Manifesto for May 2009 for TLOTE

May 20, 2009

IMG_0348I have chosen to break from my usual omnipotent position as the all-seeing critical mind to discuss a few of my upcoming plans for The Lesser of Two Equals.

When I started this site up following graduation, I intended to use it as a database for all my writing content relevant to books and as something to keep me busy while working semi-hellish positions in call centers. I reposted older reviews from my student journalist days, wrote a few essays and simply contributed whenever I felt I had something to say.

Now as the site has grown to what I consider maturity (one year old, 85 posts, dozens of titles reviewed, several essays, two specific features and multiple publishers willing to send me their books) I feel it’s time to push it to the next level and enforce a bit more structure on it, to marshal the somewhat disorganized format of my posts from the last few months. So, with that in mind, here is the manifesto for the next few months as I attempt to transcend the boundaries of legitimate literary journalism.P1010027

New features: I will be resurrecting my original literature columns that formed the basis of this site when I first pooled my archives, writing a biweekly column on topics of literature that have gotten to me based on personal connection, concern for the industry or simple curiosity. These columns will be appearing every other Tuesday, starting out May 26.

On a weekly basis (this one on Wednesday) I will be reposting links to news articles and reviews that I did not write myself but which interested me and I have a few words on.

Book Reviews: These will of course continue, being the majority of the content, but will also appear on a weekly basis as I work my way through a literary surplus. A new review is guaranteed to appear every Monday, with possibly some additional postings appearing as I complete titles or the mood strikes me. Titles will continue to follow the pattern I have set (literary fiction, memoirs, New Journalism, creative history, etc.) and focus on some of my favorite current authors.

Back Shelf Review: These articles will continue but will begin to differ from the standard reviews I offer, instead taking a bit broader capacity in the same style as my Barack Obama article, either focusing on an author or more than one book thematically linked together. No schedule has been set for these, though biweekly is the most likely.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: After a series of adapted releases I felt I had enough content to get started, but the flow has dried up somewhat with the summer blockbuster releases (and my die-hard refusal to read or watch Angels and Demons) and the ones I’m interested in (The Road and Sherlock Holmes) don’t even have proper posters. So for the summer, we’ll get one or two backlogs cleared up and then be doing retrospective reviews of some classic books and the film versions that ensued. This too will become a biweekly feature, alternating with the columns.

IMG_0345As always, I remain open to any suggestions for articles or titles to review, and encourage any and all feedback on my writing.

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Book Review: Spook Country

March 29, 2009

Spook Country: A Novel

spook-countryBy William Gibson

Published August 7, 2007

Berkley Trade

384 pp.

ISBN 0-425-22141-5

Reviewed March 28, 20o9

There aren’t many writers alive today who are credited with creating an entire genre of literature, but the realm of cyberpunk still has its founder in William Gibson. He didn’t invent the term – author Bruce Bethke coined it in 1980 with the eponymous short story – and authors such as Bruce Sterling and Pat Cadigan also made significant contributions, but it’s Gibson who made it mainstream and earned the title of “noir prophet.” 1984’s “Neuromancer” was an imaginative epic, seeing ideas of cyberspace and virtual reality before personal computers were even mainstream.

After following “Neuromancer” with a series of equally speculative novels, Gibson has turned his vision into the modern world, where advancements in technology has caught up with several of his innovations – but also verified his predictions of control and paranoia. “Spook Country” is the second of these novels, and it proves everything readers have come to expect from him: tense, innovative and superbly written.

Set in February 2006, “Spook Country” centers on the activities of three very different individuals. Hollis Henry, former lead singer of punk band The Curfew, is now a music journalist assigned to cover the elusive technical genius Bobby Chombo, a pioneer of creating virtual reality artwork. Tito, a musician and member of a Cuban criminal family, is contracted to deliver coded iPods to an old man with intelligence background. And Milgrim, a drug addict with a penchant for stolen coats, is abducted by a government official and forced to translate Russian code in exchange for continual drug doses.

All three of these characters find themselves involved in a strange plot, involving a “phantom” shipping container that seems to pop up in various locations. Eccentric entrepreneur Hubertus Bigend (first seen in Gibson’s earlier “Pattern Recognition”) simply wants to know what it is, the old man wants to get Tito close to it and a shady maybe-government operative wants Milgrim to help him learn what Tito knows. It’s a constantly vague tale, with the true intent and content never clear to the players even when they think their lives could be in danger.

Even with an overarching conspiracy the book could easily become fragmented, but it’s held together by the same fact that made “Neuromancer” so popular 25 years ago: Gibson is a writer of remarkable skill. His phrasing is descriptive without being overwhelming, and creates a sense of immersion in both the grime of New York City and the unsettling modernity of Los Angeles. On the character side the dialogue is terse and realistic, conversations feeling natural and each character’s voice defined.

With the exception of Chombo’s virtual reality art (images broadcast in public places, only visible with VR helmets) Gibson doesn’t spend his time speculating on future technology. Rather, his focus is on how current technology infiltrates our lives and changes the order of business, ranging from iPods encoded with secret data to portable door alarms to tracking devices in cell phone scramblers. The feeling established is one of paranoia and disconnect, a sense that you’re never quite sure if you’re being watched or if it even matters.

And dealing with this paranoia is “Spook Country’s” strength. Hollis, Tito and Milgrim aren’t even featured in the same chapter until two-thirds of the way in (and even then only share one scene) but each one deals with their strange circumstances in their own solitary way, be it faith or drugs or attempting to apply reason. Each character fixates on certain objects throughout the course of the book – envelopes of money, blue vases and books on European religion – and this adds to the feeling each is trying to stay grounded in unfamiliar circumstances.

There are many other threads – the threat of government control after 9/11, information lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy, celebrity gone by and the oddities of the rich – and the tension in each goes to make our own world as immersive as “Neuromancer’s” cyberspace. It’s to Gibson’s credit that he can not only perceive the way these influences have shaped us, but express it in such a dark, eminently readable piece of literature as “Spook Country.”


Back Shelf Review: Barack Obama

February 10, 2009

(Editor’s note: These reviews are written post-election, but I feel compelled to insert a qualifier. I voted for Barack Obama in both the primary and general election and volunteered for his campaign in the fall, but do not write these reviews in an effort to add more hero worship. What follows is a judgment of Obama the writer, not the politician or idealist.)

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States was a milestone for more reasons than we can count. Most obviously, he is the first African-America elected to the office, he is a first-term senator elected in a time of war and economic crisis, he comes from a background whose diversity is unmatched in American politics and is also the first candidate to obtain a following typically reserved for rock stars.

What makes it really remarkable, at least to some circles, is that Obama is the first man to be elected to the presidency who has two titles that were No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. An acclaimed author before he even declared his candidacy, Obama’s books have been praised by everyone from Jann Wenner to Michiko Kakutani to Christopher Buckley. And even separated from the mythos surrounding Obama, they deserve every bit of praise.

dreams-from-my-father-barack-obama-paperback-coverThe first title, “Dreams from My Father,” was published in 1995 following another groundbreaking Obama presidential election, this one for the Harvard Law Review. A son born from two different worlds – a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas – Obama traces his journey to find out where he belongs. We see his childhood in Indonesia, rebellious youth in Hawaii and his work as a community organizer in Chicago, all culminating in a journey to Kenya to understand the man whose name he bears.

Little of the story is likely new to readers, considering how inextricably Obama’s biography is bound to his popular image. The surprising part is just how much of his story he is willing to share, even considering he wrote this book before entering politics. “Dreams” is a very personal book, touching on of his sense of alienation in school, belonging to “the club of disaffection” as a young adult and the early disappointments of Chicago’s South Side. His background may be diverse, but the tradeoff is that he has nowhere he truly belongs, and for endless paragraphs he goes inside himself to try to figure that out.

In the hands of many writers this sort of consideration could get old, but Obama’s writing is something else: graceful prose, every word carefully chosen and reflecting a wide understanding of literature. His descriptions of Indonesia and Chicago are evocative but avoid dwelling too heavily on the topic, while the conversations he has had to fill in from memory never feel inauthentic. He also regularly uses the triptych (or rule-of-three) effect as expertly as he does in his speeches, creating a choral effect and examples that remain in the head.

The last third of the book where Obama travels to Kenya is marvelous prose: heartfelt conversations with family members, a sense of wonderment at the scope of the country and the final moment at his father’s grave that comes across as nothing short of rebirth. As he looks back over the tumult that marks his ancestors, realizing how his path is tied to theirs, the feeling is so real that you cannot help but be pulled fully in and forget whose name is on the cover.
audacity
Obama said in a revised introduction that the social and political implications of his story are meant for another book, and he kept that promise with the release of “The Audacity of Hope” in 2006. In “Audacity” Obama turns his critical eye from himself to the United States, discussing the structure of its government and the issues that shape its citizens. He tells the stories of the people he spoke to during campaigning, and also shows his own growth into a family man.

In the prologue to “Dreams” Obama quotes a reporter who after reading commented “I wonder if you can be that interesting in the next one you write.” It’s a valid question, especially when matched to the mastery of his first effort, and the 10-year gap between books. Certainly, “Audacity” is more of a politician’s book than his first effort, named after his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and as a politician’s book, it naturally takes a different tone.

This book is a clear template of Obama’s political platform, and virtually all of his speeches from the campaign can be tied to some chapter in it, be they his landmark speech on race (“Audacity” is ripe with discussion on Chicago’s racial make-up) or his attacks on President Bush (discussion of the Constitution regularly brings up the Senate debate on conservative judges). Here he is writing to convey a message, rather than write to organize his thoughts, and while the voice is the same it carries a professorial, occasionally dull tone.

But Obama the senator has not obscured Obama the writer, and while “Audacity” doesn’t pull the heartstrings it does certainly make us empathize. In many ways it’s even cleverer than “Dreams,” using each personal example as a gateway to pull you in. A deeply heartfelt section on meeting his wife Michelle and raising two daughters is bound to his views on the American family and the pressures of a household, and his discussion on the Constitution recalls Senate legends like Robert Byrd he has felt privileged to learn from.

In comparing the distance between these two books, Obama unsurprisingly puts it the right way in “Audacity”: “If I am wiser, it is mainly because I have traveled a little further down the path I have chosen for myself, the path of politics, and have gotten a glimpse of where it may lead, for good and for ill.” What we see between the two books is maturation, Obama having come to enough comfort with himself that he wants to bring what he has learned to others. His writing is rooted in a sense of journey, and a sheer desire to bring us along on that travel.

Refreshingly, both books can be appreciated separately from the mythos of their author. “Dreams” is a masterwork, a poetic and honest tale of a man struggling to find his place; while “Audacity” is more refreshing than the ghost-written texts politicians usually turn out to add one more accomplishment to the list. Even if readers cannot dislodge Obama’s image from their minds while reading, they will not only learn that their commander-in-chief is truly emphatic and intelligent, but will be assured that after his term he will write the best memoir to ever come from an American president.

For more exhaustively researched articles on the relationship between Obama and literature, I recommend:
–    Barack by the books, by Laura Miller, Salon, July 7, 2008
–    From Books, New President Found Voice, by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, January 18, 2009


Book Recommendations: Introduction

September 8, 2008

Being a book critic and unable to maintain any conversation with human beings for more than 10 minutes unless I’m invoking some sort of literary quote, I have a reputation as one of the chief literates among my friends. As a result, I tend to get asked many times for book recommendations and often throw out a title or two, but that never seems to answer the question appropriately enough for the masses.

So, with such a preamble, let me begin my new series of updates with an all-encompassing list of recommendations from someone who makes a few bucks off doing so and often uses them as a way to dodge my crippling fear of other human beings. (Speaking of which, I’ll try to keep this rational although the fact that there are other people at the table next to me makes me feel anything but.)

Though this was originally written as a basic list, rationalizing why I like each of these books and providing some suggestions to a few friends, it fast moved past that as five years worth of literary chats came pouring out onto the page and I kept finding more and more remembered things to say. Figuring it was best to clean out the brain-attic and make room for some new thoughts, I decided to just write everything I could down for practice and to help people reach their goals.

As a result of all this, we’ll be breaking the postings up into different lists, each one with a brief (or not so brief) summary of each book and the reasons why I like it. A full review of each one would take at least a week to put together and since no one pays me for this, I’m under no obligation to create more than is necessary. The first post will come in the next couple of days, with additional ones to follow with slight regularity.

One note before we begin: many of these books could be moved into other groups with few problems, but I’ve put them where they fit best in my perspective. Beyond putting personal favorites first, don’t see this as a list in order of what to read, but a jangled list of what’s on my shelves and what I’d pull off to loan to you if I ever broke my moratorium on loaning out books. No better way to create an annoying recurring bit of conversation with someone than borrowing their books and not getting them back.


BookReview.com Archive #2

August 15, 2008

Now that I’ve worked my way through all the express reviews that I considered worthy of adding to my archive directly, I decided it now seems like a good time to conclude the archiving project I began with this post. Below please find links to all my remaining BookReview.com express work. Mostly serviceable books, but avoid Voice of Conscience and Recreation as they are pure garbage.

The River, By Moonlight by Camille Marchetta, reviewed September 24, 2007

Messages to Me: Words Collected on the Road to Silence by Margaret Coyle Irsay, reviewed October 1, 2007

Having Nasal Surgery? Don’t You Become an Empty Nose Victim! by Christopher Martin, reviewed October 3, 2007

Rachel and Aleks: A Historical Novel of Life, Love and WWII by Sylvia Smoller, reviewed November 27, 2007

Joshua Greyman by Maeve Sidhe Fitzgerald, reviewed January 21, 2008

Resonance by AJ Scudiere, reviewed January 28, 2008

Voice of Conscience by Behcet Kaya, reviewed February 6, 2008

The Music Master Ensemble Book by Graham Bennett, reviewed February 6, 2008

A Beckoning Hellfire by JDR Hawkins, reviewed February 18, 2008

Smiling at the World by Joyce Major, reviewed April 3, 2008

Remember Westville by James E Bryant, reviewed April 3, 2008

Sandlot Summit by Rick Fishman, reviewed April 6, 2008

Recreation by Gary Brandt, reviewed April 7, 2008


BookReview.com Archive #1

July 12, 2008

In the interests of time and boredom for my archiving project, I’m going to be doing something a little bit different with this post.

As you may know from my biography section I was formerly employed as a freelance literary critic for BookReview.com, a website based out of Monona, WI and the oldest book reviewing website in the country. I began writing for them in April of 2007, when I was looking for a freelancing option and saw their notice posted in the English department. Though we got off to a slow start they quickly called my practice writing the best of what they’d seen and I began work for them, reviewing 33 books on commission and another 12 for my own personal edification.

I’ll refrain from posting all of them individually as I have the others for two reasons: the first being that they are all posted online with links and images already, and it would take up too much space. Second, a lot of the books are fairly obscure or one-off printings where information on them is non-existent (and to be honest, quite a few of them are god awful). I’ll be reprinting all of the reviews of books I selected myself, and select reviews of the ones I particularly enjoyed reviewing or I felt turned out the best.

However, I do want this website to reflect all the work I’ve done, so below please find links to my reviews with publication dates.

The Grand Experiment: An Expedition of Self-Discovery, by Gale Gregory/Madren Campbell/Karen Johnson, reviewed March 27, 2007.

Killer Cain, by Bryan Foreman, reviewed April 21, 2007.

J.P. Homer’s “The Thesoddy,” by J.D. Peterson, reviewed June 3, 2007.

What Happened to Little League Baseball in the Inner-City? by Mark O’Neal, reviewed June 3, 2007.

Awaiting Whisperland: The Calling of Galahad Green, by W.G. Palmer, reviewed June 29, 2007.

Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming, by Reese Halter, reviewed June 30, 2007.

The Book of Life: Ascension and the Divine World Order, by Michael Sharp, reviewed July 25, 2007.

Deep Inside LiteBlue and Thinking Inside the LiteBlue Box, by Ronald Williams Jr., reviewed August 6 and 13, 2007.

The Balkan Secret Conspiracy, by Barbara Shenouda, reviewed August 25, 2007.

Pursued, by John R. Beyer, reviewed August 29, 2007.

Say What? The Manhandling of the Constitution, by James A. Dueholm, reviewed August 30, 2007.