The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
The salient aspect of Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, is that by the end each character has found his and her level. It's quite something: of the seven or so characters there are no winners and no losers. The author's conscientious diplomacy imbues a basically playful book with a certain airy dignity.Hard to deny that Lethem is a virtuoso prose writer. He is a prize fighter sparring with plot lines in a ring of words. Like the best boxers, Lethem masters the ring - makes it his home - and approaches his craft without fear of getting hurt. Language is for him a sweet science. But just as interesting as the stick and move of the words in You Don't Love Me Yet is the nature of the story. I was impressed with the way in which Lethem approached the complexities and complications inherent to crafting a female lead character, one who comes across as rather emotionally ambiguous - as opposed to Good. Or maybe Lucinda, 29, is simply young.Lucinda is the bass player in the band, Monster Eyes, a position she relishes for good reason: she's good at it, self-taught and attuned to the varied musical voices that comprise the group. But she is impulsive, indulgent, and easily taken in by The Complainer, a man she meets over what is meant to be an anonymous call-line for which she is an operator. The implication is that Lucinda is both the creative catalyst of the band and also its Yoko Ono. Although her bass playing is the glue that ties the band's songs together, and The Complainer's words the inspiration for the lyrics in the band's most popular number, her lusty infatuation with the seductive older man corrupts the band's artistic integrity. But along the way Monster Eyes does get a moment in the sun.I "read" this book by listening to it on 5 CDs, performed by the author, unabridged. I use the word performed for good reason. Lethem has innate ability in this area too. He is able to read his work without self-consciousness and with a satisfying definitiveness, a pitch-perfect and distinct voice for each character. Bedwin, the band's guitar player and musical soul, phrases everything he says as a question. It's funny, but it also adds depth to the character, who is shy and introverted. Meanwhile The Complainer speaks in lugubrious platitudes. Because we hear The Complainer's words through Lucinda's ear, one trained for catchiness and not so much profundity, they initially come across as penetrating. But as the book goes on, insights such as "You can't be deep without a surface," in some ways the tart and tangy center of the book's social wisdom, seem trite and tedious. The act of listening to Lethem read his book seemed appropriate because the book is based around sound, the sound of people making music, both literally and, yes, figuratively. I highly recommend the audio version of You Don't Love Me Yet, while wondering if I would have gotten as much out of it if I had merely read it off the page.The book contains one or two very fine descriptions of ensemble music-making (and a not-inconsiderable dose of sexual steaminess, mm). And yet, one provocative suggestion in Lethem's construct is that rock and roll lyrics are often shallow, transparent. The implication is that the resonance of rock lyrics depends not so much on objective quality - complexity, poetic feeling - so much as indelibility, the rhythmic imprint of the words on the mind, a pattern, a universally recognizable hook. And indeed, Lethem isolates and describes exactly that quality of good rock and roll lyrics that appeals to individuals: a song you connect with is "about you." The irony is that those lyrics actually capture a colloquial value that is meant to appeal to many. Rock lyrics are rarely lyrical, but when they're good, you know it. Twist and Shout; Fake Plastic Trees - same principle.My resolution, the turnaround if you will, is that Jon Lethem has written another very readable (and perfectly listenable) book. I could expound on the L.A.-ness of it all, but will instead assume that this setting is an aberrant and tangential element of the story. It really could be New York. And I think no matter where your heart is, it is an appealing kind of tale, made for you, me, the cool kids in Silverlake who play in the band, and everybody else.
As if rap’s global pop influence isn’t justice enough, the campaign to document its musical and commercial developments, the lives of its artists, important artifacts and its intersection with recent history has gained great momentum in the literary space — when not making bold claims on Literature itself. A twenty-first-century given, rap has even wended its way into that beacon of the twentieth century, the anthology. Yale University Press’s The Anthology of Rap flays memorable tracks, preserving their lyrical skins for the hasty forceps of future scholars “within the context of African American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage.” Anthologies upholding a great heritage are necessarily short on the specifics. Yet there is also a rebellious potential within the anthology itself, recovering moments that tradition or fashion have invalidated. Nicholson Baker invented such a noble anthology-wright in his short novel, The Anthologist, a miscellaneous monologue by working poet Paul Chowder that bears many of the features for which Baker has been rightly admired, his vivid observational miniatures and giddy disclosures, his nimble, various excursions, his paring back vast erudition to a buoyant, demotic language. Chowder takes seriously a poet’s claim to common experience and finds in the free-verse Modernists an estrangement from the four-beat line, which he considers “the soul of English poetry.” (Drawing on the recent theory of “unrealized beats,” he further insists that iambic pentameter subconsciously adopts a caesura as a sixth beat, morphing into a “swaying three-beat minuetto.”) The light verse and rhyming ballads that get crowded out by the followers of Eliot and Pound stake the truer claim to listeners’ hearts and minds by accommodating our innate habit of matching similar sounds. Holed up in his heaping New Hampshire barn, past deadline on the introduction to his anthology, Only Rhyme, Paul Chowder takes Sharpie to easel pad and diagrams the many stresses of his professional and personal discontents. Paul Chowder returns in Baker’s new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, which isn’t so much a sequel as a remake. It is a novel-rhyme; the two comprise a couplet. Following the real-time interval between novels, a few years have passed and Only Rhyme continues to sell at some big schools in the southwest. The poet’s editor nudges him for a book of new poems, but there is nothing like the claustrophobic pressure that surrounded the previous labor. We already know of his productive return flight from a conference in Switzerland, when he wrote twenty-three poems. Communication lines are still tentatively open with ex-girlfriend Roz, who makes egg salad sandwiches for his fifty-fifth birthday. Paul Chowder has extended his sphere. Instead of the chin bar in his barn, he works out at Planet Fitness, a “Judgment Free Zone.” He attends Quaker meetings. He buys a guitar. Also a keyboard and a microphone. A nagging thirst for Yukon Jack has been displaced by a curious flirtation with cigars. He writes and works out melodies in the car. His middle-aged neighbor Nanette once nervously threw him a leftover Meals on Wheels chicken dinner and saved him from sabotaging her new hardwood floor. Now he has Nan and her son over for sushi, reliably babysits her chickens and waters her tomatoes with his traveling sprinkler. It is the historian within the anthologist that presses toward the now. Tim, a professor at Tufts who completed a book on Queen Victoria’s imperialistic rule, informs Paul about the movement to challenge Obama’s use of drones in current conflicts. As Tim, always Paul’s hand in the world, reports from the latest rally, the poet becomes more disturbed by his readings on the issue and his consumption of related online media, like videos and protest songs. Paul is left “traumatized and angry” by the story of Roya, a thirteen-year-old taken to begging on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border after her mother and two brothers were killed in a 2002 drone attack and her father “carefully gathered pieces of his wife and his sons from the tree near their house and buried them.” Pacing in his kitchen, Paul feels “powerless and ineffectual.” If in the academy Paul’s minority defense of rhyme was somewhat vindicated, his revulsion toward American war tactics leaves him politically marginalized. But both minorities are appeals to common experience overrun by institutions. Atrocities can affect observers remotely, like poems. The poet’s response, the only response that registers on an individual level, is tangential and local. Tim recruits Paul to write a protest song. Much of Traveling Sprinkler follows this trajectory, but only in Paul’s meandering Chowderesque way. The authorized history of hip hop’s cultural and musical expansion is that of local, folk origins. The DJ presided over the ceremony, providing rhythmic instructions to partygoers to maintain the music’s momentum. In time, these MC duties were outsourced to vocal specialists who conjured additional layers of narrative and linguistic complexity that survive, but in a different form, the party-event. Paradoxically, it is the MC’s flow — the delivery system of the lyrics, rooted in nonverbal features of the song — that enables the recognition of the words in anthology. This, too, was the radical notion behind Only Rhyme, assembling a book that isolates sounds. If Bob Dylan, whose lyrics also have been printed and bound, is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the proper objection isn’t regarding his songwriting but the singing quality of poetry. In The Anthologist, Chowder explains: “We like to visit the parallel sound-studio universe...independent of the other part of our head, which is the conscious part.” If rhyme serves an aural function in poetry, “music fogs over” the consonant particulars of lyrical rhyme. Music, the overarching concern of Traveling Sprinkler, “is about the idea that one cellist’s A is going to sound slightly different than another cellist’s A.” In written notation, of words or music, “there are losses incurred.” The plurality that reigns over head music is curtailed “by a black blob on a page.” The liberated anthologist burns a mixtape CD and gives it to Roz, his reluctant though accessible muse, the anti-Laura. Always the omnivore, Paul digs current and classic pop songs while also meditating in long stretches on classical composers, but from the underdog perspective of the bassoon. Stravinsky, influenced by Debussy, chose a solo bassoon to open The Rite of Spring, but tortures it by forcing it into the register of the flute. In spite of its limits, the woodcraft bassoon provides an organic connection to spring, while the flute is “a tube of metal.” Paul’s jaw is shot from playing the bassoon when he was younger, but he enjoys building his repertoire of guitar chords and also gains pointers from Nanette’s nineteen-year-old, Raymond, who composes rap songs digitally. Paul assembles an orchestra from the everyday, feeding his Logic digital audio workstation with the plucking of an egg slicer and the sloshing of a pasta pot, which he can manipulate on his new MIDI keyboard. Technology enables the poet to complete the reductionist’s journey from language’s music to the fundamental elements of musical sound. In The Anthologist, Paul relays warnings from big names like Elizabeth Bishop and W. H. Auden against the growing Big Business of poetry. “Philip Larkin said that when you start paying people to write poems and paying people to read them you remove the ‘element of compulsive contact.’” His sense of powerlessness toward affecting change in society as writer of verse compels Chowder to retread his domain and seek out regions of compulsive contact with people rather than listing under faceless institutions. Raymond inhabits such a space, working away at original compositions on his computer while also DJing at a local club, college-age but taking time off, knowledgeable yet unaccredited. Raymond and Paul’s partnership, promiscuous and unauthorized, embodies the best virtues of the social media over which Paul devotes increasing time, to share songs, watch video, read political discourse, and self-educate his musicianship. His competition with dead critics finds a logical resolution in active, real-time exchanges with the living nonce.
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A year after the end of the Second World War, a young man steps off a bus in what remains of Germany. It’s winter, one of the coldest in anyone’s memory, and the long journey homeward, from Hanover, to Cologne, and finally through the Lower Rhineland, has kept him shivering. A deeper fear also penetrates. He has misgivings about what has happened to his family, who have they become, who will he meet. He doesn’t announce the visit, he wants to keep it a surprise, but when he steps off the bus, he walks straight into them. They are standing in the cold, waiting for a bus themselves, his mother, father, and sister. He has not set eyes on them in over two years, and instead of joy, his first reaction is horror. When Günter Grass’ memoir Peeling the Onion was released in Germany, it was met with a different kind of horror. In it, after decades of silence, Grass acknowledged that he had willingly served as a tank gunner in the Waffen-SS, the elite and much-feared paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. For a man who spent his adult life excoriating hypocrisies in others, especially in former Nazis, the revelation was rich fodder for his critics. Much of the reaction to the memoir focused on Grass’s confession, and battle lines were rapidly drawn. Some called for his Nobel Prize to be revoked, and others applauded his bravery in finally setting the record straight. No one sees clearly in war, certainly not in one on the scale of World War Two, and to blindly lay the crimes of a sixteen year-old at the old man’s feet requires a willful ignorance of what memory is, what trauma is, and in this case, what the transformations of spirit and self that a young man who wants to be an artist needs to put himself through. The firestorm died down, Grass did not lose his Nobel medal; instead he left for us, in the ashes of that firepit, a riveting account of the apprenticeship of a writer. And more than that, perhaps the best guide to how write a novel ever published. The young man who greeted his own family with horror at the Fliesstetten bus station in 1946 would not remain home long. His father wanted him to become a “paper pusher” at the local coal mine, a very good job at the time, but one the young artist wannabe thought ridiculous. His mother looked careworn, beaten down, and the four of them slept in a single crowded room and spent the evenings huddled together for warmth. Grass fled as soon as he could, carrying a stack of poems and sketches, for Düsseldorf and the art school there. It was closed due to lack of coal. A chance meeting led him to apprentice as a stonemason. But already, as he writes, he was gripped by an insatiable desire “to conquer all with images.” He had passed through the war with two hungers. The first was for food, the second for sex. At an American POW camp, he took lessons from a fellow prisoner, a chef who, lacking actual ingredients, described the recipes, the dishes, the processes, and all with such loving detail that everyone who listened groaned with excruciating desire. Later, on buses to and from the stone cutters, he would find himself squeezed against young working women who more often than not, in that era of deprivation, seemed happy to oblige some mildly carnal pleasure for the duration of the short bus journey. His third hunger was for art. The journey he makes, from drawing and poems, to sculpture, and finally to those unwieldy, fantastical novels, the prose he never believed he would write, is rendered in a hopscotch of memory and forgetting, of mislaid chronologies and chance encounters. “One never knows what will make a book,” Grass writes. “The transformation of lived life, life in the raw, into a text undergoing constant revision and coming to rest only between covers, can come from a tombstone belonging to an unsightly pile of tombstones shunted off to their side, their time having passed.” It is these transformations that Grass chronicles here, brief snatches, small flames that illuminate a whole forest. Grass uses everything. His old friends are transformed, sometimes again and again. Korneff, a senior journeyman in real life, is given his own workshop in The Tin Drum, just so he can show the novel’s anti-hero how to turn a slab of stone into a monument. A youthful tour of cemeteries returns decades later in The Call of the Toad. His teachers, his friends, his lovers, all make their entrances and exits. Discovering (inventing? meeting?) Oskar Matzerath, the midget anti-hero of The Tin Drum, in the rubble of postwar Germany was a revelation. Grass found himself reduced to being little more than a “writing implement” chronicling Oskar’s entrances. Oskar “determined who was to die, who was granted miraculous survival.” The midget fiend Oskar compelled Grass to “haunt his early years.” Furthermore, he “gave me leave to put everything which had claim to truth between question marks.” It was Oskar, writes Grass, who turned his gentle pacifist professor, Pankok, into Professor Kuchen, “a volcano whose explosions blackened any sheet of paper with brute expressive power.” This archaeologist Grass, this merciless excavator of his own past, is the man who would become the novelist, and it is only through such relentless exploitation of the self that he manages to remake the world on the page. What makes Grass’s memoir such a compelling and unusual master class in the art of fiction is not that he tells the reader how to write, but he shows, through glimpses, how he himself did it, and specifically, how he wrote his own life into his novels. Not much is left after the decades. “People required by their professions to exploit themselves learn over the years to value fragments,” Grass writes. There is an overlooked ID card he never used. Little else. So much has been commandeered into the service of art, that now, Grass writes, “I find it difficult to sound out my past for demonstrable facts.” Italo Calvino said he regretted writing his first, autobiographical novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He claimed it stole his memories of his youth, and whatever recollections he retained were forever infected by the fictional version. Grass harbors no similar regrets. Memory, for him, is by its nature unstable. It reforms, configures, transfigures, jumbles, erases, invents, it builds, ultimately, a likeness of ourselves in our own image, much as a novel does. And like the novelist who raids his own past, it is supremely selfish, hoarding for itself what it needs, carelessly jettisoning the unnecessary. The young man Grass, who was horrified at the transformation of his family by the war, does his best to shun them. He misses his mother’s death and funeral. Only after, through many roundabout conversations with his sister, does he learn the cause of her careworn face. She was raped repeatedly by Russian conscripts, and offered herself willingly in exchange for the guarantee that her daughter would not be touched. Whether Grass uses this he does not say. But the ugly shadow of the knowledge, and the long years it was hidden from him, like the shadow of the eager Waffen-SS recruit he tried desperately to forget, writes itself across all his work with power, anger, and tragedy.
When was the last time you read something from the humor section? It's probably been a while. If memory serves, that particular bookstore ghetto is filled with quickly dated political humor, books of redneck jokes, and similar diversions: Books some people might buy as gifts for non-readers, but never for themselves. Others wisely steer clear of the section altogether. As such, it's possible that people have gone through their reading lives without happening upon a book like Woody Allen's Without Feathers.Though Woody Allen, of course, remains a household name because of his films, readers of my generation may not be aware that he is an equally accomplished humorist and his work was collected in a trio of books in the 1970s. Without Feathers was published in 1972, but 34 years later it remains hilarious.The book contains an assortment of sketches, often take-offs of scholarly writings, like "Early Essays" which references Francis Bacon's Essays, in which Allen observes that "The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there is no afterlife - a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave." Allen also returns again and again to words and phrases that he finds funny for whatever reason, like "chives," "herring," "smelts," and having a hat "blocked." The book also includes a pair of manic, absurd plays, "Death" and "God."It's hard for me to describe how funny this book was except to say that it may be one of the funniest books I have ever read. I kept Mrs. Millions awake because I kept guffawing as I read it. Instead of taking my word for it, though, here's a particularly funny tidbit from the first chapter, "Selections from Mr. Allen's Notebook":Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream -- to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)Bonus Link: Millions contributor Andrew's look at Without Feathers and Allen's other two collections, Getting Even and Side Effects.
His vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts.