Monday, April 29, 2013

First Lines of Jim Dodge's "Fup"

"Gabriel Santee was seventeen years old and three months pregnant when she married 'Sonic Johnny' Makhurst, a Boeing test pilot and recent heir to a modest Ohio hardware fortune. The ceremony was performed in a crepe-festooned hangar at Moffit Field, witnessed by a score of Sonic Johnny's drunken buddies. The bride and groom exchanged vowsw while standing on the wing of an X-77 jet fighter. Two months before Gabriel came to term, the same wing tore off the plane at 800 miles an hour over teh Mojave Desert with Johnny at the controls."

- Jim Dodge, from Fup.

I read this short (121 small pages) novella in a single sitting and loved it. I've always been a fan of Jim Dodge's "punk zen" stylings, and this fun tale of an anarchist grandfather that brews an insanely strong whiskey called Death Whisper, his fence-building grandson, and an abnormally large and intelligent duck (the eponymous "Fup") is filled with a joy de vivre that's hard to find these days. Actually laughed out loud a few times, which means that this short gem receives the Thought Ambience "Highly Recommended" status.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

1st Page of "Bleeding Edge"

To wet our appetites, Penguin's released the first page of Pynchon's upcoming novel Bleeding Edge in their fall release announcement (PDF). There's something about his ungainly, energetic, informal prose that speaks to me. Looking forward to September!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bowie Resurgent

Evert Cilliers (aka Adam Ash) writes about Bowie in the wake of his suprise new album:

With Bowie, we'll never know where we stand with him. There ain't no rut for this dude. Maybe he'll invent another persona. Maybe we'll get to know him qua him. Maybe he'll face death in some very Bowiesquely compelling way. I personally, well, I need a guy like him around. Jeez, we're living in the dying embers of the Western capitalist moment. Our big banks, mired in massive fraud they're free to get away with, have deprived us of any moral center, and made fairness an outmoded concept. Our President is prepared to cut Social Security benefits, suffused with a bizarre desire to make nice with the crazy Republicans in a Grand Bargain of deficit cutting, which nobody needs, ferchrissake. Fuck Obama. He's no savior. We ain't got a Savior Mechanic, to paraphrase Bowie.
That's why I needs me some cultural fun and games. I needs me some Weimar amidst the rise of financial fascism. I needs me some happy surprises from some individual public figure out there.
I needs me some David Bowie

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Efficiency of Emergency Staff

It's remarkable that so few people ended up losing their lives in the Boston Marathon explosions. It speaks volumes about the quality and skill of both Boston's first responders as well as the doctors in our hospitals. More specifically, Atul Gawande explains how so many people were able to save so many lives so quickly. Money quote:
Talking to people about that day, I was struck by how ready and almost rehearsed they were for this event. A decade earlier, nothing approaching their level of collaboration and efficiency would have occurred. We have, as one colleague put it to me, replaced our pre-9/11 naïveté with post-9/11 sobriety. Where before we’d have been struck dumb with shock about such events, now we are almost calculating about them. ...
Ten years of war have brought details of attacks like these to our towns through news, images, and the soldiers who saw and encountered them. Almost every hospital has a surgeon or nurse or medic with battlefield experience, sometimes several. Many also had trauma personnel who deployed to Haiti after the earthquake, Banda Aceh after the tsunami, and elsewhere. Disaster response has become an area of wide interest and study. Cities and towns have conducted disaster drills...
We’ve learned, and we’ve absorbed. This is not cause for either celebration or satisfaction. That we have come to this state of existence is a great sadness. But it is our great fortune.   

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Boston Marathon

What started out as a fun day with my son cheering on famous runners, friends, and complete strangers turned quickly into a stomach churning afternoon when the news of the reprehensible carnage came in. Like a lot of people, I got caught up in the fear and terror and spent a night distracted by news reports and rumor mongering. But after a few days of sleep and reflection, I choose to reject the fear sowed by these cowardly terrorists and instead focus on the strength of my great nation and people of my adopted hometown. When I'm healthy again, I will continue to run races without fear. And i'll be down at the marathon again in 2014, supporting it in every way I can.

Many people with more talented pens than I wrote much better reactions than I could ever hope to do. Here are some of the best.

Patton Oswalt:
“I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths. But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. … This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.
But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago,”
Heather Hurlburt , on combating terrorism like being a marathon
We don't know who planted those explosive devices, but, as former West Point academic Brian Fishman reminds us, we know what those who resort to terror's indiscriminate violence want:
Terrorists kill for two basic reasons: They want to disrupt and destroy institutions or symbols of a political order they despise and they want to intimidate people not touched by the attack directly. 
... My fellow Americans, our hearts are broken, but the state of our union is strong. Maybe stronger than it was yesterday, before we saw those pictures of our fellow-citizens running from the race to the fallen.
So what about sowing fear and division among the rest of us, terrorists' other goal?
Americans of every political stripe have been calling out speculation and scapegoating as fast as it happens. Bostonians of every faith and race have come together to mourn their losses and celebrate their heroes. Maybe the attacker or attackers, whomever they are, didn't know Boston's difficult history of race and religious relations, maybe they did – but for those of us who do, this unity is especially beautiful to see.
That's pretty good for mile one. But we have so many hard miles ahead. Not turning on each other, or our institutions, or our own freedoms, whatever the truth behind these terrible attacks proves to be… can we keep it up?
And finally, my friend Norb, writing on Facebook. He watches the race from the other side of Route 135 than I do:

For those of you who don't know, I live a short walk from the mile 4 water stop on the Boston Marathon route in Ashland, MA. In the years I don't have to work, I take in the race with my kids. It's always quite amazing to stand on the hill there and watch a wall of people running towards us.
But then the fun begins. We pick out people to shout encouragement to. Maybe they have their name on their shirt. Maybe they're wearing their country's flag. Maybe they're just wearing pink sneakers. If we can find a way to address you, we will shout our encouragement at you as you run past.
And that will continue from mile 4 (and earlier), all the way to the end of the race. People you have never seen before, and will probably never see again, shouting heartfelt - and often hilarious - encouragement to those souls crazy enough to run 26.2 miles through our home towns.
It's one of those things that makes Boston Boston. It's why I love living here, and would never consider moving anywhere else. And no act of terror is going to change that.
Therefore, while I grieve for those people killed and injured today, I will say this to all you runners: I'll see you next year. And the year after that. And the year after that, too. Because for every "real" athlete out there running the race, there are five running it because they lost someone to cancer, or want their schools to have better technology, or any of a thousand other noble causes that drive people to test themselves against the Boston Marathon.
So, next year I will stand on the hill up by Ashland High School and watch that wave of crazy people washing down Union Street. And, while my smile may be a little sad, it will still be a smile. And then I'll go down and shout myself horse at the crazy people, helping them stay crazy enough to keep running for another 22.2 miles.
Because we're Boston. It's what we do.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Maybe that's What Falling in Love Means

“I realize we can never predict when these few special moments occur, she says, how if we hadn't met, I wouldn't be standing on a bridge watching a fire, and how there are certain people – not that many – who enter one’s life with the power to make these moments happen. Maybe that’s what falling in love means, the power to create for each other the moments by which we define ourselves.”

- Stewart Dybek, from the excellent “Paper Lantern,” collected in The Best American Short Stories 1996.
I listened to it via an excellent New Yorker fiction podcast, as read by ZZ Packer.

Related Posts:

Review: The New Yorker Fiction Podcasts

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Pynchon on Dreams

Dream tonight of peacock tails,
Diamond fields and spouter whales.
Ills are many, blessings few,
But dreams tonight will shelter you.

Let the vampire's creaking wing
Hide the stars while banshees sing;
Let the ghouls gorge all night long;
Dreams will keep you safe and strong.

Skeletons with poison teeth,
Risen from the world beneath,
Ogre, troll, and loup-garou,
Bloody wraith who looks like you,

Shadow on the window shade,
Harpies in a midnight raid,
Goblins seeking tender prey,
Dreams will chase them all away.

Dreams are like a magic cloak
Woven by the fairy folk,
Covering from top to toe,
Keeping you from winds and woe.

And should the Angel come this night
To fetch your soul away from light,
Cross yourself, and face the wall:
Dreams will help you not at all.

Thomas Pynchon, V. (Chapter Nine, Part II)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Why RSS Matters

With the discontinuation of Google Reader have come many proclamations of the death of RSS. Even though I use the My Yahoo page as my RSS feed, I’ve been bothered by the insinuation that RSS is dying, but haven’t really been able to put my finger on it. Luckily, io9 does a good job of summarizing the issue at stake: RSS gave the consumer the power to dis-aggregate content from a content provider, and as it fades away, reading habits are being controlled again by corporations.  A few quotes are in order. First, an explanation of why RSS was so appealing:
[RSS readers] ...let you take information from everywhere and organize it however you like. Your Wired stories were filed in the same place as your Entertainment Weekly stories. Everything was mixed together in an information jumble. Of course it was your information jumble, but it was still often confusing, and required a modicum of technical proficiency to organize and cultivate.
See I like this jumble! Using RSS was like making a mix tape of all of your favorite content sources  saving you the time of having to go to multiple websites – everything you wanted was in one place. Losing this capability is a problem because
"We are returning to a world where what you read online comes to you in silos. Instead of a feed reader, you can get an app that organizes your app subscriptions on a nice digital bookshelf where they look just like a bunch of paper magazines in a bookstore. But unlike an RSS reader, this app doesn't ever mix the content of these magazines up into a single stream. It keeps them separate. You have to jump out of one app and into another to read the next magazine on your shelf.
We are also moving toward a reading style that requires you to visit a specific site in order to read, instead of pulling all the articles you want into one piece of software. You go out into Tumblr and Facebook. You don't aggregate all your favorite Tumblrs and magazine articles into, one, unified reader. Everything is separate and out there, in the cloud."
 This is sad for a number of reasons, but the strongest reason against this method of reading is that you concede power in what you see to the corporations that generate that content. I like to believe that content is content regardless of its context, while Facebook and company want control (and monetize) the way in which you consume content, adding “value” in the form of targeted ads, etc.

The good news is that many companies have announced efforts to replicate Google Reader’s RSS API so that this method of reading will not die out. For me, My Yahoo tends to work okay, although I’m finding more and more RSS feeds simply don’t work within it, so I imagine I’ll be moving on sometime soon. Here’s hoping that the RSS model continues to thrive in the years to come!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ron Paul's Appeal

Michael Ames' The Awakening – an excellent article about Ron Paul in the April 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine – examines the powerful forces behind the Ron Paul phenomenon. Among other things, he details Paul’s appeal to a wide range of Americans by combining an anti-war stance with a libertarian financial outlook (including but not limited the evils of "too big to fail" finance). Writing about the former, Ames' claims that:
"'[Ron Paul]'s the only politician wiling to judge America's foreign policy adventures by the same moral standard we apply to other countries' foreign policy adventures,' Brian Doherty writes in Ron Paul's Revolution. That consistency, combined with the premium placed on peace, is the spiritual bedrock on which the Paulite's righteousness rest."
This passion is indeed powerful, but it’s when you combine it with the populist nature of his financial policy that you create the stew of his revolution. Ames again:
“[Paul] echoed the suspicions of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who predicted that the central bank would become the driver of income inequality. Whereas the right distracts voters with urgent noises about Marxist income redistribution, Paul insists the real problem is money flowing in the opposite direction. His Liberty Movement may never "end the Fed," but its members show more concern than anyone on the left (outside Vermont senator Bernie Sanders) about the Fed's practice of ‘socialism for the rich’."
I certainly don't agree with everything that Paul stands for - in particular, his calls for the ending of the social safety net strike me as an incredibly dangerous idea. As Ames puts it: "All the mechanisms and institutions or regulation and social welfare are slated for drastic downsizing or outright removal." (To choose just one example of why removing regulation might not be such a good idea, Whitney Terrell and Shannon Jackson in the same issue of Harper’s detail how Kansas City, by negating regulations and bequeathing almost unlimited power to Google in their efforts to build a citywide fiber-optic network, “had left itself powerless to guarantee service for its most vulnerable constituents.”)

Still, his message is a powerful lure for people (like me) who are disillusioned with Obama. (Ames includes a powerful listing of all of the reasons Obama has been a disappointment, from his corporate welfare to drones to the continuation of the “expanded military, police, and surveillance powers that the Bush Administration arrogated to itself in the years following 9/11.”) I’m hopeful that at the very least Paul’s movement – now consolidating its message in his son Rand – pushes the debate from the far-right tack it’s been on back towards the center on many issues.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft

Any fan of horror fiction has heard of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s hard to overstate how much Lovecraft towers over modern horror writing – many authors like Stephen King sing his praises. It was this continued exposure to his name that led me to sample his writing. And you can do so for free! His fiction has passed out of copyright so people like CthulhuChick have provided his stories specifically designed for your e-reader of choice. (I love the internet.) And my first impression is that there’s a good reason for his reputation – he’s a compelling, original author that created insanely detailed worlds that, at times, are genuinely creepy. The liked the five (long) stories I read, although I felt that they all suffered from the same flaws that keep me from unequivably praising the man:
  • Pacing. My god is the man long winded. I understand that writing was different back in the day and that authors liked to give things room to breathe, but his relaxed pacing is tough going in the internet age. 
  • Words. All of the stories I read dealt with monsters or events that were so fantastic that they became sublime.  So how do you describe the indescribable? You overuse the words that are available to you - reading Lovecraft is like reading a thesaurus for “extraordinary” or “incredible.”
  • Antiquated sensibility. Lovecraft quite obviously belonged to or longed for a bygone time when the world was divided into unrefined and refined people (the latter having servants and resources to travel the world and have sitting rooms and the free time to ponder architecture). This mindset is also foreign to the (my?) modern sensibility and also generates some quite offensive language about minorities.
  • Unpronouncable names. I love the names he gives his monster menagerie but seriously, how do you say them? Can you pronounce “Cthulhu?” “Yog-sothoth”?
Regardless of the above, it’s speaks to the power of his writing that despite these significant flaws the stories are so good. My favorites were The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Mountains of Madness” and portions of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” IMO, “The Call of Cthulhu” is the place to start – it’s a short story that condenses what’s attractive about Lovecraft into a relatively taught package. On the other hand, “The Mountains of Madness”, despite its many moments of genius, suffers from its novella length and logical inconsistencies (to pick one: entire chapters are dedicated to a history of the monsters that our explorers apparently discerned in mere hours by examining wall etchings via flashlight. Brother, please.) It’s his endings that I liked the best. For example, once you get past the mind-numbing detail in the first sections of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” you get a riveting section where an explorer navigates the spooky tunnels underneath an old section of Providence RI.

Most people agree that there’s a sharp division in the horror genre – once Lovecraft came along, horror was simply different. And you can see this when you read him. Before Lovecraft, horror was mainly focused on danger to body or soul – things that would either kill you or would damn your soul to hell. Lovecraft depicts a world in which mankind is insignificant in the extreme, and the protagonists not only have a hard time grasping the cosmic nature of the beasts and plots raging around them but also the implication that these ageless monsters render us insignificant. I’m not sure what sparked this sensibility – a reaction to the World Wars or modern scientific discoveries – but the horror that defines human capabilities as insignificant in an indifferent universe is easily the most powerful aspect of his work.

Bonus video: Check out this (unembeddable) creepy video by Prins Preben inspired by Lovecraft.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Don't Let Us Get Sick

Don't let us get sick
Don't let us get old
Don't let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight

The sky was on fire
When I walked to the mill
To take up the slack in the line
I thought of my friends
And the troubles they've had
To keep me from thinking of mine

Don't let us get sick, etc.

The moon has a face
And it smiles on the lake
And causes the ripples in Time
I'm lucky to be here
With someone I like
Who maketh my spirit to shine

Don't let us get sick, etc.

- Warren Zevon, off of  The Wind