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Weekend Reads: The Morning After a Couple of Guys Apparently Danced Around Each Other for a Lot of Money

The April 20 issue of The New Yorker was a bumper crop of gripping, if depressing, reading:

  • Sarah Stillman’s previous New Yorker article on the police’s reliance on drug confiscations to fund their departments — and we know now that it was standard operating procedure in Ferguson as well — is followed up by an equally exhaustively researched article on child kidnappings for ransom by the U.S.-Mexico border — and the DHS nightmare they’re plunged in after rescue. “Where Are The Children?” (The New Yorker)
  • Oliver Sacks, on the late Spalding Gray: “The Catastrophe” (The New Yorker)
  • Luke Mogelson has a really funny piece of fiction, “Peacetime;” how is it possible that he can put on a reporter’s hat and write in-depth articles about ebola in Liberia and executions in Aleppo as well? (The New Yorker)
  • Ah, those were the days. Not really: I do look back at those early days after I ditched dial-up — and I gave full rein to my acquisitive, obsessive impulses with an almost-total disregard for creative labor — I hang my head in shame, and am disgusted at the time I wasted. And money: we’re talking spindles and spindles of CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. Stephen Witt, “The Man Who Broke the Music Business” (The New Yorker)

 

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Weekend Reads, Mid-April Roundup.

  • This is the second Jenny Xie story I’ve read, and I’ll be looking for more. “If You’re Reading This” (Devil’s Lake)
  • John Joseph Adams has a new anthology of military fantasy entitled Operation Arcana — not the sort of thing I read at all, but these three stories below are pretty damn entertaining:
  • Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, an outlandish and exuberant gangster novel of sorts set in a gritty, wharf rat-ridden dystopian future, was my favorite read of 2011. There isn’t much in common with his story “Wifey Redux” (Electric Literature), from his short story collection Dark Lies the Island, except that they’re both hilariously crude and similarly drunk on words.
  • “To MFA is to bathe in Eskinol,” and other disobedient thoughts. Barbara Jane Reyes, “Ibagsak! Or, This Pinay’s Epistemology” (barbarajanereyes.com)
  • I uploaded a photograph of my daughter in a dry riverbed in Austin to word.camera, and this is what I got.
  • My life for the past few months: “An Emotional Guide to Your Submittable Status” (The Masters Review)
  • An 2013 essay by Michael Robbins, whose poetry is both ridiculous and sublime: “A Poem for President Drone” (Los Angeles Review of Books)
  • And I would be remiss not to link to this profile of my dad by Clarissa David, “A Scientist’s Primer to Benito Vergara, National Scientist” (International Journal of Philippine Science and Technology)
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Notes on Jeff VanderMeer’s “Authority” (2014).

So I was going to write something like “Unlike sandwiches, the middle part of a trilogy isn’t usually where the good stuff is; it doesn’t have the excitement of the setup of Part 1, nor the fireworks of Part 3,” but then I remembered how the whole Cuba section of The Godfather trilogy was in the second movie, and how the Battle of Helm’s Deep was also in the second Lord of the Rings movie/book, so I left the sentence alone. But Authority, the second part of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, is even better than its thrilling predecessor, Annihilation. Actually, “even better” is an understatement; I think I was planning to start this little blurb by writing “HOLY MOLEY” and decided against that too. Writing is iterative; what can I say.

I’m going to end up relying on a whole slew of lazy comparisons, as above, for the Southern Reach trilogy, not just out of sloth, but because VanderMeer, I think, is consciously employing various pop culture tropes to trace the outline of the trilogy’s central enigma. “Something” happened, but the precise nature of that happening — its dimensions, its parameters, its implications — aren’t fully revealed to the reader nor to its protagonists, and the reader, as part of the reading experience, pulls different possibilities together to try to make them fit. Is it the fungi from Yuggoth? The glass barrier from Under the Dome? That evil kudzu from The Ruins? A government experiment gone horribly wrong? In Authority, both aliens and multiverses are discussed offhandedly by the characters themselves — hey, I was wondering about those possibilities too — and the fact that their explanatory power seems so weak only deepens the mystery.

It seemed to me that Annihilation, on the surface, took its cues most directly from Lost: people with hidden agendas roughing it in nature (or is it Nature, with a capital N? “Nature” in scare quotes?); a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation; a shadowy Dharma Initiative-like organization; something, neither fish nor fowl, lurking in the woods; even a hole in the ground. But one significant difference is that sense of unease, a peculiarly terrestrial dread, all throughout, and it’s testament to VanderMeer’s powers that the reader, too, is unsettled by what the protagonist comes to know, and what she realizes she doesn’t know.

Authority is a different beast altogether, because this dread is evoked in a more, shall we say, existential fashion. The explorations of Area X from Annihilation are paralleled in the middle novel by a similar journey through familiar though arguably more disorienting terrain: the offices of the Southern Reach. VanderMeer weaves together an indelible portrait of bureaucracy — not the dystopian chaos of Brazil, but a terrifyingly banal wasteland of desks and hallways, and the modern discomforts of cafeterias and parking lots. (There is, for instance, a scene in a storage closet that’s both hilarious and genuinely creepy at the same time.) The fauna inhabiting Area X, it seems, are no odder than the Southern Reach characters themselves, who are as deliberately flat — and therefore uncanny — as the members of Annilhilation’s expedition. The offices are supposedly inhabited by employees, but in some respect the building is as abandoned as the lighthouse in Authority: both places as dead archives.

In this respect Authority’s pace is closer to the patient interrogation and parrying of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Authority’s protagonist is nicknamed, helpfully, Control, but his character is defined by how weakly he gets to wield it. In this respect he’s closer to the George Smiley character minus the sitting rooms and cups of tea, slowly uncovering the layers of sediment like an archaeologist to reveal some buried truth.

VanderMeer has a sharp eye for the minute negotiations and compromises of office politics, and how they’re played out in seemingly innocuous conversations. VanderMeer’s concerns from the first book, with ordinary language, with what words mean — with borders and barriers, intrusions and protrusions (tunnel or tower?) — and the afterlife of words come into sharper play here.

There’s a similar care and perceptiveness in how VanderMeer depicts interior lives. For a genre that has been characterized as more narrative-driven, both Annihilation and Authority spend a lot of time exploring psychological topographies, mapping out the emotional contours of his protagonists. And if all this sounds like a slog — like, why did VanderMeer apparently choose to grind the cliffhanger narrative to a halt? — I can assure you that the slowness, like a vine curling across a wall, will reward the patient reader.

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Weekend Reads, First Week of April Edition.

So the thing about these “Weekend Reads” — and mind you, I read through a lot of stuff all through the week, and these are already the gems — is that being able to read them wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t done two things: a) go on a strict social media diet, and b) uninstall all my games from my phone. At some point last year I finally figured out that writing time was a precious, precious commodity, and that I would sneak it in any chance I could.

Easier said than done, of course. But waking up way earlier, choosing a commute that actually optimizes writing time (the bus takes longer, but it’s more convenient,  I have a seat, which lets me type), etc. has worked well. It also lets me read. Distilling my personal leisure time — in contrast to leisure time with family and friends, that is — to the binary options of reading and writing feels satisfyingly primal. I’m cool with that right now.

I found it terribly easy, actually, to limit logging on to Facebook to once on the weekends, and just enough for a couple of vertical swipes, maybe three. (Twitter I abandoned long ago.) It’s a huge contrast to the former way I would refresh my News Feed hourly. You might say it was an addiction. I would see the same Buzzfeed links posted over and over, the endless photos of food, and so on, and somehow they never registered as noise. That recalibration of my priorities exposed them for what they were.

That said, I do miss that plunge into the quotidian, that quick peek at what my friends are up to, to see photos of my nephew and nieces. That out there births and deaths and celebrations and complaints and dinners and oversharing are happening, an endless scrolling flow of events and non-events — but there’s nothing wrong with finding out about them only once a week.

  • Games, on the other hand, are another story, and one I’ll leave for another post. But here are a couple of smart pieces on games: Byron Alexander Campbell, “The Allure of Allegory; or, a Case for Cardboard.” (Entropy)
  • And an appreciation of Will Wright’s SimCity, by Ian Bogost, “Video Games Are Better Without Characters.” (The Atlantic)
  • I love this story, and even though during my first read I wasn’t quite sure if the lab monkey aspect really worked, I began to appreciate how the constantly interrupting voice of the writing teacher functioned as the voice of the State, and God, and the Parent all at once, and what I thought was merely a clever but weak metaphor (the lab monkey) was now burnished with sadness. Angela Woodward, “Clarity.” (The Collagist)
  • “It is all dirt; it is a useless exercise!” Jim Melrose, “Mister Lucas’ Punishment” (Solstice)
  • “In this moment, the confusion of my whole life has receded. No one will ask me if I am white or Asian. No one will ask me if I am a man or a woman. No one will ask me why I love men.” Alexander Chee, “Girl” (Guernica)
  • Not a read, exactly: Kindle Cover Disasters
  • I’m linking to this piece with some amusement because I don’t necessarily sympathize with these poor, poor folks stuck at home. (Though I should add that my snark is tempered by the fact that it’s great that companies offer telecommute privileges, and so these folks may actually love being at home, as I would too because it frees up my weekend to do something other than the laundry, but one may also argue that temporary contractors aren’t even given office space and are expected to get their work done at some cafe with wifi, which stinks, etc.) But I do wish the article could have dug a little deeper about the lives of the delivery and cleaning people.  Lauren Smiley, “The Shut-In Economy” (Matter)
  • Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Hari Kunzru and it looks pretty darn great; it reminds me of Ian MacDonald’s fantastic novel River of Gods. “Drone” (Granta)

 

 

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Weekend Reads, Plus Some Thoughts on E-Books and MFAs.

  • Barbara Jane Reyes on teaching America Is In The Heart and Dogeaters (barbarajanereyes.com)
  • Marathons, not binge-watching. Rex Sorgatz on “How Netflix Broke the Unbreakable Spoiler Alert” (The Message)
  • “‘Is the Philippines trying to kill me?’ I ask.” Laurel Fantauzzo, in “The Animals in My Home” (The Rumpus)
  • Wattpad infographics, an essay by Laura Miller, Steven Soderbergh’s edits, One Direction, and where the Philippines ranks in all of this: a guide to fan fiction (Vulture)
  • “I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn’t see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing.” Karl Ove Knaussgard’s “My Saga, Part 2” (The Sunday New York Times Magazine). This is huge mainstream exposure for Knaussgard, though I doubt it’s going to inspire the casual reader to pick up My Struggle because of it.
  • So that rather mean-spirited Ryan Boudinot essay has had an unexpectedly protracted shelf life, and I think it partly comes from the cyclical nature of the debate, if it can be called such, on the utility of a Creative Writing MFA. I seem to recall a similar brouhaha a few years ago, and another before that. Some (okay, maybe two) of Boudinot’s observations do seem spot-on, like what he says about shelving early work, though I’m not sure how one actually learns to write if said early work remained in the stale air of the lonely garret in which it was composed. And what he writes about woefully unprepared graduate students can be extended to that whole extended playing-out of neuroses that is called graduate school life; there are “good” grad students, and “bad” grad students, who have different levels of commitment to doing the work, and I’m sure I was a mix of both when I was a young pup in grad school. Anyway, there are a couple of good pieces in Electric Literature, one by Adrian Van Young, and another written anonymously; the latter’s title is “How the MFA Glut Is a Disservice to Students, Teachers, and Writers,” which goes a long way to explain the writer’s refusal to be identified. I actually had no idea that there were programs out there with “nearly 100% admittance rates.” I’ve been following all this with interest because I occasionally wonder — ok, I confess the correct term is “fantasize” — about an MFA. Whether I can even get in, what I can do with the degree, how I would spend those two glorious years doing nothing but writing and reading. In practical terms anyway, the prospect of debt terrifies me, so going back to school is really off the table. (I was told by a writer who I hold with the highest esteem that I didn’t need an MFA, and she told me why. To this day I still count it as one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me; it’s one of the things that keeps my butt in this chair every day.)
  • Rick Moody and Scott Timberg have a fascinating and digressive conversation — actually, Timberg’s phrase is “a lively and grimly enjoyable conversation” — on Dylan, Sinatra, Swift (Taylor, not Jonathan), James (Richard D., not Henry), and the paradox of aesthetic relativism and its coexistence with some Platonic ideal of quality (The Rumpus)
  • Colson Whitehead on how the filmic vocabulary of the reality show “has become a limber metaphor for exploring our own real-world failures,” in “The ‘Loser Edit’ That Awaits Us All” (The New York Times). There’s a hazy bit of grad school theory that this reminds me of — Paul Ricoeur? Hayden White? something about “narrativity” and “emplotment” — but that was too long ago for me.
  • And finally, Robin Reader, “So What’s Up (and Down) with Ebooks?” (Dear Author). I link to this latter piece with some misgivings because my reaction to it has swung from “appalled because writers need to be paid, dammit” to “of course I wait for everything to go on sale” to recognizing my complicity in a $9.99 price point (and lower) for an e-book because I’ve been conditioned by all-you-can-eat forms of consumption (Netflix, Spotify, your local Sizzler — though I haven’t been inside one since maybe 1996). The article also recycles that old debate about the price of print books is justified because of the physicalness of it, its resale value, the fact that you can lend it, etc. — a perfectly legitimate reasoning — versus e-books are just electrons and bits that cost nothing to store or ship and they should by nature be cheaper. I totally get that, because the very bookness of the book — the smell, the tactility of the pages, and don’t get me started about how much I love deckle-edged pages, my god — is something you pay for too. But I’d like to think that the value of a book inheres less in its resellability or the physical space it occupies on a bookshelf, but more in the book’s content regardless of how it’s delivered to the reader. Surely buying an e-book for a few dollars more — or a print book for full price at my local indie bookstore — constitutes some form of support that returns to the author at some point. (The fuzziness of “at some point” is another problem altogether.) Odd though how some of the readers’ umbrage — $12.99 makes the blog entry writer “feel so disrespected and exploited” — is more likely to provoke a response like “Fine I won’t buy your book you greedy publisher / author you” versus “Guess that means I’ll just buy the paperback then.” That doesn’t really make sense to me.