ARFFF '06

Dec. 23rd, 2006 11:30 am
robotnik2004: (Default)
X-posted to Old is the New New.

Tags: All reading for fun at Fessenden, our quirky electronic childhoods, the great American elevator inspector novel, I find I don't know Dick.

It's year in review time, Loyal Dozens, that magical time of year when we review the year that went by since the last time it was time to review the year between the times when it's time to review it. I'll dispense with such fripperies as the year in movies, music, or current events, but I read a lot of books and every year I like to take some time to record a few that stayed with me, both for their own merits and for vaguely autobiographical purposes. (I try to associate the subjects of books with the places and times where I read them. Even though you can find a copy anywhere, for instance, it's cool to me that I bought Colson Whitehead's old weird NYC novel The Intuitionist, along with Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, at the awesome Strand bookstore in Greenwich Village. Or that I read Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon while actually en route from Paris to the moon.) This is made easier this year by the LibraryThing account I started last December. Most people use LibraryThing to catalog the books they own, but I use the library so prodigiously that my the set of books I possess bears only a passing resemblance to the set of books that have passed under my eyeballs. Instead, I used LibraryThing to catalog books as I read them, regardless of their provenance. You can, if you care, see all the books I read in 2006 here. But here are some highlights, starting with fiction first.

Read more... )

ARFFF 2004

Feb. 1st, 2004 03:54 pm
robotnik2004: (Default)
Like every writer, he measured other men's virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.
—Borges, "The Secret Miracle"

Me read lots of books! Me read these books in January! Interesting to you? Me not know! But cool for me to look back in future, see books me read!

Me not get out much! )
robotnik2004: (Default)
ARFF! = All Reading For Fun! was the name of some demented little reading encouragement program we had back in elementary school. All I really remember about it was that, for about a week leading up to it, there were cryptic signs all over school saying "ARFF! is coming!" It was the "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" of Ancaster in the early 1980s. But our teachers were absolutely mum about what ARFF!* was going to be. ("The first rule of ARFF! is: you don't talk about ARFF!")

I don't mind telling you, that was one of the longest fucking weeks of my life. Man, I was whipped into a frenzy of anticipation. I was peeing. "ARFF! is coming! ARFF! is coming! ARFF! is coming!" I couldn't have been more excited if you'd told me Spider-man and Fonzie were driving through town in the General Lee. It must have been that extraneous exclamation point after ARFF! that did it. "ARFF! don't care about grammar! ARFF! is breaking all! the! rules!"

Anyway, I'd like to say that when the big canard was unveiled, I learned a valuable lesson about media hype and the inevitable let down that follows. I'd like to say that, but let's face it, I was the sort of dorky kid to whom All Reading For Fun! actually was worth getting that excited about.

And I still am, apparently. So here's a little of what I've been reading lately. (For Fun!)

(I'm going to split it into multiple posts—and take advantage of the fact that LJ Friends pages are down to reverse the order so you don't have to read them backwards.)

Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk
I feel like I'm coming to the party late on this one. This is the first Chuck Palahniuk book I've read, and I really dug it. The last survivor of a suicide cult (a cult that is also a domestic slave ring and pyramid scheme) becomes a TV messiah, then hijacks a plane. Plus a killer who lives at Ronald McDonald House, a psychic girlfriend that ruins the Superbowl, and a suicide hotline that encourages callers to commit suicide. What's not to like?

The NYT called Palahniuk's work "intelligent pulp" or "pulp with flashes of brilliance" or something along those lines, and that seems about right to me. Reminds me of the way people used to talk about Quentin Tarantino. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the Fight Clubbers over at Palahniuk.net were former members of the Church of St. Quentin. I got the same vibe from Palahniuk, of technical virtuosity gleefully devoid of moral sensibility, that I got from QT back in the day. High INT, low WIS, you know? So you're taken by the writer's skill and audacity yet you don't feel the presence of an entirely adult mind. I'll probably start reading Lullaby tonight.

*Oh man. Like this whole ARFF! flashback wasn't gooney enough. It just came back to me. This fiendish bit of memetic manipulation took place at Fessenden Elementary (named, in patriotic Canadian fashion, for a guy who moved to the United States and didn't invent the radio). And that means the slogan was actually All Reading For Fun... at Fessenden. Not ARFF! but ARFFF!
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Narcocorrido, by Elijah Wald
Here's how smart I am. I thought narcocorrido was Spanish for "drug smuggler," and that this book was about the world of drug trafficking on the U.S.-Mexican border. I picked it up at the library on a whim. (For Fun!) But as anyone with the slightest knowledge of Mexican culture or even grade school Spanish probably could have told me, a corrido is a song, and narcocorridos are songs about the drug trade, a monstrously popular genre of romantic ballads about drug kingpins, crooked cops, and botched smuggling runs. Which is actually a lot cooler. I told you I was smart.

The book was just so so. It's a loving celebration of the music and the people who make it, which is fine, but it seems like it could have gotten into the whole grit and grime of the drug trade a bit more. Still, I love discovering a whole pop cultural niche I knew nothing about. Like when you first discover wuxia. Or German mountain climbing movies. Or Thai unicycle porn. One of the funny things about narcocorridos is that, even though the people featured in the songs (often the people who finance the recordings) are clearly some bad fucking hombres, you get the distinct impression that the songs themselves are kind of hokey. A lot of accordions and brass horns and ay-ay-ayeees. It's like if there was a whole genre of polka songs about Russian mafia assassins. Maybe there is.
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"Remember Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud? Well, they're back, and in POG form!"

Porno, by Irvine Welsh
Well, OK, they're not actually in POG form, but it was fun to catch up with everybody's favorite Scottish junkies and marvel at the fact that any of them were still breathing. This is the sequel to Trainspotting, ten years down the road (and yes, it really has been that long). As the title suggests, there is a little less heroin and a lot more sex this time around. Strangely, this made the events in this book seem far more sordid for me than in Trainspotting. Maybe it hit closer to home because I rarely shoot heroin, but I do have sex from time to time. Trainspotting made the former seem fun and hip; Porno makes the latter seem squalid and dirty. Or maybe it's just because our heroes are not getting any younger. Are any of us? Reading this book was a little like going to one's own ten-year reunion. Who are all these old gummers pretending to be the people I used to know? (I liked the quote [livejournal.com profile] wordwolf had (possibly quoting someone else?) about his ten-year reunion: "It was just as if everyone had swelled.") Anyway, good wholesome reading for you and the kiddies. Lots of sick laughs, lots of squirmy situations, lots of thick Scottish dialect ("It's goat her shitein hersel...") you have to read aloud to make heads or tails of.

p.s. In contrast to the slick content portal and community nexus at Palahniuk.net, check out Irvine Welsh's utterly slapdash and largely content-free web site. Hee. You get the distinct impression Welsh had Spud throw half of it together before fuckin oaf to the pub fir a bevvy.

Edit: Comments disallowed on this entry as the book title has attracted LJ spammers. Maybe I should have called it Pr0n0. (Weird: I didn't know they could comment without me getting an email notice. Clever spammers.)
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The Arrogant History of White Ben, by Clemence Dane
This is an odd one. Cited by the Great and Terrible Ken Hite in his Suppressed Transmission column about scarecrows, it's a weird forgotten novel from 1938 in which a scarecrow comes to life and becomes the King of England. The scarecrow's name is White Ben, and entirely by coincidence, Ben is also the name of the Scarecrow Who Would Be King in our Unknown Armies game. So obviously I had to track this down.

It is a strange book, musty and seemingly out of its proper history, not unlike good old Harry Smith's anthology. I think I was the first person to check it out of Widener since the late 1940s. In the book, there is a war on, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. With Germany, one presumes, though it might as well be the Hundred Years' War—nobody remembers what the war started for and nobody expects it to come to an end anytime soon. It's just something that England endures. Then Ben, the scarecrow, comes to life. And he hates crows. That's pretty much his sole motivating passion. But when he talks about killing crows, everyone assumes he's talking metaphorically about whoever it is in society they don't like. So they believe he's giving voice to all their hatreds and prejudices, and they love him for it. It's like the Anti-Being There. White Ben is the evil opposite of Chance the Gardener. Ultimately, they make him King or something and he presides over a bloody holocaust where everyone suspected of being a "crow" is killed. It has a storybook quality to it that is a little reminiscent of Oz, but it's dark as hell.

"The night was a noisy one. More were killed than even Ben had proscribed, in his astonished anger that there still existed such monsters, scums, filths, dwarfish horrors. In short that there existed people who would not agree with him. … Ben's plan for testing a crow had become known, and many were flung from roofs and windows to die slowly on the pavements or to be trampled under the looters' feet. Houses were set on fire, and men and statuary shot to pieces. Nevertheless there was a certain good-humoured regret about the business, a general feeling that the fun couldn't last forever."

I must admit I didn't make it cover to cover. I read to page 182, but that took weeks, then skimmed the rest. The musty unworldliness of it all put me to right sleep within pages every time I picked it up. As occasionally happens with books of this sort, the fact that the book exists is probably cooler than the actual activity of reading it. (But I haven't returned it to the library yet—so if anyone local wants to take a crack at it...)
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The Last Lonely Saturday, Jordan Crane
An indie mini-comic by a local 'toonist that Lisa gave me for my birthday. A little old guy visits his wife's grave, remembers happier times, writes her a letter about how much he misses her. It made me cry. Seriously. In my defense, it was my birthday, I'd been working mad hours, I finished my dissertation draft, then we had a full day in Salem with L's parents, then there was the great power blackout (don't know why that should've made me emotional—I'm just setting the scene, ok?), and basically by the time we got home I was insanely tired. Still. I bawled like I was at a Bette Midler movie. Powerful stuff.


This is the panel that really started the waterworks. It may not seem like much out of context, but trust me. If you'd read it, you'd be mewling like a Swede too.

...

So... what are you reading?
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Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, by David Weinberger
You have to be careful with these The Future Is Now books. A blurb on the front cover says "in the tradition of Marshall McLuhan," which could mean a lot of things. (For instance, "it's superficial technological determinism!" or, "it will prove to have the shelf life of yogurt!") But I enjoyed it, and I'm quite prepared to buy the overall argument: the internet isn't changing us, it's revealing us. Not unlike another networked communication technology I've done a little research on.

Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, by Lisa McGirr
The best history of the New Right to date. And I'm not just saying that because of all the recommendation letters Professor McGirr's husband has written me this year. Her book is an extremely smart and balanced case study of grassroots politics in Orange County, California from Goldwater to Reagan. You might not feel like reading such a book, and if so, that's fine. The shocking thing is how long it took for a good historian to get around to writing one.

The Sinaloa Story, by Barry Gifford
Gifford is like James Ellroy on peyote. He's best known for collaborations with David Lynch (Wild At Heart, Lost Highway). Like many a Lynch movie, the Gifford novels I've read start out great, burning rubber with gritty noir energy and all-American badness, and then somehow run out of gas a few miles outside town in the dusty desert of plotlessness. This one was no exception. Gifford is good for Unknown Armies inspiration, though. The Sinaloa Story's Ava Varazo is the model for Anna Cairo, my UA game's femme fatale. At our game on Monday, Brant said "I have never hated an NPC in any game as much as I hate her." So Gifford and I must be doing something right.

The Real McCoy, by Darin Strauss
The last, and probably least, of a trilogy of early 20th century Americana novels I recently inhaled. (The others being Carter Beats the Devil and Kavalier & Clay. Oh, and John Henry Days. They're not actually a trilogy. They're just a bunch of books I read.) It's the story of Kid McCoy, a turn of the century boxer who may have been the origin of the phrase "the Real McCoy" but was in every other way a con artist and scammer. And his real name wasn't even McCoy. I probably read this too fast; it hasn't really stayed with me.

Exit Strategy, by Douglas Rushkoff
The biblical story of Joseph retold among 21st century hackers and dot-com executroids. A good read, smart and hip and funny, though not as big a rush as Rushkoff's first novel, Ecstasy Club. Writers probably hate when you analyze their books like this, but I couldn't help read it as being about Rushkoff himself. He's a media and culture commentator who made his name in the early 90s with plugged-in-to-the-zeitgeist books like Cyberia and Media Virus (not to mention The Gen X Reader, which ensured he would be confused ever after in people's minds with Douglas Coupland). His early books were extremely smart but also breathless in their enthusiasm for, well, just about everything that was Happening Now, from the subversive potential of Ren and Stimpy to the utopia awaiting us all in MMORPGs. But after a few years Rushkoff discovered that the people who made his books into bestsellers weren't so much the subversive young culture jammers he loved, but marketing executives who wanted to sell things to those subversive young culture jammers. And books like Media Virus gave them a fistful of tools with which to do so. (Actually that other culture-savvy Douglas went through much the same process a few years earlier with all the people who wanted to hire him to sell things to Generation X.) Rushkoff admits that the adulation (and top-dollar consulting fees) of the PR mavens turned his head for a while, but ultimately he recoiled from that world, and I think his last three books (Exit Strategy, Coercion, and the new Nothing Sacred) can all be seen as a kind of penance for the time Dougie, like the wayward Joseph, labored at Pharaoh's side.

(PS Read Rushkoff's weblog here.)
(PPS One caveat: the "future footnotes" created by readers of the "open source" edition of the novel were kind of annoying. Hey, I'm all for exploring new media, but making reading a novel more like reading UseNet seems to me a step in the wrong direction.)

The Queen's Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, by Benjamin Woolley
Elizabethan super spy 007, baby. Nuff said.

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