Saturday, May 30, 2009

#8 of 2009: Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

I initially bought this book at the urging of a friend of mine who swore up and down that it was the best book he’d read “in forever, it’s sick, seriously, go out and read this now.” Before I go any further, let me point out that he uses the word “sick” as a synonym for “awesome,“ and the word pops up in conversation with him rather frequently. For a moment I honestly believed the book was disgusting, depraved or just plain rude, before I realized what he actually meant.

As it turns out, the first time I attempted to read this novel my initial fears weren’t too far off. While not actually rendering me physically nauseous, there was something about this book that got on my nerves so much that, after fifty pages, I put it down and forgot about it for a few years. It could have been any number of things, really.

It could have been the fact that the book is narrated in second person perspective, like a Choose Your Own Adventure, which for some people is so highly distracting and dizzying that they avoid the particular format like the plague. You will really like this book if you are a narcissist, or like to fantasize about being someone else. In fact, if this is the case, you can feel yourself looking the book up on Amazon and purchasing it this very moment, paying for it with your own credit card. See? See how irritating that could become?

It could have been that the book deals in mid-90s stock exchange drama, a subject I could honestly care less about. I have somewhat of a distaste for hardcore white-collar dealings and this book is full of characters and terminology that, while I didn’t have difficulty understanding, I certainly wasn’t all that fascinated by.

It could also be the fact that the main character is a woman I would consider to be the perfect photo negative of myself. She’s career-driven, obsessed to be more accurate, concerned only with money and the stock index and the current going price of Fortune 500 shares. She’s a cultureless bitch in a Porche she hasn’t paid off yet, in clothes she hasn’t yet reimbursed her credit card for, living in an apartment she deems too small and low class for her that she’s desperate to move out of, banking her entire existence on getting into a place with a doorman and and a few hundred extra yards of space inside.

Oh, she’s just a treat, this prudish, squeaky voiced woman with her older, too sincere, rich-as-hell-but-unconcerned-with-money Christian boyfriend that she keeps around for no reason at all. Did I mention the boyfriend lives with Andre, a born-again macaque that was once one of the boldest jewel thieves in France? No?

I spent fifty pages inside the head of this woman, thanks to Robbins’ choice of narrative, and the whole time I was screaming to get out. She hates sex, everything is gross to the point where she blushes at the drop of a hat, she hates her Filipina background and her hippie parents, she hates not having money and the world laid at her feet and she hates the common people of Seattle. In addition to an overly nice but boring boyfriend and his pet monkey, her best friend is a 300 pound tarot reader named Q-Jo, and she hates being seen with Q-Jo in public because, oh yeah, the world hates fat people, especially fat people in purple turbans and other garish attire, so she keeps her best friend swept up under the proverbial rug in order to maintain her professional veneer.

I was rather amazed I got to page fifty, seeing as the whole time I just wanted to slap her. Or myself, seeing as I was supposed to be her this entire time. I felt pretty disgusted as I put it back on my shelf, relieved to find something a bit more enjoyable to spend my time on. And there that book sat, for two more years at least, until I picked it up again a few weeks ago.

I blame my recently-acquired interest in late twentieth and early twenty-first century humor fiction for sending me back to Half Asleep. Having read Barry and Coupland and Nielan over the last six months to a year, my attention turned towards Robbins again, a writer that numerous people have gushed to me over. Rather than buying another one of his books, or trying to find copies in the library (I love libraries but get a bit antsy over their rigid time restraints, due to my short attention span and habit of flitting back and forth between books) I decided to pick up and read Half Asleep. The whole way through. No more putting it off and leaving it shelved, telling myself I’d get around to actually completing it at a later date. Nope. Going to read it now.

And read it I did. I have to say that the second time is a charm for this one. It was so much easier this time around.

I found myself again rolling my eyes and feeling disgusted by Gwendolyn Mati and her obsession with emerging from the long Easter weekend triumphant over all of Wall Street and earning millions during an impending crash. That’s what this book is about at its core, a market on the brink of annihilation and a young, incompetent stock broker furiously trying to cover her possibly illegal (and most definitely amoral) investment strategies from both boss and client.

It’s also about philosophy, capitalism, African tribalism, sex, disease, space aliens, telepathy, hallucinogens and the arcane. It could also, if you stretch your imagination a tiny bit, be about love.

I started off wanting to beat the holy hell out of Gwen, just as I did last time, but pushing through this novel, page by page, I was able to witness her transformation from a completely self-obsessed, arrogant bitch to a woman who might have her heart in the right place even if she’s a bit on the narcissistic side. It was an amazing albeit snail-paced transformation, made all the better and worth waiting for by numerous encounters along the way that leave her humiliated and knocked down more than a few pegs. There are a few places where I had to hold my giggles in.

Is it possible to experience Schadenfreude against yourself? In this instance, I think so. And at the end, after I was flushed of all available derision, I actually felt a bit good for her.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

#7 of 2009: The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

Occasionally I am caught in the grip of a nonfiction frenzy, usually focusing on a series of books with one theme running through them all. Last year, for a brief period, I was enamored with food journalism (The Zen of Fish is still one of my favorite nonfiction books, and probably always will be), picking up book after book on seafood and produce.

I’m guilty of doing this with fiction as well, buying up large quantities of a single author’s works (Barry, Gibson, Block and Wallace last year, Coupland this year), but it really seems to stand out when this happens with nonfiction. I think this is mostly the case because my nonfiction benders are fueled by topic and theme rather than a single author.

I have been dusting off my writing books as of late, straightening them out on the shelf to make room for new additions. Writing books are crucial to me, the tomes I turn to when I need advice, reassurance or examples of proper form. These are the books that most successfully help me aggregate my back brain for ideas, that illuminate the path ahead of me so that I don’t stumble completely and make a right ass out of myself when submitting manuscripts. They are my templates for style and substance, and while similar to one another there is not a single book in my collection that is not wholly unique.

I stumbled upon The Forest for the Trees while perusing the writing reference section of the local Barnes and Noble. The cover is absolutely brilliant, bright #2 yellow pencils slowly morphing into various trees where the sharpened graphite points ought to be. Flipping it over, I was also impressed by the collection of publication-submitted review blurbs. There are no overenthusiastic urgings by individual writers here, merely words of of praise by major journals and newspapers. Not overly minimalistic, but to the point. I liked it.

I also liked the fact that the author, Betsy Lerner, has run the gamut of bibliophilic employment, from a budding poet in an MFA program to an assistant editor working her way up the editorial chain at several major publishers to a literary agent. It’s much easier to take the advice, anecdotes and bad news (the whole industry is a crap shoot of timing, luck and talent, after all) when it’s coming from someone who has experienced the subject from multiple angles.

Inside, the book is divided into two main sections, Writing and Publishing. The first section, Writing, details the various motivations to write and different types of authors, which has garnered Lerner a bit of criticism, especially on peer-review sites like Amazon. It seems some authors, amateur and professional (though leaning more towards the amateur), do not appreciate being pigeonholed, even when it is done lovingly by a person who has spent years in the business. I don’t mind it. I found little bits of myself in each of the chapters, The Ambivalent Writer, The Natural, The Wicked Child, The Self-Promoter and The Neurotic. The only chapter I did not identify with directly, Touching Fire, is about substance abuse and mental illness, and I have had some small indirect contact with those types of people as well. Overall, I felt that Lerner explained her examples well and provided a great deal of feedback to each type of person she felt would benefit from her work. I didn’t for a moment find myself offended. Rather, I found myself full of new avenues to explore, mostly in the form of other writing-related books, as Lerner has a habit of citing other works in her examples.

The second part, Publishing, is broken down into the natural stages that a first-time writer will encounter and outlines what to expect with each one. There are six chapters, Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication, Rejection, What Editors Want, What Authors Want, The Book and Publication. Some of the information is common knowledge, or at least should be, but interspersed in with the advice that all authors should already be aware of (and aren’t always, judging by the personal stories of bad writer behavior) are insider details on editorial processes, book designing, publicity and the interpersonal relationships between the writers and the team of people that help them get their work into the public. It’s fascinating, really, and more than a bit humorous in places.

The Forest for the Trees reads much like Bird By Bird would if Anne Lamott were able to step back from her work and view the situation more objectively, though Lamott’s own work will always have a warm, welcoming spot on my bookshelf. Having the multiple-angle viewpoint helps quite a bit in getting the whole picture, rather than just the neurotic nail-biting writerly side. However, this is not really a book for someone who needs advice on how to write. The fact that you’re writing is just assumed, and it never goes into technical detail. For that, I would suggest the work of James Smith (if you have to pick just one, go for The Writer’s Little Helper, as he has the annoying habit of reusing exercises in multiple books) or James Scott Bell’s entries in the Writing Great Fiction series.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

#6 of 2009: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

I didn’t think it would take me so long to get to book number six for the year, seeing as how I sped through everything last year. This time around, though, I’m in the middle of revising a rough draft and I’m whittling away at my DVD collection along with reading novels.

For the longest time, while reading Microserfs, I got the feeling that it wasn’t as good a read as jPod. It took me much longer, and some of the concepts were outdated, but when I got to the end of it I came to the conclusion that it might, in its own way, be even better.

The book begins in late 1993 and runs until January of 1995, a period of time where I was slowly becoming more and more obsessed with technology. My fascinations were directed more at word processing, game playing and general screwing around rather than actually learning to code, which wouldn’t present itself to me until around 2000 and in such a poor fashion that I never really gave it my full attention. The characters in Microserfs, however, are fully immersed in the world of corporate coding farms and the Bill Gates deification that almost always tagged along back then.

Wave after wave of nostalgia hit me while reading Microserfs. I remember the commercials the characters bring up constantly, the Play Doh and Lego, the sugar cereal and megacorporations and clothing labels. I remember the current events, the celebrities, the earthquakes and fires on the news. So much of this book seems like it was yanked out of my life that it feels surreal, like pulling memories out of a dark corner that I wasn’t aware held anything at all.

Fast food is addictive but about as bad for you as a bunch of simultaneous chest x-rays.

Apple was, and always shall be, the height of cool.

Lego are impressive, but the claw-like hands on their little people (minifigs) are creepy as hell.

Not too long after this book came out I would wind up owning the much-ridiculed (in the novel and in my life) Geo Metro. It really didn’t have the capacity to kill anyone, or even so much as bruise.

This was like prematurely opening up a time capsule full of VCRs, fax machines, early-stage cell phones, GAP khakis, laptops, processed foods, Crystal Pepsi, Melrose Place and ramen noodles and going “Oh yeah, I remember this stuff. Man, weren’t those the days!”

I’m not going to delve into it in too much detail, but lest anyone think this book is some shallow jaunt down memory lane (or, around its publication, a piece of pop culture masturbation) let me say there is a very subtle but noticeable human undercurrent present at all times that comes out in full force towards the end.

Man, I miss the 90s.


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