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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies. 

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who give your arguments a fair hearing and the simply persists in his lunacy?”

Well, sure, why not. I hadn’t read this since high school, and I’m a huge Orwell fan, so I thought I’d re-read it along with everyone else. Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of really smart ideas in here, but I was surprised at how dull the book is as a novel. The characters — especially women — are flat as pancakes, the plotting is glacial, the descriptions are relentlessly repetitive. But those disappointments aside, there are surely many incisive and prescient passages.

Winston’s job is to adjust the past to suit the ideological needs of the present: “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”

Well, that sounds familiar!

Or: “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.” Not far off from the methodology of Alex Jones or his fans.

I’d forgotten the whole thing about the government developing a new language (“Newspeak”) which would make the expression of dissent literally impossible. Thus “the Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect,” a terrifying idea and one worth considering in contemporary terms.

Retrograde attitudes toward women; embarrassing romanticization of “the Proles”; a somewhat obsessive need to follow every idea out to its logical extreme; but of course at the same time a work of terrific insight. I don’t at all mean to sound condescending when I say that high school was after all exactly the right time to read it first.

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Imperium, Christian Kracht (2012)

A complete but very decadent and perhaps somewhat transgressive delight, based on the real-life story of August Engelhardt, a German nudist vegetarian who decamped for the south seas to start a utopian colony at the fin de siècle. I came across this by accident and really enjoyed it, not least, admittedly, because I realized that I went to college with Kracht and I had no idea he’d gone on to write novels. What a hoot! Kracht’s got a wonderfully arch and acerbic comic style and skewers placid colonial burghers and idealistic nuts (ha) like Engelhardt with equal verve.

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The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner (2016)

Ben Lerner’s brief essay makes some smart if not new points about poetry’s most ancient and fundamental sorrow: It cannot succeed. The “re” in “representation” means that poetry’s always at a remove from the genuine. Plato was the first to note this bummer; folks still aren’t over it. As Lerner correctly writes, “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” An ideal and perfect Poetry can exist as an imaginative category, but every actual poem has fallen and will fall short of that ideal. Lerner quotes George Oppen: “Because I am not silent, the poems are bad.” Lerner: “Hating on actual poems . . . is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the utopian ideal of Poetry.” Exactly right. Poems are always large or small failures, but the beauty and force of Poetry is eternal.

So what then? My personal advice: If the ideal matters to you, instead of writing poems, be a poet. (Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to write poems to be a poet.) Lerner astutely points out that “‘Poetry’ is supposed to signify an alternative to the kind of value that circulates in the economy as we live it daily, but actual poems can’t realize that alternative,” because the making of poems is just another commodity production process. But being a poet merely means that you are devoted to the idea of the ideal. It doesn’t mean you think yourself (or anyone else) capable of realizing or reifying that ideal. That would be crazy. Writing poems is a doomed enterprise, but to be a poet is to live a dream. The only downside is that I mean that literally; you can only be a poet in your dreams. Once you wake up, you’re just a writer of poems, a failure.

I hope Lerner writes more criticism; he seems capable of being in uncertainties, which is my chief qualification for a critic. Nice read.

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The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

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Ketchup

600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.

 

 

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The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard (1962)

the-drowned-world-book-coverI’m thinking I might just read science fiction for the next four years. There are a lot of iconic writers I’ve never read, or read only a bit of (Butler, Delaney, Dick, Heinlein, Le Guin, et al.), and I confess I wouldn’t mind thinking about society and culture at one remove for a while, instead of right up close in the moment. Sort of like putting on a pair of psychological sunglasses, maybe.

I did read this novel before, a long time ago, but went back to read it again after recommending it to a student working on a story which takes place in a world where the seas have risen to the point that people are living underwater.

Much has been made of Ballard’s prescience; I’ll skip all that and make a few notes regarding the book on its own terms. I like it less than I remembered liking it. Probably when I first read it — in college, maybe? — I was mostly focused on its hypnotic thanatos. This time I got hung up on its repetitiveness (no synonym of “miasma” goes unused), and also the flat characters, in particular the one female character and the “Negro” characters, who are so flat they barely register. It does certainly, though, set in motion some interesting trains of thought. Not so much about human-made climate change and the perils of overdevelopment — there is none of that — but rather about the archetypal fiction of the cool, scientific, organized, rational North vs. the hot, irrational, chaotic South. It’s fun to think that a global catastrophe drowning the planet under 60 feet of water would naturally cause the British to deploy scientific research stations, and that the researchers would drink sherry in their off hours.

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The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

foundation-trilogy-by-isaac-asimovThis semester I’m teaching a class called “The Uses of History,” where students read works of literature that in some way are informed by specific historical events, and produce such texts themselves. (The secret of the class is that there aren’t any works of literature that aren’t informed by specific historical events. This secret generally becomes an open secret around week two or three, if all goes according to plan.)

When I teach this class, I find I think surprisingly often of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first came across the Foundation Trilogy when I was, I think, in junior high or maybe high school, and I found it the same way I found most everything I read before I left home from college, by picking through my father’s inexhaustible book shelves. Most of those books came from a book distribution warehouse where my father worked summers as a college student. Unsold books were sent back to the warehouse and their covers were torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I’ve never really understood how the system was supposed to work, but I guess the basic idea was that it was easier and more economical to render the books unsellable than it was to ship them back to wherever they’d come from. So most of my father’s library consisted of coverless classic paperbacks, from Augustine to Xenophon. But I remember that the Asimov had a cover. My dad must have paid for that one.

When I think of The Foundation Trilogy, it’s usually because of the narrative and thematic significance of a single character, known as “the Mule.” In the novels, a great galactic empire comprising thousands of worlds and billions of people is slowly collapsing. A team of talented social scientists known as “psycho-historians,” led by a man named Hari Seldon, can see this end coming, and can mathematically predict that millennia of bedlam, ignorance, and despair will follow it. Through unfathomably sophisticated sociological calculations, they devise a plan – the Seldon Plan – which will limit this dark age to a mere handful of centuries, after which a fresh civilization – the Second Empire – will rise. Asimov’s is an Enlightened technocratic fantasy of the purest type. The Seldon Plan represents the idea that science and rationality can – will! must!– solve the problems of chaos and pain. The drama of the novels resides in the unfolding of the Seldon Plan, and the frequent threats to its success. The greatest of these threats is the appearance of the Mule.

The Mule doesn’t look like much. When we first meet him, he’s presented as a disfigured and simpering clown. But he has a slight mutation which enables him to subtly bend the mental processes of others, and this capability permits him to conquer worlds, amass a great deal of power, and build casinos. (OK, the “build casinos” part was a joke, but it should be noted that the Mule chooses Kalgan, a vacationer’s planet with a strong resemblance to Atlantic City, as his capital.) Now to be sure, a petty warlord taking over a few planets is generally no big deal; such contingencies are well within the capacious and complex calculations of the Seldon Plan. But the psycho-historians soon come to realize, to their horror, that the Plan has not factored in the kind of mutant disruption the Mule represents. His appearance was wholly unpredictable and unpredicted, and the entire Plan is thus at risk of unraveling.

We humans have a compulsive habit of trying to impose narrative coherence on sequences of historical events, but such rationalizations, as the historiographer Hayden White has argued with such eloquence, are untrustworthy at best, and dangerously seductive at worst. They are inevitably influenced by (or even determined by) underlying ideological or moral assumptions and values, and are engineered to reassure us that the progress of history is orderly and tends toward coherence. It’s common, for example, for people to say that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in World War II because in the end, good must triumph over evil. Or that the Roman Empire fell because its people became lazy, decadent, and complacent. Those are satisfying stories. But history isn’t a story. The Mule represents for me, and reminds me, that any narrativization of history (or rationalization, or Seldonization, if you like), is always imminently and immanently subject to a jolt of the unpredictable, irrational, or perverse. This is such an important reminder that the character of the Mule has become a rather important totem for me, despite the fact that I haven’t read these books since I was a kid.

Last month I decided to finally re-read the novels, and I’m glad to report that The Foundation Trilogy has held up wonderfully both as an entertainment and as a fertile ground for historiographical musings. I highly recommend it. Remember, though, that it is itself a story, not a history. Don’t let the fate Asimov assigns the Mule lead you into intellectual temptation. The good guys aren’t necessarily fated to win. The most intelligent and rational choices don’t always prevail. Against all reason, people are very frequently willing, even eager, to act against all reason. “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Adorno and Horkheimer. My favorite Modernist catch-22. The better we get at rationalism, the better we get at madness.

On election night, Wendy had a bunch of women over to the house to watch the returns. Several of them brought their daughters. Someone made cookies with Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo embossed in frosting on them. The scene in the living room was noisy and chaotic, and I went upstairs to read the last few chapters of The Foundation Trilogy in my room, thinking I’d come down around the time polls closed in the Midwest, to share the champagne and – I was really looking forward to this, more than I’d even admitted to myself – to watch those mothers be with their daughters and those daughters be with their mothers. Instead, the Mule. I’m only surprised that I was surprised.

 

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Where I Was From, Joan Didion (2003)

Subject: Author Joan Didion with her Corvette. 1971 Photographer- Julian Wasser Time Inc Not Owned Merlin-1381191
One way of describing Didion’s genius (there are many) is to note that she always permits, even invites the subjects she endeavors to report on to report on her as well. Didion knew growing up that she was from an old California family; as she got older she realized there is no such thing. In Where I Was From, she explores the cultural, social, and economic histories of the state with her characteristic mix of brilliant synthetic summary and piercing detail, and gradually begins to incorporate her personal experience, seeking to understand not just a set of historical phenomena, but her own identity as well. It is thrilling.

There are so many moments and passages I could single out for their clarity of thought and elegance of expression, but as a would-be writer myself, I’ve got to call out Didion’s perfect and insane decision to devote a chapter of this book to a critical analysis of her first published novel, Run, River (1963), which Didion wrote about her home and family in California while she was homesick living in New York as a young woman. First, who does that? Second, her critique is remarkably clear-eyed and unsparing, considering her close connection to her topic. But more, the move is a dramatization of the fact that while we may tell ourselves stories in order to live (to quote Didion herself), the stories of ourselves we tell ourselves ain’t always quite correct. As a result, it’s sometimes necessary to look back at those stories and, if not revise them, have a look at why they made sense at the time, and how their usefulness has failed to endure. This is a great insight on Didion’s part, and it dovetails beautifully with her thinking about California. Is there any other place in the world where the actual and the imagined are so indistinguishable? Maybe one moral of this book is that we are each sort of Californias unto ourselves.

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My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)

img_2419I just started reading the second of Ferrante’s four “Neapolitan Novels,” so I should say a few words about this first one before my memories of it fade. All the NYRB types freaked out so hard about these books that I figured I’d give them a whirl, and I enjoyed this first one very much, though I guess I don’t see quite what all the fuss is about. Well, I take that back, I think that the rationale for the fuss is that there’s so little fussiness in Ferrante’s style. We have here an exceedingly rare thing, a contemporary novel with a near-religious respect for realism and simplicity, without a formalist or stylistic flourish in sight. There’s a moment, about two-thirds through, where the narrator Elena is talking about the prose style of a letter from her friend Lila, and she goes on, quite movingly, about Lila’s pellucid prose, and then you suddenly realize that its Elena’s own pellucid prose that you’re reading, or rather Ferrante’s, and that right there is really the most engaging drama of this text, the drama of experience clearly expressed. Nothing particularly fascinating happens to either of the two main characters Elena and Lila. They’re bright aspirational girls bound by socio-economic situation designed to keep them stupid and stationary. Promises of escape come in many forms — industriousness, education, marriage, sin, social climbing — but the implicit message of Ferrante’s simple and elegant style is that being able to see, understand, and express your situation and your self clearly is probably at once the most viable and most powerful means of transcendence available. Sure, I’ll buy that, and so I bought the next three volumes and I look forward to them.

I’m getting ready to teach my “Uses of History” class this fall, where we read literary works which incorporate or respond to historical events, so that’s on my mind as I read anything and everything these days, and I’ll say I’m a little disappointed by Ferrante’s superficial engagement the historical circumstances of her characters. We get some small allusions and references, but surely the political and economic confusion and energy of postwar Italy could seep into the narrative a bit more.

There’s a nice big rabbit hole of reality v. representation to go down with these books, if you’re into that sort of thing, thanks to the fact that the author writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante and has not made her (or, unlikely but possible, his) identity known. So you have a budding writer (Elena Greco) for a narrator, and the author (Elena Ferrante) is herself a character, and one of the main dramas of the story is that Elena Greco deeply suspects that her friend Lila, who’s abandoned her education in favor of marriage, is actually the better writer. Is this an autobiographical novel or an entirely fictional one? We don’t know. So who is the titular brilliant friend? The author’s friend Elena Ferrante, the persona in which she writes brilliantly? The author’s “friend,” her brilliant character and perhaps avatar Elena Greco? Lila, Elena Greco’s brilliant friend of whom she is so jealous? In a lovely twist, we find out late in this book that the phrase originates with Lila to describe her Elena. Fun to think about — I’ll be interested to see how these dynamics play out in the other books.

 

Edit 7/28/16: Having surveyed the entirety of this large canvas, I come away not thrilled or delighted or amazed, but mighty satisfied and faintly suspicious. I’ll explain. Mighty satisfied because it’s a great story, lucidly told, with ample subtle psychological insights and a pleasingly comprehensive and rich sense of a great many characters’ lives. A little suspicious because I still can’t quite tell if there’s more to it than that. You could very nearly head off into a reading where you stipulate that Lila never existed except as a projection of Lenu’s anxieties (about her intellect, her past, her family, her choices), and then find yourself bound to acknowledge that wait, Lenu doesn’t exist either, she’s a character in a book, and then . . . I get about that far, and I don’t know that it’s worth pursuing, or right to pursue, but somehow I feel there may be a there there, in this novel about a novelist. Luckily it’s not my job to say anything smart here; if it were I’d be anxious myself. What I can dumbly testify is that I was wholly engaged through all 1500 odd pages of this series and wish it hadn’t ended.