January Book Log

January 31, 2009

I have decided to add a regular feature to this blog. At the end of every month, I will list the books I read, how I rated them, and give a few thoughts. At the end, I’ll update my book queue. Now, without further ado:

1. Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem (3.5 out of 5): Easily the weakest Lethem I’ve read. Good and strange enough to keep you reading, but a little too trippy for my taste. I would have liked to see things congeal a bit more, especially at the end. Still, it was plenty entertaining.

2. The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson (3.5/5): Bill Bryson in a car, in the mid-eighties driving around the US. The eastern portion of the book is very entertaining, but it falls off considerably when he heads ouot west and runs out of things to say.

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (4.5/5): The book follows the protagonist from the age of about three until his early twenties or so. Joyce continues to alter the perspective as the main character ages. So, when he is three, it is written from a three-year-old’s perspective and so forth. A really wonderful read with about thirty or forty pages of unbearable pretentiousness wedged near then end (an integral and inevitable phase for a developing artist, perhaps, but not entertaining reading). It recovers nicely at the end. I loved this book. I wish I hadn’t put off reading it for so long.

4. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (5/5): More the story of an area of land than any of its characters, this traces three narrative that only lightly overlap but are tied strongly together by the area where the characters all live. Wonderful messages about minding the earth are woven in without becoming preachy. I absolutely loved this book, which is her most recent novel, and I wonder when she will publish another as it has now been more than eight years.

5. 33 1/3 Pet Sounds by Jim Fusilli (3.5/5): Good. Entertaining, but too much like a history of Brian Wilson when it should really be a dissection of the album.

6. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (5/5): What am I supposed to say about this? Despite science’s reputation for being cold an detached, I am continually charmed by how much its best and brightest minds find beauty and betray enormous enthusiasm in the work they do. Darwin is no exception.

7. Rose by Li-Young Lee (5/5): I am trying to read one book of poetry a month this year. It really helps to have Cate to guide me a bit. This is a lovely book, and I really enjoyed it. I am still learning to talk about poetry, so I don’t have much to say that I can really articulate. Wonderful, vivid poems, though.

8. Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller (5/5): I just posted a long blog post about this book. All I’ll say here is that it was fantastic.

Book Queue Update:
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Drown by Junot Diaz
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Reading Now)
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Only A Theory

January 31, 2009

For a long time, I have been putting off the inevitable blog entry about evolution and why the notion of creationism in schools makes me so angry. Last night, I finished reading Kenneth Miller’s new book Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, and now I feel ready to tackle this entry while discussing his book.

I am not going to spend much time on the concept of evolution as “only a theory”. There are plenty of accounts that explain why this is a ridiculous claim (Miller’s book among them), I will say only briefly that relativity, plate tectonics, and electricity are also, scientifically speaking, theories. However, nuclear bombs, earthquakes, and televisions are very real. My concern in this entry is more to talk about the societal catastrophe that could occur if Intelligent Design proponents are successful.

I am starting at the end of the book. Let us consider this excerpt from a famous creationist/ID (yes, they are the same thing) document known as the Wedge Document:

If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points… We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID).

In case that excerpt does not make it clear enough, the goal of ID is not simply to overthrow evolution, but to overthrow all of science. The goal is to redefine science such that it includes supernatural phenomena as possible explanations. This boggles my mind. It would be extremely difficult for me to articulate how devastating this could be, fortunately, Mr. Miller does it for me:

What would happen to science if its ground rules were changed? What would a science of the future look like if we considered “nonnaturalistic” causes to be legitimate scientific explanations? At a stroke they would be accepted in every branch of science. That earthquake devastating part of the third world might have been caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, but it could also be a punishment for the sinfulness of those now suffering in the rubble. Why bother to conduct an exhaustive molecular search through simian virus genomes to find the source of HIV when clear-thinking ID scholars have concluded that it was sent as a devine warning against deviant lifestyles? In fact even the rainbow might just be a phenomenon presented to us by a “whimsical” designer, according to ID theorist William Dembski. Why worry about the physics of light when the mystery of the rainbow can be solved by easy reference to the personality of the creator?

If that does not scare the ever-loving-shit out of you, it should because I have heard different versions of this kind of blather from all over various conservative religious organizations and individuals. I can IMAGINE this happening, and it scares the hell out of me.

The primary complaint of the ID crowd has always been that science has gained a class system. There are the elite who believe in and push their mainstream (naturalist/materialist) ideas, and there is everyone else. “This isn’t fair!” they cry. “Our ideas are just as valid as yours!” Except they aren’t. All of science can be distilled into two words: Prove it. If you cannot PROVE what you are asserting, if you cannot find some way to test if what you are saying is true, then it is not science. What the ID movement is trying to do is make unprovable supernatural explanations valid. They are trying to turn SCIENCE into a matter of OPINION. Science has no room for opinion. Evolution has been proven again and again and again. It has passed every test. Just because it has not yet explained every adaptation in every living thing on earth does not mean it is invalid, it just means there is more to be learned, and we are learning more everyday.

Miller understands the dilemma that many people have, however. He understands that for many people evolution would serve as a final nail in the coffin. Their world is godless. There is no meaning to their lives. Everything is random. He talks about how understandable these feelings are. And then he deconstructs the entire argument. Now, if you want the full version, go read the book, but I’m just going to give you a taste. As Miller points out, according to science we could never have existed if the conditions in our universe weren’t exactly perfect. Further, if our ancestors and their ancestors hadn’t shown the ability to change and adapt with circumstance, we never would have developed into the lifeforms we currently are. In fact, we share a deep and profound heritage with every living thing on earth. This is a very good story and, here’s the best part, it’s true! It doesn’t mean there is no god. In fact, he rightly points out that if you do believe in god, then it seems silly not to acknowledge that NATURE is the creation. The universe is the creation, and that studying natural laws and coming to naturalistic solutions does not in anyway conflict with the existence of a god.

I will say here, before I close, that I do not believe in god. At least, not in the Christian sense. I don’t really know what may be out there, but at the same time, I do not need a god to imbue my life with purpose. I find purpose enough in living my life. I write. I love my wife. Soon, I will raise a daughter. I try to make the world a little better, a little nicer. That’s all the purpose I need, but many people do believe in god, and if any of those people are reading this and struggling with whether or not they really CAN believe in evolution without violating their faith or losing their tether in a confusing and difficult world, I will leave with this quote from Galileo which explains why even the godly should value science:

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

So Far, So Good

January 24, 2009

Barack Obama has been president for less than a week, but I am already feeling very good about this presidency. Consider his accomplishments int the first week:

1. An executive order that effectively saves the freedom of information act from the duplicity of the Bush administration. All of the last administration’s non-crucial documents are going to come out unless Bush/Cheney are willing to sue. The idea of Bush suing to keep his dirty laundry from getting out tickles the hell out of me.

2. Closure of Guantanamo Bay/CIA prisons and halting of related trials. There is no reason America can’t behave responsibly toward people who have been unfairly arrested. Obviously, I’m not in favor of releasing people who actually are terrorists, but if you think everyone in Guantanamo fits that description, then you haven’t been paying attention.

3. Torture is illegal again. That Obama even had to take action on this front shows exactly how terrible the last administration was.

4. Signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law. How wonderful that this finally got through. Women now have the right to sue if they find that they have been unfairly paid less than men doing the same jobs for years and years.

5. Removing the Global Gag Rule. Overseas organizations providing medical aid and other assistance to women are now allowed to talk to them about ALL the options that are available.

It’s hard to believe that I live in a country that needed all of this stuff done, but I’m glad we have a president now who’s willing to do it. Not a bad first week.

The Reader

January 23, 2009

I’ve had several blog ideas percolating this week, but I haven’t had time to get to them until now, so expect one or two entries a day for several days…

Academy Award nominations are out and a lot of people seem to be up in arms about three movies: The Reader, The Dark Knight, and Slumdog Millionaire. For The Reader everyone seems supremely angry that it is nominated for anything, for The Dark Knight everyone seems upset that it didn’t get more nominations, and for Slumdog Millionaire everyone just seems to be generally wetting their pants over how wonderful it is. I do not understand any of these reactions.

The Dark Knight is extremely overrated. It had no story, no climax, and only two characters that were even moderately developed (The Joker and Harvey Dent/Two Face). Additionally, the last 45 minutes feel entirely tacked on. Why couldn’t Two Face get his own movie? I really don’t get the hoopla. Yes, Heath Ledger was great. And yeah, it’s violent, if that’s your thing, but even the action scenes, in my opinion, were poorly filmed (I hate action scenes that are intentionally confusing and have lots of jump cuts. Let me see what’s going on, okay?). A lot of people are make the excuse that the story was developed in the first movie. I totally agree. I really like Batman Begins, but that does not mean that you can get away with having no story/character development in the second movie. If you want me to call a movie great, you have to give me more than one great performance and a bunch of sloppy action scenes.

Slumdog Millionaire is good. I really enjoyed it, but it is not as great as everyone seems to think it is. After about forty-five minutes, it is totally clear what is going to happen. The plot is EXTREMELY formulaic, and that’s okay. Like I said, I really like the movie. It does a good job making a formulaic plot enjoyable, but it is not the best movie this year. I don’t think I would even put it in my top five. I think this is getting so much attention because of the happy ending, but that’s not enough for me.

The Reader is fantastic. I did not see a better movie this year. Many, many people seem to have a real problem with the story and an inability to relate to the characters, and I just don’t get it. The main character seems especially relatable to me. I watch him and totally understand everything he does. Kate Winslet’s character is also really interesting and complex. What must it have been like to be 20 years old in Nazi Germany? Wouldn’t it have been hard not to go along? And what do you do after? To quote one of the characters, “everyone knew”. No one was really innocent, so of course you pick up the pieces and try to live a normal life. I understand everyone in this movie and I relate to them AND the story is not predictable. I was riveted through the entire movie. Cate had to use the bathroom for the last half of it, but wouldn’t get up because she didn’t want to miss anything. Aside from Mickey Rourke (maybe), Kate Winslet gives the best performance I’ve seen this year, but there isn’t a weak performance in the entire movie. I really don’t understand the problem people have with this movie.

So that’s it, I have no idea where people are coming from with these three movies, especially the reader. If someone wants to try and enlighten me, please feel free.

P.S. Do you know what is the biggest fucking injustice of all? The song category. Peter Gabriel and two songs from Slumdog? Really? Have they heard the track Springsteen recorded for The Wrestler? The Gabriel track is fine, and clearly written to win a Grammy. I can’t remember any of the music from Slumdog, which says a lot, but the Springsteen song has been in my head since I walked out of the movie almost a month ago, and not in a bad way. It’s so haunting and evocative. I do not understand how it didn’t even get nominated.


January 16, 2009

For the first time in several years, it seems I am going to be published. You would probably expect me to be excited, and I am a little bit. I mean, I’ve got a pretty good batting average right now. So far, I have submitted something for publication seven times (and four of those were the same, unagented novel) and been published twice. That’s not a bad batting average. Really, I should be submitting stuff more often, but I get obsessed with novel writing, and novels are such monsters to try and get published… Anyway, I’m working on that part, but let’s get to the point.

Here in Louisville, there is an independent paper called the LEO (Louisville Eccentric Observer), and every year they have a writing issue. The first story I ever submitted was back in 2004 (I think) for this very issue (this same story later added about 450 pages and became the Charles book), and it was published as an honorable mention. This year, I got back on the horse and sent them a short story I’d worked on a fair amount (maybe not my best work, but still, I think, pretty good) and a piece of flash fiction that I wrote in about 45 seconds. Guess which thing they’re publishing. Actually, don’t guess, I’ll let you read it in it’s entirety. Ready?

As his mother left a telephone message about how much they were looking forward to seeing him on Christmas, the mouse he had been trying to kill for days scurried across the shiny black dress shoe encasing his now lifeless foot. Moments later, the same mouse was devoured by his normally sedentary house cat.

So, what do you think? Honestly, I think those are a couple of pretty good sentences. I mean, there are two characters (if you don’t count the animals) and there’s death (animal and human) and maternal love and a mysterious reference to an outside life (the shiny shoe). And honestly, I get a little kick out of the mouse dying. It’s a good little twist at the “end.” I packed a lot in there, which was kind of my goal. But the thing is, I wrote that in literally (no, not figuratively) 45 seconds. I’m glad it’s being published, I really am, and I shouldn’t complain, but this reminds me of college when I would bust my ass on something and get a C, and the next day I would bullshit an entire test and end up with an A-.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I am grateful. It always feels good to be published. I guess, really, it just feels like getting an A on a test I didn’t study for.

Book Queue

January 10, 2009

Because I am prone to forget, here is a list of books I would like to read or reread sometime reasonably soon:
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Drown by Junot Diaz
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

Favorite Books of 2008

January 8, 2009

I am going to do the book list a bit different than the music list. There are only going to be five items in the list and it does matter when they came out as I don’t think I actually read anything that came out this year. All of this seems odd because I read more books this year (40) than I heard new albums, but it’s how I want to do things. Obviously, I am not counting books I had read before. Also, I am exhausted*, so if any of this reads like a mad man wrote it, you’ll know why.

1. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien –
This is one of the best things I have ever read. It’s somewhere between novel, memoir, and short story collection, and it is absolutely wonderful. I can’t imagine any piece of writing that would better help me understand Vietnam. This book is so good, I can’t even write about it. Just go read it if you haven’t already.

2. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem –
I read this book after reading Motherless Brooklyn and pretty much decided I needed to read everything Lethem had ever wrote. I’m a bit more than halfway there, I think. Anyway, this book is a wonderful bit of modern day magical realism. There are two kids growing up in a bad neighborhood dealing with all the shitty stuff that comes with that, and oh, by the way, they find this ring that gives them superpowers. Beyond the interesting story, the characters, especially Mingus are wonderfully interesting and deep and contradictory in completely human ways. I really love the way Lethem writes. He writes like their are a million things going on under the surface – like every story ever told intertwines – but only shows you what you need to understand the story at hand. This book is his best.

3. How the Hula Girl Sings by Joe Meno –
I did not care for Hairstyles of the Damned, which Cate made me read, but on Mike Lewis’ suggestion, I gave him another go with this book. Their are a lot of terribly sad books on my list, and this is certainly competing for the title of saddest book this year. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Meno does a wonderful job shwoing how hard and cruel life can be even when you feel truly terrible for the bad things you’ve done. Their are elements of Steinbeck here (especially Of Mice and Men), but it’s more contemporary and the society the characters face is much colder.

4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver –
This year Cate and I have finally delved into the nature of food. Something that is a big interest for both of us. This book is the best thing I’ve read on the subject because it supplements the depth of knowledge you find in a Michael Pollan book with the narrative ability of Barbara Kingsolver. We were already trying to eat organic and be environmentally conscious with our choices, but this pushed us that much further down the line.

5. Going after Cacciato by Tim O’Brien –
More than anything I read this year, this book broke my heart. I don’t know much else to say about it. Now, of course, I have to go read everything he’s written.

Honorable Mention: As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem – A neat little story with the strangest premise of anything I read this year: Girl leaves boy for non-entity. Loved the twist at the end.

Worst Book of the Year: The Windup Bird Chronicle by Hideki Murakmai
I am not a Murakami fan now. He had a chance with me, and he killed it. This is the most unstatisfying read I’ve had in ages. The worst part is it kept promising that it might be good, but never delieverd, so I ended up reading the whole damn thing because of a promise that was never fulfilled. I wish I could have the time I spent reading this back.

*It’s my first week back from break, so I’m tired anyway. Then today, I get a call in class from Cate and she says, “I’m bleeding a lot; you need to come home.” Now Cate, is pregnant, so the first place my brain goes is miscarriage. I get someone in my room, and I am out of there like a shot. I call her from the car to ask if we need to call an ambulance and I find out it’s her NOSE that is bleeding profusely (she’s been getting a lot of nosebleeds lately and assumed I would make the connection). Still important and I still need to come home, but not not quite the same as a miscarriage. Obviously, everything worked out just fine, which is good, but it made for a stressful/tiring day. I am ready for the weekend.

Goals (Cliche Warning)

January 7, 2009

Oh it’s after the New Year and now he’s going to post a list of his goals! I know, can you feel the excitement? Cate and I have actually been talking about keeping around a list of things we want to accomplish for a while, and I thought it might help me to stay on top of it if I blogged about it every few months or so. Incidentally, these are all five year goals.

Mutual Goals:

1. Buy a House – Cate and I both really want a decent sized house that is actually ours and that we can do whatever we want with. We’re actually really far away from being able to do this, but once she gets Doula certification and I finish graduate school (here, I am making the assumption that I will get in), we should be pretty stable financially and able to save her income while living off mine. This would get us into a house pretty fast.

1A. Have Two Kids: One is currently on the way so we’re almost halfway there. Mostly, we just don’t want our kids to be separated by too many years, and I don’t want them in the house when I’m 50.

2. Financial Stability – See number 1.

3. Take at least one good vacation and one small vacation – We both love to travel and even though we’re going to be poor and have a child, it would be nice if we could find a chance to get away here and there. We would both really love another trip to Europe. Obviously, this is the bottom goal on the list, but if we can make it happen it would be great.

My Goals:

1. Publish a Book (or Two) – I have written two now. I have an idea for another. What I really need to do is try and find an agent. This will be my project after the Charles book is edited. Personally, I hate doing that kind of stuff, but it is, apparently, what you have to do.

2. Get My MFA – I will know whether or not this will happen in a few months.

3. Get a job I am comfortable with – This may be teaching at another high school, at a college, or not teaching at all. I’m not sure, but I have to get out of JCPS. It’s too backward of a district and I don’t approve of basically any of their policies. Also, I would love to have a job that did not require me to get up before 7:00.

The Work of Writing

January 6, 2009

Their are forthcoming blog posts about my favorite books and movies of 2008, but tonight I’m going to get back into writing about writing a little bit.

You may be aware, dear reader, that I recently finished the first draft of my second novel, tentatively titled: The Approximate Life of Charles Burden. (Yes, I know the title closely resembles that of a certain recent Pulitzer Prize winner, but I have been kicking this title around for a while.) I had intended to get cracking on revisions during the holiday break, but life intervened (that is, I was busy as fuck), and I only just got started tonight.

The last time I went through the revision process I was quite optimistic. “I’ll just go read this and make notes of any little problems I have, and then I’ll make some changes and everything will be fine.” Um, not so much. What I didn’t know at the time was that, because it was the first draft of a novel, there wouldn’t be just “little problems” (though there would be plenty of those), there would also be plenty of great big problems. Indeed, there would be chapters where I seriously wondered if someone had drugged my apple juice the night I wrote them. “But this is bad writing. I wasn’t writing a bad novel.”

It wasn’t the read through that killed me, however. I read the book and I actually kind of liked it despite the fact that I had spent way more time with the characters than I like to spend with anyone (and the characters in that first book weren’t super likable). No, what really killed me was the rewriting. A more unpleasant literary experience, I cannot imagine. At the risk of tooting my own horn, there were some good stretches in that first book. Things that I was proud to have written. The good things even outnumbered the bad, so, overall the reading had been a pleasant experience. But you don’t deal with the good parts in a rewrite. They are good. You leave those things the hell alone. No, in a rewrite you deal with the 1/3 of a terrible book you have written. You look at page after page of wordy, convoluted sentences. You deal with completely unrealistic character actions. You vomit over sappy descriptions of budding love. It is not a pretty thing. By the time I got to the end of my rewrites, I was convinced that I was a terrible writer ans wondered why I had bothered in the first place. I had to reread the whole thing just to keep from tossing it into the bin and deleting it from my hard drive.

This is the process I am about to embark upon with my current book. And here’s the bonus. This one is 40,000 words longer! So, even if we assume that it’s my second novel and so the first draft shouldn’t be as terrible as the first draft of my first novel, it’s still pretty hard to conclude that the extra 60% I tacked on isn’t going to leave me with a lot more bad than I had to deal with last time. This is daunting. This scares the living shit out of my quivering bowels. (Doesn’t that sentence make you eager to read my book?) I don’t want to rewrite 100 to 120 pages of horse shit. I will, of course, but I fully expect to loathe every minute of it.

This is the work of writing. It’s the part I don’t really enjoy, and I expect most people don’t. Of course, in the end, the product will be infinitely superior to the first draft (and anything you’re reading here, frankly), and I will be proud of it. I suppose this is the point. It still hurts though.