraded, special birthing suite. When the big day arrives, however, they arrive at the hospital to learn that all of these suites are full. “We can’t control when women go into labor,” a nurse tells them. Not only that, however, but all of the “normal” labor and delivery rooms are full as well. A few phone calls, some scrambling, and they are led into a completely different part of the hospital. The room they are put in is bare and unadorned, lacking the floral curtains, pastel pillows, and cushy couch for dad that they had expected from their pre-natal tour.

The section they are in is for the poorer, mostly immigrant population of their southern Florida community. Seeing their dismay and concern, the Grogan’s doctor assures them that since the poor typically cannot afford prenatal care, they tend to have higher-risk pregnancies so their room was actually equipped with more specialized tools and instruments to prepare for these higher-risk deliveries. Also, these poorer immigrants cannot afford the expensive, pain-relieving epidurals that have become such a common part of births in America, so throughout their entire birth the Grogan’s are treated to the un-drugged screams and painful yelps of their impoverished neighbors. As a non-breeder and a bleeding heart liberal, all of this was thoroughly, thoroughly fascinating. Who would have thought? I open a book looking for a Jack London-esque dog story and get a socio-economic examination of the United States. Ah, books! And to think there’s more to this world than the news and current events I was getting from my usual two sources: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and my pot dealer.

From there, the story meanders down a gently twisting road into an enjoyable story of an American family, complete with happiness and sadness, disappointment and success, children and pet, jobs and vacations. The Grogans get pregnant again and with this baby mom goes into labor months too soon and is relegated to strict bed-rest to prevent a premature birth. A healthy baby boy is finally born at the same hospital and the day after Donald Trump’s baby. Afterwards, mom battles severe post-partum depression and demands that Marley be given away. At this point in the book, I remember silently chanting my encouragements to the narrator to “Get rid of the wife! Keep the dog! Keep the dog!” Ultimately, there was no need for such drastic measures, it’s too good and perfect of a story for tragedy. This story is one where wives and misbehaving dogs learn to live in harmony. There is the birth of a third kid (a girl!), a new job and move to Pennsylvania (complete with dog bellowing from the belly of the plane, serenading all un-amused passengers as his owners play dumb, feigning ignorance and similar disgust at such an obnoxious beast).

And through all of this idyllic American family’s adventure and change, Marley is there, though growing ever older. Marley of course eventually trots into the sunset and my tears were plinking down on the pages the whole way, Grogan tugging every one of my heartstrings. Since I have gotten a dog, I have often remarked that they make great starter-kids. In fact, I have often wondered why parents bother upgrading to human children given that dogs are expensive, entertaining, time-consuming, and very rewarding.

Now I know. Dogs die. We need something that will stick around a bit longer and wipe our ass.



Quantum Lyrics by A. Van Jordan

February 20th, 2008 at 7:25 am

A. Van Jordan is a damn fine poet.
B. And I dare you to type his name at the beginning of a sentence and press return because due to the nature of Jordan’s name your word processor will most likely predict the formatting you see here.
C. Which is a little inappropriate and entirely wrong.
D. But there you have it, Van. Even Your Name has stirred a poetic form.

If Americans are getting dumber and not reading, then they’re certainly not reading poetry. And I can’t think of a medium more appropriate for American’s short attention span. In the hands of a good poet, a couple of lines, a few stanzas are all you need for a hell of a story.

I fucking love poetry. And I love A. Van Jordan’s. B. It’s good. He is the best kind of poet, distilling wisdom & observation into beautiful language. Another definition for poetry I know not.

In his perfectly titled most recent collection, Quantum Lyrics, Jordan is a great storyteller, combining Albert Einstein and physics, The Atom and comic book heroes, love and romance, and race and racism into poignant poems that are both personal and universal, concrete and abstract. Despite traversing such varied, disparate themes as science, racism, music, and love, Jordan achieves cohesion in his creative, imaginative prose; his poetry.

It is a joyous thrill to be along for the linguistic ride and daring formalistic adventure. Jordan uses the language of screenplays and films to inform his poems. He starts poems with smash cuts, using “CUT TO:”

“Everything we do in life comes down to experiments/with love and curiosities. Lives should be experienced as two children masquerading as adults. Although the public reads the work of scientists and poets, this they don’t understand.”

There are poems of dialogue and slug lines of description with dates and times setting the scenes of his work.

“How revolutionary an act – /for saying, simply, what’s complicated/about love and war. An elegant equation/can sum it up in a few factors,/but no one can do the math.”

“Working an equation is as tedious as a comedian/working a room, timing when to drop/the solution to our worries so profoundly we rear back/and laugh at them. Or, for those without/a sense of humor, math can be as simple as buttoning/a blouse, really: after you misfeed the first button,/though, every move of the hand, no matter how sincere,/becomes a lie.”

It’s all right here.

Life is long division and A. Van Jordan is doing the math with poetry, adding it all up for us on his fingers and his toes and everything else he needs.

And thank god.



guile or gall

February 19th, 2008 at 4:35 am

I am fairly sure that I was invited here to provide James with some relief from the responsibilities of being your only reason for tuning into the Authwhore site. I am in the middle of some pretty heavy reading, so I thought I might shoot the breeze with you about something I read a few weeks back…

Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut

It is a collection of 25 years of random crap from P.J. O’Rourke, that lefty gone right.

P.J. is big on promoting his whole lefty gone right bit. I can’t blame him. It’s a good story. It’ll get you your own radio show, or whatever the hell it has gotten Mr. O’Rourke.
I don’t read his press clippings, so anyway.[…]
It has gotten him far enough to get some publisher to put out a collection of his ramblings – and presumably pay him for it.

By all reasoning, I should like it. There are stories of shooting shit in southern Ohio’s farm country. There are hippy head-bashings and bits about shagging minors. There are tales of driving fossil fuel swilling rampages, in the dumbest cars you can get your hands on. All things I would, normally, go entirely in support of…

To me, it reads like a boomer collection of self importance.

I hope to God that in twenty years I do not feel the need to make people sit down and soak up two and one half decades worth of my best bullshit. I also hope that in twenty years my collection of bullshit tells a better story.

At the end of the book, I feel like ol’ P.J. was a bit of a poseur back in the day and he grew up to be like every junk bond trading, coke snorting owner of a stainless steel sports car. For all of his linguistic finesse, O’Rourke reads like a sixty year old Beatles fan, sitting next to me at some hotel bar, enjoying retirement in spite of two or three ugly divorces and as many bankruptcies.

I don’t buy that he is or was left or right. He was and is a greedy shit, playing the system for pussy or payola. His idealism, to either side of the aisle, is the reward of people who have the cushion to dwell on jive (myself included).

But, I am not one of those boomer Beemer drivers.
After a few weeks of thinking, that sort of smarm just pisses me off.



HOWARD THE DUCK IS DEAD

February 16th, 2008 at 6:08 am

Actually, Howard the Duck isn’t dead. Steve Gerber, the creator of Howard the Duck, is dead.

But still, it is a sad, sad day and I mourn the loss.

Steve died in Las Vegas. In what other American city would the creator of Howard the Duck be living? Cleveland seems Obvious, but Las Vegas seems Right.

This particular loss means something to me in a perverse, peculiar, and personal way because my sister and I were fans of the 1986 George Lucas adaptation when we were growing up. We watched it all the time. It was one of our favorites. We wore out the VHS tape our father had copied it on. Despite the film’s reputation as “a critical and box-office debacle,” my sister and I appreciated the mediocrity of it. Perhaps in our innocent youth we understood the irony and humor of it all. It was stupid. It was fun. It was perfect for us. At that pure, tender age we wanted to believe in a world where a beautiful woman could love a duck.

At one point, Disney threatened legal action over Howard’s striking similarity to another duck.

Go figure.

So adieu, Steve. And thank you.



Ben Mezrich’s Vegas Books

February 15th, 2008 at 11:10 pm

If Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” and 21 are any indication, Las Vegas is still a well that has not run dry. The stories keep getting drawn out.

From Ocean’s 11 to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Godfather to Casino to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Ocean’s 11 to Ocean’s 12 to the Las Vegas television show to Ben Mezrich’s two tomes on the city to Ocean’s 13, it’s a town with ample material.

They’ll make an Ocean’s 14 and no one will blink.

Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House and Busting Vega$ are two books ripe for Hollywood’s interpretation. So thank god for Kevin Spacey. They have all the elements of an entertaining spectacle complete with flashy characters, violence, sex, and suspense. Mezrich writes a lot like Michael Crichton: simple, easy entertainment of enjoyable intrigue. Mezrich’s books are as equally hollow and undeveloped as typical Hollywood Faire. The books were written like screenplays, as Crichton’s are. The dialogue is sparse, the suspense is heavy-handed and forced.

In both books, Mezrich fails to examine the obvious metaphors and themes his setting and subjects are providing. Hunter S. Thompson did it so much better by having the journalistic gumption to observe and pass judgment, to realize the obnoxiousness of it all. The fact that otherwise intelligent MIT students are turning to Las Vegas for fun and profit means something. The fact that they are able to succeed only to a certain extent means something greater. “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones?”

Mezrich’s tales are about smart college students from MIT who organize teams in order to exploit the weaknesses of casinos to win a lot of money. A lot. The kids are recruited, trained, and tested before their lucrative abilities are let loose all over the world, from Shreveport to Las Vegas, Aruba to Monte Carlo. Their operations are impressive; complete with significant financial funding, secret identities, performance standards, code words, tactics, paperwork, procedures, and signals. Bringing Down the House is about teams counting cards. Busting Vega$ is about using opportunities to observe cards and to cut the deck so as to make the dealer bust or benefit the players.

Somewhere in Mezrich’s two books is a meaningful and cautionary tale about America in general and capitalism in particular. It’s the story of making money. A lot of money. It’s a David and Goliath story. College kids against the corporate behemoths running the casinos. The students exploit the casino’s inherent weaknesses only to be intimidated away. And along the way, Mezrich illuminates the alternative reality that exists in casinos across the country. A world of pit bosses, high rollers, luxury suites, stacks of hundred dollar bills stashed in trash bags and laundry baskets, handguns, back rooms, private investigators, hookers, and high-end sophisticated surveillance technology. There is robbery, a plane crash, heroin use, friendship, success, strippers, love, and betrayal. It’s the story of Hope and Crushing Defeat. It’s a story of the American Dream.

And it’s all very flashy and wow!, sure, but one that felt hollow and unsatisfactory for its failure to probe the contradictory and unfair nature of the casinos. It’s a bizarre industry that operates under its own rules. An industry that is fun, yes, but one that is indicative of something greater. Corruption? Perhaps. Indifference? Maybe. Opportunism and manipulation. Probably.

One of the MIT whiz kids, Semyon Dukach, is far more eloquent on this issue in his afterword for Busting Vega$, even getting around to praising open source software: “For me and my teammates, beating the casinos has never been entirely about the money. Of course the money was important, and on the surface, the whole enterprise may have even resembled a kind of crazy financial start-up on steroids, but anyone looking deeper would have seen that for us, the blackjack team was not a business, but a passionate, desperate struggle against the mighty evil empire that was and continues to be the casino industry.”

I didn’t like these two books very much because they aren’t as good as they could be. They operate on only one level: what. What happened. Not why. Why is always so much more interesting. Writing about cool shit that really happened, man!, is not enough.

As the late, great Stanley Kubrick once said, “Real is good, interesting is better.”



David Sedariphrenic

February 13th, 2008 at 3:31 am

If I had my druthers, I’d have a hankering to say that David Sedaris should be one of Our most cherished authors of American Letters. But he lives in France. So that makes him not only an ex-pat but a quitter too.

We’d all like to leave the States, David, but what would the United States be without each one of our own unique contributions to its blubbering hubris and whimsy? We’re in this together! We can’t all have the eloquence and common sense to leave. We’d miss out on all the rousing good Excess. And as I’m sure you know, David, excess tends to be FUN.

I like David Sedaris. He is Good. Irregardless of what he calls his forthcoming work, I will read it. David Sedaris is Augusten Burroughs for the New Yorker reader. Literally. And I don’t mean in regards to literature. He actually writes for The New Yorker.

His sixth collection of essays is currently titled “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” It has also been referred to as “Indefinite Leave to Remain” and “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need.” While none of these labels have the resonance of “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” I don’t care if he calls his next book “Beautiful, Combustible Primates Gallivanting Around a Sculpture of Cher,” I will read it.

And if there’s hope for this gaggle of illiterates we call a Society, it is David Sedaris. Who else can tour the country’s theaters reading? I mean, I don’t even think he dances or sings. A few jokes, of course, but the only pyrotechnics are his cigarettes. What other authors can make an appearance on Letterman and get applause and laughter?

Probably several. I hope they make Their Way.



Old Elephants Lumbering Through the Mud

February 13th, 2008 at 2:14 am

Random House and HarperCollins are attempting to use technology to sell more print and digital titles.

HarperCollins is letting readers sample titles on its site and maybe, just maybe!, get an e-book for free. Free! And Random House is selling bundles of chapters for $2.99.

Matt Shatz, Random House’s Digital Vice President, which I can only assume means that he doesn’t actually exist but is instead a computer algorithm making decisions as a series of ones and zeroes from some server in Nassau, said the experiment is intended “to gauge the demand for short form electronic content.”

Gauge the demand for short form electronic content???

Text messages.

Emails.

Blogs.

Instant messaging.

Cell phone novels.

Yeah. I think those things are popular.



McCain’t

February 12th, 2008 at 4:16 am

You can tell it’s an Election Year when a scrappy little-brother-of-a-quarterback like Eli Manning comes back to trounce an unbeaten dynasty to win the Super Bowl and an elderly Maverick like John McCain rallies to prominence after floundering in partisan neglect like a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream in a banana split of chocolate and pussy.

Whew.

It’s an Election Year. The gloves are off. I really should calm down. After all, there’s not as much reason to worry anymore. Romney dropped out. And there probably won’t be a Scientologist candidate for at least 24 prosperous years.

Things really brightened up for McCain didn’t they? It’s too bad he’ll be running against either a Woman or a Black Man in an election in which the populous will be begging for Drastic Change after eight years of stifling, staunch conservatism. No, this one won’t go to McCain. We’re Americans. We watch bad television, eat too much, and vote buffoons into office for two consecutive terms but make up for it with healthy doses of progressivism.

We’re lazy, not stupid. There’s a big difference. Pity the Enemy who doesn’t grasp the distinction. But watch out you Liberals. More than guns, dessert, and sports, America loves an underdog. Right now, John McCain is the Underdog.

So even if McCain won’t be President, he does have a starring role in a graphic novel.

And a book. Twelve is rushing the paperback edition of his Hard Call now that McCain is a serious contender in The Race.

Bravo to Twelve by the way. They only publish twelve books a year. One a month. They strive to publish singular works. Good works. While other houses are selling and branding and advertising and fucking small woodland creatures, Twelve insists that, “To sell the book is only the beginning of our mission. To build avid audiences of readers who are enriched by these works – that is our ultimate purpose.”

You could say that they do it in twelve positions.

Reading is Sexy. Do it Like a Slut.