Tag Archives: books

Excerpt: Spencer Madsen’s ‘You Can Make Anything Sad’

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

 

I have this very uncomfortable feeling of doing nothing.
Just sitting. Trying to get rid of it. Eating excessively.
Masturbating excessively.

Too occupied with myself to leave my apartment, or read a
book, or watch a movie.

I need to have rough sex or get into a fight.

But neither of those things are possible, given my isolation
and nature.

It’s like restless leg syndrome, only my whole life.

I want to do something insane but I want the insane thing to
be presented to me when I walk into the living room.

I have gotten nothing done and I realize that the true reason
I need to go to a cafe to write is because I can’t masturbate
in a cafe.

Misc. Micro Reviews

Books

 

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway — 4

‘Norwegian Wood’, by Haruki Murakami — 4

‘The Massive’ (vol. 1), by Brian Wood — 4

*

TV

 

Californication (final season) — 2

Masters of Sex (season 1) — 4

Louie (season 4) — 5

American Horror Story (season 1) — 4

*

Film

 

New Robocop Movie — 2.5

The Boondock Saints — 4

American Psycho — 5

Drinking Buddies — 5

V/H/S — 2.5

Edge of Tomorrow — 3.5

X-men: Days of Future Past — 3.5

Hunger Games: Catching Fire — 3.5

Lone Survivor — 3

Grand Budapest Hotel — 5! (holy shit)

Rushmore — 5

Happy World Poetry Day!

Happy World Poetry Day!

In honor of World Poetry Day, I’m sharing my favorite poem, the one that made me want to write poetry, ‘Entry in an Unknown Hand’, by Franz Wright.

I first read this as a Xerox’ed handout in my first Creative Writing class. I took this class after a year spent as a relatively successful Computer Science student, feeling intensely unfulfilled about what I was doing with my life. After the campus literary journal took a couple of my dreadfully awful poems, I felt inspired and switched my major to English, much to the horror of my parents who, to their credit, were supportive of me following my passion at the cost of anything resembling job security. I was very fortunate to encounter the poet, editor, and teacher David Dodd Lee, who introduced me to the work of Franz Wright and many other poets that remain my biggest inspirations and influences (including Lee himself). This was quite literally the first poem we read in that class, and was the first contemporary poem I had ever read in my life. Like most I had never really thought about poetry since reading Shakespearean sonnets in high school and simply didn’t know that people still wrote it outside of Hallmark cards.

This poem by Franz was an immediate and lasting wake-up call, hitting notes of loneliness, self-deprication, anger, sadness, bitterness, sarcasm, wit, and so much more, that resounded with me very deeply. Simply put, reading this poem both enlightened me that not only was poetry still being written but it was (often) poetry divested of end rhymes and overly sentimental tone. Poetry could be vulnerable, angry, biting, wan, funny, brutal, hopeful.  It was for me a singular moment of ‘I love this, I want to read more of this, I want to write this, I want to be in conversation with whatever this is as often as I can for as long as I can’.

Misc. Updates

Her — 5
The Counselor — 4
House of Cards (season 2) — 5
Californication (seasons 1-5) — 5
Shameless (season 1) — 5
Metallica: Through the Never — 4

I ended up liking The Counselor a lot more than I thought I would after seeing a pretty staggering amount of negative criticism; the dialogue is definitely strange / stands out as being very ‘literary’, but what’s not to love about that? A lot of critics are accusing it of being ‘pretentious’ which is always a strange thing to say about movies that are at least trying to reach into a deeper / stranger ecosystem than the average Hollywood flick. The aesthetics were gorgeous.

‘Her’ was also beyond gorgeous, offering a very crisp approach to visuals and setting in regards to a futuristic Los Angeles that leans much more heavily toward what I guess we could label  ‘speculative fiction’ than ‘science’.  Manages with Jonze’s deft touch to remain  lonely and minimalistic despite the overwhelming technological foliage that’s the entire point really of the film. Reminded me of ‘Lost in Translation’, that way.

House of Cards season 2 was as addicting and perfect as season 1; it’s a show that never lets the tension go slack even for a moment, something that’s incredibly hard to do well. On the subject of criticism I don’t understand, it’s been getting a solid amount of flack from admirably wonkish political types for being ‘unrealistic’. Well, it’s fiction, of course it is. People enjoy it as a politically-framed drama, and most folks don’t want to binge on 12 hours of CSPAN for a reason.

Book-related updates will be a bit slow for me, I’m working my way through Donna Tartt’s new novel ‘The Goldfinch’, which is fantastic so far but is both lengthy and a dense-ish read, so it’ll be a bit before I finish it. I’ve also been trying to set more time aside to work on both poems and the straggling beginnings of a novel I cranked out a couple years ago. There are a couple of poetry chapbook contests ending this month that I’d like to give a respectable try at, so I’m trying to read a little less each day in general, as whatever I’m reading can (for better or worse) influence how and what I’m writing. 

Tomorrow it’s going to be 60 degrees here in Indiana, the land that winter won’t leave the fuck alone. One can almost believe we’re all going to live to see beaches and campfires again before we die.

Review: ‘The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq’, by Hassan Blasim

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of IraqThe Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reflecting quite a lot on this short but destructive collection of short stories by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, a writer The Guardian has called “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Taking it’s title from the title of the first story, ‘corpse exhibition’ feels like both a directly and subtly apt one. There are bodies littered everywhere, violence and death a never-ending haze that hangs over every sentence. There’s a stoic resolve present in the curation of these stories that reminds me of an art gallery, a sort of determination to let the art speak for itself without distraction — the prose is concise, brutally economic as it frames one portrait after another of madmen, soldiers, djinn, prophets, soccer coaches and wailing family members. While Blasim’s style lets these landscapes play out in a way unadorned, it’s a style that also refuses to cushion any blow or cringe at any mutilated body.

I really admired the artistic ambition throughout the collection, the author’s restraint to let the stories echo and haunt without any stilted prodding or winding up from the author’s visible hand. The cascade of savagely honest descriptions and portrayals of one atrocity after another would have cultivated a good amount of writerly capital that could’ve been spent on a more sentimental or politicized text, but these stories really kick the gut because this gesture has been resisted. This doesn’t mean the result is cold or lacking in criticism of nearly every actor in the long period of the US intervention, but Blasim has let the dark imagination of each story be its own best advocate. The result is a surprising, surreal, and necessary collection that will poltergeist around the mind of readers from any perspective.

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Review: ‘Walking the Black Cat’, by Charles Simic

Walking the Black CatWalking the Black Cat by Charles Simic
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book Charles Simic is both maestro and ethnographer of one surreal geography after another alongside moments of the personal, sublime quotidian. The overall gesture of the book seems one as comfortable with the absurd as well as the pastoral, Simic constantly limning both everyday moments and nightmares at constant risk of becoming hilarious. While never quite cynical, the speaker of these poems feels slightly haggard with experience and knowing, a speaker that’s been around the block a few times — a block where razor blades are shuffled like cards, and Mary Magdalene dons shades and drives Jesus down Santa Monica Boulevard in a yellow convertible.

The heartbeat artistic tic of these poems are their stark images, moments of a dark, glamorous, almost cinematic quality. An ant raising a single charred straw onto it’s back, flies from a slaughterhouse pressing tiny bloody footprints across the pages of a book. As the poems oscillate between quieter scenes and parades of the ludicrous, these moments of imagery work both to magnetize tempo and the reader’s attention.

All of these poems are heavy with the human pang, nearly always looking outward from the self but the landscapes continually cast shadows back on the cave wall, the layers of imagery and metaphor becoming a subtle language that narrates a tremendous deal of emotion and introspection. As accessible as the poems are they should not be too easily considered simplistic or merely playful. This is a strange and forceful collection.

‘Blood Orange’

It looks so dark the end of the world may be near.
I believe it’s going to rain.
The birds in the park are silent.
Nothing is what it seems to be,
Nor are we.

There’s a tree on our street so big
We can all hide in its leaves.
We won’t need any clothes either.
I feel as old as a cockroach, you said.
In my head, I’m a passenger on a ghost ship.

Not even a sigh outdoors now.
If a child was left on our doorstep,
It must be asleep.
Everything is teetering on the edge of everything
With a polite smile.

It’s because there are things in this world
That just can’t be helped, you said.
Right then, I heard the blood orange
Roll off the table and with a thud
Lie cracked open on the floor.

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Review: ‘Ruins’, by Jeff Clark

RuinsRuins by Jeff Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been after this incredible chapbook for years, ever since Jeff Clark and his wife (the very talented poet Christine Hume) came to speak and give readings at Notre Dame while I was an MFA student there. By pure chance, Jeff Clark’s ‘Music and Suicides’ had been, years and years earlier, the first book of poetry I ever bought. It was strange and lovely to me how this bit of happenstance had come full circle. I was happy to share this little story with Jeff as I had him sign my copy. I was even more happy to hear him read from ‘Ruins’ — he and his wife are both stunning readers, very different in their performative styles but genuine and moving.

I fell in love with ‘Ruins’ that night, and though Jeff had several copies on hand to sell (a bit ahead of actual publication, shh) I was sad and frustrated to be without the money to grab it up at the time. Luckily several copies from Turtle Point Press are still available and I grabbed one up quickly. Jeff’s reputation as a book designer is apparent in the physicality of it — one of the only hardback chapbooks I think I’ve ever seen — the poems bookended by stark black-and-white photos, and the chapbook also contains a translation of Louis Aragon’s poem ‘Poem to Cry in Ruins’.

The work here is genuine and incredible, sparse personal poems that are deeply charged with remembering and nostalgia, loneliness and anger. Nearly every poem is looking to the past with a refusal to let go and frustration with the self that keeps refusing. Memory is a constant pull throughout, centered often on a grotesque and sad father figure that the speaker dwells on heavily with a mix of contempt and longing that speaks to the hold that the father still has, despite the intensely unpleasant portrait offered.

This small book is dark and thunderous, ironically doing the most work in its more quiet moments, where the storms of the past and present both remain as echoes and ringing in the ears. There’s such raw and rigorous longing for connection in the present and lamentations of the broken past that every line stings and reaches out and goes numb and starts again. The cohesion of all these effects is haunting, and leaves a surprisingly large impact for such a small book. If you can still find a copy floating about, buy it immediately.

‘Refuse Disciples’

You eat well and transcribe
You shit quickly in the morning
You only slander in self-defense
You manufacture affection
You get up, shower, and check your messages
You network, correspond, advance
You write preening, disposable statements
You wash come off quickly
You drink bottled water and monitor headlines
You check your money and messages
In sorrow you’re seductive, in catastrophe a fascist
You think precisely what you’ve read

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Review: ‘Shovel Ready’, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready: A NovelShovel Ready: A Novel by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will be honest and admit I wasn’t overly convinced of this novel right away; as a lover of William Gibson and Warren Ellis, the setting and premise felt a bit too familiar and overall the ground felt a bit well-tread. I knew right away I’d probably not be disappointed because this kind of gritty, noir speculative fiction is deeply in my wheelhouse, but I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to the expectations I had been building up for it for months.

In the end, I had really been swept up by this book, which manages to be more than the sum of its parts, which is not necessarily a knock on the parts. Adam Sternbergh has an obvious talent for pace and a heavily stylized narrative voice. The plot remains a bit well-worn, a heavy-drinking hitman anti-hero meandering about a dirty-bombed New York City full of shanty camp towns and the rich plugged into yet another flavor of a Matrix-like mass hallucinatory cyberspace bites off big on a strange job that only gets stranger. But Sternbergh is a fine storyteller and more than competently ushers along an engrossing tale. But the real strength here is in the frenetic tempo of the entire story, the way tension is elevated higher and higher and kept taut through the end.

The real danger of writing in a familiar genre is too easily falling into tired tropes and half-hearted style, and the book manages to mostly avoid it; the grit and noir are convincing and textured, rubbing the right away and making sure it burns. I really can’t commend enough Sternbergh’s risky approach to style, rapidly hammering one scene into the next with staccato, almost absurdly lean prose. The culminating effect feels like an action movie or graphic novel, with things getting hot early and never settling into any downtime.

I was happy to learn, as I suspected, that this isn’t a standalone debut but that at least one more ‘Spademan’ novel is in the works. I look forward to seeing how these characters and this refreshing approach to pace and structure bear out with more time. The world Sternbergh has created may not be as ultimately unique, but it’s an enjoyable nod to its predecessors and well worth spending your time in.

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The Temptations of Big Brother: ‘The Circle’, by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot being said about Dave Eggers’ latest novel, including a fair amount of criticism about it’s flawed posturing as a kind of parable meant to terrify and jostle the reader out of social media complacency — essentially, that is, an Orwellian caution story for the time of millenials, Big Brother taking selfies.

Much of the criticism seems justified to me; as a story The Circle hits a few flat notes, with almost cartoonishly one-dimensional characters that too often show their hand as being Authorial Megaphones, Eggers almost stridently breaking the writerly cliche to show and not tell. The would-be moral lesson of The Circle would’ve come across just as well and perhaps with even greater weight if emboldened with nuance and complexity, chiefly with its cast of characters. Mae, our young female protagonist is the biggest disappointment here, a small-town girl a bit too easily swept away by the glamorous machinations of The Circle, a social media behemoth stand-in that isn’t so much symbolic of Facebook and Google as a future epitome of all social media efforts. While much of her near frictionless evolution into the poster child of The Circle’s grandest project–a person going entirely ‘transparent’, everything from their vital signs to every moment of their day-to-day activities freely recorded and broadcast–can be attributed to her youthful idealism and appreciation of a remarkable career and lifestyle opportunity, one can’t help but feel there could’ve been a great deal more to the story had she had more empathy with her parents and ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who sit on the other, skeptical side of The Circle’s efforts.

That all said, the story remains fairly compelling and the book is a satisfying read on the whole. It also demands consideration for what it does almost too well: it makes Big Brother look, well, rather wonderful. While many critics have categorized the book as a relatively simple and even heavy-handed warning against the increasing erosion of privacy in the name of digital connectedness that most seems to revolve around narcissism, I really found it to be far more than that. Eggers, to my mind, has gone to great and convincing lengths to capture the temptations of The Circle’s efforts. In a series of ‘lessons’ of a sort from one of The Circle’s ‘Three Wisemen’ leaders, Mae is told of all the ways society and individuals would lead improved lives through complete transparency, the codeword throughout the book for complete surveillance. Children, given tracking chips at birth, nearly eradicate all kidnappings. Complete transparency among adults will nearly eliminate all crime, Bentham’s Panopticon with unlimited technology and funding. A collective of medical data on all people on Earth leading to unprecedented advances in detection and cure rates. A disabled child in California can tune in as a dozen different advanced cameras track a climber advancing up Everest. It continues on and on like this, resonating most effectively in the realm of government, where the trend for politicians to ‘go transparent’ quickly becomes an overwhelming one and leads to the first truly transparent democracy the world has ever seen, corruption and lobbying disappearing seemingly overnight.

The idealistic hopes play out in the book rather frequently and easily — more criticism is justified here, too, but the effect remains, and is I believe the real brilliance of this book. Eggers isn’t just scaring us all into maybe backing off of Facebook for a while, or caring a bit more about just how much time and money Google is spending to know who we are by trawling every email. He’s playing devil’s advocate for his own warning, arguing emphatically in return that increased digital visibility will have potential positive effects on a global scale, and surely will have many convincing proponents for pushing for those advances.

Philosophically, The Circle isn’t as singleminded as it might at first appear. It isn’t only a cautionary tale from a social media luddite, condemning the age of digital access and monitoring with a heavy hand. It’s richer and more daunting to consider to the full weight of what closing The Circle would mean, and considering why it might, to more than a few, not appear like such a scary story. Eggers leaves it to the reader to feel out these possible futures, and wonder if we can take some of the progress on offer from some of them without the requisite totalitarianism. Here the line between dystopia and utopia is paper thin, and all the more frightening because of it.

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