July 30, 2012

Government Bureaucrats, Camus Feels Your Pain

"There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor."
   —Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

July 29, 2012


Just reading an essay by a 19th-century avant-garde dramatist who refers to the masses who go see most theatre as the "audience qua herd."

July 27, 2012

Best Short Review Ever

My friend Rich recently started a review of a novel thusly:

"One man's wistful, boring musings . . ."


July 24, 2012

The Graceling Series

The third volume in this YA fantasy series just came out. It's called Bitterblue and got good reviews, so I bought a paperback (with its beautiful cover) of the first volume, Graceling, and shortly thereafter the second volume, Fire. Both are the kind of book that you can't wait to get back to at night. I keep describing the series to people as "old-fashioned, in a good way," and then thought, "What exactly do I mean by that?"

First of all, it takes place in a kingdom. There's a castle and princes and princesses and beautiful horses. Their world is not our world, but it's pretty close to our fairy-tale world. Attention has been paid to world-building, the process by which a fantasy environment is fully realized through internally consistent details of language, physics, social relations, and so on. But it hews close to the fantasy world already created by our European forebears on those cold nights in the Black Forest and bright afternoons in Provence. That similarity lets you jump right in, rather than having to situate yourself in a wholly alien universe (a process that can be fun too, but a different type of fun).

Second, it has the quality of a story or tale. Partly this means it's familiar. Someone falls in love, someone goes to war, someone performs acts of bravery. Partly it means that its concerns are largely classic (bravery, endurance, self-discipline, love, honor), though it's not devoid of postmodern angles (identity, power).  Partly it means that the author is just a really good storyteller.

Third, it's not out to wow you with dazzling prose or a complex form. The strength of the writing comes from its efficacy within its genre. You're likely to love it for its plot and characters more than for exquisite turns of phrases or a startling formal structure. This is not a euphemistic way of saying "the writing's not that great"; the writing is great, and I appreciate that the author takes time for quiet scenes like a girl in a stable talking to her horse or two friends talking on a roof under the stars. It's not all action and heroics but it doesn't feel bogged down or slow either.

I'm glad to see some novels of realism hit the YA market (like The Fault in Our Stars). But as long as talented people keep writing fantasy, I'll keep reading.

July 18, 2012

What Is Reading?

Jezebel quoted this line from Nora Ephron recently:

"Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real."

July 12, 2012

Swedish Nightmare

After reading crime novels by Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Henning Mankell, and Lars Kepler, I'm now convinced Sweden is the most terrifying place on earth.

July 9, 2012


Boredom is one of the most corrosive and powerful emotions in our lives. It motivates destructive behavior in every quarter: school and learning, personal relationships, work. But it's an inevitable part of existence. We are shackled to the tedious business of living; the grinding repetition of feeding ourselves, dressing ourselves, moving from one locale to another, working, sleeping, and self-maintenance; the tragedy of limited resources and unlimited desires, as the economists put it. Not to mention that of mortality, which limits our time and destroys our capacities in short order.

Storytelling is universal. We speculate that stories help us understand our lives or work out an image of our culture. But maybe storytelling is, first and foremost, a psychologically essential antidote to the powerful effects of boredom. Critics of "escapist" literature (as if there were any other kind) deride it as weakness, but it's more like a means of bearing the unbearable, dispersing over and over again the squirming, uncomfortable yearning that wriggles under the surface of our consciousness—like dreaming, an outlet for the psychic energy that overruns our system.  A means of restoring balance between our outsized brains and our modest reality.

July 7, 2012


Here's what I learned while reading today: Chicago was founded by black settlers. Some 1,000 African Americans created a community there in 1781, and it grew to become the awesome city of Chicago we know today. It was also the principal destination during the Great Migration and has always been a powerhouse of African American culture and activism.

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks

Founder of the Chicago Defender Robert Abbott

Aviator Willa Brown

Thanks, Chicago!

July 6, 2012

The Amazing Spiderman

So many reviews of the new Spiderman movie say the same thing: This film is unnecessary. It's repetititve. We've just gone through this same backstory a few years ago.

The new film, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, comes five years after the last film of the Tobey Maguire series. The new film is pretty faithful to the feel of that series: there's a certain simplicity of storytelling, a real teenage-y Peter Parker, lots of heart, and fun, kinetic action sequences based on flight and height father than flames and crashes. I'm not sure what "unnecessary" means in this context. Was the reviewer actually bored because the story is now so familiar? Would the reviewer have enjoyed it if those earlier movies had never been made? What about the viewer (say a 10-year-old) who has never seen the previous versions? And in thirty years' time, which version would you recommend to someone who only had the inclination to watch one? Would the sequence even matter then?

It's true the backstory is now familiar. But it's such a charming backstory: the abandoned child, the loving aunt and uncle, the spider bite, the discovery of his powers, that brief period when Peter can enjoy the fun of his powers before the "great responsibility" clause kicks in.

In the last scene of the movie, Peter's English teacher says that there is really only one story: "Who am I?" Whether there is just one or five or ten stories, almost any telling is a repetition. And will we ever tire of this story:

Or this one:

Or this one:

I hope not.

July 5, 2012

Stealing Horses

Chekhov wrote that, as a novelist, his job is not to say that stealing horses is wrong but to describe what it feels like to steal horses. But we need to add: and also how it feels to have your horse stolen.