The First Bad Man: Idiosyncrasy Incarnate

Filmmaker, artist, and now most impressively novelist, Miranda July’s debut The First Bad Man is a stunning original with a cringe-worthy amount of idiosyncratic voice and self-delusion. In a brief 200 pages, July exemplifies what it means to be not just a woman in the 21st century, but a human being.

The book itself is about the life and times of Cheryl Glickman, a holistic seeking pseudo-naturalist (?) who works as an office manager taking notes for board meetings at Open Palm. She is the embodiment of the facade of order–everything has its place, books are meant to stand on shelves–not to be taken off of shelves. Cups and dishes are for company only–why not eat out of the pan itself? She undergoes chromotherapy (literally, color therapy) and refuses to wash her pans after cooking because it “builds flavor.”

For her, life is a staunch opposition to decrepitude and disorder. And then comes Clee. At the behest of her boss, Cheryl must open her doors and life to his daughter. Order meets chaos in the form of a young blonde bombshell whose feet stink, never seems to shower, parties, and sleeps around. Her general volatility serves as the perfect foil for Cheryl’s fetishized fantasies of personal sexual gratification–and the two unwind perfectly. They even end up raising a child and what follows is one of the most brilliantly original and truly remarkable books of the year.

The First Bad Man is hyper-modern. There’s a sheen and order to the prose that is so refreshingly grounded in both reality and fantasy.

But the beauty of the novel really comes through the dialogue. It’s hilarious. Characters converse in dead-pan interchanges no more than a few words in length like a Wes Anderson script–but the humor is more than just coarse conversation. It’s truth. The lines and fantasies are initially hysterical, but become strangely intimate as how actually real they are. Every page reflects a society in mental upheaval. We identify with idiosyncrasy and uniqueness, but hide it for fear of ridicule. Well, hide no more, Cheryl Glickman is the new poster-child for eccentric quirkiness.

Needless to say, July has crafted something here exceptional and original. This will be a cult classic–if not a true classic in it’s own right, and I can’t wait for more to come from this phenomenal debut author.

Stars = 5/5

Escapism: A Discussion

As an avid reader, escapism seems to be the name of the game. I read for a number of hours a day without fail, without remorse, without reservation. I long for the experiences of others. I long for thoughts and actions of the greatest minds of our kind so that I might be able to make some sort of sense out of my own.

To some extent, books are the instruction manuals for how to live a life–for better or worse.

But as much as I try, I can’t get past the thought that inherent in the act of reading is the act of escapism. That in order to experience the lives and actions of others we must break outside our own present–which to me strikes a harsh chord against the idea of “presence” in life.

The sad (maybe?) part of it all is the truth that we’re all escapists.

No matter what our poison, be it books, movies, television, music, we’re all longing for that clean, well-lit place that Hemingway so beautifully penned in the 1930’s and people like Tolkien and Lewis made fantastical for even further gratification.

We’re all longing for a sense of home in the things we experience, when for most of us, the very act of sitting down to consume whatever media we’ve got is the essence of home. Our media (books included) has become a perverse sort of hearth we gather around for our own sense of appeasement.

But is this a good thing? As hard as this is to admit: what’s the difference between escaping into the pages of a book vs. the pixelated glow of a screen? Obviously one is more linguistically advanced than the other, but the idea is the still the same. Regardless of media or format, we’re still diverging from the present for the seemingly greener pastures of the other.

Is escapism a good thing or a bad thing? What are your thoughts?

To Be Well Read

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I came across the Guardian’s list of the Top 100 greatest novels of all time, and I have to say that I’m impressed. Such a list is something that is immensely difficult to come up with, but The Guardian has chosen a selection of novels (some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t) that stretch in fields and genre’s from Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, and it’s made me recognize that despite my own sense of confidence–my own sense of satisfaction at the fact that regardless of occupation and personal/social obligation, I’ve still been able to tackle roughly a book a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but there’s always something on the nightstand/coffee table/toilet (yup).

And yet, the contents of this list are awesomely unfamiliar.

Which brings up an interesting question: What does it mean to be well-read? As an individual that reads constantly, I’d like to consider myself as one who is relatively well-read, but this list proves otherwise. Does it mean one has to read the classics? The biographies? The sciences, essays, and fictions of each continent?

IMG_0204I’ve been criticized time and again from some colleagues that I’m relatively grounded in anglo-continentalism (old, dead, white, men) and to some extent, I agree. But, regardless of my own literary limitations, it’s nice to be reminded of the fact that there is always more. The world of great literature is never-ending and stretches into the furthest reaches of imagination. Those worlds that the most gifted of us imagine, but only select few are somehow able to transcribe.

Thus, I’m going to embark on a little challenge. I’m going to make a run at this list, and hopefully I’ll be successful. Interspersed with library books and the occasional amazon purchase, this list is going to largely comprise my reading for the next year or two (hopefully, no more). What sights await?

And yet, the question still stands: What makes an individual well-read? Clearly, it’s relative, but there has to be something out there that gives an individual that pluck of conversational awe us bibliophiles vie for so vehemently.

What are your thoughts?

Running and the Liminal Space

I run for several reasons. There are the obvious points behind the importance of physical fitness and cardiovascular health; it clarifies the mind and allows for detoxification of the body; it induces endorphins which cause a feeling of euphoria; I also run because I find it downright fun.

It’s a personal battle against the self. It’s the sensation of the fight at its purest. There’s the burn of the limbs, the harshness of intake of breath, and then the elements.

I confess, horrendous allergies limit me to running on a treadmill during the summer months, which any purist will dismiss outright as simply “not as good.” And I agree with them. It’s not. It’s the equivalent of eating at a McDonald’s in Shang-hi. Needless to say, I run because it’s fun.

But there’s more to running than simply cardiovascular health. There’s a willingness that must be pursued. There’s an inherent drive in the act of forcibly pushing one’s body to the brink of collapse that carries over into a number of other personal endeavors.

For one (and by far the most obvious)–running helps with perseverance. Whether it’s the perseverance to finish that tome of a novel, or the willingness to stick out a movie that might just suck enough to merit turning off before it’s through, running allows a person to enter that sort of fugue state in which finishing isn’t a maybe it’s a must.

Less obvious though are the mental benefits behind running, and these are by far the most important. After a hard day’s work, thirty-minutes on a treadmill is the best tonic available. When all is said and done, after I’ve pumped my limbs to the brink of collapse and driven my lungs through through the diverse gauntlet of huffs and puffs, the head is clear and the thoughts are easy. Those tasks that have been on my mind for the better part of the day (sometimes longer) dissipate with the knowledge that they will be done one way or another. Why worry? You just ran five miles straight–you’re practically Superman. What’s a bullet to the man of steel?

I suppose the underlying factor behind a good run is that it allows us to internally occupy that liminal space between anguish and contentment. The space where the limbs seem to go numb and the mind shuts down and there’s nothing but the pounding sensation of pavement, harsh breath, and the shudder of excitement at possibly breaking a personal time or distance. It allows for reflection of a different sort. A more absent-minded reflection where it’s both forced and not.

It’s no coincidence that runners are often avid readers. They both require the same skill-set. Diligence, perseverance, the will to finish, because acknowledging the fact that to read a 1000+ page book will take ten days of reading 100 pages or more is the very same as staring at a hill straight on and knowing that quitting is not an option.

Somehow the metaphorical (and not) hill must be conquered.

NOS4A2: Christmas in July

I understand I’ve leaned more towards the horror story lately, and that to limit myself to a single genre is not only intellectually isolating, but isolating for my readers as well.

Unfortunately for those afraid of the classic horror story out there, I’m here to disappoint you yet again. Thus, I bring you Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.

A not so secret, secret: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

Boom! And, not so surprisingly, this is a fact that Hill is relatively keen on keeping under-wraps. His book jackets and bios mention nothing of the novelistic powerhouse that is King. No bad blood there, just a man trying to make it without having to pull himself out from under the shadow of one of fiction’s greatest writers. No shame there.

What Hill has managed to turn out with NOS4A2 is nothing short of amazing. His fiction is reminiscent of King’s in its easy-going bravado. Hill writes like a pro and takes smart shots as they come to him, much like his father. And yet Hill’s work is somehow easier. There’s a lighter sense of unconcern for a tightly-wound plot (that’s not to say his plots are not tightly-wound, because believe me, they are), in lieu of a downright fun story.

NOS4A2 is the story of supernatural “inscapes,” and what amounts to personal reflections manifested physically in our world. What follows is an amazingly fast paced juggernaut of a horror story about vampiric child-killer extraordinaire Charles Manx as he meets a force that just might be too much to handle in wayward mother-figure Vic McQueen.

With expectedly depraved characters, oftentimes gratuitously violent and perverse scenes, and King-esque tongue-in-cheeky turns of phrases (“Ear today, gone tomorrow”…I’ll let you take a guess about that one) Hill takes us on a terrifying trip to Christmasland and the world of Manx.

But it’s not just a powerhouse of a plot that gets this one going. Hill appeals to the avid bibliophile with references to Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and “De Zoet” (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) and even his father’s work with the “True Knot” (Doctor Sleep) with references and Easter Eggs that are as entertaining to pick out and devour as the book’s plot.

This is candy. If you’re looking for something intellectually stimulating like Faulkner or Maupassant, you might as well toddle off, because you’ll be grossly disappointed with NOS4A2. but for those in need of a quick-paced thriller, this is for you.

Close the windows and lock the doors for this tour-de-force of scary dreams and horrific slaying in Christmasland. Or, if you’re like me, let the summer-night breeze in to freeze the blood with this frighteningly original screamer.

Stars = 4/5

Linguistic Hedges and Bridges: Why Do We Read?

In short: we live through the words of others.

In length: we’re a bumbling race of accidents.

I won’t go into the whole evolutionary discussion as it pertains to creation because to do so would cause a torrential digression that I’m sure would aggravate some and incense others, which is not my purpose.

We all know that language is meant to connect. It’s meant to allow a glimpse into the other through our ability to give words and labels to that which we see and experience. E.g. Saussure’s “Theory of the Sign” and our ability to match labels to the world around us–signifier and signified and all that crap for the lit. theory majors out there.

Reading as a whole allows for windows and doors to be made from one consciousness to another. The connection is evident in our society’s broad range of reading appetites. Whether we’re reading for pleasure and joy or for inspiration and education, the point is the same. We’re looking for connection.

However, the search for connection also brings on an untended sort of isolation. How am I supposed to relate to the thoughts and sentiments of an author singularly different in every way from myself? Answer? I wish I had one.

Regardless, the importance of reading vs. something more immediate and imaginatively accommodating like television or movies is our ability to interpret and to construct. Reading requires a visionary self-construction to glimpse into the world of others. What the author intended may not be what we (the reader) constructs. And thus, we read to create. We read to bridge the gaps between the worlds of others and ourselves.

Myself, I’ve kept a list of my favorite quotes for the last decade. It began when I was seventeen and progressed and evolved from my scribblings in notebooks and little pocketbooks, and ultimately made its way (predictably so) into a word document that now stretches to nearly fifteen pages.

On it’s glossy-white digitized finish, I can trace the reading path of a decade’s worth of linguistic peaks and troughs–the thoughts that have hedged me into private reflection, and the thoughts that have connected. Those that have made me feel insignificant and entirely imperceptive, to those that have made me identify with the lives of some of the best minds of our species–both the worlds of now and then.

Whether it’s the isolationist crystalline beauty of Plath or Woolf to the bravado and machismo of Hemingway and Bukowski, I’ve been able to pick apart the lives of others as they’ve been put down by their creators. Through language, I’ve been able to create the connective bridges between my isolation and that of another to form a sort of collective conscious that ideally inspires, and regrettably segregates.

Hence the profuse reading agenda. We read to connect. We read to discover what others have thought the sense and purpose of our time here truly is. Is it to inspire, to isolate, or simply to exist?

The beauty of it is that at the end of the day, it’s your choice.

What do you wish to experience?

The Bushwhacked Piano

Thomas McGuane’s second novel, originally published in 1971 to critical reviews, is a hysterical commentary on the state of the American psyche seen through the eyes and lived through the misadventures of wayward entrepreneur Nicholas Payne.

Follow Payne as he pursues the hand of a doughty millionairess and joins sides with a double amputee con-man (the bionic man!) as they attempt to sell glow-in-the-dark bats that will rid entire towns of mosquitos overnight (or so they say).

One of the most uniquely funny and linguistically savvy voices in American Letters, The Bushwhacked Piano is the perfect balance of literary panache and buoyantly side-splitting hilarity.