Monday, August 31, 2009

Dropping Like Flies

Not too long after yesterday's post, the backup laptop died. I got it running again after way too much effort -- but I was a little relieved, I feared I was becoming the Pol Pot of computers. Not sure, though, why I rushed about so much to get it working. To check the hockey transactions, I suppose. In comments to the last post Brushback mentions a dead computer introducing him to a slower pace, and perhaps I should follow that -- the effort invested in healing the sick computer was far greater than the importance of anything I achieved online yesterday.

In any case, a new computer arrives Wednesday, so I can begin killing that one.

It also rained all day yesterday, great torrents of the stuff, so I just read and read some more:

#60 -- "The Human Factor" by Graham Greene

#61 -- "An Artist of the Floating World" by Kazuo Ishiguro

#62 -- "The Tin Men" by Michael Frayn

"The Human Factor" is one of the Greenes-on-a-pedestal, but I hadn't gotten around to it before. Nothing turned out the way I expected and I quite enjoyed it -- nothing wraps up quite right and it's very real in that sense.

"Floating World," sadly, was kind of a disappointment. I know it's unfair to want every Ishiguro novel to match "Never Let Me Go" but this just left me pretty cold. None of the characters are very interesting or sympathetic, and it's just a lot of really nice description tied together by a narrative that's of limited interest to me.

"The Tin Men" is the book I actually wanted to read when I picked up the blah "A Very Private Life" earlier this year and this is considerably better. Funny as hell, a technological satire that somehow manages to hold up 45 years after publication.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

American Heavy Metal Weekend

Four days off and this was supposed to be the weekend of awesomeness: hiking, photography, blogging, whatever else goes into a weekend of awesomeness. Instead, Friday saw a catastrophic hard drive crash and torrential rain, so everything went out the window and I just sat around listening to Entombed and watching movies. I've got my vintage-2004 laptop up and running until the new computer arrives, but it's not real great for photo-uploading (particularly after I killed off half the programs so that it would run at a sorta-decent speed) so I've just packed it in on that front.

So: I watched movies. (and read, a bit.)

Woman in the Dunes -- lent to me nearly two years ago by a co-worker. Don't lend me movies -- I still have a few that Noah lent me in 2002 or so. I read the book this was based on years ago and was underwhelmed; the movie came up when I was discussing my need for good desert-related art. This is more gripping than the book was -- I also think it's changed significantly toward the end, though again, I can't really remember. Beautiful at times. True to form, I'm more impressed by the shots of the desert than anything else.

Watchmen -- Ok, I actually enjoyed this, even if it wasn't great art. I reminded myself repeatedly going in that it can't be just like the comic, it's not going to affect me the same way, so don't get your expectations too high, and it kinda worked. It's impressive that they managed to take one of the most subtle comics out there and make it this bombastic. I suppose that a lot of the dialogue that seemed quietly effective on the page is going to seem melodramatic on the screen. They were in a no-win situation, and all things considered didn't do too badly. A good time even if I won't rush to watch it again.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- Years since I've seen this, I just needed some Clint Eastwood and some guns while I went through some white wine last night.

And then, a book:

#59 -- "The Honourable Schoolboy" by John Le Carre

This may push me into one of those periods where I read too much by one author (previous cases: Graham Greene, Lawrence Block). This is the sequel to previously-read "Tinker Tailor" and it's fantastic -- just blows the other two books I've read of his out of the water. Livelier writing, some of the most tightly-wound plotting I've seen, and one of the tensest scenes I've read in a long while (when Westerby was in Cambodia, it wasn't too good for a heart patient). There's one more sequel after this one and I think I've gotta read it SOON, and then I'll start working my way through his other books.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fighting For A Haircut

I'm a fairly recent convert to pho -- I only tried Vietnamese food for the first time last year. I dig it. Getting takeout today made my car smell nice, much-needed after I spilled coffee over every square inch earlier in the week.

There's 114,000 Vietnamese joints on Buford Highway, but so far I've only been to Pho #1. Partly because it's #1, and everyone likes a winner. And partly because Pho #1 makes me think of Fugazi's Song #1, and so anyone in the car with me (today, no one) gets treated to me singing that song with the word "Pho" replacing the word "song" throughout.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Empty Quarter

#57 -- "Miles From Nowhere" by Dayton Duncan

#58 -- "After Yugoslavia" by Zoƫ Bran

Let us now praise used bookstores: more specifically, that feeling that comes with finding a book that you've never previously heard about, but that turns out to be just what you wanted. Like both of these.

In "Miles From Nowhere," Duncan travels around to the "modern frontier" -- those counties (all in the American West) with a population density below two people per square mile. This had one major impact on me: it put to rest any idea that I could live in such an area for any extended period of time. It's the kind of thing that I say sounds great when I'm stressed out, but after reading this ... no. No more romantic flights of fancy. I'd like to visit, would go nuts staying.

Which isn't to say that he paints a negative -- or even mostly negative -- picture of the people. There's a lot to admire here. He just doesn't sugarcoat it. It's often a tough, lonely life. Good anecdotes and a nice descriptive pen, plus some interesting history, and a few tips on places I should visit next time I'm back home.

"After Yugoslavia" -- yes, there's Yugoslavia books I haven't heard about. Bran's book is a post-war travel narrative, and as many books as I've read about the area, this is one of the first travelogues not directly tied into the conflict. (She visits Slovenia, which I don't think has been mentioned much in my library.) She's a friendly, likable writer, sympathetic and humorous. Not sure if she has any other books out but if so I'll probably give them a whirl.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Research and Destroy

There's a good line in a Richard Powers interview somewhere-or-other in which he talks about how he threw everything he knew into his first novel, because he didn't know if he'd have a chance to write a second. I like that. A bit too much, perhaps.

I'm really susceptible to going off on wild tangents of reading up on a subject that interests me, on the sometimes-dubious grounds that I need to know more about it for the novel. Just as an example, some subjects that I've researched in writing the current book:

* mining in Colorado
* late 19th-century labor activism and violence
* irrigation
* weather patterns
* what happens if you blow up a dam (hello, Homeland Security!)
* Salton City and its decline
* states' rights
* utopian societies in the United States
* U.S. troops being sent into Russia toward the end of World War I
* UFOs
* other conspiracy theories, including one that there are secret tunnels under Denver International Airport
* the effects of cocaine and peyote (a lifetime without drug use has left me sadly deficient in some areas)
* the layout of San Diego

...and a bunch of other things that I'm just not thinking of right now.

The point being, when the writing isn't going well at all I look for ANY distractions, and researching something ostensibly for the book is one where I can keep the illusion up that I'm WORKING. And that's probably counterproductive. I gotta quit that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Renewal of Purpose

Ok, perhaps I've stumbled upon something that will help the PPA regain a little of the focus that it's lost. I've been working on a novel now for a few years -- I know I've mentioned it in the past a few times -- and it's foundered upon the rocks of indifference lately. This year (which has been a weird one from the start) has seen me have a few breakthroughs in terms of the plot and direction, while the writing itself has dwindled toward absolute zero. So maybe writing about the various struggles I'm having will help me overcome them.

(or maybe not.)

This weekend I got past a pretty significant roadblock -- and it was one I didn't want to get past. Allow me to explain. There was a scene, fairly early on in the book, that I really wanted to work. It was (very loosely) based on a true-life tale my friend Kynan once told me, a story that I find one of the top ten funny things ever to have happened on this planet, one that to this day can make me chuckle if I just think of it briefly. I wanted to capture that story in my novel. And I knew how.

Problem: I knew how, but it didn't work. It had to be significantly altered to last more than a page. It had to be significantly altered to make it advance the plot at all (and I needed it to advance the plot). And while the scene made me laugh, because I knew the real-life story that provided the basis... I don't know how well it worked for other people. One of my readers said that by the end of that scene, she found one of my protagonists really unsympathetic. I intended for him to be mischievous -- he came out malicious.

So over the past few days, I went through a bit of a process. I acknowledged -- finally -- that it wasn't working, that I wasn't going to make it work (I've reworked it a few times already) as well as I wanted to, and that it was time to bid it farewell. So I've dropped it, sketched out the beginnings of the scene that will replace it (similarly based on a real-life experience) and am moving forward.

Of course, this means that at a time when I should be writing the latter third of the book, I'm back to chapter two. But that's a problem for another day.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Weekend Warrior

This blog seems to have become a Saturday-Sunday only thing. I'd like that to change sometime soon -- I'd also like to have something to write about besides "what books I read," which I suppose would be a start toward achieving goal #1. I've been in a hell of a rut since coming back from Colorado. A trip that made life seem filled with purpose and possibilities has been followed by weeks of moodiness and burnout. Hmm.

Worth noting: there are two game-worn Tomas Kloucek jerseys on eBay right now, and I'm not bothering to bid on either. That's either a worrying sign of depression or an encouraging sign of progress.

Take your pick.

* * *

#56 -- "Sewer, Gas, and Electric" by Matt Ruff

Holy cow, why has no one told me about Matt Ruff before? Well, that's honestly not true -- a web page I used to read had good things to say about this and another of his books, seven or so years ago. So I guess I have no one to blame but myself for not reading this before now.

Basically: the plot doesn't really make sense and I got the feeling he forgot what it was a few times, there's a bazillion characters and a lot of them aren't really distinguishable at all, and it didn't matter. I laughed my ass off for 550 pages or so. Just an absolute blast to read. Fun, smart, and creative.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Penguin Alert

I realize this is all over the web, and anyone who's on Facebook with me has seen it, but nonetheless:

* * *

#54 -- "Overthrow" by Stephen Kinzer

#55 -- "Brighton Rock" by Graham Greene

I need to read Stephen Ambrose or something now -- two Kinzer books in quick succession have me feeling not-so-great about American actions. He's the specialist in uncovering the grimy truth about American invasions and (sponsored) coups over the past century plus, and here he takes on all of them in quick succession. It's the best-written of any of his books that I've read and really informative -- it provides a lot of context and filling-in-the-blanks to many half-known stories. Highly recommended.

Greene is ostensibly one of my favorite novelists but it's been years now since I've read anything of his, I think. I'd put this off because I was under the impression that while it's one of his better-known books, it was also one of his weaker efforts -- not so. Sad and brutal in a depressing vacation community, there's lots of anguished Catholicism, sexual hysteria, and psychosis -- everything a Greene fan could want.