In which I review “Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story” using upgoer5

This is the book I’m talking about. And this explains the words I’m using (and not using). Why am I doing this? Because this is my writing place!

Why is the world here? Why is there something instead of nothing? We’ve talked about this before. In this book, a man goes around talking to men (they are all men) who have thought a lot about this question. They all have different ideas.

Some people believe that God made everything. But then who made God? Where did God come from? Is God just “there”? Where is “there”? And why is God the way He is and not some other way?

Some people think that something just pops out of nothing. But if this is possible, why is it possible? Why is the way things are exactly this way and not some other way?

Some people believe there are many, many worlds — many “everythings” — and each one may have a different way that things are. Maybe everything that could be, is. But why? Why isn’t there just nothing, which is the most simple way for things to be?

Some people think this has something to do with us, and the way we can think. Maybe there is something instead of nothing just so we can be here. Some other people think this idea is really stupid.

The man writes about what these people look like and where they live. He eats with many of them and he talks about what they eat. Most of them know each other; none of them agree with each other.

In the book, he also talks about his dog dying and then his mother dying. This makes him sad and it made me sad, but I’m not sure what this has to do with why there is something instead of nothing.

In the end, I don’t think he knows the answer to this question. And we don’t, either. Probably we will never know. Should that make us sad?

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Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.

Bad Reviews 2: The Alix Ohlin Story

Here we pondered a bad review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing in the New York Times.

The latest kerfluffle is about an especially scathing review in the Times of Alix Ohlin’s latest books — a novel called Inside and a volume of short stories, Signs and Wonders. I’ve never heard of Ohlin, but her books have A-list publishers — Knopf and Viking — and bunches of good reviews and blurbs.  The review is by William Giraldi, whom I’ve also never heard of.  He’s published a novel called Busy Monsters.  So what’s up?  The review is online, and here’s the first paragraph:

There are two species of novelist: one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made. The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that “this world is but canvas to our imaginations,” that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity. You close “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy,” “Middlemarch” and “Augie March,” and the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before, an “eternal and irrepressible freshness,” in Pound’s apt phrase. His definition of literature is among the best we have: “Language charged with meaning.” How charged was the last novel you read?

That paragraph was written by a guy who is trying way too hard.  To all you would-be writers out there: Take my advice and never use a phrase like “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.”  Your readers will be forever grateful.

Giraldi’s complaint about Ohlin’s work is that it “enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language.”  And he gives plenty of examples.  She describes teeth as white; people’s hearts sink and sing; she uses clichés like “Nice guys finish last.”

So anyway, thanks to Amazon, I was able to take a look inside Inside.  And the

Alix Ohlin, apparently dreaming up banal things to write

first chapter was, well, pretty good.  She sets up an interesting situation and draws a couple of interesting characters.  A young female psychotherapist goes out cross-country skiing and literally runs into a guy who has apparently just tried to hang himself.  She takes him to the hospital; she takes him back to his apartment afterwards; she takes an interest.  The dialog is snappy and occasionally unexpected, and the language was cliché-free; no one’s teeth are white in Chapter 1.

So then I looked at Giraldi’s novel. It too has good reviews and a mainstream publisher.  But he tries too hard.  He describes someone as “heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon, I’ll end all our lives.”  Soilsome?  WordPress’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize that word, and neither do I.

His novel is probably fine, too — it just inhabits a different universe from Ohlin’s.  He will claim it’s a better universe; he’ll claim he has Thoreau and Pound on his side (neither of whom wrote any novels that I can recall).

So why would the New York Times assign Ohlin’s books to be reviewed by someone you can be reasonably confident is going to hate them?  Dunno.  Why bother?  And, if you’re Giraldi, why write a review that makes you look like a dick? How is this going to help your career?

Here’s a balanced article in Salon about how to write a bad review. It ends with this advice:

In the end, the literary world is basically a small city. We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisc. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody’s work, you are shitting where you eat. It is important both to support each other and criticize each other, and to find ways to do both, respectfully and constructively. This means thinking things through before you open your piehole, whether it’s on Twitter or in the pages of the Times. Is that so hard?

Sounds right to me.