Kafka’s Hat is Patrice Martin’s story of a man who embarks on a quest to pick up the hat that once belonged to a famous writer for his boss. It’s much lighter than anything actually by Kafka, and also owes a great deal to Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster. In the end it becomes a story about all those writers, but with a very light touch. It feels less substantial than those great writers’ works but a good complement.
I have a couple of quibbles with the characterization of P. one of the main characters. I don’t know if, even in the post-hoc rationalizing way that makes sense when you’re writing Kafka pastiche, a couple of the decisions P. made were actually earned by the character. At several moments P. felt less like a person caught in greater machinations than a playing piece being pushed by a writer. This is, obviously, a fairly fine distinction, as all characters are caught in the machinations of their writers, but I feel like if you’re drawing Kafka comparisons you’d better bring your A game.
But the problems I had were minor quibbles. The book is slight, yet solid. I would argue with the promotional copy about it being “delightfully absurd” (Jasper Fforde’s work seems more dlightful than this) but I definitely enjoyed my time reading it.
I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.
I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.
The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.
I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.
There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.
So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.
The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene. I think it would have had more of an impact on me if I had read more than a couple of Graham Greene books in my life. But Iyer writes about travel and globalism in a way that speaks very well to me, and a big part of this book was about how certain writers get in your head. I guess I’m saying I understood what he was talking about even though I don’t feel the same way about Greene.
The book was filled with stories about growing up in English boarding schools and how they were trained to spread Empire, but also about Iyer’s travel, and about California wildfires taking his homes, and looking for a father, and the way Greene wrote about the goodness in fallen priests. I liked it, but it wasn’t the same kind of thrill as something like Sun After Dark.
The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 is the one I remember being my favourite. The characters had settled into their interesting roles. They had their ship. Sisko was captain. Worf joined the crew. Nog goes to Starfleet Academy. The communicators changed shape. After this (in my memory) we start getting bogged down in endless war. While as a teenager I hated the first couple of seasons for being too political and boring, I disliked the latter seasons for being too much about military/mystical battles. Season 4 is the one at the tipping point of awesomeness.
The season’s highlight comes early with The Visitor. The Visitor is my favourite episode of any Star Trek ever, though most of it could be a Twilight Zone episode. Captain Sisko and his son Jake are in the Defiant’s engine room for a freak accident which kills the captain. The story is about how Jake deals with the loss, told from Jake’s perspective as an old man decades later. The key is that Jake’s father isn’t actually dead – he’s trapped in mumbojumboland where time doesn’t pass, and he keeps on reappearing inexplicably for Jake to feel the pain of the loss all over again.
The Star Trekkiness of this episode is basically pure technobabble. There’s an accident that does this weird thing. Jake spends a lifetime trying to figure out how to rescue his father and in the end he does, at the cost of his own life. There are Klingons and Bajorans and starships but the only reason we really need all of those is because they’re the accoutrements of Jake and Ben Sisko’s relationship. We’ve watched three seasons of them being father and son so we know what kind of relationship they have. In the episode itself, Jake says he and his father were close and it doesn’t have to spend scenes depicting that closeness outside the realm of this specific story.
And goddamnit it does a number on the writery part of me. Jake abandons his art and his life to save his father, when the Captain just wanted to see him grow up. It’s sad and hopeful and uses its Star Trekness in exactly the right way.
So yes, The Visitor was great. But this season also has Dax abandoned by another lover she would throw away her traditional life and career for. Worf is on trial for killing a shipload of civilians. Bashir gets to try solving impossible medical puzzles (in both breaking the Jem’Hadar addiction to ketracel white, and saving the people of a planet from a bioweapon plague). That Bashir fails in both of these (though he does get a vaccine up and going for the next generation) shows how the writers are taking things a bit more seriously. Not everything can be wrapped up in a nice little bow in one weekly episode.
But there are the light episodes too. The Ferengi going to Roswell in Little Green Men is fun. The holodeck adventure with Bashir as a Bondian spy is fun (though the reason for it working is ludicrous). Rom forming a union, and Quark standing up to the Ferengi Commerce Association and having everything he owns reposessed are also good episodes.
But the shadows of war episodes are the ones (after The Visitor) I remember most. Homefront and Paradise Lost take us back to Earth and we see the wrongness of security theatre (five years before the TSA turned airports into Orwellian zones). This is the season where Eddington defects to the Maquis and it hurts more than the second season episode where Sisko’s friend defects, because we’d had time to get to know Eddington. Oh, and Dukat becomes a pirate with a Klingon bird of prey. I love that episode.
Watching it all again, I remain convinced that DS9 got better and better to this point. Now we’ll see if my memories of a decline are also accurate.
So the joke in John Scalzi’s Redshirts is that in a Star Trek-like future a bunch of expendable crewmembers on a starship figure out that something is hinky about their incredible death rate. Anyone who goes on a mission with one of the bridge crew has a terribly low survival rate. The book is about some of these lower decks members figuring out what is going on and how to change the universe to improve their odds. Be warned: it gets kind of meta. (Normally I like that, but this didn’t set my brain/heart on fire.)
It was a decent enough book, but that may be because I’m enough of a Star Trek nerd to enjoy looking at the bizarre universe they live in and figuring out ways to rationalize it. It had some decent things to say about lazy storytelling and figuring out a better way to write. And it didn’t take very long to read. It wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped but I didn’t hate myself for taking a few hours out of my life with it.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is Alison Bechdel’s memoir about her relationship with her mother and her therapists and about writing Fun Home. Because it’s about writing the previous book and how much her mother didn’t like that she’d written it, but also about psychoanalysis, it feels more like a meta-book.
She writes and draws a lot about feeling self-conscious, and transcribes so many bits about writing memoir that it feels more like an essay than a story. Which isn’t a bad thing. It makes me want to read her sources.
One of the things I really like about both of Bechdel’s books is how she draws the pages from the things she’s reading. She draws the typewriter font and highlights the interesting text, but leaves the surrounding bits in there for context. She also has people’s letters and her drawings of photographs. This whole layer of drawing and selecting as construction fascinates the hell out of me.
I don’t think I found this one as compelling as Fun Home because the relationship between Bechdel and her mother is ongoing. It’s harder to make it all fit into a book. In any nonfiction you’re making arbitrary endpoints but it’s always easier when you’ve got something natural like a death to crystallize around. In Are You My Mother? there isn’t that one thing, which seems to make it a harder book to create. So in some ways the book becomes about how hard it is to make itself. Which some people might not enjoy, but I did.
One of the things I love about an aggregated informational world is the idea that if you’ve got enough information flowing past you things will wash up on shore. In the Wesch video there’s a bit about how a person finds significance based on our relationships/contrast with other people. That flow of what you and other people care about is important for significance I guess. You see how people who make stuff you care about care about certain things and you learn what you feel about things.
Journalism is about working yourself up into a lather over something you previously felt nothing about. It is diametrically opposed to what you do as a novelist, which is to very slowly discover what you feel about things. – Kazuo Ishiguro
I feel like aggregating information aids in both of these acts. You need that flow to see what other people are getting into a lather about and sometimes you can get into that lather too. There’s something to be said for having a pile of information you’re barely reading until you see people talking about the same thing so many times and it just bubbles up seemingly everywhere. I love that, especially when news is breaking.
And then there are the people who do the librarian/journalist type aggregation themsleves like @acarvin the NPR journalist who’s become the go to retweeter for the revolutions in the Middle East. He’s being the human in the middle putting an eye on things (and sometimes he, like others, gets fooled).
I can see how these software bits and the fancy learning environments are good for bringing information together but man oh man do I ever like the idea of the infopro (ie the person not the tool) as aggregator supreme. In a much more modest way I’ve been trying to play that kind of role in this class, going through the twitterstream and putting the conversations into a more followable format on Storify. This is not the most efficient means of aggregation, I realize. That Wesch video is talking about automatically pulling in everything tagged anthropology on Flickr, but I’m sure a lot of those pictures are absolute shit. If we’re filters we’re filters sifting for treasure. And it’s not easy.
The other day Jessamyn West posted a commencement address I really enjoyed, which included this:
Some of what I do is go places that “my people” don’t go to, represent us, and then come back and tell my folks what I found there, whether it’s being a techie at a librarian conference, a librarian at the tech conference or a rural librarian at the big city meeting. The world needs people who stay and people who roam, cross-pollinate, bumblebee style.
Sometimes I was surprised that I’d be one of very few people in my communities speaking out cogently and clearly for my ideas, against filtering, against digital rights management, for copyright reform and open access, that sort of thing.
Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker movement sometimes called this isolation of idealism the “long loneliness” and said it could only be solved by the love that comes with community. I feel that by sharing your ideas and ideals with others, you’re not as lonely.
I don’t know, this idea of streams of information merging with each other and being separated out is important and kind of beautiful. I don’t know about the wisdom of crowds but I do love cross-pollination and that’s something that works if you’re aggregating across different ideas.
I am not getting as much writing done as I want. This is usually the case, though right now I feel kind of drained by the constant attention my social media class demands. But I found the time to finish Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work the other day. It’s a book about writing that’s not about craft but about the sheer bloody-mindedness you need to do something creative. It’s the kind of book that tells you to stop reading and start doing, which is the kind of thing that us prone-to-over-analyze folks get stuck in.
I get a little wary of books meant to inspire writers, but Pressfield knows what he’s talking about and I agree with the thesis of his manifesto. I agree with pretty much everything in the book, really, especially this Marianne Williamson quote:
Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people don’t feel insecure around you.
Agreeing with something doesn’t make me much better at following through, however. And the personification of Resistance as the universe actually conspiring against you making anything is a little over the top.
But hell, I want people to make things. I want to make things. If this helps people do it, I’ll take the risk of recommending a somewhat cheerleaderish “inspiring” book.
And of course, blogging about it is not my Work. Which I should go Do.