Tuesday, March 4, 2014


I mean to make a habit of writing on here every day again, and with Lent about to start I thought I'd sneak in one last post.

I'm in a math class. We learned about Base 10. And now I look at the finger-spread of my ten fingers, twice, and think about how that's my age.

I got a book off interlibrary loan--they had to get it all the way from Ithaca--that hasn't been checked out since May 25th, 1993. The last set of fingerprints in those pages were made before I had fingerprints of my own. My mom would've just found out she was pregnant with me.

Twenty years.

Odysseus would just be coming home.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Twenty years old, 2 PM

I have memories so vague I'm afraid they'll disintegrate if I write them down. I read when I was little about the man who first unsealed the tombs of Egypt. There was a necklace hanging from a chair, and somebody touched it and the string turned to dust on the instant, beads flying every which way. It took hours to gather them up. The necklace had hung there for hundreds of years, intact, because no one had moved it.

In the same way I have memories grown so faint within the finger-span of my two decades' timeline that I'm sure, when I fixate my brain on one, I'm not remembering the thing itself but rather my own memory of remembering it, recalled at a later period. Memories fade as they are stored and desperately replicate themselves when stirred, each one a worser copy of the last, less image, more static.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Erroneous Ending

   It’s pretty fascinating to me that the internet has such an active fandom for A Series of Unfortunate Events, because I haven’t read those books in a million years, or, more specifically, since 2006, when the last book came out. I used to be obsessed, I tell you, obsessed.

   I was nine years old, on vacation with the extended family, when one of my cousins first lent me her copy of The Bad Beginning. I was young enough then that about ninety percent of the snide comedy in it got past me and all I knew was, Oh my gosh, what a brilliant and evil villain! He’s got their sister trapped in a birdcage and he’s going to marry Violet to get her inheritance! And, you know, at the end he vows to hunt them down and “kill” them, which is fightin’ words for a kid’s book, so I was gone. I still remember going to the bookstore in maybe September of that year or October, and my mom gently saying something along the lines of, “You know, there are other books besides Lemony Snicket,” because possibly my determination to get my hands around a copy of The Reptile Room had by that point seeped through her last nerve.

   Still, she got into Lemony Snicket pretty quickly after my sister Mary started checking them out of the library and reading them aloud to her, because she picked up on all the comedy we were missing. (She couldn’t get over Olaf dressed up as a woman to kidnap/adopt the orphans in The Miserable Mill: "I’m a poor little receptionist who’s always wanted children of her own. Three children, in fact: a smarty-pants little girl, a hypnotized little boy, and a buck-toothed baby!”)

   But the irony is that the death of the comedic overtones that initially got past me also spelled death for the series in general. The last one I one-hundred-percent enjoyed was Book 10 of 13, The Slippery Slope, which was already treading on, well, slippery ground with its lengthy discussions of relativism, not to mention all the kissy-kissy between Violet and Quigley Quagmire (I liked Quigley fine but was too young to be overly invested in shipping; Klaus’s later love interest Fiona I found irritating and unnecessary). There’s a specific part where the kids are about to build a trap for Olaf’s villainous girlfriend Esme Squalor so they can hold her for ransom in order to retrieve Sunny, who’s been kidnapped again, and Klaus gets all wishy-washy and starts quoting Nietzsche’s bit about fighting monsters and looking into the abyss (first time I ever heard it), and all I could think was, "What? She’s been trying to kill you for money! You’re not even planning to hurt her! You’re rescuing your sister, who’s too young to even talk, from a known criminal with zero compunctions!”

   Then they end up kidnapping Esme anyway, so the aside does nothing other than make us doubt the goodness of our heroes, which is a weird murky feeling and one you should certainly not inflict on your reader if you aren’t going to follow it up. (In the words of Ray Bradbury: “Above all, sicken me not unless you show me the way to the ship’s rail.”) Nowadays I might be inclined to appreciate the fact that a kid’s book even touched the subject of morality, but at the time I was more concerned about the fact that they did it wrong.

   And from that point, as the preaching got more pronounced and more dreary with each new installment, Count Olaf lost the edge that made him simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. He became merely laughable, but not in a funny way. In the first chapter of The End, for instance (which I maintain ought to have been called The Erroneous Ending), he’s trapped on a small boat with the Baudelaires, a situation that in the first book would have had them out of their minds with terror. Instead, we get a running gag where he keeps asking him to drive them to a repair shop (if I recall correctly) and they just roll their eyes because surely he’s not dumb enough to think that’s even possible? And we’re taken from a potentially deadly and dynamic situation to a couple kids out on a fishing trip with Lame Dad.

   The series only worked in the first place because the author wasn’t taking it seriously (or rather, Lemony Snicket, the character, was—Daniel Handler wasn’t), but The End is nothing but chapter after chapter of Snicket taking himself seriously. There are elaborate biblical parallels with a false Messiah who owns a flock of sheep and convinces everyone on the island to simply evacuate after they get infected by a deadly fungus, rather than eat an apple that serves as the antidote. (By the way, who finds this apple? A snake. Ahem.) Then Count Olaf receives a syrupy and dramatic death that he has done nothing to merit, as it had been about three books since the last time he was a genuine threat, as witness boat conversation in Chapter 1.

   In short, everything that should have been scary was funny, and everything that should have been funny was scary—and as a result, nothing was funny or scary. Like lowering the contrast on an image: sooner or later you’re left with nothing but blankness.

   I was so unsatisfied by The End that I went through that temporary stage of denial where I mentally insisted that it was a great conclusion, but it faded. I think that other people felt the same way, because the buzz of conversation surrounding the series stopped, like a radio switched abruptly off. Or those are my memories, at any rate. Maybe I should read these books again.

Friday, July 19, 2013

She strode in a swarm of fireflies

This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today--explode--fly apart--disintegrate!   
- Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Ahhh, don't let Tumblr distract you, Allie! (But the fandoms!) Focus!

Tonight I finished another short story--the second in as many weeks. It's only because this class has been sitting on my head, putting the pressure on me to do something, but I feel like Ray Bradbury. His book Zen in the Art of Writing (title is kind of misleading--it's the name of one of the essays contained within) has been a constant inspiration to me lately. It lights up that thing in my head that wants to write.

Maybe this blog can be my yellow pad and my Ticonderoga pencil, like Douglas Spaulding's setup in Dandelion Wine, to whittle down the truths found in a summer. I've been picking up truths off the trees like berries lately, new ideas I can set to distill.

At any rate, read poetry every day, he says somewhere in Zen in the Art of Writing. I'm pretty sure I do that anyway, but I nonetheless go to the library and get out a volume of Alexander Pope. He's slow going--he takes digesting, more so than Shakespeare--but the wisdom! The classical structure of the lines! I love him, even if I only have two bites a sitting. And then I flip to the beginning of Zen and read more carefully and I find out one of Bradbury's favorite poets was Alexander Pope. It's things like that that make me feel like Ray Bradbury knighted me in the same way Mr. Electrico knighted him, ignited him--live forever!

And then I went to the library today and found his other favorite poet, also one of my favorites and a key provider of the Bradbury DNA--Dylan Thomas. I had to chose between two volumes that both began I see the boys of summer in their ruin. Well, I don't want to be in my ruin. I write, Bradbury says, to know that I am not dead.

This line from Fahrenheit 451 keeps coming back to me--He strode in a swarm of fireflies. Which is to say, books, words, pages that have caught fire and gone up in tiny sparks.

Monday, June 17, 2013

I'm reading Looking for Alaska right now

I’m not sure how to feel about it. I’ve read little snippets and bits of it before. I have had the entire plot spoiled for me by the Internet, but that doesn’t much matter; it’s not one of those books that relies strictly on a twist.

I really wanted to hate it, but I couldn’t, at least at first. The flow of the book is very good—I can’t think of another word for it. It’s that feeling that a book is comfortable to inhabit; that I can suspend my disbelief and settle into it without always thinking how I’m going to word the review.

I liked the first couple of chapters best, because they chronicled the protagonist’s out-of-placeness in a new setting and that’s a feeling I understand well. There’s duct tape and a lake and his crush on Alaska and all of this is great; I was going, man, they’re right: maybe this thing is a classic. 

Then he ended up rooming with a clever, funny dude who liked him and fell in immediately with the cigarette-smoking Smart Kids, which seemed almost too easy. Drinks and Kurt Vonnegut in a field; it almost makes you wonder if John Green has ever read Kurt Vonnegut or if he thought, “college thing, gotta have it”. He has his characters archly fling the word “pretentious” around, as if to keep critics from using that word in reviews.

It’s all a part of that tendency—a trademark of John Green novels—for every single character to be so darn clever that it’s almost precious. His writing is always flow-y enough that it’s just barely believable, but the sharp edges of unrealism poke through the fabric. It echoes the epigrammic nature of certain passages of Oscar Wilde; quit it with the fortune cookies already, Oscar.

John Green is a genuinely intelligent guy and it bugs me that he’s putting all his intelligence into the promotion of this kind of coffee-shop philosophy the characters talk, which caffeinates but does not satisfy, which falls just short of the real thing. I like to talk that kind of shop myself because it’s fun to do, but there’s no viable alternative presented in Looking For Alaska, and I guess we’re expected to think that that’s the end of it: that what we read on our Starbucks sleeve or emblazon at the top of a Tumblr blog is just as good as what we’ve learned from history, religion or experience.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Horse's Neck by Pete Townshend

   In the introduction to Horse’s Neck, his mid-80's foray into short fiction, Pete Townshend writes a thesis statement, or perhaps a muttered excuse for authoring fiction instead of the autobiography that fans had long been demanding of him. (It didn’t come to pass until 2012: see Who I Am.) “I have never wanted”, he claims, “simply to tell my own story.”

   The irony is that Townshend might, in fact, make quite a decent short-story writer if he would just stop being so autobiographical. In one story he writes about a nameless alcoholic who is obviously him, but who can’t be him because the nameless one is a simple town-dwelling laborer and his dramas happen at football matches and pubs instead of at rock concerts and riotous afterparties. (Also, this man has two sons where Townshend has two daughters—a cover-up doubtless designed to protect Townshend’s cringing offspring, whatever their gender.) In the next story he writes from the point of view of another nameless alcoholic man who can’t possibly not be him, as he’s with a well-known band and trapped in an ongoing riotous afterparty that can be described by no less banal a word than “banal”. (“Layers upon layers of cheap nightclub hypocrisy” is Townshend’s phrase, and later down the page he adds, “The boredom was really quite exquisite.”) In the story after that, he gives up altogether and calls his main character “Pete.” (Sample sentence, written without a shred of irony: “Pete was a singer with a band.” Perhaps he went back and changed “guitarist” to “singer” with the sole purpose of putting a Saran Wrap-thin layer of fiction between himself and the main character.) As a composer, Townshend once spent a whole album, Quadrophenia, diving into the mind of a man with four separate personalities; as a writer, he dips into a thousand meaningless minds, all exactly the same.

   It may seem paradoxical to describe the writing as “unpretentiously pretentious”, but that’s exactly what it is. Pete Townshend writes, and has always written, pretentiously; he does so with no pretention, because that’s the way he actually thinks. At times his writing has exactly the awkwardness one might expect from a lyricist clumsily attempting fiction; at other times he pulls a cracking sentence from seemingly nowhere: “He was fulfilled as usual, heart ginger-warm; but the feeling on this particular evening was different, like finding a new finger among the familiar five.”

   All this would be fine and curious, even wonderful, except that Townshend has perhaps downed a bit too much James Joyce before the outing and vomited it up the wrong way. He gravitates toward the incomprehensible like a moth toward a candle, seemingly unaware that the power of his interviews and his lyrics always lay in their accessibility. That line about exquisite boredom applies neatly to just about any diversion from the narrative, and Townshend’s main character, like all of us, is easily distracted by any shade or symbol of himself, whether it be a childhood memory or a reflection in the mirror. If any girl, of any make or model whatsoever, enters the story, you may be sure that sex is immediately forthcoming, whether casual, dissatisfied sex or the longed-for encounter with a target of obsessive love. But the line of girls becomes pretty same-ish as Townshend fails to access the soul of a single one of them. In fact, he fails to access the soul of anyone save himself.

   And of himself he extracts nothing but the darkest and dreariest. “Each story”, his introduction claims, “deals with some aspect of my struggle to discover what beauty really is.” Of struggle there is plenty, but it’s all personal and mental struggling rather than up-front responses to problems; the book, having confined itself to one psyche, reads something like one of those confused, dissatisfying dreams where the goal is never quite accomplished. The chapter in which he actually discovers beauty is never written. He takes a crack at it in the final “story”, “Laguna: Valentine’s Day 1982”, but the result is embarrassing and deeply off-putting. I can only conclude that Townshend meant the stories—written at a time in his life when he was estranged from his wife and struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction—as personal carthasis, an exorcism of rock-star demons. Maybe they were something he needed to write; most of them are not, by any stretch of the imagination, something we need to read. They should have remained buried somewhere among his private papers, though I suppose I have little room to berate him for the fact that they’ve been out in the open since nearly a decade before I was born; the book has been out of print almost as long. We all make rash decisions, and maybe Pete regretted his.

   On that note, the constant graphic sexual references and themes found in Horse’s Neck are disquieting at best and mortifying at worst. The same loose-cannon style of conversation that makes Townshend fascinating and challenging as an interview subject here verges on Tourette’s Syndrome, and if there was any editor in the house, he was asleep. The worst sketch as far as this goes is perhaps the seemingly interminable “Plate”, which starts out as a shallow detective fiction and becomes a disgusting and meaningless tale about watching a girl while she dresses and undresses. A male fan of Townshend might read it without feeling violated. For me, a girl (and not a squeamish one), the story, and one image in particular, have rather spoiled the taste of my Who music for the time being. (See: James Joyce’s gross-out love letters to Nora Barnacle, which I have little doubt Townshend read.)

   It isn’t all abstract: Townshend ventures vaguely homeward in “Fish Shop” (the story with the nearest approximation of a plot), refers obscurely to the deaths of manager Keith Lambert and drummer Keith Moon (“Pancho and the Baron”), and recalls past Rolling Stone interviews in “A Death of the Day Of”, which ends on a near-suicidal note that eerily foreshadows the demise of Kurt Cobain.

   Quite rightly, the most critically-praised sketch in this distended muddle is a little number called “Champagne on the Terraces”; although, like most sequences in the book, it’s more extended monologue than short story, it does a good job of delving into Townshend’s tortured personal life as a blissful alternative to his tortured thoughts, giving the book some much-needed reality. The gem of the wreck, however, is “Winston”—a Ray Bradbury-styled spilling of words which congeals as a maddening and revealing meditation on the murder of John Lennon.

  [I must end this review by noting that, as a musician, Pete Townshend apparently prefers to be known as simply “Pete”: his last straw during the Lifehouse sessions was having fatherly manager Kit Lambert coldly refer to him as “Townshend”. However, the Pete of Horse’s Neck is a Townshend treading, as during Lifehouse, into the wrong waters, and thus well deserves the cold water of his surname to bring him to his senses.]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Album Review: Oh, Inverted World by The Shins

"You've got to hear this one song, it'll change your life I swear."
That's not a Shins lyric. I know it sounds as if it should be, with the scansion and everything, but if you want a second line you'll be left hanging. It's a well-known quote from the film Garden State about The Shins' song "New Slang". "New Slang"--that's a memorable title, right? Just like Oh, Inverted World. In fact, memorable, rhythmic titles are a bit of a thing with our friends The Shins. I run my eyes down the track listing and see, not only "New Slang", but "Caring is Creepy", "Weird Divide", "Know Your Onion!", "Girl Inform Me". In a modernist way, they could almost pass for the names of classic theatrical cartoons. "Lady Play Your Mandolin" would be a good name for a Shins song.

I've got a couple of sisters and a mom who are all cooler than me. They all, at variant times, got into The Shins. I never did, even though we all use the same iTunes. Not even the titles enticed me, and you all know titles are my favorite thing. I didn't know one Shins song. So I lazed through life, listening to cheap stuff like The Killers, while the rest of the womenfolk gushed behind me, as if they were blossoming, about tracks like "Girl on the Wing" and "The Celibate Life."

However, when my sisters go to concerts we go together, and when they obtain concert tickets they get me one, too. Thus it was that I ended up at Green Day directly after midterms just as I was digesting the news of a less-than-satisfactory grade, feeling subway-weary and battered about the skull, and thus it was that Clair ambled up to me one morning less than two weeks ago and told me I had two weeks to get into The Shins. Okay, I'll take it.

They've got four albums, all of which we own, and Oh, Inverted World is only the first. I thought I'd take them in order. Yet here I am, nearly two weeks later, and still I'm listening to Oh, Inverted World. Just listening to it over and over again, like a stoner.

So why, you want to know? Did it change my life?

The opposite, actually. It isn't sticking. 

It's sugar on the tongue--I think I like it, but it melts away as soon as I've heard it, and then I forget the way it tasted.

I feel as if I'm cramming for one of those exams where cramming doesn't seem to have any effect. Or maybe I feel as if halfway through a day I remember a great idea I had, and then with a sinking feeling I remember that I only had it in a dream and promptly forgot it when I woke up. No traction, no purchase. If it were a vinyl and I were a needle I'd slide off it without making a sound.

Yet even now as I check the track listing to identify the song currently playing (it's "Know Your Onion"), I can hear Clair singing along in the other room, to words that even her high voice isn't making clear to me.

I thought that was my difficulty at first--the words. Oh, Inverted World has that frustrating Nirvana quality--the vocals are, just barely, too murky to be made out. But at least Kurt Cobain put all his slurred singing on top of leaden tunes so heavy they stuck in your head, so if you didn't know them you could snarl along: "rahrah rah rah, rah rahhh rah rah rah rah rah rah rah rah rah, she's so rah rah, and sellllllf-assuuuured…" And that way, everyone knew Nirvana's songs, even if they never did.

I looked up a few of The Shin's lyrics, and they were lovely stand-alone pieces--rhythmic and abstract, the sort of things that I'd repeat to myself all day long if I read them in a poetry book, or in The New Yorker, or on the back of a Simon and Garfunkel album sleeve. But try as I might, I couldn't connect a single one to a tune.

And it's not as if I don't know the tunes. I can hum snatches of them to myself, little fabric-swatches of melody, but I can't remember what songs they go to. I only know when I can look at my phone while the song is playing and see the title. It's that feeling like when you have a box of fancy chocolates and they give you a little map to identify which is which, but you're holding it backwards and you have the sneaking suspicion that it's your other left, and then you turn it around and reach for one and find yourself wincing as you bite into one of those horrible strawberry things when all you wanted was a truffle.

Only imagine if you bit into those chocolates and all of them were made of thin air, and that'll give you a pretty good idea how I'm feeling right now.

In fact, maybe I'm writing this review just to feel some sense of ownership of the band. If I write the review, I'm thinking, I'll get them on paper and they won't slip through my grasp. I'll be able to go to the concert and actually know them, own them!

(My sister Mary just came in, heard the unidentifiable track I was listening to, said softly, "'Your Algebra'," and sang along in a low voice, too quietly for me to hear.)

I don't know if this is really a review of the album. After all, it's only me to whom this happens. Maybe it's more a review of myself. I've worked okay up until now, but I seem to be a bit defective. Send me back.