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Tag: Books

A Brief Review of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen

I cannot stop talking about this book. Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is one of the most moving, masterful collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I literally (read: figuratively) cannot believe how good it is. Reading it even upset me because I am fairly certain that I will never in my life be able to write something this good. It is so good.

I picked up the book one afternoon last summer at Word here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a lovely independent book store and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you should go there and give them your money in exchange for books. Who doesn’t need more books? It was with that thought in mind that I entered Word and browsed through their well-curated selection. Stranger Things Happen was one of the four or five books I bought that day and as soon as it got home it went directly onto my bookshelf and was forgotten. Such is the fate of many books languishing upon my shelves.

After putting down The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of the dragon tattoo books, which was entirely unremarkable and didn’t warrant my continued attention, I pulled Link’s book off my shelf, dusted it off, and threw it into my bag for the train. I swear I nearly missed my stop because I had my face buried in the book. I didn’t want to get off the train. And I always want to get off the train. I hate the train.

The book contains 11 short stories on all sorts of topics with all sorts of characters (and a lot of cats). They are magical without being ridiculous, difficult without being abstract, feminine without being saccharine, fantastical yet completely real. (Isa, I wrote yours first.) She has managed to blend the real and the unreal into a wholly believable tapestry. The stories are full of mystery and sadness and love and death. I can’t believe you have not already purchased the book. It is SO good.

The quote by Jonathan Lethem on the cover sums the whole thing up quite nicely.

Kelly Link is the exact best and strangest and funniest short story writer on earth that you have never heard of at the exact moment you are reading these words and making them slightly inexact. Now pay for the book.

And guess what? You don’t have to pay for the book! You can download it for free at her website. But I think you should pay for the book because it is amazing and you would be a fool not to support her efforts. I ordered her second collection of short stories yesterday (which is also available for free) directly from their website. Read the book and then come back here and tell me how much you loved it. I loved it. I am sad it is done. However, I intend to do a TBLR of one of the stories. Look out for that.

Thanks for kicking ass, Kelly Link.

A letter to Infinite Jest

Dear Infinite Jest,

Well, I’ve finally finished you. It’s been, what, like 8 months? When I started you, you looked like this:

But you were so big and cumbersome that it took me months and months to make it through even a few hundred pages of your massive, dense, nearly-1000 page (without endnotes) bulk. Luckily, bitching about how you hurt my hand on the subway inspired a random Kindle from my mom for Christmas. She offered at the time to buy you again for the Kindle, but I retorted that I already owned you, so why buy another copy? I’ll just finish the paper copy and use the Kindle for other books.

Well that dream didn’t last very long. You were so large that I couldn’t really hold you with one hand on the train, much less flip back and forth from text to endnotes without much difficulty. Lucky were the times I got a seat so I could spread you across my lap and actually read without worrying about letting go of the pole and being tossed on the invariably rough subway ride to or from work. I gave in. I spent the 9.99 on Amazon and bought the Kindle version. When I finished you, you looked like this:

Nevermind the text on the image.

A few weeks ago, after a brunch mandate to stitch & bitch with Jesse (MACHO AS HELL), we found ourselves in the back yard of TBD in my beloved Greenpoint drinking beers and having a sans-women hang out time. It was really nice. As such, we got around to talking about you. But before we get into the whole post of this letter, let me restate something I mentioned in reference to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

I like to work for a book. I really dislike having everything handed to me in tidy pockets of exposition. Nothing pulls me out of a book more than when someone within the first 30 pages stops to explain what they mean but this or that term that the author has created and feels some need to explain directly rather than letting us figure it out like rational, literate adults. I want vagueness and mystery and hints and intentional misdirection. I want to use my brain to participate in unraveling the text. I don’t think that’s so much. In fact, it is the one characteristic that differentiates books into the “enjoyed” pile and “would recommend to someone” pile. Sure, I enjoy books that are quick and hand me things, but only in the way you enjoy popcorn movies filled to the brim with explosions and tits and car chases. They’re little pieces of mental vacation. Think summer blockbuster versus art house.

Infinite Jest, you clearly fit into the “would recommend to someone” category for me. There’s nothing easy about your nearly-1000 pages and I enjoyed the task of deciphering you. You are a specific work of mad genius that I could never ever create. I enjoyed you immensely for all your rambling and wandering and temporal shifts and insane characters and plotless plot and asides and footnotes and nonsense and magical realism. It is clear to me that you are an intensely personal work by someone who was a tragic loss.

And then the other day on the subway I finished you. And all I have to say is fuck you, Infinite Jest. Fuck you with a knife and die. I’m all right with vague endings and I have never minded leaving questions unanswered at the end of a book, but this was too much. I felt like we’d stopped 100 pages before the book should have actually ended. In a flashback nonetheless. Total bullshit.

So, fuck you for making me feel like I didn’t get it. And fuck you for making me want to read you again so I pick up all the clues I missed the first time through. Fuck you. I love you. I haven’t been left wanting more so badly by an ending since I finished Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (which I thought I discussed here, but cannot find record of).

Fuck you, I love, and oh my god I am so sorry.


The Black Laser.

The Extraordinary Book Binding of Philip Smith

Speaking of books, I recently stumbled upon (without the help of StumbleUpon) the work of a British artist named Philip Smith who works exclusively in the bindings of books. As you know, a book is really just a stack of loosely connected papers until someone or some machine comes along and binds them all together. Usually a books binding is utilitarian at best, and shoddy at worst. Hard bound books are nice, if expensive, and then you have your mass market paperbacks which fall apart after 5 years because of cheap paper and cheaper glue.

Then you have artists like Mr. Smith here who not only return the craft of bookbinding to the highly-skilled artisanal place it held for centuries but add a surprising new dimension to it.

Here are a few favorites of mine from his site. See if you can guess which book each of these is. I promise there’s nothing esoteric here; these books can be found anywhere. Except maybe on Mars. For now.

Cool, right? I would LOVE to have one of these in my house on display. Talk about amazing art that would fit right in with my weirdo collection of things I like.

Head on over to the site to see if your guesses were correct. They’re all in the galleries.

Looking for something to read?

If you’re anything like me, and chances are you aren’t, then you have a huge stack of books on your shelves waiting for you to stay home more often and actually read them. I feel a little like a bad parent, but what are you going to do? However, having a back log of books doesn’t prevent me from wanting to acquire more books that I might eventually at some point in the future get around to reading. I mean, books are beautiful objects in their own right, and what’s the harm? It’s better to spend the 12.95 or whatever on a book than to spend it on cocaine. It wouldn’t be very MUCH cocaine, but the point still holds.

Once you’ve finished reading my pile of free, wildly captivating fiction, you might find yourself in need of something else to read while patiently waiting for me to update this site. Where might you find suggestions?

How about a surprisingly poorly written list of famous author’s favorite books?

Did you know that JCO’s favorite book is Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Or that David Foster Wallace picked C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters? Or that Michael Chabon, who I adore, picked Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges? Lots of surprises! Lots of new, fun books to read. The list even features Peter Cary of not-letting-me-into-Hunter fame. What was his favorite book? Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

My only disappointment in this list—besides its ham-fisted writing style—is that my favorite author of all time, Cormac McCarthy, was not represented. I wonder what his favorite book is? Mr. McCarthy, if you read this, leave us a comment. Thanks!

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

By page 5 of Absurdistan, I found something that I could relate to.

Alyosha-Bob and I have an interesting hobby that we indulge whenever possible. We think of ourselves as the Gentlemen Who Like to Rap. Our oeuvre stretches from the old-school jams of Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Public Enemy to the sensuous contemporary rhythms of ghetto tech, a hybrid of Miami bass, Chicago ghetto tracks, and Detroit electronica. The modern reader may be familiar with “Ass-N-Titties” by DJ Assault, perhaps the seminal work of the genre.

Those who know me know that I have a secret love for ghetto tech in all its lustrous forms. There’s something magical in its hard-driving misogyny that I find alluring and seductive. Shteyngart’s appraisal of the form is accurate, but for further reading here is the wikipedia entry.

Yet, the more I read of the book, the more I find myself having a hard time with it. The writing is good—very good—but there’s something about it that I find a little off-putting. I know it’s supposed to be satirical, but it feels just a little too self-aware. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. It’s just that it’s turning me off a little, so, in this case, yeah, it’s a bad thing. The Crying of Lot 49 was satirical and self-aware, but for some reason that didn’t grate on me the same way as Absurdistan does. And really, I just can’t help thinking one thing… Misha Vainberg = Ignatius J. Reilly. Think about it. It’s true.

I have more of the book to go, so I will report back once the book is finished. Who knows? Maybe it will turn around. And maybe it’s just the mood I’m in these days. It’s been known to happen.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in real time

I read Dracula during sixth grade. Every day we had a period called SSR, Sustained Silent Reading, where we’d sit wherever we wanted and read, silently, for an hour or 45 minutes or whatever. I remember quite clearly (an increasingly rare thing for me) sitting beneath a table on the windowed side of Mr. Williamson’s classroom with the green carpet reading my Penguin mass market paperback version of Dracula, enthralled by its revolutionary (to me, at least) format as a series of journals and letters. It blew my 11 year old mind. It was lush and suggestive, filled with horrors and darkness only ever hinted at indirectly. You never experienced the event as it unfurled, but were left to fill in the gaps for yourself based on what the characters had elected to describe in their writings, what they thought was important, how they felt about things. It turned what can be a very passive arrangement between author and reader into a more dynamic, exciting, interactive experience. Like 1898’s version of the best video game ever, but so much more because you got to do all the work. You were allowed to make the world your own. Indeed, to get the most out of the book, you needed to make the world your own, lest the experience become a disjointed, jumbly mess of conflicting view-points.

Let’s just say that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was important for me as a boy.

Today, Tiffany sent me a blog that is posting the entirety of Dracula as it happens in the book. The novel starts on May 3, and their first post is May 3. Such a cool idea. You can add it to your RSS feed and it will update you every day as the novel progresses.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If you get reading it, and find you can’t wait for the next chunk, you can read the entire novel for free on Project Gutenberg.

A side note, a few years after reading Dracula, they canceled SSR which is a real shame. I’m confident that, as grueling as it was sometimes to convince a bunch of post-recess 11 year olds to sit silently and read, those mandated reading periods were instrumental in the development of my love of reading and writing and my supreme respect for the power of words. There probably would never have been The Black Laser if I hadn’t been forced to read after lunch every day. Imagine a world where you delightful people would have no place on the internet to abuse your optic nerves with my black and pink layout. Horrifying, I know.

The Book Cover Archive

At I read an article about a new site called The Book Cover Archive going live. It is, as the name implies, an archive of various book covers. Awesome, right? Well, for someone as book geeky as I am, it is awesome. Each entry is tagged with various meta data, allowing you to sort by and search for author, designer, genre, or publisher. Searching by author and genre is pretty standard, and being able to search by publisher is neat, but the real glory lies in being able to search by designer.

For example, here is the entry for a book I wrote about here a few weeks ago. Peter Carey Theft

The cover was designed by John Gall, who, as it turns out, designed a number of other books on my shelves: The Road, Lolita, Kafka On The Shore

Pretty cool.

Right now the site is in public beta, meaning that not everything is running at 100%. They currently have about 850 books in the database, but I can’t imagine that number not rising significantly. It also seems like a great way to find new books since each entry has a convenient link to the book’s page on Amazon. Not for me though. I have enough books for the time being. I need to stay OUT of the bookstore. But you all might need books, and might be struggling with finding something to read, so here’s a nice place to judge a book by its cover. Branch out and pick something up you might not otherwise.

A funny passage from Peter Carey’s Theft.

I am reading Theft by Peter Carey right now and I must say that I am enjoying it. I like how he bounces between two imperfect narrators to reveal aspects of the story that might not come through just one narrator’s internal filter.

Anyway, I was reading on the subway as I do, and I read something that made me laugh aloud. Here you go. A passage from the book used completely without permission.

The taxis in New York are a total nightmare. I don’t know how anybody tolerates them, and I am not complaining about the eviscerated seats, the shitty shock absorbers, the suicidal left-hand turns, but rather the common faith of all those Malaysian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, Harlem Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Coney Island Russians, Brooklyn Jews, Buddhists, Zarathustrians—who knows what?—all of them with the rock-solid conviction that if you honk your bloody horn the sea will part before you. You can say it is not my business to comment. I am a hick, born in a butcher’s shop in Bacchus Marsh, but fuck them, really. Shut the fuck up.