Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)


I recently changed jobs.  My former boss's wife worked in the office with us and served as our personnel manager (on top of another franchise store she managed).  Near the end of my two-week notice period, she came to speak to me on random matters, likely in an attempt to ascertain why I felt leaving their firm for this new one was a good idea.  Of course, everything was extremely polite and friendly, and near the end, she mentioned that she was reading this book.  She made a number of comments on it, and expressed that it was based on a true story.  I felt that, given her enthusiasm, I should check it out and review it as an homage to them.  So first, let me say, my time spent at my previous firm was quite painful and uncomfortable, but in retrospect was not all that terrible.  I had to sink or swim on my own with little oversight.  Sometimes, oversight opens up criticisms.  I didn't need to contend with criticisms from my boss.  Criticisms were primarily made by opposing counsel, judges and clients, and few were leveled at my own performance.  Given the dozens of cases I handled in a little over 18 months, I only had regrets about the way I handled one or two.  This is not the place to write about my legal career, but as I consider this an homage, I felt a word was in order.

The Paris Architect is a work of historical fiction.  It is about an architect, Lucien Bernard, who is commissioned by a rich businessman, Auguste Manet, to design hidden rooms in which to hide Jewish people in the Vichy-era of 1940's Paris.  It is not based on a true story, but Belfoure admits that its basis in fact is transposed from an earlier historical era, when architects designed hidden rooms for priests that refused to join the Church of England [note I am completely wrong about this and it was in fact the reign of Elizabeth I and not Henry VIII and I am confusing Thomas More with more contemporary counterparts].  Overall, my feeling on the novel is that it tells a pretty good story, but is so far from a perfect novel that I can only half-heartedly recommend it.  There are a few scenes in it that are excellent, but a few great scenes do not make a perfect novel.

For example, Belfoure is at his best when he is describing the "dark embrace before death":

"Geiber slid under the stairway, letting it fall back into place with a heavy thud.  Sliding next to Miriam, he fastened two bolts that locked the stairs in place.  He was breathing so heavily he thought he would pass out.  His back was against Miriam's chest, and he could feel her heart pounding.  He moved the bag up by his chest, laid it on its side, and unlatched it.  Miriam placed her arm over her husband's body and tightly grasped his hand.  She hid her face against the back of his head.  For just a fraction of a second, it made him forget about the approaching danger.
Such a warm, comforting feeling, thought Geiber, like they were back in their big bed at home snuggling under the goose down duvet.  It was mostly airless and pitch black in the cramped space under the stairs, but the mattress they were lying on was quite comfortable, and because the stairs were almost two meters wide, the Geibers could fully stretch out their legs.  The underside of the steps was just centimeters from Geiber's face, so he could smell the wood.  They could do nothing now but wait, seconds passing like hours." (108)

He is at his worst with some of the dialogue and character development.  While I think Lucien's "arc" is one of the best things about the novel, almost every single other character is somewhat one-dimensional (however,  I did believe Herzog was interesting, as I was kept guessing whether or not he was really a "stereotypical good Nazi" character).  Lucien's wife, Celeste, shows signs of being one of the more interesting characters.  However, (I am not giving anything away by spoiling this) Lucien cheats on her, shamelessly, and then the reader discovers that she is also having an affair, and then she leaves him, and that's pretty much that.  Lucien does meet someone new, and the story has one of the happiest endings I have ever read.  It's a nice ending and perhaps my suspicious attitude towards that says something about the books I read.

Recently I heard my youngest sister mention that she had been reading The Zookeeper's Wife and then I randomly saw a preview on TV for the movie, and it appeared to have very similar subject matter to this book.  Seizing on this coincidence, I have asked my sister to review that book, and have given her about a month for a deadline, and we will see if it comes off or not.  But then there is even a zookeeper subplot in this book, briefly:

"He was a zookeeper and told his cousin that Professor Trenet could hide for a while in one of the unused cages in the section of animal houses that were completely shut up.  Despite the food shortages, the zoo was kept up during the Occupation, mainly for the benefit of the German soldiers.  The animals ate better than most Parisians.  Now Juliette was living in a concrete den behind the empty lions' cage at the zoo.  It was the enclosed space where the lions slept and ate when they weren't walking around in the cage in front of the public.  Even lions wants their privacy occasionally, thought Juliette.  Out of her savings, Juliette gave Dauphin five thousand francs, even though the man hadn't asked for payment.  If Juliette was found, the zookeeper would be arrested too, so she had insisted." (183)

Now at a brief glance that book does appear to be more based on a true story than this one, and that one came out in 2008.  Perhaps Belfoure merely intended the scene as a brief, knowing reference, or perhaps it is entirely coincidental, but I had to note it.

In any case, I do not know what else to say about this book.  One of the excellent scenes to which I referred earlier involves a hiding place behind a fireplace.  Anybody who has read this novel will immediately know what I am talking about and remember it as quite horrifying.  This sequence is expertly crafted, and to speak more generally about this story (and this has been a very general review and certainly not one of my finest, but the book is due back in about an hour and these past few weeks have been strange, and difficult to find time to write), it's not a bad story.  There are just a lot of cliches within it.  The pacing is pretty fast, and sometimes certain characters or situations get short shrift, but generally, it's a story about getting into bed with the enemy, while outsmarting them and trying to achieve a greater good.  I can't remember all of the books I have read about the Holocaust (obviously Night comes to mind, and a book called Briar Rose that I had to read in high school) but they are always difficult reads.  Night is obviously a classic, and I seem to remember finding more to appreciate about Briar Rose.  Nevertheless, Belfoure creates a few moments of real menace, and the reader should ultimately be satisfied after being first turned off by Lucien, then rooting for him later.  Even though I am glad there is a happy ending, I do not think it is very realistic.  This also reminded me of Inglorious Basterds--in particular, the opening scene. and some of the scenes in Paris.  I would recommend this book to architects that design secret rooms, and people that sometimes feel guilty about their benefactors.  I did not feel it was a complete waste of my time, but it begs the question whether writers should attempt to write about the Holocaust from a speculative position.  There are few survivors left, and those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and all that with the President we have elected and the alt-right (thankfully the sieg-heiling seems to have died down), but this is not the book to cite as a document relevant to our current socio-political atmosphere.  It's a good old fashioned suspense story, and if you don't expect too much out of it, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.

 




Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interiew: Erica Wright

Not too long ago, I read Erica Wright's novel The Granite Moth.  Afterwards, I asked Erica if she would be willing to participate in an interview as a feature.  She agreed and I cut down the number of questions from 21 to 10.  Her answers are very thoughtful and provide much food for thought.  I am impressed with everything she has done up to this point, and excited to see what she might be able to do in the future.



(1) When did you begin writing The Granite Moth and when was it published?  How was the experience different from writing The Red Chameleon? 

I started The Granite Moth with a three-page, single-spaced outline about underground gambling rings in New York City. When I sat down to write the first chapter, in the summer of 2013, I realized that a float was going to explode and the book would be about a possible hate crime. My outline—of which I was inordinately proud—went out the window. The book was published in November 2015. The main difference between writing this one versus The Red Chameleon was how well I knew the characters. Even though they still surprised me from time to time, I knew how they would react to certain situations.  

(2) How did you go about getting the book published?  Did you send query letters to agents or the publishing houses directly?


For The Red Chameleon, I queried agents and was lucky enough to find Penn Whaling who helped me sale that book and then The Granite Moth to the lovely folks at Pegasus. 

(3) Who are your top five authors of all time?


Wow, tough question. My answer would probably be different next week, but I’ll go with my gut . I’m also sticking with prose instead of making my favorite poets compete: Charlotte Brontë, Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez. Marisha Pessl would probably be on the shortlist, as well, even though she’s only published two novels. 

Note that I asked some follow-up questions in an e-mail and Erica suggested The Moor's Last Sigh by Rushdie and Night Film by Pessl.

(4) Did you write exclusively for a living at the time you wrote The Granite Moth or did you need to work a separate job too?  Is this situation still the same?


No, I balance writing with teaching. I can’t imagine not teaching at all. I would miss my students!

(5) You mentioned that you are currently working on the third novel in this series.  How far along are you in the process?  What is your writing process for completing a manuscript?  More basically, what is your daily writing process?  Do you have a title, or is there anything else you can tell us about the new one?


Thanks for asking about the third book. For now, it’s called The Blue Kingfisher, and I recently finished a pretty major rewrite, cutting a few unnecessary characters and punching up the ending. I’m not a morning person, but I write early in the day, first thing if possible. That way, I prioritize the project. I currently lead a novel writing group through OneRoom, and that’s one of tricks I emphasize—finding and sticking with a routine.

(6) Prior to The Granite Moth, I had only known you to write poetry.  For some reason, this material seems like a far cry from your poems.  What drew you to write about Kat Stone and the world of private investigators?


I was teaching English at a criminology school, and my students were all pursuing what seemed like wild careers to me. They wanted to work for the CIA or FBI. They wanted to be detectives. So I started researching these worlds, so that I could better relate to them during our conferences. I found myself fascinated with crime fighting, undercover work in particular. I wondered what would happen to someone who took on a whole other identify for years. Kat came from that question. 

(7) Has anyone approached you about obtaining film rights to the Kat Stone anthology?


No, but I’ve been watching Jane the Virgin lately and marveling at the talent of Gina Rodriguez. She’d be an amazing Kat. 

(8) Now I knew you in New York, but you live in Houston now.  Have you lived anywhere else in between, and how do they all compare?  I only ask because I'm constantly comparing Chicago to New York, and have come to the conclusion that relatively lower rent is the main thing that keeps me from thinking I will go back.


I never imagined leaving New York City, but I’ve been enjoying my new location adventures. Since 2012, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Gainesville, Nashville, and now Houston. If anybody needs moving tips, I’m available. They all have their unique advantages. The Spanish moss in Gainesville is gorgeous. And Houston is this sprawling behemoth of infinite possibilities.  

(9) I feel like I should ask something specific about The Granite Moth, a question about the story itself.  How did you come up with the idea of building the narrative around an explosion of a parade float?  The narrative seems to go a lot of pretty crazy places, but why did you feel compelled to write about things like the Pink Parrot and the Zeus Society?  And what is gayboy bunny?


I knew that I wanted to start the book at the Halloween Parade, an ideal setting for mischief since it’s a nighttime event and masks are expected. As I mentioned before, the book was original going to be about underground gambling dens in New York City, but when I started writing about the float, I knew it was going to explode. In general, our true interests—what Frank Bidart might call our radical givens—rise to the surface if we let them, and I wanted to explore the possibility of a hate crime. That’s how the Zeus Society entered into the narrative. A “gayboy bunny” is a woman who has several gay friends. It has a more positive connotation than some of the other less endearing terms.

(10) Is Magrelli a character in The Red Chameleon?  Do you think a person's appreciation for The Granite Moth would be enhanced by reading The Red Chameleon?  Do you regard the books as your children, and do you say you are equally proud, and do you have a secret favorite?


With a healthy amount of help from my editor, I tried to make sure that The Granite Moth works as its own book. Kat will be shaking the trauma of her time undercover for awhile, and Magrelli symbolizes that past. He’s a character in The Red Chameleon the same way—he haunts her. I don’t think of the books as children, though I am proud of them. I want each novel I write to be a little bit better than the previous one.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Happy 9th Birthday


As we come to the close of another year, let us attempt to reflect upon our accomplishments.  This time on our annual round-up, we bemoan that, for the third year in a row, our output is weak.  21 posts the last couple years, and it looks like 20 this year.  Honestly though, I don't care anymore.

I'm no longer interested in trying to grow this blog, but I have been reinvigorated with a desire to write.  This is due to my terrible livelihood.  A couple days ago, a pure wave of depression hit me as I considered my fate.  I struggle against this fate, yet cannot seem to overcome it, or see any way out of it.  In short, things will ever be as they have always been.  I am never going anywhere.

Now I could spend the time that I would be writing on other endeavors to try to boost my income, but even more sad is that I rarely write, and while I just stated that I have been "reinvigorated," I rarely find myself willing to sit down for 30 or 45 minutes and just type on a blank screen.  There are too many other distractions in this world now.  And the real writers should consider this an advantage--technology has provided so many distractions that less writers will actually do the work and be in competition for xxxxx number of books that get published each year.  (Perhaps this has nothing to do with reality, but the thought has crossed my mind a few times over the past couple of years, since I have had a smart phone.)

No more jibberish.  Let's get to the lists.

First of all, the top 5 most popular posts:

(2) Bossypants - Tina Fey
(1) Identical - Scott Turow 

First of all, it is shocking how popular the Identical review was--perhaps because I advertised it as a negative one, and perhaps because it may have gotten a tiny bit of traction on Twitter.  Second, the 6 other posts in the top 5 were all extremely close--between 58 and 63 views--which is even lower than last year, but like I said, I don't really care anymore.  

More important than quantity is quality, and here are the 5 posts of which I am most proud:

(1) The Goldfinch 

This is a classic FH review, in the style of many older posts.  It's quite long, and it's probably my favorite book reviewed in the past year.  The further I get away from it, the more fondly I recall it.

(2) Chicago Cubs Report Card

Of course, 2016 was a perfectly terrible year, one of the worst years in recent memory.  However, the Cubs won, so all was not lost.  

(3) Then We Came to the End

One of the more special books read in the past year, along with The Goldfinch.  One of the more entertaining reads in recent years, and I'm not sure my review itself was that entertaining, but still recommend this book to most. It casts a wide net and should appeal to a large number of readers


This is not a perfect post by any stretch, but it's a big book, and I think it was a fairly novel idea to keep track of the One Book, One Chicago project.  So I will try to keep doing that.  I think I hit on most of the major ideas from this book.  I don't think I'd read it again, but I definitely want to check out some of the other works that it references.


Not one of the best reads of the past year, but I felt this was a fairly well-written review.  I, along with everyone else, love the Smiths, and have a soft spot for Morrissey, even with how he has become increasingly strident.  There are incredibly beautiful moments in the book, and I am glad I captured them (that ending is so special to me, as I live very close to the Congress--indeed I moved even closer a couple months after the review was posted).  If you haven't read Autobiography but only have a vague interest in doing so, the review should appropriately inform you whether it's worth it to devote the 10-20 hours it should take to read.  That is the platonic ideal of a review for me and I will continue to aim to do that here.

Finally, THANK YOU ALL for reading again.  Few things in life give me greater pleasure than interacting with others that want to build and maintain a solid library of their own favorite books.  If you're reading this, you're the best!



Sunday, March 26, 2017

In the All-Night Cafe: A memoir of Belle and Sebastian's formative year - Stuart David (2015)


While I can attest to being a casual fan of Belle & Sebastian, over the first couple years when I was aware of them, perhaps 2001-2003, I tended to agree with my friend that introduced me to most of the indie rock that I would later consume endlessly--that they were "boring."  I should never dare to utter this condemnation aloud, however, because I mostly became exposed to B&S at NYU.  They were quite popular at the time, and many swore by songs like "Get Me Away from Here I'm Dying," and If You're Feeling Sinister in general.  I found it pleasant, but only for a particular mood, like studying or crying.  Well, not crying so much.  I was more into music to cry to at the time, and B&S were not emo, but fey or twee.  Then Dear Catastrophe Waitress came out, and I liked it a bit more, but still found parts a bit boring.  Recently, due to this book I had cause to discover "Your Cover's Blown," which is a B-side from that era, and it's amazing.  Perhaps that was leading into the direction of The Life Pursuit which became my favorite album by them.  I think their last two albums are pretty good, too.  I mention this because, I was embarrassed by not liking B&S enough between 2001-2003.  And it doesn't seem good enough to be a casual fan--they have no casual fans.  I would say this sentiment changed generally if one thinks they've gone more mainstream in the mid-to-late aughts, or they haven't been as good, or lost part of what made them special in the first place.  In any case, if they were into B&S, they were way into them.  

And I mention this because the person who had occasion to recommend this book to me says he does not even like them very much.  He said he thought I should read it because something about it reminded him of my writing.

So naturally, I looked for the thing that was reminiscent of my own work, in style or substance.  First, there was the beginning of the book, which describes an unusual public subsidy, a sort of extremely disorganized music course, that doesn't seem possible in places like the U.S.  I wrote a story (http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/07/failure-inc.html) which imagined a similar "job in the production of creative art."  Second, the attention to the sometimes mundane and seemingly unremarkable detail.  In my case, they are simply unremarkable details, but in Stuart David's case, they seem to indicate a deeper theme of the book.

The first passage that merits mention is something from the beginning of the book, because it is easily one of the most hilarious portions of it.  But there is a touch of something wondrous about it too, that David captures:

"I looked down the list of courses again, even more desperately this time, and it remained a sorry selection: flower arranging, dog grooming, car mechanics.  But then, just when I was on the verge of giving up all hope, something seemed to materialise near the bottom of the page--a late addition, in tiny writing.  A course in Glasgow that appeared to have something to do with popular music.  I thought I might be hallucinating.  I called the flipchart man over and asked him about it.  He took the piece of paper from me and stood starting at it blankly.
'Hmn...' he said after a while.  'I didn't know that was on there.  That sounds strange.'
Then he wrote my name down, said he would look into it for me and sent us all home." (6)

But that is a description of how he came to sign up for it, and it is funnier when he describes what it was actually like:

"One thing that particularly intrigued me, though, as I wandered around, was the poster which hung on at least one wall of every room I went into.
It was a poster of a band, but a band I'd never heard of and they looked like a cross between The Commitments and Take That, if such a cross is possible.  There were seven or eight of them in the photograph, most prominently a woman with pineapple hair who had a saxophone strapped around her neck, and a guy in a vest who was lying on the floor in front of them all, propped up on one elbow, staring seductively into the camera.  I wondered if they were a real band, or if the poster was a fake, rigged up to give the detention centre the illusion of being a music course for the benefit of the inmates.
Time dragged.  All day, nothing happened.  No one played any music, no one even picked up an instrument and held it just to pose.  There didn't seem to be any musical instruments anywhere in the whole building, except for a drum kit with no h-hats and no cymbals in a corner of the freezing-cold live room.  I started to think the day would never end, but then, late in the afternoon, a woman came out of the main office and called me and two or three other people who had started the course that day into the studio control room.  I instantly recognised her as the person holding a saxophone in the band poster plastered on the walls." (11)

Soon, Stuart David meets Stuart Murdoch, and they play with a couple other people, in a couple one-off gigs as bands with different names.  Eventually they settle on the name of Rhode Island, and then finally become Belle & Sebastian.  This is in the mid-1990's in Scotland, so the brit pop scene looms large, and the sound of the band is quite different.  They have always had an original sound.  Murdoch's voice is unmistakable, and nobody sounds like him, though I suppose he sounded a tiny bit like Nick Drake (I only use the past tense because one must acknowledge that B&S are not the same band they used to be, though it does appear that it has always been defiantly Murdoch's).

I had a couple other passages to excerpt, both of which are sort of ensconced in 90's ephemera, but there were two main things I wanted to say about this book.  First, there is the cover.  This looks exactly like a cover of any of the other B&S albums, instantly recognizable and iconic. In that sense, it's a perfect cover.  Second, while it doesn't remind me exactly of Our Band Could Be Your Life, it reads a lot like one of the chapters about the bands in that book.  It takes place in the U.K. in the 90's, not the U.S. in the 80's, but it's definitely indie rock, and a lot of the same influences are in play.  There's also the added element that it is written by an insider and not a journalist or friend of the band.  It's also obviously a lot longer than one of those chapters, but a pretty short book in general.  The main thing that reminds me of it, though, is how it is just about the beginning of the band, and stops after the release of Tigermilk, basically at the point where If You're Feeling Sinister was being recorded.  I believe Stuart David left the band shortly thereafter, but there is no indication of any of the reasons why he would do so--except for it being "Murdoch's band."

There was one other famous group that came out of the same Beatbox recording studio space, and though I had never heard of them, many others must ostensibly have:

"The boy band themselves never seemed to be there.  There was a rumour that they were from Newcastle, and only ever came in at weekends when the course was closed.  But we did see them once, being hurried up through the corridor with towels thrown over their heads to hide their identities.  Before they reached the studio, though, they removed the towels, and they drew a stark contrast with the musicians on the course, the lazy figures sitting on the floor with their backs up against the wall, or lying on the punctured sofas dotted about the place.  They seemed to have come from a different world, a world of airbrushing and plastic moulding.  It was as if they already existed in the world of photographs, even though they were in the corridor.
And then they were gone, ushered into the sanctuary of the control room, and we all agreed that they were going nowhere, destined to disappear into the same oblivion as the band in the posters on the wall.
Their name was 911.
Over they next five years they sold ten million records." (90)

David does mention his love for the band Momus, and how he bonds with another person at Beatbox over him.  His anecdote about listening to his music on the internet is pure nostalgia, though an experience that many probably have not had:

"Semple was another Momus fan, an obsessive on the same level as I had become since Stuart brought me the mixtapes when I was ill.  Momus was probably one of the first artists to have his own website, and he was certainly one of the first to have his songs on there.  Or at least clips of his songs, which even at thirty seconds long stretched the internet to the limit of its capabilities in 1995.  Semple's patience for sitting on the sofa in the office, quietly smoking cigarettes, was limitless--and it needed to be for the specific task of listening to the clips on Momus' website.  When I found out what he was doing in there, I decided I had to get in on it too, and I got permission from Neil to have internet lessons.  This involved me sitting on the sofa beside Semple, while Neil's laptop sat on a desk in a far-off corner of the room, plugged into the phone line and blocking all incoming and outgoing calls to and from the office, while we waited upwards of a quarter of an hour for our next Momus clip to download.  
We were addicts, anxious to hear clips of songs we'd never heard before, and it didn't matter that the quality was so low they sounded as if they were being played to us over the telephone in the 1920s, or that each one cost more to download in phone bill charges than it would have cost to buy the whole album in a shop.  We lived for those thirty seconds of lo-fi magic, sent to us by science fiction from the future, when each one had to be erased from the hard drive before the next one was downloaded because there wasn't enough room to store two of them at once." (115-116)

In summary, this book should please both the hardcore and casual B&S fan, as well as those just looking for a relatively quick and rewarding read.  David's attention to detail is exceptional, and many will be encouraged (or at least entertained) by his story.  





Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Armageddon in Retrospect - Kurt Vonnegut (2008)


Before we proceed with our fifth Kurt Vonnegut review, allow me to make a confession: I am a twerp.  I am a twerp, and I am ashamed of myself.

"I consider anybody who borrows a book instead of buying it, or lends one, a twerp.  When I was a student at Shortridge High School a million years ago, a twerp was defined as a guy who put a set of false teeth up his rear end and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs.
But I hasten to say, should some impressionable younger person here tonight, at loose ends from a dysfunctional family, resolve to take a shot at being a real twerp tomorrow, that there are no longer buttons on the back seats of taxicabs.  Times change!" (30)

This is a somewhat poorly-written first sentence, a rarity for Vonnegut.  I do lend books, so maybe I am not a twerp.  My roommate lent me this book and I lent him Galapagos and reflected that I need to review all the books by KV that I read in the past and loved.

Armageddon in Retrospect is Vonnegut's final published work.  Actually, that's wrong!  It's his first posthumous work.  And there have been 11 or 12 more since then.

It's important because it's connected quite intimately with his death.  His son, Mark Vonnegut, offers an introduction that is about as finely written as anything by his father.  The introduction itself is a true highlight.

This book took me about a week to read, and I was quite casual about it.  It has that trademark Vonnegut appeal, but it's pretty weird.  First, it opens with a speech he gave to accept an award in Indianapolis, IN in 2007, shortly before he passed away (actually I think he passed before he was able to deliver it in person--Mark Vonnegut delivered it instead).  The excerpt near the top of this review is from that speech.

Then, there are a bunch of short stories about war.  Several of these are more tragicomic extrapolations of his experience as a POW in Dresden at the end of World War II, which was also an inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five (also near the top of my list to revisit).  Prior to the speech is a letter written from a young Vonnegut to his parents while he was a POW, and following the speech is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets."  There is a New York Times review which posits that these two pieces are the strongest in the collection, and I am inclined to agree.  The former is a surprisingly entertaining and mordant narrative of his experience being captured, and the latter is a deeper, more detailed reflection upon it.

"Great Day" follows and this is where Vonnegut shifts into fiction mode.  It's a mix of a war story and science fiction, and to me it was still kind of confusing what was going on in the beginning, and seems most notable for its ending, which seems inevitable.

"Guns Before Butter" is about a group of soldiers fantasizing about what they are going to eat once they return home and can get off of their soup and bread rations.  They trade recipes with one another, and the German soldier in charge of their supervision chides them for it, then later gets in trouble for something over them, and ends the story indulging their talk.  It's a pleasant and mildly heartwarming lark.

"Happy Birthday, 1951" is another vaguely confusing story that has a post-apocalyptic bent to it.  It is about an old man and a boy in his charge, in a threatening environment which might be depicted vaguely like The Road.  The old man takes the boy out of their hiding place and into the forest so that he can appreciate natural beauty, and away from the perpetual state of war they live under.

"Brighten Up" is another story about war.  By this point in the collection, the reader is thinking, okay, this is Vonnegut's The Things They Carried.  But the stories aren't connected or linked in a similar way, and they're not quite as intricately crafted or emotional.  "Brighten Up" features a soldier (Louis) that extorts valuables from other soldiers and receives preferred treatment from the Germans.  It reads more like a sketch of a real person Vonnegut knew there.

"The Unicorn Trap" is one of the weirdest stories in the collection, and not necessarily the best.  But I did think it was hilarious the way the characters talked, with it taking place in the year 1067.  That aspect reminded me of "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned."

I had almost forgotten that "Unknown Soldier" was in the book, but it's very short and is about the contest that a couple wins when they have the first baby born in the year 2000.

"Spoils" is also pretty short and is again about soldiers trying to take valuables from a pillaged village.

"Just You and Me, Sammy," features a character that seems like Louis from "Brighten Up," except made even meaner and more sinister.  It is probably the most infuriating thing in this collection.  The reader will want to kill George and will most likely the find the ending satisfying.  It's also very long.  After "Wailing Will Be in All Streets," it's the most affecting.

As is "The Commandant's Desk," which seems to take off on a tangent from "Spoils." It concerns an old man and his widowed daughter dealing with American soldiers that have taken over their town.  The ending is clever, and oddly reminds me of some of Nabokov's short stories.

It ends with the title story, "Armageddon in Retrospect," which has more potential than anything else and made me laugh more than anything else but seemed to kind of peter out.  It opens with a brilliant conceit:

"Chronologically, the list should probably begin with the late Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany, who spent, by and large fruitlessly, the last half of his life and inheritance in trying to get someone to pay attention to his theories on mental illness.  What Schildknecht said, in effect, was that the only unified theory of mental illness that seems to fit all the facts was the most ancient one, which had never been disproved.  He believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.
He said so in book after book, all printed at his own expense, since no publisher would touch them, and he urged that research be undertaken to find out as much as possible about the Devil, his forms, his habits, his strong points, his weaknesses." (210)

The story goes some pretty interesting places, but I got lost in the last few pages and didn't really understand how the "Armageddon"  took place.  Still it's the kind of big gesture story that caps off a collection like he did in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" in Welcome to the Monkey House.  Now, this book cannot compare to that one.  They are not in the same league.  But it's a pleasure for the Vonnegut maniac and casual readers alike.  I would advise one to start elsewhere if they had not read much of him, but this shows Vonnegut in his most pacifist element, speaking the most potent truth derived from his past experiences, regarding the senseless tragedy of war.




Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Granite Moth - Erica Wright (2015)




Full disclosure: Erica Wright is my friend.  I decided to read this book because, of course I want to read books my friends have written--particularly those that get national attention.  I had always known Erica to be a poet, not a crime fiction writer.  I was unaware of The Red Chameleon when it came out, and perhaps I only became aware of The Granite Moth due to a visit from our mutual friend Kristen Linton, and what seemed to be greater publicity on Facebook.  I checked it out from the Chicago Public Library, so it seems to have been made readily available.  I am not sure what criteria goes into stocking the nation's public libraries, but Erica has made it, at least here.

Normally I don't read these types of books, but Triple Homicide and Identical come to mind.  So they seem like ideal comparison points.  Of these three, The Granite Moth has the most intriguing subject matter and is my overall favorite.  However, it does suffer from various convolutions and editorial weaknesses, though it is generally well-written.

Kathleen Stone is a private investigator, formerly employed by the NYPD.  As the novel opens, she is at the Halloween parade along 6th Ave., observing the festivities and waiting to meet her contact, Ellis Decker, who is still on the force and may have some information about an illegal operation run out of an exclusive members-only restaurant, the Skyview Lounge, by Salvatore Magrelli, or someone else in his family.  Magrelli is a crime boss that no one can seem to find any evidence against, and it seems to me like he is the antagonist from The Red Chameleon, but I can't be sure.  Basically, it feels like this book would have been enhanced by more knowledge of the previous one.

Kathleen (Kat) also has a friend named Dolly, who is a female impersonator at The Pink Parrot, a club in the West Village.  The club has a float in the parade, and at a certain moment, a juggler with flaming batons gets shoved, and the float erupts into a fire.  There are a couple deaths and Dolly is badly burnt and believes that it was not an accident.

Soon after, Kat dons a disguise and goes to the Skyview Lounge, where she gets into the poker game.  This was actually one of my favorite scenes in the novel.  One of the themes is how broke Kat is, and it's pretty ridiculous to see her throw away pretty much all of her life savings on a buy-in.  However, before she can leave, the dealer, Ernesto, is poisoned and dies on the scene.

Thus there are two competing mysteries--was the fire on the Pink Parrot float intentional, and who poisoned Ernesto?  Ultimately the resolution is not as surprising as it might be, but along the way there are many coincidences.  Actually, I don't think I understand the resolution.  When Ernesto's murderer is revealed at the end, I have a somewhat difficult time accepting it.

There are many characters in this novel, and like the other two "true crime" books previously reviewed, it becomes difficult to follow.  Perhaps the most compelling lead that Kat uncovers is the Zeus Society, which is a kind of gay conversion hate group.  They protest outside the funeral of the two young men killed on the parade float.

I don't want to try to name all of the characters and how they are involved in love "squares" (rather than triangles), but suffice to say, it is not easy to keep track of who they are and what they have done.  Nor would I want to get into Meeza (Kat's assistant) and her boyfriend V.P. and how he becomes another suspect towards the end (again I still don't understand what he actually did, apart from appearing menacing).

This story is really about Kathleen Stone, and how her disguises allow her to become different "characters."  It is almost as if Erica is writing her to have multiple personalities, and it is a nice motif how all of her alter-egos start with the letter K (Kennedy, Katya, Kate).  Here, she is discussing which disguise to use at the "other" club in the West Village, Tongue:

"'I was thinking I might go as Keith,' I said after a pause, and Dolly laughed.  The sound was spontaneous rather than mean, and I found myself laughing, too, even though I hadn't been joking.  Maybe I hadn't thought this one completely through, but I sometimes passed myself off as a teenager named Keith by slipping into some skater clothes and slicking down my boy-short hair.  It was one of my favorite disguises, a sure-fire way to be left alone.
'Not if you want to get into the place.  It's gayboy bunny or nothing.'" (109)

Which leads to my question: what is gayboy bunny? (Sorry, but that is my favorite phrase used in the novel.)

I am not normally in the habit of pointing out typos, but I found at least five (on pp. 147, 155, 203, along with a couple others earlier in the book).  Perhaps this focus on the trivial and mundane (but incorrect) comes from my brief stint as a proofreader.  Most of the chapters are relatively short--there are 29--and the book itself is pretty short at 233 pages.  It's a good read overall, but my primary complaint is the editing.  I think the novel would have been strengthened if there were fewer characters and if their stories could have been developed a bit more deeply.  As it stands the book is a bit of a mess, but it's held together by Kat, and her fast-paced narration.  In a way, the novel works because Kat is so confused by what she sees and hears and how it all fits together, such that the reader does not necessarily feel as lost as they might normally be.

In sum, I was surprised to read this book.  I did not expect it out of Erica, and while this type of genre is not what I normally gravitate towards, it was a nice diversion, and I enjoyed some of the scenes and situations presented.  It would appear that Erica has created a character, and an anthology series, that could become quite popular.  Her story does not seem to be over at the end of this book, and perhaps she will go on towards a more straightforward adventure next.  However, true crime mystery thrillers rarely are.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy - David M. Burns, M.D. (2009) (incomplete)


Note that this book is due back to the library on January 19, 2017 and I am unable to renew it due to a lack of copies and one person waiting for it to be available again on reserve.

On November 30, 2016, I went to see my PCP.  I had never seen her before.  I just chose her arbitrarily because she was at the Logan Square Health Center.  I was just going in for an annual check-up, but she asked me a couple questions about mental health.  I told her that I was seeing a psychiatrist, but felt that he had never adequately addressed one of my primary concerns: volatile mood swings, as if on a 24 hour cycle.  Actually I wrote about it more than 5 years ago, and it appears to be a chronic condition at this point that I may not be able to end, unless I find the right medication. She recommended I read Feeling Good.

First of all, this is a self-help book.  This is not something like The Noonday Demon.  There are references to certain studies, but much of the material in the book comes in the form of anecdotes from past patients.  The method of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which essentially involves stopping self-defeating thoughts before they cause one to become stricken with all of the usual effects of depression.  Will this work for everyone?  Not really, as Burns admits that some more extreme forms of depression require some form of medication.  But it may work for a lot of people and the book is mostly useful, in my opinion, for setting some kind of baseline on normal human emotions, and how easy it is to identify with many of the case studies from the book.

It bears noting that you probably need to work with this book, rather than just read it.  There are many, many exercises, and many "figures" in each chapter, charts and tables with columns of articulated thoughts and appropriate rational responses.  Sometimes the book is unintentionally hilarious, but for the most part Dr. Burns is able to pinpoint the most common states of depression and their likely triggers.

But as I started writing this review on Monday (January 16th), I realized I probably wouldn't finish it on time (it's listed as being 700 pages, but it pretty much ends at 681) and I really wanted to skip ahead to the end of the book, which is an analysis of many different kinds of antidepressants.  This was actually less interesting than I thought it would be, so I waded back around the 400 page mark where I had stopped and shifted to the chapter on suicide, just because.

I did find one of those unintentionally hilarious moments, and I don't want to act like a millennial teen using intentionally bad grammar and coming up with all sorts of new slang words so they can feel cooler than people over 30.  But the phrase "turned on" is kind of limited in how far it can go.  Of course, there is the famous hippie slogan, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," which seems to mean "engage with your surroundings," but generally, "getting turned on" is, well, kind of obviously sexual.  So it was borderline inappropriate to read about a physician's "antiperfectionism sheet," which asks the subject to list an activity in column 1, how effectively the activity was completed from 0% to 100% in column 2, and how satisfying the activity was between 0% and 100%.

"Column 1: Talk to student about his career options.
Column 2: 50% (I didn't do anything special.  I just listened to him and offered a few obvious suggestions.)
Column 3: 90% (He really seemed to appreciate our talk, so I felt turned on.)" (357)

Dr. Burns also describes getting turned on by writing and revising that very chapter and I was drawn to recall a comment a friend once made about The Origins of Totalitarianism, after reading a ridiculously long sentence by Hannah Arendt.  He said it seemed like she was masturbating while she was typing.  Now I don't agree with that statement, but whatever, it reminded me of that moment.

While we are on the subject of totalitarianism, here is another hilarious passage, maybe not unintentionally hilarious, but darkly hilarious:

"First, would you say that everybody who achieves is particularly worthwhile just because of their achievement?  Adolf Hitler was clearly a great achiever at the height of his career.  Would you say that made him particularly worthwhile?  Obviously not.  Of course, Hitler would have insisted he was a great human being because he was a successful leader and because he equated his worth and achievements.  In fact, he was probably convinced that he and his fellow Nazis were supermen because they were achieving so much.  Would you agree with them?" (331)

This is from a section called "Does Work = Worth?" in a chapter called "Your Work is Not Your Worth."  This was a somewhat reassuring chapter to read, as I feel incredibly unsuccessful in my career (I recently wrote in an interview questionnaire that I considered my literary output my greatest achievement to date, but then also added one case with a particularly good result for the client for good measure--monetarily, however, this has not added up, and because I relatively suffer, and live constantly on the brink of barely ever adding funds to my savings, with no retirement, I feel I am treading water, and that things have been this way for so long that it will be difficult to turn them around....I see I am becoming a case study), but I believe everything written in the parenthetical above is relevant.  In short, my writing increases my feelings of self-worth; my job does not.  It was a reassuring chapter, but hard to accept when one's lifestyle is largely dependent upon one's financial success.

Moreover, this book was first published in 1980 and revised in 1999.  It was reprinted in 2009 (hence the title of this post), but I don't think any meaningful updates were made after 1999.  So while the internet was around, the prevalence of "internet thought" had not yet become a thing.  I would argue that "internet thought" (along with "Facebook envy") are new triggers for depression that should be analyzed.

For good measure, we will list the 10 cognitive distortions identified by Dr. Burns:

1) All-or-Nothing Thinking
2) Overgeneralization
3) Mental Filter
4) Disqualifying the Positive
5) Jumping to Conclusions (Mind Reading/The Fortune Teller Error)
6) Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization
7) Emotional Reasoning
8) Should Statements
9) Labeling and Mislabeling
10) Personalization

When you are able to recognize that your mind is engaging in these types of thought patterns, you can begin to defend yourself against them.  You do, however, need to come up with the rational response on your own, and sometimes that can be difficult.  This is why many people resort to "do-nothingism" and procrastinate to the point of general inactivity.

To illustrate, I am somewhat disappointed by this review.  It's not one of my best, and I ran out of time to properly assess this book.  I should have started working on the review earlier.  But I can't change the fact that the book is due back at the library today, and I cannot renew it.  I could buy it and finish the review more appropriately later, but I'd rather not.  It's upsetting that I didn't do the best job, but at least I wrote something.

Actually yesterday I was thinking about how brilliantly metaphorical it was to post this review today, the last day of Obama's presidency, because many of us are depressed and feel hopeless about the future.  Then today I just feel like it's an embarrassing review, and there's so much more I could have said about it.  This was not a waste of time, however, and I will think of it as a kind of resolution for the rest of 2017: try not to accept the feeling that you are doomed no matter what--it may just be another cognitive distortion.