Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jonah Lehrer, d-bag

Oh hey, my bad.
What is it with these kids making up shit for their books these days? As I'm sure you're now aware (since no one gets their news from the Book Catapult) Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling Imagine: How Creativity Works, was forced to resign from his post at the New Yorker after he confessed to making up quotes from Bob Dylan (first reported on by Michael Moynihan at Tablet) and including them in his book. (His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is reportedly going to be recalling all unsold copies - a hugely expensive undertaking. In fact, Imagine doesn't even exist on their website anymore.) All of this is coming on the heels of last month's mildly scandalous reveal that he recycled his own work in the New Yorker for inclusion in Imagine. Oh, and he also reportedly plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell. I mean, who's gonna notice that?
“The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position."
C'mon dude, really? You want to know how you ended up down this rabbit hole? You jumped into it with both feet because you thought there was a pile of cash at the bottom. You got cocky, your publisher got lazy, and here we are. This is all indicative of a larger problem, of course - that of fact-checking on the part of publishers. Yes, I blame Lehrer for almost all of this, of course, but I do wonder how a quote from one of the most famous people in the world managed to slip by the fact-checkers at HMH. The same way I wondered how James Frey managed to make up things like 87-day prison terms and train accidents and get that by the editors at Riverhead in 2003. And then when Riverhead again had Margaret Seltzer make up her (aptly named) memoir of gangland violence, Love and Consequences in 2008. And the Three Cups of Tea thing from 2011. And the fake Holocaust memoir that Berkley was going to print in 2009. And Stephen Glass making up just about everything he wrote for the New Republic in the late 90's. And Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, both making things up and stealing from other reporters in 2003. And Mike Daisey's Apple embellishments on This American Life just a few months ago.

Sadly, I'm sure there are plenty that I've forgotten about. But you see where I'm going here. Which begs the question: "What the fuck?"

Is it a pathological sort of thing? Where is this insane need for embellishment coming from? In the case of Lehrer, was there even a reason for embellishment? If that's even what this is? What is this, anyway? Why would making up quotes from Bob Dylan make your book better? If anything, wouldn't you be constantly worried that someone would discover the fallacy of it? Hell, weren't there enough quotes from Dylan from the last 50 years to suit your purposes? But maybe that's where the pathological thing comes in. In the cases of Lehrer, Glass, and Blair, it even could be perceived as a form of psychosis, or, at the very least sociopathic behavior. I can see recycling your work in some way, as Lehrer confessed to doing last week - as there's certainly a lot of pressure on writers producing content for the web (one of his frequent outlets) to keep churning out the goods - but the flat-out making things up? What're you kidding me, buddy?

But, like I said, I think a large portion of the blame needs to be placed at the feet of Lehrer's publisher. And no, this is not because of their deal to distribute Amazon titles, although it did harden my resolve, thank you. I think an argument can be made to defend the publishers of James Frey, after all, his was a memoir and maybe not everything can or needs to be fact-checked in one of those. (I happen to believe that the "memoir" as a writing form almost begs for embellishment.) But this is a different case. Is there not a department at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that is tasked with checking the validity of, say, quotes from Bob Dylan for inclusion in one of their books? Under the assumption that there is such a department and the department is filled with people who can read, I again ask the question, "What the fuck?"

Lehrer is more in the vein of Jayson Blair (certainly a pathological liar) and Stephen Glass - dudes who just kept on writing fabricated material or stuff they stole from someone else, because they were too arrogant to think that someone would be smart enough to notice. The problem here is that the people who should have noticed, didn't. And now all hell has broken loose. I don't have an answer as to what should be done with those who missed checking the facts on Lehrer, but I do think heads should roll somewhere. Don't get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for all the people I've dealt with at HMH over the years, but someone should go down for this one. There's simply no reason that things like this should slip by.

And it's like Bob Dylan always says, "Everything that Seth Marko writes on his blog is both awesome and true."

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas trailer

All the buzz at the end of this fine week (at least in my house) is the release by Warner Brothers of a nearly 6 minute trailer of the forthcoming Cloud Atlas film, produced by the Wachowskis and directed by Tom Tykwer. My feelings on this subject have been well documented (see Cloud Atlas Film Rumor and Cloud Atlas Burst) and almost completely cynical and negative, mainly due to the possibility that my favorite book - that's right, FAVORITE BOOK - will be butchered and shredded by the Hollywood crap machine that is the Wachowskis. But, my friends...  BUT... if this trailer is any indication of things to come (and I kinda think it has to be, since it's from the film itself) I think we might actually have something fairly spectacular on our hands. That's right - I may have been wrong in my earlier assessments.

I'll admit it here, publicly on the internets (never in person) - I got a little choked up, a little lump in the throat, seeing this book that I know so well and love so much brought so incredibly to life in a film version. Just a little. (I think it was the swell of music and the words "Everything Is Connected" that did it.) Now, don't get me wrong - it ain't perfect and I can already see some veering off from the plotlines of the book, but hell, it looks freakin' spectacular and pretty much dead-on. (And often trailers are deliberately misleading in order to reel in a different, broader audience. I mean, it's not really a story of star-crossed lovers, is it? Please tell me it's not...) So, if you've somehow read this much of this post without watching the attached video, get crackin'. At this point in time, the film has the complete endorsement of The Book Catapult.

*On a related note, as way of explaining why this movie's such a big deal to me:
A few months ago I decided that I would re-read all of David Mitchell's books - see kids, Cloud Atlas was once what they called a "book!" Why, with all the books piling up in my home, office, and car, would I go back and re-read five unproven, not-as-yet classics as these? Foolish behavior, right? Anthony Doerr wrote a great piece in the Boston Globe a few months back on the dizzying amount of books we think we will read in our lives:

Have you ever done the math? If you’re lucky enough to have 70 years of literate adulthood, and if you read one book every week, you’re still only going to get to 3,640 books. Then you die.
So why ignore the math? Because, on a balmy summer night at Los Angeles' Skylight Books back in 2010, I heard Mitchell speak about his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. And this is the sort of thing he talked about, causing me to crap my nerd-pants a little:

"I've come to realize that I'm bringing into being a fictional universe with its own cast, and that each of my books is one chapter in a sort of sprawling macronovel. That's my life's work, for however long my life lasts.  Of course, it's important that each of the books works as a stand-alone, so that readers don't have to read everything else I've written to make sense of the novel in their hands.  But I write each novel with an eye on the bigger picture, and how the parts fit into the whole." (From the NYT Magazine, June 2010)
Dog-eared, annotated, loved.
In his Skylight talk, (which you can find here, at their podcast site) Mitchell said that he looks at each of his books as "sort of chapters in an übernovel or a hypernovel." He also referred to "hyperlinks" between books in the form of recurring characters - the sort of thing that makes my head explode - so I wanted to go back and re-read all of his books, in the order he wrote them, to try and follow as many of those hyperlinks as I could. I really wanted to see if I could view all five books (to date) as one long, continuous narrative - as the author views things. Besides, I couldn't decide on what to read that day and figured it was as good a time as any to do this.

So, I did. Back in May I read all the books again and tracked the hyperlinks, taking meticulous notes, writing down every character name for cross-referencing - all with the plan to somehow write my discoveries into a series of blog posts. Well, that hasn't happened, obviously, and now this whole trailer thing broke, so I figured I'd just talk about that. A sloppy, stream-of-consciousness post, to be sure.

I guess that what I'm saying is that if the trailer for this film looks at all interesting to you, do yourself a favor and read the book first. Just read the book!! However well the filmmakers make all the subtle connections between storylines and characters in this thing, it will pale in comparison to the intricacies devised by the original author. You're going to just have to trust me on this one - I first read it in 2004 and just went back to it a couple of months ago and it COMPLETELY held up. More so, even - it may have been better the second time, since I brought 8 more years of reading life along with me. 

*Attention fellow nerds: If there's any interest in what I discovered while reading the books with an eye out for hyperlinks, let me know in the comments and maybe - MAYBE - I'll write some more about it.*

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I lift my head from the pillow
I see the frost the moon
Lowering my head I think of home.

Nine years have passed since a global flu pandemic wiped out most of the world's human population. Hig lives near an airport in what used to be Erie, Colorado, his only companions his aging dog, Jasper, and a gun-toting, misanthropic neighbor named Bangley. Together the three of them have carved out a small, warpedly Edenic existence among the ashes of the world - hunting for elk, growing vegetables, and repelling all who cross their "perimeter" with shocking, necessary violence.  In this new world, as Bangley is fond of saying, through the crooked half-grin he wears, "Negotiate, Hig, and you are negotiating your own life..." 

So Hig flies. He keeps his 1956 Cessna 182 airplane - "The Beast" - in top shape and he and Jasper often escape to the air to survey the landscape from above. Once - maybe three years back - he heard a voice over the radio originating from a spot just outside of his point-of-no-return fuel range. Another human voice coming through the staticy ether that has lodged in his brain as from a place to seek out someday when the timing is right. Because despite Bangley's harsh companionship, Hig is lonely. Profoundly so - as you can only imagine being one of the last people on Earth might be. His wife is dead, all his friends and family are dead. What's the point, really? Why has he kept on these nine long years?
Grief is an element. It has its own cycle like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen. It never diminishes not ever. It passes in and out of everything.
There's something keeping him going though - not hope, probably, but something else more elemental than that. Even in the face of such unspeakable tragedy and loss, there's a force that drives him, that's been keeping him human. Maybe it's just the desire to talk to someone else, something new that will give him a reason to keep on keeping on. And that's what this story is all about: being human in the face of all that is bad about humanity.

The Dog Stars is hands-down, easily, without a fight, the best book I have read in 2012 and probably the best book I have read in several years. (Since Everything Matters! back in '09, really, which shares a very similar thematic arc to this.) Heller's prose took me a minute to get used to - it has a choppy style to it, as if the use of proper sentence structure and superfluous punctuation are things from a lost world that have no place in his. Yet there's a killer, graceful beauty to it that reminds me of so many other authors that have left their impression on me in my adult life - Tony Doerr, Ron Carlson, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Currie...
We move in and out of cottonwoods which make a deeper darkness. Thickets of willows. Up the grassy slopes going pale, into a short rock canyon echoing the spilling water. Then a ponderosa forest, smelled before seen, the scent carried downstream: redolent of vanilla, like a sweetshop. These still living. The sled scrapes over the trammeled roots, exposed rock. Clusters of deer scat long dessicated. I stop, let go the bridle, and hug a big tree, standing in a frieze of sweet sage that is also paler than the night, patches beneath the trees, fragrant also and tangy. Hug the thick rough bark, nose stuck in a resined crack, inhale vanilla strong as any small brown bottle, the tree pungent and sweet as butterscotch. A time when we entered shops that smelled like this.
"Cessna Six Triple Three Alpha feeling awful lonely"
Hig's world is awful - virtually every human he encounters, with the exception of Bangley and a group of blood-sick Mennonites in a nearby community, wishes to do him harm, either under the guise of survival or from an animalistic instinct to rise to the top of the food chain in the new world order.  He and Bangley are under constant threat of attack - a way of life that has taken its toll on Hig, leaving him questioning his role in this new world of suffering and madness. But, like I said, there's something else inside this man - and, ultimately inside his guarded companion as well - that is keeping them inherently human and the nose of that Cessna, with some errant turns along the way, aimed in the direction of all that is good.

There is a large degree of profundity at work within this novel, but it strikes a chord (at least it did with me), mainly because it is so easy to see this as a possible future for us. More than likely, this is what society would devolve into if a pandemic erased 99.99% of the population - everyone fighting and scrapping and killing to stay alive or to keep a hold on the small scrap of civilized world that remains to them. 

And how lonely would that world be, in the moments when you, the survivor, reflect on what is happening around you? Talk about profound. Why would you keep going, keep struggling, keep fighting off packs of madmen coming to take what is yours? What would be the point? It's some heavy stuff. But Heller delivers in such a perfect way - this is not a depressing, hopeless story, filled with marauding zombies and atrocities piled on atrocities. Hig still takes the time to appreciate the wilderness around him, the burble of the stream, the smell of the pines, the feeling of achievement from growing a garden, of flying a plane. All these are the small things that keep him human, yet he yearns for more, lured by that voice on the radio and spurred on by his grief. 

All in all, this is a remarkable, beautiful, emotive book that will reduce you to tears (on more than one occasion) and make you hug your loved ones all the closer. Aren't those the sort of things we want out of a good story, after all? A book that you can't wait to return to, to read again for the first time. I can't stress it enough - go to this book, read it, love it, pass it along. Repeat.

Here's a rather substantial audio excerpt from NPR.
And www.peterheller.net