Thursday, May 28, 2015

What I'm reading/watching

I didn't get a chance to post last week, as I was in New York and didn't have wifi when I had expected to.

I finished Anton & Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which was absolutely hilarious.  The beginning is pretty rough, but once it picks up steam it's a page turner.  It's also so clearly a product of the mid-70s, and transmits the counter-culture of that time fantastically.

Tom Stoppard's radio play Artist Descending a Staircase (1972) which was later performed as a play.  It has some great passages about modern art and I like the palindromic structure (think Cloud Atlas), although I still prefer the other Stoppard plays I've read (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia).

I saw Fury Road, which was an excellent action movie.  The stunt work was fantastic, the over-the-top seventies B-flick aesthetics were great, it was quite simply everything an action movie should be.

I also saw Pitch Perfect 2 which was fun but forgettable.  None of the character development or emotional connection that made the original popular were here.  There was a lot of product placement, which was a bit distracting, but there were a lot of very funny cameos, culminating with David Cross as the world's biggest a cappella  fan, throwing a private a cappella battle including one group called the Tone Hangers (including Reggie Watts, Jason Jones, Joe Lo Truglio, and John Hodgman) and the Green Bay Packers (including several actual members of the Green Bay Packers).  The winner gets a $42,000 gift certificate to Dave & Busters (cf. product placement).

I also saw a performance of Hand to God at the Booth Theater.  The play, by Robert Askins, takes place in Texas "where the city meets the country" and centers on a teenager whose hand puppet is the possessed by the devil (or maybe he's just a bit touched in the head).  It's funny and weird, the cast was fantastic, and this is the second broadway show I've seen that features graphic puppet sex (although the first I've seen in it's original broadway run).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Norman Mailer debates Marshall McCluhan on the nature of art and the electronic world (1968)

Another great online find, from the 1960s Canadian show The Summer Way.  It's one of those debates that's oddly prescient, as some of the philosophical underpinnings of our society and culture are dissected nearly two generations ago.

Monday, May 25, 2015

2013: Inferno by Dan Brown

The Author:

Dan Brown (1964-    ) was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, where his father worked as a professor of mathematics.  Brown went on to study at Philips Exeter and later Amherst, from which he received his B.A. in 1986.  He moved out to Hollywood to pursue a career in music.  He released a few albums by 1994.  In 1993, he moved back to New Hampshire with Blythe Newlon, whom he married, and taught English at Philips Exeter.  He and his wife co-wrote his first book: 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman.  Brown was credited under the pseudonym Danielle Brown. He quit teaching to work full time in 1996 and published his first novel,Digital Fortress, in 1998.  Angels & Demons (2000) was his first novel starring Robert Langdon.  His fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code (2003) was the bestselling novel of the year it was published and the following year.  His next two novels, The Lost Symbol (2009) and Inferno (2013) were the bestselling novels in the year they were published.

The Book:

Length: 611 pages
Subject/Genre: Conspiracy/Conspiracy theory

Inferno starts with Robert Langdon waking up in a hospital room in Florence, a bullet wound having caused some short term amnesia.  Except all but one of those things turns out to be a lie.  Robert Langdon has to find out what he was working on that almost got him killed, why he's in Italy, and what's happened over the last couple days, with the help of genius doctor/actor/polyglot/prodigy Sienna Brooks. All he has are dreams of a woman predicting doom and an altered version of Botticelli's Mappa dell Inferno.

There's a lot of withholding information going on, often to absolutely no result.  For a long time, everyone avoids naming the bad guy, which would make sense if the bad guy were a character we knew of.  Even characters who have no reason to avoid using his name awkwardly avoid using it until Langdon figures it out.  Likewise, there's plenty that is so blatantly obvious that when the 'secret' is revealed, the only possible response is a resounding, "Yeah, I got that two hundred pages ago." To top it off, there are so many twists we just end up with a story that is convoluted.  After the fourth time you say, "All along you assumed it was X, but really it was Y!", I'll stop assuming X is X and I won't be surprised when it turns out to be Y (again).

To be fair though, Inferno was a step up from The Lost Symbol.  Since Brown wasn't dealing with a secret society (real or imagined), he stuck closer to facts.  A mad scientist obsessed Dante uses clues based on The Divine Comedy, rather than finding some secret code Dante hid in his own poetry.  Brown also starts to shy away from calling Langdon a symbologist, only using the phrase a couple times, at one point even referring to Langdon as "an art historian who specialized in iconography."  While this may seem like a trivial point, imagine if Indiana Jones went around calling himself a Treasurologist.  It just makes the character sound stupid.

Don't get me wrong, I still don't recommend Inferno.  The plot is convoluted, the characters are boring, many characters do things solely to advance the plot, etc.  It's far more tolerable than any of his earlier books, but you won't miss anything by skipping it.

Bestsellers of 2013:

Publishers Weekly's list for 2013 is separated by format, includes fiction and non-fiction, and no hard numbers.  Since Inferno was #2 on one list and #1 on the other, while Hard Luck was #1 on one list, and didn't appear on the other at all, I went with Inferno.


1. Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney
2. Inferno by Dan Brown
3. Killing Jesus by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard (non-fiction)
4. Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (non-fiction *cough* bull shit *cough)
5. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
6. Divergent by Veronica Roth
7. Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (non-fiction)
8. Sycamore Row by John Grisham
9. The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
10. Happy, Happy, Happy by Phil Robertson (non-fiction)

Kindle top 10:

1. Inferno by Dan Brown
2. Divergent by Veronica Roth
3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
4. Sycamore Row by John Grisham
5. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
6. Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
7. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
8. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
9. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (pseud. for J.K. Rowling)
10. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Also Published in 2013:

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Friday, May 22, 2015

Before and After Quiz #7

Time for round seven.

1. A rich and notable boy wizard finds a potions book that allows him to trade lives with an anonymous peasant.

2. Viola disguises herself as a man in order to escape a rural farmhouse besieged by zombies.

3. Charlie is an introverted but intelligent high schooler, whose questions about friendship, sex, and substances only become more urgent as the effects of the experimental treatment to cure his mental retardation begin to fade.

4. In this classic beat novel, two drugged out twenty-somethings head out west in search of the lost city of gold.

5. After losing all his limbs in WWI, a soldier must solve a murder despite the wishes of crime lords, super-intelligent babies, and talking kangaroos.

Scroll down for the answers!

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the Pauper - from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005) and The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain (1881)

2. Twelfth Night of the Living Dead - from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflowers for Algernon - from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999) and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
4. On the Road to El Dorado - from On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957) and Disney's The Road to El Dorado (2000

5. Johnny Got His Gun, with Occasional Music - from Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (1939) and Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (1994)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

You Never Forget Your First Time (Watching Eraserhead)

I first saw Eraserhead on Halloween night in an abandoned office building in Berlin.  That's not a joke.  It was the Halloween party for the Berlin Film Society, a film enthusiast club that specializes in pop-up cinema, screening interesting films in unexpected locations.  This was an empty office building in what was once East Berlin, one of those blocky grey concrete-and-glass structure, with a small table for the ticket takers in the bare lobby.  I had found out about the event while searching for something to do Halloween night (Halloween isn't as widely celebrated in Europe as it is in the U.S.).

 Nearly the entire second floor of the building was used for the event, with a full bar, a large selection of free donuts, and eerie lighting.

I was there on the early side, so I chatted with the bartenders a bit, one German and the other from SoCal.  (According to the German one, the absence of 40 oz. beers in the Germany is an untapped market.)  I should mention that not only was the screening and afterparty costume optional, the advertisements promised a free shot of vodka to all who came dressed as a David Lynch character.

David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), whether you love it or hate it, will stick in your memory forever.  The protagonist is especially memorable.  But how and when you see a movie has large impact on how you think of it.  As mentioned earlier, there was an afterparty, which was still going strong when I left sometime around four in the morning.  But more than watching Eraserhead in an abandoned German office building, or watching next to an exchange student dressed as Pikachu, or attending the subsequent afterparty dj'ed by a guy in a paper David Lynch mask:

"Ain't no party like a David Lynch party 'cuz a David Lynch party
 don't stop screaming, oh, god, why won't it stop screaming!?
No, more than any of that, it was one guy, one guy who came dressed as Henry, the film's protagonist, only taller, as if the movie were played with the wrong aspect ratio. Throughout the entire party, from the time it started to when I left, he was dancing, which would have been weird enough except for the fact that he seemed to have gotten all his moves from Saturday Night Fever.

photo from

This was the only image I was able to find online, and it's not a particularly good one. (I guess at some point he lost the suit jacket.)  While I certainly approve of showing people Eraserhead then offering to sell them alcohol as a business plan, the experience was certainly strange.  And now, whenever I think about the film, I remember blue-lit donuts, German pop music, overpriced whiskey, and this weird guy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Voices from Beyond

It's always interesting to find how things we've taken for granted were understood upon their inception.  Over the course of this blog, I've included video of Truman Capote, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle and others who were speaking from the other side.  Today, this would seem rather commonplace, but how were the first cases of such a post-mortem lectures received?  Well, the Paris Review is here to tell us.

It includes an unfortunately grainy recording of Robert Browning on an Edison Talking machine from less than a year before his death in 1889.

 A year later, on the first anniversary of his death, the cylinder was played.  According to the London Times report on the event:

"Today was the anniversary or Robert Browning's singular commemoration of it, an event unique in the history of science and of strange sympathetic significance took place at the Edison house.  The voice of the dead man was heard speaking.  This is the first time that Robert Browning's or any other voice has been heard from beyond the grave."

The first, but far from the last.  Of course voice recording soon picked up.  Although, the Edison talking doll couldn't have helped matters much.  What follows is the real recording of the Edison Talking Doll and holy shit is it horrifying.

Monday, May 18, 2015

2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

The Author:

Erika Mitchell (1963-    ) was born in London.  She was raised in Buckinghamshire where her father was a BBC cameraman.  She went on to study history at the University of Kent, and later became a television producer.  She married screenwriter Niall Leonard in 1987.  She became active on and in 2010 began publishing a series of erotic stories under the username Snowqueen's Icedragon, rewriting Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series with Edward as an S&M billionaire playboy.  She originally called it Master of the Universe in what I can only hope is the most bizarre Bonfire of the Vanities reference ever.  Mitchell rewrote the series enough to avoid an intellectual property lawsuit and published it under the title Fifty Shades of Grey.  The first two books in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, were originally published as an e-book or print on demand by Australian vanity publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop, and the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, was published in 2012.

The Book:

Length: 514 pages
Subject/Genre: Christian's unremitting gaze/erotica

Well, this was it.  From the very beginning, since that first post back in February 2013, this was my white whale. (And I realize I just passed up an opportunity for a 'grey' pun, but no.  I am better than that.) While I'd honestly rather have reread all the damn technical chapters from Moby Dick than any of the technical details about Christian Grey's dick, sacrifices must be made.  Here goes.

Think about a Twilight erotic fan fiction story where Edward is replaced by a billionaire who's into bondage.  Actually, don't think about it.  It's awful.  I know because I read the result.  And the fact is, a lot of the fanfic carried over.  Bella Anastasia, the narrator, is clumsy and describes herself as plain and uninteresting (the first and last any reader of 50 Shades can attest to).  Though she describes herself as such, for some reason, just like that vampire groupie who shall not be named (lest the Meyer estate sue), every one is in love with her. Seriously, every guy that gets more than five lines and isn't her stepdad wants to bone Anastasia, despite the fact that she is downright awful.  She has absolutely no personality.  She's an English major in Vancouver, Washington with a part-time job in a hardware store. She and her roommate/best friend plan to move to Seattle when they graduate.  So what does Anastasia want to do?  She plans to get a job in a publishing firm, but does she want to be a publisher? An editor?  What are her opinions on anything besides 19th century literature and Christian Grey's omnipresent gaze.

(And as for the gaze, how many hundreds of times is this specifically mentioned throughout the book?   It's like if the billboard of T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby were trying to mentally undress Daisy every other paragraph.)

And Christian isn't much better.  Despite what 50 Shades of Grey fans may think, 'well-hung' is not a character trait.  He and Anastasia are blank slates for readers to imprint their kinky fantasies on.  (On an unrelated note, the copy I picked up from a used bookstore has slight water damage.)

The obvious response is: well, it's porn.  To which my response is: Yeah, but it's terrible porn.  Anaïs Nin and Marguerite Duras and Henry Miller and, I assume, many others (I don't know much about erotica as a genre), have shown that libertine writing/erotica can still be (gasp!) well-written.  I literally just opened up to a random page and found these gems:

"Holy Moses, he's all mine to play with, and suddenly it's Christmas."

"'It's deep this way,' he murmurs."

"I thought I was in charge. My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream."

I don't mean to be hard on James, though.  She was never trying to write anything more than her sexual fantasy (which just happened to star the cast of a YA paranormal romance novel),  and when it got some popularity, she thought she'd make a bit of money off it.  That it became an international sensation (pun intended) was never anticipated.  And I'm not exaggerating when I say international.  Last November I was in Prague, and walking down a street I passed a sex shop.  I wouldn't have even noticed it were it not for a big poster advertising the author-approved Fifty Shades of Grey sex kit.  No, this wasn't some scuzzy central European Taken-esque trap, but an official, very real product.

"You've read the book, now insert it into an orifice!"

There was an attempt at making a porn parody of Fifty Shades of Grey (because apparently everything from the Adam West Batman series to 30 Rock has gotten porn parodies), but the lawyers got it shut down because they argued it was not transformative, i.e. the original was too close to porn anyway.  Also, the above links are SFW to youtube trailers, and, I shit you not, the advertisement that played before the latter was for the DVD of 50 Shades of Grey.  I can't make this up.  (I mean, I could, but I'm not.)

Speaking of the movie, the adaptation was released on Valentine's Day, 2015.  It stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan and was directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (her second film, her first being Nowhere Boy (2009)) and screenplay by Kelly Marcel (her second film, her first being Saving Mr. Banks (2013)), because apparently someone thought making a John Lennon biopic and a film about Tom Hanks being charming  asWalt Disney was good background for bondage porn.  While there may never have been a chance, I'd be remiss not to point out that Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero) publicly declared his desire to write the screenplay, but nothing ever came of that.

I'm not quite sure who is supposed to like this movie, besides the executives and their accountants, of course.  The whole point of the book is literally being porn, and even a good movie like Blue Valentine barely escaped an NC-17.  The whole selling point was, It's a porn book! but that doesn't really carry over to a movie (or, at least not to the type they screen at your local cineplex).  On the other hand, the characters range from fucking dull to just fucking, so when you eliminate the latter, you end up with boring characters.  From the get-go, there was no way this movie would satisfy any of it fans (pun intended).  

In conclusion:

Holy shit, is this bad, but holy hell, is it erotic.  I mean, is it erotic?  I tend to think there's a difference between graphically sexual and erotic.  To steal from Nin, writing to the mysterious benefactor who paid her a dollar a page to write erotica, but constantly demanded 'more sex, less poetry,':

"You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it.  Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional.  This is what gives sex its surprising textures, it's subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements."

So I guess, what I'm saying is, screw this book (and I think I need to point out that this is not a recommendation to literally screw this book).

But seriously, you can derive everything beneficial from the experience by watching the following (SFW, except for language) video.

Bestsellers of 2012:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
4. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
8. Fifty Shades Trilogy Box Set by E.L. James
9. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Also Published in 2012:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Railsea by China Miéville
Home by Toni Morrison


Boog, Jason. "The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey." GalleyCat. Adweek, Nov. 21, 2012. Web.

Brennan, Zoe. "E.L. James: The Shy Housewife Behind Fifty Shades of Grey." The Telegraph.
     Telegraph Media Group, July 07, 2012. Web.

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. 2011. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Before and After Quiz #6

Same rules as always and answers at the bottom!

1. A brilliant and hubristic meth cook seeks redemption by coaching a ragtag little league team.

2. A SPECTRE mad scientist hopes to single-handedly stop a drug-money murder spree in small town Texas.

3. An anthology of inspirational stories dealing with what it means to be African-American at the beginning of the twentieth century.

4. An excruciating psychological procedure renders a criminal harmless, allowing the criminal to be transferred to a minimum security women's prison.

5. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a teenager and his telepathic pet must rob a bank to pay for a sex change operation.

Answers below!

1. Breaking Bad News Bears - from Breaking Bad  (tv show 2008-2013) and The Bad News Bears (film 1976)

2. Dr. No Country for Old Men - from Dr. No (novel by Ian Fleming, 1958, film 1962) and No Country for Old Men (novel by Cormac McCarthy, 2005, film 2007 )

3. Chicken Soup for the Souls of Black Folk - from Chicken Soup for the Soul, (series 1993-present) and The Souls of Black Folk (Essays by W.E.B. DuBouis, 1903)

4. A Clockwork Orange is the New Black - from A Clockwork Orange (novel by Anthony Burgess, 1962 and film 1971) and Orange is the New Black (memoir by Piper Kerman, 2010, and tv series 2013-present)

5. A Boy and His Dog Day Afternoon- from A Boy and His Dog (novella by Harlan Ellison, 1969, film 1975) and Dog Day Afternoon (film, 1975)  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

Gabriel García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping (1996).  It's a non-fiction account of the abduction of ten journalists and/or their relatives by Pablo Escobar in the early 1990's, tied in with the legal/political framework of the Colombian governments attempts to curb narcoterrorism.  I didn't know much about the subject before reading this book, and Márquez is writing to a Colombian audience, so there are some aspects of the social/political background that aren't immediately apparent to an American audience.  But overall it's a fascinating account of the captivity and political maneuvering surrounding these abductions.

I also read Charles Lee's The Hidden Public (1958) for research.  It's a history of the book-of-the-month club from its inception in 1926 up through 1958.  Lee is clearly a fan of the club, and at times the book reads like an internally produced 'history of our company', but it provides a lot of information clearly and Lee was given access to BOMC's records.

I've just begun Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975).  It's pretty hilarious so-far, and seems like a mix of Thomas Pynchon and Douglas Adams (think The Crying of Lot 49 meets The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul).  One of the main characters names happens to be Saul Goodman, which can be a bit distracting, kind of like Homer Simpson in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust.  Shea and Wilson have Pynchon and Adams's taste for bizarre character names, like Hagbard Celine, Harry Coin, and, no shit, Sasparilla Godzilla (but honestly, is that really much weirder than names like Sauncho Smilax or Dirk Gently).  Even Saul Goodman is a silly name (S'all good, man).

I've also been watching some of the original Twilight Zone series on Netflix.  While there are a handful that get replayed frequently, the rest of the series holds up surprisingly well.  The tenth episode, Judgment Night, is worthy of being a classic.  The twist is expected, but the execution is superb.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Finally Get Around to Responding to Your Comments (and an announcement)

As those of you who have been kind enough to comment on my posts (and aren't spambots) probably know, I am absolutely terrible about responding.  The cases where I have responded are few and far between, and I apologize.  So, here and now, I'll respond to some.

On the post 100 Years, 94 books:

Julia Jones wrote (way back on February 22nd, 2013):

Hi Matt. I've just published Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory which is a study of a anonymous hack writer of best selling periodical fiction - all instalments, never published between covers. Therefore quite different from books on your list - different class of reader for one. The interest we share, however, is the correlation between mass popularity and social change / public obsessions. The PhD on which I based my book + all research materials are available free at or via my website 
One piece of advice which I'm sure you don't need, is don't sneer at your material or it's readers. So easy to be intellectual snobby about popular fic. So wrong.

I try to avoid sneering, but I'm not above calling out fault where I see it.  There's plenty of pop fic that I enjoy or at the very least is competently written (some early Clancy or Grisham or Ludlum).  I will and have called out people for lazy or lousy writing, and, at least in the case of Grisham's The Appeal, I called out fans, or at least a specific group of fans.

On February 26th, 2013, Mike wrote:

Glancing down this list, it's hard to miss the impact of Hollywood on the popularity of books. Or is it Hollywood's fascination with the most popular books? I think it's the former.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  

On August 28th, 2013, Emma Lavoie wrote:

Thank you so much for the wonderful book! I finished it a few days ago and cannot get it out of my head. It is pure magic. It was everything I hoped it would be and much more. Thank you so much. You are a great writer... EL James.

I think you have me confused with someone else.

On April 14, 2014, Munboy wrote:

Love the idea and look forward to reading your reviews... One thing, though. The background is horrible and makes your site extremely hard to read on my phone.

I am so sorry it took me forever to get around to fixing this.  

Jennifer R. Hubbard wrote:

I've read this twice and think of it as one of the "War is bad" books. But by now, that message has been said and shown so many times. I'm thinking now the real question for literature to address is not, "Is war bad?" or "How bad is war?" but, "Since we've all been saying that war is bad for so many years, how come we keep engaging in it? What's the attraction? Why do we keep sticking our hands in that fan blade even though we know it's going to be a gory mess?"

That's a great point.  I think Remarque does ask this question, which was especially relevant in a war without any clear moral or philosophical underpinnings.  The soldiers were all average folk who didn't particularly want to be there, but found that they had no choice.  I think another question that Remarque asks, and continues to be asked by other writers, is "what does war do to people and society?"  

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I recently read this novel. I think I expected a lot of noble, sentiment, but what I got was an incredibly vibrant book, full of life, action, and an almost cinematic realism. Yes, the book is anti-war, but it succeeds as an anti- war novel because it imbues it's characters with such life that you feel the tragic waste in every loss of life. I had never imagined that a novel this old--and a "classic" to boot--would be so filled with life!

There are plenty of classics that are incredibly vibrant, but the ones that are often touted in high schools and colleges are the ones that are far more formally structured and, for lack of a better term, crystallized.  Check out Henry  Miller's Tropic of Cancer or Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun.

spacepotatoes wrote:

It was interesting to see Capote's thoughts on friendship. I read a Vanity Fair article not too long ago about Capote losing several good friends just a few years before this interview because of the way he used them in his writing.

He certainly did.  For years he had been promising to present his magnum opus, but never produced anything.  Eventually, his agent convinced him to publish pieces of what later became Answered Prayers, most notably (and infamously) La Côte Basque 1965 which presented intimate details of high society figures.

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I'll bet that when you started this project, filled with youthful enthusiasm, you didn't anticipate that you would end up slogging your way through the swamp of Grisham, Dan Brown, and--worst of all--Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. A trip through the sewers of Paris would be more be a more pleasurable experience!

You're right, and possibly psychic.  You posted this three days before I flew from Porto to Paris.  (Which meant I arrived about 12 hours after the Charlie Hebdo massacre)

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I am not a John Grisham fan, and I think your review of “The Appeal” is mostly spot on. But I have to take strenuous exception to one point you made: To anyone familiar with the real-life behavior and attitudes of the Walton Family, The Koch brothers, or West Virginia coal magnate Don Blankenship, the portrait of Carl Trudeau seems like an accurate, perhaps slightly flattering, depiction of a modern Oligarch. Compared to his real-life counterparts, Lex Luthor seems relatively harmless, perhaps even just misunderstood.

The problem is that Trudeau is constantly performing, even when he's completely alone, he acts like he's in a bad soap opera and is desperately trying to get the audience to understand that he's the bad guy.  Even the Koch brothers must have hobbies besides evil monologizing.

In response to 2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson:

yellojkt wrote:

The level of sexual violence and the authorial wish-fulfillment place on the main character can be a bit off-putting.

True.  I guess after reading Gravity's Rainbow and American Psycho, this series is less shocking to me, but you're right.  The wish-fulfillment is more forgivable, but yeah, this novel is an investigative journalist writing about a crime-solving investigative journalist.  

I'd like to thank, en masse, everyone who wished me well.   I'd also like to thank a few commenters specifically for consistently providing interesting and thought provoking posts (even if I've been too lazy to respond to them).

Capewood has been reading through the list, and posting his thoughts on the book's original review pages.  If you're reading this, there is a free (and legal) copy of So Big online at (this is the internet archive's library site).   The link is

Paul Gottlieb, Allen Knutson, Jennifer R. Hubbard, yellojkt, and Man of la book:  I'd like to thank you also for following me for so long and for your wonderful comments.

And my mom reads this and always mentions how she doesn't want to leave comments because she thinks it would be embarrassing for me.   It's not embarrassing, and you can make up a username if you want.  

Now, for the announcement.  

As you probably realize, I'm getting close to the end of my list.  And the question you're probably asking is: What next?   Well, here's the answer.

By the time I finish the last book in the bestseller review series, I'll have a weekly Monday-Friday post schedule.

Monday: Alternates between "From Page to Screen to Screen" and "Raiders of the Public Domain"

I'll explain what those are after the rest of the schedule

Tuesday:  Links from around the web

Wednesday: Mini-essay, anecdote, etc.

Thursday: What I'm Reading/Watching

Friday: Before and After Quiz.

Anyway, as for what those things on Monday are.  

As I've been doing this project, I found that not only were a lot of these novels given film adaptations, but many were given multiple film adaptations.  So this got me thinking about source material that had been adapted to the screen numerous times.  So, From Page to Screen to Screen will look at novels, stories, and plays that have multiple film adaptations, and will include reviews of the films and a decision on which is the best adaptation and which the best film.  The first installment will be on Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers," and the two film adaptation: the 1946 Lancaster/Gardner film noir and the 1964 John Cassavetes/Angie Dickinson film with Reagan as one of the villains.  

"Raiders of the Public Domain" will be an original piece of long fiction, published serially.  I won't give anything away now, so you'll just have to wait and see.   

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Library of Babel

Borges' famous story/thought experiment is coming to life.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, stop what you're doing and pick up a copy of Ficciones right now. But assuming that's not feasible, a brief summary of the story/thought experiment.  Imagine a library that contained every possible book of a certain character length. There's no organizing principle to the library, the books are distributed randomly.  Every possible permutation of characters is present.  Everything that ever had been written, "Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books."    But, mostly, it would be pure gibberish. Several  hundred pages of random letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. 

Writer/programmer Jonathan Basile has created, which, though not yet complete    "[a]t present it contains all possible pages of 3200 characters, about 104677 books."  But this is not a mere random text generator.  "We do not simply generate and store books as they are requested - in fact, the storage demands would make that impossible. Every possible permutation of letters is accessible at this very moment in one of the library's books, only awaiting its discovery."

Which means that, somewhere on this website lies code that will generate not only every sonnet ever written, but every sonnet that ever could be written. I'll leave the metaphysical questions aside to ask a much more pragmatic one.  Does Jonathan Basile now hold the copyright to every sonnet not yet written?  I guess this leads to a more technical question of whether or not code that generates a piece of text is enough to constitute copyright of that piece of text (I'm not a lawyer, and I'd hate to be the first lawyer to handle a case like this).  The Library of Babel is one thing as a thought experiment, but as an actuality it's, well, mindblowing.

Monday, May 11, 2015

2011: The Litigators by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children. 

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 29 novels, five children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project. 

The Book:

Length: 385 pages
Subject/Genre: Lawyers/Legal 'thriller'

This is it.  The last goddamned one.  Let's get this over with.  The Litigators is about a group of litigators (what a shocker).  You start with two low rent ambulance chasers (cf. The Rainmaker) and a successful up-and-comer at a big firm who quits after finding his job meaningless (cf. The Street Lawyer).  They get themselves involved in a big ol' class action lawsuit (cf. The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury, The Appeal).  There's some wackiness (cf. The Brethren) and a bunch of misfits being misfits while trying to make a living practicing law (cf. The Brethren, The Rainmaker).  There's a case, there are twists in the case, people keep secrets, some people lose a lot of money, some people make a lot of money (cf. every damned Grisham novel after The Chamber).

This isn't Grisham's worst novel, but it's nothing more than a mixture of his decent novels.  The problem now is that I have pretty much nothing to say about it that isn't itself a repeat of an earlier Grisham review.  I could see it being entertaining if someone hadn't read ten more of these freakin' things in the last several months, but I don't have that luxury.  It is thoroughly, relentlessly, and all and all average.  It is neither remarkably good, nor remarkably bad.  It is exactly what I would expect when someone says 'Grisham novel,' nothing more, nothing less.  Maybe the reason this guy sells so well is that by the time the next book comes out, his readers have forgotten his last one.  (I know I'm being rather harsh, both on Grisham and his readers.  This is just me venting frustration.  Eleven of them, for crying out loud!)

Look, it was okay.  I might have even enjoyed it a bit if it didn't feel like I'd read it ten times already.  It's the type of book that a Grisham fan would like, in that it's perfectly standard fare for Grisham.  If that sounds like something you'd like, then go ahead and read it.  Or read any other Grisham novel for the exact same result.  I don't care.  I'm just glad to be done.

Bestsellers of 2011:

1. The Litigators by John Grisham
2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
3. The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks
4. Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich
5. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
6. Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich
7. Kill Alex Cross by James Patterson
8. Micro by Michael Crichton
9. Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris
10. Locked On by Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney

Also Published in 2011:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Pym by Mat Johnson
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Friday, May 8, 2015

Friday Before and After Quiz #5

If you don't know the rules, see the first quiz.

1. A 6th century B.C. guide to doing battle against alien invaders.

2. After discovering the secret to transparency, a detective infiltrates a secret anarchist society.

3. A traveling sideshow freak/cult leader has a doomed relationship with a wealthy but troubled Harvard student.

4. An 18th century Irish seaman sets off with his dog in search of America.

5. After his father dies on 9/11, a young boy follows a series of clues leading to a mysterious operation on Devil's Tower.

Scroll down for answers!

1. The Art of War of the Worlds: Sun Tzu (6th c. B.C.) and H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1897)

2. The Invisible Man Who Was Thursday: H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897) and G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

3. Geek Love Story: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love (1989) and Erich Segal's Love Story (1970)

4. Gulliver's Travels with Charley: Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) and John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (1962)

5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

I finally got around to reading Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger's ability to simultaneously show Holden's perspective and a more objective adult perspective is extraordinary and reminds me of some moments in The Sun Also Rises where Jake's denial takes center-stage.  Holden personifies the adage that "we judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intent."

Saw the Avengers sequel.  It's a solid action/superhero movie, and I admit to being a bit of a sucker for those.  

Season three of Orphan Black is getting underway on BBC America, and it's one of the best sci-fi shows currently on the air (and Continuum looks like it's getting the ax, so the competition is narrowing).  

Started listening to the podcast: The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps (well, Western philosophy anyway.  But, like, all of it).  The episodes are generally 15-20 minutes long, so some guys like Aristotle or Plato get a dozen episodes apiece, but all the lesser figures still get at least half an episode, and their often very interesting.  Anaximenes, for example, thought that humans couldn't have been created in their original state, because no one would have been there to care for the children.  Hence, the first humans gestated in the belly of a fish before erupting at adulthood.  Anaximander thought the Earth was surrounded by a sphere of fire, and the light we see from the sky was due to a thinning and thickening of the air.  While it's easy to laugh with hindsight, the reasoning leading to these conclusions is fascinating.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Another post about post-apocalyptic fiction

Last week, I wrote a post about the Guardian's article on the modern popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature.  I recently read this article by NPR (titled "Does Post-Apocalyptic Literature Have a Non-Dystopian Future?"), which is worth a read, as it has some good info on the genre at the moment.  NPR's article is better than the Guardian's, because NPR at least realizes that Cormac McCarthy didn't invent post-apocalyptic fiction.  However, as good it managed to be throughout, NPR failed to stick the landing.  Their conclusion reads:

Post-apocalyptic books are thriving for a simple reason: The world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever, and facing those fears through fiction helps us deal with it.

Really?  More "precariously perched...than ever?"  More so than, oh, let's say the Cuban Missile Crisis and the height of the Cold War?   Which was pretty close to the publication date of Shute's On the Beach (1957), Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (1963), Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), Jackson's The Sundial (1958), Ballard's The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and The Drowned World (1962), Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963) or Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). Quick question: besides the Kubrick movie, what do all of these have in common? Answer: They were SF/Horror novels. Hey, you know what wasn't mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s but is now? SF/Horror novels. There are more apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels now because authors aren't worried about no one being willing to buy them, or of being pigeonholed in a marginalized genre. 

What McCarthy did was prove that there was a market for post-apocalyptic fiction that wasn't firmly nested within the market for science fiction and horror.  The NPR article, and much criticism in general, thinks that popularity of a genre must be due primarily to the culture surrounding it, and to that culture only.  There's a lot to be said about why we like post-apocalyptic literature, and there's plenty to be said about what types of post-apocalyptic literature we read now, as opposed to 50 years ago.  The problem that NPR and the Guardian both have is that they look at the rise in popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction, and start with the assumption that there is something about this generation's experience that makes them more prone to writing/reading about the end of the world than were the generations before us.  It ignores that popularity is in no small part dependent upon availability, which is itself dependent on popularity.  

But even with all these caveats, it seems odd to give McCarthy sole credit for sparking this trend.  In the same year The Road was published, we also had Max Brooks' World War Z, Stephen King's Cell, Will Self's The Book of Dave, the TV show Jericho and the movie Children of Men.  And that's coming on the tail of Spielberg's The War of the Worlds, The Dawn of the Dead remake, Atwood's Oryx and Crake, part of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Vaughan's Y: The Last Man, 28 Days Later, The Matrix trilogy... and this is only going back to the beginning of this century and ignoring the countless genre potboiler post-apocalyptic novels.

Monday, May 4, 2015

2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Author:

Karl Stig-Erland Larsson (1954-2004), better known as Stieg Larsson, was born in Västerbotten, Sweden, where he lived with his grandparents.  As a teenager, he began editing science fiction fanzines.  In 1977, he moved to Stockholm, where he continued his involvement with the SF community, while working for a news agency.  He joined the Communist Workers League and was known for his journalism and activism exposing white-supremacist and totalitarian groups.  He founded the Expo-foundation, which researched right-wing extremist groups and published exposés of their findings, which led to a steady stream of death threats.  He co-wrote four non-fiction books, Extremhögern (The Extreme Right) (1991), with Anna-Lena Lodenius; Sverigedemokraterna: Den nationaella rörelsen (Sweden Democrats: The National Movement) (2001), with Mikael Ekman; Sverigedemokraterna från insidan: Berättelsen om Sveriges största parti utanför riksdagen (Sweden Democrats from the inside: The Story of Sweden's Largest Party Outside Parliament) (2004), with Maria Blomquist and David Lagerlöf; and Debatten om hedersmord: Feminism eller rasism (Debate on Honor Killings: Feminism or Racism) (2004), with Cecilia Englund.  (N.B.: Title translations are done through google translate, so no guarantee on accuracy.)

Larsson started writing fiction as a hobby in 2001, and was partway through his third novel when he approached a publisher.  Larsson died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2004, before any of his novels were published.  The first novel, Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women) (2005) was translated to English by Reg Keeland and retitled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008).  His second novel Flickan som lekte med elden (The Girl Who Played with Fire) was published in Swedish in 2006 and English in 2008.  His last complete novel, Luftslottet som sprängdes (The Aircastle that Blew Up) was published in 2007 and translated into English 2010.  

The Book:

1st American edition/
Cover Design-Peter Mendelsund

Length: 563 pages
Subject/Genre: Conspiracy/Suspense thriller

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the third and final book of Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. (Yes, I read the first two before writing this review.)  If you want to read the trilogy, and haven't read the first two books, stop reading now to avoid spoilers.

Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative reporter for Millennium, a small monthly magazine specializing in investigative reporting of the financial world.  He's tricked into publishing a story he can't prove about the corrupt financier Wennerstrom and is convicted of libel, destroying his credibility.  He's then hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate the disappearance of his favorite granddaughter decades earlier in a classic locked-room (or, rather, island) mystery.  Blomkvist eventually makes contact with Lisbeth Salander, who had been tasked with investigating his background by Vanger.  Salander is an incredibly intelligent but introverted hacker who, despite being in her 20s, is a ward of the state for mental deficiency.  Her guardian and surrogate father has a stroke, and her new guardian, Bjurman, sexually abuses her.  Salander gathers proof of this abuse, and tortures/tattoos Bjurman in revenge, blackmailing him with the evidence.  Anyway, Salander and Blomkvist solve the mystery, Salander falls for Blomkvist but realizes she can't have him.  They find evidence to prove Wennerstrom's guilt, and Salander steals millions of dollars of Wennerstrom's dirty money before running off.  End book one.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire, we start to get some back story on Salander.  After the Millennium launches an investigation into sex trafficking, the reporter and his fiance are murdered and Lisbeth is the prime suspect.  The gun used in the murder has Salander's fingerprints on it and was used to kill Bjurman.  Bjurman had previously reached out to an unknown entity to destroy Salander.  This unknown entity is a man named Zalachenko, Lisbeth's father.  Zalachenko was a prominent Soviet spy who defected to Sweden in the 80s.  To keep his identity secret, a small special unit was formed within the Swedish security police (SAPO) known only as "The Section".  There duties involved covering up any crimes Zalachenko committed, including his consistently beating Lisbeth's mother.  Unable to find help from the police, a twelve year old Lisbeth attacked Zalachenko by throwing a molotov cocktail in his car.  To keep her quiet, she was locked up in a psychiatric ward and declared incompetent.  This novel focuses on the investigation of the murders and the sex trafficking trade.  Salander becomes public enemy number one, and has only limited contact with Blomkvist.  The murders, we discover, were committed by Salander's half-brother, Niedermann.  Zalachenko shoots Salander in the head with a .22, but she survives and nearly kills Zalachenko.  The novel ends with Niedermann subdued and Blomkvist finding Salander, who's in bad shape but conscious.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest deals with the fallout from the previous novel.  Salander and Zalachenko are both recuperating in the same hospital, and plotting to kill each other.  "The Section" is desperate to cover up evidence of it's existence and wrongdoings.  Blomkvist begins investigations into the Section.

Honestly, this was a well-plotted mystery/thriller.  Except for the slowness at the beginning of the first novel, the whole series was solid.  The characters manage to play to a type without being caricatures.  It can be a bit preachy every now and then, but it's infrequent.

There hasn't been much Swedish lit on the US bestseller lists, and the Millennium trilogy is an interesting specimen, if only because so much of the series is not super Swedish.  Much of the first novel could just as easily have taken place off the coast of New England and the latter two could replace SAPO with MI5/6.  There are definitely aspects of Swedish culture and history that are addressed, but since the novel fits into the mystery/thriller genre so well, those aspects just form part of the background.

Like I said, we don't see much Swedish pop fic in the US,  but that's changed a bit, in no small part due to Larsson himself.  The genre known as Scandinavian Noir or Nordic Crime has been growing in popularity over the past several years, with Jo Nesbø being one of the best known.  It's an interesting case of a genre crossing national borders and language barriers.

Of course, a series this popular has made its appearance on the big screen.

All three novels of the Millenium trilogy were adapted to film in Sweden in 2009.

The series stars Noomi Rapace (Prometheus) as Lisbeth Salander and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick, Europa Report) as Mikael Blomkvist.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was adapted to film again in 2011, starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Skyfall) as Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara (The Social Network, Her) as Lisbeth Salander, and directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network).

As a whole the Millenium trilogy is an above-average crime thriller, definitely worth a read unless you can't stand crime thrillers.

Bestsellers of 2010:

1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
2. The Confession by John Grisham
3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
4. Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
5. Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy
6. Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich
7. Cross Fire by James Patterson
8. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
9. Port Mortuary by Partricia Cornwell
10. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Also Published in 2010:

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
The Thousand Augusts of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell


"Stieg Larsson." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web.