That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

Posts Tagged ‘books’

Life is not a paragraph, and death is no parenthesis.

Posted by kozemp on March 30, 2015

When I was growing up, my father, like I assume all fathers, taught me a lot of rules. Though I have internalized a lot of them over the years, there are a few that I still carry to this day word for word, and that I imagine I probably will my entire life.

Bear in mind that all of these were offered as broadly-applicable life lessons of extreme, and roughly similar, importance. They are, in the order that I remember being taught them in:

1) Once you start a book you have to give it 50 pages.

2) Be careful, for the Nine are abroad.

3) Never sit with your back to a door.

4) Never draw to an inside straight.

It is worth noting that I read Lord of the Rings at 8 and learned poker at 13, so you can do your own math and draw your own conclusions, there.

The one that I found myself thinking of today was the oldest: the 50 Pages Rule. This one has actually served me in good stead, for the most part. If the opening of a book is a little wobbly, and you aren’t sure about it, if it hasn’t really done anything for you by page 50 the odds are the rest of it isn’t going to do much for you either. While I’m certain there are exceptions – the 50 Pages Rule is why I haven’t read Anathem – the rule nicely dovetails with some of the guidance I’ve come up with for myself later in life. I’ve said time and again that I don’t have time to watch/read anything that isn’t awesome, and that is really just the spirit of the 50 Pages Rule blown out a little: don’t give a so-so book more than 50 pages because that’s time you could spend reading something better.

I am a big fan of the 50 Pages Rule. I evangelize it as much as anything. It works for me. Likely it will work for you. Try it and see how it goes.

The upshot of this is that there are times when the Rule actively protects you from doing harm to your precious brain cells (and, more importantly, me from doing harm to mine).

I once dated a woman who really liked the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. In an attempt to bring us closer together (which is the point of dating, after all) I made an effort to engage with and read the things she liked. I started out by one day picking up her copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Interlude, because internet people seem to find my conversations with my father hilarious:

A few years after the events I am about to describe, I saw the American film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Through a strange alchemy of circumstances involving midwestern travel and me obsessing about a woman I met at a party, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was one of the incredibly rare modern movies that my father saw before I did.

After I finally saw it, I called him up (he was, at the time, once again in the Midwest) and asked him what he thought about it.

He said, “I really liked it.”

I said, “yeah, I did too, for the most part. It was really interesting seeing Daniel Craig be a whiny little bitch.”

“That is correct,” my father said. This is how we talk about movies. One of us makes a subjective observation and the other deems it objectively correct or not. “Overall, it’s dark, and violent, and a little too long.”

I said, “you just described every David Fincher movie.”

My father paused for a second, then said, “that is also correct.”

End interlude

Some of my father’s rules I take more literally, or follow more strictly, than others. I have been known to sit with my back to a door when it is more or less impossible to do otherwise. There have been times when I have grudgingly stayed in a pot while on an inside draw, though only when I was getting odds on my call.

(I can only assume my father did not include the concept of pot odds in his life advice because he assumed that 13 Year Old Me would not have understood it. This is actually an appalling lapse in judgment. 13 Year Old Me could do calculus; he probably could have grasped “fold unless this number divided by this other number is more than this third number.”)

So, sitting in her apartment one day, I picked up my girlfriend’s copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

If you asked me what the worst book I’ve ever read was, odds are that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would not make the list. It would not make the list solely because I cannot, in good conscience, claim to have read it. I have only read 50 pages of it. In point of fact I have only read EXACTLY 50 pages of it.

I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and on about page 3 I started the clock.

At the bottom of page 50, literally in the middle of a sentence – I am not making this up – I shouted “THANK FUCKING CHRIST!” to the empty apartment and hurled the book across the room, and started muttering obscenities about time I would never get back.

To say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad – or that the portion of it that I read is, at least – is an understatement. It is profoundly, unbelievably bad. I used to think it was just the translation, that maybe it was better in Swedish, but then I saw the movie and underneath some great performances and direction and cinematography there was a script that was still, at a very basic level, broken. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad. It is in-the-bones bad.

It is, in fact, so bad that the book doesn’t even deserve a thoughtful response, which brings me to The Girl on the Train, a book which very much does deserve one.

It took me a little bit, sitting here, to figure out how exactly how I ended up reading The Girl on the Train in the first place. I’m certainly not someone who is up on the latest “buzzworthy” books or anything like that, and a cursory glance at it reveals that subject-wise it isn’t really something I’ve ever read in the past. For years how I’ve simply read what I read and liked what I liked and when something broke through that, a new author or whatever, it was more or less a beautiful and unique snowflake.

That started to change for me last fall when I read an interview with Stephen King (whom I admire a great deal) and he mentioned how he was kinda pissed that The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, was a straight-up literary masterpiece that would get ignored by a lot of the book cognoscenti because it had science fiction elements in it.

I could not, at the time, remember a specific book recommendation from Stephen King, and decided that if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me, and when I finished Revival I went and grabbed The Bone Clocks and had a reaction that transcended positive. (There will, at some point in the future, be many glowing words in this space about David Mitchell.) My reaction was so transcendent, and branching out had proven so fruitful, that I decided I was going to actively expand my literary horizons, snowflakes be damned.

It goes without saying that the recommendations engine on Goodreads is… well, more or less the recommendations engine equivalent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Amazon’s recommendations, however, are usually frightening in their excellence, and every time I have read or looked up a new book since The Bone Clocks, I have added a bunch of Amazon’s suggestions to my “to-read” list, which now sits at a bloated 80 or so titles.

It will take me a while to get through the list. There are worse problems to have than “too many good books to read,” surely.

Anyway…

Here’s the thing about The Girl on the Train: after finishing it this morning I went and read a bunch of reviews of it, and so many of them mentioned Gone Girl it made me a little sad, and more than a little angry.

I must note at this point that I have not actually read Gone Girl (#45 on my to-read list), but that isn’t necessarily germane to my argument in this instance. Unless the book is vastly, VASTLY different from the movie – which I have seen, and nothing in my researches indicates the differences are in fact that vast – the similarities between the stories seem little more than superficial. A missing woman. An unreliable narrator. And… I dunno, that’s kinda all I’ve got. The “unreliable narrator” thing in Gone Girl isn’t even the same SORT of unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train.

So what are we left with, then?

Don’t talk to me about genre. I do not give a flying fuck about genre. Genre is bullshit. It’s just another way to separate Us from Them, the intellectual haves from the have nots. All I care about anymore is theme and execution. All I care about is whether or not your book, or movie, or comic, or show or whatever is ABOUT something, and whether or not you can get that something across with some degree of skill. Gone Girl is about something. The Girl on the Train is about something. They are not, however, about the SAME thing, not remotely, and that makes the comparison wholly unfair.

Let me put it another way: are The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing the same sort of movie? Should every review of Miller’s Crossing reference The Godfather? Of course not. It’s unfair.

Would every review of The Girl on the Train reference Gone Girl if the books were called The Boy on the Train and Gone Boy, and if they were written by Paul Hawkins and George Flynn?

I’m just going to leave that there and move on.

Let’s get something out of the way straight off: I liked this book. I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that when I turned off my Kindle before getting off the train this morning (BA-DUM-BUMP!) I did a quick mental calculation of how much I had left in the book, how much I really wanted to finish it, and how much work I had to do at the office today, and decided I could safely sacrifice a good bit of the morning at work finishing the book rather than waiting to read it on the train home (BA-DUM-BUMP!).

I liked it for… well, all the usual reasons I like something, to be honest. It has clear themes, and themes that are favorites of mine to boot, foremost among them being an exploration of the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves, and how one of those is much, much worse than the other. I admit that this is somewhat by necessity a function of the whole “unreliable narrator” thing, a literary notion I despise, as it drags me back to forced readings of Catcher in the Rye.

It works here, though, because each of the narrators is unreliable in her own way, and that kind of parallelism is that much more book-catnip for me. Oh my, yes, I looooooooove me some structural parallelism.

It’s really quite ingenious, when you get down to it. Rachel is unreliable because she literally has no memories of parts of the story she’s telling. Megan is deliberately obfuscatory, leaving out important parts of her story until it’s too late, for her and for us. And Anna…

Okay, I’ll admit, I’m honestly not sure what the Anna chapters are supposed to accomplish. The first one comes out of nowhere – I was listening to my synced audiobook when it came and the third voice made me shout “WHAT THE FUCK?” in my car – and while there are bits of narrative in the later instances (which we’ll get to shortly) I don’t know what thematic purpose the chapters serve as a whole, especially early on, other than to really hammer home the point of, “hey, isn’t Anna awful?”

Because don’t mistake – Anna, the new wife of main character Rachel’s ex-husband, is truly loathsome. (Not in the way Amy Dunne is loathsome, but nothing that doesn’t birth itself out of your chest cavity is.) Another, lesser book would have tried to soften her up, to make her a perfect mother, a victim of whim or circumstance. A lesser book would have tried to cast Anna as some sort of latter-day Mrs. de Winter; The Girl on the Train sticks to its guns and keeps her Rebecca, and god how I love that about it.

Anna ends up being unreliable simply because you hate her so much. Call it the Jimmy McNulty Effect. I can complain about the chapters’ existence, but not with how well they’re executed.

All of which is a roundabout, discursive way of saying* that this is a Book With Really Well Done Characters, and that alone is usually good enough. I’ve long said that I’ll suffer a comic with bad art for great writing. I’ll also suffer a silly/boring/nonsensical plot for great characters, and this book has them.

I was especially shocked doing my post-read research to learn that Paula Hawkins is not, in fact, a former alcoholic, since the parts of the book detailing Rachel’s battle with booze are some of the finest I’ve read. Imagine something that specific and that personal that you know nothing about, and then imagine trying to write about it convincingly. It’s no mean feat. Rachel’s struggles are real. Megan’s struggles, too, are also very real, though they are of a different sort and come from a different place.

Beyond character and theme, though, that’s the other thing that impressed me so much about the book: it is, at a technical level, executed with extraordinary skill. The story is told across three separate narrators and three overlapping timelines, and not only does it make sense – I mean in a purely “this happened, and then this happened, and because of that this other thing happened” sense, though it does also work in that respect – the story is clear enough to follow, yet leaves enough unspoken to increasingly tantalize the more of it you read.

The different narrators have different voices. It’s hard enough for a writer to have ONE voice, let alone three. There are scenes that mean one thing the first time you read them, and then when you possess new information you can go back and the scene has a completely different meaning, and both work with your understanding of the story as a whole. Hawkins was a journalist – possibly, one might say, the most trained sort of writer there is – and her commitment and her discipline really shine through. (I also looooooooooove me a disciplined writer.)

And, through all of this, she only loses her mind once.

I’m trying very hard to avoid outright spoilers here, because I am very much of the mind that this is a book you should read (I mean, unless you hate things that are interesting) and part of me feels that knowing “how it ends” may impact your enjoyment of it. So I’m going to try and describe the one bit where she loses her mind in the broadest way possible, so as to alert you to its existence without giving away what it actually contains.

The “end” of the book, such as it is, the last however many pages or paragraphs or whatever – the longer you read on a Kindle the tougher it gets to make distinctions like that – are fine. Actually, they’re rather perfect. I loved that last bit. And everything that leads up to the scene that comes before that last bit is, as I have been saying for a thousand words or so, also very, very excellent.

Unfortunately, between that last bit and everything that comes before it is the climax of the book, and it… ugh, I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s bad, or doesn’t work within the confines of the book as a whole. It does. In a purely story-based sense it does. That penultimate scene ends the way it absolutely has to end. I have no argument with that.

What I have a problem with is how it gets TO that ending of that penultimate scene, which is out of that other, lesser book I mentioned earlier.

Hawkins spends the entire book crafting this story that relies very intensely on character, and observation, and psychology, and memory, and all these very cool, very ethereal, very heady things, and then the climax of the book is this violent action sequence out of a shitty Adrian Lyne movie, or something, and I sat there reading it muttering, “oh, no, no, what are you doing? Noooooooooo no no no no no.” It’s so bad, and so out of place, and so incongruous with the rest of the book that the showbiz part of my brain is intensely wondering if that whole bit isn’t in there solely because of editorial pressure to jazz up the ending, that somewhere out there there isn’t Hawkins’ original text for that climactic scene, where things happen the way things in this book happen instead of the way they happen in a book that has not spent 300 some odd pages being so careful to NOT do things in that junky, market-driven way.

I’m pretty sure that given enough time and effort I could come up with a decent scene that accomplishes the same things as the climax of The Girl on the Train but doesn’t happen the way it does in the book, and if -I- can come up with it then I’m pretty sure Paula Hawkins probably could have as well. Because aside from a publisher’s thumb pushing down on it the only other logical conclusion is… I dunno, first book jitters? Maybe? I guess it’s possible. The book doesn’t really show that anywhere else, but if you’re going to have them maybe it’s best to concentrate them in ten pages or so.

That is such a minor blemish, though. Ten pages that don’t quite work, compared against so much else that does. Almost everything else that does, really. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best book I’ve read the last year. (Still The Peripheral.) It’s not even the best book I’ve read in the last month. (Still Perfidia.) But it’s damn good. Good enough to give the first 50 pages a shot, at least.

JLK

* aka “what I do”

Posted in books | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.

So:

Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.

See?

Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.

JLK

* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.

Posted in books | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Gold stars. Alone with his dead.

Posted by kozemp on September 28, 2009

My desk is pretty awesome.

As bedroom furniture goes for the most part I am very lame. My bed is just a box spring and a mattress on a metal frame, my chest of drawers is a hideous old hand-me-down I can’t bring myself to get rid of, and my bookcases are Ikea standard issue. Until a few years ago my nightstand was – I am not making this up – an old Tandy XT monitor jammed into the top of a white milk crate. For the longest time I figured “oh, well, this monitor-stuck-in-a-milk-crate keeps my glasses and whatnot off the ground just as well as a fancy-schmancy ‘night table,’ so why shouldn’t I have this next to my bed? Oh, how droll and utilitarian and twentysomething I am!”

Of course, at some point when I was 28 or so I realized, as all intelligent folk do, that utilitarianism is a joke and John Stuart Mill is a fucking dickhead. I threw out the monitor-stroke-milk crate and resolved to keep my essentials on the corner of my desk. People like me who are largely blind without their glasses will recognize the need to place them, Leonard Shelby-like, in the same place every night. So now I keep my glasses and wallet and phone and whatnot on this one corner of my desk.

And this isn’t just any desk, mind you.

From the time I was approximately seven years old until about two years ago my desk was this ancient, mirror-topped mahogany behemoth I assume was scavenged from one of my mother’s dead relatives. This was how we obtained just about all of our furniture back then. Now bear in mind two important things at that time: 1) My parents were literally the age I am now, but with two kids and a mortgage living on the salary of a schoolteacher and a part-time optometrist. 2) In the entirety of my mother’s comically-abundant extended Irish family, by some cosmic demographic hiccup we were the ONLY new family with young kids. So every time someone died – which was quite often given the sheer quantity of family members – my parents would end up with their furniture because, “oh, John and Teresa need it.” This is why my father didn’t have a reliable car until he was 40 but we have three complete dining room sets, and why as a third-grader I was given a gigantic antique for a desk.

Over the next twenty years or so I would proceed to beat the living shit out of this desk, and when I started going back to school a couple years ago I realized I needed a place to both put my computer and do homework and that my desktop wasn’t big enough for that. (The lack of such realization perhaps explaining some of my poor academic performance beforehand.) I also realized that the mirror that was the top of my desk was sufficiently cracked and broken such that if I slipped while typing my hands would be sliced off at the wrists.

So with much sadness I disposed of my old desk. My sadness ended when I proceeded to replace it with something that looked like it came from the bridge of the JJ Abrams Enterprise. This desk DOES NOT FUCK AROUND. It is acres of polished glass held up by gleaming black metal in a way that at first glance seems to defy the laws of physics. It is awesomely L-shaped so that I have, essentially, an entire desk for my computer and another entire desk for homework and reading and whatnot, with a third smaller desk in between usually reserved for laptops of dubious purpose. It has got LEVELS: one side of it has an entire second story. My desk is what you would get if you force-fed mescaline to Frank Lloyd Wright and then chained him to a drafting table and held a gun to his head while shouting: “a desk, Frank, MAKE US A FUCKING DESK!”

At the moment a significant portion of it is covered with half-painted Space Marines and a forest of medicine bottles.

For the longest time I tried to keep some order to the medicine bottles, to maintain a sort of straight line that I could go down as I needed to, but as I grew more and more resentful of the fact that I take so many goddamn pills every semblance of order faded and now there are just bottles all over the place. For the back: Neurontin, Vicodin. For the liver: Vitamin E, Milkthistle, Ursodiol. For emergencies/special occasions: Dilaudid. Now that one, that’s special. Dilaudid is what your body turns morphine into. It is wicked bad juju. When I first got the prescription my pharmacist told me, “okay, basically, never take this stuff. It will erase the world.” Since then I’ve taken it three times when the pain in my back flared to a point where I was unable to successfully prosecute my day to day life. My pharmacist’s warnings were not inaccurate. I’m going to hold on to the rest of it and give the pills out as Christmas presents; the nicer you are to me between now and then the more you’ll get.

This weekend I was down with a cold and added some NyQuil to the menagerie. My love of NyQuil borders on abuse, and not even for its alcohol content: taken at half-dosage it is the only medicine I have ever found that actually relieves my symptoms when I have a cold, and as a sufferer of chronic anxious insomnia a full dose is one of the few things guaranteed to put me to sleep. At one point this Saturday I was sitting at my awesome desk, taking my NyQuil, and as I put the bottle down it landed next to the Dilaudid. I thought, “I wonder what would happen if I mixed them,” and then realized that thoughts like that bring me dangerously closer to being a character in a James Ellroy novel. The fact that I am currently reading a James Ellroy novel probably contributed to that realization, but I stuck with that line of thought for a little. Well, let’s think, what would that be like?

I mentally composed a list of pros and cons.

Pros: an authority figure of some sort (police, FBI, etc). Get to hobnob with interesting underworld types and make lots of money. Get to experiment with heretofore unknown combinations of drugs and alcohol. Get to have sex with (inexplicably lots of) interesting women. Free to regularly indulge darkest, basest, vilest desires. Witty yet realistic dialogue.

Cons: complicity in most heinous acts of the 20th century. Tendency for every associate to be evil scumbag. Utter moral bankruptcy.

As I sat there at my awesome desk, I felt the delicious warmth of red NyQuil seeping into my tissues and I thought, “tough call, tough call…”

JLK

Posted in books, Life | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

No one sleeps when I’m awake.

Posted by kozemp on July 13, 2009

Odds and sods this week, and apologies for the short hiatus.

“It has its problems towards the end, but the badass old Jew totally makes up for it.” – Graham Rowe

Last week I read “The Strain,” by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

That I read a book is hardly remarkable – I read a couple hundred a year – but the fact that I read a VAMPIRE book, now that’s extraordinary. My love of Stephen King has never translated into me actually reading, well, ANY other horror fiction at a measurable rate. I’m not sure HP Lovecraft is necessarily germane to this argument (though he remains one of my all-time favorites). I tried to read Clive Barker once (The Damnation Game, I think it was) and while it was well-written it didn’t really do anything for me. Dean Koontz and his ilk are completely unreadable, and don’t even get me fucking started about sparkly abstinence vampires.

No, the main reason I don’t read horror in general is because, as anything, Sturgeon’s Law applies. But when it comes to vampires, oh my great goodness Sturgeon comes out more generous than Santa Claus. For vampire books the number ratchets up to something like 99%. 99.999999999999999999999999999%. Gather up every vampire book ever written in the entire history of human civilization – there must be uncounted hordes of them – and realize that in that entire history only four of them are any good. FOUR. Out of, let’s conservatively say, eight hundred million.

Speaking strictly in my professional capacity as a card player, those are pretty lousy odds.

For reference, the only good vampire books ever written are, in no particular order: Dracula, Vampire$, Salem’s Lot, and I Am Legend. If you were expecting anything by Anne Rice I sincerely hope that my sneering, contemptuous pity will fill the void in your soul where taste, discernment, and the ability to not be sexually aroused by interior design should reside.

If you were expecting sparkly abstinence vampires, seriously, kill yourself.

I don’t know WHY vampire books scoff at Sturgeon so brazenly, but they do. With but a bare handful (quite literally) of exceptions, they are universally awful. Vampires seem to bring out the worst in authors. I don’t know why. I wish I did, that the human race’s near-total inability to write a decent vampire book was some sort of disease that we could cure with an antibiotic or something. Whether this would yield a world with good vampire books or none at all is a debate not worth pursuing, largely because the end result would still be the same: of the couple hundred books I read per year, the percentage of them that had vampires would not be statistically relevant. But the unstoppable tide of awful, unreadable vampire books would at least cease and the human race would be protected from their terrible wrath. (I am, after all, a Humanist if nothing else.)

I DID read The Strain, though, for reasons I am not able to explain to even my own satisfaction. It is purported to be “co-written” by Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker whose work I admire in the abstract but don’t in any meaningful way especially like. English is not Del Toro’s first language, which I have to think makes writing a book in it difficult. And the book is the first part of a trilogy, a fact made curious by the virtue of Del Toro having recently gotten on a plane to New Zealand to spend the next five years making two movies based on The Hobbit, making one wonder exactly what his contribution to the entire enterprise is. The other co-writer is Chuck Hogan, a gentleman who I can say nothing negative about since, before hearing about The Strain, I did not know he existed. But I bought the book anyway. A recommendation from Rogers certainly helped, and while I don’t force myself to run out to see his movies I have a lot of respect for Del Toro as an artist, and I admit to being vaguely curious to see what he would do with a genre that had, to date, spawned legions of misshapen literary abominations and precious, precious little else.

You know what? It’s not bad.

In fact, it’s pretty good.

Now, let’s be clear here: The Strain is not going to replace The Great Gatsby at the top of my list of favorite books. Hell, it’s not going to bump Good Omens from, like, 18th place. But the fact that it is a book with vampires that is not mind-rending in its awfulness is in and of itself a major accomplishment. I mean, really, mediocrity would have been a cause for celebration, but The Strain actually goes past mediocrity into… decent-ness? Good-ocity? I’m not sure the word for something that isn’t fantastic but is still definitely positive in its impact. Really-well-done-ish?  Leaving aside the making-up-words bit, the best thing I can say about The Strain – and yes, there is praise for it beyond “it wasn’t awful” – is that it actually scared me.

Well, okay, not exactly “scared” me. The last time I was legitimately SCARED by a book, like, afraid to get out of bed while in the middle of it, was when I read Pet Sematary. In my defense, I was 12. No, the last time I was actually scared is another story in its entirety (one I will tell soon). But inasmuch as The Strain is a “horror” novel, which is a misnomer at best, the book succeeded: it affected me on a primal, almost physiological level.

Reading horror is a vastly different mental exercise than watching it. Onscreen, for the most part, horror is about editing and cinematography: through clever use of the foreground and jump cuts you can pretty much scare the pants off anyone. (Someone is going to bring up Jaws or Halloween now, and I will politely ask them to pipe down.) This is not to say that you can’t use longer takes, atmosphere, and visual depth to scare people (I TOLD you fuckers to pipe down) but those are less reliable. Still and all, scaring people is easy when they’re in front of a screen. A book, now, that’s different. You don’t have a foreground (or a background, or anything depth of field at all, in fact). Your ability to use film-style editing is clumsy at best.  No, in a book all you’ve GOT is atmosphere, and building it in such a way to actually get a fear-type reaction out of people is INCREDIBLY difficult. If you don’t successfully walk the tightrope you either end up just describing the action to the reader (c.f. Clive Barker), which is never scary, or going way over the top and coming off as silly and unintentionally hilarious (c.f. Clive Barker), which is also never scary.

The Strain manages to succeed, though. There is a scene about halfway through the book when… well, without spoilers, let me just say it sorta resembles the cup-of-water bit from Jurassic Park. As I sat there reading it I got increasingly unsettled until it climaxed, when – sitting at my desk, under a lamp – I started shouting to the book, “oh… oh, fucking… AH JESUS FUCK THAT’S SICK!” About a bit involving liquid in jars. And there are a bunch like it throughout the book.

Put another way: there are scenes in this book that creeped me the fuck out.

The book is not without its flaws – there are elements of the ending, specifically, that angered me something fierce – but listing them is counterproductive, since the book as a whole is so damn entertaining. So much so, in fact, that I’m actually looking forward to the next one. Thankfully, the one-book-per-year pace the series is set to publish on will keep my vampire book percentage in the negligible range. And, frankly, when it comes to that sort of thing I don’t want to tempt fate.

“Who’s who? Her?” – Ken Turner

Actual conversation (with mild editorial commentary) from this Saturday night, when my friend Mike arrived at a restaurant a bunch of people were meeting at with a woman I’d never seen in tow.

Me: Yo.
Mike: (pointing at woman) Hey, John, this is Chelsea.
Me: Chelsea?
Chelsea: Yes?
Me: Your name is Chelsea?
Chelsea: Yes.
Me: Well, that’s hilarious.
Chelsea: It is?
My brain: It’s only hilarious if the person KNOWS you, idiot.
Me: Fuck!
Mike: (shocked/confused) What?
My brain: I hate you.

“The great thing about Pandora is that it proves how arbitrary people’s taste in music is.” – G

I know I promised that I wouldn’t write about music here, but I am going to partially break that promise to say: I found out over the weekend that The Sounds have a new album that came out last month.

Now, two things that are neat about this:

1) I learned this because one of the songs came on the digital cable music station we had on in the background. I saw the info card on the song, said, “fucking hell why didn’t anyone tell me The Sounds had a new album!” and proceeded to instruct my iPhone to buy said new album. Much like the previous album from The Sounds (which I randomly came across on ITMS one day soon after its release) I had the entire album in my possession and was listening to it within five minutes of learning of its existence. Unless you live in an apartment inside a record store this is essentially impossible in a realspace mode of being and is further proof why iTunes and my iPhone are intrinsically, ridiculously awesome.

2) The album itself is FUCKING AWESOME. Well, I think it is, at least. If you enjoy neo-punk/neo-New-Wave/neo-glam Swedish power electro-pop I imagine you will also think it is awesome. And, frankly, if you don’t enjoy neo-punk/neo-New-Wave/neo-glam Swedish power electro-pop what the hell are you doing here, anyway?

Seriously, The Sounds are the reincarnation of Blondie. They are fantastic. Give them a listen.

End of music talk.

Until next time, then.

JLK

Posted in books, Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

You were deceived.

Posted by kozemp on June 4, 2009

This week saw the release of the first trailer for The Old Republic. Though Bioware’s propensity for taking a reeeeeeaalllllllyyyyyy loooooooooonnnnnnnng tiiiiiiiiimmmmmme on development means it is unlikely the game will see release in our lifetime, and even if it does you will need a computer that can pass a Turing test to run the game, it’s fun to pretend that someday you might actually get to play this:

As I said to some folks when I first passed on the link: even if you aren’t the video gaming sort, if that doesn’t make you want to pick up a lightsaber and kick some ass then you are seriously soul-deficient.

With the double-whammy of The Force Unleashed and the announcement of The Old Republic, video games have basically become the vanguard of Star Wars storytelling. As someone who rolls with most of the other available Star Wars outlets I can tell you this is true if not necessarily fair. The comics and the novels are good – occasionally very, very good – but despite how well-crafted a character is (Kal Skirata, Zayne Carrick) or how beautifully-drawn a comic can be (Jan Duuresma FTW) when it comes to Star Wars nothing can ever truly match the visceral thrill of watching a huge space battle or a fantastic lightsaber fight. Yes, Legacy and Republic Commando are fantastic. They are OUTSTANDING books in their own right. But they’re not the same as watching Star Wars.

(Yes, I am aware that The Clone Wars is out there, but… good lord, I can’t figure out what the fuck that show is.)

So when it comes to actually watching new Star Wars, until the vaporware that is the HBO series materializes all we’re left with is video games. (You want to go back and watch Episodes I-III, hey, be my guest. I’ll be over here preferring to stick hot knives into my genitals.) This is a classic good-news-bad-news proposition.

Killing stormtroopers is very satisfying.

Killing stormtroopers is very satisfying.

It gives us things like The Force Unleashed, which is a truly amazing Star Wars movie. I’m serious. If you love Star Wars you owe it to yourself to play through, or watch someone else play through, The Force Unleashed. It has a fantastic script, great performances, and killer action sequences. It’s basically the best Star Wars movie since 1983. Unfortunately (this is the “bad news” part of the deal), this great Star Wars movie is trapped inside a terrible, TERRIBLE video game. I’m not going to go into a long thing on why it’s a bad game – just trust me, it is – but you might want to go with the “watching someone else play” option, because playing it yourself is incredibly frustrating.

It gives us things like The Old Republic, where every time even a bare fraction of information comes out about that game it is pored over, analyzed, dissected, deconstructed, reconstructed, and then deemed to be absolutely perfect. Now comes the trailer and it isn’t a bare fraction of information, it’s a massive tome, it’s a fucking Neal Stephenson novel, and once again every letter is completely perfect. This is a game made by people who GET IT. We’ve known that since they made Knights of the Old Republic, which is still probably the single best Star Wars game ever made. They get Star Wars. Most importantly, they get how we REACT to Star Wars. Barring a meteor striking Bioware’s offices and completely wiping out the development staff The Old Republic is almost certainly going to be the definitive Star Wars game experience.  Bioware is one of only two software houses (Blizzard the other) whose success rate is essentially 100%. The Old Republic will blow your mind. It’s a guarantee. The downside? You’re going to have to wait years to play the game, and don’t misunderstand: it’s going to be several years. Perfection doesn’t come quickly. And when it comes out you’re going to have to upgrade your computer to an obscenely expensive, absolute top-of-the-line, Neuromancer level rig to even have a shot at running the game. Perfection doesn’t come cheap either.

These are prices I’m willing to pay, however.

Why Star Wars is important – both to me and in general – and why I and others are so attached to it is another piece entirely, but for now let’s just concede those points. I’m willing to pay these prices for the privilege of watching good Star Wars, and pay other prices for reading it, because these ancillary stories are the only option for Star Wars that doesn’t make me want to hurt things. George Lucas gets a lifetime pass for CREATING Star Wars, though it’s only a lifetime pass from, like, me kicking him in the junk if I ever saw him on the street. Not the kind of lifetime pass where I can look at something like Episode II and say, “well, that was in no way horrible.” The fact that other people have taken Lucas’ creation and made things that are profound and moving from it – Kirshner and Kasdan, Karen Traviss, John Ostrander – proves that a) there is something intrinsic to Star Wars, something as simple and fundamental as a FEELING, that resonates, and b) talent actually counts for something.

Because, let’s be honest with ourselves here. I am perfectly willing to ignore the outside, business impact of Star Wars and say that the man is a brilliant technician who revolutionized moviemaking. But Lucas is a terrible writer. TERRIBLE. Oh my great gods he’s terrible. And I don’t mean in, like, that John Grisham or Tom Clancy way where he has a great story but can’t put sentences together (though I hear Grisham actually got good). I mean in a fundamental, bare bones, concrete foundation sort of way. The man cannot write. Period. He has an eight-year-old’s grasp of storytelling: it starts with “once upon a time” and ends with “they all lived happily ever after” (or, in the prequel trilogy’s case, “unhappily”) and everything in between is just a bunch of shit that happens for no discernible reason. Characters exist solely to advance the plot. In the George Lucas vision of Star Wars EVERYTHING exists solely to advance the plot, and in case you haven’t noticed, Stephen King was right: plot is stupid. Plot is boring. The best stories, the lasting stories, are about character and emotion and if there are two things on this Earth that George Lucas has absolutely zero knowledge of, the first is character and the second is emotion.

Look at it this way: just before Episode III came out me and Stephen were talking beforehand about what Lucas could do at that point to save the movie franchise from being utter dreck. Even in those first two awful movies, and even with Hayden Christiansen’s cringe-worthy performance, there was a character there. Anakin’s story was a quest for power and respect. It wasn’t about his shrew of a girlfriend or his long-lost mommy or his traumatic fucking childhood or any of that stupid shit. Anakin is the classic wimpy little kid who hits a growth spurt in fifth grade and is suddenly bigger than everyone else: he’s a bully. He was a kid who got a taste of power, of REAL power, and he wanted more of it. He wanted more and more of it until he eventually wanted all of it. Now THAT is a character, despite Lucas’ best efforts to the contrary. So eventually Stephen and I came to a conclusion: how do you make Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side interesting? You make it about power. You make it about something he WANTS.

This is basic acting theory: in this scene, what does my character want? For a guy who spent his entire adult life around actors it’s amazing Lucas never heard this philosophy, because what we got in Anakin’s transformation was the most laughable element of the entire trilogy. Why does Anakin turn to the Dark Side? Because some dude in a bathrobe tells him to. THAT’S IT. THAT IS FUCKING WELL IT. It’s one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen in a movie. I remember joking about it with my parents after the movie came out:

Palpatine: “Come to the Dark Side, Anakin. We have cookies.”

Anakin: “Okay!”

Fucking. STUPID.

It wasn’t about power. It wasn’t about his desires. It was about turning him into Vader because he had to be Vader by the end and we’re running out of movie. On Mustafar, after a whole fight where he spewed wretched, mind-curdling dialogue about how Anakin has truly crossed the line and has to be stopped permanently, when Anakin has no arms and no legs and is ON FUCKING FIRE, why doesn’t Obi-Wan finish him off, which was the reason the whole fight happened in the first place? Because he has to be Vader by the end and now we’re REALLY running out of movie.

Purple lightsabers hurt more than other colors.

Purple lightsabers hurt more than other colors.

Contrast that with the recent Legacy storyline in the novels where Jacen’s fall to the Dark Side is actually motivated by something: he’s trying to protect his daughter. All he wants is to keep her safe. He just makes the slight overcalculation that the way to do that is to, er, force everyone to play nice together and kill anyone who disagrees. But, killer twist: in the end, even though he gets his ass shanked by his own sister, that’s exactly what he gets. Everyone is united (against him). His daughter is safe (with his parents, who he repeatedly tried to kill). His twin sister gets to fulfill her destiny (by killing him). The dude becomes pure evil, for all the right reason, he’s murdered by his own family, AND HE STILL FUCKING WINS ANYWAY.

That’s the difference between being an actual writer and being a guy with a pencil and paper. The difference between plot and emotion. It’s why The Old Republic is going to be awesome and we still can’t bear to watch the goddamned prequels. It’s the difference between George Lucas and everyone else who makes Star Wars:

Knowing that there has to be more than “we have cookies.”

JLK

Posted in Video Games | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »