Thursday, May 19, 2016
Oeuvre rule: I have read White Noise, Underworld, Cosmopolis, Mao II and the first 50 pages or so of Americana. Don DeLillo is one of my favorite authors, period. Obviously one of my very favorite living writers. I would return to Americana (and likely will one day, as my friend Katerina gave me her copy, at the same time she gave me this book and an autobiography by Isadora Duncan), but I must leave it out of this ranking. Here is how I would rank these four novels, alongside Zero K.
Granted, the only one I reviewed was Underworld. I met DeLillo when I bought Cosmopolis, and recorded the encounter in the Underworld review. Both White Noise and Underworld are modern American classics, but White Noise is the stronger novel, in my opinion. Underworld is a powerhouse novel, but White Noise is just so sharp and pointed and entertaining and hilarious and deep and moving, where Underworld is, primarily, impressive. I'd really need to read Mao II and Cosmopolis again to articulate my rankings, I just remember them as a bit boring (I still haven't seen the film of Cosmopolis, but I did see Game Six, and that was also pretty good).
So then, Zero K begs immediate comparison to White Noise, as Meghan Daum points out in her review, which reminded me that I should reserve this book at the CPL. I did that, and I was the first person to reserve it from my branch and I got it immediately. This is definitely one of the most "current" reviews I've done, certainly from a traditional fiction author that I like very much.
It begs comparison because both are deep meditations on death. In White Noise, it is the medication of fear of death, and in Zero K it is mastery over death through cryogenics. But White Noise has a better story, and Zero K is more impressionistic and abstract. It feels very meaningful and heavy as DeLillo approaches 80. But it is strange and ultimately difficult to really "get into." That's not to say that there aren't a few great parts, Overall I would call it a very good novel, it just didn't grab me by the throat in the way that say, White Noise or Underworld did. And it has so much potential, because it has a pretty good plot setup. A science fiction writer, or so-called speculative fiction writer, could have taken this novel in dazzling directions, but that's not DeLillo's style.
Essentially, the story is narrated by Jeff Lockhart, who is 34 and the son of a very rich and successful businessman who has decided to tell him about his secret operation, the Convergence, which is somewhere in the desert of Eastern Europe/Western Asia, not far from where the meteor fell in Chelyabinsk a few years ago. The novel seems to take place in true present day. There are references to the Taliban (though not ISIL) and the recent disturbances in Ukraine. His father, Ross, is in his mid-to-late 60's, and married to a woman dying of a terminal disease (Artis). Previously, Ross had been married to Jeff's mother, Madeline, but he left them abruptly and Jeff deals with this throughout the novel. It is a bit surprising that he admires Artis and seems to connect with her very closely as a kind of stepmother, though Ross was not really in his life at all. As he remembers, Ross's face was on the cover of Newsweek when Madeline died.
Artis is dying and Ross has invested in this facility that will freeze everyone and bring them back at some point to be determined in the future when technology will allow them to live again. At the beginning of the novel, Jeff is blindfolded and transported for the better part of two days and brought to the facility and given a sort of extended tour.
As Jeff meets new people along his journey, he gives them names. They never introduce themselves. Two of the more notable architects of the Convergence are the so-called Stenmark twins. Their back-and-forth pleasantly reminded me of a similar scene in White Noise, where Jack Gladney and a new professor at their college traded details about Hitler and Elvis and their mothers:
"'When the time comes, we'll depart finally from our secure northern home to this desert place. Old and frail, limping and shuffling, to approach the final reckoning.'
'What will we find here? A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world's organized religions.'
'Do we need a promise? Why not just die? Because we're human and we cling. In this case not to religious tradition but to the science of present and future.'
They were speaking quietly and intimately, with a deeper reciprocity than in the earlier exchanges and not a trace of self-display. The audience was stilled, completely fixed.
'Ready to die does not mean willing to disappear. Body and mind may tell us that it is time to leave the world behind. But we will clutch and grasp and scratch nevertheless.'
'Two stand-up comics.'
'Encased in vitreous matter, refashioned cell by cell, waiting for the time.'
'When the time comes, we'll return. Who will we be, what will we find? The world itself, decades away, think of it, or sooner, or later. Not so easy to imagine what will be out there, better or worse or so completely altered we will be too astonished to judge.'" (74-75)
The first thing I'd mention about this comparison is that the writing is just not as sharp as in White Noise. I've never read The Body Artist, but I've heard that it's sort of abstract and experimental, and I'd say the same thing about Zero K, particularly the the short section of the book that seems to portray Artis's consciousness after the cryogenic process. I'm not sure how DeLillo comes out on this issue, but my guess is that he thinks the concept is insane, but may actually gain traction. DeLillo is often portrayed as some kind of cultural psychic, that he sees the way things are now and he predicts the way things will be. The idea of consciousness after freezing and before "rebirth" is sort of frightening, perhaps more frightening than an absence of consciousness. In this sense, DeLillo may be expressing an acceptance of death in a different way than many other artists before him. Death is one of the greatest inspirations for art, and his achievement with this novel is noteworthy, but I am sorry to say it is not as essential a work as those previously mentioned volumes.
But I love DeLillo and want to read several of his other books. This is sort of a chilling addition to his oeuvre, and a pretty cool one to release at his age. Some artists might put out their best work around age 80 (I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Mann here), and though in my opinion this is not DeLillo's best, it's quite good, good enough to say he hasn't lost it and could put out a still more impressive book yet, if he hasn't run out of subjects that he'd like to write about.
Regardless, there are still little moments of comic absurdity like this, which is pure DeLillo:
"Soon I was turning a corner and going down a hall with walls painted raw umber, a thick runny pigment meant to resemble mud, I thought. There were matching doors, all doors the same. There was also a recess in the wall and a figure standing there, arms, legs, head, torso, a thing fixed in place. I saw that it was a mannequin, naked, hairless, without facial features, and it was reddish brown, maybe russet or simply rust. There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman. I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me. The head was a near oval, arms positioned in a manner that I tried to decipher--self-defense, withdrawal, with one foot set to the rear. The figure was rooted to the floor, not enclosed in protective glass. A hand on a breast, a hand sliding up a thigh. It's something I would have done once upon a time. Here and now, the cameras in place, the monitors, an alarm mechanism on the body itself--I was sure of this. I stood back and looked. The stillness of the figure, the empty face, the empty hallway, the figure at night, a dummy, in fear, drawing away. I moved farther back and kept on looking." (24-25)
Ultimately, my opinion of this book is colored by feelings of wasted potential and obfuscation. It seems like there is another deeper layer to this novel that I'm just not getting (it may have something to do with Stak--and indeed I felt the strongest part of the novel was the middle part outside of the Convergence) and it seems like DeLillo doesn't want to write the more "commercial" version of this novel that would be more of a crowd-pleaser, something about how the Convergence actually turned out in the end, and deciding if it is a good or bad thing. Like I said, my feeling is that it's a bad thing, and DeLillo (ever the satirist) is mocking science and the belief that we can be all powerful gods with a mastery over nature, when we don't even know what that means for us spiritually (i.e. we are not meant to live much longer than 100 years on this earth). Even though I think DeLillo is ultimately better off being ambivalent, I am still sort of a sucker for the happy ending. Having said all that, it's definitely an interesting read and I recommend it--I just don't think it will change your life the way say, two of his other novels might.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
I first became aware of Bob Mould and Husker Du in late 2003. I forget what spurred me to ask for Our Band Could Be Your Life for Christmas that year, but it had only been out for a couple years, and I tore through it rapidly. My memory must be off because I recall also getting Mission of Burma's Vs. and Husker Du's New Day Rising on that day. Whatever, it was basically my junior year of college that I got into them. I had also been aware of them via the Dennis Cooper novel Try, in which the main character is a real fanboy.
Soon after New Day Rising, I got a burnt copy of Zen Arcade. About a year later, after college, I picked up Flip Your Wig. Not long after that, I saw Bob Mould play at the Metro in Chicago, on the Body of Song tour. Of course during this time I was clamoring for all of the OBCBYL bands to reunite so I could see them live. Mission of Burma did, and soon after so did Dinosaur Jr. Husker Du never did, and apparently never will, even though rumors will always continue to swirl, such as last year when they decided to reissue some of their merchandising. Bob Mould just plays some Husker Du songs live, and that will be as good as it gets.
The chapter from OBCBYL on Husker Du is one of the best. Most chapters would make me want to listen to the band in question, if I hadn't heard them before. Their music fit my taste: loud, fast, angry/anguished. Perhaps more intriguing is that 2 of their 3 members were gay. They were sort of a mysterious band to me, and I was really into them from about 2003 through 2007 (though I've always listened to their albums), then my ardor sort of faded. I'd check out the last few Bob Mould albums, but a true reunion was the only thing that would have really excited me.
Enter Mould's latest album, released a little over a month ago in late March 2016. It was probably the Pitchfork review that did it, reminding me that he had actually released a memoir. I remember hearing about it when it was released, but I guess I was distracted in law school or whatever in 2011. Anyways I put a hold on it at the CPL, and voila, it arrives quickly and now continues along our path of indie rock memoirs after Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.
It's hard to compare the three. I don't want to say any single one is the best. The most obvious thing is that Mould's is the biggest. It's definitely the longest, around 380 pages, and it feels more revealing than the other two, even though one could not call either Gordon's or Brownstein's opaque. Here is the best way I can differentiate them: theirs are more poetic and impressionistic; Mould's is more intricately detailed and informative. One might say that Mould's is less edited, but the book is credited "with" Michael Azzerad, who is, of course, the author of OBCBYL. So yeah, maybe it is a little more bloated, but I found pretty much the whole thing entertaining. I guess him and Kim Gordon have been active in the music scene for roughly the same amount of time, but the kinds of songs they write are quite different, and that translates to different styles of memoir. But enough with the comparisons--most people are not going to blindly pick up See a Little Light, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, or Girl in a Band unless they're already familiar with the artists. All three are great.
If what was previously known about Husker Du was mysterious, then this book changes everything. Mould is completely open and honest throughout the entire narrative, and he provides very detailed accounts of his entire musical journey, from his early upbringing, through Husker Du, his early solo work, Sugar, his shift to electronica, and back. Perhaps sensing that he is kind of a unique figure in the larger scheme of gay rights, he writes quite eloquently on the topic. Obviously, apart from interband tensions (only a small portion of which overlap with such themes), this is the major "drama" of the memoir. Most of the passages I would like to quote, the most compelling portions of the text, are on this topic.
But also, like OBCBYL, this book made me rediscover some older material. I had never really heard "Eight Miles High," a cover song that I would probably rank in their top 5. I had never really explored Candy Apple Grey or Warehouse either--not even Metal Circus to be honest. I had Land Speed Record but I still haven't really heard Everything Falls Apart. As for Sugar, the only thing I previously heard was File Under: Easy Listening, which I bought in the summer of 2007 on my road trip through the U.S. from some random record store in the Midwest for a few bucks. Copper Blue and Beaster seem to be the more definitive releases, and Mould mentions the Beaster track "JC Auto" several times, and yes, it is a really intense and awesome song. Also interesting is that "Gift" from FU:EL, which I considered that album's best song, features a guitar pedal that Kevin Shields lent to Mould, the same one used on "You Made Me Realise." Mould was also heavily influenced by Loveless at the time of its release.
Mould also moved around the country a lot. Off the top of my head, he is born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, then moves to Minneapolis for college, and lives there until Husker Du becomes big enough that he can purchase a home in a rural suburb, where he lives through their end. After that, he moves to New York City (being something of a pioneer in Williamsburg), then Austin, then back to NYC, then Washington D.C., and finally ends in San Francisco. I feel like I'm missing a couple places in there, but whatever.
Anyways, I've finally returned from a weekend away in which I neglected to bring the book and reflected upon it in absentia. I went to see my sister graduate from college and I brought way too much stuff for a two night stay as it was. Here is one of the aforementioned promised quotes.
First, I would quote the whole opening of Chapter 17, but its not necessarily poetic. It just tells the story of how Dennis Cooper interviewed him for Spin:
"The writer Dennis Cooper was a huge Husker Du fan. He'd even touched on the band in one or two of his novels. Now he was trying to build a name for himself as a journalist. Dennis Cooper is gay. So in the summer of 1994, Spin magazine asked Ryko, How about we send Dennis Cooper down to Austin to spend some time with Bob?
I knew what was about to happen. This was to be the "Bob is gay" story, and I could do this the easy way or the hard way. I wasn't thrilled about it for a number of reasons, beyond personal ones. My first concerns were that this news would make it tough for my family, and that my fans and peers would recontextualize everything I had done with my work. I also knew that the press was always going to write whatever they were going to write. I could try to steer the story the way I wanted it to read, but ultimately, editorial always wins out. It's the business." (221)
Okay, I'm having trouble locating the one really poetic passage about how people might start interpreting the meaning of the songs differently after they found out he was gay. He writes about how the themes of his music are universal and apply regardless of gender and sexuality. Except for one instance, which comes amidst the description of side two of Zen Arcade:
"A lot of side two is my blind rage and self-hatred, my failed relationships, and my confusing sex with love. That whole side was a blur while recording. It sounds like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass. Some of the words and ideas seem misguided now, but history has proven they're made of a lasting substance. Gay people have always pegged "The Biggest Lie" as a gay song, and it is, seeing as it was informed by a sexual misadventure with a straight friend. It was about me hoping an awkward physical tumble would turn into something more, and it not happening." (90)
Later, Mould mentions that the only part of his oeuvre that he will not revisit is this part of Zen Arcade and it is upsetting to think that we will never get to hear "I'll Never Forget You" performed live again.
Mould also tells the surprising story of how he briefly worked for the WCW in the late 90's. He also fairly casually mentions how he started taking steroids after four weeks on the job. He doesn't seem to mention stopping them, though one presumes that was the case. He also tells the fairly insane story of the wrestler Chris Benoit from his perspective.
But it is the stories of his relationships with Michael and Kevin that are ultimately some of the most painful:
"I had been faithful to Mike, faithful to Kevin, and now I was single. Everything was open and new. I'd been unhitched for one month in the last twenty-one years. Now I was learning the ropes of dating and casual sex in D,C. I had my freedom, but I knew I had to be somewhat cautious. I said to Rich, keep an eye on me and tell me if I start acting stupid. I don't think I ever got too crazy." (333)
The ending of the book pretty much tells the story of how he never really embraced the gay community or the gay lifestyle until this period in his life. The story of how he meets up with another gay blogger is "both comical and sad" and quite endearing, such as his disappointment with the dude being heavier than his pictures looked, but still being intimate despite a few other sketchy details.
Along the way there are some pretty good stories about other indie rock luminaries, and reflections on what it means to be "out" and his life's work (up to age 50). He ends the book by saying that it has been a pretty good first 50 years and he is excited for what is to come.
Are you jealous?
Sure. After reading this book, try and tell me that you could have a more interesting and entertaining life. Not necessarily everyone wants and interesting and entertaining life, and I'm sure many would not want to have the experiences Mould has had. The book is brimming with trauma, but I suppose that's the sort of material that makes for the best writing.
Take, for example, people who would never smoke:
"I started smoking a pack a day at the beginning of college, and by the end, I was up to three packs a day. Smoking had become both the centerpiece and timepiece of my life. Every cigarette was six minutes long, and I could practically mark out the whole day with smoking, like a sundial. Six minutes on, nine minutes off. Repeat sixty times a day. It was like playing Scrabble: when it's your turn, you turn over the egg timer and start thinking. I have an innate sense of time, but smoking was this additional timekeeper, like a wristwatch." (258)
You see, some people smoke and are just lazy, and other people that smoke are like super successful and amazing. In short, while I could never say there is any "right" way to smoke, using it as a timekeeper through sporadic bursts of energy sounds nice in theory, but I don't think that's normally the way it is in practice. Mould quits when he is 37, and also starts to make other changes in his life. It's the focus on these kind of personal details that make this memoir so well-rounded.
There is not much more to say except that Mould is playing the Metro again, two days from now! I just found this out a day or two ago. Though it is sold out, I may try to go. His newest album is very good, as have been his last few. I'd imagine he can build a pretty strong setlist with his entire discography. So, I guess this book came around at the perfect time for me, just in time to remind me that I should go.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
I've never read anything by Colm Toibin before. I'd imagine for many people that Brooklyn will be their first introduction. This is also something of a first for Flying Houses: the first time a book has been reviewed where the critic has seen the film adaptation first.
Is the book better than the movie? Yes. Is the movie vastly inferior? No. In fact, the adaptation is remarkably well done. There are still a few tiny details that bother me, things that got left out of the movie to keep the story smaller, but generally I wanted to cry throughout almost the entire running time (though it may have been partially due to my mood that day). The book is not really that much better until the end.
I might have mentioned something about the movie getting a good review from a very tough critic for the Redeye to my friend Juan, and he suddenly recalled that he had read it after he left Brooklyn in 2013, shortly before writing his review of Anna Karenina. We went to see the film. Then, shortly after the experience previously reported, of picking out the latest Murakami from the Humboldt Park CPL, he returned the next day with War and Peace, Brooklyn and Howl's Moving Castle. He said I should read Brooklyn so I did that.
The plot is fairly simple, and depends on how much one intends to spoil. I believe the trailer for the film gave away a significant portion of the plot, and all I will say is that it is an account of an Irish girl's immigration to the U.S. It is is not giving away too much to say she enters into a romantic relationship with a young man named Tony, but anything beyond that, I will refrain from mentioning--which is a shame because much of the most beautiful writing comes at the end (including the near-perfect, final, bittersweet sentence). Maybe after some asterisks, I'll discuss the ending.
Basically, this is a very good book, but I felt sort of disinterested by it up until the end. That's not totally accurate, but I just mean sometimes I will have it with me at my office desk and I'll eat lunch and have it open in front of me and I'll glance off and read something on the internet instead. Maybe in a way the opening is kind of boring and slow, but by the third act a plot has certainly developed.
It is perhaps worth noting that my former roommate Gavin was also Irish and went to see the film and remarked that the practices of changing into one's swimwear at the beach, rather than wearing it under their clothes, was a quirky and accurate Irish thing.
The girl's name is Eilis and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose, who is about 30 and a great golfer and popular person about town. As the novel opens Eilis gets a job with Ms. Kelly, who runs an expensive and popular grocery store in town. Soon after, a priest from their neighborhood returns to visit from the U.S. and tells their family about all of the Irish transplants in Brooklyn and what opportunities might be available for Eilis there. It becomes a given that she'll go, and she does, and she works at a women's department store.
The book is broken up into four parts. Part One depicts her life in Ireland and her voyage across the Atlantic. Part Two depicts her life in Brooklyn before meeting Tony. Part Three depicts her life in Brooklyn after meeting Tony. Part Four depicts her return visit to Ireland.
I will say that the depictions of Eilis's homesickness are the first really sad scenes in the book, with several more to come. One element left out of the movie was Eilis's three older brothers, who had moved to England, and Jack in particular, who is the closest to her in age, and visits with her in Liverpool before her ship leaves for New York. He tells her that homesickness is to be expected:
"He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like. His manner was so mild and good-humored, just as her father's had been, that he would not in any case want to complain. She considered writing to him asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing. It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do. But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her." (73)
There is effusive praise, nearly six pages worth, of blurbs at the beginning of this paperback edition I read. Make no mistake that this is a very good book, but a couple of those blurbs got me thinking. One of them mentioned how there were no real antagonists in this novel, and to an extent I agree, though some of the other girls in the boarding house in Brooklyn are not necessarily helpful. I was surprised by a couple things in this novel--one of which I will put below the asterisks. The first is the depiction of Dolores, a girl who moves in after another girl exits, when Eilis is given the immensely better basement bedroom with a private entrance. Dolores is a cleaning lady, and she cleans the boarding house for reduced rent. She wants to go to the dances with the girls, but they are all mean to her, and so is Eilis. Or, while not exactly mean, she is certainly curt. She is not a perfect character. And this novel truly is more of a character study than a plot driven vehicle, except for Part Four.
So yes, I think if you saw the movie, you should check this out. I will definitely watch the movie again to compare it to the novel, though I'm not sure I'll review it.
I write separately to address the ending. The second thing that really surprised me was when she went back to Ireland and casually just sort of started making out with Jim Farrell at the dance after their day together with the Nancy and George. It seemed out of character. And then I was genuinely shocked when it was made pretty explicitly clear that she regretted what happened in Brooklyn, and she is only going back out of a sense of obligation, and is sort of disappointed. This is such a beautifully bittersweet thing to convey, and that is why I think the ending is the best part. Consider this separate part an anti-The Art of Fielding. The ending makes this book great, instead of the one thing that keeps it from being great:
"The idea that she would leave all of this--the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting--and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now. She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay back with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival.
Sometimes it came as a sharp reminder, but much of the time it did not come at all. She had to make an effort now to remember that she really was married to Tony, that she would face into the sweltering heat of Brooklyn and the daily boredom of the shop floor at Bartocci's and her room at Mrs, Kehoe's. She would face into a life that seemed now an ordeal, with strange people, strange accents, strange streets. She tried to think of Tony now as a loving and comforting presence, but she saw instead someone she was allied with whether she liked it or not, someone who was, she thought, unlikely to allow her to forget the nature of the alliance and his need for her to return." (241)
All I have to say is that this was not properly brought out in the film. Or maybe it was, but I didn't sense that Eilis wanted to stay. I mean, maybe a little bit, but I didn't get the sense of dread of returning. Saoirse Ronan deserved to be nominated for Best Actress, but she did not deserve to win if she meant to convey the sentiments expressed in the above passage. It felt like the film clipped out certain things, while still not being "Hollywood" about it.
I don't really know what else to say about this novel so...yeah. For some reason, it makes me incredibly nostalgic and sad, in a painful way. There are a lot of things going on in my life that make me identify with Eilis, even though I am not an Irish immigrant girl in the 1950's. I guess because I lived on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights (where Eilis stays with Mrs. Kehoe) and because I was torn between a new life in Brooklyn or my "old life" in Chicago (still, no ocean separates the two, but I like being a 45 minute drive away from my parents) and because I've gotten involved in relationships of which my parents don't approve--though Eilis's mother beautifully handles her confession at the very end of the novel. That's another ridiculously sad part, where her mother can't even bring herself to say goodbye to her the morning of her departure. I guess there are just a lot of themes in this novel that touch me and make me feel uneasy about the choices I've made in my life and how I really feel like I'm finally "growing up" as I approach my mid-30's (I am still in my early thirties, comfortably, for 11 more months!). I tend to wonder if other people feel the same way.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami (2014) (Trans. Philip Gabriel) (JK)
Oeuvre rule: as previously mentioned in my review of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (WITAWITAR), Murakami is the author of the only book I have read in the past 8 years that did not result in a review on Flying Houses. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is an interesting book and I would recommend it, but among the three Murakami books I have read, it would be on the bottom. WITAWITAR would be at the top and this would be in the middle.
The incomparable Dr. Emily Dufton has graciously reviewed both IQ84 and this book for Flying Houses and now I will offer my first fiction review of this redoubtable literary giant. Most of my comments will be repetitive of Emily's, and she has certainly read much more of his oeuvre than I have, so her review is more authoritative as a seasoned reader of his. I hope that my review will be useful for relative Murakami newbies.
The first thing that struck me about Tsukuru is its relative lack of fantasy sequences. Maybe Hard-Boiled Wonderland was a bad example, but I feel like most of his other works are similarly fantasy-driven. This is actually a very realistic novel. The main character is 36, and it takes place in present day, and I feel that its reflective of our times and remarkably perceptive about all the different forms of passive aggression.
The main thrust of the story is that Tsukuru has been abandoned by his four closest friends at age 20, and 16 years later, he goes back to investigate why they suddenly decided to cease contact. It ends up being a relatively simple explanation--and while I am not going to spoil it here (unlike The Art of Fielding - let spoilers be reserved for disappointing endings)--the explanation does sort of reference the only quasi-fantasy sequences in this book, which are erotic dreams. I do want to say that I think that element is beautifully evoked in Tsukuru.
I was with a friend at the library and he wanted to pick something out to read on his spring break, and they didn't have the Tolstoy he wanted. I perused the aisles with him and thought to see if they had any Murakami. I found this available and told him to take it out. He read it in like a day or two. It's 380 pages or so but the pages are small. He said I should read it, so after finishing M Train I picked this up. It was good for us to read the same thing and to be able to talk about it. For example, I asked him, "Does Haida come back?" He said, "Do you want me to spoil it for you?" I said, "No." And now I know what happens and I have to say that matters being left sort of unresolved at the ending (I don't think it's spoiling anything to reveal that) made the book feel less satisfying to me. Murakami did not want to write a standard happy ending. This is a really quirky little book, and kind of delightful at times for its simplicity and directness. It is a pleasure to read the language, which is to the credit of Philip Gabriel.
I could quote any number of passages, but inevitably I must include something from the sequence with Haida...But first I came across one hilarious aspect of the sequence with Ao:
"As Tsukuru was wondering how to respond, 'Viva Las Vegas!' blared out on Ao's cell phone again. He checked the caller's name and stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
'I'm sorry, but I really need to get back to the office, back to hustling cars. Would you mind walking with me to the dealership?
They walked down the street, side by side, not speaking for a while. Tsukuru was the first to break the silence, 'Tell me, why "Viva Las Vegas!" as your ringtone?'
Ao chuckled. 'Have you seen that movie?'
'A long time ago, on late-night TV. I didn't watch the whole thing.'
'Kind of a silly movie, wasn't it?'
Tsukuru gave a neutral smile.
'Three years ago I was invited, as the top salesmen in Japan, to attend a conference in Las Vegas for U.S. Lexus dealers. More of a reward for my performance than a real conference. After meetings in the morning, it was gambling and drinking the rest of the day. '"Viva Las Vegas!" was like the city's theme song--you heard it everywhere you went. When I hit it big at roulette, too, it was playing in the background. Since then that song's been my lucky charm." (182)
Murakami translated Raymond Carver into Japanese, and spent time with him in the late 80's. At times I feel as if he is mimicking Carver in the starkness of the language and the generally sad story. This is not an unwelcome development. Anyways, in the Haida sequence, I thought things were just going to be so innocent, so when it became the raunchiest part of the book, I was sort of relieved:
"Now, though, he wasn't coming inside Shiro, but in Haida. The girls had suddenly disappeared, and Haida had taken their place. Just as Tsukuru came, Haida had quickly bent over, taken Tsukuru's penis in his mouth, and--careful not to get the sheets dirty--taken all the gushing semen inside his mouth. Tsukuru came violently, the semen copious. Haida patiently accepted all of it, and when Tsukuru had finished, Haida licked his penis clean with his tongue. He seemed used to it. At least it felt that way. Haida quietly rose from the bed and went to the bathroom. Tsukuru heard water running from the faucet. Haida was probably rinsing his mouth." (127)
Okay, I'm sorry, that was probably the dirtiest thing I have ever posted on this blog, so I'm sorry if it offended you. It's just that something about this book just seems a little prudish, and then it kind of breaks into this hugely graphic scene. It's a nice contrast.
I really don't know what else to say about this book. Dr. Dufton noted that Murakami seems to be getting repetitive with age, but this was still a very good book. And I agree, while professing ignorance on the former topic. I do want to say that I think there are a few loose ends that remain untied. Of course, there is the obvious big uncertainty at the end with Sara, but on the whole I think the whole ending sequence is very beautiful, if a bit strange with all the phones ringing and not getting picked up. There's a definite atmosphere to the ending, as well as with Tsukuru's lonely pastime of watching from a bench as the trains arrive and depart at stations in Helsinki and Tokyo. I don't understand what Haida's story about his father (or is it made up?) means, or the significance of Haida as a character in relation to Shiro. There is this great passage though, involving Tsukuru's first girlfriend at age 21, shortly after Haida leaves their college:
"She wasn't good at cooking, but enjoyed cleaning, and before long she had his apartment sparkling clean. She replaced his curtains, sheets, pillowcases, towels, and bath mats with brand-new ones. She brought color and vitality into Tsukuru's post-Haida life. But he didn't choose to sleep with her out of passion, or because he was fond of her, or even to lessen his loneliness. Though he probably would never have admitted it, he was hoping to prove to himself that he wasn't gay, that he was capable of having sex with a real woman, not just in his dreams. This was his main objective." (142-143)
It's a good story, and though it seems a few things remain unsettled, it seems like this narrative gets wrapped up a bit more tidily than most of Murakami's other novels. Dr. Dufton could correct me if I am wrong. Like her, I am glad I read it. Unlike her, I look forward to experiencing the rest of Murakami's oeuvre for the first time.
Sunday, April 3, 2016
Actually, it was two tickets, and I paid $45 for them. I ended up wasting one of the tickets, and I could get into the whole situation about how I tried to give them to certain other people (it's really interesting stuff, trust me) and write myself into oblivion, but I'll just admit that I wasted one ticket. Still, I had been toying with the idea of going to Barcelona in May to go to the Primavera Festival just to get to see them. This was a bargain.
However, I showed up at 8:00 and had to wait 15 minutes to get inside, the line out the door. It was raining outside. As we got inside, I could hear the distinct sound of Shellac playing "Dude Incredible" and "You Came in Me." At first I presumed they were just playing the latest album to psyche people up or something in the restaurant/bar area of Bottom Lounge, but when I got into the view of the doors people were entering through, into the venue space, I noticed the sound got louder, and that was actually Shellac playing. Fuck. They were the opening band for MONO. When I had checked the website earlier, MONO had a huge write-up, and at the bottom of the page was a line or two about Shellac. I thought this was their idea of a joke. Like, yeah you don't need to know much about them. It's fucking Shellac. But I don't know, maybe they just wanted to get to bed early? I certainly was worrying about being up too late, so I appreciate the sentiment if that was actually the reason they opened. Regardless, immediately I rushed inside excitedly, and got a beer quickly at the bar ($6, not too bad, not gouging you--this is one important reason why I think Bottom Lounge is a good venue). I moved up as far as I could--maybe I could have moved up closer but I would have needed to pretend I was getting to a friend near the front. The picture above is a fair representation of my vantage point.I heard them play the following songs. (I may be off on the order):
Surveyor (which was meant to be "All the Surveyors")
Steady as She Goes
End of Radio
Just getting to see that? Worth $45. Especially since I feel bad about not buying Dude Incredible. Afterwards, I hung around. I texted a friend. I waited for MONO to go on, because I had to watch at least one of their songs before I left. Then out of nowhere, I saw Steve Albini walk right in front of me. I was like holy shit, if I want to talk to him, I totally have a chance. I saw a couple people take selfies with him. I didn't want to annoy him.
I don't know what I would have said. In any case, it made me think about it, and a minute later I realized there was a merchandise table, and Bob Weston was sitting there. So I bought a t-shirt off him and remarked that I was surprised it was only $15, I'd seen a lot of bands selling t-shirts for $30. And he was like, "Well, you're getting ripped off." I just thanked him profusely and mentioned that I missed the last show, and he was like, "Was it that long ago?" I asked him to please play again soon because I missed the first 15 minutes because I didn't realize they were opening. I explained about the website and how it made me suspicious, and he seemed to laugh at that. If I am ever able to make the musician/idol I encounter laugh, then it is a gratifying experience.
It was worth the $45, but I still wish they played more songs. I would have liked to have heard "Watch Song," "All the Surveyors," "This is a Picture," "My Black Ass," "Dude Incredible," "Prayer to God," "Billiard Player Song," and who knows what else. I would watch them play for 2 hours.
Most evident in their performance is Albini's increasing ability to improvise. Clearly, the best moment of the concert was the opening of "Killers." It seems like they will always play this combo at most shows and everyone seems to know that it is the highlight. In short I got super excited and it was an incredible performance of "Wingwalker," though not as loud or as brutal as I was hoping. Albini's monologue was one of the better ones I've heard, with him proclaiming that we were all brothers and sisters descended from the same great grandmother and that he loved each and everyone one us but if he was up in the sky in the plane, and he had been trained to experience pleasure when he pushed the button, and he could so easily turn us all into dust, which is the problem with the fucking plane.
For the last song, everyone seemed to get excited, but I don't really like "The End of Radio" that much. It's super boring, in the same way as "Didn't We Deserve a Look at You...," but I would rather hear that Terraform cut early on in a concert than "End of Radio" closing it out. Clearly, "Watch Song," is the superior closing song. Albini was quite clever in his improvisation for this one as well, but it didn't detract from the vague boredom I felt. You can't dance to this song. It's basically performance art. And there was a cheer when Albini said something about apologizing to alien civilizations in 10,000 years for the shit that got played on the radio, which was nice, but yeah, I prefer their sinewy locked-in instrumentation, mixed in with Albini improv.
During the Q&A, they were asked, "What is Shellac's least favorite Shellac song?" They could not give any by name, but Albini remarked that a whole bunch of them were batting .180 and were about to get cut. I hope he didn't consider "This is a Picture" in that category. If there's one critique I can make of Shellac it's that their setlist is fairly predictable. Don't get me wrong, I am glad that "Killers/Wingwalker" always gets played, but I would like to hear some stuff off Terraform too.
Here is the T-shirt I bought. Can anyone tell me what it means?
In any case, I went home and spent $17 on a cab. What a waste. A very memorable evening though and I am glad to memorialize it here, since my review of Dude Incredible is turning out to be surprisingly popular. Maybe I should just write more about music to get more activity on this site.
I think that's pretty much everything I have to say about that.
Friday, April 1, 2016
It's not like I have a ton of responsibilities. I should be able to produce more than 21 posts a year, particularly when 3 of them are written by others.
Yes, you read that right, there were exactly as many posts written between April 1, 2015 - April 1, 2016 as there were from April 1, 2014 - April 1, 2015. Flying Houses is not even a bi-monthly newsletter.
It's pathetic is what it is! You know I've spent a lot of time over the past 8 years building this database, but does anybody really care about it? We've had a few "celebrity visitors" in our time, but overall, this blog is not going viral anytime soon.
We now currently sit at 93,445 page views. So we should hit 100,000 this year. I should say that my page views are roughly current with the miles on my '05 Civic, but that car is 3 years older than this blog. I hope to use that car for another 10 years (at least) and I hope to keep this blog another 30 years (or until I write my special comment on "facing the void"). Is it fatalistic to expect to die at 62? I think if I got married I could go into my 80's, but if life continues its present course, I will remain single and yes, die prematurely.
Our growth slowed slightly, but again I haven't made many efforts to make many new friends or publicize the blog. The current balance on my Google AdSense earnings is now $30.95, which means I "made" $1.74 on ad revenue over the past year (I have never been paid, as has been previously explained). (Note: I am testing out a new ad layout in an attempt to get paid more quickly. If you find it particularly obnoxious--I am concerned it draws attention away from the links on the upper right, as well as the archived posts--please let me know in a comment.)
Perhaps our MD&A over here at FH harps on the same points every April Fool's Day, the primary point being "WTF."
WTF, why can't I get paid to write?
WTF, why doesn't anyone offer me a book deal?
WTF, can't you see I'm trying very hard here, on top of being a full-time attorney?
WTF, don't you think if I devoted myself full-time to writing that I could turn out a better product?
WTF, don't you think the product is pretty damn good as it stands?
WTF, who else is putting out content as relentlessly independent as FH?
WTF, do you like me or should I just STFU?
These April Fool's Day MD&As do not consist of falsehoods, but operate as sarcastic truths.
You can't get paid to write because you are, in fact, a bad writer (at least one person has assured me).
You can't get a book deal because your blog is not a cultural phenomenon, and does not suggest that you will develop a bankable audience.
You may be trying hard, but it's getting to the point where you need to prioritize. Everybody can't just be Scott Turow if they want to be.
You will never know because the only time when you would be able to devote yourself full-time to writing is when you might be otherwise unemployed, and at such times you are hounded by doubts that you are spending your time as productively as possible (i.e. writing instead of job searching).
Your product is pretty damn good, I agree, but sometimes you also get lazy and write tons of shit that would never be considered publishable by a reputable source of book reviews like the NYT or Bookslut.
Everyone else whose head isn't on straight and still thinks they've been misunderstood and discounted for the past 32 years.
Me personally, I like you, but sometimes I really don't, and I think you should STFU on your insecurities and focus on the more palatable truths on which you'll have greater agreement from the masses.
Nobody ever got a book deal by whining and saying, I really am good--look at all I've done! So without further ado, here are the top 5 posts of the past year.
Wait, before I get there, here are the top 5 most popular posts of the past year (the number is total page views--yes my numbers really are that sad):
(1) NIED #26: 185 (because I'll always be most famous for my comments on legal education)
(2) Happy 7th Birthday: 150 (because people love reading lists and MD&As)
(3) The Pale King: 95 (because DFW is gone but not forgotten)
(4) WITAWITAR: 84 (because Murakami is so in right now)
(5) Why We Write About Ourselves: 82 (tie with Please Kill Me) (because it got retweeted by the author)
#5: S/M: Experience #4
This is the final chapter in my second novel which has managed to avoid serialization on a blog to this point. It may not survive 2016 in its hidden form because it is quickly becoming obsolete. Whatever I wrote about in 2007-2008 has already changed. Regardless, it was posted on 9/11/15 because this chapter depicts that very as-yet-unknown date in the future. I had predicted that 9/11 would be made a national holiday. While that was wrong, it remains a "holiday week" at the Daley Center, and all attorneys must pass through security in remembrance of how dangerous we all might be.
#4: Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life
This is just an extremely long review of a very long book that is also very good (one of the "Best Books of Flying Houses"). Carver is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and I hope to review each of his collections before the end comes.
#3: Modern Romance
This is just a controversial choice that I'm surprised did not get more views. I thought it was more titillating than any of the other reviews (except perhaps NIED #26).
#2: Chicago Cubs 2015 Report Card
A yearly Chicago Cubs report card has become as great a tradition on FH as has this MD&A. Truly, this was the most sublime yet, though my younger brother suggested that there were many things he disagreed with (Jason Hammel and Tommy LaStella in particular). I was worried about tweeting it @ Jon Lester when I suggested that he must have a complex over the fact that he was getting paid 40 times more than Kyle Hendricks and yet barely pitched any better than him (Michael also suggested that I oversold Hendricks, but I do not think that is the case as he has retained the #5 spot in the rotation, at this juncture, at least).
#1: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Really I think any of the above are better than this, but I felt this was one of the few instances where I offered a "critique." It's possible I'm susceptible to the accusation that I'm not a real "critic" because I don't say enough books are bad. Certainly, this is not a bad book, but I didn't consider it the greatest of the 21st century.
Finally, thank you all for reading. I never really address you often enough, but if you are paying attention, know that I appreciate it. All too often I feel as if I am speaking into a void, though even if I am, I am glad to lay down a body of work which at least includes an ur-text on The Beautiful and Damned (821 views on April 1, 2012; 5,597 views on April 1, 2016).
Thursday, March 31, 2016
M Train is Patti Smith's follow-up to Just Kids and I misunderstood it to be a kind of sequel or continuation of that critically-acclaimed volume. I understood M Train to be about Patti Smith's life in the late 70's through the mid 90's, or at least focusing on that period. I do not know why I labored under this delusion, and it had to be from some kind of misinformation in a review I read about a year ago or whenever it was released (not quite--October of 2015, ironically close to the release of our previous review). Certainly one wouldn't get that impression from reading the inside jacket.
So it goes without saying that this is not the book I expected it to be, but I would have read it regardless. And while I personally cannot rate it as highly as Just Kids, it is very close. It's a loose, experimental book, and it mostly works. Some moments are as brilliant and heartbreaking as anything that came before, and at other moments, there's just a lot of coffee.
M Train is about many things, but there are several major themes, and chief amongst them has to be coffee. The #1 topic of this book is coffee. All Patti Smith does is drink coffee. She is like Balzac, though I believe her reflection on that literary subject and his caffeine addiction is in Just Kids. Much of the book consists of Smith waking up and crossing the street to Cafe Ino which is somewhere near 6th Ave and Bedford Ave. in the Village. (Note: Smith also recalls getting falafel at Mamoun's the night before Hurricane Sandy struck.) She sits at the same corner table and orders brown toast and olive oil and drinks coffee and writes in her notepad, or on napkins. She develops a possessiveness about the table that is humorous. One scene where she confronts another woman trying to take it from her is pretty hilarious:
"The cafe was empty, but the cook was unscrewing the outlet plate above my seat. I took my book into the bathroom and read while he finished. When I emerged, the cook was gone and a woman was ready to sit in my seat.
-Excuse me, this is my table.
-Did you reserve it?
-Well, no, but it's my table.
-Did you actually sit here? There's nothing on the table and you have your coat on.
I stood there mutely. If this were an episode of Midsomer Murders she would surely be found strangled in a wild ravine behind an abandoned vicarage. I shrugged and sat at another table, hoping to wait her out. She spoke loudly, asking for eggs Benedict and iced coffee with skim milk, neither offered on the menu.
She'll leave, I thought. But she didn't. She plopped her oversized red lizard bag on my table and made numerous calls on her cell phone. There was no way to escape her odious conversation, fixed on a tracking number for some missing FedEx package. I sat and stared at the heavy white coffee mug. If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found faceup in the snow with objects from her purse arranged about her: a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe." (74-75)
For a second I thought Smith was being a little too crazy, but then I realized that she must have a different sort of life. I'm not saying she deserves to be entitled, but she deserves to feel entitled with everything she has done over the past forty years. If you don't know who she is, and you don't give her the deference she should command, you kind of deserve it.
The book is not a memoir of 1978 - 2015, but more like a series of snapshots in a life, roughly centered around the 2012-2013 year in Greenwich Village and Far Rockaway.
There are several dream sequences in this book--a certain "cowpoke" bedevils Smith throughout the book--and some of them are heartbreaking and beautiful:
[Smith describes dreaming of a winding path up a mountain with a guide who then abandons her in a very steep open area and then is suddenly safe on the ground approached by a youth and told that they called to Fred, then seeing two men who give her tea and feed her cake and tell her they intervened and called to Fred and he carried her there, but there was the matter of a fee, one hundred thousand dirhams]
"I reached into my pocket and it was filled with money, exactly what he asked for, but the scene had shifted. I was alone on a stony path surrounded by chalky hills. I paused to reflect on what had happened. Fred had rescued me in a dream. And then suddenly I was back on the highway and I saw him in the distance trailing after the wheel with the face of a clock with no hands.
-Get it, Fred! I cried.
And the wheel collided with a massive cornucopia of lost things. It fell on its side, and Fred knelt and placed his hand on it. He flashed a huge smile, one of absolute joy, from a place with no beginning or end." (244-245)
Fred of course is her late husband and the book opens up with a description of their trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, "a border town in northwest French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America," the site of a former French penal colony, where hardcore criminals would be kept before going onto Devil's Island. Jean Genet had supposedly wanted to go there (to ascend the ladder of criminality), and he was about 70 at the time, and Patti wanted to bring back some stones from the jail to give him, with William S. Burroughs promising to help deliver the stones to him. This is easily one of the best parts of the book. It reads like an adventure thriller. A movie could probably be made about it.
The ending finds Smith at Genet's grave in a town outside Tangier in the late 90's, on assignment interviewing Paul Bowles, taking a side trip to deliver the stones she never got to him in person. It's a beautiful opening and closing motif.
From here the book goes to Cafe Ino, already described above, and she fantasizes for a moment about opening up a cafe in New York, even going so far as to procure a space with a down payment, before Fred "Sonic" Smith asks her to marry him and move to Detroit with him. She laid out her inspiration, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an establishment just a few blocks from my present abode:
"An unwinding spool of obscure angles, a glass of tea, an opened journal, and a round metal table balanced with an empty matchbook. Cafes. Le Rouquet in Paris, Cafe Josephinum in Vienna, Bluebird Coffeeshop in Amsterdam, Ice Cafe in Sydney, Cafe Aqui in Tucson, Wow Cafe at Point Loma, Caffe Trieste in North Beach, Caffe del Professore in Naples, Cafe Uroxen in Uppsala, Lula Cafe in Logan Square, Lion Cafe in Shibuya, and Cafe Zoo in the Berlin train station.
So Patti must have come back fairly recently to her place of birth. Actually, she was here just a few days ago, hosting an event at the Old Town School of Folk Music with her family. It was $25 and I thought it was too much, but really I should have looked more closely into it because I thought it was just a speaking gig.
From there she remarks upon Zak, the owner of Cafe Ino, telling her to visit him at the new coffee shop he's opening near Rockaway Beach, which opens up the whole narrative about her finding a little bungalow that she falls in love with there and ends up buying after touring and making a bunch of money over the summer of 2012. Then, Hurricane Sandy hits. This is another great part of the book, because its a narrative of one of the quintessential New York disasters of late. Like the way City on Fire depicts the blackout in 1977, Smith depicts Hurricane Sandy memorably and accurately.
Smith also writes about her membership in the CDC--the Continental Drift Club, which celebrates the life of Alfred Wegener, who pioneered the idea. I would imagine that most people would think this is another hilarious facet to her. But she meets Bobby Fischer on a trip to Iceland with the CDC, and that is another classic scene.
She also writes about a trip to Mexico to see the coffee capital Vereacruz, followed by an engagement to photograph Frida Kahlo's home and belongings in Casa Azul. This was the only part of the narrative that baffled me--did Smith really fly home in between the two trips? Because it seems like she was pretty much in the same area. She flies into Mexico City, buys a round trip train ticket to Veracruz, checks into Casa Azul, finds it closed, goes to Veracruz, has adventures there. Then, it cuts to her packing in New York and flying out to Mexico again. Maybe she has to go to Casa Azul twice? I digress...
One of her favorite authors over the course of the book is Haruki Murakami. She writes of first discovering him in St. Mark's Bookshop and reading a few books but then getting bowled over by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And she becomes obsessed with this image of a well on an abandoned property in Japan.
Smith later does go to Japan, and visit several graves of artists she admires, I think I've done a pretty good job of spoiling almost every little thing this book is about, but it won't matter (oh right--also detective shows, especially The Killing) because the pleasure of it lies in Smith's voice on the page and the poetic flourishes she sometimes employs.
While there is so much to admire in this book, its reach is more limited than her previous volume (she would not sell a Showtime series based upon it). It is much more of a "journal" type book. It's labeled as a biography, which just seems blatantly wrong. It actually says "biography" on the back near the bar code. In any case it's beautiful writing, but it sometimes dissolves into basically what amounts to a diary. I never wrote this well in a diary or journal so there's a difference.
Some sequences in the book are better than others, and it tends to ebb and flow with momentum. I'm not sure what Smith expects us to think about her life, but basically, she is human. Her talk of detective shows makes her seem like less of an otherworldly artist who would shun television. She even writes what amounts to fan fiction at one point.
Fans of Smith will love this, and those still unacquainted probably will too. And others may not get it, or find parts boring, but on the whole this will likely be a pleasurable and educational experience for most. It seems like a good book to read while you're traveling to an exotic city. Or holed up in a storm.