Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reading List: None Died in Vain

None Died In Vain
by Robert Leckie

As with a number of other books I've read in the past year, I'm dipping back into history with this one, and as we're celebrating the hundred fiftieth anniversary of it, I'm glad that I've finally hit the Civil War.  This is a favorite obsession with many Americans, and at least one of my blogging associates.  These guys know the conflict backwards and forward, all the famous names and battlefields and campaigns.  I know most of it, too, but it's always nice to refresh the memory.  So far I've once again been reminded that the great conflict of the 19th century may very well have been the one with Mexico, which has been deemed the proving ground for the Civil War by some historians, the last necessary bit of instigation needed to make it happen and where the great generals forged themselves.  More to follow...

Divine Misfortune

Every time I read a book, I want it to amaze me.  Sometimes I truly believe I've only collected the books that are guaranteed to amaze me.  Now, maybe some people are lucky (or delusional) enough to experience that.  Me, I end up with fewer such books and more like Divine Misfortune, which I only hoped would be a revelation.

This was my big experiment with A. Lee Martinez, who I hoped would be my new Douglas Adams.  I love Douglas Adams.  Almost everyone who loves Douglas Adams loved him for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I love him for Dirk Gently, and more specifically, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, which if you need some basis for comparison because you're obviously not at all familiar with it, is very similar to Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  It's one of my all-time favorite books.

Perhaps I set Martinez up to fail?  It seems most of the characters in Divine Misfortune are in similar circumstances.  It's a book in which all the old gods are still around and mortals have streamlined the devotion process by making it pretty much like modern dating.  In fact, exactly like modern dating, online profiles and all.  That's how Phil and Teri hook up with Lucky, raccoon-headed god of prosperity.  Except there's about a thousand things they don't find out right away that end up complicating this relationship.

Big surprise, right?  I do end up admiring Martinez as a writer.  In a lot of ways, he's exactly a writer of my generation.  It's obvious.  It's also obvious that he, too, read a lot of Dave Barry.  (And enjoyed a hearty laugh at his many, many jokes.)

Actually, Divine Misfortune reads a lot like one of Dave's solo fiction efforts, Big Trouble or Tricky Business.  It also reads like one of those cookie cutter narratives that pass for James Patterson books and/or ALL OF POPULAR FICTION.  Seriously, someone has a whole template for this stuff, and writers like Patterson and Martinez, or perhaps their nefarious editors, have taken it to heart.

It's a book that features characters doing stuff, but keeps the reader at a huge distance from these characters, instead believing (and apparently successfully so, because as I said, this is popular fiction) that readers simply experiencing the vicarious woes of said characters is the same as actually writing these characters.

If you're a writer like Dave Barry or Douglas Adams, this is not a problem.  If you're not, then it is.  I'm not saying that Martinez is a bad or uninspired writer, but that he is not what I had hoped.  Earlier this year I also sampled Martin Millar via Lux the Poet, which was much closer to what I'm looking for in this vein.  Martinez was a writer I discovered working in a bookstore, and although he clearly writes the popular fiction style, he's not what you'd call a breakaway success.  I tried promoting him, though I don't know if I ever got very far.  (Because I was always promoting the most obtuse material, I don't think I ever got any traction.)  Now I'm kind of glad.

Again, Martinez is not a bad writer, and Divine Misfortune is not a bad book.  In fact, in a lot of ways, it reads like a book version of those many, many computer animated movies that've been released over the past decade, in the wake of Pixar's massive success.  It could easily be a computer animated movie, and you'd never guess that it was originally a book.  Put a facade of deep meaning into it, and it could even be Pixar.

But at least as far as I've seen for myself, Martinez is no Dave Barry, much less Douglas Adams.  Shame.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reading List: Divine Misfortune

Divine Misfortune
by A. Lee Martinez

Ever since Douglas Adams, I've sought a comedic writer (with a name other than Dave Barry) capable of writing an amusing adventure.  Earlier this year a lot of buzz was given to Year Zero from Rob Reid, and maybe at some point I'll add that to my collection.  I've already ruled out the cult following of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld books became far too insular.  I think succeeding generations will agree with me, or perhaps I will end up revising that opinion.  That happens.  As it stands, Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman, would be the lone Pratchett standout.  Anyway, I was thrilled to discover A. Lee Martinez, who may yet prove to be my answer.  I will find out after reading this book.

Ecce Homo

Friedrich Nietzsche was batshit insane.

I make this statement not in relation to his last years, in which he was a certifiable lunatic, but well before that.  If you don't believe me, you too should read Ecce Homo.

I should also note that I make this assertion with all due affection.  Nietzsche was a genius, but he was also isolated and liked to believe all kinds of crazy shit.  The problem was always that he was a product of his times and he didn't realize it.

Still don't believe me?  How about his neandertal views on women?  Surely in keeping with the times.  or his purely reactionary beliefs, especially concerning Christianity, that he tries in vain to argue are driven from within rather than without.  Or that he spent a great deal of energy reading, and then argues that reading is inherently bad?

He was a philosophical, intellectual nightmare.  And yet he had some pretty interesting ideas.  He contends in Ecce Homo that he was simply ahead of his time.  He laments that he was not accepted by his own countrymen.  These are assertions any genius can make.  But they're also more convincing when you don't spend all your time compounding your breakthroughs by simultaneously believing things that were easily refuted in his own life, if only he'd admitted it.

Granted, this is a failing we all share.  But it's distressing coming from someone whom many have come to admire, at least in theory.  I suspect most of them have not actually read Friedrich Nietzsche, or perhaps are simply fanatical disciples (which, by the way, is another concept he refutes) who are incapable of approaching him critically.

Ecce Homo is the second book I've attempted to read from Nietzsche.  The first was Thus Spake Zarathustra, earlier this year (the kind of year I've had, I mistakenly asserted before that I read it last year), which was patently his attempt at defining a new religion by rejecting a very similar religion (Christianity).  If he'd ever actually written, or presented his refutes, concerning the reasons for rejecting Christianity, perhaps I might understand why he basically invented the modern schism and certainly atheist movement.  Instead he did everything but.  And that's the crucial missing piece of the puzzle.

Clearly Ecce Homo was an attempt at self-justification, and yet if it truly expresses anything, it's that Nietzsche's madness sprang from his inability to self-analyze.  I suspect that he may best be categorized as a mind that was free to explore its own ends, and discovered that they led, appropriately enough, to the abyss...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reading List: Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo
by Friedrich Nietzsche

A few years ago I started writing a book called Ecce Homo, a Latin phrase derived from the Gospel of St. John, "Behold the Man," concerning Pilate's presentation of the scourged Christ.  I thought, very few people could possibly have written a book with that title.  Well, I was wrong.  Nietzsche beat me to it.  Now, Nietzsche had a much different vantage point.  My book was actually about Adam & Eve.  His is a memoir.  Naturally I had to read it for myself, just for the coincidence.  Nietzsche is one of the more intriguing philosophers in history, relevant over the past century for certain elements of his ideas taken somewhat out of context, including the idea of the Superman.  Last year I read Thus Spake Zarathustra, a kind of gospel for Nietzsche's religious beliefs (which were not Christian).  I couldn't finish it.  Yet I knew I had Ecce Homo waiting.  Here I will get to find out what I think of Nietzsche in possibly more welcoming material.  Although he did go mad soon after writing it...

The Romantic Dogs

When I was in college I was fortunate enough to encounter a burgeoning poetry scene, which meant that this was and remains the most intimate I've been with the form.  In the years since, I've continued to collect poetry on a sporadic basis, but actually reading it remains a dicey prospect.  However, among the works published from the late Roberto Bolano in English over the past few years was a collection of poems, The Romantic Dogs.  Bolano considered himself first and foremost a poet.  I already loved him as a writer, and so it was an easy decision to add the collection to my reading order.

Fortunately and unsurprisingly, Bolano was an engaging a poet as he was a novelist.  As in his books, the poems of Romantic Dogs are strongly narrative in nature, and strike upon many of the same themes, for instance living among the uncertainties and hidden beauties of Latin America.  Most Americans don't really think about living in Latin America.  For us it's a place for vacations and the source of endless waves of immigrants, someplace that may be nice to visit but hardly to live.  In the poems of Roberto Bolano, it is possible to exist there in an ongoing capacity, even as dreams sustain him, and a steady stream of lovely female companions.  This is not only where he lived, but where he found his muse.

His was an important and vital voice, perhaps the greatest of his generation, and the rest of us are still trying to catch up.  It's intriguing to know how intimate and familiar Bolano could be, and nowhere could this be more true than in his poetry.  In his novels there's always the sense of literary journalism, which is true for much of world literature though rare for American writers, but in his poems Bolano is free to relax and let his mind wander, which is my favorite kind of poetry, where you get to know the poet and not just whatever they feel like describing.

It's worth noting that there's a series of poems centered around detectives included, which is still more proof that Bolano was fascinated by these civil servants, and not just in the pages of 2666 or The Savage Detectives, and they fall at about the midpoint of the collection.

Half the collection is the Spanish original, and half the English translation of Laura Healy, one version following the other.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Reading List: The Romantic Dogs

The Romantic Dogs
by Rioberto Bolano

Bolano is the genius writer behind 2666, one of my favorite books of all time.  He passed away a decade ago, but his enduring legacy rightfully began to surface in the years that followed, international editions of his complete works, including his poetry, which this volume represents.  I love poetry but don't often read it, because finding the poets who write vital poetry and not just everything you think about poetry is exceedingly hard.  Bolano not only knew how to write novels, but as it turns out poems as well, which is appropriate, because apparently he thought of himself first as a poet.

London the Biography

Peter Ackroyd has been a favorite writer of mine for more than a decade.  He's as well-known for his fiction as his nonfiction, although neither of this is true unless you're British or appreciate literature and culture.  That is to say, Ackroyd is fairly obscure to American readers.

Until London the Biography, I hadn't gotten around to his nonfiction, although point-in-fact until the last few years I hadn't gotten around to reading anything besides The Plato Papers, which was a masterpiece that proved curiously divisive for critics.  London was actually Ackroyd's follow-up publication to Plato Papers, strictly for the record.

Basically, London the Biography is an oversized version of those regional books you'll find in local bookstores and sometimes museums, although it tackles one of the most significant cities of the past two thousand years.  Because many people have written about it in the past, Ackroyd's effort is both a synthesis of existing material and his own passionate ode.  It is not a strict chronicle, however, in case you were wondering.  Instead, as his preface makes clear, Ackroyd splits his subject into many different topics which explore the character of London from its many different vantage points.  At times this causes overlap in the material, and while one book cannot possibly hope to offer a complete representation of anything so vast a subject as a city that has its roots in Roman times, Ackroyd is about as comprehensive as you can get without being pedantic.

In fact, that's one thing that should be made clear.  London the Biography is not a textbook.  Ackroyd's alternating career as a novelist makes itself known.  He is a storyteller, and his chosen method of execution allows him to remain one throughout the book.  His expansive research reveals many interesting facets and characters even natives may not know about today, and if you choose to cherry-pick through such revelations, you will still find yourself with a worthwhile experience from the seven hundred sixty pages awaiting you.  Sometimes you'll wonder why he doesn't spend more time on some historical figure who instantly sounds like they could fill their own book and probably have, and then you look at the bulk of the book again and thank Ackroyd for simply referencing them.

It's his love for London that moves your reading along, and although Ackroyd can sometimes generalize and inflate the city's significance with thoughts that could and should more easily be more widely translated around England and indeed the whole world, you can forgive the sentiment, because his subject after all has endured and continues to be the center of a large population in its own right.

I read London the Biography because I love Peter Ackroyd, but really, it's London that I ended up loving.
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