Thursday, August 11, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt (2013)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Autobiography - Morrissey (2013)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, June 2, 2016

Identical - Scott Turow (2013)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Zero K - Don DeLillo (2016)


Oeuvre rule: I have read White Noise, Underworld, Cosmopolis, Mao II and the first 50 pages or so of Americana.  Don DeLillo is one of my favorite authors, period.  Obviously one of my very favorite living writers.  I would return to Americana (and likely will one day, as my friend Katerina gave me her copy, at the same time she gave me this book and an autobiography by Isadora Duncan), but I must leave it out of this ranking.  Here is how I would rank these four novels, alongside Zero K.

White Noise
Underworld

Zero K
Mao II
Cosmopolis

Granted, the only one I reviewed was Underworld.  I met DeLillo when I bought Cosmopolis, and recorded the encounter in the Underworld review.  Both White Noise and Underworld are modern American classics, but White Noise is the stronger novel, in my opinion.  Underworld is a powerhouse novel, but White Noise is just so sharp and pointed and entertaining and hilarious and deep and moving, where Underworld is, primarily, impressive.  I'd really need to read Mao II and Cosmopolis again to articulate my rankings, I just remember them as a bit boring (I still haven't seen the film of Cosmopolis, but I did see Game Six, and that was also pretty good).

So then, Zero K begs immediate comparison to White Noise, as Meghan Daum points out in her review, which reminded me that I should reserve this book at the CPL.  I did that, and I was the first person to reserve it from my branch and I got it immediately.  This is definitely one of the most "current" reviews I've done, certainly from a traditional fiction author that I like very much.

It begs comparison because both are deep meditations on death.  In White Noise, it is the medication  of fear of death, and in Zero K it is mastery over death through cryogenics.  But White Noise has a better story, and Zero K is more impressionistic and abstract.  It feels very meaningful and heavy as DeLillo approaches 80.  But it is strange and ultimately difficult to really "get into."  That's not to say that there aren't a few great parts,  Overall I would call it a very good novel, it just didn't grab me by the throat in the way that say, White Noise or Underworld  did.  And it has so much potential, because it has a pretty good plot setup.  A science fiction writer, or so-called speculative fiction writer, could have taken this novel in dazzling directions, but that's not DeLillo's style.

Essentially, the story is narrated by Jeff Lockhart, who is 34 and the son of a very rich and successful businessman who has decided to tell him about his secret operation, the Convergence, which is somewhere in the desert of Eastern Europe/Western Asia, not far from where the meteor fell in Chelyabinsk a few years ago.  The novel seems to take place in true present day.  There are references to the Taliban (though not ISIL) and the recent disturbances in Ukraine.  His father, Ross, is in his mid-to-late 60's, and married to a woman dying of a terminal disease (Artis).  Previously, Ross had been married to Jeff's mother, Madeline, but he left them abruptly and Jeff deals with this throughout the novel.  It is a bit surprising that he admires Artis and seems to connect with her very closely as a kind of stepmother, though Ross was not really in his life at all.  As he remembers, Ross's face was on the cover of Newsweek when Madeline died.

Artis is dying and Ross has invested in this facility that will freeze everyone and bring them back at some point to be determined in the future when technology will allow them to live again.  At the beginning of the novel, Jeff is blindfolded and transported for the better part of two days and brought to the facility and given a sort of extended tour.

As Jeff meets new people along his journey, he gives them names.  They never introduce themselves.  Two of the more notable architects of the Convergence are the so-called Stenmark twins.  Their back-and-forth pleasantly reminded me of a similar scene in White Noise, where Jack Gladney and a new professor at their college traded details about Hitler and Elvis and their mothers:

"'When the time comes, we'll depart finally from our secure northern home to this desert place.  Old and frail, limping and shuffling, to approach the final reckoning.'
'What will we find here?  A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world's organized religions.'
'Do we need a promise?  Why not just die?  Because we're human and we cling.  In this case not to religious tradition but to the science of present and future.'
They were speaking quietly and intimately, with a deeper reciprocity than in the earlier exchanges and not a trace of self-display.  The audience was stilled, completely fixed.
'Ready to die does not mean willing to disappear.  Body and mind may tell us that it is time to leave the world behind.  But we will clutch and grasp and scratch nevertheless.'
'Two stand-up comics.'
'Encased in vitreous matter, refashioned cell by cell, waiting for the time.'
'When the time comes, we'll return.  Who will we be, what will we find?  The world itself, decades away, think of it, or sooner, or later.  Not so easy to imagine what will be out there, better or worse or so completely altered we will be too astonished to judge.'" (74-75)

The first thing I'd mention about this comparison is that the writing is just not as sharp as in White Noise.  I've never read The Body Artist, but I've heard that it's sort of abstract and experimental, and I'd say the same thing about Zero K, particularly the the short section of the book that seems to portray Artis's consciousness after the cryogenic process.  I'm not sure how DeLillo comes out on this issue, but my guess is that he thinks the concept is insane, but may actually gain traction.  DeLillo is often portrayed as some kind of cultural psychic, that he sees the way things are now and he predicts the way things will be.  The idea of consciousness after freezing and before "rebirth" is sort of frightening, perhaps more frightening than an absence of consciousness.  In this sense, DeLillo may be expressing an acceptance of death in a different way than many other artists before him.  Death is one of the greatest inspirations for art, and his achievement with this novel is noteworthy, but I am sorry to say it is not as essential a work as those previously mentioned volumes.

But I love DeLillo and want to read several of his other books.  This is sort of a chilling addition to his oeuvre, and a pretty cool one to release at his age.  Some artists might put out their best work around age 80 (I'm thinking primarily of Thomas Mann here), and though in my opinion this is not DeLillo's best, it's quite good, good enough to say he hasn't lost it and could put out a still more impressive book yet, if he hasn't run out of subjects that he'd like to write about.

Regardless, there are still little moments of comic absurdity like this, which is pure DeLillo:

"Soon I was turning a corner and going down a hall with walls painted raw umber, a thick runny pigment meant to resemble mud, I thought.  There were matching doors, all doors the same.  There was also a recess in the wall and a figure standing there, arms, legs, head, torso, a thing fixed in place.  I saw that it was a mannequin, naked, hairless, without facial features, and it was reddish brown, maybe russet or simply rust.  There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman.  I imagined placing a hand on a breast.  This seemed required, particularly if you are me.  The head was a near oval, arms positioned in a manner that I tried to decipher--self-defense, withdrawal, with one foot set to the rear.  The figure was rooted to the floor, not enclosed in protective glass.  A hand on a breast, a hand sliding up a thigh.  It's something I would have done once upon a time.  Here and now, the cameras in place, the monitors, an alarm mechanism on the body itself--I was sure of this.  I stood back and looked.  The stillness of the figure, the empty face, the empty hallway, the figure at night, a dummy, in fear, drawing away.  I moved farther back and kept on looking." (24-25)

Ultimately, my opinion of this book is colored by feelings of wasted potential and obfuscation.  It seems like there is another deeper layer to this novel that I'm just not getting (it may have something to do with Stak--and indeed I felt the strongest part of the novel was the middle part outside of the Convergence) and it seems like DeLillo doesn't want to write the more "commercial" version of this novel that would be more of a crowd-pleaser, something about how the Convergence actually turned out in the end, and deciding if it is a good or bad thing.  Like I said, my feeling is that it's a bad thing, and DeLillo (ever the satirist) is mocking science and the belief that we can be all powerful gods with a mastery over nature, when we don't even know what that means for us spiritually (i.e. we are not meant to live much longer than 100 years on this earth).  Even though I think DeLillo is ultimately better off being ambivalent, I am still sort of a sucker for the happy ending.  Having said all that, it's definitely an interesting read and I recommend it--I just don't think it will change your life the way say, two of his other novels might.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

See a Little Light - Bob Mould (with Michael Azzerad) (2011)


I first became aware of Bob Mould and Husker Du in late 2003.  I forget what spurred me to ask for Our Band Could Be Your Life for Christmas that year, but it had only been out for a couple years, and I tore through it rapidly.  My memory must be off because I recall also getting Mission of Burma's Vs. and Husker Du's New Day Rising on that day.  Whatever, it was basically my junior year of college that I got into them.  I had also been aware of them via the Dennis Cooper novel Try, in which the main character is a real fanboy.

Soon after New Day Rising, I got a burnt copy of Zen Arcade.  About a year later, after college, I picked up Flip Your Wig.  Not long after that, I saw Bob Mould play at the Metro in Chicago, on the Body of Song tour.  Of course during this time I was clamoring for all of the OBCBYL bands to reunite so I could see them live.  Mission of Burma did, and soon after so did Dinosaur Jr.  Husker Du never did, and apparently never will, even though rumors will always continue to swirl, such as last year when they decided to reissue some of their merchandising.  Bob Mould just plays some Husker Du songs live, and that will be as good as it gets.

The chapter from OBCBYL on Husker Du is one of the best.  Most chapters would make me want to listen to the band in question, if I hadn't heard them before.  Their music fit my taste: loud, fast, angry/anguished.  Perhaps more intriguing is that 2 of their 3 members were gay.  They were sort of a mysterious band to me, and I was really into them from about 2003 through 2007 (though I've always listened to their albums), then my ardor sort of faded.  I'd check out the last few Bob Mould albums, but a true reunion was the only thing that would have really excited me.

Enter Mould's latest album, released a little over a month ago in late March 2016.  It was probably the Pitchfork review that did it, reminding me that he had actually released a memoir.  I remember hearing about it when it was released, but I guess I was distracted in law school or whatever in 2011.  Anyways I put a hold on it at the CPL, and voila, it arrives quickly and now continues along our path of indie rock memoirs after Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein.   

It's hard to compare the three.  I don't want to say any single one is the best.  The most obvious thing is that Mould's is the biggest.  It's definitely the longest, around 380 pages, and it feels more revealing than the other two, even though one could not call either Gordon's or Brownstein's opaque.  Here is the best way I can differentiate them: theirs are more poetic and impressionistic; Mould's is more intricately detailed and informative.  One might say that Mould's is less edited, but the book is credited "with" Michael Azzerad, who is, of course, the author of OBCBYL.  So yeah, maybe it is a little more bloated, but I found pretty much the whole thing entertaining.  I guess him and Kim Gordon have been active in the music scene for roughly the same amount of time, but the kinds of songs they write are quite different, and that translates to different styles of memoir.  But enough with the comparisons--most people are not going to blindly pick up See a Little Light, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, or Girl in a Band unless they're already familiar with the artists.  All three are great.

If what was previously known about Husker Du was mysterious, then this book changes everything.  Mould is completely open and honest throughout the entire narrative, and he provides very detailed accounts of his entire musical journey, from his early upbringing, through Husker Du, his early solo work, Sugar, his shift to electronica, and back.  Perhaps sensing that he is kind of a unique figure in the larger scheme of gay rights, he writes quite eloquently on the topic.  Obviously, apart from interband tensions (only a small portion of which overlap with such themes), this is the major "drama" of the memoir.  Most of the passages I would like to quote, the most compelling portions of the text, are on this topic.

But also, like OBCBYL, this book made me rediscover some older material.  I had never really heard "Eight Miles High," a cover song that I would probably rank in their top 5.  I had never really explored Candy Apple Grey or Warehouse either--not even Metal Circus to be honest.  I had Land Speed Record but I still haven't really heard Everything Falls Apart.  As for Sugar, the only thing I previously heard was File Under: Easy Listening, which I bought in the summer of 2007 on my road trip through the U.S. from some random record store in the Midwest for a few bucks.  Copper Blue and Beaster seem to be the more definitive releases, and Mould mentions the Beaster track "JC Auto" several times, and yes, it is a really intense and awesome song.  Also interesting is that "Gift" from FU:EL, which I considered that album's best song, features a guitar pedal that Kevin Shields lent to Mould, the same one used on "You Made Me Realise."  Mould was also heavily influenced by Loveless at the time of its release.

Mould also moved around the country a lot.  Off the top of my head, he is born and raised in a small town in upstate New York, then moves to Minneapolis for college, and lives there until Husker Du becomes big enough that he can purchase a home in a rural suburb, where he lives through their end.  After that, he moves to New York City (being something of a pioneer in Williamsburg), then Austin, then back to NYC, then Washington D.C., and finally ends in San Francisco.  I feel like I'm missing a couple places in there, but whatever.

***

Anyways, I've finally returned from a weekend away in which I neglected to bring the book and reflected upon it in absentia.  I went to see my sister graduate from college and I brought way too much stuff for a two night stay as it was.  Here is one of the aforementioned promised quotes.

First, I would quote the whole opening of Chapter 17, but its not necessarily poetic.  It just tells the story of how Dennis Cooper interviewed him for Spin:

"The writer Dennis Cooper was a huge Husker Du fan.  He'd even touched on the band in one or two of his novels.  Now he was trying to build a name for himself as a journalist.  Dennis Cooper is gay.  So in the summer of 1994, Spin magazine asked Ryko, How about we send Dennis Cooper down to Austin to spend some time with Bob?
I knew what was about to happen.  This was to be the "Bob is gay" story, and I could do this the easy way or the hard way.  I wasn't thrilled about it for a number of reasons, beyond personal ones.  My first concerns were that this news would make it tough for my family, and that my fans and peers would recontextualize everything I had done with my work.  I also knew that the press was always going to write whatever they were going to write.  I could try to steer the story the way I wanted it to read, but ultimately, editorial always wins out.  It's the business."  (221)

Okay, I'm having trouble locating the one really poetic passage about how people might start interpreting the meaning of the songs differently after they found out he was gay.  He writes about how the themes of his music are universal and apply regardless of gender and sexuality.  Except for one instance, which comes amidst the description of side two of Zen Arcade:

"A lot of side two is my blind rage and self-hatred, my failed relationships, and my confusing sex with love.  That whole side was a blur while recording.  It sounds like someone is being pounded into a gigantic pile of broken glass.  Some of the words and ideas seem misguided now, but history has proven they're made of a lasting substance.  Gay people have always pegged "The Biggest Lie" as a gay song, and it is, seeing as it was informed by a sexual misadventure with a straight friend.  It was about me hoping an awkward physical tumble would turn into something more, and it not happening." (90)

Later, Mould mentions that the only part of his oeuvre that he will not revisit is this part of Zen Arcade and it is upsetting to think that we will never get to hear "I'll Never Forget You" performed live again.

Mould also tells the surprising story of how he briefly worked for the WCW in the late 90's.  He also fairly casually mentions how he started taking steroids after four weeks on the job.  He doesn't seem to mention stopping them, though one presumes that was the case.  He also tells the fairly insane story of the wrestler Chris Benoit from his perspective.

But it is the stories of his relationships with Michael and Kevin that are ultimately some of the most painful:

"I had been faithful to Mike, faithful to Kevin, and now I was single.  Everything was open and new.  I'd been unhitched for one month in the last twenty-one years.  Now I was learning the ropes of dating and casual sex in D,C.  I had my freedom, but I knew I had to be somewhat cautious.  I said to Rich, keep an eye on me and tell me if I start acting stupid.  I don't think I ever got too crazy." (333)

The ending of the book pretty much tells the story of how he never really embraced the gay community or the gay lifestyle until this period in his life.  The story of how he meets up with another gay blogger is "both comical and sad" and quite endearing, such as his disappointment with the dude being heavier than his pictures looked, but still being intimate despite a few other sketchy details.

Along the way there are some pretty good stories about other indie rock luminaries, and reflections on what it means to be "out" and his life's work (up to age 50).  He ends the book by saying that it has been a pretty good first 50 years and he is excited for what is to come.

Are you jealous?

Sure.  After reading this book, try and tell me that you could have a more interesting and entertaining life.  Not necessarily everyone wants and interesting and entertaining life, and I'm sure many would not want to have the experiences Mould has had.  The book is brimming with trauma, but I suppose that's the sort of material that makes for the best writing.

Take, for example, people who would never smoke:

"I started smoking a pack a day at the beginning of college, and by the end, I was up to three packs a day.  Smoking had become both the centerpiece and timepiece of my life.  Every cigarette was six minutes long, and I could practically mark out the whole day with smoking, like a sundial.  Six minutes on, nine minutes off.  Repeat sixty times a day.  It was like playing Scrabble: when it's your turn, you turn over the egg timer and start thinking.  I have an innate sense of time, but smoking was this additional timekeeper, like a wristwatch." (258)

You see, some people smoke and are just lazy, and other people that smoke are like super successful and amazing.  In short, while I could never say there is any "right" way to smoke, using it as a timekeeper through sporadic bursts of energy sounds nice in theory, but I don't think that's normally the way it is in practice.  Mould quits when he is 37, and also starts to make other changes in his life.  It's the focus on these kind of personal details that make this memoir so well-rounded.

There is not much more to say except that Mould is playing the Metro again, two days from now!  I just found this out a day or two ago.  Though it is sold out, I may try to go.  His newest album is very good, as have been his last few.  I'd imagine he can build a pretty strong setlist with his entire discography.  So, I guess this book came around at the perfect time for me, just in time to remind me that I should go.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin (2009)


I've never read anything by Colm Toibin before.  I'd imagine for many people that Brooklyn will be their first introduction.  This is also something of a first for Flying Houses: the first time a book has been reviewed where the critic has seen the film adaptation first.

Is the book better than the movie?  Yes.  Is the movie vastly inferior?  No.  In fact, the adaptation is remarkably well done.  There are still a few tiny details that bother me, things that got left out of the movie to keep the story smaller, but generally I wanted to cry throughout almost the entire running time (though it may have been partially due to my mood that day).  The book is not really that much better until the end.

I might have mentioned something about the movie getting a good review from a very tough critic for the Redeye to my friend Juan, and he suddenly recalled that he had read it after he left Brooklyn in 2013, shortly before writing his review of Anna Karenina.  We went to see the film.  Then, shortly after the experience previously reported, of picking out the latest Murakami from the Humboldt Park CPL, he returned the next day with War and Peace, Brooklyn and Howl's Moving Castle.  He said I should read Brooklyn so I did that.

The plot is fairly simple, and depends on how much one intends to spoil.  I believe the trailer for the film gave away a significant portion of the plot, and all I will say is that it is an account of an Irish girl's immigration to the U.S.  It is is not giving away too much to say she enters into a romantic relationship with a young man named Tony, but anything beyond that, I will refrain from mentioning--which is a shame because much of the most beautiful writing comes at the end (including the near-perfect, final, bittersweet sentence).  Maybe after some asterisks, I'll discuss the ending.

Basically, this is a very good book, but I felt sort of disinterested by it up until the end.  That's not totally accurate, but I just mean sometimes I will have it with me at my office desk and I'll eat lunch and have it open in front of me and I'll glance off and read something on the internet instead.  Maybe in a way the opening is kind of boring and slow, but by the third act a plot has certainly developed.

It is perhaps worth noting that my former roommate Gavin was also Irish and went to see the film and remarked that the practices of changing into one's swimwear at the beach, rather than wearing it under their clothes, was a quirky and accurate Irish thing.

The girl's name is Eilis and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose, who is about 30 and a great golfer and popular person about town.  As the novel opens Eilis gets a job with Ms. Kelly, who runs an expensive and popular grocery store in town.  Soon after, a priest from their neighborhood returns to visit from the U.S. and tells their family about all of the Irish transplants in Brooklyn and what opportunities might be available for Eilis there.  It becomes a given that she'll go, and she does, and she works at a women's department store.

The book is broken up into four parts.  Part One depicts her life in Ireland and her voyage across the Atlantic.  Part Two depicts her life in Brooklyn before meeting Tony.  Part Three depicts her life in Brooklyn after meeting Tony.  Part Four depicts her return visit to Ireland.

I will say that the depictions of Eilis's homesickness are the first really sad scenes in the book, with several more to come.  One element left out of the movie was Eilis's three older brothers, who had moved to England, and Jack in particular, who is the closest to her in age, and visits with her in Liverpool before her ship leaves for New York.  He tells her that homesickness is to be expected:

"He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like.  His manner was so mild and good-humored, just as her father's had been, that he would not in any case want to complain.  She considered writing to him asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing.  It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that would never see anything in daylight again.  She did not know what she was going to do.  But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her." (73)

There is effusive praise, nearly six pages worth, of blurbs at the beginning of this paperback edition I read.  Make no mistake that this is a very good book, but a couple of those blurbs got me thinking.  One of them mentioned how there were no real antagonists in this novel, and to an extent I agree, though some of the other girls in the boarding house in Brooklyn are not necessarily helpful.  I was surprised by a couple things in this novel--one of which I will put below the asterisks.  The first is the depiction of Dolores, a girl who moves in after another girl exits, when Eilis is given the immensely better basement bedroom with a private entrance.  Dolores is a cleaning lady, and she cleans the boarding house for reduced rent.  She wants to go to the dances with the girls, but they are all mean to her, and so is Eilis.  Or, while not exactly mean, she is certainly curt.  She is not a perfect character.  And this novel truly is more of a character study than a plot driven vehicle, except for Part Four.

So yes, I think if you saw the movie, you should check this out.  I will definitely watch the movie again to compare it to the novel, though I'm not sure I'll review it.

***Spoilersbelow***

I write separately to address the ending.  The second thing that really surprised me was when she went back to Ireland and casually just sort of started making out with Jim Farrell at the dance after their day together with the Nancy and George.  It seemed out of character.  And then I was genuinely shocked when it was made pretty explicitly clear that she regretted what happened in Brooklyn, and she is only going back out of a sense of obligation, and is sort of disappointed.  This is such a beautifully bittersweet thing to convey, and that is why I think the ending is the best part.  Consider this separate part an anti-The Art of Fielding.  The ending makes this book great, instead of the one thing that keeps it from being great:

"The idea that she would leave all of this--the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting--and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now.  She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay back with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival.
Sometimes it came as a sharp reminder, but much of the time it did not come at all.  She had to make an effort now to remember that she really was married to Tony, that she would face into the sweltering heat of Brooklyn and the daily boredom of the shop floor at Bartocci's and her room at Mrs, Kehoe's.  She would face into a life that seemed now an ordeal, with strange people, strange accents, strange streets.  She tried to think of Tony now as a loving and comforting presence, but she saw instead someone she was allied with whether she liked it or not, someone who was, she thought, unlikely to allow her to forget the nature of the alliance and his need for her to return."  (241)

All I have to say is that this was not properly brought out in the film.  Or maybe it was, but I didn't sense that Eilis wanted to stay.  I mean, maybe a little bit, but I didn't get the sense of dread of returning.  Saoirse Ronan deserved to be nominated for Best Actress, but she did not deserve to win if she meant to convey the sentiments expressed in the above passage.  It felt like the film clipped out certain things, while still not being "Hollywood" about it.

I don't really know what else to say about this novel so...yeah.  For some reason, it makes me incredibly nostalgic and sad, in a painful way.  There are a lot of things going on in my life that make me identify with Eilis, even though I am not an Irish immigrant girl in the 1950's.  I guess because I lived on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights (where Eilis stays with Mrs. Kehoe) and because I was torn between a new life in Brooklyn or my "old life" in Chicago (still, no ocean separates the two, but I like being a 45 minute drive away from my parents) and because I've gotten involved in relationships of which my parents don't approve--though Eilis's mother beautifully handles her confession at the very end of the novel.  That's another ridiculously sad part, where her mother can't even bring herself to say goodbye to her the morning of her departure.  I guess there are just a lot of themes in this novel that touch me and make me feel uneasy about the choices I've made in my life and how I really feel like I'm finally "growing up" as I approach my mid-30's (I am still in my early thirties, comfortably, for 11 more months!).  I tend to wonder if other people feel the same way.