Now my jaw is sore too

Been experiencing major soreness and tightness of the jawbone. It’s possible this is what is causing my ear pain. I have a dental appointment next Friday. I think this is the first time that major physical discomfort has coincided, in such a dramatic way, with an extremely positive mood. I’m sleeping terribly and every day I experience minor to moderate pain, but I am also pretty happy. It’s unaccountable.

I finished reading So Tough To Tame. It was actually pretty compelling. There are a lot of these YA romances too, actually. Maybe I should read one of those. I mean, when I say YA romance, I’m thinking ‘pure’ romance, rather than YA novel with a romance subplot. For instance I’d say that The Fault In Our Stars was a romance. Actually, the first novel that my agent sent out for me, This Beautiful Fever, was also something of a romance, but not really, because it didn’t have a happy ending. That’s the key component in a romance. The happy ending. Without it, you’ve just got, well, two mismatched people who don’t end up together. And no one wants to read that, because that’s just the reality of day to day life on this earth.

Anyway, I’ve started reading For Whom The Bell Tolls. I like Hemingway, okay. I wish he had fewer war novels, though. I loved The Sun Also Rises. I don’t see why more of his books couldn’t have been just about chilling in Paris and shit. But anyway, I’m reading this. It’s an odd experience. The dialogue is so stilted. I think it’s that way on purpose? He’s trying to convey some of the rhythms of Spanish? I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s working.

(Basically, I started reading the book because it’s discounted to $1.99 on Amazon).51frUNw6i9L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX278_SY278_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_

In which I write about the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy

            I finally read the Hunger Games. I started reading it and then, three hours later, I was done. I read it because I love Woody Harrelson. When I heard that he was the drunken mentor in the HG movie, I was like, “I really want to see that.” Normally, I don’t particularly care about reading the book before I watch the movie, but in this case, I decided to. It was pretty enjoyable, but I’m not too sure about whether I’m going to read the next few books. (Hey, umm, some HG spoilers are gonna follow, so beware).

The book is about a teenage girl who’s dispatched to fight to the death on television for the entertainment of an audience of jaded sybarites (in a futuristic dystopia, of course). It has hints of Rollerball, Battle Royale, The Running Man and “The Most Dangerous Game”.  The only innovation of the novel is that the protagonist realizes that she needs to have the audience’s good will in order to survive. This is because the audience is able to dispatch gifts to help their chosen kid, and those gifts can (and do) mean the difference between winning and dying.

However, because this contest has a sort of reality show flavor, what really matters is building some kind of credible storyline. A kid needs to feel like flesh and blood; someone the audience can empathize with and root for. In order to this, the protagonist of the Hunger Games (whose name is Katniss) fakes that she is falling in love with one of her fellow contestants Peeta. While she’s running around killing other kids in a series of moderately gripping action sequences, she also learns how to inhabit her role as a starstruck lover (which is made much more poignant by the fact that she might possibly have to kill her ‘lover’ in order to win the game). I thought this was a neat conceit. It sort of came out of nowhere about a third of the way into the book, and it slowly grew to dominate the whole story. This whole reality show / playacting part of the story was by far its best part.

And I don’t really trust any of the other novels to have good parts that are as good. I mean, the author can’t use this reality show conceit again, right? And even if she did, it wouldn’t really be fresh. I don’t know why I am so suspicious of a series whose first entry I enjoyed so much, but I think what it comes down to is that I just don’t trust Suzanne Collins enough. Pretty much every series starts out with a few good ideas and then slowly exhausts them until eventually the later books of the series turn into pitiful self-parodies. When a series starts out with one good idea, it becomes really hard for me to believe that there is a lot more stuff lying underneath.

On a side note, my problems with the book were exactly the same as everyone else’s problems. Collins manipulates the situations in this book to exculpate her heroine of any of the moral guilt from killing a bunch of other kids. The other kids are either psychopaths or they get killed by the psychopaths. Katniss’ hands remain clean. To me, that seems like a waste. If you have a book where innocent kids are forced fight each other to the death…then some innocent kids ought to actually fight each other to the death!

As a writer, I do kind of understand why Collins did that, though. The audience for stories with moral complexity is a lot smaller than the audience for stories without moral complexity. Even a lot of the series that people claim have a lot of moral complexity are actually just standard Good-and-Evil narratives dressed up in gray clothing. A prime example of this is A Song Of Ice And Fire. People claim that this series is very dark and gritty, but actually, from book one, you know who the heroes are and who the villains are. Sure, some of the villains turn out to be likeable and some of the heroes turn out to be stupid, but very little occurs to make you question the original good/bad classifications.

Even in my own stories, I sometimes step back and am like, “Whoah, no one is going to like this main character” and then I change around some stuff to make him/her more likeable. Because that’s what people want.

This reminds me of the section in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway criticizes Fitzgerald for altering his stories to make them more saleable:

I thought of [F. Scott Fitzgerald] as a much older writer. I thought he wrote Saturday Evening Post stories that had been readable three years before, but I never thought of him as a serious writer. He had told me at the Closerie des Lilas how he wrote what he thought were good stories, and which really were good stories for the Post, and then changed them for submission, knowing exactly how he must make the twists that made them into saleable magazine stories. I had been shocked at this and I said I thought it was whoring.

When I read this passage, I was shocked. Since Fitzgerald’s stories are pretty sublime, I wondered what in hell it was that he was changing in them? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe if I read the unchanged stories, I wouldn’t like them very much.

Midnight in Paris was fun but trite

I just finished watching Midnight In Paris. Of course, I loved it. How could any lover of A Moveable Feast or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas or the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald fail to love this movie? Watching a witty, diffident young man from the modern day pal around with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and Dali and Picasso makes me as happy as a musician biopic must make a music fan, or a based-on-a-real-story sports film must make a sports fan.

However, there was also something kind of trite about the film. In the movie, a thirtysomething screenwriter (a self-described “Hollywood hack”) is visiting Paris with his fiancé. He fights with her during the day (she does not share his ardor for Paris and evinces no interest in his novel-in-progress), and he spends his nights travelling back in time and experiencing 1920s Paris with his literary idols (mostly an incredibly pretentious Hemingway).

The story is basically about how the protagonist, Gil Prender, doesn’t really believe in himself. He’s not sure whether his writing is good. He’s not sure he has what it takes to be a novelist. He came to Paris in his twenties in order to write, but he didn’t trust himself enough to stay. He left, he sold out, and he’s regretted it ever since. I don’t think it can be much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the movie, he rediscovers his confidence in himself.

Now, I won’t say that it’s not important to believe in oneself. Few artists are able to work without a tremendous amount of audacity. But…that audacity is about continuing to work, despite everything and everyone telling you that you should quit. It’s hardly a triumph of audacity when a magical taxi takes you back into the past, and all of your literary heroes befriend you and give you peptalks on what it means to be an artist, and Gertrude Stein and Hemingway read your novel and tell you that you’re awesome.

You’d have to be a huge fool to not stay in Paris and take a serious shot at novel-writing after the universe reorders the fabric of space and time just so you can receive a boost to your literary pretensions.

That’s why this movie is trite. It’s not a real story, it’s a daydream. Oh, of course, Gil comes away from it with some weird lesson about nostalgia and how people should look forward and live in the present and not always be idealizing the past. But that’s dumb. That’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about a man who’s settling for a career he doesn’t want, just because it pays well. It’s about a man who’s settling for a wife he doesn’t love, just because she’s beautiful. And the movie’s answer to these conundrums is for the universe to provide Gil with pretty substantial evidence that he can get any woman he wants and that his writing is spell-binding.

To me, that’s not an interesting story. I’d prefer to watch the opposite of this, a story that has all the fun caricatures of 1920s lions, but none of the bits where those lions repeatedly assure the Woody Allen stand-in that he’s definitely one of them. I’d like to watch a movie about a man who goes back and finds that his (in real life, astonishingly cruel) literary idols think he’s a bore and a fool. I’d like to watch a story about a man who hands his novel to Gertrude Stein and gets told that he has no talent. What does that man do? Does he switch careers? Does he dump his beautiful fiancé?

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.

TO BE CONTINUED!