Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wired For Fun

I feel like I've read every damned magazine on the stands. When I was in high school, it was Rolling Stone and Jane - which I miss terribly, because there's no magazine that brings the sass quite like Jane did - and Nylon, which I loved desperately. Nylon was super lush and glam, and has since morphed into something dead-eyed and soulless. No matter. I've read my mom's issues of Canadian House and Home. I used to sneak my dad's subscription of National Geographic, back when it was shipped in brown paper semi-envelope: I would ease it out of its weird little tube, gingerly leaf through it, and then slip it back, all before he got home from work. I have no idea why this was a clandestine operation; I guess I didn't want to spoil the thrill of A New Thing for him, and I could have just waited the four hours it would take for him to read it and leave it in the dining room.

I recently picked up a few issues of Wired from my local bibliotemple, and I'm kind of smitten. I've always dismissed Wired as dull, since it concerns itself with technology and the internet and that kind of boy-related stuff. Men's magazines at least run photos of breasts; Wired seemed to be more concerned with the pixel count on a new SLR than it was with anything, you know, fun.

I stand corrected. Wired is a total hoot. It's shiny, and extremely well-designed. While it does fawn over a lot of similar-looking gadgetry, it has some whiz-bang neat-o tricks up its glossy sleeve. For example, articles like the one about the "link" between autism and vaccines are only peripherally interested in the mechanics of vaccination, and instead focuses its energies on the human side of the debate. As in, it dispels the myth of Jenny McCarthy as a person with medical knowledge. Thanks for that, Wired.

It has an advice column, which handily dispatches queries for the modern world. My favourite question so far has been the man who wrote in to ask if and how he should advise his brother, the father of a blind son: should he encourage the reluctant father to teach his son Braille? The answer, which addressed the prevalence of techno solutions like text readers, also considered the old-school Braille to be a viable and noble pursuit. After all, Braille is useful for travelers, note-taking, and cognitive calisthenics. I adore that answer. Its elegance lies in the fact that technology is accepted as a given, but not as the only, or even best, option.

There are some supremely nerdy pages in Wired; a lot of copy is devoted to things like robot dinosaurs and the Kindle. But even when the subject matter is a little dorky, the writers keep it engaging. It's fun writing: smart, often witty, infused with wide-eyed wonder: Can you believe we actually get to write about robot dinosaurs? It's clear that, unlike, say, InStyle, the staff at Wired recognize the frivolity of Bugatti kettles. They take a winking approach that doesn't undermine the genuine interest they have in what they're writing about.

I like that. Tech magazines and fashion rags have a lot in common: they both deal with the next, the shiniest, the newest, the priciest. But Wired's tone diverges from the high-falutin' snobbery of most fashion magazines, and instead aims for a chuckle. Not that their information isn't useful and well-presented, and that the tone doesn't furrow an eyebrow when it has to (like the autism article), but Wired doesn't take itself ultra-seriously. It's good writing, great style, fun toys and interesting subject matter. If the geeks are going to inherit the earth, at least the reading material is going to be primo.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Eggers On His Face

Is it possible to both admire and be totally exasperated by someone at the same time? Usually, I hold those feelings at alternating times, about different people. For example, I admire Calamity Jane, and am exasperated by Anna Wintour. See? Different. Not the same. The closest I've come in recent thought is admiring early 1990s crazy-SEX Madonna, and being exasperated by faux-English scary-arm-muscles Madonna.

But Dave Eggers sort of ruins everything, because I simultaneously really like him and also want to give him a swirlie. I first encountered Eggers in 2001, when he published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or, as I refer to it in my head, What The Hell Happened To The Last Third Of This Book?, because never have I encountered a piece of writing that falls so spectacularly apart as this one. I was charmed when I first picked it up - it's funny! It's also long, and goes off the rails in that last third. Like, off the rails, into a ravine, into a church full of orphans at the bottom of that ravine. And the orphans are singing The Lion King soundtrack. And they're blind! And then they get smushed by this trainwreck of a book, barreling down on them. And it's Christmas Eve.

Okay, the moral of that paragraph is that this book, his first, published when he was 30 years old to wide critical acclaim, sort of encapsulates the whole Dave Eggers experience for me. I am so delighted by parts. And other parts make me crazy-eyed with rage.

Because there are parts of Dave Eggers that I really, honestly like. His work with 826 Valencia is so interesting and cool: he started a non-profit center in San Fransisco to tutor kids how to write. That's the kind of thing that makes me want to weep with the self-effacing humble-pie awesomeness of it all. It's cool. It inspired elaborate fantasies of moving to the Bay Area to work with the 826 Valencia kids, hanging out with Anne Lamott on the weekends, going to picnics in Marin County, being really at peace with myself, and having perfect, non-disgusting dreadlocks. Because that's what goes on in my brain when I find out about a sweet project.

Eggers married the 826 Valencia project with his editing role at the helm of the Best American Non-Required Reading, giving those kids a voice and a sense of agency in the often-incomprehensible worlds of professional editing and publishing. This awes me. I love that. I love those books anyway, because they're sources of the weird and the wonderful, but Eggers and his band of merry child prodigies made them 3D interesting; the story of those stories is as interesting as the stories themselves.

And then Eggers has to go and ruin it by actually writing stuff down and publishing it. There are some writers who I would always read. David Foster Wallace is an obvious choice, but Barbara Ehrenreich and Jonathan Lethem also get votes. They bring a clarity to their writing, even at their most convoluted and insane (David): it feels like, once you're at the end of the sentence, or chapter, or book, that you're better. Your soul feels healthier. Good writing is a gift - sure, for the author, in the gifted-and-talented mold, if you're so inclined - but it's also a gift to the reader. A little present.

Let's just say that Dave Eggers does not present his readers with thoughtful gifts. If his writing was a Father's Day present, it would be a tie. It's obvious. I loathe his writing because it makes me want to throw the book down the stairs and dementedly scream, "I could write this!" Because, and I am not being proud or boastful or any of those other emotions that Mennonites are so afraid of, here: I could write that.

Let me give you a for instance. Eggers wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, which stars John Kransinski and Maya Rudolph's fictional tilted uterus. It's a movie about finding your home. It features the characters literally visiting different cities, seeing which one might be the best for raising their unborn child. At one point, the father-to-be promises to love his partner even if she gets so fat that he can't find her vagina. I think it's meant to be endearing - they say vagina! they're comfortable with different sizes! their love transcends stereotypical white-bread bullshit! I don't know. I can't be the only one that thinks that's kind of gross and weird.

But proclamations about vaginae aside, Eggers strikes me as a remarkably earnest writer. In his films, the characters are searching for comfort and love - the needs of children. I'm not shitting on comfort or love. I'm a huge fan of both. But stories about needing to find comfort and/or love tend to be about children, or intensely damaged adults. Combined with a somewhat stolid prose style, Eggers' stories are needy. They want to be loved, desperately. They strive. I'm not into striving. Striving, especially in writing, does a disservice to the reader (who feels cajoled into liking something) and the story (which should be told, not shaped and massaged into something easy to digest).

So Dave Eggers leaves me in an interesting place. I want to support him, because he does interesting work almost everywhere except his chosen profession. I've read his books, and I want to dunk them in pitchers of iced tea and leave them for ants to eat. But his side projects are so cool. But: bad writing. But: awesome non-profit. But: blergh. I'll leave it at that. Dave Eggers, you make me feel blergh. You've reduced me to nonsense babbling. I hope you're happy.