French film maker Philippe Ramos has recently released a film titled Capitaine Achab (Captain Ahab). It's the story of Herman Melville's obsessed sea captain, from the time he was a young boy until his last, fatal meeting with Moby Dick. The film won the FIPRESCI prize at the 60th annual Locarno (Switzerland) film festival. FIPRESCI is the Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique or International Federation of Film Critics.
Ramos' idea is interesting: imagine -- and fill in the gaps of -- Ahab’s life, which was sketched but not drawn in detail by Melville in Moby Dick. Ramos presents Ahab’s story in a series of vignettes. In presenting the tale in this fashion, the film maker deviates from the style of Melville's classic novel, which is packed with details on everything from whaling techniques to a psychological study of the interplay between Pip the cabin boy and Ahab. Instead, Ramos gives us five miniatures of Ahab's life, almost like five Vermeer oils, visually arresting and providing just enough detail to get a sense of Ahab's development.
Fiction and non-fiction writer Nicholson Baker, whose wide-ranging, exploratory intellect towers over most of his peers in both fields, has just written the most controversial book of his career, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Since Baker's career already includes industry-changing attacks on the destructive practices of library archivists, a novel about phone sex that figured in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, a novel about a frustrated American who very badly wanted to assassinate President George W. Bush, an intentionally goofy study of John Updike that breaks every rule of serious literary criticism, and a charming debut novel about a man riding an escalator in his office building, this makes Human Smoke very controversial indeed.
Baker's thick book, a chronological log of historical snippets ending in 1941, attacks our cherished myths about World War II as a "good war", and presents much evidence that this war's most incredible horrors could have been avoided if America and Great Britain had not chosen to take advantage of Nazi Germany's foolish military strategy by turning Hitler's inevitable defeat into their own plan for economic and military domination of Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.
Human Smoke is not a fun book. It could not be further from the pleasures of The Mezzanine or the sweet Room Temparature. I hope the critical discussion that follows will be an intelligent one. So far, Commentary doesn't think much of the book, but Mark Kurlansky in the L. A. Times considers it important.
I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss Human Smoke in a roundtable organized by Ed Champion for his Filthy Habits blog. The first of five installments is now up, and you can read my first impressions as well as those of others here.
I hope the myth-shattering aspects of this book -- Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt come off very badly, for instance -- do not distract readers from Baker's more positive suggestion that the much-mocked philosophy of pacifism, as embodied by Mahatma Gandhi and many other hardworking activists of the pre-World-War-II era, may still offer the world hope for its future.
I agree with this message, and I am very impressed with Nicholson Baker's bravery in writing this unusual book.
A couple of other notes. The talented blogger Maud Newton's site has been unconscionably hacked by pharmaceutical spammers, and all her posts deleted. Fortunately, she was able to restore everything, but relying on a hosting service's backup tapes to preserve a site of this stature is too close for comfort. I'd like to urge all bloggers to practice self-reliance: create your own backup CDs or DVDs of your SQL databases, preferably using the simple "mysqldump" utility or any other form of SQL backup. A hosting service's backup facility is not usually guaranteed in a hosting contract's terms of service, and even if it were, the hosting service can only be held financially responsible for the cost of the service, not the (often much greater) value of the content. Bloggers: backup thyselves.
What with the inhuman horrors of World War II and the aggravating injustice of spammers deleting valuable content, I find some meaning in this very short movie, "Dimwit Daryl Meets Vexed Volcano", by my younger daughter Abby, who has just discovered that she can create her own animated GIFs. Like the vagaries of life itself, this animation loops forever.
Till then, I can be a literary locavore. Here are four recently published books with lots of New York City flavor.
The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg
"A meditation on family, a window into glittering Williamsburg, and an unforgettable story" says Amanda Eyre Ward on the back cover of this fable about a neglected young wife (of a comatose famous artist) who breaks out of her shell. Williamsburg glitters? I don't know about that. But Jami Attenberg wrings a lot of charm out of the laundromats and stoops of northern Brooklyn in this leisurely-paced novel about trust, love and friendship in our jaded modern age. Attenberg's dishy voice reminds me of Fran Lebowitz at times (on an art dealer: "I guess she's entitled to her bat phone") and the cheerful tone keeps the book moving breezily along. But The Kept Man carries an undertone of ethical controversy -- especially when the narrator decides to end her comatose husband's life, against the will of his parents -- and it all eventually adds up to a message of self-affirmation that will please many readers.
New York Echoes by Warren Adler
What is a "New York" character? What do we do, how do we look, what do we sound like? (Okay, you know what? Don't answer. I'm not sure I want to know).
Warren Adler wrote the bitter novel that became the bitter movie The War of the Roses, writes. He writes about "New York characters", whatever exactly that means, in New York Echoes. These short stories are finely crafted miniatures, but I found an underlying nastiness in the two stories I read that didn't work for me (though I think many readers may find this tone appealing). One story was about a woman who tried to be helpful to everybody in her apartment building until she finally realized it was getting her nowhere, and so she stopped. I wished the story had a happy ending. The other story I read was about the horrible ending of an apparently horrible marriage. I wished this story had a happy ending too. Not my kind of sour pickle, but you might like it.
Gentleman Jigger by Richard Bruce Nugent
"Jigga ... (What's my mutha$&*%#! name) ..."
I didn't know that "Jigga" originated with a old racial rhyme: "Looky, looky, Gentleman Jigger -- half white and half nigger". Harlem Renaissance author Richard Bruce Nugent grabbed this phrase in 1928 and spun it into a novel about a gay, artistic upper-class African-American caught up in a Bohemian crime scene in Jazz Age Greenwich Village and Harlem. This novel, newly published in an attractive paperback original edition by Da Capo Press, offers a fascinating glimpse at a past literary age.
Queens Noir edited by Robert Knightly
Now this is close to home. Finally, Akashic's localized crime-fiction series has come to my beloved borough. This book could use a little more southside flavor, but my own central Queens (Rego Park, Forest Hills, Corona, Richmond Hill) is well represented, and so are the New York Mets. I read three stories that take place in spots very familiar to me, and here's what I thought of each:
• Buckner's Error by Joseph Guglielmelli posits a creepy scenario involving an unlucky Red Sox fan on the 7 train to Shea Stadium. Guglielmelli tells a tight tale, and he gets extra points for knowing his 1986 trivia.
• Bottom of the Sixth by Alan Gordon takes place at the Little League baseball fields a couple of blocks from where I live. I love seeing my neighborhood immortalized in "noir", and I like Gordon's Sopranos-esque dialogue and quirky portraits of Hasidic Jews, cops and local lowlife. Gordon also knows his Queens, as is evident in a chase scene through the little-known Whitepot Junction abandoned train interchange.
• Hollywood Lanes by Megan Abbott takes place in the bowling alley up the street in Forest Hills, across from the new Dunkin' Donuts. But guess what? Hollywood Lanes closed a year ago. And it's just as well, because I don't fully get this story. There are a few semi-married people flirting with each other in a bowling alley, and somebody gets hit by a car, and I'm sorry but I read it twice and I can't figure out what exactly is going on. It's probably my fault (I've always been a dense mystery-reader). I never bowled more than 120 in Hollywood Lanes, either.
That's it for this time around -- the Literary Locavore will be back again soon!
While I am clearly comfortable critiquing other newspaper book critics, I'd never imagined until recently that I'd ever see my own byline in print. I met editor Frank Wilson at a panel on book reviewing in 2006, and it's due to his generosity (as well as the encouragement of some blogging colleagues) that I was given this chance. I was nervous writing the review, and I sure was nervous as hell this morning reading it back. But I guess I sound like I know what I'm talking about, and I see I managed to name-check Wittgenstein and Descartes in an article about comedy, so it must be me.
LitKicks is still on hiatus (until Thursday or so) as I try to get our new poetry software to work. Happy New Year, people!
All Over by Roy Kesey
The first Roy Kesey short story I ever read was "Wait", which is included in the new collection All Over, the virgin publication of Dzanc Books. "Wait" begins quietly in an airline terminal where a flight is delayed. Slowly, like a frog being boiled in heating water, things get slightly worse, then more worse, and then they go completely unhinged. Kesey's expert handling of this amoral fable won him the admiration of Stephen King, who chose it for the 2007 Best American Short Stories (which is where I first read it, though you can find it in All Over as well).
Kesey has a great and odd sense of humor, but can he write a straight story, minus all the crazy world-goes-on-tilt stuff? In fact, the first story in All Over is "Invunche y voladora", a sobering realistic drama involving a honeymooning couple desperately trying to run away from their private problems by exploring the Chilean forests. The common denominator that ties "Invunche y voladora" to "Wait" to Kesey's other stories may be a smart sense of pyschology and an interest in edgy situations. Kesey is so edgy, in fact, that when I met him last month at one of Amanda Stern's Happy Ending readings I asked him if he had taken his name from Ken Kesey, the boisterous explorer of the Pacific Northwest. He hadn't, Roy told me, but I say there's a family resemblance, and the spirit serves Roy Kesey well. All Over is one of the better books published in 2007.
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
This is a fetching murder mystery with an appealing veneer of New York City 70s-80s punk attitude. I know the world whereof Elizabeth Hand speaks, and she describes it well. What I like best about Hand's book is the spiky and street-smart narrative voice, which still hints at innocence when the weary narrator (who tells us she can't be a meth addict because she's too lazy to work that hard) is compelled to leave Seinfeld-Town for the ghostly coast of Maine, where a reclusive Soho photographer is hiding a dark room full of secrets.
Elizabeth Hand's book is a fun ride with a likable narrator, even though the stock mystery plotting cost me some momentum. Still, a captivating voice is the one thing a novel lives or dies by, and on that account, Generation Loss lives.
The Swing Voter of Staten Island by Arthur Nersesian
Arthur Nersesian, acclaimed author of the Bukowski-esque The Fuck-Up, here takes us into an absurdist parody of New York City, which turns out to be an actual government reproduction of New York City (the real one was evacuated after a nuclear disaster) in the middle of the Nevada desert. The narrator wakes up and has to figure out where he is and what's going on, which is extra difficult because he has been brainwashed to murder somebody and has a voice transmitting in his head.
The book's back cover includes a gorgeous map of this bizarro New York City, which has everything wrong: Flatbush Avenue intersects Sutphin Boulevard, there are sandstorms in Bensonhurst, Nazi swastikas decorate parts of Manhattan, and all five boroughs are torn between two warring political parties out of a bad Martin Scorsese movie (yes, a bad Martin Scorsese movie, don't argue with me). I have to admit that I ultimately despaired of making much sense of who was doing what to who in this very hectic story, which includes more weird inside jokes (a folksinger named Fillip Ocks? people actually care what happens in Queens? WHAAT?) than I can keep track of. But the visuals, the Francis-Bacon-esque streetscapes, are enough on their own to make this worth checking out. Ultimately I got lost inside this strange city, but you might find your way. If you like Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown or Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blues (or Will Smith's I Am Legend) you may love The Swing Voter of Staten Island.
Symphony of the Dead by Abbas Maroufi
"A thin plume of smoke floated beneath the barrel arches and domed vaults of the nut-sellers' souk and forced its way out through the front gate. At the other end of the souk, a number of porters burnt wood in a brazier. A blanket covered their hands and occasionally, whenever they dared bring them out, they cracked watermelon seeds. Behind them, in a place looking somewhat like a crypt, three men were roasting the seeds in cauldrons. A mixture of smoke and steam rose into the air."
I'm drawn into Symphony of the Dead, a family saga by an Iranian exile living in Berlin, by the author's warm way with his characters as he slowly sets up the confrontations that will drive this story. I'm only beginning it now, but I'm also definitely intrigued by the epigram that opens the book, a quotation from the story of Cain and Abel that looks like it comes from the Bible, but it comes from the Koran. You may want to check out this book too.
Cion by Zakes Mda
I'm happy to discover a mature writer with a sly, powerful voice who I've never heard of before: Zakes Mda, lately of Athens, Ohio, formerly of Herschel, South Africa. Mda has had a long career writing novels with titles like The Heart of Redness and The Whale Caller (The Horse Whisperer meets Moby Dick?) and I may have to search them all out, because Cion, a satire about a "professional mourner" who leaves South Africa to inspect the United States of America in the year 2004, shows off the author's irresistibly sharp and pungent comic voice, which seems to combine Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's wild imagination with Isaac Bashevis Singer's folksy warmth. Here is Cion's hero explaining how he carried on his career in his native land:
In any event my professional mourning practice in South Africa was in a rut. Death continued every day, for death will never let you down. But the thrill of mourning was taken away by the sameness of the deaths I had to mourn on a daily basis. Death was plentiful -- certainly more than before -- but it lacked the drama of the violent deaths that I used to mourn during the upheavals of the political transition in that country. Now the bulk of the deaths were boringly similar. They were deaths of lies. We heard there was the feared AIDS pandemic stalking the homesteads. Yet no one died of it, or of anything related to it. Instead young men and women in their prime died of diseases that never used to kill anyone before -- diseases such as TB and pneumonia that used to be cured with ease not so long ago. At the funerals I mourned, the dreaded four letters were never mentioned, only TB and pneumonia and diarrhoea. People died of silence. Of shame. Of denial. And this conspiracy resulted in a stigma that stuck like pubic lice on both the living and the dead.
Actually, that's about the most un-comic paragraph I've read so far, but the book establishes and maintains a high tone of subterranean bemusement after the protagonist arrives in America and immediately finds himself in the midst of a wild bacchanal including an appearance by the protest group Billionaires for Bush.
I also like this book's cover artwork as well as the artwork for several other Mda books in this Picador series.
Continue Reading or not? Actually, now that I realize Cion is about a character introduced in earlier Mda novels, I think I'm going to pause this one and try to start with an earlier Mda novel instead. This is the kind of book that makes you want to start at the beginning.
Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
Some kind of humorous glow illuminates Joshua Henkin's affectionate tale of a hopeful writer's adventures in college and in marriage. The book begins with baby Julian Wainwright yelling "Out! Out! Out!" in a car somewhere in New England, which struck me initially as a tip of the hat to Robert Frost, but as the skillful Henkin develops his comedic lines and likable characters my thoughts turn instead towards Lorrie Moore, who I believe would get along with Joshua Henkin very well.
I have only deeply loved one campus novel in my life -- that would be The Secret History by Donna Tartt, for those of you who are new here -- so Henkin doesn't win any points with me by beginning his book at a hypothetical Graymont College. However, the description grabs my interest:
An alternative school, according to the Graymont brochure, on whose cover there appeared a picture of Rousseau sitting next to a cow. Henri Rousseau? Jean-Jacques Rousseau? The students didn't know, and they didn't seem to care.
The book is most remarkable for its breezy and gentle comedy, though I see the complexities of literary careers and idealistic marriages lying in wait for these characters and I really can't guess what turns this story will take.
Continue reading or not? Yes, I will continue reading this funny and undeniably "nice" book. Sentence by sentence, it's pretty much like eating candy.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I had to wait a long time to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's award-winning historical novel about the Biafran War (1967-1970), an under-documented horror that culminated in a starvation siege that eventually broke the minority Igbo people's will to secede from Nigeria. Maybe that's one reason I am disappointed to find this historical novel less unique in its storytelling approach than I'd hoped. I guess I was spoiled by such original African novels like Wizard of the Crow and, above, Cion, and I made the mistake of expecting to find similar richness here. But the young Adichie's flat prose voice and melodramatic plot recall Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner more than Crow or Cion (and, considering that Kite Runner sold a thousand times more than either of these better novels, I guess that's the whole idea).
Half of a Yellow Sun has saving graces -- a moving and funny sketch of an impoverished and eager child who is adopted as a "houseboy" and grows to be the novel's troubled conscience, and an affectionate but critical portrait of a radical Igbo intellectual who completely misjudges the political danger signs as Nigeria tightens its hold on the emerging nation of Biafra. But most of the characterizations misfire, and the pacing is a mess. At more than one turn, painful scenes of starving children with bloated bellies and flies around their patchy scalps are interrupted so the main character -- the book's heroine -- can get in touch with her feelings of jealousy towards her unfaithful husband.
I get the feeling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wanted to write a family story and didn't know how to combine that with a war story. Half of a Yellow Sun is the result. I do believe Adichie has talent and can do better, but based on this deliverable she's not the new Chinua Achebe just yet.
Continue reading or not? I already finished the book, more because I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing a great ending that explained the whole thing in retrospect. Turns out I wasn't.
I've got more notes to follow on my recent readings coming later this week or next.
I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.
The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.
The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.
Allen's follow-up Without Feathers was every bit as good, though a third volume called Side Effects began to show the unintended side effects of Allen's increasing overexposure (which would peak about two decades later). But even Side Effects had a few killer pieces, and you can rediscover all three books inside a new and very welcome volume, Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose.
Insanity Defense is a handsome and understated collection, smartly packaged as a $15 paperback. I don't like the title phrase as much as the Emily Dickinson-inspired "Without Feathers", and I'm sorry the excellent one-act plays that were included in that book don't make the "prose" cut here. But why complain? Here are just a couple of short samples of Allen's manic style, which will hopefully inspire you to buy the book like you should. First, from "A Twenties Memory":
Picasso's studio was so unlike Matisse's in that, while Picasso's was sloppy, Matisse kept everything in perfect order. Oddly enough, just the reverse was true. In September of that year, Matisse was commissioned to paint an allegory, but with his wife's illness, it remained unpainted and was wallpapered instead. I recall these events so perfectly because it was just before the winter that we all lived in that cheap flat in the north of Switzerland where it will occasionally rain and then just as suddenly stop. Juan Gris, the spanish cubist, had convinced Alice Tolkas to pose for a still life and, with his typical conception of objects, began to break her face and body down to its basic geometrical forms until the police came and pulled him off. Gris was predominantly Spanish, and Gertrude Stein used to say that only a true Spaniard could behave as he did, that is, he would speak Spanish and sometimes return to his family in Spain. It was really quite marvelous to see.
Or, from "The Irish Genius":
Liam Beamish went to Jesuit school with O'Shawn but was thrown out for dressing like a beaver. Quincy Beamish was the more introverted of the two and kept a furniture pad on his head till he was forty-one.
The Beamish Brothers used to pick on O'Shawn and usually ate his lunch just before he did. Still, O'Shawn remembers them fondly and in his best sonnet: "My love is like a great, great yak" they appear symbolically as end tables.
There's also a new volume of recent Woody pieces out, Mere Anarchy, but I'm sorry to say it doesn't fully capture that old 70's magic. I've already read several of the pieces in The New Yorker, but much has changed since Getting Even. Our psychotic sophomore has become an eccentric (at best) elder statesman, which isn't nearly as funny. Mere Anarchy is a fine volume, and you should really get both of these books as a set, but if you're only getting one, I suggest you reach for the classic.
And if you like what you find in either volume, dig up the comic writer who inspires Woody Allen's prose style more than any other, S. J. Perelman. Allen has never made a secret of the fact that his manic literary style is an homage to this older humorist, who wielded a massive vocabulary and regularly originated scattershot lines like the following, describing himself:
Denied every advantage, beset and plagued by ill fortune and a disposition so crabbed as to make Alexander Pope and Doctor Johnson seem sunny by contrast, he has nevertheless managed to belt out a series of books each less distinguished than its predecessor, each a milestone of bombast, conceit, pedantry, and stunning pomposity. In his pages proliferate all the weird grammatical flora tabulated by H. W. Fowler in his "Modern English Usage" -- the Elegant Variation, the Facetious Zeugma, the Cast-Iron Idion, the Battered Ornament, the Bower's Bird Phrase, the Sturdy Indefensible, the Side-Slip and the Unequal Yokefellow. His work is a museum of mediocrity, a monument to the truly banal.
This is comedy writing from the masters, and the stuff still scans.
Woody won't mind if we use this space to say goodbye to another one of his role models, the great director Ingmar Bergman, who has died. Allen referenced Bergman constantly in his career -- A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy was a direct spin on Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, for instance (Smiles of A Summer Night, itself a Shakespeare fantasia, also became A Little Night Music in the hands of Stephen Sondheim). My favorite Bergman film is his most classic, the stark Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death to save the life of a baby.
Woody Allen also famously parodied The Seventh Seal in one of the plays that appears in Without Feathers but not in the upcoming collection, "Death Knocks", which features a grumpy old Jew who challenges Death to a game of gin rummy.
Farewell also to Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49'ers, who I enjoyed watching through several Super Bowls, and finally to TV journalist Tom Snyder. When I was a teenager, Tom Snyder was something like a Jon Stewart to me. I particularly remember his Charlie Manson interview ("off the space shuttle, Charlie"), and the John Lydon confrontations, and I also remember a hilariously painful silent conversation with the folksinging Roches, who he just didn't get and couldn't think of anything to say to.
If there's a war on (and, these days, there's usually a war on), I want to be reading about it. I appreciate first person accounts, either fictionalized or not, and Kristen Tsetsi's Homefront, an emotional novel about a young married couple's separation when husband Jake is shipped to Iraq, is a worthy new entry in this category.
What I like about this book is the narrator's stark voice, fervently moody and explosive as she hunts for news of her faraway husband and interacts crankily with others in the military-base community that is her home. Tsetsi knows how to write gripping paragraphs:
Janis Joplin says there is no tomorrow, that staying up all night means today never ends, so while Jake sleeps, I sit at the kitchen table and listen to the helicopters flying the pattern. Listen to the artillery exploding at the weapons range on post, five, six miles away. I open the window, smell the snow, listen to the cars on the main road, trucks wheezing up the hill, bass rattling in the window-tinted Lincoln that rolls down our street every night at eleven sharp.
Some minor complaints: I wish Tsetsi put more effort into describing the external features of her environment as well as she describes the human interactions. Also, the book's packaging is undistinguished, particularly a greeting-card-like cover photograph that doesn't really capture the depth of the words within.
Continue or not? Yes. I want to know what will happen to these characters, which is the best reason to continue any novel.
Transfer by Alan King
Maryland-based poet Alan King writes appealing free verse with a rich range of reference and a lively bounce:
the smell of wings and thighs
drenched in Tabasco, wafting
through plastic bags, both of us soaked
where we reached your front door
where i remember your mouth
a moth orchid opened in a sun
shower when you tilted your head back
and caught cloudburst on your tongue
while fumbling for keys
i remember wanting to put our food
in the fridge, love you to a monsoon
resonating off the panes, make you
my only consumption and catch
every vowel coming from your mouth
Continue or not? Well, this chapbook is a good browse, but I may take a cue from the author's numerous MySpace links and just check his poetry pages there instead.
Lives and Legends: William Faulkner by Carolyn Porter
I'm not a huge William Faulkner fan -- I sometimes wonder if he's partly to blame for Cormac McCarthy -- but I'm curious enough about what motivated the Bard of Mississippi to check out the first few pages, and I like the biographer's pointed opening, in which she dives right into a strange, jokey autobiographical blurb Faulkner wrote in mid-career and spins off a number of surprising observations about the way Faulkner (who was born William Falkner) consciously invented his public image.
I like a biography that opens strong. Too many literary bios begin with breathless flash-forwards to their subjects' peak moments -- "as Fyodor Dostoevsky turned to face the adoring crowd, tears welled in his eyes" -- or with thick, dull recitations of their subjects' ancient family backgrounds. By getting right to the heart of her book's basic argument, Porter captivates me beyond my expectations.
Continue or not? Yeah, I'm hooked, but I doubt I'll make it to the end.
The Beat Face of God by Stephen D. Edington
When I was a kid I used to enjoy a book called The Gospel According to Peanuts. That book was written by a preacher, and so was The Beat Face of God (Steve Edington is a Unitarian minister). I've met Steve at many Jack Kerouac-related events, and I know he knows his stuff. It's not hard to find the spirituality in Beat Generation literature (religion pretty much abounded in the writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Snyder, McClure et. al.) and Steve Edington's introduction will inspire many readers looking for another viewpoint on the Beat legend.
Continue or not? I enjoyed a quick browse and may spend time with it again.
That's it for the July book notices, folks. I wish I could have covered even half of the books I received in the mail, but I did my best. I especially regret having to skip many poetry chapbooks, because I just can't do them justice. Maybe Action Poetry is a better bet.
Until a package from Toby Press showed up in my mail, I didn't even know there was a legendary Hebrew language experimental novelist named S. Yizhar who once wrote "the longest work written in stream of consciousness modality in any language". I'm sure I read the news item when the nearly nonagenarian author died last year, but it wasn't until I looked at these new volumes that I felt a sense of this writer's presence.
Both Preliminaries and Midnight Convoy represent this author's lesser known work. Preliminaries is a late career novel and Midnight Convoy collects his short pieces. I understand from Dan Miron's introduction that a 1958 tome called Days of Ziklag (the stream of consciousness novel) is one of Yizhar's signature works, and that many younger Israeli writers have called the novelist a key influence. He seems to have played a similar role in the creation of Israel's literary consciousness that Palestinian novelist Elias Khoury is attempting to play now with books like Gate of the Sun. He was active in left-wing Israeli politics and served in the Knesset for several terms.
Preliminaries is an impressionistic narrative wash that moves at a stately pace. Early on, an uncomprehending child is stung by a wasp. There are passages like this:
Lines? Colours rather. And the onward movement. All the time. Unfed except by nothingness and the movement of light on a leaf. And so terribly curious was everything around without cease. People less so. And Daddy. Mummy too? Or those curves there and the continuity continuing immeasurably great. And all the time discovering all the time more. And pain. Yes. Because. And lots and lots of don't want to. And suddenly.
Continue or not? I feel a strange dilemma here. I am intrigued to learn of this writer, but the introductions do such a good job of talking up his signature book Days of Ziklag that I'd prefer to read that one instead of these. I hate backing into any author's work! But Days of Ziklag does not appear to be currently in print in English. I hope Toby Press will be continuing this series.
Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
Min JIn Lee is a young Korean writer from Queens, New York with a charming but bitter realistic voice. Free Food For Millionaires appears to be a Thackeray-esque tale of a vulnerable young woman succeeding in a mean world. In the first scenes, the heroine leaves home after being struck by her father and is betrayed by her boyfriend. Then she maxes out her credit card and the adventures begin.
Continue or Not? I like this author, and I love the book's street-smart Queensboro flavor. I will be eagerly checking out Lee's future work, but I did falter over the length of this novel. 576 pages for a debut coming-of-age novel? Thackeray is dead, and readers have day jobs to get back to. I know I would enjoy this book if I persevered, but I ultimately felt it was written for people with more leisure time than I have.
Throw Like A Girl by Jean Thompson
This is a book of short stories that seem to me very much in the classic mold of the modern literary short story. They are sleekly designed, the language is crystalline and the characters waste no time making themselves memorable. If I had any trouble with this collection, it's just because I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the large amount of short story goodness in the world out there, and unsure how to process it all. Where do I even start?
I'm judging this collection on the basis of two stories. "The Brat" presents a cutely troubled 12 year old girl whose voice strains too hard to be exuberantly youthful. But "Pie of the Month" grabs me with its theme of pastry-toned spirituality and its surprising, almost random (but good) final message. One for two.
Continue or Not? Yeah, I'll check out at least one more story in this collection. I'm intrigued enough.
When the Skyline Crumbles (sample here) and View from the Big Woods by Eliot Katz
Eliot Katz learned his political and personal activism from his mentor and fellow New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg, and he still writes angry poems with an unabashedly Ginsberg-esque flow. Eliot is an old friend of LitKicks so rather than "review" his poems I'll just give you a pleasurable sample:
It is snowing in Athens tonight & Apollo with ice in his beard is having a difficult time singing
About six twin engine miniplanes have crashed coast to coast in empty fields & a Bank of America building
My love, you know that death is both a separation and a permanent glue
You know that I am the son of a patient duct tape expert and the daughter of a wine never allowed to age
One of these books is explicitly political, while the other is set among mountains and trees, catches the flavor of the great American west, but is no less explicitly political for all that, as when he asks the late spirit of Allen Ginsberg, from the top of a gorgeous mountain:
Did you ever think we'd elect a president dumb as GW?
Continue or Not? Hah. I already finished both chapbooks.