Posts Tagged ‘books’

Neil Gaiman NeverwhereIf the task of the fantasy novel is to create an engaging new world and tell an absorbing story in it, then Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere delivers the goods just fine. If it is do more than these, then Neverwhere comes up a bit short.

Neverwhere is primarily the story of Richard Mayhew, a pleasant but vague financial analyst in the modern City of London (or “London Above”), and the Lady Door, a member of the aristocracy of “London Below” which is a realm of fantastical or historic persons and places below the city tied together by the London Underground.

Richard finds Door lying injured on a city street and is soon drawn into her desperate attempt to flee the killers who murdered the rest of her family while simultaneously seeking to understand the reason why her family was murdered.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a satisfying number of delights. These include the murderous Misters Croup and Vandemar, a Dickensian pair straight out of nightmare; the Floating Market where all the contending citizens of London Below gather under a general truce to plot, trade, and revel; a large group of colorful supporting players; and the angel Islington who is still mourning its failure to save the people of Atlantis from destruction.

Gaiman’s invention is not endless, however. His plot has just enough twists to keep the story in pleasant motion. Gaiman often reaches for the word or phrase you’d expect, to the extent that I was often completing his sentences in my mind as he did on the page. His Angel Islington and Richard’s snobby rich girlfriend come straight from central casting. And at best, his characters have just enough distinct qualities to be sufficient for the story – which is to say they have two.

So the young lady Door is waif-like yet resolute. The Marquis de Carabras is amoral but scrupulous in the paying of his debts. The Black Friars are kind but a touch sinister. Most particularly, and not successfully, Richard Mayhew is hapless and heroic.

Mayhew is mostly paralyzed by fear and protected by the other characters out of pity, except for a few moments when he rises to a challenge that has defeated scores of men and women from London Below over the course of centuries. One challenge is the dread “ordeal” and the other is the great “Beast of London” which lurks in a labyrinth. Neither of these victories seems probable and Gaiman makes them less so by frequently playing Mayhew’s character for laughs.

This gets at my two disappointments with Neverwhere, which I had expected to like better based on Neil Gaiman’s reputation. The first is that none of the characters were sufficiently developed that I could feel an emotion toward them and so feel that something was at stake while reading Neverwhere; and what should be at stake in reading is our hearts. Mine was never engaged.

Secondly, what binds a fictional world together and makes it breathe, whether it is utterly fantastical or obsessively mundane, is its emotional tone: how the author feels about the world he or she has created. I don’t think Gaiman ever decided how he felt. Instead, he has the ha-ha mostly feckless Richard Mayhew stumbling around a story that is threatening and apocalyptic. This makes Neverwhere entertaining for sure. But it doesn’t make it anything more.

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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clive james dante's infernoThere are two fundamental questions for contemporary readers of Dante’s Inferno translated into English. The first is “What should we make of the story?” assuming we don’t want to pull on our scholar’s togs and get all 1300 CE. The second is “How should we judge our experience of the language?” considering Dante is famously difficult to translate.

I’ll address both questions within the context of Clive James’ new translation of Inferno published as part of The Divine Comedy earlier this year.

What the Hell is Up with Hell?

As you doubtless know if you bothered to click through to this post, the Inferno follows Dante Alighieri, a Florentine Italian born in the 13th century who has lost his way in middle age as he travels through hell accompanied by the poet Virgil in search of (ultimately) God’s love or, as it may be, the hottest platonic one-night stand in all of literary history with his dead and now angelic crush-for-eternity, Beatrice.

Dante’s excellent adventure will take him through Purgatory and finally to Heaven, but first he has to get past hell; and hell is a horrible place to live, although it is unbeatable as a destination if you are tourist, which is essentially what Dante is.

As a fictitious world – and since I am a liberal Christian, I am going to posit hell does not exist – Dante’s Inferno is an unparalleled feat of imagination. Hogwarts may be more fey and witty, Middle Earth may be more thoroughly worked out (though maybe not since Dante drags all of Italy and much of 1300 Europe into his poem). But for sheer originality and ummph-um-pa-pa, nothing comes close to Dante’s hell.

Nothing comes close to the Inferno in the category of high-class torture porn, either. And torture porn is something this monument of world literature doubtlessly is. Dante the poet, rather than Dante the character in the poem, revels in the sufferings he has dreamed up and canto after canto delivers stand-out horrifying and/or disgusting examples of the concept of “poetic justice”.

Hell is supposed to be the expression of divine retribution. Why then does it often feel closer to bloody-minded titillation? This question is probably familiar to anyone who has seen the frescos in medieval Italian churches or Albrecht Dürer‘s gorgeous engravings of the Inferno, but it is worth repeating.

Then there is the issue of just what kind of sins get you into hell and how much shit these sins get you into once you are there.

Dante’s hell starts off sensibly enough. We begin with the virtuous pagans: you were good guys, but you didn’t know Christ so sorry, you’re screwed. Then sins of appetite or emotion that follow along with many of the seven deadly ones: lust, gluttony, and wrath for example. Then heresy. We know medieval Christians were particular about people disagreeing with them, even on the small stuff, so okay fine, we’ll give Dante a pass on heresy. Then violence in the seventh circle – we’re right with you D, we definitely don’t like violence.

But then we get to the eighth circle of hell, where the fraudulent are punished, and here the head scratching of modern humanist readers begins.

Because the eighth circle is filled with panderers, flatterers, astrologists, simoniacs, corrupt politicians, thieves, counterfeiters – while Attila the Hun is rumored to be floating around a whole circle above.

How is it exactly that a guy who raped and killed his way across the Eastern and Western Roman Empires for twenty years is considered a little less bad than someone who made a living out of telling a dull king he was brilliant or proclaiming that since the moon was in the seventh house, now is a propitious moment to make the moves on your lady friend?

And speaking of rape, where are the rapists? Mixed in with the violent I guess, but they don’t merit a mention to all appearances. Where are those that hate? In the eighth circle, the only ones that truly deserve to be there by modern lights are the Sowers of Discord. Traitors are in the ninth and last circle, with Satan in the center of it all.

Dante Loves Him Some Dante

Another particular feature of the Inferno is just how highly Dante thinks of himself. It starts with the foundational premise of the whole Divine Comedy, namely that Beatrice in heaven has persuaded God to give Dante some special help.

Now I know God is all-knowing and all-powerful and his love has no bounds, etcetera; but there are plenty of people in heaven who have friends on earth, and God seems to have issued exactly one golden ticket for exactly one special tour of his magical damnation plus salvation factory, and that ticket went to you, Dante. And you didn’t even need to buy a Wonka Bar to get it.

Then there is the remarkable early canto where poets like Homer, Horace, and Ovid welcome Dante as a colleague and equal. Now I’m not saying they are wrong. Dante is their equal. But – dude – you write yourself into a scene where great dead poets of antiquity say you’re the bomb, and then you get all choked up and grateful about it? I ain’t buying.

It almost seems petty to note, beside these examples, that Dante the character also makes a habit in hell of telling various suffering souls he can make or break their reputations back on earth if they don’t play nice and answer his questions. Apparently, being God’s special project and an immortal poet ain’t enough for D. He has to make sure people know he’s the world’s best PR flak, too.

There’s also the whole Dante-Virgil bromance, or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a major man-crush Dante has on Virgil; and also the Dante getting to decide who goes to hell thing; but I will let these slide because other commentators have noted them and because I believe I might now be trying your patience with this line of criticism. If not my flipness.

The Clive James’ Translation of Dante’s Inferno

I should say before I go forward, offering small praise for great achievements, that Dante consistently writes scenes that are convincingly felt; that many of these scenes are compelling without understanding the background of the characters involved (but not always); and that the Inferno has incredible momentum – it reads fast and short, even with the volume of detail and people it contains.

This is especially remarkable considering that James’ translation of the Inferno is substantially longer than the original because he has woven into his work many explanations about characters and stories which Dante’s readers would not have required and which other translators typically place in footnotes.

I find this an odd choice because it is for just such information that God first invented footnotes and more recently, the tablet computer. I can’t blame James for ignoring this second invention, since he says he began work long before the iPad and Kindle Fire were invented; but these devices render the need for extensive notes obsolete. Honestly, most folks who are going to buy a copy of The Divine Comedy likely own mobile computers and can sit comfortably in bed with both James’ book and their tablet. I did. Worked beautifully.

As for James’ translation, I think it is as good as you can expect from the impossible task of translating Dante into English.

It’s not simply Dante’s famous ABA BCB terza rima that makes him difficult. English translators with any sense at all avoid it, and James uses an ABAB scheme and iambic pentameter with an AA rhyme at the end of each canto instead.

It’s also that Dante is justly celebrated for the vividness, precision, compactness, and music of his poetry. The little time I spent with a side by side translation of Dante makes me admire anyone brave enough to try it.

James is brave enough and often succeeds beautifully. You’ll find many sequences of lines where you’ll forget you are reading a translation or rhyming poetry at all.

But then, inevitably, you’ll also find lines where syntax or word choice (and so sense) are distorted to fit the poem’s scheme as well as filler words, stuck in to keep the pentameter or jury-rig a rhyme. This pops up during moments when, for example, Dante might ask a question and Virgil says before answering it, “You ask me so I’ll tell you.”

But I’ll apologize to James because these feel like quibbles, and offer what I hope is a compliment instead: your Inferno was so good it made me eager to read Purgatorio. I’ll let you all know how it went when I’m done.

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sookie stackhouse novels harrisIf the perfect beach book (1) offers a likeable heroine (2) tells stories about problems you don’t have, (3) is smart but not taxing, and (4) contains enough sex to make up for the fact you can’t have any since you a sharing a motel room with your kids – then Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, including the recently published Dead Ever After, are pretty good choices.

Certainly, Ms. Harris has earned her success with the character of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid living among vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and just-folks humans in the small Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps.

Much of Sookie’s appeal comes from the fact that she is a normal person. Every day, she gets up and works an unglamorous job. She shops for food, buys gas, cleans her house, and watches TV. At night, she says her prayers. On Sunday mornings, she goes to the local Methodist church. Sookie tries to look after her hard-working but sexually reckless brother. Most of the time, she wonders if she’s done right or not.

Sookie is also appealing because her strength comes from her character, not her paranormal abilities. In almost every fight with a supernatural being – and with many normal humans – Sookie is overmatched, but she will fight all the same if forced, rather than surrender. Sookie also has great courage. She will put herself in danger to help a friend or a person to whom she feels obligated. She will act on principle when it’s against her own self-interest. And she can make hard decisions when her good sense tells her she has to make them.

Another quality of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels is their social commentary. The books are occupied with how society treats people who are different, and you don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between the vampires in Harris’ novel and homosexuals (and others outside sexual, gender, and lifestyle norms) in our own.

The supernatural can also be seen as the outward manifestation of interior psychology in the novels. Sookie dates vampires and werewolves, which is another way of saying she goes out with no-good men who are blood-suckers and animals, while ignoring the romantic possibilities with her dependable boss Sam, a shape shifter who likes to take the form of a collie.

Sookie’s mind-reading power functions in a similar way. Her telepathy is really the magical extension of her natural intelligence and perceptiveness, qualities that can make a woman living in a small town “different” or “odd” to many of the people around her.

None of these parallels should be taken too far. Harris does not invest every character or story with a deeper meaning. Or put another way, with a nod toward Freud’s famous observation, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse books.

Charlaine Harris is not a great prose stylist, but her writing demonstrates craft, and Harris conveys the sound of Sookie’s voice – and particularly her sense of humor – very effectively.

Her plot architecture is another matter, however. Many of the books are constructed around a series of loosely related incidents, rather than a unified story that has an arc and momentum. The mystery elements of her stories are often thin and feel perfunctory. Her plots seldom twist. And as the series has stretched on, it has become more and more of a soap opera.

This is not such a bad thing for beach books, however, and it means that you can read the series in any order. So try a couple if you discover you just can’t read Woolf’s The Waves while the ocean crashes and the seagulls cry and your neighbors the next umbrella over are blasting Bon Jovi. I couldn’t.

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amazon is the devil?When a federal judge ruled that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix the price of eBooks last week, the lamentations began.

Commentators declared this would lead to the destruction of the traditional publishers and the ascendance of Amazon as a monopolistic hegemon, which would use its vast market powers to homogenize and commoditize our reading culture. Also, frogs would rain down from the sky.

But I don’t think any such thing will happen. (Well, the frogs might.) Here’s why.

The Traditional Publishing Model Is Not Essential to Reading Culture

The traditional publishers think they are essential to reading culture because they were essential in the past and because (I’m quite sure) they are sincerely devoted to their craft.

But the only two actors who are essential to reading culture are writers and readers.  Publishers are … or were … a necessary intermediary between the writer and reader, back when printing books and getting them into the hands of readers were complicated, expensive operations.

Now these tasks aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive. There are plenty of new ways, many more than before, for writers and readers to connect. And as long as you have writers and readers, you’ll have a reading culture. Before I discuss why, however, let me make a semi-related point.

Good Books Have Always Been Bad Business

This is not to say you can’t make money from serious books or serious literature. You can. The problem is you can’t make enough money consistently to turn the proposition into a sustainable business.

This leaves publishers with two choices. The first is you have a huge company in which the blockbusters in popular genres subsidize the “serious” books. For publically traded companies, this is the only option because they will be punished by the markets if they lose money.

The second is you have a small company, privately held, in which the owners see themselves as patrons of and missionaries for writers as much as they see themselves as business people, and their financial goals don’t extend too much beyond avoiding bankruptcy.

The recent obituary for Arthur Rosenthal of Basic Books described this dynamic nicely when it said he “let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher”.

Now Amazon is making the lives of people who work within the huge company model a living hell. But it is making the small company model so easy that anyone with a computer and internet access can become a publisher.

Writers of Serious Books Are Adapting. Amazon Is Helping Them Do It

One of the assumptions in much of the recent wailing over Amazon’s victory is that only serious books are real books and only serious publishers are real publishers.

No one was fretting that the Dan Browns of the world would disappear because they knew they wouldn’t.  A hegemon Amazon would still publish Dan Brown because he makes a lot of money.

The commentators did worry that a hegemon Amazon would ignore the serious, unprofitable books. Well, maybe. But maybe not.  Amazon has demonstrated an almost pathological indifference to earning a profit over the years.  This would make them a perfect publisher for the Virginia Woolfs of the world. And perhaps they would like the prestige of a having such writers under their imprint?

But if not, Amazon has given writers the tools to directly publish and promote their own books. Amazon’s print-on-demand model allows small publishing companies to produce print books with very low overhead costs. Kindle Direct allows people to publish eBooks at basically no cost.

Everyone has a chance. Including the serious writers and important voices who are getting overlooked right now by those old gatekeepers of the reading culture, the traditional publishers.

The Government Doesn’t Just Punish Price Fixing. It Also Punishes Monopolies

Finally, remember that it is not only illegal to fix prices. It’s also illegal — not to become a monopoly, as it turns out talking to my FTC lawyer friend — but to use monopoly power to stifle competition. And the government departments that are aiding Amazon by ruling against Apple, so some people claim, are the same departments that would force Amazon to change its business practices or break up if it did.

We can’t risk that harm, you say? Well, under the legal system of the United States, you generally can’t punish companies because you think they will break the law. You have to wait until they actually do.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to seize the new opportunities. They’re good fun. And you might make some art, or some cash, too.

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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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