Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 10 Albums of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Avid Reader - Robert Gottlieb (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction - J.D. Salinger (1959)

It's hard for me to write about J.D. Salinger without coming off a certain way, so I'd like to open this review by mentioning my friend Libby.  Libby and I met our freshman year at NYU.  One day, she started talking to me about Salinger, I forget why.  Like a lot of people, my primary exposure to Salinger was Catcher in the Rye.   I don't think I had read any of his three other books.  But Libby laid down the line and went through a brief synopsis of each, in particular mentioning how she had written a paper about religion in "Teddy," which was the last in Nine Stories, and extremely beautiful.  She explained that the majority of his work, outside of Catcher, concerned the Glass Family: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walter, Waker, Zooey, Franny, Bessie and Les.  Seven children of vaudeville performers, several of them gaining notoriety on a children's quiz show radio program, and others entering careers in show business, the military, the clergy, prose and poetry (sort of).  At least one out of Nine Stories is specifically about Seymour--"A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which is a masterpiece.  Franny and Zooey rightly earns its place on the Best Books List (and Catcher in the Rye, I predict, will make it when it is reviewed--I read Catcher like 6 times over the course of 6 years, but I haven't read it in the last 9).  I had been meaning to read these for the first time in any case, but after Libby's mini-lecture, I made it a priority and read them my freshman year.  I remember having a particular soft spot for Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction and thinking they were as good as any of his other published writings.  I loved him so much at this point, that I tracked down the old issue of The New Yorker that had published his story "Hapworth 16, 1924," and photocopied it and put it in a nice binder and gave it to my mother for her birthday, as she was a massive Salinger fan. I thought this was one of the better gifts I had ever gotten her, but then I actually read it.  Do not read it.  Read it only if you want a reading list.

So I looked forward to revisiting these two novellas, similar in length to Franny and Zooey.  And I found that I felt exactly the same way about Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.  It is a masterpiece on the level of his other three books (to be clear, I do not think I would consider Nine Stories to be in Best Books league, though parts of it certainly are--at least "Bananafish" would make a Best Short Stories list, which isn't a bad idea for a project).  It is hilarious, socially observant, brilliantly detailed, breezily delivered, intriguing, and inviting.  Seymour: an Introduction, however, had aged badly in my mind.  This may come into play in the upcoming series planned for Flying Houses, the Kurt Vonnegut Project, for which I am reading Slaughterhouse Five presently, and for which I have this to say: these books may be influential to young would-be writers because they see the authors having fun with the medium.  You get a sense of the possibilities of literature.  At the time, when I was 19, going through the most artistically fecund period in my life, I thought the conceit of a story like Seymour was tremendously encouraging and successfully experimental.  I don't feel the same about it now.  Basically, I would put Carpenters in Best Books territory, and Seymour in Egregiously Frustrating territory.  I guess I can't actually do that because they're together here.  Anybody that reads Carpenters will go onto Seymour and maybe some people will slog their way through it out of a sense of loyalty to the author and the characters, but they might be better off putting it away after about 30 pages.  I will get more deeply into the details of the plots of each in a moment, but I wanted to put this down for now, to give an overview of my general feelings on Salinger's oeuvre and distinguish my opinions on this, his final published volume.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is 89 pages long.  It is about Seymour's wedding day.  Buddy is the main character.  The time is May 1942.  Buddy is in Georgia and wrangles a three-day-leave from a stay in the military hospital to take a train to New York to attend the wedding.  He has no time to go to his apartment so he leaves his luggage in a locker at Penn Station.  He gets in a cab and goes to an old house where the wedding is to occur.  After an hour and twenty minutes, the bride, Muriel, leaves.  The guests are told to "use the cars" and Buddy ends up getting into one with Muriel's aunt (Helen Silsburn), the Matron of Honor, the Matron's husband (Lieutenant), and a little old elderly mute man (Muriel's great uncle).  The Matron of Honor is furious with Seymour.  Nobody knows that Buddy is Seymour's brother.  The tension in the early part of the scene is fantastic.

[I have to break in here and make a note.  I'm finding this review hard to complete because of the great deal of time that has passed.  I read Carpenters in early June.  Then I read This Fight is Our Fight, Days of Abandonment, Meet Me in the Bathroom, and Giant of the Senate.  Then I read Seymour: an Introduction.  So while Seymour is relatively fresh in my mind, Carpenters is not.  I can only attribute the gap to library deadlines and procrastination.]

Really, the cab ride reads like a play.
Again, another long break has occurred.  You know what I'm going to say.  Carpenters is great, Seymour is not, so I will attempt to illustrate that with 2 (only 2) excerpts, one from each.  It is a tall task to pick out a representative sample but I think for Carpenters the choice is clear.

"The Matron of Honor seemed to reflect for a moment.  'Well, nothing very much, really,' she said.  'I mean nothing small or really derogatory or anything like that.  All she said, really, was that this Seymour, in her opinion, was a latent homosexual and that he was basically afraid of marriage.  I mean she didn't say it nasty or anything.  She just said it--you know--intelligently.  I mean she was psychoanalyzed for years and years.'  The Matron of Honor looked at Mrs. Silsburn.  'That's no secret or anything.  I mean Mrs. Fedder'll tell you that herself, so I'm not giving away any secret or anything.'"
"'About the only other thing she said was that this Seymour was a really schizoid personality and that, if you really looked at things the right way, it was really better for Muriel that things turned out the way they did.  Which makes sense to me, but I'm not so sure it does to Muriel.  He's got her so buffaloed that she doesn't know whether she's coming or going.  That's what makes me so--'"
She was interrupted at that point.  By me.  As I remember, my voice was unsteady, as it invariably is when I'm vastly upset.
'What brought Mrs. Fedder to the conclusion that Seymour is a latent homosexual and a schizoid personality?'
All eyes--all searchlights, it seemed--the Matron of Honor's, Mrs. Silsburn's, even the Lieutenant's, were abruptly trained on me.  'What?' the Matron of Honor said to me, sharply, faintly hostilely.  And again I had a passing, abrasive notion that she knew I was Seymour's brother." (36...38)

This is the climax of the first "act" of the story, and probably the whole story.  I believe it is representative of the qualities that make for an excellent piece of writing.  I have not seen many other writers italicize portions of words to denote accents on certain words.

I also believed Salinger was something of a pioneer in his use of a footnote or two in Seymour, but recall that Nabokov published Pale Fire in 1962.  Seymour is an intriguing premise.  It is an artistic biography of Seymour by Buddy.  The opening sentence (after two excerpts by Kafka and Kierkegaard) gives a fair indication of how bumpy things are about to get:

"At times, frankly, I find it pretty slim pickings, but at the age of forty I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant, and I was rather strenuously requested, long before I was out of my teens, by at once the most exciting and the least fundamentally bumptious public craftsman I've ever personally known, to try to keep a steady and sober regard for the amenities of such a relationship, be it ever so peculiar or terrible; in my case, he saw it coming on from the first." (96)

This is a difficult piece of writing.  It can be very charming at times.  The trope of Buddy writing in a stream-of-conscious style--commenting upon his drinking or the late hour or a recent illness--is one of its more amusing qualities.  One will not deepen their understanding of Seymour by reading it.  It is more about Seymour's effect on Buddy than Seymour himself.  He is every bit as inscrutable a character as he appears in any other place. 

Seymour is mostly notable as Salinger's comment on celebrity.  If one reads the story in this context, it becomes much more interesting.  Buddy is pretty much a stand-in for Salinger.  He lives alone in the woods isolated from society.  He wrote a bunch of the stories that Salinger published.  There are a few moments that definitely break down the fourth wall. 

Salinger has such a small oeuvre, and it is of such a high quality that anyone who wants to read beyond the first exposure (Catcher) will likely go through them all.  This is the weakest piece, but it's still Salinger, and it's not a bad story.  It's just difficult.  It's very frustrating. 

Because then I see the parts I underlined some fifteen years ago and am reminded that to a particular sort of young person, the story is a treasure:

"I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions [when you die].  Were most of your stars out?  Were you busy writing your heart out?  If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.  If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer.  You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice.  The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe as I write it.  You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.  I won't even underline that.  It's too important to be underlined." (160-161)