Announcement: TLOTE Goes On Hiatus

November 10, 2010

Normally I spend a little time in the first paragraph or two building up to the arguments I’m going to make in this pieces, but here the title’s already given away my core point so I’ll just get to the meat of things. It’s an announcement I have a hard time putting into words, but one that’s been coming for a while and I feel needs to get out there before I find an excuse not to make it.

As of today, The Lesser of Two Equals will be taking an indefinite hiatus. This does not mean that the blog will be shutting down operations – the archive remains completely intact to all visitors – but it does mean that for the foreseeable future I do not plan to write new content. This is also not meant to imply that there will never be any new content for the site, as my contributors do still have some things in the pipeline, but that I am no longer able to say when my next bit of content will show its face.

Some (or hopefully most of you) are asking why I’d take such a drastic step after over two years of operation and 165 posts, especially when there are so many varied topics to cover in the realm of literature and its varied adaptations. Well, this isn’t a decision I’ve made lightly – I’ve been considering this for a few weeks now, and while I don’t know how many of you are out there who have this blog in your regular or semi-regular rotation, I felt I owed it to you to take a few paragraphs and explain why I’m shelving TLOTE operations for the time being.

The first, and most obvious one to me, is simple burnout. Since it’s a book review blog run without ads and on a standard WordPress design, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I don’t make my living off this site. I have a rather engaging day job to pay my bills in addition to writing this, and as a consequence the majority of my writing time tends to be on nights and weekends. And as much as I enjoy what I do here, sometimes after a particularly long day one would rather slump down in front of last night’s “Boardwalk Empire” rather than dissect the latest memoir. With responsibilities piling up at work, paired with a recent move to a larger apartment and an inexplicably full social life, those nights are becoming more and more frequent and it’s been harder and harder to make writing a review feel like something that isn’t invasive surgery.

I’m hoping that a little time away from the writing desk, rather than hitting my keyboard until the fingers start to bleed a bit one or two nights a week, will help me recapture a bit of the zest I feel for writing about writing. If I ever want to get this site up to my original ambitions of at least one review a week with regular columns, Text-to-Screen analyses and a thriving contributor base, I need to be in a mindset where I’m not simply content to average a month between reviews with other coverage that gets done when it’s done. Originally I thought I could just push myself to complete them on time, but I’ve got to be realistic: there’s only so much processing power inside my head, and it’s outside my abilities right now to get the site moving at the pace I seek.

In doing so, I’m also hopeful that I’ll be able to take what writing energies I can muster and spend a little more time using that ability to write outside literary criticism, applying myself to some of the journals and other projects friends of mine are getting together. This might not seem as much of a gripe to people who have championed my efforts on this blog since its inception, but other than this blog I haven’t written anything for publication in over a year, and to someone with eventual aspirations of making a living at this such a statistic is completely unacceptable. As Hemingway put it, I hate the feeling that the instrument I write with is “bright and shining with nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

The second major reason for hiatus is a little more complicated, and it’s a little harder to state without sounding like a massive egotist, but it has to do with the site’s readership. I certainly don’t expect my site to command the readership of sites such as The NYT Book Review or The A.V. Club, but other than a few pieces that keep my stats in at least tolerable range there’s a lot I’ve written that I don’t think gets the attention it deserves. Many pieces, such as my centennial review of “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” apparently go unread if the stats are to be believed, and it’s a bit of a shiv in the side when those are the pieces I’ve lavished the most attention on. I know there’s at least a small audience for the content I write – an audience for which I’m profoundly grateful – but the increased effort I’ve had to put forth to get articles written recently hasn’t felt like it’s worth the effort.

But don’t think this means that I want to stop taking the effort – rather, for the time being I think it would be better for those efforts to go towards a little more networking. There is a vast community of book reviewers who work specifically online – unsurprising given the fact that most print publications would rather add an extra sudoku puzzle than a dedicated critic – and it’s a community that TLOTE has only put minimal effort into engaging. I’m going to be doing a lot of gliding through that community over the next few weeks, seeing just what everyone else is doing and getting into those blog’s discussions to a depth that I hope will expand both my readership and horizons, and that’s a project I’d rather undertake without trying to generate new content at the same time. (Though this could itself lead to future posts for the blog as I share my favorites with you, so there’s some hope for you.)

And in doing this, I’m likely to get some of my passion back for reading – which really gets to the main reason why I’m taking this time off. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading far less than I have in the past, spending more time with television shows and video games – both mediums that are growing as storytelling mediums by leaps and bounds, so I can defend my interest in both easily. However, this means that my bookshelves are starting to gather dust, currently stacked high with titles I haven’t had a chance to read yet, reminding me more of a collection of mint action figures than a toy box full of beloved and slightly battered favorites. I can’t be the critic I want to be when all the books I have are being back-burnered, considered for articles rather than actually digested.

So a large part of this sabbatical will be devoted to clearing off the majority of the shelf. To name only what I see when I turn my head to the left, two Neal Stephenson books haven’t even been opened, I’m only halfway through “Blood Meridian,” one book of five through “2666” and classics like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are gathering dust on my end table. I think that if I take a bit of time to read for reading’s sake, it’s going to remind me why I started doing this so many years ago and why for all the marginalization of the medium I still think that what I do is worth doing.

I know there are some of you who want me to keep doing this regularly, and of course I welcome all your comments and feedback below or through my other means of contact. Just know this is something I think I have to do, if I ever want the site and my skills to move past where they are now.

However, maintain some hope: the amount of reading I plan to do in the near future, paired with my often mercurial temperament, may well mean that I’ll be struck by inspiration in the next few weeks and some new content will spill out of me, rendering the above paragraphs moot. As the site’s founder and editor, I reserve the right to be inconsistent in everything but my quality.

Thanks so much for reading. I’ll see you when I see you.

Les “Is More” Chappell

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Announcement: TLOTE’s Carrie Lorig Published in elimae

August 3, 2010

While it doesn’t fall within the usual boundaries of criticism and analysis you’ve come to expect from TLOTE, I wanted to take a moment and let readers know that our own resident poetry critic Carrie Lorig has been successfully practicing what she preaches. Carrie’s new poem, “Let the record show,” was published in the latest edition of the online literary magazine elimae and is reprinted below. Hearty congratulations to Carrie from the TLOTE community, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read her words and ponder the fantastic imagery.

Let the record show

what we caught in the background of the photograph.
it was you
on the piano.
the children licking the walls.
what the murder was thinking
when it answered its own heated questions
after
the victim was really gone.
it was standing alone in a tobacco field,
crushing
several vegetable weevils
and one green peach aphid.
she had demanded to be buried in a birdcage.
everyone wore purple like they were asked to.
bruises did not count.
us, on the roof, counting the rib bones in the gutters.
the cracks went all the way down
to the living room.
what flowed between them.

News Announcement: The Centennial Review

April 22, 2010

A few words have to be shared before we continue with our regularly scheduled programming.

Recently, while doing a bit of general maintenance on the site, updating links and forwarding reviews, I was struck by curiosity and decided to take stock of how many reviews have been posted. After scrolling through the content and piecing together content for various outlets, I found – to my stunned surprise – I have somehow managed to write enough book reviews that the next one will reach the coveted milestone of 100.

Yes, ever since learning my craft at the Daily Cardinal student newspaper and serving as a freelancer for BookReview.com before dismal management led me to strike out on my own, 100 books have been reviewed in detail either by themselves or in joint articles. Also note, this isn’t even counting other writings like my Cardinal literature columns, the Text-to-Screen series and other random articles printed under the essay umbrella. And to make it a hat trick of achievements – after a double-check on the months of articles posted – come next month TLOTE will have been online for two full years, not missing a month since founding.

How the hell did I do that?

In any case, while I don’t plan to devote a lot of time to retrospectives and anniversary specials, I did want to take a moment for two things. First of all, I do feel something special should be done for the anniversary, reviewing a title or author close to my heart.

Coincidentally, the book already queued up for review fits the latter. “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” the last book by postmodern author Gilbert Sorrentino, whose “A Strange Commonplace” I reviewed back in 2006 and who also happens to be my favorite author no one else has heard of. So even without the honor of centennial title it’s a review that’s getting a lot of attention from its writer, and one I hope showcases the vast gulf he’s crossed since his first review of “Liverpool Fantasy” as a naïve freshman.

And looking back over that gulf leads me to the second point of this post. I make a lot of half-serious jokes to friends of mine about how my site’s audience is slimmer than a Popsicle-stick model of an anorexic supermodel, but session stats prove that the site does get some traffic and occasionally a comment or compliment that switches my expression up to beaming. When my busy non-writing life overwhelms me (which is often) I sometimes debate packing this in for something that results in an actual paycheck, but I always push ahead for love of the craft – and always get a positive reaction from those paying attention.

So, with the occasion in mind, I wanted to thank those who have helped me take these efforts as far as I have. Thanks first and foremost to my contributors/Cardinal daughters Anna and Carrie, who have brought two new perspectives and commentary I’d have never been able to offer or have even considered; to my varied editors at the Cardinal who gave me suggestions, pushed my boundaries and gave me the page space to review for an audience; all authors and publishing houses who have trusted my opinion and reach enough to send or offer to send advance copies; and to everyone who’s taken even a moment to read and reference my thoughts on literature. This website takes a lot of reading on my part to keep functioning, and the fact that it is read itself means more than I can express.

And as a closing note that both transitions to our 100th review and also shows how much more I have to learn, please share my consideration of this quote from Mr. Sorrentino on literary criticism. When I finally manage to understand what he’s saying here (I think I do but I’m half-certain I’m wrong), maybe I’ll cross another big divide.

“The professional literary critic finds himself in a curious, even awkward position. The rationale for his writing is that it serves to explicate or illuminate the texts of others; it is useful. What a fine ambiguity arises when we read that critic who is most gifted, most serious in sense of his vocation. His writing, as it strives toward the most precise and unique subtleties of revelation in the writing under review, begins, oddly, to detach itself from its cause, and to float free of it. It begins to move, that is, toward the literature that it purports to be ‘talking about.’ It as if it wants to be literature too, as if it cannot countenance its function as that of the useful but wishes to approach the condition of the useless. What is most perverse about this phenomenon is that the best criticism is by definition the most useful: it is somehow that which it would prefer not to be. And that criticism that is useless, fashionable, a compilation of gossip, opinion and causerie, criticism, that is, that speaks of everything but the work before it, pretends to be absolutely utilitarian. So we are left with this dilemma: useful criticism would like to be, indeed, strives to be, useless; and useless criticism seems superbly, aggressively useful.”

– Gilbert Sorrentino, “Something Said,” February 1984


Oh, There I Am

November 18, 2009

Well. It’s certainly been a long time since I updated last, eh? Over a month where titles have been released to no critical savaging and for some reason searches for autumn-themed desktop wallpaper have driven my site’s daily hits up to hundreds per day. My theory is it has something to do with the image I used for my summer reading list conclusion and my failure to change said image’s name.

But none of you care about that I imagine, and you all want to know why this distinctive voice has flickered and died in the cold void of the Internet.

The lack of updates can be traced to two reasons. The first (and lesser) one is that my azure Acer Aspire (c0lloquially known as Nova Express), on which I’d been writing the majority of the site’s content for the last few months, wound up hitting the ground in September and its screen transformed into to something resembling a modern art kaleidoscope. It still works when I plug it into a monitor, but the entire reason I bought the damn thing was to be able to write anywhere and no one can write anywhere when they have to lug a 20-inch monitor everywhere. I’m hoarding my resources to get a replacement, but surviving means I can’t justify dropping $300. Here’s hoping for a successful Black Friday sale.

The more major reason is that the three of us behind the scenes at TLOTE have been very busy with a variety of things. I have finally broken my seven-month exile in the unemployment wilds and am now working as a project coordinator for a Portland firm, leading to once again pulling 40-hour weeks with little energy for criticism that is not directed at easy media/political targets. My contributors have been busy as well on the other side of the Pacific, with Anna settled into Japan for a year (check out her exploits) and Carrie teaching in a new South Korea school. As such, all three of us are involved in non-book things right now that demand a lot of our time and attention, and as such we sadly can’t pour as much effort into writing for you as we used to.

This doesn’t mean that the site’s going down or that we’re going to stop posting, oh no my brothers. For the forseeable future however, postings will be done “when they’re done” rather than the weekly schedule I had been shooting for in the summer. Some content is brewing – a piece by Carrie in the next day or two, a couple of back-burner reviews and a rather extensive Text-to-Screen piece to start with – so I hope you can bear with a little longer wait for the voices of reason to return.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll enjoy our upcoming pieces as much as we enjoy working on them.


Coming Soon: The Beat (Second) Generation

August 12, 2009

beats“I think the Beats were extremely dysfunctional people who basically had no business raising children.” – Christina Mitchell, daughter of John Mitchell, entrepreneur who ran several Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1950s

This quote might seem a rather harsh criticism of a group of people widely considered among the most influential writers of the century, but when you look at their personal lives – frequently their subject matter – it makes a sad amount of sense. Men like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso were in no way Ward Cleaver types, but were independents, wanderers and frequent substance abusers, pursuing their own enlightenment and freedom over the stability of a normal life. Certainly they managed to raise a legion of spiritual children by inspiring thousands of youths to follow in their footsteps, but when it came to the very involved process of bringing a child to maturity they preferred to be somewhere else.

But despite the fact that so few of the Beats were equipped to be fathers, several of them managed to pass their genes onto the next generation – and in the cases of Kerouac and Burroughs, also managed to pass on the gift that made them famous. Like their fathers, Jan Kerouac and William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr. possessed a grasp of language and an interest in using their lives as subject material. However, they also wound up inheriting their addictive personalities and an energy level that would convert into self-destruction.

These next two installments of Back Shelf Review will fall into a subcategory dubbed “The Beat (Second) Generation,” examining the writings of the younger Kerouac and Burroughs. In addition to the obvious evaluation as to the pros and cons of their work, I’ll take a look at just how much of their fathers’ style they seem to have inherited and see where they differ for better or worse.

So, check back on August 18 for “Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac” and on August 25 for “Back Shelf Review: William S. (Billy) Burroughs Jr.”


Collective List of Book Lusts

July 12, 2009

Long-time readers of TLOTE (if you exist) may have noticed that updates to the site have been somewhat scarce as of late, following a blitz of postings and columns and announcements. I do apologize for this, but the sad truth is I appear to have burned out my fuses and have had a hard time embarking on new projects. There are several things in the works, but between being unemployed and pursuing freelance projects outside of this site I have not been able to keep to my schedule.

So, I just wanted to take a brief moment to assure you that this site is not dying out – I love it and the content I’ve created too much to throw it on the pile of dead blogs I’ve already contributed two or three URLs to.  Content will continue to be posted from my contributors and myself, but rather than keeping to a weekly schedule will be posted “when it gets done.” Regular schedules are hopefully not too far off once I catch up to life, but some minds do need time to recharge.

In the meantime though, for a bit of filler that might also help you get inside the heads of our writers, please enjoy these lists recently compiled in our spare time. The theme was to pick fifteen books that have special meaning or that have stuck in your head, and compile them in a list that takes the quickest amount of time to create. Carrie did one first, then Anna, and then I felt I should join in as well. I hope such a listing gives you an idea of what we like and how our creative energies skew.

And yes, I am aware that each of our lists have sixteen titles rather than fifteen, but here at TLOTE we have a hard time keeping in the boundaries.

Les:

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
2. Junky, William S. Burroughs
3. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
4. Watchmen, Alan Moore
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
6. Quinn’s Book, William Kennedy
7. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
8. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. Dune, Frank Herbert
10. A Catskill Eagle, Robert B. Parker
11. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
12. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
13. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
14. All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
15. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
16. Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell

Anna:

1. Atonement, Ian McEwan
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
4. The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
5. Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer
6. The Night Watch, Sarah Waters
7. Little Children, Tom Perotta
8. The Things That Matter, Edward Mendelsohn
9. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
10. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
11. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
12. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
13. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
14. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
15. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
16. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Carrie:

1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
2. Franny and Zoey, J.D. Salinger
3. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
4. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
5. Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
6. The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
7. Ariel, Sylvia Plath
8. Mason/Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
9. The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
10. Ulysses, James Joyce
11. what matters most is how well you walk through fire, Charles Bukowski
12. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
13. Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald.
14. The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill
15. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
16. The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Mina Loy


Announcement: Welcome New Voices

June 17, 2009

As I mentioned in last month’s manifesto for the future of The Lesser of Two Equals, a large goal of mine for this second year of operation is to bring both a broader scope and sense of consistency to the blog. On my personal perspective this is going well – regular updates and more detailed features  – but the issue has also come up that I simply do not have the energy to do everything I want with the site.

While I am one of the 12 percent of Oregon’s population who doesn’t have a job to occupy their day (utterly depressing number that, isn’t it?), I do devote a good portion of each day to looking for one, and as anyone who has hunted for work knows this is an exhausting routine that saps creativity and rapidly turns one into an antisocial alcoholic. I also like to break up the monotony of constant book reviews by writing reviews of films/video games/albums for other locations, as well as a novel or two that I go to when I feel the urge.

The bottom line is, I by myself am incapable of doing everything I feel I could be doing with TLOTE. I have only a certain amount of words I can call up per day, and to remain sane I have to split them between other topics.

So, I would like to take this moment (and 100th post of this blog, conveniently enough) to let you all know that starting this week, my work at TLOTE will be joined by two other contributors: Anna Williams and Carrie Lorig. Both are already charter members of the family, as my direct successors in The Daily Cardinal‘s literature column which served as the foundation of this blog.

Both our new contributors will supplement my media/memoir mindset. Carrie, author of “Conceal and Carrie” in the academic year of 2006-07, will be filling the poetics void by taking a look at contemporary poets and telling us which ones are worth reading. Anna, author of “Williams Shakespeare” for 2007-08, will contribute more of the classic literary perspective with her series “Classical Anna,” which takes a look at reading old reliables in these modern times. An exact schedule is still in the works, but expect us to get regular updates fairly soon, as well as more information on both as part of the upcoming site redesign.

As an introduction to our new contributors, we will be reprinting a few of their personal favorite Cardinal columns on the site over the next couple of weeks. In the same fashion as my columns, they will be offering thoughts on the completed work and some updated commentary. A schedule of regular updates is still being generated, so keep your eyes open for posts on our status.

So, I hope you’ll join me in welcoming these new voices to TLOTE, and that the attention you give my work will be shared with both new members in full.