Friday, October 7, 2016

White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)

On August 17, 2016, a little over a month ago, I posted my "15 authors" list on Facebook.  The first comment was, "This is a lot of dudes."  And yeah, right after I posted, I noticed to my horror that all 15 authors were male, and perhaps even worse, all were white.  Apparently my worldview is extremely limited and I can only appreciate authors that reflect my privilege.  But let's put all that to the side, because the real point of sharing such a list was to find out other writers I should be reading.  My friend Melissa suggested about a dozen other authors, most of them female, most or all of them non-white.  From that, I asked her which books she would recommend the most highly.  This was not an easy decision, but she settled on White Teeth and Americanah.  Well Americanah will be picked up from the library shortly, and White Teeth was a good read.  Will it be named to the "best books" list?  No, but I would still highly recommend it.

Here is the plot: as the novel opens, Archie Jones, 47, white English male, is attempting suicide by asphyxiation in his car.  He is depressed over the departure of his wife.  On a side note this was a very good way to open up a novel.  A list of "compelling opening scenes" should be compiled at some point.  In short it was immediately engaging.  Anyways, his attempt is thwarted, and he goes to a kind of hippie commune that same day and meets Clara, the 19-year-old daughter of a Caribbean immigrant.  This takes place in roughly 1975.

The novel then jumps to the perspective of Samad Iqbal, Archie's friend of 30 years.  They first meet while serving together in World War II.  Samad is originally from Bangladesh, and also marries a much younger woman around 1975, Alsana.  Both women become pregnant around the same time: Clara with a girl, and Alsana with twin boys.  These children--Irie, Millat and Magid--eventually drive the narrative to its climax.

And that's kind of my problem with the novel.  It's not that the material with Irie, Millat and Magid is inferior to the rest of the novel; it just feels like it was written to have a "real plot."  The "real plot" of the novel does not get introduced until page 343 (out of 448).  I'm not saying the last 100 pages are bad, I'm just saying they are not as good.  Regardless, many may actually find the ending to be the best part, because it does pose some interesting questions, and there is a delightful twist of sorts at the very end.  But I say this for my own personal feelings on the novel.  It is at its best when it is examining and developing the interior lives of its characters.

I read in City Lit bookstore in my neighborhood that Smith received an advance of 350,000 pounds for the novel at age 24.  To me, it feels like she got the advance, and still had to write the last 100 pages.  I am probably completely wrong with this, but that's what it felt like.  Certainly, she makes a good case that she deserved an advance of that size, but for me personally, it felt like the end of the novel feels padded.  Particularly when, for example, in the final denouement, characters make commentary on the way other characters talk:

"...Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.  'Science,' Archie repeats, handling it more firmly, 'is a different kettle of fish.'
Mickey nods at this, seriously considering the proposition, trying to decide how much weight he should allow this counterargument Science, with all its connotations of expertise and higher planes, of places in thought that neither Mickey nor Archie has ever visited (answer: none), how much respect he should give it in light of these connotations (answer: fuck all. University of Life, innit?), and how many seconds he should leave before tearing it apart (answer: three).
'On the contrary, Archibald, on the bloody contrary.  Speeshuss argument, that is.  Common fucking mistake, that is.  Science ain't no different from nuffink else, is it?  I mean, when you get down to it.  At the end of the day, it's got to please the people, you know what I mean?'
Archie nods.  He knows what Mickey means.  (Some people--Samad for example--will tell you not to trust people who overuse the phrase at the end of the day--football managers, estate agents, salesmen of all kinds--but Archie's never felt that way about it.  Prudent use of said phrase never failed to convince him that his interlocutor was getting to the bottom of things, to the fundamentals.) " (432-433)

Within that example of what I consider "padded writing," there are some alluring turns of phrase, so even though I may accuse Smith of tacking on a few words, there is no doubt that she is an extremely talented writer.


Sometimes when I'm struggling to figure out what to say about a book, I go on the Wikipedia page.  There I found that White Teeth was apparently named one of the 100 best books from 1923 - 2005 by Time Magazine.  It seemed like an alluring list, so I tried to check it out, but it's in one of those annoying slideshow formats where you have to click every time you want to see the next novel.  I thought I'd make a list of the things I hadn't read, but there were already many in the A-B section (The Adventures of Augie March, Appointment at Samarra, An American Tragedy, Animal Farm, Are You There God?  It's Me, Margaret, The Assistant....) and then upon revisiting it, realized you may view it by simply clicking "view all."

I'm not sure how I feel about this, but I guess people feel this book is pretty special.  I mean, I'm certainly open to the idea of reading more of Zadie Smith (I think she has a new book coming out very soon--Swing Time, due out November 16, 2016, upon investigation).  But I feel like none of her books after this have really made as big a splash.  I mean, she is like, eight years older than me, and she published this sixteen years ago!  It's kind of an old school preternatural literary debut.  Who knows, her best work may still be ahead.  (Of special note, this list does also include Watchmen in the W section so we agree at least on one book, and a few others it seems--I didn't formally name American Pastoral to the list, but I feel it belongs there.  So maybe that's a project for another day, updating that list--it's on my Profile to the right if you don't know what I'm talking about.  I haven't added anything to that list since January--but let me put it this way: I really liked this book, but I also really liked The Goldfinch and I think that book moved me more deeply.  And on that so-called "second tier" I would still place higher Then We Came to the End.)


In a way I read this book to try to understand my own privilege as I have lately been accused of being blind to it.  Once I was attacked upon an argument involving the issue, and directed to read an article online that someone had written, a white dude who had every conceivable woe foisted upon him, including a particular poverty-stricken childhood, and who had doubted his own privilege until he made a certain realization.  One of them was seeing a person of your own race on the front of the newspaper.  The most poignant passage on the topic comes on the heels of a brief conversation about Salman Rushdie, though he is not mentioned by name (it has to be Rushdie, right?):

"'You read it? asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.
There was a general pause.
Millat said, 'I haven't exackly read it exackly--but I know all about that shit, yeah?'
To be more precise Millat hadn't read it.  Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not pick out the writer in a lineup of other writers (irresistible, this lineup of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb).  But he knew other things.  He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshiped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered.  In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in this country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands." (194)

I am still not adequately convinced.  At least by the character of Millat.  There are a couple elements to the book that I find uneven, and one of them is Millat and his embrace of KEVIN.  I mean, I've just got to say, Millat to me, as a character, does not scream "underprivileged."  Much is made of his attractiveness, and how he sleeps with tons of girls starting when he is like 13.  He is one of the most popular kids in his class.  Ultimately his character flaws show by how sarcastic and casually disrespectful he is towards seemingly everyone, but that does not mean one would not want to have his life (or think he had any less options than them).  He seems to have it pretty good--so why would he join KEVIN?  I think if this book were written today, he would not be nearly as popular at school.


This review has taken a long time to write because a lot of things happened during the month of September.  I feel that I've said enough, but a quick summary, as I read through the plot summary on Wikipedia:

(1) Yes, the book starts on a high note--and opening up a book with a major character's attempted suicide seems like it was pulled out of The Crafty Author's Bag o' Tricks (not a real book).

(2) The scene set in World War II is particularly memorable, and the "twist" at the end (despite my general misgivings about the "plot") is almost masterful, one of the highlights of the novel.

(3) All of the stuff about Mangal Pande is boring, to me at least.  I think it's funny how the other characters are also bored by it, and the novel seems to keep putting off telling his story, even seeming to refer to it in one of the "years" that the chapters of the novel are organized by, only to skirt over the story briefly, which turns it into an intriguing delusive move.

(4) The Chalfens are an interesting curveball to throw into the novel, to set the plot in action, and actually the last "set" of chapters before the "plot" commences at page 343 is probably my favorite part of the book.

(5) Irie is the one character that rings most true in the novel.

(6) I do not believe that Samad would get away with sending Magid to Bangladesh.  That is another major element of the novel that I just do not find realistic, I'm sorry.  Not that he would go, but that he would go in the manner he does.

Now I've also found that a television adaption of the novel was made for Channel 4 in 2002.  Perhaps I'll seek that out.  Even though I am kind of drawn to the idea of reading and watching The Girl on the Train, in the same way that I did with Gone Girl, that movie isn't getting very good reviews and I feel like this would be a more interesting adaptation to see.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Bossypants - Tina Fey (2011)

This book was sitting out on my back deck for about a year.  I think my roommate got it from a Goodwill for $3.00.  I was waiting for a new book to arrive from the library.  I read it during the week I was off from work.  The opening pages were hilarious.  Most of the book is very funny.  It is very self-deprecating, which makes it reassuring.

There isn't really a plot, because this is a memoir.  The best I can provide is an overview.  For the most part, the book is chronological.  It starts off with a trio of chapters called "Introduction," "Origin Story," and "Growing Up and Liking It."  The title of the third chapter is a window into the type of memoir Fey has written: this is not a memoir about deep pain and psychological torment.  However, the chapter does delve into the experience of getting her first period and defining the moment when she "knew she was a woman" and no longer a girl.

The next chapter, "All Girls Must Be Everything", is particularly affecting, as Fey points out all of the different ways that women's bodies may be deemed imperfect, and how ideal conceptions of female beauty changed in the 90's, particularly when "JLo turned it butt-style." (22)

The following chapter, "Delaware County Summer Showtime!", is much longer and details her time over two summers at the end of high school working for a youth theater program  in her hometown.  This seems to be where she got her real start on her career path, but it is more about how she came to befriend and accept many different types of people (i.e. gays and lesbians) beyond their role as "props" in her life where she preferred them to stay in the "half closet."

The next chapter is about her father, and basically about how he made her fear for her life, and how she didn't really get into trouble as a result.  There is a very funny anecdote about his attempt to shampoo their carpet.

This doesn't seem like a very good review, does it?  I mean I am just kind of going chapter by chapter here (or more accurately, "essay by essay").  Overall, this is how the book feels to me: it's not something that was sitting in Fey's mind just screaming to get out.  It's something that was done because she's a celebrity, and a very intelligent one that writes very well.  It was to capitalize on her success, which arguably hit its peak in 2008 when she returned to SNL as a guest to portray Sarah Palin, all while she was working on 30 Rock, which should go down as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.  (She is remarkably self-deprecating about its popularity, as with everything else.)  Bossypants hits its climax when she describes her life during that period.  It feels like the apex of a career.  Not to say that Fey has not done excellent things since then (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - which I have only seen a few episodes of - has been a modest success; though I heard Sisters was not), but she is not the type of celebrity that wants to have the spotlight all the time.  Of course people would want her and Amy Poehler (who crosses paths with Fey at both Second City and SNL) to host the Oscars, but she only wants to do it if it's fun.  She probably makes a very comfortable living and does not need to keep lining her pockets, and from what she writes in the book, it seems like she prefers a simpler life than the one in showbiz that she's been dealing with for the last 20 years or so.  She's still quite young (same age as my oldest sister) and has accomplished a lot, so it is interesting to think of what she might do next.  It doesn't seem like she will do anything unless she really wants to do it.

I first got my glasses at age 17, and around that same time, Fey began her tenure as co-host of "Weekend Update."  At the time, my dad told me that I should be successful, because I looked like Tina Fey.  Or something to similar effect.  Whatever, weird anecdote.  Only time my father told me I looked like a girl and it was a compliment.

But that is just what Fey can do--turn my father, who is not exactly always the most progressive person in the world, into a fan of her wit and perspective.  She is one of the most important entertainers over the past three decades and a great deal has to do with her intellect.  Or rather, when she deprecates herself and makes herself appear less intelligent than she really is.

One thing she does not address in Bossypants is the question that I would ask her: how much of Liz Lemon is Tina Fey?  It would appear that there is little to no difference between the two, except that Tina Fey is married and has a child.

"Climbing Old Rag Mountain" reads like a short story, and is one of the best parts of the book.  It details an adventure she had with a pseudo boyfriend of hers in college, who invited her on a date to go hiking up a mountain at night, and then also invited his roommate.  Her pithy asides are hilarious in this chapter:

"There was a kid, older than me, an architecture student who did plays in the drama department on the side.  I won't use his name real name because I think he'd find out about it and it would give him too much satisfaction.  I'll refer to him instead by how he looked at the time, which was like a handsome Robert Wuhl.  Go spend an hour trying to picture exactly what that could be and pick up the book again when you've got it.
Welcome back." (59)

"Young Men's Christian Association" is another highlight of the book (perhaps just this back-to-back section may be its strongest single part) and details Fey's time working at a YMCA in Evanston, IL when she first moves to Chicago in the early 90's.  I particularly liked how she would reward herself with Giggio's Pizza once a week in Evanston because I also would have that same pizza, but perhaps a couple years later.  More like the mid-90's.  This is the only mistake I can find in the book, though, because it is actually Gigio's, with one g.  Regardless, the anecdotes in this chapter are amongst the most affecting.  It actually reminded me a bit of the book which is the subject of our previous post.

From there she chronicles her time at Second City in "The Windy City, Full of Meat" and follows it up with the story of her honeymoon cruise with her husband which is a take off on David Foster Wallace and is another serious highlight of the book.The next few chapters are focused on beauty and body image.  To me this was kind of a retread of "All Girls Must Be Everything" and there are a few chapters in this book that definitely feel like padding.  I mean, it's consistently entertaining--Fey is a talented writer and storyteller.  But it just feels like there's a few things she knows she needs to write about, because they're such good stories, but then there's a few other chapters that feel like less "significant" humor essays.

"A Childhood Dream, Realized" is about her time starting at SNL.  This is the beginning of the run of chapters that will probably be most interesting to readers, because there are so many celebrities involved.  Fey does not drop any major bombs, though, except that Sylvester Stallone would smoke a cigar during meetings for the week he hosted, and it made him look like kind of a bad-ass.  "Peeing in Jars with Boys" continues in this vein and there are some nice behind the scenes stories from SNL.  There is a short essay tribute to Amy Poehler, and then another essay on "beauty" or what have you, about how to prepare for a photo shoot.  On a totally serious note, I think this is probably a really insightful and useful essay for those of us that manage to make it to the point of being featured in a major photo spread, or on the cover of a magazine.  Of course it's goofy and silly, but it also seems really practical.  "Dear Internet" is another short "humor essay," but it is actually probably my favorite of such in the book, because its such a perfect idea for Fey to respond to internet trolls for a few pages.

"30 Rock: An experiment to Confuse Your Grandparents" comes in at page 169, and  Fey goes on for another approximately 100 pages covering that era from 2005 to the present (2011).  It seems clear that she has more to say about 30 Rock because it really is her show in a lot of ways.  She had many collaborators on both, but 30 Rock seems like more of a major creative statement, overall, than the many brilliant moments she had on SNL.  It seems more autobiographical and compelling, though perhaps it is only because there is no "Best Of" DVD like there is for Amy Poehler.  I guess the problem is that being a host of "Weekend Update" does not make for the best "Best Of" DVD.  Of course all of her Sarah Palin appearances would be documented, and Fey describes this as probably the highlight of her career at SNL, which is really kind of like a mini post-career.

This chapter, "Sarah, Oprah, and Captain Hook, or How to Succeed by Sort of Looking Like Someone," is probably the highlight of the book as a whole, as she tells of how she was getting Oprah to appear on 30 Rock and preparing to play Sarah Palin on SNL.  It's a very long and detailed chapter, but it effectively develops a kind of "frenzied" state of storytelling.

From there the book goes onto motherhood.  The first chapter about this period is basically all about breastfeeding versus formula.  The next chapter is actually one of the more charming ones, detailing how Fey and her family travel over the Christmas holiday to see both sides of their family.  The next chapter is about raising her daughter with the use of a babysitter and how she disapproves of how short she cuts her daughter's fingernails.  There is then "The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter," which is humorous, and "What Turning Forty Means to Me," which is three sentences long and kind of perfect.  It then ends with "What Should I Do with My Last Five Minutes," which reads a lot like its title implies.  It does however end on a touching and funny anecdote.

So overall, there is far more good than bad, and whatever criticisms I make are probably not all that valid.  Yes, it feels a tiny bit "padded" to me, but approximately 75% of this book is excellent.  Fey is a cultural icon that will be remembered for generations to come, and she has done well to leave behind a document like Bossypants.

Oh and that is a really crazy cover.  Perhaps it is worth noting that the edition I read was the hardcover without a cover jacket.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris (2007)

I first heard about Then We Came to the End when it came out back in 2007.  I was taking a writing class at the time at StoryStudio Chicago and one of my classmates mentioned it.  I remember nothing substantive about the comment, but my guess is that it had something to do with its narrative voice.  The first thing that most people hear about this book is that it is written in the first-person plural (i.e. "We" rather than "I").  The second thing most people hear about this book is that it is about life at an ad agency during a period of layoffs.  It is about office life. Because of its "experimental" narrative voice, it reminded me of Bright Lights, Big City, which was written in the second-person. Both are very good books, but I actually liked this one slightly better.  I'm flirting with whether to add it to the "best books reviewed on Flying Houses" list.

I will say this about one of the characters.  You know how sometimes, when you forget your password for something on the internet, they ask you a secret question to confirm your identity?  Sometimes that question is, "who is your favorite fictional character" and I never have a good answer.  Well, this book gave me a good answer, for once.  I mean, anybody can say Holden Caulfield, anybody can.  That's easy to guess.  But now I have a good answer: Tom Mota.  And I'm probably really screwing that up by writing about it, but so be it.  Tom Mota is a great character; he's sort of everything I wish I could be in a professional setting--but that would never be acceptable.  He's a kind of fantasy character.  Take, for example, the epic e-mails he writes addressed to everyone in their office:

"The subject line read, 'I Consign You and Your Golf Shoes to Lower Wacker Driver.' 'The tomatoes in my garden are not coming out,' he continued.  'Maybe because I only have the weekend to work the garden, or maybe because the garden keeps getting mowed over by the goddamn Hispanics who tend to the grounds of the apartment complex I've been living in since the state forced me to tell my house in Naperville and Barbara took the kids to Phoenix to live with Pilot Bob.  Do I have an actual garden?  The answer is a big fat no, because the goddamn woman in the property office won't listen to reason.  She keeps insisting that this is a rental property, not your backyard.  Flower borders, that's all we want, she says.  So the goddamn Hispanics go out and tend the marigolds along the borders.  But do you understand, I'm talking about fat, ripe, juicy, delicious red tomatoes that I want to grow with my own two hands through the bountiful mystery and generosity of nature!  That dream ended when Barb started sleeping with Pilot Bob and we gave up Naperville.  Anyway, would I like a garden?  YES.  Matter of fact I would like a farm.  But at the present moment I'm afraid all I have is apartment 4H at Bell Harbor Manor, which is neither a harbor nor a manor and contains NOT ONE SINGLE BELL.  Which one of you wizards came up with the name 'Bell Harbor Manor'?  May your clever tongues be ripped from their cushy red linings and left to dry on pikes under the native sun of the cannibal land.  Ha!  I will be called into the office for that one but I'm leaving it, because what I'm trying to get at here is that I'M NOT SURE ANY OF US KNOWS just how far we have removed ourselves not only from nature but from the natural conditions of life that have prevailed for centuries and have forced men to the extreme limits of their physical capacity in order simply to feed, clothe and otherwise provide for their families, sending them every night to a sweet, exhausted, restorative, unstirred, deserved sleep such as we will never know again..." (37-38)

That's only about half of the e-mail but I don't want to break the record for the longest excerpt on the blog.

There is no main character in this book, but a few hold center stage more often than others: Lynn Mason, Benny Shassburger, Joe Pope, Carl Garbedian, Marcia Dwyer, Karen Woo, Janine Gorjanc, Old Brizz, Jim Jackers and Chris Yop, Amber Ludwig, Larry Novotnoy, Hank Neary, and Don Blattner, apart from Tom Mota.  The plot is basically the drama of their lives.  Lynn Mason is basically the boss of all the other employees and may or may not have breast cancer.  There is an interlude in between the two "parts" of the novel ("Enter a New Century" and "Returns and Departures") called "The Thing to Do and the Place to Be" which breaks out of the first person plural voice and focuses directly on her, so she feels more significant.  Joshua Ferris, in an interview excerpted in my edition of the novel, also refers to this section as the emotional core of the novel, and the part that takes it beyond a basic farce.

This novel is very, very funny.  The words fly off the page and I was pretty much "into it" from page one.  While it was very engaging, it tended to lose me for just a little while, towards the end of the second book, where something sort of faux-dramatic happens.  That's probably the only reason I won't add it to the "best books" list--and it probably deserves it anyways.  Because I would have rolled my eyes at the faux-dramatic scene if it had just been dramatic instead.  Instead, it's sort of funny and lighthearted.

In terms of the other characters, Benny Shassburger receives a strange bequest from Old Brizz and has a crush on Marcia.  Joe Pope is effectively second-in-command and everybody resents him, except for Genevieve who is basically the most attractive person in the office.  Carl Garbedian starts acting strangely and has issues with his wife Marilynn, who is a very understanding doctor.  He starts taking medication prescribed for Janine Gorjanc, whose young daughter was abducted and strangled, who then got divorced and has a somewhat bizarre grieving ritual uncovered by Karen Woo, who is basically the biggest "gossip" in the office--though really this whole book is basically gossiping.  Jim Jackers is sort of pegged as an idiot and has a great uncle that comes up with brilliant marketing campaigns for him.  Chris Yop has a sort of ridiculous situation develop with the office chair that he has taken from another employee that was laid off.  Larry Novotnoy has an affair with Amber Ludwig and gets her pregnant and keeps hoping she'll get an abortion.  Hank Neary and Don Blattner are both writers, the former of failed novels and the latter of failed screenplays.

In short, the plot of this novel is very episodic, and exists primarily in the stories that the co-workers tell about one another.  It's almost like a collection of short stories.  It reminded me a lot of a children's book I read, Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  That was one of my favorite books ever growing up (as was its sequel, Wayside School is Falling Down), so maybe you can see why I liked this.  Those stories were a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I was in school too.  Now the stories in this novel are also a little ridiculous, but I could identify with them because I work in an office too.  In the interview after the book, Ferris does admit that the office of an ad agency is able to "get away" with more ridiculous behavior than would fly at say, a law firm, so maybe that accounts for some of the more unbelievable aspects.

Mainly I liked this book for the idiosyncratic reasons that I usually like books: while sexual confusion and substance abuse are not major (or even minor) themes in this novel, suicidal depression certainly comes up a few times, so I can dig it:

"We fought with depression.  One thing or another in our lives hadn't worked out, and for a long period of time we struggled to overcome it.  We took showers sitting down and couldn't get out of bed on weekends.  Finally we consulted HR about the details of seeing a specialist, and the specialist prescribed medication.  Marcia Dwyer was on Prozac.  Jim Jackers was on Zoloft and something else.  Dozens of others took pills all day long, which we struggled to identify, there were so many of them, in so many different colors and sizes....
Yet for all the depression no one ever quit.  When someone quit, we couldn't believe it.  'I'm becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,' they said.  'I'm touring college towns with my garage band.' We were dumbfounded.  It was like they lived on a different planet.  Where had they found the derring-do?  What would they do about car payments?  We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately."  (56-57)

A couple other things worth mentioning: this is a great Chicago novel.  There are not many novels about modern day Chicago.  Most are about New York.  There is a sequence in the "interlude" where Lynn Mason's sometime-boyfriend Martin blindfolds her and takes her on a Ferris Bueller-esque series of adventures around the city, quintessential Chicago things.  I found it a little bit cliche, but what can you do?  It was still a sort of sweet scene.  The book takes place in 2000 and 2001 and Potbelly gets referenced once or twice, back before it expanded around the country.  There are spot-on references to outlying suburbs like Palatine and Schaumburg and neighborhoods like Bridgeport and traffic routes like the I-88.  So basically this book might make you feel like your existence is worthy of being the stuff of literature if you live in Chicago rather than New York.

Another thing: this book was timely.  It came out in 2007, in eerie anticipation of the recession to come, what with all of the material about layoffs.  It's not about the same kind of market forces that fueled that decline, but it's a portrait of a more innocent time in our history, when "the game" didn't feel as "rigged."

This is turning out to be kind of a short review.  I thought I'd have all the time in the world to write it because I'm on my first "vacation" in nearly 10 years, but I digress.  If it's not already clear, I really, really liked this book, and I highly recommend it.  I am definitely interested in reading Ferris's follow-up novels and will hopefully get around to reviewing them in the not too distant future.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago - Mike Royko (1971)

I work at the corner of Washington and Clark, across from City Hall.  I've been working there about a year, and the year before that, I worked at the corner of Washington and LaSalle.  Both are (essentially) across the street from City Hall.  And that previous job was for the City of Chicago.  So it should come as little surprise that the history of our fair city holds more than a cursory interest to me.

I also spend my fair share of time at the Richard J. Daley Center, which I have to believe is one of the most horrible places on the face of the earth, an approximation of hell.  But it is what it is and I hope one day that I won't feel like I don't belong there every time I step up in a situation where I have to ask for something besides another continuance.  That or I hope I move onto greener pastures...

For most of my childhood, Richard M. Daley was the mayor of Chicago, and I like to think he did a decent job, except for the parking meter deal.  At this point it may be instructional to list all the mayors of Chicago since Richard J. Daley:

Richard J. Daley: 1955 - 1976
Michael A. Bilandic: 1976 - 1979
Jane Byrne: 1979-1983
Harold Washington: 1983 - 1987
Eugene Sawyer: 1987 - 1989 (I had never heard of him until I looked up this list)
Richard M. Daley: 1989 - 2011
Rahm Emanuel: 2011 - Present

So as you can see, the two Daleys ran this city for a combined 42 years out of the past 61.  Richard M's legacy is still being written, though he is no longer in the spotlight.  It seems fair to say that Rahm will not be re-elected for another term, but I'm sure he's read this book, so maybe he will.  Because Richard J. got through plenty of scandals on sometimes very similar issues and managed to keep winning.  Of course the patronage system has been disavowed, prohibited and excised, but one wonders whether that's really the case or if it's all a surface thing.  Rahm may have to work a miracle or two, but he seems just as ruthless as Richard J.  He also can be quite charming, such as the time he seemed to run up to me personally, standing on the sidelines at the 2015 Pride Parade, and shook my hand excitedly.

Ironically, I just received a second red light camera ticket today.  The first took place on June 25, 2016.  The second took place on June 29, 2016.  In the first, I was following a car that was turning right on a yellow arrow.  The yellow arrow went away, right as I was rounding the corner, and I guess I was technically turning right on a red light where there was a sign that said "no turn on red."  Isn't there usually like, a gap of a second before the opposite light turns red?  Yes, maybe in the suburbs, but not in Chicago!  There was an investigation into the length of yellow lights in the city about a year or two ago and it was found that they lasted about half as long as those in the suburbs.  In the second ticket, I actually stopped at the red light, but it was just past the white line before the crosswalk.  I'm going to contest both of these and will post in the comments the result, when I know.  I am on the hook for $200.  Clearly, the city needs this money more than me!

And that is the problem with Rahm--though I do believe that Richard M. instituted the red light cameras.  Enough about the current state of politics.  The whole point of this book is that Chicago is corrupt.  People have always known it is corrupt, but this book spells it out in extremely sarcastic detail.  It's a great read, hilarious at times and depressing at others.  I'd prefer not to focus on the most egregious violations of good faith and fair dealing, though perhaps the police scandal is worth a mention.  Instead, the story about fire chief Quinn must be relayed, for those that have not already heard it.  Basically, this book makes it seem like Chicago was run by a bunch of lunkheads, like a bush league city, and this story in particular is hilarious:

"Even a pennant won by the Chicago White Sox was grabbed by City Hall as a great civic event--but with disastrous results.  The night the Sox clinched it, Daley's fire chief, Robert Quinn, turned on the city's entire civil defense siren system to celebrate the championship.  However, he had not warned anybody that he was going to do it, so most of the city's 3,700,000 citizens thought the wailing of sirens at 11 P.M. meant they were about to go up in a nuclear cloud.  Thousands of them poured into the streets, called the police and newspapers, prayed, wept, and became hysterical.  Quinn's resignation was justifiably demanded by outraged citizens, but he is Daley's old Hamburg Club pal and was forgiven that and many future acts of inspired stupidity.  He would someday attempt to prove his firemen's fitness by sending them on a ten-mile jog down the center of the Kennedy Expressway at the peak of rush hour, causing one monumental traffic jam." (116)

The police are a major subject in this book, and sometimes, they don't behave like they're supposed to, but it doesn't seem like most people would mind.  I am thinking primarily of the casual bribes they would take for relatively minor traffic violations, to save people a trip to court.  I am sorry that I have never gotten the opportunity to cooperate in such a scheme:

"On the Southwest Side, another policeman stopped a motorist and used a different approach when the motorist didn't gift wrap his license.  He carried wooden pencils in his pocket, and he would announce: 'I have three kinds of pencils which I sell--a five-dollar pencil, a ten-dollar pencil, and a twenty-five-dollar pencil.  I think you need a ten-dollar pencil, don't you?' The pencils were seldom sold for more than twenty-five dollars, because that would have meant somebody had been run over, and fixing that required the cooperation of prosecutors and even judges and was not something that could be arranged on the scene." (109-110)

Other times, they're god-awful, and Richard J. had a scandal on his hands not unlike the one Rahm has had on his hands for more than a year now, both of which resulted in the firing of the superintendent of police.  However, Daley's involved the police engaging in burglary, rather than covering up unnecessary shootings.  He hired Orlando Wilson as the replacement, and perhaps one longs for the kind of change that he was able to make back in the day:

"Wilson took over and the transformation of the Police Department began.  But an even more amazing transformation was already underway.  Daley, who had been content to allow the Police Department to run wild for five years, had become Daley, the zealous reformer of same.  The scandal was off page one, and it was replaced by Daley vowing to whip the council into passing needed reform ordinances; Daley promising Wilson as much money as he needed for higher salaries and modern equipment; Daley going to Springfield to fight for new police legislation; Daley protecting Wilson from the reactionary political forces." (122)

The mention right there of "money" is perhaps the primary reason why that kind of change is unlikely to happen today.  For all the talk of corruption in Boss, there is scant mention of any budgetary issues.  The city's bond ratings were not barely above junk status, like they are now (or are they junk?  who knows, who cares...).

Eventually there are race riots and a contentious showdown with Martin Luther King Jr., which would probably make for a pretty good movie.  But the real climax of the book is its description of the 1968 Democratic Convention, where the police force, after Wilson retires, transforms into a kind of totalitarian mob.  Now I've only heard random things about this moment in history, but to hear Royko describe it, you'd think the world had gone mad.  There are several passages that portray the madness in brutal detail, so I will attempt to find a representative sample:

"One long-haired young man was suddenly yanked from the crowd, dragged into the plaza by several policeman, and flung into the pool.  Then they pulled him from the pool, dragged him across the plaza, and flung him against a wall.  Another man refused to lower his peace sign and was pulled from the crowd and beaten.  Another was knocked down and, while half conscious and thoroughly subdued, was sprayed in the face with Mace.
Some people got across the street and ran into restaurants, hoping to hide over a sandwich and a cup of coffee.  Policemen went in, dragged them out, and beat them.  A long-haired man who had left the rally early to browse in a nearby bookstore came out of the store without knowing what was happening.  He was struck on the head with a club." (176)

The book ends on another scandal that takes place on Daley's 68th birthday, where police raid the Black Panther headquarters and make up a story about a gun battle that was actually pretty one-sided.  Daley wins the election, again, and it ends on kind of an awkward note.  There are also amusing epigraphs to each chapter, with Daley being examined as a hostile witness in some kind of case, but we never learn what the actual case was about.  Maybe this is explained somewhere in the text, but I missed it.

In short, this book is a "classic" for this city, but few others may be interested apart from history students.  I suppose it would be quite interesting for aspiring politicians.  Many things have changed, but in a way they also stay the same.  It is not quite The Prince, but it is similar to it in spirit.  It is a hilarious and depressing book, and a fine, if troubling, portrait of a city that seems like it will always be a little bit troubling.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)

Back on June 11, 2014, I was working a document review project in the Willis Tower.  I sat next to a guy named Frederick who went by Eric.  He liked to read, too, and I mentioned how I had posted this article on my Facebook page.  I said I hadn't read The Goldfinch, but no book had a bigger buzz attached to it at that moment.  The next day he picked it up and started reading it and told me it was good.

It took me another two years to get up the nerve to tackle it, and I can say that, while I didn't get into it immediately, after about 150-200 pages, I got into it, and I thought it was very good.  Having said that, I am curious to revisit the article.

Basically, the article posits Tartt as a stellar storyteller, but a weak wordsmith--at least, in the opinions of Francine Prose and James Wood.  And to a certain extent that is true.  This does have a pretty good story and it is not surprising that it is being made into a movie.  As for the poetry of the words, I desist.  All I want to say, for starters, is that The Goldfinch bears striking similarities to my second novel S/M (as well as DST), but couched in a much more compelling story.  If you don't already know, this is a pretty big book--about 770 pages--but it goes down pretty fast.  I mean, I did not really get into this book at first, but once I did, I finished it in just a few weeks.  One night I must have read 50-70 pages before falling asleep, and that is rare for me.  That may have happened with City on Fire, but I would recommend this over that, whether it makes me a philistine or not.

Quick plot summary: Theodore Decker, 13, has gotten in trouble at school, and his mother has taken a day off work to go with him to a conference.  For some reason the conference doesn't start right at the beginning of the day, or the end, and they decide to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to check out the new Dutch exhibit.  Then, a massive bomb goes off inside the museum, and there is a great deal of confusion, and an injured old man convinces Theo to take the famous painting of The Goldfinch to protect it, or something.  I think I need to consult the text for this:

"'No! They mustn't see it.' He was frantic, gripping my arm now, trying to pull himself up.  'They've stolen the rugs, they'll take it to the customs shed--'" (37)

The man seems half-delusional, but perhaps there is a threat of it being damaged or stolen.  So Theo takes it, and gets out and goes home and waits for his mother to return.  When she doesn't, he starts to worry, and makes a number of phone calls.  The events during these tense hours seem realistic.  Ultimately Theo ends up going to his friend Andy's house and lives with him and his family, the Barbours.  His mother's life was lost in the bombing, and his father had walked out on them a year earlier.

Then, his father comes to New York with his new girlfriend, and they take Theo back with them to Las Vegas, where he meets his best friend, Boris.  I would say that this was the turning point in the novel for me.  Even though the bombing seems like it makes for an exciting opening, I didn't get into this book until Theo's father shows up.  I also think I will stop there with the specifics and try to avoid spoilers.  Let's just say Theo ends up going back to New York to live with Hobie, who was the old man's business partner in an antique shop in the west village.  There was also a younger girl with the old man at the museum, Pippa, and she also visits Hobie from time-to-time.  Pippa is the object of Theo's affection throughout the novel.  Then, the novel skips ahead a few years to when Theo is in his early 20's, and has become Hobie's partner in the business.

Many people die in this novel and sometimes it feels like a plot device, but it is really one of the major themes of the novel.  Antiques are another.  The meaning of art is another.  Drugs are another.  When I say that it reminds me of my second novel, I am talking primarily about the Las Vegas section (Part 2, starting at Chapter 5, which is at page 211) and the friendship between Theo and Boris.  There is even a passage that comes straight out of it:

"And yet (this was the murky part, this was what bothered me) there had also been other, way more confusing and fucked-up nights, grappling around half-dressed, weak light sliding in from the bathroom and everything haloed and unstable without my glasses: hands on each other, rough and fast, kicked-over beers foaming on the carpet--fun and not that big of a deal when it was actually happening, more than worth it for the sharp gasp when my eyes rolled back  and I forgot about everything; but when we woke the next morning stomach-down and groaning on opposite sides of the bed it receded into an incoherence of backlit flickers, choppy and poorly lit like some experimental film, the unfamiliar twist of Boris's features fading from memory already and none of it with any more bearing on our actual lives than a dream.  We never spoke of it; it wasn't quite real; getting ready for school we threw shoes, splashed water at each other, chewed aspirin for our hangovers, laughed and joked around all the way to the bus stop.  I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn't want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn't either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take seriously or get worked up about.  And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn't have the wrong idea.  But the moment had never come.  Now there was no point in speaking up and being awkward about the whole thing, though I scarcely took comfort in that fact." (300-301)

And then there is also the ending, where Theo languishes in a hotel room in Amsterdam, contemplating that no move is a right move, and that the only thing left to do is leave this world.  There are great moments of suicidal depression, sexual confusion and substance abuse/addiction, so of course I liked this book.  But yes, even though it won the Pulitzer Prize for 2014, I can't quite put it on the Best Books list because a lot of it just seems random and crazy.  Most especially, I found the whole "action sequence" in Amsterdam more confusing and tedious than not.  There is a lot of dialogue in this book, and much of the explanation in this situation comes from Boris, and I didn't fully understand what kind of scheme they were carrying out--but perhaps that thin layer of confusion was intentional on Tartt's part.

So I just read the original James Wood review in the New Yorker, and it's not the worst review in the world.  It does make the book sound like "children's literature for adults," but he also says a few nice things.  We actually agree that the writing in the Las Vegas section of the book is probably the strongest.  He also imagines whether the book would have been much better if the whole trope and theme of the "The Goldfinch" was excised, and focused instead on the emotional development of the main character.  And I think this is why it touched me, because that is essentially what I was trying to do with S/M.  But nothing really happens to that character that he doesn't bring on himself--nothing that traumatic, at least, compared to what Theo goes through.  There are a lot of similarities though, and it made me feel like, if we were writing about similar things, I was at least on the right track with a book as popular as this.  However, if there wasn't the trope of "The Goldfinch," then this book would be noticeably slimmer, and a completely different genre.  It would only be published because Donna Tartt seems like a total badass.  Put it this way: it made me want to read her other two novels.  I can't help but feel a huge soft spot for any book that has passages such as this:

"But depression wasn't the word.  This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.  The writhing loathesomeness of the biological order.  Old age, sickness, death.  No escape for anyone.  Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil.  And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game.  Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms.  Oh, isn't he cute?  Awww.  Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital.  Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent.  People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were.  But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it.  It was rotten top to bottom.  Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.  It was better never to have been born--never to have wanted anything, never to have hoped for anything." (476-477)

Occasionally, The Goldfinch is great.  There is a kind of Catcher in the Rye feel to it, only on a much bigger scale, with a kind of noir edge.  It's a pretty original story, ridiculous and absurd though it may be.  I've never been very interested in antiques, nor did I want to read about antiques, which is maybe why I thought the book started slow.  But eventually, Tartt made it compelling enough to me that I could tolerate it.  Perhaps the writing seems clunky at times, and it could probably be a lot shorter if there was more of an economy of language, but one cannot deny the way it pulses forward, pushing the reader with it.

The general consensus seems to be that the ending is "overwrought."  That is, not the action that closes the story, but what comes after--and the endless philosophizing of Theo about the nature of art.  I think it's a section that's designed to be quoted on mediums like Flying Houses.  So I'll try to pick something out, and maybe it'll be a nice way to end the review.

Is there anything else that needs to be said?  I think most of the controversial debate about this book took place two years ago, but maybe a brief conversation I had with a friend puts it into perspective.  I hadn't spoken or seen this friend in almost five years, but he told me about how he read Moby Dick and was completely blown away by it and how I had to read it--so it will go on "the list."  But I also mentioned this book to him and he said, "What, is that by Donna Tartt?" It's not fair to say that this book could be mentioned in the same breath as Moby Dick, but a person appreciative of that classic tome is at least aware of the author of this one.  I'm sure this is a much easier book to get through than Melville's.  So maybe so-called millenials and other similarly-situated future individuals with warped attention spans will consider The Goldfinch their Moby Dick.  I can't say if this book will last down through the ages or not, but I would venture a guess that the movie (if it manages to come to fruition) will have a huge influence on that result.  It will make for a difficult adaptation, to be sure, but I would humbly volunteer myself to be part of the "crack team of writers" (if Tartt was not interested herself) to do it.  One cannot doubt that it will at least make for a "fun" movie, despite the extremely depressing subject matter.

And here is a representative sample of the last 20 pages:

"And as terrible as this is, I get it.  We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth.  Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it's going to kill us.  We can't escape who we are.  (One thing I'll have to say for my dad: at least he tried to want the sensible thing--my mother, the briefcase, me--before he completely went berserk and ran away from it.)
And as much as I'd like to believe there's a truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion.  Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic." (770)

I don't want to analyze this passage too deeply; suffice to say, it speaks to me as a writer.  After this, I trust that Donna Tartt's other two books are worth reading, and I look forward to checking them out one day.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Autobiography - Morrissey (2013)

I don't know where to begin with this one.  It's another in the line of recent so-called indie rock memoirs that have been reviewed on Flying Houses, after Bob Mould, Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, and Kim Gordon.  Morrissey is a bigger star than all of them, and his Autobiography is much longer.  Stylistically it is also much more unique.

A quick word about my relationship with Morrissey: I love him, and have enjoyed his music since the early-to-mid aughts.  I would have to pinpoint You are the Quarry as the moment when his music began to take on a bigger role in my life.  I have pretty much the whole Smiths catalogue on my iPod (with the exception of Rank) and I have a few Morrissey albums--but something extremely curious has happened: most (almost all) of the Morrissey solo material (excepting Years of Refusal) is no longer playable on my iPod.  The songs still exist, but the iPod freezes up, and the songs get skipped.  No more "Suedehead" for me, nor anything off of Quarry.  I almost feel like the iPod has become self-aware, as the lyrics change on the Live at Earl's Court recording of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" from Joan of Arc's "Walkman" starting to melt to "iPod."  Apple fears Morrissey, and would rather silence him.

Now perhaps Moz himself would find this ridiculous (that a machine denies his music to me), but I would like to think he finds it rather amusing, because so much of Autobiography concerns itself with little ironies such as this: Morrissey is great, and everyone knows he's great, but he is still perpetually misunderstood and maligned regardless, singled out for his accomplishments, perhaps out of envy or the cruel nature of humanity.  He's too effete or he whines too much or he's too self-obsessed and people just don't give him the respect he's due--nobody except the fans, that is.  

But back to the book itself.  The most striking thing about this book, without question, is its structure, or lack thereof.  I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had zero chapters breaks, whose separation only came in the form of paragraph breaks or an extra space between paragraphs, so this may be the first.  In other words, it is not an easily digestible volume, and I feel this is done for stylistic reasons that go along with its unusual cover, which make it appear as if it truly is something from the Great Books canon, perhaps like an edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for use in a high school or college curriculum.  In form, it resembles 19th century literature.  Truthfully, there are many more music courses in college and I am sure this book could end up on a couple college reading lists.  At the very least, it sheds light on the oft-explored issue (on VH1's "Behind the Music") of the hapless musician faced with contracts he or she cannot comprehend, and the swindle carried out by record companies:

"...In time-honored tradition, we were just two more pop artists thrilled to death with the spinning discs that bore our names.  The specifics of finance and the gluttonous snakes-and-ladders legalities were deliberately complicated snares that all pop artists are expected to understand immediately.   The act of creating music and songs and live presentations are relied upon to sufficiently distract the artist so that labels and lawyers and accountants--so crucial to groups in matters of law--might thrive.  It is nothing new.  The basic rule, though, is to keep the musician in the dark at all costs, so that the musician might call upon the lawyer repeatedly.  In fact, pop artists live in a world that is at a dramatic distance from the world of commerce, and they are usually exclusively consumed by their gift or drive at the expense of everything else.  A vast industry of music lawyers and managers and accountants therefore flourish unchecked due to the musician's lack of business grasp.  Thus, any standard recording contract deliberately reads like ancient Egyptian script--surely in order to trick the musician.  Rather than hide your face under the bedcovers, you are thus forced to do business with those whom you least mind ripping you off--chiefly because you have no choice, and also because the law insists upon a documented trail of every penny that you earn--mainly so that someone might take it from you.  The artist is the enemy.  Solicitors are trained to squeeze as much money out of their client as possible, and accountants might deliberately steer their client into tax troubles so that those very same accountants are further needed to unravel the mess that they created in the first place..." (170-171)

The other reviews I've seen of Autobiography are predictably polarizing.  On the one hand, most recognize that this is not a perfect memoir, but there are occasional flashes of brilliance.  On the other, many profess that it is in dire need of a strong edit, and no one will fail to mention the 1996 Smiths Trial.  Now personally, for me, this was the best part of the book.  It just kept going, and going, and going, and I thought it would go on until the book ended.  At first I thought it was ridiculous that he would spend 25 pages discussing this trial in sharp detail.  It actually ends up going on for 50 pages.

But before we get there, we have to hit on the first target of Morrissey's ire: Geoff Travis, the "moral conscience" of Rough Trade Records.  There are about two anecdotes where Travis comes off well (an extremely complimentary letter on The Queen is Dead stands out); at every other mention he is skewered.  Perhaps there is no funnier moment than when Travis says, after hearing "How Soon is Now?" for the first time, "WHAT is Johnny doing, THAT is just noise." (178) then later proposes it as the A-side to "Shakespeare's Sister" B-side.  But that has been quoted on other various sites.  I can't find the quote I'm thinking of, but this is the second time Travis removes his glasses:

"Geoff leans forward and removes his glasses.  'Do you know why Smiths singles don't go any higher?' 
I say nothing because the question is horribly rhetorical.
'Because they're not good enough.' He puts his glasses back on and shrugs his shoulders.  I glance around his office searching for an axe.
Some murders are well worth their prison term." (207)

I think he says something arguably more offensive the first time he removes his glasses, which Morrissey says he does when he is about to relay some harsh truth.

The opening of the book feels "Dickensian," befitting the Penguin Classics imprint, and all of the material about his childhood seems to be written at more of a distance than the material about his career.  In general I have to say that this is not the most enjoyable book to read, but that fans of Morrissey (of which there are very many) will find it irresistible.  Maybe I am not a big enough fan to truly "get" it, but I found much of the book charming.  I really do not think this book sheds light on many situations that casual fans might ponder.  Morrissey is well aware of his mythological status, and he plays with it throughout the book to amusing effect, particularly with references to his romantic life.

Many people believe that Morrissey is celibate or asexual or gay, or some variant, but it appears after taking everything in this book together that he is bi.  This is mainly because he writes of a few relationships that turned into quasi-domestic partnerships, two with men and one with a woman whom he nearly had a baby with.  I don't want to dwell too particularly long on this topic, but there are some amusing passages on these times.

However, we should continue the recent trend on Flying Houses of quoting passages about Patti Smith (Patti Smith is turning into the "topic of the year" on this blog, as nearly every book reviewed seems to reference her in some form or another, a testament to her incredible influence):

"....Cross-legged by a dying fire later that night, and with only a side-light for company, I allowed Horses to enter my body like a spear, and as I listened to the bare lyrics of public lecture, I examined the genderless singer on the heavyweight album sleeve.  So surly and stark and betrayed, Patti Smith was the cynical voice radiating love; pain sourced as inspiration, an individual mission drunk on words--and my heart leapt hurdles, scaling and vaulting; something won and overcome.  Unfulfilled as a woman, impotent as a man, Patti Smith cut right through--singing and looking and saying absolutely everything that would be thought to go against the listener's sympathy.  But the reverse happened, and the wisdom of centuries shook me and told me that, however heavy-hearted and impossible you might feel about yourself, you can still bestow love through recorded song--which just might be the only place where you have the chance to show yourself as you really are since nothing in your disposed life gives you encouragement.  The fact that you do not look like a pop-star-in-waiting should not dishearten you because your oddness could become the deciding wind of change for others.  There is nothing obvious about Patti Smith, least of all any obvious biological conclusions, and this gives its own erotic reality in a shyness of arrogant pride.  The past snaps.  I have never heard or seen anything like Patti Smith previously, and I have never heard truth established so sincerely.  The female voice in rock music had rattled with fathomless depths of insincerity, whereas Patti Smith spoke with a boy's bluntness, and she looked for squabbles wherever she went.  Horses pinned all opponents to the ground.  It shook the very laws of existence, and was part musical recording and part throwing up.  Its discovery was the reason why we could never give up on music, and its effects were huge..." (111-112)

As others have noted, Morrissey is not so revealing about his own music as he is about other artists.  That is, his modus operandi or r'aison d'etre can be explained through the observations he makes of other artists, and that is no more true for me than here.  Perhaps one could say what Patti Smith means to Morrissey, Morrissey means to me.  The true power of art is inspiration.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise (in what will surely be an annoyance to most) that Morrissey is OBSESSED with the legal system.  It is almost like he has been through the wringer so many times that he might as well be a solicitor himself.  I believe that the section of the book on the 1996 Smiths Trial is so protracted specifically because Morrissey wants everyone to know all the tiny nuances of the case to see just how rank an injustice was done.  Long story short: Michael Joyce and Andy Rourke, drummer and bass player in the Smiths, were basically paid 10% of the total earnings from the Smiths, and Morrissey and Johnny Marr, the principal songwriters, were paid 40%.  Aspersions are not cast on Rourke so much as Joyce.  Joyce asserts that he should actually receive 25% of the proceeds, and that he just "assumed" it was an equal partnership between the four.  Despite having zero proof, Joyce ends up winning, and Morrissey is absolutely miserable.  Now this could be a point where anyone can turn on the author, because let's admit that he has been allowed to have a fabulous life where he does not need to worry about money.  But it seems like the principle of the thing.  He's getting taken advantage of because people don't like his attitude.  At least that's what it seems like from everything said about the judge.  It will be impossible to pick out the best passage from this lengthy section, but here is a representative sample.  Keep in mind that the reason almost every single review considers this the chief failing of this book is because it is repetitive.  (And to reiterate, I do not feel this is a failing at all):

"Three words were used that had never previously described me, thus their weight as a catchphrase for eternity.  Had Weeks described me in words befitting my character, no would care or give any attention.  The meaning of 'devious, truculent and unreliable' is to present a description so patently unlikely that ears prick up.  We all know that, if repeated often enough in print, words are bound to eventually be believed, and it seemed obvious his quote would indeed be printed enough.  In the event of any future court action shading my life (fame = money = lawsuits), the 'devious, truculent and unreliable' stinger alone need only be used once by any opposing party and my defense would come unstuck, because 'devious, truculent and unreliable' in judicial parlance means 'evil, aggressive and a liar'.  What was the reason for this attack on me, so aggressively fueled and so overdone that it appears to want to bring a life to an end?  Surely judges have no need to unleash thoughts that are actually more violent than anything done or expressed by either plaintiff or defendant.  What, then, was John Weeks thinking of?  In the quiet room of his final years he will be delighted that his potential was realized by a famously recurring quote.  It is a quote powerful enough to poison everything.  Weeks could have merely said that someone was right and someone was wrong--or, indeed, that both parties were wrong.  Instead he leaves a quote that might be rancid and powerful  enough to cause one subject to be unable to ever again conduct business; to never again be trusted, or--even better--to kill himself with the brandishing shock of it all.  It doesn't take much to force someone over the edge, but Weeks' judgment in itself could have constituted manslaughter." (320-321)

This is my second review in a row that prescribes certain behavior for judges, and again I agree: there's no need for what Weeks did (just like there was no need for me to get "bench-slapped" last month--one day I will go off about the meanness in the legal profession, and how perfectly miserable human beings can make one another for no reason other than the mistaken belief that it's always been done that way, and it's the only way it can work).  Morrissey may be whining a bit much about it, but it's true that judicial opinions have "staying power" in a certain sense of the word, and that labeling this particular litigant with these particular adjectives destroys his credibility in any future proceeding.  It really is not fair, and Morrissey has every right to spend 50 pages defending his own character through the prism of this trial, even if casual readers may find the section rather long-winded.

In general, this is a long-winded book, and there are so many different things I could mention that this review will inevitably lack something.  I do want to say, that, like another famous Irish author, it ends on a stunningly beautiful note.  That is, for me personally.  And I truly believe that the magic of an artist that one admires comes through in things that mean something unbearably personal to you.  And by unbearably personal I don't mean painfully personal--I just mean something that spurs one to believe that the artist is speaking to you directly.  There are several references to Chicago (and an especially humorous one about the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, IL) but the final paragraph of the book paints a picture of a scene outside the Congress Theater.  This venue is in my neighborhood, and has been closed for several years by the City of Chicago's Department of Buildings, and is now being refurbished to hopefully open in 2017.  Actually I was part of the legal team that prosecuted the case against this theater.  A very small part, but a part nonetheless.  So I feel some ownership over this space, and to see Morrissey end his autobiography on an image outside this theater, where he has just played a show, which must have been one of the last shows held there before the venue was shut down, well it made me smile:

"For a year's-end concert at the Congress Theater in Chicago, the audience heaves with responding kindness, and I am immobilized by singing voices of love.
All along, my private suffering felt like vision, urging me to die or go mad, yet it brings me here, to a wintry Chicago street-scene in December 2011 - I, a small boy of 52, clinging to the antiquated view that a song should mean something, and presenting himself everywhere by way of apology.  It is quite true that I have never had anything in my life that I did not make for myself.
As I board the tour bus, a fired encore is still ringing in my ears, and then suddenly a separated female voice calls out to me--full of cracked now-or-never embarrassment above the still Illinois winter atmosphere of midnight, and it was dark, and I looked the other way." (457)

Such a great fucking ending.  And you have to love the "still Illinois" line.

Morrissey does that a lot in this book--inserts lyrics or song titles into lines.  And there's a lot of alliteration.  But as I just mentioned, the real power in this book comes in the multitudes it contains.  Everyone will find something extremely personal (like I found in its ending) within it, and the only ones that will fail to be touched will be those that, for whatever reason, are predisposed against the author himself.  And why would anyone be predisposed?  Because we don't like whiners.  But as a whiner himself, I can say that the world has needed Morrissey, and is richer for his presence.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Identical - Scott Turow (2013)

One day I was coming back from a run, or a return trip to the library, or something, and I passed the "take a book, leave a book" box at Kedzie Ave. and Logan Blvd.  I looked inside and saw this book and thought, "that would be a good thing to review now."  I took it home with me and later brought a book from my shelf, Riders on the Storm, about the Doors, and left it at the box for good karma.  Now perhaps, I will need to go out of my way to find Riders on the Storm to read it, to assess whether or not this was truly a worthwhile trade.

Oeuvre rule: One L is the only other book I've read by Scott Turow, and it's immediately easy for me to say that One L is a much stronger book.  However, I wish I never read it.  I might have gone anyways, but it lent credence to the idea that I was doing the right thing, as a person who was inclined to view creative writing as his life's calling, going on to take a day job as a lawyer.  

In the event that this improbable eventuality occurs, I do not want to write the same types of books at Scott Turow.  Maybe this was just one of the weaker ones, I don't know, but this is basically a mass-market paperback to the T.  It's a bit similar to Triple Homicide, but my teacher was the author, so I was generally charitable.  But I would expect better from Turow.

So maybe I'll give him another shot, but I can't really recommend Identical.  There are some people that might like it, because it does feature a number of twists, but I really only kept turning the pages because I don't like to leave books uncompleted for the purpose of this blog.  I put this book down once to read Zero K and I had about fifty pages left so I decided to finish it before taking up Morrissey's autobiography.

I never really got into this book, but pages 200-300 probably went the quickest for me.  I didn't know who was going to be the protagonist for a long time, but I guess it ends up being Tim Brodie, who is about 81 years old and is a widowed, retired police officer turned private investigator.  Also, Evon, a lesbian former FBI agent turned head of security for a private corporation.  I read one Amazon review that compared this book to a soap opera, and I burst out laughing because that is kind of a perfect description of how ridiculous this plot is--less plausible than a soap opera.

But it is fairly interesting in its courtroom scenes, and it reminded me of reasons why I should just cut my losses and quit practicing law right now, like mean judges.

"'You know what I think?  I think he's a great judge, better than I ever believed he'd be, and I always thought he'd be pretty good.'  The problem in assessing who'd make a good judge was that the job called on a set of skills less important for practicing lawyers.  Smarts served you well in both lives.  But patience, civility, a sense of boundaries and balance were more dispensable for courtroom advocates." (209)

This passage really stung me when I read it because I had just gotten yelled at by a judge for reasons that I thought were totally unfair--there had been no patience or civility in the encounter.  Really, this whole section of the book with the courtroom scenes probably move the most swiftly.  I saw a review that said this was not one of Turow's more "courtroom-based" thrillers, and maybe that is why it felt a bit weak.

After the last pages, Turow adds "A Note About Sources," and it perhaps explains why so much of the book feels awkward and over the top and soap opera-like:

"A far more self-conscious inspiration for the novel came from what I had always taken as one of the most touching of the Greek myths, the story of the Gemini, Castor and Pollux.  The identical twins were said to have been born after their mother, Leda, Queen of Sparta, was raped by Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan to catch her unaware.  The myth has many variations, but one of the most common is that the sole difference between the twins was that Pollux was immortal, like his father, while Castor, like his mother, was not.  When Castor was fatally wounded, Pollux could not bear the loss and asked Zeus to let him share his immortality with his twin.  The brothers therefore alternated time in Hades and on Mount Olympus.  For those familiar with the myth, the parallels between it and my story should be plain, as is the fact that I did not allow the old tale to be any more than a fabric on which I did my own embroidery." (370)

What is the plot?  Paul and Cass (twins) are at a party in 1982 at the Kronons home.  Cass is going out with Dita, Zeus Kronon's daughter.  Paul kind of hates her.  That night she is killed.  Cass pleads guilty, goes to jail for 25 years, and gets released in 2008, when Paul is running for Mayor of Center City in Kindle County.  Hal Kronon, Dita's estranged brother, levels an accusation at Paul that he had something to do with Dita's murder, and Paul's advisers tell him to file a lawsuit for libel.

It just feels like a mass-market paperback rather than a piece of literary fiction.  It's not my preferred type of book, but I have faith that Turow has other stronger work in his oeuvre.

I don't really know if there's much more for me to say about it.  Overall, I didn't like it.  Certain parts were okay, and I didn't despise it, and I finished it.  And yes, by the end, I wanted to find out what really happened.  I cared about what really happened, but it was sort of predictable once a certain detail is revealed about Dita.  I must admit that Turow does a great job of keeping this "truth" elusive throughout the novel.  And it does make a bit more sense when one realizes he was using a Greek myth as a framework.

There were some nice details about Evon's crumbing relationship with Heather (though she feels incredibly underdeveloped in terms of details of her former partner that died--in great contrast to Tim, who feels overdeveloped) and these probably comprise the most compelling sections of the novel, along with the courtroom scenes:

"When Heather left to shower, Evon, who'd had far more to drink than usual, felt a stark mood shadow her heart.  Heather's talk of marriage, her regal demands, left Evon feeling how remote the chances were.  Her doubts had little to do with her skepticism about whether same-sex marriage would ever be legal in this state, or even whether she had shed enough of a closeted person's anxieties to be able to refer out loud to anyone as her 'wife.'  Something else concerned her, even if all the champagne made it impossible for her to be more precise.  It was a shock to find herself dubious, because the story of the relationship had been that she pursued Heather, put up with her, forgave her.  And it was true that she still craved Heather, loved her zany side and terrific sarcasm, and had touched something strong and good in herself by doting on her.  In the past several months she'd realized she was basically Heather's mother, which was not as bad a deal for Evon as putting it that way made it sound, because she enjoyed--no, relished--being a kinder, more patient and understanding person toward Heather than Evon's mother had been to her.  She wasn't prepared yet to give any of that up." (58-59)

Heather is about 12 years younger than Evon, and anyone that has been in relationship with such an age gap will understand that feeling expressed in the latter half of the paragraph (as I'm sure most people in same-sex relationships will understand the former half of the paragraph).  In moments like this, Turow can be great.  This is why I will definitely give him another shot.  Identical was just kind of a miss for me.  I don't regret reading it, but I wouldn't willingly subject myself to it a second time.