March 16, 2013
by Deborah Levy
Deborah Levy's short novel Swimming Home is a fairly gripping read; I finished it over the course of a single day back in January. It's a deep dive into a certain kind of madness; it neither lets go of you at any given point nor does it end up where you expect.
Two couples go on vacation. The first of these pairs a male poet with a female war reporter, along with their daughter, who has been mostly raised by the father owing to the mother's occupation. The other is a pair of shop-owners, who are hiding some financial distress; the two women are friends.
Into this already somewhat strange mix is thrown a young woman who appears to be at least slightly crazy and who turns out to have an obsession with the poet; her biggest goal is to get him to read a poem she has written for him.
It's a very impressionistic experience, elliptical and uncertain, and the vague sense of menace on every page kept me completely absorbed. If I had to say it reminded me of anything specifically, it would be my favorite films by David Lynch, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. It carries with it that same sense of strangeness undergirding normal lives, how things are more rotten than they appear, and best yet, I had no idea where it would end up. In a longer novel, sustaining this would have not worked for me at all, but at under 200 pages, this works spectacularly in Swimming Home.
¹I'm reminded of Nicola Barker's Behindlings, which I started but couldn't finish because the strangeness allowed the propulsion of the novel to completely stall.
February 18, 2013
How Music Works
by David Byrne
About a month ago, I finished David Byrne's terrific book about the art, craft, and business of music-making, How Music Works. I'm always particularly interested in how other creators work, especially in fields that have been around a bit longer, and this was a terrific read, particularly the early chapters where he discussed his process with the Talking Heads and in other projects¹.
Byrne begins from a different point than one might expect; he essentially starts with the idea that the act of creation fits a pre-existing context, rather than as some spark of inspiration. He takes us through a musical history beginning with pre-classical music, through Western classical music and then into the twentieth century, focusing on various forms of popular music, and at each step of the way he indicates the music making context -- how and where the music was performed, and therefore what forces worked to make the music what it was. It's a fantastic and studied analysis, and I encourage anyone who thinks about their own creative medium to read it and consider how its thinking might be applied. I certainly had many thoughts about the context of games; where it began, and how it has changed over time, and why, which also gets one thinking about the future and where it might be going. Inspiring reading and thinking.
He goes on to discuss the actual processes he uses in the composition of songs and the construction of concerts -- and I followed up my reading of this book with a viewing of the Stop Making Sense tour DVD out of interest². Byrne's process really interested me -- he described how he and the Talking Heads would come up with a starting point for a song with a series of changes and he'd more or less improvise a scat over the top of it, just stringing together nonsense syllables for whatever "felt right" with the music he was hearing, recording everything with a simple tape recorder to try and capture the best moments. Later, he'd return to the recording and write lyrics to take the place of the nonsense syllables, but tried to use words which had similar phonemes in them. It's a really interesting way to work³, organically finding the sounds that make sense, and then refining those sounds into words through a more considered process. It called to mind the idea of using a game jam to find the kernel of a game design, and returning to it over subsequent months to flesh it out into a fully-formed game.
The construction of the Stop Making Sense tour is really fantastic as well, how Byrne drew on influences from Noh plays to create something really special and fresh in the American concert scene. Having seen it on DVD, it's something quite surprising4 and unlike anything I've ever seen in a concert.
It's a great read and well worth it for creators of any stripe.
¹The middle chapters tended to deal more with the business side of music making then and now, and the final couple of chapters had to do with the making of a "scene," or the conditions under which new music will flourish. These were interesting in themselves, but my favorite chapters were the early ones.
²More than one person has remarked to me about how this tour was their favorite concert ever. I'm not a frequent concert-goer, and I was young enough in the early 80s that I probably wouldn't have been able to go to this one, but I will say that I really wish I had. The concert video was directed by Jonathan Demme and was pretty fantastic itself.
³It's not, of course, the only way to work. I recently heard an interview with Aimee Mann on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and she described a process of lyric-writing which shared a lot more with certain kinds of poetry, focusing on meter and attempting to find perfect rhymes. Following on the game analogy from the game above, that would be more like working in an established game genre to further refine it.
4I admit, if I owned that "Big Suit," I'd probably wear it all the time.
Posted by Brett Douville at 10:40 AM
January 26, 2013
by David Abrams
Caveat lector: this post contains spoilers.
About a month ago I finished David Abrams' Fobbit as part of the Notable challenge. It was a very quick read reminiscent of that greatest of all war novels, Catch-22¹, but somewhat more somber as it conjures up images of American soldiers currently enmeshed in combat operations around the world.
Its interesting contribution to the war novel is that in some ways it crosses it with an episode of The Office; the titular neologism refers to a soldier who spends almost all of his time in the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, and indeed one of Abrams' tragicomic main characters has made of his apartment-like container trailer something of a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort². While there is a bit of time spent in the field, and also on R&R, much of the novel revolves around the FOB itself, and in a way that makes the dark comedy more accessible to a Stateside reader. It's a familiar setting and set of characters inside of an unfamiliar one.
There are images and situations I'll remember from the book, but this one doesn't have quite the staying power of a Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, though it most definitely recalls novels like Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces. I found it a little less easy to connect with owing to the continuing combat around the world. By the time I read it, Catch-22 referred to a war long past and even substantial distance at publication. You can find humor in anything, and there are some deeply comic moments and situations in this one, so on balance I think it was worth reading.
Previous "Notable": How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Next "Notable": How Music Works by David Byrne
Intro post to my Notable project
¹Indeed, it name-checks Catch-22 at one point explicitly, around a pool.
²In one of the novel's better sections, an officer recently busted down to being the towel boy in the FOB's exercise room reflects on the huge amount of care package material he has managed to get shipped to him from the States from well-meaning and patriotic moms, churches, and schoolchildren. The inventory of materials is staggering and amusing, and deeply farcical.
January 08, 2013
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
by Paul Tough
Over the holiday break I finished Paul Tough's How Children Succeed; much of it was familiar from a New York Times Magazine article that was the genesis of the book, published a couple of years ago. This has been perhaps the weakest of the Notable books thus far, largely because I was already familiar with a substantial amount of the book from the article -- it doesn't go much deeper than the piece that originated it¹.
The book is a good survey of the current neuroscience which contributes to kids' ability to learn and deal with other developmental challenges, and its inclusion of "curiosity" in the subtitle is absolutely misleading, as it doesn't appear in the book at all that I can recall². That's kind of a shame, because as a parent, I'd really like to know what to do to inspire curiosity in my own kids.
And that brings me to the greatest failing of the book, which is its lack of prescription, other than for the very young. Much of what allows children to succeed is established at a very early age due to what neuroscientists call the "hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal" (HPA) axis, which is reinforced by responsible parenting at a very young age, particularly pre-kindergarten. This is a good prescription for where to spend educational money, though, as a matter of public policy: very early education is extremely important to the development of character, perhaps unsurprisingly, and supporting parents before children get to school age also seems vital.
The contents of one chapter weren't remarked on in the original article at all, and that's a chapter called "How to Think," about chess education in middle school; it's a chapter rich with anecdotes and people with whom I identified. As a former chess player who was pretty decent in high school, though nowhere near as good as the kids in the chapter, I felt the familiar draw of chess anew, which is described as a feeling of being productive. And this may be where this book intersects with video games a bit; chess is one of those pursuits where there's no obvious and clear benefit, especially from the perspective of non-players. But here's a great quote:
[...]Rowson went on to defend himself and his fellow chess players, and he did so on essentially aesthetic grounds: "Chess is a creative and beautiful pursuit, which allows us to experience a wide range of uniquely human characteristics," he wrote. The game "is a celebration of existential freedom, in the sense that we are blessed with the opportunity to create ourselves through our actions. In choosing to play chess, we are celebrating freedom above utility." In Rowson's eyes, two chess players facing off across a board were making a unique, collaborative work of art, and the better they played, the more beautiful the result.
I've seen that beauty at many points in my career, from watching competitive Quake matches to my own personal experiences, those moments where you see someone elevated above all the rest, or when you enter those moments of pure flow. I saw it recently while loved ones played Spaceteam together over the break, that collaborative energy that created two or more cooperative souls, if only for a little while, getting in sync, each strengthening their mental model of the other person. It's a beautiful thing.
¹It's not a terribly long book, and so I'd probably recommend it to people who haven't read the article. The article is probably online somewhere in the NYT archive, though, so you might be better off with that.
²Checking the index again, I find about twenty references to character in different forms and subheadings, and grit in about eight -- curiosity doesn't even make a single appearance in the index and I really don't remember anything about it from the text.
January 02, 2013
The Testament of Mary
by Colm Tóibín
Well, I'm off to a right start, discussing both politics and religion in the first week or so of blogging the Notable project here on the blog. It's another sticky subject; bear with me, I'm most definitely not trying to offend.
I've been really interested in Colm Tóibín since his brilliant "The Master," an imagining of the interior life of Henry James, an immensely satisfying read (and a cause for sending several of James's novels to my kindle). I've also enjoyed his "Brooklyn" and "Homage to Catalonia," which I read this past year remembering my own trip there a couple of years ago. But I was surprised to find an Irishman writing what is bound to be seen as something heretical by the Church -- but then, of course, Toibin is no longer a member of the Catholic Church.
The Testament of Mary is something akin to a Gospel, although obviously an imagined one, and is narrated from a short time after Jesus' death; it has an immediacy that the four Gospels in the New Testament lacks, and is additionally from the perspective of Jesus' mother (not Mary Magdalene).
Tóibín chooses to elongate certain passages and dramatically shorten others; he seems to be attempting to remind us that history¹ has a way of enlarging certain events while compressing others. In particular, he strains for a kind of realism of what Mary must have been feeling shortly after her son's death, and what emphases she would place on the events she witnessed close to it.
It begins in a way reminiscent of the story of Penelope after the presumed loss at sea of Odysseus, with Mary watched over by disciples of her son and essentially confined to her house, and Tóibín manages a neat and nearly undetectable trick when her narrative casts back to events starting from the raising of Lazarus. What stands out here is how she sees her son as her son, and not as the leader and historical and religious figure we of course now see him as -- and Tóibín's choices throughout suggest how small events might have grown into bigger ones and how bigger moments are somewhat abstracted in the Bible. For example, the Station of the Cross involving Jesus meeting Mary is merely a glance between them, whereas she recounts in dire detail the Crucifixion itself.
Certainly one can see things here that would rile followers of the Church; Tóibín is writing from his own beliefs of what may have happened, and with some historical justification to it. It's an imaginative work of the complexity of the relationship of a mother with a son who has drawn a large following without being overtly sentimental. Well worth reading.
¹I'll take the Gospels as history of a sort, though not entirely contemporaneous with Jesus -- if I recall my own reading, the Gospel of Mark is earliest and the others follow after him, mostly written in the late first century and early second century. I'm an ex-Catholic myself, so much of this is down to memory.
December 31, 2012
by Jodi Kantor
It's tough for me to read and write about politics -- my natural inclination is to attempt to see both sides and not to offend, and politics is just one of those spheres where it's difficult to do either. So it's with a bit of trepidation that I report back on Jodi Kantor's portrait of the First Couple, The Obamas¹. Mainly, I'm reminded why I largely prefer to view politics through a long-reporting lens rather than the day-to-day nonsense, picking up much of my news about what's going on in the world through the New York Times Magazine.
I made a few notes to myself as I read this book about things that really irritated me -- in particular, one passage stood out where Michelle Obama was assailed for her clothing choices generally and in one specific instance, where she wore relatively expensive designer French sneakers to a charity event where she worked for a day in a soup kitchen or something similar. And I thought, "Really? Are we at a point in our politics where someone can do something nice for people in need, and people who weren't out there doing something nice for people in need can snipe from the sidelines?" The fact that a First Lady chooses to spend her own money on nice clothes should not be an object of derision. I felt this way many, many times in the reading of this book. Our partisan politics are poisonous in this country, and all I feel on those occasions where I'm confronted by it a mixture of rage and sorrow, largely on behalf of my children, who will bear the brunt tomorrow of the ineffectiveness of our governing bodies today.
Largely this book speaks to the relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama and how it has changed in response to the political pressures of Washington over the course of the last four years, touching briefly on his earlier history as a Senator and a campaigning contender. We get a sense of the couple learning how to live in the White House, and I was particularly struck by how uniquely strange that building is, as a combination of residence, office/seat of the executive, and museum complete with guided tours daily. I literally can't fathom the real experience of being a President or in the First Family but Kantor goes a long way to making it real to me. It feels like a complete portrait of both the First Couple and by extension the unique position of all First Families.
There's been a lot in film criticism this year remarking on the grit and push-and-pull of politics as represented in Stephen Spielberg's latest, Lincoln, which I had encountered in Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals a few years back. It seems to me that there has always been a certain amount of bombast and viciousness to our political process. But there seems to be more spillover into the general populace these days, and I think that's largely down to the media -- not because of any bias² but because of the continuous news cycle which gives any and every bullshit remark an outlet, and generally an unconsidered one.
In times past, when news wasn't immediate, there was time for a more measured response, and indeed reporters would have time to research comments before issuing them in the press. Recently my sons and I watched All the President's Men and I was struck by the high standards of journalism required by (Jason Robards's) Ben Bradlee and (Jack Warden's) Harry Rosenfeld -- and how that bled down into the reporters themselves, who had to constantly ask themselves whether they "had" the story, whether it held up to scrutiny. Today, whenever someone says something outrageous, the story seems only to be whether that person said it, and not whether it's in fact true, because keeping on top of all the outrageous things said can be a full-time job, and keeping on top of the actual facts may require reading hundreds of pages of dryly written bills and such. When the bombast and the viciousness are themselves the news³, and not merely the tactics that only the politicos themselves see, we all suffer from the resulting partisan paralysis. When news was not always "of the moment," politicians had to be measured on their real results for the folks back home to stand on re-election, and not just the rhetoric they espoused for cameras.
For that reason, I'll continue sticking with the longer view presented in outlets like the New York Times Magazine, and perhaps with the occasional deep reporting by authors like Kantor. This is a well-reported and reflective look at the past four years, through the prism of the President and First Lady.
This entry is part of my Notable series -- an attempt to read, over the next year, all 100 of the Notable Books from the New York Times from 2012. Previous discussions have been of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and briefly of Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy as part of the introductory post to the project. Next up I'll discuss Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary, followed by Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and then David Abrams's Fobbit. Feel free to follow along!
¹There are two other books about the Obamas on the list, as well as at least a couple of other books about Democrats (Joseph P. Kennedy and a volume in Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biography)... so I will have to tread carefully at least a few more times this year. I don't recall seeing any on the list about Republicans but I haven't looked closely.
²Though no doubt there are outlets which are biased towards either side of the aisle...
³In the interests of fairness, I note that President Obama wasn't particularly above this fray himself in the first half of his first term, either. He clearly attempted to maintain an outsider status towards Washington and had no trouble voicing his frustration with the ineffectiveness of the Legislative branch as a governing body, which helped no one.
December 29, 2012
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
I recently finished Ben Fountain's excellent Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a striking novel which really captures through its highly specific narrative both the sense of what it is to be a soldier, and what it is to be a nineteen-year-old kid. It's a stark reminder, particularly at this time of year, that we have young people fighting on our behalf around the world.
It's such a beautifully realized portrait of this young man -- after reading it, you feel you know both Billy Lynn and by extension and generalization, the real soldiers with boots on the ground in less hospitable locations than the comfortable chair I occupied while reading the book. And yet at the same time it actively fights us making those generalizations by how it treats the many civilians in the novel who want to get to know Billy Lynn and the rest of Bravo Squad, unidentified by name and usually only sketched in appearance, speaking in what Fountain renders as clouds of words with only the ones a soldier hears again and again from civilians included (honor, duty, sacrifice, terrorist, hero).
The novel captures primarily the events of one day in the life of Billy Lynn, spent on a hero's tour through the United States after a battle by his unit, Bravo Squad, was captured on video by an embedded news reporter. It's Thanksgiving, and the Bravos are spending it at the Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium, led around at times by the owner of the team and being a part of the halftime show. I'm not going to go into the many events that happened over the course of the day, because I think everyone should read this novel, particularly people who'd like to publish a novel of their own one day. It greatly affected me, taking me back to what it was like to be nineteen years old, when chance encounters can mean so much, and making me wonder at what we put some of our nineteen-year-olds through.
This is one of those things that the various modern war video games hasn't done for me¹. The first-person war shooters I've played generally shy away from being specific about the character the player inhabits, choosing instead the bland, generic protagonist, expecting that the player will thus achieve greater immersion². I think it's worthwhile recalling that in making that choice, we lose the opportunity to allow the player to empathically identify with a more realistic person, like Billy Lynn³.
I'll be back soon to discuss Jodi Kantor's The Obamas, and after that, Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary and Paul Tough's How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character for any who are thinking of joining me in this ride through the past year's New York Times Notable Books.
¹Though I admit I've played relatively few of them because they don't appeal to me; the strangeness of occupying the shoes of a soldier fighting with weapons akin to those being used by real American soldiers in conflicts similar to real-world ones always bothers me to a degree.
²One exception is the flashback missions I recall from the first Modern Warfare, in which the player goes back in time and plays as Soap McTavish. These missions connected with me better both because they were remote from real-world conflict of today and because there was a stronger sense of McTavish as a "real" person -- he was still every gruff superior officer you've seen portrayed by a character actor, but that's far more than the named protagonist you mostly inhabit through the game, and whose name I've tellingly forgotten.
³To be fair, Billy Lynn is mostly described through a really close third-person narration, and indeed characters in third-person games tend to be more interesting, though only just.
December 22, 2012
So, I've decided on my project for the next year; I'll be attempting to read all 100 of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books from 2012. If you want to follow along on the blog, I'll talk about them here in the blog under the "Notable" tag. I can't promise long articles about any of them, but I'll at least give you a paragraph or two about every book.
I'm giving myself a bit of a head start -- I listened to one of the books via audiobook this year on a long drive (Olen Steinhauser's An American Spy, discussed briefly below¹) and have started the second book, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.
It's going to be quite a challenge, particularly given that the list is equally divided into fiction and non-fiction, and I am almost entirely a fiction reader, with probably fewer than 10% of my reading time devoted to non-fiction². So I'm going to likely attempt to read one of each a week, because a year from now if I have two dozen books to go, I'm sunk. One hundred-ish books in 52 weeks. I often read around 80 or so a year, so this is a slight stretch, and it also involves books which are all at a high degree of difficulty, relatively speaking, which usually means few genre books and of course, in the case of the non-fiction, some deep and difficult topics. There will be some light-hearted fare as well³. I'll mostly read on the Kindle, since that means I can take all the books, and procure new ones, wherever I go. I'll also try to keep up with the Father-Son Reading Challenges that come up. Eesh, it's going to be quite a year.
I'll try to indicate what's up next in my reading when I write one of the posts. Feel free to comment on any of them as we go, happy to engage in discussion!
An American Spy
I listened to An American Spy by Olen Steinhauser on my iPhone earlier this year; I can't recall where I was driving. I don't listen to many audiobooks because my commute is short enough that podcasts are a far more sensible option, but I do enjoy them on occasion if I have an extended drive.
I had read a prior Steinhauser novel featuring Milo Weaver, part of the CIA's Department of Tourism, a shady black-ops division which Weaver has come to question over time. Apparently, I came to the series somewhat in the middle, because I missed out on the very first book, The Tourist, but I quickly picked it up.
I particularly like the world-weariness of these books; like most great spy fiction, it concerns itself with dense plotting and the all-too-human foibles of the membership of these organizations. Even the literary James Bond is a more interesting character than the films make him out to be, but I've also always enjoyed darker books in the genre which focus on the pettiness of the bureaucracy surrounding the great game, such as John Le Carré's great novels or Len Deighton's Hook, Line, Sinker and Game, Set, Match trilogies. Bourne is good, if the action is what you go for, but for my money, there's a lot more interest to be had in the kind of person who is involved in a more realistic form of espionage. And even though I find the sort of events that occur in any spy novel to be somewhat unlikely, Steinhauser's Department of Tourism is a wonderful invention.
Sadly I can't go into much more detail without giving up good chunks of the plot -- what I remember six months later is almost entirely plot details and the sense of weariness and a cynical wariness that pervades Milo's dealings with the Department. It reminds me quite a good deal of George Smiley; if you enjoyed the subtlety of last year's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this series might be for you.
¹I had no idea I might embark on this project when I listened to it; it's not firmly placed in my memory.
²This is not even to mention that there are some serious behemoths in the non-fiction section of the list, particularly Caro's latest volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography, something that I consider embarking upon every year.
³Such as Chris Ware's Building Stories, and I'm sure some others.