Book Jones Books

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Slightly Strange and Wonderfully Honest Voice We Will Never Hear Again

David Foster Wallace with man's best friend
David Foster Wallace must have been one strange and wonderful cat. I don't know for sure since I did not know him or even follow his career and personal life till only recently, but my impression of him through his writing and interviews tell me I'm right. He was a writer who shared much of his personal life experience in essays yet he was an introvert (or perhaps rather, not an extrovert) at heart, literally sweating at times over how he would come across during speeches and interviews. As a professor of English at a number of colleges, he was a real taskmaster, a grammar/usage Nazi of sorts, a peculiarity perhaps passed on through his mom's genes (Sally Foster Wallace is also a professor of English and has written reference books on usage. His father is a the Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at the University of Illinois. Those are some high quality genes, academically speaking).

Wallace was an admitted Depressive, had been since a young age. His first published piece The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation to The Bad Thing (Amherst Review, 1984), relates the autobiographical tale of a youth on antidepressants (Tofranil which the narrator fittingly renames Trillaphon because the name sounds more like the sonic vibe it induces) which he likens to living on another planet. Sadly those very antidepressants, their inevitable ineffectiveness after twenty years of use, led to Wallace's demise (suicide by hanging in 2008).

I've been listening to the anthology entitled The David Foster Wallace Reader on my iPod and have been illuminated by his high beam brilliance. I regret to say I've avoided his influence until now, for some reason putting off reading Infinite Jest (his best known fiction work) and as a result just not realizing that there was so much more material to consume. The anthology is not perfect in that it could never be, since devotees of Wallace will always recall an especially favorite essay, chapter, short story, or speech that has not been included in this volume. For interested novices, however, the DFW reader is essential. But, hold on, before you fanatics start heckling this semi-bold statement, consider the fact that one can always re-read, for example, Infinite Jest in its entirety.

I would also posit that the DFW reader exposes the novice to a wide variety of Wallace's material that one might miss otherwise, even if one was aware of most of his major stuff. For instance it includes the author's own teaching materials from various English courses he taught while at, I'm assuming, Pomona College in California. This affords a unique insight into Wallace's philosophy of discipline regarding all types of writing, usage, grammar, etc..., and though to some readers this level of ephemera may seem tedious, I believe it is if not essential, at least edifying if one presumes to really understand this guy.

Wallace is as comfortable writing about how ubiquitous television viewing influences modern fiction as he is espousing the delights of Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, just as adept at fictionalizing Alec Trebek and the machinations of a Jeopardy grand champion as he is chronicling a week-long Caribbean cruise on a ship he dubs the Nadir. He rallies from an essay diagnosing his own tennis prowess (and loss thereof) as a top-ranked player on the Midwestern junior circuit to the deconstruction of Roger Federer's gracefully 'beautiful' play at Wimbledon. DFW's best work is infused with rampant passion. We learn of his personal doctrine of social discourse, which he argues should come across as more sincere and salutary. Later in his career he eschewed the kind of irony and cynicism which seemed to purvey post millennial fiction.

When I was nine years old, my parents thought it might be fun to treat their boy to the pastoral spectacle that was the Danbury Fair; about an hour away from our New Jersey digs up in Connecticut. I have a vague memory of the Midway and all the rich and sugary food, the midget car races and the some-sort-of-plastic or papier-mâché giant-sized statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox (Babe). What I recall very clearly though, is having what I considered the singular pleasure, and at the same time the ignominy of watching my father drive a caboose harnessed to a large bird in an event known as the Ostrich Races.

In his irascibly funny essay about the Illinois State Fair, Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from It All, Wallace brings the memories of county fair quirkiness all back home. By featuring his own brand of schismatic Midwesterner-turned-big-city-journalist sensibility, he self deprecates his way through cooking contests, vertiginous carnival rides, all sorts of stabled livestock displays. But Wallace digs much deeper into this annual bucolic splendor, revealing what he believes the underlying purpose for such portly pageantry and garish pomp. It turns out, rural types, isolated as they may be over the course of the year, yearn for that human connection, that fellowship, at least for one week out of fifty-two. By the same token, city dwellers have had their fill of other people invading personal space diurnally, so much so, they tend to get the urge to escape from it all for seven days or so per annum. Having lived in the land of David Foster Wallace for a few weeks, however, I can only hanker to remain there forever.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Book Review: Before The Wind by Jim Lynch


You don't need to be a sailing enthusiast to enjoy Jim Lynch's latest novel, though it wouldn't hurt. Before the Wind tells the story of the Johannssen family from Puget Sound in Washington, a sailing brood, all three generations. The narrator is Josh, named for Joshua Slocum, the acclaimed sailor who wrote Sailing Alone Around the World (which he actually did; the first one to boot), who however turns out to be a better boat mechanic than sailor. 

The truly gifted wave runner is his sister Ruby, a prodigy whom, by the age of seventeen, was the favorite in the US Olympic trials. His brother Bernard is kind of a black sheep, dabbling in the seamier side of boating. His mom is a physicist with an Einstein complex, who works the wind shear geometry for her crew. And Grumps is the elder of the clan. He designed the classic brand of sailing vessel dubbed the Joho. By the opening of the novel the Johannssens are all ascatter.

Out of the blue, Josh's old man Bobo jr. shows up at Josh's marina with the plan of reuniting everyone to compete in Swiftsure, an annual 112 mile sailboat race. Throughout we learn of small failures, disasters, and victories, but ultimately, Lynch steers his tale through both gale and doldrums to expertly guide his readers to a satisfying finish.

~ 3.8 Stars

  • Title: Before the Wind
  • Author: Jim Lynch
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (April 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307958981
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307958983

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Stain of Existence


Place the void before me and I will cower
Fill it and I will pulse with awe
Neither pushes me down the path
The winding way, that greenish-yellow place
I once described in my innocence.

I'm mistaken, languishing
Anticipating some outside force,
Propellant, dependent on
Otherness to accomplish bliss
Folly filling my chance.

I wondered, then, if I would live
Laughing at the speed of one
Planetary body, cynical as Iago.
When I found time could hold me
Luck equals opportunity plus something else: effort

Place before me a sheet of paper
I will cover it with echoes
Neither real nor imaginary
Ghosts that permeate my happy place
A stain excreted, proving existence.

© 2016 by Michael Jones

Thursday, March 17, 2016

How to Think: Audio Book Review

Mindware: Tools for Smart ThinkingMindware: Tools for Smart Thinking by Richard E. Nisbett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the title implies, the author intends to provide the reader with tools for making smarter decisions. He outlines a number of scientific techniques and systems, including Cost Benefit analysis, Multiple Regression analysis, Logical thinking vs Holistic thinking, etc... The author is very thorough, the book is well organized, in fact text-book-like, including "summing up" sections for each chapter. Although there are many other volumes which discuss similar processes- like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman- Mindware focuses more on the 'how', and on ways to modify our thought processes, instead of on just the 'why' we behave as we do. However, the writing is a bit stilted compared to other books in the same sub-genre.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Voting and Viewing

Bernie Sanders: Democratic presidential candidate

Donald Trump: Republican presidential candidate
Today is much ignored New Hampshire's time to shine nationally. First in the nation, at least as far as political primaries are concerned, voters will finally reveal who they fancy on both ends of the political spectrum. Will it be nationalist uber-bizness-man Donald (Combover) Trump? Could it be commie/socialist Bernie "No Comb for Old Men" Sanders? Will it matter in the long run? We will soon find out later this evening (to the great relief of many).

Meanwhile, I've been binge watching the Amazon Prime show, Mad Dogs. Apparently this is a remake of an English effort also created by Chris Coles and first shown on Sky 1. The plot revolves around Milo (Billy Zane), an American now living and ostensibly selling real estate in Belize. He mysteriously invites four old buddies Joel (Ben Chaplin), Cobi (Steve Zahn), Lex (Michael Imperioli), and Gus (Romany Malco), down to his palatial villa for a reason to be named later. Ben Chaplin is a holdover, he played the character of Alvo (called Milo in US), in the original production. After a short boat ride and a bizarre visit from a vertically challenged character wearing a cat head, the gang embark on a treacherous tumble down the Belizean rabbit hole. 

Cast of Mad Dogs: l to r: Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn
Currently, I'm on episode seven and I'd have to admit this is a show which grows on you like a jungle fungus. It gets better with each chapter, as more mysteries, of not only plot but of character backstory, are revealed. Bright spots are: Allison Tolman (Fargo), who has a delightfully tentative turn as Rochelle, an enthusiastic US embassy underling; and Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line), who shines as the pensive and guarded, Joel.

Monday, January 25, 2016

What's on the Telly?

Zach Galifianakis as Baskets on FX
Two new television shows are on my radar:
  • Billions (Showtime, Sun, 10 pm EST), a drama -or I should say melodrama- about a billionaire hedge fund tyrant, Bobby Axelrod, and the US attorney, Chuck Rhoades whose goal it is to nail him. Just to twist things up, Chuck's wife, Wendy works as an industrial psycologist for Bobby's firm, Axe Capital. In the opening scene of the pilot, we learn our US attorney has a penchant for a little BDSM (OK I get it: the powerful in real life need a little submission time to help level themselves out), but who was that masked woman? I've watched the first two episodes and can't help sensing a bit of pedantic dialogue and perhaps some emoting going on among the principal actors. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and write it off to early episode-itis. Average (so far)
  • Baskets (FX, Thurs, 10 pm EST)  is the latest comedic vehicle from co-creators Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Kristel. It stars Galifianakis as an unlikely clown, Chip Baskets. The pilot shows him at the Clown Academie in France where he manages to graduate without understanding a word of French. He soon marries a French national - who cares nothing for him - and moves back home to Bakersfield CA. The show is as hilarious as one would expect from the mind of Louis CK, with Galifianakis prat-falling and dead-panning in clown-face. An especially rip roaring scene features Louie Anderson in drag and speaking in his normal voice as Chip's mom (cut to the spit take). Martha Kelly is spot on as a lonely insurance adjuster who takes a liking to Chip.I'd rate it above average.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thanks and Praise

After an entire day of snow yesterday, we shoveled out this morning, then, since it was such crisp and beaming day, took a nice stroll into town for brunch. To my wife Maureen I recounted my blessings: it was fortunate I didn't have to drive during the blizzard and had plenty of time to clean up afterward on this sunny Sunday. Hey, there had been plenty of times to deal with weather last winter, I'm thankful we're almost through January and Ive managed to escape the dreaded precarious drive so far; for me, two large and twisty mountains stand between home and work.

As I continue to read At Last, St. Aubyn does not attenuate the graphically acute tone of his earlier volumes. This is a good thing. His character, Dr. David Melrose, the sadistic patriarch of this narrative quintet, is perhaps the most purely evil I've ever encountered in literature. I won't give away any of the lurid details, but suffice to say that he leaves no aspect of cruelty unexplored and gets quite creative into the bargain. Being a physician, he is by definition, a paradox. The fifth novel opens during the wake of Patrick's mother Eleanor, a lifelong victim hence enabler of her hateful husband. I'm about a third of the way through and they have yet to perform the cremation, so much of the book is told in flashback narrative. 

Some other new books I'd like to mention here are:  
  • The Past by Tessa Hadley about a family reunion of sorts revolving around the fate of an ancestral country rectory. It was received fairly well in this week's NY Times Book Review. Maureen has decided to read this one next. 
  • Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt is a contemporary Gothic tale about two women on separate journeys in space and time heading toward a common reckoning. This was one I found and thought sounded interesting. It's been called a "subversive ghost story that is carefully plotted and elegantly constructed".

Joanna Newsom
In the music realm, I spent last evening listening to a very offbeat album of songs by Joanna Newsom. She is primarily a harpist and chanteuse that has been recording since around 2003; she has a vocal style very evocative of Kate Bush, whom I love. The latest album to which I listened is entitled Divers. It contains some seemingly straightforward melodic work but often the songs morph into haunting and delightfully eccentric ballads. Listen to eponymous cut below.


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