First, we are transported to the Oregon Coast:
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River ...
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."
Then, we notice that a human arm is dangling over the river:
Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood’s current, a human arm, tied at the wrist (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience (just the arm, turning there, above the water)…” [The human arm is also flipping the bird to the enraged union men on the other shore].
And from the very beginning of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's second novel and eagerly-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, we are hooked.
I dug into Neil Young's memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream with a lot of anticipation, because he is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and because I've followed Neil's work long enough to know that a long session of candid and honest soul-searching with this brilliant and enigmatic rocker/hippie is a rare thing.
I'm also excited to read Pete Townshend's brand new memoir, but it's not the same thing. Pete Townshend has already told us his life story many times in interviews and public statements, and in his directly confessional songs. Neil Young is built of slipperier stuff, so slippery that I could barely imagine him writing a memoir at all. Now that I've read Waging Heavy Peace, which I loved and which kept me in its grip laughing and nodding in constant agreement, I know that he hasn't. This book is not a memoir. It's something else, though, and maybe this is just as good.
Why would we ever expect Neil Young to deliver anything straight? When this artist sees an expectation, he must defy it. His best songs are highly sincere but never direct, and he likes to get in his own way. Neil Young suffered from an overdose of fame and popularity in the Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young era, and then spent the 70s caroming from country-rock to proto garage/punk to bleary psychedelic experimentation. He tends to push his supple artistry just to the brink of comic annoyance, like in the guitar solo on "Down By The River" that consists of a single thudding flat note repeated 20 times ... followed by another 20, and another. Many readers won't like Waging Heavy Peace because his prose often aims for a similar thud-like effect as this famous guitar solo. And the effect works better in a minor-key blues ballad than it does in an autobiography.
(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship. Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet. All it took was a straight face.
There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director. It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat. One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".
I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense. "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"
I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino. I am Kino!"
Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written. The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."
What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.
Eric Erlandson, one-time guitar player and songwriter for Hole, has written a torrentous book, Letters to Kurt, addressed to the virtual presence of his close friend and occasional rival, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.
Driving and listening to another fascinating self-help audio book. Nothin' like Six Stinkin' Hats to make your drive-by commute a quantum weep for all existence. I put on the WHITE one. The morgue sheet. A blank slate. Just the facts. Where you lay heir apparent with self-inflicted wound head. NO witnesses, 'cept for me and the whole damn world. Your left hand on the barrel of a Remington 20-gauge resting between your legs, pointed at your chin. A spent shell-casing. A wallet for identification. You stabbed your spiel into a pile of dirt with your pen. Like all good martyrs you wrote in RED. Burning records like a fireman on fire. Melting down your punk rock past. Tchotchkes for the toilet, turds for the mantle. Hey, put that hose away, man. Pout it out, gloom it or gloat it before you just plain blow it. Life's butt a joke. A hypodermical hoot. You're supposed to laugh at the punch lines, not kick and cry in your birthday suit, eating away at your cancer in the blood of your BLACK.
"On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.
Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche's sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother's life and though. Hintz, a self-described "spinster", introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche's works for over a year and a half, starting with "Beyond Good and Evil", the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time ... She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself." She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to."
Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I'm a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.
The Outlaw Album just might be the most eagerly anticipated book release in years that doesn’t involve insufferably prude emo-glampires or awkward tween warlocks. After all, this is the first book we’ve seen from Daniel Woodrell since his masterful ’06 novel, Winter's Bone. Forget the disappointing irony that it took a film (the 2010 adaptation of Bone) to get a writer critics spent years calling American literature’s best-kept-secret the readership he deserved. He has it now. The question is: what’s he going to do with it? Anyone who’s followed Woodrell’s career can easily answer that question – Woodrell always delivers.
Many of our country’s greatest literary lights suffer from quality inconstancy. Hence, John Updike caps a career as one America’s most esteemed modern novelists with a paint-by-numbers embarrassment like Terrorist and the maladroit fumble that was The Widows of Eastwick. Philip Roth gets it right with Exit Ghost then follows it up with the thoroughly humbling The Humbling. Fortunately, Woodrell doesn’t share this hit-or-miss quality. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it’s an admirable trait for a writer to aspire to and one Woodrell can rightfully claim.
Woodrell hearkens back to an older age of story-telling. It would be hard to draw a more obvious literary progression than from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Daniel Woodrell. Woodrell’s novels have always seemed like a middle ground between these predecessors – but The Outlaw Album (perhaps because it’s strictly short stories) seems fully in the camp of the latter. It’s as if he’s found Flannery O’Connor’s secret formula for short story perfection and boiled it down to its essence. Instead of the longer, more character-driven pieces she wrote, Woodrell starts the story just an hour or two before the violent, often shocking, climax we know to expect at the end of an O’Connor story – then slows things down enough to fill us in on what came before.
Rock biographies and memoirs don't have a lot of literary cachet, though I seem to keep reading them. If I believed there was anything for me to feel guilty about (I don't), I'd call this my guilty pleasure. It's more accurate to say that, as with any literary format, books like Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Steven Tyler and Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock by Sammy Hagar bring pleasure to the degree that they are authentic, surprising and truthful.
The fact that both of these memoirists are well-known for loud, brash personalities and stadium-level exuberance (Steven Tyler refers winningly in his book to an affliction of the ego known as "Lead Singer Disease") should not disqualify their books from thoughtful literary consideration at all. Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar may feel comfortable juicing up gigantic, cheering crowds, but they must each overcome the same creative anxieties and moral doubt as any other writer when they stare at themselves in the mirror and try to describe what they see. Sure, celebrity memoirists have ghostwriters (David Dalton for Tyler, Joel Selvin for Hagar), but that may not help as much as we think. It's worth analyzing how both Steven Tyler and Sammy Hagar measure up to the memoirist's moral challenge with these books.
The time is 1985, one year before Ronald Reagan’s massive Tax Reform Act began a sweeping overhaul of the federal government's byzantine Internal Revenue Code.
The place is Peoria, Illinois, a gritty blue collar and farming town in America’s heartland.
In David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Peoria is home to the IRS’s Midwest Regional Examination Center, or REC. The IRS, of course, is the bureaucracy of all bureaucracies, or as a character in the novel describes it: “arguably the most important federal bureaucracy in American life”.
The mission of the IRS is to administer the income tax code, one of the most staggeringly complex pieces of legislation ever stitched and bolted together by the U.S. Congress. As the novel unfolds, the IRS is in the throes of change.
Adam Hochschild, a popular historian whose King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa spelled out the full story of the Belgian debacle that inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, has written a powerful new book about the loose coalition of pacifists and activists that fought bitterly against England's participation in the Boer Wars and World War One a century ago. The book is called To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
Hochschild is a rare popular historian who writes not about subjects designed to make male readers feel good about their masculinity (a visit to a bookstore's history section, after all, gives the impression that the Civil War and World War II were the only two wars ever fought) but rather about stunning or vexing episodes from our past that we know nothing about. I was not aware that there was a vigorous pacifist movement in England a hundred years ago. The invisibility of this past movement reminds me of the invisibility of the pacifist cause today, and Adam Hochschild is certainly interested in making the same connection. Here he is in the book's introductory chapter: