Friday, July 12, 2013

Continue reading my book thoughts...

I've been active on Good Reads since 2011, but last year was when I really started keeping a good record there, which has only improved in 2013, especially in recent months, where all the activity you may have enjoyed here has continued.  Please, if you'd like, visit my profile and consider following me there.  Also, I've been making regular monthly contributions to Armchair Squid's Cephalopod Coffeehouse blogging book club at my Scouring Monk blog (I've also done some whining that relates to why I don't blog as much anymore, but I probably won't be doing too much of that in the future, so less existential angst!), and the neat thing (or crazy thing) is that so far I've made a convenient catalog of all the stuff I've read in May and June, so if you don't want to slog through the Good Reads updates, you still feel reasonably suffocated by my adventures in books!  Yay!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reading List: Supergods

by Grant Morrison

I love reading Grant Morrison comic books.  I love their complexities and simplicities.  And I love that he wrote a book detailing his perspective on why comic books should be taken seriously, or at least why superhero movies are suddenly all the rage, what these so-called supergods tell us about ourselves.  Morrison has sometimes crafted a very bizarre image for himself, but in my mind's eye I've always seen someone who's far more sober about his interests than he lets on.  This book is a testament to that belief, and I'm glad that I'm finally getting around to reading it.

How I Became Stupid

Usually when I think about filmed material, it's from an amateur writer who has obviously used it as the entire basis for their fiction.  How I Became Stupid, a book written by Martin Page that was all the rage in Europe about a decade back, evokes filmed material for me, but in a good way.

Okay, some of the filmed material is based on printed material.  I'll start with Scott Pilgrim, who was originally the subject of a series of graphic novels, but also became a film a few years back.  Page evokes the cleverness and flippant nature of the real truths being explored in the material embodied by Scott Pilgrim.  That's all well and good.  Then there's How I Met Your Mother, an American sitcom that is also very similar, heartbreaking and thought-provoking and hilarious all at the same time.

It's also like A Christmas Carol.

How I Became Stupid is a title that is all but self-explanatory.  The main character believes that he's cursed by his own intelligence, unable to enjoy his life because he doesn't have the advantages traditionally associated with success.  So he undertakes a journey to undo everything that defines him.  he attempts to become an alcoholic, he considers suicide, and yes, he tries to become stupid, which is to say extremely superficial.  All of it addresses real concerns in an exaggerated manner, and yes, is heartbreaking and thought-provoking and hilarious all at the same time.  Actually, another bit of filmed material I can reference is (500) Days of Summer.

A few years back I read a similar book, Hector and the Search for Happiness, a European book of the same pedigree as How I Became Stupid.  I bought Stupid because I wanted to see if Page could in fact help me with a similar situation. That's why the good readers read what they read, because they want to have a little solace in their lives.  Stupid settles for affirmative adventures, but as a part of the tapestry telling me that all my troubles are not the end-all and be-all of my life, I guess I can still appreciate the message.

...Still, I wish Page didn't have to suggest like everyone else that happiness and success are things that you just stumble into, because there really is the possibility that they really aren't.  Is there a depressing version of this narrative that still gives hope?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Reading List: How I Became Stupid

How I Became Stupid
by Martin Page

I confess that I added this one to the List in a blatant effort to learn exactly how the title is achieved.  For much of my life I've been living in despair, and the back cover to How I Became Stupid promises a kindred spirit.  It's often suggested that the reason some people read is to find individuals with whom they share a life experience, because in real life this can prove exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.  And really, I suppose this is not so surprising.  As the population increases, greater conformity rather than diversity becomes evident.  The more people there are the easier it is to latch onto common themes.  When someone discovers that their themes are less common, it becomes that much harder to find those who share them.  These individuals are dispersed in the large population in a random pattern, and the language they share is found in books.  I used to believe that the majority of writers shared this language, but I've gradually been disabused of this notion.  So it's always nice to discover the exceptions.  I hope to learn something useful from Mr. Page.

The Final Solution

I've only read a few mystery books in my time.  Of course as a kid I read the Hardy Boys, but I couldn't tell you now what they were like.  I imagine that they were rudimentary, which is funny, because the featured character of any good mystery ought to be able to make anything rudimentary.  That's the whole point, right?

Well, the central character of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution is an old man who's good at making things rudimentary.  Perhaps elementary.  He's never named, but the strong implication is that the old man is in fact Sherlock Holmes, still the most famous investigator in fiction after more than a hundred years, currently enjoying a screen renaissance both in film and television.  The setting is 1944 England, and the old man in question spies a curious boy and his parrot outside his window.  It's the parrot the old man is most curious about, which is appropriate, because in the midst of this short novel a murder is committed and the old man deduces that the real interest in this game is the parrot and not the victim.

What Chabon never does is make anything explicit.  He follows the old man around and explains the perspective of a few of the key players (in a later chapter and in fact the most memorable one from the parrot itself), but leaves the bigger picture up to the imagination of the reader.  A lot of writers when they're trying to impress the reader spend the early pages of their story overwriting with copious amounts of details.  That was my first impression of Solution, since indeed the whole of the literary community seems to have decided that Chabon in the wake of his great success with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has let his reputation go to his head.  Instead of being a good little American writer bound to the things he knows he's gone off and become expansive.  He begun to examine the greater world and wider patterns, which of course began in Kavalier & Clay, which was as much about the creation of comic books as the lives of a couple of Jewish boys.

It does strike me that the more emphasis Chabon puts on his Jewish heritage the more suspect he becomes as a talent.  In 1944, it wasn't a great time to be Jewish, certainly in the boy's experience just outside of the story in Solution.  "Final Solution" itself is the phrase the Nazis used in their bid to solve their scapegoat dilemma.  In the years since Jews have become famous for two fairly diametric developments, the founding of the modern Israeli state and the rise of Hollywood as purveyor of the popular imagination.  Where they were once pariahs, they have since become tyrants (if you still believe in the independent existence of Palestine) and titans (if you believe they control the movies with an iron grip).  Certainly they've given us a good number of comedic individuals to enjoy (Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld).

The boy, who is to all appearances (except the parrot) a mute, survived Nazi Germany and can only be described as remarkable in his proximity to his curious pet, who does all his speaking, although even that appears to be riddles, repeating things Bruno (the parrot) has learned in all the places he has lived.  It's the old man who realizes that the parrot ultimately prevents all manner of explanations from being discovered.  Our culture's love of mysteries is a strange one, because we're taught that every mystery has a solution, and that it's easy if you know how to look at the problem.  I assume that the real point of mysteries is to help people figure out how to do this for themselves, but as with every such attempt to improve ourselves we're taught how to trivialize it rather than take it seriously.  Chabon takes the form so seriously that he discovers the solution isn't the answer itself, but rather the journey, the method, an old message worth repeating since it's so hard to learn.

Michael Chabon is indeed a treasure.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading List: The Final Solution

The Final Solution
by Michael Chabon

The last time I read Chabon I was burning away the last embers of one particular earthly purgatory, a terrible job that kept me in a constant state of misery, and my only reprieve was when I could steal some reading.  The book was Gentlemen of the Road, which was like Chabon's version of Salman Rushdie, and I'm amazed and grateful that I remember the book at all, and that's the grace of good reading.  The first time I read Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the love letter to the Golden Age of superheroes (and their creators) that geeks fell in love with at the start of the new millennium.  Along with a few other books (Wonder Boys, which was also an acclaimed movie, and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), Kavalier & Clay had made Chabon a beloved literary figure.  Amazingly, though, he quickly lost most of that support, both from critics and readers, the more he explored new territory, which included Gentlemen, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and The Final Solution.  This may explain what happens to great writers like Rushdie and Pynchon and Charyn.  They write the vital works that fewer people are willing to champion, because they present challenges rather than simple narratives.  The Final Solution is a short work, and its name evokes the worst tragedy of the 20th century, and I think that may be why it was more or less the final nail in Chabon's coffin.  When you do what others are afraid of, you risk alienation.  But it doesn't mean you aren't doing great things.  And besides, this is what Melville experienced, and look where he is today.

The March

The process of reading a book, no matter how long it takes you to read one, is a different kind of commitment than any other entertainment medium can give you, even if you're sitting down to a marathon session with your favorite movies or TV series.  With a book, it's a matter of following another person's imagination.  Since reading is as much about imagination as writing, when you're in that kind of conflux, it can sometimes prove more interesting than you might have thought at the start of the book.

E.L. Doctorow's The March is about Sherman's march through the South during the Civil War.  The way I learned it, this was a bloody rampage.  It's a good subject to explore in a novel, then, the various perspectives that can arise from examining it on a more intimate level.  Doctorow is an acclaimed and accomplished and awarded writer, and yet I found that I began to question his choices.  Mostly he ignores the Southern perspective, even though many of his characters come from the region Sherman leads Union forces through in his campaign.  One of them is a deranged maniac who doesn't represent anyone.  Another is a white-skinned black woman.  There's also the daughter of a respected citizen, realizing that his death took her former life away from her.  Each of them gets caught up in the march, folded into its narrative while losing their own.  In a way, it's supposed to be a metaphor about how we lose ourselves in the grip of a bigger story, but I kept hoping that Doctorow would acknowledge some of the subtleties rather than generalizing everything.

All of his characters are marginalized individuals.  They really don't represent anyone but themselves.  Even William Tecumseh Sherman himself is lost in the Doctorow shuffle.  He becomes a depressed strategist, who's surviving his own march, a duty that doesn't seem like warfare so much as continuous occupation.  In a lot of ways, it feels like Doctorow was really writing about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that were underway while he wrote this book, though he never gets around to making that obvious.  He doesn't make anything obvious, and yet instead of being profound it just comes off as lazy, the way some of his sentences come off seeming like they were written by an amateur, not someone of his stature.  This isn't a style.  The way Thomas Pynchon writes is a deliberate style, so too with Cormac McCarthy.

Yet it is fascinating.  It's the story of the realities of war, even if doesn't accomplish what I hoped it would.  These marginalized figures are all opportunists, even when they don't realize that this is exactly what they are.  The war is pretty much beside the point.  These are characters who are just making the best of a bad situation.  If the book loses a specific relevance to the Civil War while it attempts to explain how slaves can transition to a different kind of existence, if it loses its sense of time and place as Doctorow fails to convince the reader that they're following what the majority of people would have experienced at that time, then it becomes a different kind of story entirely.  If it's not about the war, then it's Doctorow telling us a traditional Southern narrative of a different kind, his version of Mark Twain.  That's what The March boils down to.

It could have been so much better.  Suppose that Doctorow kept these characters and these stories, but expanded them, added more, written more.  This could have easily been his opus.  Instead at times it just feels as if he were writing from history notes.  It's like a sketch of something greater.  Still, a sketch worth reading.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Reading List: The March

The March
by E.L. Doctorow

In the first decade of the new millennium, readers were blessed knee-deep with new literary treasures, and they were a steady presence on the bestseller lists.  One of them was The March, released in 2005, written by E.L. Doctorow, one of the noted but relatively minor writers of the past fifty years.  Ragtime was an acclaimed Broadway musical, Billy Bathgate another fairly familiar title.  Yet everyone was abuzz about The March, possibly because it centers on the Civil War, which remains a topic of great fascination (Cold Mountain was another of these success stories from the decade, and it's also centered on the conflict).  I maintain an amateur interest in American military history, so on that score I would have been interested in The March, and yet it also serves as a gateway to Doctorow.  Maybe I'm characterizing his profile unfairly in this preview.  Then again, we seem to have a problem identifying any truly universally acclaimed authors, let alone books, these days.  I don't think I'm so far from the mark.  But hopefully this book will help me identify my own opinion of one or the other of this particular subject.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I certainly didn't mean to become a fan of Umberto Eco.  It seems most Americans are mostly interested in reading either the classics, genre fiction, or whatever the bestseller is at the moment.  There's very little room for anything else, although of course there's so much else.  Eco is a name to a certain extent that has pedigree, but you have to be a fan or at least be familiar with him to know anything that he's written.

Well, now I've read two of his books.  The first was The Island of the Day Before, a book I found at a library sale area.  I scour this particular library's sale area every time I visit, but rarely are there truly interesting literary finds.  Most of it is the kind of genre/bestseller fiction you'll find anywhere, which is kind of depressing if you think about it.  All this pressure to make sure people think reading is important and no thought to admit that some reading is more important than others, more vital, more relevant to the form and the social contract we all share.  It's not just about entertainment, but discovering ourselves through the words of someone else.

The last time I found a truly great book at a library sale was Mason & Dixon, which is the second book I've read from Thomas Pynchon.  Either there are readers who have truly come to appreciate these books and have set them free back into the world awaiting discovery by others...or they were found perhaps too challenging from their original owners.  Day Before was fascinating, a story about the age of exploration that made it vital in the same way as the fiction of Pynchon and others.

Eco remains fascinating in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a book I picked up in a bargain sale at a bookstore.  It's equally uncommon to find literary treasure in bargain sales at bookstores, because again the going rate is genre/bestseller fiction and various nonfiction oddities.  I suppose I'm speaking of the act of discovery, because that's Eco's subject in Queen Loana.

The book reminds me a great deal of Javier Marias' Your Face Tomorrow cycle, originally released in three volumes.  Marias meditated on the concept of narrative horror, what a cumulative life experience is ultimately worth.  I also think of Ron Currie Jr.'s Everything Matters!, in which the main character is confronted with the end of the world and grapples with this idea his whole life.

Eco's story is about someone who has a particular form of amnesia that causes him to forget all his personal details.  He regains his life but not himself, and engages in a process of uncovering his memories by pouring over the artifacts of his existence, the books and other readings that he and his grandfather amassed over the years.

A great deal of it isn't really about the character at all but his perspective on the Italian experience of WWII.  It can sometimes be forgotten that besides the Germans and the Japanese, there were others who fought on the losing end of this conflict.  We all remember Mussolini, but he's more a phantom figure, a ghost in the fog, than representative of history that seems significant.  The more Eco meditates on this, the more fascinating his story becomes.  When substitute obsessions like a first love or the very concept of God are introduced, they seem mere diversions.  The more the character remembers, the less vibrant his thoughts become.  He finds himself but loses the cutting edge of his discoveries.

It's all incredibly interesting.  If there was any criticism of Day Before, it's that Eco tended to ramble in that one.  Here he retains a razor focus, even in the final pages, which echo the main character's delirium when he at last succumbs to the inevitability of death, something that whole story has been suggesting subtly.

Chances are I'll be reading Eco again.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reading List: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco

This was actually the first Umberto Eco book I added to my library, but the second I'll have read, after The Island of the Day Before.  Eco is best known for The Name of the Rose, which became a film starring Sean Connery.  I fell in love with Eco as soon as I started developing some experience with him.  Mysterious Flame is the last book in the current version of the Reading List, but I figure I'll be adding more before too long.  He's a literary treasure, and I'm as sure as anything that I'll be having a good bit of fun reading this book.

Mason & Dixon

The last time I read Thomas Pynchon, it was Against the Day, and it took me from November 2009 to April 2010 to finish it.  It's a big book, and for some people that would still count as impressive.  I don't like to compare myself to fast readers, or people who spend most of their entertainment time reading.  Still, that stands in all the time I've been maintaining a Reading List (Day was the fourteenth book in a log that began in December 2008) as the longest it's taken me to complete a book.  It wasn't because it was a long book that it took so long to read, because that was in the middle of a period where I was reading a lot of long books.  Rather, it was because of Thomas Pynchon.

Have you ever read Pynchon?  I've now read two of his books, having just concluded Mason & Dixon.  I'd say that he's incredibly dense aside from being long-winded, and I mean both descriptions kindly.  I've read plenty of other books that don't read quickly, and most of the time it's because the writing is impenetrable for entirely negative reasons.  I recently gave a fairly glowing review to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, I think partly because I survived the experience, but also because it still feels like an important work of literature to me, regardless of what else he's accomplished and that critics have long pegged it as such.  Even us literary folk love the bandwagon.  Most readers only exist to hitch themselves to the bandwagon.  It's a fact.  Same as any other medium.  Mason & Dixon is the version of Blood Meridian that is truly brilliant, and it shares and transcends many of the same things that made both difficult to read the whole way through, Mason & Dixon far less so because of the lively writing.

One of the things Pynchon definitely does not have is an internal editor.  The books I've read seem to take on a life of their own, and he's the incredibly rare writer who can get away with that.  One of his spiritual mentors, Laurence Sterne, didn't really get away with it, but we all appreciate the legacy of Tristram Shandy anyway.  I'm told James Joyce wrote like this, and perhaps this is why I've only been brave enough to read The Dubliners.  William S. Burroughs wrote a condensed version of this type in Naked Lunch, and although it was patently an experiment that he delivered, it's nowhere near as continually vital as Pynchon, and Pynchon is said to have been inspired by the Beat Generation.

No, I wouldn't compare Pynchon to the Beats.  I compare him instead to writers like Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Jerome Charyn, who fearlessly pursue their stories and their unique inspirations wherever they lead.  In comic books, this is exactly what Grant Morrison does, though I'm sure it's harder for mainstream audiences to approve because he does it with superheroes.  Yet Pynchon fills Mason & Dixon with such outlandish tangents as talking dogs, mechanical ducks, and vegetables big enough to live in.  It's as close to a true mythological America as you'll find, tracking the famous surveyors/astronomers as they establish parts of the borders of what would become four states.  In Pynchon's view Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon are a classic odd couple, yet their banter is as timeless as his fiction.  He doesn't let things like history get in the way of his storytelling, and very much like Sterne's Shandy Mason & Dixon takes the shape of a very unorthodox bedtime story, with frequent interruptions that remind the reader of this.

Like Huck and Jim before them, Mason and Dixon are inseparable, identifiable in association of each other, not just because their names are only remembered today that way, but because they need and balance each other out.  Theirs is a journey of incredible wonders and experiences, and by the end, when Dixon has died ahead of him, Mason makes a pilgrimage to his grave, one last grand adventure.  Throughout the narrative we're reminded that Mason is grieving the death of his wife, and it's not hard to see that Pynchon has fashioned Dixon to replace her.

I don't expect a lot of people to read this one.  It's a big book.  Most people only read big books if they're fantasy.  This one is an achievement that could inspire (and in fact already has) years of scholarship to begin breaking all of it down.  Against the Day is remarkable in its own right, but Mason & Dixon is more complete a narrative.  When I'm feeling brave enough again, I'll tackle Pynchon's earlier books, which seem to have more acclaim (though Harold Bloom says this one's his best).  I'll be reading his relatively brief The Crying of Lot 49 soon.  He's got another book coming out this September, Bleeding Edge.  I may have to splice it into the Reading List when it's released.

It took me less than two months this time, and part of that is because I read three other books somewhere in the middle, so this time it was with a break and it still took far less time.  Perhaps another reason why I'm feeling better about one than the other.  But it's now clear that it's hard to go wrong with Pynchon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading List: Mason & Dixon

Mason & Dixon
by Thomas Pynchon

I was fortunate enough to stumble across Against the Day when it was released, and found it to be immediately intriguing, and so it become one of the series of long reads that I tackled in the past several years.  Against the Day is Thomas Pynchon's most recent epic novel, and Mason & Dixon is the next most recent one.  I picked it up at a book sale in my home town's annual Moxie Festival (that would be Lisbon, ME, every July), a castoff of the local library that was checked out a few times, probably by the same reader, in 1997, and I probably got it five years later or so.  That's why you never pass up a book sale, because there are always gems waiting to be discovered, and Pynchon is a gem, and I keep waiting for everyone else to realize it.  Against and Mason aren't even the books he's known for by the people who know him, so there you are.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was one of those literary works that proved exceedingly popular with readers last decade.  It's about a boy with autism who sets out to discover the identity of the murderer of his neighbor's dog, which leads into all kinds of unexpected directions.

The main thing that sticks out about Curious Incident is that it is written from the point of view of the autistic boy himself, so it's really a book about an interesting perspective, which on the score makes it more than the sum of its parts, which eventually become about everything but the boy's amateur detecting.  Like the more recent Before I Go to Sleep and The Unnamed, it can either be a good or a bad thing to discover that the author at some point decides the setup needs a conventional resolution.  Sleep is a lot like Memento, the Christopher Nolan movie that features a man with a memory problem trying to seek revenge for his wife's death.  From the start it's clear that the main character will be doing more than just trying to make the reader understand their own curious memory problems.  Unnamed is about a strange illness that causes a man to inexplicably start walking at random moments, and eventually becomes pretty involved in that man's relationship not with the world around him but what he decides the illness actually represents, which the author kind of springs on the reader with little warning.

Curious Incident does a good job of basically turning the story anyone will know about it into the red herring of the story, as the boy's real journey is finally figuring out his place in the world, which begins with resolving his relationship with both parents.  This is both a good and a bad thing because Haddon does a better job than either Joshua Ferris in Unnamed or S.J. Watson in making the setup work entirely of its own accord, and letting the reader believe that this is good enough.  Actually, now that I think of it Everything Matters! is probably as close to Curious Incident as I've come.  You can easily see the effect it's had on literature.

Perhaps Haddon could write his own Sherlock Holmes adventure (the main character's hero and title of Curious Incident are taken from Conan Doyle's famous creation) and we might get what we thought this one was going to be.  Just a thought.

It's one of those quick reads, which another good/bad thing.  Good because quick reads are always good.  Bad because you want perhaps a little more than Haddon has available for you.

It might also be worth noting that in a way Paul Murray's Skippy Dies is almost a version of Curious Incident from a more neutral perspective.  All of this is to say that if you like Curious Incident there's plenty of material to explore.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reading List: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Mark Haddon

The first decade of the new millennium was rich with great literature, which is one reason I've been so disappointed in the last several years, which even in the popular titles that evoke this period still seem like a poor imitation (or perhaps I'm just being too bard on the new guys).  Curious Incident was one of those seminal titles that I'm only now getting around to, but bought for my brother at the time (I have no idea if he actually read it).  It's about a boy with autism who investigates the murder of a neighbor's dog, and as such is at least written in a distinctive way, which is something few authors attempt.  This one will be fun!

Naked Lunch

Along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs has come to define the Beat generation, the last great literary era in America (at least as has been celebrated).  It's not as iconic to anyone outside of the direct circle of Beat adherents, but Lunch remains iconic, and it still resonates through our culture.

Like Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test seen from the inside, Lunch is all about the emerging culture that gave rise to the popular counterculture that exploded ten years after its release and has still yet to work its way entirely out of our system (in a lot of ways it went completely mainstream).  It's a fever dream of imagery and perversion that Burroughs described as his attempt to update the Swiftian message depicted in A Modest Proposal, trafficking in drugs and sexuality with equal glee.

All that would be well and good if it weren't so episodic (although in all fairness it was never meant to be a traditional novel) and random.  It's exactly what you find in a typical Jerome Charyn novel, but without the structure the latter borrows from every conceivable genre, or Salman Rushdie completely unfiltered, or Thomas Pynchon with more restraint (and thus, apparently, less to say).  It's also like reading the secret origin of comic book writer Grant Morrison, who like Charyn and the others has taken the essence of Burroughs and exploded into onto deeper canvases (most evident on his Invisibles saga, which he contends was stolen by the Wachowskis to create The Matrix).  It's also worth noting that Philip K. Dick made a career out of writing material fans of Lunch would recognize, both in conception and execution.

There are moments where Burroughs is so scattershot that you wonder if he's simply being sensational for the sake of shocking the reader, or if he's accurately depicting the scene he was a part of.  What's most disappointing is that he's never interested in explaining how anyone falls into the circumstances he describes, even though with very little knowledge you can eventually hazard out that he and the other Beats were all from fairly privileged families.  A more introspective work might have produced more interesting results, although something that's equally scattershot, Tristram Shandy, may suggest otherwise.  Sometimes it's just the style of the writer, and from the first page Naked Lunch is clearly representative of the Beats, without or without the context.

Going forward Lunch may be the member of the Beat trinity that has the hardest time being remembered, for exactly the reasons that frustrated me while reading it.  Burroughs does a thorough job of providing period color, but his lack of insight will prevent it from becoming the Beat version of The Jungle, because all while condemning it Burroughs is also celebrating it, perhaps perfectly subconsciously, which is perhaps why he has to confess to several relapses from detox efforts.  Even while appearing to be above it all, a dispassionate observer on the road to recovery (and the hazy idea of the interzone), he justifies addiction by trying to qualify it, perhaps completely unaware that as bad as it seemed at the time it would only get worse.

This is why there's a futile war on drugs, because no one who's involved understands what a folly it really is, on either side.  Naked Lunch is not bound to be A Modest Proposal for exactly that reason.  And that's where the drummer of this Beat marks the punchline.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reading List: Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch
by William S. Burroughs

Literature was hijacked along with everything else in the middle of the twentieth century by mavericks who were convinced they could do everything better.  William S. Burroughs was one of them, and while he remains a famous name his work is more anonymous than what was produced by his contemporaries.  Naked Lunch will be my attempt to see if this makes any sense.  I can't remember who was ultimately responsible for my adding this to my library and subsequently Reading List, but it occurred while I was working at a bookstore, and that just figures.  If nothing else that's what Burroughs is all about.

If on a winter's night a traveler

I went through a gamut of emotions reading Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which is in some ways a love letter to reading, and in others a convoluted and compromised writer's exercise.

Both Calvino and traveler are beloved in reading circles.  The author is one of those writers who engaged his fans in a classical sense of literature, updating it in a postmodern setting.  This is the second book I've read from him, after Mr. Palomar, and like Cormac McCarthy, after two books and including one that has to be considered a definitive work (in McCarthy's case Blood Meridian) I'm confident in declaring I never need to read Calvino again.  He's shown me all his tricks, and traveler is a story about tricks.

It's the reader's version of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a satire of reading itself that seeks to explore what reading is like, and even how Calvino viewed the state of publishing, which in the years since traveler was published has only become more troublesome.  It takes the shape of a reader whose reading is continually interrupted in publishing errors, and the more he attempts to understand what's happened the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, first in discovering another reader who shares his perspective, and then the complicated reasons why the particular books he's been attempting to read have been printed with such error.  There's a certain point where the cleverness of it gives way to Calvino's inability to advance the story further without altering it, and not in the good way where the movie Adaptation becomes a movie that was described in its beginning, but where the author has simply tried to be more expansive than he's truly capable of being.

It becomes clear that half of what Calvino wanted to do was to create a series of hooks that his lead character couldn't resist, and yet the more this basic premise is repeated the more aware the reader becomes that traveler is simply a collection of short stories, not like Arabian Nights but rather Calvino stringing the reader along with an ongoing narrative that becomes increasingly loopy, As I Lay Dying interpreted by an attempt to write different narratives but sticking inconveniently in the same voice each time, Calvino's eccentric viewpoint.  The more he tries to create true variations the less successful he is.

Fun reading for the most part, with some very amusing episodes and scenarios, but played out before it plays all the way out.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reading List: If on a winter's night a traveler

If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino

Perhaps the greatest literature class I ever took involved a professor who knew not only how to pick the material but talk expansively about it.  Unfortunately he went down about halfway through the course due to illness, and so I never got to read Calvino, at least at that point.  At least I'm pretty sure that's how I ended up with this book in the first place.  Either way, I did read Mr. Palomar on my own a few years ago, because the title shared a name I'd used in one of my own books.  Reading the first few pages of this one reminds me that Calvino is probably as pure a writer's writer as you'll get, which is something of what John Fante achieved in Ask the Dust and what was probably the weakest element of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, both of which I've recently read, and to say that I look forward to reading the rest of traveler.

Blood Meridian

For good stretches of the book, I was convinced that I wouldn't think that much more of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian than his more recent The Road.  Yet the key difference is also what made Road such a disappointment, that McCarthy actually had something to say with Meridian.

Let's start with the maddening similarities first, however.  I began to think that the author would perhaps be a better short story or novella writer, because he spends most of his time with a fairly numbing travel narrative format with both books, and random acts of violence that in pretty much every instance just kind of happen.  In Road it's a fairly routine and uninspired take on dystopian fiction, where some of us seem to take for granted that the future will see humanity degenerate to barbarism...or the very conditions depicted in Meridian, just because we've somehow lost everything we'd built for ourselves over the last hundred years or so (although when put that way it's certainly a humbling thought).  In Meridian, the narrative depends on McCarthy's ability to keep pretty straight descriptions of the shifting landscape interesting...and he doesn't, really.

It's the characters who make the difference, and how they're used.  Meridian has been called a classic of modern literature, and it's very much a classic in a classical sense.  It's probably as close as anyone will get to the spirit of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which seeks to depict humanity in its most basic form, which as both authors decide is pretty barbaric.  Like Melville, McCarthy chooses as the lead character someone other than the most interesting one, who is identified almost exclusively simply as "the kid," becoming something different only in the final pages (and then it's just an upgrade to "the man").  The Ahab of Meridian is similarly known mostly as "the judge," although he's addressed on a few occasions as Holden, and so commentary can address him as such, even if the book makes him so much familiar as an abstract bogeyman, a bald killer who believes that war is a perfect expression of the human condition, and who appears and behaves in mysterious ways throughout the story, and whose last appearance is the same kind of aberrantly jubilant behavior as his introduction, because otherwise he's stoic and functional, like everything around him, even though he always stands out from the elements.

It's the use of the elements that makes Meridian so much more effective than Road, where the elements are defined by the degenerate people who struggle to survive mostly by indiscriminately murdering pretty much everyone around them, sometimes Indians mostly to support a version of an ordinary narrative structure other than a trip to California (and back again).  It's the anti-Western, not romantic in the least sense, and if this is truly what it was like in that time (mostly 1850s), then I don't know how anyone could be proud of that era, because it's horrifyingly inhuman.  Probably McCarthy exaggerates as much as the Western genre does, but reading Meridian you really start to wonder.

The book is written as if it's a direct translation of the opinions and perspectives of the day, which takes a little getting used to, because it's certainly not a part of the modern movement to rehabilitate the image of Indians in America, and not only that, but a lot of grammar rules are ignored.

If you can get past all that, you'll find something that has something to say, and that's what any truly great book ought to do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reading List: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy

Like everyone else, I got swept up in the hype for Cormac McCarthy's The Road a few years ago.  Unlike everyone else, however, I thought it was a phony failure.  So I kept my eyes out for a possible redemption of the author.  Hollywood seems to love him well enough, and I've enjoyed the movies made out of All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.  Yet the book that critics had dubbed his masterpiece prior to Road was Blood Meridian, and so far there has been no movie adapted from this one.  I decided that if there was any real way to measure McCarthy's true talent, it would have to be this apparently most challenging of his works.  Based on the opening passages, I think the old boy may be rewarding this strange faith of mine, reminding me of a favorite writer of a more recent vintage, David Maine.  Hopefully the rest pans out...

The End of the Affair

It's hard for me to know exactly what to think of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.  I first became aware of the story thanks to a movie released more than a decade ago, a movie I instantly loved, for reasons that went beyond the story.  To finally read the book is to learn more about the story, certainly, but it also shades my memory of that story, knowing how the author originally approached it.

As the title in any incarnation suggests, this is a story about the end of an affair.  Simple enough.  And yet it's not that simple.  The affair was apparently winding down, bursting into unavoidable arguments, so that the end itself was coming one way or another.  It's the way it ended that leaves Maurice Bendrix in such unending turmoil, and that's where the strength of the story lies, because the whole book is about how he never really finds resolution because the more he learns the more complicated it becomes, and the less it's simply about the title event.

Bendrix, as most of his acquaintances know him, is a novelist and as such the book is presented as his manuscript, a memoir of his experiences with and related to Sarah Miles, his attempts to reconcile his conflicted feelings on the subject.  He writes from a point where all of it has already played out.  This would work much better had Greene known everything he was going to write, and sometimes it seems like he did and sometimes it doesn't, and this is not simply a case of an unreliable narrator, because Bendrix has no reason to deceive himself, it's that Greene sometimes forgets that he's not writing a conventional novel but rather someone's memories.  It's not a perfect book but it's memorable, filled with memorable set pieces, each of them defined by the relationships Bendrix forms because of Sarah, including her husband Henry, with whom Bendrix forms an unlikely bond; Mr. Parkis, who is the investigator Bendrix has attempt to reveal the identity of the replacement lover years after their breakup; and even God.

There's a certain level of religious thought in the book, the undercurrent of the whole story, Sarah's promise to God during the bombing of London in WWII when she believed Bendrix dead that she would forsake her love in return for his continued life.  It's the start of her journey toward faith, and unbeknownst to Bendrix his investigation is the start of his, as he finally grapples with truths that cannot always be known even when explained.  While Greene appears to have a superficial understanding of Catholic faith, it's not really necessary for faith to be considered so much as how the characters approach it, and on that level it may be the greatest success of the book.  Sarah shares Greene's naive interpretation, but that's all she needs, because before she can go too far in her journey, she's dead.

That may be the best twist of the book, that Sarah dies, that whatever lingering hopes of rekindling their love Bendrix and Sarah share, it is always doomed.  It puts Bendrix in greater perspective than he himself is capable of achieving, his arc defined not by resolution of the affair but rather that he believes he will no longer be able to love because of Sarah, and yet before the book is over he's already toyed with it on a chance encounter that simply didn't pan out.  The way the book treats a massive event like WWII by all but trivializing it is just one indication of the vagaries of chance as human perception.  That's what it's all about, ultimately.

I know a book is good when it frustrates and fascinates me at the same time, when I have more positive thoughts than negative ones at the end, that the latter helps in fact to enrich the former.  That's what The End of the Affair is, one of the finest flawed pieces of literature I've ever read.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading List: The End of the Affair

The End of the Affair
by Graham Greene

In my freshmen year of college, I was able to enjoy a world cinema series that showed the 1999 version of The End of the Affair, a breathlessly beautiful romance starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore.  Later I read Sherwood Anderson's "There She Is, She Is Taking Her Bath," which is so completely similar that for a time I thought the movie was based on that story.  Except it's not, it's based on this book of the same name as the film.  Some would choose to interpret such similarities as a form of plagiarism, or a lack of creative thought.  I tend to admire creative ripples, which is how I choose to interpret the relationship between the two stories.  Now I will finally read Graham Greene's book.

Ask the Dust

The thing you can't help but take away from John Fante's Ask the Dust is the infectious passion of Arturo Bandini.

That's something I took away from the story even when seeing it in the form of the Colin Farrell movie years ago.  It's Farrell's bounciest, liveliest role (except perhaps his Bullseye in Daredevil).  And sure enough, it comes from the source material.  Ask the Dust is all about Bandini's quest to become the great writer he's already convinced himself that he is.  In fact, the whole story is about Bandini shaping his view of reality.  His equal is the feisty Camilla Lopez, like him emblematic of an immigrant assimilating into a culture.  Camilla is a Mexican, or Bandini's Mayan goddess.  Bandini himself is a descendant of Italians (Fante has a series of books involving him and his family, starting with Wait Until Spring, Bandini), and although he believes otherwise, his life is every bit similar to Camilla's, whom he torments at every opportunity, when he isn't mesmerized by her.

Fante wrote in the golden age of American literature, the 1930s, surrounded by giants.  He himself has become obscure since then, but his work supports itself, always waiting to be rediscovered (something like Melville several generations earlier).  He worked as a screenwriter, as all the great writers did his day, as well as a novelist.

To read Fante, and Ask the Dust, is to feel as he felt, as Bandini feels in the story.  It's possible to be amused by his experiences even while being thoroughly impressed by them, how they're written, like the embodiment of the ideals every writer aspires to.  It's like Faulkner living up to the hype.  I read As I Lay Dying in high school.  I think I would have appreciated Ask the Dust much more as an assignment.  How is it that teachers don't have fun books in their repertoire?  Fante proves it's possible without being outright comic, although would it be so bad to read that in the classroom, too?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reading List: Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust
by John Fante

I'm not going to make any bones about this: I'm reading this because of the Colin Farrell movie.  Charles Bukowski has an excellent forward in the book about how he discovered John Fante and Ask the Dust.  His effusive praise for both is pretty much how I feel about Farrell, so it's really good to know that the book is at least as interesting as the movie.  The star of the book, Arturo Bandini, is featured in several Fante books.  This particular one focuses on Bandini's budding writing career.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Specimen Days

Stories that combine a number of different narratives can sometimes be a little challenging.  Some critics will consider it gimmicky.  Me, I like the challenge of integrating them, figuring out how the creator intended them to coalesce into a single message.

The case with Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days starts to emerge with the second narrative, "The Children's Crusade."  At first it seems as if "Crusade" is about as different from "In the Machine," the narrative that precedes it, as you can get.  "Machine" is set in the nineteenth century, while "Crusade" is in the twenty-first.  The third and final narrative, "Like Beauty," is set in the indeterminate future.  Names and relationships become a pattern, despite vast differences otherwise, plus the recurring appearance of a peculiar bowl.  The unifying element is a character named Simon whose life experience always ends up rejecting an emerging paradigm shift, while characters with variations on the names Lucas and Catherine struggle less successfully around him.

"Machine" is Cunningham's least successful literary effort in the story.  It's very much like someone's basic impression of an M. Night Shyamalan film, or perhaps an impression of what literature was like in the story's given time period.  The main character is Lucas, Simon's younger brother, who's struggling in the aftermath of Simon's death, and clinging to the relationships his brother left behind, the job that killed him and the woman he was going to marry.  Lucas has a simplistic view of the world, an impressionistic one, not so much innocent as naive.  Like each of the narratives he has a tenuous connection to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, unconsciously quoting it just as naturally as speaking, if not moreso, his own thoughts.  Lucas has no idea how to cope, and ends up rebelling against what his life is becoming by sacrificing himself to the machines that are just beginning to dominate life.  The strange thing, like the basic perception of a Shyamalan film, is that Lucas ends up saving Catherine, interpreting a sequence of events as something his brother began, by preventing her from being at work when a fire erupts there, killing everyone else.

"Crusade" features Simon as the lover of Cat, a police psychologist who answers phones for strange callers either explaining their own disturbing thoughts or taking credit for the latest crisis.  It's set in the aftermath of 9/11, and features a series of boy bombers, one of whom takes a personal interest in Cat, eventually subsuming the identity of her late son Luke.  Simon is depicted as out of Cat's league, in the relationship only to sow wild oats and preparing to move onto the life that's been waiting for him.  The Whitman connection is a little more tenuous this time, a background element of the cult conspiracy behind the suicide terrorists Cat finds herself connected to, trying to figure out if there's even a way to stop them, impressionable young boys corrupted into becoming born killers.  Part of Cunningham's overall message seems to be a cynical reaction to the direction humanity is going, part environmentalism and part reaction against environmentalism, far less on the nose than T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth but when you think about it maybe less than you'd think.

"Beauty" features Simon most directly, at least this narrative's version of him, a synthetic life-form just trying to make his way in the world when he becomes fascinated by an alien named Catareen, whom he ends up running away with.  In its basic element "Beauty" is the culmination of the three narratives as they progress efforts to see what follows after a big decision.  "Machine" ends after Lucas makes the decision to follow through on his convictions.  "Crusade" follows Cat as she discovers that her convictions might have been mistaken.  "Beauty" is charitable enough for Simon to see his journey to one conclusion and yet another suggestion that it's just beginning.  Three narratives, one story, and Cunningham spends all of it on a single meditation.

The author previously based The Hours on a similar story pivoted around Virginia Woolf, which was made into a movie that won Nicole Kidman an Oscar.  He also wrote A Home at the End of the World, which was also made into a movie.  I figured I should read at least one thing by him, and I decided on Specimen Days because it hadn't been adapted for the screen, perhaps because of the aliens in "Beauty," though Cloud Atlas may have in several ways made any objections less likely to dissuade Hollywood from completing the Cunningham set.  (He does have other books besides these.)

Figuring out what Cunningham is trying to do has less to do with Whitman than you'd think, but the constant meditations from his poetry does tend to give the impression that all of it has a great deal more resonance than it does.  When you figure out that all of it pivots around the Simon figure, even though he's only the lead in one of the three, unlocks the riddle easily enough.  It also elevates each of the narratives to the same level.  Cunningham has no real insight into Lucas in "Machine," substituting a lack of answers with a basic simplicity that only makes it easier to reach his conclusions.  Even Cat in "Crusade," who throughout the narrative has a lot more conviction and direction than in the conclusion, gets away from him for convenience's sake, although again it's the insight from the Simon character that makes it work.  Simon himself, because he's the lead, allows Cunningham to focus, figure out where the Lucas and Catherine figures end in a straight interpretation of the basic Simon narrative.  It's funny, because neither ultimately matter to him, which is not what you might think from "Machine" or "Crusade," although in the latter it's a strong suggestion and in the former it's speculation, because in that one, of course, Simon is dead from the start.

As a whole, Specimen Days is fascinating, which is much the point, and needs to be, and why Cunningham spends all of it using the same elements.  In a book like Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy, individual narratives shifts along a timeline and takes new looks at the same elements, too, but in order to see where it all leads.  "Machine," "Crusade," and "Beauty" are not really connected.  They could be read individually and you need not even trouble yourself over Cunningham's overriding goals.  Yet if you do, you'll end up with something that's greater than the sum of its parts, fascinating as they may be.  Whatever you think Whitman was trying to do with his poetry, or what you think of Whitman himself, Cunningham suggests that it's transcendent, and it's that quality he attempts to convey in this book.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reading List: Specimen Days

Specimen Days
by Michael Cunningham

For a while, the movies really loved Michael Cunningham.  Nicole Kidman won an Oscar starring in The Hours, based on Cunningham's meditation of Virginia Woolf.  Colin Farrell made an indy film of A Home at the End of the World.  So at a certain point, I decided he must really be worth reading.  So I chose this one, mostly because it's based on Walt Whitman, one of the patron saints of American poetry.  The title of the book is one Cunningham and Whitman share, by the way.  It would certainly be more obvious if, say, that title were Leaves of Grass.  But Whitman worked on that one for many, many years.  Best to look elsewhere.  Hopefully not the case with this book.

The Daughter of Time

When I was in college, I took a course on early American history, and one of the things I vividly remember to this day (aside from the inspiration behind a character's suddenly rapid development in a book I've been working on for a really long time and the pretty girl who always sat in the front of the class and an attempt to broaden at least one classmate's appreciation and comprehension of poetry) was the moment I learned that John Adams prosecuted the court case for the Boston Massacre, and rightly defended the accused British officers as not only not being involved in an actual massacre but only reacting when they eventually did at great provocation.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  What I most took away from that was a new-found and enduring respect for Adams' integrity.  But it was my first libertyvalance, my first Tonypandy, when I discovered that the history books don't always take the side of history.  I grew up believing in the Boston Massacre as much as the riled up patriots of the day, so to have my view of that event completely turned around was a formative moment of my development.

(I'm getting around to our subject, I swear!  To wit:)

Earlier than that, I got caught up in the small hoopla over the Al Pacino film Looking for Richard.  It's probably the last time critics respected Al, but I continue to digress.  Looking for Richard is about his staging of Shakespeare's Richard III, the play best known for "My kingdom for a horse!," featuring the famous bastard king of England in his ultimate downfall as all his machinations finally come crashing down around him, much like Nixon's Watergate.

What I took away from it, and what kept bringing me back to it, was Al's incredibly sympathetic understanding not only of the play but of its subject.  I think that's Al's great strength as an actor, to identify the flaw at the heart of a perfect design and to look completely miserable even when everything seems to be going his way, the suffering fool, the martyr to a cause no one will ever fully comprehend.

That in a way is what The Daughter of Time is all about.  It's about trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III by way of an investigation into the facts of his supposed murder of the two boys, Princes in the Tower, who were supposed to be the legitimate heirs to the thrown he ruled for two years.  The investigator is Alan Grant, Josephine Tey's own Holmes or Poirot, locked up in a hospital bed with a broken leg with nothing to amuse him that he actually finds amusing until an acquaintance brings a stack of pictures to him, one of which he mistakes as an unassailable innocent rather than the unmistakably corrupt figure Richard III is known to be by everyone Grant knows.

So he starts to look into the facts, partly to clear himself of the apparent botched identification, when he prides himself on just that ability (a little like the central character of Javier Marias' brilliant Your Face Tomorrow).  Soon he has people bringing him books and then the helpful aid of an American already doing his own research at the British Museum, so he can sift out the record from the history.

He discovers that Richard is indeed quite innocent and that his successor, Henry VII, is likely the true source of the scandal and attempt to pin it on Richard.  That's it, really.

It's both disappointing and reasonably exhilarating, like any mystery.  Grant himself is paper thin, the American speaks the same English phrasing as Grant, and it devolves into Tey pretty much presenting all her research and thoughts without any real story happening around it.  In a way, this was prepared in advance for the reader by having Grant muse how the most interesting histories are the ones that present it with dialogue.  Well, maybe not like this.

Yet people really did like Tey, and The Daughter of Time, in its original publication.  The author was hailed as the writer of mysteries that were basically anything but the expected framework others used, and true enough, this is no standard mystery.  It's a history lesson as mystery.  Except Tey is in such a rush to present her conclusions that she does a disservice both to them and the story.  At a certain point she just lets her characters start drawing the necessary lessons and knowing exactly what they need to know in order for a fairly speedy end to wrap it up, even going so far as to finally admit that most of this was already known in the final pages, and that her characters simply didn't know it, especially somehow the American doing all the heaviest research.

And yet somehow it's supposed to be surprising that people generally skip over facts in order to draw conclusions.  Well.

Plenty of writers have used this framework in the years since.  The Da Vinci Code famously drew up the scandalous true nature of the Holy Grail and served it up to millions because it was a mystery the central character breathlessly solved, even though Dan Brown based it on a book that had existed for years.  Even J.K. Rowling used these ideas when shaping the story of Harry Potter, not just as the wizarding establishment presented its own version of events as they were developing in strict contrast to what the reader knew, but in the presentation of Severus Snape, the hero at the center of the saga's real tragedy, who worked alongside the good old boy Dumbledore in order to pretend allegiance with the big bad villain Voldemort, so that everyone, even most of the readers, believed that Snape was a rotten apple the whole time.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart prints the legend instead of reporting what John Wayne really did, because it reads so much better.  Much of what happened to Richard III was the last rattles of the Wars of the Roses, which Americans should find plenty familiar, given that we've had our Wars of Elephants and Asses for decades now, and have sat through endless speculation as to how JFK really died, even watched as the film JFK was whitewashed with character assassination and court historian-approved dismissal in Reclaiming History.  The intrigue of Daughter of Time isn't really what became of Richard, but how its author couldn't connect B to C, as Grant muses in the book.

Well, maybe it's not so surprising.  Josephine Tey never actually existed.  And neither did Gordon Daviot.  Both were pseudonyms for Elizabeth MacKintosh, who apparently never really came to understand why historians are as prone as authors at making up their own stories.  Authors with various names will always amuse me.  They will always have their reasons.  But it will always boil down to the fact that it makes it easier for the authors themselves to reconcile their peculiar career choice.  This is one who chocked up reconciliation as a diatribe against her own cousins, and then wrote a book about a convoluted royal affair, assuming that everyone really did consider Richard III a villain and working backward from there.

Although in truth Henry VII was pretty successful on that count.  I believed all the weird accusations against Richard, even the hunchback myth.

All very interesting, but it could have been done better.  Sometimes John Adams turns out to be a lot more interesting than you used to believe.  But that's not the end of the story.  And that's not even to mention Quincy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Reading List: The Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time
by Josephine Tey

Part of what I love so much about bookstores is that they have an infinite ability to surface the unexpected.  Praise ebooks as the future all you want, and marvel at your early adoption of the format, but for me there's nothing about it that compares to visiting a bookstore.  One of the most peculiar aspects of a bookstore is the bargain section.  Now, the bargain section is a mix of things that were once bestsellers and things that just didn't sell, and some of it seems calculated to be bargain material to begin with.  It's always worth browsing.  The Daughter of Time is a classic piece of detective fiction.  I wonder if I would have ever discovered it if I hadn't stumbled across it as a bargain book.  These things happen.  The introduction in this volume says Tey's readers fall in love with her books.  But the thing is, Tey doesn't have a reputation like Agatha Christie (who I must confess I've never read).  She's all but forgotten.  It's the title of the book that drew me to Daughter of Time.  It just sounds memorable, even without knowing anything else about it.  And in fact I didn't know anything else when I bought it, other than what was on the back cover.  It's a contemporary investigation of Richard III, so it works on a number of levels at least conceptually.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

As an English major in college professors loved to throw anthologies in my direction, surveys of the literary establishment.  Really, they're no different from short story collections.  Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is a little of both, as its subtitle The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan suggests.

It's less about the short stories and more about celebrating the current crop of literary talent from Japan.  As such, the most obvious contemporary name, Haruki Murakami, appears.  The rest are present simply as a matter of exposure.  Each has a biography that appears before their story.  Some of the authors appear in English translation for the first time, or are so obscure to English language readers that this is an introduction.  So it's not really about the short stories themselves so much as presenting Japanese writers and current trends to a new group of readers.

Of course, you can absolutely read the collection for the stories themselves.  There are some pretty amusing entries, certainly led by Murakami's "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," featuring a giant frog introducing himself to a pretty anonymous individual and declaring that an earthquake is going to happen and that he can stop it with a little help.  There are other surreal stories, such as "To Khabarovsk" from Yoko Tawada, about a train trip interrupted by a dream, and "The No Fathers Club" from Tomoyuki Hoshino, about a group of students and then just a potential romantic coupling who imagine their dead fathers back to life.  There are several efforts that reminiscent of any short story effort you might come across, and don't necessarily have to be considered particularly Japanese at all.  The best of these is "The Diary of a Mummy" from Masahiko Shimada, which details a man's journey in starving himself to death.  

The highlight and main reason for anyone to read this, other than to sample Murakami, is undoubtedly "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" from Ira Ishida.  Apparently it's a whole thing in Japan, having inspired a TV series and manga.  It's the latest in my continuing exploration of the international crime genre, made most famous recently by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al), which I will be reading at some point.  My favorite is Roberto Bolano's 2666, which uses and transcends the genre (and every other one).  Considering how immediately I identified "Ikebukuro" as part of this trend, I find it a little surprising that Digital Geishas is the only source of an English translation to date.  

It's the longest story in the collection at about 40 pages, not so long that it could be printed as its own book (probably) but easily long enough to sell the whole collection on.  Seriously, you need to get your hands on Digital Geishas just so you can relish "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" for yourself.  It's about a bunch of students who find themselves embroiled in a murder investigation.  It's not just about the investigation, but how a group of friends comes together and their connections in the wider community, in some ways exactly like the Millennium Trilogy as it demonstrates how the specific details of where they live and how they live lead to the story that defines their young lives.  

If nothing else, it would make a fantastic movie, much as Infernal Affairs helped give us The Departed.  In any collection there should always be a standout.  This one stands out brilliantly.  Mission accomplished, Digital Geishas

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reading List: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
edited by Helen Mitsios

Before I go too far as to why this ended up on the Reading List, let me just admit the most obvious reason for me: former classmate and Movie Gallery co-worker Jonathan Lawless translates two of the stories in the collection, and that's really the only reason why I have it.  Lawless was one of my best friends growing up.  He went to Union College, studied abroad and fell in love with Japan.  His announcement about this book's release is really the first time I've reconnected with him since 2001, which is fine, because it means we're both in some way connected to the literary world.  Now, obviously, this is a collection of short stories from Japanese writers, translated and brought together for English readers.  I love reading international literature, and I've read at least one book (Snow Country) from a Japanese author that ended up becoming an all-time favorite, so I figure one way or another there's reason enough to read it, much less include it on the exclusive Reading List.  One of the contributors is the celebrated Haruki Murakami (who writes about the frog in the title), which will mark this as the first time I read him.

None Died in Vain

It may be common in other countries and in history, but it's still odd for me to think that Americans had a Civil War.  Now, I know that we're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the conflict, and it was a topic that came up in school a lot.  Growing up in Maine, I probably put a lot more significance in the role of Joshua Chamberlain than most people (other than the filmmakers behind Gettysburg and Gods and Generals).

Lately I've been reading books about the American Revolution and the War of 1812, so I figured it was time to revisit the Civil War as well.  No other period in American history has as many devoted followers as this one, which is also known as the War Between the States.  Consequently there are certainly buffs who know enough where they don't need a survey like Robert Leckie's None Died in Vain to refresh some fairly basic details.  They certainly don't need Leckie to remind them about the significance of the major engagements, and the generals who fought them.  Well, someone like me does, and even after this survey I'd still need reminding about such details, because there's a lot of stuff to remember, especially since the Union army went through a lot of generals.

This was a war between North and South, Union and Confederacy, the right to continue the practice of slavery and the desire to finally end it.  I've read about some of the key figures (in JFK's Profiles in Courage) who helped forestall the war (Clay, Webster, Adams) through the strength of their convictions and willingness to compromise.  Continued expansion of the country meant that the South was continually faced with the issue of the North not agreeing with its structural policies, and felt threatened enough to finally secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Leckie tracks the progress of the war and how it was fought, including the succession of Union generals as the North struggled, to my mind, with the same problem I expressed at the beginning of these thoughts.  Leckie presents the facts and personalities pretty well and concisely, never bogging down in unnecessary details or complicated accounts of specific battles.  He doesn't, however, bother too much with the psychology of the war, which is plain enough to read, at least as far as the North is concerned.

He also has a latent bias for the Confederacy, exhibited by his frequent glorifying of its generals and how handsome they all seemed to be.  I realize that a lot of writers talk about physical characteristics and tend to focus on the beautiful ones, because readers theoretically love that, but every time Leckie does it with the Confederacy, it's not easy to fight the reaction that he's as much in awe of men like Robert E. Lee as his own soldiers.  True, he talks about the Union generals who inspired their troops, but most of his thoughts in that regard are about their ineffectualness in combat.  The psychological approach might take into account a certain reluctance, or address the personality conflicts a little more forthrightly, or not armchair general every single military decision.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Leckie seeks to make it an artform, in essence joining the ranks of the North who kept wondering why the war took so long.  As far as I can tell, every battle seems to have degenerated into a quagmire.  There's simply no telling how anything could have played out differently.  War is in the end war, which is not pretty, and the Civil War was the least pretty war to that point in history (at least as far as Americans are concerned).

I wish Leckie would also have spent as much time, or given comparable attention, to what came after the war as he does to what led up to it.  Reconstruction is probably a tricky subject, especially if I'm accurate in deducing the author's true sympathies, although if the author is as conflicted as I think he was, then that's just another part of the book, another example of how complicated the subject matter remains.  It's hard to admit any sympathies.  Even the North was deeply ambivalent at best about the war.  Anyone who thinks Vietnam or Iraq are unique in American history as unpopular wars should probably be reminded that the Civil War was received in exactly the same way.  And just imagine if the Union had given up the fight!  Americans today probably can't imagine it, and those who can probably have a completely different reaction to how it ended anyway.

Above all, my reaction to None Died in Vain is appreciation for Leckie' character sketches.  Even though he limits himself almost exclusively to the generals who prosecuted the war, it's almost like seeing an entirely different version of what happened (and sometimes why).  I'm sure there are plenty of books that explore this aspect of the Civil War...
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