Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Book Report: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea


Jules Verne was the Michael Crichton of his time, writing well-reasoned and plausible near-future sci-fi stories that turned out to be prophetic. He is out to dazzle his readers with his knowledge and speculation of the mysteries of the deep, and makes the dry lecture material more palatable by wrapping it in a vivid, stirring story of adventurers taken as half-willing captives by a domineering genius. There's a parallel to Vernes himself as Captain Nemo, captivating readers on a journey they must accept on his megalomaniacal terms. Throughout the globe-circling adventures, Nemo's prisoners plot their escape, but their efforts are halfhearted because they can't fully commit to stop wanting to see what happens next if they stay aboard the submarine. Nemo is every author, and M. Arronax, Ned Land and Conseil are the warring factions of a reader's psyche, battling distraction and disagreement with the inevitable course governed by one person alone. To read is to give up your agency in return for knowledge and experience you'd never otherwise be able to find on your own. That's the punishing gift Vernes doles out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book Report: The Corrections


I read Freedom first, which spoiled me for this one. Franzen got better with time, developing his voice and narrative strength in the off years in between Great American Novels. By comparison, this one comes off as a grad school literary exercise, with Franzen finding laborious ways to insert the word "correction" in as many different tenses as possible every 5 pages or so.

But despite the formula, or maybe even because of it, Franzen squeezes out astounding insights into middle-age angst and the humiliating death march into old age. His most powerful passages pry open the mind of its saddest character, the family patriarch who tangles with dementia, losing more of himself in each bout with hallucinatory angst.

Franzen's penchant for giving overly cute names to law firms, corporations and pharmaceutical wonderdrugs is as distracting as his use of the title, but the trying-too-hard cuteness doesn't detract much from the heart of his meandering story of mismatched, dysfunctional siblings who orbit their rotting nuclear parental centers. The Corrections is a book about spectacularly creative failures that ambitions seek and find in life's dark corridors, and as depressing as it is, its ability to illuminate the grim shared experiences that await us all manages to grant the novel a slice of encouragement of the human spirit it mocks, twists, steps on and ... yes ... corrects.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

BBC Interview


Here is the clip from my BBC 5 interview I did Jan. 9. Eight years after Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel was released, this is probably the highest-profile media appearance I've had.