You're Invisible Now You've Got No Secrets to Conceal

David Mitchell -- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was such a great book that this new novel seems like a follow-up, despite his Black Swan Green falling between the two. There's so much to like about Mitchell, chiefly the forcefulness of his imagination and the fluidity of his writing. The setting here, of a Dutch trading post in late 18th/early 19th century Japan, feels and reads more like science fiction than history, and the complex system of trading commerce (as well as the ruses that prey on or subvert it) is strangely and delightfully interesting to see unfold. For fresh dialogue and characters, I don't know if there's anyone better out there writing in English.

I wouldn't necessarily put this book on a reading list above either Cloud Atlas or Black Swan Green, largely due to the somewhat far-fetched unspeakable secret at the heart of the monastery that is the focus of the too-long middle section of the book, but I found the first and later sections completely absorbing. It seems David Mitchell is like pizza -- even when it isn't perfect, it's still pretty good.


Michael Chabon -- The Final Solution. This is a short novel -- I do not cotton to the word "novella" -- set in England during the Second World War, and featuring the last case (or a last case, anyway) of a certain world-famous Victorian detective. Unnamed in the text, and so unnamed here, this particular bee-keeping retiree would have been at least in his very upper eighties at the time this story takes place, and Chabon paints this character with the aches and resignations of age and faded glory.

The central mystery revolves around sequences of German numbers recited by the parrot on the cover there, with certain nefarious folks speculating that this may be German army codes or account numbers to Swiss banks. Neither the detective or any of the other characters ever make out what the numbers actually refer to, but the answer can be pretty well sussed by the book's title. It's a well-done period pastiche, not nearly as weighty as its subject matter, and the juxtaposition of the sharp deduction skills and quaint Victoriana of the detective against the named and unnamed horrors of WWII is handled well and subtly.


Steven Amsterdam -- Things We Didn't See Coming. Mid-way through reading this collection of closely linked short stories, I mentioned to a few people that it could be thought of mathematically as Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son + Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The later stories in the book, however, cause me to temper that analogy; it needs to be divided by something, because "plus" perhaps suggests a level of quality of the two other books that Things We Didn't See Coming doesn't quite attain. So maybe its better represented as (Jesus' Son + The Road)/The Bachman Books.

At any rate, this is a set of stories from the point of view of one particular character who traverses from contemporary America into an ever-increasingly grim dystopia. The first story is set on New Year's Eve 1999 and concerns the narrator's fathers concern and preparation regarding Y2K, which may seem like distant and unattended fears to us but lead into the disasters (floods, draught, urban collapse, eco-terrorism, widespread cancer) of later stories. The second story, in which the right cocktail of pills brings a non-responsive Alzheimer's patient back to brief but vibrant life, is particularly affecting.

Jesus' Son is a clear model, as each story reflects but does not necessarily refer to the others, and the stories try to balance emotional distance or disengagement from events with a more generous and heartfelt response to humanity. Amsterdam's final story reaches for but doesn't quite attain the sense of possisble redemption that makes Jesus' Son's final story such a beautiful heartbreaker, but its a noble attempt. Overall (excepting one middle-of-the-book story concerning a sexed-up foxy senator of the future) a fun and diverting read.


Greil Marcus -- Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. I have a complicated reader-author relationship with Greil Marcus. He's clearly really smart, in a culturally-plugged-in kind-of-way, and he seems to find important a lot of the stuff I find important, but sometimes he comes off as a little bit snooty or a bit inside-baseball, someone who's liable to tell you that the best of all possible Bob Dylan performances can be found on a bootleg tape inaccessible to anyone but Greil Marcus. Also, though I imagine its really hard to write about music (cf. "dancing about architecture"), I sometimes find his writing a bit inscrutable. Late in this book, which is a close reading of the creation and importance of one particular Bob Dylan song, Marcus notes that really only two songs follow in its thematic footsteps. One is "Highlands," off of Dylan's 1997 Time Out of Mind, and the other is "Go West," a Pet Shop Boys cover of a late seventies Village People disco hit. Okay, but whaat?


Anything Your Heart Desires Will Come To You

Important news for the cast of Pinocchio can be found in the "Findings" column of the March issue of Harper's Magazine:
  • Italian bioceramicists turned wood into bone.
  • Goldfish ... are much slower than humans at metabolizing morphine.
  • A cricket was seen pollinating an orchid on the island of RĂ©union; neither the pollination of flowering plants by crickets nor that species of raspy cricket had previously been observed.
  • [E]rectile dysfunction is more prevalent among old men with restless-leg syndrome.


A Little Drop of Poison

Colson Whitehead -- Apex Hides The Hurt. This is a shortish novel about a Nominclature Consultant who is asked to cast the deciding vote on renaming a small town. Whitehead is always funny, on the cutting-edge of cultural satire, but this book strikes me as a bit of a frail cousin to John Henry Days. What this book suggests about advertising, about the white-washing of history (and African-American history in particular), covered more and similar territory as Apex. It's still worth a few of your afternoons, though, and it's heartening to know that Whitehead's masterpiece is still out there in the ether somewhere. He's clearly capable of a great novel of much cultural import, and I look forward to its appearance.


Dave Eggers -- Zeitoun. So much New Orleans in the last couple of months, what with "Treme" and Shake The Devil Off and, via Netflix some time ago, Trouble the Waters. This is the story of a Syrian immigrant's experience as a hero of Katrina and a victim of Homeland Security. This book made me respect Eggers as a writer, in that his narration set scenes without really ever getting in the way of the story. Given what happens to Zeitoun, there's plenty of opportunities where a semi-conscious reporter or even the Eggers of previous work might be tempted to editorialize or take a long shot at framing a larger context (Shake the Devil does some of this...), but the story arouses frustration and, to some extent, anger all its own without those kind of intrusions. It's a compelling page-turner while also being a shocking story of people at their best, and institutions at their worst. It would have made a great mini-series for David Simon, had he not had other aspects of New Orleans on which to focus.


Sam Lipstyle -- The Ask. At its root, this is a novel about a mid-level administrator at a mid-level university, married with children, doing his best to achieve some semblance of happiness while still having to work, pay bills, and take his kid to daycare. Through its trunk and branches, though, it is genuinely laugh-aloud1 funny and of-the-moment. The plot here, such as there is one, is really just a device for situations to develop; the true fun in this book, is the way in which the world drops its heavy boot on top of Milo Berk. Despite his education, relative affluence, and cultural privledge, he still can't quite win, in much the way that many of us can't quite win. Lipstyle has that fatalistic and pesimistic bleak fun that's been missing since Vonnegut retired.

As a mid-level administrator at a mid-level university, married with chieldren and etc., I'm fairly certain that what I love about this book is not the sting of recognition but the joy of shared company. Lipstyle was a great discovery to me, and I'm not even certain why I picked up the book in the first place, but now I'm going to read everything else this dude has written.

1. Not, decidely, to say "LOL."


Root Root Root for the Home Team

Sam and baby Bell at the South Shore.

Racing Caleb and Olin on the swings.

Sam and Karina on the 3rd.

Caleb takes a picture of his mother, aunt, and, um... yeah.

Sam and I enjoy the Big Bang.

Caleb on fireworks: "There goes this one!"

More of us in our front row seats in Granny & Poppa's 26th floor lake-view cabin.

At the pool on the 4th.

With Granny & Poppa at the Lake Park Fourth Celebration on July 5th.

Caleb serenades Kirsten on her birthday. "A-one and a-two," he would say, leading some to think he'd been watching Lawrence Welk.

Granny, Aunt Julie, Sam, and Uncle Mark work at Legos.

Grampa Jim procured us seats with this view at the 7/5/10 game at Miller Park, Milwaukee vs. San Francisco.

Prince Fielder wears my birthdate. And belt size.

At the ballpark with Tristan, Karina, Tim, Kathleen, and Kirsten. Tristan cleaned our mini-van windows on the way home; as I told him, that makes him a pretty cool dude in my book.

Caleb drives the tractor home.


Every Picture Tells A Story, Don't It?

A Search N' Find Picture Puzzle!

In the photograph above, can you identify the following occurences?

1. Jackson Browne is taking a digital photo of Mick Jagger and that guy that lives down the block from you who always seems to be walking his chocolate lab1.
2. Jackson Browne, in leather jacket, tries to get Mick Jagger to pose like Mick Jagger.
2. Mick Jagger decides instead to pose like a Muppet.
3. Bill Clinton rests his hand atop Katie Couric's head, as if she were a Victorian drawing room's mantelpiece.
4. Katie Couric attempts to have meaningful eye contact with Mick Jagger, while brushing off creepy Clinton.
5. Katie Couric really digs that scarf she got at the Nagano winter olympics.
6. Bill Clinton shares a knowing look of anticipated satisfaction with the photographer, suggesting the slightest push downwards upon Couric's head.
7. The World Is Flat author Thomas Friedman, in his Nike Harvard track jacket, is muscling in on that Clinton action.
8. Were former child star Gary Coleman not dead, once might suspect he were tucked into the lower left corner of the photograph, but surely Coleman is dead and Emmanuel Lewis is not so cheeky, so, I don't know, Jaleel White? Stanley Crouch?

1. It is possible that this is not the guy that lives down the street from you with the chocolate lab and the late 90's Volvo. It is possible that this is some ruddy Afrikaaner or perhaps a Prime Minister of some or other peninsular nation. But I'm pretty sure that's Jackson Browne, and that's totally Thomas Friedman.

Picture courtesy the interwebs expertise of B. Godsave.