Friday, February 16, 2018

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1963)

The second entry in The Vonnegut Project (following Slaughterhouse-Five) is Cat's Cradle. It is being presented in its relatively unedited format (though I have agonized over the e's from judgements/judgemental), including our nominations for the third entry, which will be Breakfast of Champions.

EMILY: Reading CC was certainly different than reading SF. CC was published six years before SF, and, while there are certain similarities between the two texts (primarily in terms of how the protagonist witnesses catastrophic events without being particularly moved or changed by them), CC feels like an earlier work, without Vonnegut’s essential focus on humanism and humor. I remember loving CC when I read it nearly twenty years ago, but this time it felt difficult, unsettling. The rampant sexism and moderate racism felt more pronounced during our current moment of awareness, and although I appreciate the way Vonnegut consistently dealt with larger questions -- the firebombing of Dresden; the global danger posed by particularly destructive weapons -- after rereading SF, CC feels like a less mature work. I wonder if it would have been published today. I don’t mean to come down so hard on CC. There are moments that I love. Bokonon is, of course, fantastic. And there’s that certain moodiness Vonnegut always has, the ability to pass broad judgements on humanity’s absurdity that made me feel good when I was 15 and still make me feel good today. I don’t think we spend enough time discussing how foolish and judgemental and awful people (especially people from the United States) often are, and when Vonnegut writes sweeping statements like, “The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do,” and, “Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier,” it still paints me with a smug, knowing smile (Chapters 45 and 44, respectively).

But some of his other statements, particularly about women or individuals who aren’t white or who are physically different, are problematic, to use the current term. All the “girls” who work for Dr. Asa Breed, vice president in charge of the research laboratory of the General Forge and Foundry Company, are painted horribly (“I’m dumber than an eight-year-old,” mourned Miss Pefko, a secretary, when she doesn’t understand a concept, and Dr. Breed patronizingly declares that the girls in the typing pool “serve science… even though they may not understand a word of it. God bless them, every one!” chapters 15 and 17). There’s also descriptions of “a small and ancient Negro” (chapter 28) and “beautiful Mona,” a blonde “Negress,” and, of course, poor Newton Hoenikker, a midget who has to constantly be reminded of his small stature.

Overall, this book is a warning against the dangerous power of ice-nine, which turns any liquid instantaneously into ice that won’t melt until temperatures reach 140-some degrees. Immediately deadly and vastly destructive, CC’s unnamed protagonist witnesses the end of the world when a small sliver of ice-nine contacts water (via the corpse of someone it already killed) off the small island (essentially a banana republic, though with neither the resources nor the political capital to make it worth controlling) where he’s recently taken control (the commentary on thinly-veiled Caribbean island life warrants addressing at another time). Ice-nine is a clear stand-in for nuclear weapons, and CC is clearly an anti-nuclear book. It’s useful to note that the Cuban missile crisis happened in October 1962, roughly a year before CC was published, and KV seems to use CC to respond to these ongoing global threats. Ice-nine is destructive, awful, and created by the father of the atom bomb, but its threat is surprisingly less than nuclear energy, since the protagonist and a few select others somehow survive the freezing of the earth’s waters -- though, perhaps, the effects will last longer. (Maybe global warming finally has an upside?) It’s also a book clearly written by a scientist, in which Vonnegut draws upon his years of study to influence the construction of his narrative. (The description of how water molecules stack upon each other like cannonballs in front of a courthouse is particularly charming, in my opinion.)

Despite this valiant purpose, however, CC still seems to fall flat. Vonnegut’s protagonists rarely grow as people; they are acted upon, but rarely act in turn. They’re witnesses, vehicles through which Vonnegut can express his feelings about nuclear war, or World War II, or human stupidity in general. But they’re rarely fully-fledged novelistic characters, in the sense that we witness them grow and change and evolve. They simply witness, Vonnegut inserts his trademark witty commentary, and that’s that. While that’s not a terrible model for a book (let’s face it, I ate this shit up when I was a teen), it doesn’t work as well for me anymore. It was enough for me then because I felt like I needed to hear that wry commentary about people being dumb and Americans being crazy. But now that I’m navigating my thirties, I want to see the interior of people too, rather than just comments from an observant outsider.

Overall, I was less impressed with CC on the second reading, unlike SF which rose in my esteem. But one of the best parts of Vonnegut’s work is that the reading is quick, especially for a book like CC which is written in micro-chapters. So I look forward to our next assignment, and seeing where the third book in our project stands.

JACK: There have not been many times that I have had occasion to say this, but at this juncture I must respond to Emily that I respectfully disagree.

Cat's Cradle, for me, for whatever reason, was my favorite Vonnegut novel, and likely still is. It is better than S-F. Unlike S-F, there is actually a plot. Also unlike S-F, the book is comprised of micro-chapters, which makes it easy to recall when and where major plot points occur.

Maybe Emily's criticism is that this book is all plot and no character, but it seems like she's really harping on the supposed racism and misogyny unwittingly conveyed. While I agree some moments are "problematic," I don't believe that Vonnegut intended to lazily expose his own prejudices (I am reminded of another dear friend who queried whether Nabokov was a "sick man" because he wrote Lolita). Like Breakfast of Champions, the stray comments on race (or, here, on female submissiveness/scientific ineptitude) may be shockingly raw, but they reflect the era. I mean fuck Emily, didn't society really only get taken to task for being shitty towards women in late 2017, a year after our collective misogyny put a megalomaniac (among many other appellations) in our highest position of power? Criticizing Vonnegut's portrayal of the female employees of the foundry company is like criticizing Mad Men because all the secretaries (minus major characters Peggy/Joan/Megan) can only type or connect phone calls. We all wish Vonnegut was a progressive saint but this is not meant to be a socially responsible novel. I would add that later on, Vonnegut's work did seem to take on an implicit air of social responsibility, but Cat's Cradle is more comedic science fiction than pointed political satire.

Apart from what I feel is a nitpicky criticism, I can't argue with how the book made Emily feel. I do want to argue that the micro-chapters MAKE the book. There are about 130 itemized chapters, each with a brief title. Sometimes, these are just pure, classic Vonnegut.

I would argue that the book has an incredibly strong first half, and that the second half sort of collapses under its own weight and conceit. Even so, this is a great book!

"Call me Jonah.  My parents did, or nearly did.  They called me John." 

So it begins.  It's a call back to Moby Dick (which I haven't read and probably should one day). Then, we never hear the name again. What does the narrator actually do? Is he a reporter? In a way, this framing mechanism is at the heart of why I believe this is such a successful novel, and why Citizen Kane is such a successful film. That is, the investigation: what is rosebud? What is ice-nine?

Emily brilliantly observes that this is likely an allegory for nuclear weapons and the Cuban missile crisis. But is San Lorenzo a stand-in for Cuba? I don't think so, though there is definitely talk about its communist bent (and the defiantly anti-communist spirit of the American people circa height of cold war).

I do want to ask, regarding the lack of character development: what Vonnegut novel truly does have fully-fledged characters that change and grow?

I wasn't alive and neither was Emily (though she is better equipped to draw such conclusions as an historian) and while I appreciate the interpretation, looking at the book this way sort of ruins it for me. I mean, I know it's a simple story and there's not much there that doesn't feel like anything more than thinly-veiled satire, but it's a story about the apocalypse or the end of the world or the fate of humanity as a whole and it feels Profound in the childish sort of way that Vonnegut sometimes projects perfectly. No, the book isn't as perfect as I remember it being, but it does have an ending to rival S-F. And while it may have come 6 years before (making Vonnegut about 40 at the time of writing?), S-F only feels like a more "mature" work because the characters are not all caricatures (to put it simply). Even with its flaws, I still love this book and think it should be read by everyone.

Nominations for next book:
-Mother Night
-Sirens of Titan
-Hocus Pocus
-Deadeye Dick
-Jailbird or Player Piano worth reading? (2 I haven’t read)

EMILY: I think Jack makes a ton of really excellent points and I also think it’s really fun when we disagree. This project is so great! My vote for the next book is Bluebeard, Timequake, or Breakfast of Champions, even though I think that was once nominated and then we took it off the table. I want to put it back on! Put it back on the table like the breakfast of champions it is!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Grass Roots: the Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America - Emily Dufton (2017)

Full Disclosure: Emily Dufton is my friend and personal confidante, and she has been a contributor to Flying Houses over the past 5 years.  The things I have to say in this review may be different from the things other people have to say.  However, I am planning to do a podcast for this blog, for all of the things that are probably not prudent to print, or might be more entertaining in an audible format, and Emily is slated to be my first guest.  So due to that, I will try to avoid too many personal tangents.

I would not have read a book about the history of marijuana activism, truthfully, if Emily had not written it.  However, I would read absolutely anything she wrote, because she brings an intensity to the written word that I find lacking in others.  What Emily says matters, or what Emily says matters, matters.  I never read High Times.  I won't go into personal tangents here, as I said, but in carrying around this book, with its inescapable giant cannabis leaf on the cover, you sort of brand yourself.  This is precisely what makes Grass Roots so special, because it's about that.  It is about the nether region between pro-marijuana and anti-marijuana activists.  It is so rare in this day and age to read something and not feel like it is beholden to its ideologues.  

I enjoy reading history books, but they are often daunting in their length and predisposed towards excessive tangents.  Emily sticks close to the facts here, starting in the late 1960's and ending in present day, with crucial developments to the story and her theory occurring constantly.  Apparently Jeff Sessions has done something regressive lately.

At the heart of it, this book is really about NORML, and the Parent Movement.  Emily's portraits of Keith Stroup and Keith Schuchard, the respective leaders of each, are lovingly rendered.  Side note: it is too perfect that Marsha Mannatt Schuhard happens to go by Keith--how do you get Keith from that?

Take for example this brief description of Stroup after he went to work for Ralph Nader:

"Consumer advocacy was only one part of the equation, however.  The most important shift that occurred during Stroup's tenture with the National Commission on Product Safety was his transformation into a regular marijuana smoker.  There Stroup befriended Larry Schott, a fellow Midwesterner and heavy smoker who was serving as the commission's chief investigator.  As two of only a handful of staff members who weren't from the moneyed eastern elite, Schott and Stroup bonded immediately and began visiting each other regularly, getting high and going to see the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.  The rest of Nader's staff was experimenting with the drug as well.  While Nader was a straight arrow, Stroup, Schott, and the other commission members were not, and smoking together on the weekends 'created a bond among us,' Stroup remembered.  'We were fellow stoners daring to travel to new places in our minds.  We felt as if we were pushing the levels of our consciousness, and experiencing new realities.'" (35)

Grass Roots is also a story of Presidents, from Nixon through Obama.  It tells of how a congressional study (the Shafer Commission) found that it had less harmful effects than presupposed ("the drug's 'relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.'" (54)), and was shunned by Nixon, who effectively ended Vietnam and started the War on Drugs.  Most of the book, however, centers around President Carter and President Reagan. 

Under Carter, marijuana was effectively decriminalized, until the so-called downfall of Peter Bourne.  This chapter is probably the highlight of the book for me.  There were three images that were indelible to me in this book.  One of them is the scene of the NORML Christmas party where Peter Bourne, a senior-level member (Special Assistant to the President for Drug Abuse) of the Carter administration, allegedly used drugs.  However, it was this turn of phrase that I remembered best:

"Bourne tried to defend himself, to no avail.  In an interview with the Washington Post the day after the accusations aired, Bourne denied that he had ever used cocaine.  'I won't say that I've never used marijuana,' he said, 'but not since I've been on this job.  It's just not my style.  I use alcohol.'  In another interview, with the Associated Press, Bourne said that pot and coke were 'everywhere' at the NORML Christmas party, but 'No, no, I was not snorting cocaine.'  He tried to cool the mounting pressure by agreeing to take a leave of absence and abandon his role as drug adviser, while staying on as a White House staff member.  But as articles kept criticizing Bourne for everything from his alleged drug use to putting on European airs, Bourne recognized that he couldn't remove himself from the scandal he had created.  Hoping to spare the president some heat, Bourne officially resigned from the White House on July 20, 1978, eight months after the fateful Christmas party with Keith Stroup." (116)

Earlier in the book, however, this was the first ridiculous image that struck me, of an infamous smoke-in:

"According to Norman Mailer, who attended the rally and wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning 'nonfiction novel' The Armies of the Night about the event, Hoffman, Rubin, and Sanders planned to smoke marijuana and then 'encircle the Pentagon with twelve hundred men in order to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet.  In the air the Pentagon would then, went the presumption, turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled.'  As people sang and grasped hands, Sanders would call upon Zeus and Anubis, the god of the dead, to 'raise the Pentagon from its destiny and preserve it,' forcing its inhabitants to end the war and bring peace to America and Vietnam." (23)

From this early focus on the rising use of marijuana in the hippie-era, the book shifts to the backlash against it from parents in the late 1970's.  As noted, Emily's ability to write sympathetically from the perspective of the Parent Movement should be lauded.  However, one does not really feel too badly for them.  They do seem to be more "careerist" than any of the pro-marijuana activists.  And it feels cheapened because their whole career is based on being against something.  Still, their concerns are valid, with respect to head shops and the shameless marketing of pot-smoking toys to children and teens.  And most people seem to be in agreement that they should just be restricted to over 18, but instead it became the sort of linchpin on which the national attitude towards marijuana shifted.  It hits its apotheosis in the Reagan era, and Emily's account of how Nancy Reagan hijacked the Just Say No campaign is part of the sequence of events that make up the third indelible image:

"On April 2, 1982, Reagan traveled to Atlanta, where she addressed over 600 cheering fans at the fourth annual PRIDE Southeast Drug Conference.  Bolstered by grants from ACTION, it was the group's largest and most spectacular meeting yet.  Three days of adolescent drug abuse prevention activities were interspersed with student groups performing musical acts, movies, and grand buffets.  There were also celebrity guests.  Standing alongside actress Melissa Gilbert (star of television's Little House on the Prairie) and Dr. Gabriel Nahas, Reagan commended the movement's work.  'I'm very happy to be here among all you concerned parents,' she said, 'because, while drugs have cast a dark shadow in recent years, the parent movement has been a light in the window--it shines with hope and progress.'  Even as she stood next to actors and scientists, however, the first lady was the meeting's true star.  After her speech, the journalist Michael Massing reported, 'members of the audience hoisted her on their shoulders and carried her around the hall as if she had just scored the winning touchdown of a football game." (153-154)

These moments epitomize the book for me.  I've said pretty much all I am going to say, without spoiling anything further (though the book is history and effectively cannot be "spoiled," the depth of Emily's research often yields a surprise).  Soon after this, we will be publishing the second entry in The Vonnegut Project, and I hope to speak to her further about Grass Roots in an interview of sorts.  I would point out the one tiny small criticism I have--which is that, in perhaps three or four instances, certain events are referred to as if previously unmentioned--but I doubt this will bother or faze anyone else.  I only noticed what I thought was one typo--in a transcription from a judicial opinion--and even that may be an incorrect observation.  In short, Grass Roots establishes Emily as one of the premiere writers and thinkers of our generation.  I have always considered her that, and now perhaps the greater public will too.    


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (2015)

This is going to be a tough one to review.  I had never heard of Paul Beatty before hearing him as a guest on the WTF podcast.  That was how I first heard of The Sellout, though apparently it won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 (this was a pretty big deal as Beatty was the first American writer to win it, but George Saunders followed suit last year [Ed. Later I listened to a podcast that mentioned it was only opened up to Americans in 2014]).  An unfortunate result of winning such an award is the question on the minds of subsequent readers: did it deserve to win?  In the case of previous winners, Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee) and Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie), I thought so.  Remains of the Day (2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro) is on my list of future reads.

I can't think of any books off the top of my head that were published in 2015 that I thought were better, but I hesitate to add it to the Best Books list for reasons that will no doubt be difficult to articulate.  Elements of the novel are great.  The writing is lyrical and casually profound.  However, this is not so much a novel as a manifesto.  The story is quite incidental to the ideas expressed therein.  There is kind of a good story involved though, but it is not really fleshed out.  The narrator (Me) notices that his hometown, Dickens (an enclave in south central L.A.), has been removed from the map.  He attempts to redraw the boundaries and put the city back on the map.  He achieves his goal, but the novel is barely about that.  It's more about how he takes on Hominy, who is a former member of the Little Rascals, as his slave.  Hominy is a caricature out of a minstrel show.  In fact, many of the same themes are explored in Bamboozled.  This is a better book than that was a movie, but great performances by Damon Wayans and Michael Rapaport.  I digress.

The novel opens with Me v. the United States of America, 09-2606 before oral argument at the Supreme Court.  It is immediately apparent that we are not in the real world when notice of his case arrives in a letter from the Court proclaiming, "Congratulations, you may already be a winner!" He is also smoking a bowl in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called.  He is basically charged with violating the 13th amendment.  This is one of the larger framing narratives, but I don't think it is really about that.

I would describe this book as incredibly poetic.  At times, it goes off for a dazzling page or two, or for a particularly gut-punching paragraph.  I don't really think it's noteworthy for the plot.  It's more the language, the cultural reference points, the whole mood of the presentation, that make it special.  It also becomes incredibly wacky and hilarious (Foy Cheshire's The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit and other works).

I remembered this part bothering me though:

"And in ten years, through countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks, the poor, the people of color, like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg's Crash, and Dave Eggers's do-gooder condescension, I hadn't spoken a single word." (95)

I mean, this just bothers me because he specifies that it's the Cronenberg Crash and not the Paul Haggis one about race relations in L.A. which seems a lot more appropriate but maybe I need to re-watch that movie about crashing cars and achieving climax.  And I'm not sure whether he is referring to AHWOSG or What is the What or Eggers in general.  Maybe I'm just being nitpicky.  He's referring to ten years passing of him going to the meetings of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group formerly spearheaded by his father before he meets his untimely end (this happens relatively early in the novel, so I don't think that's too much of a spoiler).  Foy Cheshire often speaks at the meetings.  These are usually great scenes.  There are vividly drawn, memorable characters, such as Foy, King Cuz, and Hominy (as outrageous as he seems).  This is one of the few narrative tropes that work.  However, I don't buy the climax.

Today, I typed out some notes to myself in an e-mail from my phone, over the course of about 30 minutes.  I am going to edit it and leave in the parts that deserve comment.

-Too many n-words.

Then again, this is kind of a "definitive" novel on racism, so may be justified.  

-Wins man Booker due to political bent. Not a good story.  Nothing feel good about it, nothing realistic...though it is super real.

This is hitting repeatedly on my theme of the storytelling element.  I don't mean that it's a bad story.  There is something feel good about it, it has a pretty happy ending.  

-Fantastic prose style though. Very talented writer with "controversial" ideas. Shock value important to book...moments of sensitivity are great, but the jarring juxtaposition detracts. Invisible Man sequel?

I don't know if shock value is important to the book, but sometimes the gags from Little Rascals episodes with Hominy feel like overkill.  I guess that is why it is labeled a satire.  I think this is the best phrase from my notes: jarring juxtaposition.  Sometimes these scenes are just so hardcore racist that when the novel pulls back and goes into one of its relatively rare moments of tenderness, it feels refreshing.  You can see I was being very critical in my notes.  Invisible Man sequel is interesting, because I never finished Invisible ManPerhaps I only made this comparison because of the nameless narrator but it feels like a spiritual forbear.

-Self evident truths and stereotypes, extremely self aware, self conscious. A lot to talk about. Good book club selection, not good for white people to discuss, no way to act like they know what they're talking about. 

This sort of speaks for itself, but I feel seriously awkward writing this review.  I've removed the comparison to Get Out.  That is something else entirely.  That is both a critical and commercial success.  The Sellout is a critical success, and arguably a commercial one, but not on the same level.  I would say that I enjoyed Get Out very much, but that I thought the story kind of ripped off Being John Malkovich.  I've also removed stuff about BLM, though I do think this could be a kind flagship novel for the movement.  Granted, you would want a novel that delves into the horror and tragedy of an unjustified killing, rather than the more farcical portrayal here.          

Little rascals stuff, apocryphal? Black history in film is often regrettable but book focuses overwhelmingly on negative, nothing about how society has progressed.

This was a weird element of it.  Like, Hominy is probably not based on an actual person, but there are a couple people he could be?  In any case, I don't think many people still watch The Little Rascals, though I could be completely wrong.  But it would be interesting to fact-check any of the re-tellings of episodes of the show and sight-gags from it.

Open mic/comedy connection and WTF, Beatty as stand up comic? Slam poetry like.  Confederacy of Dunces as predecessor along with IM? Baldwin...Coates.

This was basically a reference to the episode of WTF that introduced me to Beatty.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to re-listen to it, but I did listen to a couple other ones briefly that had interviews with Beatty.  I don't think he performed stand up comedy ever or necessarily at open mics except to read poetry.  I recently heard an episode with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his book Between the World and Me has been something I've been meaning to pick up.  He talked a lot about James Baldwin.  I forget which writers Beatty referenced as influential but he seemed to have a pretty broad palate.  I mentioned Confederacy of Dunces because there is a lot in this novel that reminds me of that, in the way the climaxes occur.  And just in general the way they're both satires.  They're obviously about very different characters and very different themes, but the picaresque and absurd qualities to each seem related.  I definitely think The Sellout can be put in a similar category to Confederacy.  That is something that I didn't love as much as I thought I might, but would probably speak to me in a different way at my age and social position (lol).

Farming in LA? Race riot history. (Future reference: grade A-, best books are only A+) OJ, Obama, Condoleezza, Colin Powell, Cosby, Jazz (?), Gangs, black Chinese food.

Having a farm in L.A. isn't that weird except for the desert climate.  There are probably a couple references to the L.A. race riots, but I would imagine there to be a couple more, regarding Dickens actual situation in the city.  There is not the same discussion of Brentwood and OJ as in The Rise, The Fall and The Rise but it probably comes up once.  For future reference, only books considered an A+ will be named to the Best Books list.  This is probably an A-.  But see below.  

But also Kafka. Again jarring juxtaposition but craftsmanship undeniable. Ideas are muddled but seems to be about why society keeps black people in a box...and how it keeps all races in their own box (except white who are privileged tho they can't dance)

I would excerpt the reference to Letters to Milena (why not Letters to Felice?!) but I'm wary of this going on too long.  I hope nobody takes this last sentence too seriously.  

Recommended, glad I read, but not something I would say everyone has to read asap. Tide has shifted from BLM to metoo. What is the next social movement? Should focus on economy, new-occupy, COL too high, no way for us to survive. End discrimination/patriarchy/old guard powermongers, when do we hit end stage communism? Art is about bringing people together, deepening understanding, open up worldviews, teaching us to be kinder to each other. This book is both a success and failure, however, white people that read it will probably decrease net racism. Narrators identity is fragmented (hates himself in some ways), psychologist father experiments entertaining and silly but also make clearest point in novel about ingrained prejudice. Grew up in Winnetka, so white, so was HS, so was college [Ed. though both were diverse], only learned about AA in law school, always considered u of m to be backwards until understanding benefits of diversity (thinking from different angles on same project), society more "woke" (terrible word) but people too quick to judge and assume other viewpoints invalid (i.e. anyone that has nostalgia for past). The past is sordid and there is nothing truly pure or good or perfect about anything and it's naive for people to pretend that certain people are "good" or "bad" and we don't believe that people have the capacity to change. End result is society more egalitarian but when will we ever be able to say that the playing field has been leveled? The book does its own small part to make the world a better place and is not likely to be read by anyone that will take it the wrong way but it ends up being more divisive than necessary. Avoid pandering to white audience but book arguably would have been better with stronger aspect very interesting and segregation still rampant , see Chicago, so relevance is there and will likely still be there in 50 years. Integration is getting closer and hopefully will be realized. 50 years since MLK assassination, 2018 could be the year racist police practices are stopped. 2 times in my life i probably would have been arrested if not white--how do we ensure that people are treated fairly?

too many ideas in this review, which shows the value of the book.

Briefly, this social commentary may be unwanted.  It contains some personal history that is perhaps best not discussed in a review of this book, but some other time.  Basically talking here about where I grew up and the extent to which I've lived in "diverse" communities.  I don't think we're living in the same world as we did before, race and ethnicity are less the target of discrimination than social class and citizenship (given the current administration).  The community of Dickens is likely one that would be the target of discrimination (getting taken off the map is something that a lot of people would probably like to do for Englewood to transcend its reputation).  I don't really understand the whole prank the narrator pulls about a fancy "white" private school opening up in the area.  

Then I go into more vague stuff that is critical of the tone of the conversations surrounding popular culture. 


Yeah that was a pretty unhinged raw feeling there.  How about a passage from the book:

"Godard approached filmmaking as criticism, the same way Marpessa approached bus driving, but in any case, I thought Laura Jane had a point.  Whatever Jewish people supposedly look like, from Barbra Streisand to the nominally Jewish-ish Whoopie Goldberg, you never see people in commercials that look 'Jewish,' just as you never see black people that come off as 'urban' and hence 'scary,' or handsome Asian men, or dark-skinned Latinos.  I'm sure those groups spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on shit they don't need.  And, of course, in the idyllic world of television advertisement, homosexuals are mythical beings, but you see more ads featuring unicorns and leprechauns than you do gay men and women.  And maybe nonthreatening African-American actors are overrepresented on television.  Their master's degrees from the Yale School of Drama and Shakespearean training having gone to waste, as they stand around barbecue pits delivering lines like 'Prithee, homeboy.  Forsooth, thou knowest that Budweiser is the King of Beers.  Uneasy lies the frothy head that wears the crown.'  But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it's traffic." (139)

Boom.  Let me revise my grade from A- to A for this novel.  It's on the cusp of Best Books and I think it deserves to have won the Booker Prize (or at least to be nominated) even though I still feel the tone of the novel is kind of weird and is not really about the plot but more the passages like the above.  It's an incredible book and I recommend it with the caveat that it is likely to be a bumpy ride for most.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Rise, The Fall and the Rise - Brix Smith-Start (2016)

I started listening to Turned Out a Punk, Damien Abraham's podcast, sometime this fall.  An entire post should be written about the podcast but suffice to say, Brix Smith was one of the first guests that I wanted to hear.  Her episode probably made me want to read this book.  I'm very glad that I did.  While it is not a perfect book and will not make the Best Books list, parts of it are so incredible that make it worthwhile.  I could not agree with Abraham that it was the best book I had read that year.  It was however, extremely entertaining and highly readable, at times.  As a huge fan of the Fall going back about 14 years, it was a totally amazing experience. On both the podcast, and in this book, Brix references being classmates with Donna Tartt and Bret Easton Ellis at Bennington College in the early 80's.  She does not aim for the heights of The Goldfinch, but sometimes lapses into Ellis-styled prose.  That is, her life could be one of his novels, particularly with the ending in the fashion industry.  What she ends up doing is completely her own.  It may not generally be as artful, but I personally found that I could identify with Brix very closely.  We are all Brix Smith, or Brix Smith is all of us.

I re-listened to the episode today, and forgot the two other Bennington classmates she mentioned--Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt.  Apart from that there is not much else to mention--you can listen to the podcast yourself.  I will note that Brix has one of most unique accents I have heard--British valley girl.  She was born in L.A. and spent her childhood there, and splitting time between there and Chicago in her teen years.  She now lives in England.

The stuff about Chicago is fantastic.  On the podcast, Brix mentions that her first concert was at this outdoor venue outside of Chicago, where people have picnics, Rav-en-ia, where she saw the Carpenters and Neil Sedaka on a double bill.  Having recently seen Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with my family at Ravinia, I found it touching.

Most notably, there is the story of where and when she met Mark E. Smith:

"On Saturday 23 April 1983, Lisa and I paid the $6 ticket price and entered through the front doors of Cabaret Metro, 3730 North Clark Street." (144)

This was within a week of my birth, not very far away, so I have one more reason to feel connected to the band and this book.

Brix writes compelling stories through the first 75% of the book.  In truth I lost some interest after she left the Fall, and it was briefly exciting when she rejoined for a couple years in the mid-90's.  The opening of the book confused me--it's an account of her grandmother seemingly losing it behind the wheel and driving from the Disneyland parking lot through the main gates and into the park before plunging into the lagoon at the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride.  I thought it was real, but Brix later reveals it to be a dream.  I wonder how many other people have that reaction.  It seems like it could have happened, because so much of the rest of her life has been crazy that anything seems possible.  Her stories about her father are both hilarious and horrifying.  There are so many things I would excerpt from this book it's not even funny.  On that note, I should perhaps vault it into Best Books territory, but I think it is instructive to compare it to the other recent female rock musician memoirs that I've read.

If pressed, I have to say that it is better than both Kim Gordon's Girl in a Band and Carrie Brownstein's Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.  Both are excellent books.  All three of these books are fantastic and totally worth reading, but Brix's is the heaviest.  To be sure, Kim Gordon's account of the dissolution of her relationship with her husband and bandmate, Thurston Moore, is the most powerful piece of writing in the bunch.  This is not to say that Carrie Brownstein's account of the dissolution of her romantic relationship with bandmate Corin Tucker is weak.  In fact, Brix's account of the dissolution of her relationship with husband and bandmate, Mark E. Smith, is the least evocative, in part due to the inscrutability of the man it involves.  Now I love Mark E. Smith but this book definitely sheds some light on him in an unflattering fashion.  It feels fair, though, because there are also moments of extreme vulnerability, humanity, and cuteness.

There are some parts of this book that are tough to read.  Yet even during the most atrocious moment, Brix offers some levity and resists victimization.  As I said, there are many quotable excerpts in this book, so I have to include one about Mark E. Smith that almost made me want to start crying:

"One night, a few months later, there was a knock at the front door of my apartment.  I opened the door to find Mark E. Smith standing there.  He was drunk and held a half-empty bottle of whiskey.  He begged me to let him in, and was in a state.  He told me he had made a mistake leaving me.  I let him in and tried to calm him down.  He asked if he could sleep over.  He was emotional.  I was torn.  Part of me was happy he'd come to his senses and realised what he'd lost in leaving me.  The other part of me was cold and shut down.  After having experienced the attentions and kindness of other men, I was no longer attracted to him.
But still, I felt connected to him.  That would never go away.  He had been my soulmate.  The songs we wrote together would forever be a testament to that.  I allowed him to sleep over, in my bed.  I made it patently clear he was not to touch me.  As he lay next to me, I felt sad.  The next morning, it would be years before I ever saw him again." (267-268)

The stories of the songs were surprising.  It always seems like the Fall are singing about conspiracies or manifestos but in truth are just slices of life.  For example, Brix writes about her sleeping problems and reliance on pills in "US 80s-90s":

"My mother's pills came in the prescription bottle with her name on it.  When we landed in Boston, immigration singled us out to be searched --this happened often, being in a rock group; when we came through carrying guitars and music gear we set off internal klaxons inside officials' heads; we practically had stickers on our foreheads saying 'Search me' -- and the customs officials were aggressively questioning us about the prescription pills not in our name.  This experience led us to write our version of a hip-hop track, 'US 80s-90s': 'Had a run-in with Boston immigration/to my name they had an aversion/Nervous droplets due to sleeping tablets....'  In the airport the signs would read, 'Welcome to the United States of America', but we would always get tormented by security and feel like we were entering a police state.  In the song Mark proclaims, 'I am the original white (big shot) rapper', and it's not hyperbole." (222)

She writes often about "Hotel Bloedel" and "LA."  She seems to consider these her best songs.  She wrote a lot of great songs with the band and I think most people consider the "Brix era" to be the second-greatest period in the Fall's catalog (behind the Hex Enduction Hour era).  Certainly she brought the band in a more accessible direction.  Other noteworthy song inspirations include "Carry Bag Man" (about how Mark E. Smith likes to carry around his stuff in plastic bags).  Actually, her causal dismissal of The Frenz Experiment (the last album she would record before re-joining the band as his ex-wife) is worth capture:

"'Carry Bag Man' is fine, and chugs along, but is a phoned-in effort from Mark, a song about how he likes to carry plastic bags.  'Get a Hotel' is just annoying.  'The Steak Place' is boring and conjures images of gross food, the kind of restaurant that might have photos of the food on their menu.  The most annoying song I ever had to play on was 'Oswald Defence Lawyer.'  I think it was the worst song we'd done since I'd joined the band.  It was interminable, and when we played it live I watched the audience switch off.  It makes me cringe today, just thinking about it.  I was expected to really belt it out, but it just sounds irritating and grating: 'Oswald Defense Lawyer embraces the scruffed corpse of Mark Twain.'  It was cool to name-check Twain, though." (238-239)

Brix writes a fair amount about her post-Fall band, Adult Net, and I was dismayed not to be able to find anything on Spotify or Amazon Music.  I would definitely have listened to The Honey Tangle if I could.  Maybe Brix realizes that streaming services will net her approximately zero and that her fans will seek out old copies of the album.  Or likely it's the record label's fault.

I don't want to give away too many details about the book but can say briefly that Brix's parents divorced when she was young and her mother moved to Chicago and she moved around in fairly fancy places with her father in L.A.  There is more than a fair share of celebrity name-dropping in this book.  It's not always totally necessary, but if I was writing my memoir, I would totally do the same thing.  It's the tangents that usually end up being memorable, such as the story of her professional soccer player friend who soils himself on the field and fakes an injury, or the friend at her bachelorette party with a crazy party trick. 

She goes back from her father in L.A. to her mother in Chicago multiple times through her teen years.  She does not have kind things to say about Chicago, but her account of working at Marshall Field's in the Loop was especially charming (sometimes I like to reflect on the significance of being in the same place as another person in recorded history).  She meets Mark E. Smith at Smart Bar after seeing the Fall in concert at the Metro.  What happens is the definition of a whirlwind romance and is completely insane and showcases the true spontaneity of Brix.  She quickly decides to move to England, move in with Mark, and get married.  She becomes a member of the Fall and stays with them for another four years.  This will be the highlight for the majority of readers.  However, Brix's life outside the Fall is arguably more interesting.  For example, her section about being an aspiring-actress-waitress in L.A after being left by Mark and effectively kicked out of the band is especially compelling.  She meets Nigel, a classical violinist, who is apparently quite a sensation, and is led into a different world, seemingly a little more refined but no less debaucherous.  In fact, I'm sorry, but I have to give a snippet of her encounter with Courtney Love, who invites her to audition for Hole:

"....But as I went to sleep, I had a sixth sense that something was wrong.  A bad feeling.  Something was burning.  I got up, out of bed and rushed to Courtney's room and pushed open the door to the master bedroom.  In her room, she had a selection of candles and incense burning.  Two sticks of incense had fallen over and caught fire.  The carpet was aflame and I caught it just in time.  Had I been five minutes later I dread to think what would have happened.  I put out the fire by smothering it with a blanket and stamping on it.  Courtney was in bed, slumped over her computer.  I fleetingly clocked that she had been mid-conversation with Billy Corgan, of The Smashing Pumpkins.
She said, 'Get into bed, sleep on Kurt's side.'  So I did.  It was really weird, but I felt honoured to be asked to sleep there, in her bed, on his side.  Courtney was warm and kind.  I feel she's often misunderstood.  She is a complex person, as we all are.  At times she has been her own worst enemy, but when you get down to it there is kindness and warmth to her, that is not often talked about." (362)

She then proceeds to talk about how Courtney turned her onto Rohypnol, in one of the more outrageous habits detailed in the book.  Later on, she rejoins the Fall briefly, and then meets her current husband, who then opens a fashion store with her in London.  She also co-stars briefly in a reality series, Gok's Fashion Fix, which sounds like it would be amazing to see.  She has an amazing kitchen and is in love with her pugs.

That is pretty much the whole story, but Brix's mysticism is also worth noting.  She seems to have some sort of otherworldly presence.  One could easily write off her ramblings as hippie-ish, vaguely drugged out, but the realities she has known are so insane that I am inclined to believe her if she says she believes in ghosts.  The precognitive powers of Mark E. Smith are also referenced poignantly, in a story I had read before, about the origins of the song, "Disney's Dream Debased."  The story is that she had taken Mark E. Smith with her to Disneyland and they got in line for the Matterhorn and while waiting he said he didn't like the ride, that it was evil, and that he didn't want to go on it.  They rode it anyways and left.  A few minutes later, there was a commotion in the area, and Disneyland employees came out from hidden elevators and Disney characters tried to distract parkgoers' attention from the Matterhorn.  It came out that a woman was killed when she fell out of her car at the unloading zone onto the track, and the next car could not be stopped from dismembering her.  It's a horrifying story and it would be interesting to know what became of the incident legally, whether Disney has publicly acknowledged that it occurred.

There is another truly insane story about Disneyworld (Brix always goes to Disneyland, but goes to Disneyworld for the first time in her late 20's or early 30's) and how Mickey Mouse may or may not be trying to ask her on a date or hook up with her.  This story appears to be in there solely to detail the breakdown of Brix's mind at the time (it is a weirdly hallucinogenic chapter), but she later brings it full circle when she becomes one of the very few to get Mickey Mouse to appear at an event for her fashion store.  Her comment on the usual gender of the person wearing the Mickey Mouse costume is poignant. 

I could go on a lot longer and pick out more passages, but I think I've said pretty much everything I wanted to say about this.  It's a great book, but it occasionally feels like Brix is going through the motions, telling the story because she has to and not necessarily because she wants to.  The grammar is correct and proper, but the writing is not especially complex and definitely devolves into purple prose at times.  However, I would want any friend of mine to read it, regardless of whether they liked the Fall or not.  I think it would make a great movie--"Scenes from Brix" or something, like Moonlight and three different periods in her life.  Not everyone wants to sell the movie rights to their life, but really, you would do it if you could, wouldn't you?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2017

I haven't done this in a long time but there are a lot of albums I really liked this year so I will to have name them:

(10) Big Thief - Capacity
(9) Prince - Purple Rain (deluxe edition)
(8) Charlotte Gainsbourg - Rest
(7) Japandroids - Near to the Wild Heart of Life
(6) Run the Jewels - 3
(5) Cloud Nothings - Life Without Sound
(4) Mt. Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me
(3) St. Vincent - Masseduction
(2) LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
(1) The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding

I have not done this since 2009 and haven't written about any albums since 2010.  The final posts included Wolf Parade and LCD Soundsystem, and their follow-up albums were both considerations for this list (Cry Cry Cry is a strong return, better than At Mount Zoomer, but weaker than Expo '86 and ultimately not in the top 10).  The new LCD is better than This is Happening, I think, but maybe just because of the vague promise of more to come from a great group.  Broken Social Scene also had their long-awaited follow-up to Forgiveness Rock Record, which I also think is an improvement.  Liars put out a new album that would also be in my top 20.  I would also put the Destroyer album ken on that list.  It would be an interesting top 20, but it would showcase my inferior musical tastes.

Note that these are my top 10.  They do not represent any critical consensus, and showcase the predictability of my tastes.  That is, if Stephen Malkmus had an album this year, it would likely be here.  Few would put the Japandroids or Cloud Nothings on this list, but they are literally my two favorite bands to arise in the 2010's.  When I was able to see them as part of a double bill at the Vic Theater in November (in a week that also included seeing the Breeders, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem--surely one of my best efforts, though I could have seen Slowdive, too), my dreamz came true.  Both of their albums were underrated by Pitchfork, which obviously is influential to my listening habits.  Truth be told Near to the Wild Heart of Life is a so-so album with two amazing songs, the title track and "No Known Drink or Drug," which I would put at #3 and #4 in top 10 songs.  I do think the new Cloud Nothings, Life Without Sound, is much better overall, but certainly their weakest effort yet.  I hope that doesn't make them lose confidence because they are one of the premiere bands working today and it's a great album, their last two albums were just slightly more amazing.  And actually, if you take "Wasted Days" off Attack on Memory and "Now Hear In" off Here and Nowhere Else, this album is equally good as those.

Capacity by Big Thief is my last addition to this list and it's a no-brainer.  They're a great new band.  It's a fantastic album.  The type of album that I'm glad Pitchfork champions as Best New Music.  I probably wouldn't be drawn to check it out otherwise.

I put Run the Jewels on here because I feel like I need to have a token hip-hop album (I would have put Danny Brown on it last year for Atrocity Exhibition, and his brief cameo on 3 places it here).  I listened to a few of the top albums Pitchfork named, and they were all fine.  I liked Tyler the Creator and SZA and Vince Staples.  In case you haven't heard them, I think half of the reason they are so critically-acclaimed is because they possess the Kendrick Lamar seal of approval.  At this point, Kendrick Lamar has to be the most critically-acclaimed musical artist in history.  I think he's fine, but he's not like, Prince.  (Though Bowie famously loved Kendrick's previous LP, also the #1 album of the year in 2015).

Many may complain that Purple Rain is on this list because it actually came out in 1984, but I listened to it a lot and it's one of the few albums that I think is a perfect 10.  The bonus tracks and remastered audio elevate it beyond the original product--specifically, the transitions between "Computer Blue" and "Darling Nikki," and "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star."

Mt. Eerie's A Crow Looked at Me is probably the most depressing album of all time.  It's so beautiful and heartbreaking, instantly cementing itself as the most powerful thing that Phil Elverum has ever released, his most inspired work since the Microphones The Glow, Pt. 2.  Not an easy listen.  It bears more than a passing resemblance to Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave's emotionally devastating meditation on grief from last year.

It is quite different, however, from Charlotte Gainsbourg's Rest, another album framed by grief and the loss of a family member.  Rest certainly has a moment or two of soul-searing sadness, but it is infused with this weird catchy electro-pop sheen that turns the album into more of a celebration than an elegy.  Okay it's not exactly celebratory, but it is suitable listening for more situations than just burying your head in your pillow and sobbing.

I put the St. Vincent album on here because I love Annie Clark and pretty much anything she does.  We are close to the same age.  I love watching the covers she played of "Bad Penny" and "Kerosene" from that show in 2011 at Bowery Ballroom celebrating all the bands from Our Band Could Be Your Life.  She's such a badass, and she puts on a great show.  I thought it was really weird when she went out with Cara Delevigne and then Kristen Stewart and was often in the "Entertainment" section of the Google News headlines I would see: "Look at the crazy thing they did!  Are they engaged?" This album seems to be about her experiences as a pseudo-mega-celebrity and the emptiness and vapidity of modern culture.  It continues her streak of peerless work, though it lacks some of the vulnerability and emotional highs of her last two albums.

LCD Soundsystem is a little high, maybe, but it was the most anticipated album of the year for me (and akin to The Last Jedi, which I saw last night, it was amazing).  Really this is a very long album with many dark and moody stretches, but "Call the Police" is my 2nd favorite song of the year, and just as much of an instant classic as "All My Friends" was 10 or 11 years ago.  Mostly, I was upset that I missed the end of LCD Soundsystem back in 2011, and I do not begrudge them for changing their mind on the band as a going-concern.  Plus any album that basically exists because David Bowie said it should exist should get a pass.  Terrible album cover though.

But for me, it's no-contest: A Deeper Understanding is the album of the year.  I had never really listened to the War on Drugs, and I have since realized that their previous album is also a stunning achievement.  But this album is basically perfect.  "Holding On" is my #1 song of the year.  The production on this album is just so pristine that it even sounds magical coming from the flimsy speakers of my old Moto G android.  "In Chains" is arguably an even better song.  It should definitely win the Grammy for Best Rock Album, and it doesn't deserve to be boxed into that genre.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Avid Reader - Robert Gottlieb (2016)

This is the first book reviewed as a result of podcasts.  At a certain point, I am going to write a lot about podcasts, maybe.  Suffice to say, they have been an influence on me.

Because I was listening to WTF, I was turned onto the New York Times Book Review podcast, and because I listened to Robert Gottlieb talk about romance novels on that, I was turned onto his memoir.  I first became aware of Robert Gottlieb after I purchased the Paris Review Interview Volume I.  He was one of the interviewees featured in that volume, and I recall reading his with greater interest than most (at least, for say, Richard Price, Jack Gilbert, Robert Stone, and Elizabeth Bishop).  He couldn't hold a candle to Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, James Cain, Rebecca West, Billy Wilder, or Joan Didion, but he came across as one of the more engaging subjects.

I've just leafed through the first few pages of that interview, and I was struck by how I already knew a few of the stories from Avid Reader.  Like about how he renamed the main character Bob from Bill in Something Happened, or the novel Lilith and the emergence of its eponymous heroine 60-70 pages in and how he suggested renaming it after her to create anticipation.  Gottlieb has a lot of stories and he seems to tell many of them with a gossipy relish.  To be sure, he has had an extraordinary life in letters.  But it's almost as if he feels obligated to share all of these stories, lest they be forgotten to history.  Perhaps they are already marked down elsewhere.

In any case, when he started talking about the The Power Broker in the interview, I had to flip back to reality and remember that the portion on that biography and its author, Robert Caro, is one of the true highlights, just because of its outsizedness.  In truth I read this a few months ago and I have a backlog of posts and I don't recall many specific details of it.  I just remember it for some of the nastier things in it.  It almost seems to have a tabloid appeal at moments.  Much of the time, it seems as if Gottlieb is just bragging about all the great stuff he's done.  He basically goes through his life and different jobs and the writers he edited.     

Here they are:
Sybille Bedford (A Legacy)
Rona Jaffe (The Best of Everything)
Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death)
Joseph Heller (Catch-22) 
Sylvia Ashton-Warner (Teacher)
Mordecai Richler (Barney's Version)
Edna O'Brien
Toni Morrison (Beloved)
Dariel Telfer (The Caretakers)
Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes)
J.R. Salamanca (Lilith)
Jetta Carleton (The Moonflower Vine)
Robert Crichton (The Secret of Santa Vittoria)
Chaim Potok (The Chosen)
Charles Portis (True Grit)
[not] John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces)
James Thurber
Sid Perelman
Cynthia Lindsay
Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain)
Robert Caro (The Power Broker)
Brooke Hayward (Haywire)
Barbara Goldsmith (Little Gloria...Happy at Last)
Jean Stein and George Plimpton (Edie)
Gloria Vanderbilt (Once Upon a Time)
Lauren Bacall (By Myself)
Liv Ullman (Changing)
John Cheever
John Updike
John Hersey
Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire)
Maria Riva (daughter of Marlene Dietrich)
Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook)
V.S. Naipaul
Roald Dahl
Anthony Burgess
Salman Rushdie
Antonia Fraser
Robert Massie (Peter the Great)
Barbara Tuchman (A Distant Mirror, The March of Folly)
Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment)
Bob Dylan (Lyrics--now he's edited 3 Nobel winners)
Irene Mayer Selznick (A Private View)
Katharine Hepburn
Eve Arnold (The Unretouched Woman)
Robert Townsend (Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits)
John Gardner
Cynthia Ozick
Don DeLillo
Denis Johnson
Robert Stone
William Gaddis
Gordon Lish
Harold Brodkey*
Alfred Kazin
Elia Kazan
Nora Ephron (Heartburn, I Feel Bad About My NeckI Remember Nothing) (one of the highlights)
Dorothy Dunnett
John Le Carre (The Night Manager)
Katharine Graham (Personal History) (also a nice anecdote about Justice O'Connor)
Bill Clinton (My Life) (also one of the highlight)
Will Friedwald (Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers)

*: "And then there was Harold Brodkey--brilliant, maddening, tricky, self-destructive, troublemaking, irresistible; he and Gordon had tormented each other for years.  He was a sacred icon at Mr. Shawn's New Yorker, perhaps Shawn's favorite writer of fiction after Salinger, and Harold dazzled in the same way Salinger had--and with the same narcissistic obsession with childhood and adolescence. (The New Yorker fiction department was far from pleased with this favoritism of Shawn's.) Harold had embarked on what was meant to be, and was heralded (by himself loudest of all) as, a major work to be called A Party of Animals.
Lynn Nesbit was his agent, and she had sold the book to Joe Fox at Random House, but as time passed and the book grew longer and longer but not closer and closer, at Harold's insistence the contract was switched to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for more money.  It fared no better there, and when I arrogantly decided that I was the one who could wrest a novel from the material, it passed to me--in exchange for yet more money.  Harold had by this time married the writer Ellen Schwamm, whose two novels I had edited--the latter, How He Saved Her, being an account of how he took over her hitherto conventional life. (Harold, with his diabolical psychic potency and ambiguous sexuality, would not have been every woman's cup of tea.)"

Moments like this, followed by further anecdote, make me glad to have read Avid Reader.  Maybe I will never read How He Saved Her but it sounds hilarious.

After Gottlieb moves to The New Yorker, there are less anecdotes about famous writers, and more about the staff of the magazine in a constant rush to put out an issue per week.  I don't try to read The New Yorker but I appreciate what it does for society.  This is an interesting part of the book, noteworthy personally to me because he references handing off the reins to Tina Brown, who had published a memoir of her own about her time at Vanity Fair at the same time I was reading this.  I actually listened to her give interviews on two separate podcasts, and she referenced the same things about her interactions with Donald Trump on each.  Gottlieb later returns to Knopf and tells anecdotes about five more notable authors.

There is an amusing picaresque quality to the tales of his early life and first marriage, but his social life seems to be intertwined with many female friends that are part of the larger publishing scene.  There are just as many un-famous friends that he writes about as famous subjects, but in a review of a book that I would imagine few in the general American public would seek out, in the society we live in, in the medium this review takes, we have to stick with the famous.  It made me think about getting paranoid about writing a memoir and worrying that such and such person would be offended if I wrote something about them or didn't write something about them.  The next book that will be reviewed is Brix Smith-Start's memoir The Rise, the Fall and The Rise and at times, she will create pseudonyms for less famous friends of hers.  I don't want to spoil it but I will just say that I had a significantly better time reading Smith-Start's memoir than Gottlieb's.  In any case, Gottlieb's writing is much more prim and proper.  There were definitely a few sentences where I was like, "Wait dude, you're an editor?" But then I would re-read them and be like, okay, I can see how that makes sense, or is at least grammatically correct.  I'm not going to compare it to Smith-Start's anymore except to stay that this is better edited, and generally less compelling.

That said, Gottlieb has had an extraordinary life filled with amusing anecdotes, and the effect of this book is to be insanely jealous of him and his fabulous life.  It's not as if he didn't work hard for it, but he seemed to get very lucky, being in the right place at right time and befriending celebrities and literary icons. 

Gottlieb frames his narrative in several long chapters, "Learning," "Reading," "Working" (at Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker), and "Dancing."  Writing about dancing is an acquired taste.  There is a lot of writing about music that I like.  For some reason I find writing about dancing much less interesting, but that is probably because I am not into dance.  In a way, Gottlieb may sense this, and refrains from mentioning anything about it at all until that last chapter.  I skimmed through it.  (I did a similar thing with the final part of Brix Smith-Start's book, but I found her section--on fashion and running a high-end clothing store with her husband--more compelling).

Yet Gottlieb ends on a beautiful note, summing up his 85 previous years on the planet with a remarkable meditation on "retirement" and mortality .  I haven't read many books written from this perspective, yet I can say that Gottlieb writes with clarity, acceptance and gratitude for the life he has lived.  We should all aspire to his level of personal happiness.  I can hardly think of a better life to have lived--though I don't think I could read nearly as much.  If Gottlieb kept a blog like Flying Houses, he would probably have 10,000 posts in 10 years, not 350.  Publishing indeed may be changing, and Gottlieb may not be laying down a "how-to-become-an-editor," but I wish this book had been published in 2004 rather than 2016.  That's not to say I would have modeled my life on Gottlieb's, but it might have been fun to try.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1968)

The Vonnegut Project has been proposed by contributor Emily Dufton.  In this series, we will each review an agreed upon set of novels by Kurt Vonnegut.  The first entry is Slaughterhouse-Five.  

JACK: I first (and last) read Slaughterhouse-Five as a high school junior in the Katherine Brush library in one sitting.  I just took it off the shelf and sat down in one of those comfortable chairs they had and devoured it in a few hours.  I remember thinking it was hilarious and not really a novel.  It was my introduction to Vonnegut and a gateway to all of his other work.  It was easy to read.  Vonnegut's style (which he had not yet seemed to have fully formed in S-F), consisting of a few whimsical, ironically detached observations, punctuated by a closing punchline, immediately influenced my own writing.

Now I read it and look at it in my Kurt Vonnegut compilation and see it is only 110 pages.  It took much, much longer to read it this time, but that's not to say I was bored.  I do not think it is quite as amazing as I thought it was before, but I am still going to add it to the Best Books list because it is a classic and really should be read by everybody.  

Briefly, the book is about Billy Pilgrim, who becomes "unstuck" in time, and travels between experiences in his life.  The enveloping narrative concerns his experience in the bombing of Dresden near the end of the World War II.  This portion of the novel may read as straight autobiography.  Vonnegut inserts himself as one of the other soldier characters on the scene.  At one point he shows up as another character in an outhouse, taking a massive dump and screaming about how he is shitting his brains out.  

He also makes appearances at the beginning and end of the novel, writing as himself and about the book.  The novel is third-person and the main character is indisputably Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut breaks in as the "I" at a few random points.  This is one of the few "postmodern" qualities of the novel.       

EMILY: I agree with Jack; when I reread S-F a few weeks ago, it wasn’t quite what I remembered it being the first time. Back then, I was 15 and easily wowed. I hardly even noticed the book’s lack of traditional narrative structure, and it certainly didn’t bother me as I inhaled Vonnegut’s comical, cynical view of life. After I read S-F, “so it goes” entered my lexicon, and for years it never left. It still seems to me a pretty good way to view the world: a kind of existentialism-lite, one that recognizes our responsibility in the world, but also acknowledges the world’s lack of responsibility to us, and how the universe does what it will, with or without our acceptance or permission.

S-F wasn’t the first Vonnegut book I read. That was, for good or ill (good, I think) Slapstick, which Vonnegut himself gave a D when he graded his novels in Palm Sunday. (A funny aside: when looking up those grades in Palm Sunday, I saw that I had previously marked the page twice, first with a bent corner of the page, and then with a certificate of direct deposit from Drexel University dated 4/22/05. I worked as an administrative assistant in their art department for a few months at the time, and I was paid $12 an hour. After taxes, every two weeks I received $651.08, and somehow I lived.) Anyway, Slapstick was my first foray into the world of Vonnegut, and though I haven’t reread it (and probably never will), I still love that book because it introduced me to Kurt, and that was one of the most influential meetings of my teenage years.

From there I read basically the rest of the Vonnegut canon. I had posters and signed books and CDs, and I saw him give a commencement address at Lehigh University in 2005 (the same year I was being paid $650 every two weeks). I couldn’t have a conversation without bringing Vonnegut up, sometimes even citing the specific page of a book when a friend’s stray comment ventured too close to his language. I thought I was just a super fan, but, in retrospect, I was probably obnoxious.

Either way, in the years that have passed since I stopped reading Vonnegut (which ended, I’m pretty sure around 2005 - that year again!), I’ve thought about him a lot, especially when he passed away in 2007. But I never returned to his work. It seemed sacrilege because I knew that it wouldn’t mean as much to me now as it did then, and because I had grown cynical about his work too. By the time he died, he was repeating himself. Any new publication recycled previous work. Even his commencement address was a compendium of earlier thoughts; sitting in the stands of Lehigh’s football stadium, I could annotate his speech - “He took that quip from Book A, this quip from Book B” - and it bothered me. Vonnegut was no slouch: the man published 14 novels, five books of nonfiction, three short story collections, and five plays in a career that stretched over a half century. So it bothered me that he was recycling things. Wasn’t his fertile mind still creating new material? I realized I was mad at him because Vonnegut had grown old.

But he wasn’t all that old when he wrote S-F, at least not old in my opinion. Born in 1922, he published S-F in 1969, when he was 47 and the time was ripe for antiwar diatribes. Age is a major theme of S-F. In the opening scene, when Mary, the wife of Vonnegut’s old war buddy Bernard O’Hare, pounds on the table and denounces the war because “you were all just babies then,” she gives Vonnegut his subtitle, and his mission: to show how children fight old men’s wars, and they always have, and they always will.

This didn’t affect me when I first read the book at 15. Instead, every character was older than me, and, being older than me, they existed in that vague world of adulthood that seemed relentlessly similar. A 20-year-old was the same as a 40-year-old who was the same as a 60-year-old. Billy Pilgrim was 21 when he was drafted into the Army in the book, and 21 seemed a lifetime away from 15. Edgar Derby, at 40, was ancient in my eyes. But now I’ve reread it at 34, not 15, far closer to Derby’s age than any other character’s, and with a kid who may get drafted someday, if America continues to fight wars. This time I felt stronger horror at the things Pilgrim had seen, and greater horror at Derby’s pathetic death. These characters could no longer be lumped together as ageless “adults”; instead, they were my contemporaries, my colleagues, and children far younger than me. That was the first time I saw the real horror that S-F paints over, broadly, with humor and science-fiction. The survivors can laugh now, because otherwise they will cry.

I was thinking of addressing other things - Pilgrim’s strange relationship with Montana Wildhack, for example, who shows up, becomes pregnant with Pilgrim’s child, and we never see her again. Does she also become unstuck in time, or is she with the Tralfamadorians still today? Where is the baby? More importantly, how is the baby? (These are the things that interest me now as a 34-year-old mom.) But there are no answers here. Characters come and go, listing away, never to be heard from again, like Billy when he ventures through time and space, his feet blue in the cold basement or marching through German terrain.

Because there are no answers, there’s not much to say about that. Nor is there much original to say about much of Vonnegut’s major oeuvre. S-F is a well-known book, often a banned book, one that gave Vonnegut his name, and because of that (and on the decade anniversary of his death), his work is being revisited all over the place. There’s a new collection of all of his short stories, which I will not buy because I still don’t like how he recycled his own work. But this project - re-reading Vonnegut with Jack - is important to me because Vonnegut is still important to me, and S-F is still important to me, even if it didn’t impress me much when I read it again. And they’re important because of what S-F and Vonnegut meant to me, and still mean.

I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross the other day. She was interviewing the author John Le Carre, the spy novelist and former MI-5 operative who has lived a most extraordinary life. At the age of five Le Carre’s mother disappeared, and he was raised by his father, whom he called a compulsive liar, a man who was in and out of jail and sold arms to the mob to support his family. Rather than shielding young Le Carre from his work, however, his father demanded that John cover for him to keep him out of jail.

Gross asked Le Carre a question that stuck with me. She assumed that, because of his father’s untruthfulness, he was hardly an ethical authority. “How did you develop a moral compass with a father who had none?” she asked.

Le Carre paused a moment and seemed to laugh. He said that it was kind of her to suggest that he had developed one at all.

But then he went on to say that he was 85 years old, and it “took time” to find his moral center. He had met a lot of people, Le Carre said, and not all of them were nice. “But I think I got better. And that’s all there is to it,” he said. It took a while for him to get steady after sudden writing success, but he did -- with no real parents, with no real guidance, with no real “moral compass” instilled at any age.

And it’s that idea that brought me back to the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Like Le Carre, I had to develop a moral compass on my own: my mother was an alcoholic who struggled with mental health problems and left the family when I was 14. My father is magnificent and did what he could. But the work of developing my moral compass, without any explicit guidance from parents or authority figures or religious leaders or other caring adults who were closely associated with my life, fell almost entirely on Vonnegut, who taught me how to view the world. I loved, and still love, his wizened cynicism, dusted with his omnipresent faith in the human race. I loved, and still love, his humorous turns that come at the end of a devastating story. I loved, and still love, how he’s not really a very good writer, but he is a very good philosopher and a hell of a good person. I loved, and still love, Kurt Vonnegut, for all his merits and flaws, because without him, I would still be without a moral compass, still lost in an ethical void. And so I still love S-F too, in spite of, and because of, all its foibles and charms.

JACK: Returning now, I first wanted to comment on Emily’s review and say no, she was not obnoxious with her super-fandom of Vonnegut.  Far from it.  Every time she referenced Vonnegut in conversation, it was appreciated.  Referencing Vonnegut was never unappreciated by me, perhaps, because I was definitely a mini-superfan.  I’ve missed a few of his major works (Jailbird, Player Piano, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June--and I cannot find the self-grades to those in my copy of Palm Sunday, nor a pay-stub from 2005), but I’ve read everything else listed in Timequake, his final novel.  I also missed Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloon, and Bagambo Snuff Box, but I do not think Emily would consider those essential.  I have little recollection of Fates Worse Than Death, but I believe I read it at some point and thought it was pretty alright.  Regardless, Emily’s point about Slapstick holding a special place in her heart because it opened her to the rest of his oeuvre is trenchant.  This is the same way I feel about Slaughterhouse-Five, except in my case, the vast majority of the American literary public would cite S-F as one of his few true masterpieces.  Few would put Slapstick in the same category.  Yet both of these books showcase his style in a way that acts like catnip for a certain type of reader.  

I think in both of our cases, there was a waterfall of Vonnegut novels we read shortly thereafter.  The ones I remember being very good were Mother Night, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus, and Cat’s Cradle (my favorite).  Obviously Breakfast of Champions is another classic, but I felt it was sort of meaningless in a way that his other books didn’t seem to be (or “plotless”).  Welcome to the Monkey House has some of his best work, but it’s a short story collection, and while some of Vonnegut’s short fiction is utterly fantastic, he should be remembered most for his novels.  Many people consider The Sirens of Titan one of his masterpieces, but I did not read that until 2005, and it did not seem to hit me in the same way it did for others.  I remember thinking Bluebeard was pretty good (initially reading my friend Jay’s father’s copy from the basement of their cabin).  Timequake I felt was a fairly strong novel to end on.  He would go on to live and write for another 9 years or so, but as Emily pointed out, the quality of his work declined as he leaned on recycling previously unpublished (and published) material.  The new short story collection that I believe Emily referenced does feel to me, like a fair Vonnegut purchase (a nice Christmas gift idea perhaps…), but not for a person such as herself that actually owned the majority of his oeuvre.  

To get back onto the book itself, however, because we should be wary of trying the reader’s patience with too long of a review, I want to reflect for a minute on the matter of its being a satire.  Now there are several things that are often called “satire.”  One of them is Catch-22 and another is the book I’m currently reading (The Sellout).  Jonathan Swift is often called satire.  In fact, I took a course in satire in high school.  Welcome to the Monkey House  was on the syllabus, as was Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.  “The Simpsons” is often called satire.  All of these things tend to be an unrealistic portrayal of society, but in a way, end up being more real than real.  That is, they are more revealing of human nature and incisively honest than the majority of traditional storytelling tropes.  I started thinking about film adaptations of satires and reflected that they normally did not work very well.  I remember hearing that Catch-22 is a better movie than Slaughterhouse-Five (and note--does anyone know if the title has any relation to that literary antecedent satire on the subject of World War II?).  

I digress.  There are many numerous passages in this book, but it is best to discover them on your own.  I will just cite a highly personal one for me that I can find.  But before that, I also have to admit that, what initially stood out to me about this novel was its ending.  I think the ending is quite striking.  It’s the type of ending that feels incredibly perfect, like A Farewell to Arms.  Okay, it is no Farewell to Arms ending, but it is one of the most memorable things about the novel, in my opinion.  However, this time, I was most drawn to take a certain line from it.  

“The Germans sorted out the prisoners according to rank.  They put sergeants with sergeants, majors with majors, and so on.  A squad of full colonels was halted near Billy.  One of them had double pneumonia.  He had a high fever and vertigo.  As the railroad yard dipped and swooped around the colonel, he tried to hold himself steady by staring into Billy’s eyes.  
The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, ‘You one of my boys?’  This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men -- a lot of them children, actually.  Billy didn’t reply.  The question made no sense.
‘What was your outfit?’ said the colonel.  He coughed and coughed.  Every time he inhaled his lungs rattled like greasy paper bags.  
Billy couldn’t remember the outfit he was from.  
‘You from the Four-fifty-first?’  
‘Four-fifty-first what?’ said Billy.
There was a silence.  ‘Infantry regiment,’ said the colonel at last.  
‘Oh,’ said Billy Pilgrim.  
There was another long silence, with the colonel dying and dying, drowning where he stood.  And then he cried out wetly, ‘It’s me, boys!  It’s Wild Bob!’  That is what he had always wanted his troops to call him: ‘Wild Bob.”
None of the people who could hear him were actually from his regiment, except for Roland Weary, and Weary wasn’t listening.  All Weary could think of was the agony of his own feet.  
But the colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God that they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first.  He said that after the war he was going to have a regimental reunion in his home town, which was Cody, Wyoming.  He was going to barbecue whole steers.
He said all this while staring into Billy’s eyes.  He made the inside of poor Billy’s skull echo with balderdash.  ‘God be with you, boys!’ he said, and that echoed and echoed.  And then he said, ‘If you’re ever in Cody Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!’  
I was there.  So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O”Hare.” (42-43)

Later on, Billy Pilgrim is nervous about something (giving a speech I believe), and he remembers the line to help him feel better, and there is a sort of great comfort in the line.  Vonnegut has an excellent ear for this sort of thing, which I remember his displaying earlier here while discussing the origin of Billy’s name (and while I am searching for it, also allow me to express that the “unstuck in time” element to the novel makes it especially difficult remember which things were said or done at the beginning, middle or end of it):

“‘How come they call you Billy stead of William?’
‘Business reasons,’ said Billy.  That was true.  His father-in-law, who owned the Ilium School of Optometry, who had set Billy up in practice, was a genius in the field.  He told Billy to encourage people to call him Billy -- because it would stick in their memories.  It would also make him seem slightly magical, since there weren’t any other grown Billys around.  It also compelled people to think of him as a friend right away.” (33)    

In the meantime, I found a certain passage that I thought I might excerpt due to its personal familiarity to me geographically (Vonnegut also often wrote about Cape Cod and the northeast):

“The worst American body wasn’t Billy’s.  The worst body belonged to a car thief from Cicero, Illinois.  His name was Paul Lazzaro.  He was tiny, and not only were his bones and teeth rotten, but his skin was disgusting.  Lazzaro was polka-dotted all over with dime-sized scars.  He had had many plagues of boils.  
Lazzaro, too, had been on Roland Weary’s boxcar, and had given his word of honor to Weary that he would find some way to make Billy Pilgrim pay for Weary’s death.  He was looking around now, wondering which naked human being was Billy.
The naked Americans took their places under many showerheads along a white-tiled wall.  There were no faucets they could control.  They could only wait for whatever was coming.  Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted.  Reproduction was not the main business of the evening.” (50)

And I will end this review by mentioning, that, just by transcribing some of these passages I learned that as a fiction writer, you do not always need to write the word “asked” after a question mark.  (Note that I also wanted to excerpt the bit about the Shetland pony, but do not want to bloat this post any further.)  I think one of the chief virtues of Vonnegut is that by reading him, you are almost certain to become a better writer.  This may be an idiosyncratic assessment, but I would venture to guess that Emily would agree that reading Vonnegut at an impressionable age will make one a better writer, or at the very least, more interested in writing.

This has been the first installment of the Vonnegut Project.  
Next on the Project: Cat’s Cradle (publication target: January 2018)