NaNoWriMo madness

It’s that time of year again. I’m 10,000 words into another NaNoWriMo project (I’m not calling it a novel because, well, it just isn’t and probably never will be) and already bumping into some kind of wall. Such fun!

What’s not so fun is

Laura Miller advising people against NaNoWriMo. Why? So people can read more. Hmm. Right. But maybe even less fun are all the ranting comments defending NaNo. The whole thing is pretty unfortunate.

Anyway, I have to go read Freedom and write some more words. That’s just how I roll.

Kindle v. iPad for ereader? Kindle, apparently.

Being an Apple fan I have to admit I’ve always scoffed at the Kindle; why would anyone pay a couple hundred dollars for this thing when they could buy an iPod Touch for the same price or an iPad for a bit more and get so much more functionality in the bargain. Now, after seeing a comparison of the Kindle and iPad displays under a microscope, as well as both compared to printed text under magnification, I understand — the text on the Kindle is much, much more like printed text.

Oh, and just in case you’re thinking that the iPhone 4 makes these comparisons moot b/c of its famed “retina display,” think again. It’s far better than its predecessors, but still all pixellated compared to the Kindle.

(Original link via Daring Fireball.)

A case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience

Point OmegaPoint Omega by Don DeLillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book that made me finally see “Psycho.” The parallels between the film and the characters in this little novella are what make the book interesting. DeLillo is a prose master so there are some great little lines in there that make it worth your while, but beyond that he’s making readers work with this one. All the characters are so detached and alienated from the world and themselves that it’s, well, painful, and painfully depressing.

I finished it wondering a little what was the point, but, of course, the alienation itself is probably the point. I began to appreciate it when I started thinking about it as a meditation on war, and the planners of war, and how they see the world as an abstraction, a curiosity, something that is not real, a bunch of big ideas. This enables them to construct and set in motion the machinery of death because there aren’t really flesh and blood people and lives and civilizations and societies involved — it’s all just big ideas and theories and stars.

“Consciousness accumulates. It begins to reflect upon itself. Something about this feels almost mathematical to me. There’s almost some law of mathematics or physics that we haven’t quite hit upon, where the mind transcends all direction inward. The omega point,” he said. “Whatever the intended meaning of this term, if it has a meaning, if it’s not a case of language that’s struggling toward some idea outside our experience.”(72)

The planners of war are Norman Bates; their minds have transcended all direction inward until they have begun to eat themselves with dissociation. In the end they have to be someone else to do what they do and they don’t even know that other self that they are, they deny it and almost are unaware of it. If you confront them with the reality of the pain and suffering they create, they will not be able to cope. They will run, retreat, escape, deny, turn away, and become helpless as children. Maybe.

Or maybe it would just be really cool to see “Psycho” slowed down into a 24-hour marathon.

“Faithful Place”: Tana French turns the detective story inside out

Laura Miller

Detective fiction’s legions of brooding sleuths have paid lip service to Nietzsche’s observation that if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss starts looking back. In French’s novels, the person looking becomes the abyss.

I absolutely loved French’s first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness, so I’m looking forward to her latest. In the Woods was especially good; it reminded me a lot of The Secret History, which is high praise, indeed. If you’re looking for a summer read, you won’t go wrong with either of those.

David Foster Wallace on iPhone 4’s FaceTime

From Kottke via Daring Fireball, quoting from pages 144-151 of Infinite Jest:

Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation […] let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.

[…] Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those caller who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.

There’s more, but you really should read the book. I’d forgotten about this, but it does ring true, doesn’t it? How many times are you really, *really* going to want a video call? For me, the answer is very, very few, and for pretty much exactly the reasons DFW outlines. The man was a genius.

Courtroom 302: Criminal justice, Cook County style

I just finished reading Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse by Steve Bogira

My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

This was my second time reading this book. I read it first in about 2004 or 2005 while in law school, and recently picked it up again when I started working for the Cook County Public Defender. The book does a great job of giving readers a well-rounded understanding of how the criminal justice system functions in one of the most populous counties with one of the biggest (and most overcrowded) jails in the country. From Bogira’s vantage point, it appears that lower level felony cases are just processed through the system, primarily with pleas or bench trials, while major, “heater” cases that capture public attention for some reason, get jury trials and a *little* more deliberative process. The book’s focus on Circuit Judge Daniel Locallo is fascinating, but by no means flattering to Locallo. He comes off as a political gladhander with a vast ability to rationalize his decisions and dismiss second thoughts or suggestions that the justice system makes mistakes. Public defenders generally fare better; they are described as generally hard workers with far too much work to do. Prosecutors seem primarily to be zealots who appear to truly believe they are accomplishing justice by locking up anyone charged with a crime. All of these portrayals are necessarily incomplete; Bogira chose which cases to discuss and which to ignore, and even though he seems to have spent a lot of time in court during the year he was gathering the foundation for this book, he could not have seen everything and may have missed many cases where Locallo was more genuine or empathetic, or where public defenders were slacking and selling their clients out, or where prosecutors were exercising their vast discretion to ensure that innocent or less culpable people did not receive undeserved punishment. In other words, as complete as this portrait seems to be, one writer, in one year, in one courtroom, could only see and communicate so much.

That said, one of the book’s great strengths is its use of historical research and data from earlier decades to show that, well, the more things seem to change, the more they seem to stay the same in criminal justice.

The fact that I work in the criminal justice system means I’m not the average reader. That said, this book is full of fascinating stories about vivid characters enmeshed in compelling and sometimes life-and-death struggles. The fact that it’s all true only makes it that much better. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews >>

Brief mentions of hideous reviews

John Krasinski, who is really probably the biggest star of “The Office” — I mean, wouldn’t you really rather watch him and Pam than Michael? — has made a movie adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Of course it will be painful to watch, and therefore, you must go see it. I command you.

Or not. But whatever you do, don’t read Jed P. Cohen’s review of the movie, which concludes as follows:

So, when the actors, who are trained to sound off-the-cuff and extempore, read these constructions as definitive lines in the script, they are actually reading seriously premeditated, semantically irregular approximations of normal speech that, if the actor is given no leeway and is required to recite the line as such, end up sounding not like a person talking, but like a writer writing like people talk, which results in a singular kind of falsity this viewer has never encountered before.

Talk about trying too hard!

Ok, I’m kidding. Good job, Mr. Cohen, that’s a great Wallaceian construction for which we can all be thankful. It just doesn’t sound as great coming from you, but hey, it’s still well done.

So again I ask, why did DFW go and kill himself, dammit!?

What would David Foster Wallace say?

Roger Federer has fallen to Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open. I would have loved to have seen that match. But, of course, I can’t help thinking, what might David Foster Wallace have possibly written about this? Just three years ago, he wrote about Federer as Religious Experience. It was an awesome essay, typical DFW, highly entertaining, educational, littered with ingenious and spot-on analogies, chock full of minute little observations that are so acute and precise that you just suck them in with “yeah” after “of, course, yeah!” gratitude — simply awe-inspiring stuff. And, of course, DFW’s whole huge magnum opus was about tennis — and addiction, and families, and drugs, and geo-politics, and feral hamsters, and wheelchair assassins, and cults, and…. But, and so, it just makes me wonder: what would he say about Federer and Del Potrol and tennis now, today? We will never know, and that is very sad. It’s so sad it’s almost infuriating. As John Moe recently put it:

David Foster Wallace hanged himself and robbed us of all the work he would have produced in the future. Our homes were stocked floor to ceiling with the promise of the best goddamn writing people could make and Wallace fucking ripped it off. I’m still walking around wanting to punch someone.

Yeah, me too.

Infinite Summer Jest

It’s a little bit funny that someone decided to do a big group read of Infinite Jest this summer because I just read it last summer (after first getting about halfway through it in about 1997 or 1998). I’m now dipping into it again and am surprised to find what a good friend it seems. It’s strangely comforting. I’m sure this is going to sound over the top, but the book is just so fracking brilliant it makes me almost laugh with joy and gives me hope that, yeah, there’s still so much possible good in this world. And that’s despite how sad the book is in so many ways, how sort of fully empty it leaves you when all is said and done, and how sad it is to think that its author is dead, eliminated his own map at such a tragically young age. What more could he have contributed to this world before he died?

So yeah, despite all that, Infinite Jest still makes me smile. If you haven’t given it a shot yet, you should. Let the first couple hundred pages wash over you. Don’t demand that it make too much sense. Every time you read something and think, “Wait. Where did I see that character or reference or image before?” go back and find that place. The book is so self-referential you have to flip back and forth constantly to really begin to understand what he is doing. So give it some time. Really give yourself over to it. You won’t be sorry.

Oh, and there’s still time to catch up with the readers who are doing Infinte Summer. They’re only 10% in, so what’s that? 100 pages? Come on! You know you want to!