Wednesday, September 30, 2009

More Books I've read in 2009

"Slouching Towards Kalamazoo" by Peter DeVries

Peter Devries is a writer once hugely popular, now largely forgotten -- though not completely, I still read his stuff. I'm afraid his books are no longer popular because we as a people have gotten too fat and stupid to understand them. This is highbrow humor, y'all, and it requires some cultural literacy. On page 179, a guy is talking about native Americans destroying their possessions to show off to their neighbors how much they have:

"This is conspicuous consumption. Like you ain't seen since -- since -- "

"Garbo in Camille?" I piped up.

"What? Oh, I see what you mean. All those expensive gowns, box at the opera, holidays in country houses."

"And somebody having to cough up for it?"

That cracked me up. But if you haven't seen the Divine Garbo waste away in the movie Camille you won't get it. And a lot of it I don't have the cultural wherewithal to get either, but when it works I think he's hilarious.

I must have read this book before although I don't remember much about it, because this passage is highlighted, and I was a militant vegetarian for many years:

"The idea of a Supreme Being who creates a world in which one creature is designed to eat another in order to subsist, and then passes a law saying "Thou Shalt not kill" is so monstruously, immeasurably, bottomlessly absurd that I am at a loss to understand how mankind has entertained or given it house room all this long."

And since it was already marked up anyway, I highlighted this too. The protagonist considers it the "Most Beautiful Sentence in the English Language":

"Though my grave be England, my dying place was Paradise, and Eve miscarried of me before she had conceived of Cain."

I consider it interesting.

DeVries books make good palette cleaners for me. Most of the books I read take place mostly in the emotional realm. Devries's characters are witty and urbane, but they are not warm and cuddly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More Books I've read in 2009

I've read all of Nick Hornby's books -- well, that's not entirely true, I don't know enough about soccer to get through "Fever Pitch" (although I loved the switched-to-baseball American version movie). I've read all of his novels. I loved "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy". I loved "How to Be Good" until the last sentence, and I liked "A Long Way Down" a lot. He's got a new one coming out September 29th called "Juliet, Naked" which as much as I can't wait to read is only my second most-anticipated book coming out that day. (I'm referring of course to Audrey Niffenegger's "Her Fearful Symmetry") .

Anyway, while I'm waiting for Juliet to disrobe I picked up "Slam" Hornby's YA book that I passed up when it first came out. And I thought it was great, not written any differently than his other novels. The only thing that makes it a YA is the protagonist's age -- 15 when the book begins. He's just a kid obsessed with skateboarding -- to the point that he talks to his Tony Hawke poster -- who manages to get his ex-girlfriend pregnant. In addition to all the drama that situation presents, there are also aspects of the fantastic in this book as the kid occasionally time travels into the future.

Good stuff.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

More books I've finished reading today

The last Alan Moore book I read was nigh incomprehensible (even with extensive annotations), so it was kinda nice to go back to a time before he got so smart even Einstein couldn't comprehend one of his comics. There's actually a lot going on Captain Britain -- parallel worlds, an unstoppable superhero killing machine, the outlawing of superheroes, and a villain who can alter reality at will, but these stories were originally published in 8-page segments and they're pretty easy to follow. Alan Davis's art starts out horrible, gets tolerable but is nowhere near the mastery level he is at today.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Books I've read in 2009

While I was wallowing in the overwrought romanticism of Four Letters of Love I told my wife Kim that I was probably going to have to watch an action-adventure movie to cleanse my palette. But of course things weren't actually that dire. All it took was a book of the "lad lit" (or more vulgarly "dick lit") which deals with emotions from a male perspective and of which Nick Hornby is probably the most well-known practitioner. I chose "The Book of Joe" cuz I read something somewhere about its author Jonathan Tropper, and the story about a writer returning for the first time to the old hometown he savaged in his first novel sounded interesting. And that turned out to be an excellent choice. I found this book compelling for several reasons. It's laugh out funny; the protagonist has no sense of self-preservation and cannot resist smarting off even when he knows it's going to result in an ass-cutting -- or maybe even death. But there was some depth there too, as it slowly dawns on Joe Goffman that, although he may have legitimate beefs with his family and classmates, they might be right in their opinion that he is an asshole. After all, he wasn't a great brother, friend or son either. Here he is after the funural of a friend. Dugan is the high school basketball coach in a town where high school basketball is the only thing that matters:

"I thought the book was a load of horseshit," Dugan continues without missing a beat. "The malicious work of one miserable son of a bitch looking for someone to blame."
I nod again. . . "You'll understand if I don't ask you for a blurb on my next book jacket."
"You're an asshole, Goffman."
"Well, it's always a pleasure to hear from one of my readers," I say. . .
"I'm an asshole too," Dugan says. . . "Nothing wrong with being an asshole as long as you do it responsibly."
"So I'm doing it wrong?"

Now that I think about it, that may be the theme of the novel: Joe learns how to be a responsible asshole.
P.S. One of the characters in this book makes the case that Bruce Springsteen's "Backstreets" is some sort of gay anthem, and I'd never thought of it that way, but looking over the lyrics it sure could be:

One soft infested summer me and terry became friends
Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in
Catching rides to the outskirts tying faith between our teeth
Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house getting wasted in the heat
And hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
With a love so hard and filled with defeat
Running for our lives at night on them backstreets

Slow dancing in the dark on the beach at stocktons wing
Where desperate lovers park we sat with the last of the duke street kings
Huddled in our cars waiting for the bells that ring
In the deep heart of the night to set us loose from everything
To go running on the backstreets, running on the backstreets
We swore wed live forever on the backstreets we take it together

Endless juke joints and valentino drag where dancers scraped the tears
Up off the street dressed down in rags running into the darkness
Some hurt bad some really dying at night sometimes it seemed
You could hear the whole damn city crying blame it on the lies that killed us
Blame it on the truth that ran us down you can blame it all on me terry
It don't matter to me now when the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say but I hated him and I hated you when you went

Laying here in the dark you're like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, terry, wed go see
Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time to find were just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
We swore forever friends on the backstreets until the end
Hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets

Saturday, September 05, 2009

More Books I've read in 2009

Is it possible for a book to be too romantic? Before I read Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams I would have at least hesitated for a moment before reluctantly admitting the possibility. But now I answer with a resounding "Yea, verily, forsooth, it can indeed."
Four Letters comes with blurbs singing its praises, blurbs from the likes of The New York Times, Redbook, Men's Journal, The Boston Globe and Marianne Faithful. And they're right, it is "lush" "lyrical" "delicate" "graceful" and "sparkling." In spots. But then it gets ridiculously over the top. On page 202 the protagonist is spending the night with some people he just met. He is sleeping in the room of their daughter who hasn't lived there for some time:

"He turned in the covers and stirred up the perfume of the young girl's dreams. He thumped the pillow and let out without realising the tortured half-sleep of all the nights she had lain there blaming herself for what happened to her brother. Her guilt swirled in the air like a fine dust; it caught in his throat and he began a coughing fit."
You read that right; he can't sleep because he's choking on a big pile of old stale guilt. Believe it or not it gets better. The coughing leads to crying:
"He hushed himself and tried to swallow the gasps in case others heard him, not yet knowing that . . . the island air was glassy and sharp with sorrow. Men coming home from Coman's bowed and were struck by flying shards of it."
Don't you just hate it when you're walking home from the pub and get struck by a shard of sorrow?
I guess it goes to show what a glutton for punishment I am that I didn't fling this book into the fire but kept reading to the bitter end. Judging by the paucity of dialogue in this book I'll bet Mr. Williams has trouble writing it. And since we never ever see how the lovers meet -- heck, we never even see them together -- he evidently doubts his ability to write a convincing love scene. As do I. Those moments that should have been the heart of this novel are only recalled after the fact in long, overwrought letters that the boy writes to the girl and the girl's mother --- who obviously knows more about literature than the New York Times and Marianne Faithful -- burns. A young man who hasn't walked or spoken in many years is miraculously healed and starts hiking all over Ireland immediately as though there were no such thing as muscle atropy. Everything is resolved in one hurried paragraph on the last page, and it left me with a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I'd been cheated.
Either that or a shard of sorrow just cut into me.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Peace Supplies

I've always loved bumper stickers; I guess it's because I grew up in the 60s and 70s when bumper stickers were first becoming popular. I remember in the days before I got my driver's license how I spent more time daydreaming about what bumper stickers I would put on the car I eventually hoped to have than I did about what kind of car that might be. The bumper sticker that I had that got the most attention was one that said "Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft: The Real Axis of Evil." Hoo boy, that got me some attention here in red state South Carolina, let me tell you -- everything from thumbs up to middle fingers up to threats of physical violence. The bumper sticker on my car right now is less confrontational. It says "Power to the Peaceful" and I got it at a Michael Franti concert.

I have another bumper sticker and I'm hesitant to put it on my car -- only because my wife will probably refuse to ride in the car with me. (I think she thinks President Obama can do no wrong.) But when I read stories like this in the New York Times today, I have to speak out and here's what I want to say:

I just can't understand why we can't have a president who learns from the past. When we leave Afghanistan and Iraq those countries are probably going to begin an era of chaos, but that will happen whether we pull out today or ten years from now. Let's pull out now before any more Americans die. Hey, even conservative columnist George Will agrees with me.
If you're interested in peace and free speech you should check out Not just bumper stickers, they also have patches, buttons, t-shirts and fair trade goods like soap and coffee. Definitely a cool place and a business worthy of your support.