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Regular readers already know by now that I run Personville Press and am a big fan of the fiction of Jack Matthews.  (You may already have noticed the sidebar ads for his ebooks). I just wanted to mention that Personville recently published his 1967 classic Hanger Stout Awake as an ebook.

If you buy directly from the website, you can use this discount coupon code “HANGER1”  (that’s the number one at the end) so that you pay only 99 cents (instead of the regular price of $2.99).  This is valid until April 1.

I’m no fan of Amazon Kindle, but I wanted to mention two interesting things.

First, Amazon announced last year  that the Kindle 3 generation of devices would support the new ebook format KF8. This is a big deal because it lets publishers use more advanced formatting options. It is also a painful transition because many of the books designed for the older .mobi format just will never get updated to take advantage of the new functionality. I find it strange that Amazon hasn’t done the update to make Kindle 3 read KF8 (it’s been almost 6 months now!) At the same time, Kindle owners must find it good knowing that Kindle 3 will finally be able to use the css features which all the other ebook devices could do out of the box.

Second,  it was interesting to learn that  if Kindle owners used Wifi, they can email ebooks to themselves without paying a fee (but only if they are using wifi).  This is incredibly useful.  Could  publishers take advantage of this? Maybe a publisher  could email to the reader’s Kindle a book purchase as a way to deliver the ebook (rather than having to go through the Kindle store). That could be useful for subscriptions as well.   Perhaps instead of providing an ebook download link, the publisher can just ask for the customer’s free kindle account and email it directly to the Kindle itself.

Finally, a rant of sorts.

I am appalled at how difficult it can be to download titles from Project Gutenberg from ebook devices. I realize that Amazon and BN have a vested interest in ensuring that readers stay at their respective stores, but do the online bookstores really make that much money from reselling public domain titles?  If anything, they should be touting the fact it is so easy to download public domain titles. I first bought an ebook reader in 2004 – fun fact, I really didn’t start buying ebooks until 2010. For 5 years I was happy enough downloading creative commons and public domain titles.  But now out of the ebook titles I download, I would say about 60% are purchased. (This is partly in response to supply and my need for immediate gratification.

NAGLE’S IRON LAW OF EBOOK DEVICES: If an ebook device for sale in 2012 cannot access, download and open a Project Gutenberg title quickly and effortlessly via the device’s builtin wireless connection, then by definition is is not an acceptable ebook device.

It is a substandard — and even a useless — contraption.

This is not an arduous task. That merely means 1)making a easy-to-find bookmark to the PG catalog page or mobile catalog page and 2)testing it to make sure it actually works.

As much as I like Calibre, it can be  a pain to launch and use (Let’s see; where did I leave that USB cable?)

Finally, here’s a brilliant blog by a book marketer  named Kent Weber about how to use online tools to sell your ebook. Goodbookmarketing has a lot of original insights about consumer psychology and expectations. The only thing I’d quibble with him is about buying single domains for each book. Weber argues that you get better SEO ummph when you do that, but I would argue that you are selling the author brand – not the book brand. One of Weber’s most important messages is that you need to make sure search results for your book appears on top of the amazon.com page for it.  Typically, when people review or link to a book, they link to the Amazon.com page, and you want to change that if you can.

(For me, I am trying to encourage people to buy ebooks directly from the author site instead of on Amazon. Amazon/BN basically give 65-70% royalty, while buying direct from the author earns the author about 90% royalty. When you’re talking a $2.99 price, the price difference is considerable.  The author earns 80 cents more per ebook).

Another reason to get the reader to the author’s site is so you can offer bundles and discounts of products. Basically Amazon.com locks you to a price floor of 2.99. If you go lower, your  royalties go from  70%  to 35%. But really, $1.5o or $2 or $2.50 are also sweet spots; If the publisher can offer coupon codes (like I’m doing) or a way to buy two products together at a discount, you can offer better prices than Amazon without violating its terms.

Related: a great compendium of traditional & nontraditional book marketing tips by Carolyn Howard-Johnson.  Also, thecreativepenn   has a lot of good marketing tips I haven’t seen anywhere else.

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Breakfast: An Autobiography

Note: I have no idea whether other people might find this essay interesting. Writers tend to find everything interesting, and everyone tends to find  himself  interesting (much to the dismay and/or boredom of others). But I had fun writing it because it opened up a lot of overlooked memories (both olfactory and non-olfactory).

Breakfast: An Autobiography

I am typing this on the bus at 7:30 AM — thinking about breakfast. It’s one of those  banal and obvious topics which few people get around to writing about.1 Meals are specific to a time and place; when we read a book or journal, we assume that the normal daily routines of the people we read about are similar to  our own:  dressing, sleeping, going to the bathroom, eating, washing up, going to work, etc.  But that is a mistake.  Whenever I travel or visit someone’s house  (even if it is only to my sister’s house 200 miles away), I am struck by the differences.  That is why I think it’s valuable to describe my own daily breakfast routines.  They  aren’t  terribly original or interesting –  just different. But the exercise reminds us about how different each of our lives are – down to the smallest detail.  We share a common reality, but not a common way of  experiencing the daily rhythms of life.  Even for breakfast.

Growing Up – Student Years

While growing up, I had almost no memory about eating breakfast. Maybe I ate cereal at my mother’s insistence, but generally I did without it. The cereals I chose were sickeningly sweet. Either I chose Life cereal or Frosted Mini-Wheatsfrostedminiwheats_cereallater I switched to Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat, but this cereal literally had no taste, and I learned only later that the processed high-carbohydrate cereals all have the same number of calories anyway — so I might as well have sugared it up.  Later I learned that the alleged nutrients  on the cereal label came from additives and fortified milk. The cereal itself was just a bunch of sugary crap.

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AlYankovicByKristineSlipsonLately I have become enamored – no obsessed — with the parody music of Weird Al Yankovic. I’ll say more in a future post, but I came across the archives of his fan club newsletters from the 1990s. I wanted to jot down some of my favorite parts.   The first section consists of the tongue-in-cheek answers, while the second section consists of more serious and interesting answers. People think of him as just writing song parodies using the same melodies as the original singer, but in fact, Yankovic writes a LOT of original songs. Some are labeled as “stylistic parodies” because they are original songs in the style of of well-known singers. That doesn’t detract from Yankovic’s talent – although Yankovic’s ability to mimic other singers is downright scary!  If you don’t believe me that his original songs are first-class, check out  Generic Blues, Biggest Ball of Twine in MinnesotaThat’s Your Horoscope for Today, Albuquerque . Also, for lyrical inventiveness, check out the  merciless Couch Potato parody of an Eminem song.  It’s amazing to think that the original Eminem song won an Oscar, while Weird Al’s version has even more caustic lyrics than Eminem’s original ones. Here’s a list of his songs  and even a list of songs falsely attributed to  Weird Al .

Also, quite apart from Weird Al Yankovic’s songs, he has worked on some hilarious MTV skits/shows. Among them are his mock interview with Eminem. Here is a hilarious running commentary on a bad 1980s video.

Anyway, here begin the excerpts from the Weird Al Fan Club Newsletters.

Not–so-Serious Questions

Is there anything you did naughty as a boy that you never got caught for and still no one knows about it that you could confess to your forgiving fans right now? (Fearless Leader’s comment: And that you wouldn’t mind your mother knowing about?!?!?!?)

No. Absolutely nothing. I was perfect in every way. With the exception of that one tiny train-derailing incident.

Of all your albums, which is your favorite? (Bob Rodgers)

I seem to have a special place in my heart for the albums that sell the most copies.

What do you think of the current MTV as opposed to the MTV of the ’80s?

You know, the weirdest thing happened to me the other day. I happened to turn on MTV, and they were playing a music video!

A lot of successful bands meet and evolve in college. Why do you think college is good for the creative musical process?

I’m sure that my songwriting ability would suffer immensely if it hadn’t been for those three years of calculus that I took in college.

What birth control devices do you condone?

I’ve always figured that my personality was an effective birth-control device.

How often do you bowl? (Hawaiian Ryan Swoverland)

At least once every five years, whether I need to or not.

If the 3 Tenors did another concert and let you pick the songs for the medley (okay, so it’s a really hypothetical question…) what would you make them sing? (#’s 1 & 2 – Unruly Julie Jiles)

A medley of “Kung Fu Fighting,” “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero.”

Can you give any information on your new album?

Yes. (Unfortunately, I can only answer one question about the new album, and I’m afraid that was it.)

Will the Backstreet boys ever be on your show? because that’s my favorite band and tv show!!

Seeing as how the show was cancelled in January, that might be a bit of a problem. Okay, here’s what you do? get a tape of the Weird Al Show and then record a video of the Backstreet Boys in the middle of it. Then just watch it and pretend

Can you name all the Spice Girls?

Sure. I hereby name them all Bob.

What is your new years resolution?

600 dpi.

I am very interested in becoming a vegan (a vegetarian at least). Can you give me any advice?

Don’t eat meat.

fred of chgo il asks: In “UHF” in the beginning, when one of the guys pulls out the gun to shoot you, he uses his left hand, but when it’s on the ground, it’s the right hand, can you tell me why that is?

I think we realized the continuity error after we had already shot the footage with the actor – the disembodied arm that the prop guys had supplied didn’t match the arm that our actor was using for the whip. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it. We just rationalized, “Who’s gonna even care about this 10 years from now? Besides Fred, of course.”

What is the craziest thing that you and the band have done at/to a hotel while y’all were on tour?

We cleaned our rooms before the maid got there.

Can you name any of the songs on your new album?

Yes, I can name all of them.

Is there a specific reason why you tilt your head in photos?

The left side of my brain is much heavier than my right side.

What was your worst subject in middle school?

Physical Education, no doubt. Just out of curiosity, did anybody in history ever NOT have a sadistic Junior High School P.E. coach?

Were the people in your Disney special your real parents?

That’s what they tell me.

CMonkey2000 of Spatula City, Liechtenstein asks: Seriously, how do you rationalize being a vegan and playing a gig at the Great American Rib Cook-Off?

The same way I can rationalize playing at a college even though I’m not a student anymore.

Ed of Winter Garden, Florida asks: Hey Al!  Love your work, but aren’t you slipping a bit?  “Don’t Download This Song?”  I mean, the whole downloading music from the Internet controversy is like 5 years old, man!

Yeah, you’re absolutely right.  It’s a completely dead issue – people stopped illegally downloading songs off the Internet years ago, and the RIAA is no longer taking legal action against P2P sites or criminalizing people who share files.  What was I thinking?  Thanks for setting me straight.  By the way, don’t forget to e-mail Neil Young and ask him why he’s still writing songs about Iraq on his new album.  I mean, come on… that war is so 2003!

Hannanh of St. Louis, MO asks: Why do you write dirty songs? Since I’ve heard a few (like “Bill Clinton Bimbo Number 5”) myself and a few of the kids at my school (like 183) are boycotting you and spreading the word fast. You disgust me!

As I’ve stated very clearly in the FAQ, there are a lot of crude and vulgar parodies floating around the peer-to-peer sites that have my name attached to them. They are NOT by me. All of my material is really pretty family friendly. Of course, you would KNOW this if you actually BOUGHT my CDs instead of trying to ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD them off the Internet like the amoral-yet-self-righteous HOOLIGAN you obviously are! YOU disgust ME!! Ah, the delicious irony of it all…

Serious Questions

Matthew Walker of Highland, CA asks: How come your parodies are often played faster than the original songs?

I generally like to make my parodies a couple beats per minute faster than the original song, just for a little energy boost. Also, I find that the comedy usually plays better if the tempo is a little quicker.

Sizzling Volleyball of Budd Lake, NJ asks: Hey Al, have kind of a complicated/tedious question for you: Over the years, I’ve wondered how your homages or songs “in the style of” come into being. Many are homages to “demented” bands (B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, Oingo Boingo, TMBG, Zappa, etc.), but others are less so. Also, there are many that seem to be affiliated to no one particular band, but are genre parodies: unplugged, ska, hair band, etc. Are these bands that you listen to, and so are a sort of tribute? Or are they something else?

As you’ve obviously noticed, I have done quite a few style parodies over the years — that’s what I call songs that are original (as in, not direct parodies) and yet they are done in the style of another artist, group or genre of music. It’s an interesting exercise for me to try to get into the heads of these artists — or at least attempt to crudely forge their musical signatures. In fact, I enjoy doing these kinds of songs so much, I hardly ever do an “original” original any more. (I guess “Hardware Store” could be considered a true original — but truth be told, that was actually a screwed-up style parody. I started out trying to write in the style of a particular group, but I got it so wrong that I just gave up and did it my own way instead.) The artists that I’ve style-parodied range from the extremely popular (Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, James Taylor, etc.) to the semi-obscure (Tonio K, The Rugburns, Hilly Michaels, etc.) — but they’re all favorites of mine, and my homages to them are always done with great affection and attention to detail. In the past, I never put the artists that I style-parodied in the Special Thanks section on my album, mostly because I wanted to see if fans could figure out what I was doing (without being given any obvious hints). But I’ve come to realize that’s a little unfair to those artists — to whom I certainly owe a huge debt of gratitude– so I plan to acknowledge all my musical influences in the CD liner notes in the future.

Tim Sloane of Ijamsville, MD asks: Al, which of these purchasing methods should I use in order to make sure the most profit gets to you: Buying one of your albums on CD, or buying one of your albums on iTunes?

I am extremely grateful for your support, no matter which format you choose to legally obtain my music in, so you should do whatever makes the most sense for you personally. But since you ASKED — I actually do get significantly more money from CD sales, as opposed to downloads. This is the one thing about my renegotiated record contract that never made much sense to me. It costs the label NOTHING for somebody to download an album (no manufacturing costs, shipping, or really any overhead of any kind) and yet the artist (me) winds up making less from it. Go figure.

Gary Derrick of Mustang, Oklahoma asks: I was recently watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the tambourine player with that night’s musical guest (whom I can’t really remember at the moment) looked surprisingly like you… any idea who your evil twin is?

Well, first of all, it was Jay Leno, not Conan O’Brien — and FYI, the musical guest was Ben Folds — and the guy who looked surprisingly like me was … me. But you’re absolutely right, it WAS a tambourine. The story is, Ben and I have been friends for a while (I directed one of his music videos and we’ve performed on each other’s albums). I went to see Ben when he was in concert here in Los Angeles, and afterwards we were hanging out in his dressing room. At one point he said to me, “Hey, I’m doing the Tonight Show tomorrow — you should come on the show with me and just play tambourine!”  And we both laughed at what a ridiculous idea that was. Then the next morning, he called me up and said, “I just woke up from this weird fever dream, and I think it was some kind of a sign — you HAVE to play tambourine on the show.” I was honored to accept his offer, of course, so I hopped in the car and headed down to the NBC studios, practicing the tambourine as I drove. I was surprised when I got to the stage — I thought they were going to have me tucked away somewhere behind the string section, but they had me standing right next to Ben’s piano. It was kind of surreal — my first appearance on the Tonight Show in 20 years, and there I was being a professional tambourine player! Well, needless to say, I had a blast, and I think the performance came off very well. And I’ll be happy to slap the tambourine again for Ben any time he wants.

 

Jake L. of Readington, NJ asks: When you recorded your lines for The Simpsons, were there any that got cut out of the episode?

Thankfully, my part wasn’t cut at all, which was lucky for me because I know a lot of really, really funny lines from that episode wound up on the cutting room floor. My band recorded the instrumental track for the ”Jack and Diane”  parody at Mad Dog Studios in Burbank, but I got to go to the 20th Century Fox lot to sing the song and read my lines in a studio sitting next to Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta himself, which was a huge thrill for me. Originally I was only intended to be in the body of the show, but the recording session went so well, the writers thought it would be a great idea for me to sing an extended version of the parody over the closing credits (and of course, I did too)! So they came up with some additional lyrics and I went back to the Fox lot several weeks later to record that as well. Then, shortly before the show aired, I had to go back one more time to re-record the end of the song? — I think the original ending went something like, “Oh yeah, we got time to fill  — Why don’t you go pee before King Of The Hill? “ The problem was, by the time the episode was scheduled to air, The Simpsons was being followed by Oliver Beane, not King Of The Hill  —  so they had me change it to the more generic “Oh yeah, Weird Al had fun on this show “  Even if it was just a brief cameo, being on The Simpsons was definitely a high point in my life  —  big thanks to all the writers, producers and artists who helped make it happen!

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Carbon Neutral in Houston (Year 2)

This report is my second year of carbon neutrality. (A description of my first year is here).

This year saw some life changes which affected my carbon footprint.

  • First,  I moved to a new place where among other things, I had great access to public transportation. I live near a supermarket and even more places where I can bike to.
  • Second,   unlike the previous year (where I was mostly working from home), this year I mainly worked for 40 hours in an office.  I take a bus every day to and from work.  Which is delightful.  So during summer months I turn off the air conditioning during the day and even unplug my TV and computer.
  • Third, my car died for good in June. This was not entirely unexpected, but I was preparing for a car-less existence for several years.
  • 2011 was the year of the incredible heat wave and drought.  It got really rough – especially for someone who tries to use the air conditioning judiciously.
  • I basically bought few electronic devices (except for a microwave).
  • I have sort of lightened up on the beef. I will eat it occasionally – not regularly, but I don’t worry about it as much.
  • I didn’t take any long trips really. I went to the coast by bus in July and rented a car to travel to San Antonio and Austin.  I sometimes share rides with family members, and I don’t count them in my overall footprint – although maybe I should

References for Calculating Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint Calculator.

EPA’s Energy and Reference.

Terrapass Methodology for Calculating Carbon Footprint

Calculations:

1500 miles on my defunct Toyota Corolla and 450 miles on the rental car (Total: 1950 miles)

Last year I used 5968 watts of energy. Here’s the breakdown for 2011: (in reverse order, sorry)

December 427 Kwh
November: 327 KWh
October 383 Kwh
September 510 Kwh
August  713 KwH
July 576 KwH
June 672 Kwh
May  544 KwH
April 325
Mar 368
Feb 366
Jan 448

Total energy consumption for 2011  is  5659 watts – a 5% drop. Of course, I’m using a green energy plan (Tera Energy at 9.4 cents a watt for a 12 month contract), so this doesn’t count towards my footprint.

On the other hand, my apartment has a water heater powered by natural gas, so I ought to be paying for that.  A Dept of Energy estimate quoted here says that 14% of total energy costs come from heating water. Because I don’t use hot water when I wash clothes and because I’m guessing my apartment uses a bigger and more efficient hot water heater, I’m going to estimate my annual usage to be 10%.. which is 570 watts or .1 metric ton of CO2.

Transportation:

I commute to work. Distance between work and home is about 7 miles.  Both ways is 14 miles per day. Assume that I have worked May through December (8 months,  20 days per year if I include vacation time and holidays). That means 160 days for 2011.

160 days x 14 miles per day = 2240 miles by mass transit in 2011.  According to this mass transit calculator, that translates to .48 metric tons of CO2. Also, I took one long distance bus trip for 250 miles.  I’m guessing that this was .04 metric tons of CO2.

In addition, I drove my car for about 1500 miles. (My car broke down in June, so I got rid of it after then).  I  owned a 1998 Toyota Corolla which got 30 mpg. That’s about 1079 pounds of CO2 for 2012. I took a summer trip of about 550 miles.  Let’s assume that the summer trip was 500 pounds of CO2.

Totals: For car travel, 1600 pounds of CO2 converts to .73 metric ton of CO2 .For mass transit, .52 metric tons of CO2. For home electricity, totals are 0. For my natural gas usage, that is 0.1 metric tons of CO2.

Grand total of my 2011 carbon footprint: 1.35 metric tons of CO2. (2975 pounds).

Conversions: 1 short ton = 0.90718474 metric tons, 1 short ton = 2000 pounds, 1 metric ton = 2,204 pounds.

Offsets

I’m going to purchase offsets for 3000 pounds of CO2. According to Terapass, the price for 3000 pounds of CO2 offsets is $17.85

Additional Costs I haven’t figured in

I’ll be honest. I don’t want to pretend that I have taken into account all the factors which contribute to my carbon footprint. I’ve just measured all that is measurable. Here are some other impacts:

  1. Other people’s electricity. I wash my clothes in a community washer every week.
  2. Big ticket items (imported). I bought an office chair and a microwave and maybe some computer parts. I really have no way to account for that.
  3. Eating at restaurants. I eat prepared foods probably more than average. Although I generally eat healthy, I have not taken into account this cost or the electricity costs of the dining area itself.
  4. My dog. My dog is only 25 pounds, but I buy stuff for him. They are probably animal byproducts in the dogfood I buy, so it’s hard to account for that.

Last year I explained my thoughts and insights into why I calculated the way I did.

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The cool photo gallery I created

Here’s a large  photo gallery I created of the cars of the novels by Jack Matthews. Lots of photos, a slow-loading page, but generally enjoyable (I wrote a short introductory essay as well).

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Problems with RSS Feed

I don’t know what is going on, but Google Reader has been having problems parsing my RSS feed.

I recently posted 2 articles:

but neither shows up on my Google Reader  feed. I think it has something to do with the fact that my default URLs embeds the date in the URL, and lately I’ve had to manually change the date (because the posts were started a few months ago and the date needed to be updated).

On another strange note, the above article “Advice to Literary Critics” went live before I actually published it. That may be related to some defect in Windows Live Writer.

Anyway, I’m aware of this problem – I’m not sure what the solution is, but I will be doing some investigation and report back when I figure out a solution.

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Damaged by my education

Lynn Barber sums up the life lessons she gained from her ill-fated affair:

What did I get from Simon? An education – the thing my parents always wanted me to have. I learned a lot in my two years with Simon. I learned about expensive restaurants and luxury hotels and foreign travel, I learned about antiques and Bergman films and classical music. All this was useful when I went to Oxford – I could read a menu, I could recognise a fingerbowl, I could follow an opera, I was not a complete hick. But actually there was a much bigger bonus than that. My experience with Simon entirely cured my craving for sophistication. By the time I got to Oxford, I wanted nothing more than to meet kind, decent, straightforward boys my own age, no matter if they were gauche or virgins. I would marry one eventually and stay married all my life and for that, I suppose, I have Simon to thank.

But there were other lessons Simon taught me that I regret learning. I learned not to trust people; I learned not to believe what they say but to watch what they do; I learned to suspect that anyone and everyone is capable of "living a lie". I came to believe that other people – even when you think you know them well – are ultimately unknowable. Learning all this was a good basis for my subsequent career as an interviewer, but not, I think, for life. It made me too wary, too cautious, too ungiving. I was damaged by my education.

carey_mulligan_and_peter_sarsgaard_an_education_movie_imageBy the way, these memoirs served as the material for the excellent British film, The Education. If you plan to watch the film,  you should watch the film first and read the essay later. If reading the essay makes you want to watch the film, too bad. (Carey Mulligan did an excellent job; she’s a marvelous actress; I saw her in the amazing Dr. Who episode Blink).

The essay explains one thing about the film which struck me as implausible: why would a man propose to a young girl when he was already married? I think every person’s romantic history must seem bizarre and implausible to random strangers  and a source of hilarity to people decades later.  Was it a joke? Was he really intending to divorce his wife? Was he just being sadistic? In the movie you  can’t just chalk it up to the character being a villain.

In the movie there is a horrifying discovery scene near the end which was a masterpiece of understatement.  Also, there were several set pieces in Paris, nightclubs, racetracks. (The film enjoys these little side adventures more than it needs to; alas, such is the nature of the cinematic medium).   Looking at Wikipedia, I see that the movie was inspired by an essay Barber wrote for Granta which appeared in her book An Education. Barber never intended to make it into a movie, but screenplay writer Nick Hornsby discovered the story and wrote a dazzling screenplay for it.  The result was excellent, but that avoids the obvious question: what medium would have the best one for telling this story?

The film has a sensuality and a single-minded focus on the affair (and incidental details arise from this primary plot). But Barber admits in the prose piece that she didn’t feel any great enthusiasm about the affair – and maybe having more enthusiasm for  the life lesson learned.  But the cinema genre focuses too much on the visual and sensual (even though the film ostensibly tries to warn against such seductions). It is fun to watch – to see the adults squirm, to see Miss Naiveté learn her lesson. But a prose version could convey some of the episodes with more detail and reflection. When we see the film, we are led to believe that the affair was catastrophic for her, but in the book it is just one episode on the road to knowledge. A prose version can convey longer conversations, intellectual banter, jokes and the emotions flowing her before, during and after the affair. It can also convey the interweaving of events. This woman was not just being romanced by an older man; she was reading Camus and studying her Latin and presumably gossiping with her female friends.

The act of writing is a conceit; very few would take the time to document their experiences. The decision to write about something means you are editing the narrative, selecting details which read well, focusing on narrative flow, throwing in a few tragicomic moments. When a person keeps a diary, it is possible to estimate the relative importance of an event by space devoted to it. But merely because you waste a lot of words on a topic doesn’t mean it’s that important. For example, I spend an awful lot of time blogging about climate change, Bush and yes –even blogging. But none of this is important (or it is not particularly important to me).  A reader would learn next to nothing about me by my blogging about climate change (except that I am tenacious, progressive and unafraid of arguments). Books are important to me….vitally important; yet I spend very little on my blog talking about books or authors or even literature. This may have to do with the casual nature of blogging; I don’t have casual remarks to make about literature; my remarks on literature  have to be profound or remarkable or witty or else I will not bother to speak about them here.

A blog is not a confessional; if I killed somebody or had my heart broken or felt unbelievable sorrow or joy about something, I would never mention it here. (I did mention the recent death of my dad, but that is a different story). The more words you spill on a web page, the more you avoid saying.  I do not consider myself an academic type, but the few times  that I write a long critical or research essay, I feel as though I have invested my heart and soul in getting it perfect. If I wrote an essay or memoir like Barber’s The Education, it would not and could not be chatty or casual.  On the other hand, I am not always serious; I love a good joke, a good TV show, a good meal. But would I blog about this?

Is it better to write about important feelings and events or unimportant ones? I remember a photograph from high school of an old high school girlfriend Susan E. She was a lovely girl  and lots of fun. The photograph I found recently was taken at Galveston beach. We are with her friends who are wearing bathing suits. Susan is laughing with her friends. It is a lovely moment in time – but unimportant to me except for the fact that it became a photograph. But one detail about the photo really stirs up nostalgia – my car! It is a 1979 Toyota Celica, imageand when I saw it again, it triggered lots of random memories – misadventures with friends,  Susan, family. Amazingly, I was walking on a Corpus Christi street and stumbled upon the same Celica model on the street. I don’t think the car was drivable – it was basically a billboard for some small business, but I felt an awe towards this icon for my past (even though I am not really a fan of cars anymore – the CO2 they emit are bringing the earth closer to a state of damnation!)

There are reasons not to like the  literary memoir; it doesn’t really involve the imagination, and it doesn’t really try to escape; all it tries to do is to be faithful to a person’s remembrance and insightful about it. All worthy goals, but structurally unsound: why base an art form on one person’s memory? Isn’t it an exercise in egotism? What if everyone did the same thing? Isn’t it better that most people keep their private thoughts and feelings to themselves? Would I like it if  my mom or sister were drafting memoirs about some family incidents involving me?  I know they would be kind and discreet, but what if I preferred these memories not to reach public ears? What if my high school sweetheart preferred not being a subject of a blogpost (Oops, I think I already did one).

Fiction, if you stop to think about it, is  amazing. You are just making things up – and adding characters and poetry.  The stories I write don’t normally fall too far outside my circle of experience, but I don’t feel the need to limit my writing to things I have direct experience with.  Recently, I have started writing fiction about places I have never been before: Venice, Chicago, Berlin. Obviously, I’d like to do more traveling (well, eco-friendly traveling!), but I rather enjoy trying to fake it. Could I write a story which could fool people into thinking I actually knew what I was talking about?

But actually writing fiction  isn’t something I can do all the time. Most of my writing is about more mundane things, and that is how it should be. If I wrote nothing but essays about literature, then I would be conveying the impression that literature is the only thing in my life. Of course it is important – probably the most important thing. But I don’t spend a lot of time pondering literature; I spend much more time contemplating life’s absurdities, the financial and professional challenges, the random things I think about on the bus,  random thoughts about politics. As it stands, now, my random observations about pop culture are going to Facebook more often than to this blog, but even so, a blog is a good way to capture the random reflections.   Every so often I like browsing through my archives – not so much to see instances of great essay writing or to find typos, but simply to remember what was going through my mind at a certain period of time.

In a Jack Matthews book I edited for publication, Matthews makes the point that instead of writing confessional diaries, authors need  a journal to keep track of artistic fragments which they later can pull into stories. Maybe for some authors, it is a good technique and I do a little bit of that – not much – but most of these are simply handwritten notes on random pieces of paper, keywords,  story outlines with significant details.

A blog fulfills a similar purpose. Not so much for recording story ideas, but for cataloguing articles and random observations about life. As much as I admire bloggers who blog daily or two or three times a day, many of these blogs would be practically unreadable 5 years later. Who cares about the transportation bill or some international scandal or predictions about who will win some election? The blog posts that will seem important 5 years later will be about birthdays, personal milestones, extreme weather, mild annoyances, etc.   A blog is most useful for cataloguing  minutiae of life and juxtaposing it with reflections like this one.

About the film 49 Up, I once wrote that the audience never finds out what is really going on in the interviewee’s life until the next episode filmed 7 years later. Apparently 7 years is a long enough time period for someone to talk about a life event with detachment and lack of shame or self-consciousness. Let me see, 7 years ago I was recovering from a nasty long distance relationship; after a long hiatus from fiction writing, I had finally  started publishing stories  under a pseudonym for a fiction project;  In Spring 2004 or so during a trip to Baltimore, I had conceived the idea for a major collection of stories (which I put aside for a while, but will pick up in the next few years).  I was bored at my job and dreaming about video projects. Yet if you looked at my blog, you would see that most of my posts were about audio recording, Thai emoticons, George W. Bush, referrer spam, lusting after a haircut and python programming.

I guess none of those posts were important aside from the fact that they marked time.

Update: Apparently Barber learned a awful lot about passion at Oxford.

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Advice to Literary Critics

Don’t read other critics before you write your review or criticism.

Why?

First, the essay becomes more  a reaction if not an embellishment upon what the other critics have said. In college I wrote a great essay about Allen Bloom’s polemic about academia, Closing of the American Mind. While preparing my  review, I read longer reviews in various publications, including a long great one by Martha Nussbaum in New York Review of Books. My final review was impressive and had interesting opinions and insights, but I’ll admit that the ideas weren’t entirely my own.  Guess what —  I can sound really smart paraphrasing and expanding upon the great things Martha Nussbaum said.

Second, when you write reviews, you have to invent ideas and opinions out of thin air. Sure, you will miss a lot, but you will also perceive things  other critics have missed. It is a myth to think that a critic has to notice and analyze everything. Far from it. Sometimes when you wing it, you only notice one or two things. But often that’s  good enough. Any piece of literary criticism is lucky to contain one original thought, so it’s important to stress originality.

Third, it’s remarkable how much your own thoughts are influenced by  another critic’s  judgment. Even if your  conclusions  can be differentiated from that of the earlier critic, you are still following the same wheel-paths of interpretation.  Often you end up swallowing  the implicit assumptions of literature that the first critic has made. Must a work reflect post-consumerist ambivalence? Embrace the new American Frontier or repudiate the Old World? Must a work hint at linguistic uncertainties? Change blindness and confirmation bias  affect not only  the social sciences but also the humanities. It is easy  to miss what is right in front of you because are implicitly following what other critics  have focused upon.   Reading other critics can help you advance more quickly in understanding. But that may not always be a good thing. My day job is technical writing, a field where I essentially play the village idiot and have to ask the dumb questions. Being stupid helps you to notice things which might be ignored by someone possessing advanced knowledge.

There is a down side to winging it; you are  wrong a lot more often. You can misunderstand things or fail to recognize references or parallels or even miss plot points. To be taken seriously as a critic, you have to recognize these things.  Or do you? When you miss references (in a work like Wasteland for example), you are forced to listen to the phrases and admire small portions without grasping the overall unity. Poetry is a different case; you can totally miss things.  No denying it:  understanding the message or meaning can definitely improve enjoyment.  But if you go into a literary work with no previous knowledge of secondary sources, you approach the literary work more blindly, but with more perceptiveness.

Modernism set expectations that great literary works have to be  unfathomable or esoteric.  We are taught that great literature requires patience and perseverance.  Sometimes this  is  true (especially in puzzle genres like poetry). But  the biggest challenge of literature is relevance and accessibility – especially with the great numbers of works coming out every day. To put it another way: a great work can have appeal both as high culture and low culture; the main complicating factor is that commercial interests magnify the visibility of anything with universal appeal  by dumbing it down even more. That is the nature of the beast, I guess.  Merely being accessible doesn’t make something great  (or else Gilligan’s Island would count as something more than it is).

The primary role of critics is not decoding but explaining technique and identifying significance and placing things in cultural context.  I recently reviewed a story collection by Augusto Monterroso. After reviewing it, I read the  terrific introductory essay about Monterroso  by Will H. Corral.  While I don’t think my review was off by much, Corral’s essay  explored lots of themes and literary ideas which my review only alluded to.  Reading it, I realize how much  I could have discussed in my review but did not.  At the same time, I am an American writer reading the book in 2012. Each essay has different aims. My review tries to judge the success of literary technique and  story structure; but then again, I am  a writer, and these formal questions interest me more.  By any standard, Corral’s  essay is better than my review. But the things I notice are still worth thinking about.

For almost  every major artist or work of art,  there are usually  two or three critical responses which tower over the rest; among academics these responses are referenced and rebutted or embraced regardless of what your opinion. These two or three responses become a frame of reference for everybody – but they also become a kind of intellectual sand trap.

To take an author I know well: Franz Kafka. Early criticism related his fiction to Jewish mysticism (Talmud, Martin Buber, Yiddish theatre, etc). Then came the anti-authoritarian existentialists a la Camus. Obviously, these are valid and relevant interpretations, but they are also conventional; compare to my favorite analysis by Elias Canetti in Kafka’s Other Trial who notes the parallels between The Trial and his on again/off again engagement with Felice Bauer. It’s an altogether idiosyncratic reading, but one I think which holds up well. Just yesterday I watched David Lean’s filmed version of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter.  In  the wiki article for the film, I learned about a reading of the film by critic  Francis Gray who  argues that the reason the main primary didn’t consummate their relationship was class consciousness – that lower class and upper class could dally in extramarital romance, but middle class adults could not.  That strikes me as a ludicrous way to view the film  and precisely the sort of claptrap to emerge from British critics in the 1940s and 1950s.  Gray wrote his analysis in the 1980s, but it seems  forced and derivative; I just don’t see class consciousness in the film (as  I might see it in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence or James Cameron’s Titanic).

The problem comes when one kind of analysis becomes popular, and suddenly every critic is doing it or at least acknowledging it in their own analysis.  In the middle of the 20th century, psychoanalytic criticism was popular, and suddenly Kafka criticism was littered with analysis of the sexual imagery. Interesting and occasionally insightful, but the analysis seems more imposed upon the work than complementary to it.  In the academy  scholars advance only if they have mastered and internalized paradigms prevalent at the time.  Unfortunately this makes criticism seem dated decades later.  I often read scholarly essays from past  decades and  am horrified at how offtrack  critic go.  Sometimes a school of analysis reveals a lot – and scholars feel that they need to align themselves with a certain analytic method to succeed. But these kinds of analysis often say more about the theory than the work itself.

Perceptive readers may note I am in fact criticizing two things:   first, people who read other criticism before writing their own analysis and second, people who use a literary theory or framework to analyze a work. Are these two criticisms  the same? I don’t think so, but the effect of both is that the aspiring critic changes the focus from the literary work to the tradition of literary criticism itself. When this happens, the critic loses the ability to respond authentically to the text and can only express appreciation in one way — while missing  things not relevant to a particular form of analysis. Criticism by definition is incomplete and peculiar to the individual. Those are good things;  I don’t want criticism to be comprehensive. Ultimately the bad thing about taking secondary sources too much into account when writing your essay/review  is that criticism becomes less personal and more objective and abstract. Criticism ought to be bold and biased and egotistical; it should not read like an encyclopedia.

Finally,  a personal detail. Over the last years I have gathered notes in preparation for a collection of essays about the fiction of  Jack Matthews. It is a great burden. As enthusiastic as I am about his works, I also lack the necessary detachment to write a fair book. What I see in a work may not be the same as what most people see.  My opinions may seem to these future hypothetical readers to be  poppycock. For future readers and scholars, my critical book may be an obstacle to understanding the fiction of Jack Matthews.  Paradoxically, the logical result of my exhortation  to avoid secondary criticism is that nobody should buy or  read my book of criticism.

Yet another way I  write myself out of existence.

 

Notes

Eventually I’ll get around to digitalizing this great essay about Allen Bloom I wrote. You’ll admire it (and I still have good feelings about it), but keep in mind that better minds than myself shaped its thoughts and organization. I just went along for the ride.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a critic, but just a person who sometimes dabbles in it.  I write essays when I feel that the subject needs to be addressed and a critical void needs to be filled.  (That’s partly why I plan to write a book about Jack Matthews – not because I consider myself a bona fide critic, but simply because I know that if I don’t do it, no one will do it for a very long time).

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complete-works-monteroso-original-1

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso (1995), UT Press (Austin). Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman, 150 pages.

Print Editions: Used copies are available for about $10

Book Page at UT Press site , Amazon.com page, Complete Review page , Author Wikipedia page ; Another review.

Summary: A great and hilarious sketchbook with smaller literary forms, but I wish that story subjects were treated more thoroughly.

Recommended if you like:  Borges,  Yourgrau, Calvino,  Kundera

Monterroso’s Complete Works and Other Stories contain two volumes of stories in  a single book. The stories are compressed, satirical and chiefly about bookish subjects. In some stories the style is frenetic and a series of jarring images and exclamations. Many of the stories seem essayistic; the second volume Perpetual Motion contains a series of short themes — some of which are not fictional at all. Most of the narratives are self-conscious; in the penultimate story Brevity the narrator says,

The truth is that the writer of short pieces wants nothing more in this world than to write long texts, interminably long texts in which the imagination does not have to work, in which facts, things, animals and men meet, seek each other out, exist, live together, love, or shed their blood freely without being subjected to the semicolon or the period." (From “Brevity”)

The final story "Errata and Final Notice" points out alleged errors earlier in the book, adding that the book ends on page 152, this "does not mean it could not also begin here in a backward motion as useless and irrational as the one undertaken by the reader to reach this point."

Clever stuff. My favorite story Leopoldo (His labors) describes a man who considers himself a writer and is regarded as one by friends and family, and yet does little of what may be called writing. Instead, he cogitates at great length about writing, goes through several drafts and spends months agonizing about whether a porcupine or dog should win in a fight in one of his stories.   Other story themes include: the vagaries of literary reputation and publishing world, the vanities of the artist  and the art appreciator, The title story Complete Works is about a timid critic who longingly hangs around other more distinguished critics until he discovers a narrow field of literary specialization which suffices to gain him entrance into the club.

Other stories cover general themes with characters to illustrate the points: the tallest man in the world, the wife of a ruler who likes to put on charity events involving poetry, a man who deals in shrunken heads, a jealous man. But most of the chapters are either simple little allegories or one paragraph observations about life and art. The book totals 150 pages, and yet it took a long time  for me to read. Almost all the pieces were delightful: short and elegantly told (and rendered by Edith Grossman). Yet I wonder if nonartists would find these pieces as enjoyable as I did.  One of the more successful pieces, Solemnity and Eccentricity, reads more like an essay than a story;  a group of artists proclaim a war against solemnity, and Monterroso reflects on the futility of such a campaign:

those who were not solemn (I hastened to place myself among those) laughed more than ever, wherever they were, pointing the finger at things and people.Those who thought themselves solemn declared with a forced smile that they were not, or at least were only when there was no need to be.

The rest of the piece reflects on solemnity, false solemnity and ultimately eccentricity, cataloguing historical accounts of eccentrics  over the the centuries.

Monterroso’s previous collection Black Sheep (which I have not read) tells simple fable-like tales about animals, and this book also displays the author’s talent in working within miniature forms.  Complete Works has many elements found in shorter fiction:  the fairy tale realism of Buzatti, the elegant impudence of Baudelaire, the promiscuous surrealism of Yourgrau, the absurdist obscurantism of Kafka and  the otherworldly pedanticism of Borges. At the same time, Monterroso’s pieces have a friendly conversational tone; they are  more down-to-earth,  lush with symbolism but not allegorical, more designed to enthrall with wit than to engage the imagination, more geared to social commentary than suggesting an aesthetic. Most of the pieces seem borderline  ridiculous –  but never implausible.

Microfiction can be hard to read, even for a remarkable  book like this.  As much as I enjoy the book’s  paradoxes and aphorisms, at the end, I found myself longing for longer pieces and a sustained perspective  at characters. This is not an impossible feat.  Kundera organized various essays and mini-episodes into sections  to simulate the effect of a novel’s spaciousness.    In Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald assembled  a series of short  imaginary incidents from the  the  life of a German writer poet  and produced a coherent narrative direction — even though every chapter was 1-3 pages long. I know: Different author, different ambitions, different styles. Monterroso’s extraordinary fiction is what it is, but for me they never rise above being impish sketches.  For the Perpetual Motion collection of stories (in the 2nd half of the book), "flies" are the  unifying motif –  but this association via literary quotes at the top of each story  didn’t help me or even make much sense. Out of all the characters, only one – Leopoldo the writer – stood out in my memory.  I can’t help wondering if such a memorable character could be enhanced with additional chapters.   This brilliant story provided an initial condition without necessarily adding a complication or a potential for change. Let me ask: would Don Quixote be  better if  it were only one chapter?

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You’re not supposed to read this!

To my astonishment and dismay, while looking at Google Reader I noticed on my  blog’s RSS feed an essay which I had not yet made live. Wow, how did that happen?

Frankly,  when I’m still working on a draft, things can look awfully ugly. By the time I click PUBLISH, I’ve gotten rid of most of the ugly bits, but a few still slip by.

So if you have already read the offending essay and told yourself – how dull! – please wipe that essay out of your mind and wait patiently. (Soon, I promise!).

The odd thing is, I do a lot of writing and reading and yet no time to blog. But don’t worry; things end up here eventually.

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Pondering Kellie Pickler

I’m sure this blog post will reveal my profound ignorance about pop culture. So bear with me.

Start by watching this hilarious video by a dumb-sounding blonde contestant on a TV game show called  “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”  I had seen it before, but I watched it again with delight.  image

After watching it, I asked myself, who is this blonde girl? Is she famous? Does she have a name?  And was this stupidity just an act or was she truly as ignorant about geography that the show portrayed?

Googling a little, I see she was an American Idol contestant.

She did a great and spunky American Idol audition here. I can’t really judge her musical talent, but she was pretty and had a strong and striking voice. It’s no surprise that she would make it to Hollywood – although it’s also no surprise that she wouldn’t win – these things are popularity contests anyway.

I’m not really a fan of  country music – although I can listen to it in small amounts. I guess my problem is not so much country music as the packaged country music which always sounds jingoistic, overproduced and bland.  The music videos are even worse. At least with rap, you had clever lyrics and visual puns. But given her North Carolina background, it’s no surprise that Pickler would be attracted to that genre.

Youtubing some more, I find this funny video – an interview with Ellen. It’s a  hilarious tale about fire ants on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Truly one of the most hilarious things  I’ve heard. She has this Southern &  unaffected way of talking as well as an ability to say outrageous things and pull it off as any Southern belle might. It’s fun to watch Ellen DeGeneres (a first class comedian of her own) just watch Pickler in amazement.  I checked some of her other Ellen appearances – and they are equally hilarious. I wonder, does she even prepare these talks or does she just wing it? First, there is this piece about getting a traffic ticket in California and another piece about getting stopped again by a cop for speeding and a strange Halloween appearance with crazy costumes and a  scare.  (Some other entertaining pieces on TV shows include an MTV awards  Red Carpet  stint she did for the Tonight Show and another Ellen appearance where she meets her idol Clint Eastwood.

These are great – and these are classic TV moments, and yet I realize that I barely had listened to her sing.  One of her most famous songs, I Wonder, was sung with tears at the CMA awards – a moving performance reminiscent of one of my alltime tear-jerkers, Jennifer Lopez’s  singing of Selena’s I could fall in love with you ). Reading through the notes, I discover that Pickler has a sad family history. The song was about her estrangement from her mother; apparently her father was an abusive criminal who drove her mother to run away and leave Kellie with her grandparents. Kellie’s mother had engaged in some small criminal activity herself, and after her father was put in prison, the mother returned to take custody again. That lasted for two years, after which both Kellie and her grandparents claim the mother was physically and verbally abusive. A court released her to the grandparents once again, resulting in a permanent estrangement between mother and daughter.

Now of course, Pickler is famous and probably rich, and so her biography probably becomes more of an issue than it would be for most people. Her mother (Cynthia Malone)  came forward and gave some interviews. In this news interview, she describes  the turbulent marriage:

She said her mother gave her an ultimatum.

"To have an abortion or leave,” Malone said.

So she left and married Clyde Pickler. She said it didn’t take long before she was being beaten again.

"It started with the alcohol, and then it went into other drugs, and the further along I got the worse it got,” she said. “In my pregnancy I was being hit. I about miscarried several times."

"I went to my baby shower with a busted lip and a black eye,” she said.

Malone claims many people were aware of the abuse but did nothing to stop it. She said when she realized her life was at risk, she had to go.

"When I thought I was going to be killed, I knew it was coming down to it was going to be me or him,” she said.

What was the worst thing that happened – the worst that you’ve felt?" Bryant asked.

“Leaving my baby, leaving my baby — that was the hardest decision I had to make,” Malone said.

(Here are two video clips here and here). On camera the mother seems like a level-headed woman. She seems like a genuine victim with remorse. At the same time, in an uncharacteristically angry TV interview, Kellie Pickler accuses her mother of lying, of doing a good acting job for the camera and warns her mother never to return to her again.  In fact, when Pickler gave a concert in Raleigh, NC, she had police officers at the concert  had photos of the mother to prevent her from making contact. (By the way, great job to the local TV journalists for such a balanced and sensitive portrayal of this human drama). The TV report makes clear that Kellie Pickler’s version of events is a lot more complicated than it first appears. The mother may have made bad decisions and had her problems, but for now it seems drowned out by the Pickler publicity machine. My hope is that they can have a  (private) reconciliation, and that Kellie can see her mother with different eyes later.

It is a great drama with many tragic dimensions. For the daughter, the pain is too real, and yet her fame brought her the power and independence to detach herself from it. She is using her music to work through the pain of growing up while at the same time exploiting it for her show business career.   All artists have a shtick, and I guess there’s dignity in trying to make your music or art about something real. (Country performers have that knack, it seems).

Celebrities have to create a personality brand, and I guess it’s better to turn yourself into a ditzy country belle than a victim of a Southern family trauma. Maybe some individuals prefer hiding their personality and focusing just  on performance or art; actually, that’s pretty easy to do if you’re not a megastar. But even some megastars like  Sheryl Crow, for example, doesn’t seem to have any colorful persona during her TV concerts or talk show appearances; she is there just to sing.  Maybe Crow  makes a few asides in between songs, but she’s not really  trying to weave a biographical narrative.  She doesn’t try to be funny; she just doesn’t need to. Sheryl Crow belongs to my personal pantheon of great singers, and her music videos have always been bold and expressive (though I suspect this is more a result of Crow’s publicity team than artistic muse).

But Pickler seems to have an insane need to be liked. She is  needy but funny. Her upbringing might account for it;  the need to be funny can mask all kinds of insecurities. Talk to any comedian on tour, and you’ll find someone with a drinking problem, a history of failed relationships and a caustic attitude towards life. Ok, I am generalizing, but this is true more often that we’d care to admit; what kind of person would try to make a living out of being funny – no matter how hard?  I once had a teacher who was the funniest and most clever person I’d ever met.  Her wit was on a par with Oscar Wilde. I got  to know her rather well; she had a very prominent and visible role in her community, but later I began to feel that her public eloquence was  a ruse to misdirect her audience from her actual personality. I actually had no idea what this woman was like inside. I had no idea if she were insecure or distraught or happy. Her wit was not only intimidating and distracting, it drowned out any kind of semi-ordinary conversation.

Actors are  like that, as are many writers. I find – if I want to — I can offer scintillating wit in conversation .. and at the same time say nothing of importance!   Even when I seem to be talking about myself or confessing something sincerely, most of it is  for entertainment purposes only. As much as I like to gab, I’ve also  learned to turn it off, or else it would drive people crazy…not to mention myself.  

Authentic conversation – what is it? Awkward pauses, long stretches of conversation, lots of uhhs and outright misunderstanding of the speaker’s true intentions until days or weeks later. What was the person saying? What were they really saying? Did I say the right thing? Or was it better just to respond spontaneously … no matter how awkward-sounding?  Two weeks ago a close friend told me a secret which stunned me. I just didn’t know what to say; it was a really important revelation – and even though we moved onto other subjects, the topic still loomed over the rest of our conversation.  She wasn’t a verbal person – but when she tried to articulate something, it was vital to pay attention.

Listen carefully – I’m serious! — the person who is making you laugh might be trying to avoid a full and unvarnished conversation. 

Verbiage can be interesting and revealing; they are nice ornaments to personality. I once read a book called “I Know You are Lying” by Mark McLish. McClish trained federal marshals in interviewing suspects.  McLish takes public statements of people in scandals (such as Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky) and calls attention to verbal tics which suggest subterfuge. For writers and readers, this is no  great surprise, and indeed that’s what we like about literature – the roundabout clues that are baked inside narratives.

The funny thing is,  Pickler strikes me as  an open and honest person. She doesn’t lie; she misdirects. Ok, sure she might exaggerate a few details in her stories (we all do that).   To have survived a broken household like that and  not to be worn  down by the relentless celebrity machine says something about her survival skills, her perseverance and her preternatural faith that things will turn out for the best. Sure, we can thank her grandparents for that, but I believe it also has to come within Pickler herself. We can say that good looks explains her success, and that may be true; on the other hand,  we could also say that good looks can make you more cynical about all kinds of human relationships. Everyone wants to sleep with you or envies your popularity. 

Pickler doesn’t strike me as cynical. Cynicism is a disease which affects mainly teenagers, the retired, and criminals. If you are 30 or 40, you are too busy to be cynical about anything.  I’m always cynical after long bouts of unemployment, but once I find a job again, voila! that cynicism is gone.  Even when in pain and desperate circumstances, most   people don’t become cynical; they still  remember how great life used to be; that’s the kind of life they still long for.  The longing to recapture a pleasant life can often be the best antidote against cynicism (even if recapturing it turns out to be impossible).

Cynicism is what happens when you feel betrayed by someone. Betrayal doesn’t just mean “cheating” or “lying.” You feel betrayed when what has been implicitly  promised to you never materializes or  when someone  you counted upon has failed to come through.  By that definition, I guess we can say that Pickler has the perfect right to be doubly-cynical (because she has been twice-betrayed).  She may  still be at the stage where the pain is still too close; this pain can interfere with the empathy that would come naturally to someone so kind-hearted.  She has spoken publicly about forgiveness, and maybe she has reached this point; regardless she has already found  a lot of caring people to restore this trust. I’m sure she will pour this kindness into all kinds of charities.

Talk show ditziness is fine  (for a while at least), but eventually Pickler will find that making people laugh is less important than making them care and helping them to resist  the terrible sting of cynicism.

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Brief Book Reviews 1

Here are some abbreviated book reviews. (The brevity neither reflects on the quality but simply on my inclination to write a thorough review at the time). See also: my index of book reviews which I recently started.

cover-dog-small What Philosophy Can Tell You about Your Dog. By Steven D. Hales. A fun and erudite anthology of essays about pets by philosophy teachers. The essays vary in quality, but all are provocative and raise philosophical issues about animals. I’m guessing it was used for class readings in a philosophy class, but intellectually-minded pet owners would find it an enjoyable read as well. Note that there is a “sequel”  What Philosophy Can Tell You about Your Cat. which probably are just essays on additional related topics.  Note: I plan to write an essay titled, “Can dogs appreciate Beethoven?”
cover-hair There’s a Hair in My Dirt by Gary Larson. Mischievous and macabre children’s book told by a father worm to his family. The beautifully illustrated images are hilarious, and the story elegantly debunks a prettified view of nature. My 7 year old nephew loved the book, and so did an 11 year old niece who understand what the book was really about. As an adult I could enjoy it on many levels as well.
cover-99ways-reduced 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden depicts how the same short scene could be told using comic book form in 99 different ways. A creative exercise, and it really gets you thinking about the different ways comic book artists convey narrative. Scott McCloud would approve.
cover-nasty-book-resized Nasty  Book  by Barry Yourgrau contains more surreal short stories which are geared for younger (male) readers with a definite Charles Addams humor.  I raved about another Yourgrau collection, Man Jumps Out of an Airplane which were stylistically elegant and compressed and intended for adult readers. Nasty Book (and its sequel Nasty Book 2) have that same unexpected surreal humor, but with more conventional stock characters (delivering pizzas to vampires, etc) and conventional narrative. I don’t fault Yourgrau for trying to tone down the compression of his prose pieces; he instinctively knows the psyche of the impatient 12 year old reader.
image The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the revised 2nd edition of her book about promotion. I’m only midway through, but the book is comprehensive in suggesting lots of ways to promote your book (and by book, I think she means “literary work”). Those in  publishing world know her as the “woman who runs that weekly  book promotion mailing list” (which I highly recommend).  I suspect that Ms. Howard-Johnson hasn’t really covered how to promote ebooks too thoroughly (wait for the next edition!), and some  the specific tips could easily expire or be no longer valid in this fast-moving market,  but there are so many tips here that it’s still worth reading and savoring. BTW, one of her novels has been on my To Read list forever.
cover-big-book Big Book of Hell by Matt Groening gathers some large panel comic strips he did in the 1980s (i.e., before Groening became an institution). Occasionally the humor is off, but the juvenile minimalist jokes provide lots of premonitions of later works such as the Simpsons.
image Small Key Opens Big Doors (50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories) is an amazing read for the Peace Corps volunteer or just the international reader. By the way, my essay The Art of Losing Things appears in it.
cover-best-books John T. Gillespie edits a series of  indispensable book guides for librarians and parents.  Each volume is about 1000 pages and consists of an annotated list of books for that age group divided into about 50 different categories (Biological sciences, Plays, Fiction: Contemporary Lives and Problems).  Each annotation is only a sentence or two, and unfortunately he limits the selections to those which seem to be in print, but still this is a useful guide for students and adults.  The most recent edition of each volume costs about 60+ dollars, but the previous edition sells for 2 dollars or less –- and has most of the same content! Content for each volume overlaps, and many of the titles sound similar (though they may specify an age range or grade level).  This reference guide is a great starting point for exploring rare and out-of-print books on Amazon and Half.com My only regret is that the book doesn’t list award winners or attempt to single out notable works in each genre.  I would have loved to see a hand-picked collection of fave titles; that would be a read! (Allison Lurie comes close with her literary criticism about children’s lit: see Don’t Tell the Grown Ups, and Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter).
adventures Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman is a fat book detailing lots of practical experiences working for Hollywood in the 1980s. Please appreciate the fact that the practical tips are mostly obsolete. The book  is useful mainly for entertainment value (it’s hilarious) and detailing the everchanging relationship between director and actor and writer.  This book is hailed as a classic by screenwriters (and perhaps it is), but it’s less useful than illustrative of the various quandaries which writers find themselves in.
image Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python by Al Sweigart is a creative commons guide to programming which is intended for the younger reader. This highly readable book explains things well, gives good learning examples and helps the reader develop several games ranging from easy to hard. After about page 300, the author introduces you to Pygame, which by then seems like a breeze.  You can read the entire book for free online or download the free PDF.
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Be Gone, Blog! (Oh, Wait…)

I’ve been blogging for over 10 1/2 years (actually 11 1/2 if you count the pseudonymous Diaryland blog I kept for about a year). But now it’s time to say goodbye.  I’m just too beat to do it anymore. My life, priorities,  etc. (fill in the blank here).   Now I need to focus  on my family /health /book/startup/dog/mental sanity, so that is why I am saying my final goodbyes to the blogosphere and my millions thousands dozens of readers. It’s been good knowing you. Goodbye forever.

Just kidding of course.  You don’t ever stop blogging – something I always remember when I see some blogger attempting to hang up his boxing gloves for good. Wait 6 months, and he’ll be back. Maybe not as ferociously as before, but it’s hard to walk away for good. The problem comes when a blogger stumbles upon an audience and feels the pressure to keep blogging even at the expense of other activities. I remember reading Cameron Barrett’s now defunct blog and always thinking that Cameron never seemed to go out of his way to blog. Maybe one or two things a week – and sometimes a rant – but it was always low impact blogging – and at the time of my life when I was reading it, it was perfect. He was about 2-3 years ahead of me in technical skills and shared many interests. (We even ran into one another twice at SXSW – and I can report, that both encounters were utterly unremarkable for the both of us).

Cameron has actually stopped blogging in 2008  (and he’d been doing it since 1997 – always a few years ahead of me, that bastard!)  He hasn’t tried to do it again – but he has definitely become more family-oriented since that time. (Oddly, the only posts I remember are his audition for the Price is Right and his marriage proposal via scrabble board) But I see he has gone onto Facebook, started a blog for his daughter and stayed in the field of usability – so I suspect he’s on several mailing lists. In other  words, not a dead pup – not yet at least.

I have to admit that I enjoy the feeling of letting my blog go dormant for weeks or even months. Then Wham! Shazzam! Gadzoop!  10 quick posts in succession. Hey, that’s what blogging is about, baby – and only those who follow  RSS feeds closely enough ever know what is going on. Even  during blog hibernation,  I am  writing things which eventually will end up on my blog. Also — strange as I sounds, even during my busiest days I am regularly updating  old posts such as this one.

When a blogger calls it quits (especially if it is a young female blogger), there will be a veritable outpouring of panic/appreciation/sorrow from lurkers who suddenly materialize in the comment section. Of course, middle-aged D-list bloggers not affiliated with universities or exciting startups are easy to overlook, but then again, obscurity is positively delicious, and I continue to savor it – that is really the point.

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Housekeeping notes

Regular visitors may have noticed that my blogging has slackened off over the last year.  Several reasons account for this, most of which I will not discuss here. Suffice to say that my work schedule and personal obligations make this impossible at the moment. All is not lost though.  First, I still post 4 or 5 links on Facebook each week, with commentary.  Feel free to friend me or subscribe to my updates (note: they are mainly about climate change). I have been working on several long essays which will make it to  this blog eventually. I type them on my ipad on the bus over several days or weeks, and I haven’t had time to transfer them over to here.

For the time being, here are some excellent blogs which I check regularly.

  • The Story’s Story. Jake Seliger is an academic who writes often about literature and publishing.
  • The Black Sheep Dances, a good book review blog, with some emphasis on European literature.
  • Washington Monthly and Reality Chex, 2 good liberal blogs about current events. The commenters on Washington Monthly are crude and hilarious.  I follow the thinkprogress site pretty closely as well.
  • Chamber Four, Books Blog and HTML Giant. All three have excellent book reviews. Sometimes Critical Mass has good articles and reviews, but they also publish a lot of miscellaneous crap having to do  with the National Book Awards.  (They recently had a good series about comic fiction).
  • Philosopher’s Stone  (retired left-wing philosophy professor) and    the Non Sequitur, a blog that analyzes political fallacies by 2 philosophy profs.
  • The House Next Door/Slant Magazine (group cultural blog with emphasis  on film) and Mumpsimus (Matt Cheney, lit critic, sci fi, film, African culture, etc).
  • Interestingly I have been reading Slate fairly often on my ipad and loving it. Also, love the fact that I read  copies of the New Yorker on my Nook device. (Subscriptions are quite  low at $3 a month – but this is available only on Nook devices, and not on Nook software on the ipad for example).
  • Finally, a recommendation for Mr. Reader, a great ipad RSS reader that actually does what it’s supposed to do.  Also, I subscribe by email  to Long Reads,  a compilation of well-written long articles. Mainly from the usual suspects (New Yorker, Rolling Stone, etc), but some surprises as well.  Long Reads works great in conjunction with Instapaper ipad app in storing longer articles for easy offline reading.

Also, you may have noticed that I now include an Book/Ebook Review link at the top. For the next year or two I plan to review books a lot more often than before. I’ll try in particular to sort through the indie authors now publishing.  I won’t have time to write a lot of reviews, but I want to make it easier for people to learn which ebooks are wowwing me at the moment.  I also  follow the ebooks being given away at the librarything member giveaway section (not super high quality, but I’ll mention it here if anything jumps out). Finally, I follow the #eprdctn hashtag on twitter pretty religiously,although mainly as a lurker.

Even though I have been blogging rarely, I have been reading a LOT and writing a good bit too. Just not here (not yet anyway).

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Highly Recommended Fiction Books

This list compiles my favorite literary titles I’ve read since 2005.   This repeats my capsule review/synopses that I write for my Reading/Writing chronologies (see link at top). I’ll update this list over time, with my most recent recommendations appearing at the bottom. See also my list of favorite novels and a list of writers who have influenced me. In 2011, I started writing book reviews on a regular basis … albeit slowly (here’s a list).

Restless Nights by Dino Buzzati. Italian allegorical writer. Light-hearted brief tales with deeper darker overtones. Update: This book is not only the best thing I’ve read all year, but the best thing I’ve read in 5 years. Good luck finding this rare and amazing book. See also his other collection: The Siren and other Stories

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. Great explanation of why the novel genre is relevant in the 21st century. Jane Smiley writes not with scholarly rigor but an artisan’s practical eye. Nonetheless, she indicates a historical awareness of what her predecessors have done with the novel and what the novel is capable of. Her short essays about 100 novels are nothing special (though they are interesting to browse through).

Fat City by Leonard Gartner. Classic hard-boiled California novel about down-and-out-boxers. Recommended by Neil Pollack and ultimately Denis Johnson–see this article) . Stylistically speaking, the taut sentences remind me of either Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. But stories about boxers–ugh! Can’t someone declare a moratorium? Update: Although the ending left me hanging, the writing was sad, compelling and taut. Each paragraph was a work of art, and I like how the book transcends the idiotic genre of boxing. It is about love, failed relationships and disappointed dreams. Favorite scenes: picking the onions, Billy Tully’s return to his ex-wife (how heart-breaking). As I finish, I just don’t know what to make of it, except to appreciate where it took me, what I saw.

Tales from Ovid, tr. by Ted Hughes. Compelling rendering of the Metamorphasis by a great poet. Unfortunately incomplete translation, these poems bring ancient legends to life. Update: An extraordinary retelling that has whetted my appetite for Ovid.

Other Hand Clapping by Marco Vassi. Spiritual/erotic journey by erotic writer Marco Vassi. Taut masterpiece about meditation, introspection and jealousy. Compare to Moravia’s Contempt. (I’m writing a critical essay about Vassi, so I’m reading a lot by him at the moment).

Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, by Chris Crawford. Videogame designer Chris Crawford imagines an immersive videogame for telling stories and speculates how it might be constructed (from a programming point of view). A fascinating work; he’s clearly thought about this subject for a while. I have no doubt that some 15 year old somewhere will pick up this book and write a literary/gaming engine incorporating Crawford’s algorithms that will transform the world.

I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Allitt. Fun personal account by a distinguished history professor about teaching a one semester class. Loaded with insights, anecdotes and suggestions. Things I found intriguing: his total disregard for personal problems of students when accepting excuses (students need to be responsible for their actions, he says), his analysis of why student papers are so poorly constructed (there are many reasons, but it has a lot to do with writing not for a general audience but for the teacher ), why plagiarism is harmful (it prevents the teacher from seeing into the students’ mind). What struck me was how keenly Allitt perceived gaps in understanding and how much material they could digest for a semester class.

America by Alistaire Cooke. Famed Brit writes an engrossing panoramic history lesson for the general reader. Cooke has a jaunty first person style and an eye for unusual details. I listened to his Letter from America for years and was afraid his writing on the page would pale by comparison. Happily, I report this not to be the case.

How to Live on 24 hours a day. Arnold Bennett. Short essay about maximizing the use of your time. Absolutely relevant to this day and age. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/24hrs11.txt

Red China Blues, by Jan Wong. Amazing 1st person account of a Canadian-Chinese who studied in China during the Cultural Revolution and who revisited China over the decades. Wong is a great writer and dramatically shows how living in China both brainwashed her and made her skeptical about politics. Here’s an interview with her about Tiananmen Square for a pbs documentary http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/interviews/wong.html

Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. Remarkable and romantic novel that is philosophical, whimsical, light-hearted, humorous and yes, joyful. Compare to Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje. Extended thoughts by Murch on various film projects. Great anecdote about how he reedited Welles’ Touch of Evil to conform with Welles’ original instructions. Update: This book just gets better and better. I’m now calling it one of the most important essays on art and creativity I’ve found. See also: In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch.

An Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (free, on my ereader). This long book, raved about by Martin-Seymour Smith, is easy to get into and seems to be more of a character study than a plotted novel. (I just started). It’s a bit slow going, although I appreciate Bennett’s fascination with ordinary people and ordinary lives. This is a long book, so I’ll be staying with it a while. Update: This is now one of my alltime favorite books.

A Rebellious Heroine, John Kendrick Bangs. Free download, metafictional comedy. Looks cerebral and light-hearted. And funny. (Upon finishing) I am feeling very positive about what’s going on ontologically here, although the conceit is somewhat cute.

Six Records of a Floating Life (Penguin Classics)by Shen Fu. Short novella/autobiography about an official and his wife. Besides giving an excellent glimpse into aspects of Chinese culture (flower arrangement, filial piety and mythologies), this story is fascinating and lovely to read. At times the story is sad, but you appreciate the ability to go into the world of 18th century China.

Lucian, Satires. A series of Voltairian parodies and sketches. Hilarious.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. Terrific.

Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (highly recommended). Update: This book turned out to be the most enjoyable thing I’ve read this year. A picaresque tale of a young Chinese monk wishing to travel to the US to locate some mythical Buddhist scripture. I laughed and laughed some more.  I didn’t realize this until after reading, but the book is an homage to Journey to the West.

Three Comrades, by Eric Remarque.  Tale of three buddies (who fought together in WW1) mess around, sell cars (in 1936!), deal with growing old, go on dates. It’s easy to forget in Germany between WW2 that normal living went on. See my essay about the book.  Highly recommended.

How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain De Botton. Idiosyncratic light-hearted biography of Proust’s life. Best read of the year.

The Curtain by Milan Kundera. Outstanding collection of meditations about the novel and its place in history. I loved every page! Highly recommended.

Travels with Lisbeth. by Lars Eighner. Classic tale about being homeless in Texas. I’m enjoying this work a lot, but there’s really nothing typical about his homeless story.  One conceit of the memoir is why such an eloquent person would be roaming the streets, but if you forget about that for a moment, you can appreciate Lars Eighner’s insights into life from the point of view of a down-and-outer. Highly recommended.

Contempt by Alberto Moravia. Second time reading.  This is one of the most psychologically absorbing novel I’ve ever read. It is sad and tragic,  though Moravia has all sorts of insights into relationships and the human heart. It’s funny; I’ve read some other mediocre stuff by Moravia and didn’t expect much here. Oddly, I wasn’t particular enamored by the film when I first saw it (before reading the book). Now that I’ve read the book, I’m tempted to watch it again for curiosity’s sake.  Highly recommended.

Writing in the Dark. Essays by David Grossman. This Israeli writer writes about morality and art with the seriousness of a Camus and the introspection of Proust. Highly recommended.

Eureka Street by Robert McLaim Wilson. Really terrific social novel about living in Belfast during the political turbulence of the 1990s. In many ways this is a perfect novel. Lots of subplots and reprises and characters.  I’ll be honest; I haven’t been really  interested in the internecine squabblings of  Belfast, but this book made me care about it.  This is a rough bawdy novel with lots of skirmishes, outbursts, silliness and even introspection. Someone compared it to Bonfire of the Vanities or the Corrections; never having read that, I don’t know how apt this comparison is, but I enjoyed being surprised by new characters and situations. The central character is a  boorish fellow who is utterly sick of the political nonsense swirling about him; in a way he just lets everything slide over him without caring.  By the end, we learn that he has turned into an assertive and active character has started to care  (and so do we the readers)    Highly recommended.

Great Voyeur: observations on my sexual history. By MC Radiance. Comic tell-all about a young man’s sexual history. Free & Creative Commmons. This book is both funny and light-hearted and a delight to read (so far). The mulitalented MC Radiance has published a number of fast-paced, imaginative and sexually explicit books on Feedbooks. A critic compared him to Tom Robbins; I would add Garcia Marquez, Salmon Rushie and Terry Southern. I haven’t read enough to know if there is any depth or great themes, but so far it reads very well.

Fiction of Jack Matthews. I’ve been reading a lot of Jack Matthews, and the works are uniformly excellent (and my ebook publishing company is publishing some of his titles).  Among my faves: Sassafras. Comic epic tale about a phrenologist in 19th century America. This comic & philosophical tale is like the American Candide.  Gambler’s Nephew, A highly readable and historically accurate  story about how  an accidental killing of a slave in 19th century USA affects various families and communities.  A old-fashioned yarn told with cunning and irony.  Hanger Stout, Awake, tale of a happy-go-lucky high school student who finds himself the victim of a con job. Crazy Women. Short story collection where a different kind of crazy woman (to use the term loosely) appears in each story.  (All the short stories are great though). Booking in the Heartland, wonderful essays about the art of book collecting, plus some investigations into some “found books” with delicious histories.  See this interview I did with Matthews.

Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.

Zombification: Stories from National Public Radio by Andrei Codrescu. Highly recommended.

Man Jumps out of an Airplane. Stories by Barry Yourgran. Highly recommended. My Review.

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imageA Man Jumps Out of an Airplane by Barry Yourgrau (1999)

Print Editions:  Used copies are available for less than $5.

Ebook Editions: Amazon, BN (less than $4)

Arcade Publishing,   Author Website.

Summary:  Spellbinding flash fiction which is silly/fantastic/profound – take your pick.

Rating: 5 Stars.

Recommended if you like:  Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, David Byrne,  Erotica Flash  Fiction,  Rene Magritte art

This collection of short prose pieces (each about a page long) depict seemingly ordinary situations where fantastically absurd things happen.  They seem less like   like stories than  cosmic jokes or  Zen fairy tales for Americans. Each prose piece offers surprises and revelations. (“A man comes home and finds his wife in bed with a squirrel”, “A couple of girls are locked up in a big aquarium,” “I have the last pack of cigarettes in the world; but no matches.”) The characters themselves are less interesting than their situations; one page is enough for them to  fall in love or meet imaginary creatures or feel some grand feeling. A lot of the prose pieces are sexually explicit but strange (in one a man finds a map of Greenland on the inside of a girl’s thigh). The prose style is compact  and exquisite and  easy to read  (and suitable for being performed publicly).   Now that I’m finished,   almost none of the pieces have stuck in my head; all I retain is the memory of being dazzled by a rapid series of  unreal  images and events.  On the bright side, I probably could reread these pieces and enjoy them just as much as the first time.

What is the aim of these koan-like stories? Should the reader notice the allegorical resonances or  simply enjoy Yourgrau’s marvelous and whimsical sense of the absurd?   With Kafka or Buzzati, the initial situation may have been absurd (i.e., turning into a cockroach), but  the author spent considerable effort expanding on the idea and giving it an air of plausibility.  But Yourgrau’s stories are more playful than plausible.   I am unsure whether to call this a profound literary work — you can’t have real character development or serious drama in a form so compact and whimsical.  These kinds of stories don’t NEED to be profound — especially when the far-fetched imagery is so metaphorical.  In the Soupbone story, the protagonist jumps out of  an airplane while emptying a shoebox of letters from his old love; to his surprise he finds a falling dog also in midair helplessly trying to chase after a bone.  Why a dog? Why a soupbone? Part of the fun of these stories is trying to relate the imagery  to some universal feeling of dismay or anomie – if that is even possible.   The stories grab and intrigue me, but they don’t really move me; that is not the point.  Yourgrau  has written sequels to this collection using this same innovative short form: Sadness of Sex (about sex) and the NastyBook (geared towards younger readers).   This form breaks   all rules and takes advantage of today’s reader’s short attention span and the magical possibilities of prose. Highly recommended.

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