Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seen On a LiveJournal Icon

English: a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

Title: Eating the Dinosaur
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2009)

I truly have no idea how to summarize Eating the Dinosaur so I'm going to borrow a line from the jacket copy - "It's amateur anthropology for the present tense, and sometimes it's incredibly funny." I think this does a pretty good job. I'd add that between the laughs you might find yourself saying, "That is so true" or "That's how I feel" or "What is he talking about?" All of which ends up making for a fun little read.

Topics addressed in this "anthropology for the present tense" book include Nirvana, football, ABBA, voyeurism, laugh tracks, Ted Kaczynsky, and a host of other random bits of pop culture and current events. One of my favorite things about the book is the Q&As between each chapter. I guess these are actual Q&As from his journalism career but it's not really explained. Either way, they are hilarious.

The book is well-written and, though tending toward over-statement, Klosterman fills it with very nice turns of phrase. For instance:

Take the wolf, for example: I suspect it's unbelievably stressful to be a wold. The world would bean endlessly confusing place, because a wolf has limited cognitive potential and understands nothing beyond its instinct and is own experience. Yet the world is more engaged with the experience of being alive.

Music that skews inauthentic is almost always more popular in the present tense. Music that skews toward authenticity has more potential to be popular over time, but also has a greater likelihood of being unheard completely.

And this is football's interesting contradiction: It feels like a conservative game. It appeal to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have - it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal.

He also has a healthy sense of the fact that not every topic will appeal to every reader. (Evidenced by a footnote that includes "And if you didn't already know that, I am pretty fucking impressed you're still hanging with this [topic].") And it's true, not every topic kept my interest. That was fine with me as there's no reason why you can't skip to the next chapter. Each is self-contained so if your interest is waning a couple pages into a chapter then flip to the next one, no problem.

I do have a couple nits to pick. First, there was this odd tone of sexism that would crop up from time to time. Examples: he's describing a media/star relationship with what I interpreted as a derogatory tone for the announcers because of their "girlish worship." Why is "girlish" worship bad? Is it different from "boyish" worship? Is worship gender dependent? Would it have been better to say "adolescent?" For me, the answer is yes as it would have conveyed more meaning. "Girlish" has little meaning for me in this context because I don't personally find it to be a derisive term (no matter how many times I see people trying to use it that way). I get that it's supposed to be derisive from his tone but that's bad form in my opinion and, again, bad word choice. In another instance, he's talking about his wife hating football and adds "as wives are wont to do." Hunh? Again, what is the information that you're trying to convey? Wives are such a drag due to their apparently universal football hating ways? I'm a wife and I love football. I know a lot of wives that love football. And, anyway, even if I didn't love football how is that relevant to my husband (as the context of this paragraph is making clear that it is)? If his hobby was football and I didn't share it, what is the big fucking deal? So he watches football and I do something else. Is it such a big deal to pursue separate hobbies?

The second is actually better left to its own post as it's long and addresses a topic near and dear to my heart: the Internet. However, a quick mention that it has to do with the last chapter which is about people's relationship to technology. But I'll leave the details for another day.

All in all, this one is worth picking up for a random trip through someone's mind as he relates to the world around him. You probably won't agree with everything he says, or even find all of it interesting, but you're sure to get some laughs and some moments of "I know exactly what he's talking about!"

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Blue-Eyed Devil & Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas, Robert B. Parker

Title: Blue-Eyed Devil
Authors: Lisa Kleypas, Robert B. Parker
Publishers: St. Martin's Press (2008), G.P. Putnam's Sons (2010)

Since I chose these books due to their titles I'll say a few words about the covers:

Kleypas - nice but innacurate. dude is sexy and since the title centers around our sexy hero there ought to be a sexy dude on the cover. however, this book is set almost exclusively in Houston and Dallas. i've spent lots of time in Houston and some in Dallas. this road does not exist. hell, it probably doesn't even exist on the outskirts of Houston. regardless, it certainly does not put one in mind of the book's setting.

Parker - nice cover. i'm immediately put in a western mindframe. excellent use of the sillohoute. i especially like how one dude is clearly facing forward and the other is looking at facing-forward guy. FFG is easy to see as Virgil. The other would be Everett, the reader's window into the story. it's completely appropriate that he's looking at Virgil as he often does in the story. and not just looking at but looking to Virgil.

The most eye-catching portion of the covers is the author's name. Both of these authors have a body of successful work to their names and the covers rely as much (or more) on the author's name to sell the book as on the cover art.

Verdict: Point to Parker


Kleypas - Haven comes from an affluent and controlling family. When she decides to go against their wishes and marry the man of her dreams things don't turn out quite like she anticipated. She's trying to put her life back together and isn't so sure Hardy Cates is the right way to start.

Parker - Cole and Hitch are back in Appaloosa and the new police chief isn't necessarily happy that the former keepers of the law are back. Cole and Hitch are happy to stick to themselves but when the chief of police starts employing some shady tactics they feel compelled to get involved.

Verdict: Push

Place in their respective worlds:

Kleypas is a stand alone but characters from Sugar Daddy featured (and I, for one, am glad as I definitely wanted to know what happened to Hardy after SD)

Parker is the fourth book in the Cole/Hitch series but the first one I've read (and, actually, only the second Parker novel I've read - talked about the other here)

Verdict: Point to Kleypas (but only because I'm going through an anti-series phase)


They are both told in first person perspective.
They both feature violence; though one is violence used for unethical control and one is violence used for order (albeit, self-determined order).

Differences: Abundant.
(see below)

Writing Style:

The styles featured here could not be more different. Kleypas is told heavily as a "and then this happened" recounting from Haven. There are even segments where the reader is taken step by step through her thinking process as she recovers from the trauma of her first marriage. The motivations and feelings of each character are clear with very little room for interpretation.

Parker's style, on the other hand, makes spare seem like an over-statement. As a reader who enjoys an author who will put the story in my hands, I liked this a lot. I found myself reading passages (especially conversations) over and over with different interpretations. It made me pay attention to even the smallest of details as possible clues as to why characters did what they did. The book is pretty short anyway, but with such stingy writing there was no way my usual skimming would come into play. I had to use each word to paint the pictures and I liked that. I wish I had that experience more often.

Verdict: Point to Parker


From the description above of the writing styles you can probably guess a little about the characterization. It was certainly more thorough in Kleypas (if not exactly subtle) but with Parker you have to go deeper to find the characters. Again, I like that! When I finished Kleypas I didn't need to read any more about Haven and Hardy (oh! I just noticed that! hmmm) but there is still much to learn about Cole and Hitch which might get me to actually seek out other books in the series.

Verdict: Push


Both books are straightforward tales of significant events in the characters' lives. Neither story reached me on a level beyond "heh, that's entertaining" so I'd say that each story is mostly targeted to those readers already interested in the set-up.

Verdict: Push

What I Liked:
In Kleypas I liked that the reality of, and recovery after, domestic violence was a part of the story. I feel that it could be helpful to those that find themselves in an abusive situation and can't quite see their way clear.

In Parker I liked the spare writing that left much of the story in the reader's hands. That puts it in the category of books I'm not editing while I read. I wish more books were like this.

What I Didn't Like:
In Kleypas it's not really clear why Hardy is interested in Haven. I mean, I know she's cool because I'm hanging out in her perspective but why did Hardy think she was cool?

In Parker I didn't like the limited view of Allie. I spent a lot of time reviewing interactions with Allie and I just couldn't figure what she was bringing to the table.


At the end of the day each book got me thinking but neither stayed with me after I was done. I enjoyed the novelty of such different books having the same title but that's about all I'm taking away.

Kleypas: 3 of 5 stars
Parker: 3 of 5 stars

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Series Snafus

My seemingly non-stop whining about series over the last 6 months and Apprentice Writer's recent post inspired me to turn whining into articulation a blog post and make a list of what it is that drives me bonkers in a series.

Side note: I had been meaning to do this with writing pet peeves in general but turns out a pretty good list already exists. To this I would add: misuse of reflexive pronouns, overuse of "twitch" to indicate humor by lip movement, and overuse of the word "sardonic." In fact, I believe I will never use the word again. Ever. Not once. I don't care how sardonic someone is I will find some other way to express it (ok, clearly that was the actual last use of the word).

And a question: what is the name for this? When not falling prey to the Writing Ticks, I describe writing as deft. In the realm of writing what is the opposite of deft?

Ok, counting down to my top series snafu

6. The Increasing Unlikelyhood that Any of This is Possible

Item 6 rears its ugly head in two ways. Way One: we're 11(000) books in to a series and everything has happened to every recurring character. After a while I just don't buy it. When one character has now had more excitement than any 100 people combined it's time to end it - well, probably past time but whatevs. (This error is especially egregious in PI novels. You know, you can only say that most of your time is spent running records checks so many times before the dead bodies start to make me doubt your statement.)
Way Two: reader loyalty is used as a bouy to suspension of disbelief and we are expected to go along with the impossible because, well, shucks, it's Character A and whacky things just can't help happening whenever Character A happens by. I realize that we're not all queuing up to read boring books but you've got to make me believe that what is happening would happen. If not, I don't care how much I've liked your previous work, I'm checking out and not coming back.

5. Recycled Vocabulary

I appreciate style but it quickly loses substance when a series author begins recycling descriptions verbatum. English has much variety. Please explore it.

4. The Recycled Plot/Romance Impediment/Twist

Now this is interesting because it's not like there are a ton of plots out there and I read the same stories over and over. BUT! I read them with new characters in new places with new perspectives. I'm not interested in watching the same characters in a recycled a plot. If I'm going to read the same story I want to meet new people.

3. The Recycled Character Arc

A character that learns the same lessons book after book after book is Made of Stupid and not interesting.

2. The Character Reversal

It is a major party foul to change character attributes (often essential to a previous book's arc or plot) for reasons of plot only. I am more than happy to experience growth with a character but it must stem naturally from events and not simply move things along in subsequent books.

1. Blowing Your Wad

And here we are at the big one! How I despise the re-cap!!! The re-cap puzzles me for multiple reasons. If I am a loyal reader, I do not need your re-cap. If I am a new reader, the re-cap is a waste. Let's say you (the author) are in book three. That means you have two books of backstory! Two books of world-building background! Two books of character outline! What a wealth of information at your fingertips for book three. Why oh why would you blow all that in the first few chapters? This is information that can (and probably will) inform most of what the characters say and do. It breathes in the background hinting at a full and realistic world. Again, why blow this at the beginning? If you have an established character why would you want to do a two paragraph run-down on that character when, instead, you know this character so well that every word and action will come naturally from all you know? I don't want an explanation, I want to see that character being that character! And if you are re-capping past events, again, I must ask why? So often they are not essential to the current story so you have just constructed a nice little "road work ahead" sign that has slowed me down, taken me out of the current story, and hit me over the head with the fact that I'm reading a series. Yuck!

The question for me becomes, why is the re-cap so ubiquitous? It must be serving a purpose that I am not seeing. But what is that purpose? As a series reader have I suddenly been rendered incapable of following the current story or current character without extensive background? Do authors prefer to not incorporate past information in a natural way? Is the re-cap easier? Is it satisfying some desire in readers that I clearly don't share? Gah! So much confusion for me!

Any ideas on the purpose of the re-cap?

Any series nit picks you'd like to add?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil by Kent Anderson

Title: Sympathy for the Devil
Author: Kent Anderson
Publisher: Bantam (2000), originally published in 1987

Quick aside - the copyright page says: "This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED." I've never noticed a note like this before. Is this common? Is there some secret, word-omitting publication history for this book?

Sympathy for the Devil is set during the Vietnam War and, in three parts, tells the story of Special Forces Sergeant Hanson. The first part opens towards the end of Hanson's first tour and covers his attempt at life back in the States. The second part starts with Hanson, a college student, at the induction center after being drafted and his first days in-country. The third part focuses mainly on his second tour in Vietnam.

It was an interesting choice to introduce the reader to Hanson as an already hardened soldier and then swing back to who he was before. I certainly felt I had his character well in hand going into Part 2 but it became apparent that Anderson planned on using the entire book in his portrayal of Hanson. I liked that as a story-telling device and on a personal level for how it felt much like the way ya get to know people. Like when you've know someone for years and then you're suddenly surprised by new information.

The narrative had a rather clumsy feel to it so that I never settled into events, which is either just the author's style or a brilliant technique illustrative of the madness of war and such. And there is much madness in this book. This isn't one of those depressing war books punctuated by moments of humanity and hope. It's one of those depressing war books punctuated by moments of crazy and the ineffectiveness of military bureaucracy.

While Hanson's thoughts on what and who are around him are pretty clear there's also an over-arching philosophy and mode of thought portrayed by the book itself. Since Anderson was a Special Forces Sergeant in Vietnam I'm curious as to how reflective of his own experiences the book is. (Night Dogs is his follow-up to this which features Hanson as a police officer, also like Anderson which makes me think maybe this is largely the author's personal story.) Regardless, it certainly gives a peep into a part of people not often seen in everyday life. What I found just as interesting as the human aspect of the novel was the examination of political and administrative inertia. Such inertia is often more dangerous than any enemy.

You spend most of the book with Hanson but he isn't always accessible. Then these small moments come by that give a window into what he is feeling. Anderson's ability to pinpoint and lay bare these moments is extremely satisfying.

Premature crow's-feet set off her startlingly clear green eyes that made Hanson almost dizzy when he met them, embarrassing them both in a moment of unexpected sexual contact.

Anderson also includes moments of the absurd:

He looked at the ticket and began to laugh. He wadded up the little piece of green tissue paper and was about to throw it away, then realized that he'd need it as proof when he told Quinn and Silver that he'd gotten a speeding ticket.

And he's great at expressing threat and the extraordinary in a way that makes real what, for most of us, borders on the unreal:

Sixth sense is only the other five senses fine-tuned to threat. A shift in the rhythm of the silence that opens your eyes. A shudder in the pattern of shadow. The hint of some smell that brings your head up. Separately they would mean nothing, but together they are enough to lift the hair on your neck, to stir little bubbles of dread deep in the back of your brain, all of them forming like a forgotten name, right on the tip of your tongue. A group of men moving through the dark with plans to kill you gives off an energy you can feel if you pay attention to what your senses tell you.

I have a long and complicated relationship with war-centered literature (and movies). I enjoy it for many reasons, including basic education in topics I'm not familiar with and my desire for witnessing history and specialized training, but it also tears me up emotionally. I would read (and watch) more war drama but I don't have the emotional fortitude. I'd be a wreck. I often am a wreck after reading this stuff, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. However, I always enjoy the possibilities for endless discussion of socio-political topics, not to mention the idea of basic humanity. I also find I'm often frustrated by my inability to read it more critically. I'm not a soldier (couldn't be, actually, as I lack even the most basic qualities for what is required in one to be a soldier) or close to anyone who has experienced serious combat so I feel like I can never wholly believe or disbelieve what I am reading. Possibly that is simply an unexpected but perfect mirror for war in general. However, no matter how I feel after an exploration into a war story I continue to wish we weren't quite so eager to pursue wars. They are a devastating and nasty business.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two parting questions:
What is your favorite story that involves war?

Anyone want to suggest some war stories that do not revolve around the "boy scout" soldier persona or the soldier that has found a home in war because life has been reduced to its most basic tenet: survival? These seem to be what I encounter most in fiction.

"My Cheevos!"

The price increase for Xbox Live subscriptions will probably go unnoticed in many (ok, most) households but this one takes notice. And Dr M is not alone!

The Ultimatum