Saturday, September 29, 2012

Internal News as of 9-29-12:

GUYS n GALS n OTHERWISE, it is almost October. And because it's almost October, that means it's less than a month until I am on a train to Portland, off to see Noel Gallagher play. Knock wood and virtual high-five me, ok?

Here's what I've been up to lately when I haven't been here:

I realized that I never mentioned here that I have a bit o'flash fiction in Little Fiction's latest collection: Little (flash) Fiction. It's called "Your Wrists are Small." I also have a bit of short fiction in their collection Listerature, which came out earlier this year.

(And why YES, I do still write fiction and not just book reviews and rambling malarkey. Yes, malarkey.)

At Word Riot:

  • Notes From Elsewhere 9-21: I talk about David Abrams, old library photos, and how to respond to reviews, among other things.
  • Notes From Elsewhere 9-29: Somehow I managed to work Grumpy Cat into my literary linky roundup. Also, Cheryl Strayed, Kevin Sampsell, Warren Ellis, and Sherlock Holmes.

At Persephone Magazine:

Forthcoming Reviews:

  • Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman
  • The Boys of Summer by Ciarán West
  • Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
  • Cheshire Born by John Wright
  • Out of True by Amy Durant
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • The Burning House edited by Foster Huntington
  • A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola by Ricardo Cortéz
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime by Mark Haddon
(Why, yes, my reading has outpaced my reviewing again. Just thought I'd let you know what you're in for soon..ish.)

Annnd I think that about does it for now. Until next time.

Friday, September 28, 2012

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking
edited by John Brockman

Editor John Brockman posed the question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?" Leading scientists, psychologists, writers and general advanced "thinkers" responded with the short answers that make up This Will Make You Smarter, and the result is indeed thought-provoking, but not always interesting.

However, the most interesting portion, to me, is that this was published before the self-plagiarizing/Bob Dylan quote fabrication scandal of Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer's contribution to this book, "Control Your Spotlight," has to do with a study conducted with small children. The children were in a room with a bowl of marshmallows and told that if they could wait a short period of time alone, they could have more than one to eat. The study looked at impulse control, mainly, and the children who were better able to resist taking a marshmallow early were the ones who put their attention elsewhere. Some kids sang songs, others covered their eyes, etc. But what I find rather amusing is this bit from Lehrer:

Willpower is really about properly diverting the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It's about realizing that if we're thinking about the marshmallow, we're going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.

So, am I to understand that he gambled on the working memory of Bob Dylan fans, and hoped that they were looking at other things when he made up those quotes? That's a pretty big gamble, that spotlight "control." He didn't have the smarts suggested in David G. Myers' contributing essay, "Self-Serving Bias:"

Being mindful of self-serving bias beckons us not to false modesty but to a humility that affirms our genuine talents and virtues and likewise those of others.

In other words, work with what you've got, and work it well. Don't be a self-serving jerk who tries to make his book better with fake quotes. Also, never underestimate a music super-fan’s skills.

Apart from that cross-publishing tidbit, Smarter does provide some important things to consider, though it seems to me that, in some cases, it's less about adding to the cognitive toolkit and more about remembering that tool is there in the first place. We need to try and keep our mental space more organized so that we know what we have to work with.

"The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion," Daniel Kahneman writes. We end up paying attention to what most directly affects us, sometimes at the expense of noticing new information. Or perhaps we think we know what it is like to live with a certain condition, but unless we are actually afflicted with it, it is impossible to truly know its reality.

Take Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), for example: Properly explaining to people what it feels like to have it often feels like a losing game, especially since my symptoms can vary in severity. As a result, I often get reactions like, "Can't you just have an energy drink to get you through the day?" or "Ugh, yeah, I get really tired too," as though everyday life stuff qualified everyone for the illness. No, this is a chronic condition, bearing similarity to lupus or Lyme disease, that affects my lymphatic, immune, muscle and neurological systems. It's not getting a few nights' bad sleep.

The other problem is the condition is so mysterious to even the people who study it that they don't even agree on what to name it. "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" sounds like something college students with bad habits get. "Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome" (CFIDS) is a little more accurate, but doesn't really roll off the tongue. And the more scientific "Myalgic Encephalopathy" (ME)? Christ, that's cruel for a person with brain fog to remember.

Beyond that, there's this problem:

Too often in science we operate under the principle that 'to name it is to tame it,' or so we think. One of the easiest mistakes is to believe that labeling something has somehow or other added an explanation or understanding of it. Worse than that, we use it all the time when we're teaching, leading students to believe that a phenomenon named is a phenomenon known. It's what I and others have called the nominal fallacy.
--Stuart Firestein, "The Name Game"

So while deciding what to name a condition or its most accurate definition are certainly valid pursuits, that doesn't exactly help the people living with it. How do we best manage symptoms? Have we developed a program to do so? And what of the research towards causes and cures?

And speaking of brain fog, I was interested in this book primarily because I wondered if I could pick up any ideas on how to combat it. The best way I can describe brain fog is that it's a mixture of an inability to concentrate and the feeling you get when you're about to say something and then suddenly, those words evaporate. Or, it's more often existing in a state where you can't find your sunglasses and you search and search, only to discover that they're on top of your head. On the really bad days, you're already wearing them.

I combat my brain fog with vitamins and by keeping my brain in frequent use. I have to hold onto my critical thinking skills. Reading and writing is what I do. How can I maintain that?

[S]udden bursts of insight — the Aha! or Eureka! moment — come when brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. The almost ecstatic sense that makes us cry, "I see!" appears to come when the brain is able to shunt aside immediate or familiar visual inputs.
--Jason Zewig, "Structured Serendipity"

I think this is why I sometimes have better luck handwriting something and then typing it onto the computer because I get a better sense of what I'm trying to say. Also, sometimes staring at a blank screen produces a blank mind, whereas a blank page appears rife with possibility.

(The trouble, then, is my hand muscles and joints fatiguing after writing by hand too much, but that's a problem outside of this book.)

Lots of ideas in Smarter echo each other to where it can make for a repetitive reading experience, and some of it is bogged in heavy scientific terms that may be alienating to the "regular" reader. I've taken a number of science courses over the years and managed to hang onto a good chunk of that information, so I caught most of it, but anything that had to do with ratios, probability and straight up math had me skimming. Sorry, that particular portion of my cognitive toolkit is not very cooperative.

The idea that science can be impenetrable is another subject brought up in the book. What science needs, several essays suggest, is a good PR person. "Here, in easy to understand words, is why [this] is so important," etc. Somewhat understandably, scientists become exasperated with the willful stupidity of some people, or they don't understand why something so obvious to them might not be obvious to others, and that turns the research inward. The most productive scientist in the world could be merrily chugging away, but that progress does not help the world — i.e. make it smarter — if no one outside of industry journals knows about it.

Smarter might be preaching to the choir a bit, but the choir can always use a well-reasoned reminder. This isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone as a whole, but perhaps portions of it will resonate with most people.

Besides, if science teaches us anything, it's that speaking in absolutes can be very dangerous.

Full Disclosure: This book was sent to me by Harper Perennial. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Record Machine: Noel Gallagher/UNKLE "AKA What a Life!"/"Let the Lord Shine a Light on Me" 12 inch single

Noel Gallagher - UNKLE 12 inch

Is this the least interesting photo of a record I have? Possibly. However, I really dig these unusual UNKLE remixes of two Noel Gallagher songs, "AKA What a Life!" and "Let the Lord Shine a Light on Me." The vocals are slowed, and there's a dance beat, but you wouldn't exactly dance to the B-side. The sound is different from his work with Amorphous Androgynous and with the Chemical Brothers, but I definitely hear enough common threads to where it's clear Gallagher had a major hand in the remixes' approval.

I don't think he does it any other way, really.

This 12" single comes with a plain white label, in a plain white sleeve. I purchased it from Banquet Records earlier this year, but it's the second pressing. The first pressing seemed to be gone within the no time. One of these days, I need to properly set up a good turntable and receiver so I can listen to the more complex productions on headphones. This little mono player isn't ideal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Internal News as of 9-18-12:

Torchwood Makeout Action. Get in.
Once again, it is time for "Things I Wrote That Didn't Appear Here." We have music, we have Torchwood, we have something that isn't from either Persephone or Word Riot. Enjoy.

At Ploughshares, I talk about why Great Falls, Montana is a "Literary Borough." Hey, don't laugh. We've got plenty of shit (new shit!) going on. Rather than complain, we create our own show. (Though, yes, I do find it funny that I wrote something for a rather respected MFA-related publication when I have nary an undergraduate degree.)

And in case you missed it, here's an interview I did over at The Bluestocking Guide about my reading and book reviewing habits.

At Word Riot, my Notes From Elsewhere for 9-16-12 include an adorable video with Dan Wilbur and Emma Straub, a cake that looks like the cover of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (a book I'll review here soon), Chuck Wendig talking about creative person survival, and much more.

Here are the latest P-Mag posts since we last did an Internal News roundup:

  • Alphabet Soup: The Letter R: featuring Jimi Hendrix, Tori Amos, David Bowie, Bye Bye Birdie, Oasis, Blues Traveler, and Adele.
  • Get in My Belly: Miso Potato Salad with Green Beans: A recipe I'll have to tinker with to get just right, but one that's pretty good nonetheless.
  • Alphabet Soup: The Letter S: One of my favorite letters with some of my very favorite songs. Includes (yes, again) Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Frames, Fleetwood Mac, Bush, AFI, Lisa Loeb, Rocky Horror Picture Show, George Harrison, and Elvis.
  • Torchwood Series 1: Sex and Mortality: For over a year, I've been saying I was going to write an essay on this show because I think it has a lot going on, thematically. Finally, I have my thoughts up on Series 1. When P-Mag's recaps of Series 2 finish in a few months, I'll have another.
  • Alphabet Soup: The Letter T: Fresh today! Features music from Ryan Adams, PJ Harvey, The Jam, The Smiths, Oasis, Dum Dum Girls, Burt Bachrach, Lindsey Buckingham, Noel Gallagher, Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, The Ting Tings, INXS, and AFI. Yes, another jumbo-sized letter.

And I do believe that covers it for now! I've got 5 books sitting here that I need to review soon, and a review of Lizzie Hutton's She'd Waited Millennia will go up on P-Mag later this week. Until next time...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Spark by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Personal perspective will almost always warp the facts. It's human nature to color our retelling, whether we are conscious of it or not. We emphasize certain details and forget others. In more extreme cases, these stories take on a life of their own. They consume. Where we are when something happens will affect our interpretation and at times, how do we know what's real?

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's Spark is a somewhat disorienting little book. What starts out as a fairly straightforward story — a woman takes in her pyromaniac brother after he is released from prison — turns into a darker, mysterious world.

Andrea agrees to let her older brother, Delphie, live with her and her husband, Jack, since her mother claims to be too incapable. Andrea and Delphie's father left long ago. One night when Andrea was eight years old, Delphie was arrested. He'd set fire to a house, and the family of four inside perished along with it. The Greenes. Andrea is haunted by the Greene family.

But he would not have singled out the Greene family intentionally; they didn't even factor in. The entire tragedy was a terrible mistake. The judge had agreed, taking Delphie's age into consideration, calling the crime a "prank gone horribly wrong."

Delphie wasn't thinking. I knew he acted on impulse, desire. He acted for the fire alone.

Two years ago, when I admitted to Jack that I felt responsible, I thought he would leave me. My sadness and guilt had to be too much for one man to bear.

He doesn't leave her, but her guilt never dissipates. When she was very young, it was her bone marrow that saved her brother from a rare form of anemia. Without her "magic bones," she wonders if the Greenes would still be alive.

Andrea worries herself crazy — and I mean that perhaps in a literal sense. Her brother dutifully attends therapy sessions, job training, and parole officer meetings, but Andrea keeps waiting for him to "break" in some way. When a series of warehouse fires start occurring throughout the city, the concern for her brother's mental state ramps up. She starts taking it out on her husband, annoyed that he isn't as concerned as she is, and even more so that he thinks she's overreacting. At family therapy sessions, she's nervous and resistant to the therapist's advice.

At the end of the hour, Dr. Gordon asks me to wait. His eyes at close range are disconcerting, glassy-yet-focused, like a toad's.

"I think you could benefit from individual sessions," he says.

"I'm just here to help Delphie."

"You could use help too."

And, I think, you could use the money.

He takes a step forward, and I thrust my hands behind my back, worried that he will grab them.

"Stress is hard to deal with," he says, "without a support system at home."

"I have Delphie."

"There are issues we can't resolve with him in the room."

She doesn't want to hear from the doctor, or her husband, that she is overly dependent on her brother, and that her sense of responsibility is preventing her from living a regular life. She doesn't want to hear that she is behaving like a martyr — a pessimistic one, at that. Even her job as a dog walker is starting to suffer as she finds herself not feeling fully present, even with her favorite clients. Strange things begin to happen. Late one night, she meets a woman, "Sally," who tends bar at an almost hidden establishment, one she cannot find during daylight hours. "You are the sort of person who follows strangers into the night," Sally says.

The trouble I had with these mysterious occurrences was that I wasn't entirely sure that they were real. Now, maybe the issue is that I was reading the book while tired, before bed, and maybe there were clues that I did not notice. If Mauk intended to makes these experiences surreal, I cannot say for certain if that's how they come across. Like I said, time and place are everything when it comes to our perception. Has Andrea gone fully round the bend and Sally is some sort of Fight Club-style break in personality? If so, what does she represent? And if not, well, what then?

Spark is a short book, and while I enjoyed reading it, I found its ending abrupt. Perhaps Mauk's intention was to have parts of the story unresolved and to let the reader decide what was real, and if that's the case, I also wonder if the problem is mine. Most of the time, I tend to be the sort of reader who takes the plot at face value — sometimes to my detriment — and the lurking aha! doesn't hit me until later. Would Spark benefit from a reread, or is the story not fully formed? I don't yet know.

While Andrea is a complex character, the rest seem like stand-in versions of themselves. The withdrawn brother. The baffled husband. The serious therapist. The over-dramatic friend. The mysterious acquaintance. I wanted a bit more from all of them, especially since I felt like clearly rendered characters would also provide some insight into the reality of the book and Andrea's state of mind. Just how barmy is she, you know?

I'd be curious to hear other readers' impressions. Spark is definitely a novel that merits discussion, and I hope that it gets it.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as an uncorrected proof from Engine Books, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. Spark will be released on September 25, 2012.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Books I Am Shoving into Your Hands

One more post in honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week: It's time for me to make some fervent declarations of love for a handful of books I am constantly recommending to everyone.

Recent-ish Reviews:

Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith: Seriously some of the best poetry I've ever read. Earns its Pulitzer ten times over. Even if you're not in the habit of reading poetry, I still recommend this book.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: One more time with feeling! Read this novel and improve your life. Side effects include wanting to hug Walter's face off because he's so goddamn good.

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers: A surprise love for me. Eerie, compelling 3AM reading.

From Earlier This Year:

It Chooses You by Miranda July: Unusual yet fascinating... memoir? Memoir isn't the right word for this book, but whatever it is, I loved it.

Banned For Life by D.R. Haney: What a great rock n roll novel.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: Okay, because this one has Oprah's blessing, you may be tempted to skip it if you've never heard of Strayed before. Don't be scared off. This book is wonderful.

The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov by Paul Russell : I'd never heard of this book until it turned up from the publisher. What an excellent surprise. It's beautiful and sad and excellent.

Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins: I called it a perfect little book. It is.


Infinite Disposable by Myself and Tyson Habein: "Infinite Disposable is a collection of flash fiction by Sara Habein paired with surreal black and white film photography from Tyson Habein. Its otherworldly stories shift through loss, loneliness, and the passage of time. Each cover is handmade and signed by both author and photographer."

(What? If you're looking for something you've never heard of, may as well promote my own gig.)

We will be back to the actual book reviews here shortly.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Interview with Brooke Bonett

Every year during Book Blogger Appreciation Week, reviewers can sign up for an interview exchange. The pair is at random, and this year I was put in contact with Brooke Bonett, who runs the site The Bluestocking Guide. She reviews a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, and here are the questions I had for her over email:

What's the first book you can remember buying?

Ooh. That's a funny story. The first book that I purchased was from the church bookstore. I was about 6 or 7. I picked out this smallish book with a photograph cover. It was a black background with a dew covered rose on the front. The title was Doctrine Made Simple or something like that. The intro to the book was a story. For some strange reason, I thought the rest of the book would be like that. My mom tried to talk me out of it, but I could not be deterred. I never finished that book.  

What is it about science fiction and fantasy books that really do it for you? Do you watch movies/TV in those genres as well?

I just like the fact that science fiction and fantasy books allow you to get away from it all. Part of it is also that I wish I had magical powers or advanced technology to tackle big problems rather than merely my wits.  

What made you decide to get into book blogging?

I wanted to blog, but I was very uncomfortable blogging about my life. I loved talking about books. Most people I know are always asking what I thought of this book or another. I figured putting reviews online would be more convenient. Also, it gives me a nice way of keeping track of all the books I've been reading.  

Do you have a method as to how you decide what to read? 

Nope. However my spirit leads me at the time I'm looking for a book is how I choose.  

What's the most surprising book you've read lately? As in, a book that you liked better than expected, or a book that took an unexpected (but excellent) plot direction.

I'd say that would be Star Trek Voyager: Eternal Tide by Kristen Beyer. Generally, in Star Trek canon, dead characters do not reappear unless they are from an alternate universe. This was the first time, that a major character actually returned from the dead. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure why they decided to kill off this character when they did. 

What are your feelings on movie adaptations of books? Any particular favorites?

I don't really like movie adaptations of books. Movies just don't carry the complexity that books do. Also sometimes books do actually have a moral or important point that gets across; movies have never been good at carrying that same point. I like the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice.  I like most of the Harry Potter movies. I absolutely loved the Lord of the Rings.  I cannot wait to see The Hobbit.  

Tell me one or two authors (living or dead) you'd love to have a drink with.

I would definitely love to have a drink with Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien.  

Do you do any sort of writing besides book reviews?

Well, I'm a lawyer, so I do a lot of legal writing, but that's pretty boring. I have started a novel. I took a break from it though. I'm kind of stuck on this one character's story. This character's story is just hard to write emotionally. I've been busy with my job and with other things. I do want to complete it, but I just need a lot of quiet. I hope to finish it once I move into my new place in the next few months.  

As soon as I have the link to my interview answers with her, I will be sure to add the link here.

Edited to add: Here's my interview over at Brooke's site.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Suggested Reading

I don't remember what made me stumble across Book Blogger Appreciation Week two years ago. Perhaps it was something I saw on Twitter. However, it's been a fun way to give a shout-out to the rather active community of readers floating about the internet. Today I'd like to direct your attention to some other reviewers whose work I enjoy.

Cannonball Read: This project is how I got into reviewing books in the first place. On the main CBR site, you can find reviews from everyone participating in the challenge to read and review a certain amount of books within one year. Genre and length vary, and the reviewers are searchable by tags, so if someone has similar reading tastes to you, it's pretty easy to find everything that they've read this year.

...And Then I Read Some More: This is my friend Karo's site. If you dig Swedish crime novels, she's your gal. She reads other things too, of course, and if you're ever in need of an English to German translator, she is, again, your gal.

The Quivering Pen: David Abrams has his own book coming out this week, Fobbit, but he also runs this great literary site. He's from Butte, Montana, and as a fellow Montana resident, I am happily obligated to do the whole, "Wooo! Home State Represent!" thing.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: This publisher has a good tumblr filled with all sorts of odds and ends related to their books, plus various other literary things.

The Rumpus: Seriously, you are reading The Rumpus already, right? Between Sugar, Roxane Gay, Sari Botton, Steve Almond, and Rick Moody (and that's not even covering a fraction of the excellent writers there), it's well worth your perusal.

I'll stop at 5 sites, but do feel free to shout out your favorites in the comments. Come back tomorrow for my interview with fellow book reviewer, Brooke Bonett of The Bluestocking Guide.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Internal News as of 9-2-12

In case you missed it, here are the places my writing has been lately that isn't here:

At Persephone Magazine:

At Word Riot:

  • NFE 8-26-12: Lots about "nice vs. mean" in book reviews.
  • NFE 8-31-12: Using "foreign" words in writing, a Cannonball Read shout-out, more.
  • Book Review: The Last Repatriate by Matthew Salesses (consider it Cannonball review #44)

Until next time...